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Body Language: Lying

The practice of identifying liars has become an art as well as a science. There are multitudes of books, reams of research, and several television shows based on it. Dr. Paul Eckman's work is well worth reading. The show Lie to Me is well worth watching to learn more.

Whether someone is lying or honest is broadly characterized by how expansive or contractive his body language is. There may be master criminals, soulless sociopaths, trained spies, or sage sleuths who can outsmart everyone. For the rest, the normal rules governing behavior apply.

Someone who is telling the truth goes on the offensive. He is forward moving, expansive, broad gesturing, and offers distinct answers with I and me. He meets your gaze full on. His body gravitates toward yours in an attempt to be seen and understood and to connect. He gives the right amount of detail. He discusses the situation until you believe him. His story is explicit and consistent.

He may be angry at being falsely accused, or having his honor questioned, but he does not feel guilty. He mirrors your posture. He talks expansively with his hands, starting the gesture before the words. He is relaxed and his smile engages other facial muscles. He points to himself and places his open hand on his chest. He is not afraid of close scrutiny.

The exception is when an honest person grows anxious when he isn’t believed, especially in a situation where he feels unsafe. The situation may trigger anxiety responses just as in someone who isn't honest. He may flush with fury. A character that has an itch somewhere it's inappropriate to scratch isn't necessarily being deceptive. His underwear may not be where it belongs, or he may have a health problem that makes him itch everywhere. There are illnesses that trigger lip biting. Those gestures alone are not proof that someone is lying.

Someone who is lying goes on the defensive. He retracts and caves inward. He forces the gesture after the words. He rambles and mumbles and doesn't give direct answers. His smile never reaches his eyes. He gives shorter answers and changes the topic. He rarely uses I and me. His information is inconsistent. He averts his gaze. He may withhold details or gush with too much detail. It's more in the quality of what he says and what he didn’t say. He answers a question with a question. He wants to escape the interrogation as soon as possible. His voice pitch rises because he is anxious. He blinks, licks his lips, and maintains poor eye contact. He gestures with palms up in a plea.

He may rub or scratch his nose, neck, or jaw. The stress makes him itch, sweat, and flush. He may stammer and mess up his words. He may hold his head still. His limbs feel wooden. He may lean forward, resting his elbows on a table or his knees, anything to make his body smaller. He places a barrier between you. He may slide an object between you or step behind a chair.

Liars often say honestly, believe me, or I'm telling the truth. He may be smiling, but inside he is sweating. His brain races to come up with the details it lacks in answer to your questions. It is said that a liar doesn't memorize the story backwards, so asking him to repeat the information regressively trips him up.

For example, Dick asks Jane where she has been all day. She replies that she went to the hairdressers, the department store, Starbucks for a coffee, to the mall, and finally the grocery store. This answer displays the too much information rule. Most women would say, "I had my hair done and went shopping."

If Dick asks questions like, “So, when did you go to Starbucks?" Jane has to think hard about what she just made up. Did she say she stopped at Starbucks before or after department store? If your teen gives you a list, ask him to repeat it backwards. I bet he can't.

Jane might give Dick a long list if he makes the mistake of saying, "So, what have you done all day?" Those are fighting words and Jane may respond with a laundry list of the household chores, child-centered activities, and errands she accomplished in the space of eight hours punctuated by slamming drawers or cabinet doors, and a tone that drips acid. She isn't lying.

I hope you've enjoyed our lessons on body language. Now, go revise! If you want more hints on how check out Story Building Blocks III: The Revision Layers.

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