Posted on November 5, 2013


Any number of people might assume that I lie for a living. Public relations people are often asked (mistakenly) to spin bad news into good. It’s kinda like asking someone to spin straw into gold. I have yet to meet a communications person who could alter the outcome of news by using more pleasant words. No matter how good, bad or indifferent the news, you can’t change its impact by using clever language. Using rightsizing instead of downsizing doesn’t stop anyone from losing a job. Financial restraint instead of financial trouble, doesn’t give you more money. In fact, this kind of sanitization makes people want to roll their eyes and walk away.

There are occasions however when a lie can have a soothing or calming effect. When it’s easier all round to lie in order to get out of a difficult social situation. There are points in my work day when I simply don’t see any choice in the matter. Faced with a colleague who I will happily chat away thirty minutes of my day with if I answer honestly, “yes I’d love a coffee” then I may respond with a no. Or there are those times when in response to a query from a concerned co-worker I nod my assurances that her pink polka dot dress doesn’t look that bad. I cringe as I head back to my office, but have probably avoided an extended period of distraction as she tries to determine if a sweater, belt or anything makes the polka dots better or worst. These lies generally make our social interactions run smoothly.

For most of us when we are put on the spot and feel we have to make up a lie to get out of an awkward social situation, we struggle.  We scramble around looking for something to say.  We run through a series of disconnected thoughts in our head trying to come up with something to say that might be believed. It takes us time and the more time it takes the more awkward the situation becomes. Good liars or habitual liars on the other hand are very good at producing their lies on the spot.  They can quickly analyze the situation and run through plausible scenarios and ideas at top speed until they reach an effective lie.

Like most things in life the context matters.  When a good liar is getting out of an awkward social situation you may laugh over their efforts or even appreciate their finesse.  When a good liar applies their skills to undermine your work then it’s not so funny. Most of us have encountered a liar at work, the liars who lie because it makes them look good or gets them out of trouble. Someone who doesn’t think twice about claiming the work of a colleague as their own and who won’t hesitate to explain that they had no idea that a project was due that day, although they were given the deadline several times. These folks are problematic not just because what they do is inherently unfair, but they also engender a great deal of discontent among colleagues, creating any number morale challenges. If they are successful at work and are given recognition they didn’t earn, or worst still, a position of authority, they send all the wrong messages to the rest of the organization.

If you have ever encountered anyone like this in the work setting you probably want to know how you can avoid them in the future. The good news is that there are a number of tips and hints out there on how to spot a liar. The bad news is that most of them would require intensive training in micro-expressions which once accomplished may still prove useless. While micro-expressions can tell us what someone is feeling they don’t tell us why they are feeling it?  You can learn to correctly interpret fear, anger or surprise but that doesn’t mean you know why someone is feeling it. Micro-expressions are micro because they are fleeting.  They may be a result of the conversation you are having or they may be a consequence of a passing thought that is completely unrelated to the conversation.

Harvard Business School professor, Deepak Malhotra and his colleagues from the University of Wisconsin, Associate Professor Lyn M. Van Swol and doctoral candidate Michael T. Braun offer an interesting alternative.  They look at liars based on linguistic cues in their paper, Evidence for the Pinocchio Effect: Linguistic Differences Between Lies, Deception by Omissions, and Truths, published in the journal Discourse Processes.

In brief they suggest looking for these cues if you think you’ve got a liar on your hands.

Liars are chatty: Liars use more words .Van Swol called this “the Pinocchio effect.” The more they lied the more words they needed to make the lie seem real.

Liars by omission are more abrupt: Perhaps they are trying to avoid blurting out the truth, but liars by omission like to keep their answers short and to the point

Liars swear: Compared to most people, liars use more swear words. It’s as if their filter fails in this area because they are working so hard fabricating in other parts of their brain. If ever you needed a reason to stop swearing, this is a great one.

Liars speak in the third person: Maybe because their telling a story, maybe because they need some space between themselves and the lie.

Liars use complex sentences: So not only do they say more, they say it in really complicated ways.

Told any whoppers? Ever have someone tell you a blatant lie? Take credit for your work? I’d love to hear your comments.

Quick Reminder, I’m inviting stories on communications for my blog.  For more information, check out last weeks post, Everyone Loves A Good Story.