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.


0 responses to “Lies

  • I think everyone tells some sort of lie at some point. Whether it’s intentional or not or to save someone from hurt feeling. It happens.

  • I do lie on occasion. And yes, it’s to get out of awkward social situations. But unlike what you’ve mentioned, when I’m telling a lie, my answers goes into some detail in hopes that it’s better believed. Mind you, not a lot of detail, but some just the same.

    Does this mean I put more thought into my lies; or could it mean that I’m on my way to being a chronic liar?

    • Hahhahahahahahahahahha or could it mean that you’re so paranoid about lying that you go overboard? Tell me,when you provide your extended explanations do you remember what you said afterwards?

  • Yes, I have been lied to and although I have forgiven, I shall never forget that the person was able to lie to me, and therefore trust them far less than I would trust someone else. Honestly to me, is extremely important, and I have no tolerance for anything less than the truth.

  • Thank you this got me thinking! I’m chatty… Susan Cooper will attest that! LOL but then I don’t get to talk to many people around me (My husband calls me Howard Hughes in winter because I hibernate).
    I wrote my book in a different name to protect people and sometimes I swear and curse in life because Life has thrown major curves and when it happened politeness isn’t happening! : )

    Here in NY I’m told I’m blunt but I grew up in the North of England where it’s ‘normal’ to ‘Tell it like it is’. I like people who are blunt and to the point, I say it’s better than lying to you or stabbing you in the back, you know where you are with me. I prefer it when people are like that too, it might hurt for a for bit but I’m big enough now to get over it and if you ever wear a pink polka dress around me and ask me if I like it, trust me the answer will be a straight “No!” possibly even followed with a little laugh because pink polka on anything just doesn’t work even as a coat on a little dog. Save it! : D lol

    • Getting to the stage in life when you not only know yourself well, but also won’t let yourself be inhibited has got to be freeing. Perhaps the truth does set you free. 🙂

      I can say in all honesty that I do not own any pink polka dot dresses.

  • Interesting question to show liars. I am uncomfortable around most people. I do much of what’s listed as defense mechanisms to avoid my discomfort. It seems the world is still geared toward punishing introverts for not being out going around others.

  • Eleanor Bell says:
    November 8, 2013 @ 11:58 pm

    In a former position 2 co-workers habitually got me “called into the office”. Finally the supervisor was so tired of it that on the one occasion I did make an epic error that could have got me fired she threw them out of the office saying “I dont want to ever hear anything more from you people about her”.
    This sort of thing is example why employers are often concerned about “issues” a potential employee may have whatever their credentials might be.

  • Well…I’m a bad liar. But I have told some lies. Usually to make someone feel good. And at times, myself feel good.

  • Great article as usual–telling someone they look fine is a kindness in my opinion, doesn’t help to make them feel bad about how they look once they’re in the office!

    I have made it a priority to tell the truth because in the sales profession people are often searching for the lie in your conversation. The key is delivering the truth in a way that is manageable. People don’t like flat out “No, I can’t” but they appreciate “I wish I could but…”

    On another note, how ironic that the Harvard educated crowd would say that being too chatty and being too abrupt are both signs of lying. While I may get annoyed with chatty people, sometimes I see it as a sign of being nervous which doesn’t always denote lying. I don’t know about the short answers but it also could be a sign of something else but I guess that’s why I’m a sales professional, there aren’t many absolutes in my life.

    • I’m very chatty so you can imagine that the description from Harvard gave me some pause. Clearly more work is needed if you’re to extrapolate the findings to the real world, but it does speak volumes about how keen we are to learn how to spot a liar.

      I hear you on the need to be honest because like sales people, people don’t have high expectations for political staff, government relations professionals or communications folks. I’ve been all three. Being straight forward and frank helps to reduce concerns, but doing that with kindness helps people get past most of the poor perceptions.

      • I agree about the desire to “spot a liar”. It’s unfortunate that so many people lie/mislead/or misinform in the business and political world that we now enter into conversation with that underlying intention.
        I can recall a conversation once about a gentleman at a networking event that every one thought of as “sketchy” because he was the sit back and watch type. I guess there’s a delicate balance to everything.

  • Oh my goodness, your topic today reminds me that I must do a post about my first serious boyfriend. He was a pathological liar is there ever was one. He lied about everything, even telling me that his mother was dead. Let’s just say he served as a prime introduction to how not everyone plays fair and the need to fulfill psychological needs can make the brain gets those needs met in mysterious ways. Plus, he ended up in jail as well.

    • I can’t wait to read the post. I’ve come across a few pathological liars over the years and they amaze me. It’s not just that they have the ability to constantly event reality and track it, but because often the lies they tell serve no purpose at all.

  • I hate liars. The one thing my children learned early on is you can whatever you want but Never lie to me. I am a straight shooter, maybe too straight. If you ask my opinion I will tell you. My feeling is that if you didn’t want the truth in the first place, don’t ask me. I hear from people all the time that the one thing that they like about me is that they know where I am coming from. There is no hidden agenda. What you see, is what you get. Besides I am getting older and who has time to remember a lie.

    • I hear you Arleen. Once you get into the habit of lying it’s very hard to fight your way out of it. If children don’t learn early on to avoid it, it can become a terrible trap.

      I have to tell you I laughed at your comment, “I am getting older and who has time to remember a lie.” I have to say I have always been amazed at people who lie on a regular basis for just that reason. How do they keep track of all that stuff?

  • Debra — I think so-called “little white lies” sometimes aren’t lies at all. When a friend has bought a new dress that she loves and ask for your opinion, it’s being kind not to say you think it’s awful. A little lie like “that looks beautiful on you” is kind and will make your friend feel so good. Maybe it’s your own taste that’s bad. Sometimes little kindnesses are little white lies in disguise.

    • I couldn’t agree more. Telling the truth in situations like that is really just mean spirited. It doesn’t help and just serves to make someone miserable. The thing is, I still call it a lie, mostly because it reminds me that the truth is not easy.

    • Jeannette: In this case, I wouldn’t say I liked the dress if indeed I didn’t. But what I would say is something I did like about it as there is nearly always something good in every situation. And if I was asked point blank if I liked the dress, I would say that it’s not one of my favourites, but that I do like … (whatever positive feature I can mention.)

  • You shared some good insight in this post! I do understand the lies for the greater good such as telling someone their outfit looks good even if it doesn’t. I truly have issues with liars because I was married to one. He would tell you the sun was shining even though it was cloudy and raining. Personally I never thought that someone in Public Relations as a liar, I thought that they were to maybe speak on the behalf of a company or person and address a situation. You have such informative post, thank you for sharing.

    • I’m glad to hear that PR people are not viewed as liar. Public relations people are actually tasked with ensuring that lies are not shared and that can sometimes mean making the truth more palatable. The trick is to make sure that you don’t do the job so well that you effectively obscure the truth.

      Liars in your life are intolerable. They can do so much damage, so easily that once you figure out that someone has a habit of lying your best bet is to stay away from them.

  • As far as I’m concerned there is a huge difference between a white lie and a compulsive liar. Don’t think there is a person in this world who have never uttered a white lie. Thankfully however, there are not that many compulsive liars.

    Not sure the academic paper you mention is right in their conclusions. Speaking in third person is for instance considered polite in some countries, especially when you write. As for liars being more chatty than other people. Hmm. Honestly do liars really have that much in common? Doesn’t their behaviour vary from person to person?

    • Lies are interesting things, I imagine that if we eliminated them all together we’d be a pretty unhappy group of people. There are times when telling the truth is just being mean.

      I am a very chatty person, but I would not characterize myself as a liar. I imagine we will be trying to figure out what the magic solution is for spotting a liar for some time to come and probably once we find it, liars will find new ways of lying. 🙂

  • I am a terrible liar. I turn read and do all manner of stuff showing that I am very uncomfortable in what I just said. That said, have I ever been affected by someone else telling a lie? You bet and it hurt. One because others would believe it, second because it was so untrue and unfair. The lie affected my work and all my efforts. The lie/lies affected my staff in terrible ways with the loss of jobs and income. In the end the liar was found out but it was at great expense before the lie was discovered. It was lesson my superiors never forgot.

    • It’s brutal when you get a liar in your midst. Whether they are in your personal life or work life they can deliver so much misery. It’s little wonder researchers spend so much time trying to figure out how to spot a liar.

  • Great blog post! To my mind, lying goes to the root of the relationship. It hampers and undermines reliability and trust. I try very hard not to lie but I am prone to exaggeration. Hmm.. wondering whether this is lying or just making the truth more interesting to the listener?

    • Good question, I think it makes the story more interesting. I think if we were completely honest all of the time we would be pretty horrible people to spend time around. It’s not that the truth is awful, but life is rarely black and white. 🙂

  • I have heard that liars will avoid eye contact, too, often looking to the left. I don’t know how true this is, though. Have you heard anything like this?

    • I hadn’t heard about the looking to the left, but I have heard about not making eye contact. I don’t know how true most of these theories are, that is I think they can be true, but I think the same behaviours can exist in people telling the truth.

  • Nice post, Debra – yes, as usual (oh, when i will ever get tired of starting my comments to you with these very same word?! :D)

    I didn’t get the second point – how can liars’ sentences be short and to the point and in the same time, they are chatty and use complex sentence structure? what am i missing? sorry…

    Other than that, i do agree with everything you say – i like how you have summarize the whole liar-liar concept in a (large, some-hundreds-words) nutshell. let me ask you – and this is a question which i often ask myself – is withholding information or better say not saying the truth, unless you are asked, lying?

    I mean, i am honest (painfully honest!) – i think you know that. But if i let’s say don’t like your pink polka dots dress but i don’t tell you (and you don’t ask me if i do) – is that lying?

    • Don’t feel you have stop saying nice things on my account. I love hearing it. 🙂

      I didn’t get the difference between being chatty and the using just a few words initially either. Apparently it’s based on the style of lying you use. If you lie by omission, you keep everything short and tight. If you lie by fabricating, you overstate and use complex language.

      On your question, I think If I’m not asked what i think of the dress and I don’t say, it’s not lying, but like everything, context matters. if I’m in a meeting deciding on something and I withhold information that might influence the decision, that’s lying.

      • right, i think you just nailed it – and it calls for an other post – context matters! (and not only when speaking of lying :D) – thanks for your reply, Debra!

  • Yikes does this hit a nerve with me! I detest lies and the people that tell them, though I’m not altogether sure about the cues above…maybe because I have a tendency to swear. 🙂 But I’ve always been puzzled by the grayness of truth, and how a lie can be “white” if deemed harmless. Sort of like a thief who steals a penny rather than a million dollars. As if the consequence should be based on the amount not the act. Personally, I think folks need to learn how to prepare for the truth…learn how to bear the consequence of the truth, should the answer not to be delivered on a pink cloud. In other words, I try to ask myself first, if I’m ready to hear to truth before I ask the question. I think you may have sparked a future blog for me! This was a great one!

    • Hahahahahahahahaha…The swearing gave me a moment of pause too, but not nearly as much as the the first cue. I could easily be described as chatty. 🙂

      I could not agree more on the issue of being prepared to hear the truth. There is little point asking a question if you don’t really want the answer. The truth is often more frightening than lies. I look forward to reading that future post!

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