Sunday, April 21, 2013

Liar, Liar

I spent the afternoon reading a really interesting book by Pamela Meyer, entitled Liespotting (2010).  Liespotting is the practice of--you guessed it--learning to spot the lies that other people tell us before they do us harm.

I was drawn to Meyer's book after seeing her TED Talk.  Her research draws on techniques used by law enforcement and corporate agencies to sort the lies from the truth in our seemingly lie-infested world.

The point, Meyer argues, is not to be able to point out the liars among us and call them out on their behavior, but to navigate our own lives in such a way as to minimize the presence and the (potentially disastrous) effects of lies and the people who tell them.

She points out general tendencies that can help to alert us to the fact that someone may be lying: facial cues and verbal clues that tend to characterize people who are engaging in deceptive behavior.  The ways in which people move, look and speak change when they are lying, and these patterns transcend specific cultural differences.

For example, people who are lying won't use contractions: "I DID NOT have sexual relations with that woman."  They're making a point of emphasizing their (less than truthful) point.  Under normal circumstances, you wouldn't need to do this--you'd just say, "I DIDN'T sleep with her," because you didn't, you know you didn't, and that's that.

Liars deploy language in order to create distance--for instance, through the use of euphemisms: "sexual relations" instead of "sex"--but also through more overt cues.  "That woman" instead of "Monica."  "Miss Lewinsky," instead of "Monica" or "Monica Lewinsky."

When people who are engaging in deceptive behavior are asked a question, they will repeat the entire question.  So if you say, "What time did you get home?"  They'll say, "What time did I get home?" instead of simply repeating a portion of the question ("What time?"), the way you normally would if you were simply asking for clarification or creating verbal emphasis.

They're stalling for time and they're setting up the conversation strategically.Their verbatim reiteration of your question signals the possibility that they're positioning themselves to mislead you.

I encountered this situation recently: I sent an email asking a question that really required nothing more than a "yes" or "no" answer.  It could have been answered quickly and simply over email, but the respondent said, "Can I call you?"

I told him "yes," but in fact, in his email, he'd already told me something more important than "yes" or "no."  He'd made it clear that, whatever his answer was, he didn't want to put it in writing.

Now, plenty of people will tell you there's nothing wrong with that kind of hesitancy, since "things can be misinterpreted," but I will tell you what my dad used to say to such claims: "Then don't write things you don't mean or that aren't true, to the best of your knowledge. If it's the truth, you won't mind being held to it."

When I subsequently spoke with the person on the phone, he began by referencing my initial question.  In fact, he started to answer it, but then said, "Wait, I want to make sure I get your question exactly right.  You asked..." and he proceeded to read my question to me over the phone so that he could answer precisely that question.

This is a red flag for deceptive behavior, and as I later learned, this person was telling me things that may (or may not) have been true, and casting them in a way that would serve his own interests, not mine.

Similarly, melodramatic overemphasis on one's own truthfulness is a hallmark of its exact opposite.  Ironically, it's usually a pretty blatant indication that the person is lying.  The bedraggled Scarlett O'Hara declaring, "As God is my witness..." while clutching a clod of dirt in her upraised fist, back-lit by a blazing Georgia sunset, is the stuff of fiction.

And so too are the real-life words of people who indulge in such gestures.

If you're telling the truth, you just are. Yes, you too will get angry when you aren't believed, but as Meyer points out, that anger will be consistent and constant. It will not be marked by sudden, dramatic flareups that die down as soon as you get the impression that you're being believed (and thus being let off the hook).

Because ultimately, that's always the liar's objective: not to communicate the truth, but to persuade you that they're telling the truth so that you'll either go away and leave them alone or let them continue what they're doing (screwing the bejeezus out of you, perhaps). Most liars aren't cold-blooded sociopaths: they're just regular people who make mistakes and get themselves into (stupid, senseless) dilemmas that they then have to get themselves out of.

As Meyer points out, even Koko, the gorilla who famously learned language and won the hearts of millions by nurturing a pet kitten, was caught in the occasional lie.

When confronted with a bathroom sink that had been ripped from the wall, Koko claimed, "The kitten did it."

We lie to make ourselves look good (or, at the very least, better), we lie to protect ourselves, and we lie to protect others.  "Wow!  Those jeans really do make your butt look big--how much did you pay for them?  Holy cow.  Well, you must feel like a real idiot right about now."  No one would go around saying things like this, because it would be a surefire way to ensure that you never, ever have a single friend.

Similarly, when a three-year-old brings you a crayon-scribbled, glitter-covered, glue-encrusted creation, you don't say, "What in the HELL is that?"  You say, "I LOVE it!!!! It's beautiful!!!  Thank you!"  Because the truth isn't always necessarily all that important: context is crucial.

And this is a key component of Meyer's argument as well.  We need to pay attention to context and to how people act under authentic, non-stressful, truth-filled circumstances and situations.  Put anyone in a high-pressure situation and suggest that they aren't telling the truth and their tone and body language will change.  Their sentences may become more formal and defensive.  They may fidget and look like they wish they were anywhere but where they are right now because, honestly, that is exactly what they wish--and this will be true whether they're lying or not.

If we pay attention to how people behave when we know they're telling the truth, Meyer argues, we can establish a "baseline" for a specific individual and we can be more attuned to the fact that something is "off" when we're being lied to.

We may want to believe the other people in our lives--friends, spouses, co-workers-- in situations in which it may be obvious to a complete stranger that we shouldn't, and the very fact that we want to believe them will make it difficult for us to assess their behavior accurately.

As Sheryl Crow once sang, "Lie to me.  I promise, I'll believe."

And this brings me to Meyer's most important--and to my mind, my useful--point.  Liars don't lie all on their own.  You have to collaborate in the lie, and you are more likely to do so if you are unaware of what your own desires are.

For my own part, I spent a two-year chunk of my life entangled in a network of relationships marked by lies, and when I was finally able to extract myself from that situation, I decided to think about how and why I got entangled in them in the first place.

I was a collaborator in my own deception, and I've been able to not only admit that to myself, but also figure out why it happened in the way that it did (and to feel immense relief that I extricated myself from it, in the end).

My hope is that this knowledge will help me the next time I encounter a less-than-honest individual--because let's face it, sooner or later, it will happen.  With any luck, by taking the time to take stock of my own desires and vulnerabilities and look at the way in which they might well be shaping my perceptions, I can avoid repeating the mistakes of the past. 

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Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote, "Life is short, but there is always time for courtesy."