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Advice & More October 2012

“It Wasn’t Me, Grandma, Really!” Body Language May Help You Decide Who’s Telling the Truth… and Who’s Not

By Teresa Ambord

There are three “tells” related to the eyes to watch for. Rapid blinking is one. Avoiding eye contact is another. Both of these show there is a mental struggle going on, that makes the liar uncomfortable. But according to Wilkes, the greatest sign of lying is when a person looks up or to the left while speaking.

Do you know how to spot a liar? We all deal with people who may be motivated to hide the truth. It may be something as simple as finding which one of your grandkids really broke the window. “It was like that when I got here Grandma!” It may have financial consequences. “This little beauty is in mint condition… I only drove it to church on Sundays.” Or it could be a matter of security, even life and death. “I’ve been a certified home health aide for, uh, ten years. Who me? Of course I’ve never been arrested!”

If you’ve ever watched Judge Judy on TV, you know she has to weigh the evidence presented to figure out who wins and who loses. But sometimes the evidence is not clear cut and she has to fly by the seat of her judicial pants. That’s when she taps her knowledge of body language. Whether you agree with her or think she’s full of hot air, you have to admit, it would be nice to have a few clues.

Next time you find yourself needing to trust someone’s word, watch his or her body language. Just remember, this is not an exact science. Before you accuse someone of lying based on shifty eyes or folded arms, remember, there have been many studies in which even experts in lie detection were fooled 50% of the time.


Tell-Tale Signs of Lying

Not long ago, Forbes magazine ran a list of “tells” that can tip you off when someone talking to you is lying. The article was based on an interview with therapist Elaine Wilkes, PhD. Wilkes said, “Body messages are hidden in plain sight. You have to look for them.” (Wilkes is also the author of a book entitled, Nature’s Secret Messages: Hidden in Plain Sight).

Eyes. There are three “tells” related to the eyes to watch for. Rapid blinking is one. Avoiding eye contact is another. Both of these show there is a mental struggle going on, that makes the liar uncomfortable. But according to Wilkes, the greatest sign of lying is when a person looks up or to the left while speaking.

Why is this a sign? Because the left side of the body is controlled by the right side of the brain, which is where the imagination is. People who are telling the truth don’t need to tap into their imaginations to come up with an answer.

Barriers. Watch for created barriers between the speaker and you, said Wilkes. It may be as simple as the speaker placing a small object between him or her and you. For example if you are on opposite sides of a desk, a person who is hiding the truth may place a coffee cup or file folder on the desk between you to serve as a type of barrier. Folding the arms, crossing the legs… simple acts that may or may not mean anything. They no doubt seem meaningless, but they create a mental distance.

Hand. People who are not sure of their words may tend to put their hands to their mouths. This is even more true when the left hand is used. According to Wilkes, many experts agree that the left side of the body (again, controlled by the right side of the brain) is linked to a person’s sense of self. Does the speaker hide his or her left hand, for example, by keeping the left hand in a pocket or behind his or her back? Wilkes said when having a serious conversation (like asking your boss for a raise) you should not feel comfortable with the boss’s truthfulness unless you can see his hands.

For example, suppose you asked for a raise and your boss shifted his weight, put his left hand behind his back, and answered, “I’ll have to bring that up at the next board meeting. I’ll do my best for you, but it’s out of my hands.” Don’t hold your breath. He may have no intention of giving it another thought.

Using the hand (either one, but the left is even more telling) to cover or partially cover the mouth indicates that the speaker is not comfortable with what he or she is saying. Some experts say any hand-to-face movements indicate discomfort. Without mentioning names, one former president of the United States was frequently video-taped with his fingers partially covered his mouth as he spoke. Does this prove he was lying? No, but given the documented research, it doesn’t inspire confidence.

One more point. Wilkes added that when words conflict with body movement, watch out. “I notice that often when someone says, ‘Yes, I can get that done on the deadline,’ there is a slight shake of the head. Once I see that, I know there’s no way.” So if your grandson assures you remorsefully, “Grandma, it wasn’t me who ate all the cookies,” as he slowly nods his head yes, you might want to check him for chocolate chip breath.

Again, this is not even close to an exact science, but it certainly does not inspire confidence when the body says yes but the mouth says no, or vice versa.

Experts in body language say to be truly accurate, it takes a long-term study of the facial expressions and body movement. First experts have to determine what is normal for an individual, then to see the differences when a lie is told. Remember, even people trained to notice such details, like police detectives, do not score high in lie detection.


Other Little Known (and Unproven) Beliefs About Body Language, Yours and Their

  • People who smile constantly while they talk may do so to hide something.
  • While good eye contact may indicate a person is telling the truth, it may also just be a sign of good upbringing, or conversely that the person who is looking you in the eye doesn’t trust you enough to look away.
  • Someone who does not believe what you are saying may look away while you speak, or he or she may fidget, as though there has been a break in trust.
  • If the person you are speaking to keeps touching his ear or scratches his chin, he may subconsciously be showing that he doesn’t’ believe what you are saying. Then again, maybe his head itches.
  • One body language expert noted a difference among teachers who seemed to like him and
    those who didn’t. Those who had shown they liked him raised their eyebrows when they saw him. Those who didn’t, squinted their eyes.
  • Eye squinting, rubbing the eyes, or somehow blocking sight of you could mean the person does not like what you are saying.
  • If a woman is upset or feels threatened, she may touch or cover the part of her neck just below the Adam’s apple. A man who is distressed may grasp his neck or fiddle with his tie.

Teresa Ambord is a former accountant and Enrolled Agent with the IRS. Now she writes full time from her home, mostly for business, and about family when the inspiration strikes.

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