Julie and Pat are two attractive New Orleans women. They plan to meet for lunch and an afternoon of shopping. When they meet at the restaurant, Julie is surprised to see her friend wearing a particularly ugly and unflattering dress. But before she can say anything, Pat’s face lights up, and she asks, “How do you like my new dress?”
Julie pauses and says kindly, “It’s beautiful. You look great.”
Julie may have just saved her friendship, or at least saved herself an argument on her day of shopping. But she did it by telling a lie.
LIAR, LIAR – How to tell who's doing it An eavesdropper on this conversation might disagree. She might say Julie fibbed, or bent the truth a little, or simply spared her friend’s feelings. But to call it a “lie”? Certainly such a person can’t be lumped in the same category as Enron executives and baseball players on steroids.
To Ricardo E. Fernandez, a retired FBI agent and instructor of a Tulane University class on deceit, it’s a lie, all right – and it probably wasn’t the first one Julie told that day. On average, we tell about seven untruths every day – whether they could be classified as blatant falsehoods or classic, harmless, little white lies. With 281 million people in the United States, that’s a lot of prevarication.
Fernandez says it’s difficult to call him an “expert” on lying, as he’s always learning something new about human nature. But with a law-enforcement career that spanned local, parish and federal jurisdictions, and a post-retirement career as a police consultant and trainer, he’s more of an expert than most Americans. He fashioned his career on looking for the lie: 12 years with the New Orleans Police Department, master’s degrees in urban studies from the University of New Orleans and in criminal justice from the University of Alabama, and stints with the Office of Naval Intelligence and the FBI, where he worked in counterintelligence. Today, as a police consultant to the St. Bernard Parish Sheriff’s Office, among others, he coaches officers how to interview and interrogate suspects, including suspected serial killers and spies.
How does he separate the liars from the truth-tellers? Mostly through body language, facial expressions and verbal cues. As for Julie and Pat, “Lies like that kind of hold society together,” Fernandez says. “Little minor lies like that – they’re still lies … [but] it’s the fabric of what we do here.”
Watch an episode of “Law and Order” and you’ll see guilty body language in action. As the “good” cops and “bad” cops square off in front of suspects in the interrogation room, the suspect himself sits sullen and tight, stubbornly ignoring their questions. In daily life, however, we get less of a chance to out the liars – and we may have little reason to.
Fernandez, whose class “Detection of Deceit” is in the criminal justice and human resources studies curricula at Tulane, says liars come in four categories: frequent (these people lie about inconsequential matters or events, often to be the center of attention), occasional (most average people fit in this category), professional (certain jobs are associated with this description; Fernandez also offers President Clinton as an example), and habitual (this group might include people who grow up lying to cover up their bad behavior, pathological and “natural-born” liars).
Men lie to make themselves look better, he says, while women lie to make their friends look better. Eighty percent of lies are told over the phone, he suggests, where it’s easy to avoid eye contact and body language can’t be read.
If most people tell seven lies a day – and this figure includes every time someone asks, “How are you?” and someone else replies, “Great!” even though they feel lousy – then most lies must filter through deaf ears. And that’s OK, Fernandez says, suggesting that we identify about 54 percent of the lies we hear. Of that percentage, many are lies that we don’t care about or that have no bearing on us, and the remaining 46 percent go unnoticed.
Police officers, Fernandez says, tend to be more cynical than the average person, thinking more people lie than actually do; and judges and psychologists can ID about 60 percent of liars presented before them. But prison inmates are said to be the best at judging liars; in one unofficial study, they identified 65 percent of liars they encountered.
But let’s go back to our two ladies who lunch. The response “It’s beautiful. You look great,” might be somewhat automatic and robotic; perhaps Julie can’t think of anything else to say. If she doesn’t want to tell even the most innocent white lie, and she thinks on her feet, she might say, “That’s something else!” or “Where did you find it?” – not quite answering Pat’s question, but not quite giving her opinion, either.
There are plenty of instances when it’s useful to catch lies in action.
Perhaps your high-school junior wants to attend a party at a friend’s house. You, the parent, want to know who the chaperones will be. “Who are the chaperones?” your high-schooler repeats. “You mean, at the party?” (Case closed, kiddo. You’re staying home tonight.)
Another example: You hire an electrician to repair the Katrina damage to your Metairie home. You ask the roofer, “Do you have insurance?” The electrician replies, “Well, these days you can’t work without insurance, can you?”
Is that a lie of omission or just casual chat? An above-board worker would probably answer, yes; truth-tellers tend to offer more details. A vague or otherwise unsatisfactory answer from an electrician can be met with further questions; Fernandez says that knowing and recognizing the habits of liars might separate the honest workers from the dishonest ones.
But these are just the verbal clues. Body language frequently gives inexperienced liars away. There are the subtle hints, such as dry mouth and dilated pupils, which indicate an autonomic, uncontrollable change within the person; classic traits such as touching the face and neck, failure to make eye contact, and nervous gestures such as tapping the feet or fingers. Two dramatic and obvious signs of deceit are negation and aversion. Negation involves a broad gesture such as covering the face after a question has been asked; aversion is shown through a major bodily shift away from the questioner (think of the “perp” angrily pushing away from the table in the interrogation room).
While a parent has the freedom to mete out justice at will to wily teenagers, it’s unfair to judge people as dishonest based on one or two suspicious habits. Gestures, Fernandez says, come in clusters. The electrician who drums his fingers nervously may have just quit smoking and needs something to occupy the space where a Marlboro Light used to fit. Or a job candidate may have her arms tightly crossed because the room is cold. Moreover, people such as interrogators need a period of “norming” – that is, enough time to observe a subject under regular circumstances. In police settings, experienced interviewers might need only five minutes to gauge a person’s demeanor. Nonetheless, the ways the human body displays distress are fascinating; students of “Detection of Deceit” might find themselves judging family and friends, as well as store clerks and co-workers, for signs of tall tales.
Even with his extensive knowledge of lying and liars, Fernandez says he himself is a poor liar, a trait he must have passed down to his children, who suffered for their father’s gift for identifying falsehoods. “It was just horrendous on my kids growing up,” he says good-naturedly.