The language of lying – how to spot it

Lying has always been with us—ever since Eve said, “Oh, nothing much…” when the Lord asked what she and Adam had been eating in the Garden of Eden. But it seems to be making a comeback in what used to be known as civil society, so we need to get better at identifying and handling it.

In yesterday’s blog, master hostage negotiator Chris Voss taught us how to engage in dialogue with people who would rather be spouting a monologue. Today, he’s back with some tips on how to spot a liar.

How hard is that? you may be wondering. And you’re right; often it’s not. Some liars are just straight out of a Meghan Trainor song: “I know you lie, ’cause your lips are movin’…”

But everyone talks; we can’t assume that everyone lies. (I hope that’s still true.) So how can we sort out the information from the lies?

In his book Never Split the Difference: Negotiating as If Your Life Depended on It, Voss cites a Harvard Business School study that attempts to differentiate between “lies, deception by omission, and truths.”

“…professor Deepak Malhotra and his coauthors found that, on average, liars use more words than truth tellers and use far more third-person pronouns. They start talking about him, her, it, one, they, and their rather than I, in order to put some distance between themselves and the lie.”

Lying and misdirection

Lying? I don't know. Are his lips moving?

People who lie on Twitter have a 140-character check on their loquaciousness. But they can easily employ the distancing effect of the third-person. It’s a classic misdirection technique: Look at them, not at me.

The Harvard study also identifies another misdirection technique used in lying. Voss tells us

“that liars tend to speak in more complex sentences in an attempt to win over their suspicious counterparts. It’s what W.C. Fields meant when he talked about baffling someone with bullshit.”

The researchers dubbed this phenomenon “The Pinocchio Effect”—after the story of the puppet-turned-“real boy” whose nose grew longer when he was lying. Speaking of puppets, this sentence makes James Joyce look like a piker.

The sentence so long it requires its own subhead

“Look, having nuclear—my uncle was a great professor and scientist and engineer, Dr. John Trump at MIT; good genes, very good genes, OK, very smart, the Wharton School of Finance, very good, very smart —you know, if you’re a conservative Republican, if I were a liberal, if, like, OK, if I ran as a liberal Democrat, they would say I’m one of the smartest people anywhere in the world—it’s true!—but when you’re a conservative Republican they try—oh, do they do a number—that’s why I always start off: Went to Wharton, was a good student, went there, went there, did this, built a fortune—you know I have to give my like credentials all the time, because we’re a little disadvantaged—but you look at the nuclear deal, the thing that really bothers me—it would have been so easy, and it’s not as important as these lives are (nuclear is powerful; my uncle explained that to me many, many years ago, the power and that was 35 years ago; he would explain the power of what’s going to happen and he was right—who would have thought?), but when you look at what’s going on with the four prisoners—now it used to be three, now it’s four—but when it was three and even now, I would have said it’s all in the messenger; fellas, and it is fellas because, you know, they don’t, they haven’t figured that the women are smarter right now than the men, so, you know, it’s gonna take them about another 150 years—but the Persians are great negotiators, the Iranians  are great negotiators, so, and they, they just killed, they just killed us.”

Lying can confuse your SEO program.

My SEO program asks an unanswerable question

If all those words make your eyes glaze over, just go to the videotape. There may be truth in there, but who can find it? Who can find anything coherent in this mass of sound—with little fury, this time, but still signifying nothing.

You must meet George Lakoff

If that seems like “word salad” to you, then you are not George Lakoff. (If you are George Lakoff, I think I may faint.)

I’ve been following the indispensable political linguist George Lakoff ever since I read his 2004 book Don’t Think of an Elephant!: Know your values and frame the debate. I see there’s a 2014 edition; it’s high time to revisit this classic.

In his August 2016 blog post, “Understanding Trump’s Use of Language,” Lakoff makes the disturbing (to me) argument that Trump’s word salad is actually a carefully plated main dish. I cannot do justice here to Lakoff’s long, detailed, analysis. But here’s a sample of his argument, with my emphasis to give you an idea of why I find it so disturbing:

“So far as I can discern, he always on topic, but you have to understand what his topic is. As I observed in my Understanding Trump paper, Trump is deeply, personally committed to his version of Strict Father Morality. He wants it to dominate the country and the world, and he wants to be the ultimate authority in this authoritarian model of the family that is applied in conservative politics in virtually every issue area.

Every particular issue, from building the wall, to using our nukes, to getting rid of inheritance taxes (on those making $10.9 million or more), to eliminating the minimum wage — every issue is an instance of his version of Strict Father Morality over all areas of life, with him as ultimately in charge.

As he shifts from particular issue to particular issue, each of them activates his version of Strict Father Morality and strengthens it in the brains of his audience. So far as I can tell, he is always on topic — where this is the topic.”

Understanding the language our new leaders speak will be key to understanding what they may or may not be planning to do.

All of us who value language—writers and readers alike—need to fight to keep words married to their original, objective meanings. And to keep leaders accountable to the meaning of the words they speak.

I wish us all luck.

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