How to Spot a Lie

While you and I are not, strictly speaking, equipped with internal lie detectors, we can learn many of the common giveaways people display when they’re trying to get away with something. And those can serve as the next best thing.

Wouldn’t it be great if you had a built-in
lie detector? Any time someone tried to slip something past you – beep – you’d
hear an internal ding and you’d know. “We’ll discuss your raise in six months.”
(Beep.) “Trust me, the seller won’t go a dollar lower.” (BEEP.) “You look great
in that outfit.” (BEEP BEEP BEEP!)

Here’s the great news: You actually do
have this built-in lie detector. (Beep.) Sorry. Slight exaggeration. (BEEP!)
Okay, okay—it’s not true at all. Let me try again.

When we lie, human nature usually tries to
force us to give ourselves away. I’m not talking about the really small lies,
the ones we all tell every day. “Great to see you.” “I’m fine, thank you.” “Oh,
what a cute baby!” We belt this stuff out several times a day, so we can do it
with no problem. But a lie any bigger than these tends to leave clues.

So while you and I are not, strictly
speaking, equipped with internal lie detectors, we can learn many of the common
giveaways people display when they’re trying to get away with something. And
those can serve as the next best thing. Let’s look at some of them.

The Liar’s Body-Language Giveaways

Most of us find it so difficult to tell a
lie convincingly that even if we don’t say a word, our bodies still try to give
us away. That’s the idea of a “tell” in poker. And that’s why even professional
poker players wear silly outfits during games—hats with low-hanging brims,
shirts with high collars, dark sunglasses, etc.—so no one spots their tells.
(My tell was to look at my cards and shout, “Wow! What a hand!” So I stopped

Here are some of the common—and often
hilariously poetic—gestures that indicate someone might be lying to you. 

Collar Tug

This is what I call instant karma. Often
when a person lies, their body temperature will go up a bit, and their hand
will often reach for their collar to let air in.

Voice Changes

If a person is lying, their pitch will go
up—sometimes a lot. When your spouse says, “Don’t be silly; that outfit looks
great on you,” often you’ll have to decide whether they’re telling you the
truth or what you want to hear.

But if your spouse says, “Don’t be silly;
that outfit looks great on you,” and their voice sounds like they just inhaled
an entire helium balloon… BEEP! Consider changing clothes.

Finger Drumming

Here’s another great example of poetic
justice. A liar will often drum their fingers on the nearest surface, like a
table if you’re both sitting. This is a subconscious attempt by the body to
leave the scene.

Restless Feet

Similar to finger drumming, restless feet
(tapping, swinging) suggests the liar subconsciously wants out of the
conversation before you catch on that they’re lying.

Face Touching

When we lie, our bodies want to conceal
us, to shield us, or to stop us from speaking. So we’ll sometimes reach for our
mouths—but in that split-second we realize how suspicious that looks, so we’ll
divert our hands and instead pull on our ear, rub our eye or scratch our neck.

Covered Mouth

Sometimes a liar won’t catch himself just
before reaching for his mouth. So you’ll see him place fingers or even his
entire hand over his mouth. That’s a serious tell—suggesting the person really
wants to hide what he just said.

Closed Hand

Clenching a fist sometimes shows a person
has something to conceal (whereas showing an open palm suggests candor).

Stone Face

Here’s the poker player’s angle. Don’t
show any emotion. Hold it all in, and show no expression on your face. If a
person shows this poker face too often, or during a conversation where you’d
expect to see emotion, it could mean the person is lying.

By the way, I’m amazed poker has become
such a popular televised sport. Isn’t it just a bunch of people sitting around
a table staring down at their cards? And since they’re all protecting their
“tells,” isn’t it just a bunch of guys sitting around a table, not showing any
emotion? Oh yeah—grab the popcorn. The only thing more ridiculous I can imagine
televising would be competitive tanning.

The Liar’s Verbal Giveaways

Of course, liars don’t just give
themselves away with body language. The substance of their lies can also act as
great clues. Here are some to watch for.

Lack of Detail

Liars know that the less of their story
you can verify, the better their odds of getting away with it. So if someone is
telling you a story that’s missing key pieces of data, be suspicious.

Changing Details

This one is probably the most obvious but
worth keeping in mind, especially if you are already suspicious that the person
is lying. Liars have a lot to keep track of—and if they tell their lies often
enough, or over a long enough time, eventually they’ll slip up and contradict


Liars are trying to put something over on
you, so they’re often going to be more negative and less pleasant than a
truth-teller. If someone is trying to convince you of something you find
suspicious—and their language and demeanor is hostile, negative or otherwise
unpleasant—BEEP! BEEP! Stay suspicious.

Long Pauses and Slower Speech

Formulating a plausible lie takes a second
or two. So when you ask a question and the person decides to answer with a lie,
chances are they’ll need to drag it out a bit. So the person might spend an
extra second or so answering, and they might talk a little more slowly than
their normal speech pattern (while they race ahead in their mind to build the
lie and check it for holes or other dangers).

The “Wait a Second” Factor

Finally, if someone is telling you something
that makes you say, “Wait a second,” trust your intuition. If it doesn’t add
up, it’s probably a lie.

Now, you can’t take any of these gestures
or conversational details as guarantees of lying. They can all be interpreted
in a number of ways. The hand-over-mouth gesture might be an indication not
that the person is deceiving you but that she has a cold sore. What you want to
look for are uncharacteristic uses of these behaviors—combined with your
intuition and common sense.

Nor is this by any means a complete list.
There are hundreds of “tells” that a person might be lying. But once you’ve
learned even the handful of common clues I’ve described here, you’ll find that
telling a lie becomes pretty difficult—you’re always worried the other person will
know about these tells (and others) too. That’s why I haven’t told a lie in
years. (BEEP!) Okay, not in weeks. (Beep.) All right—not since I started
writing this article, for crying out loud.

About the Author

Robbie Hyman is a professional communications and public affairs writer. He has 15 years’ experience writing for nonprofits, small business and multibillion-dollar international organizations and is available as a freelance writer for federal agencies.

Robbie has written thousands of pages of content, including white papers, speeches, published articles, reports, manuals, newsletters, video scripts, advertisements, technical document and other materials. He is also co-founder of, an online course that teaches smart money habits to teenagers.