Wednesday, April 8, 2015

The Body Language of Deception

Charlotte Firbank-King

Body language is must-have knowledge in a writer’s arsenal of writing tools. It’s important to understand that people communicate through body language, whether intentionally or not. Studies have shown how important body language and tone are when people speak face-to-face. Therefore, if you expect dialogue—your character’s words—alone to communicate his emotional state to your reader, you’re expecting way too much. It’s critically important to replace those ho-hum dialogue tags (he said/she said) with body language or action. Let your reader see the way the speaker’s fist is clenched when he talks or the way a character’s head tilts toward her lover. Those are the clues your reader needs to figure out what is really going on.

I strongly recommend picking up one of the many books on body language and keeping it with your other reference books. Body language can a great array of emotions, and we couldn’t possibly cover all of them in one blog article. Therefore, we’ll talk today about the body language of deception.

The Body Language of Liars

A liar will often cover his mouth, as though to keep the deceitful words inside. He may lick his lips or giggle, and, when he speaks, he may hesitate, stutter, or slur, or, he may have an overly controlled tone. Most liars will speak with less inflection, tending toward a monotone. When asked a direct question, he may repeat the question, or say, “Do you think that I would do this?” or state his opinion on the subject—which is likely to be violently opposed to any such activity that he’s being asked about—instead of directly answering the question. For example, if asked if he mowed over the daisies, he’d say, “There’s no excuse for sloppy mowing. Mowers should be aware of what they are doing at all times.” He’s also likely to hesitate before answering, especially if asked a question for which he’s unprepared. 

Liars will normally avoid eye contact. Some liars are aware that this will give them away, so they will instead force eye contact, which feels unnatural. Pupils constrict when their owner lies, which may be why liars blink rapidly. They may glance away or glance sideways. 

A liar wants to be invisible—or, at the least, take up as little space as possible and not draw attention to himself. Therefore, he may have an overly stiff posture with controlled movement, and his hands and leg movements are toward his body core, not outward. 

In some people, the hands may be animated, as though the extra movement can help move the words through the air with added integrity. However, a liar will not cover his heart with his hand—that is, unless he’s aware this is a sign of being open and honest, and he does it to deceive. An honest person will often have a hand that is turned up, with the palm exposed, while a liar will keep his hand clenched or his palm down. A liar’s hands may touch his face, throat and mouth, or touch or scratch his nose, upper lip, or behind his ear.

Emotional Gestures and Contradictions of Liars

When someone tries to deceive, the timing may be off between the emotional gestures/expressions and spoken words. For example, a character may say, "I love it!" when receiving a gift, but then smiles after making that statement, rather than at the same time. The gestures/expressions may also fail to match the words spoken, such as smiling when saying “I didn’t mean to hurt you,” or shaking the head while saying, “Yes, I’ll take care of that for you.”

Expressions are limited to mouth movements instead of involving the entire face when faking emotions. For example, when someone smiles naturally, his whole face is involved. He has jaw/cheek movement, his eyes light up, and his skin crinkles at the corners. A liar’s eyes remain expressionless when he smiles.

Interactions and Reactions

A liar is uncomfortable facing his questioner/accuser and may turn his head or body away. He may unconsciously place an object, such as a book or a newspaper, between himself and the other person, or he may move objects around, indicating discomfort.

If an accuser believes someone is lying, he should change the subject quickly. A liar follows along willingly and becomes more relaxed; the deceiver is relieved the subject changed. An innocent person may be confused by the sudden change in topic and try to return to the previous subject.

Final Notes on Lying

These are just a few of the body language clues that a deceiver may use. In fact, entire books have been written on just this one area—on the body language of a liar or how to identify a liar, so it’s a subject that can be studied in-depth. 

It’s also important to note that when trying to clue your reader that a character is lying, the character should respond in a way that is not normal for him. And, of course, just because a character exhibits one or more of these signs does not make him a liar. 

If a character is a psychopath, these indicators may possibly not apply—psychopaths have no real conscience, and therefore do not have the guilt that causes many of the reactions listed here. Some psychopaths may even be cunning enough to behave in an acceptable manner—and are good enough actors to get by with it.

Writing is a craft with much to learn. We encourage you to sign up for our newsletters, this blog, and glean our website for the many tips offered there. We’re also here to help you along the way. Just shoot us off an email at We’re here.

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