Can you spot a liar? We all know people who think they can, and very often they claim to be able to do so by reading “body language.” Clearing one’s throat, touching one’s mouth, crossing one’s arms, looking away: these and other such gestures, they say, indicate on the part of the speaker a certain distance from the truth. In the WIRED “Tradecraft” video above, however former FBI special agent Joe Navarro more than once pronounces ideas about such physical lie indicators “nonsense.” And having spent 25 years working to identify people presenting themselves falsely to the world — “my job was to catch spies,” he says — he should know, at the very least, what isn’t a tell.
Not that all the throat-clearing and arm-crossing doesn’t indicate something. Navarro calls such behaviors “self-soothers,” physical actions we use to pacify ourselves in stressful moments. Of course, even if self-soothers provide no useful information about whether a person is telling the truth, that doesn’t mean they provide no useful information at all.
But Navarro’s career has taught him that actions decisively indicating deception are much more specific, and without relevant knowledge completely illegible: take the suspected spy he had under surveillance who gave the game away just by leaving a flower shop holding a bouquet facing not upward but downward, “how they carry flowers in eastern Europe.”
For the most part, detecting a liar requires a great deal of what Navarro calls “face time,” a necessity when it comes to observing the full range of and patterns in an individual’s forms of non-verbal communication. In the video he analyzes footage of a poker game, the kind of setting that heightens our awareness of such non-verbal communication. At the table we all know to put on a “poker face” and shut our mouths, but even when we say nothing, Navarro emphasizes, we’re constantly transmitting a high quantity of information about ourselves. Whatever the setting, it comes through in how we dress, how we walk, how we carry ourselves — especially if we think it doesn’t. In the eyes of those who know how to interpret this information, all the world becomes a poker game.
Navarro is the author of two books on this subject: The Dictionary of Body Language: A Field Guide to Human Behavior and What Every Body Is Saying: An Ex-FBI Agent’s Guide to Speed-Reading People. For a contrarian point of view that challenges the idea that we can ever read people accurately, see Malcolm Gladwell’s new book, Talking to Strangers: What We Should Know about the People We Don’t Know.
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.