What Politics and Pop Culture Taught Me About Lies

Six different ways to tell true from false.

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How do you see through a Pinocchio lie? By a nose (Photo: Walt Disney Productions)

“You can’t hide your lyin’ eyes.” — Eagles, 1975

If you watch daytime soaps or prime-time TV with any regularity, you might already know the tell-tale signs. If you’re human, you’ve probably flashed a few of them yourself.

Lying is part of our survival instinct. We do it to save our butts. We exaggerate and embellish to impress and entertain. Lies of omission keep up appearances and maintain the peace. Occasionally, if desperation strikes, we might resort to weaving a tangled web of deception. It doesn’t necessarily make us bad people, just real people.

“I don’t wanna let you go. I don’t wanna let you know. So I lie.” — Loretta Lynn, 1982

Most of my friends probably think of me as being brutally honest because I appear to tell it like it is. Only I don’t — not always … not even a lot. I’ve just mastered the art of speaking with conviction and eye contact.

“Liar, liar, liar.” — Three Dog Night, 1971

I bend the truth to massage delicate egos as much as the next wimp. But that’s not the same as lying to a grand jury on the witness stand. All lies aren’t created equal.

I bend the truth to massage delicate egos as much as the next wimp. But that’s not the same as lying to a grand jury on the witness stand. All lies aren’t created equal.

Despite the variations in size, there are ways to spot a not-so-good lie, and I’ve learned most of them from years spent watching TV, movies, and U.S. Presidents. Here are six that don’t involve body language because let’s face it: Body language can be misleading, and, sometimes, tears are not enough evidence when it comes to identifying truth and lies.

“It hurts too much to face the truth.” — Pet Shop Boys, 1990

I’m fidgety by nature, and I rarely cry, both of which worked against me the time I learned about the murder of a good friend from an NYPD cop who considered me and everyone in his address book to be persons of interest. Also, although I give excellent eye contact, some pretty truthful people will avoid it even when they’re saying hello. And that’s no lie!

1. An alibi is too airtight.

Every time I read a memoir that’s loaded with visual details and full quotes, I’m shocked by the power of memory and the close attention some people pay to what happens throughout the course of their lives. All of that exacting minutiae astounds me. I barely can be bothered to catch the name of someone to whom I’ve just been introduced!

Surely some of those precise recollections are as enhanced as an Instagram selfie or the cover image on a fashion magazine, right? Narrative fudging is protected under the terms of the creative license.

Alibis, on the other hand, are required by law to be the truth and nothing but. Simple is always more convincing. If you know every single detail of what you were doing last night at 10.30, right down to the shadows on the wall and the angle at which your legs were crossed, you were probably doing something else.

2. Those perfectly detailed facts are always the same.

Cops on TV procedurals, in true-crime documentaries, and in real life are trained to listen to subtle changes in a person’s testimony over time. In reality, though, who tells a true story exactly the same way twice? We dress it up for dramatic effect and alter details depending on what our memory is telling us at any given moment, for memory is largely subjective, more so as time goes by.

I notice this every time I write about something that’s happened to me twice and later compare the details of both versions. There is almost always a slight shift in some of the particulars.

If a story is precisely the same every single time, it’s likely that it’s being told not from memory but from memorization. That goes double for matching testimonies. We’ve seen enough he said/she said/they said on TV and in movies to know that no two people ever experience the same experience in exactly the same way — not even when they’re both tripping on mushrooms and watching ants on the pavement marching in slow motion to nowhere.

3. The pregnant pause before someone answers gives birth to triplets.

Melodrama reigns supreme on daytime soaps, so when one character enters a scene after overhearing one cryptic line of a private conversation and asks for elaboration — Maggie Kiriakis to Victor and Xander Kiriakis on Days of Our Lives: “Why do you need to protect me?” — it’s necessary for the accused to delay his or her response long enough to cue the soapy music and cut to a commercial break.

But in real life, question marks don’t linger. Questions about something that was just said or ones that demand a simple yes or no answer generally don’t require 10 seconds of dramatic silence and a commercial break for careful consideration. A pregnant pause means the next words you hear probably won’t be true.

4. Their dog ate the homework.

Fact is actually seldom stranger than fiction. The mundane reality is that life is fairly mundane. So the more unlikely a story, the more likely it isn’t true. On The Golden Girls, could Dorothy and Blanche possibly have believed Rose’s tall tales about St. Olaf while generally mentally dumping Sophia’s Sicily recollections into the liar, liar pile?

During my high-school days in Kissimmee, Florida, I worked as a host at Red Lobster. One day, after we skipped classes to go to Cocoa Beach, one of my colleagues, Shirley, got out of work that night by telling our boss that her uncle who lived in Vero Beach had been shot in the neck. The neck!

I couldn’t believe she got away with it — but not for long. By the end of the week, the jig — and her gig — was up. She skipped work without calling in, and that time, nobody bought her sequel to the first lie in which she was tending to her recuperating uncle in Vero Beach.

Months later, I asked her how her uncle felt about being part of such a big lie. Her response: “Oh, I don’t even have an uncle.” How considerate, I thought. At least she designed her lie so that it wouldn’t damn someone else with bad karma.

5. They refuse to answer the question.

People who have nothing to hide don’t hide it. Consider the celebrity who is accused of being gay (as if that’s some kind of a crime). There’s no inherent homophobia in admitting you are straight and certainly no reason to be ashamed.

If an A-list celebrity’s response is anything along the lines of “I don’t comment on my personal life,” when asked about his or her sexual orientation, the state of his or her marriage, or his or her extra-marital activities, then, well, there’s your answer. He or she is probably lying to someone.

6. They answer your question by answering a different question or by using elaborate wordplay.

Call it the “I did not have sexual relations with that woman” ploy. A “yes” or “no” question (Do you like my tight sweater? Are you on the road to loving me again? Do you love as good as you look?) deserves a “yes” or “no” answer.

If someone is setting you up on a blind date and you ask if the other person is hot, beware of adjectives like “attractive,” “distinguished,” “interesting,” “funny” and “exotic,” while Cupid is shaking his or her head up and down.

Anything in lieu of a simple spoken “Yes” or “Yes, he/she is hot” (or “gorgeous,” “beautiful,” “handsome” or some other equivalent adjective used to denote physical superiority) is tantamount to “No.” So if you’re in danger of being set up on a blind date that is pretty much doomed before it even starts, remember number one (Keep it simple!) while coming up with a lie of your own to get out of it.

Written by

Brother Son Husband Friend Loner Minimalist World Traveler. Author of “Is It True What They Say About Black Men?” and “Storms in Africa” https://rb.gy/3mthoj

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