Communication

10 Telltale Phrases That Indicate Somebody Isn't Telling the Truth

It's harder to tell a convincing lie than speak an unpleasant truth.
10 Telltale Phrases That Indicate Somebody Isn't Telling the Truth
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Author of A Paperboy's Fable: The 11 Principles of Success
9 min read
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Chances are, someone has lied to you today and, whether you want to admit to it or not, you’ve probably lied to someone as well. Research has shown that people lie in one in five of their daily interactions. Pamela Meyer, author of Liespotting: Proven Techniques to Detect Deception, claims in her TED talk that we’re lied to 10 to 200 times per day.

However, while we may be swimming in lies, spotting a liar isn’t easy. It’s often not what a liar says, but how it is said. A person’s delivery and body language will often indicate if he or she is lying. Is the person relaxed, making eye contact and talking in a straightforward manner? Are they shifting in their seat? Does their voice seem strained at times?  

The words people use and how they speak can also indicate when they are being less than honest. There are a few telltale phrases that signal someone might be lying. These 10 common types of phrases are warning signs that someone is lying to you. It’s important to recognize that using these phrases alone isn’t enough to show that a person is lying, but when taken together with other clues, they may indicate a deception is taking place.

1. Stalling tactics: “Did I do it? Of course not!”

While it’s natural to repeat part of a question, restating the entire question is unnecessary. Liars often repeat a question nearly verbatim as a stalling tactic to give themselves time to formulate an answer.

For example, if you ask someone, “Did you do it?” and they answer, “Did I do it? Of course not!” there’s a good chance they’re covering something up. Other stalling tactics include asking to have the question repeated, or playing dumb and asking for more information.

Related: Use This Secret Military Trick to Tell if Someone Is Lying

2. Skipping contractions: “I did not do it.”

People who are lying have probably rehearsed in their mind what they’re going to say, and they may start speaking more formally in their denial. Skipping contractions and other normal conversational words is a common tactic to add emphasis and try to sound trustworthy.

Instead of saying “I didn’t do it,” they’ll say “I did not do it.” Or they’ll say “I cannot remember” instead of “I can’t remember.” They’re basically overselling their lie by trying to sound more powerful and less refutable. But formal language is unnecessary (and sounds unnatural) if you’re telling the truth.

3. Making sweeping statements: “I would never” or “I always.”

Using non-specific language, generalized phrases and sweeping statements are common tactics for liars, who are trying to avoid giving hard facts and information. Rather than focusing on the details of a situation or giving specifics, liars dance around the truth by using overly generalized statements that are too mushy to be disproven.

These tactics are easy to spot in job interviews or when someone is trying to avoid giving the full story. A less-than-trustworthy person will try to exaggerate their skills or build themselves up without giving specifics. Phrases like “I would never,” “I always” or “I’ve done that a million times” come off sounding inflated and dishonest if they aren’t backed up by actual facts.

Related: How to Stop Lying to Ourselves: A Call for Self-Awareness

4. Overemphasizing their trustworthiness: “To be honest.”

Liars often overemphasize their truthfulness by adding words or phrases to a statement that are meant to make them sound more convincing. However, the actual effect is usually the opposite. By adding phrases that emphasize they’re telling the truth, the speaker loses credibility and weakens the argument.

Overemphasizing truthfulness includes phrases such as:

  • “To be honest”
  • “To tell you the truth”
  • “Believe me”
  • “Let me be clear”
  • “The fact is”

You may think these phrases will convince others of your reliability and you probably mean to bolster your integrity and accuracy, but this isn’t necessary if you’re being honest.

5. Hedging their statements: “As far as I recall.”

Liars often take a guarded tone when they’re trying to deceive others. They may lower their voice and ask for clarification, saying, “What do you mean?” or “What’s the meaning of this?” They also use qualifying phrases to hedge their statements and try to get themselves out of the hot seat. They’ll say things like:

  • “As far as I recall”

  • “If you really think about it”

  • “What I remember is”
  • “The way I see it”

Hedged statements aren’t an absolute indicator of deception, but an overuse of such qualifying phrases should certainly raise suspicion that a person isn’t being totally upfront with what he or she knows.

Related: 3 Scientifically-Proven Ways to Spot Liars in Your Emails

6. They avoid “I” statements.

People use many techniques to distance themselves from the truth or to avoid accountability and responsibility for their actions. Liars often remove themselves from the story by referencing themselves less when making deceptive statements. They will avoid using pronouns like “I,” “mine” and “myself.”

They may use oddly phrased statements in the third person. For example, they may say, “You don’t bill hours that you didn’t work,” instead of saying, “I don’t bill hours I didn’t work." Or they’ll say, "The vase got broken," instead of "I broke the vase."

A lying CEO may overuse words like “we” and “our team” when they talk about their company. They may use the third person to distance and disassociate themselves from things they don’t want to take responsibility for. This is especially apparent when someone is attempting to avoid consequences. They may also change pronouns to articles. For example, “I drove my car” becomes “I drove the car.”

7. Dodging a direct answer: “Do you really think I would do such a thing?”

People may also seek to avoid the truth by implying an answer, rather than giving a direct rebuttal. For example, when confronted about something, they may reply with a murky statement such as "Would I do such a thing?" or even "I wouldn't do such a thing," rather than a straightforward "I didn't do it."

Another indication of deception is using unnecessary words in a statement that make its meaning less clear. For example, "We didn't see her" might be said as "We didn't really see her."

Related: No One Is Telling You the Truth at Work (And What to Do About It)

8. Going into defensive mode: “How can you doubt me?”

Someone who is lying will quickly jump into defensive mode when questioned, acting angry or hurt if others don’t seem to buy what they’re saying. They may say things like "How can you doubt me?" They attack the person asking the questions by saying, “Don’t you have something better to do than to waste my time with this stuff?” They’re eager to counteract any perceived notion they could be to blame, and attempt to convince others they’re telling the truth. They’ll often ask, "Do you believe me?" to gauge how their lie is being received.

People who are telling the truth tend to just assume they'll be believed and usually aren't offended if asked follow-up questions or for additional proof. Don't let someone's skepticism upset you -- that will just make things worse.

9. Deflecting and evading: “Don’t you have something better to do?”

A person who is telling a lie will do everything in their power to deflect attention away from themselves while maintaining the illusion of credibility. People who are telling the truth tend go on the offensive. This will become obvious throughout the course of a conversation. If a person keeps trying to change the subject or comes off as guarded and noncommittal, they may be trying to hide something.

Listen for phrases like:

  • “Why do you want to know that?”
  • “That’s not important”
  • “Don’t you have something better to do?”
  • “What are you talking about?”

If someone appears to be trying to evade the truth, they probably are.

Related: To Thrive in an Uncertain Future, You Can't Be Afraid to Tell the Truth

10. Embellishing insignificant details while avoiding important ones.

Liars are eager to convince you they are telling the truth and will try to add details to make their story more believable -- which actually makes their story less believable. If a person is lying, they tend to offer surplus information without prompts and they may repeat certain phrases as they try to buy themselves time.

They’ll embellish insignificant details while avoiding important ones. A careful listener will start to notice that something is missing. This can make it easier to catch a person in a lie because you can jot down details of the story you are being told and then ask questions about those details later to see if they’re still the same.

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