A person showing verbal signs of deception while engaging in a worrying conversation.

What are the most common verbal signs of deception? What does lying look like?

The four verbal signs of deception according to the CIA are inappropriate responses, failure to answer, qualifier-heavy answers, and generally suspicious responses like inconsistency and aggression. Noticing these signs can help you determine if someone is lying in an interview or interrogation.

Continue reading for more detail on what these verbal signs of deception look like.

Verbal Signs of Deception to Look Out For

Verbal signs of deception are certain things CIA experts have found guilty people often say in response to questions—usually in a bid to buy time or manipulate you into liking them.

These experts provide four broad categories of verbal signs to look out for: “inappropriate” responses, failure or reluctance to answer, qualifier-heavy answers, and generally suspicious responses. There are numerous specific signs within each category that you’ll look for and count when identifying clusters. Let’s explore each category and its signs now.

Verbal Sign 1: “Inappropriate” Responses

Inappropriate responses don’t make sense given the tone or subject of your conversation. The authors outline four types of inappropriate responses.

Inappropriate questions are ones the interviewee would be unlikely to ask if they were innocent—for example, “What evidence do you have against me?” An innocent interviewee would assume there’s no evidence against him, so he’d be unlikely to ask this question.

Inappropriate levels of politeness: If the interviewee becomes overly formal with you or offers you a compliment for seemingly no reason, he may be trying to be more likable. According to the authors, this is often intended to make you less confrontational and more likely to believe him.

Inappropriately high concern for minor events: For example, the interviewee shows outrage over a coworker’s dessert being stolen from the community fridge. This is often an attempt to portray himself as a righteous, innocent person.

Inappropriately low concern for major events: For example, the interviewee shows indifference or dismissiveness toward a coworker’s murder. By doing this, the interviewee may be trying to convince you that a legitimate problem isn’t actually concerning. The authors describe this as an irrational, defensive effort to escape reality.

Keep In Mind That Appropriateness Is Subjective

Judgments regarding appropriateness tend to be highly subjective—either because you and your interviewee are simply different people or because of cultural differences.

On an individual level, people are often bad at judging what kind of response a situation merits. For example, one study found that many people interpret an angry response to an accusation as a sign of guilt—even though anger is a much more common response if you’re innocent than if you’re guilty.

In addition, different cultures have unique ideas of what makes an appropriate response. For example, to the Pashtun people, an accusation of minor wrongdoing merits outrage that can justifiably escalate to bloodshed. On the other hand, in many Western countries, office workers are often expected to endure disrespectful teasing without taking offense. If you’re unfamiliar with your interviewee’s culture, consider that your judgments of appropriate behavior may not align with theirs.

Verbal Sign 2: Failure or Reluctance to Answer

CIA experts explain that the interviewee may also try to avoid directly answering you. Let’s examine five strategies the interviewee may use to dodge your questioning.

Complaints about procedure: Comments such as, “This is taking forever!” or “Why are you even talking to me about this?” can seek to convince you that you’re wasting your time talking to the interviewee and should look elsewhere.

Selective memory or understanding: An interviewee’s claim not to understand a question or remember a past event may signal that they’re feigning ignorance. This may be an attempt to frustrate you or convince you to move on in the conversation.

(Shortform note: If the interviewee seems not to understand or remember the event, there may be an explanation other than deception, like a mental health condition affecting the interviewee’s memory. Studies suggest that Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and depression can make people more vulnerable to false memories, and false memories can be so convincing that they lead people to confess to crimes they didn’t commit. If someone claims not to remember an event, don’t try to convince them that they actually do remember.)

Too-specific answers only give information related to part of your question—deliberately missing its objective. For example, if you ask a potential hire, “What’s your experience overcoming project management challenges?” and the interviewee says, “I’ve managed successful projects before,” you’re dealing with a too-specific answer. The interviewee may be focusing on the specific detail of his projects’ success to hide his poor track record in handling management challenges.

(Shortform note: Deciding how to proceed after a too-specific answer can be tricky—recall that the authors advise against repeating questions, as it gives the interviewee time to think. However, it’s possible that repetition is advantageous in some cases: For example, lawyers often repeat questions during cross-examination, not moving on until the interviewee gives a satisfactory answer. Your next move depends on your goal: If you’re simply trying to find out whether your interviewee is trying to deceive you, you can note their too-specific answer as a sign and move on. If you need information the interviewee is withholding, it may be more to your advantage to keep pushing for a complete answer.)

Repeating information: The authors explain that repetition with the intent to deceive can take two different forms:

  1. The interviewee claims they’ve already answered your question, so they don’t need to answer again. This may be an attempt to avoid the discomfort of directly lying again.
  2. The interviewee repeats your question back to you. For example, they might respond to your question “Where were you last night?” with “Where was I last night? Let’s see…” The authors say this may be a strategy to buy time.

Nonanswers: When the interviewee starts his response with phrases unrelated to your question—such as, “Funny you should mention that,” or “Great question”—he may be buying time to think about his response.

Other Reasons for Failure or Reluctance to Answer

The authors focus on detecting deception rather than what to do after you think you’ve detected it. When failure or reluctance to answer leads you to suspect deception, your next steps and how you weigh the reluctance or failure may vary depending on your conversation goals—and the interviewee’s goals.

Nonanswers, complaints about procedure, and repetition of information may not signal deception if you’re not accusing the interviewee of guilt. The first can signal a desire to change the subject, which could have any number of causes. While the latter two indicate an attempt to buy time, it’s common to want more time to think in situations like a job interview without necessarily intending to deceive.

Verbal Sign 3: Qualifier-Heavy Answers

Qualifier-heavy answers use language that makes a statement of facts sound more certain or less certain—depending on whether the interviewee’s objective is to emphasize their trustworthiness or keep their assertions vague. 

Emphasizing trustworthiness: When the interviewee uses language like “to be honest” and “to tell the truth,” they try to make a statement appear more certain. This highlights their credibility and buys time for the interviewee to think.

(Shortform note: It’s worth noting that dishonestly isn’t the only reason people bolster their credibility with language like “to be honest.” Research suggests that people often use this language when they’re afraid their answer—regardless of its honesty—won’t satisfy the listener’s expectations. Therefore, even an innocent interviewee may use this language when suspected of wrongdoing.)

Making vague assertions: Language like “more or less,” “basically,” or “by and large” tries to make a statement of fact less certain. This allows the interviewee to exclude important information to create a quasi-truthful response that doesn’t admit guilt.

(Shortform note: Some people may use vague assertions as a way of building rapport with you rather than to deceive you. Communication experts explain that tentative language—like “maybe” or “I think”—can signal a desire for connection or collaboration. This suggests that it’s important to consider alternative explanations for this type of language.)

Verbal Sign 4: Generally Suspicious Responses

Some types of responses are simply “suspicious.” Here, we’ll go over five types of responses the authors find generally suspicious and what each suggests about your interviewee’s intentions.

Short denials buried in long explanations: Remember that creating complete fabrications can be psychologically difficult. The authors say that because of this mental barrier, a long explanation with only a brief denial inside it can signify the interviewee’s discomfort with their denial. To cushion this discomfort, they add information that may have little to do with the denial itself.

(Shortform note: With only five seconds after your question to notice signs of deception, it may be difficult to notice a short denial within a longer explanation. Therefore, it might be easier to  watch for a short denial followed by a long explanation.)

Inconsistent responses, which make a different statement of fact from a previous response, suggest the interviewee fabricated at least one of them.

Ambiguous denials are claims of innocence like, “I didn’t do anything wrong!” which don’t directly address your question. The authors explain this often signals a desire to avoid committing to an outright fabrication.

Aggressive or condescending responses are often an attempt to scare or annoy you into backing off your line of questioning.

(Shortform note: Deception may not be the only reason behind inconsistent, ambiguous, or aggressive responses. For example, inconsistent responses may stem from the interviewee’s faulty memory, or she may give an ambiguous or aggressive response simply because she’s in a bad mood or doesn’t enjoy being questioned.)

Making oaths: The authors say an interviewee who swears on God may be both trying to look pious and hoping you’ll accept their earnestness.

(Shortform note: While this focuses on religious oaths, people commonly swear on other important concepts, like the lives of their parents or children. These different oath types are similarly weighty: Those who swear on religious figures communicate their willingness to accept divine punishment if they break their oath, while those who swear on a loved one’s life  communicate their willingness to stake that life on their word.)

The 4 Verbal Signs of Deception, According to the CIA

Becca King

Becca’s love for reading began with mysteries and historical fiction, and it grew into a love for nonfiction history and more. Becca studied journalism as a graduate student at Ohio University while getting their feet wet writing at local newspapers, and now enjoys blogging about all things nonfiction, from science to history to practical advice for daily living.

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