You may be able to size people up in person and figure out if they are lying to you, but it’s a lot more difficult online. The more you maintain relationships through email, the more important it is to sharpen your deceit-detection skills.
The good news is that there are a few tricks you can learn to spot lies in digital correspondence. Tyler Cohen Wood, an intelligence officer and cyber branch chief at the Defense Intelligence Agency’s Science and Technology Directorate, tells The Wall Street Journal that people want to tell the truth by nature, so if they’re lying they will subconsciously drop hints.
Below, check out five common ways people lie through email.
When people lie, they really, really, really want you believe them. Cohen Wood tells WSJ that emphatic and repetitious language is a red flag. When they repeat the same thing but in different ways, figure out why. “They wouldn’t repeat it if it wasn’t important to them,” she says.
If the person emailing or texting you is distancing himself from you or the situation he is talking about, watch out. Language that distances the writer from you is similar to when someone crosses their arms or places an object in between you during an in-person meeting–it’s a sign that they may be lying. An email with no personal pronouns, The Wall Street Journal’s Elizabeth Bernstein writes, is a good example: If you send a text to someone that says, “Hey I had a great time last night, did you?” A liar may respond with: “Last night was fun.”
Cohen Wood says expressions like “I hate to tell you this,” “to be honest,” or “there is nothing to worry about” should make you worry. At the very least, they imply that the writer is nervous or uncomfortable with what they are about to say. Get to the root–ask them what’s really going on. Hopefully they’ll fess up.
If you’re having a hard time locking someone down with a concrete explanation of what went wrong with a business deal or an office situation, that’s a warning sign. People who are telling the truth aren’t vague. A few telltale signs include “probably,” “pretty sure,” “maybe,” “must have,” and more. “These words leave the person an out,” Cohen Wood tells WSJ. The same thing goes for unanswered questions. If someone dodges a direct question and changes the subject, it could mean he either doesn’t want to hurt your feelings, or is hiding something from you.
Tense hopping, or switching between the past and present tenses during a story, is another clue. If your employee is writing a report about an altercation that took place, for instance, it should all be in the past tense. But if the story suddenly is recounted in the present tense, it could mean they are making it up as they go along.
You need to use these tricks all together. If a person doesn’t answer a direct question, it could just mean that they missed it. But if they are tense hopping and throwing in noncommittal phrases while distancing themselves from the story, you may be reading a lie. Make sure you’re keeping track of inconsistencies and ask follow-up questions.