Can you spot a liar? I don’t think you can.
When a witness testifies in court, he/she is being judged on whether or not their evidence makes sense and whether or not it is supported by other evidence. Obviously, if it makes sense and it is consistent with other evidence, the witness will appear more trustworthy.
Witnesses are also judged by other factors, such as their speech and their overall demeanour. These factors are often used (in everyday life and in the courtroom) to decide whether or not someone is a liar. However, these factors often have nothing to do with credibility.
So, what are some of the ‘tells’ of a liar? We have heard them all before: not maintaining eye contact, looking down, talking fast, appearing nervous, or becoming angry.
But, are these good indicators? Answer: absolutely not, which is why lawyers and judges know better than to assess credibility wholly based on demeanour.
To start, witnesses are generally resistant to testifying, as court is believed to be a nerve-racking experience. [Thank you, American television.] So, nervousness and fast talking are obviously not good indicators of lying.
How about maintaining eye-contact? Is that a good indicator? Well, recall that direct eye contact is generally seen as a sign of trustworthiness and honesty. But, for some people (including many aboriginals), direct eye contact is improper and disrespectful (and is therefore not a good indicator of honesty).
How about being polite or appearing ‘level-headed’? For the most part, someone who appears ‘level-headed’ (and does not get angry) will appear more credible. But, consider that the actions of someone in the courtroom (i.e. by a lawyer, juror, or member of the public) could elicit a negative response from a witness (with a different cultural background), making the witness appear dishonest.
For instance, for most Canadians, there is no real issue with pointing to something with the second finger. However, using the second finger is very disrespectful to (and could infuriate) someone from Italy.
Also, for Middle Eastern Arabs, it is disrespectful to expose the soles of shoes or to talk with a large amount of space/distance between each speaker. These actions could agitate such a witness.
Also know that Japanese, Chinese, Koreans, and Vietnamese use different phraseology depending on a person’s class or station in life. For example, a sentence in Japanese can be said in twelve different ways, depending on the social status/age of the person speaking and the person being spoken to. As a result, the English language can be unintentionally offensive to a witness (causing the witness to become irritable and appear less credible).
Obviously, it is crucial for lawyers to consider these cultural differences before trial.
Also, consider that some people, for whatever reason, are not able to clearly articulate their story. Does that mean that they are not as trustworthy or honest? Answer: of course not.
Bottom-line: there is no guaranteed way to spot a liar.
**The information contained in this column should not be treated by readers as legal advice and should not be relied on without detailed legal counsel being sought.
Originally posted on Castanet.net on May 1, 2012: Can you spot a liar?