How to Spot Lies in an Email

Here’s a scary number: Social psychology expert Jerald Jellison estimates that we are lied to as many as 200 times per day. That isn’t all by email, of course, but plenty of it may be — and even the smallest false details can impact the productivity and financial success of a business. Knowing how to decipher truth from lies helps you make better deals, find the right partners and land the right hires. That’s why, as more and more of our business communication happens digitally, it’s essential to be able to spot written deception. Success depends on it.

Luckily, the science of lie hunting extends into the digital world. It’s called statement analysis, and it’s a process that analyzes how people use their words to determine whether they’re being honest. The technique is the brainchild of Mark McClish, a former instructor at the U.S. Marshals Academy, who studied deceptive statements and found linguistic patterns among lies. Here are three of his key warning signs to look for in your emails.

1. A lack of personal pronouns

People don’t like to take ownership of their lies, so they will often distance themselves from them. A liar might say, “Got stuck in traffic” instead of “I got stuck in traffic.” A dishonest person might also use less my, me and ours in place of the, a and that. Let’s say you email a manager to complain about a deliverable that didn’t meet expectations. Instead of replying with “My team followed the instructions we received,” the manager might write, “The team followed the instructions that were given.” The latter separates them from the issue of not following directions.

2. Vague language

Research shows that people feel more comfortable lying by omission than outright. (Make blatant lies in email does leave a dangerous paper trail.) A good example of this type of lie is when you send an email to ask for a project update. Someone with nothing to hide will usually write back with specific details. But if things aren’t going well, and individual might offer a brief and noncommittal answer, like “The project is looking good. We’re making considerable progress.” Something is considerable here, but it’s not progress.

3. Tense inconsistencies

When people come up with lies, their brains often have a hard time keeping track of timelines. When fibbing about a past event, it’s typical to accidentally switch to the present tense; that’s because the lie is being created in the moment. If someone is bending the truth about a meeting, they might type, “Spoke to the client yesterday, and he says he likes the ideas presented to him.” The sentence starts in the past tense (spoke) then shifts to the present (likes) when the distortion begins. Even worse? It also lacks personal pronouns!

None of these warning signs guarantee that someone is lying, so don’t be quick to accuse. Your email correspondent could just be a bad writer. But these are red flags. When one or more of them appear in an email, take it as a signal to get further clarity. Circle back with a phone call, plan an in-person meeting and do some background research. Always ask follow-up questions; to encourage honesty and foster open discussions, start out with Why. Research shows that it’s more difficult for people to lie about their intentions than about specific things.

Remember that honesty is a two-way street. As you write emails, avoid making these mistakes yourself — and I don’t mean hide your lie. I mean, you know, don’t lie. Always use personal pronouns, choose direct language and keep your tenses straight. Or else someone might just forward your email to me.

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