Professional Pinocchios: How to tell if your clients are lying to you


Knowing when to trust people is right up there on the Olympic podium of top three essential business skills.

Trust too much, you get shaken down like a kid among sideshow carnies. Trust too little, and you’ll never get a deal done — plus you’ll be the kind of last-resort boss that only the desperate will work for.

Your business will never be bigger than a hotdog cart if you don’t have the spider senses for honesty. Particularly if, like us, you’re not working in those businesses, so you’re giving people a pile of your cash and hoping they don’t lose the lot.

The classic signs of the liar

How do you know if people aren’t giving you the whole truth?

Ah, that’s easy, you say! They give it away with their non-verbal signs, like touching their face, folding their arms and avoiding eye contact.


No. All those things are pop-psychology shtick from airport-store success books. They’re just not true. But we’ll come back to that shortly.

This might take a while

Trust skills aren’t something you just learn from a handy ‘top ten tips’ listicle.

It’s the full Malcolm Gladwell 10,000 hours. Decades of business transactions, some that run happily ever after, others that swiftly veer off the road into a ditch. You do a lot of thinking in that ditch.

This long, slow skill development is handy because as time goes on you’re putting bigger numbers at risk.

The main point: there is no substitute for face-to-face. If you do all your business dealings via emails and messages, you never develop the mental antibodies to fight off all the shonks and fantasists you run across.

Spoiler alert, after COVID-19 you’re going to have to leave the cosy home office from time to time.

Learn from a real estate agent. Yes, really

My favourite approach to this topic is from a real estate agent I know. He… does not lie.

‘What, I thought you said he was a real estate agent,’ you think to yourself. Because that joke writes itself.

Is it because of his powerful moral compass? No. He says, “I always tell the truth, I’m just not bright enough to keep mental track of lies, so it’s the only way I can deal with life.”

I love this so much. He is a prince of genuine self-awareness in an industry of Dunning-Kruger confidence, and I would use his services any time.

Anyway you still want a listicle, don’t you? OK, here it is. My top eight tips on trusting people. Happy?

1. Most non-verbal signs are a myth

Simplistic ideas about folded arms or eye contact don’t prove much at all.

Ask detectives or psychoanalysts, they’ll tell you nobody holds firm eye contact like a psychopath. Research confirms these signs are no more effective than flipping a coin. I won’t bore you with the details, but I love this quote: “There really is no Pinocchio’s nose,” says Judee Burgoon, PhD, a professor of communication at the University of Arizona.

Non-verbal signs are more useful when you know the person already. If they suddenly shift from their normal settings, ask yourself why.

2. Language: The tell-tale pronouns and verb tenses

Professionals find language is a better subconscious indicator of the cover-up, whether you’re hunting criminals or new business partners.

They’ll refer to people as ‘we’ rather than ‘they’ and you’ll think ‘hmm, is there a hidden alliance I don’t know about?’

They’ll use past tense about part of the deal you thought was still happening. The details are subtle but after thousands of these conversations, the truth’s all there if you listen.

3. People who speak in absolutes

They say ‘always’, ‘never’, ‘only’ and ‘best’. There are no shades of grey. There’s a guy I know who has pitched his managerial services to a few companies lately, saying: “I know how to fix all your problems.”

His track record is far from 100% delivery on that.

I get Pinocchio vibes when I hear the word ‘seamless’. Everything has a few seams, and people who say seamless lack the attention to detail to even see them.

On that point, this story would get far more readers if I said: ‘Never trust people who… ‘. I’m not going to do that. They’re just signs that you should think twice.

Just one isn’t a major cause for alarm. When they start to cluster, however, it’s time to tread carefully and ask some probing questions.

4. Unnecessary truth declarations

People who constantly point out that they’re telling the truth.

‘Trust me… ‘

‘The truth is… ‘

‘Let me level with you… ‘

Perhaps not.

5. Look at how they treat juniors

These are people who are delightful to you, their potential client or business partner, but who just ignore all the juniors, whose names they do not know.

That’s a sign.

6. ‘Good news by voice, bad news by email’ people

This one is a pet hate of mine.

Owning the bad announcements is the best way to build a lifetime reputation as someone you can trust.

7. The beverage test

I’ve written about this before, and it remains an efficient test, both for the lowered defence shield and for the crowd dynamic.

It’s always instructive watching how they relate to different types of people in an uncontrolled environment. You can tell most of what you need to know just by watching how they treat service staff.

The Romans had all this down thousands of years ago with the expression in vino veritas, which our in-house Latin scholars translate to:

‘If you are, at your very core, a dickhead, you can hide it quite well during office hours, just as serial killers aren’t always killing people. But get a few glasses of cheap catering wine under the belt, and it’s cape on and takeoff time for Super Dickhead, coming to save us all from a pleasant night out.’

8. Look down

I asked my business partner for his tips and he said “so many factors, but if it’s a guy, basically you can tell by their shoes”.

Pleather. Square-toe business shoes. Anything from Rivers. The curvature of worn heels that should have gone in the bin long ago. Look down the aisle of any weekday flight (should that ever be a thing again) and you see problematic business footwear as far as the eye can see.

Putting the bro in brogues.

It’s not a 100% correlation, plenty of lovely people wear terrible shoes. Yet, so many of the worst clowns we have dealt with were also footwear felons.

Here’s a sign. As I write this story, this heinous range of shoes just appeared as a sponsored post in my Insta feed. Someone has studied the mullet philosophy — “business in the front, party in the back” — and thought, ‘let’s do it with shoes’.

Men. Ask an honest female friend: ‘Do these shoes make me look dodgy?’  They won’t have to answer, just look at their face. The fact that you even had to ask means it’s charity bin time, tiger.

This post was first published on Motivation for Sceptics.

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