With the words we choose to use, we often give strong indicators (some subtle, some not so subtle) as to how we feel about a given topic. In this post, I will address distancing language and how to accurately interpret the meaning. How do liar’s use it and how to make sure you are putting the indicators into proper context.
“That” and its plural “those” are words commonly used to indicate a distance from something. If you are standing in your yard, you would say “this is my yard, that is my neighbor’s yard”. “This” indicates closeness (as you are standing in your yard) “that” indicates a yard that is farther away. Distance.
How does this information help us detect a lie? Let’s take a look at the example:
“I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Mrs. Lewinsky….”
-Bill Clinton denying the Monica Lewinsky affair.
I use this well worn example because we know Clinton lied. In telling that lie, he distanced himself from Lewinsky verbally (there were non verbal cues as well) with the use of the word “that” (There are other verbal indicators of distancing in Clinton’s statement that I will address as well). Now, to be fair, I would not expect Clinton to say “I did not have sexual relations with this woman…” That would make no sense unless Monica was standing next to him.
Another indication of distancing from Clinton in this statement is the use “woman”. By adding this extra word (we all know Monica Lewinsky is a woman), he is putting more distance between himself and Lewinsky. Let’s take another look at Clinton’s statement: “I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Mrs. Lewinsky.” That is 11 words total. Clinton referred to himself on the first word (“I”) and Lewinsky on the 11th word. That is as much distance as possible. People tend to distance themselves as much as possible from that which they don’t like or are threatened by. In this case, Clinton was highly threatened by his relationship with Lewinsky and it showed in his choice of words.
A final indicator to address in this statement is Clinton’s use of a formal title when referring to Lewinsky, “Mrs. Lewinsky” is a way of insinuating the relationship is formal and not personal (which is not the case when you have “sexual relations” with someone). Given the fact that Clinton and Lewinsky were fairly chummy in public, as shown in the photo above, he could have used her first name.
There are several verbal and non verbal indicators that Clinton was not being truthful when he made this statement, but the use of distancing language alone is enough to allow us to not believe the statement. If Clinton had stated “I didn’t have sex with Monica Lewinsky” he would have been more believable. This statement is declarative and not excessively wordy. It is hard, however, for a liar to choose precise denials such as this. They simply feel the need to be more convincing and they do not like to put themselves close to the threatening subject.
A key point to make about distancing is to look for non verbal cues to go along with the verbal indicators. The non verbal indicators will include, among others, sudden crossing of the arms, leaning away, “blading” (turning the torso away) as Richard Nixon did in his “I’m not a crook” speech
Clinton displayed incongruent gesturing in his Lewinsky denial. While looking in one direction, he pointed in another direction. This is caused by the deep desire to distance himself from the topic of Lewinsky and is a good indicator of how he feels about it. (as an aside, there is a high correlation between pointing the index finger during a denial with deception)
As always, I will emphasize context. The use of distancing language and non verbals do not mean the person is lying, it means the topic or subject is causing a negative emotion. In the proper context, distancing can mean honesty. In the hilarious movie Friday, the star of the movie, Craig (played by Ice Cube) has a girlfriend, Joi (Paula Jai Parker) who Craig’s mother, Betty (Anna Horsford) greatly disapproves of. Betty tells Craig, “I don’t know why you run around with.. that girl”. Betty distances herself from Joi with “that” and also chooses not to use Joi’s name (indicating tension and further distancing). Betty is making it very clear she does not like Joi, therefore distancing language is appropriate and honest. Betty also displays non verbal distancing and expression of disgust. Again, the non verbal and verbal cues are working hand in hand. If Betty were attempting to give the impression that she thinks highly of Joi, then there would be a problem.
In your efforts to find dishonesty, look for distancing indicators and decide if they are congruent with the message given. There are more indicators of distancing, but these are a few to look for that should be easy to spot.