“The greatest problem in communication is the illusion that it has been accomplished.” This is not a line from a media guru, but an observation by a US Joint Forces Chief of Staff D. W. Davenport. The stakes are certainly higher in his line of work, and one can only imagine the type of a situation that had taught him this life’s lesson.
I lifted the quote from a little black paperback with an intriguing title “Spy a Lie”.
What prompted me to pick up this book among all the others I could have gotten for half-price at the Eurostar terminal? Was it the latest media craze about spying, leaks and suspicions of all kind? Was it my growing realization that so much of media business momentum is built on empty promises and white lies? Was it a sense that so many projects we turn to today seem to spin in a meaningless spiral of meetings, emails and conference calls, only to peter out into a void of digital silence when a simple question of “Where is the money” is asked directly? Whatever the reason I have immersed myself in a method put forth by a trio of CIAs veterans, I am delighted I gave it a try. Who knew that putting on a spy hat could be so useful in the days that we are all being spied at and misled by everybody from governments to brands to assistants.
To me the stunning revelation of this book is that people do not usually lie point blank. You have to be a standout actor or a pathological case – or both – to deny the truth in a direct and straightforward fashion. Instead we invent stories that justify our avoidance of truth, we answer questions with questions, we switch the subject and reply truthfully to a question that was never asked and through this myriad of equivoque strategies we lie without admitting even to ourselves that we have actually lied.
If I understood my spy manual directly, all you need to do to spot a lie is to ask a direct and honest question. A question that would be best answered with no or yes. The rest of the technique (based on the science of the polygraph tests ) is quite simple. If within the first five seconds following the question the subject at hand replies “deceptively” – by changing the subject, for example, or trying to tell you something irrelevant that would cast him in a positive light – you have the first alarm bell. Then you have a bit more time to identify one or more additional “mini-deceptions” – whether in body language or another deceptive answer – and you’ve got your case. They are most likely lying to you through their teeth. You won’t get that deal, he is spying for another country, your daughter did skip class and the cleaning lady has pawned the Cartier watch you’ve been looking for.
As I was reading the book I kept thinking, oh if only life was that simple. If only it were to be conducted in direct and straightforward interviews and one-on-one dialogues, like a CIA screening test. If only we all shared the simple and clear notion of what truth is, and of what our objective is in sticking to it.
But we live in a world where human dialogue is a vanishing art, being replaced by time-delayed emails and SMS and social media posts. How often do you think of calling someone only to realize that it is so last century and that you are much more likely to get an answer to a text? How do you apply the 5-secod reaction rule – the basis of the CIA method – to a world where delayed communication is a norm? And is it becoming a norm because we are all inherently liars, hiding our social awkwardness and inability to face a direct truth behind our photoshopped Facebook profiles? Is there even such a thing as Truth in a world where we all spin diverging narratives, each one of us telling our own version of the common story?
Which brings me to an optimistic conclusion. Why worry about NSA spying, going through our private emails and SMS, when most of the stuff they get is probably not true? Unless they come up with a lie detecting technology that can be applied to an email, they will just be as lost at the sea of empty words as we all are. And should they start analyzing our social media posts – already up for grabs to anyone who cares – they will be simply drowned in one big self-absorbed white lie of our individual greatness.
That said, next time I ask an important question, I will make sure it can be answered with a “yes” or a “no”. Watch out, business partners!