Body language of liars Part 2

[By Humphrey M Kapau]

When it comes to baking lies in the kitchen of manipulation using the oven of deception, humans are always the defending champions. The trophy always comes home.

In fact, some lies that humans produce are as compacted as Zambian traditional bread made from sorghum or millet flour. Other lies are made puffy, airy, spongy and attractive like fried cakes (fritters). Professional liars even bake lies like some wedding cakes by layering, compacting and hardening the lies before ‘refrigerating’ the cake of lies in the fridge of falsehoods. Owing to the complexity of lies, crime specialists like detectives, forensic scientists and secret agents often turn to a branch of forensic linguistics called ‘forensic semiotics’ for help so that they can decipher the body language of a crime suspect being interrogated.

As a field within forensic linguistics, forensic semiotics is all about interpreting body language as a nonverbal physical sign (i.e. observable symptom) of underlying crime, the same way medical doctors would associate particular signs as symptoms of COVID-19. For example, a thumb-up hand gesture is contextually an observable sign (symptom if you like) that a person is ‘alright’.

In linguistic jargon, the physical and observable thumbs-up gesture is a semiotic mode called the ‘signifier’ while the conceptual thing it means (e.g. ‘ok’, ‘alright’) is called the ‘signified’. In other words, forensic semioticians view our body parts as semiotic modes having denotative/primary function (e.g. hands are used for eating) and connotative/secondary function (e.g. hands can be used to call someone). While denotative meaning is fairly constant, connotative meaning varies considerably according to factors such as culture and upbringing though some connotative meanings are universal (see Saussure,1916:15–16; Kress & Leeuwen,2001; and Kress,2010).

As Marcel (2014:30), citing Morries (1979) observes, the relevance of forensic semiotics is even strengthened by the fact that “humans communicate over two-thirds of their ideas and feelings through the body, rather than through vocal language, utilising up to 700,000 bodily signs, including 1,000 different postures, 5,000 hand gestures, and over 250,000 facial expressions.” This type of communication is called nonverbal communication. As the name implies, nonverbal communication does not involve speech. It is classified into seven types, notably, kinesics (body movement communication); haptics (communication by touch); vocalics (communication by voice); proxemics (communication by space and distance); chronemics (communication by time); personal appearance; and physical environment (Anderson,1999).

Being a field of language that touches on nonverbal communication in crime investigations, “forensic semiotics is used not only to provide general theoretical information on how nonverbal signage and communication unfold, but also suggest specific techniques for detecting lies during investigations because those who lie use signs. There is no lying without the use of signs. Lying is a semiotic activity, with a sender and a receiver. It is thus an activity taking place in society” (Pelc,1992:249).

In studying sign functions, forensic semioticians explore the three basic questions: what does a certain nonverbal sign function (e.g. hand gesture or facial expression) imply; what bodily reflexes does it bring about; and which nonverbal signs correlate with verbal ones during deception? It is worth noting that in exploring nonverbal communication, forensic semiotics appears closely related to forensic psychology. However, the difference between the two fields is whether one tilts towards linguistic jargon or psychology ones (Marcel,2014).

In today’s article, I will explore the body language of facial expressions from the perspective of forensic semiotics as a field within forensic linguistics. Next week, I will then look at how at the body language of leg posture, eyes, and sweat and throat patterns in identifying liars. The week after, I will focus on how forensic linguists analyse the voice tone of crime suspects.

A number of studies, among them that of Meyer (2010) and Heussen, Binkofski and Jolij (2011), observe that although some people can pretend, it is usually hard to trick your brain to camouflage your facial expressions. The semiotic materials that forensic semioticians focus on in facial expressions include a suspect’s eyebrow position, eye shape, nostril size and so forth by observing and describing their geometrical configurations. The aforesaid signifiers help identify the seven universal emotions that our face expresses, notably, the emotions of surprise, sadness, anger, disgust, fear, contempt and happiness which are critical in pinning down a lying suspect (Ekman,1970; Pech,1987).

Detecting surprise on a liar’s face

When a liar is surprised during interrogation, he – like all humans when surprised – instinctively raises his eyebrows and makes them form an arch-shape like the letter ‘U’ turned upside-down. Additionally, his eyes open wide to expose the white part of the eye called the sclera more than usual while the pupils of his eyes dilate (i.e. get larger than normal). Of the seven universal emotions expressed by the face, the emotion of surprise is the briefest of all. It comes and goes like lightening and forensic semioticians usually spend more energy on it to avoid a situation known as “the Ostrich effect” – that is, inability to recognise or read a particular body language (Ashwell,2012). In an event that a liar already knew something but is pretending to look surprised, he will always struggle with coordinating his eyebrows, eye pupils and the eye sclera (semiotic materials/semiotic modes) to express surprise. This is how we end up saying statements like “that woman knows something about her husband’s death …she didn’t look surprised when the police broke the news to her!”

Detecting sadness on a liar’s face

Whenever we are sad, we always raise the inner brow, something that very few people can do intentionally. It is always accompanied by lowering of the corners of the mouth, eyebrows descending to inner corners, and eyelids dropping. There are liars who, for example, storm a funeral house pretending they are sad over the loss. For a few minutes, they may try to look sad but if you carefully observe them, it won’t be long before their lower brow rebels and gets back to normal. In such instances, what has really happened is that the physical representation of their language (the signifier) does not match their underlying conceptual state – the signified. Liars who have committed a crime may pretend to be sad but because facial expressions are driven by emotions which are sometime hormone-triggered, investigators will easily identify fake sadness in a liar. In moments where the liar did not expect to be caught, they may exhibit signs of sadness like highlighted above though context matters a lot (Ekman,1970; Marcel,2014; Duncan,2020).

Detecting annoyance and disgust on a liar’s face

As the fourth universal emotion, anger is known to be facially expressed by lips firmly pressed, eyes bulged and eyebrows lowered (Duncan,2020). Some liars resort to anger because they know their closely guarded secret has been exposed or is about to. Those are moments you need a friend nearby because there is no telling what an annoyed liar can do to you. You might end up being panel-beaten and compressed into a 10 kg empty bag of flour by the liar. On the other hand, disgust is quite similar to anger but involves raising of the upper lip, raising of cheeks and wrinkling of the nose bridge. Sometimes, a liar can show anger or disgust or indeed manifest their absence (context matters a lot) to hide the truth (Ekman,1970).

Detecting contempt on a liar’s face

You can assess whether someone is a liar by how they react to contempt because if they are genuinely in contempt, they will always tighten up their upper lip. The head may also tilt backwards. Of the seven types of universal emotions to look out for, the emotion of contempt is unique because it occurs on only one side of the face (unilateral/asymmetrical) and varies with intensity depending on what has been said (Ekman,1970; Marcel,2014). A liar hiding his contempt will struggle to handle the semiotic modes of lip tightening and head movement.

Detecting happiness and fear on a liar’s face

The last two universal facial expressions are happiness and fear. Happiness is easy to notice because it always involves raising the corners of the mouth and eyelid tightening which sometime lead to wrinkles around the eyes which resemble the crow’s feet. “Experts have discovered that the human face is capable of transforming into more subtle, unique, and different happy faces than any of the other facial expressions of emotion. For example, disgust needs just one facial expression to get its point across; happiness on the other hand, has 17 various forms of pleasure, joy, and elation.” (Duncan,2020:2). As for fear, the upper eyelids are usually raised, lips stretched horizontally and eyes opened in exaggerated fashion.

Join me next week for a discourse on the leg posture of liars, among other things. Stay safe.

The author is a systemic functional linguist and Special Research Fellow (PhD) at the University of the Western Cape, South Africa. His other research fields include neurolinguistics, forensic linguistics, psycholinguistics, semiotics, corpus linguistics, cognitive linguistics, African languages and literature. He has also taught language at UNZA. Contact: hmksettings@rocketmail.com, WhatsApp: +260 956 315380.

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