Saturday, September 4, 2010

There Ain't No Way to Hide Your Lyin' Eyes*

We use much more than just our words to communicate. In fact, research shows that people pay more attention to our non-verbals – things like eye contact, gestures and physical closeness – than to the words we use. Other species, too, use very sophisticated non-verbal communication. Non-verbals add depth, richness and clarity to words; they can also belie them. So in real life, they’re very important. In fact, we rely so much on non-verbals that we’ve created a whole system of them for communicating electronically, where non-verbals aren’t a natural part of communication. Online, we often use what people call emoticons (e.g. :-), or :-(, or ;-) ) to convey non-verbals electronically. Non-verbals also play an important role in crime fiction. That makes sense, since in real life, detectives often use them to determine whether someone’s lying. They’re useful for that reason in crime fiction, and they’re quite useful as clues for the reader.

Non-verbals play a very important role in Agatha Christie’s After the Funeral (AKA Funerals are Fatal). When wealthy Richard Abernethie dies, his relations gather for the funeral and reading of his will. At the gathering, Abernethie’s younger sister Cora Lansquenet says that he was murdered. Everyone protests, and Cora retracts what she said. But privately, everyone wonders whether Cora might have been right. When Cora herself is brutally murdered the next day, it seems clear that she was. Mr. Entwhistle, the family attorney, visits Hercule Poirot and shares his suspicions that the deaths of Cora Lansquenet and her brother are connected and Poirot agrees to investigate. He pays a visit to the family home under the guise of a representative of a United Nations organization that wants to purchase the home. While he’s there, he gets a chance to observe everyone and hears quite a lot of unguarded conversation. But one of the most important clues isn’t verbal at all; it’s a non-verbal that another character notices without really being aware of it. When Poirot puts the pieces of the puzzle together, he knows what that non-verbal was, and how it points to the killer.

A non-verbal proves to be an important clue in Elizabeth Spann Craig’s Pretty is as Pretty Dies, too. In that novel, retired schoolteacher and advice columnist Myrtle Clover wants to prove to everyone (especially her police chief son) that she’s not ready to be “put out to pasture” yet. So she decides to investigate the murder of beautiful and malicious real-estate developer Parke Stockard, whose body is found in a local church in the small town of Bradley, North Carolina. There are plenty of suspects, too, since Parke had alienated nearly everyone in town. One of the most important clues that Myrtle discovers is a non-verbal that’s a dead (pun intended ; ) ) giveaway to the murderer. In fact, it’s the one clue that the murderer can’t really explain away.

Gestures, eye contact and other non-verbals are so important that the FBI and other law enforcement agencies make use of experts in the field of kinesics to help determine whether or not suspects are telling the truth. That’s what Jeffery Deaver’s Kathryn Dance does. She’s an expert interrogator with the California Bureau of Investigation. Her specialty is kinesics, so she’s particularly adept at observing the differences between the way suspects act and the words they use. We first meet Dance in
The Cold Moon, in which she works with Deaver’s other sleuths, forensics expert Lincoln Rhyme and his partner Amelia Sachs, to stop a serial killer known as The Watchman. At first, the two don’t trust each other’s approach to solving cases. As they slowly learn to work together, they also learn that the murders they’re investigating are related to something much bigger than anyone thought. In the end, both of their skills are needed in order to figure out the connections among the various threads of the case.

Non-verbals are especially noticeable when they’re not consistent with what a person says. For instance, in Agatha Christie’s Dead Man’s Folly, Hercule Poirot visits Nasse House, the home of Sir George Stubbs and his wife, Hattie. Poirot’s been invited to help give away the prizes for a Murder Hunt (akin to a scavenger hunt) at an upcoming fête. When Poirot arrives at Nasse House, he’s told right away that Lady Stubbs is “simple-minded” and of subnormal intelligence, and that’s the way she appears in speech and mannerisms when he meets her himself. But on the morning of the fête, Poirot notices something quite different. For one brief moment, he notices Lady Stubbs giving a swift, shrewd glance – not the eye contact of a person of subnormal intelligence – at the other members of the house party. That one gesture immediately makes him wonder about Lady Stubbs since it’s so uncharacteristic. Later, during the fête, fourteen-year-old Marlene Tucker, who’s playing the part of the victim in the Murder Hunt, is found strangled. Then, Hattie Stubbs disappears and the hat she was wearing is found floating in the nearby river. Now it looks as though a killer has targeted people at the fête. As Poirot and Inspector Bland sift through the clues, they find that the events at the fête are tied in with someone’s hidden secret. That one look that Poirot witnessed turns out to be a clue to that secret.

Kinesics and other non-verbals aren’t just important as clues. They also give characters realism. They add levels to characters, and give them individuality, too. For instance, Tony Hillerman’s Jim Chee is a member of the Navajo Tribal Police, and also a member of the Navajo Nation. He follows many of the traditional Navajo ways, and his use of gestures, eye contact and other non-verbals reflects his identity. For example, among the Navajo, touching is reserved for family members and very close friends one’s known for a long time. When Chee greets people, especially other Navajos, he doesn’t shake hands, as many other people do. Silence, too, is an important part of Navajo culture. In that culture, when one person is speaking, the other remains silent and waits until he or she is sure the speaker is finished. Only then does the other person respond. Chee tends to follow that cultural “rule,” too. Because of his understanding of Navajo culture and non-verbals, Chee is often able to get information about the cases he’s working on that other people wouldn’t be able to get. In this series, the Navajo sense of non-verbals is woven through the novels, and adds a real layer of interest and authenticity to the books.

Non-verbal communication is so essential to the way we use language that it’s hard to imagine what it would be like if we couldn’t make use of a person’s gestures, facial expressions and so on. That’s what fifteen-year-old Christopher Boone is faced with in Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. Christopher has Autism, which impairs his ability to interpret facial expressions and gestures, among other things. In fact, he and his teacher Siobhan work on identifying which facial expressions indicate which emotion. So when Chistopher finds that his neighbor’s dog’s been killed, he can’t rely on non-verbals to help him find out who’s responsible. Yet, he wants to solve the case and be a detective like Sherlock Holmes in The Hound of the Baskervilles. So he begins to look for clues and ask questions and in the end, he finds out the truth about the dog. Throughout the novel, we see the story from Christopher’s point of view and it’s very interesting to take the perspective of someone who can’t use non-verbals to draw any conclusions about a crime.

We all use eye contact, gestures, hesitation and other non-verbals when we communicate – often without being aware of what we’re doing. Those non-verbals can be so automatic that they reveal more than we may think they do, and that’s why detectives find them so useful. Have you noticed this in the crime fiction you read? Which novels have you read where kinesics plays a role?

The wonderful models in the 'photo, by the way, are totally honest all the time. I just couldn't resist those eyes... ; ).

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from the Eagles’ Lyin’ Eyes.

**If you’re a writer, you may be interested in Clarissa Draper’s excellent post on using non-verbals to write honesty and dishonesty.


  1. I am always in awe of your post. You bring out points in various books and writings that I would not have considered. It gives new depth to those pieces. The actions of characters in a story do sometimes tell alot about them and how they felt about the victim or the killer.

    BTW, love your models for your photo.

    Thoughts in Progress

  2. Mason - Why, thank you! Non-verbals are such an important part of communication, and so automatic, that I think it's easy to forget how essential they are. And thanks for the kind words about my models. They are all adorable, I think : ).

  3. Margot,
    Not only do you keep adding books to my TBR pile, you also tip us to interesting and helpful sites like Clarissa's. Thanks.

  4. John - That's very kind of you : ). And I think you will really enjoy Clarissa's website; she covers everything from forensics to writing characters to her own experiences at writing. I learn every time I visit.

  5. Margot,
    Such an interesting topic. I'm in awe of people who have the gift of knowing if someone is lying. Right now, in my car, is Robert Ludlum's "The Ambler Warning" (book on CD) about a man who is gifted in this way and of course pursued by people wanting to capitalize on this.
    Wonderful post, Margot!

  6. Bobbi - Thank you : ). What interesting timing that you're listening to a Ludlum right when I dealt with this topic. He's such a master of the thriller, isn't he? I hope you enjoy the book. I agree, too - I truly do admire people who are able to tell when someone's lying; it is a gift.

  7. First of all, I meant to comment yesterday night after I came home but I was so tired and I want to be able to concentrate when I read your posts because they are so insightful.

    Second, thanks so much for the mention. That mean so much to me. Now on to the post.

    You put noses on your emoticons. I never thought to do that.

    You mention: "That’s what Jeffery Deaver’s Kathryn Dance does." I've never heard of that story but it sounds interesting. I'm going to look it up.

    Wow, another book I want to look up: Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.

    I find more writers are starting to use non-verbal communication in their writing. That's why the "showing not telling" rule is so important. A character may say a lie but if the reader does not see the hand touching the face or the shifting in the chair, he may believe the lie.

    Great post. I don't have examples in stories but I knew what mannerism you talked about in one of your AC. One of my favorite AC stories.


  8. Clarissa - No worries about when you comment; I'm happy and flattered that you comment at all. It's interesting about those emoticon noses. I don't always add them; I just happened to, this time. Interesting how that happened.

    I think you'd like the Kathryn Dance character; I like it when a sleuth brings something unique - something extra to a case, like your Sophia. Dance is an expert at kinesics, and that's not a common sleuth characteristic. It sets her apart a bit. You'll like the Haddon, too; it's an unusual mystery story with an unusual sleuth.

    You may have a point about people using non-verbals in their writing more; I'd have to think about that, but it's certainly possible. It's fascinating, too, how very important they are to communication. We use them, we rely on them, and of course they matter in detection. I agree that writing well about them is a good way to "show not tell."

    And yes, that is a good Agatha Christie story, and a clever way to use non-verbals.

  9. "research shows that people pay more attention to our non-verbals – things like eye contact, gestures and physical closeness – than to the words we use"

    I believe that! Several years ago, when I was involved in politics, I participated in a camera course. A professional journalist asked me a political question, and the camera showed me struggling desperately, but absolutely fruitlessly, to answer her question. I had NO idea what to say, but as an experienced teacher, I smiled calmly into the camera all the time. And all the other participants were so impressed by my cool behaviour (perhaps they would even have voted for me?)

    I try to use my own experiences (plus perhaps the habits of my students) when I describe how people move in various situations, but it is always useful to learn new tricks.

  10. Dorte - I didn't know you'd been involved in politics - how interesting! I know what you mean, too, about going into "teacher mode" and being able to remain calm and collected, no matter how one's feeling. I do that, too. I think it is a skill that teachers develop over time.

    And I had to smile when I read your comment about using the habits of your students when you write. I've done that, too. I don't pattern my characters after particular students; rather, I use their mannerisms and sometimes speech patterns to come up with ways to make my own characters act. And yes, new tricks are always helpful, aren't they?

  11. So true about non-verbal clues. I was taking to this really aggressive female on the phone the other day, and wasn't at all looking forward to meeting her in person. But when I did meet her, I found she kept refusing to meet my eyes (happens to me with a lot of people, because eye contact comes naturally to me), and in just a couple of minutes, her fingers tore a paper napkin to shreds. The aggression was just a cover for her diffidence, and once I realised that, we got along just fine.

  12. Rayna - Oh, how interesting that you saw such a difference between that woman's telephone manner and her manner in real life. You're probably quite right that her verbal bluster was just that - bluster to cover up insecurity. I'm glad you saw that, and I admire you for being open to changing your perception.