2000.03.07 Zen Art of Lying Convincingly

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The ZEN Art of Lying Convincingly

Keep in mind, these thoughts apply generally to being convincing - be it conveying truth or lies. It's up to you to keep the difference sorted out. To help you understand why it's important to keep them sorted, let's start off with some paranoid dissemination.

PART 1 - Not Being Stupid

This may sound silly, but it is really important not to be stupid. Lying in your profession, or in any official situation, is generally a bad idea - especially when the repercussions could be more than just being embarrassed.

Even more stupid is convincing yourself of something that you know isn't true (or, at least, knew temporarily). While convincing yourself is actually rather effective at convincing others, it's just paving the way for flushing reality and sanity down the toilet.

The two main variants of lying to yourself are: A) Not knowing for certain, and just deciding whichever you want to be true. This can get your hopes to an unreasonable level, and is not terribly uncommon. It is also a common trap when trying to sound convincing in a field that you think you know more about than you actually do. Mostly, these are just immature mistakes, and just mildly embarrassing. However, it can also lead to the other variant... B) Knowing for certain, but convincing yourself of something else. This is just plain idiocy, and should be avoided at all costs. People who do this are usually sinking into some pit of poverty, insanity, and friendlessness.

Lastly, realize that lying is a risk. Whatever immediate benefit you may be gaining from having somebody think something, there is always the possibility that your deception will be discovered and you will have to face the consequences of it.

Enough paranoia. Time for the good stuff.

PART 2 - Your Audience

Since convincing yourself is not desirable, there must be some other person or persons that you are trying to lie to. Who these beings are, and their relationship to you are both very important. Generally, the less they know about you, and the less important they are to you, the wider the range of misinformation you can try to give them. It can go too far though. Some stranger off the street won't care about anything you say anyway, unless it involves them. As soon as a stranger is involved, they become automatically skeptical unless they feel either compassion or respect for you. Worse, you could be lying to someone who knows you really well and is very important to you, in which case it will be rather difficult and it had better be a pretty important reason to lie to them, or a really obvious joke.

If the person you're lying to wants or expects to hear something specific, then they will be convinced of that without any special effort. If you can sense what they want to hear, then you can use that to cause them to go away sooner - assuming that it doesn't involve any problems for you. Alternately, once you determine what it is that they want/expect to hear, and you want to tell them something different, you can use that information to make your statement more convincing. If your statement doesn't obviously benefit you (from their perspective), and especially if it is detrimental to them, a general attitude of concern and sorrow will generally tend to let them think your are sympathetic. This is difficult to act, especially if they don't believe you at first and question you about particulars. If the statement is obviously beneficial to you, then all that you can really do is to act amused at their differing opinion, perhaps with a hint of wearily expecting them not to believe you. In both cases, you need to be patient and calm, and let them convince themselves.

The level of knowledge that the subject of your conviction-projection has on the topic you are expounding is extremely important. The more they know, or think they know, will make them harder to be convinced of anything contradictory to what they already think. This is why the scientific community is so constantly bickering with each other about every trivial detail. Also, your level of knowledge compared to theirs is important. If you know a great deal more than them, it should be relatively straight forward to construct a logical derivation from what they do know to what you want to convince them of. Conversely, be very careful about trying to convince somebody of something in a field which they know considerably more than you - it is difficult, as they will tend to discount anything you disagree on, even if you are right.

Of course, if the person you are trying to convince is a complete idiot (a large proportion of humans), or you just don't care about their feelings or what they think (a large proportion of humans for me), it's a perfect opportunity to see what lunacy you can come up with. There's always the enjoyment of watching someone's reaction to an obscenity-free blatantly disrespectful statement; one of my favourites is telling beggars that ask for money, "No, I'm too greedy." Then there's the more subtle satisfaction from seeing just how much you can get someone to believe - always different for every person and topic, and requires awareness, perception, and skill.

PART 3 - Your Goal

It's always good to know what you want, and for the purposes of being convincing it is quite important. I don't particularly care about debating whether the ends justify the means, it's just a matter of being effective.

One of my main motivations for trying to be convincing is to shorten conversations. I don't particularly relish talking to people that aren't good friends, and usually only do so for pragmatic purposes. Thus, I like to make my point such that they understand quickly, without too much fuss, and cease bothering me. When this enters the realm of having to convince someone of something, be it of a fact or a falsehood, I follow two sequential personas. Persona number 1 is Mr. Spock. I speak with as little emotion in my voice and on my face as possible, perhaps with a little smug superiority and amusement thrown in for style. I stick to the point, and calmly cut off all their attempts at small-talk - if necessary. This usually conveys the signal that I'm not interested in foolishness, and the unspoken air of authority usually accomplishes all the minor convincing required. Of course, with some annoying petty functionaries, Mr. Spock is not enough, and I have to pull out Jack Nicholson. This isn't a pleasant spectacle, but it really works on secretaries, clerks, and store managers that become annoyingly belligerent. The idea is that you keep a carefully modulated voice (which is really much more unnerving than raising your voice) and, without obscenity, proceed to be as insulting as possible. Smiling evilly helps, if you can pull it off. After a taste of some really cutting abuse, they will tend to accept what you are saying just to get rid of you. If you can make them upset without resorting to actual name-calling, and seem to enjoy or be amused by it, then they are most likely going to just accede to your statements. Or start a fistfight, but them's the risks ye take.

Another important reason for being convincing is for the sake of avoiding trouble or blame. In all variants of this situation, it is important to be polite. While it may seem effective to fly into an indignant rage, it usually gives the wrong message - that you are upset, and scared. That's exactly what a guilty person would do. Instead, if you are trying to generally obfuscate, it is best to remain calm. When presented with a question or accusation, pause and look reflective - as if the whole concept or idea is new to you. If the opportunity presents itself, attempt to seem helpful - especially if you can think of other reasonable alternative explanations that are more acceptable to you. Being calm and polite is important because people are much more likely to believe those that the consider their friends - or, at least not their enemies. In a heated situation, a polite denial may be the most convincing thing that you can manage. Thus, it is best to not add to the tension of the situation.

Of course, your goal could be just general amusement. This is a really broad category, and is largely at the whim of the practitioner. Still, it is probably good to reiterate that with your friends, you should be sure to include them in the joke so that you can laugh together. If things start to go sour, be capable of putting things to a screeching halt. Friendships are easily strained by a malicious sense of humour, and it is very difficult and awkward to recover from hurt feelings generated. I don't have very many friends, and it's primarily because I haven't really learned this lesson yet.

PART 4 - Understanding Reality

This is a really key component for those less-than-totally-honest tales. To start with, I can point out an obvious extreme.

If you want to be believed, never make an assertion that is immediately disprovable. Sounds pretty simple, right? You'd be surprised at the number of people that don't get it. Some true examples that I've personally heard include moronic stuff like:

saying that they don't smoke - while a ribbon of smoke curls from a nostril and they reek of tobacco claiming to have just run a kilometer in under five minutes - without a drop of sweat on them, while wearing pants with a crotch to their knees, and platform shoes informing me of an unlikely story about someone - who happens to be my best friend, and whom I talk to regularly insisting that they know me pretty well - and then launching into a conversation about Hockey in an attempt to be engaging NOTE: I not only dislike hockey, I actively antagonize hockey fans. telling me that they had an understanding with the landlord for paying the rent at the end of the semester - when they had written a letter to the landlord promising to pay the rent months ago, and the landlord gave me a copy that happened to be sitting next to them on the table Along the same vein, it's important to extrapolate what the consequences and ramifications of your narrative would be, and make sure that they are also within the realm of realistic possibility. Beyond the blatantly obvious logical flaws, you should avoid using even minor details that have dubious probability. Even though one tiny little aspect of your story is far removed from the main point, if they find an aspect of it unlikely, it will taint your whole attempt with a stink of improbability. To look at it from another point of view, think of what information people have access to. People can look in books, or talk to other witnesses or people in your narratives. Just making stuff up out of hand is quite easily disproven, without too much time elapsing. For this reason, it is important to stick mainly to the facts. Any embellishment is best kept to the realm of the unprovable (and, de-facto, undisprovable).

A final trick for making your lies fit into someone's perception of plausibility... Despite the very normal urge to do so, do not make yourself infallible or even remotely perfect-seeming in your tellings. Include description about being afraid, or confused, or stunned, or (best of all) embarrassment. One of the easiest signs of a liar to pick up on is the natural tendency to make one's self seem as good as possible. This tells your audience that you are telling things as you wish them to be, and very little credibility can be maintained after that.

PART 5 - Failing

Sometimes things just don't work out. Whether you were trying to be misleading, or honestly believed what you were trying to say, there are occasions when you are proven wrong. This is the boundary to a very unpleasant place.

Unless you are a masochist, or happen to find the situation really rather amusing, being proven wrong is quite upsetting - or, at least embarrassing. How you respond to this situation, and how you handle your emotions (as they translate into deeds and statements) is rather important. It's also an excellent test of character.

The natural urge for anyone who is proven wrong (honestly or dishonestly) is to have a temper tantrum. Ignore anyone's denial of this - it is a well-founded psychological principle that everyone feels childish impulses. It's just a matter of not obeying the cranky illogical child in all of us. Those that do give into their inner gut feelings tend to just make things worse for themselves, and are just generally annoying. It is poor taste, unsportsmanlike, uncivilized, immature, and unworthy of intelligent beings. This is not to say that I haven't done it, just that I'm really rather embarrassed by it.

I generally try to group my reactions to failing (to be convincing) according to the level of emotion I feel about it.

LEVEL 0 - really don't care

This is usually the case when I'm just being silly, or if the person I'm trying to convince doesn't matter to me. In this situation, I usually just laugh. If I'm in a bad mood, I might go the extreme of being insulting or sarcastic, but only if my self-control slips. Actually, I'm pretty habitually insulting and sarcastic, so when it happens, it's no surprise to people who know me.

LEVEL 1 - mildly embarrassed

Some situations that cause this are:

  • making a minor silly mistake, and having someone else catch it
  • hazarding a guess and being wrong in front of someone I want to impress
  • being caught in a minor deception by a friend

The best I can do is admit I'm wrong/lying - usually by saying something like, "How embarrassing", and try to control the blush reflex. I also usually try to clarify my blunder, just to make into history as soon as possible.

LEVEL 2 - really embarrassed

There are only two things that really qualify (in this context) as sources of being really embarrassed. The first is making a major mistake, especially one that costs thousands of dollars. All that can really be done is to be as useful as possible in minimizing or correcting the mistake, and weathering the repercussions with as much dignity as possible. The second is being caught in an outright lie by a good friend - especially a lie created for vanity or to avoid self-deprecation... like the one Dave caught me in recently. I'm sure Dave can spot every little deception that I try (he knows me that well), so I feel really stupid for trying to be dishonest with him. It's all the more embarrassing because of the fact that I'm writing this silly long-winded rant about lying convincingly. Oh well; live and learn... slowly. Just goes to show how easy it is to make a mistake. There's no decision to make about this situation: if a good friend catches you lying, unless there's a life/death/prison reason behind it, always confess, apologize, and explain why.

LEVEL 3 - mildly annoyed

This can happen when I'm spinning a particularly good lie, complete with compelling logic and having all the fraudulent components well within the realm of unprovability, and the person I'm trying to convince just decides to not believe me out of belligerence. At this point, I have to make a decision about how important it is for me to be convincing. If it's really not that important, I force myself to let it go - I end the discussion as calmly as I can. If it is important, I let the temper slip a couple notches so that I can develop a really convincing angry glare while remaining calm, and reiterate the logic point-by-point. Insults and sarcasm often slip in, but I try to actively repress them if they aren't appropriate or helpful.

LEVEL 4 - really annoyed

I only get really annoyed when I seriously believe something, and argue it for a while in a discussion, then discover that I'm wrong. I hate that. Doesn't happen terribly often... any more. Historically, I've made the mistake of getting angry, and using my well-developed bullshit skills to prolong the argument and try to confuse the other person so that they aren't really sure any more, and they just give up. Heck, I've occasionally convinced people who were originally correct of my incorrect argument. This is a foolish thing to do, as it almost invariably comes back to bite you in the ass. Sure, it might be satisfying to do to someone that you really don't like, but it still makes you look like a total asshole in the long run. I recommend biting back the bile and wounded pride, and uttering the words, "I am wrong; you are right." It's hard to do, and it really does suck, but trust me - it's better than running the risk of lying to yourself.

LEVEL 5 - utter dismay

This is the big one. Can't say I've actually been here yet, but it's the one I train for. This is what I imagine can happen in such extreme situations as being grilled by police, testifying in court, or worse - hassled by the mob. Yeah, sounds melodramatic, but it still lies within the realm of possibility. If you fail to convince someone in one of these settings, the repercussion is going to be severe. Thus, I hope my lying will involve utter calm, impeccable acting, and a complete absence of babbling and crying. That way, if I am not convincing, I can feel as though I gave it a worthy try - and don't feel too bad about having to kill everyone and get rid of any witnesses.

PART 6 - Assessment, Stray Thoughts, and the Power of Zen

Unlike the other contiguous sections, this one is more of a philosophical gathering of things that don't fit anywhere else, and things that require having already thought about everything else.


There are a couple different levels to this. At the most near-sighted end, it refers to sizing up your audience and your topic. The best time to abort a difficult and potentially disastrous lie is before you start.

If you come into a situation where you are not sure you can convince someone of something, give some serious consideration to your goals and motivation. This is a somewhat more intelligent level - extrapolate the consequences of not bothering, succeeding, and failing. Then you are equipped to consider whether you want to risk the lie.

A subset of that is the somewhat more painful, and most difficult to accomplish: assessment of progress. Try to make an objective assessment of whether you are having any success. This may mean giving thoughts to the results of aborting. Remember: no matter how it might feel at the moment, there are worse things than being embarrassed.

The most prospicient or forward-looking thing you can do is to assess your own abilities. If you have a history of successfully convincing people, there is good reason to think that it is a tool to employ - with due care and attention. On the other hand, if people seem to regularly be unconvinced by you, think seriously about just giving up. Somewhere in Western culture, we've adopted this idea that being able to lie convincingly is a sign or cleverness. The important catch that many people miss is that lying unconvincingly makes you look stupid, as well as untrustworthy.

As a parting shot in that line of thought:

It is widely held wisdom that it's better to keep quiet and have people wonder about how smart you are, than to open you mouth and prove how dumb you are. A slight alteration of this could be that it's better to seen as a trustworthy (if not necessarily clever) person, than to be seen as a lying idiot. Besides, if people get into the habit of just having everything everything you say is true, then the occasional minor alteration or omission is more likely to be missed - when it really counts. If people think that there's always a chance that you're lying - albeit lying convincingly - they tend to question everything you utter. Trust me - I know.


There is, of course, a great many aspects to being convincing that I haven't bothered to mention. These include the highly variable elements such as: acting ability, assessing gestures and expressions for meaning, knowing individual quirks that can be utilized/exploited, body odour, etcetera. This doesn't mean that they aren't important, just that I don't find them interesting enough to talk about at length. Still, individual strategies, talents, and opinions aside, I think that what has been presented so far has been reasonably encompassing. In fact, I think that you may have absorbed more than you think.

Having assimilated all my assorted drivel, you might have actually seen some insights that would allow you to be more convincing. (Hey, anything's possible.) If you think about it, it should also have given you some kernels of reasoning that could help you recognize and deal with someone lying to you. The rationale that I would suggest follows much of the same line - pay attention, think logically about your goals, and make objective decisions about your actions.

ZEN... finally

Backing away from the nitty-gritty details of being convincing, and from the vagaries of considering the merits of someone else's statements, allows a certain amount of useful perspective. No matter which side of a debate/lie you find yourself on, being able to consider what is going on inside the head of the other person(s) gives you insights and tools to serve your interests.

Once you can think in both sides of a debate/lie, and come to understand what is probably being attempted by everyone, then you can start to reason out motivations and goals. Why someone is doing something is often much more important/interesting that what they are attempting. What's more, you can then consider your own motivations and goals in comparison, and perhaps reveal ways to do things better or more easily. A fully-encompassing view of a conversation permits an understanding of what is really happening, transcending the restrictions of simple language.

Moving beyond the confines of a single discussion, by deducing and extrapolating the goals and motivations of others you can learn quite a great deal from them. Even when people are trying to lie to you, it is possible to derive much truth from them. This is an ability that can often lead you to important revelations about someone from rather simple or mundane interactions. In a speculative mood, it is even possible to build on these revelations to consider related issues of a seemingly completely separate nature.

Heck, you might even go so far as to learn about yourself. Few people really bother, but I personally think it's a good thing.

Things Just Meander From Here On...

Personally, I take the cynical stance. I try to listen to what most everyone has to say, and believe nothing. Instead, I piece their statements into a larger picture of other evidence, and try to extrapolate what I think is most likely the truth. I attempt to not be afraid of not knowing things, and instead go with what evidence I do have - even if parts of it are only guesses. I've come to the point where I know that my guesses are quite often much more reliable than most other people's believed truths.

Know that everyone lies. It can't be helped - language just simply isn't exact enough. Thus, everyone tries to compensate the best they can, even when trying to be truthful. Some people might be offended for others to think that they lie at all - it is, after all, quite rude to call someone a liar. Nevertheless, even the most upstanding people couch opinions as facts, and state beliefs as truths. There is a difference, and understanding that can make things considerably more sensible.

If nothing else, take a sense of proportion from this rant. Discourse is literally riddled with attempts by people to be convincing; that is primarily what it is for. In the course of a discussion, do not assume that everything is true. It is extremely difficult to have everything be true - the entire profession of lawyering was created for the simple purpose of being exactly true. Considering the legalese this generates, and the fact that courts were created to decide on an opinion of what is true, you can see how difficult it is. Besides, it's not like were a bunch of saints uttering gospel to each other... Actually, that opens things up to my opinion on the truthfulness of gospel, but let's not go there.

If you've read this much, you obviously have a fairly adequate attention span. Since I respect people with attention spans, and believe in positive reinforcement, I'll make you a deal. Send me an e-mail containing the code phrase, "I grok lies" and I'll send you a cheque for one dollar. (Canadian funds, so act fast while it's still worth something.)

As an aside: I have a suggestion for those that aren't sure what to believe. Start with believing in yourself. Everything else is just details from there.