Most people know how to recognize when someone is lying to their face. Their voice might shake or get squeaky, and they may try to avoid eye contact. However, modern-day communication may require a more nuanced way to detect deceit. With that in mind, you should also know how to tell if someone is lying over text messages and emails.
When you’re unable to see or even hear your conversational partner, you’ll have to perform a more in-depth analysis of their language. Here are some of the signs you should look out for.
How to Tell If Someone Is Lying Over Text Messages: 9 Potential Indicators
Spotting lies in electronic communication can be pretty difficult. You’ll probably need to rely on your gut feeling more often than not. However, doing so may come back to haunt you.
After all, if you’re naturally untrusting, you may have to take that into consideration. The same goes for if your lie detection skills have been compromised by a previous experience. For example, if someone gaslit you for years, you’ll probably expect the same from any new acquaintance.
In that case, you might want to be ready to give your conversational partner the benefit of the doubt. Having said that, let’s talk about some of the most common indicators of deceit you might find in your electronic correspondence.
1. Being Vague
Non-committal language is one of the most textbook signs of deception. Most people use vague statements to get out of having to recount certain events. So if you want to figure out whether someone is lying by omission, you’ll have to sift through those general statements and half-truths.
If the person you’re talking to is usually glad to get into the details but seems reluctant to do so in response to your question, they may be lying. On the one hand, they might try to limit their answers to single-syllable words. Alternatively, they might use statements like:
• I probably went home around midnight.
• I might have seen him before going home.
• It must have happened while I was on my way.
• I think she went home before I did.
To be fair, some people use this kind of language without bad intentions. However, others purposely phrase their statements like that to have plausible deniability. After all, the last thing you’d want is to be caught in a lie for offering an overly detailed account of false events.
2. Not Using First Person Pronouns
When someone is lying over text, they may try to distance themselves from the narrative. Most of the time, that means dropping first-person pronouns entirely and depersonalizing their statements. As a result, your exchange can sound almost like a discussion of a hypothetical situation.
For example, let’s say you want to know how your partner spent an evening. They might text you that “a bunch of people from work went to a nearby bar.” Note that those kinds of statements don’t really work as a direct response to your original question. For all you know, those coworkers did go to the bar — but your partner had other plans.
Even if you try to ask the person a direct question, they may deflect it or try to turn it back toward you. If you lose your glasses, you might text your roommate to see if they’ve seen them. If they reply with a “why would anyone move your glasses?”, that might mean that they’re lying.
Worse (or better yet, depending on your perspective), they may accidentally confess to their wrongdoing. In that case, they might say something like “do you think someone accidentally threw them away?”
Even if that example is a bit too obvious, you get the point. Liars will often try to distance themselves by making more general statements.
3. Laying It On Too Thick
On the other hand, many liars know that people might suspect them if their answer isn’t elaborate enough. That’s why they might try to overcompensate by providing too many expository details. Simply put, some people think that descriptive sentences will appease you into not looking too closely at the gist of the message.
When you ask someone where they went, you probably expect to hear their final destination. So if they start relating each step they took — that’s a red flag. To name an example, they might tell you “I usually take the train to the square and walk to work but the weather was nice today so I decided to walk all the way there.”
If you didn’t ask about the person’s usual routine, there was no reason for them to share those details. Expository liars also tend to use a lot of filler words that usually don’t have a meaning. Many rely on empathic or emotional language to distract the reader.
Instead of providing a straightforward answer, they might try to appease you by saying “It was really boring. I missed you so much, I really wish you could have been there.” If the person in question doesn’t usually talk like that, they may be spinning a web.
Of course, there’s one pretty big problem with this style of deceit. Namely, if the suspect doesn’t have a good memory, they may contradict themselves in the middle of your dialogue. At that point, they could become defensive and start backtracking to save face.
4. Backtracking and Qualifying Their Statements
Most people don’t like being accused of lying so getting defensive is a natural reaction. So how can you tell when someone is rightfully upset and when they’re just trying to cover their tracks?
Well, when someone accidentally contradicts themselves, they may go back to clarify a previous statement. Usually, they’ll insist that they couldn’t remember the events that well. While that can be true, it can also point to deceit when paired with some other indicators.
When a liar tries to go back and correct a previous statement, they may start qualifying their sentences. Let’s say your teenager claims they got home at 2:30 on the dot. If you tell them that you were awake at the time and you didn’t see them come in, they could backtrack to make their first assertion less absolute. For example, they may use phrases like:
• To be honest.
• What I really mean is…
• Actually, it was more like…
On the other hand, if someone is trying to lie to you about a third person, they might say:
• I hate to be the one to tell you this.
• Don’t get the wrong idea but.
• I hear what you’re saying but I saw them…
The goal of these sentences is to create a buffer around their lie so it’s more palatable. They show that the core message isn’t strong enough to stand on its own — because it’s a lie. That’s why you should learn to see through that kind of filler.
5. Changing the Subject
Shifting the conversation to another topic is another common strategy a liar might use. After all, who would want to linger around a subject they just lied about? That’s why people will often offer a vague statement followed by a complaint, a compliment, or an accusation. So let’s see what that might look like in practice.
The first reaction allows the person to instantly shift the course of the conversation. For example, you could ask your partner who they’re with, only to have them answer that they can’t talk because they have a headache. If you insist on hearing the answer to your question, they may accuse you of not caring for their condition.
On the other hand, let’s say you allow yourself to be distracted and ask about their headache. In that case, they might keep pushing the conversation away from the original topic by telling you what a great person you are to be concerned about them.
Compliments have a way of drawing our attention away from important issues. That’s why they’re the go-to solution for many cheating spouses. Rather than providing an answer, they may say something like “I was out with a friend. It was boring without you though.”
Conversely, the person you’re talking to may go on the offensive. Instead of telling you who they’re with, they might ask why you want to know. Alternatively, they may just turn the question back to you by asking who you’re with — or who exactly you think your partner is with.
6. Making a Long Pause
Watching the dreaded ellipses pop up at the bottom of your chat to indicate that the other person is typing is a unique torment for the digital age. It can mean a lot of things — so it’s not always an indicator of deceit. But if those little dots pop up and disappear several times in a row during a tense conversation, you can be reasonably sure that the other person is trying to come up with a believable lie.
Essentially, they’re trying to craft a response that will appease you. Since this sign isn’t a guarantee that someone is lying, though, you’ll have to tread carefully. Look back on your previous chat history before accusing the person you’re talking to.
Do they have a history of not replying to your texts immediately? Perhaps they’re in a distracting environment, and that’s why those dots are popping up and disappearing. But if the reply you eventually receive is peppered with the other indicators we have explained here — you can be reasonably sure that you’re being lied to.
7. Swearing Up and Down
If the person you’re talking to starts insisting that they’re telling the truth even without being prompted, they’re probably lying. Aside from outright saying “I’m not lying” they might also employ the following phrases:
• I swear on my mom/honor/etc.
• Honest to God.
• I’m being 100% real with you.
• You know I never lie.
• I was raised to tell the truth.
When someone starts protesting before you even accuse them of lying — it means that they’re probably not being completely forthcoming. That’s why they’re doing everything they possibly can to convince you that they’re telling the truth.
To that end, they may have even prepared a witness — who’s probably a close friend of theirs. So when you ask your partner where they were last night, they might say “honestly, I was hanging out with some friends. Ask Josh!” That hypothetical Josh was probably already coached on what he needs to say if you call.
8. Strange Phrasing
If someone starts using strange language in their texts out of the blue, they’re either not being honest or not the one who’s typing the message. But let’s not assume they’ve been kidnapped quite yet. For the sake of our argument, let’s say they’re trying to hide something from you.
Using verbiage that’s more complicated than the situation calls for goes hand in hand with another scheme we’re familiar with. Namely, it’s perfect for people who like to shroud their deceit in overly descriptive language.
If you notice that the person you’re texting is using strange words or phrases, go back through your chat. You’ll first need to confirm that you are, in fact, dealing with a rare occurrence. If you find that you were right, try to realize the intention behind those choices.
Is the person you’re speaking to trying to come off as more authoritative by using “big” words? Are they trying to distract from something? Usually, this kind of conversational change is another indicator that a person is trying to separate themselves from their lie.
Oftentimes, these exchanges can sound pretty scripted. Even so, that kind of artifice is easier to detect than some other changes in the text. For example, not everyone looks out for odd sentence structure and grammar in a text.
However, the use of inappropriate tenses is exactly how some murder suspects ended up showing their cards. One of the reasons Susan Smith was caught is because she referred to her children in the past tense even though they had only been missing at the point of her interview. Of course, you probably won’t be interviewing serious criminals over text messages, but it still helps to illustrate the point.
Electronic correspondence has made it pretty difficult to call out deceit even when you manage to recognize it. If you’re talking to someone in person and you manage to catch them in a lie, they can’t just walk away to save face. However, that is certainly something people can do when communicating over text messages or emails.
For most people, lying isn’t exactly a comfortable process. Even if you memorize a cover story in advance, you may have to improvise on the spot to support your lie. And as you may know, having to come up with a convincing story on the fly can be pretty stressful.
That’s why those who get called out for lying through texts tend to react by simply dropping the subject altogether. Some people may not even attempt to lie in the first place, opting to play possum instead.
All this to say that if someone has been responding to your texts as usual only to end a conversation abruptly — they may be hiding something. If they decide not to ghost you, they may offer some excuse for leaving the conversation. But the result would be the same: they’d get some extra time to come up with a decent fabrication.
Of course, even this move doesn’t always mean that someone is lying. They could genuinely have something more important to do. Ultimately, you should be able to suss out their intentions by learning how to tell if someone is lying over text messages.