Chapter 4: Convincing Discourses
English 102, September 2020
In 1989, an American linguist named James Paul Gee wrote an academic article titled “What is Literacy?” The object of this article was (unsurprisingly) to define the word “literacy” not in the way a common person could find in a dictionary, but rather the definition of the word as it is used in relation to the study of languages (Gee, 1). However, for the purpose of this essay Gee’s definition of “literacy” is not directly important. Instead, I would like to focus on another word used in Gee’s article and its definition in the context of literacy. The word I would like to bring to your attention is “discourse.”
Now, I understand much of the previous paragraph may have been confusing or even hard to read, but you have my word that I will do my best to ease your reading experience from here on out. Gee’s definition of “discourse” in terms of literacy uses the word to refer to the social norms put in place by different groups of people. These norms that govern the group’s language, non-verbal communication, and behavior are what Gee means when he uses the term “discourse” (Gee, 1). For simplicity’s sake, Gee’s definition of “discourse” is the definition I will use for the remainder of this essay, as I am going to be relating three other academic articles to Gee’s publication.
You may ask what the subjects of these articles are, and that is, obviously, an important question for me to answer. I have decided to break down three articles that pertain to the non-verbal discourse of people engaged in the act (if done well, some may call it an art) of deception. Now I could tell you that I decided to write about this subject for many different reasons, all with scholarly merit and, of course, relevancy to the time of this essay’s writing, but that would be a lie. The truth is, I decided to write about this topic entirely as a form of entertainment to myself, as I have always found the psyche of a liar to be incredibly interesting. Part of what I find so interesting about deception is the ease with which most people consider deceiving others, if only in small ways. For example, I hardly consider myself to be an amoral person (although I suppose few people do) but the idea to embellish my reasons for writing an essay on this topic came concerningly quickly to me. You see, it can be surprisingly easy to deceive others through written communication. The written word relies solely on language to convey ideas to its readers, and thus only requires the writing of false information to be deceptive. On the other hand, in-person interaction effectively utilizes all aspects of human discourses. Layers upon layers of subconscious attitudes, actions, and inflections of speech compound to create the experience of personal conversation, and it is these same subtleties that tend to expose even the most skilled deceiver. In the act of deception, one can only cover up something he knows he must hide. This is why an understanding of subconscious cues in the discourse of deception is so important when determining the sincerity of an interaction. But that’s enough about the general subject of this essay; what specifically does each of the three academic articles I’ve selected have to say about the discourse of deception?
The first article I want to use to describe the discourse of deception is “Deception and truth detection when analyzing verbal and non-verbal cues,” which was written in 2019 by Aldert Vrij of Portsmouth University, UK. In this article, Vrij focuses heavily on the advancement of interrogation techniques used by investigators since 1988 (3). Vrji notes that while it is traditional for investigators to observe a suspect’s non-verbal cues, in practice this strategy tends to be ineffective due to the stressful nature of police questionings regardless of the suspect’s innocence (5). This is not to say, however, that a liar does not exhibit changes in behavior in an effort to deceive others; rather, the approach of direct confrontation simply makes the visible nervousness of a person non-indicative of their honesty. Instead, Vrij suggests that the greatest giveaway of dishonesty is a person’s verbal reactions to questioning (5-6). It has been found that an innocent suspect tends to overshare information because of their nervousness, giving highly detailed or potentially rambling answers to investigator’s inquiries (6). In contrast, someone engaged in the discourse of deception will usually answer in short form without supplying many (potentially incriminating) details to their accuser (6,10). However, most deceivers realize that omitting details of their account makes their story seem suspicious, so they will compensate by giving a reason as to why they are not able to provide more information (13). It is common for a liar to use excuses such as trauma, ignorance, or forgetfulness to avoid providing a detailed story (13). Ironically, liars tend to create these stories but fail to remember their details just moments after they’ve told them. As a result, the deceiver may backtrack on their original story when it is no longer supported by the evidence of the case (8).
I find the information presented by Vrij to be especially interesting because of the high stress situation a liar finds themselves in while being questioned, and the contrasting reaction of an innocent person who is faced with the same accusation. Because of the unreliability of physical cues in the situation, Vrij emphasizes the importance of speech and language in the discourse of deception. If you (as I do) agree with his article when it suggests that language is the greatest indicator of honesty, you may raise the question of what effect might this have on individuals who are in a place where they do not speak the native language? To answer this question, I sourced a research article from the University of Ontario that speaks on exactly this issue.
The aforementioned article is titled “Looks like a liar? Beliefs about native and non-native speakers’ deception.” Written in 2019, the article’s research team included Amy-May Leach, Cayla S. DaSilva, Christina J. Connors, and Michael R. T. Vrantsidis – all from the University of Ontario—in collaboration with Christian A. Meissner of Iowa State University and Saul M. Kassin of John Jay College. The purpose of “Looks like a Liar…” was to research individual’s biases and believed stereotypes in relation to native and non-native speaker’s perceived honesty (1). In general, the article reveals that a non-native speaker is considered less trustworthy than someone who speaks the native language fluently (2). There are two prominent explanations for why this bias may occur. First, an individual may feel a non-native speaker is less trustworthy simply because their speech pattern or accent is foreign, and the individual is naturally guarded against things that are unfamiliar (2). Secondly, a non-native speaker must go through more mental processes before speaking and may not use words as accurately or confidently as a native speaker (3). These added “roadblocks” to a non-native speaker’s communication are an issue because, while pausing between words or stuttering is common when speaking a foreign language, these may be indicators of deception in someone who speaks the language fluently (3).
For the purpose of this essay, “Looks like a liar…” shows how deeply ingrained the discourse of deception is in every other discourse that we take part in. No matter the language spoken or national demographic of the group, every person is wary of being lied to and has had first-hand experience with the universal discourse of deception. So far we have looked at two articles focused on the utilization of speech in deception, but what other forms does this discourse take? Surely there must be some physical indications of a person’s honesty.
To answer this question I consulted a third academic article entitled “The Liar’s Walk: Detecting Deception with Gait and Gesture” by Tanmay Randhavane, Kyra Kapsaskis, and Kurt Gray from the University of North Carolina, as well as Uttaran Bhattacharya, Aniket Bera, and Dinesh Manocha from the University of Maryland. The purpose of the research documented in this article was to teach an artificial intelligence program to recognize outward signs of deception exhibited by human subjects (1). The team of researchers collected video examples of interaction and movement from 162 subjects, some of whom were being deceitful and others who were acting truthfully (6). The sample videos were then analyzed by the computer system, which determined that specific postures, movements, and expressions were exhibited more often by the group of deceitful subjects than by the truthful subjects (15). Specifically, even when individual subjects of the study tried to conceal their deceit, they were found far more likely to touch their face, look around, or place a hand in their pockets than innocent subjects (15). Now, given the relatively small test group size, the information found in this study is far from definitive – at least until more research has been conducted – but this particular study supports the long held theory that many of our physical motions are impacted when we take part in the discourse of deception.
By James Gee’s definition of discourse, and the research brought forth by these mentioned academic articles, it can be concluded that deception truly has its own form of discourse. However, the discourse of deception cannot stand on its own; rather, it distorts a person’s actions and speech within whatever larger discourse the liar is engaged in at the time. In his article “What is Literacy?”, Gee mentions a different type of “secondary discourse” that may be better suited to describe the discourse of deception (5). Of course, regardless of the official classification of the discourse of deception, one thing is clear: because the desire to lie is built in to human nature, the discourse of deception may be one of the only truly universal discourses in society.
Gee, J. (1987), ‘What is Literacy?’, Journal of Education, vol. 171, no. 1, pp. 1-5.
Vrij, A. (2019), ‘Deception and truth detection when analyzing nonverbal and verbal cues’, Department of Psychology, University of Portsmouth, pp. 3-13.
Leach, A., Da Silva, C., Connors, C., Vrantsidis, M., Meissner, C., Kassin, S., (2019) ‘Looks like a liar? Beliefs about native and non-native speakers’ deception’, Appl Cognit Psychol, pp. 1-3.
Randhavane, T., Bhattacharya, U., Kapsaskis, K., Gray, K., Bera, A., Manocha, D., (2020) ‘The Liar’s Walk Detecting Deception with Gait and Gesture’, University of North Carolina, University of Maryland, pp. 1-15.