Considering how many people approach me after a show and tell me how much they enjoy the show “Lie To Me,” you’d think I would have seen it by now. Chalk that up to always working during prime time viewing hours. But last night I found an episode on “On Demand,” and checked it out.
I have a friend who works as a county prosecutor who tells me she can never watch lawyer shows because she spends the entire show screaming “no, you can’t do that!” into the screen. Sorry to say, I felt much the same. If you’re not already aware, the show’s main character is loosely based on Paul Ekman, the researcher who did such ground-breaking work on facial expressions. A key difference between to two is that Dr Ekman is not a crazy Englishman who goes around solving crimes. I actually don’t know that much about Dr. Ekman as a person. It’s possible he is English, but I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt on the crazy. He does train criminal investigators, but that’s not precisely equal to being a super sleuth.
There are lots shows out now where the lead character has a gift for reading non-verbals and picking up on other subtle clues. In addition to “Lie to Me,” there’s also “The Mentalist” and “Psych.” A recurring theme is the lead character’s ability to read people so effectively on a moment to moment basis that they seem to be tapping into a person’s thoughts. No complaints here; that’s what I do for a living. Unfortunately, unless done as a piece of theater this really isn’t possible. In other words, if I can set the stage, arrange the players, and force them through my script without them being aware of it, I can make it look like mind-reading. In the real world, not so much.
Don’t get me wrong. An ability to understand non-verbal communication is an extremely powerful tool. There are times when it can approach mind-reading. But you’re never going to able to pull off stunts like I see on “Lie To Me” in day-to-day situations.
Through non-verbal communication alone, it is impossible to figure out in a detailed way what a person is thinking. What you can do, though, is figure out how a person feels about what they’re saying or doing. (And how they feel about what you’re saying or doing.) This is extremely useful information. Imagine if you were talking to somebody and in addition to hearing their voice, you also heard in the background a running commentary about their attitudes toward everything that was going on. For instance, you might see the person smile and say “good morning!,” but also hear their voice in the background say “I don’t like you all that much!” Well, that’s a metaphorical description of what a keen awareness of non-verbal clues is like. It’s not mind-reading exactly, but it’s pretty damn close.