How to Lie: Pro Tips from an Undercover Cop, a Lawyer, and a Dominatrix
To get some insight into the world of deceit, we talked to people who have to lie like it's their job.
Image by Lia Kantrowitz
This article originally appeared on VICE US
Your boss didn't buy it when you said you were late because of a "pet emergency." Your parents didn't believe you when you told them you had no idea where that scratch on the car came from. Your friends know you're full of shit every time you tell them your "work thing" is forcing you to miss their band's show.
Maybe that's because you are a bad liar. Not that there's such a thing as a good liar, exactly, but there is definitely such a thing as a competent one—and also moments when a lie, or at least a half-truth, can spare someone a lot of pain, like when a dominatrix hides her work from her family. There are other times when lying can be said to be in service of the greater good, like when an undercover cop assumes a fake identity to catch a pedophile. Regardless of morality, lying is something pretty much everyone does, though some are more experienced in the art of deceit than others.
To learn how to lie, we spoke to a real-life dominatrix and undercover cop, along with a host of other people who lie like it's their job—and in some cases, it actually is. Here's what they told us about lying well and getting away with it.
As told by "Paige"
Interview by Zach Sokol
I've been a sex worker for three years now. I'm a full-service dominatrix, meaning I do offer sexual contact. I work with a lot of people that have, let's call it, "special issues," and full-service domme work can be therapeutic to some of them. Most of the time I'd rather not work, so I guess my job always involves lying, in a way [because I have to pretend to be into it for my clients]. But there's more to it than that, obviously. You have to hide a lot.
For example, I will tell people about being a dominatrix if I think they'll understand—like my dad knows and has even been to my dungeon. But my grandparents are conservative and I tell them I teach yoga—because I do that professionally too. That being said, I lie and tell most people besides close friends that the domme work I do isn't full-service—e.g. that my practice is non-sexual. And that's not the case in reality. I usually tell people that I roleplay with people to engage their fantasies, and that sometimes it involves their fetishes. And this is true—all sex has a power dynamic which is role-playing. This isn't a full lie, but it definitely isn't the full truth. If you present the truth slightly differently, people stay a little more open to the idea before they judge. People stigmatize sex work and often think it involves damaged, punished, or oppressed women. If I don't offer the white-lie buffer, then new people don't even get to know me. I lie so they won't judge me.
I have to lie a lot out of practicality, too. To keep my business in operation, I run my dungeon all under my yoga license, which states I teach private lessons in my apartment. And again, I actually do that. But I say each client I see for domme work is a yoga client. Yoga is in this beautiful gray area—it's not technically a sport, and not fully considered a health or medical thing. It doesn't require equipment and is considered a recreation. You don't need a health inspector to approve your private yoga practice. If having a dungeon was legal, I would pay my taxes like everyone else. But it's not, so I have to do my own thing, which is the "wrong" thing in the eyes of the government. So I do have to lie, which sucks because it's scary as fuck—these big, shadowy government agencies like the IRS could one day get you and say, "Oh hey, we're bringing you to jail."
I also put down on my taxes that I travel a lot because I go to a lot of hotel rooms for my sex work—I meet most of my clients in hotels. It's funny when you start going to the same hotel a lot, and they recognize you and the big bag of dom equipment you're carrying! I always have a big case and an outfit underneath my clothes, and my clothes are ill-fitting because they have to be—I'm likely wearing leather underneath it.
This relates to how I'll take certain measures to actually prevent myself from needing to lie. Say I'm meeting a client at a new hotel: I'll try to google the lobby first and learn where I'm going, so I can go straight to the elevator and avoid interacting with the staff when it's time to meet the client. Otherwise, hotel receptionists can tell I'm coming to meet someone, and the first thing they think is, "Are you an escort? Are you a sex worker?" You don't have to lie directly but you have to say to your body language, I know where I'm going; I have the right to be here.
But shit happens. Things have fallen out of my bag. I've lost service and forgotten which room I was going to. You have to be quick on your feet to lie, and you just have to be confident and play the role. One time a hotel employee came up to me and said, "What business do you have being here?" I turned and immediately said, "I'm here to fuck my dad's business partner," and just turned around and walked away from her. If you say stuff that bold and confident, what are they going to do? You never hesitate, you never say "um." You look them straight in the eye and just say it.
Think about lying like this: With your parents you're one version of yourself, when you're at a bar you're another version, and so on. You have to learn how to pull these various personas out of your identity, learn to use them as tools, and then use them to your advantage. You have to learn how to adapt. It's not just how you look, it's your attitude. It took me a while to learn how to roleplay. I would look in the mirror and see how my eyes twitch, how my hands move, to make sure I wasn't slipping out of character. I practiced.
To become a good liar, you have to, in some ways, believe the intent of what you're saying. You have to be fully, 100-percent in on what you're trying to get or trying to do. The second you start to waver or have thoughts about it not working out, that's when the cracks start to come in.
When you start to like lying, that's an issue. I lie out of practicality, but when people start abusing it, it can become addicting, like drinking.
As told by DEK 2DX
Interview by Ray Mock
My graff name became more of my identity when I met other people who were "in the life." It's a lot of work to hide that part of you. When you actually become a graffiti writer and want to gain notoriety, that's when painting your name is more about quantity than quality, and you are just constantly thinking about it, but likely keeping a lot of those thoughts to yourself. I'd be at work and see a young lady come in, and I'd think to myself, Ah, that's a summer squash dress—referring to it internally by its spray paint color equivalent. But once you cross over to civilians, to non-writers or people who are not in that subculture, there's a great deal of hiding. I couldn't explain the dress color–graffiti association to other coworkers. It also depends on who you are. I can be very outspoken, but I can also be very much of an introvert. If you give too much, and people know too much about you, then they have the cards and that can work against you. Information is key.
There's a great deal of misdirection and lying to keep your identity as a graffiti writer secret. That goes from making up false appointments, leaving early, coming in late, saying that you have a girlfriend when you don't, setting up alarms on your phone that sound like your ringtone so you have an excuse to leave a room. I pride myself on it. You've got to be like an onion and have many, many layers.
One time, we were hanging out in a rougher part of town, painting on some trains. Silly me as a young guy, I had my ID in my backpack. We ended up getting chased by police, and I realized that I left the backpack. I quickly called [the closest precinct] and said, "Hey, my backpack was stolen earlier today. Some kids, a group of them, surrounded me at a basketball court and took it. There was some ID and a book in it." A few days later I got a phone call from the NYPD. They said, "We need to speak with you." I asked them what about. "A backpack." I acted coy and was like, "Oh you found my backpack?" They replied, "Yeah, along with some other things."
They sent me down to the property clerk and started playing a cat and mouse game with me. They sent me to one floor, they sent me to another floor, and when I came back downstairs there was a whole other set of guys really interested in my bag. They cornered me and asked me all these questions about the bag. I was like "It's an orange bag, and I was playing basketball, it has basketball shorts in it." They found the shorts inside. After a couple of hours of harassing me they told me to get out of there and not "play basketball" in that part of town again. I got the bag and ID, and they left some of my [spray paint] caps in there, too. [laughs]
Those times, you gotta know your rights and you have to have your game plan. As with anything in life, you have to do some pre-production. You go in for a job interview, you have to be prepared. A lot of people slip up and get caught that way.
Racking [stealing without getting caught], heavy trespassing, and a blatant disregard for the law are completely justifiable at this point in my life because they become key in survival, especially in a place like New York City. When I was a younger man, I refused to pay for things, starting with spray paint. Then it's the bag to carry the paint, deodorant, food... it just survival. As a writer, you instinctively learn to cross boundaries. If there's a sign that says, "Do not enter," chances are I'm going to enter.
I've been caught racking before and talked my way out of it by being the nicest person. A lot of that is sincere when your back is to the wall. You're like, "Please, please, I'm sorry, you'll never see me again." That's when you are at your most honest. Let's be real, when authorities come down on you, no one's sitting there like, "Yes, I did it, bring me in!" You have to learn to pick and choose your battles. You have to learn how to control that because you are the one who is getting yourself in that predicament.
It's more difficult with families and loved ones. You, yourself, hit a wall, with embellished stories and lies. "Where were you, you were out with the fellas again? What were you doing over there? Why'd it take you so long?" There were definitely times when I just needed to spill the beans. But not all the beans—just enough.
The best lies have a truth tongue telling it. Confidence is key in becoming a good liar. Staring someone in the eyes. Body gestures. Those are the things you have to study when you are trying to embellish the truth to someone. Graffiti makes you more confident. You're able to swiftly go out, be creative, execute well, and wake up in the morning for coffee in your own bed. Those are the things that build confidence.
As told by Neil Woods
Interview by Max Daly
For 14 years, I was an undercover detective in Britain, deceiving drug users and gangsters. The biggest deployment was seven months, going undercover with a drug gang. The gangsters were significantly harder to lie to than the vulnerable drug users. Gangsters are acutely aware of the tactics of undercover work. When you get to a certain level of organized crime, undercover cops are the only way you can get caught. Gangsters will use extreme violence to protect themselves, so the pressure is much bigger for undercover detectives.
To be a successful liar, you have to be incredibly geeky in terms of how you observe other people. As a detective, when I was not undercover, I was building up a bank of knowledge about how people lie. Knowing the "tells" is a good defense for deceiving people yourself.
Lying creates a buffer, an extra thought loop, where people ask themselves "how do I tell this lie," and this can slow people down They can try too hard to mask the lie, maybe pause too long. The biggest giveaway is people talking too fast, giving too much information away, unusual hand movements, or gestures like looking to the floor. I made sure I was not doing this, and I had to learn to remove that pause, that extra loop from my thought process. I had to envelop all that and absorb it into instinct. If people overthink their lie—if they are overly conscious that they are lying—then it becomes too much pressure and they get flustered and the deception becomes obvious.
I was very fortunate because when I was undercover, I'd get bursts of adrenaline. In other words, in threatening situations I'd think more clearly, and time seemed to slow down. I'd feel more relaxed and trusted my instincts. In undercover work there is no acting, you are playing, or living out, a different version of yourself.
The first two minutes in deceiving people that you are someone you are not are the most important. You need to quickly build up a relationship using empathy. You need to emphasize a shared enemy and a shared fear. But you also obviously need to build up a high level of knowledge about your commodity, which was drugs for me. I pretended to be everything from a low-level shoplifter to a middle-market drug dealer. I had to know how to cook up drugs, as well as the costs of dealing with large amounts of cocaine and adulterants.
There were a few times my deception was nearly unmasked, and being able to deal with those situations is an important part of lying, because it will always happen. There is not a golden rule to what to do if your lie is about to be exposed. For me, it depends on the person you are lying to—you have to adjust and adapt. It's about reading the person who is causing the problem.
There are very good liars all across the intelligence spectrum. For some people, however clever they are, lying has helped them to survive, so there instincts are highly developed. If lying keeps you alive, it keeps you a good liar. But intelligence is an advantage if you are learning the art of lying. To be a successful liar, you need to have a good memory. Not just in simple terms, and you don't want to appear to have an unnatural ability to recall details, but a good memory is needed for knowing yourself: how you would react and what you have observed about everyone else.
Being a good liar takes practice, because if you have to think about it too much, that's what gives you away. The closer you can stick to the truth, the better. For example, if I was telling someone I stole a car last week and wanted to sell it, it's easier to rely on the knowledge I have about an area when I'm describing where I stole it. The smaller the lie in the context of your knowledge, the easier it is to tell.
The other thing about being a good liar is that it can be addictive. In terms of ethics, you have to be aware of that. It can be fun: Near the end of my undercover career I used to really enjoy lying. Succeeding in getting away with a lie is a great mental challenge.
'Good Cop, Bad War' by Neil Woods with JS Rafaeli will be published by Ebury on August 18.
Criminal Defense Attorney
I believe that criminal law is instinct with lying. It infects all the principal aspects of the profession. Everything I tell you derives or comes from my actual experience.
For starters, civilian witnesses will come on the stand—usually people who want closure—and their worse angels will get the better of them and cause them to collude and do the wrong thing when the prosecutor has an agenda. Despite the fact that prosecutors have a dual function to get convictions but also prosecute in the interest of justice, I don't think they abide those functions. I think they prosecute in the interest of conviction, period.
Prosecutors will wink or nod, and thereby induce a witness to act like a ventriloquist dummy, saying what the prosecutor wants her or him to say. For instance, a witness comes in and uses the word—I'm hyperbolically overstating it here—"antidisestablishmentarianism." And this is a barely-literate person! So I say, "'Antidisestablishmentarianism'? Who told you to say it? Do you know what it means? You'd never heard that word in your life until the prosecutor shoved it down your throat, did you?"
Prosecutors also get witnesses to lie under threat: "If you don't give us what we want, you'll be charged with the murder." I'm dealing with that issue in a case right now. How do I know? Because the son of a bitch wrote a letter to the family saying that's what the agents of the prosecutor were doing, trawling the jails to get someone to say they saw my guy do it.
When I'm speaking to witnesses, I might induce them to be true by saying to them, right out of the gate, "Do you know that lying under the oath is a crime in this state?" Sometimes that brings a person up short. Eighty-five percent of human communication is done through nonverbal channels. So you've gotta watch with the third eye and listen with the third ear. You always have to listen to the implied statements that flow from the witness's actual assertions.
Police officers live and work in a profession where lying is part of their culture. I've never once met a cop on the witness stand who told the truth. You have the uniformed cop who I call the "hat lap cheater." He walks into court, and right out of the gate, he's removed his cap, he's staring down at his waist during testimony, and I say to him, "I notice you're looking down while I'm talking with you. What's in your lap?" And then up comes the hat, and I say, "Can I see the inside?" And there's a cheat sheet in there—he's pretending to recount from memory while reading off of a document.
I'll also expose cops' lies by getting them to fall into a refrain of "I don't remember." You went to the scene and found two victims, one was on a bench? "Yes." One was on the ground? "Yes." And they were both conscious and talking, weren't they? "Yes." I'll say, "Did you ask them who did this?" And he'll reply, "I don't remember." And he's the lead investigator. You have to induce them to say things that fly in the face of the laws of common sense, life experience, and probability.
Sometimes you ask a question, and the cop delays an answer. So I'll say back to him, after letting what seems like an eternity lapse, "Are you buying time to make up an answer?" Then there's an objection, but it doesn't matter. I've exposed this in front of a jury.
If I were to sum it in one sentence: Cops lie about everything. If they told the truth, we would not be able to defend criminal cases, but they think there's capital to be gained by lying through their teeth, so that's a good thing for a criminal defendant because the lies that they tell, once exposed, will poison everything the police say, even the true parts.
The biggest lie of all is that all defendants are presumed innocent. I have learned the hard way that they are often presumed guilty. For example, a juror will say, "I will [believe] a cop" simply because he's a cop, which completely flouts the instructions they received on how to follow the law. Or another common refrain is, "I've gotta hear from both sides." In other words, if they don't hear from someone who has the absolute right to not testify, they're gonna presume that person to be guilty.
These are two or more principle lies apiece committed by all of the following: witnesses, prosecutors, police officers, and jurors. And no one will admit this shit. The police officer never admits he's a lying sack of shit, the prosecutor never admits that he winked and nodded along the way to inducing a witness to say what he wants them to say, the judge is never going to admit that the reason he won't suppress evidence and the reason he'll enable lying cops is because his constituency is the folks who have a say in whether or not he gets reappointed. The defenders don't have a constituency, or rather only have a constituency of one. That's me.
From the defense lawyer's perspective, you have to know how to expose lies, and that entails unlocking the mystery that lurks between the words "belief" and "acquittal." That is a lifelong, never-ending study of the law of advocacy. I think that the definition of truth is only limited by the boundaries of your imagination if you're a defense attorney. That's because you are obliged to find a way to win. In this amoral setting, you have to be on top of your game.
Interviews have been edited for length and clarity.
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Lead image by Lia Kantrowitz