No matter where you are in life, you’ll want to avoid untrustworthy people. And while you’d think it would be easy to spot a dishonest character from a mile off, that’s simply not the case. It’s often near-impossible to tell whether that new colleague or romantic interest is a compulsive liar at heart — they're just that clever. Thankfully, there are some telltale personality traits that you can look out for.
1. They try a little too hard to charm you
As the old saying goes, “Flattery will get you anywhere.” And perhaps that’s why untrustworthy people often try to get into your good books with a little sweet talk. When someone is excessively complimentary, it’s not always because that person’s nice. Rather, it’s because they want you to see them in a favorable light.
Where you’ll find these over-flatterers
Keeping an eye out for over-flatterers isn’t just helpful in everyday work situations. Lawmakers such as former FBI counterintelligence agent LaRae Quy say flattery is often used by potential perpetrators in interviews. In her experience, excessive admiration is a sign “that one lacks authenticity and sincerity,” as she told Inc. magazine in 2015. According to Quy, what these people say shouldn’t necessarily be taken at face value.
2. They dominate the conversation
Have you ever been at a party where one person has the whole room enthralled with their stories? Well, don’t take much stock in the tales they spin; they may be made up. According to psychologists, owning the room could be a signal of Machiavellianism — the use of manipulation to gain power — and an indication that this person isn’t entirely trustworthy.
Remember this next time
In 2011 psychologist Jesse Berring wrote in Scientific American that Machiavellians “are pragmatic liars who aren’t fearful or anxious.” And this is why at parties “they tend to dominate, but they also seem relaxed, talented and confident.” Because of this, it can be hard to turn your attention away from their lies. Their charms can be “hypnotic,” as body language reader Patti Wood explained to Bustle in 2020.
3. Buzzwords are their mother tongue
“Solutionize.” “Ideation.” “Enterprise Thinking.” These are the kinds of words you often hear managers say. You know, the phrases that sound big and fancy but ultimately mean nothing. To those on the corporate ladder, buzzwords tend to be an annoying part of the daily grind. But to those in the know, they’re a signal of so much more.
What these buzzwords mean
Former FBI operative Robin Dreeke even associates the tendency to use buzzwords with dishonesty. Writing for CNBC in 2020, the expert argued that these phrases are used “to substitute quantity for quality” and thus are helpful in diverting from the truth. Buzzwords are also a great tool for incompetent leaders, as they mask the fact that the speaker doesn’t “have anything to say.”
4. They love bonding over mutual dislikes
Don’t get us wrong, we all love a little gossip. Who can deny that dishing dirt with a confidant about someone you don’t like isn’t a little fun? What makes gossiping so rewarding, though, is the fact that by doing so, you’re establishing a rapport with someone else. And these are the sort of connections that dishonest people love to seek out.
In Dreeke’s opinion, untrustworthy people use gossip as a way to establish a connection with you. “They imply that you’re better than those other people, otherwise they wouldn’t be confiding their disapproval,” the expert said. “They give you opportunities to jump in with your own disapproval for those people as if it’s a healthy form of bonding.”
5. They move quickly in their relationships
When a new partner shows signs they want to commit, it can only be a good thing, right? While they’re asking to meet your parents, planning a weekend away, or even suggesting that you move in together, you’ll probably be thinking you’ve found the one. Sadly, though, the truth is usually a little more complex…
A tactical move
In reality, a partner may only be moving so fast because they know doing so lowers your defenses. “Oftentimes, people who are likely to harm others will sweep in quickly and forcefully and try to foster a false sense of trust,” psychologist Nicole Issa revealed to Bustle. So, if things are moving at a lightning pace, don’t be afraid to apply the brakes.
6. They don’t take criticism well
Most of us can be a little sensitive to criticism. It’s hard not to be! If you’ve invested your time and effort into a project, for instance, then it can be a little demoralizing when someone picks it apart. But while criticism for many of us is a necessary part of personal growth, it’s a completely different story for dishonest people.
A dangerous trait
According to Dreeke, sensitivity to criticism is “one of the most common” traits of untrustworthy individuals. And it can be “dangerous,” as people who become defensive “feel that if they deny something, it ceases to exist.” Also, psychologist Dr. Clinton Moore told Bustle that dishonest people “tend to derive their sense of worth from positive feedback,” making it easy for them to block out negative opinions.
7. They become aggressive when challenged
Should you ever succeed in calling a liar out on their many mistruths, don’t expect them to take it in their stride. Unlike ordinary folk, untrustworthy people tend to become angered when confronted with their dishonesty. Dreeke explained that untrustworthy people “pout. They act aggressive. They change the subject. They distort the ‘accusation.’”
Turning the situation around
In these cases, it often feels like you’ve done something wrong. But don’t be fooled: this behavior is merely a front to cover up the fact that they’ve been caught out. “When a liar becomes hostile or defensive, he is attempting to turn the tables on you,” behavioral expert Dr. Lillian Glass warned when talking to Business Insider in 2015.
8. They always, definitely, unequivocally speak in absolutes
“You never finish your work on time.” “You’re always late.” “You don’t care about me at all.” Statements phrased as strongly as these are very effective in convincing you that the accusor has a point. And because of this, strident words such as “always” and “never” are a gift for untrustworthy people who want to present their lies as truth.
Challenging these absolutes
But problems may arise later if these repeated exaggerations aren’t corrected, as the most dangerous people think in terms of black and white. “When absolutes go unchallenged, they have a perverse tendency to be reborn as the truth,” expert Dreeke explained. In contrast, words such as “usually” or “often” express doubt and “soften absolutes” and can be a good indicator that the speaker can be trusted.
9. They have a new set of friends every week
While a lot of us find it difficult to make new friends, untrustworthy people don’t seem to have this problem. For them, finding folks to hang out with is no trouble, and they often appear to have a wide circle of acquaintances. The thing is, though, keeping relationships alive when you’re a liar is tough. So their amiability is more out of necessity than choice.
They look like good friends
You're probably asking yourself, “But if dishonest people keep losing friends, how come they always make new buddies?” Well, in truth, it all comes down to them projecting an image of themselves as someone with whom you’d want to be friends. As body language specialist Patti Wood told Bustle, dishonest people “are often quite charming and good storytellers.”
10. They love a debate no matter the situation
One thing that untrustworthy people love to do is to engage you in debates. Not civilized and rational debates, though. Rather, one-sided wars of words focusing on attacks of character as opposed to ideas. For this reason, engaging a dishonest person in a debate can be dangerous because, as Direct to the People pointed out in 2016, “they have no interest in an honest discussion.”
A recognizable trait among leaders
According to Dreeke, untrustworthy people resort to underhanded tactics such as “insinuation” and “playing on fears” when arguing. And recent political debates have shown us that these dubious techniques are everywhere. “Once upon a time you couldn’t get a passing grade in English if you communicated like that,” Dreeke wrote. “Now, you can run for high-profile office.”
11. Their words don't match their body language
Throughout your life, you may have found that body language conveys just as much meaning as spoken words. When someone is frowning while speaking, for example, that’s probably a good indicator that they have something negative to share. Liars, on the other hand, may be more inclined to smile when delivering a supposedly unhappy story.
In general, dishonest people will convey one emotion through their speech and another with their bodies. At least, that’s the experience of emotional intelligence expert Travis Bradberry. He told Entrepreneur in 2015 that such disconnect is a tell-tale sign of dishonesty. “It’s easy to lie with words, but our bodies know (and show) the truth,” he wrote.
12. Their facial expressions seem off
A dishonest person may find it easy to lie to you, but lying to themselves is a different matter entirely. And as such, untrustworthy individuals often exhibit unique mannerisms that show just how awkward they really find the act of lying. Learning to hone in on these clues is a good way to separate the truth from fiction.
Signs to spot
During his tenure with the FBI, Dreeke identified a series of behaviors that can indicate an individual’s true nature. These could be a fake smile, a head that’s rolled back just a little bit, and staring eyes. “When you see these signs, it’s wise – and often kind – to give them special attention about why they feel uncomfortable,” explained the behavioral analyst.
13. They deflect blame while apologizing
Apologizing when you’re in the wrong is, of course, a vital part of maintaining a healthy relationship. And yet saying “sorry” isn’t always as easy as it seems; it involves owning up to your mistakes and acknowledging your own fallibility. Perhaps this is why dishonest people – who are often blind to their imperfections – find this task especially difficult.
Sorry, not sorry
Admittedly, untrustworthy people can say they’re sorry. But they usually use it as a prefix for an accusation that reframes the recipient as the real villain. “This happens out of fear,” said Dreeke, “particularly in fear’s common disguises of arrogance, perfectionism, or some other form of superiority.” If you find yourself on the receiving end of this kind of apology, Dreeke’s suggestion is to “quit while you’re ahead.”
14. They like to sour your opinion on others
Thanks to their superficially charming natures, dishonest people are often very good at forming bonds with others. But it’s not enough for these untrustworthy individuals to count you as a friend. Sometimes, they will purposefully try to drive a wedge between you and your other acquaintances — just for the sake of it.
One way in which untrustworthy people may tear down bonds between friends is through hearsay. And according to specialists such as Moore, “manipulation and gossip” are perfect tools for liars to pit people against each other. After the dust has settled on these arguments, the dishonest individual may also find themselves in a situation that’s better for them.
15. Their body language is closed-off
No matter how good somebody is at lying, the act itself will, nine times out of ten, leave that person uncomfortable. For Bradberry, this discomfort comes from the fact that “lying makes them feel exposed, vulnerable, and open to attack.” And as a result, someone who’s taking you for a ride may appear as though they’re keeping you at an arm’s length.
Clues in their body language
To be more precise, someone who’s lying to you will shield the most exposed sections of their body – such as their “head, neck, or abdomen” – as a defensive measure. But what’s more telling than these gestures is a full or partial covering of the mouth. As Bradberry stated, a covered mouth quite literally represents a “closing off of communication.”
16. Their movements and emotions are hard to predict
Certain people seem to change on a daily basis. One moment, they won’t leave you alone; the next, they won’t even respond to your texts. If you have a friend who’s this unpredictable, it could be a signal of untrustworthiness. That’s according to counselor Leah Rockwell, anyway. “Behaviors that are either aggressive or erratic are signs that someone hasn’t [yet] figured out who they are,” she told Bustle.
Similarly, small changes in emotions can be a giveaway, too. Does this person experience mood swings, for example? Can they switch between opposing emotional states in an instant? Someone who exhibits these behaviors, in Wood’s opinion, is likely prone to narcissism and makes a habit of saying or doing anything to emerge on top. Don't fall victim to their sudden shifts.
17. They never work on a relationship
It goes without saying that relationships are hard. And in order to maintain a healthy bond, couples must work together to understand each other’s changing needs. Sadly, though, not all parties are interested in putting in the required work, which leads to a situation where one partner is shouldering all of the responsibilities.
Unwilling to solve the problem
In many cases, a simple conversation can readdress the balance. But partners who are dishonest, unreliable, or controlling may exhibit what relationship advisor Dr. Kelly Campbell refers to as a “demand-withdrawal.” She told My Domaine in 2020 that these individuals are more likely to withdraw “from the conversation and discussion” rather than confront the issue.
18. They project all their insecurities onto you
As discussed by none other than Sigmund Freud, psychological projection is a common condition recognized within psychoanalysis. Essentially a form of self-defense, this behavior is used as a way for certain people to avoid dealing with their own bad habits while simultaneously calling out somebody else. And as has been observed by authors such as Thomas Koulopoulos, it’s a technique commonly used by the dishonest in society.
Moving the attention away from themselves
“People who are untrustworthy… have an amazingly consistent habit of accusing others of behaviors that they themselves are exhibiting or contemplating,” Koulopoulos wrote in Inc. back in 2017. So, if somebody that you know is accusing you of something you’ve never done, don’t take it to heart. Likely, they’re just trying to divert attention away from their own shortcomings.
19. They can’t keep secrets
Well, this one’s a given! If someone who can’t be trusted enters your life, then you should under no condition tell them anything that you don’t want anybody else to hear. But how can you tell if someone new can keep a secret without actually giving them a secret to spill?
Were they an oversharer?
One way to identify an untrustworthy person is to see how well they keep their own confidential information under wraps. Did that person unload all of their emotional baggage onto you when you first met them? If yes, then psychotherapists such as Dr. Laura Dabney fear it’s a sign they lack control over themselves and are probably unlikely to keep their mouths shut.
20. They show little to no empathy
We’ve talked about all the habits and peculiarities of untrustworthy people. Yet one thing we haven’t discussed is why dishonest people lie in the first place. For many psychologists, it all boils down to empathy – something many of us take for granted but that untrustworthy people are fully or partially lacking. And this deficiency allows them to cast a blind eye to the pain that their lies cause.
Assuming everyone has empathy is partly why we let people like this into our lives in the first place. In the words of psychiatrist Judith Orloff, our natural empathy makes it difficult for us to imagine someone without it. “So many people get into relationships with pathological liars… because they’re trying to fit these people into the ordinary standards of what it means to be empathetic,” she told Business Insider in 2018.