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The Tell
Reggie: What did you do?
Joy: I made blueberry pancakes.
Reggie: You make those when you feel guilty.

Alice knows Bob very well. She can always tell what he's feeling. She'll probably say something like:

  • "You always clean when you're angry."
  • "You're only nice to me when something is wrong."
  • "Whenever you have a bad day at work, your foot shakes."

The idea is that Alice can tell something about Bob's emotional state because he is performing a significant but unrelated action. Expect Bob to deny it.

Writers will often use The Tell to inform the audience what is going on with a character who wouldn't normally share his feelings.

See also You Can Always Tell A Liar and Pinocchio Nose for cases where Alice can tell that Bob is lying. See The Magic Poker Equation for poker tells. Supertrope to Heartbreak and Ice Cream ("when you're heartbroken you eat ice cream a lot"), Comfort Food and Post-Stress Overeating.


Anime and Manga
  • In Maison Ikkoku, you can tell Kyoko's angry because she becomes VERY enthusiastic while cleaning(moreso than usual). That, and her tendency to break broomhandles by squeezing them.
  • In Bitter Virgin, Yuzu notices Daisuke is upset by Kazuki's unwelcome affection because he keeps holding his forehead.

Card Games
  • Good Poker players can recognize their opponents' tells, while at the same time hiding their own.

  • In So Much for No Strings Attached Snape knew that Lucius Malfoy was feeling stressed about the current situation because it was the only time he drank O'Keaffles Irish Whiskey.

  • In MirrorMask, when Helena's father is trying to calm her about her mother's impending brain surgery, and unconsciously chews his lip, she blurts, "Anyway, you're worried. You only do that when you're worried!"
  • Kung Fu Panda. "You eat when you are upset."
  • In Casino Royale, Bond figures out that Le Chiffre is bluffing when he goes to rub his eye - though Bond loses that particular hand, he explains afterwards to Vesper and Mathis that Le Chiffre bet big and only got lucky on the river card, meaning he had a weak hand when he bet big. Le Chiffre later repeats it but this time, having been tipped off about his tell and that Bond is looking for it, uses it to clean out all of Bond's chips. Bond only gets a buy-back into the game when Felix Leiter steps in.
  • In House Of Games, a sequence involved one main explaining to another what a "tell" is—down to demonstrating it, with a "hidden penny" game.

  • It is repeatedly mentioned in the Mercy Thompson books that Mercy bakes when she's upset. It is actually pretty consistent, and is remarked upon a few times.
  • In The Princess Diaries, Mia's nostrils flare whenever she lies, although she's an excellent liar otherwise, and no one had noticed the nostrils thing before Grandmere.

Live-Action TV
  • From Dead Like Me:
    Reggie: What did you do?
    Joy: I made blueberry pancakes.
    Reggie: You make those when you feel guilty.
  • Coupling:
    "You (referring to Susan) only say apparently when you're annoyed at something"
  • In Aquila one of the protagonists' mothers realises he's upset when he begins sorting his rock collection.
  • Ellie Nash from Degrassi cooks when she's angry, according to Marco.
  • Babylon 5: Commander Ivanova knows something is up when she sees Garibaldi "eating like a man starved", but she doesn't know him well enough to be sure there's a reason behind it. It turns out it is something Garibaldi does when faced with death (in this case, a ship full of colonists he came across who were killed by Space Pirates.)
  • In Frasier, Niles' nose bleeds when he's broken his ethical code. Likewise, when Frasier has knowingly broken his ethical code, he starts having attacks of nausea.
  • House:
    • House can tell when Cuddy's bluffing even when he's not in the same building because he's talking on a phone with Wilson.
    • In the season 2 finale, the guy who shot House knows when House isn't sleeping, because his nostrils flare when he sleeps. Although, most of the episode was All Just a Dream, so make of that what you will.
  • In The West Wing episode "Two Cathedrals", Mrs Landingham explains in a flashback that when Bartlett has made up his mind to do something, he sticks his hands in his pockets, looks away, and smiles. If you're paying attention at the end, he does the same thing when asked if he's going to run again.
  • In The City Hunter, Prosecutor Kim Young Ju knows his ex-wife, Sae Hee, is lying about the whereabouts of The City Hunter because she draws a circle on the table with her finger.
  • In Necessary Roughness, Dani squints a lot whenever she doesn't like something or someone.
  • In Corner Gas, Emma cleans whenever she is angry about something. In the same episode, Davis and Karen take advantage of this by bringing her to their dirty kitchens and riling her up.
  • In Korean Drama, Secret Garden, Gil Ra Im taps one of her feet, when she's interested in has-been singer Oska. Oska sees this after a "Freaky Friday" Flip from his male relative, and gets seriously squicked out.

Tabletop RPG
  • Stormbringer supplement Demon Magic, adventure "Sorcerer's Isle". From the description of the pirate Janar Ra:
    When she is angry, she goes into the jungle and hacks away at trees; when she is very angry, she sullenly sharpens her axes. The rest of the pirates do not disturb her when she sharpens her axes.

Video Games
  • This is a game mechanic in Apollo Justice: Ace Attorney- when a witness is nervous while testifying they'll perform some sort of habitual action that you have to zoom in on and then call them out on.
  • Also a benefit of the advanced facial animation technology present in L.A. Noire, where during interrogations, a suspect may have a telling reaction as they wait your response to their testimony and you must gauge the correct response based on that. Some more telling than others.
    • Also subverted in that a tell is not a sign of lying, and a lack of tell is not a sign of telling the truth.

Web Comics

Western Animation
  • When "discorded", Applejack in My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic lies every time she speaks. Every time she does, however, her face crinkles up and her eyes flick back and forth.

Sympathy for the HeroEmotion TropesThat Makes Me Feel Angry
There Are No CoincidencesCharacterization TropesThe Tragic Rose

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