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The Tell

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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:

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 this 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 as well as Distressed Woodchopping.


Compare Character Tic, gestures/body movements that are done as a characteristic quirk, while this one is a bigger gesture and serves as a hint to their personality, and Characterizing Sitting Pose, when we can tell something about a character's personality from the way they sit. Also compare with Nervous Tics, where a certain habit can reveal that the character is feeling nervous. Contrast Out-of-Character Alert for when they do things they don't usually do (or the opposite of what they usually do) as a sign that something is wrong with the character.



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     Anime and Manga  
  • In Maison Ikkoku, you can tell Kyoko's angry because she becomes VERY enthusiastic while cleaning (more so 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.
  • Invoked in Liar Game where Fukunaga tells their opponent that Nao blinks twice when she lies. This was apparently a scheme the two came up together with, to trick their opponent into betting all their money in the last round of the roulette. Nao doesn't actually have a tell.
  • In Jo Jos Bizarre Adventure Diamond Is Unbreakable, one of the enemy Stand users can imprison people inside sheets of paper if he get them to show their fear through a Tell; for example, Josuke's Tell is biting his lower lip. He almost succeeds, but when things turn around and Josuke catches Miyamoto's Tell, he's affected by his own Stand and gets turned into a book.
  • In ReLIFE An says that when something upsets Yoake, he can't help but tap his index finger.

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

     Comic Books  
  • Red Robin: Tam Fox looks to the side, bites her lower lip and, if she's sitting, nervously clasps her hands when lying. Tim thinks to himself on multiple occasions that she really ought to have some kind of training to help her lie more convincingly.

     Comic Strips 
  • Calvin and Hobbes; In one strip where the two are playing poker, Hobbes' poker face is great but his tail begins flicking in excitement when he gets his hand, leading to Calvin folding and Hobbes accusing him of cheating.

  • The New Kid:
    Sirius: Come along Gwenog, let's go get changed for our date.
    Gwenog: Hold on, you never use my full name unless you've done something you haven't told us about.
  • Charrie:
    Fred: You did something, didn't you?
    Ginny: No I didn't. What gave you that idea?
    George: Yes you did. You mess with your hair when you're hiding something.
  • In the Fairly Oddparents story, Never Had a Friend Like Me, Amanda notices that Norm tends to push his sunglasses up, blocking his eyes from sight, when he wants to hide something.
  • Played with in What Happens in Vegas when Tonks deliberately turns her hair yellow while lying to Mundungus Fletcher.
    "Bright colors make people think you're trustworthy and honest," Mad-Eye had told her more than once when she was still a cadet. "So long as you also do that when you are telling the truth, they'll think it's one of your tells."
  • Harry Potter and the Golden Ring:
    Barda: Tell me, what is it you train so diligently for this morning? The hard music indicates a particular mindset.
    Harry: What?
    Karen: You only listen to stuff like Nazareth when you're upset. This is Hair of the Dog.
  • In Raspberry Jam Draco judges Harry's mood by the type and amount of jam he spreads on his toast at breakfast.
  • A Time To Play, A Time To Plan, A Time To Win:
    Harry knew Severus was hiding something, his right ring finger rose a bit, as it always does when he is trying to cover his feelings about something.
  • An Honorable Man:
    Harry: You only drink tea when you're under the weather.
    Snape: Do I?
    Harry: You never normally defect from your coffee unless you're feeling rough.
  • The Nimrod Curse:
    Snape: Your head of house is a bit of a gossip. That and she loved to turn the staff members little habits into a scientific experiment. So she knows that when I sleep poorly (which is more often than not) I drink coffee instead of tea. Flitwick will drink twice as much tea, and add more sugar when he sleeps badly - while Hooch, who only ever drinks coffee, will have no meat at the meal unless she is well rested.
    Harry: And Dumbledore?
    Snape: He acts just a little too chipper, even for himself. And he will only consume things loaded with sugar - jam on toast, porridge with sugar and so on. When he sleeps well he will have only one cup of tea at the meal and eat a full English breakfast.
    Harry: What about Professor McGonagal? What does she eat when she hasn't slept well?
    Snape: Porridge with lots of cream, and tea with cream. And when you don't sleep well you stick to toast.
  • Twas the Day Before Christmas:
    Hermione: Ronald Bilius Weasley. The only time you ever contemplate cooking for me is when you have something dreadful to tell me and you're vainly hoping to try to catch me off guard.
  • My Dream Is Yours: Most agents have been around Oona long enough to know that scaring her will end with a myriad of broken things if she's holding stuff. Thus, when Olympia rushes over to the Lab with Otis and the other Dream-Transfer-itis victims and calls her name, they're quick to lunge for all the gadgets the Lab Director sends flying before they can hit the ground and break. They manage to catch all but one that fires and hits O'Duffy, who shrinks and begins yelling at Oona while he makes his way down the stairs to the bullpen.

  • 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 Frozen II, Anna recognizes that Elsa wears their mother's scarf when she's worried.
  • In Casino Royale (2006), Bond figures out that Le Chiffre is bluffing when he goes to rub his eye— though Bond loses that particular hand, he explains afterward 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. Le Chiffre later ends up doing it for real during a tense moment, realises that Bond has noticed, and throws in his hand with annoyance.
  • In House of Games, a sequence involved one man explaining to another what a "tell" is— down to demonstrating it, with a "hidden penny" game.
  • In Troy, Paris asked his brother Hector if he loved him and if he would protect him against any enemy. Hector immediately points out the last time he said that, Paris was ten years old and had just stolen Priam's horse. Only this time, Paris had stolen Helen from Menelaus.
  • Discussed in Tin Men. Moe explains to Stanley how to tell if a customer will be receptive to their sales pitch or not; when the tin man (aluminum siding salesman) drops a book of matches on the floor when trying to light a cigarette, if the customer picks it up himself, the tin man will have an easy sell, whereas if the customer waits for the tin man to pick up the book of matches, he'll have a tough sell.
  • Throughout Maverick, this is how he constantly manages to beat Annabelle at poker. After every game, she demands to know what her tell was and Bret always tells her, little things like tapping her fingers or clicking her teeth. In the final round of the poker tournament, he manages to beat her yet again removing her from the running. She demands to know what it was this time as she recites the entire list of tells that Bret has told her about. Bret's response?
    Bret Maverick: You held your breath.

  • 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.
  • In Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Terry has a tell in which he flexes his biceps whenever he has a good hand.
    • Captain Holt’s tell is that he starts to use contractions in his sentences.
  • Played with in Season 2 of Luther. During an interrogation, Schenk asks a suspect if he plays cards, then Schenk says that he's already spotted a tell that the man has, that the corner of his mouth twitches slightly when he's nervous. Schenk even offers to show the man the camera footage to prove it. After that, Schenk then lists a whole number of things that the police think the suspect did, then claims that the man's mouth is twitching again. The man breaks down and tells Schenk everything. Luther later asks if Schenk was telling the truth, and a very amused Schenk responds that he's been using that same lie on suspects since the 80s, and it's worked every time.
  • Veronica Mars: in the first season episode "An Echolls Family Christmas'', Weevil calls out Veronica on the fact whenever she asks someone for a favor, she tilts her head.
    Veronica: Just be glad I don't flip my hair. I'd own you.
    • In the fourth season "Losing Streak", Mattie ends up tilting her head when she asks Owen, a classmate of hers, to help her research something for the main mystery driving the season. Wallace (now a teacher), who happens to overhear and witness this conversation, and was the person Veronica most often asked for favors while they were in school together, shakes his head and chuckles.
    Wallace: It's a slippery slope, Owen.
  • Star Trek: Picard. Jean Luc Picard is dreaming that he's playing poker with Data, and says he's recognised Data's tell. As Data is an android, he says that's impossible, but Picard says that Data does have a tell: dilating his left pupil...which is a fake designed to fool the other player. Data's real tell is that he has no tell; his expression is totally neutral when he's bluffing. Data then admits that he's now at a loss as to which tell he should use from now on to bluff Picard.
  • The Mentalist: Jane can tell when Lisbon is lying because she speaks in a high voice. Actually, he can do this to most people, provided he's spent enough time with them.
  • M*A*S*H: In the sixth season episode "The Merchant of Korea", B.J. and Hawkeye decide to invite Charles to play poker with them so they can pay back the money he lent them. Unfortunately, this backfires at first because Charles (who, to be fair, did warn them ahead of time he was a lucky person) cleans everyone's clocks out. Not only that, but he whistles, to everyone's annoyance. When Charles takes a break, B.J., Col. Potter, Hawkeye, Klinger, Margaret and Radar all complain about losing and Charles' whistling
    Hawkeye: He whistles louder when he's got nothing! When he's got nothing! [cue "Eureka!" Moment when everyone except Radar, whom they explain it to, figures it out]]
    • The next time we see the game, Charles has lost all of his money.

     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  
  • In Ozy and Millie, the tail of foxes shows their emotions. This is mentioned many times, including for Ozy and Ms. Mudd
  • In Girl Genius, Baron Klaus Wulfenbach has one that Lucrezia knows (spoilers):
    Lucrezia (In Agatha's body): It is you! You're doing that thing you do whenever I catch you at something!
    Klaus (In Gil's body): What thing?
    Lucrezia: Ha! As if I'd tell you!
  • Exterminatus Now: The Patterner is a god (a resentful knockoff of Warhammer 40,000's Tzeentch) who plays games with his fellow gods... namely, poker. His tell consists of his single giant eye twitching, and does not like being informed of this.

     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.
  • Family Guy: Exaggerated in the episode "Road To Vegas". After Brian expresses disbelief in Stewie by saying he should have brought Peter, Stewie replies by telling him how Peter would be worse due to having a terrible tell. Cut to Peter playing cards where he gasps and drops a party banner saying "Great Cards!!" while a clown on a bicycle drives by, and treats this like it is normal.
  • Phineas and Ferb provides an interesting one in the Superhero Episode: Phineas doesn't have any problem hiding his and Ferb's Secret Identity from the family, but when lying to Isabella he starts pulling on his ear nervously. It's not remarked upon, but hints that he might have feelings for her even though he's still Oblivious to Love.