A tell is a very subtle, but nonetheless noticeable, change in a person's behavior, appearance, or demeanor. In poker, a skilled player can detect another player's tell, and thus can generally get a clue regarding what the other player thinks of his hand (for good or bad). Similarly, people have unconscious reactions to events around them, things said to them, and other stimuli. Someone skilled in reading body language can use these tells to "read" another person's attitudes, intentions, and sometimes even motivations. Basically, Bob knows that Alice is lying because whenever she lies, her left eye twitches. Her eye twitching is her tell.
Common tells include heart-rate and respiration changes, shaking hands, changes in voice level, sudden and inappropriate displays of confidence or aggression, flushing or blushing, eye ticks, "subtle" glances toward things that the person wants to keep hidden, not meeting the eyes of a questioner, and so on. Some characters have different symptoms. (On the other hand, some of these are common characteristics of introverts, or of people who get nervous while being interrogated. See The Cassandra.)
If a person is unaware that he's giving a tell, this can go on for a while. On the other hand, it is always possible for a person to intentionally fake a tell, and thus lead the observer to make an error themselves. If this goes down multiple layers, with the observer knowing that the subject is faking, it becomes I Know You Know I Know.
Often seen when the characters in a work play poker, naturally, but can appear in other situations.
Pinocchio Nose is the subtrope for tells specifically related to direct lying; please add direct lie-specific example to that page, not here.
See also The Tell for characters with a tell that points to their emotional state rather than their honesty.
- Liar Game:
- Akiyama instructs one of his teammates about this in the third round of the game. It's a cover for what he's really trying to accomplish, and tells have nothing to do with his actual plan.
- Also features in the second revival round. Fukunaga apparently betrays Team Akiyama by telling Nao's opponent that she has a tell: she blinks twice whenever she lies. Nao's opponent uses this information to wipe the floor with her...but it's all a ruse, one planned by Nao herself, and as soon as her opponent is feeling overconfident, Nao lures her into a trap that instantly reverses the situation.
- Case Closed brings up a supposed CIA method of lie detection - bringing the target's face uncomfortably close to their own, checking their pulse and iris at the same time.
- Daredevil: Matt Murdock uses his superhumanly acute hearing to listen to people's heartbeat, and thus can tell when they are lying. He has been fooled on occasion, though, when the person he's talking to is such a practiced liar that they don't have a reaction to it. And in one case, he was fooled because the liar had a pacemaker.
- Adventures of Supergirl: When Alex asks Supergirl what is eating her, Kara replies "Nothing". Unflappably, Alex points out she knows that stare -since Kara has done it since they were kids-, so she should stop lying and spit it out.
- Sins of Sinister: Jon Ironfire is able to spot Destiny is actually Mystique thanks to spotting a bunch of cues. Soon after, Mystique reveals those were the ones she wanted him to know about, so she could fool the Brotherhood down the line.
- In Casino Royale (2006), James Bond observes that Le Chiffre's eye twitches when on a weak hand and deduces that it's his tell. Unfortunately, after he explains this to The Mole, Le Chiffre fakes it to lure Bond into losing his cash.
- At the opening poker game in Maverick, Maverick tells people that he's going to lose for one hour. At the end of the hour, he starts winning, and winning big, because he's spend the first hour learning everyone's tells. When Annabelle Bransford gets put out of the final Championship game, the following exchange takes place:
Annabelle: How'd you know I was bluffing? I didn't do any of my tells! I didn't shuffle my cards, I didn't pull my hair... I didn't even flick my teeth!
Maverick: You held your breath. If you'd been excited, you would have started breathing harder.
Annabelle: I did not. (looks at the Commodore) Did I? (the Commodore nods, and Annabelle looks at Angel) Did I? (Angel nods, and Annabelle looks at the dealer) Did I? (The dealer nods) Well... I'll just pretend I was playing with someone else's money.
Maverick: That shouldn't be too hard.
- The Russian mobster, Teddy KGB in Rounders played with his oreos as his "tell", as the main character noticed mid-game.
- In The Hunt (2012), Theo mentions early on that he knows when Lucas is lying, he sees it in his eyes. When he's lying he blinks. If he's not blinking, he's telling the truth. Lucas did not blink in the church while saying he's innocent. That's the moment Theo realizes his friend did not do what they accused him of.
- Comes up in the Honor Harrington book Flag in Exile. Honor is facing off against Steadholder Burdette in a sword duel, and the narration goes into detail about tells, which Graysons call the "crease," and how it can be used to predict a swordsman's opponent. It's considered unreliable, since each person has a different "crease," making it difficult to figure out a person's crease without knowing them. Honor is able to instinctively feel Burdette's "crease", allowing her to win the fight. Though even she admits she didn't actually know what Burdette's actual crease was.
- In Nineteen Eighty-Four one of the overall goals of those in charge seems to be to make it so anyone can tell when anyone else is lying, without even trying to. More broadly, to involuntarily know everyone else's thoughts.
- In The Space Merchants by Frederik Pohl and Cyril M. Kornbluth, the protagonist Mitch Courtenay and his estranged wife, Kathy, each know the other's "Tell". This is a hint about how much they know and love each other.
- In Scratch by Troon McAllister, the prologue is a 32 hour poker game between the main protagonist (Eddie) and the scene's point of view character (Whitman). He picks up Eddie's tell and proceeds to try to kick his ass...but loses horribly. As Eddie leaves the private poker room, the owner asks if he did his usual bullshit tell.
- Magic for Liars features Ivy Gamble, private investigator, running this analysis constantly on people around her. Her internal monologue fingers several lies immediately based on the subject's behavior.
- In Night Watch, when Vimes confronts the Ankh-Morpork Watch officers on their deep-seated corruption, most of them blatantly try to avoid eye contact while looking guilty. The sole exception is Ned Coates, who has the opposite problem: he remains neutral-faced and maintains steady eye contact with Vimes, which Vimes notes is still a tell, just the tell of a good liar.
- Double Subverted in Making Money, when Mrs Lavish says professional conman Moist von Lipwig has the same honest manner as her late husband ... who used to practice it, and genuinely honest people don't do that.
- Played straight and discussed in an episode of 30 Rock wherein Jack reveals and exploits the other characters' various tells during a high-stakes game of poker.
- Once on M*A*S*H the guys realized that Winchester whistled louder when he was bluffing in poker.
- This trope is pretty much the raison d'etre for the TV series Lie to Me.
- Jack Dalton had a tell on MacGyver - anytime he lied, his left eye would twitch.
- Inverted in Monk: Monk realizes that a suspect who passed a polygraph test was lying when he later told a lie while on a treadmill and didn't show a change in heart rate.
- Olive in Pushing Daisies answers questions with questions when she's hiding something; Ned has a facial twitch.
- Played for laughs in one episode of Leverage:
Eliot: You have a tell.
Hardison: I have a tell?
Hardison: I have a tell for Rock Paper Scissors?
- In Frasier, Niles' nose bleeds not so much when he's lying as when he's broken his ethical code. Of course, the two overlap.
- Frasier has one as well: when he's knowingly broken his ethical code, he starts having attacks of nausea.
- So much of the drama Wizards of Waverly Place is based around lies/lying. Alex in particular knows all about lies and how to spot one.
- The British panel game Would I Lie to You? has this as part of its gimmick. Savvy guests have tried to block or mask their tells for fear of giving something away (one pulled out a pair of sunglasses; another tried to do several at once).
- In the Doctor Who Christmas episode, "The Snowmen", Silurian Lady Vashtra does this when she questions Clara about her interest in the Doctor, ordering Clara to respond to her questions with single-word answers. In her own words, "Truth is singular. Lies are just words, words, words." Clara remarks on this when Vashtra explains at length on how the Doctor has turned his back on humanity by saying simply, "Words."
- In the episode "All Hell Breaks Loose, Part Two" (S02, Ep22), Dean, who is usually a Consummate Liar, can not meet Bobby's eyes.
- In "The End", Dean travels to a Bad Future, and realises his future self is lying to his soldiers while sending them on a Suicide Mission, because he's using the same expressions he rehearsed in the mirror to become a Consummate Liar.
- Game of Thrones: In the first episode, Catelyn Stark catches her son Bran climbing the walls of Winterfell. She makes him promise never to do so again, and he promises, while looking at his feet, which she knows is a sign that he's lying. He continues climbing and dire consequences ensue, but not for the reasons Catelyn expects.
- Fibber McGee and Molly: If somebody's wife always calls him "Fibber" rather than by his given name, you'd be wise to take notice.
- Ace Attorney: Apollo Justice can tell when a person is lying due to his bracelet tightening in reaction to the tics because it's made of a special alloy that causes it to expand/contract to a perfect fit on a person wrist due to body heat. Because the bracelet is a perfect fit, it appears to vibrate when a nervous tick is appearing. But what is really happening is that Apollo is sub-consciously aware of the liar's tensing-up. This causes Apollo to tense causing a mini-tell of his own, the muscles in his arm start to twitch and because the bracelet is just tight enough it appears to be reacting. Ironically, Apollo's ability is very realistic (not to mention scientifically plausible) in contrast to Phoenix's obviously unrealistic magatama. Trucy has the same ability because she's Apollo's half-sister, which makes her an excellent poker player.
- L.A. Noire used high definition and detailed facial software to make it so the players could better guess if the person they are speaking to is lying to them.
- While early levels obviously have the Motion Capture'd actors ham it up a bit for the player to get used to the tactic, later in the game the tells become much more subtle and realistic.
- Referenced in Mass Effect 2; Mordin mentions that Salarian body language gives two different instinctive reactions when they're concealing something; one reaction is for when they're concealing something embarrassing or harmful to themselves, and one is for when they're concealing something harmful to the other person. He explains that it is virtually impossible to fake these reactions convincingly, and consequently seeing the first reaction incites Salarians to try and find out what the secret is, while seeing the second usually causes them to back off.
- Every character in the Poker Night at the Inventory games have tells that range from the subtle (a really slight head shake or humming to a particular song) to the blatantly obvious (shouting "Yes!" after being dealt a hand, or slamming their head on the table. Repeatedly.).
- Subverted in Poker Night 2 when Ash Williams' artificial hand starts to rhythmically tap on the table. Ash brushes this off as something it just does sometimes, though GLaDOS determines that it's being caused by an external force, and Brock Samson recognises the tapping as being Morse code. The two are able to decipher it as "Drink more Banang", and conclude that the hand has been possessed by a marketing department.
- Early on in Tales of Symphonia, Lloyd calls out Colette from constantly withholding the truth about her angel transformation to him, saying he knows when she's lying because she fake giggles every time she lies.
- Each character in Contradiction has their own tells when lying to Jenks, although they all tend to avoid eye contact.
- Girl Genius: There is a thing Baron Klaus Wulfenbach does whenever Lucrezia catches him at something that Lucrezia has learned to recognize. Of course, she refuses to say what it is.
Lucrezia Mongfish: Klaus— Is that you?
Baron Wulfenbach: Don't be absurd—
Lucrezia: Eee! It is you! You're doing that thing you do whenever I catch you at something!
Baron: What thing?
Lucrezia: Ha! As if I'd tell you!
- In Twig, Sylvester is an expert on human socialization, and can often tell when people are trying to lie to him (usually when they try to conceal their tells) but just as often relies upon telling people that he knows they're lying and watching their response to determine if they actually are.
- In Father of the Pride, Sarmoti is the only player in a poker game to know everyone's tells, as well as his own. Every other player seems completely oblivious to their own and each others' tells, or even that this aspect of the game exists. Which is odd because one player's tell is so obvious that everyone immediately picks up on it.
- In Home, the Boov's skin color changes from purple to green whenever they lie.
- Microexpressions are an uncontrollable action that lasts just a fraction of a second. Psychologists have claimed to connect these to specific emotions, and that when they don't match up with what a person says they are likely to not be telling the whole truth. Thus far, despite the somewhat grandiose claims and a TV show built around the premise, the actual evidence available puts Microexpressions in the same category as the Lie Detector, i.e. it doesn't do any better than random chance when it comes to detecting lies and shouldn't be used for that purpose.
- Psychologists have also discovered that nearly everything most people thinks indicates a liar is wrong. In an experiment on The BBC, psychologist Richard Wiseman interviewed Sir Robin Day about his favourite film twice. The first time he talked about Some Like It Hot, the second time Gone with the Wind. The viewers were then asked to vote for which was really his favourite film, and the results were split down the middle. The interesting bit was that three quarters of radio listeners got it right; without the "evidence" of body language and facial expression, they had to base their judgement on what he was actually saying.