FASHION : Truth for Sale : You try it on, and the salesclerk thinks it looks great. Or is that just a smile-shrouded lie? Here's how you can tell.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Usually, I don't pay much attention to research studies. If you wait long enough, chances are good that some other study will come along to refute or discredit it.

Case in point: Remember the study that came out about coffee being bad for you, and then the next one that found just the opposite?

But this most recent study from UC San Francisco, published in this month's issue of The American Psychologist, was different. The minute I saw it, I knew it had widespread application.

It seems that a bunch of psychologists got together to study the ability of various professional liar-catchers--including police officers, robbery investigators, judges, polygraphers, and people who work for the CIA and the FBI--to spot when people are lying.

The test relied on videotapes of 10 women, all of whom were talking about how much they were enjoying a film they were watching. Five of the women were watching a pleasant ocean scene, while the others were watching a gruesome movie of a badly burned person undergoing surgery.

What the test found was that every group of professionals, except one, did poorly at telling the truth-tellers from the liars. The exceptions were Secret Service agents, who correctly distinguished the two groups at least 80% of the time.

What did the agents know that the other professionals didn't? According to the researchers, they had depended heavily on body language and facial expressions. Professionals who fared poorly relied mainly on voice and speech patterns.

Now, to a lot of people, this may not seem important. But to anyone who has ever walked into a department store, tried on a garment and then asked a salesclerk's opinion, the implications are tremendous.

Think about this for a minute. When was the last time you had the feeling that the seasick-green outfit you just tried on wasn't really, as the saleslady claimed, designed with you in mind? Or that the designer skirt made out of sponge wasn't really so divine?

"Oh, right, and you say you're not sure if it looks good on you, and the person says, 'It looks GREAT. It's just the LIGHT in here," said Diana Christie, a 16-year-old student at Ventura High School.

Voice inflections aside, I'd like to suggest some other methods that might give fashion shoppers a clue that a salesclerk is lying through his or her teeth:

* Beware of toothy smiles and flat, dull eyes. With true smiles, the cheeks move up and the eyes squint. Flat smiles made by insincere sales personnel are often accompanied by statements such as, "It looks lah-velly on you, dear."

* Watch out for salesclerks who tug at the garment you are trying on and try to fluff it up as if it were a pillow. This is frequently followed by comments such as, "Oh, this is how they're being worn now. And we can alter it for you if you'd like."

* If you are an adult, never take the word of any salesclerk who looks as if she's still in high school. Chances are good that she is.

That said, would any of the stores out there like to comment?

"That's easy," said Suzanne Dobson, manager of Casual Corner in Oxnard. "If something looks horrible on someone, we'd say so. If I saw someone try on something that didn't look good, I'd just say, 'I don't think it does anything for you.' People appreciate the honesty."

People do, and Dobson sounded sincere enough that I wanted to believe her.

But I'll have to wait for a new study on spotting telltale truthlessness over the telephone.

* THE PREMISE

Ventura County is teeming with the fashionable and not so fashionable. There are trend-makers and trend-breakers. There are those with style-personal and off the rack-and those making fashion statements better left unsaid. Twice a month, we'll be taking a look at fashion in Ventura County-trends, styles and ideas-and asking you what you think. If you have a fashion problem, sighting or suggestion; if you know a fashion success or a fashion victim, let us know. We want to hear from you.

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