The Words Matter

Woman thinking before speaking

While nonverbal behaviors are open to interpretation by observers, the word choice individuals use must have been intentionally picked to express the person’s meaning. By examining the words selected, an interviewer can identify underlying information that needs to be more fully explored. Like any human behavior, words are sometimes misspoken or unintentionally incorrectly selected, but most of the time the language can be a window to relationships and additional sources of inquiry.

Examine the Question Asked
The person who intends to lie will generally use responses that cause the least amount of fear of detection and anxiety. The problem for the liar is that when they are highly motivated to deceive in high-stakes situations, the lie may actually become easier to detect. They may give shorter, slower responses because they are attempting to control their verbal and physical behaviors.

Sometimes the opposite is true. When evaluating the response to a question, remember to think about what was asked and then whether the answer adequately reflects the inquiry. Generally, the shortest and simplest answer is the best.

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Did you do it? This is a simple inquiry that in most cases can be responded to with a simple yes or no. To answer “yes” is an admission of guilt, which the guilty tend to avoid, and “no” creates high anxiety, so an effective alternative can be to use wordiness and evasion to answer. Often, the liar will mask their reply with additional language to cover their unresponsiveness, hoping to confuse the listener. This additional language may also give them time to decide how to reply to a difficult question they don’t want to answer. This evasiveness reduces some of the anxiety they would feel if they denied the question simply and directly.

“Did you do it?”
“First of all, I have been a loyal employee for over six months. I know the difference between right and wrong and wouldn’t get involved with something like that. There’s not much I can tell you about it. I would have to deny any suggestions that I could have done it.”

With this response, the shortest, simplest answer was not used, nor was the act really denied. Instead, we have unsolicited information about tenure and knowing right from wrong, plus a missing pronoun—“… and [I] wouldn’t get involved in something like that.” The lack of the pronoun “I” may be a means of distancing oneself from the event. “There’s not much I can tell you about it.” Why is there a limit on what they will say? These answers should raise the interviewer’s concern, and additional questions should be asked.

The person also raised unverifiable statements in the previous response, which may provide some comfort psychologically to support the individual’s self-image, which they want to preserve. This statement also indirectly says to the interviewer here sits a person whose integrity is beyond repute. We should ask ourselves why they didn’t just say they didn’t do it in the first place. Clearly, we need to ask more questions to discover the individual’s true status.

The best answer to this simple question is clearly, “No, I didn’t,” delivered on time, neither too fast nor with too long of a pause. If the subject were to answer, “No, I did not,” it should also raise questions in the interviewer’s mind since most people use contractions of words to simplify and hasten speech. While in and of itself it may be meaningless, the interviewer should consider this may be a possible symptom of an attempted deception.

When the interviewer notes the subject continually failing to provide clear answers to questions, they may be led to conclude this is an intentional action to deceive. In an evasion, the interviewer is looking for an answer that does not answer the question or may not have answered the question, but contains irrelevant information going beyond the scope of what was asked. This may require the interviewer to closely question each part of the response to pin down the evasive individual.

Familiarity and Relationships
Sometimes the language chosen by the individual can help us determine relationships and familiarity. For example, the following statement offers insights on familiarity: “I saw a Glock 9 mm sitting on the coffee table in the living room when I got home after work. I went up to my bedroom to see if my Glock was still where I left it. My gun was there, so I went back downstairs to the living room and then discovered the gun had been moved to a bookshelf.”

The person observing the gun likely had no previous contact with the Glock since it is described as “a Glock,” indicating a random weapon, but when they return to the living room “the gun” has been moved to a bookshelf. The person now has a relationship with the Glock since they have seen it before, so it is now “the Glock.” They use the possessive “my Glock” to describe checking on the gun they own, indicating ownership and familiarity.

We also may be able to discern relationships between people based on how they were listed, for example Mark and Peg versus Deloris and Jay. Mark and Peg became close friends of both my wife and me, yet we always referred to them as Mark and Peg. If you traced the relationships of both Mark and Peg and Deloris and Jay back to the first meetings, you would discover that Mark was my cousin and Deloris was my wife’s best friend, while Jay and Peg were introduced into the relationships later. It is a listing pattern that is commonly done with who or what is most important to someone.

For example, if you were asked to list the three attributes you valued most about someone you love, or three things you enjoy doing, or three best friends, you would have to force rank them. Unconsciously, you would likely start with whom you prefer most among your friends or the most important attribute. “We’ve had our downs and ups, but things were overall okay.” This is an unusual way of phrasing this common saying, which would indicate there may have been more downs than ups recently. Recognizing this statement for what it might be, the interviewer should ask more questions about the relationship between the parties.

An interviewer may also discover additional clues to a relationship by examining how the parties are linked together in sentences. For example, “My wife and I went Christmas shopping for the kids,” versus “I went with my wife Christmas shopping for the kids.” The first sentence seems to have a connection between the parties or a joining of a common goal, while the second sentence lacks the commonality of purpose. We could substitute the word “accompanied” for “went with,” and it fits the meaning quite nicely. In general, the word “and” is likely to be a connection between people or things, while the word “with” expresses a lesser connection. In the previous sentences, questions could be asked about how the shopping trip came about and perhaps the husband’s feelings about going on the outing to expand the context of the shopping trip.

The relationships can also be evaluated in terms of distance. Consider the following words: this and that; these and those. These pairs of words indicate closeness and distance. “We have this close relationship without that awkwardness some friends feel when they haven’t seen each other in a while.” Or, “We all have those feelings, I think.” Here the individual seems to be separating themselves from those questionable feelings.

Consider the difference between the words “home” and “house,” which have a significant change in meaning. A house is a shelter where things are kept, but there is not a personal attachment, merely a place. A home on the other hand is a place full of personal feelings often full of emotion and comfort, not just things. At the end of the day we often say, “I’m heading home,” to a place of comfort. But we also might say, “I’ve got to stop by the house and pick up my backpack.” The intent of the two sentences is different: one is to go to a place of comfort, and the other is to stop by a place of storage. But these could also be an indication of one’s feelings about home and the situation there. However, the only real way to determine this is to ask additional questions and probe the individual’s relationships.

Like nonverbal behavior, we can gather verbal information and observations from the person being interviewed, but we may make no absolute decisions on the person’s veracity without asking more questions. In our next column, we will continue to examine the use of language and the sources it offers to expand the context of the incident and possible areas of investigative inquiry.

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