Interpreting verbal phrases
During an interview a subject freely chooses which words or phrases to use when responding to the investigator's question. This choice is not random or haphazard; it is carefully selected to offer either the most accurate response possible or to avoid the anxiety telling less than the truth would cause. Consider the following homicide example where Bob was found stabbed to death at 7:00:
Question: "When did you last see Bob?"
Response (1) "Right around 4:00 Tuesday afternoon."
Response (2) "I believe it was sometime on Tuesday."
Response (3) "As far as I remember it was earlier this week."
Response (4) "Its been quite awhile."
Response (5) "I really can't say."
From these responses alone, it is not possible to say which ones suggest deception. Some variables that influence this assessment include how long ago the subject did, in fact, see Bob, the subject's frequency of seeing Bob and the likelihood that the subject would specifically remember the last time he saw Bob. What can be stated with confidence is that each response, starting with R(1) through R(5), accepts less and less personable responsibility.
The anxiety a subject avoids by selecting certain phrases in his response may be the result of uncertainty, embarrassment, loss of self-esteem or the fear of having a lie detected. To help identify possible deception, the context in which a statement is made is a key consideration. As an example, consider the subject who is asked, "At any time did you touch Katie's bare vagina?" and his response is, "I don't believe that has ever happened" or, "I would have to say that I did not." Both responses reflect a lack of certainty concerning the alleged behavior. If the subject was a grade school teacher he has no legitimate reason to be uncertain about contact with her vaginal area, and deception should be suspected. On the other hand, if the subject was a physician who gave Katie a sport's physical the uncertainty may be understandable.
The following list of phrases and their interpretations should primarily be used to stimulate follow-up questions during an interview, rather than as a clear indication of deception. Some of the guidelines list as (1), the most typical interpretation and (2), a secondary consideration. A good exercise is to monitor your own use of these phrases. After you have used one of them, ask yourself why you chose to use it and what another person could have asked you at that point during a conversation to learn more about your answer. As with all behavior symptoms, it should be remembered that there are no universal words or phrases that are always associated with truthfulness or deception and that the context in which a phrase is used is a critical assessment.
"As far as I can remember..."
"At this point in time..."
(1) I am not 100% certain of what I am saying.
(2) I am blaming my poor memory for not telling you the complete truth.
"The next thing I knew..."
(1) I am leaving something out of my account.
"To be honest with you..."
I have not been completely honest (truthful) with you up to this point (usually through omission).
What I am about to tell you is only part of the truth.
"As crazy as it sounds..."
I want you to accept my response even though it is crazy, is evasive or is not believable.
"As I told the other investigator..."
"As I previously testified..."
(1) I don't want to lie twice about this.
(2) I am frustrated having to go through this again.
"As God is my witness..."
"You've got to believe me..."
(1) You shouldn't believe what I am about to say.
(2) You probably won't believe what I am about to say.
"I can't remember"
(1) It is not in my best interest to remember, to tell you, or to help you out.
(2) Because of some intrinsic reason (embarrassment, fear, anger) I don't want to talk about this.
"It would be typical for me to..."
It is possible that something other than what I said in my response really happened.
"My answer would be..."
"I would have to say..."
(1) I am offering an estimation and don't know for certain.
(2) If I tell you what happened I would incriminate myself.
I am offering an opinion, but have no specific proof to back up my position.
I am telling you something that I personally witnessed.
"I don't know"
"I don't remember"
(1) The subject has no knowledge or memory of the event.
(2) The subject is being guarded and does not want to expand on his answer.
"There's no doubt in my mind..."
(1) The subject is accepting full responsibility for his response and is confident in it.
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