Building Rapport with Non-Western Interview Subjects

When interviewing people from different cultures, abide by their rules to increase cooperation

Posted by Dawn Lomer in on January 30th, 2012

There are many different types of rules. There are rules we obey to avoid getting into trouble with the law; there are rules we obey to be better or healthier people; and there are rules we follow because we know that following them will get us what we want.

When conducting investigation interviews with people from foreign cultures, many of the rules fall into the latter category. These are cultural rules, or norms, and ignoring them can alienate your subject and send your interview off the rails.

To build rapport with your non-Western subject in an investigation interview, psychologist Dr. Kirk Kennedy of the Behavioral Science Unit of the FBI Academy, stresses the importance of getting to know the person’s culture. Dr. Kennedy led a session on investigation interview tactics for foreign cultures at the NHCAA Annual Training Conference in November, and shared some basic rules for connecting with subjects from all over the world.

Forging a Connection

Dr. Kennedy made some suggestions for things that an investigator can do to build rapport with a subject from a group-oriented culture.


  • Appeal to the suspect’s sense of community by asking about their family, friends and community. “There’s much more of a concern in group oriented cultures if they’re going to be involved in any kind of behavior that could be construed as an embarrassment to the group that they represent,” he said.
  • Consider that an interview subject may be far more concerned about “loss of face” and maintaining public perception, than other consequences. “Sometimes loyalty and harmony are valued more than objective truth,” says Dr. Kennedy.
  • Make an effort to learn words from their social group, especially the words that refer to their social network. Iranians might talk about “dora” whereas to UAE nationals it’s “wasta”. Show knowledge and interest in their country and culture.
  • Appeal to the subject’s sense of humanity, using what works in his or her part of the world. Looking at pictures of a subject’s children might be effective.
  • Find out their degree of skepticism and trust towards you and law enforcement authority.
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    Write down what they tell you, especially names of family and friends. Remember what they’ve told you in earlier meetings.

Common Pitfalls

To avoid alienating people from foreign cultures, some common sense rules apply.


  • Be too familiar or act like you are part of their culture. You could be perceived as superficial and untrustworthy
  • Be late, sloppily dressed or overly casual about the appointment. This could be seen as disrespectful.
  • Forget to ask them about their family and social groups and be prepared to devote some time to this part of the conversation.
  • Expect to get a direct answer (but that doesn’t mean they’re lying)
  • Be fooled when they tell you what you want to hear. You may never get a direct no, but that doesn’t mean yes.
  • Be self effacing. In the US it’s endearing, but in group-oriented cultures it will cost you “face”
  • Be arrogant or rude. Respect is important.
  • Say “no” outright. If you must refuse a request, find a polite way to do it.

It’s a lot easier to get information from someone who likes you, and taking the time to learn about a person’s culture is one good way to achieve that. Cultural rules are important to the people who live by them. Ignore them at your peril.

Dawn Lomer
Dawn Lomer

Managing Editor

Dawn Lomer is the managing editor at i-Sight Software and a Certified Fraud Examiner (CFE). She writes about topics related to workplace investigations, ethics and compliance, data security and e-discovery, and hosts i-Sight webinars.