Investigation Interview Techniques for the Other 80 Per Cent

Subjects from group-oriented cultures challenge traditional Western methods of interrogation

Posted by Dawn Lomer in on January 17th, 2012

You might think that spending 45 minutes listening to a suspect in a fraud investigation describe his family is an odd way to start an interrogation, but in some cases that could be the best way to get the evidence you need. This is especially likely if the subject is from a group-oriented culture, of which 80 per cent of the world is comprised.

At the NHCAA Annual Training Conference in November, I attended a session on interviewing people from foreign cultures. Dr. Kirk Kennedy, from the Behavioral Science Unit of the FBI Academy, spoke to us about the challenges of interrogating people from group-oriented cultures and the investigation interview techniques that can help to get the subject to talk.

People from group-oriented cultures are concerned with group goals, he says. They think about their actions in relation to their family and community, rather than from an individual perspective. Part of the investigator’s task is to recognize this.

Most of what Dr. Kennedy said revolved around building rapport with the subject, which involves making some fundamental changes in thinking common to investigators from Western (or individualistic) cultures. He also pointed out some common pitfalls to avoid.

Reading the Subject

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Part of being a good interviewer is the ability to read a subject and then build rapport. If the person is from a group-oriented culture, you already have a clue about how they think and communicate. But it’s not straightforward.

Dr. Kennedy describes the cultural differences between individualistic and group types as a continuum, with each person falling somewhere along that continuum, but not necessarily at one end or the other.

He warns against generalizing and stereotyping, but concedes the need to understand the differences and tailor your communication style to the situation.

Building Rapport

An investigator’s first encounter with a subject is crucial to the interview’s success. It’s important to get to know the subject’s culture and norms. With some cultures, an investigator can lose rapport by simply turning down a cup of tea, being late or dressing too casually. “Don’t alienate them in the first five seconds,” he says.

It’s important to recognize that individuals of some cultures define themselves by their family or social group, so asking the wrong questions or having unrealistic expectations can send your interview off the rails. He gives the example of an investigator who asks the subject to “tell me a little bit about yourself” then gets impatient or confused when the person starts talking about their family, community and relationships, rather than personal traits.

“If you try to pin them down and describe their individual traits they are going to be confused because they can exhibit all kinds of different traits, depending on the situation in which they find themselves,” he says. But, as always, it’s a question of degree.

“When I say that group-oriented cultures are much more relationally based, that their behavior changes based on the situation….it doesn’t mean all the time,” he says.

And this applies to 80 per cent of the world. “Most people live in a country where they don’t think about their individual goals, they think about their family,” says Dr. Kennedy. “Part of your task is to recognize that you’re coming at this from an individual perspective.”

It’s this ability to understand different approaches to communication and interaction that could make the difference between frustration and getting the response you need out of your investigation interviews.


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.