Shifting pronouns? Shifty person…

The use of pronouns in a statement can go a long way in indicating a person’s honesty level. Quite often, the speaker/writer will be completely unaware when he is shifting, or being inconsistent with his pronouns.  I personally rely heavily upon this indicator of deception, as it is easy to spot and is very telling.

I recently completed an employee theft investigation in which the district manager was suspected of taking materials from storage home with her.  Throughout most of the interview, she was very direct and honest until, of course, the topic of the missing materials came up.  She had continually used the personal pronoun “I” throughout the conversation, even when talking about other problems within that district that were her responsibility.  When I asked her if she had taken the materials home, she responded “Yes, I did.”  I followed up, asking her what she did with the materials.  Her response was “we threw them away as they were defective”.  Continuing, she would go on to state “we didn’t think they were important” and “we called someone at corporate to tell them”.

You can see the obvious use of “we” is alarming.  The use of “we” when it should be “I” is a way of sharing the blame and taking the heat off self.  It was quite a tell on her part and one that I find amazing people don’t realize they are doing.

Another point to consider about pronouns is when there are too many of them or not enough.  If you are hearing sentences like “Went to the store.  Bought some coffee.  Went back home”  all lacking pronouns which fails to tell you who is taking the action, you might have a deceptive person on your hands.

Alternatively, the over use of pronouns can indicate the same. Ex: “I went to the store.  I bought some coffee. I went back home.” This is also an indicator of deception.  The speaker/writer is like a robot. The sentence should flow naturally. Ex. “I went to the store and bought some coffee.  Then I went back home.”

Also of note, when someone introduces another person, look to see if they do so by name.  Ex.
“Hi, this is my wife, Jane.”  vs “Hi, this is my wife.”  If the person is not introduced by name, this is an indicator there is some discord between the two.  It doesn’t mean they hate each other.  It is possible (in the second example) that the couple were arguing in the car but deeply love each other.  Or not.  Worse still would be “Hi, that is my wife”.  The use of “that” is distancing language and indicates tension. Unless she is standing across the room, this would be a strong indicator of a problematic relationship.  You might not see this failure to introduce between husband and wife very often, but more frequently in professional relationships like employee/boss.  If someone is telling you a story and they introduce a stranger (without the stranger being present) but don’t use a name, they might be lying.  Ex. “I can’t make it because my therapist (missing name) had to reschedule my appointment”.  This is caused by the fact that the story is not coming from the person’s memory and creating a false name can give the liar more to remember later.  It can also spawn an inquisition like “oh, your therapists name is Jackie? , So is mine.. whats her last name?”  Uh oh.  Leaving that part vague is easier for the liar.

As with all things in deception detection, do not jump to conclusions.  Pronoun shifting and omission/over use, while a strong indicator,  are still just indicators and not a guarantee the subject is being deceptive.  Following up with precise questions and looking for multiple indicators are vital.  Remember, no one conclusion can be drawn from one single indicator.

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