Let Their Words Do the Talking

Verbal cues to detect deception.

Reading People by the Words They Speak

Word Clues present a noninvasive technique to effectively read people.

Word Clues

If the eyes are the window to the soul, then words are the gateway to the mind. Words represent thoughts. The closest one person can get to understanding another person's thoughts is to listen to the words that he or she speaks or writes. Certain words reflect the behavioral characteristics of the person who spoke or wrote them. I labeled these words, Word Clues. Word Clues increase the probability of predicting the behavioral characteristics of people by analyzing the words they choose when they speak or write. Word Clues alone cannot determine a person's personality traits, but they do provide insights into a person's thought process and behavioral characteristics. Hypotheses can be developed based on Word Clues and then tested by using additional information elicited from the person or third-party corroboration.

The human brain is incredibly efficient. When we think, we use only verbs and nouns. Adjectives, adverbs, and other parts of speech are added during the transformation of thoughts into spoken or written language. The words we add reflect who we are and what we are thinking.

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The basic sentence consists of a subject and a verb. For example, the simple sentence "I walked" consists of the pronoun "I," which is the subject and the word "walked," which is the verb. Any words added to this basic sentence structure modify the quality of the noun or the action of the verb. These deliberate modifications provide clues to the personality and behavioral characteristics of the speaker or writer. 

Word Clues allow observers to develop hypotheses or make educated guesses regarding the behavioral characteristics of others. For example, in the sentence "I quickly walked," the Word Clue "quickly" infused a sense of urgency, but it did not provide the reason for the urgency. A person might "quickly walk" because he or she is late for an appointment or anticipates being late for an appointment. Conscientious people see themselves as reliable and do not want to be late for appointments. People who want to be on time tend to respect social norms and want to live up to the expectations of others. People with this behavioral characteristic make good employees because they do not want to disappoint their employers. People "quickly walk" when they encounter general threats. A general threat might occur while walking through a bad neighborhood. Approaching bad weather could also present a threat. Walking quickly to avoid a thunderstorm reduces the threat of a lightning strike or getting wet. People might add the word "quickly" for a variety of reasons, but there is a specific reason for their choice.

Word Clues present a noninvasive technique to effectively read people without their knowledge. The following examples demonstrate how Word Clues provide insights into the behavioral characteristics of people when they speak or write. 

1) I won another award.

The Word Clue "another" conveys the notion that the speaker won one or more previous awards. This person wanted to ensure that other people know that he or she won at least one other award, thus bolstering his or her self-image. This person may need the adulation of others to reinforce his or her self-esteem. Observers could exploit this vulnerability by using flattery and other ego-enhancing comments.

2) I worked hard to achieve my goal.

The Word Clue "hard" suggests this person values goals that are difficult to achieve. Perhaps the goal this person achieved is more difficult than the goals that he or she usually attempts. The Word Clue "hard" also suggests that this person can defer gratification or holds the belief that hard work and dedication produce good results. A job applicant with these characteristics would likely make a good employee because he or she would likely accept challenges and have the determination to successfully complete those tasks.

3) I patiently sat through the lecture.

The Word Clue "patiently" presents several hypotheses. Perhaps this person was bored with the lecture. Perhaps he or she had to return an important telephone call. Perhaps he or she had to use the restroom. Regardless of the reason, this person was preoccupied with something other than the content of the lecture. A person who waits patiently for a break before he leaves the room is probably a person who adheres to social norms and etiquette. A person who receives a telephone call, immediately gets up, and leaves the lecture is a person who probably does not have rigid social boundaries. People with social boundaries make good employees because they follow the rules and respect authority. Conversely, a person who does not follow social conventions would probably be suited for a job that requires novel thinking. A person with the predisposition to act outside social norms would make a better spy than a person who is predisposed to follow social conventions because spies are routinely asked to violate social norms.

4) I decided to buy that model.

The Word Clue "decided" indicates that this person weighed various options prior to the purchase. Perhaps he or she struggled to some degree before making the decision to purchase. This behavior trait suggests that this person thinks things through, especially if the purchase was a minor one. The word "decided" also indicates that this person is not likely to be impulsive. An impulsive person would likely say or write, "I just bought that model." The Word Clue "just" suggests that this person bought the item without giving the purchase much thought.

Based on the Word Clue "decided," the reader or listener can develop a hypothesis that the speaker or writer is an introvert. Introverts think before they act. They carefully weigh each option before rendering a decision. Extroverts tend to be more impulsive. The use of the verb "decided" does not positively identify this person as an introvert, but it does provide an indication that he or she might be an introvert. A definitive personality assessment requires a more comprehensive psychological assessment; nonetheless, an observer can exploit a person if he knows that person tends toward extroversion or introversion.

Extroverts get their energy from being with other people and seek stimulation from their environments. Extroverts often speak spontaneously without thinking and confidently use the trial and error method. Conversely, introverts expend energy when they engage socially and seek alone time to recharge their batteries. Introverts seek stimulation from within and seldom speak without thinking. Introverts carefully weigh options before making decisions. Prior to entering into any type of business negotiations, knowing whether your opponent tends toward extroversion or introversion can provide a strategic advantage. Sales persons should allow their introverted customers time to think about sales proposals. Introverts take in the information, mull it over, and then come to a decision. Pressing introverts for impulsive decisions may force them to say "No" because they are not comfortable making immediate decisions. Extroverts, on the other hand, can be pressured to some degree to make immediate decisions because they are more comfortable making impulsive decisions. Rarely do people exhibit entirely extroverted or entirely introverted characteristics. Personality traits slide along a continuum. Many people exhibit both extroverted and introverted characteristics. Additionally, introverts who are comfortable with their surroundings often display behaviors associated with extroversion. Likewise, extroverts can display introverted characteristics.

5) I did the right thing.

The Word Clue "right" suggests that this person struggled with a legal, moral, or ethical dilemma and overcame some level of internal or external opposition to make a fair and just decision. This behavioral trait indicates that this person has sufficient strength of character to make the right decision even when confronted with opposing views.
Reading people is easy. Listen to what they say and let their words do the talking. More information regarding Word Clues can be found in Psychological Narrative Analysis: A Professional Method to Detect Deception in Written and Oral Communications.

John R. "Jack" Schafer, Ph.D., earned his degree in psychology from Fielding Graduate University, Santa Barbara, California and served as a behavioral analyst for the FBI.

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