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American Investigator and Cultural Diversity
By Alexander Gorkin, Ph.D. (Denver, CO)
I have previously described the United States – as have many others – as a melting pot. But now, after having spent several years as an insider (who should now be melted), I believe that this description became less apt. Also as a hands-on investigator with a dual perspective, I think it is important to share my observations with the investigative community at large.
The real and stressful adjustment problems that occur while transitioning from one culture to another, one language to another, can easily be overlooked. Until eight years ago, I lived in Moscow. Russia is my country of birth and Russian is my first language. Before I immigrated to the US, I saw firsthand the problems English speakers experienced when they lived in Russia. To help the newcomers deal with the stress and difficulties of communication, a couple hundred Americans established an English language hotline. Help became as close as the nearest telephone. But when I arrived in Denver, a sizable city with a Russian population estimated at 70,000, I never heard about any kind of special Russian language psychological support hotline.
Despite our stated national belief in words such as “liberty”, “equality” and “brotherhood”, it appears that the melting pot mentality of the past does not now allow newcomers to melt in with the same efficiency it did as recently as even ten years ago. But why is this so?
It’s because of the rapid development of international communications, which has dramatically expanded and decreased the cost of international calls; and it’s because the Internet makes it easy for newcomers to communicate with and remain attached to their cultural upbringing. Before the explosion of communication technology, someone who moved to America had no choice but to adopt the American culture and learn the English language to survive his transition into the new environment. It was hard, but it was inevitable; and the immigrant would just have to go through the process of adjustment as fast as possible. Without this adjustment it was practically impossible to survive in the USA.
Another important aspect to consider is that practically everyone who moved to America from then Communist Russia was considered lost or even literally passed away by his compatriots back there. Very limited connections (if any at all) were possible with anyone left behind because to remain in contact was to jeopardize those still residing in Russia. Hence, there was no alternative for a newcomer but to melt in – no matter how painful the melting process was.
Today the situation is different. On the one hand, people from other countries feel more welcome than immigrants in the past – they can live, communicate, make money and be socially active without learning English language skills or/and adjusting to the culture. These people live in ethnic communities, speak their own language, follow their own traditions, attend ethnic social events, read and watch ethnic mass media sources (television, radio, internet magazines, newspapers), and strongly rely on “quasi mediators” between them and the still mysterious and foreign environment of their new home. On the other hand, this inevitable development of self-sufficient closed ethnic communities is one of the conditions that make inside intelligence and investigative work extremely difficult for any non-ethnic investigator. As a long-time investigator myself, I can clearly see that there is a tremendous barrier in sensitive communication between an American investigator and the average member of any ethnic community. For the most part, an outsider is easily identified and is not to be trusted.
So, is it possible to overcome this barrier? On the one side, that of the interviewee, any attempt to break through the barrier usually destroys the imagined freedoms of America. And on the other side, the average interviewer, the American investigator, becomes frustrated because he cannot obtain the cooperation of the person he is trying to interview.
To develop the skills necessary to work with and communicate with a member of another community, be it Russian, Vietnamese, Hispanic, Middle Eastern, or whatever, the interviewer must learn more about the history and mindset of the other parties. This is especially true when it comes to discovering and identifying the interviewee’s possible motive – which of course is the core of every successful investigation.
Who is the person we want to interview? What are his primary motivations? What are his goals? Where does he draw the line between good and bad, acceptable and unacceptable, bearable and unbearable? What is his level of tolerance, and how much is he willing to adjust and change?
Let us imagine for a moment that we come from another planet. We are invisible (to avoid any problems with the Homeland Security, Immigration and Naturalization Service and so on) and we can classify the local inhabitants.
First, we pick out humankind from other creatures. Then we try to differentiate human beings by gender. Why do I believe this is so important? Just because, according to the contemporary scientific findings, male and female human brains work differently. With some simplification, the speech center is found only in one hemisphere of the male brain, but it may be found in both hemispheres of the female brain. This may explain why women are often more talkative. Allegedly, man is more like a reptile – when he is challenged, he becomes hostile. He is trying to make his way out from the cornered position by using his fighting skills. But women prefer to use language (or tears). When this difference is clear, it can be used to investigative advantages.
Next, let’s talk about language skills and accent. Consider the following example. A few years ago I was working a case with a very well experienced investigator. He was born and raised in California and had a very American mindset. He was a very nice man, about 50 years old, while, a moderate Christian, and a 25-year law enforcement veteran who spoke perfect American/Californian English/ We were trying to obtain the cooperation of some UPS employees so that we could collect some information on an employee who worked at the huge warehouse-like facility. Since my language skills were obviously less developed than my partner’s, he started the conversation with the guard and tried to establish some rapport. But his attempt was a complete failure. The guard (I believe he was Hispanic) almost refused to talk to my partner, much less to cooperate with him. With nothing to loose at that point, I started to talk to the same guard in my broken, clumsy English and my heavy Russian accent. He suddenly turned into a very nice and cooperative witness; he not only helped us get the information we needed, he even convinced some other employees to talk to us. I believe his change of attitude was solely because he identified me as a fellow immigrant.
How significant is this in an investigation? There are myriad laws to protect individuals against discrimination by race, sex, religion, national origin, physical disability, sexual orientation, age and more. Yet we all know that discrimination is still a major part of our society. An Indian shop owner may choose to hire another Indian as CPA, just because the shop owner is more comfortable talking to a fellow Indian than to his American counterpart. And so it is with investigation. No amount of legislation or restriction can circumvent this matter of human nature in the investigative industry. People, because they are people, will discern and classify strangers and treat them according to those classifications.
Years ago, in the early 90-s in Moscow, I took part in some research programs that tried to find effective ways to deal with the problems of refugees who were victims of internal multinational conflicts inside the former Soviet Union. We did several opinion polls, trying to figure out the motivations of the relationships between so-called original inhabitants of certain areas and newcomers. While the vast majority of the first group expressed compassionate feelings about the severe circumstances that forced the refugees to leave their homes, very few of the respondents wanted to become close friends with the newcomers. Neither were they very excited by the opportunity to become in-laws of the newcomers. The most common answer to the question, “What if your daughter wanted to marry one of them?” was an immediate and short, “Over my dead body!”
When we dug a little further and asked “Why not?” the most common response involved the cultural difference between “us and them”. This seemed to suggest unpredictability associated with the person who came from some other place with different traditional upbringing, mindset, and therefore, a lack of trust and reliability. Remember that this study was carried out in Moscow, many thousands of miles away from Denver, Chicago, Los Angeles, or New York. Yet how different are those findings from what occurs here within our US borders?
When an American investigator prepares to interview or interrogate an individual of another cultural background, he needs to be aware that he might realistically expect the unexpected. First, he must assume that he cannot rely on the interviewee’s cooperation based on common ground since it is really hard to find anything in common between an American investigator’s background and his Russian (Vietnamese, Hispanic, Gypsy, Nigerian, Middle Eastern, ad infinitum) witness/suspect’s background. The American investigator must also consider that all of the usual leverages used to get someone of his own ethnicity to cooperate (e.g. revenge, envy, monetary gain, good citizenship, religiosity, cop complex, etc.) will not work as well. Or the may not work at all.
As usual, proper planning prevents poor performance. An investigator who understands the usual obstacles and common pitfalls in establishing rapport with representatives of ethnic communities can still enjoy a great success.
Since my own experience involves the Russian community, that is the example I will use. Once an investigator decides who can provide the most valuable information, the personal profile of the source should be studied. Things like age, place of birth, place he/she moved from to the US, sex, race, religion, occupation (current and previous to his transition to the US), hobbies, education, alma mater, military/police/auxiliary service, and political association should be considered. This is especially true of a Russian interviewee, because from a cultural perspective, things like a place of birth, educational and occupational background in Russia, when he moved to the US, occupation in the US, associates and family, and so on, are of major importance. Think for a second about the country as wide as 10 time zones, speaking 114 different languages and local dialects, and practicing pretty much every religion exist – that what former Soviet Union was.
Russians rely on a close network of family, friends, and coworkers as protection against the risks and unpredictability of daily life. This mindset simply cannot be turned off when a Russian immigrant crosses the border into the US. They were born with it, and it will remain inside them throughout their life, no matter the physical location of their new home or country. In the village commune, Russians felt safe and secure in the company of family and neighbors. Today, in the city, they continue to value familiar faces and mistrust those they do not know for a long period of time.
In the workplace and in private life, Russians depend on people they know – relatives and friends who owe them favors, former classmates, former neighbors from Russia, and others whom they trust. The bureaucracy is not expected to respond equitably to a citizen’s request. Instead, Russians will call friends and ask for their help. A Russian now living in Denver will not magically depart from the ways he used to manage his everyday life problems back there – where he learned how to resolve them.
Long-term survival in a somewhat unfavorable environment creates some specific beliefs about what it is to be a member of a group – perhaps most comparable to the relationships seen in a movies like The Godfather. And consider this: in the United States, “You have right to remain silent” versus in Russia, according to the common law and common sense, “You have the requirement to remain silent!” These are the rules that Russian immigrants grew up with; they came from bitter experience of life under the oppressive and often violent regime in the former USSR. On a purely cultural basis, a strong belief also exists that an open-minded person is somewhat insane, that direct talk is a sign of low-education or even stupidity, and that discussing domestic problems with outsiders is very close to betraying your friends and family.
Once an American investigator has determined, who it is that must be interviewed, how can he obtain the best and most useful background information? If the interviewee has recently moved to the US, the information trail stops abruptly on the day he entered the country. Checking public records, researching morgue files of the local newspaper, doing Internet research, and doing background criminal history checks on someone who came from overseas could yield no information. Given this unavailability of the usual records, can an astute investigator still do the job?
Yes, but the task calls for a certain element of creativity. In the case of a Russian interviewee, the investigator can request to see his Personal Documents.
Personal Documents are traditionally very important for every person, who was born and raised in Russia. In Russia, if someone’s house is on fire, he will rescue the kids, the beloved wife, and his personal documents; then he will go back for his mother-in-law. While he is carrying his baby out of the burning house, his thoughts will be about the fact that his personal documents are in jeopardy. They constitute not only his identity but also his sense of safety.
The most valuable documents for every Russian-born person are his birth certificate, his internal passport, his education verification documents (i.e. high school certificate, college diploma, Ph.D. degree), his marriage or/and divorce certificate, his drivers license, his military card, his external/travel passport, and his work-history record book. If a Russian interviewee denies having any documents, it is akin to waving a giant red flag in the face of investigator. Every Russian has documents. They are his life.
To further explain this phenomenon, consider an encounter with the police. In the US, the first question from a police officer to the civilian is either “How are you?” or “Do you have a problem?” (or even “Where is the fire, buddy?”). But in Russia that first question will certainly be, “May I see your documents?” Therefore, it is vitally important for every former Russian or Soviet citizen to keep all his documents in order and accessible because he expects to be a subject to an official check at any time. This very unique feature of the common Russian mindset (at least it is unique to a US investigator) is really a basic part of the Russian culture, based on more than 70 years of surviving in a totalitarian regime. It was an absolute necessity to keep all the official papers (e.g. papers which came from official sources) as the most valuable belongings. In fact, the majority of senior Russians even keep documents that are no longer valid or that expired many years ago just for some unexpected occasion.
It is very important for an investigator to know which documents to look for, what they suppose to look like, what to pay attention to while obtaining these documents, etc. In addition, there is a story behind each document, and if the investigator is a good listener, he can understand or assume not only what the interviewee knows about a wide range of subjects, but also why or how the interviewee knows the information.
Usually, an official document contains certain typographic printed blank, but the typewriter or computer-printer could print the blank also. The blank could be filled in either by typewriting, or by handwriting with certain requirements to certain documents. Some documents could be considered extremely suspicious because of the type of handwriting used, or because the use a typewriter instead of handwriting, or visa-versa. The vast majority of suspicious documents are discovered as phony. There could be seals of many kinds. Sometimes, just because a seal is on the document which does not require sealing, or inappropriate seal is on a certain document, the document seems suspicious and eventually is discovered as phony.
This is just a tiny drop in an ocean of different documents I have seen in my almost 30 years practice.
Certainly, it takes time, special knowledge and experience to recognize phony documents, but you have to be aware about their existence in the US in sizable numbers of cases you deal with on every day basis.
In some cases, often beyond simple understanding, one investigator cannot get information from someone, but another investigator obtains it easily. This could be the result of poor evaluation of the source (by the unsuccessful investigator), poor preliminary research on the interview topics, or poor identification not only of the proper source but also motivation factors for him to divulge or to share the needed information. Sometimes it may me as simple as the wrong choice of location for the interview, or it may be because of the investigator’s personal demeanor.
When the interviewee is not a native English speaker, telephone interviews should be avoided. The vast majority of newcomers are shy because of their poor language skills. To talk with someone they do not know over the telephone is very challenging to them. A phone interview doesn’t allow the investigator to read the person’s body language or eye contact for clues. It is easier for the interviewee to refuse to talk or give partial answers on the phone. Even more important, it is far easier to lie over the phone.
To engender a feeling of comfort, or at least as much as can be rationally expected, conduct the interview where the person will be most likely to talk to you. Most of the time it makes sense to conduct interviews in friendly surroundings of the interviewee, like his or her home or private office. This provides an added advantage to the investigator, because a person’s home or office tells a lot about the person to someone who has the experience of “keeping his eyes open”. Do not miss this unique chance! Simply looking around will often provide an introductory topic for friendly conversation. It does not matter where the person’s roots are – he or she is now residing or working here, and an investigator who makes initial conversation on something completely non-threatening,
For instance by offering knowledge and experience on something to do with surroundings, will have broken the ice. If you can connect on family (look at the pictures on the wall and comment on the lovely child), that, too, provides common ground. In any event, the interviewee will become more comfortable answering the investigator’s questions once a connection has been made.
Within the Russian culture, there are many things the investigator can do to obtain the best possible results.
1. Consider the importance of confidentiality. People are least likely to talk in front of other people.
2. Demeanor is how you act, dress, speak and react; therefore, if you wanted to be treated like a professional, you should act, dress and speak like one.
3. Consider that the interviewee is accustomed to more formality in interactions with officials than is the case in the US. So, be friendly, but formal! How you carry yourself conveys how do you feel about yourself and the person you are going to interview. You need to appear businesslike, not cocky or arrogant, and never appear as a threat! (Keep in mind the fact, that you are already a threat and or a troublesome to the interviewee – you are the one who is going to at least take his time, maybe you will put him in uncomfortable position with his compatriots, maybe you going to be an obstacle for his dreams or hopes … That’s what he use to think and feel about authorities of his motherland. If you can change that feeling – you are a big winner!)
4. Your tone of voice is very important. Avoid raising your voice, badgering, or intimidating. Remain calm and firm.
5. Choose your words carefully. English as a second language is far different than English as a first one. Avoid the use of slang and informal colloquial expressions. Be patient and understanding of the language skills of the interviewee; try to be and to look sincere while encouraging someone shy of his vocabulary and pronunciation to talk to you. As the interview progresses, you may need to be firm and persistent so the interviewee does not assume you will accept untruth for answers, with the excuse of lack of language. Be ready to readdress the issue or to “reword” the question to avoid misunderstanding.
6. Respect the interviewee. During an interview try to make interviewee the teacher, allow him to instruct about customs, cultural differences, and various points of view and evaluations of the same issues in different countries. While responding like a teacher, the interviewee will tell you how things really worked. This may be the key to the investigation.
7. Keep in mind that a US approach most likely will not be successful with a Russian interviewee. Understand that turning a tough interviewee into a helpful informant requires a type of gradual seduction. To borrow the words of a fictional character, “Seduction is an art to be learned, practiced, adapted, and improvised according to the situation, and, like other arts, it will not desert you late in life.” (While the author was Garrison Keillor and he quite obviously did not have seduction as an investigative tool in mind when he penned it, it can serve our industry well.) Sometimes the seduction can take several months, but the outcome could be invaluable. On the other hand, if the investigator storms in, flashes his badge and demands, “Okay, you dirt bag. You’re going to tell me everything I want to know RIGHT NOW!” the investigation may be over before it begins.
8. Pay attention to body language; but remember that your body language is not necessarily the same as his body language. Kinesthetic interviewing does not have the same value when the interviewee and the interviewer have different cultural backgrounds, language skills, and education. Body language is a physical manifestation of internal psychological processes. Thus, dealing with a person who may be challenged by the mere process of questioning in a non-familiar language may elicit a facial flush. Does the rush of color mean he is lying? Probably not. It may be indicative only of his embarrassment of his inabilities with the English language.
Developing the necessary investigative skills to effectively and fairly deal with members of immigrant communities takes specialized training. Reading this article is a good start, but it is only the first inch in a very long mile. Sadly, some companies often rely on imperfect sources for more advanced information. While the instructors may be well intentioned, they are inexperienced and limited by their own American background. There is no real understanding of the criminal underworld in Russia or the impact it may still have on a modern day immigrant. There is no first hand knowledge of living under Communist regime or the cultural nuances that have involved. Some instructors have investigative experience based on detective stories and movies that represent ethnic minorities with misleading stereotypes. And sometimes these well-intentioned helpers lead the investigation process in a wrong direction.
No problem should be pointed at without solution. But is there one for our industry?
In order to investigate international organized crime and prevent its perpetration, it seems reasonable to establish and develop a special International Expert Investigative Unit. The Unit’s team should consist of highly qualified professionals with special knowledge and experience in the fields of criminology, psychology, sociology, and law enforcement practice, acquired in different countries and within different cultural environments. These professionals could be drawn from within the above mentioned ethnic immigrant communities.