VSA Tech

Conducting Voice Stress Analysis Examinations in the Middle Eastern Culture

Primer for Conducting Voice Stress Analysis Examinations in the Middle Eastern Culture

by Lawrence Rice, VSA Instructor, VIPRE Technology Group, LLC March 2023

In August 2003, while working as a strategic debriefer for U.S. Southern Command, Lawrence became a VSA examiner, and later an instructor for VSA. Since his entry into the profession of voice stress analysis Lawrence has conducted VSA exams throughout the U.S. Central Command’s area of operation, i.e. Iraq, Afghanistan, United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Jordan. As a VSA instructor and Military/Cultural Advisor with VIPRE Technology Group, LLC Lawrence has continued to bring the benefits of voice stress analysis to the counter terrorism arena. Lawrence is currently a consultant and advisor for the IAVSA.

Introduction This paper is based upon documentation as referenced in the footnotes, and from the training and professional experiences of the author. The paper specifically addresses cultural factors that are relevant to VSA as well as other biometric testing technologies. VSA has been described as one method to observe and evaluate someone’s physiological (emotional) reaction to a question that carries the consequence of jeopardy. The reader is reminded, a voice stress analyzer is not a “lie detector,” but a tool to assist the examiner in ferreting out the truth.(6)

To effectively conduct biometric testing on individuals from non-Western cultures one must understand the culture of the one being tested. This is necessary to not only understand the examinee’s mindset, but why and how they may react to questions during biometric testing. The following information should provide the reader with a professional understanding of Middle (12) Eastern culture, thus improving the results from both general interviewing and VSA exams.7,8,9

Difference Between Western and Eastern Thinking Western culture and values define an individual not by the circumstances or social group they were born into, but by what they do in life, i.e. cause & effect. In contrary, Eastern culture and values define an individual by the circumstances or social group they were born into. Individuals from most Eastern cultures gauge success by how well an individual interrelates with family, society, and social traditions, i.e. how well the individual fits into the surrounding social environment.(10)

The Influence of Religion

Religion is one of the strongest elements in the fabric of the Middle East, Central Asia, and a good portion of South East Asia. The prominent religion of the Middle East and a lion-share of the cultures in Central Asia and South East Asia is Islam. When conducting interviews and VSA exams on individuals from these regions, the interviewer and/or VSA examiner should consider Islam’s influence and how it may affect questioning. It is commonly known that followers of Islam are known as Muslims. Muslims assume that religious affiliation is essential for every person. By definition and profession, Islam means “the surrendering of the self to the will of Allah (God), and it portrays a God remote, powerful, and often benevolent, yet wholly out of contact with the individual man. Many Muslim fundamentalists feel that deceit to advance an Islamic cause is moral; the end justifies the means. This belief will be discussed in greater detail further on in this paper.11,12

Religion and Lying

It is not uncommon for a Middle Easterner to proclaim they cannot lie, because they are Muslim. The truth is, Islam permits Muslims to lie anytime that they perceive that their well-being, or that of Islam, is threatened. Under the concept of Taqih (aka Takeyya) one has virtually the permission to lie. Under the practice of Taqih, if under the threat of force, it is legitimate for Muslims to act contrary to their faith. The following actions are acceptable:13,14

  • Drink wine, abandon prayers, and skip fasting during Ramadan.
  • Renounce belief in Allah.
  • Kneel in homage to a deity other than Allah.
  • Utter insincere oaths. (13)

Middle Eastern Culture

In addition to religion, culture also directly influences how most Middle Easterners react to their surroundings, specifically during an interview or biometric testing. To better understand how and why a Middle Easterner may react to a specific question, the interviewer and/or examiner needs to understand one’s respective culture. Middle Eastern cultural traits can be defined as the following:

  • The Group: Like many other non-Western societies which see their identity as manifested by their interrelationships, most Middle Eastern societies are group-structured. It is probably the most noticeable feature of Middle Eastern culture. Most Middle Eastern cultures originated in either a hard desert environment or somewhere else where there was scarcely enough food and water to go around. Thus, the world was viewed as a hostile place, where each individual had to adhere to the group for protection and psychological comfort. Each individual would give their full loyalty to the group since everyone's survival depended upon allegiance, solidarity, and submission to the code of the group. Dissenters from any group are held in check by the formidable Eastern weapon of public shaming. Individuality, in the Western sense, does not fit into the scheme since everyone obeys the strict authority of the group's hierarchical decisions. One cannot, therefore, expect an individual from this culture to isolate oneself from interrelationships with their group.

  • The Friend: In most Middle Eastern societies where interrelationships are all-important, the concept of friend takes on a more comprehensive meaning than it does in the West. What we call a friend, a person from the Middle East would call an acquaintance. In the turbulent world of the East, friends are there to serve each other, and there is a continuing line of obligations and favors to be exchanged. One owes deep loyalty to a friend and no favor or obligation is too great. Middle Easterners interrogated in connection with committing a crime or being an accomplice may admit to having done it to assist a friend, and the admission may well be true even though a Western interrogator would not believe that anyone would leave themselves so criminally liable for a friend. A Middle Easterner would assume that policies, activities, groups, and interests of friends will completely overlap and will not be limited to just one area of common interest. By contrast, a “friend” in the West might be represented as an ongoing business contact with limited outside social contact, or none at all.

  • Subjective Understanding of the Facts: In the thinking of non-Western cultures, reality lies in interrelationships, not in a surrounding world of empirical phenomena. Thus, facts can be readjusted to mesh harmoniously with the important values of relations and feelings. To someone from the Middle East, fact is what they emotionally want to believe is true or convenient. Westerners, in attempting to debrief or interrogate an individual from the Middle East for the essential elements of any situation, maybe highly distressed to find that, in addition to a lack of straight-line thinking, the facts seem to keep shifting without the individual having any intent to prevaricate.

  • Words Equal Deeds: On both the emotional and linguistic levels, most Middle Easterners are in love with their classical language. Eloquence and extended linguistic expression are admired by most Middle Easterners. The language and the culture allow for flowery exaggerations that are said for momentary emotional effect and are not meant to be taken literally. Translated, a Westerner could consider the words and sentiment as “overblown.”

  • Dependent Personality: The Middle Easterner is well able to make minor decisions about what they like or do not like, but their culture will not allow them to make major social decisions about (14) education, profession, politics, marriage, etc. As a member of a group society, one is brought up to fill places in groups. One is expected to conform and accede to the wishes of the elders in their family and their group on all major issues. In addition, their non-Western mode of thought teaches them that it is not necessary to try to influence the environment, and their society provides them limited mobility for social advancement. Thus, one is molded into a dependent personality and is not expected to develop individualism, self-reliance, or decision-making capability.

  • Failure to Establish Cause / Effect Relationship: This trait is related to non-Western societies which engage in “cluster thinking” as opposed to the Western concept of sequence thinking. This is apparent when a Westerner listens to a Middle Easterner relate the sequence of events in a story. However, the cause/effect problem cannot be universally applied in judgment of all Middle Eastern behavior. The Westerner may view a situation and assess the outcome of a Middle Easterner's response to the same situation as a cause/effect problem. But, in reality, the Middle Easterner may have acted with different cultural priorities to establish an outcome in line with their priorities. Missing this point, while keeping their own goals in mind, the Westerner might conclude, “Didn't they realize that if they did A, B would happen?” or “These people don't think.”

  • Indifference to Time and Efficiency: Time and efficiency are important values only if one is in a technological Western society where there is a drive to achieve and a feeling that one can alter the environment or advance one's status. In the Middle East results are in the hands of Allah and out of man's control; the society does not expect anyone to disturb their existing interrelationships by attempts to advance their social status. Time passes in the East, but it is not marked on a straight-line continuum along which one expects to chalk up their successes or accomplishments. An Arabic proverb states that patience is the key to ease, therefore everyone can slow down and expect everything to happen the easy way.

  • Personal Treatment – Impersonal Rules Ignored: In the Middle East one can easily understand the legitimacy of the authority of Islam or family elders, and they are obeyed. However, Middle Easterners have only minimum respect for secular governments and their institutionalized laws and regulations because they cannot see from where they derive their legitimacy. Neither do they see that they should be personally obligated to obey them. Probably because of historical experiences with outside conquerors, Middle Easterners feel that imposed outside regulation is always against one's better interests. They quote the phrase, “Rules are for enemies and foreigners.”

  • Work vs. Success: Work in the Middle East is not looked upon as a vehicle to progress, success, reward, and virtue. There is limited possibility for advancement in a closed group society, and one is not expected to try to advance oneself by their efforts. Physical labor is something for the lower classes to perform. Everyone else would like to be a supervisor, work in an office, or succeed as a commission merchant by making the one “big kill.”15,16

The Concept of Shame

Within non-Western societies, where an individual’s identity is determined by one’s interrelationships, it is not difficult to see why the concept of personal dignity is so important. Without proper training or at least some understanding of Middle Eastern culture, one can not (15) anticipate or understand

Western and Middle Eastern interaction

  • Personal Dignity vs. Objectivity: Social acceptability for the Westerner is a matter of demonstrating integrity by an uncompromising will to face objective truth and fact. Without this concept of objectivity, their technological society would not be able to function. Personal respect goes to one who undertakes a ruthless search for facts regardless of how self-effacing the results may be. One may apologize for their shortcomings and gain respect for an honest effort to correct flaws or errors. The Westerner is always culturally required to reconcile one's position and one's person with fact and truthfully interpreted reality since the impersonal objectivity of fact and truth is more important than preserving personal dignity to the world at large. Note that the verb “to rationalize” implies a negative flavor.

  • Public Shame vs. Personal Guilt: The Islamic concept of God, or Allah, is that of an all-powerful impersonal entity and determiner of all events. To their will and direction, the individual surrenders their self. As such, there is no requirement for the individual to accept guilt or develop an inner conscience as a barometer to judge one’s behavior, over which they have limited control. Instead, the Middle Easterner reacts to outside censure or public shaming. Because non-Western societies stress status and interrelationships, public shame is a formidable weapon in regulating social behavior insofar as it can strongly affect one's interrelationships.

  • Subjective Interpretation: The reality for people from a non-Western society lies in one's personal and societal interrelationships and not in a surrounding world of empirical phenomena. Therefore, facts must be adjusted to mesh harmoniously with one's personal feelings and relations. To handle objectivity and facts otherwise risks jeopardizing one's all-important status and interrelationships.17,18

Western and Middle East Interaction

A cultural clash may ensue when a Middle Eastern subject is administered a biometric exam by a Western examiner. Often the examination and the following discussion, attempting to clarify the unresolved issues, result unfavorably for the Middle Easterner.” The clash is manifested by a scenario of how the two individuals see each other, each with their own cultural assumptions.

  • Dependent Personality: A disorder in which persons appear anxious and dependent and cannot make major decisions. These traits may be exhibited by a Middle Easterner because in their culture the group, or the elders in a group make the decisions. Decision-making is seldom an individual responsibility, and the Middle Easterner fears being out of line with the group's opinions.

  • Paranoid Personality: Suspecting that everyone is out to harm them, the subject appears suspicious, always looks for threats, and has problems with those in authority. The group structure of Middle Eastern society and the intense rivalry between groups condition a Middle Easterner to be suspicious of persons or institutions that could be ill-disposed.

  • Transduction of Events: A form of logic (faulty, in the Western view) in which a subject concludes that two events are thought to be connected because they occurred at the same time. Non-Western persons frequently engage in “cluster thinking” in this format because they do not (16) utilize sequence (straight-line) thinking.

  • Cognitive Dissonance: When two ideas or cognitions conflict, the subject may attempt to reconcile the discrepancy by distorting one cognition to fit the other. In Middle Eastern culture, facts are not immutable; they can be reinterpreted to fit into whatever form is necessary according to their value system (such as saving face).

  • Immaturity: Individuals unaccustomed to dealing with a person from the Middle Eastern culture may label them as “immature” because they do not seem to have mastered the cultural traits, behavior, and reactions that are seen as normal in their culture.19,20

Using an Interpreter

If an interpreter must be used, it is suggested that a non-Middle Easterner be used. If the interpreter is another Middle Easterner, the subject will hold suspicions about what the interpreter’s group loyalties are. Additionally, the Examinee may also subscribe to the belief that most Middle Easterners talk (gossip), and information about the Examinee or their admissions could leak out. The examiner should keep in mind the use of an interpreter doubles testing, debriefing, and interrogation times because everything must be said twice. Also, the interrogation may lose some of its contrived psychological impact because of the time lapses occasioned by the interpretation process. As testing time wears on, the effectiveness of the examination and interrogation diminishes as the interpreter begins to tire or lose focus.21,22,23

Developing the Questions

  • Irrelevant: The irrelevant question is the easiest to formulate because it tends to produce no stress. Therefore, the only consideration is that the question does not arouse a personal or cultural sensitivity. For example, Middle Easterners do not inquire about the women of each other's families because it borders on being sexually indiscreet. Irrelevant questions should therefore be limited to either the examiner, the examinee, or immediate surroundings, i.e. Am I wearing a tie, are you sitting down, is there a light switch on the wall.

  • Relevant: The relevant question, designed to invoke an emotion from a deceptive person, may also be upsetting to a truthful Middle Easterner. It is possible for innocent people to fear the primary relevant because it is the crux of the issue under investigation and they fear the possibility of examiner error. For this reason, it is imperative the examiner establish their credibility as an experienced examiner.24,25

Testing Format

Over the last twenty years, the author has observed that most Middle Easterners have difficulty with control questions. Because of culture, most examinees tend to fixate on control questions, even though they are merely directed lies for the purpose of the VSA exam. When this happens, responses to control questions, tend to reflect greater stress than the relevant questions. Use of testing formats without control questions have proven to be more than effective, and therefore have become the format of choice with many seasoned examiners.26

Examiner Behaviors

Follow-on debriefing or interrogation to a VSA examination most often presents its own cultural problems. This is where intercultural differences or perceptions could impact conventional interrogation techniques. Maintaining a non-judgmental attitude toward the examinee regarding the results of an exam is paramount in obtaining a confession and/or admission. The author of this paper has observed that capitulations from examinees normally follow a calm and rational discussion of the exam results.27,28

Body Language

Some body and verbal behaviors that are culturally normal for one, may signal deceit or untrustworthiness to another. Case in point, correct posture for a Middle Easterner with a new acquaintance consists of sitting upright in a chair with feet flat on the floor, legs uncrossed, and looking directly at the person's eyes. This could be perceived by a Westerner as someone practicing deception. Casual slouching, crossing the legs, or pointing the bottom of the feet toward the other person implies a lack of respect or disdain. Similarly, a lack of intimate, direct eye contact or diverting the gaze signals deceitfulness.

Most Middle Eastern societies attach no stigma of arrogance to direct staring. When meeting or parting, Middle Easterners of all classes prefer to shake hands.

Upon initial meeting, Middle Easterners are quick to judge another's status by whether their dress is casual or professionally proper. They also tend to be initially reserved both in the modulation of voice and the use of hand gestures. As conversations or debriefings draw out, they will become more animated. In any conversation, several items of body language and gestures will appear. Gestures and touching are done with the right hand. (The left hand is considered unclean) If a Middle Easterner holds their right forefinger upright and shakes it quickly left and right it means “Not at all. Never.”

Although it may appear to a Western examiner as a gesture of contempt, a common gesture of “No” consists of raising the eyebrows slightly while tipping the head back once. This behavior is more pronounced in certain Middle Eastern countries like Saudi Arabia. (18)

Holding the right hand out, palm up, with thumb and fingertips touching together indicates “Be patient. Stop.”

Holding the right hand out with the palm down and moving in a vertical patting motion means “Calm down. Take it easy.”

If the right hand is held out palm down and the wrist is turned quickly so the palm is up with the thumb and forefinger extended, it indicates a question about whatever has just been said or done.

If a Middle Easterner wants something repeated, they use a head motion that the Westerner might mistake for “No.” If one scowls or knits their eyebrows while shaking their head left and right in short rapid motions, this means “Huh? What was that again?”

To emphasize points in a discussion, a Middle Easterner may fold their right fist palm up with the forefinger extended and the thumb up (similar to a child imitating a pistol) and make short chopping motions with their hand.

A Middle Easterner's normal style in a contentious discussion is to shout when excited, talk a lot, and be long-winded. The examinee may also be given to repeating the same ideas in different words, employing circumlocutions, and exaggerating for effect. This so contrasts with the Westerner's preference for short, succinct, quiet, and logical statements that the Middle Easterner is baffled and wonders if the Westerner means the words that they are saying. The Westerner, in turn, sees the Middle Easterner's boisterous emotional manner as childishness which discredits them and their message and implies deceit.

Thus, to get a simple point across to a Middle Easterner, the examiner cannot just state it once quietly. They must repeat it several times in different words and employ exaggeration, and over-assertion in style to have it register as a simple declarative statement. Note that the Middle Easterner will most likely honor eloquence and rhetoric more than the substance of the message. For the Middle Easterner, loudness, repetition, and dramatic display indicate a sincere interest in the outcome of the discussion and not uncontrolled anger. The examiner will encounter this whenever they press a Middle Easterner on any difficult point. During such displays, the Middle Easterner will frequently call upon God (Allah) and religion to witness their truthfulness: “Allah knows I am speaking the truth. That machine doesn't.”

Because Middle Easterners have such a feeling for the power of words, they are uncomfortable discussing death, illness, or disgraceful matters. Even the most forthright Middle Easterner will employ euphemisms and refuse to utter a harsh realistic word fearing that mention of such a word or matter could invoke the bad event. If pressured, most will refuse to retreat from the euphemism and mention the harsher truth. If the examiner mentions the harsher word, the Middle Easterner will acknowledge it but feel uncomfortable about the word having been brought out. Similarly, the use of a personal curse or obscenity is very offensive.

In contrast to the Middle Easterner’s usual lively style of speech, they do not consider it rude to let the conversation come to a standstill. Middle Easterners feel that it is possible to sit and enjoy each other's company quietly. In addition, when circumstances array against them, Middle Easterners recognize that Allah is the controller of all events so they can accept impersonal adversity with resignation and silence. (Westerners might greet similar situations with an outburst of (19) swearing.) Because of the above, an examiner might misinterpret an untruthful Middle Easterner's silence following a lively tirade and protestations of innocence. One’s sudden silence and apparent lethargy do not mean they have hit a psychological point where they are contemplating making admissions. It simply means that they have stopped talking!

There is no single recipe for success in interrogations with any group of people; but with Middle Easterners, immediate confrontation is certainly least likely to succeed. Given the Middle Easterner's propensity for lively extended talking, elicitation techniques and patient “steering” of their conversation could prove beneficial. It is most important that they be encouraged and presented with themes that are in harmony with their cultural values and that do not levy guilt upon them. If they make a minor admission, acknowledge it in a low-key manner and immediately move the conversation on. Do not “jump on them,” forcefulness is probably detrimental. Employing patience, subtlety, and persistence, the following cultural notes and themes may be of assistance to the examiner. A Middle Easterner will not make admissions based on their conscience. Trying to build a theme or induce a guilty conscience and remorse is a Western, but not an Eastern, concept.

Middle Easterners respond to more personalized arguments rather than to logic that seems “sensible” to Westerners. Mention how we are depending on them and looking forward to their assistance in these sensitive matters; also allude to the effects these matters will have on other persons and colleagues. To reduce the shame pressure of admissions, utilize the Middle Easterner's speech mannerisms that they are culturally accustomed to: i.e., euphemisms and circumlocutions.

When asked a question they find embarrassing to answer, the Middle Easterner will use a long peripheral partially-relevant discussion to respond without answering.

When introducing a sensitive point, begin by paying tribute to them and their self-esteem, plus give them a way out so will not lose face. This is appropriate with even the most hostile of Middle Easterner subjects.

Allowing the subject to transfer responsibility for mistakes or other events makes it easier for them to acknowledge potentially embarrassing admissions.

Assure the Middle Easterner that we also recognize that Allah controls all events and that we are not here to try to place moral blame on them, but rather we are trying to determine what events are occurring around us that are of mutual interest in our relationship.

Note that some emotionally troubled Westerners automatically employ certain psychological defenses as a coping strategy to avoid some emotions and anxieties. Some of these, such as denial, rationalization, compartmentalization, and overcompensation can, under any circumstances, be culturally normal in Middle Eastern society. If employed under the stress of interrogation, it does not necessarily mean that the Middle Eastern subject is neurotic or deceitful.29,30

About the Author

Lawrence is a retired Chief Warrant Officer with the United States (U.S.) Army Criminal Investigation Division, with twenty-plus years of military service. Seventeen of his years in the military were dedicated specifically to law enforcement and the criminal intelligence arena. Additionally, Lawrence has twenty-plus additional years of experience as a government contractor supporting U.S. Department of Defense intelligence operations. Lawrence’s areas of experience include criminal and internal investigations, counterintelligence operations, human intelligence collection, strategic intelligence analysis (also known as critical thinking), open-source intelligence research and analysis, link analysis, pattern analysis, analysis of competing hypotheses, strategic debriefing, interviewing and interrogation techniques, Voice Stress Analysis (VSA), intelligence collection management and, elicitation/recruitment and management of sources.

6 Rice, L. (2023, March 1). Curriculum vitae. Linkedin Profile. Retrieved March 15, 2023, from 7 Engelhardt, B. A. (circa 1960). Arab Culture and the Polygraph Process. 8 Lawrence, T. E. (2008). Seven Pillars of Wisdom (pp. 1-700). Penguin Random House. 9 Fontes, L. A. (2008). Interviewing Clients across Cultures: A Practitioner’s Guide. The Guilford Press. 10 Engelhardt, B. A. (circa 1960). Arab Culture and the Polygraph Process. 11 Ibid. 12 Mahdi, M. S., Rahman, F., & Schimmel, A. (2023, March 10). Islam. Britannica. Retrieved March 13, 2023, from 13 Welty, W. P., Ph.D (2015, February 22). Islamic Deception: Al-Takeyya or Al-Taqiyya. Theology Online. Retrieved March 13, 2023, from 14 Rice, L. (2023, March 1), Curriculum vitae, Linkedin Profile, Retrieved March 15, 2023, from 15 Engelhardt, B. A. (circa 1960), Arab Culture and the Polygraph Process. 16 Rice, L. (2023, March 1), Curriculum vitae, Linkedin Profile, Retrieved March 15, 2023, from 17 Engelhardt, B. A. (circa 1960), Arab Culture and the Polygraph Process. 18 Rice, L. (2023, March 1), Curriculum vitae, Linkedin Profile, Retrieved March 15, 2023, from 19 Engelhardt, B. A. (circa 1960), Arab Culture and the Polygraph Process. 20 Rice, L. (2023, March 1), Curriculum vitae, Linkedin Profile, Retrieved March 15, 2023, from 21 Engelhardt, B. A. (circa 1960), Arab Culture and the Polygraph Process. 22 Fontes, L. A. (2008). Interviewing Clients across Cultures: A Practitioner’s Guide. The Guilford Press. 23 Rice, L. (2023, March 1), Curriculum vitae, Linkedin Profile, Retrieved March 15, 2023, from 24 Engelhardt, B. A. (circa 1960), Arab Culture and the Polygraph Process. 25 Rice, L. (2023, March 1), Curriculum vitae, Linkedin Profile, Retrieved March 15, 2023, from 26 Rice, L. (2023, March 1), Curriculum vitae, Linkedin Profile, Retrieved March 15, 2023, from 27 Ibid. 28 Engelhardt, B. A. (circa 1960), Arab Culture and the Polygraph Process. 29 Engelhardt, B. A. (circa 1960), Arab Culture and the Polygraph Process. 30 Rice, L. (2023, March 1), Curriculum vitae, Linkedin Profile, Retrieved March 15, 2023, from



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