How to read people
Do you suspect that your employees and colleagues don’t like you? Are you wondering how to tell if an interviewer is particularly impressed or unimpressed with you, or whether an interviewee really wants the job? Do you think someone might be lying to you? There are some body language cues that may indicate all of these things.
I’ve always been fascinated with interpreting the pre-reflective, non-verbal cues that speak volumes about how people are really feeling. I’ve studied body language, how to read people, and reading micro-expressions, and I’ve written many articles on the subject over the years.
Here are some of the things I’ve learned.
Get a baseline reading. Body language is difficult to read. We have to start with that. In order to know what someone looks like when they’re uncomfortable, you have to know what they look like when they’re comfortable. We don’t all make the same gestures or faces. Pay close attention to individual people when they’re neutral, so you can tell when they deviate from their norms. This is hard to do when interviewing someone you’ve just met, obviously. The best you can do there is ask a few control questions that you know they know the answers to: “How are you?” “How was traffic getting here?” “Do you live far?”
That being said, there are some pretty common tells that apply to most people.
The torso is an indicator of interest, or lack thereof. If someone is looking at you but their torso is turned away from you, this is a potential indicator that they aren’t interested in talking to you and that they want to get away. Watch how people’s bodies are turned. They will be aware of their face, but not their chest.
The feet tell you if they want to walk away. Someone might be able to fake it by remembering to turn their torso towards you, so the feet are another, better indicator, because people are not aware of their feet. The feet don’t lie. Look at couples in love. Their feet will always be pointing towards each other.
When talking to someone, look at their feet. If the toes are directed towards you, this means the person is interested in talking with you. If they are pointed away from you, this means the person wants to get away from either the conversation or you.
Don’t jump to conclusions, though. This doesn’t necessarily mean they don’t like you. They could just be in a hurry to do something, or have to go to the bathroom.
The knees let you know. In a job interview, it’s not always possible to see someone’s legs and feet below the table, but if you aren’t blocked by one, note how the person is sitting. If their legs are crossed and pointing away from you, this is not as good an indicator as if they are crossed towards you.
It’s normal for both of you to be a little uncomfortable and closed in the beginning. If you see them turning towards you with torso, feet, knees, the whole body, and opening up as the conversation moves forward, this is an indication that things are going well.
The pupils don’t lie. When we like someone our pupils dilate (grow larger) at the sight of them, when we don’t the pupils contract (get smaller) – possibly to take in more or less of the sight of them. So, when someone is happy to see you, their pupils will be big when they talk with you, and if they are not happy, they will get small. They can also return to normal once we get our emotions in check, so this indicator is best spotted at the very beginning of an interaction.
Again, don’t jump to conclusions. Maybe you just interrupted them while they were planning your surprise party.
The eyes can and do lie. It’s supposedly common wisdom that when someone is lying, they won’t be able to look you in the eye.
“Look me in the eye and say that,” we challenge, when we think someone is being deceitful.
But this is false. A liar may actually be more likely to look you in the eye, since they know this is what you expect of an honest person. For this reason, unbroken eye contact may be an indicator of deceit. When in a natural, relaxed state, we tend to make and break eye contact, not hold it solidly.
This is not, however, a clear indicator of deceit. Despite what you’ve read, deceit is actually very difficult to read. Many body language indicators may imply discomfort with an individual, a situation, or a topic of conversation. But people have complex reasons for their reactions and emotions and discomfort. Beware.
But not always: When someone closes their eyes, or places their hands over them for a moment, they are trying to block something out, like an unpleasant moment. So, if you ask someone a question and they make this gesture, know that they find the question difficult to deal with.
When uncomfortable, we protect the neck: This is known as a “pacifying behavior.” An example of the above statement is neck touching. When both men and women are uncomfortable or distressed they will touch their necks, often covering them as though protecting them.
If you ask someone “Did you embezzle a million dollars?” and he immediately touches his neck, that’s just an indicator that the question makes him uncomfortable, not that he embezzled the money. But if you ask your boss if you’re getting that promotion, and she doesn’t have a clear answer, but touches her neck, I bet you’re not getting it.
Other pacifying behaviours include touching our foreheads and rubbing our thighs. If someone makes these gestures during a job interview, the questions that provoked them may merit further probing.
The mouth doesn’t have to talk to tell. Tightening of the lips or jaw suggest discomfort, distress, or dismay. If someone’s jaw tightens when they see you – or after a statement you make during an interview – or their lips compress, that’s not a good sign.
It only takes a fraction of a second to give yourself away. A micro-expression is a tiny flash of an expression that your face will make displaying your emotions. It’s beyond your control, but it’s so quick that those who don’t know how to read them will miss them entirely. Micro-expressions include happiness, surprise, anger, disgust, fear, contempt, and sadness. If someone makes an expression of contempt or disgust when they see you, or an expression of happiness when something bad happens to you, that’s a potential indication that they don’t like you. Or not. Again, it is impossible to know for certain why people react the way they do.
You can learn to read micro-expressions online and with training tools from Dr. Paul Ekman’s website. It will change the way you see people around you. But beware: once this had been learned, it can’t be unlearned, and you will be forever trying to figure out why people are reacting to you the way they are.
While far from foolproof, these tips will give you a bit more insight into the people around you, which can give both interviewer and interviewee a better read, and offer an opportunity to adjust your behaviour and better people’s reactions to you.
Of course, how you choose to interpret the information people provide with their bodies is up to you.
A great place to start learning about body language is with Joe Navarro’s book What Every Body is Telling You.
You can also learn a little about micro expressions here, and more at Dr. Paul Ekman’s website.