“People are like the moon: they show you only one of their sides.” -Arthur Schopenhauer
As humans, our ability to communicate is one of our greatest assets. We are the apex social animal on planet Earth. Yet, much of our communication is feigned or expressed indirectly. Studies suggest that most of our communication is nonverbal. Because we are self-absorbed, we miss out on the nonverbal cues of the people around us. We obsess over words and miss the true language.
“Realize the following: The word personality comes from the Latin persona, which means “mask.” In the public we all wear masks, and this has a positive function.” -Robert Greene, The Laws of Human Nature
Never assume that people are telling you the whole story. They are prone to present their best front and even delude themselves. Dan Ariely, author of Predictably Irrational and I had a great interview about the nuances of honesty and deception. To see the full interview, check out the video embedded below.
To get in touch with reality, you must learn to observe people more deeply. When you do observe them, recognize the language of their true signals. And finally, when you have grasped the communication of others, use it to present your best self to them.
It takes tremendous effort to understand this process. Hone the skills below from The Laws of Human Nature by Robert Greene to master the role-playing in every day life.
1. Observe Cues. As discussed in my previous article on narcissism, we lose a sensitivity to others as we concentrate more on ourselves. Try to reconnect to the curiosity you had as a child. It is helpful to start with a small, but frequent goal, such as one body language observation per day. Write it down and establish a sense of any patterns. Once you grasp someone’s patterns it is easy to spot any mixed signals.
Turn your observations into predictions about people. Try looking at someone and guessing their profession. Over time, you can check to see if you are accurate. This will also help you to see what you are signaling to others. With practice, your predictions will improve and you will seem almost psychic.
“I can never bring you to realize the importance of sleeves, the suggestiveness of thumbnails, or the great issues that may hang from a boot-lace.” -Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, “A Case of Identity”
2. Decode Cues. Use your powers of observation to pick up on other people’s emotional leakage. The following are common forms and guidance to decode them.
Dislike/like cues: When people resist you, there are cues leading up to it. They can’t hold back such strong emotions, but we avoid the signs of dislike. The body language is loud and clear in their folded arms and feet turned away, yet we continue on until verbally rejected. Accept people’s body language and watch their faces for microexpressions. The face is difficult to control and a keen observer can spot quick flashes of a frown or a glare.
With a grasp of single cues, you can move on to compare multiple cues at once. Is a person sending mixed signals? Do they say they agree with you, but nod side-to-side and cross their arms? Do they insult you, but play it off as a joke? Or do they appear happy when other speak, but frown when you have something to say? These mixed signals will give people away.
You can even test to see if someone dislikes you. Tell them about some good news in your life and watch for a smile on their face. With this information you can avoid hostile people or prepare your defenses.
If someone enjoys your presence, the natural cues will fall into place. You will spot a genuine smile, notice a pleasant tone of voice, or enjoy a synchronous conversation.
Dominance/submission cues: To thrive as social animals we naturally organize in hierarchies. In many settings, people find it taboo to be direct about rank. Instead, dominance is expressed through nonverbal means. For example, the confidence that comes through top rank is palpable. The posture and stride of an alpha male are programmed by years of evolution. And they will tend to project this confidence outward in their voice and the way they touch other people.
When an alpha struts through a group, his subordinates will tend to fall in behind him. This was required during my time in the United States Navy. Subordinates will also be more likely to imitate the alpha.
Spot these cues so you can quickly assess the ways of power and influence in any setting. You will see who needs help and who pulls the strings. Ultimately, you can manage the egos around you and determine who to choose as your allies.
Deception cues: The trend in deception cues is that they are often overdone. The body language is too warm, too welcoming, too self-assured. Going over the top plays on our conviction bias (see part 02 of this series). Look for tension in the parts of the body that are not engaged in persuading you. Perhaps there is a big smile, but the eyes do not budge. We have a great sense for a genuine human smile and poor imitations will tend to feel creepy.
If you spot deception, you can confront it, avoid it, or even encourage the deceiver to go too far. Eventually, they will take enough rope to hang themselves.
3. Manage Impressions. Despite all the buzz about being authentic, it is noble to make a good impression. For example, if you are in a position of authority, such as piloting an airplane, the people who support you benefit from your professional demeanor. You can let your hair down when you get home.
To make an effective impression, begin by making a strong nonverbal impression. This is crucial in a first impression, even the eye contact you make from a distance counts. Keep your posture confident, flash genuine smiles, and mirror the people you speak with. This can start by consciously getting in the mood you want to project, like a trained method actor.
With time and skill, you can adapt to your audience. Perhaps you interview for a job and meet the CEO of the company with a serious professional approach, but you act more casual at a second interview over lunch with a peer.
To maintain your strong impression, you must have a flare for keeping attention. Learn when to mysteriously disappear or when to be more dramatic. And help people to infer that you are a person of good character, by displaying prosocial traits. You can even show weakness at times. And always be subtle with your authority to avoid stirring envy and resentment.
For an in-depth look at our nature, the book to read on this subject is The Laws of Human Nature by Robert Greene.