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Reading people by observing subtle mannerisms
April 29, 2008 8:47 AM   Subscribe

Help me read people better. What are some ways that you can locate certain personality types or backgrounds based on body language and interaction with the environment?

Many of my friends and even some of my relatives are ahead of me on this. When we meet new people or observe strangers out in public, they can tell if someone's a virgin vs. promiscuous, straight vs. gay, upper middle class vs. working class, nice vs. asshole, local vs. from X state/city, etc.

The thing is that I don't think my friends go by obvious things such as clothing or hairstyle. I think those things are taken into consideration, but not the only things. I'm usually told it's "the way they move" or how they react to things and people around them.
posted by sixcolors to Human Relations (31 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
 
Hint: your friends are almost certainly wrong on a regular basis. This is some of the best advice I've ever seen on AskMe.
posted by Partial Law at 8:50 AM on April 29, 2008 [2 favorites]


As someone who usually has the wrong sexual orientation assigned to them by strangers, I'll second the opinion that your friends are probably wrong.
posted by PatoPata at 8:59 AM on April 29, 2008


Many of my friends and even some of my relatives are ahead of me on this. When we meet new people or observe strangers out in public, they can tell if someone's a virgin vs. promiscuous, straight vs. gay, upper middle class vs. working class, nice vs. asshole, local vs. from X state/city, etc.

You're kidding right? I agree with Partial Law, your friends are almost certainly wrong on a regular basis. It's almost funny...okay it IS funny that you think your friends and relatives can tell if a perfect stranger is a virgin...or if they have a lot of money in the bank. There is absolutely no way of knowing these things about someone you just happen to see walking down the sidewalk. All your friends are doing is guessing. And, since these are strangers that they are talking about, they can never be proven wrong (or right for that matter) since there is no way to verify.
posted by GlowWyrm at 9:03 AM on April 29, 2008


I'm not claiming that my friends are psychic. But, they are usually right, way more than I am. They can tell if a new friend or associate is gay/lesbian way before they come out of the closet. They can tell if a working class person is hiding behind expensive clothes. They know if someone's new boyfriend/girlfriend is an asshole way before it shows up their behavior. They can pick out who's from where. THey're not always right, but I'm shocked at how accurate they are many times. I can say that many of my buds are non-straight, come from working class families, from out of town, and a few of them display assholish behavior on occasion. Maybe it takes one to know one?
posted by sixcolors at 9:10 AM on April 29, 2008


There's no way to know if your friends' assumptions are accurate, unless you ask the people they are observing. I hope you are not asking strangers their sexual proclivities.
posted by desjardins at 9:12 AM on April 29, 2008


There seem to be two different situations here - your post states that your friends can tell these things about strangers ("When we meet new people or observe strangers out in public") while your followup implies they're making assumptions about people they've known for at least a little while.
posted by frobozz at 9:18 AM on April 29, 2008


It's not always strangers, yeah it's hard to confirm then. It's usually the new people that we meet...new friends, new foes, new significant other's of our friends, new friends of our friends.

Sooner or later, the truth comes out about these people, and my friends are usually right.
posted by sixcolors at 9:18 AM on April 29, 2008


I remember telling a new friend that I was married in Las Vegas. She said she would have never thought I was the type. What type gets married in Las Vegas? All types.

You can't judge a book by its cover. You would probably never guess that that long-haired, tattooed, cowboy boot wearing, pock-faced dude was a brilliant neurosurgeon. Well he is, and he works at my local hospital.

About the only time I size up a stranger is when I see them throwing garbage on the ground/rude to waitstaff/rude to children. Then they're inconsiderate assholes.
posted by LoriFLA at 9:19 AM on April 29, 2008 [1 favorite]


I agree with the above. Many snap judgments I make about strangers, no matter how seemingly accurate, are nothing more than my projecting my insecurities onto them. And I don't know how many potential friendships I've cut off at the pass by deciding I don't like someone because of those snap judgments.

Some of the things you mention above can be identified by observing people's behavior in public, but only to a small degree of reliability. If you really want to hone your whatever-dar, observe lots and lots of people and you will start to pick up on patterns. But with new friends and coworkers, does the gender and number of people they've slept with even matter? Does the city or size of the house in which they were raised matter? As long as you can tell whether or not they're a jerk (and sometimes even that judgment is wrong), the rest is just gossip fodder and ultimately irrelevant.
posted by Metroid Baby at 9:30 AM on April 29, 2008


I like to give everyone the benefit of doubt whenever I can. I seriously believe that if I approach everyone as if they are honest, intelligent and kind then they will be that way in return. It's impossible to know anything about anyone without actually engaging with them in some way.
posted by dog food sugar at 9:32 AM on April 29, 2008 [1 favorite]


It all comes down to what exactly you are trying to accomplish. All of the things you've listed as categories aren't really personality traits. They are guesses of what some overt characteristics, your friends might be right or they might be wrong. For example, gay vs. straight - some people want you to know that their sexual orientation - so they display those characteristics that typify that orientation. Other's may not be so forthcoming. And honestly, this is a really shallow way to categorize a person and is not really that valuable information to have in dealing with the person under scrutiny. If they are gay, so what? If they are straight, so what? They are both probably seeking love in some sort or another - can you tell what kind of love they want? If you want to put people in boxes there all sorts of more interesting ways to do so. Here's a very brief overview of some personality theorists. These theories probably won't help you locate a person's sexual orientation or socio economic status though.

So back to "what you are trying to accomplish." Do you want to get to know someone? Convince them of something? Kiss them? Most of these categories they you have laid out or superficial categories that aren't going to help you out in any way in forming a relationship.


Sooner or later, the truth comes out about these people, and my friends are usually right. I'm pretty sure this is just confirmation bias. If you keep track of thier predictions, you'll probably see as many "wrongs" as "rights."
posted by bigmusic at 9:32 AM on April 29, 2008


You can't judge a book by its cover.

Of course you can. You just have to realize you may not be completely right. Looking at the cover of a romance novel, you can assume several things about will and won't be in it (probably won't contain scifi elements, there will be drama and relationships will be a theme), and you may be able to judge the quality of the book based the author or comments by critics.

Sooner or later, the truth comes out about these people, and my friends are usually right.

Just remember your friends aren't always right. It's a tricky thing. I do this all the time, it's a constant bullshit/people detector that's always running in the back of my head. It's obviously not always right and it's not something I do to pigeonhole people, but rather relate to them quickly, in the interests of bonding.

All of us are special, unique snowflakes, just like everyone else and tend to move, speak, or think in certain patterns defined by the social group we grew with or hang out with now.

The thing is that I don't think my friends go by obvious things such as clothing or hairstyle.

This makes it sound like you aren't sure. Maybe you should be asking your friends how they do what they do, in order to gain a better insight. It usually involves being aware of certain types of people generally and connecting the dots.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 9:36 AM on April 29, 2008


But with new friends and coworkers, does the gender and number of people they've slept with even matter?

Yes, most of us are single, it really matters. We're not looking for someone who's a complete ho, but someone who will put out. As for orientation, those of us who are non-straight don't want to hit on straight people, and those of us who are straight don't want to hit on non-straight people. We will be wasting out time, and occasion offending people if they turn out to be a different orientation.
posted by sixcolors at 9:39 AM on April 29, 2008


I would suggest confirmation bias leads one to believe they are less accurate that you might think.
posted by Ironmouth at 9:48 AM on April 29, 2008




Yes, most of us are single, it really matters. We're not looking for someone who's a complete ho, but someone who will put out. As for orientation, those of us who are non-straight don't want to hit on straight people, and those of us who are straight don't want to hit on non-straight people. We will be wasting out time, and occasion offending people if they turn out to be a different orientation.

The best way to find out all these things is to get to know people. If you're just talking about casual hookups with people you hardly know, then I would say a little awkwardness is part of the territory if you just want to try to shag someone without any investment. If you think it's a waste of time to get to know people and would rather base all your interactions on assumptions that may or may not be correct, expect plenty of surprises along the way.

BTW, calling people who enjoy a varied and fun sex life "hos" is a sure fire way to get oneself pigeonholed as a immature, offensive prude by the sorts of people who use shallow indicators as the key to someone's entire personality.
posted by oneirodynia at 10:29 AM on April 29, 2008


Oh, I meant to add that by really getting to know people around you you'll hone your sixth sense about some sorts of personality traits that may actually be legit.
posted by oneirodynia at 10:33 AM on April 29, 2008


I've had professors admit to trying to fail me in class because they made assumptions about me based on how I look. I was also called a slut for many years even though I was still a virgin. Nobody believed me. Eventually I grew bitter about it. By the way, it's pretty hard to dress slutty when you live with a grandmother who makes all your clothes; I don't know why people assumed that about me, but they did, and no amount of protesting would convince people otherwise.

One of my past boyfriends was so frequently mistaken for gay that I had several friends tell me that there was no way our relationship was real and repeatedly urged me to break up with him (I didn't for quite a while; he's married now and has a six-year-old daughter).

When you assume things about other people's character, sexual orientation, or place of origin, it says more about you than the person in question.

That being said, are you sure that when you later confirm the information about someone, it's coming directly from the source and is always accurate? I can't imagine telling someone, "You know, you were completely right. I ALWAYS have sex by the second date! Can you really tell just by looking at me?"

Of course, you do have a 50 percent chance of your assumptions being right. Time and experience (i.e., noticing a local style of dress, or a mannerism that you see often repeated by nice people, such as holding the door for others in a public place) will help you improve your 50/50 chances to something like 70/30 after trial-and-error confirmation.

Just bear in mind other people are assuming things about you, too.
posted by Unicorn on the cob at 10:37 AM on April 29, 2008 [1 favorite]


One thing you might not be recognizing is the difference in accents. For your upper middle class vs. working class example, I've noticed that in the Boston area, upper middle class people/transplants generally don't have much of a Boston accent, speaking in pretty standard English. Working class people have accents specific to the town they grew up in - and each town is very subtly different. Gay men in particular sometimes have accents also.
posted by fermezporte at 11:36 AM on April 29, 2008


I can usually tell if someone is nice or an asshole by observation, although I sometimes find that my initial impression is incorrect, or that they aren't nice all the time or an asshole all the time. I've never thought of this as a particularly uncanny ability. I'd have to say that watching how people react to others is a big factor in determining this.

Maybe you should spend some more time just watching people and their habits.
posted by yohko at 11:57 AM on April 29, 2008


As far as being non-straight and able to tell a person of your gender is into people of your gender, having that person come onto you can be a pretty good hint. I suggest that you learn to identify a "come-hither" gaze from a stranger of your prefered gender(s), this could have a big impact on your life and how concerned you are about the things you mention in this question.
posted by yohko at 12:06 PM on April 29, 2008


About the only clues I have is body language, accent, costume and behaviour, but I'll admit I have horrible gay-dar and excellent S&M-dar. My geek-dar is also finely honed, because I know the certain range of behaviours a geek tends to go to (more likely to own a sword than a gun, often male, thinks (s)he's very unusual). It's surprising but true that clothes make a person because people tend to try to conform with their idea of what their tribe is.

In this teeny city, which has about twenty clothing stores, it's also very easy to spot where someone bought something.
posted by Phalene at 12:11 PM on April 29, 2008


Yes, most of us are single, it really matters. We're not looking for someone who's a complete ho, but someone who will put out.

I'll join the chorus suggesting you back away from the idea of quickly labeling people based on superficial indicators. As Unicorn on the cob put it: "When you assume things about other people's character, sexual orientation, or place of origin, it says more about you than the person in question." For example, to me, the label "ho" says more about your attitudes about sex and women than it does about that person.

The people who resist judging, gather more information, and are scrupulously fair-minded (as grumblebee describes in the top link), are the ones that I respect most. I know you're not asking "how to be respected," but I do think that over the long run, gaining a reputation as someone even-minded and fair is a good way to hear the confidences that will eventually give you a much better understanding of people than you'll get by the sort of rules of thumb it sounds like you're asking for.
posted by salvia at 12:33 PM on April 29, 2008 [1 favorite]


If you really need to know who is gay or straight for dating purposes, a good way is to see how they respond to your attention. Or better yet, asking them out and them saying, "Sorry I'm not into dudes," is a really good way to find out if a girl is a lesbian.

A tip: grow up and stop saying things like "complete ho" and "puts out." That turns a lot of women off.
posted by fructose at 1:04 PM on April 29, 2008


First, to all 20+ responders who advised sixcolors not to judge a book by it's cover, you're absolutely right (and you managed to phrase it in a dozen different ways).

But come on. It's a legit question, even if the asker's choice of words makes him appear to be immature and horny. (Or are we judging him too quickly?)

The business world has been writing about this for years - particularly in the realm of sales. How can you walk into a room and know what tone you should set for your interaction with a bunch of strangers?

Snap judgments are often wrong, but they're often right too. We speak a constant stream of unconscious body language, we give pitch and intonation to our voices, we make choices about our clothes, our style, the places we go. None of these factors, independently or taken together paints a complete picture, but it's patently absurd to say they don't convey relevant information about a person. Covers convey a surprising amount about their books - ask any publisher or graphic designer.

Why do some people read this information more accurately than others? Intelligence, practice, experience, dare-I-say sensitivity? If I were you sixcolors, I'd be asking why your friends seem to innately pick up clues that you miss, and my guess is that you're not paying attention - maybe leaping ahead to the "putting out" thought? Most of these clues are designed to be picked up on (think mating rituals...), maybe you've been too lazy too look.
posted by Prevailing Southwest at 2:48 PM on April 29, 2008


One quick thing is the way people speak. If people speak with a lot of intonation in their voice, they are likely to be comfortable with more outward expression of emotion and more physical contact. People who speak in a very even-toned voice with little intonation tend to be more reserved and less comfortable with emotional expression and touching and are more reserved (IMO). In general. (I think this is cultural and has to do with the way others were raised.
posted by mintchip at 3:26 PM on April 29, 2008 [1 favorite]


How can you walk into a room and know what tone you should set for your interaction with a bunch of strangers?

In my experience, good salespeople mimic, without even trying. And they research. Here's an article that seems to reinforce my belief.

As to your question, you might think about confirmation bias as it relates to your friends' perceived abilities.

Some tips for telling locals from strangers? Won't be helpful for your location, but here in NYC locals tend to think drinking directly from cans is nasty (that can was a lot of roachy places before it landed in the bodega) and tend to use a straw, whereas relative newcomers might drink straight from the can.

To extrapolate from that, is there anything small that locals do that newcomers wouldn't do?

A lot of personal qualities are broadcast purposefully. Do you look for rainbow bracelets/pins?
posted by sondrialiac at 3:33 PM on April 29, 2008 [1 favorite]


Do you look for rainbow bracelets/pins?

Or very short fingernails on women? (generally necessary - but not sufficient - for lesbianism)

As for nice v asshole: assuming they're experienced enough to have any visible wrinkles, you could use smile-wrinkles v frown-wrinkles as a tentative guide.

Oh, sorry...the question was about body language & reaction to the environment. OK, with a disclaimer that all these kinds of things are to be taken with a grain of salt, here's one for you:

City people tend to keep a greater distance & personal space from others. Country people / people from smaller towns often stand a lot closer in conversation - breaching what a city person would consider their personal space.
posted by UbuRoivas at 7:10 PM on April 29, 2008 [1 favorite]


seconding prevailing southwest - yes, you wont always be right in judging a book by it's cover, but reading signals sent by body language, clothes, accent, mannerisms etc is a very useful skill. have you tried looking for books on the subject? i read allen and barbera pease's "the definitive book of body language" which was ok, there may be a better book on the subject.

just being aware of the phenomenon, and paying attention to it, may increase your ability to read stuff from other's body language etc. but be aware you may not always be correct in your snap judgements of people!
posted by messiahwannabe at 8:25 PM on April 29, 2008


I used to really, really pride myself on the ability to make accurate judgments of people based on my first impressions of them. I thought I was spectacularly good at reading people--who I wanted to be friends with, who was a jerk, where people were from, that sort of thing.

Then I thought about the number of times--too many to count--people have told me, "You know, you're nothing like I thought you were going to be when I first met you." The first thing this did was make me examine the way I interacted with strangers, because apparently a lot of people start out believing I'm intimidating, bitchy and standoffish. The second thing it did was made me think about how many people I'd completely written off from the get-go because they were giving me a particular vibe I didn't like, and how many of those people I might have had meaningful relationships with had I given them the opportunity to prove me wrong.

The point is, this is a futile exercise. Is it possible to "read" someone and "figure them out" based on first impressions alone? Sure, absolutely--some people really broadcast their personality (or parts of it, at least). But for the amount of times you're going to be wrong, I'd say it's not really worth it to try and pass judgment based on what you assume about other people. As for the not wanting to hit on people who aren't attracted to your gender, I think that only the most uptight and homophobic (and/or heterophobic, I guess) people would be offended if someone they weren't attracted to were hitting on them, as long as it wasn't completely sleazy or something. Everyone wants to be attractive to others, so you'll probably just flatter them. (As for the "virgin"/"ho" business, I'll just pretend you're 15 and really, really don't know any better.)
posted by cosmic osmo at 4:12 AM on April 30, 2008 [1 favorite]


You need "The Art of Speedreading People".
posted by Danila at 7:34 AM on April 30, 2008


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