what do you notice about people and what does it tell you?
December 14, 2009 6:48 PM   Subscribe

what-do-you-know? filter: When you first meet strangers, what things about them can you discern just from casual observation and interaction?

So, I read the following post from another askme thread recently:

I think moving to glasses definitely would help. I can always tell who wears contacts from several feet away by how wide open they hold their eyes. Virtually all contact wearers do this (I did it when I had them), and it sounds like you're just an extreme case.
posted by HotToddy at 12:38 PM on December 14


Which got me thinking about the different cues we pick up on that help us figure out things about other people. Some qualities and characteristics of strangers stand out obviously, but the example above is something I would never guess an observer could know.

With that in mind, what things can you figure out about strangers with a fair degree of accuracy, and what specific cues, signals, and/or details lead you to think so?

Physical conditions come to mind first, but there are also attitudes, habits, dispositions, ideologies, etc., that might reveal themselves based on observable cues and details.

For what it's worth, I'm less interested in the "hunches" or "intuitions" we all have than the sorts of observations anyone could learn to make with a fair degree of accuracy if they knew what details to pay attention for.
posted by 5Q7 to Grab Bag (54 answers total) 54 users marked this as a favorite
 
I can often tell if people are smokers by slight stains on their cigarette-holding hands and/or beards.
posted by jessamyn at 6:51 PM on December 14, 2009


I can tell if people are athletes/gym rats by their gait and physical build.
posted by dfriedman at 6:56 PM on December 14, 2009


When I wore a watch on my right hand, I could tell who liked to make these kinds of clever observations because they'd always ask me if I was left-handed (I'm not).
posted by 0xFCAF at 6:59 PM on December 14, 2009 [17 favorites]


cf. Holmesian deduction
posted by djb at 7:01 PM on December 14, 2009 [1 favorite]


Clean-shaven legs on a man often signals he's a cyclist or a swimmer. Then I look at calves (
built calves = cyclist) and shoulders (wide shoulders and long arms = swimmer.)
posted by SuperSquirrel at 7:02 PM on December 14, 2009 [2 favorites]


You can tell what hand people use to brush their teeth by looking for the slightly discoloured one (there's one tooth that's hard to brush without changing hands). On their right, and they're left-handed brushers and vice versa.
posted by bonaldi at 7:03 PM on December 14, 2009


Do they hunch? Do they avoid eye contact? Are their movements a bit stilted and gawky?

If so, they're a pushover.
posted by squorch at 7:11 PM on December 14, 2009 [1 favorite]


Clean shaven legs on a man can also indicate that he is a bodybuilder or a drag queen or Asian. (Asians tend to have less body hair than Caucasians and blacks...)
posted by dfriedman at 7:11 PM on December 14, 2009


You can usually tell who works outside for a living by the condition of the skin on their face and neck.

A handshake can often tell you who works with their hands - rough vs. soft.
posted by Askr at 7:13 PM on December 14, 2009 [1 favorite]


I can tell what stereotypes people fit by looking for stereotypical physical traits that correspond with particular lifestyles or habits. For example, I could meet you right now and tell whether you fit the stereotype of a gym rat, a manual laborer, a smoker, or a swimmer. I can also tell you whether you fit the stereotype of a super-rich person, a lesbian, or a person with mental illness. It's like I have magical powers!

Seriously, you're basically asking us to list examples of conventional beliefs about how people's looks or social behavior correspond to personality or lifestyle traits. While yes, in some cases, these stereotypes have developed because they're more likely than not to be true, they're sometimes false, and making assumptions about people based on cursory observations is dangerous (and sometimes offensive).
posted by decathecting at 7:22 PM on December 14, 2009 [10 favorites]


If someone gives you a too-firm handshake and repeats your name after you say it while nodding and making direct eye contact, he or she is probably in sales.
posted by mmmbacon at 7:23 PM on December 14, 2009 [8 favorites]


I'm not sure that "is currently wearing contact lenses" falls in the same category as "a super-rich person, a lesbian, or a person with mental illness."
posted by you're a kitty! at 7:25 PM on December 14, 2009 [6 favorites]


Alcoholics often carry tell-tale signs of their drinking on their faces. This is more common for men than women, who in addition to being luckier in this regard, have more cosmetic options for disguise.

It is often possible to tell a woman is pregnant well before she shows; the fluttering abdomen hand and the two-handed back-ache clutch are classics.

You can frequently tell who washes when they use the loo; if someone comes back with dry hands, it's not a great sign - there should be evidence of water somewhere, even if it's just a shiny drop on their cuff. (If you're really weird, you can confirm by shaking hands - freshly washed hands feel different.)

A reduced blink rate can indicate Parkinsons, while an accelerated one can indicate Tourette's.
posted by DarlingBri at 7:39 PM on December 14, 2009


(If you're really weird, you can confirm by shaking hands - freshly washed hands feel different.)

If you have to shake their hand to check, isn't it too late?
posted by lhude sing cuccu at 7:42 PM on December 14, 2009 [1 favorite]


If you have to shake their hand to check, isn't it too late?

It depends on your criteria. I'd rather know you don't wash after putting my hand in yours than find out you don't wash after putting your hand in my hooha. Gross hands can be fixed with soap; bacterial vaginosis cannot.
posted by DarlingBri at 7:48 PM on December 14, 2009 [4 favorites]


the age of person - i've observed it has more to do with how aged there hands might be, especially for women. not always though, but sometimes it gives it away when someone looks really young in the face and wears a lot of makeup. people may do lots of outdoor/hand work too so their hands look old.
posted by proficiency101 at 7:50 PM on December 14, 2009


Yes, for all but the most trivial things (like nicotine stained whiskers) I think people should only answer this if they have been keeping logs for some time that demonstrate that there is a correlation between their first impression and subsequent information gained about the subject. Or at least, provide some evidence that the sign you look for has been shown to be correlated with the condition it supposedly indicates.

For example, mmbacon describes what I tend to do when meeting new people, because I have trouble calibrating grip, I'm fucking terrible with names and it's how I remember. I am not in sales, and never have been.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 8:17 PM on December 14, 2009


[few comments removed - metatalk is always an option folks.]
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 8:26 PM on December 14, 2009


Well, in a particular context (Upper East/West Side Manhattan, probably elsewhere in NYC) the younger a person is, the less likely the kid they're carrying/pushing is their kid.
posted by kathrineg at 8:39 PM on December 14, 2009


A lot of musical instruments leave physical traces on people who spend a lot of their time playing them. Violinists and violists get the "violin hickey" callus on the left side of their neck. Cellists and (classical) bassists will have a big callus on the side of their left thumb. Classical guitarists will have long manicured nails on the right hand, short on the left. Clarinetists and oboists get the thumb callus on the opposite side of the right thumb from holding the instrument up. A lot of oboists have thin lips from curling them inward to form the right embouchure. Conductors, in the right pair of pants, will show a little protrusion from the end of the giant stick up their ass.
posted by dr. boludo at 8:43 PM on December 14, 2009 [40 favorites]


I can tell junkies from their pinprick eyes, nodding off, drooling & the way they constantly need to rub or scratch their noses.
posted by UbuRoivas at 9:06 PM on December 14, 2009


I've heard ballet dancers often have walk more "duck footed" because they have good turn-out in their ankles.

I realize this is controversial to say, but you can infer a fair amount (sometimes) about a woman's fiance's finances, by the size of the diamond in the engagement ring. I know it's a huge generalization, but the majority of the time I meet someone sporting a highly conspicuous rock as an engagement ring, their husband tends to be in finance, or a lawyer, or a doctor.

When I see women in business suits wearing sneakers on the street, I suspect they're most likely lower on the income ladder (since they have to walk to work/take public transport as opposed to drive/take cabs) and that they slip on heels at the office.

When I see a 11-14 year old girl wearing makeup and dressed in very revealing, tight clothes, I think they don't think very highly of themselves/have self esteem issues. (Of course, what girl in that age group doesn't?)

Serious fencers sometimes have one over0developed thigh and corresponding arm. A friend of mine was an olympic fencer, and was visibly lopsided.
posted by np312 at 9:28 PM on December 14, 2009


Many people have turned out feet for purely physiological reasons. Unless there are other signs of being a dancer, this isn't a great assumption to make.
posted by stoneweaver at 10:02 PM on December 14, 2009


A lot of musical instruments leave physical traces on people who spend a lot of their time playing them.

When my hands are at rest my pinkies, especially my right one, are distinctly separated from my index middle and ring fingers. I am not 100% sure that this is the cause, but I think it's because of all the saxophone playing I did in high school - the pinky keys are further down by a bit than the other keys. I don't play any more, but my hands have stayed that way.
posted by Rinku at 10:33 PM on December 14, 2009


I can tell someone is probably married if they are wearing a wedding ring. (Truly, I am the next Sherlock Holmes.)
posted by mbrubeck at 10:38 PM on December 14, 2009 [3 favorites]


There are thousands of these, some more reliable than others and all of which should be applied only with a big dose of common sense. The right thing to do is collect them silently and only speculate when a few of them add up to the same conclusion.

If you're a word freak, you can usually pick out an accent or region, or make a pretty good guess. I have more fun watching for obvious flags in word use, like 'boot/trunk', light/robot' or whatever. (Canadians don't really say 'aboot', but they sure say 'roof' funny.)

Professionally-trained dancers and martial artists are usually easy to pick out from their movements. Models, also, in a different way. I have gotten away (correctly) with "So, you're a dancer of some kind?" more than once when first meeting someone. It helps if you've studied some of these things yourself, of course.

Hardcore runners or (especially) skaters have disproportionately large thighs. A great example of a high-risk guess, of course: don't open your mouth and be wrong.

Many drugs have their commensurate tics, though most are TV myths. Smokers have an obvious smell from several feet away. (Not necessarily insulting: pipes and cigars smell good.)

DarlingBri already said what I would have said here about pregnant women. Easy to guess from the change in their behavior.

People wear lockets or other jewelry that's sometime a hint at religion or nationality, whether obvious, like a crucifix, or less obvious, like the color of Santeria beads (which can tell you a lot if you care.) Not all women who wear lambdas are necessarily lesbians, but it's a useful data point to consider.

On the other hand, I rather doubt those girls with dangling ankhs are all Egyptian, nor do all those Celtic symbols signify Ireland.

Doctors and nurses (especially surgeons) tend to have very scrubbed and dry hands with almost no fingernails. Mechanics have dirty fingernails. Sometimes.

People with one long fingernail may have a drug habit. Or maybe they're magicians. People with a single short fingernail may have a kinky lover. Or, you know, they just broke it yesterday by accident. Asian men missing one finger may be Yakuza. Or clumsy carpenters.

That is, for the sixth time: big grains of salt are needed with speculation like this.
posted by rokusan at 11:07 PM on December 14, 2009 [1 favorite]


I thread my belt "backwards" because I'm left-handed. I don't know if other left-handed people do this, but it makes sense: I'd never given it any thought until until a friend remarked on it. And I did wear my watch on my right hand, back in the days when I owned a watch.
posted by qxntpqbbbqxl at 11:27 PM on December 14, 2009


People put a lot of time and effort into looking younger than they are. One clue as to their true age is the luster -- not the color -- of their hair. As people age, their hair becomes less shiny, and things like dyes and products don't really help with this.
posted by Afroblanco at 11:44 PM on December 14, 2009


One that only really works in the negative: people with long fingernails most likely don't have a girlfriend.
posted by UbuRoivas at 2:05 AM on December 15, 2009 [3 favorites]


Figure skaters or hockey players or other sports where you need to tie laces often have two little calluses on the outsides of their pinky fingers.
posted by yfatah at 3:21 AM on December 15, 2009


If a person eats with a fork always in one hand and a knife always in the other, he or she wasn't raised in the United States.
posted by meadowlark lime at 3:40 AM on December 15, 2009 [1 favorite]


When I see women in business suits wearing sneakers on the street, I suspect they're most likely lower on the income ladder (since they have to walk to work/take public transport as opposed to drive/take cabs) and that they slip on heels at the office.


This isn't a great assumption. Plenty of women at all financial stations who walk to work/take public transportation to work do so because they like to be active/prefer not to use a car for work. It's a conscious choice for many of us and has nothing to do with income.
posted by cooker girl at 4:57 AM on December 15, 2009 [4 favorites]


Sorry for the double post.

If a person eats with a fork always in one hand and a knife always in the other, he or she wasn't raised in the United States.

Again, not always true. I was raised in the US and lived in Germany for an extended time as an adult. I learned to use my utensils in this way. I have taught my children to use their utensils this way and they are definitely being raised in the US.
posted by cooker girl at 4:59 AM on December 15, 2009


Within many hospitals, the length of a physician's white coat denotes seniority: med students will wear relatively short coats, attendings will have much longer ones.

Pronunciation and accents has been covered extensively by metafilter in the past, and most people minimize their regional accents much more these days. There are some 'tell' words left, though. For example, at a recent conference in NYC I could instantly tell the speaker was from the midwest (and I correctly guessed Kansas) by the way he said measure: "may-zure".

Many vegetarians and vegans also won't wear leather. Fake leather shoes often look a little different (but the person might have other reasons for wearing them) and their belt could be canvas or rubber.

Serious birdwatchers will act differently outside and tune out of conversations if they hear a birdsong.
posted by These Premises Are Alarmed at 5:03 AM on December 15, 2009


If you want to figure out some, watch what kinds of commercials show up on what kinds of TV shows. Advertisers livelihoods depend on being very very good at this.

Suprised nobody's pointed this site out yet -- Rules of Thumb.

"At a party or public event, the person who laughs spontaneously at the same time you do probably is worth cultivating as a friend." Hmm... okay.

These kinds of observations are not so much about stereotyping as they are about probability. There are populations of people for whom a certain propostion (P) is more likely than not, with some probababilty (.50 <>
Simply pointing out these population characteristics is not stereotyping, racist, sexist, or any kind of "-ist." Even anticipating these characteristics for your benfit, or for the benefit of someone else, is not necessarily bad. You assume some risk using these rules, of course, in that you may be wrong for a particular subset of individuals. And, of course, the rights and dignity of the individual should take first priority in applying them (e.g. racial profiling is still wrong).

I mean, I always have to consider that any given male bar patron may hate football and might prefer to watch the food channel instead, but if I were the bartender, I'd set the TV at the bar to ESPN and play the probabilities.
posted by cross_impact at 6:10 AM on December 15, 2009 [1 favorite]


I don't know quite how he does it, but 'moonMan has an uncanny way of being able to have a dead-on "read" on someone's personality within seconds. The one thing he can't read is gender - trans men read as women to him, no matter how many times I correct him. Having spent a vast amount of time in the queer community, my gay-dar is much better than his, but I wouldn't be able to tell you how I know if someone is gay or not. I know plenty "effeminate" men (such as 'moonMan himself who spends more time on his hair than I do, wears designer clothing, and listens to ABBA and The Petshop Boys unironically and is not gay.)

This comment has no point really other than a lot of times stereotypical behavior actually tells you nothing whatsoever.
posted by grapefruitmoon at 6:31 AM on December 15, 2009


Professional cooks will often have a callous on the bottom of the first knuckle on the index finger of their dominant hand. Bakers have huge forearms and shoulders.
posted by bzbb at 7:22 AM on December 15, 2009 [1 favorite]


I grew up in the states and use my left hand for the fork, my right for the knife, and nobody knows where I picked this up.

I was mocked for it at home, no European friends at school, no extended stay in another country as a toddler.

It's just comfortable, I like to eat, why add extra steps to the process?
posted by bilabial at 7:28 AM on December 15, 2009


People with one long fingernail may have a drug habit. I would assume they might be buddhist, if there were no other signals of a drug habit. A buddhist acquaintance explained that there is some meaning behind all the fingers being of a length, so he grew out his pinky nails so they were as long as his ring fingers.

I would guess that someone with consistently short nails on one hand and longer nails on the other plays guitar.

I can usually tell who has naturally curly hair but has it blown out or straightened.

I can guess at people who have a dance, yoga or pilates background by their posture more than by their gait.
posted by peanut_mcgillicuty at 7:46 AM on December 15, 2009


When my hands are at rest my pinkies, especially my right one, are distinctly separated from my index middle and ring fingers. I am not 100% sure that this is the cause, but I think it's because of all the saxophone playing I did in high school - the pinky keys are further down by a bit than the other keys. I don't play any more, but my hands have stayed that way.

I played sax for years. Just looked down at my pinkies and realized they're far apart, although looking at them on a keyboard makes me wonder if it's from typing.
posted by jalexc at 8:21 AM on December 15, 2009


Recreational kayakers will have a developed callus on the inside of their control-side thumb, just above the webbing. A callus later develops on their non-control-side thumb in the same place.

Chaco tan lines are easy to spot, as are other telltale tan lines in general.
posted by craven_morhead at 8:30 AM on December 15, 2009


I can tell which side a person favors while sleeping because they will have a deeper crease on that side of their face (the older the person, the easier it is to tell, obviously).
posted by HotToddy at 8:31 AM on December 15, 2009


I call the bottom button of a suit coat the "defendant button" because that's the only people I ever see with it buttoned.

Rules of thumb for telling an American from an Englishman by clothes:
Americans have plain shirts & fancy ties. Plain socks.
English have striped or otherwise adorned shirts in bold colours & boring ties. Socks usually plain but occasionally in shocking colours & designs.

You can tell what side of the road they drive on in the country where a person grew up by watching their instinctive neck twitch towards a certain side while about to cross the road. This will work even after years of living elsewhere.

If while eating with their hands only the right one is used, the person likely comes from a culture where the left hand is unclean and where eating with the hands is the norm.

If a person eats with a fork always in one hand and a knife always in the other, he or she wasn't raised in the United States.

Supposed English class marker:
Take all of this with the usual disclaimers, it's the 21st century now. Only the gauche care about social class, offer not valid in certain London postcodes.

If an Englishman holds his knife like a pencil, he's of a lower social class than if he holds it with one finger extended along the top of the blade.

Similarly deprecated class markers:
Putting the milk in a tea cup before the tea. Cheap ceramic used to crack if you poured very hot tea in it directly. Pouring the cool milk first was a sign that you were used to cheap cups.
posted by atrazine at 8:37 AM on December 15, 2009 [1 favorite]


One that only really works in the negative: people with long fingernails most likely don't have a girlfriend.

what

Even smokers who are careful about their odor will often have yellowish fingernails on the index and second fingers of one hand.

Alcoholics tend to have dry skin that makes them look older than they are, due to chronic dehydration from alcohol consumption. Sometimes heavy caffeine drinkers will have this as well.

Pet owners will find it difficult to keep all their clothes, office, vehicle, home free of tell-tale fur. Sometimes you can make a reasonable guess as to species/breed.

People who are chronic fidgeters are often generally impatient as well; they may not listen beyond your first couple of words, may be particularly prone to getting annoyed by lines or being put on hold, may be more likely to jump in line or cut you off when driving. Or they may simply be fidgety.
posted by notashroom at 10:10 AM on December 15, 2009


Confirming the long fingernail/short fingernail guitarist thing. Not necessarily classical either, and not more likely so in my experience. It just means they finger pick.

Related:
One that only really works in the negative: people with long fingernails most likely don't have a girlfriend.


I really want some elaboration on this. Do you mean that you don't like guys with long fingernails? When it indicated poor hygiene? I may as well say that people who write with blue pens buy higher octane gas.

People have mentioned telltale signs of drug habits. Don't go all crazy with that. I take medication that dries my skin out (especially around my mouth) and gives me itchy rosacea on my arms. Also, I'm sometimes over-caffeinated. I am not a crackhead.
posted by cmoj at 11:25 AM on December 15, 2009


I wonder about friends who, if I reach to touch them in an innocuous place (the shoulder, head, neck), will flinch. I never assume they've been physically abused, but I understand it is a tell-tale sign.

Well, not necessarily abuse. Sometimes it just means you've been hit or smacked around your head and face enough to register a reflective response. There is usually a sad story attached to it.
posted by jabberjaw at 12:04 PM on December 15, 2009


One that only really works in the negative: people with long fingernails most likely don't have a girlfriend.

I really want some elaboration on this. Do you mean that you don't like guys with long fingernails? When it indicated poor hygiene? I may as well say that people who write with blue pens buy higher octane gas.



I could see the long fingernail thing as a possible indicator. Not only because it could hurt a girlfriend during an intimate moment, but also because I think a girl would comment about a man's long fingernails and ask him to cut them if they were dating. Of course, this is a generalization.
posted by amicamentis at 12:33 PM on December 15, 2009


Similar to atrazine, I have noticed a lot of class markers.

In the past 9-10 years, coming and going from nice upper and leisure class condos and houses, I have noticed that someone brought up with nice things will respond differently in the way they frame answers:
Me: "That is a lovely sette!" (Gesturing to a very well made reproduction.)

The client who was raised with nice things will respond with something like:
"Thank-You! It is amazing how well company X does reproduction work!" (No shame or weirdness in buying something nice and acknowledging it for what it is.)

The client who is newer to money will say something more like:
"Thanks! It is Louis XVI, you know! It cost us $4,000 - is that expensive?" (As if it were a 230 year old piece of furniture and I needed to know the price.)

I have also noticed more brand-focused people in the new-to-money set. The most extreme example was the customer who had two Christmas trees: One was the main tree decorated with Chanel boxes that were suspended from gold, white, and black ribbons and the other was the bedroom tree decorated the same way, but with a Tiffany's theme. This was their home. THAT was a big tell.

Of course, this is not 100%, but I have found that there is something to it - not just the kinds of things we surround ourselves with, but the way we interact with and talk about them speaks to our personal class histories.

In doing fittings, I can usually tell which side of the body the client sleeps on by the slope of their ribcage and can tell their dominant side by their musculature, but this shouldn't be much of a surprise.
posted by Tchad at 12:54 PM on December 15, 2009 [1 favorite]


[comments removed - can we make an effort for this not to turn into a lulzathon, please?]
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 2:34 PM on December 15, 2009


Most heavy smokers will have vertical lines on their upper lip from the motion of sucking on a cigarette.
posted by Jubey at 5:59 PM on December 15, 2009


I used to work for starbucks some number of years ago, and I could usually tell who would be ordering coffee from the tap and who would be demanding some complicated latte. Exceptions as always though. In any case I learned how to be really efficient.
posted by bam at 10:35 PM on December 15, 2009


Am I the only one who thinks they can tell who wore braces by how far their lips are from their teeth?? [at least I assume it is from braces]

For whatever reason it is very distracting to me, and I end up staring at people's lips (esp bottom lip, which is no where near resting on their teeth)
posted by evening at 4:09 AM on December 17, 2009


If you meet a person with just one long, filed, thumbnail -- that person can and will probably snatch your cheek off through your mouth when they punch you. I learned that from a bum, thankfully not the hard way.
posted by Juicy Avenger at 10:48 PM on December 17, 2009


Regarding class markers, I think obviously poor dental work usually qualifies.
posted by craven_morhead at 8:50 AM on December 18, 2009


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