How to read personality in 30 seconds
August 30, 2010 7:04 AM   Subscribe

How to read somebody's personality in 30 seconds?

I meet a variety of people in the course of my job, and I need to be able to explain ideas and provide advice. However, this would be significantly easier if I had some understanding of their personality.

For example, person A is worried about making a mistake, whereas person B wants fast results. I would explain an idea to person A in terms of reducing risk, and being safe, whereas to person B I would talk about about being fast, proven results, etc.

With the disclaimer that this sort of thing can never be perfect, because it would make wild generalisations, is there a way of doing this?

Is there a way, within 30 seconds of meeting somebody, to read certain cues that will allow me to group that person into a particular personality-type?
posted by damian_ to Human Relations (6 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
I would worry less about determining their personality type and more about finding out what they want. The best way to do that is to listen.

I used to work in admissions at a private school and I spent a lot of time giving tours and speaking with parents about the school. Parents are looking for all kinds of things (rigor, small class sizes, extracurriculars, friendliness, bus information, support, teacher experience, cost, diversity, college counseling, languages -- the list is virtually endless) and so you have to understand how to give them information. What I learned during that job was that if you actually listen, people will tell you what they want to hear, and then it's a matter of giving them the relevant information. Obviously don't lie or making anything up, but if you ask a few questions first like "tell me what you're looking for" or "do you have any specific questions or concerns before we begin?" or "what are you hoping to get out of this process?" they will tell you and it gives you a sense of how to structure your conversation. It's really not about reading personality, it's about determining needs and understanding how to give people the information they want.
posted by Mrs. Pterodactyl at 7:18 AM on August 30, 2010 [8 favorites]

Sorry, any explanations you get for this are going to rely on shaky folk psychology and Dale Carnegie-esque business speak. Not only will this not be perfect, this will be no better than chance.
posted by proj at 7:20 AM on August 30, 2010 [12 favorites]

Sometimes it is actually possible to observe significant aspects of a person's personality in 30 seconds. If a person speaks ungrammatically, they are probably uneducated and ill-informed. People who express hostility even before you have said anything to them may be prone to paranoia. People who are excessively friendly often intend either to sell you something or to convert you to their religion. But most of the time, 30 seconds is not long enough to learn about someone's personality. There are people who may have very complex personalities, or in other cases, don't really like to reveal their personalities. You would have to know them for months or even years before you really understood them.
posted by grizzled at 7:29 AM on August 30, 2010

I work in sales. If you figure this one out perfectly, be sure to let me know how you did it.

There are numerous management funny books that claim to tell you how to read body language. They might be a good start, but take them with a boulder of salt. I, for one, intentionally alter my body language to jerk with people sometimes. :-) And then of course it doesn't work on the phone... I think any normal person knows how to read enough body language from plain old life experience, unless you're in a different culture than you grew up in, perhaps.

"personality type" is an interesting theory, and I may use it to explain the motivations of a long-term contact, but I find it has little explanatory power as to what I should do next with someone I just met. I myself am an "amiable," mostly, and would like to know how the clock works if I've got an extra 30 minutes, but if I feel that a train is coming and I need to know how to get off the tracks then TELL ME THE F'ING TIME!!!

Here's my own thumbnail of how to get started with what I think you're talking about:

- start with the objective in mind. This may sound obvious, but this really takes a lot of training, especially since people often hit you with a misleading one out of the box due to ego, perceived pressure to say something, embarassment, etc. Also, if you're doing technical support, for example, people often state their own diagnosis, not the actual problem (ex. "My computer is dead," when in fact the screen is dark because they kicked the monitor cable loose). Ask a few questions along the lines of "what are you trying to do or accomplish?" This sometimes gets some frustrated kickback like "isn't it obvious?", but even that tells you something (the personality type is "asshole," and/or the customer is under time stress). Most people appreciate that type of question, once they understand that you're using it to speed up the process, not slow it down. Even say things like "I'll be able to solve your problem/help you make a selection faster if I ask a couple of questions."

- listen carefully not only to their factual responses, but how they're saying it. Are they walking all around it, or being very fast or direct? Does their voice and body language indicate a relaxed approach, or do they seem stressed or in a hurry? Are they knowledgable and seeking confirmation or further resources, or are they a noob who is completely in over their head? Adjust accordingly.

- assuming you're in a job environment and dealing with repetitive scenarios, obviously - learn your way around those. One of the things I teach my reps is to learn to ask the questions that the customer doesn't even think about. For example, I do screenprinting. If you want youth size t-shirts in your order, you may need a second set of smaller screens, which is an expense. The customer doesn't know to even ask about this. So ALWAYS ask if there will be youth shirts in the order, as one of the first questions. This way, we can talk about possible ways to avoid the expense, or at least know it up front - early in the process.

- Tailor your response to the most direct approach that actually works. Even knowledgable people usually want simple, declarative sentences, not a lot of fluff. Be careful with the aforementioned people who like to talk a lot; some like to listen a lot too and pick up on your knowledge; some just want you to say yes or no and get on with it. If they want to learn more, genuinely curious people will usually ask directly.

- all along the way, don't be afraid to just ask, in one form or another "how are we doing?, by which I mean, actively seek feedback about how much they're understanding or can use the information you're giving and the direction you're taking. I've had techs and salespeople start down a road and very persistently drive me in a direction - that I didn't want to take. This leads, 20 minutes later to the "I'd still like that piece of ice."* scenario that is so frustrating for all concerned.

*memail me for complete joke about the Kentucky gentleman and the waitress.
posted by randomkeystrike at 7:30 AM on August 30, 2010 [3 favorites]

I've found that my first gut impressions of someone reveal quite a bit of truthful information. While this will never unveil a full personality (people are complex), you can get fleeting glimpses of different aspects. All I can say is pay attention to that subconscious gut instinct. But beyond that, I have no idea how or why this works, or how to put it into words, or even if I'm somehow better than other people at this.

I read somewhere (I don't remember if a study was done or not) that in a job interview, the interviewer will have subconsciously placed you into "good candidate" or "bad candidate" within the first 30 seconds, or almost immediately after you shake hands. This is powerful primitive stuff, shaky folk psychology or not. :)
posted by naju at 7:48 AM on August 30, 2010

Sometimes your knee-jerk impression of someone says way more about you than it does about them!

I think the first "trick" to reading people is to understand we all have the ability to completely mis-read people and dynamics based on our own blind-spots and quirks. Exercise humility whenever you are making snap judgements.

The better you get to know yourself, the more confident you can be in those first 30 seconds with a new person.

Be fluid about your impressions. Be prepared to discover you are wrong from time to time.

Practice and life-experience go a long way towards your goal of instantly reading random folks. It's a skill you must cultivate. I know of no other way to hone "intuition" or whatever you want to call that!

Be prepared to be wrong (repeated 2x for emphasis) and smile to yourself when you are!

Especially in sales (which I make a very good living at) I find being genuine trumps all other skills I bring to the table.

That's all I got. Good luck!
posted by jbenben at 11:44 AM on August 30, 2010 [2 favorites]

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