People watching for fun!
April 14, 2011 2:01 PM   Subscribe

What are the interesting traits, habits or facts that you can pick up on just by looking at someone?

I'm looking to compile a list of cues that people rely on to quickly guess something about a person when you see them or meet them for the first time.

Looking for things that are not immediately recognizable to most people - the little subtle clues that allow you to identify something interesting about someone else.

Is there something about what they're wearing, how they wear it, how they dance, how they move, how they talk (aside from accents), how they look, how they hold themselves, how they gesture or simply an item they have in their possession (or a symbol) that immediately tells you something non-obvious about them?

Looking for fun things, nothing too dark unless it's really interesting.
posted by Fat Elvis to Society & Culture (104 answers total) 84 users marked this as a favorite
 
This question is very relevant.
posted by verbyournouns at 2:08 PM on April 14, 2011


Within the gay community, a lot of us will refer to each other as "family" in situations where it may not be ideal to reveal one's sexuality. (Maybe this isn't as prevalent as it used to be.)
posted by AlliKat75 at 2:12 PM on April 14, 2011 [1 favorite]


I always try and notice if someone is wearing a watch. They're nearly obsolete these days so someone wearing one generally means they accessorize their outfits. I also notice coordination of belt/shoe colors, as well as how scuffed up someones shoes are, if it's a formal occasion. Little tips about grooming, but I never read too much into them.
posted by msbutah at 2:17 PM on April 14, 2011 [3 favorites]


Shoes. Make, quality, and how they are maintained. All very telling of socioeconomics. Clothes, too, of course, but I am a worse judge of the quality and cut of clothes.

[Watches are] nearly obsolete these days so someone wearing one generally means they accessorize their outfits.

Watches are common in business, and less common elsewhere. Quality and origin of watch is very telling. (To be clear, it's telling of whether you are wealthy (or striving to be wealthy) enough to have a fancy watch, not whether you are a good person etc.) I, for instance, wear an analogue Soviet watch (i.e., actually made in the Soviet Union before the fall of communism, with the words on the face in Cyrillic), but I a work in a transactional law practice. This would be very telling about my feelings about working in a transactional law practice if anyone were ever to notice. No one has ever noticed.

Calluses on hands. Sunburns on necks. Suntans showing that someone is a golfer or rides a bike in the sun. Sprays of water on someone's back showing that they rode a bike in the rain, or through a puddle. Extra ear/nose piercing holes that seem no longer used, but show someone was more rebellious back the the day. Roots showing on someone who dyes their hair. Tobacco stains on a smoker's fingers.
posted by Admiral Haddock at 2:30 PM on April 14, 2011 [5 favorites]


Shoes. Make, quality, and how they are maintained. All very telling of socioeconomics.

I was in a room with a billionaire last week. He was giving a speech to group of people. He wore ratty old sneakers.
posted by dfriedman at 2:32 PM on April 14, 2011 [19 favorites]


I have ramrod straight posture due to years of piano and clarinet lessons, and have noticed the same thing amongst other classic musicians.
posted by something something at 2:32 PM on April 14, 2011 [4 favorites]


Sometimes I'll see someone with a very full cup/bowl/plate, roll-stepping so that they don't spill it, and I can tell that they were in marching band. Also from marching band, when I walk backwards, I don't bring my heels down at all. Not sure if that's unique to band, though. A bit more obscure, but you can pretty much always tell the difference between a concert-flutist and a marching-flutist based on how they hold the instrument.

Knitters end up with calluses on their fingers where they hold the yarn.
posted by specialagentwebb at 2:33 PM on April 14, 2011 [4 favorites]


People watching is fun!

You can surmise a fair amount about two people's relationship by looking at the personal space they maintain. Two women and mixed-gender pairs tend to stand, walk, or sit closer together than do two men. The smaller the personal space, the more likely the people you're watching are in a romantic relationship. Another thing I find very interesting is that people with really square jaws, the ones who look like they clench their teeth all the time, are usually angry types who don't need much provocation to set them off.
posted by DrGail at 2:35 PM on April 14, 2011


You can tell a lot about a person from their shoes.

I was listening to a story on NPR about homelessness—the reporter was riding along with an organization that does outreach to the homeless, and the person from the organization could spot homeless people by the way they walked and the state of their shoes, even when they generally looked pretty well put-together.

I was grocery shopping last night, and there was a woman there in a casual top and jeans, but in fancy, steep heels, which made me think she probably came (late) straight from work; that outfit also kind of narrowed down what kind of place she might work at.

You can tell cyclists by their tan lines.
posted by adamrice at 2:36 PM on April 14, 2011 [1 favorite]


Shoes. Make, quality, and how they are maintained. All very telling of socioeconomics.

I was in a room with a billionaire last week. He was giving a speech to group of people. He wore ratty old sneakers.


Very telling indeed. Were you wearing ratty sneakers? I know I can't get away with wearing ratty sneakers. I'm not a billionaire.
posted by Admiral Haddock at 2:37 PM on April 14, 2011 [12 favorites]


My dad looked meticulous in a suit and tie but you could always tell he was a mechanic by his fingernails.
posted by desjardins at 2:39 PM on April 14, 2011 [4 favorites]


Probably not that interesting unless you live in an area with a high population of Mormons, but you can generally tell if a man is Mormon by the outline of his undergarment top under his shirt. I haven't noticed this to be the case with Mormon women, I think maybe the seam isn't as obvious on their undergarments? The neck line of the man's undergarment is different than an undershirt you'd buy at a regular clothing store.
posted by shornco at 2:40 PM on April 14, 2011 [1 favorite]


msbutah: "I always try and notice if someone is wearing a watch. They're nearly obsolete these days so someone wearing one generally means they accessorize their outfits. I also notice coordination of belt/shoe colors, as well as how scuffed up someones shoes are, if it's a formal occasion. Little tips about grooming, but I never read too much into them."

I'm sorry, but I always associate men's wristwatches with military training, or police, or both. It's served me well thus far.
posted by pwnguin at 2:43 PM on April 14, 2011 [2 favorites]


I know that first impressions are important, but I would be really hesitant to rely on a list like this to make assumptions about what individuals are like. People are really complex and in fact some of my favorite people give off impressions completely different than what they're really like once you get to know them.

Reading a lot of the examples in this thread already, I can come up with several alternative stories for most of the assumptions listed.

So yeah, people watching is fun and it's fun to make up stories about people, but those stories should probably remain in the "fiction" category.
posted by Kimberly at 2:44 PM on April 14, 2011 [8 favorites]


Were you wearing ratty sneakers?

Depending on the audience and depending on the billionaire, I can well imagine he was.

What is interesting is that new tech money and real old line family money both carry a studied indifference to sharp dressing that, say, a rising upper middle class New York lawyer might not dare. Money and pedigree are not necessarily obvious by what people wear or how well they treat it, or even if the family heirloom is from their family.

I always associate men's wristwatches with military training, or police, or both. It's served me well thus far.


What about pocket watches?
posted by IndigoJones at 2:45 PM on April 14, 2011 [2 favorites]


Dancers have a different way of carrying themselves.
posted by catwash at 2:45 PM on April 14, 2011 [2 favorites]


IndigoJones: "What about pocket watches?"

Clearly time travelers, who've missed the mark by a hundred years.
posted by pwnguin at 2:50 PM on April 14, 2011 [10 favorites]


I can pinpoint which kids in the lunchroom I supervise have to go pee because of a very particular way of fidgeting. It's more subtle than the "grab the crotch and dance" toddler indicator - it's a "hip wiggle and grinding onto the bench (or sitting on an ankle)" kind of tell. It's a amazing how they just won't stop what they're doing and go. Even in third grade.
posted by peagood at 2:53 PM on April 14, 2011 [4 favorites]


I once freaked out a girlfriend of mine when we saw a group of guys approaching and I said they were German tourists visiting the States.

"How do you know?"
"It's the clothes. The hair. They're all thin and in better shape than the same size group of typical American guys. That one guy's backpack looks more expensive and stylish than what a typical American dude would carry. And that other guy, carrying the drink? American guys his age don't drink that brand very often. He's just trying it out because it's new to him, but he doesn't really like it, because he screwed the top back on and it's only half empty."

Sure enough, as we got closer, we could hear them speaking German to one another. And the guy with the soda tossed it in a garbage can.

It wasn't magic -- I'm sure most people could've sussed all that out, and I was totally guessing about the soda being half-empty. But she was from a very small town and hadn't really traveled. She thought I was Sherlock Fucking Holmes.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 2:53 PM on April 14, 2011 [17 favorites]


"Can You Spot a Rapist?"

A friend's article on a recent Cornell study. The short answer: not really. Although new research finds that people can identify criminals simply by looking at photos.
posted by cyndigo at 2:54 PM on April 14, 2011 [1 favorite]


Cauliflower ears -- dude is a wrestler, boxer or MMA freak.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 2:55 PM on April 14, 2011 [2 favorites]


What is interesting is that new tech money and real old line family money both carry a studied indifference to sharp dressing that, say, a rising upper middle class New York lawyer might not dare.

Absolutely! You can pick me out as a lawyer relatively easily because I don't wear a suit, but my clothes are relatively nice, but not so nice that I look like a banker. And, having worked for and lived among, tech people and old school family money folks, I would venture that, broadly speaking, you can tell the two groups apart without breaking a sweat. "Studied indifference" is more what you find with family money; real indifference is what you see in tech people.

People who play stringed instruments tend to have calluses on the tips of their left hand; if they have calluses on the tips of their right hand, they're more likely to be a guitarist, as you don't usually see other string players playing lefty. Long fingernails on the right hand often go with finger-picking guitarists (classical or otherwise).
posted by Admiral Haddock at 3:00 PM on April 14, 2011 [4 favorites]


Very red nose may be a sign of alcoholism. They're called "gin blossoms" and have something to do with burst capillaries caused by overindulgence.
posted by meadowlark lime at 3:01 PM on April 14, 2011


In some cars, you can tell by the amount of brake-dust on the rims how aggressive the driver is.
posted by nondescript at 3:04 PM on April 14, 2011


My brother the cop taught me to look for this. Eyes. Not what they look like but where they are looking. Look at what people are looking at. For example, most guys are prone to look at a pretty girl's cleavage and not go much past that. If I saw another guy moving past the cleavage and checking out the shoes, I'd take you for a player going for the "nice shoes" chestnut to make yourself seem more sensitive, etc.. Or maybe gay, maybe something else. Point is you now have a diversion from the norm that is maybe worth paying attention to. You be surprised how much you can accurately surmise.
posted by elendil71 at 3:05 PM on April 14, 2011 [4 favorites]


"I always try and notice if someone is wearing a watch. They're nearly obsolete these days"

I wear a watch fairly often. The parameters are as follows--If I need to know the time at a glance because I'm, say, teaching a class, or heading for an appointment on my bicycle. What's more, it will be an analog watch because my eyes aren't good enough to read a digital watch quickly. I've heard that blind people would wear watches with no glass over the hands, which they would "read" via touch. My eyes aren't that bad yet.
posted by Obscure Reference at 3:08 PM on April 14, 2011


Very red nose and / or face may be caused by rosacea, and not a sign of alcoholism.
posted by ants at 3:16 PM on April 14, 2011 [7 favorites]


I don't really think these are "facts" as one can tell from the comments here.

Perhaps it should be rephrased as "Stereotypes"

In any case, I notice fast-walkers, people who shake their leg or fidget a lot, shifty eyes, etc. I assume they are nervous have adhd or are anxious people.

I also can pick out the people that I know will start talking to you if you make eye contact (like when in the grocery line) and then pretend im on my phone or reading a magazine.
posted by KogeLiz at 3:19 PM on April 14, 2011


I totally focus on where people are looking, as elendil71 pointed out. You can learn an uncomfortable amount about peoples' relationships this way.

Fingernail length - long nails flag someone as probably not into some particular sex acts.

Puffiness in the face is often due to prednisone/steroids, suggesting an underlying health issue.

Farmers also have grotty hands, which is a good tell if the person at the farmstand actually works on the farm.

Somewhat dark:
(Old) Russian men who fought in Afghanistan are often missing the tips of their trigger fingers because they were supplied with guns with bad recoil control.
posted by momus_window at 3:24 PM on April 14, 2011 [2 favorites]


new research finds that people can identify criminals simply by looking at photos.

An old police manual recommended noticing girls that have purses or other items made from carefully braided chewing gum and cigarette packaging. These were likely to be gifts from their boyfriends in prison.
posted by StickyCarpet at 3:26 PM on April 14, 2011 [3 favorites]


Cheapness and anality go together.

For some reason, people who are extremely compulsive about neatness and orderliness tend to be stingy with money.

Also people who are indifferent to old people, animals and little children tend to be quite selfish.
posted by AuntieRuth at 3:29 PM on April 14, 2011 [4 favorites]


You can always tell who has done actual sparring or contact martial arts during boxing classes by the way they move and hold their hands.

If you notice a medic alert bracelet on a young person, it's probably severe allergies, Type I diabetes, or epilepsy, but is usually something life-threatening.

Experienced hikers usually do not dress in skimpy clothing during hikes due to experiences with sunburn/sunstroke or bad weather. Long sleeves and convertible pants are more common.
posted by benzenedream at 3:31 PM on April 14, 2011


What about the little bruise/hicky that players of violins and other stringed instruments get under their chins?
posted by mynameisluka at 3:37 PM on April 14, 2011


Allan Pease has written a few books on body language. I don't know how much it fits your criteria, but after I read one of his books my people-watching got a lot more interesting.

One thing he points out, for example, is that people raised in a city have much different perceptions of body-space than people born in rural areas; people raised in a close urban environment have much smaller "bubbles," and the more dense the city the closer they'll stand to the person they're interacting with. The opposite is true for rural areas. Watching the two types interact can be amusing. As the city mouse comes in close and the country mouse retreats, so the city mouse comes in close and the country mouse retreats again...

Anyways, read up on body language. It's pretty fascinating.
posted by lekvar at 3:40 PM on April 14, 2011 [3 favorites]


Where I live if someone has a racoon-sunglasses facial tan you can pretty much be certain they work on the water.
posted by BeerFilter at 3:49 PM on April 14, 2011 [1 favorite]


Also! Hands in general will show age. They have thin skin, are exposed to the elements, and aren't good candidates for cosmetic surgery.
posted by momus_window at 3:49 PM on April 14, 2011 [4 favorites]


All this talk of shoes being telling of socioeconomic status reminds me of that scene in The Wire where Bubbles critiques Sydnor's appearance before he goes undercover. He goes straight for the shoes and tells him to "dance on some empties" so he'll look like he has actually been walking around Baltimore. Seems like this trick does work at both ends of the spectrum. Though I think someone looking at my shoes would think I'm broker than I am.
posted by dixiecupdrinking at 3:52 PM on April 14, 2011 [4 favorites]


You can tell bagpipe players by the way they practice this birl movement with their right pinkie finger on any pen, screwdriver, or chanter-like object that they might be holding.

Alison Lurie wrote an interesting book called, The Language of Clothes, which discusses the 'statements' that we make by the way we dress.
posted by Multicellular Exothermic at 3:58 PM on April 14, 2011 [5 favorites]


Read Class, by Paul Fussell maybe kinda dated, but tells you all you really need to know. Prole collar and all.
posted by emhutchinson at 4:01 PM on April 14, 2011 [3 favorites]


Someone mentioned dancers above and the way they carry themselves. Gymnasts also have a particular posture and carriage.
posted by cabingirl at 4:11 PM on April 14, 2011


Architects will tend to stare at the ceilling in buildings they're not familiar with.
posted by LionIndex at 4:24 PM on April 14, 2011 [3 favorites]


Somewhat akin to the bagpipe players and holding pens... Whenever I see someone doing pen twirling (forward or backward around the thumb), I assume that there is a pretty good chance that they did debate at some point. Pen twirling was A Thing with debaters back in my day; after a meeting is over, sometimes I'll ask the twirler "Hey, did you by any chance do debate in high school or college?" and I'd say about 75 percent of the time the answer is yes (this may also be a product of working in DC where many debaters tend to flock). Of course, not all pen twirlers were/are debaters, but almost all debaters that I've known are pen twirlers. We practiced. It's a little sad.
posted by HonoriaGlossop at 4:28 PM on April 14, 2011 [7 favorites]


How about audibles? I once identified that someone lived in an apartment sight unseen by listening to both the silence and resonance of their wood floors over the phone.
posted by Nanukthedog at 4:33 PM on April 14, 2011 [2 favorites]


Ok, totally sterotypical: Former Marines (more so than other armed forces) seem to have a harder time giving up the haircut, sometimes they let it grow out a bit but it is still basically there.
posted by magnetsphere at 4:33 PM on April 14, 2011


Wet concrete corrodes leather boots quite badly... if you see a construction worker wearing rubber boots, chances are he works specifically with concrete.
posted by Multicellular Exothermic at 4:34 PM on April 14, 2011


I read the way people move, where they carry tension. An uncle always had very proper posture from years in the military, he was rather inflexible in a number of other ways. One of my sisters is very uptight, a total control freak, she has hunched shoulders and walks in a kind of plodding way.

A good friend recently started wearing a watch, it was his late father's and that's the only reason he wears it. He has dirt-encrusted callused hands, he's a machinist in his spare time. Otherwise, he's a well-dressed architect.

Then there's women, clothing, hair, makeup. I've always been a bit uncomfortable around women whose every hair is in place, whose every item of clothing is perfectly coordinated with every other, and whose makeup always looks like it was just applied by a pro. Oh yeah, and nails, do they bite them, polish them, let them grow real long, each says something about them.

And men with big beer bellies who push them out proudly always seem very aggressive, sure of themselves.
posted by mareli at 4:52 PM on April 14, 2011


Dancers have a different way of carrying themselves.

I once met a woman with incredible posture. She had the straightest back, all the time. I asked if she was a dancer. It turned out she was in a car accident and had several vertebrae fused together as a result.

I agree about shoes, though. I lived in Europe for a while and learned to identify people by country by their shoes with relatively high accuracy.
posted by procrastination at 4:57 PM on April 14, 2011 [2 favorites]


I'm generalizing, but I can usually tell how well off someone is by their young child's haircut. If money is tight, haircuts for kids, especially girls, are not in the budget. My mom works for a poor school district and says it is a big deal when a student gets a nice haircut.
posted by fancypance at 5:03 PM on April 14, 2011 [2 favorites]


Snow on the back car windows shows that someone is a dangerous driver - they don't shoulder-check.
posted by arcticwoman at 5:08 PM on April 14, 2011 [2 favorites]


This question reminded me of a previous question and I think this one, about sports, is the one I was thinking of.
posted by sigmagalator at 5:11 PM on April 14, 2011


Stereotypes that seem somewhat true:

People with thin bone structure are more nervous and sensitive to their environments, are faster in their thoughts and speech, and have less natural emotional warmth and expansiveness.

People with strong bone structure, care less for abstractions, are more aggressive and are stubborn.

Add a bit of extra fat to either, and it seems to mellow people out. Add a lot, well, I think any personality changes are due to self-perception.

The hands and wrists are the most ready sign of natural bone structure.
posted by blargerz at 5:17 PM on April 14, 2011 [3 favorites]


arcticwoman writes "Snow on the back car windows shows that someone is a dangerous driver - they don't shoulder-check."

Or they are used to driving a truck without sightlines in those directions.
posted by Mitheral at 5:42 PM on April 14, 2011


Pro bowlers usually have one thumb that is bigger than the other, and calloused. Marines and law enforcement officers automatically assume a "stance" when standing. Military back from deployment are usually quite tan and walk in a three point formation if they are in a group. Construction workers are tan and have rough hands. Landscapers are tan, have rough hands that are usually dirt stained. Restaurant workers smell like fried food if they have recently got off work and havent' had time to shower. People recently arrived from foreign countries usually have a certain smell about them.
posted by MsKim at 5:43 PM on April 14, 2011 [1 favorite]


You can still tell, just by looking at someone, where they came from or their ethnicity. You'd think not, given how much intermixing there's been in recent decades, but surprisingly, it's still very much a tell. For some reason, I have an unusually good memory for faces, body types and features. I can easily freak out people by being able to tell, often from a great distance, if f.ex. they're Russian immigrants here in LA, even if they've been here for decades. I can tell, with great accuracy where someone is from in Europe, and in the last 20 years, I've developed that ability with people from Asia. It's definitely face/body, but there can be other clues - like how people carry themselves, the way they walk, how they look around, how they meet your gaze... body language is surprisingly territorial, to the point, where I often could tell a Dane from a Swede or Norwegian, just by looking at how they stood. Then there are the clothes, grooming etc.. It's not 100%, but it's shockingly accurate - like just last week, I guessed that someone at a Starbucks was a German who has lived in LA for at least 10 years (to prove it to my disbelieving friend, we struck up a conversation with the guy). The other thing, is that in general, class is easier to guess from certain countries. For example, I find it pretty easy to guess someones socio-economic background if they're from a South American country. Ditto for Italy. That's a bit tougher with tourists from f.ex. Germany, and can be pretty difficult from a place like Denmark.

In general, here's the depressing - or simply expected - truth: many stereotypes are accurate... people really tend to conform in conscious and unconscious ways to their environment. I don't want to stress the stereotypes so I'm not going to enumerate them, but f.ex. I often play this game - when a car pulls up next to me, or on the street or whatever, and there's music coming from the car, I try to guess the ethnic background of the driver before I look - I then keep rough score to guard against confirmation bias. Well, friends, it holds. For all the hip-hop listening crossing across racial barriers, it's still a surprisingly segregated thing. And even more so for things like classical, indie rock, soul, jazz, world, ethnic, techno etc., etc., etc.. Obviously, it's not 100%, but it's a numbers game, and overwhelmingly breaks according to definite rules. Let me hear what you're listening to, and odds are I'll guess at your age, class, ethnic background and such with much better than random distribution.
posted by VikingSword at 5:47 PM on April 14, 2011 [1 favorite]


Just a note of caution that meadowlark lime's comment

a very red nose may be a sign of alcoholism. They're called "gin blossoms" and have something to do with burst capillaries caused by overindulgence.

is not always true. I am a life-long tea-totaller, yet I have a very red nose at times - in my case, it's from

a) burst capillaries caused by exposure to very cold weather - icy winds, frost, glaciers etc.

b) psoriasis

c) oily skin/acne.
posted by Hot buttered sockpuppets at 5:48 PM on April 14, 2011


Continuing with the impact playing particular instruments wreaks on the body, brass players often have little chapped spots in the middle of their lips sized in proportion to their mouthpieces. For flute and piccolo players it's a faint line across the bottom lip at midpoint. Clarinet and saxophone players get a little spot on the top of their right thumbs where they hit the metal tabs that support the instrument. Bassoonists end up with rough skin on the web of their right hands where the crutch sits.
posted by carmicha at 5:52 PM on April 14, 2011


This is timely. I travel to different locations for work and today I met a woman who I'd bet any money was a stripper when she was younger. She was very pleasant and helpful and seemed to like her low-level job.

She was probably in her mid-40's (around my age) and fairly attractive but her skin had that "exposed to too much smoke" look as did her voice. She was also tall and skinny and had a chest that had to be man made. She wasn't showing it off but I couldn't help but notice. Finally, he hair color was what I'd call "Stripper Blonde", an almost platinum color that is only naturally found on babies.

I could be totally wrong but she really put out an aging ex-stripper vibe.

Of course the pole in her office was the really big hint. (kidding)
posted by JohntheContrarian at 5:55 PM on April 14, 2011


Although new research finds that people can identify criminals simply by looking at photos.

On identifying criminals*

*I only linked to the first related topic that occurred to me.
posted by aniola at 5:57 PM on April 14, 2011


Australian male thugs/bogans have a very distinctive, skittish stride, like the way you'd imagine an upright gecko would walk, one that suggests they are constantly looking for a fight, and it is something I believe they teach one another in the parking lot of the Alexandra Hills Hotel.
posted by tumid dahlia at 5:58 PM on April 14, 2011 [5 favorites]


If you see someone twirling their pen, odds are they participated in debate or forensics in school.

Dancers tend to walk (and sometimes run) toe-to-heel instead of heel to toe.
posted by chara at 5:58 PM on April 14, 2011


I wear a watch because I don't carry a cell phone.

See also: Cold reading.
posted by aniola at 6:04 PM on April 14, 2011 [1 favorite]


You may be interested in the word shibboleth.
posted by fake at 6:14 PM on April 14, 2011 [1 favorite]


Ties. Tie knots. Dress shirt collars (spread or not?).
posted by midatlanticwanderer at 6:35 PM on April 14, 2011


As emhutchinson noted above, Class by Paul Fussell covers it all.

One of my favorite parts is when he explains how the way people talk about social class reveals everything about their class. Low-class people think class is about money, and the more you have, the higher your class. Middle-class people think it's about occupation: doctors, lawyers, and bankers are upper-class, then teachers and engineers, etc. on down. Upper-class people see class as a matter of tastes, styles, ideas, and behaviors. I've found in my own experiences that this is very true about people -- understanding how they view class tells you a ton about them.
posted by fugitivefromchaingang at 7:03 PM on April 14, 2011 [25 favorites]


Thirding the pen-twirling. In college if I saw a pen twirler I would ask "Loyola, Texas or Georgetown?" just to freak them out. (translation: "which debate camp did you go to in HS?")

When I see a girl wearing a claddagh ring with the heart pointing toward her finger, I usually assume she's American but with an Irish grandparent or great-grand.

When I see a girl with a wedding band on a neck chain, I take it as confirmation that she's pregnant.

I look at men's belts. When a man wears the same belt everyday, it has unique wear patterns especially at three holes or more as he has gained and lost weight over the life of the belt. Men who own and wear multiple belts rarely have wear on multiple holes.

Regardless of the rest of the accent, if I hear someone pronounce both as "bolth", or clothes as "close"—I ask if s/he has family from Michigan. (My grandparents lived there for many years, so I have a Texas accent but I caught those pronunciations from my mother, and had to train myself out of it)
posted by pineapple at 7:27 PM on April 14, 2011


I remember reading a something written by a police officer in which he said that he could always tell when he'd been spotted by someone because they touched their nose/glasses. After that, I realized I did it when I spotted a cop laying a speed trap, although I'm not sure if it's a case of confirmation bias!

When I was in Wales, we hired a guide for the day who told us that the men who used to be miners had blue lines on their faces because they'd cut themselves while down there and the coal dust would get into the cuts and tattoo them. (Okay, immediately recognizable to anyone from the mining areas in Wales, but not to the rest of us!)

I dated a martial arts instructor once, and he always stood in ready stance, eyes scanning the room. I could spot him across the room by the way he stood.

Not a personal characteristic, but the summer I worked as a cashier in a restaurant, I amazed people by saying "Oh, you went to one of the water parks in town today!" They'd reply "How did you know?!" For some reason they never noticed that the money they'd just handed me was sopping wet...
posted by telophase at 7:44 PM on April 14, 2011 [3 favorites]


Wrestlers or grapplers will often have distinctive Cauliflower ear
posted by Comrade_robot at 8:55 PM on April 14, 2011


Someone who answers yes or no questions with "affirmative" or "negative" often has a police or fire department background. Or grew up with someone who had that background.

I've become pretty skilled at picking out roller derby girls from a crowd. It's kind of obvious at a skate rink as they're often wearing quad speed skates, kneepads and/or wristguards--others might wear full gear, but that seems to vary with level of experience. Outside of rinks, I do notice that we walk through crowded areas differently. We tend to slip through spaces that other people might not be comfortable with, and there's a lot of lateral movement such that we tend to use the whole sidewalk, cutting in and between people instead of sticking to just the right or left side of traffic flow. Combine that with telltale bruises on the upper arms/shoulders and shins, and it's a pretty reliable indicator. Sometimes, not always, there are punk or rockabilly touches to an outfit that help confirm the hypothesis, but that varies widely with age and profession. I know most of the skaters from NYC, but when I travel I've figured out members of the local league with a pretty high degree of accuracy.
posted by Fuego at 9:18 PM on April 14, 2011


People who grew up in or spent significant time in a dense city are fearless when crossing the street. Suburbanites and country mice are more hesitant and pay closer attention to the walk signals.
posted by Iridic at 9:21 PM on April 14, 2011 [4 favorites]


Since your profile says you're in Canada, you can identify your friendly neighbourhood professional engineer by their trademark iron ring.
posted by Homeboy Trouble at 9:33 PM on April 14, 2011 [6 favorites]


Also along with instruments, a lot of the time you can tell if someone is in marching band or not by a few things- I play baritone and get a large lump on my little finger, and my right little finger is actually kind of deformed from it. Saxophone players have strap-line tans around their necks. Drummers have harness tans. Depending on where you're from, colorguard/auxiliary members have glove lines.

You can sometimes tell how a person writes by their hands, most people will have a bump or rough skin from the way they hold a pen.

I never ever would have guessed "debate" from someone twirling a pen, I would assume that they're auxiliary/band related- but debate isn't very common where I'm from, which is why most of these "tells" are complete and total crap.
posted by kro at 9:46 PM on April 14, 2011


All serious pianists have short fingernails.
posted by storybored at 9:53 PM on April 14, 2011 [4 favorites]


Callouses tell a lot about how good people are with tools. Generally these are skills that take constant practice to maintain proficiency with and it shoes. Massive forearms out of proportion with the upper arm usually mark a person who does work that requires a lot of wrist strength and fine motor control. I first starting noticing this in the SCA, massive forearms mean this guy can hit fast and hard with his weapon. Callouses on the first three fingers and a thick callous on the web of the opposite hand mark an archer. Similar weird callouses will mark other weapon proficiencies.

Someone who is trained in situational awareness will not stare at just one thing, but is constantly scanning and especially will not look at what everyone else is looking at.
posted by bartonlong at 10:02 PM on April 14, 2011


You can tell someone's general level of self-esteem.

I knew a girl who walked like a loaded spring toy: slow, straight, awkward, very nervous. People who take fast steps close together or stand either too straight or too slouched either don't want to be there or are like that all the time. Bitten nails also indicate nervousness, as does hair twisting.

People who talk with their hands are confident. So are people with good posture. Generally people who talk louder are more confident, but this isn't always the case.

Another good rule of thumb in discerning someone's level of confidence is how much space they take up. People who take up a lot, i.e. long steps, lounging with legs stretched across furniture, believe their presence is imperative, whereas people who sit with their legs pressed together, hunched over, holding their things in their lap do not.
posted by CorduroyCorset at 10:51 PM on April 14, 2011 [4 favorites]


When I see a girl with a wedding band on a neck chain, I take it as confirmation that she's pregnant.

My first assumption would be that she's a medical professional of some sort (OR nurse? Surgeon? Scrub tech?) who can't wear rings at work--germs love to hide under rings, and must be removed before surgical scrub.
posted by jesourie at 11:30 PM on April 14, 2011 [1 favorite]


Long-time smokers tend to have distinctive wrinkles which seem to radiate out from their mouths.

Someone once told me that they knew immediately upon meeting me that I was vegetarian, though the subject of diet didn't come up until much later in our acquaintance.
posted by CutaneousRabbit at 11:58 PM on April 14, 2011


As CPB hinted, the modernized Sherlock Holmes in the TV series "Sherlock" finds many of these traits just by looking.
posted by Akeem at 12:55 AM on April 15, 2011 [1 favorite]


yellow fingers (esp. the first two) = chain-smoker
posted by Sys Rq at 1:11 AM on April 15, 2011


Fuego's comments on style of walking style also applies to serious recreational skaters (inline or ice) and dancers ... distinctive tan lines starting above the wrist indicate an outdoor sport requiring gloves (e.g. sailing or horse riding).
posted by jannw at 3:04 AM on April 15, 2011


My first assumption would be that she's a medical professional of some sort (OR nurse? Surgeon? Scrub tech?) who can't wear rings at work--germs love to hide under rings, and must be removed before surgical scrub.

Maybe. In my experience, people who don't wear wedding rings for work (machinists, laborers, medical professionals) just leave them at home altogether.
posted by pineapple at 5:27 AM on April 15, 2011


Not so much related to appearance but, in my experience, persons who learned handwriting outside of the U.S. have a distinctive writing style that I have never seen from someone who learned to write in the U.S. Difficult to quantify but I have noticed that style in people from Europe, Asia and the Middle East. It is distinctive enough that I can pick them out of, say, a long line of signatures, irrespective of the actual names (which sometimes will reveal their origin), with weird accuracy.
posted by Ginesthoi at 5:35 AM on April 15, 2011 [1 favorite]


Brand names, though not in the way you think. Where I live ostentatious branding is a very working class thing.

Clothing gives away an awful lot - not just socioeconomics, but whether that person feels comfortable, whether they care enough to keep up with what's currently considered stylish, what kind of image they are trying to construct for themselves. Brands can be part of that - why would someone carry a bag with a Nike logo all over it and not an equally expensive/quality one which does not? If they're not sporty-looking, why do they want to associate themselves with an athletic brand? Do they want you to think they are interested in fitness, or that they are spenders? Why is the woman opposite carrying a Mulberry bag and not a Nike bag? Why does she have subtle highlights in her hair and not a bright bleach job? What does this tell you about her, and perhaps who she is and where she lives?

Also, not exactly people watching...but how polite or rude people are to waiters, shop assistants and call centre staff.
posted by mippy at 6:21 AM on April 15, 2011 [2 favorites]


Two from the gay community:

If the very stereotypical lesbian signifiers (ie, butch haircut, sensible shoes, labrys or other symbolic jewelry, rainbow anything, poorly fitted or no bra) are not present, I always look at their nails. Very short nails are usually a good identifier.

If I'm trying to figure out if someone is a tranny or MTF, I always check out the adam's apple - if it's prominent the person was usually born male.

You can almost always tell if 2 people have more than a casual relationship by their personal proximity.

If I'm trying to gauge a woman's age, the hands and the knees are the first I'll look at.
posted by widdershins at 6:41 AM on April 15, 2011 [3 favorites]


Cauliflower ears -- dude is a wrestler, boxer or MMA freak.

Or a rugby forward.
posted by electroboy at 6:53 AM on April 15, 2011 [2 favorites]


From the trad music community - if the musicians at a session arrange themselves in a tightly closed circle and focus their gaze inwards, newcomers or unknown musicians are not welcome to take part. A looser circle, you can sit in.
posted by LN at 6:54 AM on April 15, 2011 [1 favorite]


A few that seem to work for me. Some have been covered. A lot of it is innate and is hard to explain but I will try.

Men that tug on their shirt - self conscious, low self esteem, not happy with their bodies

Hands - Callouses they are laborers or love lifting weights

Eyes - Eyes tell a lot. Watching a person's eyes can tell you if they are comfortable or not. If they are focusing on one person then they are content to talk to that person. If they are darting around while talking to someone they are looking to talk to someone else. If they are not talking to anyone and darting around, be wary.

Crowds - Crowds can easily get out of control but you can sometimes predict this by watching the crowd as a whole. The crowd starts to change, movements increase, more hand movement, men start to carry different posture, either walking taller or leaning over a little swaying, crowd as a whole becomes more 'twitchy'. Sometimes this just happens in pockets but sometimes it can be the whole crowd.

Smile - A fake smile is usually pretty easy to discern. I assume the person is a fake or a liar.

Loud people - A lot of times have shitty self esteem and crave attention. With men the loud ones often have more bark than bite. It's just a show. It's the quiet shifty guy you have to be more concerned about.

Not all of these are true 100% of the time of course.
posted by WickedPissah at 7:22 AM on April 15, 2011 [1 favorite]


When I see a girl with a wedding band on a neck chain, I take it as confirmation that she's pregnant.

I regularly wear an engagement ring on a chain around my neck - it's my grandmother's, and I love it but don't intend to wear it on my hand unless I get engaged.

Smile - A fake smile is usually pretty easy to discern. I assume the person is a fake or a liar.

True smiles usually create crinkles around the eyes / raise the cheeks because muscles higher on the face are involved. Fake smiles are often mouth-only, and I usually associate them with discomfort or confusion.
posted by momus_window at 9:47 AM on April 15, 2011


long, carefully pointed fingernails on just one hand = flamenco guitarist
posted by Sys Rq at 10:39 AM on April 15, 2011


AskMetafilter taught me that long pinky fingernail = coke user
posted by desjardins at 11:44 AM on April 15, 2011


Another one drug related. Heavy drug users and sometimes drinkers. When sober and in need they tend to have lots of jerking motions, clenching fists, touching their face/nose, facial ticks, nervous type of energy. Talk through you/look through you. Eyes look blood shot, glassy. Guess the term 'tweaker' exists for a reason. Unless they are using at that time. Then it depends on the drug I guess.

Again, just my experience obviously not all people that act like that are drug users.
posted by WickedPissah at 12:42 PM on April 15, 2011


AskMetafilter taught me that long pinky fingernail = coke user

Or, as was the case with my mother, long pinky fingernail = has an infant or toddler with a tendency to snotty nose. (I was seriously grossed out the day she explained that that was why she was still in the habit of keeping her pinky nails slightly longer than the others. And Mom was a pot smoker, not a cokehead, so I know it wasn't that.)
posted by Lexica at 2:52 PM on April 15, 2011


And all this time I thought pen-twirling was an Asian thing (which was why I couldn't do it -- but now I remember the first person I observed doing it was Cuban.

Speaking of stereotypes, my old room-mate said only cops and gays wore moustaches. I'd add Latinos and Arabs to that list, but YMMV.


I also can pick out the people that I know will start talking to you if you make eye contact

And how is it you can tell?
posted by Rash at 3:05 PM on April 15, 2011


re pen twirling: I went through grade- and high school in Singapore and it's pretty common here regardless of debating experience. People do it all the time during class and lectures. (Way to reinforce the 'Asian thing' stereotype. Go me.)
posted by WalterMitty at 9:30 PM on April 15, 2011


Late to the thread but I've noticed many dentists and doctors who have hairy arms tend to have fairly hairless hands, likely from the gloves or constant handwashing. I don't know if hairless hands/hairy arms would lead to the expectation of a medical professional, however...
posted by jabes at 11:46 AM on April 16, 2011


I've met a few circuit pen-twirlers in my time. Perhaps the most you can take from a person who pen-twirls is that they like school or scholastic activities, to learnsomething that involved. Great big debating pen-spinning population, but the habit exists in much of Japan, Korea, China. The thumbspin is most common and if they only twirl with the thumb, that's a good sign of probably having learned it in an extracurricular activity, debate or forensics. The more exotic and obsessed moves only exist in significant presence in Asia and Asian exclaves, so you can tell the provenance of a spinner's technique there.

This would probably be fertile material for a post.
posted by curuinor at 1:21 PM on April 16, 2011


A professional chef or cook will have a callus right at the base of their index finger of their dominant hand from how they hold a chef's knife.

That and generally a few cuts and burns in their hands and forearms at any given time.
posted by Widepath at 7:17 PM on April 16, 2011


The presence of tattoos in general, and of certain kinds of tats in particular, tell a lot about class and culture, though not as much as they used to. The so-called "tramp stamp" is a good example. Certain kinds of piercings are also very culture-specific.

There's been at least one study showing that people were better than chance at discerning a male's sexual orientation based solely on their walk. And of course there are stereotypes related to speech (e.g., the gay lisp) which, while often-parodied and exaggerated, still serve as pretty reliable identifiers in those that present them.

Someone who answers yes or no questions with "affirmative" or "negative" often has a police or fire department background.

Likewise, use of the military phonetic alphabet (alpha, bravo, charlie, etc) is a dead giveaway of prior service.

In the U.S., the use of "Sir" and "Ma'am" outside of the context of service positions tends to be a reliable indicator of either 1) having been raised in certain cultures or 2) having served in a uniformed position of some kind.
posted by dephlogisticated at 5:22 AM on April 18, 2011


Likewise, use of the military phonetic alphabet (alpha, bravo, charlie, etc) is a dead giveaway of prior service.
Or having worked in a call centre.
posted by mippy at 5:27 AM on April 18, 2011 [1 favorite]


Ex-restaurant servers do have a way with plates and glasses. Many restaurants' glassware and techniques differ, but anytime I notice someone carrying four or more plates arranged along their forearm to their pinky, or balancing 3-4 pint glasses on their palm, or cleaning off a table in one trip, I can sometimes spot the skills they acquired in a restaurant.
posted by salvia at 11:48 PM on April 18, 2011


I'm surprised to not see it yet, but as a lefty, I often find myself able to pick up on when someone else is a lefty pretty quickly.

People mentioned calluses due to instruments, which is one way. Watching someone write
makes it obvious, of course, but watching someone work with their hands in other activities can point it out, too. Going off of that, eating can be interesting if a righty is sitting to the left of me, so I generally try to sit on the "left-most" end of the table. This isn't as reliable, of course, but can be an indicator.

Subtle things like the hand they wear their wristwatch on usually (but not always!) will tell you, as well. This is actually one of my favorite ways, since you can literally just look at someone and tell if they are a lefty or not. Unfortunately, wristwatches aren't as common as they once were, due to most people carrying cellphones.

For guys, the side of their pants that they carry their wallet in may be an indicator, too. I imagine the way one buckles their belt might be an indicator as well, though I've never really looked too hard.
posted by mysterpigg at 8:42 AM on April 19, 2011


You can tell cyclists by their tan lines.

In the summer my arms are tan but my hands are pale, except for oval patches on the backs of my hands from the windows on the gloves.
posted by hydrophonic at 6:10 PM on April 19, 2011


Subtle things like the hand they wear their wristwatch on usually (but not always!) will tell you, as well.

Yup! I'm a righty and wore my wristwatch on my left wrist until one day as a teenager I burned myself ironing a shirt before a wedding. It felt odd, but I went to the ceremony with the watch on my right for the first time. 16+ years and counting, I still wear my watch on my right wrist and I get a comment about once a year about it.
posted by yeti at 11:52 AM on April 20, 2011


Some hospitals mandate that personnel wear scrubs in colors specific to their jobs (ie, nurses in one color, physicians in another color, etc.).
posted by xulu at 8:58 PM on May 4, 2011


I had an anthro professor in college proudly announce on the first day of class that she could tell where a person was born (country, if outside of the US, or region of the US) and a number other personal details just by seeing their teeth. There were some titters among the students, so she went through the first few rows of the lecture hall and Sherlock Holmes'd us all.

If you start paying attention, you'll notice that teeth are a really good indicator of a lot of things.


And then something that I've personally noticed over the last few years: if you're in America, particularly during short-sleeved weather, you can tell if a young person was born in the US without them even having to open their mouths. Look for the polio vaccine scar! (Pinky-sized divot on the left shoulder.)

In America (and I think places like western Europe), we've been using the attenuated virus juice since the 60s, so usually it's only our parents who have the scar. But they used the Salk-style vaccine for many decades elsewhere. I have lots of friends who moved to America as kids--you'd never be able to tell they weren't born here if not for their vaccine scar. It's especially interesting if you see a white young person with the scar, because it generally means they were born in the USSR.


the coal dust would get into the cuts and tattoo them.
Re: Coal Tattoos

posted by phunniemee at 7:25 AM on September 3, 2011 [2 favorites]


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