Have you ever wished you could read people like a book? Understand their true personality, thoughts, and feelings?
Learning to do this takes time and practice, but benefits all your relationships. Luckily for us, science has found several telltale signs — and they’re not always what you might think!
Read on for 20 practical tips on how to read people.
1) Consider the context
The first rule for knowing how to read people is to consider the context.
Tons of websites give tips by generalizing behavior. You’ve probably heard these common misconceptions:
- Crossed arms means the person is disagreeing or closed off to your ideas
- Feet pointing towards the door means they’re not interested or want to leave
- Touching their face means they’re uncomfortable
- Looking to the right means they’re lying
But humans are way too complex to be reduced to a set of generalized gestures. As researchers have said, “all nonverbal behavior must be interpreted within context.”
Let’s look at three levels of context you must consider to read people correctly.
- Cultural context
The same gesture can have very different meanings across cultures. Nonverbal communication researchers Foley and Gentile explain:
“Nonverbal cues cannot be interpreted in a vacuum. No single behavior or gesture means the exact same thing in every conceivable context. For example, consider the hand gesture of extending only the index and middle fingers, spread apart in a V shape, while closing the rest of the hand. This might signify a number, two. In the United States if the palm is facing the individual using this gesture it signifies “victory” and if the palm is facing others it is identified as a symbol meaning “peace.” In England, however, making the American “V for victory” sign is an insult with sexual connotations. In London, displaying the American peace sign instead represents victory.”
We might expect cultural differences with hand gestures – but they are present in many other behaviors:
Think twice before assuming you know exactly what someone’s body language means, particularly if you don’t know their culture.
- Situational context
The second type of context to consider when reading people is the situation.
Foley and Gentile give a great example:
“Crossing one’s arms across the chest might mean the patient is not open to pursuing a particular avenue of exploration; however, in another case it might simply be indicative of the office temperature being too cold for comfort. “
Any kind of nonverbal behavior must be treated with the same consideration:
- Are their feet pointing towards the door because they’re not interested or did their feet just land like that?
- Are they touching their face because they’re uncomfortable or do they have a bad habit of picking at their skin?
- Did they glance to the right because they’re lying or did they just see something shiny?
- Are they fidgeting because they’re uncomfortable or because their clothing is itchy?
- Is it a good sign that they’re holding eye contact, or do you just have something stuck on your eyelashes?
- Individual context
The third level of context needed to read people accurately is the individual one.
Foley and Gentile once again bring this to light:
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“Some individuals are naturally more expressive in terms of general animation, gestures, and affect. Others may carefully control and modulate their feelings. Certain cultures have different rules as to when it is acceptable to express a particular emotion and to what degree“
By now you may be getting an idea of how complex reading people can be.
In most cases, you will not have all of this information about context. But remember that there’s never just one interpretation for something a person does.
2) Look for clusters of cues
Our second tip for learning how to read people is to consider clusters of clues.
As mentioned above, nonverbal behavior cannot be judged in isolation. But certain clusters of cues can give very accurate indications of certain thoughts and feelings.
A great example of this was found in a study on trustworthiness. The participants were paired up, had a “get-to-know-you” interview, then played a game involving money. They could either split the money fairly or trick their game partners.
Reviewing the interviews, the researchers identified a cluster of 4 nonverbal behaviors done by the deceitful participants:
- touching their hands
- touching their face
- leaning away
- crossing their arms
The more often participants showed all four of these cues, the more they acted in their own self-interest during the game. But just one, two, or even three of the cues didn’t mean much.
So aside from cultural, situational, and individual context, also consider the context of other behaviors.
3) Look for hints on traits in the right situation
Of course you can get to know a person in many ways, but there’s no doubt that certain signs are much more telling for some traits. For example, it would be difficult to judge a person’s extroversion based on what they order for lunch.
But on the other hand:
- A person’s home can tell you about their conscientiousness
- A person’s blog or website can tell you how open they are
When you’re trying to gauge a certain characteristic, make sure the context you’re looking at it in makes sense.
4) Trust your gut
If you want to read people, you might feel tempted to memorize lists of signs, like the cue clusters mentioned above. But obviously, you can’t watch out for all the cues at once and still act remotely normal in a dialogue with someone.
So what should you do? Don’t worry about it. A University of Mannheim study shows, thinking too much reduces your ability to read people well.
The study participants watched videos of honest and deceptive people. Right afterwards, half of them were asked to ponder who was trustworthy. The other half were distracted by a different task. The second group was significantly better at identifying who was honest.
Why? Because their subconscious minds could analyze what it saw and heard without being bogged down by conscious analysis.
Bottom line: when you’re trying to read people, don’t overanalyze. Instead, get busy with work or watch a series. Your subconscious mind will be hard at work in the meantime.
5) Separate your biases from objective observations
To read people like a book, you must become aware of bias and separate it from your perceptions — or at least try to.
There are many different types of bias, and they could all lead us to read someone the wrong way:
- Halo effect: You might perceive someone attractive as nicer than they really are
- Confirmation bias: You might look for signs that confirm your current opinion of the person, ignoring those that contradict it
- Anchoring bias: You might place too much importance on your first impression of them, even if it is clear it was incorrect
- False consensus effect: You might assume they agree with you more than they actually do
- Attentional bias: You might focus excessively on the signs that suggest they are similar to you
- Actor-observer bias: You might attribute their actions solely to internal traits, without seeing how external factors influence them
But of course, this happens to everyone else except you, right? Think again — research shows one of the biggest biases is believing that you are less biased than others.
This is one obstacle to reading people that is very difficult to remove. Even becoming aware of biases doesn’t do much to reduce them. That’s why it’s important to understand that they are always at play and keep this in mind in your interactions.
You can take Harvard’s Project Implicit questionnaire to find out what biases might be affecting your thinking.
6) Consider how your own behavior affects them
You’re learning how to read other people — but don’t think that your own behavior has nothing to do with it.
Our own nonverbal behavior can influence other people’s, to a great deal. This is demonstrated by a study conducted during psychotherapy sessions.
A patient brought up past sexual abuse, then quickly changed the subject. During the session the psychotherapist thought this was a sign of the patient feeling uncomfortable.
But when the psychotherapist later reviewed a videotape of the appointment, she realized that she herself had looked uncomfortable: she leaned back slightly in her chair, and crossed her own arms and legs.
The patient was responding to the psychotherapist’s own signals of discomfort, and that’s why she switched to more superficial topics.
This may be hard for you to determine without having a videotape or recording of your interactions — but if by any chance you do, review it and look at yourself carefully. Or, ask for feedback from a third person in the conversation.
7) Watch people’s facial expressions
We’ll go through many strategies for how to read people, but don’t forget that one of the main ones is still to watch facial expressions.
They are relatively straightforward and intuitive to identify. You’ve probably heard of the six “universal expressions”:
But don’t assume that facial expressions always tell you how the person is feeling. A 2017 analysis of around 50 studies showed that people’s faces rarely reflected their actual feelings.
Instead, a growing amount of research is finding that expressions are not so much a mirror of your emotions, and much more a signal of what we want to happen next. For example:
- A “disgusted” face could mean someone isn’t happy with the way the conversation is going, and wants it to take a different track
- A friend’s scowl doesn’t necessarily mean they’re angry — they just want you to agree with them
- A child’s pout could mean they want you to empathize with them or protect them from an uncomfortable situation
- A badly timed laugh could show that the person isn’t paying attention, or is hostile
One researcher goes so far as to compare us to puppeteers: our expressions are like “invisible wires or ropes that you are trying to use to manipulate the other.”
In a nutshell, do watch people’s faces, but don’t assume you’ve got them all figured out. As another researcher explains, “You have to have some kind of knowledge of the person’s role with respect to you, and also your history together, before knowing what that face means.”
8) Listen for emotions in the voice
We just saw how facial expressions are useful for reading people, but not always accurate reflections of emotions.
Well, that’s where voice comes in.
A recent study shows that our sense of hearing is much better at detecting emotion than seeing facial expressions. In fact, we are better at identifying emotion when we only listen to a person’s voice than if we both listen to their voice and see their facial expressions.
- Quick breathing, clipped words, and many pauses could mean the person is anxious or upset
- Slow, monotone speaking could show they are exhausted or sick
- Quick, louder speech could mean they are excited
Further research shows that we correctly identify emotions in the voice even when the words being said have nothing to do with the emotion being expressed — and even if it’s in a foreign language. Another study found that we can identify not only basic emotions in the voice (positive vs negative, or excited vs calm), but also fine nuances.
So if you really need to know how a person feels about something, arrange a phone call rather than an in-person meeting.
9) Pay attention to their voice
Aside from showing emotions, a person’s voice can also help you read their personality.
But they did find people with lower pitched voices tend to be more:
- Interested in casual sex
Speed can be another helpful indicator. A study found that introverts react slower – that is, they pause a bit longer before responding.
- “perceiving” types speak faster than “judging” ones
- “judging” types are louder than “perceiving” ones
- “intuiting” types use more discourse markers than “sensing” ones
- extroverts respond faster than introverts
10) Listen to their words
We use words to express our thoughts. It’s no surprise they are a powerful tool to read people.
LaRae Quy, a former counterintelligence agent, explained it like this:
“As an FBI agent, I found words were the closest way for me to get into another person’s head. Words represent thoughts, so identify the word that is freighted with meaning.
“For example, if your boss says she’s “decided to go with brand X,” the action word is decided. This single word indicates that most likely your boss 1) is not impulsive, 2) weighed several options, and 3) thinks things through.
“Action words offer insights into the way a person thinks.”
If you’re trying to gauge status between people, also listen for how many times each person says “I”. In The Secret Life of Pronouns, psychology professor James W. Pennebaker mentions that the person with highest status in a relationship tends to use “I” the least, and the person with the lowest status uses it the most.
11) Look at their posture
Posture is another helpful clue in learning how to read people.
Another thing to keep in mind is distance between two people. When people are flirting, the space between them often decreases, according to a behavior analyst.
But of course, it could also mean that the room is too loud and they can’t hear – remember not to look at cues out of context.
One thing seems clear – posture is rather difficult to control, and therefore to fake. Even if a person can control their facial expressions, their posture is usually natural.
12) Watch how they tilt their head
Head inclination is only a small part of posture — but it also helps identify a person’s emotions.
When we speak, we often move our heads in an expressive way. A study examined these movements and people’s emotions, and found:
- when expressing positive emotions people tilt their head up
- when expressing negative emotions people tilt their head down
When people are talking, watch if their head tilt betrays any emotions they’re trying to hide. This is a tiny detail, but still one more piece of the puzzle.
13) Look how often they nod their heads
To understand the relationship between people, watch how often they nod their heads.
A study found these tendencies:
- both men and women nod more often when talking to an authority figure
- women also nod more often than men to their peers
A lot of nodding could therefore signal a person sees someone with a lot of respect, or considers them an authority figure.
Furthermore, exaggerated nodding often means they’re worried what the other person thinks of them.
14) Look at their smile — but don’t overestimate it
In the section on facial expressions, we mentioned that facial expressions rarely reflect people’s actual feelings. But researchers found one strong exception: amusement, which usually leads to smiling or laughing.
Nonetheless, don’t assume that you can see everything from the smile. Researchers used to believe that a genuine smile was impossible to fake. But actually, a more recent study has shown that people are pretty good at faking a “genuine smile”, even if they’re not feeling happy.
What does this mean then? If you feel like a person’s smile is fake, you might be right. But just because a person’s smile looks genuine, doesn’t mean it really is.
15) Look at their clothing
A 2009 study showed that we judge people’s personality just based on appearance. And it turns out, we’re usually quite spot on.
Study participants looked at photographs of people they didn’t know in natural, expressive poses. They accurately judged 9 out of 10 major personality traits, including:
Of course, this wasn’t done solely based on clothes: posture and facial expression played a big part.
But even when the photo subjects were in a controlled pose with a neutral expression, the participants could still accurately judge some major personality traits.
It’s clear that clothing plays an important role in expressing personality — use that to your advantage.
16) Watch their hands
Another tip for reading people is watching their hands.
If someone is playing with their hands excessively, this could signal anxiety. We can try to control our faces, voices, and words as best we can, but pent up stress usually comes out one way or another.
But of course it isn’t always that straightforward — successful businessman and global educator Dan Lok says:
“If a person is playing with their hands too much while talking, it actually means, ‘I like this.’”
He also mentions that tapping their fingers together means they are thinking. So if you see this in the context of a business negotiation, it could be a great sign that they’re seriously considering your offer.
17) Watch how they walk
Walking is another behavior that is hard to control and fake. Most of us don’t even realize how we walk, and what impression it might give – we rarely get to see ourselves walking. But others do — and a 2017 study suggests it can tell a lot about us!
Everything comes into play: speed, step size, and the position of our arms.
As with all the other tips here, don’t assume that a sign is 100% accurate. But here are some walking styles that might indicate certain personality traits:
- A fast walker: highly outgoing, conscientious, open, low in neuroticism
- A slow walker with head slightly down: cautious and looking out for themselves, introverted
- Veering slightly left: anxious in general or in the moment (maybe because the right side of your brain is processing your problems)
- Strolling with head up and no real direction: confident, self-assured, lack of urgency
- Quick bursts of energy: super attentive to detail
- Graceful walker (this is usually not natural, but taught): high self-esteem
- Slightly bent forward with slumped shoulders: recovering from a trauma
18) Watch their legs
Our legs are the largest part of our body — yet many people don’t pay much attention to them when trying to read someone.
But we should. Psychologist Susan Krauss Whitbourne points out, “anxiety can translate very directly into an unconscious leg-shaking or foot-tapping.”
This can happen especially if the person is sitting down. We might pay a lot of attention to keeping a neutral face, or pay attention to our hands as they are more easily seen.
However, we may not realize we are moving our legs, or care to notice, especially if they’re hidden under the table.
19) Check out their shoes
Above, we talked about the role of clothing in reading people. Well as you eye the person’s attire, don’t forget to glance all the way down — at their shoes!
Research shows that shoes tell us a surprising amount. People were able to judge the shoe owner’s personality with reasonable accuracy even by looking at pictures of the shoes alone! And when they could see the shoe along with the owner, their predictions were much more accurate still.
The attractiveness and comfort of the shoe were particularly important.
Here are some correlations the study found:
- masculine or high top shoes: less agreeable
- flashy shoes: extroverted
- old but attractive and well-kept shoes: conscientious
- shabby and inexpensive shoes: liberal
- ankle shoes: aggressive
- uncomfortable shoes: calm
- new shoes: attachment anxiety
- practical and affordable shoes: agreeable and friendly
- casual and comfy shoes: emotionally stable
- colorful and bright shoes: open
Of course, keep in mind that these inferences are not always accurate – but they are one more useful tool to help you out.
20) Practice, practice, practice!
Reading an article on how to read people is a great start, but it won’t make any difference unless you get out there and practice what you’ve learned.
Leadership and psychology professor Dr. Ronald Riggio offers these wise words:
“In order to get better you must constantly be practicing the skills needed. Structured training modules aren’t required to improve — many have been able to develop the skill by constantly listening and observing actively in everyday life.”
There you have it – 20 awesome tips, from head to toe, on how to read people.
As you can see, all of them are backed by research. I hope they serve you well and help you get closer to the people in your life. But always remember that human beings are not an exact science.
If you take only one thing from this article, let it be this: “Before you assume, try this crazy method called asking.”