آنسوی ماسک مردم را ببینکتاب: قوانین طبیعت انسان / درس 4
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3 See Through People’s Masks
The Law of Role-playing
People tend to wear the mask that shows them off in the best possible light—humble, confident, diligent. They say the right things, smile, and seem interested in our ideas. They learn to conceal their insecurities and envy. If we take this appearance for reality, we never really know their true feelings, and on occasion we are blindsided by their sudden resistance, hostility, and manipulative actions. Fortunately, the mask has cracks in it. People continually leak out their true feelings and unconscious desires in the nonverbal cues they cannot completely control—facial expressions, vocal inflections, tension in the body, and nervous gestures. You must master this language by transforming yourself into a superior reader of men and women. Armed with this knowledge, you can take the proper defensive measures. On the other hand, since appearances are what people judge you by, you must learn how to present the best front and play your role to maximum effect.
The Second Language
One morning in August 1919 seventeen-year-old Milton Erickson, future pioneer in hypnotherapy and one of the most influential psychologists of the twentieth century, awoke to discover parts of his body suddenly paralyzed. Over the next few days the paralysis spread. He was soon diagnosed with polio, a near epidemic at the time. As he lay in bed, he heard his mother in another room discussing his case with two specialists the family had called in. Assuming Erickson was asleep, one of the doctors told her, “The boy will be dead by morning.” His mother came into his room, clearly trying to disguise her grief, unaware that her son had overhead the conversation. Erickson kept asking her to move the chest of drawers near his bed over here, over there. She thought he was delusional, but he had his reasons: he wanted to distract her from her anguish, and he wanted the mirror on the chest positioned just right. If he began to lose consciousness, he could focus on the sunset in the reflected mirror, holding on to this image as long as he could. The sun always returned; maybe he would as well, proving the doctors wrong. Within hours he fell into a coma.
Erickson regained consciousness three days later. Somehow he had cheated death, but now the paralysis had spread to his entire body. Even his lips were paralyzed. He could not move or gesture, nor communicate to others in any way. The only body parts he could move were his eyeballs, allowing him to scan the narrow space of his room. Quarantined in the house on the farm in rural Wisconsin where he grew up, his only company was his seven sisters, his one brother, his parents, and a private nurse. For someone with such an active mind, the boredom was excruciating. But one day as he listened to his sisters talking among themselves, he became aware of something he had never noticed before. As they talked, their faces made all kinds of movements, and the tone of their voices seemed to have a life of its own. One sister said to another, “Yes, that’s a good idea,” but she said this in a monotone and with a noticeable smirk, all of which seemed to say, “I actually don’t think it’s a good idea at all.” Somehow a yes could really mean no.
Now he paid attention to this. It was a stimulating game. In the course of the next day he counted sixteen different forms of no that he heard, indicating various degrees of hardness, all accompanied by different facial expressions. At one point he noticed one sister saying yes to something while actually shaking her head no. It was very subtle, but he saw it. If people said yes but really felt no, it appeared to show up in their grimaces and body language. On another occasion he watched closely from the corner of his eye as one sister offered another an apple, but the tension in her face and tightness in her arms indicated she was just being polite and clearly wanted to keep it for herself. This signal was not picked up, and yet it seemed so clear to him.
Unable to participate in conversations, he found his mind completely absorbed in observing people’s hand gestures, their raised eyebrows, the pitch of their voices, and the sudden folding of their arms. He noticed, for instance, how often the veins in his sisters’ necks would begin to pulsate when they stood over him, indicating the nervousness they felt in his presence. Their breathing patterns as they spoke fascinated him, and he discovered that certain rhythms indicated boredom and were generally followed by a yawn. Hair seemed to play an important role with his sisters. A very deliberate brushing back of strands of hair would indicate impatience—“I’ve heard enough; now please shut up.” But a quicker, more unconscious stroke could indicate rapt attention.
Trapped in bed, his hearing became more acute. He could now pick up conversations in the other room, where people were not trying to put on a pleasant show in front of him. And soon he noticed a peculiar pattern—in a conversation people were rarely direct. A sister could spend minutes beating around the bush, leaving hints to others about what she really wanted—such as to borrow an article of clothing or hear an apology from someone. Her hidden desire was clearly indicated by her tone of voice, which gave emphasis to certain words. Her hope was that the others would pick this up and offer what she desired, but often the hints were ignored and she would be forced to come out and say what she wanted. Conversation after conversation fell into this recurring pattern. Soon it became a game for him to guess within as few seconds as possible what the sister was hinting at.
It was as if in his paralysis he had suddenly become aware of a second channel of human communication, a second language in which people expressed something from deep within themselves, sometimes without being aware of it. What would happen if he could somehow master the intricacies of this language? How would it alter his perception of people? Could he extend his reading powers to the nearly invisible gestures people made with their lips, their breath, the level of tension in their hands?
One day several months later, as he sat near a window in a special reclining chair his family had designed for him, he listened to his brother and sisters playing outside. (He had regained movement in his lips and could speak, but his body remained paralyzed.) He wanted so desperately to join them. As if momentarily forgetting his paralysis, in his mind he began to stand up, and for a brief second he experienced the twitching of a muscle in his leg, the first time he had felt any movement in his body at all. The doctors had told his mother he would never walk again, but they had been wrong before. Based on this simple twitch, he decided to try an experiment. He would focus deeply on a particular muscle in his leg, remembering the sensation he had before his paralysis, wanting badly to move it, and imagining it functioning again. His nurse would massage that area, and slowly, with intermittent success, he would feel a twitch and then the slightest bit of movement returning to the muscle. Through this excruciatingly slow process he taught himself to stand, then take a few steps, then walk around his room, then walk outside, increasing the distances.
Somehow, by drawing upon his willpower and imagination, he was able to alter his physical condition and regain complete movement. Clearly, he realized, the mind and the body operate together, in ways we are hardly aware of. Wanting to explore this further, he decided to pursue a career in medicine and psychology, and in the late 1920s he began to practice psychiatry in various hospitals. Quickly he developed a method that was completely his own and diametrically opposed to others trained in the field. Almost all practicing psychiatrists focused largely on words. They would get patients to talk, particularly going over their early childhood. In this way they hoped to gain access to their patients’ unconscious. Erickson instead focused mostly on people’s physical presence as an entrée into their mental life and unconscious. Words are often used as a cover-up, a way to conceal what is really going on. Making his patients completely comfortable, he would detect signs of hidden tension and unmet desires that came through in their face, voice, and posture. As he did this, he explored in greater depth the world of nonverbal communication.
His motto was “observe, observe, observe.” For this purpose he kept a notebook, writing down all of his observations. One element that particularly fascinated him was the walking styles of people, perhaps a reflection of his own difficulties in relearning how to use his legs. He would watch people walking in every part of the city. He paid attention to the heaviness of the step—there was the emphatic walk of those who were persistent and full of resolve; the light step of those who seemed more indecisive; the loping, fluid walk of those who seemed rather lazy; the meandering walk of the person lost in thought. He observed closely the extra swaying of the hips or the strut that seemed to elevate the head, indicating high levels of confidence in a person. There was the walk that people put on to cover up some weakness or insecurity—the exaggerated masculine stride, the nonchalant shuffle of the rebellious teenager. He took note of the sudden changes in people’s walk as they became excited or nervous. All of this supplied him endless information about people’s moods and self-confidence.
In his office, he placed his desk at the far end of the room, making his patients walk toward him. He would notice changes in the walk from before to after the session. He would scrutinize their way of sitting down, the level of tension in their hands as they grasped the arms of the chair, the degree to which they would face him as they talked, and in a matter of a few seconds, without words being exchanged, he had a profound read on their insecurities and rigidities, as mapped clearly in their body language.
At one point in his career, Erickson worked in a ward for the mentally disturbed. In one instance the psychologists there were perplexed by the case of a particular patient—a former businessman who had made a fortune and then lost everything because of the Depression. All the man could do was cry and continually move his hands back and forth, straight out from his chest. Nobody could figure out the source of this tic or how to help him. Getting him to talk was not easy and it led nowhere. To Erickson, however, the moment he saw the man he understood the nature of the problem—through this gesture he was literally expressing the futile efforts in his life to get ahead and the despair this had brought him. Erickson went up to him and said, “Your life has had many ups and downs,” and as he did so, he shifted the motion of the arms to up and down. The man seemed interested in this new motion and it now became his tic.
Working with an occupational therapist on site, Erickson placed blocks of sandpaper in each of the man’s hands and put a rough piece of lumber in front of him. Soon the man became enthralled with the sanding of the wood and the smell of it as he polished it. He stopped crying and took woodworking classes, carving elaborate chess sets and selling them. By focusing exclusively on his body language and altering his physical motion, Erickson could alter the locked position of his mind and cure him.
One category that fascinated him was the difference in nonverbal communication between men and women and how this reflected a different way of thinking. He was particularly sensitive to the mannerisms of women, perhaps a reflection of the months he had spent closely observing his sisters. He could dissect every nuance of their body language. One time, a beautiful young woman came to see him, saying she had seen various psychiatrists but none of them were quite right. Could Erickson possibly be the right one? As she talked some more, never discussing the nature of her problem, Erickson watched her pick some lint off her sleeve. He listened and nodded, then posed some rather uninteresting questions.
Suddenly, out of the blue, he said in a very confident tone that he was the right, in fact the only psychiatrist for her. Taken aback by his conceited attitude, she asked him why he felt that way. He said he needed to ask her one more question in order to prove it.
“How long,” he asked, “have you been wearing women’s clothes?”
“How did you know?” the man asked in astonishment. Erickson explained that he had noticed the way he had picked off the lint, without making a naturally wide detour around the breast area. He had seen that motion too many times to be fooled by anything else. In addition, his assertive way of discussing his need to test Erickson first, all expressed in a very staccato vocal rhythm, was decidedly masculine. All of the other psychiatrists had been taken in by the young man’s extremely feminine appearance and the voice he had worked on so carefully, but the body does not lie.
On another occasion Erickson entered his office to see a new female patient waiting for him. She explained that she had sought him out because she had a phobia of flying. Erickson interrupted her. Without explaining why, he asked her to leave the office and reenter. She seemed annoyed but complied, and he studied her walk closely, as well as her posture as she settled into the chair. He then asked her to explain her problem.
“My husband is taking me a-broad in September and I have a deathly fear of being on an airplane.”
“Madam,” Erickson said, “when a patient comes to a psychiatrist there can be no withholding of information. I know something about you. I am going to ask you an unpleasant question. . . . Does your husband know about your love affair?”
“No,” she said with astonishment, “but how did you?”
“Your body language told me.” He explained how her legs were crossed in a very tight position, with one foot completely tucked around the ankle. In his experience, every married woman having an affair locks her body up in a similar way. And she had clearly said “a-broad” instead of “abroad,” in a hesitant tone, as if she were ashamed of herself. And her walk indicated a woman who felt trapped in complicated relationships. In subsequent sessions she brought in her lover, who was also married. Erickson asked to see the wife of the lover, and when she came, she sat in the exact same locked position, with the foot under the ankle.
“So you’re having an affair,” he told her.
“Yes, did my husband tell you?”
“No, I got it from your body language. Now I know why your husband suffers from chronic headaches.” Soon he was treating them all and helping them out of their locked and painful positions.
Over the years, his observation powers extended to elements of nonverbal communication that were nearly imperceptible. He could determine people’s states of mind by their breathing patterns, and by mirroring these patterns himself he could lead the patient into a hypnotic trance and create a feeling of deep rapport. He could read subliminal and subvocal speech as people would mouth a word or name in a barely visible manner. This was how fortune-tellers, psychics, and some magicians would make a living. He could tell when his secretary was menstruating by the heaviness of her typing. He could guess the career backgrounds of people by the quality of their hands, the heaviness of their step, the way they tilted their heads, and their vocal inflections. To patients and friends it seemed as if Erickson possessed psychic powers, but they were simply unaware of how long and hard he had studied this, gaining mastery of the second language.
• • •
Interpretation: For Milton Erickson, his sudden paralysis opened his eyes to not only a different form of communication but also a completely different way of relating to people. When he listened to his sisters and picked up new information from their faces and voices, he not only registered this with his senses but also felt himself experiencing some of what was going on in their minds. He had to imagine why they said yes but really meant no, and in doing so he had to momentarily feel some of their contrary desires. He had to see the tension in their necks and register it physically as tension within himself to understand why they were suddenly uncomfortable in his presence. What he discovered is that nonverbal communication cannot be experienced simply through thinking and translating thoughts into words but must be felt physically as one engages with the facial expressions or locked positions of other people. It is a different form of knowledge, one that connects with the animal part of our nature and involves our mirror neurons.
To master this language, he had to relax and control the continual need to interpret with words or categorize what he was seeing. He had to tamp down his ego—thinking less of what he wanted to say and instead directing his attention outward into the other person, attuning himself to their changing moods as reflected in their body language. As he discovered, such attention changed him. It made him more alive to the signs people continually emit and transformed him into a superior social actor, capable of connecting to others’ inner lives and developing greater rapport.
As Erickson progressed in this self-transformation, he noticed that most people go in the opposite direction—becoming more self-absorbed and unobservant with each passing year. He liked to accumulate anecdotes from his work that demonstrated this. For instance, he once asked a group of interns in the hospital where he worked to silently observe an elderly woman lying under the covers in a hospital bed until they saw something that would indicate a possible diagnosis for her bedridden condition. They watched her for three hours to no avail, none of them taking notice of the obvious fact that both her legs had been amputated. Or there were the people who attended his public lectures; many of them would ask why he never used that strange-looking pointer he carried in his hand as part of his presentation. They had failed to observe his rather noticeable limp and need for a cane. As Erickson saw it, the harshness of life makes most people turn inward. They have no mental space left over for simple observations, and the second language largely passes them by.
Understand: We are the preeminent social animal on the planet, depending on our ability to communicate with others for our survival and success. It is estimated that over 65 percent of all human communication is nonverbal but that people pick up and internalize only about 5 percent of this information. Instead, almost all of our social attention is absorbed by what people say, which more often than not actually serves to conceal what they are really thinking and feeling. Nonverbal cues tell us what people are trying to emphasize with their words and the subtext of their message, the nuances of communication. These cues tell us what they are actively hiding, their real desires. They reflect in an immediate way people’s emotions and moods. To miss this information is to operate blindly, to invite misunderstanding, and to lose endless opportunities to influence people by not noticing the signs of what they really want or need.
Your task is simple: First you must recognize your state of self-absorption and how little you actually observe. With this understanding you will be motivated to develop observation skills. Second you must understand, as Erickson did, the different nature of this form of communication. It requires opening up your senses and relating to people more on the physical level, absorbing their physical energy and not just their words. You do not simply observe their facial expression, but you register it from within, so that the impression stays with you and communicates. As you gain greater vocabulary in this language, you will be able to correlate a gesture with a possible emotion. As your sensitivity increases, you will begin to notice more and more of what you have been missing. And equally important, you will discover a new and deeper way of relating to people, with the increased social powers this will bring you.
You will always be the prey or the plaything of the devils and fools in this world, if you expect to see them going about with horns or jangling their bells. And it should be borne in mind that, in their intercourse with others, people are like the moon: they show you only one of their sides. Every man has an innate talent for . . . making a mask out of his physiognomy, so that he can always look as if he really were what he pretends to be . . . and its effect is extremely deceptive. He dons his mask whenever his object is to flatter himself into some one’s good opinion; and you may pay just as much attention to it as if it were made of wax or cardboard.
Keys to Human Nature
We humans are consummate actors. We learn at an early age how to get what we want from our parents by putting on certain looks that will elicit sympathy or affection. We learn how to conceal from our parents or siblings exactly what we’re thinking or feeling, to protect ourselves in vulnerable moments. We become good at flattering those whom it is important to win over—popular peers or teachers. We learn how to fit into the group by wearing the same clothes and speaking the same language. As we get older and strive to carve out a career, we learn how to create the proper front in order to be hired and to fit into a group culture. If we become an executive or a professor or a bartender, we must act the part.
Imagine a person who never develops these acting skills, whose face instantly grimaces when he dislikes what you say or cannot suppress a yawn when you fail to entertain him, who always speaks his mind, who completely goes his own way in his ideas and style, who acts the same whether he’s talking to his boss or to a child, and you have imagined a person who would be shunned, ridiculed, and despised.
We are all such good actors that we’re not even aware of this as it happens. We imagine we are almost always being sincere in our social encounters, which any good actor will tell you is the secret behind really believable acting. We take these skills for granted, but to see them in action, try to look at yourself as you interact with different members of your family and with your boss and colleagues at work. You will see yourself subtly changing what you say, your tone of voice, your mannerisms, your whole body language, to suit each individual and situation. For people you are trying to impress, you wear a much different face than with those with whom you are familiar and can let down your guard. You do this almost without thinking.
Over the centuries various writers and thinkers, looking at humans from an outside perspective, have been struck by the theatrical quality of social life. The most famous quote expressing this comes from Shakespeare: “All the world’s a stage, / And all the men and women merely players; / They have their exits and their entrances, / And one man in his time plays many parts.” If the theater and actors were traditionally represented by the image of masks, writers such as Shakespeare are implying that all of us are constantly wearing masks. Some people are better actors than others. Villainous types such as Iago in the play Othello are able to conceal their hostile intentions behind a friendly, benign smile. Others are able to act with more confidence and bravado—they often become leaders. People with consummate acting skills can better navigate our complex social environments and get ahead.
Although we are all expert actors, at the same time we secretly experience this need to act and play a part as a burden. We are the most successful social animal on the planet. For hundreds of thousands of years our hunter-gatherer ancestors could survive only by constantly communicating with one another through nonverbal cues. Developed over so much time, before the invention of language, that is how the human face became so expressive, and gestures so elaborate. This is bred deep within us. We have a continual desire to communicate our feelings and yet at the same time the need to conceal them for proper social functioning. With these counterforces battling inside us, we cannot completely control what we communicate. Our real feelings continually leak out in the form of gestures, tones of voice, facial expressions, and posture. We are not trained, however, to pay attention to people’s nonverbal cues. By sheer habit, we fixate on the words people say, while also thinking about what we’ll say next. What this means is that we are using only a small percentage of the potential social skills we all possess.
Imagine, for instance, conversations with people you’ve recently met. By paying extra-close attention to the nonverbal cues they emit, you can pick up their moods and mirror these moods back to them, getting them to unconsciously relax in your presence. As the conversation progresses, you can pick up signs that they are responding to your gestures and mirroring, which gives you license to go further and deepen the spell. In this way, you can build up rapport and win over a valuable ally. Conversely, imagine people who almost immediately reveal signs of hostility toward you. You are able to see through their fake, tight smiles, to pick up the flashes of irritation that cross their face and the signs of subtle discomfort in your presence. Registering all this as it happens, you can then politely disengage from the interaction and remain wary of them, looking for further signs of hostile intentions. You have probably saved yourself from an unnecessary battle or an ugly act of sabotage.
Your task as a student of human nature is twofold: First, you must understand and accept the theatrical quality of life. You do not moralize and rail against the role-playing and the wearing of masks so essential to smooth social functioning. In fact, your goal is to play your part on the stage of life with consummate skill, attracting attention, dominating the limelight, and making yourself into a sympathetic hero or heroine. Second, you must not be naive and mistake people’s appearances for reality. You are not blinded by people’s acting skills. You transform yourself into a master decoder of their true feelings, working on your observation skills and practicing them as much as you can in daily life.
And so, for these purposes, there are three aspects to this particular law: understanding how to observe people; learning some basic keys for decoding nonverbal communication; and mastering the art of what is known as impression management, playing your role to maximum effect.
When we were children, we were almost all great observers of people. Because we were small and weak, our survival depended on decoding people’s smiles and tones of voice. We were often struck by the peculiar walking styles of adults, their exaggerated smiles and affected mannerisms. We would imitate them for fun. We could sense that an individual was threatening from something in his or her body language. This is why children are the bane of inveterate liars, con artists, magicians, and people who pretend to be something they are not. Children quickly see through their front. Slowly, from the age of five onward, this sensitivity is lost as we start to turn inward and become more concerned with how others see us.
You must realize that it is not a matter of acquiring skills you do not possess but rather of rediscovering those you once had in your earliest years. This means slowly reversing the process of self-absorption and regaining that outward-directed view and curiosity you had as a child.
As with any skill, this will require patience. What you are doing is slowly rewiring your brain through practice, mapping new neuronal connections. You do not want to overload yourself in the beginning with too much information. You need to take baby steps, to see small but daily progress. In a casual conversation with someone, give yourself the goal of observing one or two facial expressions that seem to go against what the person is saying or indicate some additional information. Be attentive to microexpressions, quick flashes on the face of tension, or forced smiles (see the next section for more on this). Once you succeed in this simple exercise with one person, try it with someone else, always focusing on the face. Once you find it easier to notice cues from the face, attempt to make a similar observation about an individual’s voice, noting any changes in pitch or the pace of talking. The voice says a lot about people’s level of confidence and their contentment. Later on graduate to elements of body language—such as posture, hand gestures, positioning of legs. Keep these exercises simple, having simple goals. Write down any observations, particularly any patterns you notice.
As you practice these exercises, you must be relaxed and open to what you see, not champing at the bit to interpret your observations with words. You must be engaged in the conversation while talking less and trying to get them to talk more. Try to mirror them, making comments that play off something they have said and reveal you are listening to them. This will have the effect of making them relax and want to talk more, which will make them leak out more nonverbal cues. But your observing of people must never be obvious. Feeling scrutinized, people will freeze up and try to control their expressions. Too much direct eye contact will betray you. You must appear natural and attentive, using only quick peripheral glances to notice any changes in the face, voice, or body.
In observing any particular individual over time, you need to establish their baseline expression and mood. Some people are naturally quiet and reserved, their facial expression revealing this. Some are more animated and energetic, while still others continually wear an anxious look. Aware of a person’s usual demeanor, you can pay greater attention to any deviations—for instance, sudden animation in someone who is generally reserved, or a relaxed look from the habitually nervous. Once you know a person’s baseline, it will be much easier to see signs of dissimulation or distress in them. The ancient Roman Mark Antony was naturally a jovial person, always smiling, laughing, and poking fun at people. It was when he suddenly turned silent and sullen in their meetings after the assassination of Julius Caesar that Antony’s rival Octavius (later Augustus) understood that Antony was up to something and had hostile intentions.
Related to the baseline expression, try to observe the same person in different settings, noticing how their nonverbal cues change if they are talking to a spouse, a boss, an employee.
For another exercise, observe people who are about to do something exciting—a trip to some alluring place, a date with someone they’ve been pursuing, or any event for which they have high expectations. Note the looks of anticipation, how the eyes open wider and stay there, the face flushed and generally animated, a slight smile on the lips as they think of what’s about to come. Contrast this with the tension exhibited by a person about to take a test or go on a job interview. You are increasing your vocabulary when it comes to correlating emotions and facial expressions.
Pay great attention to any mixed signals you pick up: a person professes to love your idea, but their face shows tension and their tone of voice is strained; or they congratulate you on your promotion, but the smile is forced and the expression seems sad. Such mixed signals are very common. They can also involve different parts of the body. In the novel The Ambassadors by Henry James, the narrator notices that a woman who has visited him smiles at him during most of the conversation but holds her parasol with a great deal of tension. Only by noticing this can he sense her real mood—discomfort. With mixed signals, you need to be aware that a greater part of nonverbal communication involves the leakage of negative emotions, and you need to give greater weight to the negative cue as indicative of the person’s true feelings. At some point, you can then ask yourself why they might feel sadness or antipathy.
To take your practice further, try a different exercise. Sit in a café or some public space, and without the burden of having to be involved in a conversation, observe the people around you. Listen in on their conversations for vocal cues. Take note of walking styles and overall body language. If possible, take notes. As you get better at this, you can try to guess people’s profession by the cues you pick up, or something about their personality from their body language. It should be a pleasurable game.
As you progress, you will be able to split your attention more easily—listening attentively to what people have to say, but also taking careful note of nonverbal cues. You will also become aware of signals you had not noticed before, continually expanding your vocabulary. Remember that everything people do is a sign of some sort; there is no such thing as a gesture that does not communicate. You will pay attention to people’s silences, the clothes they wear, the arrangement of objects on their desk, their breathing patterns, the tension in certain muscles (particularly in the neck), the subtext in their conversations—what is not said or what is implied. All of these discoveries should excite and impel you to go further.
In practicing this skill you must be aware of some common errors you can fall into. Words express direct information. We can argue about what people mean when they say something, but the interpretations are fairly limited. Nonverbal cues are much more ambiguous and indirect. There is no dictionary to tell you what this or that means. It depends on the individual and the context. If you are not careful, you will glean signs but quickly interpret them to fit your own emotional biases about people, which will make your observations not only useless but also dangerous. If you are observing someone you naturally dislike, or who reminds you of someone unpleasant in your past, you will tend to see almost any cue as unfriendly or hostile. You will do the opposite for people you like. In these exercises you must strive to subtract your personal preferences and prejudices about people.
Related to this is what is known as Othello’s error. In the play Othello by Shakespeare, the main character, Othello, assumes that his wife, Desdemona, is guilty of adultery based on her nervous response when questioned about some evidence. In truth Desdemona is innocent, but the aggressive, paranoid nature of Othello and his intimidating questions make her nervous, which he interprets as a sign of guilt. What happens in such cases is that we pick up certain emotional cues from the other person—nervousness, for instance—and we assume they come from a certain source. We rush to the first explanation that fits what we want to see. But the nervousness could have several explanations, could be a temporary reaction to our questioning or the overall circumstances. The error is not in the observing but in the decoding.
In 1894 Alfred Dreyfus, a French military officer, was wrongly arrested for passing along secrets to the Germans. Dreyfus was a Jew, and many French at the time had anti-Semitic feelings. When first appearing before the public for questioning, Dreyfus answered in a calm, efficient tone that was part of his training as a bureaucrat and was also a result of his trying to contain his nervousness. Most of the public assumed that an innocent man would protest loudly. His demeanor was seen as a sign of his guilt.
Keep in mind that people from different cultures will consider different forms of behavior acceptable. These are known as display rules. In some cultures people are conditioned to smile less or touch more. Or their language involves greater emphasis on vocal pitch. Always consider the cultural background of people, and interpret their cues accordingly.
As part of your practice, try to observe yourself as well. Notice how often and when you tend to put on a fake smile, or how your body registers nervousness—in your voice, the drumming of your fingers, the twiddling with your hair, the quivering of your lips, and so on. Becoming acutely aware of your own nonverbal behavior will make you more sensitive and alert to the signals of others. You will be better able to imagine the emotions that go with the cue. And you will also gain greater control of your nonverbal behavior, something very valuable for playing the right social role (see the last section of this chapter).
Finally, in developing these observational skills you will notice a physical change in yourself and in your relation to people. You will become increasingly sensitive to people’s shifting moods and even anticipate them as you feel inside something of what they’re feeling. Taken far enough, such powers can make you seem almost psychic, as they did with Milton Erickson.
Remember that people are generally trying to present the best possible front to the world. This means concealing their possible antagonistic feelings, their desires for power or superiority, their attempts at ingratiation, and their insecurities. They will use words to hide their feelings and distract you from the reality, playing on people’s verbal fixation. They will also use certain facial expressions that are easy to put on and that people assume mean friendliness. Your task is to look past the distractions and become aware of those signs that leak out automatically, revealing something of the true emotion beneath the mask. The three categories of the most important cues to observe and identify are dislike/like, dominance/submission, and deception.
Dislike/like cues: Imagine the following scenario: Someone in a group dislikes you, whether out of envy or mistrust, but in the group environment they cannot express this overtly or they will look bad—not a team player. And so they smile at you, engage you in conversation, and even seem to support your ideas. At times you might feel something is not quite right, but the signs are subtle and you forget them as you pay attention to the front they present. Then suddenly, as if out of the blue, they obstruct you or display an ugly attitude. The mask has come off. The price you pay is not only difficulties in your work or personal life, but also the emotional toll, which can have a lingering effect.
Understand: People’s hostile or resistant actions never come out of the blue. There are always signs before they take any action. It is too much of a strain for them to completely suppress such strong emotions. The problem is not only that we are not paying attention but also that we inherently do not like the thought of conflict or disagreement. We prefer to avoid thinking about it and to assume that people are on our side, or at least neutral. Most often, we feel something is not quite right with the other person but ignore the feeling. We must learn to trust such intuitive responses and to look for those signs that should trigger a closer examination of the evidence.
People give out clear indications in their body language of active dislike or hostility. These include the sudden squinting of the eyes at something you have said, the glare, the pursing of the lips until they nearly disappear, the stiff neck, the torso or feet that turn away from you while you are still engaged in a conversation, the folding of the arms as you try to make a point, and an overall tenseness in the body. The problem is that you will not usually see such signs unless a person’s displeasure has become too strong to conceal at all. Instead, you must train yourself to look for the microexpressions and the other more subtle signs that people give out.
The microexpression is a recent discovery among psychologists who have been able to document its existence through film. It lasts less than a second. There are two varieties of this: The first comes when people are aware of a negative feeling and try to suppress it, but it leaks out in a fraction of a second. The other comes when we are unaware of their hostility and yet it shows itself in quick flashes on the face or in the body. These expressions will be a momentary glare, tensing of the facial muscles, pursing of the lips, the beginnings of a frown or sneer or look of contempt, with the eyes looking down. Aware of this phenomenon, we can look for these expressions. You will be surprised at how often they occur, because it is nearly impossible to completely control the facial muscles and repress the signs in time. You must be relaxed and attentive, not obviously looking for them but catching them out of the corner of your eye. Once you begin to notice such expressions, you will find it easier to catch them.
Equally eloquent are those signs that are subtle but can last for several seconds, revealing tension and coldness. For instance, when you first approach someone who harbors negative thoughts toward you, if you surprise them by coming up on them from an angle, you will clearly see signs of displeasure at your approach before they have had time to fit on their affable mask. They are not so happy to see you and it shows for a second or two. Or you are expressing a strong opinion and their eyes begin to roll, which they try to quickly cover up with a smile.
Sudden silence can say a lot. You have said something that triggers a twinge of envy or dislike, and they cannot help but lapse into silence and brood. They may try to hide this with a smile as they inwardly fume. As opposed to simple shyness or having nothing to say, you will detect definite signs of irritation. In this case, it is best to notice this a few times before coming to any conclusions.
People will often give themselves away with the mixed signal—a positive comment to distract you but some clearly negative body language. This offers them relief from the tension of always having to be pleasant. They are betting on the fact that you will tend to focus on the words and gloss over the grimace or lopsided smile. Pay attention as well to the opposite configuration—someone says something sarcastic and pointed, directed at you, but they do this with a smile and a jokey tone of voice, as if to signal it is all in good humor. It would be impolite to not take it in this vein. But in fact, particularly if this occurs a few times, you should pay attention to the words and not the body language. It is their repressed way of expressing their hostility. Take notice of people who praise or flatter you without their eyes lighting up. This could be a sign of hidden envy.
In the novel The Charterhouse of Parma by Stendhal, Count Mosca receives an anonymous letter designed to stir up jealous feelings about his mistress, whom he is desperately in love with. In thinking over who could have sent it, he recalls a conversation earlier that day with the Prince of Parma. The prince was talking about how the pleasures of power pale in comparison with the pleasures afforded by love, and as he said this, the count detected a particularly malicious glint in his eye, accompanied by an ambiguous smile. The words were about love in general but the look was directed at him. From that he correctly deduces that the prince had sent the letter; he could not completely contain his venomous glee at what he had done, and it had leaked out. This is a variation on the mixed signal. People say something relatively strong about a general topic, but with subtle looks they point at you.
An excellent gauge for decoding antagonism is to compare people’s body language toward you and toward others. You might detect that they are noticeably friendlier and warmer toward other people and then put on a polite mask with you. In a conversation they cannot help showing brief flashes of impatience and irritation in their eyes, but only when you talk. Also keep in mind that people will tend to leak out more of their true feelings, and certainly hostile ones, when they are drunk, sleepy, frustrated, angry, or under stress. They will later tend to excuse this, as if they weren’t themselves for the moment, but in fact they were actually being more themselves than ever.
In looking for these signs, one of the best methods is to set up tests, even traps for people. King Louis XIV was a master of this. He stood at the top of a court in Versailles filled with members of the nobility seething with hostility and resentment toward him and the absolute authority he was trying to impose. But in the civilized realm of Versailles they all had to be consummate actors and hide their feelings, particularly toward the king. Louis had his ways, however, of testing them. He would suddenly appear in their presence, without warning, and look for the immediate expressions on their faces. He would request a nobleman to move himself and his family to the palace of Versailles, knowing that this was costly and unpleasant. He carefully observed any signs of annoyance in the face or voice. He would say something negative about another courtier, an ally of theirs, and notice their immediate reaction. Enough signs of discomfort indicated secret hostility.
If you suspect someone of feeling envy, talk about the latest good news for you without appearing to brag. Look for microexpressions of disappointment on their face. Use similar tests to probe for hidden anger and resentments, eliciting the responses that people cannot suppress so quickly. In general, people will want to see more of you, want to see less of you, or be rather indifferent. They may fluctuate among the three states, but they will tend to veer toward one. They will reveal this in how quickly they respond to your emails or texts, their body language on first seeing you, and the overall tone they take in your presence.
The value in detecting possible hostility or negative feelings early on is that it increases your strategic options and room to maneuver. You can lay a trap for people, intentionally stirring their hostility and goading them into some aggressive action that will embarrass them in the long run. Or you can work doubly hard to neutralize their dislike of you and even win them over through a charm offensive. Or you can simply create distance—not hiring them, firing them, refusing to interact with them. In the end, you will make your path much smoother by avoiding surprise battles and acts of sabotage.
On the other side of the coin, we generally have less of a need to hide positive emotions from others, but nonetheless we often do not like to emit obvious signs of joy and attraction, especially in work situations, or even in courtship. People often prefer to display a cool social front. So there is great value in being able to detect the signs that people are falling under your spell.
According to research studies on facial cues by psychologists such as Paul Ekman, E. H. Hess, and others, people who feel positive emotions for you will display noticeable signs of relaxation in the facial muscles, particularly in the lines of the forehead and the area around the mouth; their lips will appear more fully exposed and the whole area around their eyes will widen. These are all involuntary expressions of comfort and openness. If the feelings are more intense, such as falling in love, blood rushes to the face, animating all of the features. As part of this excited state the pupils will dilate, an automatic response in which the eyes let in more light. It is a sure sign that a person is comfortable and likes what they are seeing. Along with the dilation the eyebrows will rise, making the eyes look even bigger. We do not usually pay attention to eye pupils because looking intently into another’s eyes has an overtly sexual connotation. We must train ourselves to glance quickly at the pupils when we notice any widening of the eyes.
In developing your skills in this arena, you must learn to distinguish between the fake and the genuine smile. In trying to hide our negative feelings, we most often resort to the fake smile, because it is easy and people generally do not pay attention to the subtleties of smiles. Because the genuine variety is less common, you must know how to recognize it. The genuine smile will affect the muscles around the eyes and widen them, often revealing crow’s-feet on the sides of the eyes. It will also tend to pull the cheeks upward. There is no genuine smile without a definite change in the eyes and cheeks. Some people will try to create the impression of the genuine variety by putting on a very broad smile, which will partially alter the eyes as well. So in addition to the physical signs, you must look at the context. The genuine smile usually comes from some action or words that suddenly elicit the response; it is spontaneous. Is the smile in this case somewhat unrelated to the circumstances, not warranted by what was said? Is it a situation in which a person is straining to impress or has strategic goals in mind? Is the timing of the smile slightly off?
Perhaps the most telling indication of positive emotions comes from the voice. It is much easier for us to control the face; we can look in a mirror for such purposes. But unless we are professional actors, the voice is very difficult to consciously modulate. When people are engaged and excited to talk to you, the pitch of their voice rises, indicating emotional arousal. Even if people are nervous, the tone of the voice will be warm and natural, as opposed to the simulated warmth of a salesman. You can detect an almost purring quality to the voice, which some have likened to a vocal smile. You will notice also an absence of tension and hesitation. In the course of a conversation there is an equal level of banter, with the pace quickening, indicating increasing rapport. A voice that is animated and happy tends to infect us with the mood and elicit a similar response. We know it when we feel it, but often we ignore these feelings and instead concentrate on the friendly words or sales pitch.
Finally, monitoring nonverbal cues is essential in your attempts at influencing and seducing people. It is the best way to gauge the degree to which a person is falling under your spell. When people start to feel comfortable in your presence, they will stand closer to you or lean in, their arms not folded or revealing any tension. If you are giving a talk or telling a story, frequent head nods, attentive gazes, and genuine smiles will indicate that people agree with what you are saying and are losing their resistance. They exchange more looks. Perhaps the best and most exciting sign of all is synchrony, the other person unconsciously mirroring you. Their legs cross in the same direction, the head tilts in a similar manner, one smile inducing another. At the deepest level of synchrony, as Milton Erickson discovered, you will find breathing patterns falling into the same rhythm, which can sometimes end in the complete synchrony of a kiss.
You can also train yourself to not only monitor these changes that show your influence but induce them as well by displaying positive cues yourself. You begin to slowly stand or lean closer, revealing subtle signs of openness. You nod and smile as others talk. You mirror their behavior and their breathing patterns. As you do so, you watch for signs of emotional infection, going further only when you detect the slow crumbling of resistance.
With expert seducers who use all of the positive cues to mimic the appearance that they are falling in love only to bring you more deeply under their control, keep in mind that very few people naturally reveal so much emotion so early on. If your supposed effect on them seems a bit too rushed and perhaps contrived, tell them to slow down and monitor their face for microexpressions of frustration.
Dominance/submission cues: As the most complex social animal on the planet, we humans form elaborate hierarchies based on position, money, and power. We are aware of these hierarchies, but we do not like talking explicitly about relative power positions, and we are generally uncomfortable when others talk about their superior rank. Instead, signs of dominance or weakness are more often expressed in nonverbal communication. We have inherited this communication style from other primates, notably chimpanzees, who have elaborate signals to denote an individual chimp’s place in the social rank. Keep in mind that the feeling of being in a superior social position gives people a confidence that will radiate outward in their body language. Some feel this confidence before they attain a position of power, and it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy as others are drawn to them. Some who are ambitious might try to simulate these cues, but it has to be done well. Fake confidence can be quite off-putting.
Confidence usually comes with a greater feeling of relaxation that is clearly reflected in the face, and with a greater freedom of movement. Those who are powerful will feel allowed to look around more at others, choosing to make eye contact with whomever they please. Their eyelids are more closed, a sign of seriousness and competence. If they feel bored or annoyed, they show it more freely and openly. They often smile less, frequent smiling being a sign of overall insecurity. They feel more entitled to touch people, such as with friendly pats on the back or on the arm. In a meeting, they will tend to take up more space and create more distance around themselves. They stand taller, and their gestures are relaxed and comfortable. Most important, others feel compelled to imitate their style and mannerisms. The leader will tend to impose a form of nonverbal communication on the group in very subtle ways. You will notice people mimicking not only their ideas but also their calm or more frenetic energy.
Alpha males like to signal their superior position in the rank in several ways: They speak faster than others and feel entitled to interrupt and control the flow of the conversation. Their handshake is extra vigorous, almost crushing. When they walk in the office, you will see them assume a taller stance and a purposeful stride, generally making inferiors walk behind them. Watch chimpanzees in a zoo and you will notice similar behavior on the part of the alpha chimp.
For women in leadership positions, what often works best is a calm, confident expression, warm yet businesslike. Perhaps the best example of this would be current German chancellor Angela Merkel. Her smiles are even less frequent than the average male politician, but when they occur they are especially meaningful. They never seem fake. She listens to others with looks of complete absorption, her face remarkably still. She has a way of getting others to do most of the talking while always seeming to be in control of the course of the conversation. She does not need to interrupt to assert herself. When she wants to attack someone, it is with looks of boredom, iciness, or contempt, never with blustery words. When Russian president Vladimir Putin tried to intimidate her by bringing his pet dog into a meeting, knowing Merkel had once been bitten and had a fear of dogs, she visibly tensed, then quickly composed herself and looked him calmly in the eye. She put herself in the one-up position in relation to Putin by not making anything of his ploy. He seemed rather childish and petty in comparison. Her style does not include all of the alpha male body posturing. It is quieter and yet extremely powerful in its own way.
As women come to attain more leadership positions, this less obtrusive style of authority might begin to alter our perception of some of the dominance cues so long associated with power.
It is worth observing those in positions of power in your group for signs of dominance cues and for their absence. Leaders who display tension and hesitation in their nonverbal cues are generally insecure in their power and feel it threatened. Signs of such anxiety and insecurity are generally easy to spot. They will talk in a more halting manner, with long pauses. Their voice will rise in pitch and stay there. They will tend to avert their gaze and control their eye movements, although they will often blink more. They will put on more forced smiles and emit nervous laughs. As opposed to feeling entitled to touch others, they will tend to touch themselves in what is known as pacifying behavior. They will touch their hair, their neck, their forehead, all in an attempt to soothe their nerves. People trying to hide their insecurities will assert themselves a little too loudly in a conversation, their voices rising. As they do this, they look around nervously, eyes wide open. Or as they talk in an animated way, their hands and bodies are unusually still, always a sign of anxiety. They will inevitably give off mixed signals, and you must pay greater attention to those that signal underlying insecurity.
Nicolas Sarkozy, president of France (2007–2012), was someone who liked to assert his presence through body language. He would pat people on the back, be the one to direct them where to stand, fix them with his stare, interrupt what they were saying, and generally try to dominate the room. During one meeting with him in the midst of the euro crisis, Chancellor Merkel saw his usual domineering act but could not help but notice his foot nervously jiggling the entire time. The extra assertive style was perhaps his way of distracting others from his insecurities. This was valuable information Merkel could put to use.
People’s actions will often contain dominance and submission cues. For instance, people will often show up late to indicate their superiority, real or imagined. They are not obligated to be on time. Also, conversation patterns reveal the relative position people feel they occupy. For instance, those who feel dominant will tend to talk more and interrupt frequently, as a means of asserting themselves. When there’s an argument that turns personal, they will resort to what is known as punctuation—they will find an action on the other side that started it all, even though clearly it is part of the relationship pattern. They assert their interpretation of who is to blame through their tone of voice and piercing looks. If you observe a couple from the outside, you will frequently notice one person who is in the dominant position. If you converse with them, the dominant one will make eye contact with you but not with his or her partner, and will appear to only half listen to what the partner says. Smiles can also be a subtle cue for indicating superiority, especially through what we shall call the tight smile. This usually comes in response to something someone said, and it is a smile that tightens the facial muscles and indicates irony and contempt for the person they see as inferior but gives them the cover of appearing friendly.
One final but very subtle nonverbal means of asserting dominance in a relationship comes through the symptom. One partner suddenly develops headaches or some other illness, or starts drinking, or generally falls into a negative pattern of behavior. This forces the other side to play by their rules, to tend to their weaknesses. It is the willful use of sympathy to gain power and it is extremely effective.
Finally, use the knowledge you glean from these cues as a valuable means of gauging the levels of confidence in people and acting appropriately. With leaders who are riddled with insecurities that poke through nonverbally, you can play to their insecurities and gain power through this, but often it is best to avoid attaching yourself too closely to such types, as they tend to do poorly over time and can drag you down with them. With those who are not leaders but are trying to assert themselves as if they were, your response should depend on their personality type. If they are rising stars, full of self-belief and a sense of destiny, it might be wise to try to rise with them. You will notice such types by the positive energy that surrounds them. On the other hand, if they are simply arrogant and petty despots, these are precisely the types you should always strive to avoid, as they are masters at making others pay lip service to them without giving anything in return.
Deception cues: We humans are by nature quite gullible. We want to believe in certain things—that we can get something for nothing; that we can easily regain or rejuvenate our health thanks to some new trick, perhaps even cheat death; that most people are essentially good and can be trusted. This propensity is what deceivers and manipulators thrive on. It would be immensely beneficial for the future of our species if we were all less gullible, but we cannot change human nature. Instead, the best we can do is to learn to recognize certain telltale signs of an attempt at deception and maintain our skepticism as we examine the evidence further.
The most clear and common sign comes when people assume an extra-animated front. When they smile a lot, seem more than friendly, and even are quite entertaining, it is hard for us to not be drawn in and lower ever so slightly our resistance to their influence. When Lyndon Johnson was trying to pull the wool over the eyes of a fellow senator, he would go an extra mile with his physical presence, cornering them in the cloakroom, telling some off-color jokes, touching them on the arm, looking extra sincere, and cracking the biggest smiles he could muster. Similarly, if people are trying to cover something up, they tend to become extra vehement, righteous, and chatty. They are playing on the conviction bias (see chapter 1)—if I deny or say something with so much gusto, with an air of being a victim, it is hard to doubt me. We tend to take extra conviction for truth. In fact, when people try to explain their ideas with so much exaggerated energy, or defend themselves with an intense level of denial, that is precisely when you should raise your antennae.
In both cases—the cover-up and the soft sell—the deceiver is striving to distract you from the truth. Although an animated face and gestures might come from sheer exuberance and genuine friendliness, when they come from someone you don’t know well, or from someone who just might have something to hide, you must be on your guard. Now you are looking for nonverbal signs to confirm your suspicions.
With such deceivers you will often notice that one part of the face or the body is more expressive to attract your attention. This will often be the area around the mouth, with large smiles and changing expressions. This is the easiest area of the body for people to manipulate and create an animated effect. But it could also be exaggerated gestures with the hands and arms. The key is that you will detect tension and anxiety in other parts of the body, because it is impossible for them to control all of the muscles. When they flash a big smile, the eyes are tense with little movement or the rest of the body is unusually still, or if the eyes are trying to fool you with looks to garner your sympathy, the mouth quivers slightly. These are signs of contrived behavior, of trying too hard to control one part of the body.
Sometimes really clever deceivers will attempt to create the opposite impression. If they are covering up a misdeed, they will hide their guilt behind an extremely serious and competent exterior, the face becoming unusually still. Instead of loud denials, they will offer a highly plausible explanation of the chain of events, even going through the “evidence” that confirms this. Their picture of reality is nearly seamless. If they are trying to gain your money or support, they will pose as the highly competent professional, to the point of being somewhat boring, even hitting you with a lot of numbers and statistics. Con artists often employ this front. The great con artist Victor Lustig would lull his victims to sleep with a professional patter, making himself come off as a bureaucrat or the dull expert in bonds and securities. Bernie Madoff seemed so bland nobody could possibly suspect him of such an audacious con game as the one he pulled off.
This form of deception is harder to see through because there is less to notice. But once again you are looking for contrived impressions. Reality is never so pat and seamless. Real events involve sudden random intrusions and accidents. Reality is messy and the pieces rarely fit so perfectly. That was what was wrong with the Watergate cover-up and raised suspicions. When the explanation or the come-on is just a little too slick or professional, that is what should trigger your skepticism. Looking at this from the other side, as a character in Dostoyevsky’s novel The Idiot advised, “When you are lying, if you skillfully put in something not quite ordinary, something eccentric, something, you know, that never has happened, or very rarely, it makes the lie sound much more probable.” In general, the best thing to do when you suspect people of trying to distract you from the truth is not to actively confront them in the beginning, but in fact to encourage them to continue by showing interest in what they are saying or doing. You want them to talk more, to reveal more signs of tension and contrivance. At the right moment you must surprise them with a question or remark that is designed to make them uncomfortable, revealing you are onto them. Pay attention to the microexpressions and body language they emit at such moments. If they are really deceiving, they will often have a freeze response as they take this in, and then quickly try to mask the underlying anxiety. This was the favorite strategy of detective Columbo in the television series of the same name—facing criminals who had tried to reverse engineer the evidence to make it look like someone else had done it, Columbo would pretend to be perfectly friendly and harmless but then would suddenly ask an uncomfortable question and then pay extra attention to the face and body.
Even with the most practiced deceivers, one of the best ways to unmask them is to notice how they give emphasis to their words through nonverbal cues. It is very difficult for humans to fake this. Emphasis comes through raised vocal pitch and assertive tone, forceful hand gestures, the raising of eyebrows and the widening of eyes. We might also lean forward or rise up on the balls of our feet. We engage in such behavior when we are filled with emotion and trying to add an exclamation point to what we are saying. It is hard for deceivers to mimic this. The emphasis they place with their voice or body is not exactly correlated to what they are saying, does not quite fit the context of the moment, or comes a little too late. When they pound the table with their fist, it is not at the moment they should be feeling the emotion, but a little earlier, as if on cue, as if to create an effect. These are all cracks in the veneer of the realness they are trying to project.
Finally, with deception keep in mind that there is always a scale involved. At the bottom of the scale we find the most harmless varieties, little white lies. These could include all forms of flattery in daily life: “You look great today”; “I loved your screenplay.” They could include not revealing to people exactly what you did that day or withholding bits of information because it is annoying to be completely transparent and have no privacy. These small forms of deception can be detected if we pay attention, such as by noticing the genuineness of a smile. But in fact it is best to simply ignore this lower end. Polite, civilized society depends on the ability to say things that are not always sincere. It would be too damaging socially to become constantly aware of this subrealm of deception. Save your alertness for those situations in which the stakes are higher and people might be angling to get something valuable out of you.
The Art of Impression Management
In general the word role-playing has negative connotations. We contrast it with authenticity. A person who is truly authentic doesn’t need to play a role in life, we think, but can simply be him- or herself. This concept has value in friendships and in our intimate relationships, where, hopefully, we can drop the masks we wear and feel comfortable in displaying our unique qualities. But in our professional life it is much more complicated. When it comes to a specific job or role to play in society, we have expectations about what is professional. We would be made to feel uncomfortable if our airplane pilot suddenly started to act like a car salesman, or a mechanic like a therapist, or a professor like a rock musician. If such people acted completely like themselves, dropping their masks and refusing to play their roles, we would question their competence.
A politician or public figure whom we see as more authentic than others is generally better at projecting such a quality. They know that appearing humble, or discussing their private life, or telling an anecdote that reveals some vulnerability will have the “authentic” effect. We are not seeing them as they are in the privacy of their home. Life in the public sphere means wearing a mask, and sometimes some people wear the mask of “authenticity.” Even the hipster or the rebel is playing a role, with prescribed poses and tattoos. They do not have the freedom to suddenly wear a business suit, because others in their circle would begin to question their sincerity, which depends on displaying the right appearance. People have more freedom to bring more of their personal qualities into the role they play once they have established themselves and their competence is no longer in question. But this is always within limits.
Consciously or unconsciously most of us adhere to what is expected of our role because we realize our social success depends on this. Some may refuse to play this game, but in the end they are marginalized and forced to play the outsider role, with limited options and decreasing freedom as they get older. In general, it is best to simply accept this dynamic and derive some pleasure from it. You are not only aware of the proper appearances you must present but know how to shape them for maximum effect. You can then transform yourself into a superior actor on the stage of life and enjoy your moment in the limelight.
The following are some basics in the art of impression management.
Master the nonverbal cues. In certain settings, when people want to get a fix on who we are, they pay greater attention to the nonverbal cues we emit. This could be in a job interview, a group meeting, or a public appearance. Aware of this, smart social performers will know how to control these cues to some degree and consciously emit the signs that are suitable and positive. They know how to seem likable, flash genuine smiles, use welcoming body language, and mirror the people they deal with. They know the dominance cues and how to radiate confidence. They know that certain looks are more expressive than words in conveying disdain or attraction. In general, you want to be aware of your nonverbal style so you can consciously alter certain aspects for better effect.
Be a method actor. In method acting you train yourself to be able to display the proper emotions on command. You feel sad when your part calls for it by recalling your own experiences that caused such emotions, or if necessary by simply imagining such experiences. The point is that you have control. In real life it is not possible to train ourselves to such a degree, but if you have no control, if you are continually emoting whatever comes to you in the moment, you will subtly signal weakness and an overall lack of self-mastery. Learn how to consciously put yourself in the right emotional mood by imagining how and why you should feel the emotion suitable to the occasion or performance you are about to give. Surrender to the feeling for the moment so that the face and body are naturally animated. Sometimes by actually making yourself smile or frown, you will experience some of the emotions that go with these expressions. Just as important, train yourself to return to a more neutral expression at a natural moment, careful to not go too far with your emoting.
Adapt to your audience. Although you conform to certain parameters set by the role you play, you must be flexible. A master performer like Bill Clinton never lost sight of the fact that as president he had to project confidence and power, but if he was speaking to a group of autoworkers he would adjust his accent and his words to fit the audience, and he would do the same for a group of executives. Know your audience and shape your nonverbal cues to their style and taste.
Create the proper first impression. It has been demonstrated how much people tend to judge based on first impressions and the difficulties they have in reassessing these judgments. Knowing this, you must give extra attention to your first appearance before an individual or group. In general it is best to tone down your nonverbal cues and present a more neutral front. Too much excitement will signal insecurity and might make people suspicious. A relaxed smile, however, and looking people in the eye in these first encounters can do wonders for lowering their natural resistance.
Use dramatic effects. This mostly involves mastering the art of presence/absence. If you are too present, if people see you too often or can predict exactly what you will do next, they will quickly grow bored with you. You must know how to selectively absent yourself, to regulate how often and when you appear before others, making them want to see more of you, not less. Cloak yourself in some mystery, displaying some subtly contradictory qualities. People don’t need to know everything about you. Learn to withhold information. In general, make your appearances and your behavior less predictable.
Project saintly qualities. No matter what historical period we are living through, there are certain traits that are always seen as positive and that you must know how to display. For instance, the appearance of saintliness never goes out of fashion. Appearing saintly today is certainly different in content from the sixteenth century, but the essence is the same—you embody what is considered good and above reproach. In the modern world, this means showing yourself as progressive, supremely tolerant, and open-minded. You will want to be seen giving generously to certain causes and supporting them on social media. Projecting sincerity and honesty always plays well. A few public confessions of your weaknesses and vulnerabilities will do the trick. For some reason people see signs of humility as authentic, even though people might very well be simulating them. Learn how to occasionally lower your head and appear humble. If dirty work must be done, get others to do it. Your hands are clean. Never overtly play the Machiavellian leader—that only works well on television. Use the appropriate dominance cues to make people think you are powerful, even before you reach the heights. You want to seem like you were destined for success, a mystical effect that always works.
The master of this game has to be Emperor Augustus (63 BC–AD 14) of ancient Rome. Augustus understood the value of having a good enemy, a villain with whom he could contrast himself. For this purpose he used Mark Antony, his early rival for power, as the perfect foil. Augustus personally allied himself with everything traditional in Roman society, even placing his home near the spot where the city had supposedly been founded. While Antony was off in Egypt, dallying with Queen Cleopatra and giving in to a life of luxury, Augustus could continually point to their differences, showing himself off as the embodiment of Roman values, which Antony had betrayed. Once he became the supreme leader of Rome, Augustus made a public show of humility, of giving back powers to the Senate and to the people. He spoke a more vernacular Latin and lived simply, like a man of the people. And for all this he was revered. It was, of course, all a show. In fact he spent most of his time in a luxurious villa outside Rome. He had many mistresses, who came from places as exotic as Egypt. And while seeming to give away power, he held on tightly to the real reins of control, the military. Obsessed with the theater, Augustus was a master showman and wearer of masks. He must have realized this, for these were the last words he spoke on his deathbed: “Have I played my part in the farce of life well enough?” Realize the following: The word personality comes from the Latin persona, which means “mask.” In the public we all wear masks, and this has a positive function. If we displayed exactly who we are and spoke our minds truthfully, we would offend almost everyone and reveal qualities that are best concealed. Having a persona, playing a role well, actually protects us from people looking too closely at us, with all of the insecurities that would churn up. In fact, the better you play your role, the more power you will accrue, and with power you will have the freedom to express more of your peculiarities. If you take this far enough, the persona you present will match many of your unique characteristics, but always heightened for effect.
“You appeared to read a good deal upon her which was quite invisible to me.” “Not invisible but unnoticed, Watson. You did not know where to look, and so you missed all that was important. I can never bring you to realize the importance of sleeves, the suggestiveness of thumbnails, or the great issues that may hang from a boot-lace.”
—Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, “A Case of Identity”
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