It can be tempting to look at someone and make assumptions based on their appearance, way of talking, or clothing. However, these assumptions might be more complex than many initially think. Reading people can be difficult, and superhero powers like reading minds are impossible. For this reason, looking for body language, non-verbal cues, and hidden meanings in how someone talks to you may be helpful.
What Does It Mean To "Read" People?
When you look at someone and feel you can determine their mood or personality, you may attempt to "read" them, which is a form of assumption-making humans may do to defend themselves and make social connections. Reading another person is often non-verbal and can involve your feelings when looking at someone and observing how they stand, move, or talk. Many features could play into your opinion and understanding of them. However, when reading someone, they might not directly let you know if you're correct.
Some people could look at another person and think, "They look upset," or "They don't look kind." These are instinctual opinions and thoughts that you might experience upon meeting another person. Studies indicate this process takes about seven seconds, so making a first impression can be difficult for some people. As you start to talk to someone and get to know them, you might make new assumptions about their character. Reading someone is often the first step before getting to know someone, but it might not always be accurate.
What Are The Potential Benefits Of Reading Someone?
Although reading people and making assumptions can have adverse impacts, there may be a few benefits, too.
You Can Determine The Safety Of Approaching Someone
Reading people may let you know if it's safe to approach someone. You might be more willing to approach them with a smile and a friendly greeting if they look friendly. If they look unhappy, you might want to approach them cautiously, as they may need space. If a friend looks upset, you could ask them what's going on and offer your support. In addition, if you see someone acting violently or unkind to others, you might know it's safer to avoid them.
Understanding facial expressions, body language, and non-verbal cues may keep you safe and ensure you know how to approach someone in a way that feels comfortable to both of you. Once you approach someone, you might ask them questions to get a further read on their emotions and state of mind. Although non-verbal assumptions may be beneficial, direct communication may be the most effective way to get an honest view of what someone is thinking.
You Can Get To Know The Person More Profoundly
If you don't know how to read people, you might misinterpret their actions or facial expressions and assume traits that might not be accurate. For example, many people avoid eye contact due to mental health challenges or neurodivergence. Although some people in society value eye contact as a sign of active listening and participating in conversation, some people may struggle to gather their thoughts when making eye contact. One study found that autistic adults and children had a higher cognitive function and social ability when not making eye contact. By talking to someone directly and asking questions, you may be able to re-evaluate your initial assumptions about what makes someone "friendly" or "communicative," as each person is unique.
If you don't know how to read people at all, you could end up interpreting something that they do or an action or a facial expression incorrectly, and you may start to assume things about a person that aren’t accurate. Maybe you see their face and think that they are an angry person, when they're just upset about a situation. Maybe you think they look unfriendly, but they're just concentrating heavily on a task. By learning to read people better, you may be able to advance your life in many ways.
Reading people can help you know whom to approach with that great new idea (and when to approach) and whom you should steer clear of. It also lets you know how to introduce something to them, whether from a factual standpoint or a more fun and creative one. Before you know it, reading people can become second nature to you if you practice it often enough. And what's even better is that you've probably been doing it all your life and not even thinking about it. That's because it's something that even kids will try out from time to time without knowing how important it is.
Reading People In Childhood
When you were a child, did you ever sit on a bench at the park or on your porch and watch people walk by? You probably did at some point, even if it was just for a few minutes. And then you look at the people and create stories. If they're walking a dog, maybe they're a dog walker on their way to the park. If they're carrying a briefcase and walking quickly, they're late to a big meeting (of course, that meeting might have been with aliens in your young mind, but you get the general idea). You've already interpreted what you see of someone to create a story about them.
How To Read People You Know
Before reading strangers, learning to read people you already know and love might be helpful. Below are a few strategies to do so.
Learn About Body Language
The study of body language can indicate a few ways people might act. Body language can include the following:
How someone crosses their legs or positions them
The direction someone leans when sitting
How someone positions their arms and hands
What a person is looking at
Pay attention to all these areas. Then, consider what they might mean. Someone leaning forward and making eye contact with you during a date may be interested in getting to know you more. A friend raising their eyebrows at someone they just met might be surprised or uncertain about that person. Someone clenching their fists while talking might be angry or anxious about the conversation.
Understand Mental Health And Body Language
Mental health and mental state can change someone's body language. For example, people living with a mental illness like depression might slouch or make slower movements. People with anxiety might fidget with their hands, clench their fists, or cross their arms over their bodies. People with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) might look for an exit often, be hyper-vigilant of their surroundings, or defend their bodies by crossing their arms or staying in secure locations.
Neurodivergence can also factor into body language. As the study above showcases, autistic people may feel more comfortable not making eye contact. People with ADHD might also struggle to remain still, interrupt others, or fidget with items or their hands while speaking. These actions might be interpreted as "rude" by someone unfamiliar with them. However, it can be beneficial to have empathy and understand that some people might not have the same reactions to social situations as you.
Get To Know Their Patterns
If you know someone well, you might get a feel for their body language patterns. For instance, perhaps a friend often chuckles or smiles when they feel uncomfortable or embarrassed, or maybe your dad furrows his brow when stressed. These signals can be noted to help you understand when a friend or family member could benefit from support or space. When you see a friend is uncomfortable, you might ask them if they want to take a walk or get some air outside. You could also check in by asking how they feel and if there's anything you can do to help.
How To Find Professional Support
Some people struggle to read others or express their emotions through body language. However, this skill can often be built over time, and professional support might help you do so. Try not to quit or give up on the progress you make. In addition, ask your therapist for their professional opinion on what might work for you.
For those who aren't sure where to start or how to work on reading people, it's possible to get professional help online. Online therapy might be more comfortable for those worried about public situations or face-to-face communication. Through platforms like BetterHelp, you can get matched with a therapist specializing in your mental health condition or symptoms. You can set up your appointments through video, phone, or messaging software with an internet connection. You don't have to install programs and can log in for therapy anytime.
Online therapy can be a valuable and practical resource for people who have historically had difficulty reading people, potentially due to social anxiety or challenges with empathy. Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) is an approach that many online therapists use to treat participants. It is often the leading treatment for social anxiety, depression, and generalized anxiety disorder (GAD). In one study, researchers found significant reductions in symptoms of social anxiety after treatment using internet-based CBT. Greater comfort in being around other people might help you read their moods, intentions, and motivations more proficiently.
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