How to Read People

Size up strangers, understand lovers, and decode body language like a pro.

Who Are You? (And What Do You Think of Me?)

The New Hire: What Do I Need to Know About This Job Candidate—and How Can I Find It Out?

Every Sunday, America's corporate titans share their hiring strategies with The New York Times. "I have a very good antenna about people," Starbucks founder Howard Schultz told the "Corner Office" column. "First off, I want to know what you're reading and then I'll ask you why. Tell me what work-life balance means to you."

Abbe Raven, CEO of A&E Television Network, privileges her "gut reaction." "Number 1, for me, is instinct. It's all about who they are as a person, their chemistry, their charisma, and their gravitas."

The problem with such freewheeling approaches is that qualities like charisma and compassion are faked in job interviews as much as 90 percent of the time, according to one landmark study. Relying on first impressions and stated values is the hiring equivalent of shacking up with your neighbor after a quick curbside chat. Even if your impression is accurate, there's little correlation between personality and job performance. For these reasons, psychologists who study job interviews recommend honing in on aptitude and skills specific to the job.

People are hugely overconfident about their ability to judge others in general, and recruiters may be particularly so. The reality, says Allen Huffcutt of Bradley University, is that the interview is a dicey venue in which to get a good read on someone. "You've got a high stakes situation, an interaction between strangers, and a general inability to verify what candidates say," says Huffcutt, who has spent his career parsing job candidates.

Woman in Masquerade Mask
Peter Yang
Potential employees are in impression-management hyperdrive. Candidates who engage in extensive image creation or image protection—from eluding questions to outright fabrication—see their chances of advancement skyrocket. The problem is that there's little connection between ingratiating, self-promotional statements and on-the-job behavior or achievement.

Huffcutt recommends dispensing with questions that invite tactical or evasive answers: "Tell me about your strengths and weaknesses" or "Why do you want to work here?" For the vast majority of positions, softball questions don't get to the crux of the matter: Does the person have the aptitude to do the job?

Interviewers are drawn to open-ended inquiries because they think they'll zero in on personality. But that is a doubly flawed strategy. Not only does personality turn out to be a poor predictor of job performance, it interacts with situations such that people behave differently in the workplace than they do in other spheres. "If you have very direct cues and rewards [as most workplaces do], people will follow those regardless of their style outside of work," says Huffcutt, who advises, "focus more on competencies."

To do that, one needs to ask structured questions or, better yet, administer tests of competence. A classic structured question for managers asks, "How would you handle a moody employee whose attitude is beginning to impact performance?" The best answer is to privately inquire about their well-being. The worst is to publicly chastise them or put them on probation. Despite the direct window onto the candidate's approach, employers are loath to ask such "rote" questions, which might not showcase their own originality and critical thinking!

The Civil and Foreign Service may far outstrip the private sector in aptitude-based hiring. The Department of State and other arms of government administer tests that measure knowledge and "core competencies," which scale closely to tests of general intelligence. According to Purdue's Michael Campion, who has worked for decades with federal agencies including the Foreign Service, tests given to Foreign Service candidates predict job performance partly because they are correlated with intelligence.

If intelligence is the "it" factor, then only one recent "Corner Office" CEO has the right approach. Online entrepreneur Kevin O'Connor favors the stress interview, lacing the discussion with non sequiturs such as "How smart are you?"

"You can fool me that you're smart in this interview, but you're not going to fool me three months from now," he reportedly tells candidates. O'Connor's current project is a Web site for objective comparisons, called FindTheBest.com. No app for employee selection, though. —Kaja Perina

The Potential Lover: Is This Person Attracted to Me?

"I was sitting with a male friend at a lecture," says Helen Fisher, a biological anthropologist at Rutgers University and a renowned love researcher. "It was a humid summer day. The woman in front of us shook her hair out and gathered it up into a pony tail. My friend said, 'Did you see that? She's hot for me.' I laughed—I'm pretty certain she was just plain hot and wanted to get her hair off her neck!"

The body language of flirting is elemental, hardwired into us, and yet sometimes it's difficult to know if someone wants you right now, might possibly want you, wants to be your friend, or is just a nice person who could transmit polite interest to a statue. As an expert in mating rituals, Fisher recognized in her friend the male tendency to overestimate overtures: "Men have everything to gain from a sexual encounter and very little to lose," she says. "So they might as well try." Women, on the other hand, have evolved to read potential suitors with a suspicious eye, since the consequences of sex—pregnancy and childbirth—are costly for them indeed.

That feminine skepticism, however, is sometimes obscured by a friendly facade that could be misread by anyone. Indiana University researchers had American subjects watch videos of speed-dating events in Germany, focusing on posture, tone of voice, and eye contact as they guessed whether or not the daters were sexually attracted to each other. Male and female viewers were equally good at measuring men's interest but equally bad at judging women's interest. In five of the videos, in fact, 80 percent of the subjects thought the German women pictured were interested when they were just being sociable.

Men and women seeking to improve their hook-up hit rate can start by keeping an eye out for some of the behaviors that people automatically display when they are into each other. Amazingly, humans tend to throw out 70 such signals per hour while chatting up romantic prospects, Fisher says.

Here's a sampling of that extensive repertoire: Men might draw attention to themselves with a loud laugh or by spreading their arms wide. Both men and women might flash a broad grin, showing all their teeth. Once a conversation begins, besotted women slip into sing-songy voices, while men drop theirs an octave. As interest accelerates, flirters tend to mimic each other's stance and movements. And finally, they make physical contact.

It's best to hang back until you witness a cluster of gestures, says Marsha Lucas, a neuropsychologist. "A good one to watch for: After making eye contact, she looks down a bit, gathers or otherwise preens her hair, and then looks up at you while her chin is tipped."

Whitewashed woman

Peter Yang
If you consistently miss amorous advances, get in tune with your own emotions, says Lucas, who recommends mindfulness exercises. "In as little as two weeks, you can change how well your brain integrates emotional information."

If, after a skillful sizing up of the situation, you still make the wrong call—the woman you thought was falling for you turns red and stumbles away after you invite her to dinner, "be brave and own the error," says Lucas. "If you offer a simple apology instead of getting pissed off at her for 'misleading' you, you might impress her enough to get a connection going after all." —Carlin Flora

The Stranger: Why Is This Encounter So Difficult?

"What just happened here?"

You've probably walked away from an exhausting exchange at a cocktail party, in the neighborhood park, or by the office elevator wondering whether you or the other person was to blame for a failed conversation.

Sometimes a chat goes awry because a person just doesn't seem interested in what you have to say or, conversely, doesn't let you get a word in. Other times, you might say something innocuous only to have your conversation partner misinterpret it and begin judging you harshly. An exchange can rapidly spiral downward if you sense the other person doesn't like you and you start liking him or her less in return. Whether the encounter ends in feigned politeness or deadly silence, you're left confused or upset.

Shy or socially anxious people often want to bond but easily feel self-conscious or paralyzed. As such, they are often unwitting culprits in awkward encounters.

And for those on the autism spectrum, which includes people with a wide range of social disabilities, clumsy confabs are, sadly, a matter of course, says John Elder Robison, author of Look Me in the Eye: My Life With Asperger's. "An asshole might say something insulting with a smirk on his face," says Robison. "A guy with Asperger's might say, 'You look fat when you wear a shirt with stripes,' but he won't have a malicious expression, or really any expression at all. He's saying it because he knows women don't like to look fat, and he thinks the information is helpful." Of course, the woman might walk away completely insulted.

An uncomfortable exchange might alternatively be the result of two clashing characters. Sometimes people's values are simply incompatible, says clinical psychologist Leon Seltzer of Del Mar, California. You may say something totally innocent, yet be grossly misunderstood. Each of you may miss the other's underlying motivation, intention, or innuendo. And neither party may feel the freedom to openly address the problem.

If someone you don't know well seems to be amusing himself by putting you down or tosses off a racial slur or otherwise blatantly offensive remark, excuse yourself and walk away. Save your bon mots for someone deserving of them. But don't write off a quiet person as aloof or cold; instead, assume he just needs a little extra help. Dialogue isn't always fifty-fifty; sometimes the socially adept need to carry more weight, by asking questions, putting the other at ease, and giving sincere compliments to get positive feelings flowing.

In situations where it's to your advantage to befriend someone, don't develop a defeatist attitude over one bad interaction. Let your curiosity guide you to common ground, and employ a little old-fashioned flattery to dispel any bad impressions he or she may have formed about you.

If you really can't tell whether someone dislikes you or is equally baffled by a lack of fluid repartee, it's worth asking, in a caring tone, "I'm sorry, did I offend you somehow?" If a misunderstanding has occurred, the well-intentioned person will rush to clear it up. And someone who has perception problems will be especially relieved that you asked. "If someone has the courage and awareness to confront me like that, the chances are high that we will be able to connect," says Robison.

Then again, if you find yourself asking "is it me or them" a little too often, it is, statistically speaking, probably you. But social skills can be learned even by those with serious impairments. Take responsibility for your own conversation stoppers, and you'll slowly start to experience the exhilarating jolt of real rapport. —Carlin Flora

The Boss: How Much Control Over Me Does This Person Actually Have?

They don't call them con games for nothing. The ability to influence others to the point of wheedling money out of them attests to the near-magical social power of confidence. In its benign forms, it may not make money dance out of pockets but it has the ability to change another person's state of mind. And that, researchers say, is the real meaning of power in the 21st century.

Whether we acknowledge it or not—and as Americans, we're inclined not to—every interaction has power dynamics built into it, often encoded in a set of body and behavior displays that make clear whose perspective is bound to prevail. It's just that some people are more attuned to them than others. The thing about power and its kissing cousin, confidence, is that they influence you with or without your consent.

Around a conference room table, the most powerful person is likely to be the one with the most expansive posture, the loudest voice, the most amplified gestures and emotional displays—bigger smiles, but also outsize displays of anger and frustration—including the proverbial fist pounding on the table. Power is, in a word, disinhibiting, finds Dacher Keltner, professor of psychology at the University of California at Berkeley. It encourages people to act on their own whims and impulses.

Concern over other people's regard is the main source of human restraint. Sure, it can be overdone. "Lack of confidence amounts to excessive concern about other people's criticism," explains Keltner. But power takes people in the opposite direction—it makes you uninterested in others' evaluations of you. "It gives you a sense of agency, the ability to pursue your goals without obstruction." How we treat powerful people compounds the matter. We're less critical of them, more flattering to them. All conspire to make the powerful person really confident.

Because power is wrapped in confidence, and confidence manifests itself in open body postures and movements of facial muscles, most people can detect where the power resides in any room. But that doesn't mean that power can't be faked to some degree.

Columbia University psychologist Dana Carney calls it "power posing." Using open postures—arms akimbo, feet apart—doesn't just influence observers. It creates internal hormonal shifts that can improve confidence and performance. Testosterone levels rise, levels of the stress hormone cortisol drop.

While she doesn't advocate going into a meeting and sprawling out, she does believe that taking at least a minute in private beforehand to assume power poses can help anyone do better when heading into a job interview, speaking in public, or disagreeing with a boss.

"By simply changing physical posture, an individual prepares his or her mental and physiological systems to endure difficult and stressful situations," Carney reports in a recent issue of Psychological Science.

The deep hormonal changes set in motion by behavioral displays hint at one more truth about power—it tends to reserve its most remarkable effects for those who wield it. Although the acquisition of power today generally accrues to the socially intelligent—those good at connecting with others—feeling powerful changes people, often for the worse.

Woman with question mark on her face

Peter Yang
Power turns people into "raving sociopaths," says Keltner. It distorts the way they see themselves. They have a hard time seeing the world from other people's points of view. They judge others less accurately. They interrupt others. They speak out of turn. Their behavior becomes insensitive—often in a costly fashion.

The cost tends to be outsize risk-taking directly stemming from overconfidence. Think of John F. Kennedy invading Cuba. Or of the recent financial collapse. "These are instances in which people felt excessively empowered," Keltner contends.

That, he notes, is the central paradox of power. The skills that lead to obtaining power deteriorate once power is obtained. —Hara Estroff Marano

 

How to Read People