I’ve gotten a chance to talk to middle schoolers a lot lately, and inevitably this subject comes up: someone wants to ask someone out, but isn’t sure if that person likes them.
“Why not just ask?” I say.
“Because I’ll be in school with this person for years,” I’m told. Or: “Because it’s a good friend of mine and I don’t want to make it weird if they don’t like me.” These are really good points, I’ve had to admit. Who wants to make things awkward with someone they know they’ll be seeing on a daily basis for the next five years? It’s the same problem an adult faces with a co-worker, for instance. What you really want in a situation like this is the ability to read minds.
Fortunately, that’s entirely possible.
How to read minds
Most people seem to realize that you can sometimes tell things about people by their body language–that someone with arms crossed over their stomach is feeling defensive, or that someone who turns away while talking to you isn’t interested. What’s amazing is how much more you can learn about people around you, how many signals you can pick up, if you begin to learn body language in detail.
Body language isn’t made up of absolute, definite signals. For instance, when someone says something and then touches their nose, that usually means what they’ve said is not true, or that they have reservations or misgivings–but not always. Sometimes it might just be that the a stray piece of dust made their nose itch. We can’t take any single gesture or expression as an absolute indication of anything–which is why Allen and Barbara Pease in The Definitive Book of Body Language talk about looking at sets and series of gestures instead of just trying to interpret one gesture alone.
With that said, some gestures are surprisingly reliable. If you learn to read body language clearly enough, when you walk down the street it’s as though little information bubbles are popping up over everyone you meet: she’s really interested in him, and he knows it but doesn’t feel the same way … that guy doesn’t want to talk to anyone … those two people are having a really honest conversation, but neither of them is worried.
Better than asking?
In fact, sometimes body language reveal more than direct answers to direct questions. That’s the premise of the TV series Lie to Me, which doesn’t exaggerate the effect too badly and uses very good information to inform the body language they use in the episodes.
To get back to my middle school friends, the suggestion I gave was this: walk up to the person you like as though you’re going to ask an important question, then say hi. If you’ve done a good job of looking like you’re going to ask something important, the other person will probably have a reaction: crossed arms over the chest usually means feeling threatened, possibly from not wanting to be asked an awkward question; turning away usually means that the person isn’t interested, or wants to get away; a smile that you can see even around the eyes means real happiness; leaning forward or turning toward you tends to mean they’re interested in what you’re going to say; a lopsided expression usually means sarcasm; and so on. The great thing about this approach is that you don’t have to actually ask the question. If you just give the impression that you have an important question for them (which you do!), they’ll usually give you some sense of how they feel about that possibility.
Quick pointers versus careful study
Of course, you can tell a lot more about what people are thinking if you study body language rather than just going with a few pointers, but either way, far more of our thoughts and opinions are out there for anyone to read than most of us realize.
If you’re interested in learning about gestures, expressions, and body language, I highly recommend the Peases’ book. I also have to say that I think a lot of Lie to Me from the four or five episodes I’ve seen so far, even though in the show experts often explain things that they already know to each other to clue us audience members in; I hate to see writers do that, although I can understand why they resort to it here. It’s like saying “As you know, professor …”
And if you’re wondering what all this has to do with self-motivation, there’s this question: how often do we hold back from doing something just because we don’t know what someone else thinks about it?
Photo by Ian Sane