Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Reading People

Here is the written version of a presentation I gave for a Job Skills Seminar at Dixie College in 1999.


Today I’m going to introduce you to the skill of reading other people, a skill you are all already slightly familiar with. What I really want to do is to convince you to take the reading of other people a lot more seriously; to do it more consciously and sincerely.

We’ll run the class in two parts. In the first half of class I’ll give a bit of sociology, how sociologists talk about the self and its relationship with other people and social contexts. In the second half of class we’ll apply this sociology to reading other people, to interpreting the meanings and attitudes of people so that we may manipulate them. So that we may manipulate situations in our favor and get what we want.

Symbolic Interactionism. Symbolic interactionists see human behavior as consisting of the manipulation of symbols; arbitrary signs created and given significance by people. Symbols stand in place of, and point to, the objects in our environment. There are three types of objects: goals, things out there, and social acts. Goals are the intentions one has for acting in a situation; things are the physical reality (including people) of a situation; and acts are the joint activities which people take together. Symbols are the way we talk about the objects in our environment.
We act toward objects based upon our symbolic definitions of these objects. We behave in specific situations based upon our definitions of the situation. The definition of the situation consists of our understanding of the meanings of the objects present in the situation. In most situations we expect that others in the situation will have a similar definition of the situation as we do.

The Self. Today we’ll get about as micro as sociology gets, we’re going to examine the process of the self. Notice I called the self a process. This suggests that the self is an ongoing activity. It is something that forms, is maintained, changes, and all the while it is an activity that we engage in. We engage in the activity of the self.

This is different than talking of self as a psychological entity, something that we are born with, that we have no control over. Sociologists, and most psychologists I imagine, don’t buy this. We feel that the self is a process of interaction with other people. The self is something that people do together.

So, remember, as we go through this extremely micro-sociological discussion of the self, that we are talking sociology here, we’re talking people doing things together.

The granddaddy of writing about the self is George Herbert Mead, he lived in the early to middle part of the twentieth century. Mead suggested that the self has two parts: the I and the Me.
The I is the spontaneous self as subject. When thinking of the I you should think of the perspective of “what I want to do,” or “what I did,” like “I went to the market.” This is the actor’s perspective of the situation. The actor looking at a situation and acting.

The Me, on the other hand, is the self as a social object. Remember when we discussed objects in symbolic interactionism. The Me is the self as any other object in a situation, it is the actor taking the perspective of others toward himself. It’s standing outside of his subjective stance to see what he looks like. “That’s me at the market,” or “that’s me going to the market.” I can see me.

So, how is this sociological? Well, the I is about as psychological as we get in sociology. It is impulsive. It is what the actor wants to do, right now. The me, however, tempers the I in that it places the actor within a social situation. The actor then can analyze how (he thinks) others view him, how others expect him to behave, the statuses others see him as occupying and the roles that accompany these statuses. Thus, the actor channels his I, directs his actions, based on his vision of me, of how he is expected to act in the given situation.

Self-concept is the self we are aware of. It’s how we see our self, the qualities and statuses and roles that we see as being us. Well, this comes about mainly through the me, through seeing our self as a social object. Because we only view ourselves in relation to our position in a social setting. We see ourselves as others see us, or, possibly, how we want others to see us.

So the self and self-concept are social processes. They only emerge through participation in groups. A person who is isolated, feral people, don’t develop a sense of self, they are never concerned with how they might look to others, because they have never had the socialization experiences necessary to foster an understanding of self, to construct a self-concept.

Symbolic interactionists emphasize the active role of the actor in constructing self. The important part of this view of the self is the process of people role-taking. Role-taking involves stepping into other people’s shoes and viewing our self from there. And this isn’t necessarily stepping into the shoes of specific other people, although it often is, it can also be stepping into the shoes of a specific other status, and viewing the situation from there. So we take the role of others, and we view ourselves from this perspective. We do this all the time, say symbolic interactionists. This is how we know how to act in specific situations.

The looking glass self, coined by Charles Horton Cooley, suggests that our view of our self is gained by looking at our self from the perspective of others (like role-taking). The only way we know who we are is through the reactions of others to our behaviors. We judge our behaviors, and design our future (immediate) actions based on how we see others, specific others, viewing us. We are, literally, looking at ourselves through the eyes of others.

Self-esteem refers to our judgement about how well we met our expectations of our performance in a situation. We enter the situation wanting to accomplish a goal (remember symbolic interactionism); how close we come to fulfilling this goal, how close we perceive that we’ve fulfilled the goal, is our self-esteem.

The sociology of everyday life focuses on patterns of behavior in face-to-face interactions. On the routine behaviors of daily life that allow us to predict others’ behaviors, and allow others to predict ours.

An example of a sociology of everyday life concept is civil inattention. This is a behavior that is conventional in our society. It occurs, says Erving Goffman, when two people walking down the street (or wherever they might come into contact) glance at each other for a moment, say something like “what’s up,” and then look away. They are according each other civil inattention.

Civil inattention is sociological because the behavior is people doing things together. It is not an instinctive behavior. It is not something that people naturally do, in all societies. We learn to use civil inattention. It is part of our culture (values and norms).

So civil inattention is a norm. As far as our definition of culture goes, civil inattention is part of our rules we’re expected to observe.

We can also, from a symbolic interactionist theoretical position, see that civil inattention is an object. It is a social act.

And, again, as we discussed with symbolic interactionism, people’s agreements upon the definition of the situation is what gives most of everyday life its order. If we can agree upon this glance that Goffman calls civil inattention, then we know that everything is going according to plan.

What happens if one of the actors breaks the norm of civil inattention? What does it mean if one of the persons stares to long? Or winks instead of glancing? Or growls and stares instead of glancing? What does this do to the definition of the situation? What if one of the persons is trying to abide by civil inattention and the other is doing one of these non-civil inattention behaviors?

We can understand the larger systems and institutions of our world only if we understand that only people act! Government doesn’t act. Race doesn’t act. Gender doesn’t act. Class doesn’t act. Only people act! Thus it is through understanding the ways that people act that we can understand these larger categories of human life that are so common to talk about.

I wrote that people refer to objects using symbols. For example, this is a piece of chalk. Chalk is the object, the word “chalk” is the symbol that refers to the chalk. In agreeing on the symbol we can agree on the object and then we can agree on how it is to be used in the situation. Language, then, is taken very seriously by symbolic interactionists as the most important cluster of symbols that people have.

But what about nonverbal communication? Nonverbal communication is another set of symbols that refer to objects. But, and this is important, nonverbal communication is most characteristically used to expand upon or somehow add to our verbal communication.

Sometimes nonverbal communication gives away the fact that we lied about something we said, or that what we said isn’t quite all of the story.

Goffman made a distinction between expressions given and expressions given off. Expressions given refer to those expressions that we intend for others to read. Expressions given off are those (usually nonverbally) that we don’t intend for others to see that add to or detract from our expressions given.

So, and this is also because we are members of a culture, we learn to try and manipulate our expressions given and expressions given off. That is, we sometimes want to make sure our expressions given and given off are congruent with each other, even when we don’t feel like what we say is the whole truth. For instance, prostitutes “fool” their clients into thinking that they enjoy what they’re doing. Sometimes in a comedy movie, for instance, there might be a skit where a prostitute is giving the expression that she really likes it, while her expressions given off suggest otherwise. Or, and this is better, if you’ve seen the Aerosmith video “Sweet Emotion,” where the guy has called for phone sex. The voice of the woman sounds sexy and exciting, but then they show her and she’s very unattractive and ironing her clothes. The medium of the telephone allows her to neglect the visual dimension of her expressions given off, and to manipulate the caller’s perception of her.

Sometimes we might deliberately try to make our expressions given and those given off be incongruent. For instance, in movies we see the situation where someone is being held hostage, and a police officer comes to the door. The hostage answers the door while the gunman stands behind the door. The gunman tells the hostage that “if you say the wrong thing, I’ll blow you away!” So the hostage tells the police (her expressions given) that everything is alright. But through her expression given off, say eye contact, she tries to let the officer know that there is a gunman behind the door.

So an important part of being a member of a culture is being able to read and present expressions given and expressions given off.

Practical Application

Now we’ll apply a bit of this sociology of the self to reading other people as a skill.
The skill I want you to start acquiring is the skill of “reading” other people. The skill of paying attention to their expressions given and expressions given off; to pay attention to people’s behaviors and come to understand their intentions based on these behaviors. Additionally, you can learn how to manipulate situations to your advantage using your own presentations to alter your “adversary’s” presentations.


So, merely by noting a variety of gestures we can make guesses about people—attitudes, relationships, situations. You need to be able to read gesture-clusters, groups of nonverbal communications associated with different attitudes. These gestures can appear at the same time or one after another in a series. But they occur together.

Gesture-clusters are like complete sentences. When we speak to someone we use complete sentences, nouns and verbs and adverbs. Well, our gesture-clusters do the same. They are understood as a series.

What we’ve already discussed as role-taking, Nierenberg and Calero call empathy, our ability to put our self in the place of the person we’re observing. By doing this we understand the gestures of the observed and, thus, understand what the observed means! By understanding what the observed means, what he intends and his attitude, we know how to behave toward him. We know how to manipulate the situation to our advantage.

An important skill to have is, as we’ve mentioned, being able to discern a person’s expressions given versus those given off. For our purposes here this is the ability to distinguish between what a person says, and what they do; a distinction between their words and their behaviors. They may be saying one thing, but their behavior may mean something else.

Also, when manipulating situations, as we all do, you need to be aware of your own words and behaviors. You need to bring congruence into your own expressions given and given off. You don’t want the people you’re interacting with to read something off of you that you don’t intend!
Also important here is manipulating our own gestures in order to manipulate our own attitudes. That is, our behaviors may influence our attitudes as much as our attitudes may influence our behaviors.

“One of the participants in our seminar, in discussing non-verbal communication, reported the following: ‘On returning from the Chicago seminar I was seated next to a woman who explained that she was a registered nurse. She then proceeded to tell me all that was wrong with the medical profession. From my point of view she was overgeneralizing and drew conclusions that I believed to be false. The point of all this is that while I was attempting to listen I had my arms folded high on my chest, feeling very stubbornly that she didn’t know what she was talking about. When I discovered myself in this position, I understood what was taking place within me. I tried a different approach. I uncrossed my arms and proceeded to listen without evaluating. As a result I was able to listen more intently. I became less defensive and was able to realize that although I disagreed, she was saying something I was now able to listen to more fully and appreciate.’” (Nierenberg and Calero, pp. 13-14)

What’s happening here? Well, first he is not allowing himself to listen to the woman in an open manner. When he unfolds his arms he becomes more open and appreciative. Thus he is influencing his attitudes toward her. Second, he may be influencing her to try and convince him that she is right thus fulfilling his prophecy that she is wrong. So our gestures influence others to behave in ways consistent with what they (maybe subconsciously) read as our meaning and attitude.

“Nonverbal feedback can warn you that you must change, withdraw, or do something different in order to bring about the result that you desire. If you are not aware of feedback, then there is a strong possibility that you will fail to communicate your believability or sincerity to an individual or to an audience” (ibid, p. 14).

As a life-long exercise I want you to set aside ten minutes per day to train yourself to read people. Anywhere. It doesn’t matter. Anywhere that people are acting you can read them. Just sit back and observe and interpret what they are doing. Interpret the meanings and attitudes of the people acting. The better you become at reading people, the better you’ll become at manipulating situations and getting what you want out of the situation. You’ll become a more efficient and successful person for it. Reading others is an essential skill.


  1. Have i ever expressed how great of a professor you are? I am going to share this with others, you are a great writer.
    -Kylie W