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On Reading People

One of my guilty pleasures is reading people.

I do not remember anymore how I acquired the art. Something tells me I got it from my mother and her side of the family. They are notorious for that. My uncle who was a successful executive of a large corporation says that because he has seen and interviewed so many applicants already, it takes him only a few seconds to know what he needs to know from the applicant. I may not have honed my skill to that level but I still think I am getting better at it. And here are some points I wish to share.

It all begins with observation, as I have learned, much like how a doctor first observes the patient even before he asks for symptoms or the problem at hand. A game that I play with my mother is observing other people in restaurants, in the nearby tables. Even if we would only glance sidewards, we could tell by what they order, their faces and their gestures if, for example, the two are a happy couple or in a middle of a fight; or if the parents are struggling in raising a family; or if there is something unusual going on, like the two are divorced or are in an extra-marital affair.

It is when someone is introduced to me for the first time, like a friend of a friend, that I usually apply my art. First, I look at the warmth (or lack thereof) of their greeting or the strength of their handshake. Then I try to note their aura or the spirit they exude. From the aura you would be able to see immediately if the person is a happy spirit or in despair. The aura initially tells us of the person's moods and is the first gateway to learning something about the basic makeup of the character of the person: whether or not he or she is an introvert or an extrovert, a feeler or a thinker, or an optimitst or a pesimist.

Then I observe the face. The face I think could be the most opaque screen to the soul or its most transparent window. It can speaks volumes about the person or prevents one from knowing anything more. The face can tell whether he or she is insecure or hiding something; if the person is wearing a mask or putting up a facade; the maturity or childishness as evidenced by the knowledge contained in the eyes--one has either seen the world or shuns it, knows himself or is clueless to it.

I also try to see if the person can look at you in the eye and remain level with you. If he tends to look up, he is either ambivalent, worried (something else is on his mind) or he sees himself higher than me. If he tends to look down, he is most often shy but what can be dangerous is that he maybe hiding something from you, like animosity or envy. Generally, I distrust people who cannot look me in the eye. They are up to something.

And then of course, come the words that they speak. This is pretty easy and I am sure everyone already knows what one can say about the person by the words that he or she chooses and the way they are used. Usually, everyone talks in the same manner, using the same expressions and giving the same opinions. And as is usually the case for everyone, only those who standout catch my attention: those who are very eloquent and wise (they usually coincide); those who only smile, give one-word answers, and are generally without opinion and thought (they usually coincide); and those who are loud--"full of sound and fury signifying nothing"; and those who are silent.

It is the last kind which attracts my attention more than anything else. Either because I cannot read their minds or they seem too snobbish to speak, or perhaps because I can sense that they are thinkers as silent waters runs deep. Whatever it is, a mystery is formed around that silence and such mysteries attract me. Their silence invites me to know more about them and tells me to wait. They postpone knowledge of the other unlike those who reveal all of themselves too quickly with just a few words, leaving you not wishing to know anything more. And after all, as the old adage goes, better to be thought a fool and be silent than to open your mouth and remove all doubt.

Truth to tell, I am sadly almost always right when I read people. Why does it sadden me? Because it then means that people can become too predictable and with it, too boring. I can imagine what goes in the minds of fortune-tellers, who, like me, are just very good at reading people. (It is one and the same craft that we practice. I also can predict what happens to a person.) I bet they are thinking, "will there ever be something new?" Nothing human is alien to us. And the script we read and the cards we are dealt with can never be too different. So the secret to reading other people is reading yourself--being aware of what you show or hide to other people, mastering your emotions and moods, and above all, as the oracle at Delphi exhorts us to do, knowing your self. I can only possibly read into others what I have read in myself.

But there are certain limits to this art which I practice. I never use it in reading the ones I love the most and I only use it on friends only in order to help them--through advice, making them open up, and giving insights about themselves. We are most transparent to others as we are most opaque to ourselves. And perhaps this is where a friend who can see through us can come in handy.

Yet one lesson I have learned--through the hard way in fact--is to never offer my thoughts unless I am asked. For, as one should have guessed early on, herein lies the danger of this art: you can be thought of as a jerk who thinks he knows everything. Being mostly correct does not justify what I do. Some people just prefer to stick to what they know about themselves and live in their untruth. While I do not profess to carry the message of truth, I also never lie. Thus I have learned the virtue of silence.

Now I know why idols do not speak.

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