Telling the World More than We Realize

Of course, we all know that appearances can be deceiving: somebody who looks “nice” can turn out to be a snake in the grass and someone who seems gruff or snobby reveals themselves to be way softer and more approachable than we’d ever have guessed. But, there’s a lot of credence to be given to what we do see. While it may not provide a full picture of an individual, appearance tells an accurate story on many levels. The catch (as it almost always is) is that we don’t realize just how much we’re revealing about ourselves, when we least expect it.


I’ve had ample opportunity to think about this during the hours I spend at my gym. As someone who maintains a regular schedule, I have the opportunity of observing my Fellow Creatures of Habit as they hit the treadmill, lift weights, or interact with their trainer. I notice the outfits they reliably select, their choice of coordinated footwear, but mostly I study their facial expressions when lost in their routine.


It’s amazing how varied people’s “regular” look is when they’re unaware that anyone’s paying attention. Studies have shown that we do some of our best thinking while undertaking standard tasks, whether it’s walking the dog, commuting, or exercising—something we’ve done a million times before. Our brains shift into another mode as we lose ourselves in an activity that requires little active focus. For those few moments, we don’t think about our impact or what our facial expressions are communicating; this is when it gets really interesting for devoted people watchers, like myself.


Some folks look as though they’re in pain—their mouth drawn tight in a line, brow furrowed as they plow their way through their 45 minutes on the Precor. Others communicate hesitation and a certain amount of what looks like fear–a complete bell curve away from those who express “ownership” of the gym by grunting loudly and then dropping their overly heavy bar bells onto the floor, headphones turned up so high that I can hear the tinny sound float up to where I perch. The determined clenching of their jaw muscles as they participate in this choreography tells me a lot about them—and I’m willing to bet my prognostications are fairly accurate.


In an entirely different setting, a famous political pundit lives near me. I see him and his wife stroll in front of my house on a regular basis, and while he has no idea who I am, he waves and has a friendly, open expression which always surprises me considering how famous he is and how Washington is known for blowhards who can’t be bothered to notice the hoi polloi. So the fact that he notices and greets a familiar, unknown face, tells me a lot about his natural orientation—he’s interested in people, regardless of who they are. Unlike the woman who scowls the entire time she’s on the Precor or the guy who’s showing off for nobody, my neighbor has revealed an interest in others which gives me useful clues about how he interacts with the world, considering he’s played on such a big stage. So, what is it that you’ve observed about the people around you when they have no idea you’re looking? If you have the advantage of knowing them at all well, does their expression accurately reflect a part of who they are? How might this provide some insight into your understanding them better? How do you think you come across when lost in thought?


Appearances can’t tell us everything, but re-booters know they tell us a lot. It’s all in how you use the information.


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One Response to “Telling the World More than We Realize”

  1. Smile | Your flight is delayed Says:

    […] smile is a facial expression formed by flexing the muscles near both ends of the mouth. Among humans, it is an expression […]

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