Social Skills – Social Perception – Tells

Friday, August 8th, 2008 at 8:00 am.
by pre.

In poker, a “tell” is detectable change in a player’s behaviour or demeanour that gives clues to that player’s assessment of his hand, but more generally we can say that a “tell” is a change in a persons behaviour that gives clues to their emotional state or awareness.

As mentioned last week, there is no substitute for practice when it comes to spotting tells, and thus being more aware of the emotional state, desires, drives and prejudices of the people you interact with. The clues you’re looking for are simply too complex and even unique to every individual to describe here in a useful way. You will likely never be fully aware of the clues which lead you to an inkling of someone’s emotional sate just as you’re never aware of the signals that you processed to enable to you catch a ball.

Like catching a ball, practice is the only way you’ll really improve your ability to spot tells, to decode and read body language.

However, you won’t learn to catch a ball by watching the grass move under it. You won’t learn to catch a ball by paying attention to the way the wind whips your hair. You really need to be looking at the ball, and just as we can say “Keep your eye on the ball” to help you to learn the art of ball-catching, so we can direct your awareness towards the kinds of things you should be paying attention to while practising your tell-spotting ability in order to make your improvement more efficient, to make that practice more worthwhile.

Reading Tells

The first thing you will need to become aware of, is that everybody is different. Many books on body-language will have chapter after chapter of detailed description on what this particular hand-gesture signifies or what some other sweep of the leg will mean but this is clearly nonsense. Every person has a different brain, a different mix of cultures, differing levels of control over their body, different gait and posture and, in short, base-line activity. Some will fidget more, some less. Some blink faster, some slower. Each will have a different pitched voice. Even the same person in two different situations will behave differently. You don’t have the same tells in front of your boss as you do in front of your lover. You don’t have the same ticks in a life-threatening situation as you do in relaxed comfort.

The key to learning to understand body-language and tells better is to watch for changes in behaviour rather than some particular semaphore-like signal. You’re not looking for whether or not someone blinks, you’re looking for a change in the rate of their blinking. Touching the nose may just mean they have an itchy nose, but suddenly changing to touch the eye may have more significance.


You know how to identify an angry person by a photograph of their face. But people can fake an angry expression as easily as they can fake a smile for a photographer. Looking at the expression on a person’s face is certainly useful, but it’s also more or less under their conscious control.

Sometimes, however, a microexpression may cross a person’s face for a tiny instant before they regain full conscious control of their facial muscles.

It takes a lot of training, and often video-processing, to notice these expressions. They may be gone in as little as a twenty-fifth of a second. Less than a single frame of cinema. Microexpressions are so fleeting that you will certainly miss most of them consciously.

However, we’re not trying to learn to notice these things consciously. We’re trying to learn how to feel the truth of the signals we’re given. We’re not trying to learn to do ballistic motion equations, we’re trying to learn to catch a ball.

So pay attention to fleeting glimpses of expression of people’s faces, but don’t expect to consciously read them.


Looking into someone’s eyes gives you more information that simply which direction they’re looking, if their eyes are open or closed, though these pieces of data are incredibly important. Eye contact also helps you to become aware of tiny movements of the muscles around the eyes, the focus of their attention, the rate of succade movements, the dilation of the pupil, the blinking rate, the shine which is proportional to the wetness, the shape, even where things are laid out in their imagination. All these things and many nameless combinations of them combine to reflect someone’s state of mind.

Some are under conscious control and may thus be deliberate mis-information. Remember that a change in the pattern is more likely significant than any given action.

NLP practitioners may tell you that looking upwards indicates visual thinking, that briefly glancing downwards indicates auditory thinking or emotional states of mind. This may even be occasionally true, but it’s unlikely that these kinds of generalisations apply to everyone, in every circumstance. You need to pay attention to these kinds of signals, but remember that they do not necessarily mean what others will tell you they mean. You need to simply learn to assimilate the information and let it inform your pattern-matching memory, just as you just need to watch enough balls to learn to catch them.


Particular gesticulations can be very significant when trying to read body language. If a person is talking about a problem and pointing at something, they may be pointing at the problem. Or a symbol of the problem. Or the location of the problem in their own imagination. You should watch where a person is pointing, what they are miming, look for symbolic meaning in their gesture.

If they are touching you, or indeed something or someone else, notice where and how the touch happens, how intentional it seems.

As relevent as, maybe even more relevent than, that though is the amount of gesticulation a person is doing. How animated they are will often correlate to how strongly they are feeling the emotional state induced by the things they are taking about.


Pay particular attention, sometimes, to the way a person’s feet are moving. The rate they are tapping, or even if they’re pointed open or closed. Often, particularly if trying to hide something, a person will have great control over the more obvious sub-linguistic signals but forget entirely that their feet will be giving the game away.


Shoulders can give away more than a shrug of indifference or uncertainty. They can be a part of a signal which indicates hierarchy, or confidence, or discomfort at a topic. Watch how high a person’s shoulders are carried if they’re hunched or spread, these may all be keys to help learn a person’s state of mind.


When people are in agreement, they often mirror each other’s actions. The closer two people get, the closer their movements become. Pay attention to who is copying who in a conversation, who drinks at the same time, who’s pointing and gesticulating in the same direction as each other, who’s mimicking each other’s mimes. The more closely two people mirror, the more likely they are to be thinking in step, to be strongly empathising with each other.


It’s easy to concentrate too hard on the words that someone is saying, but if you’re to understand the full set of signals you’re receiving you have to ‘keep your eye’ on more than just the semantics. Changes in pitch, speed, tone and timbre can all modify the meaning of words or give away unintended subtleties. How colourful the language or embellished the story gives clues to state of mind. Remember to spend some time paying attention to all these things so that you can learn to gather the whole range of information available to you.

A New Sense

When you are well practised, on your way to transcending, you will stop paying attention directly to these signals, just as you stop paying attention to the individual lines, or letters, or punctuation, when you’re reading a sentence. It’s not that you will look at all the tells we’re describing, think about them and come to a conclusion. Just as you “see” colour without knowing the wavelength of the light hitting your retina, or the exact proportion with which it excites the various colour receptors there, you’ll learn to ‘see’ someone’s intention without knowing exactly why you know it. Consciously knowing if a person’s statement is a lie or an honest expression of their emotional state does not require knowing why you know. It doesn’t mean you’re aware of which combination of signals lead you to that belief. It certainly doesn’t require being able to explain it in words.

You’re not trying to learn to concentrate on these things, you’re concentrating on them so that you can later let the sub-conscious take over, just as we had to pay attention to learn to drive but can now turn the radio and chat to a friend and eat crisps at the same time.

You’ll likely also develop a sense of how trustworthy your sense is in any given case. Bare in mind that this too can be a false signal, you can be more convinced of a lie than of the truth sometimes. Always doubt yourself, always continue to collect evidence, to refine your sense.