Whenever I meet a new person, I imagine them as a five-year-old. This isn’t some salesman’s secret. I don’t do this for a sense of power or to calm me down the way picturing an audience naked works for a public speaker. When you see the five-year-old version of someone it helps you get a sense of who they are on the inside, beyond their social cues of clothing, haircut, shoes, jewelry, purse, etc. You can hone in on that kid hiding inside their adult skin. It’s like seeing the best part of every person you meet. Your inner five-year-old is the dreaming and hopeful child who basically understands the world yet can only imagine adult life, and is the one clearly articulating your core values, voicing how you think and believe a person should behave; the kid holds the values you started out with before compromise and experience entered the discussion.
In so many ways, we’re all still basically children dressed up in our adult clothing. Yeah, you learned to drive, to show up to class and work, you may know how to shave without cutting yourself, match your handbag with your heels, drink like an adult, cook complex homemade dinners and pay your taxes on time; but I hate to break it to you, with just a little practice anyone can see through all your posturing and practiced behavior and spot that inner five-year-old, peering out from your adult eyes. The kid is that little voice you hear, the guiding spirit that suggests how you should do the things you do. Then your ever-aging conscious mind considers the kid’s opinion and decides. The result of their dialog determines your way through the world.
For some reason, similar to how we pay attention to and get tricked by haircuts and jewelry and shoes, we also tend to focus on what someone says more than what they do. Not just with politicians. We do it with everyone. We overlook the obviousness of a person’s behavior and choose instead to interpret a strings of words. Yet, even for the most eloquent amongst us, words are blunt inexact tools. At best they might convey the beauty of a poem or intimacy of a song. At their deepest they transmit the ocean of meaning found in a novel or textbook. But tripping from the mouths of most people and finger-punched into keypads, words are often indirect riddles of meaning. And thus, words easily confuse us, and we read into them whatever we want to hear or believe.
Any television detective worth their catchphrase proves the fallacy of this thinking. The boob tube gumshoes all agree. Don’t try to prove a presumed conclusion using what people say. Instead let a person’s behavior paint a picture for you. It’s the difference between paint-by-numbers and the richness of watercolor.
The underlying idea is: The way you do anything is the way you do everything.
It’s pretty simple when you get right down to it. From the ongoing dialog between your little voice and your conscious mind you develop your attitude, a way of doing things, an algorithm of choices you regularly make based on your behavioral preferences. And it’s observable in everything you do. As much as this process can help you see yourself clearly, you can also use it to understand others.
If you’re the sort who’s often tricked and misled by others, try studying a person’s way through the world and it will help you see them far more clearly. When you pay attention like Sherlock Holmes, you’ll watch without trying to see anything.
Our biases give us blind spots, our prejudices are like funhouse mirrors, and our desires offer us rose-colored glasses and tend to only remember the honey-sweet words, often out of context. We prefer to focus on what we want to see and hear- for both good and bad. Such as how you might try to read into the few words and glimpsed behaviors of a crush. But your data, your “evidence,” is usually faulty. If you want to see a person’s way just watch what they do and how they do it.
With a little practice, eventually it’s like using a telescope to reveal a distant galaxy. It’s the same trick novelists employ. And way back in the day, Aristotle famously said, “action reveals character.” That’s true for fiction and just as true in the stranger world of reality.
Imagine a moment when you have a limited opportunity to observe someone, like say, at a gas station. From just a few actions you can extrapolate all sorts of predictions about their future behavior. You will be generalizing. You will sometimes be wrong. But more often that not, when you pay attention, you’ll notice the way a person does one thing indicates a lot about the way they’ll do something else. Such as… how a guy pumps gas often illustrates how he’ll be in bed.
Consider his arrival. Does he pull up to the pump, slam on the brakes and make the car rock to a stop? Or does he ease up very slowly and gently apply the brakes to bring the car to a full and complete stop? Once he’s out from behind the driver’s seat, does the guy rush to pay, swiping his card with the speed of a hammer strike? Or is he the type to awkwardly fumble about as he pulls his card out of his wallet? Perhaps, he’s a little bit geeky and squints to read the tiny electronic numbers on the display; but you notice, he’s gentle with the keypad buttons so the transaction goes slowly, but smoothly. And you know there’s nothing wrong with slow and smooth.
Of course, there’s the obvious question. How does he insert the nozzle? Is he rough with it, forcing it in with no regard to the car? Or is he awkward about it, scratching the car with the metal tip? Does it take him three clumsy attempts to get the darn thing in? Or does he casually slide it in? Obviously, not his first time pumping gas.
And let’s say you have a little time on your hands, so you watch what he does while the gas pumps and he waits. Does he start grooming himself in public like an ape at the zoo? Or does he immediately get back in the car and start air drumming to some shitty band you don’t like? Does he keep staring at the under-aged girl leaning against her shitbox Nissan with Wisconsin plates? Or does he stare at himself, admiring his reflection in the mirrored aluminum paneling of the gas pump? Maybe he notices you and flashes a small smile, since he caught you watching him. Oh, look he has a sense of humor.
When the gas is finally done pumping, how he finishes is just as important. Sometimes, it’s more telling. Having gotten what he came for, does he yank the nozzle out, then quickly, almost automatically, slam it back into the pump and drive away? Or does he pull out too early and wind up shooting gas all down the side of the car? Or maybe he’s careful to ease the gas nozzle back into the pump. Perhaps, he’s also the sort who lets you pull your car out first so you easily merge with the flow of traffic and he smiles just before you drive away.
From a stolen moment at a gas station — you get a pretty good sense of a guy, and with a little imagination you can picture how he does other things. It works on anyone. And it also works on you. Others can detect what you’re like just by watching how you do what you do, too. We’re all transparent as windows… to anyone who’s really looking.
I hope you understand the gas station wasn’t some sexist or hetero-normative metaphor comparing a woman to a sedan getting gassed-up by a bunch of different dudes. The car in this particular metaphor could’ve just as easily been a totally transgender SUV. It’s not about the gender, sexual attraction, or the car, it’s about how people show their approach to life in everything they do.
A series of actions comprising a single human moment is a symphony of movement and motivation. If you want to understand other people, why waste time or sanity deciphering what they say or text? Instead, watch the ballet of their behavior dance before you. Ignore a person’s words. Just pay attention and they can’t help but reveal themselves to you.