The Secrets to Reading People’s Emotions in Person and Online

“Empathy.” “People skills.” “Catching vibes.” Social intelligence, or the ability to recognize other people’s emotions—and to use this intel to navigate relationships—has been called many things. But even if you think that you are fairly good at dealing with people, social competence is something you can—and should—continue to cultivate throughout your life. Here’s how to do it.

woman-juggling-emojis
Photo by Anna Parini

The Art of Reading People

Certain individuals seem to be born with social intelligence. But for most of us, it’s something that’s developed—or stunted—over time. If your parents instructed you not to cry when you were a child or were prone to saying “It’s fine” when things were anything but, you might be less perceptive than you would have been had your family hashed out how they were feeling over the dinner table, says David Caruso, Ph.D., a psychologist and a cofounder of EI Skills Group, a Connecticut-based company that trains people in emotional intelligence. (There are some exceptions: People on the autism spectrum, for example, may have a difficult time detecting emotional nuances.) Your day-to-day activities also affect your level of social intelligence. The more time you spend glued to a screen, the less likely you are to decipher other people’s social cues accurately or even to pick up on them in the first place. Last year, a study published in Computers in Human Behavior found that sixth graders who went to an outdoor camp and gave up smartphones, iPads, and television cold turkey for just five days were substantially better at reading human emotions than were sixth graders from the same school who didn’t go to the camp and give up the digital devices.

And now, for the benefits. For one, social intelligence plays a pivotal role in your health. Numerous studies have shown that people who are socially connected are happier, have lower blood pressure, are less susceptible to colds, and even outlive their more isolated peers. Social know-how may just be the secret ingredient to career success, too. According to a 2014 Journal of Organizational Behavior study, employees who are good at reading emotions and use that in addition to others skills, such as networking, tend to have higher incomes. “Emotionally intelligent individuals are also more likely to become leaders of a team and demonstrate greater leadership effectiveness,” says study coauthor Yongmei Liu, Ph.D., an associate professor at the Illinois State University College of Business.

Social-intelligence skills can be used for in-person interactions (winning over the grumpy teller at your bank, say) and virtual ones (wording an e-mail to a touchy coworker, for example). Here are the emotional detective skills that can make all encounters more informative and successful.

In Person

Be a blank slate.
Before attempting to get a read on someone, you must have an open mind yourself. “Your own emotions and your previous experiences with another person can color your impressions, and that may lead you to misread the situation,” says Blanca Cobb, the founder of Truth Blazer, a Greensboro, North Carolina–based firm that consults on body language. Try to approach every interaction, no matter what your shared history, objectively, says Cobb.

Chat about the weather.
When it comes to social intelligence, small talk serves a big purpose: With both strangers and those you’ve known for years, seemingly pointless chitchat gives you an opportunity to familiarize yourself with the other person’s baseline—that is, his or her neutral disposition—so you can accurately spot behavior that’s out of the ordinary. Does your conversation partner twirl her hair when she’s relaxed? Talk with her hands? Avoid consistent eye contact? “When you switch the topic and notice a blip in the baseline, that’s when you go, Aha!” says Cobb. Vocal variances, like a change in pitch, pace, or even hesitation, can be a tip-off that a person’s emotions have shifted.

Focus on the big picture.
A colleague who crosses her arms across her chest might be defensive—or she might be trying to stay warm. Rather than zeroing in on individual gestures, do a comprehensive scan of the other person’s body language, tone of voice, facial expressions, and use of words, and form a hypothesis only if most signs point to the same thing.

On a Screen

Skew positive.
A 2008 paper from Syracuse University said that e-mails meant to be neutral may be interpreted as negative, while positive messages can be read as neutral. Blame it on the ambiguity of the written language. “Because texts, social-media messages, and e-mail aren’t softened up with body language, words often come across extra direct and harsh,” says David B. Givens, Ph.D., the director of the Center for Nonverbal Studies, in Spokane, Washington. To counteract this over-reading, when someone types, “Yeah, sure,” try to assume that it’s sincere rather than brimming with sarcasm. Or, better yet, be direct and ask for clarification.

Look for a personal tone.
According to a 2003 study published in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, when a person is being deceptive, he is less likely to “own” his story. He uses fewer first-person pronouns (I, me, mine) and exclusive words (but, without, except) and more negations (no, never, none) compared with people who are telling the truth. For instance, a trustworthy e-mail might say, “I did all of my math homework except for the last set of questions,” whereas a lie is more likely to be phrased, “Homework’s done.”

Scan social media for questions.
Yes, everyone’s life looks airbrushed on the Internet. But when your friends and colleagues do express negative emotions online, it may not be with a frowning emoji. “When people are sad or depressed, they tend to have a much stronger self-focus and often use the words I and me and interrogatives like why and how on Facebook and Twitter,” say Gregory Park, Ph.D., a quantitative-personality psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania. That may be because they’re looking for support and for others to lift them out of their mood, says Park.