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Reading people is absolutely fascinating. As is the surrounding art and science of priming. Did you know that a person who says something whilst looking up is thinking of something visual? Or that holding a warm drink (like coffee) lets people perceive you as a warmer person? This all sounds very esoteric, but this science is employed consciously and unconsciously by a great many people. Knowing how to read people can help make or break a relationship or business deal.

Job Opportunity = No / Time to Learn = days - weeks / Cost = free

Why learn it

  • Fascinating: reading people is not an exact science, but knowing the basics will open up a whole new range of observations you will make in every day life
  • Affects everything: where people are involved, reading is involved. Every time you interact with people, having basic reading knowledge will supercharge your communication and desired outcome
  • Low cost: although a lot of research has been done by people like Paul Ekman, courses and books are relatively cheap and sometimes even free
  • Continuous learning: the basics may take an afternoon to learn, but you will continue to master the techniques as time passes. New insights will dawn on you every day

My experience

When I was 16 I downloaded a hypnosis course, it was legal in the Netherlands back then and saved me 2000 euros I didn't have. Learning about a different view on the human psyche I realized people are very complex, but they radiate out a great deal of information. Years later I got into contact with the TV show "lie to me". Based on Paul Ekman's science, this fiction series spiked my interest in reading people again resulting in the downloading of a great many more ebooks. I have yet to read all of them, but enjoy the learning curve I'm going through.


Commercial for 'Lie to Me', a fictional series based on Paul Ekman's research


This article features an interview with Dr. David Matsumoto. He is a world class expert in micro expressions and body language. His recent publications include "Nonverbal Communication: Science and Applications" and the "APA Handbook of Interpersonal Communication".

1.Dr. Matsumoto, for our readers who are not familiar with your work, could you please introduce yourself?

My name is David Matsumoto. I'm a psychologist specializing in emotion recognition, microexpressions, nonverbal behavior, culture and cross cultural adaptation.

  1. You are a world renowned expert in the field of reading people. How did you come to work in this field?

My interest in this field began when I was an undergraduate student at the University of Michigan. I was interested in understanding why infants understood their caretaker's feelings, even though they didn't understand their words. This led me to my first study involving pre-schoolers and how they could recognize emotion and voices. When I went to graduate school at UC Berkeley, I just continued this line of research. After a few years I realized I was so thick in it, I couldn't get out. I truly enjoy the work that I do.

  1. One of the questions that comes up in conversations surrounding reading individuals is whether culture plays a role. What is your experience in this?

Culture plays an incredibly rich and complex role in the kinds of behaviors people produce and how we interpret those behaviors. Culture tells us what is appropriate and what is not. It gives us guidelines on how to manage our expressive behavior and our larger instrumental behaviors. It is very difficult to regulate our immediate reactions, however, and that is less culturally influenced. Certainly what we do after the immediate is heavily influenced by what we learn to be culturally appropriate. Thus how we interpret our behaviors as right or wrong, good or bad is all culturally based. Our interpretations are based on filters we've developed since we were children on what is appropriate or not. For example, a frown when angry always means that a person is angry.But whether the angry expression will lead to a certain kind of behavior is culturally variable. What the angry expression means is culturally variable. But the expression of anger means the person is angry. My company and I have developed a cross-cultural adaptation tool called IntelliCulture. It was just released this year and more information it can be found here. You can even try a free demo of the course. I highly recommend it.

  1. I am personally a fan of the TV series 'Lie to Me'. In this show the art of reading people is applied to real world situations, but seems to work with an accuracy that is almost too good to be true. What is the accuracy of the techniques you research and employ?

It depends on what accuracy rate you are measuring: lie detection or reading emotions. For reading emotions we know that most people without training read emotions with approximately 40-50% accuracy and that will jump to 70-90% with training. We know 2-3 weeks after training, they still retain the knowledge and are able to read emotions better than those who have had no training. We know that people who have been trained on reading emotions and other nonverbal behaviors improve their ability to detect lies.

  1. Your company HumIntell offers a series of courses. Are there any specific people whom you would recommend taking these courses? Any specific professions or personality traits?

I would recommend our training to any person whose professional or personal lives hinges upon face to face interaction with others and want to gain a little edge of being able to understanding insights into other person's personality, motivations, feelings or thoughts. That could be sales people, lawyers, physicians, therapists, boyfriends, girlfriends, poker players, etc.

  1. On a personal note, how is it for you being able to read people? I can imagine it can come in handy, but is sometimes also a bit of a curse…

I believe whether it’s handy or curse all depends on what you choose to do with the information. Reading people is only one step is one step in process of interactions. What you do with the information is next big step. You mentioned the show Lie to Me. In the show there is a character named Cal Lightman. Lightman always acted on the information he read whether it was socially appropriate or not. When it’s not appropriate, you tend to do socially inappropriate things. You learn to use the information wisely at the appropriate times.

  1. Besides your work in micro expressions you are also active in the Judo field. Does your knowledge affect your technique and the way you train your pupils?

Being able to read people has helped me in training athletes because it has given me better insight into my player. I can have a better idea of if they are on edge of exhaustion or if I can push them a little more or if I should back off. I think all great coaches have this instinct. In competition the knowledge helps me to be able to read the opponent well- which helps us adjust and perform better.

  1. Do you have any remarks or advice to the Skill Collectors reading this interview?

My advice would be to give one of our training tools a shot. See whether it will help you in your professional and personal life. Some people are naturally gifted in reading emotions in others and our tools give them more confidence in something they are already good at. Some people are not as good, and our tools help them recognize and read emotions in other better.