In his book The Laws of Human Nature
, author Robert Greene reminds us that “people are generally trying to present the best possible front to the world.”
This means that they will tend to hide their antagonistic feelings, desires for power and superiority, and insecurities. They will use words to hide their true feelings, and facial expressions that others assume mean friendliness.
In Greene’s view, your task is to look past the distractions and become aware of those signs that “leak out automatically, revealing something of the true emotions beneath the mask.“
Imagine the following scenario:
Someone in a group dislikes you, whether out of envy or mistrust. But in the group context, they can’t express their feelings overtly because they will look bad – they want to be seen as a team player.
So they engage you in conversation, smile at you, and even seem to support your ideas.
You might occasionally feel that something is off, “but the signs are subtle and you forget them as you pay attention to the front they present.”
Then suddenly, as if out of nowhere, they obstruct you or display an ugly attitude.
The mask has come off.
And while it might seem like a surprise at the time, people’s hostile or resistant actions never come out of the blue. There are always signs before they take action.
But as Greene puts it: “The problem is not only that we are not paying attention but also that we inherently do not like conflict or the thought of conflict.”
He suggests using the following two “decoding keys” to help identify such hostility earlier on:
1. Body language: Compare people’s body language toward you versus their body language toward other people.
For example, someone will be noticeably friendlier and warmer toward other people, and then put on a polite mask with you. In a conversation they can’t help showing flashes of impatience and irritation in their eyes, but only when you talk.
Greene notes that people “will tend to leak out more of their true feelings, and certainly hostile ones, when they are drunk, sleepy, frustrated, angry, or under stress.”
2. Reactions to your good news: If you suspect that someone is envious of you, Greene recommends talking about the latest good news for you without appearing to brag.
You’re looking for “microexpressions of disappointment on their face.”