Personalities in Disguise

Is there anything more unsettling than realizing that someone isn’t what you thought she was? Not finding out that your spouse has been leading a double life (though that might be a bit unsettling, too), but the realization that someone you thought was a real peach turns out to be a complete jerk, or vice versa.

Take a situation where you don’t actually know a person very well but you see her often enough to draw certain conclusions about her—maybe she’s a neighbor, a coworker, or a friend of a friend. You’ve seen her in action from a distance and she appeared to be as crabby as they come. Now you’ve had the opportunity to talk to her and you can’t believe how sweet she is! How could you have misjudged her so badly? You probably based your initial impressions on (drum roll, please) her body language.

Innocence Masked as Arrogance

Actually, this isn’t an uncommon occurrence. Shy people are often perceived as being unfriendly and uppity. Think back to your days in high school and to all of those people you labeled as snobs. Sure, some of them held themselves in very high esteem, but were there a few who simply never spoke to anyone? Is it possible that they weren’t stuck-up, but were scared of other people?

Unfortunately, even the friendliest people—who are accepting of all sorts of behavior—may not be able to differentiate between the body language of a person who’s insecure and one who truly wants to be left alone. In the end, shy people end up isolated because of the way their behavior is perceived by other people. It’s almost as though their own behaviors hold them prisoner, socially speaking.

How do these mistaken assignments of personality traits occur? Well, take the classic body language cues that indicate someone is open and friendly, like:

• A broad smile

• Good eye contact

• Good posture

• Physical touches (hugs, little touches on the arm, etc.)

• Angling her body to face you when you talk

People who are very insecure (and/or painfully shy) often don’t display these traits. They keep to themselves in the most literal sense, avoiding any kind of contact with others. It’s not that they dislike people, exactly; they just don’t have the social skills to deal with them.

When Sweetness Turns Sour

The opposite can also happen: a nasty person can be mistaken for Mr. or Ms. Nice Guy. Finding a self-important person beneath a shy-seeming exterior is like getting a taste of vinegar when you were expecting honey (and not nearly as nice a surprise as discovering that your “cranky” neighbor is really just an insecure person).

You can understand how shyness can come off as arrogance, but how can the opposite happen? After all, arrogant people go out of their way to let everyone know how special they are. Classic signs of conceit include:

• The swaggering walk, which takes up more physical space than is necessary, a way of saying, “Clear a path, I’m coming through!”

• The smirk—the smile with slightly pouty lips and squinty eyes—that says, “Admit it: You think I’m amazing.”

• Minimal eye contact. When faced with saying hello to someone perceived as an underling, the arrogant person will pretend the other person simply isn’t there. Refusing to look at the other person is the first step in establishing the arrogant person’s imaginary world.

• Angling away from other people. When an arrogant person has to speak to people who aren’t on her level, she won’t bother to turn her upper body toward them (this goes along with not making eye contact—two gestures perceived as being very rude).

If you’ve somehow missed these body language cues, you’re thinking that maybe you should have your vision checked, especially if all of the signs were present but you were still drawn in by the sound of the person’s voice and the curve of her face. But then again, maybe you shouldn’t be so hard on yourself. Plenty of people know how to use body language to their advantage, even if it means (temporarily) suppressing their arrogant tendencies in the process.

Let’s say that you’re a man working in an office. Your cubicle is situated across the way from a cute girl who never says much, but only smiles sweetly when you look her way. When a big project lands on her desk (the impossible project—the one everyone is buzzing about, saying it’ll never get done on time), you offer to help her. As you get to know her, you see her in situations that you weren’t privy to before. You note, for example, that she’s completely comfortable chitchatting with the bosses and you watch other people hop out of her way when she does her power walk through the office. You realize this girl has plenty of confidence—she’s had no problem giving you orders and harshly criticizing your work. Slowly, it dawns on you that the reason she never speaks to her coworkers isn’t because she’s shy; it’s because she thinks she’s better than the rest of you.

And the sweet smile? Ooh, she’s good: She has won you (and who knows who else?) over with an outward appearance of innocence. She’s taken that old adage about catching flies with honey to heart and perfected it. Now ask yourself this: When was the last time you saw that precious grin? Was it directed at you … or at a new victim?

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