Law 3: See Through People’s Masks – Summary

Laws of Human Nature (Robert Greene) series

Tommy Shelby from Peaky Blinders
Tommy Shelby from Steven Knight’s Peaky Blinders is a master at reading people


The essence of what is described in this chapter is that people can lie with words but the body can never lie.

“People tend to wear a mask that shows them off in the best possible light- humble, confident, diligent. They say the right things, smile, and seem interested in our ideas. They learn to conceal their insecurities and envy. If we take this appearance for reality, we never really know their true feelings, and on occasion, we are blindsided by their sudden resistance, hostility, and manipulative actions.”

Law in Action

Green uses the life story of American psychologist, Milton Erickson, as an example of how looking beyond appearances is key to understanding motives.

In 1919, during his adolescence, a teenage Milton Erickson was diagnosed with polio and soon his whole body became paralyzed, sparing his eyeballs. The inability to move and engage socially with people proved to be a boon to him rather than a curse. Like he got some sort of a superhuman strength, he maximized the use of his eyes and ears and noticed something that no one ever bothered to observe: Nonverbal behavior.

During the course of his bedrest, he analyzed conversations that occurred between his sisters and found it to be quite peculiar.

“In the course of the next day he counted sixteen different forms of nos he had heard, indicating varying degrees of hardness, all accompanied by different facial expressions. At one point he noticed one sister saying ‘yes’ to something while shaking her head ‘no’. It was very subtle but he saw it.”

Soon Erickson recovered, however, by continuing to observe and analyze every facet of non-verbal behaviour: physical movement, walking patterns, breathing patterns, intonation etc, he was able to decipher the deepest emotions in people.


First, we must understand that masking our emotions is a natural human tendency

“We learn how to conceal from our parents or siblings exactly what we are thinking or feeling to protect ourselves in vulnerable moments. We become good at flattering those whom it is important to win over”.

As primates, we relied on basic facial expressions and other kinds of nonverbal communication. This is something that is deep-rooted in us even though we later developed language systems to communicate. To understand people is to read between the lines. It is to look deeper than the mere words they use.

“To miss this information is to operate blindly, to invite misunderstanding, and to lose endless opportunities to influence people by not noticing what they really want or need”.

Keys to master this law:

  1. Learn to observe
  2. Decode basic nonverbal cues
  3. Become proficient at “Impression Management”

How to start observing non-verbal cues better:

  • Start small by noticing one expression that contradicts what a person is saying. Try noticing this in another person. After this, try to notice those minimal yet existent patterns of behavior. Focus on a person’s microexpressions. Medium has an amazing guide that shares a whole range of different micro expressions.
  • Move to more complex nonverbal cues, like intonation.
  • Mirror a person’s mood and behavior to loosen their guard.
  • Establish their baseline mood and expression: Their default mood/expression in a neutral situation. This makes gauging their behavior easier.
  • Notice their behavior in different settings. Observe the changes when they talk to a figure of authority (like a boss) vs. someone they are comfortable with (e.g. a spouse or a friend).
  • Pay attention to mixed signals.
  • Sit in a public space, like a cafe, and examine the varying dynamics between groups of people. Analyze the context (is it a group of friends or a meeting) and how their body language is.
  • Notice your own subconscious movements. Analyze how you react under pressure vs. pleasure.

Common Errors while observing:

  • There is a dictionary for words but not for nonverbal cues. If we fill in the gaps with our emotional biases, ‘observing’ isn’t of much help.
  • Othello’s Error: In Shakespeare’s Othello, the protagonist, Othello, assumes his wife is being promiscuous and questions her aggressively. Due to the angry tone in Othello’s voice, his wife answers nervously. In turn, the nervousness in her answer was seen as ‘guilt’ and it convinces Othello of her promiscuity, despite of it being unreal.
  • Be aware of display rules: People from different cultures would find different behaviors acceptable.

Decoding Nonverbal Cues

Greene breaks down nonverbal cues into 3 categories:

  • Dislike/Like Cues
  • Dominance/Submission Cues
  • Deception

Dislike/Like Cues

“People’s hostile or resistant actions never come out of the blue. There are always signs before they take any action. It is too much of a strain for them to suppress such strong emotion.”

The advice here is to trust intuition, focus on microexpressions and set up tests. Notice people’s reactions when they genuinely are experiencing a positive mood. Their facial muscles are less constricted and more relaxed. You can additionally set up tests by purposely instigating them in a subtle way, with a sarcastic remark or a playful joke at their expense. By doing this, they cannot overtly display any contempt but you can notice how their behavior changes as opposed to them actually experiencing something positive.

Dominance/Submission Cues

“We do not like talking about relative power positions, and we are generally uncomfortable when others talk about their superior rank. Instead, signs of weakness and dominance are more often expressed in nonverbal communications”

Greene distinguished various ways in which nonverbal communications differ between the dominant and the weak. Starting with ‘confidence’, the dominant has more confidence than the weak. This can be seen in their open body language and more relaxed behavior. It is also suggested that dominance shouldn’t be confused with leadership as there is the possibility of being a weak leader. Telltale signs of a weak (leader) include insecurity, anxiousness, loud voice amongst other nervous behaviors.

“With leaders who are riddled with insecurities that poke through nonverbally, you can play to their insecurities and get power through this, but often it is best to avoid attaching yourself too closely to such types, as they tend to do poorly over time and tend to drag you down with them.”

For those who are not leaders, it is advised to gauge their momentum. If they are rising stars, attach yourself to them, and if they are weak and petty, avoid them at all costs.

Deception Cues

“We humans are by nature quite gullible. We want to believe in certain things – that we can get something for nothing; that we can easily regain or rejuvenate our health thanks to some new trick, perhaps even cheat death; that most people are essentially good and can be trusted.”

This gullible nature of people makes them prone to manipulation and trickery. When dealing with deceivers or liars, it is advised to just encourage them and to go with the flow. This will lower their resistance and they will end up showing more signs of tension.

Mastering Impression Management

Impression management stems from the idea that all people play certain roles and that they must play these roles to the best of their abilities

Greene provides us with six basic tips to become proficient at this:

  1. Master nonverbal cues: Science of People has an amazing blog post that shares tips on how to read people.
  2. Be a method actor: Learn how to put yourself in a certain mood by reimagining yourself in it. Also, train yourself to revert back to a neutral expression from an emotional mood in a fluid and seamless way.
  3. Adapt to your audience: Know how to behave in different situations and learn to blend in. Executive Edge Consulting provides some awesome pointers on how you can blend in a team , on a corporate level; however, I feel the tips can be used in other situations as well.
  4. Create a proper first impression: A best practice is to present a relaxed neutral front when making first impressions. In addition, Mind Tools shares 8 tips on making a great first impression.
  5. Use dramatic effects: Master the art of presence/absence.
  6. Project saintly qualities.

“The better you play your role, the more power you will accrue, and with power you will have the freedom to express more of your peculiarities. If you take this far enough, the persona you present will match many of your unique characteristics, but always heightened for effect.”

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Published by The Street Pandit

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