The Poor Man’s Guide to Reading Minds

Most of us are adept at recognizing when the person in front of us is feeling an emotion. Their faces crinkles and contorts in a familiar – or unfamiliar – fashion. Their posture goes stiff and strong like a two by four, or slumps over like a dehydrated flower. Vocal pitch changes, as does rate of speech. When we witness any of these changes, we interpret it as emotion and intuitively watch for further cues. (Side note that has little bearing on the rest of these ideas: while we are good at spotting such emotional leaking, we are very, very bad at identifying false positives. Though we may know academically that one can fake an emotional expression, too often we see something – a smile, say – and interpret that as indicative of felt emotion. This is why cashiers who smile are many times more likely to be asked on dates than those who do not.)

Although we can generally recognize when an emotion is felt, we are less able to accurately identify which emotion we’ve seen. It is easy to confuse anger for joy, for example, or surprise for sorrow. When we have context and expectation, those errors are less frequent. But divorced from the build up and an instigating event, it is surprisingly difficult to identify an emotion with any measure of accuracy. If you are skeptical, see how you fare on the picture below.

Images taken from Paul Ekman's "Emotions Revealed."

Images taken from Paul Ekman’s “Emotions Revealed.”

What we are worst at, of course, is identifying why a person has felt what they feel. Even if we can successfully navigate past false positives and correctly pick out what someone is feeling, the why remains elusive. And again, though we may know academically that this is true, many of us secretly believe we are experts at reading minds. Ever had a conversation that included a line like, “I know you’re mad at me, and I know it’s because of this”? How often was that correct?

One thing I’m known for are my bus stories, quick anecdotes of something funny, unusual, or even upsetting I witness while riding public transportation in the Twin Cities. Anyone who uses MetroTransit with any frequency at all probably has at least one such story; I have dozens. (I have so many, in fact, that some people have accused me of making them up. If they’d read my short stories, they would know that accusation is absurd.) People naturally want to know why. Am I more observant than others? Do I live in a particularly literary neighborhood?

It’s true that certain routes are more likely to be eventful than others, and I suspect this is because they pass through neighborhoods with vast ethnic and socioeconomic differences. People a group of such people in tight quarters under stress, and conflict arises. There are more stories to be found on a half-full bus running late than a jam-packed bus running on time.

It may be true that I am more observant than most people. What I think is more accurate, though, is I have stumbled upon better predictors of drama. Since almost everyone is focused on their phones or books and their faces are relaxed in a “neutral mask,” the slightest hint of anger, fear, worry, distress, or agitation stands out like a hipster at a cancer ward. From there, one must attempt to figure out why.

The “Why?” is the story. What caused that look of disgust on the skinny blonde wearing the target badge? (The morbidly obese man in the Santa Clause costume smelled of alcohol and feces – he sat in front of me.) Why is that Hispanic man leaning into the aisle, his lower lip looking like hooks are pulling it downward? (The clean-cut college kid next to him was about to vomit, and barely made it off the train before doing so.)

There is a sportswriter named Zach Hample. He is slender and handsome, with thick eyebrows and a wide smile. He is most famous for catching more than 7000 baseballs at major league games. Most baseball fans have never caught any. So it’s both surprising and a little disappointing that his tips are little more than common sense: sit on an aisle so you can move around if you need to; sit in an area that sees a lot of foul balls; bring hats for both teams so they are more likely to toss one to you; be polite. Likewise, I know there is nothing revolutionary about the idea “Spot emotions and then figure out why people are feeling them.” But most people don’t try doing that. If you do, you might have some better stories to tell.