Tricks and Trade Secrets

by Zac Oberg

I moved to the high school that I graduated from halfway through junior year. The first week, I spent all my effort just getting people call me by name instead of “new kid”. I quickly found a small circle of “friends” who I knew were connected to the upper crust caste; This is a lucky break for a skinny, lanky, six foot, three inch, one hundred and thirty two pound kid like me. I am fairly sure they only invited me at the whims of one of the more sympathetic girls at the table. I sat and smiled, saying very little, laughing at their jokes and feigning incredulity when prudent. Little by little, I see bits and pieces of what makes them like me and what does not. He likes it when others make him feel dominant. She likes it when I affirm her idea, smile and turn to face her. They like it when I ask them how they are and touch them momentarily on the arm. Some get uncomfortable when I stand too close, some like me for my eye contact, others simply can not stand it when I shift my weight from foot to foot. Each person has a special, though not unique, way that they prefer to relate to others and I have an inkling of how I might use that to my advantage.

I become enthralled in the wide world of speech persuasion, the nuances of body language, and the decisive micro-expressions after a quick Google search of “how to get people to like me”. Making friends seems like a trick, only a matter of saying and doing the right thing at the right time. Using the knowledge that I find on the internet I convince myself that with enough practice, I can befriend anybody. I spend late hours into the night reading up on the appropriate distance to stand from a person to gain rapport without making them uncomfortable, how much eye contact is too much eye contact and even methods to subtly convince others to agree with me. With these tools I construct a dynamic new self that reacts to others to obtain the best possible social result.

Why go through all the trouble? Up to this point in my life, you might say my slogan was:

“Yeah so what I’m lonely I rock this look.”

As the weeks went on, I was spending less and less time with my circle of “friends”. Not only because they still could not remember my name, but because I had a grander scheme planned. At this school, I will not be the lanky kid to pick on. I will not be the silent band geek who is notorious for ruining the curve for everybody else. I will be a friend of friends, one whom anybody, if asked, would say “I like him. He’s nice.” To accomplish this, I spend my days roaming the schoolyard with my friend Adam whom I met on the bus my second week. We “have a schedule to keep” (or so we tell people so they do not feel miffed at our quick visits) to visit certain groups of people at least once every lunch period, and often it turns into us meeting anywhere from ten to twenty new people each day. It’s a good opportunity to practice my persuasion; I listen to and give attention to those that crave it; I placate and defer to those that demand it; I lead and laugh with those who desire it. I make a lot of mistakes, often sending mixed messages that make others uncomfortable or accidentally invading somebody’s personal space. The beauty of it is that it does not matter. The next day we drop by and my faux pas is forgotten, and I get an all new opportunity to practice my craft.

What is in a smile? It depends, really. Look at the lips, the corners of the mouth, the area next to and under the eyes. Want to make friends? Look in the mirror, squint like you are trying to look at something really far away, hold the corners still and open your eyes a little bit, part your lips and breathe through your mouth calmly, crinkle your nose slightly, expose your teeth by pulling up your cheeks (one higher than the other). Hold for one second. Let it fade from your face slowly, with a slight nod. Relax then let it flash across your face again like a surprise. Laugh like you would at a Jim Carrey one-liner. After the silence, count to one and say it was nice to meet you, flash those pearly whites again, hold for one second, walk away and let it fade from your face slowly.

It is not just the face, either. You see that cute girl with her legs crossed on the other side of the room? Are her feet pointing generally towards you? Cross your legs opposite of hers, and point to her too. Use your peripherals to catch her looking at you, look down then back up at her. Look away before she looks at you, count to two while she stares, look at her and smile with your lips closed, laugh with a silent “ha” that exposes half your upper teeth, tilt your head away from her and look down. Watch for her to cross her legs to match yours. Cross your legs opposite of hers, rinse and repeat. Profit.

There are two rules to body language. The first: Don’t try too hard. Lending spontaneity to the mundane is an art, and to force it is to undo it. There is something to be said about believing something you know to be false. Look at good actors, when they take on a role the role takes to them. They change, morph and transform their entire persona to fit their profession. It is all about the little things – a change in gait, posture or even something as small as where you put your hands. The second: Don’t go against the current. You have to show weakness to hide your power over others. If you want somebody to like you, compliment their body language: Supplicate with upturned palms and lowered chin to meat heads, furrow your brow and lean your head on your hand to know-it-alls, let your arms hang loose with your open palms out of your pockets to the timid. They will like you then, for your “easy-going attitude” and your practiced smile. It does not matter if you like them, because they will not not like you this way.

Most people do not understand the kind of control they have over others with their four limbs and countless features. In their defense, it is not something that is naturally learned. For those willing to mount the effort, it is a simple five-step consideration: cues, changes, clusters, character and context.

It all begins with reading cues: identifying how people’s attitudes correlate with their position or movement. It is easiest to start with your own.

“Okay class, turn in your homework and pair up for exercises.”, my math teacher growls at us. I glance at Adam and smile, we know to take turns standing up so we don’t come off as obvious.

I walk up and hand my paper to my teacher, as I approach I put my hand on the back of my neck.

“Sore neck?”, my teacher asks me.

“Slept on it wrong, I guess.” I say back quietly.

The next day, I get my homework back with a fat red zero at the top; Scribbled below is: You could at least try, is that so hard?

Next time, put your left hand in your pocket (thumb out) and your chin up with a big closed-lips smile. That way he will think you are proud of all the studying you did to pass the big test.

The second aspect to look for is changes in body language, especially in reaction to your own cues. When you see a change, ask yourself what may have triggered it. Was it something you said or did? Use this to your advantage; lean in and tilt your head if they uncross their arms, turn from the side to face them if they nod at what you say.

“So you’re ‘new kid’, huh?” said a big hulk of fresh with wide set shoulders and a cut taped shut on his face. Apparently he’s the star player on the football team, but the things I’ve heard about him from Adam tell me he’s no shining star.

“Yeah, nice to meet you.” I stand straighter and hold my hand out to his. He looks at it and steps closer to me. He’s about an inch shorter than my six foot six frame.

“You’re awfully tall for a dweeb.” he says in a pompous (read: dweeb-y) fashion, chest puffed out to match.

“Thanks… I guess?” I’m not sure where to put my hands.

“Hey! Let’s go man! We’ve got a schedule to keep!” Adam yells at me from another circle, beckoning me with his arm.

“See you around, stick.”

What an original nickname. What a winner.

Realize that uncrossing your arms and widening your stance while standing face to face to the jock on the football team is probably the reason he chose you to terrorize. Next time, put your hands in your pockets and turn your body a smidge off center.

After you have mastered changes, you must look for clusters: groups of different movements that have similar qualities. For instance, a person will cross their arms, shift their stance, look away, and purse their lips as a combined indication of disagreement. These have the same rules as changes, but require more finesse.

“Cmon, dude, let’s go! Only ten more minutes left for lunch.” Adam says to me, beckoning me away from the cute girl I am currently chatting with. I glance at Adam and back at the girl, I flash a sheepish grin and a thumbs up; As if this girl was actually into me. Hint: she’s not. She crosses her arms and looks to her left, shifting her weight on her back foot. I rub the back of my neck and step slightly closer to her.

“Well, I gotta go. Any chance I could get your number?”, I say as I lightly touch her shoulder.

She pulls away slightly and turns her shoulders away from me.

“Uh… I’m not looking for something like that right now.”, she says as her eyes dodge mine.

“Oh, okay. Sorry.”


Realize that she is shifting her weight and crossing her arms because she is uncomfortable. Next time, keep your limbs loose and relaxed and a comfortable smile on your face. If this doesn’t work, just walk away.

The fourth factor is the character of a person, which often confounds our attempts to interpret their body language. Somebody more extroverted may show wild, fluid motion whereas somebody introverted may keep their limbs glued to their side. Use this to discern whether a person currently occupies a position of habit or of action. Realize that the cute girl who hardly ever talks with her legs crossed on the other side of the room is not dismissing you with her fleeting eye contact or shifting weight. Next time, do not wait so damn long to ask her on a date.

You might be saying to yourself “surely, this can’t be all.” and you would be correct. Social interaction is a complex and convoluted mechanism that seems to have no hard rules – at first glance. When you delve into the specifics, social interaction seems to be a nexus of rules that limit what is and is not okay to do and/or say. It becomes easier when you start thinking of it as a game, with positive social interactions as the goal. With each game rule you add it becomes a bit more difficult, but it remains a game of strategy. Certain people are receptive to certain interactions, and with practice you can start identifying these people simply from the way they carry themselves before they even say a word. Some people need more space between them, others need you to face them directly, it is just a matter of reading their body language. When in doubt, do as they do. Imitation is the best form of flattery.

In my pursuit of friendship, I came to understand a greater force at work beneath my superficial body language tricks. It turns out, our bodies have an tangible effect on the way we feel and how we see ourselves. Forcing myself to smile is making me happier, standing straight is helping my confidence, all these “tricks” I once used as a crutch are now becoming a part of me. I do not need to try as hard to look like I am not trying hard, and navigating conversation is no longer a question of sink-or-swim but of swim-or-swim-faster. I did not notice this by myself, it was my classmate who pointed it out to me.

“You seem different than when you first came here,” Claire, my study-buddy, told me at lunch one afternoon near the start of senior year.

“Is that a bad thing?”

“No… You used to bite your nails all the time… And you don’t walk around at lunch as much as you used to.”

“I guess I don’t need to anymore.”