with Spencer Greenberg
the podcast about ideas that matter

Episode 204: Common body language mistakes and how to avoid making them (with Blake Eastman)

Enjoying the episode? Want to listen later? Subscribe on any of these apps or stores to be notified when we release new episodes:

April 5, 2024

What are some common techniques for quantifying body language? How hard is it to identify poker "tells"? Are there any facial expressions or body movements that have universal meaning? What can be discerned about group dynamics just from watching a meeting over video call? What are the most common body language mistakes people make when going on dates or trying to make friends? What are the strongest indicators of charisma? How do people signal their social status? What are the most effective ways to deal with trolls? How valid is the concept of micro-expressions?

Blake Eastman is the founder of The Nonverbal Group, a behavioral research and education company. With a focus on teaching high-level people skills, Eastman has coached executives and teams, and his company is building the world's largest database of contextually coded human interactions. He also founded Behavioral Robotics, an AI deep tech startup teaching machines to read human behavior, and he's known for conducting the largest behavioral study on poker players through his Beyond Tells project. Follow him on Instagram, Twitter / X, and LinkedIn; or email him at

JOSH: Hello, and welcome to Clearer Thinking with Spencer Greenberg, the podcast about ideas that matter. I'm Josh Castle, the producer of the podcast, and I'm so glad you've joined us today. In this episode, Spencer speaks with Blake Eastman about expression analysis, and social coordination and status.

JOSH: Do you have ideas about how we at the Clearer Thinking podcast could improve our show? Are there topics you'd prefer to hear more or less about? Do you just want to let us know how much you love or hate the show? Well, we've just launched a brand new listener survey so that you can share all of those thoughts with us. And we want to hear it all: the good, the bad, and the ugly, even in its most brutally honest form. We really appreciate the feedback you all have given us over the last three and a half years. It helps us find new ways to improve the quality of the show, and cover new and interesting ideas that matter to you. So if you'd like to take the survey, then please click on the link in the show notes or visit

SPENCER: Blake, welcome.

BLAKE: Thank you so much for having me. This is great.

SPENCER: Now you've studied social interaction more than just about anybody. Probably the only people on par with you are our academics who focus on this as their specialty. But you do it in a very pragmatic applied way. I want to start by just learning about a couple of the things you've done to study social interactions.

BLAKE: I think our largest study was definitely on poker players, a project called 'Beyond Tells.' Over the course of ten years now, we set up studies in our office where we recorded poker players play from multiple angles, and then spent the better — I mean, it's been a decade — breaking down everything that they did, and we built this empirical approach towards reading poker players. That was one area. And then the next area was, honestly, Zoom interactions. I use a lot of footage to help coach and work with a wide range of organizations. So I get the ability to tap into all their Zoom meetings. At this point, I have dissected, observed, commented on literally thousands of business interactions. And then I would say, the last piece is the fun things that we did in the office in New York City where we used to throw these (we called it) creepy cocktail parties where people would come in and just interact with one another, and there'd be cameras recording absolutely everything. And then I've got a conversation study going on right now. It's just all over the place. I just want to be obsessed with recording as much data as I possibly can.

SPENCER: You collect all this video data of people interacting. How do you actually analyze it? Are you doing quantitative analysis? And if so, what do you quantify?

BLAKE: Back in the day, into the first Beyond Tells poker study, we would quantify movement. Certain behaviors are quite simple to quantify. For example, a blink rate, easy to code, easy to explain to someone how to mark when someone blinked or not. Something like smiles is way more robust. If you look at any interaction, and you say, "Alright, how many times did this person smile?" and you define smiles based on certain geometric movements in the face, it's fairly easy. But when you get into the nuance of the timing of a smile, the speed of a smile, the morphology, why it looks different on one person's face and the next, it becomes infinitely more complex. So in the beginning, we did a lot of this manually. I had teams of 60 to 80 people that would just sit there all day and code behavior. And now machine learning and computer vision has pretty much taken the role of the bulk of that. So we build software that analyzes facial expressions.

SPENCER: And what are some of the metrics that the AI calculates automatically?

BLAKE: Automatically, things like head tilt, yaw, roll, gaze direction. But really, the more valuable is our own metrics, like facial heat maps — which I really like — to see which areas of someone's face is moving the most, analyze speakers' presentations and analyze people that maybe move the top half of their face way more than the average population. I've been really obsessed with monitoring or measuring head nods. Smiles are something I'm constantly trying to refine and develop. It sounds like such an easy thing to do, measure a smile; it is so difficult in terms of actually getting the data to be at the point where it's useful. So a lot of the time, you're getting a CSV file that every frame has (I think it's like) 400 landmarks we use right now. And it's just creating all this XYZ coordinate data and then you have to summarize it and use it in a way that's actionable for our purposes, and I think that becomes more challenging. So capturing the raw data, not that hard given today's out-of-the box solutions, but then going a lot deeper and making meaning out of that data in a way that helps people, it's challenging, I would say.

SPENCER: Take something like a smile. Are there many different interpretations you have of a smile based on subtle variations in it?

BLAKE: Oh, yeah, just based on people's facial shape, some people have smiles that... The thing I'm really interested in the most out of any criteria for a smile is the timing of it, so when the smile starts and when it ends, and what that facial change looks like between the beginning and the end of a smile. And the whole point of this is that there's been so much attention dedicated towards smiles as an indication of emotion. I'm more interested in smiles purely from the perspective that we smile as a method for social coordination. You can look at somebody and be having a conversation with them, and they say something that you may not necessarily agree with, but the way that you visually acknowledge them is by a slight smirk. And what we see is, there are patterns in the way that people smile that allow us to reverse engineer and understand how that person might be perceived. An example of this is, I worked with a manager who, for whatever reason, was smiling all the time. If you talk to them and have a deeper conversation, they have the desire to be liked. The problem is, in that given business dynamic, being liked wasn't the focus; it was more being respected and a bunch of other variables. But the smile was the behavior that was altering the perception of others. So one of the things that I like to summarize or take people back to is, we're not looking for embedded meaning and behavior usually. We're looking for how a subset or how a population perceives someone else's behavior, because the perception is more of the reality. A lot of the stuff where it's like, "Oh, this person did X, Y and Z" — the basic body language stuff — is just not true. So we're trying to come at it from a much different angle.

SPENCER: Is the idea that people assume there's a universal meaning like, "Oh, if someone does this kind of smile, it means this;" whereas, the reality is that what matters is how people in that society or in that culture, even in that office, interpret that action?

BLAKE: Yeah, you basically said it quite right. The fact is, a lot of the research on there being universal facial expressions has been... Slowly, I think newer research is suggesting that there are no pinpoints, there's no universality in terms of emotion in someone's face. So if you just think about a smile, think logically about your life, at the amount of times you smile in a given day, it doesn't mean you're happy. My dad passed away last week, I smile a ton this week. It doesn't mean that my state is happy. But people infer, based on one's facial expressions, that that's what that state is. And it's just way more complex than that. People can smile because they're uncomfortable, and can be so good at the timing and shape of their smile that you don't know that they're uncomfortable. That's just their way of concealing in a social environment. There's just so much greater depth to movement in the face and interaction than I think society recognizes.

SPENCER: Would you say that smiling is a universal indication of happiness, even if it's used for a lot of different purposes? It might be used to signal happiness when you're not really happy, or it might be used to tell someone you like them, etc.

BLAKE: I think the problem becomes when we use language to describe behavior, in the sense that like 'happiness' is such a loaded word. People don't walk around in life with operational definitions of the words that they use. So then happiness, if you ask somebody that smiled... So someone's in a conversation right now and I ask them, "Hey, so what's going on for you right now? How do you feel? What emotions are you experiencing?" they probably won't even use the word happiness. We're limited by our vocabulary. I would say that, moreso, smiles are an indication or a tool for socially coordinating with one another. And I believe they're more — from an evolutionary perspective — something that allows us to mitigate threats. No matter where you go, if you smile, it's this universal indication of, "I'm not being threatening," but then also the crazy thing is if you shift the head tilt and morphology of a smile, and you have someone put their chin down, look you dead in the eyes and smile, you have that creepy serial killer sort of horror film smile. It's just so contextually dictated by whatever the environment is.

SPENCER: You mentioned you've done so much work on poker, analyzing the way people play, and the facial expressions that they're having. And obviously, there are a lot of people that believe you can tell if someone's bluffing and they look for tells in their behavior and so on. To what extent is that really true that people are able to pick up on tells?

BLAKE: It's highly variable, but it is very true. The problem is that the tells are not so basic in terms of, 'this person is bluffing and they're doing this,' and 'this person has a really strong hand and they're doing that.' Poker is a game that has a lot of nuance to it. There are qualities of perception that differ from player to player. For example, everybody listening to this podcast right now, whether you have a deep understanding of poker or not, you have a perception of your hand in any given spot, and your perception of the strength of your hand dictates some of the reaction to your behavior. And when we looked at physiological responses like heart rate, and GSR, and a couple of other measures, you found that physiological arousal was all over the place, and it was based on the player. So some players, in spots where they're bluffing, they experienced a high level of physiological arousal in terms of like their heart rate increases, GSR increased, all these things, they physiologically feel it. But when they have a really strong hand, it's much less. And then you have other people that are completely the opposite. So our way of navigating the landscape of tells and behavior is looking at it more at an individual player level than population level. And I think that's what happens: we want these heuristics about populations, we want these quick things of, 'when somebody does this, that probably means this, and you should do this.' But the truth is, the more you're able to source the context of an individual poker player, the greater the accuracy of the read. So the thing that I do is literally dissect the best players in the world for the other best players in the world. And we find this player does this in this spot 86% of the time, based on a sample of 42 hands over the past three years. Those are kind of reads.

SPENCER: It seems like a lot of this work ends up being contextual. It's hard to come up with universals. But I'm wondering, across your work, have you found some universals where, if someone does this, it almost always means a certain thing regardless of context?

BLAKE: In poker, there's a couple that are pretty straightforward. One is something we call the card apex, which is how long a player is looking at their cards. And we found it has this bell curve distribution, where players look at their cards really quickly when they're at the top and bottom of the range. And they spend a little bit more time looking at hands that they perceive to be marginal. That's held up pretty reliably.

SPENCER: So if they're really confident in their hand, or they know it's a bad hand, either way, they'll look at it a shorter time. Is that what you're saying?

BLAKE: Yeah, and both of those polls represent confidence, so if you get a hand like two-seven, you know it's bad, your decision-making process is easier; you're gonna fold. And if you get a really strong hand, your decision-making process is easy; you know what to do. But there's a lot of shades of gray with more marginal hands, and you see more indications of contemplation in players. We've also seen the same thing with card checks, players rechecking their cards. And players will always check their cards once but then recheck their cards when they're more marginal because they basically just forget the hand. So two aces, easy to remember, ace-king suited, easy to remember, but maybe jack-seven off-suit, they kind of forget what the hand is. But this is all contextual.

SPENCER: It's really interesting because those are both computational constraints to some extent. If it's hard to figure out how good your hand is, you are going to spend more time checking your cards, or you're going to look at them longer, rather than for social information.

BLAKE: Yeah, that's one of the interesting things about poker, that most of the usable information that we found, it is all computational. For example, when people talk about people breathing too heavily or moving or being hyper-still, what we found is that navigating that behavior isn't as useful as... When you're playing poker, people utilize what we call concealment strategy. Whether it's conscious or unconscious, it's this mechanism for reducing the information that they're giving off. And the intent or the dedication of that concealment strategy is the tell. For example, I've watched players who are hyper-still. If you show this to an average person, and you compare ten hands, and you say, "Is this person moving at all?" They're like, "No, they're just really, really, really still." But what we found is, if you really pay careful attention to stillness, there's a difference in the quality of stillness, which means they're sometimes dedicating more effort towards being still when (let's say) they don't want their opponent to call versus when they do. And sometimes this manifests itself in changes in slight gaze direction, changing in breathing, sometimes blink rate shifts. But again, it's more contextually based on the player.

SPENCER: So it's like they're working harder to mask what's going on in their mind.

BLAKE: Exactly. And the same thing follows for social interaction. One of the more interesting things is that I find that people always talk about reading behavior. I say you never can really read behavior; you can predict it. But if somebody's just fully present, and they're just being themselves, and they're enjoying themselves, they're not trying to do anything, and they're like, "What do you think's going on in this interaction?" there's really not that much to say. What becomes more interesting is when people are trying to mask or change their behavior in a way that suits how they want to be perceived. That's where you start to see things. People overcompensate by laughing or smiling a lot, or the opposite, and trying to give off less information. That's where the puzzle starts to become more interesting. It's the mechanisms we use to conceal our behavior more so than just actual behavior.

SPENCER: What about in everyday social interaction, maybe in Zoom meetings for work or friends hanging out or people at a cocktail party? I know you have said that most of the information is contextual. But what are some things that seem to be more universal, where there's something that you can read into it most of the time?

BLAKE: Not universally, in different cultures it changes, but I've spent a lot of time and resources really understanding social coordination. Basically, a facial gesture or some sort of movement that shows you that the other person is following or paying attention to the information. For example, that is one of the first things I look for in American teams if I were to analyze everybody on the Zoom calls. I'm looking for indications of social coordination. So people that don't move their face at all are almost always potentially causing friction in a team. Somebody who just sits there and stares, and is not nodding their head, is not showing agreement, is not showing any of that, they just have a low level of facial reactivity, which is also a byproduct of culture. If we look at Russian or Slavic culture, there's just a lower level of facial coordination. And that's something that I'm very interested in because I can predict people that have social challenges based on the lack of facial coordination or social coordination.

SPENCER: I imagine there are a lot of ways to coordinate, right?

BLAKE: So many ways.

SPENCER: It could also be making sounds like "Uh-huh." Can you just give us a few of those?

BLAKE: Yeah, nodding your head, smiling, smirking, indications in your brow — bringing your brow together whether that's confusion or interest — leaning in forward, changing your tonality, asking very specific questions. There are so many different ways that you can coordinate. But it's basically a mechanism of showing I am listening to you and I am hearing you. And then some people have almost (what I would call) behavioral blind spots. They're disruptions in the way that they listen. For example, one of them might be a really intense stare or facial display that they use when they're really listening. But it looks like that person is maybe a little bit angry or frustrated or confused. And then they give off the perception that they're frustrated, and they're not at all. I work with a lot of people that have this disconnect. They're not aware of what their face is displaying in a given situation, and that causes a lot of social problems for them.

SPENCER: Some people are not giving the display of paying attention. And that makes people think that they're not listening or they don't care. But then other people, they are trying to display but they're displaying in a way that's being misread. Is that right?

BLAKE: Exactly right. Or a way that's not in alignment with how they want to be perceived. So if you work with a manager that wants to be like, "Oh, no, I really want to be caring and I want to be the kind of person that everybody goes to for a problem," and all these different things, but their face is just not displaying that or, the better way to say it is, the patterns of behavior that they're utilizing are not in alignment with society's definition of that state. Because a lot of the time, they just don't know, and then I show them videos of themselves. They're like, "Wow, yeah, I don't move that much." And that's why I feel like video is such a powerful medium because it allows you to solve a little bit for what's going on in reality, as opposed to what our perception of how we are in a current state is.

SPENCER: One thing I find very annoying about Zoom is that my normal social behaviors seem hard to map on to Zoom. I don't know exactly where to look to show them that I'm paying attention. Do I stare at the camera? Do I look at them in the middle of my screen? Sometimes when I'm on a Zoom meeting with someone, I feel I have the same perception, like I can't tell if they're looking at me or they're like reading something on the screen just because it's not that clear where your eyes would go if you actually were paying attention; whereas, in person it's very obvious.

BLAKE: Yeah, Zoom definitely does create some challenges. I think one of the easiest fixes for that is to state that. I've had people that have a difficult time navigating on Zoom or don't know where to stay. You just have to give the person the context so they don't create their own. One of the things that I've been fascinated by is (I call it) contextualization and literals. Some people, they don't add meaning to facial expressions. They just don't see the world that way, or they don't see social interaction that way. For example, I could say something very straight to you, like, "Spencer, this was a great podcast." And you're like, "Oh, it's a little weird. Blake doesn't usually talk like that; he's usually a little bit more engaging. I don't know. Blake might be angry. Maybe I asked him a question that was off or something like that." Some people go into that world of contextualization, creating narratives and stories around behavior. But some people are just more on the literal side. And they just like, "Oh, Blake said he loved the podcast. Why would I think anything else?" And the problem is, in a group or in a team or in a dynamic, you have certain people that are creating context that's not there, and other people that are not able to see the subtext in the context. And that's what really creates a lot of social challenges for people. And sometimes knowing which one you are, helps you better navigate.

SPENCER: Is that linked to the autism spectrum, because I associate that more literal-mindedness with people who are at least somewhat on the autism spectrum.

BLAKE: 100%. I've worked with a lot of people on the spectrum. I feel like it's just like multi-access. I think we could use better definitions and classifications of people that — whether they identify with or have been diagnosed with autism — I think is more helpful. And I've worked with some people that have had this diagnosis and they see it and it's clear, and some people that just don't. An example of this, I have a video somewhere where it's a man and a woman having a conversation. The man insults the woman, and he insults her just based on tonality, just comes across as very harsh. And most people are going to very quickly say, "Oh, yeah, he was really harsh. There was no need to say it that way." And I've shown it to certain people, and they're like, "What's wrong? He's just stating his reality or his life." And I was just like, "Huh, so certain people are just completely missing it." And that is a challenge in a world where so much information is displayed in tonality and the way something is said, and not seeing that... I just have a lot of compassion for people that don't have that ability.

SPENCER: Another thing that I've heard associated with people on the autism spectrum is that they're less likely to make eye contact. And eye contact, I find especially interesting because it seems like there's a substantial amount of communication through eye contact, and even sometimes a feeling of really deep connections you see facilitated by eye contact. So I'm curious, how do you think about eye contact and what are some of the things you've found around it?

BLAKE: Yeah, gaze direction's an interesting one. The problem is, it's very... I would say that, when you're really looking at understanding the deeper aspects of gaze, you want to see how gaze supports the things that you're saying. So for example, it makes total sense that if you asked me a question, you said to me, "Blake, what was the most important time in your life?" If I look you dead in the eyes and answer the question, it looks a little bit off compared to if I was going to break eye contact with you, really think about what I'm going to say and then say it. So there are certain things: we find that people's gaze direction or eye contact breaks are going to be way more frequent when a person is speaking versus when the person is listening. It makes sense; you shouldn't be making 100% eye contact when you're the speaker. It's going to probably be perceived as creepy because most people just don't do it that way. But when you're listening, it's a completely different circumstance in the sense that some people have processing issues, like it's just too much information and they can't process it. So they look away in order to pay attention to it, but they don't tell the other person that. The other person is going to think that they're just not interested or just not paying attention. So you have some of that, that you have to take responsibility for. But I think there is a rule. If you follow most people, you're gonna find that their gaze direction when speaking is going to be less than when listening. That's pretty much it. It's rare that I find that the other way around.

SPENCER: What about that feeling of connection people get through eye contact? For example, if people are on a date, there might be an increased eye contact as a way of expressing interest.

BLAKE: Yeah, this is why the rabbit hole is so crazy because there's certain people that... You get two people together on a first date. Both of these people are really uncomfortable with eye contact for a wide range of reasons. And we have a lower amount of mutual gaze or they're looking at each other, it's low, less than 30% of the time. They might still leave that interaction feeling safer, feeling understood, feeling heard, feeling all those things. It's just that society projects their opinions about how somebody should be in a social interaction, and then they make the deduction based on that perception. For me, my whole life, I have had to consciously work on my gaze. [laughs] That's a thing in my... My own wife is like, "Blake, look at me". She even says that to me because of the fact that, for her, that intimacy is created more through gaze. I don't necessarily have that. I don't feel like I need to stare somebody deep in the eyes in order to have that sort of gaze. I've been to these eye-staring events where people are looking people in the eyes, and everybody's crying. And I'm just like, "What is going on here?" It's just so dynamically different depending on the person, but you've got to understand the societal norms and the constructs to navigate within, or else you're socially ostracized at a certain level. So even though I would much rather be looking at every single movement and tracking everything going on in the room, I know I can't socially do that. I have to maintain the gaze because of the perception it's going to create, not because of processing. I could arguably probably be processing more information (maybe) not looking. I can hear better when I'm not looking somebody directly in the eye. So you can make the argument that I'd actually have more information or be more present (maybe) when I'm more comfortable in terms of my gaze. But that's not society's definition.



I wonder if your research backs this up or not, but it seems to me that intense eye gaze, it intensifies whatever you're giving off. So if someone's flirting, it makes it a more intense form of flirting. If someone's angry, it makes it a more intense form of anger. Do you think that's true?

BLAKE: I think that gaze is not enough of the puzzle, basically. Let's look at flirtation. You don't just flirt with your eyes. There's slight movements around the mouth. There's slight gestures. There's a head tilt. There's more variables than just the gaze. And that's what happens when we look at behaviors from a singular approach. If you walk into a room and I tell you just to stare at people, [laughs] it's gonna be a little bit weird. So yes, 100%, but gaze is just a piece of the puzzle that creates the perception of that behavior.

SPENCER: What are some of the most common mistakes you see your clients making? You already mentioned one, that when they're listening to someone, they don't necessarily give off the signals of listening. But what are some others that you think are really common that you can help people with?

BLAKE: Most of the mistakes are less behavioral, and more grounded in perspective. They're grounded in the concept of what does social interaction mean to you? For example, if you take somebody that doesn't like social interactions because they believe that they're tiring, and people let them down, and so on, and so forth, every social interaction that they're going to be in is going to somehow create that perspective; they're going to see it. So most of the work that I do starts off with using behaviors to pinpoint things. But then it leads to more discussions about how to reshape someone's perspective or how someone perceives social interactions. And that usually is the first step for most people. But the truth is, the people that struggle, they don't often understand the impact of their own behavior. They don't get that their movement, the way they say things, the way they interact with people... You have a massive impact on people when you're in a conversation. And I think that, if people really understood the impact of their own behavior sometimes, they'd be more understanding of how they should work on it and make sure it's more in alignment with what they do. But the truth is — to go in a couple of circles here — I don't really tell anybody how to behave. The question is always, 'how do you want to be perceived?' It's all about what they want. And then it's about taking the behaviors and the thought processes and the perspective and the perception and all of that, and aligning with what they want their social reality to be. Because if somebody says, "I want to come across mean and aggressive," and all that, I'm like, "Alright, that's your choice. I don't agree. But we can do that. We can create that." So it's all someone else's creation and I think people don't think that they're at the source of creating that. They think, "Oh, I have this condition, or I have this label, or I have this or that. And that means that I can't be effective in social interactions." And it's just not true. It's like anybody can create any dynamic they want; they just need to do the work necessary to understand this massive puzzle.

SPENCER: So taking that into account, what are some ways that people often (in your experience) perceive that they don't want to be perceived, like they're projecting something that's being picked up where they wish they were projecting something different?

BLAKE: That's a good one. Okay. One of them is not listening. This happens on Zoom a lot. Certain people will be taking notes or using a different screen. They have two monitors, and they're looking at one monitor, and it looks like they're not paying attention, but they are paying attention. So everybody gives the feedback that John isn't paying attention to meetings when John is probably paying more attention than anybody else but they're just taking notes, and they don't look like they're paying attention. That's one that's come up quite a bit in team and corporate dynamics. Two, I think everything could go back to being the kind of person that... I see charisma come up a lot in the quality that people want. People want this charismatic style of behavior where people feel comfortable, and people feel at ease in a social dynamic, and that's one of the most desirable social traits that I see. People may or may not use the word charisma, but that's probably what they're discussing. And then I think the third one is feeling safe. I think a lot of people are slightly threatened in social interactions or always on guard in social interactions. And because of that, it creates this facial expression or facial displays of maybe more intensity and the byproduct is, other people don't feel safe around that person. When that person (from a language perspective, the leader is talking to them) is a very safe individual, but they're giving things off that make them not safe... They're overtly dismissive maybe, they're maybe easily distracted, and all these things that don't make the other person feel heard.

SPENCER: For someone like that who may be giving off signals of lack of safety, what would you do? Would you break down the specific signals they're giving off and try to replace those with other signals?

BLAKE: First is always awareness. It's getting that video, having them show that video and helping them explain the mechanics of why they're being perceived that way. And then second, it's doing all the work to find different ways of coordinating, and this is probably one of the more interesting challenges. This is where I differ a lot from maybe a traditional academic in the sense that I'm working for people that are taking my stuff and immediately using it in a meeting. So if I tell someone, for example, that they're too stern, and I want them to smile more, it's the worst piece of advice that I can give because I don't know what that facial expression or that smile morphology is going to look like. They might smile, and then other people are just like, "Wow, this guy's creepier now," or "She's just more awkward now" or whatever. So I have to look at their behaviors and slowly integrate something that works for them. And usually, we start with language, like asking questions, um, uhum, uhs, all that type of stuff. But then we slowly get into head nodding and a bunch of other mechanics. And the truth is, most people, when I show them a video of themselves, and they're aware of it, the path towards them fixing it is quick. It's not that slow. Once you get hyper-aware, most people are like, "Okay, I see what I'm doing. I know to do something else." But some people know; some people need to be taught from the ground up, these signals and these social coordination mechanisms. And that's a little bit more challenging.

SPENCER: What are some signs people tend to give off when they're uncomfortable in a conversation that might actually make other people uncomfortable as well?

BLAKE: Starting with gaze, rapid shifts in gaze. Rapid shifts are just... For example, imagine you're looking in one direction and then you very quickly look at another versus you're looking at one fixed point and you slowly look at the other. That rapid shift in gaze, not good. Facial timing or facial displays that are very quick. For example, imagine a very quick smile. Sit there with your face neutral, and then try to smile as quickly as you can and then get it off your face as quickly as you can, anything that's very sharp and not mimicking what most people perceive to be natural is very off-putting. A low blink rate also comes up. There are certain people, myself included, that have a very low amount of blinks. So if I'm not moving my face at all, and I'm just staring, my face does not move at all. It's just very stoic; it can be perceived as cold or be perceived as firm or so on and so forth.

SPENCER: You mentioned charisma earlier. At least in American society, what are some of the things that people do that other people would describe as charismatic so that, as soon as someone would meet them, they'd be like, "Wow, that person's so charismatic."

BLAKE: One of the strongest indicators of charisma for (almost) measuring it in a group is probably gaze direction. There's just something about certain people. I think most charisma is created — at least in our American society — from variability in speech and behavioral patterns. I've never seen a charismatic person that doesn't have a lot of facial animation; it just doesn't exist. Once in a while, in a cult leader, you'll see it. But people who are charismatic have a lot more range in their communication, and it's just more interesting to pay attention to. If I was just keeping the same tonality and speaking exactly like this the entire time, I think there's just something about people checking out. When there's more variability and tonal shifts and changes and all that, it comes alive. And usually people that are more comfortable in a social setting have the opportunity to develop more of that range. So where's the chicken or where's the egg, but you'll just see, certain people will give a presentation and topics will be pretty similar. And for one person, gaze will be 86% over a 30-minute presentation, and the other person will have 42%. And that's because people are checking their phone and people are checking out or looking around in different directions or having conversations and it's like, what is that quality? And the best way that I could describe that quality is a high level of variability.

SPENCER: That's really interesting that that matters so much. What do you think is going on there? Is it something about speeches just literally being boring and hard to pay attention to?

BLAKE: Honestly, I think it has some evolutionary route in movement, in the sense that we're just designed to process movement in a space and we're going to pay more attention to movement. But this is where it gets crazy. There was one really interesting study that found — I don't know if it was cortisol, I don't know what hormones they were measuring — but they found that a lot of facial animation actually produces stress in (was it) Chinese populations, where it was more engagement in an American population. So there is some cultural aspect to it as well, but I just think that there's something about that movement that people appeal to. Just think about it; think about when you listen to the same tonality over and over and over again in certain interactions, you might just check out but when there's a lot of movement — there's just something attractive about it — we just pay attention to it. I've noticed it for myself, too; when someone is just talking and I can almost predict... Maybe it has to do with something like that. Maybe to feel safer in a dynamic, it's easier to predict somebody that has less variability and the lack of prediction keeps you on your toes or something. I don't know. I'm sure there's some good social cognitive research on it, but I'm not really sure of the mechanisms. The truth is, when you look at the mechanisms of all this stuff and really try to... It's all theory. It's all just a bunch of different people trying to assume why this is the way that it is.

SPENCER: One thing I've observed about people that others find charismatic is, it seems like their enthusiasm or excitement seems to matter a lot. If you look at Steve Jobs, he's always saying, "This is the best. This is the greatest," over and over again. And you get that in the tone of voice as well, not just in the literal words. Do you think that that's part of what we call charisma, that enthusiasm?

BLAKE: Oh, 100%. Yeah, I think it's genuine enthusiasm. And when I say genuine, it's such a loaded word. I don't even know what it means anymore. I don't even know what 'authentic' means. I don't know what any of these words mean. But I think when you feel that the person in front of you is truly believing in what they are saying, that is the admirable or the charismatic quality. And we love that and you see all the speakers and even the con artists... Con artists can genuinely look like they truly believe in this thing and be fully conning you. But in the distribution of actions and behaviors in society, they really look like they believe it. So there's just something about that for sure, about enthusiasm and that passion for something that humans really do love.

SPENCER: Another aspect of charisma is social status. There's a lot of claims made on the internet about different ways to signal high social status or things that people might do by accident that signal low social status. What have you found in your own work? Are there any kind of universal status indicators that people give off, maybe unknowingly?

BLAKE: [laughs] I'm always fascinated by that whole dynamic, because it is one of those more relative puzzle-type things. For example, there was this moment, I was at a dinner and the person next to me was just really signaling their wealth. They kept saying things like, "Oh, I just flew first class and the flight was so expensive," and blah, blah, blah, and just kept integrating... the kind of person that wore their watch — he had a $50,000 IWC watch — prominently shown on his wrist. He just wanted everybody to feel like he belonged. But the joke was that everybody around him was infinitely wealthier than him and his signaling like, "Oh, I flew first class," and the person that he was talking to was just being nice and nodding like, "Oh, yeah, first class is great," and I know that person had a private jet. It was just such a weird dynamic where this person is trying to signal in a room where no one really cares about that. So I think the ability to understand or read the room and the landscape of what signals actually matter in this room, is a skill set within itself. And then navigating within that is the highest level of social manipulation to a certain extent. Because there's certain values and certain things that you can bring up in one group, that people would be like, "Yeah, I fully believe in it," and in another group, it would almost ostracize you by saying that word. So I do think that there is a desire for status, there's a desire for signaling. But you've got to do it in this crafty, more nuanced way that doesn't make you look like you're trying to display something. Because humans are so weird. We like the status and we don't like the status. We like the interesting stories. I always use this analogy of social value where, if all of a sudden, there's a bunch of people in a room... Let's say that you walk into a cocktail party or an event and there's 15 people around, and there's one person who's unsheveled [sic] and looking around in a bunch of different directions, and just seems really awkward or weird. If I go to you and I whisper in your ear, "You know who that is? That's Paul Raisin and he's worth $4 billion," your whole perception of his behavior just completely changes. You see him as the mad genius and not as the disheveled person. We're just so easily manipulated by frames and shifts in people's perspective that it's comical when you really look at it.

SPENCER: Some of the weirdest social interactions I've had in my entire life are with super high status people — for example, billionaires or multi-hundred millionaires — where I think I have this funny thing about myself. Other people, when they're around people they perceive as very high status, it seems to weigh on them very, very heavily. At some level, they're very, very aware of like, "I'm talking to a super high status person. I have to be deferential now." And I seem to just be lacking this thing that other people have. And so I just act — at least as I perceive it — totally normally. But it leads to very strange situations where I think what happens is these super high status people expect me to act in a different way, and it can be very polarizing. Maybe sometimes it can be refreshing for them because maybe a lot of people are kissing up to them all the time, whatever; it's nice to just have a more real interaction. But then also it can be actually aggravating to them. I'm an incredibly low-conflict person, super agreeable, I pretty much never have conflict with people, or very, very, very rarely. And yet, multiple times, I've clashed with billionaires when I was talking with them, and I was like, "What is happening in this conversation?"

BLAKE: Yeah, I have so many stories of that. The truth is, I started my whole career based on that exact dynamic. Long story short, I was playing in poker games in New York City when I started The Nonverbal Group. And the truth is, how I started working with all these people is, I asked people in the poker game — who were all the who's who of finance at that time — like, "Can you make any intros?" And at the time, I was 25, 24, and I had a chip on my shoulder for the bulk of my life where I didn't like people to tell me what to do and all that. And I started working with these very successful hedge fund managers and MDs at big companies and they would talk to me in a certain way, and I would be very like, "Did you just say that to me? Are you crazy? If you ever talk to me like that again..." I mean, I once told somebody, "I'll hit you in the face if you ever say that again," and it was such a different thing than they were used to. They were used to everybody just bending over backwards for them, and being awkward and being weird and I just refused to go into that space, and it created a level of trust between me and them, where they're like, "I can trust Blake to say things that no one else in my life is going to actually say." But I know completely what you mean about that. And also, when someone has high status, if you just view the person as a person, the status kind of gets negated. If you're like, "Oh my God, there's that person who blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah," and you create a whole narrative, it's very hard to have an actual genuine conversation with them. But yeah, I've met some people in tech that I'm like, "Well, that was interesting. They need to hire me." [laughs] And it's fascinating that you brought that up because I've seen similar dynamics where it's like, "How did this person get to this level in life with that level of lack of awareness of their communication?" And the truth is, it was the status. It was because they got that status curvature, and they had a ton of status early on that they didn't really need to play the game that some people need to play. But that's why when I work with some managers, I make a joke. I'm like, "Listen, man, you're not Steve Jobs. You're not Elon Musk. Stop acting like it." Like you don't have that status so stop trying to act like you're this vicious leader. It's just not going to work.

SPENCER: Yeah, I had a funny, [laughs] funny interaction with this guy, a multi-hundred millionaire. I was sitting next to him at dinner and I think he felt that I wasn't giving him the deference that he wanted. And he turns to the entire table, says, "This guy's a vegetarian. His dick is going to shrivel up." He just announces this to a table of 12 people. And I was like, "Who says that? It's so freakin' weird!" But somehow, he gets away with it.

BLAKE: Yeah. And that's how sometimes people have these mechanisms. So what did he do? In that moment, he didn't feel heard, he didn't feel respected, he was going through whatever. And he used his mechanism for gaining back his power. And he thinks that gains back his power, but I guarantee you, there were three or four or five people who were like, "What the hell did you just say?"

SPENCER: I think it makes him look awful. I was embarrassed on his behalf. [laughs]

BLAKE: People are weird and strange and different and interesting and unique. But I have this thing where, if you could touch every single person — let's say you just touched them on their forehead — and you got this almost cinematic display of all the moments in their life and all the things that they went through, their behavior would make perfect sense. I truly believe that.

SPENCER: Yeah, I like to think about how people's behavior makes sense from their own frame. So if you're having a disagreement with someone and you're like, "But you acted in this crazy unreasonable way," it's almost never the case where they're like, "Oh, yes, you're right, I acted crazy and unreasonable." You know what I mean? From their frame — whatever their frame is — their behavior was probably not crazy and unreasonable. Okay, maybe a year later, looking back, maybe they could be like, "Oh, yeah, that was crazy." But in that frame, it's not going to be and so, to actually make progress, you're gonna have to try to get into their frame for a moment.

BLAKE: Now, that's a central principle that I teach, that there is no truth in perspective. Everything is a facet of perspective. That's why you give three academics — all respected in their field — the same exact data set, and they all have three different conclusions. Why? Well, within the construct of how they look at data, their own motivations, their own biases, their own whatever, they filter that information through that, and that's how you have all these different opinions. But in order to really navigate through life and not be affected by people, you need to understand that a lot of people's statements are just a byproduct of their perspective. Honestly, I think you're phenomenal at this. I read...Your posts are always the best, on Facebook and stuff. And sometimes I read the comments on your posts and I'm like, "That's not at all what Spencer is saying. How could you think that's what he's saying?" And they just go in this complete direction of just talking about something differently. And you're so good in your statements. I would be like, "No, idiot. That's wrong. I wasn't saying that." You've always been so good at fielding or listening to other people's perspectives and not making them wrong. I think that's a very, very, very powerful skill set, and you do it all the time online. If anybody wants to see your posts, it's obvious.

SPENCER: Well, thanks, I appreciate that. Yeah, well, [laughs] I do this thing when people write troll-ish comments, where I just try to take them at face value as literal statements of what the person believes. And I find that it's actually really effective. And sometimes it's effective because what I thought was a troll-ish statement was not. So let me give you a weird example. I do a question of the week and I posted some questions about, "What's an item in your house that's your most prized possession?" and two different people posted AK 47s. And I was like, "That's freaking crazy." I actually thought they were trolling me, but I tried to stick to my principles, like okay, assume they were never trolling, just take it literally. So I just responded, "Oh, I was surprised that you posted an AK 47. Why is this your most prized possession?" And this person writes this little mini-essay about why their gun is so important to them. I was like, "Wow, that person, they weren't actually trolling me. This is actually their prized possession. Isn't that fascinating?" A little scary to me, but fascinating. But sometimes they actually are trolling me. But I find even in those cases, just taking it literally is actually pretty powerful because it shows that they're not rattling me the way that they're trying to rattle me.

BLAKE: Totally. One of the things that I've done on my email list... I've sent millions of emails over the years. Every once in a while, somebody will respond with something that's just kind of mean, adding no logic, just mean. I don't do this anymore, but I used to look up their email and I see like, "Wow, this person has read 70 emails from me and this was their only response." And my standard response is always, "Hey, you've read all my emails, and you've never said anything. This is really out of character for you. Is everything okay?" And 100% of the time, people will apologize. "Listen, I'm so sorry, I shouldn't have said that." 100% of the time. It's just people go through stuff, and they lash out, and I'm the guy that they lashed out on. It's that simple.

SPENCER: It's funny, I respond very differently. I think that's really interesting, how you respond, but I would just take them at face value. Let's say someone wrote me a comment that's like, "This piece was terrible. You're causing harm by writing this. You should stop writing." I've had people say things like that to me. And I'll just write back, "Oh, thanks for sharing your perspective. I actually don't agree but I'm interested to hear why you think this was a bad piece. Is there something you disagree with?" etc. And then I would say 90% of the time, if they write back at all, their next response is much nicer and more polite, and often has a kernel of truth, like they point out something that was flawed about my piece, even if it's minor, there was something that bothered them about it. I appreciate your perspective but it's interesting how we approach it differently.

BLAKE: Yeah, I do some of that stuff with my work. We do a lot of work on perspective. And one of the more interesting assignments or processes I have is, I'm trying to change people's, or making a pitch to change their, social perspective, so how they perceive or understand their opinions, and social interactions of people, all that stuff. But I often find it very valuable to show people that your perspectives are formed from things that you're not even aware of. And I've done this assignment in a bunch of different ways, like taking someone who is a Democrat or a Republican. In politics, people are charged, but I love it, because it's a really interesting area. And I'll ask somebody, "Oh, one of the things that you said in your Twitter bio is that you're a Democrat." And they're like, "Yeah, and I'm a proud Democrat," and they start going into this whole narrative. And I'm like, "Okay, great. Let's go through the process. I'm just curious how you became a Democrat. Where did this come from?" And I ask questions in a non-judgmental way. "It's 2023. What do you believe the Democratic Party stands for?" All these questions, and these are hyper-rational, introspective people that I show don't have the answers to those questions. They really don't know where it was formed. And then you take them through this process and they are like, "Yeah, you know, I guess mom and dad were Democrats and that's why I'm a Democrat. I'm not really that political." So it's really interesting, but people tend to really defend it. And when you show them that, there's this almost like — it doesn't work for everybody — but for some people, it's like, "Oh, wow, I've been forming these really (quote, unquote) 'informed' opinions about things. And that's what I believe my perspective to come from. But the truth is, I don't really know how I view the world this way, or why I view the world this way." And I feel like it's particularly dangerous in the hyper-rational population because they believe that they're hyper-rational when, in reality, it's like, what does that even mean? So I've always found that so, so, so fascinating, and especially in social interactions where I do this thing, where I'm going to do this very long — this will be triggering for some people — I'm doing this two-hour exposé I'm gonna release on YouTube, about how introversion and extroversion don't really exist. It's just a social construct, and you can't really get energy from one way or another. People hold on to this introversion label, and they make introversion mean something that no clinician or no study ever said that introversion was, but because they believe in it so much. Being an introvert never meant you're bad in social interactions. No, there's Eysenck's inventories, bunch of different ways of looking at it but, because they have that belief, and because they go through life for 20 or 30 years and that's the way they perceive their behavior and their world, that's exactly what they become. They become the label that they've created for themselves. And I'm just fascinated by this and, you know me, I'm always trying to explain research. And I feel like research is taken out of context so much to make these sweeping justifications about human behavior, that the research in the discussion session clearly states don't do. [laughs] I just feel like this is a vicious cycle that we're in in 2023.

SPENCER: With regard to introversion and extroversion, it's interesting you say that. There clearly are clusters of things that people will agree to about themselves that map on introversion/extroversion. If you ask someone, "Do you speak quietly?" whether they agree with that or not will predict things like, "Do you tend to talk a lot?" which will tend to predict things like, "Do you want to spend your time in large groups of people?" etc. So there's these clusters of things that people will agree to where, if they agree to one, they're more likely to agree to the others. I assume that you believe that's true, right?

BLAKE: Yeah, 100%. That's the whole basis of factor analysis and how personality assessments are created. That's the whole notion. I believe in that as a base, but I don't believe it's as rigid as people think. I think the rigidness comes from the labels and the reinforcements of those labels over time. And then they are a version of that, because it's also a cultural thing. People say they're introverts. Do you ever hear extroverts say that? Is anybody putting extroverted on their Twitter handle? No. It's like an introversion thing, and it's meant to be this populace. And what I'm really focusing on is this whole notion that extroverts get energy from people, whatever the hell that means. And introverts have to recharge after all that. And what I really believe is a lot of people who are (quote, unquote) 'introverts,' that's not some mysticism. I've worked with a ton of people that have some sort of cognitive processing issue. They probably walked into a room and they're overstimulated by sound. So it's really hard, they have to dedicate so much energy to just focusing on what someone's actually saying. And that's what makes the interaction tiring. It's not the person; it's the underlying processing issue. And if you just say, "Oh, I'm an introvert," and you don't assess the actual underlying processing, you're gonna have such a difficult time navigating social interactions, and it's going to be harder than it needs to be. I just think there needs to be better classification systems for how we conceptualize or understand our blind spots and our problems in social interactions. And I think, too often, introversion is just used as this big label that doesn't really serve people.

SPENCER: It sounds like you also think people, once they have that label, will play into the label, maybe not consciously, but then it influences how they act.

BLAKE: Yeah, I've seen people that I call 'conditional introverts.' A conditional introvert will say stuff like this in our assessments, "I really struggle in groups, except when they're talking about a topic that I like." So I'm like, "Okay, so let's explore that further. What do you mean?" "Well, I feel like I get a lot of energy as long as the conversation is something I know about and something I like, and something that I'm interested in." And I'm like, "Okay, so if the topic goes towards something you like, you feel like you get energy, and you're more of an extrovert?" And they're like, "Definitely, but if it goes into small talk...," that means you're just a byproduct of your circumstances. That's just, you're more comfortable talking about themes and things that you know about and less comfortable in not. And just telling yourself that and reinforcing that over and over and over again, all of a sudden, you have a conversation and you start labeling people like, "Alright, this is not going to be a good conversation for me, and I'm gonna start getting tired, having that standard small talk," and so on and so forth. That's the exact reality that you create. So that's more of my approach. I think from a classification system, it still applies. It's just the misuse of the classification system which is the problem.

SPENCER: Yeah, it is really interesting how there seem to be these general trends in behavior, like some people talk more, some people talk less. But then there's also contextual alterations of those trends. There's some people who are in a situation where they feel confident, and they know a lot about the topic, so even though they don't normally talk a lot, they actually start talking a lot and so on. And I think one way to think of it is almost like higher order approximations. At the lowest level approximation, everyone's the same, all humans are the same. And then you have one level up from that, you're like, "Ah, no, people have tendencies; some people are extroverts, some are introverts." And then a level higher than that is like, "Oh, no, it's contextual." When people are feeling confident, then maybe they're more extroverted, and when they're feeling less confident, they're less extroverted, and when they're sensory overstimulated, they're more introverted, etc. And you can get these successive refinements to it.

BLAKE: That's very well said. That's kind of like my approach, is that it's just this multifaceted, constantly moving puzzle. You get the most extroverted person that feels that they're flawless in social interaction, and then you have them sleep less than six hours every night for a week, let's see how they're gonna be in a social interaction. All these things are so driven and shift so much by our individual behavior, the context that we're in, the setting that we're in, but that's my point: you don't read behavior; you read behavior within the context and construct that you're in. That's what's so valuable. Most people don't source the invisible social norms that are binding a social interaction together. And that is really what it is to read behaviors. It's reading behavior more; you're reading someone's perspective, you're understanding someone's views, you're controlling your behavior so you don't judge them in that regard. It's just so complicated. That's why I love the challenge. My moonshot goal is to build systems that allow machines to read human behavior that are at a higher level of accuracy than the standard population. And this is a long process; it's not going to be tomorrow. But step one is being able to really take all facial data and have it at a high fidelity so it mimics what we see. For example, all those out-of-the-box... MediaPipe is one that does 398 facial landmarks which is what a lot of that facial analysis stuff is built on. One of the things that they don't do is, they don't analyze; they're just fixating a mark on someone's face and then showing that movement in an XYZ space. Something I'm really interested in is people making perceptions or I read faces, I'm using wrinkles in people's faces to understand things. I'm using wrinkles to understand speed and indication of smiles. We're trying to build a system that maps all of your wrinkles on your face, and then shows the variability and movement in wrinkles to feed the algorithms or the models a greater level of data than what's out there. I'm always looking at faces trying to figure out what was social coordination, what was this, what was that. But there's just so many cool use cases, especially the early onset predictor of Alzheimer's, and there's facial cues, there's vocal cues. I had a conversation with a friend. A close friend of mine, about six weeks ago, called me and he is definitely manic. He's in a state of paranoia. I said, "Listen, man, this is not you. You don't sound like you. I'm concerned." I'm not going to get into the details but he was convinced that if he went to a hospital... He was really in paranoia. So I shifted his context and I'm like, "Yeah, I don't know what's going on with that. But I'm just afraid that this might be something that's neurological. So I think it's quite important for you to go to an ER. Make sure you go to the ER, and let me know." So he goes to the ER and they give him a ton of antipsychotics. And I talked to him two or three weeks later, after the antipsychotics kicked in and his vocal patterns completely changed. He was talking like this [monotone]. He said, "I feel like a zombie," so on and so forth. And then I demanded that he speak to another psychiatrist and make sure that they really help him navigate this. They adjust all the meds and I speak to him again a week and a half later. And the second he said just one word — he said, "Hey," on the phone — I immediately knew he was doing better. The massive shift in vocal quality, and the cadence and all that stuff, machines can predict these patterns in a way that I think can really aid people. And that's why I'm so excited about this. I know AI has been around forever, but this new revolution, dedication to machine learning, computer vision, all these cool things are gonna have a profound effect on people.


SPENCER: It is really incredible how much information we pick up on subtly that we're not even aware we're picking up on. For example, in just audio alone, I've had times where just within seconds of talking to a friend or colleague, I knew something was wrong. And I have no idea how I knew that but just in three seconds, you're like, "Are you okay?" And then they're like, "No, actually, I'm not okay." And it's like, wow, what on earth are we picking up on? And obviously, our brains are pattern recognizing from tens of thousands of examples we've seen and have learned to identify something, but there's no way we can explain what that is. And I imagine that's the kind of thing you'd want a machine to be able to do. Is that right?

BLAKE: Pretty much. It makes total sense. But it's like you're predicting your friend's behavior based on this cool sample in your brain of all the pitch changes, and it's just so cool. And from a first principles perspective, there's no reason a machine can't do that infinitely better, because it can source or have access to way more contextual data than we can, cross cultural... Think about it. You could take a sample of 1000 people with Alzheimer's and measure their facial expressions and vocal tonality every single day over the course of their entire progression. And then you can have a model that can predict maybe indications of early onset Alzheimer's. All these things are conceptually very doable. I just think when it comes to reading behavior, it's just this massive decision tree. And people who are better at predicting behavior have a more robust decision tree for why behaviors are occurring so it allows them to source the reason better. And the people that don't, have a smaller decision tree. But machines can have this massively complex tree that can allow them to solve things. And I really think that's where things are gonna go. And I hope I'm a part of that, because that's kind of what I'm doing.

SPENCER: And suppose you have that machine, what would you do with that?

BLAKE: Well, first, it's really valuable for internal assessments. It's really cool for training. Imagine if somebody who is on the spectrum and is having a difficult time wears some sort of AR XR headset and it allows them to understand facial displays and movement in a way that's contextually relevant, and not in a way where it's like, "Oh, this person is happy, or this person's sad," but like, "This person has a dialect that's from a Slavic region. Therefore, if they were born there, they are less likely to have facial displays." There's so much complexity that you can do in that area. And then also there's just so many interesting use cases. I would love my Siri to be able to batch process my behavior, and then maybe say, "Hey, Blake, you were right, you need to go for a walk," based on this massive predictive model of my facial displays and what I look like. Think about it. You're a writer; you write a lot. So I guarantee you, if we put three cameras around you and watched you writing, there'd be behavioral indications that are like triggers that your writing is going to slow down, or you're frustrated, or you need to do a walk. Once you have access to all this information, I think the possibilities are quite endless. I could give you 1000s of use cases of little ways that this could assist people in how they live their life and how they navigate their life.

SPENCER: Before we wrap up, I was thinking, how about we do a lightning round where I ask you really difficult questions, and then you only have a very short answer you can give for them.

BLAKE: Let's do it. I love it.

SPENCER: Fantastic. Alright, first question. Paul Ekman popularized this idea of micro expressions, the idea that we can read really subtle emotions on someone's face that occur very quickly if we're trained properly and from this, you can say lots of things about people, including that they were feeling a certain emotion, then tried to suppress, etc. How valid do you think micro expressions are? And can people really learn to pick up on them?

BLAKE: The short answer is, I don't really think they're that valid. And I think that, of all the things that you're going to do to improve your day-to-day life, looking for micro expressions is not one.

SPENCER: A lot of people are interested in how to behave on dates. They want to make a good impression. They want people to like them on dates and so on. What are some things that you think people tend to do wrong on dates when it comes to projecting the wrong thing? And what are some things people should be thinking about?

BLAKE: Listen, dates are this weird dynamic. It's like a game; it's trying to know your partner. I think people would be very well-served in knowing what they are actually looking for in a person. And why this is so complicated is because I'd love you to tell you to just go out and be yourself and you'll find your partner who is going to respect and love that. But there's just this gamification aspect in dating, where it's this beautiful mixture of interest and anxiety and attraction, and it's so multi-layered. I guess the best thing to do is, if you can have a video recording of you on a date, it'd be highly valuable. That was one of our first studies, first date files, 14 years ago, recording people on dates. Once you see yourself on a date, you get to see all the stuff that you do that may not align with what you are actually wanting to display to someone.

SPENCER: But you haven't noticed general patterns of the kind of things people do on dates that work against their own purposes?

BLAKE: I do think that genuinely being someone that you're not is a weird one. Because when you're genuinely someone you know you're not, the person falls for the person that you're not, and then you have to maintain that. So I remember doing that earlier on in my dating life, being a chameleon. They're talking about a show that I'm not interested in and I try to get interested in that show. And they think that I'm actually interested in that thing, and then we're watching that show six weeks later and I'm like, "I could care less about what's happening in this show," kind of thing. So there's this balance of being true to yourself as you are but still maintaining that dynamic of being attractive and being different and all those other variables.

SPENCER: It might differ from culture to culture, but in US culture, what are some things people can do to flirt or to tell if someone's flirting with them?

BLAKE: Flirtation is just two different signals. That's what flirting is. It's two different behavioral signals. For example, you say something to somebody and it's a little bit of an insult, but you smile. That's flirtatious, right? And there's all these weird facial things that you can do. But for the most part, it's an inconsistency that makes it fun. So you just have to learn how to balance those things. This is really hard at a lightning round [Spencer laughs] because all this stuff is so nuanced. There's certain people that have smiles that other men perceive as, "Oh, she likes me." And I'm like, "No, it's just how she smiles." But she has that flirtatious smile, this smile with this head tilt down, this gaze direction, and sometimes she knows exactly what she's doing and that's her mechanism for signaling. And at other times, they're like, "No, I just found him interesting. I didn't find him attractive at all. That's so interesting that you're telling me that." And then I show them a video of themselves and I'm like, "Yeah, look, society would perceive that." So we did these studies on dating. It was so fascinating because I'd show the videos to people in my classes, and I asked them, "What's going on here?" and everybody just projects their own opinions about dating on to the date, and that's how they make the deduction. So like, "There's no way she likes him," and it's because the attractive qualities or the difference in attraction is so different between the two: she is very attractive, and maybe he's not, from a societal standard. So they think that there's no way that she's interested. But she actually is interested because she finds him interesting. It's just so multifaceted.

SPENCER: Just a quick follow-up on that. You mentioned flirting as being this difference between like, "Okay, I'm sending a positive signal and I'm sending a negative signal at the same time." But it seems to me like some flirting is not like that. Some flirting might be like brushing your arm against someone, and it's like, "Oh, was that an accident or did they do it on purpose?" sort of ambiguity. Would you say that's a different type of flirting?

BLAKE: Oh, yeah, I guess you're right. Yeah, I think I was thinking more of the facial displays of flirtation, like somebody turns away but looks back and smiles at you. They're turning away, but they're smiling. So it's not like looking at you straight and smiling. It's a mixture of the two. But yeah, I mean, there's so many different ways to (quote unquote) 'flirt.' I definitely think it's different in this society, though. Our society is more complex than ever. There's a lot of rules, a lot of norms. Flirting when I was dating in my 20s is probably not what flirting looks like today, [laughs] in terms of what's accepted and not accepted, given certain groups.

SPENCER: I don't know what the proper emoji to send on Snapchat is... [laughs]

BLAKE: I would have no idea how to navigate...

SPENCER: I don't even know if people send emojis anymore. [laughs]

BLAKE: I don't know. I just had a conversation with a bunch of 20-year-olds, and they were talking about this whole thing, about asking for permission. And I was like, "Oh, this is a thing?" And they're like, "Oh, yeah, it's a thing." When I was 22 years old, if I asked somebody, "Do I have permission to kiss you?" that would probably be one of the biggest turn-offs and it would probably not work. It would just be awkward. You just go in for the kiss because it's an indication of confidence. But now if you misread that signal, it could be like, "Well, I didn't want that." It's so interesting how those things change. Look at a 1950s film and look at male and female interactions. They were absurd. They were borderline abusive; if the woman wouldn't kiss him, the guy would smack the girl across the face. It's wild. That was just 60 years ago. It's crazy how much it changes.

SPENCER: Okay, Duchenne smiles. I don't know if I'm pronouncing that right. But people claim that you can tell what's a real smile versus a fake smile. Crinkling under the eyes is a real smile; whereas, if it's just with the mouth, it's a fake smile. Is this BS?

BLAKE: I don't think it's BS. I do think it's very possible to fake a Duchenne smile. So it's finding criteria for the smile, like opening of the mouth, raising the lips, increasing the cheeks, and then the wrinkles and folds below and to the left and the right of the eyes, I can do that. Not genuine, I could just look at somebody and do that smile. I think the truth is this: smiles over time reveal a ton about people. It's just not... If I took a camera and recorded all of your interactions over the course of two weeks and mapped out your smiles, I could find when you smile and don't like someone, when you smile and do, when you smile because you want to be liked. There is definitely a ton of embedded patterns in smiles. But they're way more complex than just like, there's wrinkles and folds to the lefts and rights of someone's eyes, and there's crow feet, and that means they're genuine versus not. I think genuine smiles are more an indication of timing, of the amount. It's cool if you map, if you take two points or four points, you put on the top of your lip, on the bottom of your lip, and on the corners of your lip, and you plot those points, and you see a genuine smile, it looks a lot more chaotic. And if you look at a fake one, it looks a lot cleaner. It's interesting because you're forcing the smile versus it just naturally occurring.

SPENCER: I hope you don't take this the wrong way. I've interacted with you in person, and when I do so or watch you in a video, you don't come across as a social genius, where it's like, "Oh, yeah, that guy, I can't believe how smooth and charismatic he comes across." You don't come across badly at all. But you do seem normal. And I'm wondering how I interpret that. You clearly have spent this insane amount of time studying social behavior. Are there things you're still working on? Do you feel like you've achieved a level of expertise in your day-to-day interactions with this stuff? I'm just curious.

BLAKE: Yeah, it really depends on the context in which you see me. There's certain social dynamics where I will genuinely come alive and be the most charismatic person in the room, bar none. And there's others where I just won't. And yeah, this is a fight between me and my wife, where sometimes she's like, "Oh, well, great Blake was out tonight." And then she's like, "Well, great Blake wasn't out tonight. And why were you this? And why were you that?" And yeah, I struggle with it. I could definitely turn it on, especially public speaking. But I'm always working on myself. Every course that I teach, every program that I go through, all of that stuff, I'm always hyper focused on what are certain ways that I can improve. So I would say it should be an ongoing pursuit. But at the end of the day, I think of it this way: an objective function of a social interaction is to maximize the amount of value you receive and give, and minimize the suffering. And I think that's a really good lens for looking at it. So I look at it that way: in what social interactions am I suffering? In what social interactions do I feel more alive and I'm contributing more to a group? And I use that framework to dictate where I need to work on myself or where I need to really look at things. But I have many different faces, I would say, is the best way to describe it. [laughs]

SPENCER: Is it just very energetic to turn it on? Is that why you don't do it more often?

BLAKE: No, the truth is this: I genuinely get massive energy from people. If we go back to the definitions of introverts and extroverts, I'm a classic extrovert, by society's definition. If I walk into a room and I'm tired, and I start interacting with people, I completely change. I get energy from people; people change me for sure. Now, how much of that is self-created versus real or whatever? I definitely feel that the dynamic... And certain dynamics, I have to not force it, but I have to increase my energy and stuff for the byproduct of a speech or something like that. And other ones are more towards like, "Oh, wow, this conversation is really interesting," and I get really lit up about something that's being said. That dynamic is, I would say, less than so now. If you had a camera on me right now, I would say that most people would look at my interactions and group settings and be like, "He's pretty charismatic," depending on [sic] ten years ago. Because the truth is, that's a lot of where the business comes from. People see me talk and they go, "I want that," and that's that mimicking or that style of behavior that they want. You know what it is? Also, I'm a very straight shooter, authentic. I don't try to be something so I probably don't look like society's definition of charisma. I'm not walking through like, "Hey, how are you?" smiling and all that, but I will be myself, more so (I think) than most people. I'm very comfortable with just being me. But maybe that's not true. I don't know. That's a good question. It's hard to think about now versus... I wish I had video. [laughs] It's my answer for everything.

SPENCER: That's the answer. I wish I had a video. [laughs]

BLAKE: I wish I had video because I wish I could see video of what was going on for me that had Spencer form that view. Because I have people that tell me the exact opposite. I have people tell me that I am the most socially fluid person they've ever met in their life, practicing everything I say, and so on. So where was that from? Was that a byproduct of how you define social charisma and social interactions?

SPENCER: Yeah, it could be my own definition. Or it could be about the time I met you?

BLAKE: Yeah, so this is where it becomes really interesting. It's like an interesting puzzle of where is that? And then it's like, "Yeah, maybe I was different in that regard." Also, maybe I've always been a little like — I don't think intimidated is the word — but when you asked me to be on this podcast, I was genuinely excited because I respect your empirical approach to things. And maybe there is something about you that just wanted me to be on my best behavior or something, and that diminished my style or communication or whatever. Because the things that you call out are the things that I call out, so it's wanting to be respected by Spencer? Maybe it's that dynamic?

SPENCER: That's interesting, because... This is funny; we've abandoned the lightning round, but I'll just say, I'm not very facially expressive naturally. My face doesn't move very much. And it's something that I've worked on in my life because I am experiencing emotions internally. And saying I've had to work on it in my life is like learning to project those so that other people can see what I'm feeling because people often can't tell what I'm feeling. And it's difficult for people to not be able to tell what's going on. And the most hilarious example of this was when this super high status person — who, other people have told me they have to take anxiety meds to even hang out with them because they get so intimidated — once told me that I intimidate them and they can't tell if I like them. And I was like, "What?!"

BLAKE: You? But that's an intimidating quality. People that have a low level of facial displays, they are intimidating because you don't know where you stand in a conversation with them. You don't know what's going on. If I say something to you and you just look at me, I don't know what you're thinking, like, "Did he like that? Did he not like that? What's going on here?"

SPENCER: Exactly. So anyway, this is something in my own journey that I've been improving on over the years of just getting better at that. And I also wonder if that affects the dynamic [laughs] when I inject my lack of expressivity into the conversation. Yeah.

BLAKE: And I think it was a lot also when I was younger, just a lot more at the effect of other people. I was more chameleon than I am now. Now I feel like I'm more myself. And also, it's impossible to just talk about this stuff and work about this stuff so much and not have breakthroughs in your own life. And I'm very big on coaching; at any given time, I work with three to four coaches. And I'm always analyzing why I'm doing things the way that I'm doing them and having people look for my blind spots, and so on and so forth. But yeah, so now next time I see you, I'm gonna joke around and be super cheesy charisma, "Hey, Spencer! How are you, buddy?" [laughs] and give you a hug.

SPENCER: Let's just videotape our next interaction.

BLAKE: Yeah, well, we should definitely do that.

SPENCER: What are some things people should think about if they want to be friends with someone in terms of just the way they interact with them or what they project?

BLAKE: That's interesting. I think, first, going back to your status thing, people... I'm trying to show my hand. Imagine your hand in the sky, and you're trying to show levels. So you're putting your two hands right next to each other and that's often what creates friendships and I think a lot of the time, we play this status game where it's like, "Oh, I'm not good enough to be their friend," or "That person's too interesting to be their friend," and you don't want to be friends with someone that is acting like you are a much higher level status than you are. You want that mutual level of display. But I think the best shortcut for friendship, for most people, the quick universal is, you have the type of conversations with someone that you have with your closest friends, try to do those as quick as possible with someone new. Not immediately, but I get that a lot; people are like, "Oh, I feel like I've known you my entire life." It's because we're having conversations that you have with people that you've known your entire life. So it's mimicking that pattern, and that's why you feel closer to me, and I'm not judging you and I'm carefree, and so on and so forth. I think that's a really good approach to friendship.

SPENCER: With regard to social status, we touched on this earlier. People claim things like, if you keep your head really still, that's higher social status, or if you tilt your head down, that's higher social status, etc. Are there certain things you've found that actually tend to be indicators of social status that are like that, where they're subtle cues that people give?

BLAKE: For me, the ultimate social status is, when you're around certain people that just don't care, I find that to be the highest levels, I see that a mile away. When someone is trying to play some sort of status game with me, it immediately does not work. I just laugh at it, like, "Okay, that's cute that you feel the need to do that kind of thing." There's certain people that just don't care; they just are themselves, and it doesn't matter what the room is. I think it's an incredibly admirable quality in a world and in a society where so many people do overtly care like, "What did I say? How was I acting?" It just gives them this level of freeness to be a certain way that I think some people have a difficult time with. It's relative, but for me, if you're in a room with a bunch of people that want to make money, and are really interested in going from making $60,000 a year to making a million dollars a year, the person that says that they're worth ten million, and they came from that path, is obviously gonna have a ton of status. But if you're in a room with a bunch of people that are worth 300 or 400 million, money doesn't work, that's not the status thing. My status thing has always been, I'm different and interesting. In New York City, that would be the game you'd be optimizing for. In 15 seconds, show me that you're interesting and different. So it's like, "His name's Blake. He's been in The Nonverbal Group, likes high stakes poker players, is a college professor, does research in nonverbal behavior, reading people," blah, blah, blah, like, "Oh, wow, that's cool. I've never heard of that before." And that gave me my status. For some people, status doesn't come from that. It might come from access to other people and that's how they display it. They mention other people or they name drop or so on and so forth. But for me, it's such a high status indicator when people seem like they genuinely don't care. This person is in a room full of really important people and does not give a shit. I think that's so cool.

SPENCER: Final question for you. I'm wondering if this journey of yours started because of your own personal experiences. Was there something about your own life that got you obsessed with this topic?

BLAKE: Oh, hell yeah. I was socially anxious for so many years. I think I had only one panic attack in my life. I was like 11 or ten. I was always sweating in social interactions, and always ruminating. Ugh! It was just so hard in my earlier years. I don't even recognize this person I am today. I did this hypnosis exercise where I went back and it was the first time I really cried with a coach. I had to go to my ten-year-old self and give him advice. And I was like, "Listen, everything's gonna turn out okay, and you're gonna find a way and this is gonna get easier." But yeah, all of this stuff came from anxiety. That's why I was hypersensitive to facial reactions in people because I always felt that, if I paid careful attention to people, it would be a way of calming me down. So still, to this day, when I walk down the street, if I'm walking and having a conversation with someone, I pretty much process everybody, everybody in my surroundings. I'm looking at their facial displays. I don't even think about it. It's just this passive type of thing. But a lot of anxiety, a lot of wanting to belong, not be rejected, all that stuff. Anybody that dedicates enough energy to something like this, it's coming from something like that. It's always a story. It's not like, "Oh, no, I'm just interested in people, and that's what it is." Nope, I'm interested in people now but in the beginning, I was terrified by them. And that's what allowed me to develop and go much deeper. But my big coming out party was when I started teaching at CUNY. When I started teaching psychology there, that was my first moment where I felt like, "Wow, this is intoxicating. Public speaking, I love it so much." And I would play these games where I'd make sure the students are at the edge of their seats and get really interesting and dynamic. So when I was 21, that was a big shift for me. And now I'm 38 and you just look back at those moments. But yeah, definitely came from that social anxiety.

SPENCER: Blake, thanks so much for coming on.

BLAKE: No, thanks for having me. Really good questions. I love them.





Click here to return to the list of all episodes.


Sign up to receive one helpful idea and one brand-new podcast episode each week!

Contact Us

We'd love to hear from you! To give us your feedback on the podcast, or to tell us about how the ideas from the podcast have impacted you, send us an email at:

Or connect with us on social media: