You can tell a lot about a person by …

You can tell a lot about a person by …

The fireflies are out. I’m fortunate, I think, to live in a region of the country that lives with fireflies (or lightning bugs, depending on where you live) all summer long. We didn’t realize we’d been waiting for them, but we all laughed and gasped when we spotted the first ones in the backyard last week.

Since 6 or 7 years ago, those fireflies immediately make me think of a dear friend, and her husband. She brought him to town on a meet-the-parents-and-old-friends tour right before they got engaged. The day Will and I met him for the first time, we were all saying our goodnights in the front yard as the sun went down, and the fireflies came out. My friend is from firefly country, but her boyfriend is not, and I’ll never forget his incredulity and delight when he first glimpsed the sparkling lights in the evening air.

When we shut the door behind them that night, Will said, You can tell a lot about a person by the way they react when they see fireflies for the first time.

About ten years ago we were fortunate to have a family therapist come to our house every week or two to talk over one of our kids’ treatment plan for motor delays. (Best thing ever.) When our therapist came in and sat down on the couch every week, our normally rambunctious lab would curl up at his feet.

Our therapist assumed our dog did that for everyone, but Will set him straight one day, and explained that Harriet was a great reader of personalities: she only napped near the introverts. Boisterous personalities riled her up. (Our therapist, who knew I was obsessed with personality typing, quipped, So Anne reads the people, and Will reads the dog? Well, yes.)

You can tell a lot about a person by the way our dog reacts to them.

We were standing on the corner in NYC, waiting to cross, when a twenty-something man came up next to me, talking loudly on his phone. He was grinning as he spoke, telling his listener his plans for the day, clearly winding up the conversation. He hung up just as our light turned green. His last words: I love you too, Mom. 

You can tell a lot about a person by the look on their face when they’re on the phone with their mom. 

Some people collect Jane Austen quotes, or truisms, or zen koans. (Okay, I might do all of those things.) I love to hear the way people finish this sentence: you can tell a lot about a person by the way they ….

Some of my friends have strong opinions about what you can learn about a person by the way they react when they’re cut off in traffic, or the store clerk gives them too much change, or whether or not they return their shopping cart to the corral.

I love collecting answers to this question: you can learn a lot about a person by the way they react to everyday things. (Although I try to observe with a grain of salt: sometimes what you learn about a person is that they really need a nap, or a snack.)

Foolproof? Not even close. But fascinating all the same? I think so.

How would you finish this sentence: You can tell a lot about a person by ….

P.S. I wrote a book about personality coming out September 19, 2017: Reading People: How Seeing the World through the Lens of Personality Changes EverythingClick here to pre-order.

Catskill Fireflies 2012 by s58y is licensed under CC by NC-2.0.

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  1. Carrie says:

    … by the way they treat waiters, baristas, cashiers. It so grosses me out when I’m with someone and they don’t acknowledge the person’s humanity by greeting them, but rather treat them like they’re an ATM machine.

    • Amy says:

      I was just coming here to say the same thing! How someone treats people they don’t *have* to be nice or respectful to is a good indication of what they’re like!

    • Wendy says:

      I worked my fair share of retail jobs in my youth, so I know to be polite to people in these positions, but a friend recently called me out for how I responded when a barista asked how I was. I said, “Fine, thanks,” and then proceeded with my order. She pointed out that I didn’t ask the person how THEY were. Made me think. I will say that I am an introvert, and my friend is an extrovert, so we would probably have different reactions if we were the person behind the counter. Still, I have tried to be more aware.

      Oh, and you can tell a lot about a person by whether their first response to a problem is to place blame or to work on a solution. I pretty much fell for my husband when he mopped up a spill in a restaurant that a stranger had left behind.

    • Amanda says:

      You stole my answer 😉

      My boss’ mom, who was a teacher, told him, “Always be nice to secretaries and janitors. They are the gatekeepers, in more ways than one.” As one who has previously been a waitress and is now a secretary, I’d say that is solid advice. It’s remarkable the number of people who are flat-out rude to me because I’m “just a secretary.” I firmly believe there is a special place in hell reserved for these people.

  2. Beth says:

    Funny, I came to say the same thing too! You really can tell a lot by how someone tests the staff in a restaurant.

  3. You can tell a lot about a person by the pictures on their wall.

    (“You can tell a lot about a person by the look on their face when they’re on the phone with their mom.” Ouch. My husband has called me out on this one before).

  4. Oh! I love people-watching, so I loved this post. It is so crazy what you can learn about a person or group of people by watching how they act around others, how easily frustrated they get, etc.

  5. s says:

    By how they treat their elderly parents…my husband’s dedication to his aging parents, even when they are beyond difficult or the activity is frustrating or beyond his comfort zone, gives me assurance that he will have my back in the long run, no matter what.

  6. What a great post. These are all great examples. I love the firefly example – I would feel a kinship to anyone who can show child-like wonder at nature. Also as mentioned already you *can* tell a LOT about someone by the books they read. For me it is whether or not they have read at least one Harry Potter book. They didn’t have to necessarily like it, but were at least interested enough to pick it up. If they did I know I have at least something to work with, lol. If they haven’t I wonder if they just take themselves too seriously and have none of that “child-like wonder” in them. I’m talking about adults over the age of 35 or 40, by the way.

  7. Kelly says:

    One of my education professors always told us to watch how we spoke to the receptionist and the custodian. She said that when she was a principal and was interviewing potential teachers she always asked the receptionist how the person treated her. My husband says you can tell a lot about a man by how he responds to a bad day at the golf course.

    • Kate P. says:

      My parents are both educators and taught me the exact same thing about secretaries and custodians! I find it sad when other parents at my children’s schools refer to the “difficult” secretary or custodian, because they are always kind and helpful to me. Why? Because I go out of my way to be kind and helpful to them, and cut them some slack when they’re clearly having a bad day.

  8. Katia says:

    I’m a people-watcher, and I tend to stare at people while casually observing them, creating stories about them in my mind. I can tell a lot about a person by the way they treat animals and children.

  9. Nuri says:

    My grandmother was born and raised in Paris and in a lot of ways she embodied the French woman mystic. She used to tell me truism when I was a child (often with her sitting at her vanity and I staring up in awe of her) and she had an amazing ability to read people. She always told me you can tell the true nature of a person by how they treat their enemies, people that annoy them, and people who can do nothing for them. She could also tell if a person had good self-esteem by looking at their underwear and pajama draws. Presumably people with self-esteem will take care of garments that no one else will see because they will feel worthy in their own right to not have ratty panties or stained pjs. Woe be to anyone that brought a torn-up pair of pj pants to Meme’s house. “What is this?! Are you depressed, don’t you respect yourself? Well why are you dressed like a homeless person on his day off!?! If you do not think you are worthy of quality why should anyone else to think so.”

    • Anne says:

      “She always told me you can tell the true nature of a person by how they treat their enemies, people that annoy them, and people who can do nothing for them. She could also tell if a person had good self-esteem by looking at their underwear and pajama drawers.”

      Interesting thoughts from your grandmother. I just finished reading Lessons from Madame Chic, and she would agree on the pjs and undies. 🙂

  10. Gwyn says:

    You can tell a lot about a person by the way the drive and you are a passenger in the car. Are they polite drivers, let people in, get angry quick….

  11. Ana says:

    I moved to firefly country from non-firefly country and it never ceases to delight me when I see them again each June.

    To finish your sentence: …by whether they thank the bus driver. …by whether they give their seat to someone in need (I ride the bus a lot and people watch the whole time) …by the way they treat waiters or support staff (As a medical provider, I have some patients that are RUDE beyond belief to my support staff, yet nice as can be to me. Oh they tell me about it, you can’t keep that secret) …by the way my dog reacts to them (though I think she picks up sometimes on my own discomfort around certain people, so its more an indication of my true feelings about someone!).

    The “talk to your mother” example made me wince. I’m definitely not as patient or forgiving as I could be and I know it shows on my face.

  12. Aubrey says:

    Before smartphones, I used to think that you could tell a lot about a person by the way they sat in a waiting room. It’s a little different now that most people are staring at their phones, and we’ve forgotten how to be bored.

  13. Nadine says:

    I’ve got two that came to mind:
    … by the way they decorate their home.

    … by the way they talk to small children.

    I think about the children one a lot, in my field working with kids. The way I describe it is there are people that stay standing and there are people that hop down to eye level. There are people who look around and wink at the other adults and people who keep eye contact with the kid and listen to their stories.

  14. Dana says:

    You can tell a lot about a person by the way they treat the elderly and children. You can tell a lot about a person if they look up and notice sunsets, rainbows, heat lightning and a sky full of stars ( and fireflies!) I agree with a previous post that a sense of wonder vs. a too-busy to look up attitude tells a lot. You can tell a lot about a person by how they react to waiting in a long line at the grocery store ( or Target…). You can tell a lot about a person by how they treat the cashiers in stores, the bag boys and wait staff and busboys. You can tell a lot about a person by how they treat not-well known writers at book signings ( those folks who sit a a lonely tables full of books looking hopeful).

  15. Kelty says:

    This is so great. Yes, you can tell a lot about a person by the way they respond to unexpected changes/interruption.

  16. susanna says:

    Great post and comments. I am inspired to be more mindful regarding my actions, even very small, obligatory ones. May my every action reflect my best self.

  17. Jeannie says:

    As a parent of 2 kids with special needs, I can tell a lot about a person by the way adults respond to them. My son (12) gets VERY excited about certain things he sees when we are out walking, such as recycling boxes, laundry on the line, even birds in the sky. He’s also very social and quickly looks around for someone to share his excitement with. Some adults just stare blankly or ignore him, but some respond in kind, saying “Wow, that’s neat!” or “So you like garbage day, do you?” I’m not saying the blank starers are bad people — just that I have a real soft spot in my heart for people who respond kindly to special-needs kids and adults.

  18. joanna says:

    This is really interesting . Its funny it shows how judgmental we can be without realizing it. I dont mean this as a criticism at all just interesting viewpoint. Some of the ones listed are pretty spot on.

  19. Laura Watts says:

    I can’t get past the firefly pic. We had ONE in our yard last night and I was yelling at the kids, “Come see the lightning bug!” I saw them more often as a child, but still only a handful at a time. What can you tell about me from my firefly envy?

  20. Sheri Dacon says:

    I love this post! It really has me thinking. . . both about my snap judgments of others and about how others might perceive me! I think a big one for me is you can tell a lot about a person by how they react to strangers. . . you know, do they smile, ignore, etc.

  21. …what their comfort food is

    …their favorite books

    …their quirky habits

    …who their friends are (and how they treat them)

    LOVE thinking about this and seeing what people say! I especially like that one of your stipulations to learn a lot about someone was by observing “how they react when they see fireflies for the first time” – so good.

  22. Mary says:

    Ditto on the way people react to those with special needs. My brother has multiple disabilities and when I was dating, watching the way guys treated my brother was always a litmus test for whether they were worth going out with again 🙂

  23. Jill says:

    …by how they listen to others.

    …by their reactions when meeting someone of a different faith background.

    …by how they speak of others who are not present.

    …by how they choose to relax.

    …by the way in which they disagree with others.

    There are endless ways to get small insights into someone’s moments isn’t there?

  24. Katie says:

    …by the way they respond to silence. Do they withdraw or feel comfortable with it or feel compelled to fill it? Do they start to talk about themselves (surface or deep? personal or philosophical?) or ask questions…do they listen to the answers? Silence can be a surprisingly powerful way to connect and learn about someone!

  25. Vanessa says:

    It’s interesting because the two people in my life who have loved me for the longest (my mom and my husband) are NOT animal people whereas I most certainly am. If I said “you can tell a lot about a person by the way they react to dogs,” I would have to make an exception to those two persons. And then it wouldn’t mean much. Years ago when my husband and I had been on the outs for a long time he reached down and pet our dog. I think it was the first time ever intentionally pet her and it seemed more like he was saying “please,” rather than petting our dog.

  26. Sarah says:

    “Surely what a man does when he is taken off his guard is the best evidence for what sort of man he is.” C. S. Lewis

  27. Julie says:

    … how they talk about other people. Not “whether” they talk about others — because everyone does — but “how.” Do they talk in a critical, gossipy way or in a compassionate way that says, “I find people to be fascinating and wonderful?”

    • Anne says:

      “in a compassionate way that says, “I find people to be fascinating and wonderful?” ”

      Just had to say how much I liked the way you described this. 🙂

  28. Lauren says:

    You can tell a lot about a person by the way they behave when nobody is watching. My mother told me this when I was little and it really stuck with me. I recently reminded her of it and she had a good laugh! It made me behave even when I could have gotten away with something because I wanted to rise above it. I like to think that the practice I got at behaving all those years helped me to become a better person by always considering the consequences of my actions.

  29. Ciera S says:

    Great examples! While some of these things could simply be catching people on a “bad” day, I do think there’s often a kernel of truth to them.

    I’ve always loved the example, “by how you treat those who can do nothing for you”. A less heavy example: by when they stand up (people entering rooms, national anthem, etc.)

  30. Deborah says:

    By where they grew up. So many of our behaviors come from the worldviews we grew up with. I’ve lived in France, Guinea, China, and Saudi Arabia, and so much of what I’ve seen on the surface (table manners, politeness to wait staff, behavior toward children, treatment of wives, etc.) comes from the worldview of someone’s culture.

  31. Karisa says:

    Sometimes you can tell a lot about someone by whether they like animals or not, for example, they may or may not like animals.
    But in all seriousness, I think I often judge those who judge others too quickly without consideration of why they are acting the way they are. Which I guess defeats the point of this prompt….
    I guess you can tell a lot, but how you use that information is as important as how they react to the situation. If that makes any sense.

  32. Kristina M. says:

    You can tell a lot about a person by…
    -how they put together IKEA furniture
    -how they act in hot weather
    -how they listen to children

  33. Vikki Murray says:

    …by how much they worry over things out of their control, if they let that worry steal their joy, or if they’re willing to trust God to work things out.

    • SaraK says:

      I am a worrier. God or not there is not one single thing I can do about it. I happen to have an anxiety disorder, and nothing is worse than being told to let it go. I’d hate to think someone would write me off for a chemical imbalance I can’t control. Try to see things from others point of view, you might miss out on some pretty wonderful people other wise.

  34. SaraK says:

    … by the inside of their car. I’ll never forget my mom telling me when I was a kid that she liked people with cluttered cars, (not filthy!) because it meant they didn’t litter….

  35. KIM says:

    … by the way the act when they’re out of town. We live in a very touristy place and have one particular out of town guest who is not ordinarily rude, but is mean and belittle people to the point that we go FAR away from our home to shop or dine. They don’t seem to understand that WE know these people (maybe just by dight, but we see them all the time). Our children have even commented about how embarrassing it is.

  36. Julie says:

    I think I agree with all those comments. I live in New Zealand and we don’t get fireflies, so I think I would be like a big kid if I saw them. A very interesting read – thank you.

  37. Eileen slater says:

    You can tell a lot about a person by how they treat someone in need of help. Many people say, let me know if you need anything, and others just pitch in and do something.

  38. Audrey says:

    You can tell a lot about a person by how they treat a cat… My grandmother always told us to never trust someone who is mean to cat… I’ve also added onto it and am leary of people who say they hate cats…

  39. Ashely says:

    I went out with a guy one time & never again. I said I needed to go as soon as dinner was over. He was a nice guy & it wasn’t a bad date. But, you can tell a lot about a person by the way they treat the waitress (and tip…or don’t tip.) He talked to her like she was a servant & I was immediately turned off.

  40. Erica Layne says:

    I love this, Anne. Each of the stories you shared illustrated it beautifully. I think I would get along well with your dog. 🙂 And I’ve never seen fireflies. I plan to be captivated when I finally do. <3

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