This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "The Laws Of Human Nature" by Robert Greene. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.
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Are you hiding your true self? Do all people hide their true selves, and why is this our natural instinct?
Hiding your true self is something many people do in one way or another. As people, we wear masks to fit in and to protect our emotions and inner lives.
Keep reading to find out why you’re hiding your true self, and what you can do when you suspect other people are wearing masks.
Hiding Your True Self: Nonverbal and Verbal Communication
In Part 1, we learned to develop empathy, manage toxic types, control our own nature, and make people like us. In Part 2, we’ll look at how to continue developing these skills when faced with people who hide their true selves.
Humans communicate both verbally and nonverbally, but we tend to focus on words, which often don’t accurately (intentionally or not) represent our emotions. In fact, 65% of our communication is nonverbal, and body language usually more accurately communicates what we’re feeling than words. Most of us, however, only manage to read about 5% of nonverbal communication cues.
In this introduction, we’ll learn how to read nonverbal cues to find out what people are really thinking and feeling, even if they’re trying to hide it. Then, in subsequent laws, we’ll look at some of the things they might be hiding and how you may be hiding your true self.
People Wear Masks
Now that we understand how to observe and interpret nonverbal cues, it’s time to look at some of the traits and feelings almost everyone hides, and how you go about hiding your true self.
No one acts true to themselves all the time. Starting from birth, we learn how to use our faces and bodies to get our parents to give us things, and we continue to act throughout our lives to fit into society. Acting completely honestly would result in social ruin—we would offend people and open ourselves up to so much judgment and insecurity it would affect our mental health.
We hide our negative feelings—such as superiority or insecurity—with words and sometimes mixed signals. A lot of the time we don’t even know we’re acting, and this conviction is part of what makes the mask believable.
However, no matter how good we are at hiding our feelings and masking, our real feelings are underneath somewhere, and they’re impossible to fully suppress, especially when we’re stressed, tired, angry, frustrated, or drunk. Accurate nonverbal cues leak out, often in microexpressions or in the tone of voice—people can look in mirrors to train their faces, but the voice is harder to change. Learn to spot these leaks and you’ll be able to uncover people’s real natures, as well as better mask your own.
Many people dislike the idea of acting or mask-wearing because it feels dishonest, but there are four reasons to study it and why you’re hiding your true self:
- Mask-wearing is impossible to avoid. Everyone acts, often subconsciously, so there’s no point getting upset about this because you can’t change it. If you don’t think you wear masks, think about how you interact with different people. You almost certainly behave differently with your boss than with your best friend.
- Mask-wearing can help you get ahead because it shows you in a positive light.
- If you don’t learn about mask-wearing, you’re vulnerable to being fooled by others.
- Those who choose not to mask are pushed to the fringes of society.
- Learning to see through masks will help you predict people. When someone does something hostile, there are always signs beforehand because strong emotions are impossible to entirely hide.
In this law, we’ll learn to make people like us, manage toxic types, and control our own nature.
Make People Like You: Impression Management
You can make people like you by wearing an appealing mask, which is also called impression management. Impression management is especially important in professional situations because people associate certain behaviors with certain professions, and if their expectations are contradicted, they suspect a lack of competence. For example, if your doctor started acting like a rock musician, you might worry about her ability to diagnose illness. Even people who seem rebellious are subject to this suspicion—if a hipster suddenly wore a suit, others would question her authenticity as a hipster. This is how hiding your true self can be an advantage. You have the ability to change someone’s impression of you.
Once you’ve proven your identity and competence, you can start to show more of your true self and quirks, but you can never completely take the mask off. To continue succeeding socially, you have to continue to meet others’ expectations.
To create your mask:
1. Demonstrate universally positive traits. There are some traits that everyone sees as positive, and a good one to demonstrate is saintliness, which you can do by supporting causes, or by appearing humble by lowering your head or publicly sharing vulnerabilities.
- For example, Emperor Augustus gave away power to the people and the Senate, lived in a simple home, and embodied Roman values. (In reality, however, Augustus was playing a part. In his private life, he lived in a villa outside of Rome, had mistresses, and retained control of the military.)
2. Cultivate first impressions. People have a hard time changing their initial judgments, so make sure you appear positive the first time they encounter you. Aim to be neutral and don’t use a lot of nonverbal cues. Making eye contact and smiling are enough. If you’re too excited, people might think you’re insecure.
3. Cater to your audience. You need to keep your mask on no matter who you’re addressing, but there’s some wiggle room.
- For example, Bill Clinton consistently demonstrated confidence and power because these were qualities people expected in a president, but he slightly changed his demeanor depending on whom he was talking to. He spoke differently to workers than he did to executives.
4. Use appropriate nonverbal cues. Be aware of your normal nonverbal communication and tweak it to match whatever role you need to play.
- For example, in a job interview, hide cues that indicate nervousness and display cues that demonstrate confidence, such as a tall posture.
5. Learn method acting, in which you show emotion on command. When you need to show an emotion, remember a time you genuinely felt it. This will make you feel the appropriate emotion enough to show cues. Or, arrange your face into a smile or frown, which will make you feel the emotion that prompts these expressions. Also, teach yourself to stop feeling emotion and showing cues.
6. If you’re seeking power, control how often people encounter you and how well they get to know you. When people see you a lot or you’re predictable, they get bored. Purposefully be absent, withhold information, or show slightly contradictory qualities to create mystery. (For more on these techniques, see Law #15: People Want What They Don’t Have.)
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Here's what you'll find in our full The Laws Of Human Nature summary:
- Why it's in your nature to self-sabotage
- How you behave differently when you're in a group
- Why you're wired to want the wrong things in life