12 surprising traits of people who are hard to read, according to psychology

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If you’ve ever watched a high-stakes poker game then you know how important body language and secrecy is for victory. 

The best poker players are able to remain very difficult to read:

Sometimes they smile and joke. Sometimes they look serious. Sometimes they send many mixed signals or act in a way they haven’t before to throw other people off. 

These masters display many of the classic signs of people who are very difficult to read. 

As psychology explains, there are many key aspects of people who are hard to read. Here’s a look at these key traits and behaviors of hard-to-read people as well as some tips on decoding their behavior. 

1) Social camouflage 

Hard-to-read folks are skilled at adapting their behavior to different social situations and environments. 

Like a bird whose plumage changes over many generations due to evolutionary adaptation, this individual changes their feathers depending on the scenario. 

But it doesn’t take them generations. They can switch personas, sartorial styles, manners of speaking and affected expressions and mannerisms in a matter of seconds. 

This makes them excellent actors, spies and public speakers. It also makes them very difficult to read. 

As psychologist Alejandra Neely-Prado explains

“Social adaptation has been defined as the capacity to confront, relate, compromise, and cooperate with the environment and others, accommodating thoughts and behaviors in this process.”

2) Neutral body language

When they desire to do so, these people can maintain highly neutral body language. 

This is no simple feat, considering that most of us display an enormous amount about our emotional and psychological state through our body language. 

Not so this individual: 

They have mastered the art of neutral or ambiguous body language, making it difficult for others to interpret their intentions or emotions.

Are they happy? Sad? Anxious? Indifferent? It’s hard to really say. 

This ties into the next point as well: 

3) Prevention of nonverbal leakage

The hard-to-read person has mastered their control of nonverbal leakage. 

They are very much aware that body language tells a much clearer story than any verbal cues. And they have mastered the art of controlling nonverbal cues that could give away their true thoughts or emotions.

They rarely display microexpressions, for example, which many of us read on a subconscious level to detect how somebody feels about us or feels in general. 

As American psychologist and microexpression pioneer Paul Ekman explains

“Micro expressions are facial expressions that occur within a fraction of a second. This involuntary emotional leakage exposes a person’s true emotions.”

This relates to their overall ability to keep a calm expression and demeanor. Which leads me to the next point: 

4) Facial expression control 

The hard-to-read person is able to maintain what’s popularly known as a “poker face” when they choose to do so. 

They can hear a hilarious joke and not have any change in expression, or be insulted grievously by a very annoying person and have no change in their facial expression. 

This is known as expressive suppression. And they are masters at it. 

As Marie-Anne Vanderhasselt, Simone Kühn and Rudi De Raedt explain in their study for the Journal of Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience: 

“This phenomenon is called expressive suppression (i.e. suppression) and refers to a so-called ‘poker face’. It is a behavioral strategy to regulate emotional responses after they have arisen.”

They are also able to control their body language so it doesn’t react much to what’s going on. 

This ties into the next point: 

5) Minimalist speaking style

They tend to speak in a reserved manner, using as few words as possible and often making statements that are quite vague. 

They leave you guessing about what they mean and choose to speak in as minimalist a style as possible. 

This conversational minimalism can be relaxing and refreshing in a world so full of words, but it also means this person is quite hard to get a handle on. 

“Words are gifts but also weapons. Using them can do harm and limit the possibilities. Nothing said can be unsaid, and to remain a complete person, it might be better to keep most words for ourselves,” notes psychology writer and author Tim Leberecht. 

6) Ability to emit verbal and nonverbal chaff

In the air force, “Chaff is a radiofrequency countermeasure released by military aircraft, ships, and vehicles to confuse enemy radar.”

In verbal terms, a hard-to-read person does something similar when they are pressured into talking or in a talkative scenario. 

If their conversational minimalism or a neutral demeanor isn’t a fit for the situation, they will put out a lot of verbal (and nonverbal) chaff. 

This means they may employ many tactics, including making off-color jokes that don’t seem to fit their personality, saying odd or confusing things, stating an interest in something unexpected and so forth. 

The result? Those around them end up even more unsure of how to separate fact from fiction! 

7) Skill at deflecting personal questions and topics

This ties into the previous point about sending out chaff:

When personal questions and topics come up and can’t be avoided, this individual is incredibly skilled at shutting it down. 

They make a cryptic comment or joke and then refuse to say more…

Or they give an answer that could actually mean various things and then refuse to elaborate. 

The result is that the more people try to find out about their personal life or emotions the less they end up actually understanding. 

8) Calm under pressure or stress

When the situation is stressful, confusing or full of pressure, this person somehow keeps being calm

They almost never express full-on panic or alarm. 

Even in an emergency they are firm but not hectic, dealing with what comes up as best they can in a calm and effective manner. 

This makes them hard to read, because they could be dealing with a huge trauma or nothing at all and their behavior would remain quite similar in either case. 

But it also makes them a sought-after and reassuring anchor during times of trouble. 

As psychology writer Alexandra Blogier notes:

“Even in tense situations, they project a soothing aura that everything will ultimately be okay.”

9) Caution in opening up to people 

The hard-to-read individual tends to be quite circumspect in opening up to people

He or she doesn’t talk much about their personal life or about what they really think on a subject. 

They are very slow to get to know somebody new, and even old friends or romantic partners have to work hard to get them to really bare their soul at all. 

They often remain something of a mystery, even to those who know them well. 

This ties directly into the next point: 

10) Selective vulnerability and emotional sharing

They are selective about when and with whom they show vulnerability

While they may choose to share a difficult or wonderful experience they are going through with somebody else, they do so voluntarily. 

Unlike those of us who may feel like we need somebody to talk to about a problem or who have a strong desire to share a celebratory moment with others, they have no such compulsion. 

They are fully willing and satisfied to keep their life to themselves, including its difficult aspects. 

If they choose to be vulnerable, it’s exactly that: a choice. 

11) Strategic and limited information disclosure

They carefully control the information they share with others in general. 

They are hard to read or get a fix on because there simply isn’t all that much known about them. 

The hard-to-read individual prefers it that way. 

With rare exceptions, they operate on a need-to-know basis:

If somebody doesn’t need to know something, they don’t share it. If information is required, or they have some advantage in sharing it, then they will consider doing so. 

12) Difficulty in being pinned down in any ideological, philosophical or spiritual category

All of us are designed by evolution and human nature to socially categorize each other. For starters, rapidly sorting people into “types” on a subconscious level can be crucial to our survival in spotting danger. 

As Dr. Rajiv Jhangiani and Dr. Hammond Tarry note in the textbook Principles of Social Psychology:

“Social categorization is occurring all around us all the time. Indeed, social categorization occurs so quickly that people may have difficulty not thinking about others in terms of their group memberships.” 

But the hard-to-read individual is a different matter:

He or she doesn’t really fit into any type. Our first judgments and subconscious snapshot of them (“retiree,” “academic,” “conservative,” “alternative,” “sporty,” “artistic” and so on) are often proven entirely wrong or very insufficient. 

They aren’t able to be pinned down in any real category, which is part of what makes them so hard to read and understand in a way that makes sense with our previous ideas about the world and society. 

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