This is an excerpt from my latest book Dear Hannah: A Geek’s Life in Self-Improvement.

How Studying Body Language Changed the Way I Socialize

Date: January 23, 2009
Age: 26
Location: Austin, TX
Subject: Empathy and Body Language

Hi Hannah,

If there’s one thing I miss from working at a video game company, it’s the commiseration with programmers who were struggling with the same life issues as me. This one time, someone sent around an Asperger’s Syndrome quiz, and we all had a laugh comparing how high our scores were. As you can imagine, being around a bunch of Asperger-like people can be grating. If you listened for a second to our day-to-day conversations, you would be astonished at how many pedantic arguments we had, all along the lines of Star Wars vs. Star Trek or zombies vs. pirates. It would sound like we were fighting, but really we were just tone-deaf.

There was a manager, though, who wasn’t quite like the rest of us. While Igor looked the part of a programmer (tall, larger man with glasses and small-eyes), his process was very different, as if his Asperger-like edges had been smoothed out. He was very nice, and easy to work with, and out of nowhere he responded to a post I wrote about empathy and body language. He told me that he went through the same exact transformation as I had described. He told me he wasn’t always nice and easy to work with. When he was growing up, he was absorbed in computers and very anti-social.

Igor used to rub people the wrong way, giving robotic/functional responses. For example, if someone came up to him and said, “Oh man, I’m tired,” he would respond, “Why don’t you sleep more?” If someone said, “I like this band,” he would say, “They’re okay.” In his mind, he was just being accurate and honest, but in actuality he put people off and had very few friends. And so, one day, he decided to make a conscious effort to read people’s body language, to establish a context by which to base his social interactions. And now that he’s mentioned it, I recall moments when his eyes had widened intently when he had talked to me. I now realize that the whole time that I was working with him, he was very deliberately scanning me for tone, feeling, and overall demeanor.

I nearly teared up when I read his e-mail. I can see that he is living a life that is the product of his own personal struggle. He’s now a successful manager, married, and is probably going to be a dad soon. It’s like Igor went through a second puberty, initiated by himself, to allow him to fit in and thrive in society.

I’ve been undergoing a similar transformation for the past nine months or so. I picked up a book called The Definitive Book of Body Language, and I’ve made a little rule for myself: “Empathy should precede all social interactions.” Whenever I start talking to someone, or if the conversation is going toward something more serious, I look deeply into their eyes, and I try to mirror and hold their emotional state in my heart.

The results have been fascinating. I end up in fewer arguments, and I have much less post-social anxiety. It’s like I know the reaction my words are going to have before I make them. I feel like Neo at the end of The Matrix now. I was waiting for a flight at the airport the other day, and it was like I could see an emotional label hovering over everybody. “This person’s uneasy. This one’s stressed out. This other one, he’s uncertain. That couple over there, they’re happy.”

I’m still stunned that this method has lasted as long as it has. Nearly every other social mantra I’ve tried has lasted for only a few days. This one’s lasted for at least six months. I think I’m finally getting to the core of what Carnegie was talking about.

- Phil

The general gist of this method lasted for at least a couple more months, and I still retain some of the habits today. When I notice a conversation veering into an unpleasant territory, I perk up, do the empathy thing, and I naturally bring it back to something more pleasant.

This is an excerpt from my latest book Dear Hannah: A Geek’s Life in Self-Improvement.

For Philip’s 14th birthday, Hannah gave him Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People, which kicked off a life-long obsession with self-improvement. Over 16 years, Philip wrote 82 letters to Hannah describing every book, pop psych article, and method that he used — or abused. Dear Hannah is either a cautionary tale about self-improvement, or it is a filter for the 10% of self-help that may actually change your life.

PHILIP DHINGRA is a President’s Scholar from Stanford University, where he received his B.A. in Mathematical and Computational Sciences. In addition to authoring books on life change, he develops best-selling iOS apps including Nebulous Notes and The Creative Whack Pack (a collaboration with creativity pioneer Roger von Oech). Philip divides his time between Austin, Texas, and San Francisco, California.