How Your Stuff Reveals Your True Self

Last Updated Jun 13, 2008 2:09 PM EDT

It's all too easy to give things away. While talking to executive coach and author Marshall Goldsmith I begin at least four sentences with 'but' -- which means I'm discounting what has just been said and revealing a streak of impatience, he says.

It's one of those inadvertent personality 'tells', like body language (93 per cent of the messages you send have nothing to do with what you say, according to Carol Kinsey Goman) or backward slanting handwriting.

Now it's your stuff that's up for inspection. "We leave personality footprints on the spaces we inhabit," writes Sam Gosling in Snoop, a fascinating study of what our surroundings reveal about our personalities.

Offices are a goldmine of information, but they take some careful interpreting. Assessing what US news anchor Charles Gibson's office says about its owner, Gosling picks up on tiny clues -- a few stray elastic bands, a couple of misplaced pens -- and concludes that Gibson values organisation and is someone with a number of unrealised ambitions -- a "really must get around to that" person.

Then there are your 'identity claims', such as the photos on your desktop. They are there to reassure you and, to a trained eye, speak volumes about what matters to you.

"Do the photos on display reflect feelings of success through work (driving a new Jaguar to a high-school reunion)-- or of power by association (shaking hands with Bill Clinton)," asks Gosling.

The payoff to proper interpretation of people's paraphernalia, he adds, is in learning more about the people with whom you work or live, and what makes them tick.

Well, yes, but it's an awfully long way around. If you want to improve your working relationships, why not just ask for feedback? "Ask everyone -- your customers, your team, your boss, your family -- how you can be better," is Goldmith's advice. "Learn from everyone around you."

There are plenty of formal tests to get you started on the feedback route -- Myers Briggs and Belbin, 360-degree assessments. The trick with feedback is to do it "feet forward", looking towards the future rather than harping on about past problems.

Or you can start snooping around your colleagues desks. Who knows? Maybe a closer look at Jerome Kerviel's desk would have revealed a giant, embezzlement-shaped tell.