Yesterday I went out to lunch with a friend of mine, a friend I have not seen in a while. It was great, but as we were chatting and catching up, she suddenly stopped right in the middle of a really good story, put her hands on her head and groaned –
What happened?
“I can’t remember his name!”
Whose name?
“Oh, you know the one I mean, he has a great big smile and…” My friend went on to describe the person in detail and without ever mentioning his name, and the amazing thing is that I knew exactly who she meant.

Hasn’t that happened to all of us at some point? Forgetting a name? I know it happens to me a lot. Please, don’t tell me that I’m the only one. By using a great description, my friend was able to breeze past that awkward moment of forgetting a name.

Whether you are chatting with a friend, creating your sales pitch or getting ready for a job interview, knowing how to describe people is an essential part of speaking English to reach your goals.

Naturally, there are a lot of different ways to describe people and some are better than others. Today I will give you three strategies and show how to use adjectives and phrases to describe the physical appearance, behavioral habits and personality traits of people. I will also help you steer clear of cultural misunderstandings and faux pas. Keep reading to learn more.

Strategy 1 – Physical Appearance

One of the most common ways to describe people, especially people that we don’t know, is to focus on the physical appearance of the person. We often use physical descriptions to describe how a person looks, such as height, weight & coloring.

  • Tall
  • Short
  • Skinny
  • Brown eyes
  • Red hair – you get the idea.

One special tip for describing the physical appearance of people: It is generally best to focus on the positive and not the negative attributes or limitations of a person. I don’t think anyone likes being called the fat one, the ugly one or even the one with bad acne, so don’t do it. This is also true for people with physical disabilities or limitations.

Strategy 2 – Behavioral Habits

We can also talk about or describe the behavioral habits of a person to help give a richer picture. This can be especially helpful for describing work habits and professional traits. This means focusing on HOW a person behaves, or, more specifically, what actions or habits are typical for this person. In this case, one word adjectives are possible, but using several words, or a phrase gives a much clearer image.

We can describe regularly occurring habits. Some people, like the man my friend was describing, smile a lot. Others bite their nails, or are early-risers.

  • He always smiles.
  • She bites her nails.
  • She is the one who always brings coffee to work.
  • He is the one who is always the last to leave the party.

Or we can talk about unique circumstances or one time events.

  • She’s the one who brought me soup when I was sick.
  • He is the one who left the room in the middle of the concert last night.

In both of these examples, the action described happened only one time as a unique event. Yet this one event is memorable enough to use as a description.

Strategy 3 – Personality Traits

We also can describe personality traits – that is the actions, attitudes & behaviors that create the overall personality of a person.

Describing Personality

Who am I? Who are you? How am I different than others? What makes me unique? These are some questions that can help us find ways to describe and distinguish ourselves from others. Psychologists, philosophers & social scientists continually research and analyze personality traits, motivations and behaviors to answer the questions about why do we do the things we do.

One word adjectives

Let’s start simple. Using one word adjectives we can talk about personalities & personality traits in positive, negative or neutral ways.

5 Positive Descriptors:

  • Helpful
  • Encouraging
  • Capable
  • Reliable
  • Charming

5 Negative Descriptors:

  • Dishonest
  • Arrogant
  • Stingy
  • Rude
  • Malicious

5 Neutral Descriptors:

  • Shy
  • Fearful
  • Precise
  • Competitive
  • Confused

Short phrases

Using short phrases helps add more depth to short descriptions, here are a few examples:

  • Encouraging – the one who helps me keep going when I feel like giving up
  • Stingy – the one who wouldn’t even lend her sister a coat on Christmas day
  • Fearful – the one who is afraid of his own shadow

By giving specific examples, a short phrase can help paint a more vivid image of a personality trait. Using complete sentences or even example stories go even further to more completely describe a person.

Personality types

There are so many different theories and lists about personality types ranging from ancient studies to modern day theorists. I encourage you to search the web or even visit your local library to discover a few for yourself. By answering a few simple questions about your likes, dislikes and preferences, it is possible to get some pretty interesting information and descriptions about different personality types. Some people take these tests very seriously – almost religiously! – while others like to discuss and play around with different results just for fun.

Some of the most well-known frameworks for categorizing personality types include:

  • The Four Temperaments: Sanguine, Phlegmatic, Choleric, and Melancholic Personality Types
  • Enneagram
  • Myers Briggs Type Indicator
  • Big Five Personality Test

Taking these tests can not only help you gain insights into your own personality, but the descriptions can also help you find new words for describing people and strengthen your English vocabulary. One special tip for describing the personality of other people: BE KIND! It is neither fair nor polite to go around psychoanalyzing other people.

Whenever the opportunity arises, use these tips to improve your English descriptions making them more interesting and accurate. To help keep these concepts fresh in your mind, I created an infographic for you. If you find it helpful, share it with others.

Top strategies for describing people

Happy Speaking!

If you still don’t believe me that improving your skills for describing people is important, consider common names. Some names are really common, like the name Michael in the USA. CollegeHumor even made a funny video about trying to get around the confusion of having too many people named Mike. Totally made my day. Here it is –

As this is my first post about enriching your vocabulary, please let me know your thoughts. If this topic interests you, please leave me a comment or question below.
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