I was drawn to the phrase, “Seeing right through them“appearing in the New York Times (October 5) article written by Daniel Goleman under the title, “Rich people just care less.” It begins with the following sentence:

“Turning a blind eye. Giving someone the cold shoulder. Looking down on people. Seeing right through them. These metaphors for condescending or dismissive behavior are more than just descriptive. They suggest -- the social distance between those with greater power and those with less — a distance that goes beyond the realm of interpersonal interactions and may exacerbate the soaring inequality in the United States.


When we were listening to teacher’ words in class, or a boss's instructions in office, didn’t we see right through him or her in order to be attentive? Is “to see right through people” perceived as a condescending / dismissive or rude behavior?

I happened to find the same “See right through them” phrase in the English version of the teaching of Morihei Ueshiba (1883-1969), the founder of Aikido – martial art for self defense derived from Jujutsu. He says:

“If your heart is large enough to envelope your adversaries, you can see right through them and avoid their attacks. And once you envelope them, you will be able to guide them along the path indicated to you by heaven and earth.”

It appears to me Goleman uses “Seeing right through people” in “condescending and dismissive” manner, and Ueshiba uses it in different, rather positive way.

What implications does the expression “Seeing right through them” have?

3 Answers 3


There is a common view that a people can be read by looking at their faces and determining the sincerity of their presentation. However, people are often described as putting on a mask or a false face to hide their true intentions.

The idiom seeing through them refers to seeing through that mask or false face, and being able to discern the other's true position or intention.

While the phrase is not inherently condescending or dismissive, it does suggest that you are not accepting someone's presentation or position at face value. However, it could be used in a positive and supportive manner:

He tried to mask his pain with a brave front, but she saw right through him.

As Jim notes in his comment, the phrase seeing right through him is used in the first instance cited by the OP to suggest ignoring someone. The more common phrase for this sense is looking right through him (as if the person were transparent, effectively not there).

  • 1
    OP's two usages of "see right through them" are two different usages, do you want to comment on the first usage as well?
    – Jim
    Oct 8, 2013 at 3:04

Goleman was wrong. He meant "Looking right through them" which is dismissive, because it means acting as if they aren't there or they don't exist. That's what he meant to write.


Understanding a trick and then turning the tables on the person instead of allowing the person to continue on with the trick.

  • That would be the "Switcheroo" not seeing through them.
    – Elliot
    Apr 15, 2021 at 3:24

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