If you don't understand a person's language, you should try to pick up on the information on their face.

This sentence seems a bit awkward to me. Though to pick up on something can mean to notice something that is not very obvious, I'd probably say "you should try to read their face." Is "pick up on the information on their face" OK to you?

  • Yeah, there's tons of crap on the Internet in SEO articles.
    – Lambie
    Jul 11 '20 at 19:10

It is an idiomatic expression which means to perceive (and understand) interpersonal cues.

He didn't pick up on the fact that the two women were not attracted to men.

What makes the usage odd in your example, in my opinion, is the use of the word try. "Try to be perceptive" makes no sense. You're either perceptive or not perceptive.

Any number of verbs would have been better, including read as you say:

Look for clues in the expression on the person's face.

Pay attention to their body language.

Read their face.

  • "Try to be perceptive" and "try to pick up on" make sense. Imagine the inner monologue, "Are they making eye contact? No, they aren't. My therapist said that means they may be uncomfortable. Hmm, are they dodging my questions? Maybe I should be more explicit." People lacking these skills can certainly make an effort to improve them.
    – Tashus
    Dec 13 '18 at 16:30
  • @Tashus: I would have to disagree. Making eye contact is not at all the same as "emotional intelligence" or whatever else you might want to call that kind of perceptiveness. Dec 13 '18 at 17:35
  • I didn't mean that making eye contact is the same as emotional intelligence. Rather, making an effort to be aware of others' eye contact, intonation, etc. are ways to try to be more perceptive. It is certainly possible to have the intention to pick up on more nuances in a conversation. These skills come naturally to some people, but others have the capacity to improve them. Entire professions and fields of study exist to address this. wikihow.com/Be-More-Perceptive
    – Tashus
    Dec 13 '18 at 17:55
  • I do see your point, but I think "picking up on" subtle cues is not like aiming an antenna so that it would be possible to learn to aim it better. Rather it means to sense or perceive those interpersonal cues and to understand them for what they are. I think try to sense or try to perceive is a non-starter. Dec 13 '18 at 20:24

With idiomatic phrases like "pick up on," the sentence sounds more gentle than the alternative. As in your example, "read their face," has the tendency to sound more harshly analytical. Despite this, "read their face" is still completely understandable English.

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