Social Butterflies vs Social Trolls
Humans are social creatures. Our interactions obey rules that are often subtle and sometimes complex.
Our perceptions of others are formed quickly, and sometimes without much justification. That means that other’s perceptions of us are likely as fast and unfair as ours are of them. Most of us have had the unhappy experience of being misjudged by a new acquaintance. It’s difficult and painful, particularly when we were hoping to make a good impression, as with a prospective employer or potential love interest.
The good news is that there are some things that we can do early in a relationship that can make us more likable. Many of these are intuitive, and the most likable people we know probably practice them without conscious thought. That doesn’t mean we can’t work to practice them with good results.
If you haven’t read “Think and Grow Rich” by Napoleon Hill, you need to. And if you haven’t read “How to Win Friends and Influence People” by Dale Carnegie, you REALLY need to. These books are timeless and offer invaluable insights into ways to be more likable and avoid being less likable. Both books were written in the 1930s and their authors have passed into eternity. But they were men of renown, people who genuinely liked their species and wanted to impart the benefits of their success and experience to others. They’re neither long nor difficult to read, so pick them up on Amazon as soon as you’re done here.
Behavioral scientists applying the scientific method through research have improved and added to the works of Carnegie and Hill, but their original material is still invaluable and much of what you’ll read, below, draws from their insights. Science can explain the results of their research, but science is no substitute for the intuition, insight, and personal experience of the most successful and insightful people who have ever lived. Carnegie and Hill fall into that category.
Traits that attract
We can’t ignore pulchritude (it means beauty, but I like the word so I used it instead) as one of the factors upon which we quickly judge others. According to Dr. Daniel Hamermesh, professor of economics at Royal Holloway University of London and author of the fascinating book “Beauty Pays,” attractive people earn more than their less attractive peers. And it’s too obvious that more beauty equates to higher likeability.
There are things we can do to increase our physical attractiveness, like styling our hair in a flattering way, choosing clothing that complements our shape and coloring, and carefully applying makeup in ways that accentuate our best features (although Dr. Hamermesh claims there’s a low return on investments in cosmetics).
Overall, though, while you can gently tweak it, you’re stuck with whatever pulchritude you’ve got (or lack). However, you CAN make yourself LESS likable by leveraging this category downward. This is done by shoddy dress, body odor, and poor hygiene and/or grooming. And if you happen to have pulchritude in the top 5 or 10 percent of your fellows, you can cut the advantages you might otherwise derive by ignoring the advice I’ll share below.
The good news for the less pulchritudinous is that, while all of us are influenced to some degree by physical appearance, most of us take lots of other factors into account in addition to pulchritude. And the better news is that we even tend to weight them more heavily, proving that beauty is indeed only skin deep. In fact, research shows that the characteristics we value most in others aren’t related to looks or intelligence, but to transparency, openness, and empathy.
With that said, here are 10 things you can do to leverage those traits and be more likable:
- Take an interest in people. This starts with asking questions. No one likes to be interrogated, but sincere questions about where someone grew up, their occupation, their interests, are usually welcome. Many of us think that every thought that pops into our heads is worth sharing. Mostly, we’re wrong. So ask gentle and unobtrusive questions, don’t interrupt, and pay attention to the facial expressions, tone, and body language of the person you’re talking to. If your questions make them uncomfortable, stop.
- Be yourself. Most of us develop a pretty good b.s. detector by our 10th birthday. If you’re faking interest or trying too hard, people will see through you and you will have turned a potential likable trait into the opposite.
- Be stable and consistent. If you’ve experienced meeting someone who can’t focus on a single topic for more than a few seconds, you know why this is off-putting. Pay attention to the person with whom you’re speaking, don’t blurt, and don’t change subjects without a reasonable segue.
- Pay attention to your body language. If you fold your arms across your chest, you’re signaling that you’re uptight and closed to new relationships. Pay attention to your facial expressions, keep your face open and pleasant, no grimacing or frowning. Lean forward just a bit, but don’t invade someone’s space. A slight lean shows you’re interested and eager to know more. You can get a few more tips here.
- Remember names. This is tricky for many of us because we’re a little nervous when we first meet someone new. It’s especially difficult if you’ve just been introduced to 10 new people, but if you concentrate on remembering names, make it a priority, you can do it, and do it reliably. If you have to ask someone a second time so that you’re sure you remember, that’s better than calling them “Hey, you!” or nothing at all. Remembering someone’s name the second time you meet them is important, so don’t be afraid to jot a new name down or ask Siri to make a contact or take a note.
- Smile warmly, which can take practice for some of us. But since it’s better not to smile at all if it comes off as even a little sinister or fake (unless you happen to be Joel Osteen), make sure you master the technique before you practice on new acquaintances.
- Be open but discrete. There may be a perfect time and place to tell someone your ex-wife is a gold-digging witch spelled with a capital B, but it’s probably not within the first 20 minutes of meeting them. There’s a balance to openness, as there is with stability and consistency. There really is such a thing as too much information. If you have reason to suspect that you’ve crossed a few boundaries with this one, then be particularly circumspect about revealing too many personal details. The rule of thumb is that you’re open primarily about the positive aspects of your life and that you save the more negative ones for your therapist.
- Don’t be afraid to touch another person briefly if your relationship has progressed to the point where it’s appropriate. Ok, when I say “don’t be afraid” what I really mean is DO BE AFRAID. Before you touch someone, remember that this is the era of #MeToo. Much good is coming from MeToo, it’s calling attention to unwanted and inappropriate behavior. If you’re at all fuzzy on what makes up unwanted or inappropriate touching, keep your hands (and other appendages) to yourself. Some people are naturally tactile. If that’s you, a friendly clasped hand or a gentle hand on a shoulder can release neurochemicals that produce a sense of well-being. On the other hand, an unwelcome or clumsy attempt to touch someone when they’re not expecting it or don’t welcome it is deeply unsettling. If you’re not confident in your ability to read others, don’t mess with this one. Maybe you’ll develop it, but don’t feel bad if you don’t.
- Don’t be judgemental. That may mean that you have to ratchet back on number 2, above. In other words, don’t be yourself if you’re a highly opinionated partisan and you’ve just learned that you’re speaking to a person that doesn’t share your opinion about a politician, public policy, or subjects of faith. One of the things that make conversation interesting is hearing a new or different perspective. We ALL have some things in common, if only because we share the same class, order, family, genus, and species. Focus on the interests you share, not the values you may not. And if you’re unsure whether you can have a friendly relationship with someone who voted for a candidate of whom you don’t approve, or attends a church that you don’t like, ask yourself what kind of relationship you have with your doctor – do you share her or his political and religious opinions? And if you don’t, but your doctor is competent and caring, does it matter? If you answered yes, you may find that being more likable is a longer-term goal and that you need to deal with some more immediate issues before you get started with that one. Maybe.
- Be enthusiastic. Enthusiasm is magnetic and captivating. We all tend to gravitate toward people who are passionate, especially when the passion is for life and love and good wine. It’s wonderful if you’re passionate about a particular politician, or party, or religious worldview, and you should indulge those passions when you’re with family members or close friends that share them. Especially if you’re absolutely certain that they really do share them. When you’re meeting someone new, confine your passions to your hobbies, pastimes, and favorite vintages. We all want to spend time with people who are upbeat and positive and that love life. In the end, your enthusiasm needs tempering. Don’t let it be an excuse to dominate the conversation. Engage your new acquaintances, and let them share their passions, too.
The preceding tips are tested characteristics that most of us like and find appealing in others. But there are plenty of ways to change the polarity and repel people that we would prefer to attract.
Traits that repel
Most of us can write our own lists of unlikability traits and they’re likely way longer than this one. Our individual preferences can influence what we find annoying or off-putting in others, but there are some more or less universal “don’ts” that are good reminders. We mostly know these things intuitively, but some of them can be forgotten or ignored when we’re distracted. You don’t need to commit them to memory, just bear them in mind.
1. Boasting cloaked in faux humility. It’s easy to slip into some version of this if you’re not careful. At least, I assume it is – I wouldn’t really know because I’m usually so interested in other people I don’t talk about myself. Even though I won the Nobel Prize for Humility and once rescued the Pope from an alligator. Boasting cloaked in faux humility. Ick.
2. Outbursts that stop conversation and focus attention on you. This is sometimes called emotional hijacking. It usually takes the form of a self-centered display of unchecked emotion. You know – histrionics and melodrama. Hopefully, you’re not a practitioner because it’s usually an indicator of neuroses and/or personality disorder. If you’ve been exposed to an emotional hijacking, you know how draining and thoroughly repugnant they are. Be aware that we can be guilty of smaller scale hijackings that may not involve tears or hysterics, but can still be pretty off-putting. Ranting can fall into this category, and while we usually do it online, it’s a form of emotional hijacking that likable people avoid.
3. Being glum and somber. As I mentioned above, most of us are attracted to people with enthusiasm and passion. So it’s no surprise that the opposite is at least a little repulsive. While life can definitely have plenty of moments where it’s hard to find much to smile about, people that smile anyway are universally happier and have more friends. I’m not suggesting that you should fake it if you’re depressed. Disingenuousness is even more repulsive than gloominess. If you’ve got a good reason for solemnity, take a day or two to deal with it. Get help from family, friends, or counselors of whatever sort you’re most comfortable, and then tackle life and new relationships again with a new zeal.
4. Name Dropping. This is probably too obvious, but don’t ignore it. Too many of us do it without thinking about how bad it makes us look. It’s a form of the faux humility in 1, above, but it’s actually a little more insidious because it cheapens you. It’s a like a dirty window into your soul; no one’s going to like what they see through it. If you’re not worth knowing and befriending based on your own merits, then you’re not worth knowing or befriending even if you’re on a first name basis with the governor.
5. Gossip. It’s tempting, especially when you’re troubled by someone else’s poor behavior. But it’s a little like name-dropping, and a lot like faux humility because it ties you to someone else, and compares your goodness to theirs. Avoiding it will put you in pretty rarified atmosphere because lots of us indulge in it at every opportunity. One of the drawbacks of being a prolific gossip is that you are fairly certain that you’ll wind up being the subject of plenty of it yourself. Stay above the fray, and you’re far more likely to be treated respectfully by friends and acquaintances when you’re not within earshot.
6. Keep the phone in your pocket. Nothing says you’re neither interested nor interesting like checking your email or texting while you’re talking with someone, especially a new acquaintance. Just don’t.
7. TMI on SM. That’s too much information on social media. The phenomenon of the online disinhibition effect (ODE) has swept through western cultures. It’s the weird tendency we’ve developed for dropping most of the filters that we keep in place during face to face or even telephone conversations. It seems that we get lots of subtle feedback from others during a typical conversation, whether through vocal inflection or body language that helps us understand when we’re losing someone’s attention, or saying something inappropriate. When we’re hidden behind screen and keyboard, we can’t perceive the many obvious or tiny subconsciously processed signals that tell us how others are responding to what we have to say. That’s led lots of people to make pretty poor decisions. ODE can literally make us seem unhinged. Avoid it. Look at your social media accounts with a keen eye and delete posts that seem disinhibited. If you think you don’t have any, ask a friend for help.
8. Being closed-minded. Being open-minded doesn’t mean that you can’t have opinions. Even open-minded people can be too eager to share their opinions, though. Open-mindedness means in part that you don’t hold mundane opinions too strongly and that you’re not just willing but eager to hear other’s views. This is not to say that you need to be willing to compromise on your moral and ethical beliefs. Just be willing to listen without condemnation. And be aware that your body language and expressions can betray you, so do your best to be genuinely interested in even ill-informed opinions without telling those that hold them why they’re wrong. This is particularly important in new relationships.
Putting it all together
When making a first impression, looks matter. If you dress and groom well, you’ll score some points early on in a relationship. If you want to support that early advantage, be empathetic and judiciously transparent and open. We respond favorably to these attributes. If they don’t come naturally, practice them, but don’t be artificial.
Meanwhile, it’s nearly as easy to repel others as it is to attract them. Boasting is near the top of repellant characteristics. We are pretty good at recognizing it even when it’s disguised as humility. You can avoid it by focusing on others instead of yourself. Ask questions about other’s lives, their interests, their origins, and their passions. Develop a genuine sense of wonder at our diversity, whether it’s cultural or simply based on interests and life experience. We really are all as different as snowflakes or leaves. Getting a glimpse into the mind of another person is a privilege and has many rewards. Pursue the experience and you’ll reap the rewards.
Be sure to share your experiences, thoughts, comments, and ideas below. Cheers!