Some people start with zero trust in strangers and keep their guards high until they see enough signs that they feel comfortable letting their guard down. For these people, trust is slowly earned and a privilege, never a given. Trust is the ultimate placing of faith in someone, and that’s not something to be taken lightly.
On the other hand, other people immediately embrace strangers with open arms and assume good intentions. This is where trust is automatically given as a policy, with the understanding that it can be lost.
Wherever you might fall on that spectrum, it’s clear that trust is assigned different values based on people’s experiences. If you’ve had positive experiences with being open with strangers, you’re more likely to continue in that fashion, and vice versa. This is all to say that trust can be a hard quality to nail down, perhaps harder than other facets of likability and charm.
But is there a way to shortcut the process if you come across someone who thinks trust is to be earned over a long period of time? How can you win over even the most guarded and standoffish person who doesn’t even leave their bag with you when they use the restroom?
Well, on the topic of direct trust alone, there is a multitude of studies about what compels that feeling. A 2018 study called “Stimulus Generalization as a Mechanism for Learning to Trust” by Oriel FeldmanHall found that trust we feel toward others depends on if the person resembles a past individual that was either trustworthy or untrustworthy. This would imply that trust functions more like what made Pavlov’s dog salivate—a kneejerk reaction based on a simple association. For a more conventional perspective, a 1985 publication called “Trust in Close Relationships” by Rempel, Holmes, and Zanna found that trust requires reliability, predictability, and thinking that the other person is concerned with your feelings. However, one of the first landmark studies on trust provides a more interesting and perhaps indirect insight into what creates trust, and it’s one that we can harness for likability as well.
More Is Better
Festinger, Schachter, and Back studied the concept of trust in 1950 in “Social Pressures in Informal Groups: A Study of Human Factors in Housing.” They studied people who lived in an apartment building and the patterns of the friendships that formed. They found that neighbors who were on the same floor tended to be friends, people who lived on different floors were rarely friends, and people who lived near the mailboxes and staircases were friends with people on different floors.
What can we conclude from this?
To a large extent, friendship and trust increase linearly with simple interaction and exposure. The more we see someone, the more likely we will become friends with them and come to trust them. It didn’t matter if there was any depth or rapport. The amount of interaction was the only factor that appeared to matter in the study. This was dubbed the propinquity effect.
On a practical level, the more we see people, the more we interact with them, the more similarities we find, the more comfort we build, and the more we find that we can potentially like them. People cease to be whatever stereotype you have in mind, and they turn into unique, two-dimensional humans. This is something we’ll cover in greater detail in a later chapter on how to avoid negative judgments.
Prolonged exposure by itself will embed people into your mind as essentially part of the background. This is why when we change schools, jobs, or homes, we miss our neighbors or coworkers, even if we rarely spoke to them. There has been so much exposure and interaction that we tend to view them in a positive light and associate them with the environment as a whole. The level of interaction itself isn’t important; the frequency of the interaction is.
The propinquity effect is why it’s not surprising that we are frequently friends with roommates, neighbors, coworkers, and classmates. You have a high level of exposure and interaction, you let your guard down around them, and you create an open mind toward friendship. If you look at your set of close friends, you would realize that a lot of those friends became friends of yours almost accidentally. They just frequently showed up in your life. They were at the right place at the right time and they did the same things you did. You struck up a conversation, and then you kept seeing each other on a regular basis.
It turns out that half of the battle in likability is showing up and not hiding in your room like a cat. The more you show your pretty face, the more trust will ultimately be built. For those you are specifically targeting to make friends and build trust with, make sure to frequently bump into them. The interaction itself can be minimal, as long as they take notice of your presence and acknowledge you. The goal is to become a known and familiar quantity in their lives.
This manifests in even tiny ways in our daily life. The more you see a certain barista at a café you frequent, the more you feel like you know and trust them. The more you see a neighbor, even if it’s just while you are both taking out your trash, the more you feel like you understand who they are and trust them. Repetition creates trust.
A stark illustration of the importance of frequency of exposure is in sales. This is known sometimes as the sales or marketing rule of seven, which states that a customer needs to see a product or hear the product’s pitch at least seven times in order to be ready to purchase. Another advertising guide written by Thomas Smith in 1885 espouses the need for 20 separate touchpoints before a purchase is made.
In addition, salespeople are taught that the sale is always made in the follow-up and not the initial contact, and the propinquity effect is part of the reason why. So they will email, call, text, and make sure that you have so many points of contact with them that they are always in your ear.
And oddly enough, this makes you trust them more because of the frequency and duration of their presence—if nothing has gone wrong or terribly, then they are slowly proving themselves to be trustworthy, right?
If you are trying to get people to like you and become their friend, the same process applies. Obviously, adopt a subtler method, but it’s undeniable how salespeople are able to gain our trust through repeated exposure and interaction.
The propinquity effect is highly related to the mere exposure effect, which similarly states the more we see something, the more we like it because we prefer familiarity. In 1968 in “Attitudinal Effects of Mere Exposure,” researcher Robert Zajonc showed participants Chinese characters—some characters only once and some up to 25 times. He asked them to guess the meaning of each character, and the more times a participant had been exposed to the Chinese character, the more positive of a meaning they assigned to it.
These various effects demonstrate that things tend to grow on us, and sometimes our tastes arise out of exposure and familiarity, not free will or actual affection. Familiarity is the ultimate precursor to trust.
Credibility can be seen as a higher degree of trust. If you trust someone, you believe them but may not be sure about their sense of judgment. You feel comfortable that they care about you. However, if you believe someone has credibility, you may not necessarily trust them, but you view their judgment as rock-solid. You believe what they say, though you might feel differently about their character. It might be a personal preference as to which of the two is more important, but it’d be even better to be able to create the feeling of both.
Scientifically speaking, there is a wealth of subtle signs that can either bolster someone’s credibility or tank it. If you’ve had any media training, or simply watched a politician interact with the media, you’ll know that credibility doesn’t just happen by accident. There are specific behaviors that make us want to believe them; they signal that this person is dependable, isn’t a threat, and should in fact be followed.
It’s a finely tuned science that can make or break people. As recently as 1999, Gass and Seiter in their book Persuasion, Social Influence, and Compliance Gaining sought to study credibility. They discovered a host of subtle indicators of credibility, as well as a host of signs that undermined credibility.
Here are the signs that need to be in play for people to think you’re credible.
Highlight your experience and your qualifications. People are looking for an indication that you know what you’re talking about. At the very least, they want to see facts that would support a conclusion that whatever judgments or decisions you make are based on something real. This is important for most people because if you’ve already seen something in the past or have been educated about it, chances are you know the right things to do. You would have the right information so the right decisions are made. People want proven quantities and not just people making educated guesses.
Display how much you care. If it’s obvious you care about other people and have their best interests at heart, they are more likely to trust you. You simply wouldn’t act in any other way except to help them. However, if people can sense that you’re looking to get a sale or line your own pockets, they are less likely to trust you. There is a conflict of interest here. They might feel that you are just too busy trying to benefit yourself instead of actually looking out for them. Don’t show any ulterior motives, and let people know you are on their side.
Similarity. You already know this. When people see that you are similar to them in terms of dress, body language, speaking style, and mother tongue, they are more likely to view you as credible. People tend to like other people who are like them. This is especially true if it appears that you share the same values as the people you’re trying to impress. They’ll believe you because people automatically trust those similar to them, such as their family.
Appear assertive. If you are very assertive regarding your positions and you quickly and rationally destroy counterarguments, this makes you look like an expert. This is passion and conviction and confidence. This means that you know what you’re talking about—or at least you look like you do. Chances are people can trust your judgments because you know the other side of the argument and can convincingly make those arguments go away. In other words, the more decisively you act, the more credible you appear.
Gain social proof. When other credible people recommend you, chances are people will be less suspicious of you. If people they know and trust as experts recommend you, then you are essentially riding on the coattails of those people. You don’t have to convince people because people they trust already opened the doors for you. This is an extremely important competitive advantage. Unfortunately, not everybody can tap into this. This is what’s behind every warm introduction. People will take a chance on you because someone vouched for you, and that’s a powerful statement.
Likewise, there are certain signals you can send out that can erode your credibility.
Don’t contradict yourself. If you are caught telling a lie or an obvious exaggeration, this can vaporize whatever credibility you’ve built up. If you’re unsure about a certain assertion, follow this simple rule: when in doubt, leave it out. People may ask questions, and in many cases, you may not have answers to those questions. Instead of trying to look like a hero and guessing at an answer, you would be better off telling people you don’t know or you’ll get back to them. Recognize that you don’t need an answer for everything, and if you appear infallible, it can look suspicious or manipulative. If you don’t appear stupid, you might appear to be lying.
Avoid being overly polite. This might come as a surprise to some. By being excessively polite and brownnosing, you can come off as weak and tentative, which means that your opinions will also be taken as such. You look like you are simply looking for approval and telling people what they want to hear. You also appear to be insincere and manipulative, even if you are being sincere and honest. Too much politeness can often belie a lack of conviction or stance. You have to remember that people are looking for others whom they can listen to and follow. If you are busy walking on eggshells around them, you’re sending the wrong signals.
For many, the initial reaction to these credibility factors will be that they apply to an office environment. For instance, you might pay special attention to them during a job interview and not apply them in social situations. It may seem that way, but appearing credible to friends—the feeling that they rely on you and believe in your judgment—is just as important socially. It just shifts you into a person that others will listen to instead of ignore. And of course, credibility and trust work hand in hand to increase your likability.
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