Salvaging a Social Situation

One of the most common fears that keep us from doing what we want is the fear of judgment. Fear in general is the quantity that keeps us frozen in our tracks, but judgment is a special kind of suffering we want to avoid.

We are perpetually concerned with what others think about us, from old friends to strangers. We never want to make a bad impression, and the worst thing that could possibly happen is to have people think we’re stupid.

If we catch even a whiff that this is occurring, it’s easy for us to imagine that the world is ending and that we will become a social pariah. One tense word or misinterpreted look and that’s all it takes. But sometimes judgment from others is our fate and there is little we can do about it.

For all that we’ve talked about likability, sometimes it is actually more important to simply not be seen in a negative light; to not be judged harshly and be unlikable can actually be the social win you are looking for. Despite the scientific evidence, with some people, you are never going to enter their inner circle or even garner a smile from them. When this becomes clear (sometimes it does, sometimes it does not), then we must change our goals and how we approach them.

Instead of aiming to be someone they seek out and crave, we should aim to avoid negativity. In a sense, this is like playing a baseball game in the hopes of not losing instead of actively trying to win. It’s not an approach that I would usually recommend, but sometimes that is the best you are going to be able to salvage from a situation. If you can keep judgment at bay and morph into a neutral presence, that’s a win.

How can the science of likability shield us thusly? It begins with how people tend to form judgments about others, positive or negative.

The less knowledge we have about someone, the more we judge them because we have the tendency to fill in the blanks with information that is largely drawn from stereotypes. This sort of broad categorization and pattern-recognition may have been beneficial for us in times when it was more important to avoid predators and rotting fruit, but it does not transfer well to social situations.

For instance, if you hear about someone who plays tennis and belongs to a country club, what other pieces of information fit into a view of that person? You would likely assume they were rich growing up, perhaps owned a boat, lived on an estate, went to a fancy private school, and haven’t had to work very hard in their life. Maybe not all, but at least a couple of those things sprang into your mind.

When we have an absence of information, a mental image forms regardless, and the brain doesn’t know the difference between a stereotype and accurate knowledge and just fills in the blanks. In the example above, while it could be accurate, it’s not fair and not always a positive judgment. Judgments usually err on the negative side, and thus they are something we want to avoid. How can we avoid being judged by others?

No Such Thing as Too Much Information

A 1989 study by Hilton and Fein called “The Role of Typical Diagnosticity in Stereotype-Based Judgments” set out to determine the cause of people’s judgments, assumptions, and stereotyping. What made the brain immediately assign traits and a complete backstory to some people versus others? Why were some people so quick to jump to conclusions?

It was found that the less information people had about a certain subject or person, the more they began to fill in the gaps with information that was stereotypical of a general representation. Like with the example of the tennis-playing country club–goer, if you only have a limited set of information, you will fill in the rest with your stereotype of a rich, preppy, affluent WASP with a white sweater knotted around their neck. We can even go further, as we surely have a detailed mental image (stereotype) of this person.

To prevent stereotyping and being instantly judged by others, the researchers found that simply providing details about the subject completely unrelated to the stereotype in mind diluted the stereotype and made people more likely to trust and like others. The more detail about the person, the better, even if it was completely random. When we have limited information, we assume a person is just the same as the most stereotypical representation that has those traits. The more someone’s avatar gets filled out, the less able we are to fit them into those stereotypes.

When we have more information about someone in any regard, we realize we can’t define them by those one or two traits, and we cease stereotyping and judging. What does this mean for us? There is no such thing as too much information (TMI).

People like to make fun of TMI, but the reality is that TMI can ultimately make you more likable. TMI is the ability to allow people to accept you. Of course, preferably you share positive or neutral information about yourself.

You become less of a threat and more of a known quantity. People become less suspicious of you and are more willing to give you the benefit of the doubt. By sharing seemingly trivial information about yourself, you allow people to feel like they know you, and they stop making assumptions.

And again, it doesn’t even matter if the details are relevant to your identity, career, nonthreatening nature, or life. You can share your preference of glasses brand, your favorite color, and perhaps where you went to school. The more information about you that is out there, the less readily people can judge and stereotype you, simply because you can’t fit into singular stereotypes anymore.

For example, what if we learned that the person who plays tennis and belongs to a country club was poor growing up and went to college on a tennis scholarship? Also, they drive a 20-year old car and learned tennis from watching television, not lessons. Also, they were born in Nicaragua and reading books is their favorite activity after tennis.

This probably changes your view of them. Whatever image you previously held in your head changed drastically. In fact, the additional information we’ve learned blows the doors off any category we could put them into. And in a sense, that’s the goal: to make it impossible for us to fit into any broad category or generalization, which allows people to see you and not a preconceived notion.

With more information, people suddenly become three-dimensional. We are humanized, and we eventually realize that all humans are complex amalgamations. In reality, you really haven’t done anything profound. You haven’t even given any information that’s important or useful.

To an extent, the way we utilize this knowledge for likability is to get into the mindset of oversharing and offering unsolicited information. This will be difficult for many people, as many glide through life saying as little about themselves as possible. It can be intimidating. You may have been taught your whole life to be modest and even private. But it’s really quite simple to start.

For instance, if someone asks about your weekend, don’t resort to answering, “Good, how about yours?” A guideline I like to use is to give three to four distinct details when answering easy questions—in this way, you will get into the habit of giving people more information, which will make conversation flow better anyway. Here’s an example of zero sharing, little information, and a high likelihood of judgment and stereotyping.

Where are you from?
Oklahoma. You?

If you don’t know anything about a person besides the fact they are from Oklahoma, where does your mind automatically go? It goes to whatever your stereotypes about Oklahoma are. You don’t know if this person was born there, raised there, or only lived there for a couple of years. You don’t have the context to make a good judgment about them, and yet you do anyway. This one trait defines them in your mind. Here’s an example of why giving unsolicited information can be helpful:

Where are you from?
Oklahoma, but I was born in New York. My parents were originally from France and I grew up visiting France frequently. I can’t go much now because I have eight dogs.

Now attempt to put this person into a box. It’s the same person as before, but it’s nearly impossible because there is so much information about them that you simply have to take them as they are. When you know more about them, they become more humanized and interesting. Plus, it’s hard to not continue a conversation after an introduction like that.

The added benefit to sharing unsolicited information and more in general is you make it extremely easy for others to connect with you. When you spout off details about your life, it’s easy for them to find common ground and know you as a person. If you divulge personal information or intimate details of your life, you’ll also be appearing to take the first steps to building trust and showing vulnerability to others. The more that’s out there, the more there is for people to hook onto and relate to.

There is nothing fundamentally wrong with stereotypes because we use them for convenience and efficiency. However, when we use them to prematurely judge others, it becomes a weakness and a large blow to your likability. Once again, the Pygmalion effect comes into play and we cause people to live down to our expectations of them.

In 1997 in “The Experimental Generation of Interpersonal Closeness: A Procedure and Some Preliminary Findings,” Arthur Aron found that sharing did more than simply make you less susceptible to judgment from others. It creates emotional closeness and investment. In fact, the more intimate and invasive the information, the better.

He split participants into two groups. One group questioned each other on 36 very specific and intimate questions, including personal vulnerabilities and insecurities. The other group was tasked to ask each other only shallow small talk questions about their everyday lives. Here are some examples of the questions used:

  1. Do you want to be famous? For what?
    This tells you what a person really values or imagines themselves to be skilled at. This can reveal someone’s deepest desires and fantasies.
  2. If you were able to live up to 90 and save either the mind or body of a 30-year-old, which thing would you want to save?
    You learn whether someone values the physical or mental more. You also learn if someone is honest or not.
  3. If you could change anything about how you were raised, what would you change?
    Here you gain deep insight into someone’s past and history. You learn about his or her regrets and if his or her childhood was happy. You may learn some deeply personal secrets about someone.
  4. If you could wake up tomorrow with any one quality, what would that quality be?
    This question enables you to learn what someone wants to be and what he or she values in a person. The person you are asking this question of will always answer with the quality that matters most to him or her.
  5. Is there something that you have wanted to do for a long time? Why haven’t you done it yet?
    People all have dreams. They also have regrets. Asking someone this lets you uncover them both. You can hear about personal challenges and hopes and extenuating circumstances in their lives. You will hear an honest appraisal about people’s lives and ambitions.
    It’s impossible to not get personal and emotional when faced with these questions. It’s not something people are comfortable doing, but the participants followed directions. The participants who were tasked with asking each other sensitive and sometimes prying personal questions developed greater levels of trust, rapport, and mutual comfort with one another. They felt emotional closeness, even though they didn’t know each other before the study.

The other group, however, didn’t develop this level of trust, confidence, and intimacy. They essentially remained at their initial level of emotional closeness. So when you share, other people stereotype and judge you less. When both parties share, feelings of mutual closeness and intimacy occur.

Why does this happen on a practical level? Because while others may not have gone through the exact same events, there are always universal elements, and they can empathize with those. The more you share, the more you will inevitably find common ground with others.