We haven’t, however, looked into what is really the glue that binds people to you. When it comes down to it, what are the things that really make a person likable? Think about the people you have known and liked. Why did you like them? Why do you think others like you?
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Warmth and Competence
Susan Fiske and Amy Cuddy have done extensive research on this question and have determined that we judge people on two main criteria—their warmth and their competence. Here, “judge” merely means to decide whether you like, trust and respect a person and want to interact with them further. According to Fiske and Cuddy liking (warmth) and respecting (recognizing competence) account for about 80 percent of the judgments we make about people, which then go on to determine whether we work with them, date them, form friendships with them and so on. In other words, it’s a big deal!
These two traits can form a matrix of four possible profiles. Consciously or unconsciously, we are all transmitting information that others receive and log, helping them decide whether we’re likeable people. Similarly, we’re constantly taking in that information about others and determining whether we like them and want to get closer. If being likeable is a goal, then it’s worth paying attention to how you’re presenting yourself.
A person with high warmth and high competence will win others’ admiration—think of a charismatic boss or a deeply charming person that everyone loves and wants to be like. The kind who inspires, leads or enthralls people—these are the people we want to emulate in life.
High-competence and low-warmth people are respected but not liked—i.e. envied. This can be OK in work contexts, but you don’t want to be an intimidating know-it-all, or someone who is perceived as intelligent but unkind. Many productivity-obsessed managers fall into this category, spending time to enhance their competence without a thought for how warm and likeable they are.
High warmth and low competence are qualities of someone we like but don’t necessarily respect—someone we pity, like an elderly lady who is sweet but incapable of accomplishing much. You might genuinely care for a person but consider them a bumbling idiot! Think of the class clown archetype who generally depends on others for the heavy lifting, but they don’t mind because he’s charming and fun to have around.
Finally, low-warmth and low-competence people cause us to feel contempt and dislike—naturally. They aren’t likeable or good at anything, and we may judge them as not worth the investment of our time. This is the category we reserve for criminals, sociopaths, lazy and selfish people; those we neither like nor respect.
This framework can be very useful in dealing with others, but especially in thinking about how we conduct ourselves in social situations. Being competent, we inspire respect; being warm, we inspire trust. Both are important if we want to be liked and maintain good social connections. Without enough of either, you could be perceived as cold, untrustworthy, inept, or a complete waste of time.
Let’s consider competence. How exactly does one convey competence? You could get a qualification, provide a valuable service, solve a problem, lead a team. Luckily, many people will see competence in one area and assume that it carries over to others, especially if one is competent in an area that is generalizable—those that imply good leadership, insight, intelligence and diligence to achieve. Also luckily, we tend to be very forgiving in how we assign competence to someone, and seldom take away the label we’ve chosen even when that person demonstrates low competence. We write it off and assume it was an isolated incident.
Warmth, however, is different, arguably because the ability to accurately judge another’s warmth is more fundamental to survival from an evolutionary point of view. Here, we judge warmth in the opposite way we do competence—a single act of kindness is appreciated but seldom generalized, whereas a single act of unkindness is never forgotten and more easily assumed to be an accurate representation of that person in general. This might be an unconscious assumption—it’s easy to fake being good, whereas someone might be showing their “true colors” if they act even once in a harsh, selfish or insensitive way.
Knowing all this, how can we make sure that we’re conveying competence and especially warmth when we engage with others? Fortunately, it’s not hard to do. Smile genuinely and often and make eye contact. Express an emotional and not just intellectual understanding of the people and facts around you. Demonstrate empathy and be a good listener—and make efforts to show that you like and trust the other person, encouraging them to reciprocate. Be fair, honest, kind. It’s not rocket science, but it does take a little conscious effort sometimes!
In work contexts, you may need to focus more on conveying competence (although warmth is still needed). Try to highlight your skills without boasting; don’t speak too slowly and enunciate properly to demonstrate intelligence, and speak clearly and assertively to show confidence. Those who are judged as competent appear balanced, robust and not prone to excess or weak willpower—this means you don’t want to appear to overeat, drink too much, smoke, swear, or seem out of control in any way. Importantly, you don’t want to overdo it. Occasionally being a little self-effacing and humble will show that you’re not all ego and can work cooperatively in a team.
An unfortunate fact is that humans tend to judge each other as having one trait or another—with the assumption that if you’re not competent you have to be nice, and if you are competent, you can afford not to be kind to others. This can mean that being perceived as competent or nice can in some contexts be seen as respective weaknesses. This explains the prejudices aimed at women and mothers in the workplace, who are judged as incompetent merely because they are kind and considerate, or a rude doctor who is assumed to be more capable than he is precisely because he is so brusque and unfriendly to others.
It’s not strictly true that warmth and competence are “opposites”—after all, we admire people with both for a reason, and all our most beloved public figures inevitably hold both qualities. It’s more a question of carefully balancing the way we are perceived. Focus on those qualities that convey high warmth without threatening the appearance of competence. These are traits that we roughly call “moral,” such as fairness, honesty, and loyalty—qualities all likeable human beings are expected to possess.
In body language, have an upright posture, maintain open eye contact and speak clearly and calmly. Avoid trying to emulate a stereotype one way or another—i.e. the super intimidating, highly competent person or the meek and suspiciously nice saintly figure. Temper sharing your achievements with genuine humility, and you will earn people’s respect without alienating them.
Similarly, be warm, open and friendly but occasionally speak your mind, maintain your boundaries and be a little assertive so that people will come to both trust and respect you. Use the context to guide your interactions with others—your approach at work will be different from your behavior in a romantic relationship or with your friends or children. Finally, when in doubt, prioritize warm, authentic connections with people. You can always impress them with your skills later.
To be valued and put into high regard by your peers is no child’s play. It goes way beyond the cool-kid archetype of our collective adolescent imagination. It’s not a mere popularity game: a quota of friends, acquaintances, or followers to acquire. With the help of research, we get to understand that achieving social status is so much more than that.
Popularity manifests in the physical—in the cognitive, to be precise. Research on brain structure and chemistry provides a perspective on the correlation of effective socialization with the number of dopamine receptors in the brain. This implies that the more dopamine in the brain, the better a person is at socializing.
Popularity also implies responsibility to the feelings of others. Being popular is opposite to being self-centered and self-serving. Being widely accepted and well-known requires that a person is adept at connecting with people, which includes sensitivity to the well-being of others.
Striving to reach a better social status, as with any endeavor, requires energy. Without motivation, there is simply no fuel for the drive. We have discussed the chemical “dopamine-regulation” approach. This is a plausible path, but one that may end up leading to disasters. It requires professional help and is really just applicable for people suffering from addictive behaviors that artificially jack up dopamine.
Alternatively, we have at our disposal approaches to traversing the social hierarchy that are backed up by psychological research. The knowledge these studies impart can be used as our practical guide.
As these studies show us, dominance and prestige are the two basic ways that people become popular among their peers. These traits manifest early in the social interactions of our formative years. They transform as we move into adulthood and continue to shape our interactions. The trick really is to strike a balance between the two. You’ll succeed in this balancing act as long as you are mindful and include authenticity as part of your goal.
But what really draws people to a socially intelligent individual? It is the perfect combination of getting things done and just simply being kind and authentic. You have to be warm and competent at the same time in order to arouse admiration and avoid inviting the pity, contempt, or envy of others.
Now forget the cool-kid attitude and leave it to the high-schoolers. The best way to be cool is to be warm. It’s all about being credible and authentic at the same time.