I have always been interested in Psychology, investigating why we do what we do and what influences our behaviour and thoughts. One of the most recent books I read because of this was Popular by Mitch Prinstein. It was an eye-opening analysis of popularity and how our early childhood and adolescent experiences with ‘popularity’ can have power over how we act today.
I use ‘popularity’ with inverted commas because the first thing I was surprised to learn was that there are actually two types of popularity that can be discerned from research. One is status based, and one is based on likability. A very brief overview is that whilst the popular crowd at school who we all longed to be in with had very high status, they were usually not very likeable. And whilst many of us become obsessed with striving for status, especially in the age of social media, it can be more rewarding to improve how likeable we are. This will not only affect how others perceive us but also how we feel about ourselves.
As a kid at school, I always felt as though I was on the sidelines, and from reading Popular it’s clear from my point of view that I would have fitted into the ‘Neglected’ social category. This means that I’m a textbook introvert, and as a teenager and for most of my adult life, I’ve dealt with social anxiety, so reading this book was extremely interesting when it came to describing ways we can change how we’re perceived by others and also how we think about ourselves.
One of the book’s anecdotes I particularly appreciated involved the author having telephone conversations with various members of call centre staff to try and fix his internet. He informally conducted an experiment, deliberately making an effort to be polite and warm and interested to some call operators, whilst being curter with others. He then tested out being more positive in his day-to-day life. I was impressed by how different the author said he felt after making such changes and wanted to try it out for myself.
For the first few days, I did not make any deliberate changes to the way I behaved or acted. I did, however, jot down notes on who I had conversations with, and how often. After a few days, I started to change how I acted. Here are the small changes I made an effort to consciously adapt over the next week:
- Be polite/positive in interactions with people. Whether it be family and friends, or someone over the phone, or a complete stranger who moves to let you past on the pavement.
- Be interested in what the other person is saying.
- Smile more.
To start, these simple things were the only 3 items I included. They sound basic and obvious (because they are) but they are things that sometimes slip or I don’t always pay attention to. Practising these three ways of approaching interactions with others, and life in general, had some interesting results…and a few situations stood out.
The first instance I recall was at a job interview. I’m not someone who naturally smiles a lot, and I have a severe case of ‘Resting Bitch Face’: not a great thing for a prospective employer to see. “Right,” I thought, as I went to introduce myself, “start smiling.” As the saying goes, smiles are contagious, and I definitely felt more at ease as the receptionist returned my smile. I paid attention to each interaction, even tiny stuff like being offered a drink. And not in the way of being obsessive or over analytical, just paying attention to how I conducted myself. It was very surprising how being attentive made me feel more present and actually took away some of my nerves, because I wasn’t allowing myself to overthink about where I was, and was instead focusing on who I was with.
I was surprised overall at the effect that these changes had in making me feel more grounded and present, and building up little likeable acts created a bigger picture that boosted my self-esteem.
Before starting this, I was initiating 1 or 2 conversations a day, i.e. with a shop assistant, or other mandatory transactions when out and about (this is excluding conversations with people at home). Including these, the conversations themselves tended to be short. By the time I’d finished the next week, I made deliberate changes to the way I interacted – I was averaging about 6 conversations a day, including one I struck up with a randomer who sat on the same bench as me (which I would never have done in a million years).
As the number of conversations I participated in increased, I found that consciously being more aware of the way I interact lead to a number of discoveries:
- Very quickly I was beginning to see interactions with others as opportunities rather than as chores. To start with I initiated conversations to observe what happened, but in the end, I just enjoyed having a chat and was more willing to learn about people I chatted to. Like the guy who runs our local convenience store or people I see walking their dogs in the morning. (The perks of living in a little town where it is customary to say ‘morning’ every five seconds came in handy here.)
- I was less analytical of myself. If a social interaction got ‘fluffed up’ i.e. I got flustered and said something that didn’t come out right (which I do a lot), I made an effort to not be as hard on myself and laugh it off.
- I found the more I try to maintain these ideals the more they become second nature. Instead of setting time aside to be conscious of these likeable factors, they started crossing over into work too. I found it less of a challenge to speak in meetings and was less nervous to ask questions and make suggestions. I was less hung up on being right and more concerned with attending to what was happening and being involved.
- Making an effort to be more interested in what another person was telling me ended up in me being more interested in others generally. Asking questions, being present and discussing details with other people; whether it be chatting about family, work or some other topic like the latest Avengers movie ended up in providing the chance to strengthen my interpersonal relationships both professional & personal.
The more I strived to put effort into my day-to-day interactions, the more positive I felt. The littlest instances of finding out details of someone’s day or taking the time to thank someone where perhaps I usually wouldn’t have felt good and made me less socially anxious when initiating conversations.
I am not saying that we could all do this, all of the time; or even that we should do. Obviously, there are still days when I’m not in a great mood or don’t feel like talking to anyone when I’ve gone out to run errands. However, being more mindful of how I present myself and how I listen to other people has surprisingly made it less daunting to be sociable. Which is interesting as this isn’t what I was intending to use it for, and was rather approaching it as a way of learning how to come across well. What I enjoyed the most about doing this is that it taught me how to listen more effectively. Now I make a better effort to really listen to what someone is saying to me and be present when I talk to them.
I’m also not saying for a minute that I’ve turned into a completely different person. There were still a couple of days throughout this week where I was exhausted from socialising. There are still times where I get pissed off by something or someone and the last thing I want to do is be interested and present so instead shut myself in my room and watch Netflix. What it has done however is make me more open to interactions with others. I still get anxious chatting to people, but I’ve seen some positive changes.
Who knows if my efforts during this time have really made me more likeable? I definitely feel better about myself as a result, and I’ve noted changes in my own behaviours. Of course, I could just be coming off as a complete stalker who has an unhealthy interest in other people(!) but I hope that’s not the case.
After this experience I hope to continue my effort not to improve how ‘likeable’ I am but rather, to improve how confident and content I feel within myself.
Words by Lauren Barnard for Anthem Online.
Images from Nathaniel Russel/Mitch Prinstein/NY Times, Explorying Your Mind, Robert Rolih, Salt 10.65 and Lauren Barnard.