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Stop Assuming They Don’t Like You


Stop Assuming They Don’t Like You

Photo by  Noah Buscher  on  Unsplash

When you think about what makes you anxious in life, social events are likely to feature prominently. Public speaking, meeting new people, and competing with others make many of us wince with an awkward pain. We have anxieties about what can go wrong for good reasons: loneliness is a killer, and weak social networks can prevent us from making progress.

Fear of embarrassment may be one of the primary emotional drivers that make us nervous about joining or speaking to a new group of people. We don’t want to be that person standing alone at the party and we don’t want our reputations destroyed by a hasty comment that came out wrong. Generally speaking, two things need to come together to cause embarrassment. The first is a failure according to our personal standards (e.g. falling over or saying something stupid). The second is a social setting in which we know others may be judging us. When you look at the brain while someone is embarrassed, you find activity in exactly the areas of the brain that are most relevant for these functions: emotional arousal areas like the anterior insula that are linked to the experience of personal failure, and ‘mentalizing’ areas like the medial prefrontal cortex that are involved in understanding what other people may be thinking about us.

When we end up in the unfortunate position of social reject, the emotional pain we experience is not so different to the physical pain from a burn. Both are deeply uncomfortable, highly aversive, and both make me want to jump into a large bucket of ice water to numb the pain. In fact, there is striking similarity between the two types of pain in how the brain treats them. They both activate parts of the brain important for processing physical sensations on the body (like the posterior insula and somatosensory cortex). When you really zoom in to look at those areas in more detail, you may be able to detect differences in the precise patterns of activation within them, depending on the type of pain. After all, the two experiences are not entirely identical and we are still very capable of distinguishing them. But there is no getting around it: when we feel socially rejected, it hurts like hell. Whether a romantic partner has called for a hiatus, or we’ve embarrassed ourselves in front of an audience, the brain knows exactly which systems to recruit in order to make it as excruciating as it needs to be.

Photo by  rawpixel  on  Unsplash . Adapted by yours truly.

Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash. Adapted by yours truly.

If some of my previous accounts of personal and general brain-hating haven’t already made it clear, we are vulnerable to errors in our perceptions and thinking patterns. So maybe there are times when we misread how others feel about us. In a refreshingly simple recent experiment, researchers put two strangers into a room, gave them a few ice-breakers, and asked them to chat. They then pulled the couple apart and surveyed them individually on how they felt about the other person, and how they believed the other person felt about them. People consistently underestimated how much the other person liked them, and the researchers called this ‘the liking gap’. This gap in how we think other people feel about us, and how they actually feel, can persist for months after we meet someone, and it holds true whether the conversations we had were 2 minutes or 45 minutes long.

It’s almost as though we are utterly determined to believe that other people have a problem with us, even in the absence of any evidence to support that belief. The effect may be driven by an excessively critical review of our own performance after an interaction with a new person. We judge our own conversational quality more negatively than we judge other people’s. We dwell too long on small details that might have been mistakes and might have annoyed or offended our conversational partner, and don’t pay enough attention to how they reacted perfectly happily or normally to everything we said. Perhaps this self-critical attitude drives us to improve and become better company in the long run. Or perhaps it needlessly upsets and embarrasses us, and makes us hesitant to meet new people in the future. That’s for you to decide.

Photo by  Kelly Sikkema  on  Unsplash . Adapted by yours truly.

Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash. Adapted by yours truly.

We are gregarious creatures, so friends provide some of the biggest excitements and joys that life has to offer. It’s a good idea to carefully monitor our behavior and make sure we present our best selves when we meet new people. But much of the time, we have a habit of reading the situation poorly. In typical conversations, the pressure to be liked can overwhelm our rationality and distort our judgments about what other people are thinking. When we next conclude that a conversation was a failure, it might be worth a second thought. And even when we really do suffer a social rejection, there may be silver linings we can cling to, like the opportunity to use our emotional reactions and sense of independence as inspiration to be creative (and there are other ways to maximize your creativity too). Aren’t all the best love songs about breakups?


Social Signals: From Awkward Encounters to Best Friends


Social Signals: From Awkward Encounters to Best Friends

Photo by  Duy Pham  on  Unsplash

Photo by Duy Pham on Unsplash

Some people just have it. None of us really know what ‘it’ is, but we tend to call it social charisma. As I write this, I am sitting at a desk in the British Library in London, UK, opposite a young male French student who is studying here, and two other British female students next to him (I don’t know any these people). The male was a stranger to the female pair only moments ago. But now they are fully engaged in a verbal dialogue full of smiles and honest enjoyment. The interaction brings to mind the kind of dance that some colorful species of male bird might do to attract a mate. And this guy is the most colorful in the entire library. It really doesn’t seem to be the stuff that he says, but the way that he says it. Anyone who listens is bound to be enthralled, purely through the non-verbal communicative signals he is giving off. I am certainly enthralled. And I am certainly more than a little odd because I have been glancing and eavesdropping on this situation for far too long by any normal standard.

New social situations are a pretty tense environment for many of us. We want to be liked and the feeling of being judged is anxiety-inducing. For some people with neuropsychiatric disorders, the experience is even more salient. Tourette syndrome is a disorder characterized by unwanted, rapid, repeated, and sudden movements of the body. These movements are called tics and they can include eye blinks, facial movements, and vocalizations. During a research project I was running in Germany in 2013, I chatted with a Tourette Syndrome patient about their social experiences. He was the only patient I had met who suffered from severe vocal tics, and it was interesting to talk to him about how that affected his life. He would tell me nightmarish stories about his experiences on local buses for example, where he would involuntarily shout Nazi slogans, and get beaten up in response, by people who thought he was some kind of racist demagogue (remember this is in Germany, and in case you didn’t know, German society is a little sensitive when it comes to speech related to Nazism). He went on to say his tics were always at their worst when it was least appropriate for him to tic, which sounds like the kind of torture the most evil person in the universe would inflict upon their victims. The content of vocal tics and their frequency will depend on a patient’s anxieties in the moment. Indeed, when I introduced myself as “Erman”, this word featured prominently in the rest of his vocal tics during our time in the room together. He may have adopted it because it was a noticeably unusual name, and because repeatedly shouting it might be considered awkward and inappropriate. With time, it settled down, perhaps because I did my best not to respond to it. But as you can probably imagine, it is quite difficult to avoid reacting when someone shouts your name.

The experience with the patient I mentioned above is a revealing one that we can all relate to, at least to some small and less extreme extent. Social situations provide many of our biggest opportunities to embarrass ourselves, ruin our reputations, and be widely hated. Loneliness is one of the most dangerous psychological threats to our mental wellbeing, and it exposes the deep evolutionary roots of social networks. Historically, friends and family have been essential for care and safety. Although we could lead a physically safe life without them in the modern world, we would struggle to shake the yearning feeling for loving people around us.

Photo from Pixabay. Adapted by yours truly.

Photo from Pixabay. Adapted by yours truly.

One big question is, do we know anything about what makes people likable and effective at building positive relationships? The first bandwagon people jump on in explaining this phenomenon is social mimicry. We like people who copy our behavior as we interact with them, and we also mimic the people we like. This mimicry usually involves small physical actions like adjusting our posture or touching our face while talking, and there is evidence that this characterizes communication between people who are enjoying each other’s company. When a scientific stooge mimics a participant in conversation during an experiment, the participant feels they have a stronger rapport with that stooge, and they perceive the interaction to be smoother, even when the participant is not at all aware of any mimicry. Most of us have probably noticed the special quality of mimicry when interacting with infants, where we are more likely to exaggerate our facial expressions so that they are no longer subtle unconscious movements. Infants react more positively to adults who mimic them and the adults seem unable to stop themselves from maniacally copying every expression on the infant’s face.

So mimicry does seem to work, but it’s likely to perform best when it’s under the radar and detected only unconsciously. If we try too hard with it, there is a strong chance the person being copied will pick up on a slightly odd or robotic communicational style, which is likely to drive them away rather than make them like us more. And there is most certainly more to the story. Remember the guy I described at the library? I watched with my eagle eye and failed to spot anything coming close to mimicry from him.

Touch is another powerful social signal. We do not use it much in Western societies, especially in places like the UK where even extended eye contact creates a sense of awkwardness. But it is certainly a core part of our evolutionary history. Primates, including chimpanzees, groom each other as a social bonding technique, not just as a means to keep clean and eat a parasite or two. The total time that individuals within some primate species spend grooming each other correlates with the strength of their relationship. A chimpanzee is more likely to share food with another chimpanzee if the second has groomed the first within the last two hours, and similar patterns are found when analyzing the likelihoods that one baboon will help another when under attack. The time and effort that primates devote to social grooming is unlike any grooming found elsewhere in the animal kingdom, with some primate species spending up to 20% of their day touching and brushing each other.

Photo by  Brian Mann  on  Unsplash . Adapted by yours truly.

Photo by Brian Mann on Unsplash. Adapted by yours truly.

Humans are exceptionally good at verbal communication, so our relationships are generally dominated by speaking to each other. But we still enjoy touching our closer friends and family. Mothers stroke their children, and if my childhood is anything to go by, then mothers also incessantly groom their child’s hair when they see a note from school describing a hair lice epidemic. Romantic partners also enjoy physical contact now and again, although common jokes would suggest their urges generally decline with the duration of their relationship. Teammates in sport develop elaborate handshake protocols, often exclusive to individual pairs of players, which they execute religiously upon meeting. They fist bump when expressing determination or condolence during weak performance, but reserve chest bumps for scoring celebrations. Waitresses who briefly touch their customers on the shoulder or hand also get larger tips than those who do not, regardless of the gender of the customer.

There is little doubt that touch is capable of strengthening the social bond between people, and positively impacting behavior. It is not necessarily a good idea to comb through the hair of the next stranger you meet. But it is helpful to consider the power and benefit of the sense of touch between loved ones. Subtle pats on the back or arm can enhance friendships, even without a person noticing them. Closer friends are more likely to want to touch each other in the first place, and touching is likely to drive them even closer. Touch is an influential and important social behavior, but that can make it both a very good and a very bad thing, depending on its context. It’s not something we should flippantly hand out like a cookie. So please, use it wisely.

Social behaviors vary between cultures and people, so there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to building strong connections with the people we meet. Some people love hugs and contact, while others will stick to a firm handshake. This complexity in human sociality can cause those awkward hug-handshake hybrid moments when we meet new people, but it also underlies the diversity that we love about the world. It’s always useful to understand the commonalities between us in the way we interact: emotion, mimicry, touch, humor. But in the end, we have to treat each new person we meet as an individual, and work out the ideal way to interact with them in order to build a positive relationship. I don’t know about you, but I find that exciting.