After meeting someone for the first time, do you see yourself as a glittering conversationalist, a kind of Wildean wit whose bons mots sparkled and delighted? Or do you find yourself wincing at every possible faux pas, imagining all the ways you may have bored or offended?
If you identify with the former description, you are in the minority. Multiple studies show the average person takes a rather low opinion of their conversational abilities, and the social impressions they leave.
In most situations, we are often much more pleasant company than we imagine, yet we forget all the cues of friendliness towards us, and think we were irritating or dull. It is as if we are remembering a completely different conversation from the one that actually happened.
The mismatch between our perceptions of our social performance, and others’ opinions of us, is known as the “liking gap”, and it may limit our ability to form connections in our personal lives, and also stand in the way of mutually beneficial collaborations at work. Like many of our brain’s biases, the liking gap can be hard to correct – but the latest research suggests there are ways to overcome this common form of social anxiety.
The initial investigation into the liking gap was inspired by the personal experience of Erica Boothby and Gus Cooney, who are both psychologists at the University of Pennsylvania, US. Boothby was talking to a new acquaintance one day, as Cooney sat close-by. To Cooney, it was obvious that the conversation had gone well – yet Boothby was distinctly worried about the impression she had given.
Suspecting this was a common phenomenon, they set about devising a series of experiments to test people’s impressions of their encounters with others.
In the first study, they paired up students for five-minute ice-breaking conversations, then asked them to rate how much they liked them, with questions on whether they wanted to talk to the person again, or whether they imagined being friends. Each participant was also asked to guess how the other person would answer those questions: whether they would want to meet again or would like to be friends.
As suspected, they found that most participant’s estimations of their partner’s responses were consistently – and unrealistically – pessimistic. In general, each person had made a better impression than they thought they had – offering the first evidence for the liking gap.
To be sure it was a common phenomenon, the team replicated the experiment among general members of the public attending various personal development workshops. Time and again, they found a liking gap in the participants’ responses.
One study examined the impressions of university dorm-mates, with questionnaires in September – when they first met – and follow-ups in October, December, February and May. The researchers found the liking gap, firmly established on the first meeting, persisted for several months, until the roomies had eventually formed a more stable relationship with more accurate judgements of each other’s feelings. “It lasted for the better part of a year,” says Cooney.
The mismatch between our perceptions of our social performance, and others’ opinions of us, is known as the “liking gap”
You might expect gender differences in the results, but – at least for the platonic relationships that they have been investigating – Boothby and Cooney’s research suggests that the liking gap is equally important for men and women.
Their latest paper, published earlier this year, looked at the liking gap in groups, including teams of engineers. They found that the phenomenon is just as present in group meetings as it is in one-on-one conversations – with the participants consistently underestimating how much their teammates liked them. And that seemed to have important consequences for the workplace. The greater the liking gap between someone and their peer, the less comfortable they felt asking for advice or giving feedback, and the less interested they were in collaborating again.
The liking gap may simply arise from too much introspection. We are so busy worrying about the impression we’ve given – and agonising over every tiny thing that we might have said wrong – that we miss all the positive signals. We don’t notice someone’s laughter or encouraging smile or the warmth in their eyes.
This tendency seems to emerge when we’re very young. Wouter Wolf and colleagues at Duke University, US, recently asked pairs of children to build a tower block together. After, the researchers asked them to rate how much they liked their partner, and how much their partner liked them. Four-year-olds showed no evidence of the liking gap – they correctly appraised how much their partner liked them. By five, however, the children were already underestimating the chances that their new acquaintance would want to be their friend.
“When you're very young, you might just assume that if someone’s nice to me, then they actually feel that way about me,” says Wolf, who is now an assistant professor of developmental psychology at Utrecht University in the Netherlands. “Young children don’t really have this notion of politeness.” As the child gets older, however, they start to realise that people may be covering up their irritation or boredom. “There’s more uncertainty in relating someone’s behaviour to how they actually feel about you.” And this means that they start second-guessing other people’s reactions.
A little self-awareness can, of course, be healthy. “It could make sense for me to call out some of my flaws, so that I could correct them next time I talked,” says Cooney. No-one wants to find out that they’ve been an unwitting irritation to their acquaintances. But many of us are far too pessimistic. And those judgements prevent us from connecting with people who may really appreciate us, despite our slightly clumsy conversation.
The research on the liking gap echoes numerous studies examining our general fears of talking to strangers like taxi drivers, waiters or people in the park. In general, we imagine that conversations with others will be much more arduous than they really are – which of course, means that we are less likely to start chatting in the first place.
“People are just terrified of the awkward silence,” says Gillian Sandstrom at the University of Essex, UK. It seems that both before and after our interactions, we let negative thinking cloud our judgement of what could otherwise be a pleasant encounter.
The phenomenon is just as present in group meetings as it is in one-on-one conversations
Sandstrom, who was also a co-author on the original liking-gap study, had suspected that a little bit of education about the art of conversation might ease our anxieties. But an intervention along these lines didn’t end up having much effect on participants’ subsequent experiences of a conversation with a stranger.
She suspects that the tips might have simply drawn the participants’ attention to the ways they could slip up – amplifying their negative internal voice. “They might become stuck inside their own head.” Sandstrom’s work suggests that repeated practice is the best way to ease our anxieties: the more people talk to strangers, the less they worry about their ability to do so.
For Cooney, the basic understanding of the liking gap has provided an inoculation against the usual social anxieties. “It just jogs me out of that negative thinking,” he says. If you do find yourself agonising over a conversation, he suggests you put yourself in the other person’s shoes, and question whether the person would have really noticed or remembered the supposed faux pas.
In the few cases that you have dropped a real clanger, you can frame the embarrassment as a lesson learnt, which will improve your next meeting. Most of the time, however, you can go easy on yourself. The chances are that you were more much more likeable than you think.
David Robson is a science writer and author based in London, UK. His next book, The Expectation Effect: How Your Mindset Can Transform Your Life will be published in early 2022.