science of us

You’re Making a Better First Impression Than You Think

Photo: Getty Images/iStockphoto

Is there anything worse than meeting people? I don’t think so! Sure, they might become lovers (sorry), or lifelong friends, or even short-term friends, but more often than not, the people you meet just become people you met. And for many of us, people we met just become people we aren’t sure liked us. Sure, they smiled, and shook our hands, and asked us clarifying questions about our jobs. But they thought we were boring, right? Maybe even a little annoying? Yes, sometimes. (Sorry again.) But that’s not the norm — in fact, new research suggests that most people like you more than you think.

In an incredibly awkward-sounding experiment, researchers forced small talk among their subjects, who were strangers, and then asked them to rate their conversation partners, and to estimate how their partners rated them. The researchers found that participants consistently underestimated how well their conversation partners rated them and enjoyed their company, a phenomenon which they named “the liking gap.” This gap was found to be especially high for shy subjects, who tended to assume their partners basically hated their guts.

Interestingly, researchers noticed that the so-called liking gap persisted beyond the initial meeting — a number of the subjects were surveyed several times between meeting at the start of the school year and May, and even those who became friends (aw) still underestimated how much they were liked. No matter how long the conversations, or how much the subjects reported liking their new friends, they viewed their own conversational skills harshly. “Conversation appears to be a domain in which people display uncharacteristic pessimism about their performance,” said the researchers. They hypothesize that because we’re so absorbed in second-guessing the things we’re saying, we often miss signs that our conversation partners are actually enjoying themselves.

Apparently talking to strangers can be worth it, sometimes, despite our instincts to avoid it. And when you do end a conversation feeling certain you said something unforgettably dumb, rest assured that the person you were talking to probably thinks the same thing about themselves.

People Like You More Than You Think