If you’re the sort of person who walks away from a conversation feeling awkward about what you said and whether you left a bad impression, you’re far from alone.
The good news is new research shows we’re likely to underestimate how much we’re liked by relative strangers. So cheer up! It takes time for somebody to really get to know how awful you are.
Psychologists from Cornell, Yale, Harvard, and the University of Essex ran a five-part exper
“Having conversations with new people is a fundamental part of social life,” the researchers write in their report.
“It is how we meet new friends and romantic partners. It is how we ease into a new neighbourhood or workplace. It is a basic way we learn about the world.”
And unless you’re a gregarious socialite who is just bubbling with congeniality, it’s also an occasion to blurt out inappropriate comments and awkward small talk that leaves us pondering why we ever said that.
Fear not. Nobody noticed.
The term the psychologists use for this mismatch between our impression and the reality is a ‘liking gap’.
We tend to err on the side of thinking our attempts at being polite were poorly received for a number of reasons. There’s a risk that affirming comments won’t be reciprocated, for example, so we are conservative with compliments.
When those sorts of comments are expressed, we also easily miss them as we concentrate on avoiding asking when the baby is due, or bringing up their ex, or oh god did I really just tell them I hated their favourite movie?!
Based on previous evidence that this liking gap exists, the researchers wanted to learn more about how it works.
After confirming a strong self-deprecating mismatch existed among a small group of participants, the team invited 84 students to have a 5 minute conversation with one other volunteer and then go into detail in explaining their perspective on the discussion.
It showed we tend to judge our own actions far more negatively than we do others’. Even when the researchers later replicated the study with 100 non-students in the wider community, this observation remained fairly clear.
But does this liking gap persist through longer discussions? After all, maybe it just takes more than a few minutes to get to know somebody.
In a second study they invited 102 volunteers to talk as long as they wanted. As long as it was under 45 minutes, at least.
No matter how long the chat went for, whether it was a quick 2 minute pow-wow or an in depth 40 minute overshare, roughly the same number of participants came away with similar liking gaps.
Liking gaps are clearly a feature of being human, providing us with some sort of protection against feeling vulnerable when expanding our social circles.
To determine when – if ever – this gap subsides, the researchers collaborated with a longitudinal study following 102 cohabiting college students for 12 months.
At five points throughout the year, the students were surveyed on how much they liked individuals who shared their suite, and how they thought they might be perceived themselves.
You’ll be pleased to know those impressions do eventually synch up, but it can take several months of hand-wringing to get there.
That doesn’t mean we’re not prone to making a few mistakes. Past research suggests only about half of the people you think of as a friend feel the same way about you.
And those personal comments about bathroom habits we make in a first conversation? Our oversharing of photos when somebody adds us on Facebook? Yeah, don’t push your luck. You might be turning that liking gap into a reality.
Still, going by the numbers, there’s a far greater chance that we’re our own worst critic, and nobody was paying attention as they also desperately tried to avoid saying something stupid.
“In short, consciously, people feel like their social awkwardness is on display, but unconsciously, people are executing behaviour that makes for remarkably smooth conversations,” the researchers sum up.
This research was published in Psychological Science.