By Alex Fradera
Why do we screw up the good impressions we mean to make? In the extensive scientific literature on self-presentation, the most popular theory is that failures are due to a loss of control. We snap at someone, allow our voice to falter, or let our unlikeable side slip out from underneath the managed veneer. According to this theory, we know how we should behave, and only fall short because we’re distracted or drained of self-control.
But a new paper in Social and Personality Psychology Compass argues that people often make bad impressions, not because of a lack of self-control, but because they adopt counterproductive presentational tactics. Utrecht University’s Janina Steinmetz and her colleagues unpack several such tactics that many of us believe to be likely to impress but which psychology research shows are big mistakes. Their paper makes for a handy guide on how not to come across as a jerk.
First, hold back from back-handed compliments. Telling someone “you are very smart for an intern” might seem a clever manoeuvre to ensure admiration: encouraging the other person to like you, while reminding them of their place in the hierarchy. But it rarely pans out this way, as we’re quick to see these compliments for what they are: put-downs. What’s more, their calculated nature can betray how much you care about where you are ranked – which comes across as needy and actually lowers your status.
Second, quit the humblebragging. Though a newly coined word, the meaning should be familiar to most of us: an attempt at self-promotion cloaked in humility. Whether tweeted at you or brayed at you over a glass of wine, statements like “Paris, Milan AND Tel Aviv in four days? I must figure out how to pace myself…” typically come across as insincere, with a strong sense of manipulation to boot.
Steinmetz’ team also discuss hypocrisy, which admittedly is more an outcome than a tactic. But some people are more willing to skirt into this area, denouncing behaviours or attitudes when they think it will score them points, regardless of whether they’re just as guilty. Sometimes this is going to pay off, but being caught out as a hypocrite is going to have a far greater negative impact.
Lastly, avoid hubris. Research shows that we really don’t like people who big themselves up in comparison to other people. “I’m better than others at X” is more poorly received than “I’m good at” or “I’m better at X than I was”. Such downward social comparisons are seen as hostile, and even if they aren’t directed negatively at the audience, the audience tends to read it as an indirect poke at their own ability.
It may be that in a social media-focused world where people benefit from seeming larger than life, these tactics can provide benefits of a sort, through creating a divisive but memorable persona. Certainly, many contemporary media figures trade on self-promotion and a blow-hard demeanor, and arguably Donald Trump propelled himself to the White House by drawing on these methods. But the evidence base suggests that the impact of these behaviours on our personal relationships, in real, everyday interactions, is negative.
The authors emphasise that there are other, well-documented ways of making a bad impression, such as extreme shyness making it hard to engage. But what’s interesting about the four self-sabotaging tactics they’ve identified is that a lot of us choose them freely – especially when we fail to think how something might look from the other person’s point of view – and hence we should be able to address them at source. After all, sharing an event that makes you proud (but also has an embarrassing aspect) may be received as a humblebrag, or as a fun anecdote, depending on the conversational context and the receiver’s state of mind. The good news here is that perspective-taking is something that we can all practice and become more mindful about.
If you know someone who is habitually prone to the bad tactics highlighted here, it’s possible they score higher than average in trait narcissism. Such individuals usually enjoy making downward comparisons, back-handed compliments, and hubristic statements – seeing such tactics as a way to keep others in their place in order to protect their own high status. They also tend towards manipulation, using tactics to manipulate others. They typically take risks, which makes them liable to humblebrag and act hypocritically and assume that these tricks won’t be caught. Finally, they rarely go in for perspective-taking, which further compounds their predicament.
Whether you’re a narcissist or not, it’s best to cut out these tactics sooner rather than later, because they may produce a vicious cycle. If you use them, people tend not to want to be close to you – but it’s precisely those closest to you that may give you honest feedback, like “that feels like humblebragging”. After shedding close friends, you could end up with a circle of acquaintances happy enough to nod along in public… and roll their eyes when your back is turned. Perhaps, then, the worst impression is the one you don’t even know you are making.