How to influence the way other people see you

Oliver Burkeman

Few facts about daily social life are quite as troubling as this one: you don’t really have the faintest idea how you’re coming across to others. Reading Heidi Grant Halvorson’s new book, No One Understands You And What To Do About It, you start to feel it’s a miracle that two humans ever manage a successful conversation, let alone a friendship or a marriage.

Studies reveal only minor correlations between how you think you’re viewed and how people view you; if those around you aren’t falling victim to the “false consensus effect” (assuming you’re just like them), then they’re falling victim to the “false uniqueness effect” (assuming you couldn’t possibly be as clever, or busy, or unhappy as them). Or maybe it’s you who’s falling victim to the “transparency illusion”, assuming your words and facial expressions are a dead giveaway for your feelings, when usually they’re not.

Halvorson notes that Barack Obama, after his disastrous first presidential debate of 2012, was convinced he’d done brilliantly. If arguably the world’s best living orator can’t read his audience, what hopes for you or me?

It gets worse. We chronically forget how much difference it makes that we have access only to our own thoughts and emotions; we don’t realise how many assumptions we’re forced to make about other people’s. Plus, we’re “cognitive misers”: life is so complex that we instinctively conserve our mental processing energy, spending it only when we must. That partly explains racial and gender stereotypes – they’re an effort-saving short cut – and a host of other hasty judgments.

Finally, there’s ego bias: what matters about you, to someone else, is whatever has most meaning for them, not for you. Thus, when evaluating candidates for a job, average-looking people penalise attractive applicants, while good-looking people don’t, because the average ones feel subconscious “social threat”. It’s always about the perceiver, not the perceived.

Can others ever see us the way we intend? Halvorson says yes. Many of her suggestions involve nudging people from gut judgments to more effortful, reflective ones. Show a little vulnerability, for example, and the resulting bond of empathy should prompt people to see you more clearly. Compliment someone on their fairness or accurate judgments and, research suggests, it may become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

But her most useful observation might be this: when it comes to judging how people see you, trust the numbers. Our individual encounters with each other may be distorted by bias and egocentrism, but in aggregate, patterns emerge. If people regularly back away from you at parties, it’s unlikely to be a coincidence: you’re coming off as boring. If you keep being handed high-responsibility projects at work, maybe you seem far more competent than you’d imagined. It may be true that nobody understands you, but when they all don’t understand you in exactly the same way, there’s probably a lesson lurking there.