For many people, the moments after a conversation — and sometimes even during the conversation — can be filled with self-doubt. There's a lot of second guessing, like what did the person on the other side of the conversation think? And double the speculation if you're meeting for the first time.
We engage in what's called "meta-perception," or the act of trying to figure out what other people think about us. The end result of these mental gymnastics is that we think people don't actually like us much after that first conversation.
However, we shouldn't worry so much, because it turns out that people tend to like us just fine after even a single conversation, according to a study published in journal Psychological Science.
Mind the 'liking gap'
The researchers called this disconnect the "liking gap," and it's getting in our way of enjoying a "rewarding part of social life," the researchers write.
"Our research suggests that accurately estimating how much a new conversation partner likes us — even though this a fundamental part of social life and something we have ample practice with — is a much more difficult task than we imagine," the study's first authors Erica Boothby, a postdoctoral researcher at Cornell University, and Gus Cooney, a postdoctoral researcher at Harvard University, told the Association for Psychological Science.
To test the validity of the liking gap, the researchers conducted a number of experiments. The first one invited people to come to a laboratory at Yale University to have a five-minute conversation with a stranger of the same sex. Thirty-six participants were given ice breakers to help get the conversation going, including questions along the lines of "Where are you from?" and "What are your hobbies?".
Following the conversation, the participants were escorted to different rooms where they completed a survey about how much they liked their conversation partner and how much they perceived their partner liked them. The end result was that people underestimated how much the other person liked them. After research assistants went through and attempted to code signals of people liking one another during the conversations — they were recorded, with the participants' consent — and found that we often simply ignore signals that the other person is giving us.
A second experiment involved a larger group of people, 84 this time, and there weren't supplied with icebreakers — an effort to have the conversations "unfold more naturally." After the conversation, participants wrote about their impressions of both their conversation partner and themselves, answering questions about what points in the conversations led them to develop these impressions. Again, people underestimated how much people liked them.
Additional experiments were conducted to see if the liking gap diminished if the conversation was longer than five minutes — it didn't; it stayed relatively steady — and to see if the liking gap existed in non-laboratory settings, including a university workshop titled "How to Talk to Strangers," and also included suite mates in a college dorm who lived together for a full academic year. In these last two instances, people still perceived themselves as either less interesting or less liked by the other person than how that person actually rated them.
You like me! You really, really like me!
The liking gap, it seems, persists over time and across sexes, affecting the general public and students alike. So why do people keep thinking that everyone likes them less than they actually do?
The researchers offer up a few possibilities. The first is that people turn to their (perceived) mistakes in an effort to be better next time they meet the person, and the inner-critic many of us have goes into overdrive trying to fix things, even though our conversation partner thought everything went fine. Second, we tend to hold ourselves to higher standards than others do, holding up conversational skills to an internal ideal that the other person doesn't have access to. Finally, we often overestimate how much of our feelings, like self-consciousness or nervousness, are on display and "readily apparent" to others. That makes us think the person sitting across from us is very aware of those feelings, and that they're judging us because of it.
"It just so happens that people's overt behavior is often initiated unconsciously and is, for the most part, quite likable," the researchers write. "Years of practice have largely shaped people into pleasing conversation partners who gaze, and laugh, and smile, and pause, and gesture, and speak, and take turns in ways that sync with their conversation partners. In short, consciously, people feel like their social awkwardness is on display, but unconsciously, people are executing behavior that makes for remarkably smooth conversations."