Social interactions can be tricky for everyone. Whether you’re an introvert or an extrovert, in a job interview or during an introduction between friends, we all try to make a good impression on someone we are meeting for the first time. The pressure this puts us under can make it a daunting experience, but it turns out that we are better at talking to strangers than we seem to think.

In a series of 5 studies conducted by psychologists from Harvard University, Cornell University, University of Essex in England, and Yale University, and published in Psychological Science in September 2018, it emerged that we often judge ourselves too harshly on our ability to come out as a pleasant conversation partner.

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“Our research suggests that accurately estimating how much a new conversation partner likes us is a much more difficult task than we imagine,” said study author Erica Boothby, a postdoctoral researcher at Cornell University.

Over the course of these studies, the professors first paired strangers and assigned them the task of conducting a 5-minute conversation revolving around mundane introductory questions; then, as the studies went on, they increased the freedom of conversation or its length, and finally moved on from student to real-world settings such as workshops on “how to talk to strangers” conducted for the British public, or even college dormitories. At the end of every conversation,the participants were asked to answer questions about how much they liked their conversation partner and how much they thought their partner liked them.

“…it emerged that we often judge ourselves too harshly on our ability to come out as a pleasant conversation partner.”

What came out of these experiments is clear: on average, we think we like our partner more than they like us. In the first study, the participants didn’t seem to account for clear signs of enjoyment from their partner. In a different study, participants deemed that they had given their partners more reasons to form negative thoughts about them than their partners had given them.

“They seem to be too wrapped up in their own worries about what they should say or did say to see signals of others’ liking for them,” one of the researchers, Clark, noted.

Even more striking was the fact that this liking gap appeared to be consistent whether people had a lengthy conversation or not, or whether the conversation took place in a study environment or in real-world settings. A study of actual college roommates showed that the liking gap lasted over several months, only evening out as the college year wrapped up.

The results stand in contrast with the established finding that people view themselves more positively than they do others. While we are quick to judge others, we are more hesitant when it comes to people’s perception of us. “Conversation appears to be a domain in which people display uncharacteristic pessimism about their performance,” according to one of the professors.

“Conversation appears to be a domain in which people display uncharacteristic pessimism about their performance,” according to one of the professors.

This phenomenon is known as the “liking gap”, and can become an obstacle to us thriving in social settings. Its existence resonates with another social phenomenon: our assumption that conversing with strangers will be necessarily unpleasant. In a different study conducted in 2014 on rail and bus commuters travelling to Chicago, it was established that it is more rewarding to strike up a conversation with a complete stranger on public transport than to sit in solitude.

A further interesting detail from the studies is that the pleasure of talking to strangers was observed for introverts and extraverts alike. “Removing the barrier to starting a conversation, rather than trying to increase a person’s own trait extroversion, may therefore be the most effective way to encourage interactions with distant strangers,” the researchers said.

 

“A further interesting detail from the studies is that the pleasure of talking to strangers was observed for introverts and extraverts alike”

So why do we always assume talking to strangers will be so unpleasant, or that the first impression we give will be worse than the one we receive from a new conversation partner? The most likely reason found by these studies was each of us mistakenly assumes that other people don’t want to talk, thus creating a situation of “pluralistic ignorance”. This theory pairs well with the liking gap theory: we are very self-critical when it comes to the impression we leave on others, making it sometimes difficult to take the first step and engage in conversation without the fear of judgement.

This attitude of self-critique might even prevent new relationships from forming, and allow personal and professional opportunities to pass us by. “As we ease into new neighbourhoods, build new friendships, or try to impress new colleagues, we need to know what other people think of us,” Boothby said. “Any systematic errors we make might have a big impact on our personal and professional lives.”

And while the study does not offer a miracle remedy for social anxiety and not falling into the “liking gap”, being aware of its existence can be the first step in the direction of better self-esteem and overcoming those negative thoughts.