A recent paper reported in the very useful BPS Research Digest blog suggests that people often make a bad impression because they indulge in counter-productive tactics for trying to make themselves look better.
The paper, “Impression mismanagement: People as inept self-presenters” by Janina Steinmetz, Ovul Sezer, and Constantine Sedikides, lists four ‘strategies’ that people use that usually work against them:
- Backhanded compliments (“You look great for someone of your age”). These rarely work because the recipients can see them for the put-downs that they are.
- Humblebragging (“I wish I was better at knowing what I want, I just can’t decide between these job offers from Tesla and Google”). The speaker pretends to show vulnerability, while dropping facts that underline their brilliance, high status or wealth. The listener will usually notice the bragging rather than the mock humility.
- Hypocrisy – attempting to appear as a person who adheres to certain moral standards, while not in fact believing in them. This can successfully present an admirable image to others, as long as the deception is not found out. As soon as the person is caught saying one thing while doing another, the image collapses, leaving the person’s social standing worse off than before.
- Finally, hubris. People who compare themselves favourably to others come across as braggarts – even if the group being unfavourably compared is not the immediate audience.
The paper marks an interesting advance in what psychology knows about ‘impression management’. Previous research has suggested that generally people are pretty good at self-presentation, and only fall short when they are tired or distracted and their self-control slips, so that their less likeable side is inadvertently displayed to the world.
This paper suggests rather that the bad impressions that people make often happen not because of lapses in self-control, but because the tactics they freely choose are counterproductive. They suggest adopting different tactics to make a better impression.
Let’s look a bit deeper at why someone might regard these tactics as the best choice available. I suspect they come from a way of looking at the world that constantly compares oneself to others, and judges harshly whoever comes out of the comparison worse.
Research suggests that comparing oneself with others, at least as regards income, leads to unhappiness. A temptation when one is unhappy is to try to make oneself feel better by bringing others down. A habit of judging others on their appearance, behaviour, ‘success’ or social status will give the mind ample ammunition for hubris, backhanded compliments, and humblebrags.
What we say out loud inevitably comes from the way we see the world. Other people constantly gain clues to what we are thinking and feeling from the things we say and do, and this gives them a basis to make their own judgements about what we are like, how we are likely to behave in the future, and consequently whether they want to have anything to do with us in future.
So if a person attempts to follow the advice of the researchers and abandon the ‘tactics’ of hubris and the rest, but they still have a comparison-based, judgemental view of themselves and other people, we can predict that sooner or later, when they are tired or distracted, the mask will slip and out will come the backhanded compliments and bragging again.
Instead, why not try adopting an attitude of acceptance rather than judgement, and recognise that everyone is doing the best they can given their situation and how they see the world. It doesn’t mean you have to pretend that you like everyone or that the world is perfect, but it will mean that you feel happier and will have more energy to make the changes you want in a positive way.
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