Why We're So Annoyed by People Who Come on Too Strong

New research shows why less can be more in managing your impression.

Posted Sep 04, 2018

Meeting someone for the first time can give you rare insights into his or her psychological makeup. Your first impression sets the stage for how your relationship with this person is destined to evolve. Perhaps you’ve made an appointment with a new dentist because you’re dissatisfied with your previous dentist. After taking one quick look inside your mouth, she immediately starts telling you all the procedures you’re likely to need, how much they cost, and what your schedule of appointments should look like. She lets you know that before you come for your next visit, you need to brush and floss thoroughly so that there are no food remnants between your teeth.  You also need to buy new, expensive home appliances, including an electronic toothbrush and water flossing machine. Your head is spinning from the litany of instructions, and you leave the office wondering if maybe you should do a little more shopping for another dentist before you come back to see her. She just seems too controlling and you’d like someone else who doesn’t come on quite so demanding at the first meeting, even if she was right in what she told you to do.

Impression management researchers are interested in pinpointing the factors that influence people’s reactions to the personality, communication style, and appearance of others. This research can provide insight into why you felt the way you did with this dentist, but also can help you understand how better to present yourself to others. Coming on too strong in an initial interaction, from this perspective, involves appearing too dominant, both in the demands you might place on someone else, and in the ways that you overshadow the other person in conversation. You might also, if you’ve come on too strong, reveal too much about yourself. This dentist didn’t provide a great deal of information about herself, but perhaps you’ve met others at a social gathering who give you their entire life story in the first minute of your time together in a 5-minute monologue full cringe-worthy moments. This also makes you want to run away and find a more pleasing conversation partner.

New research by University of Texas at Arlington’s Wayne Crawford and colleagues (2018) applied the “self-verification theory” to better understand the discrepancies between the way people actually present themselves and the way others perceive them. Returning to the example of people who reveal too much about themselves the instant they meet you, self-verification theory would suggest that they think they’re being friendly and sociable, and not at all as annoying as you perceive them to be. Self-verification theory proposes that people desire others to view them the way they view themselves. According to this theory, “since self-concepts, or self-views, are so vital to understanding one’s self and reality, people are invested in protecting their self-views.” The theory also proposes that you’ll feel happier when your own view of yourself meshes with the way others see you. People do tend to have positive biases in evaluating themselves (unless they are depressed), so the theory would propose that you want others to see you in as positive a light as you see yourself.

The person who comes on too strong, then, thinks that this approach when meeting new people is appropriate. The dentist believes that she’s providing vital information that you need to have right away, instead of waiting to get to know you better, because she sees herself as a competent professional who knows what she’s doing. The result, in terms of impression management, is incongruence between the way the actor (in this case the dentist) and the audience (you) interpret the behavior. Self-verification theory proposes that when this incongruence exists, the actor will experience negative outcomes.

Thus, the problem for people who come on too strong is that they think they’re doing the right thing, and when they find out they’re not (i.e. you don’t schedule a new appointment with this dentist), this incongruence will chip away at their own favorable self-image. Of course, some people might like having all of this information presented to them at their first visit, in which case there will be no incongruence. In this case, the dentist and this other patient will be aligned in their interpretation of the dentist’s behavior.

Using data derived from the employees of a state agency, the authors investigated the responses of 175 employees (61% female, average age of 43) to complete questionnaires assessing their own impression management tactics relevant to the workplace as well as their job satisfaction. Their supervisors (60% female, average age of 47) provided ratings on parallel scales regarding their subordinates, including a measure of how much they liked the employees.

As predicted, Crawford et al. observed that there were negative outcomes for subordinates when their own ratings of impression management tactics deviated from those of their supervisors. For example, when the supervisors regarded their employees as engaging in boasting (self-promotion) to a greater degree than the employees saw themselves as boastful, employees were less satisfied with their jobs and even were less compliant with the agency’s practices.

From a theoretical point of view, the UT Arlington study was important because it showed that in impression management, you need to examine both the actor and the audience, not just the self-ratings of the actor (as is true in most impression management research). In returning to the original problem of people who come off too strong, the findings suggest that not everyone comes across as too strong to everyone else. As the expression goes, “is it you, or is it me?” the answer is that it’s the interaction of the two. That person at the party who is too revealing in the first few moments of your conversation may annoy you but be seen as engaging and scintillating by someone else.

To avoid being the one who comes across too strong yourself, the Crawford et al. study also suggests that you learn to read your audience. Don’t just automatically act the same way with everyone you meet. Crawford and his colleagues noted that in some subordinate-supervisor pairs, the longer pairs had worked together, the less incongruence existed between them. Your over-enthusiastic behavior of oversharing or trying to get people to do what you think is right could work with your partner or best friend but would be seen as offputting by a person who’s never met you before.

To sum up, people’s sense of self is strongly affected by the way others regard them, as the UT Arlington researchers suggest. Maintaining your own feelings of fulfillment can therefore depend considerably on ensuring you’ve managed to create the impression you desire.

References

Crawford, W. S., Kacmar, K. (M.)., & Harris, K. J. (2018). Do you see me as I see me? The effects of impression management incongruence of actors and audiences. Journal of Business and Psychology, doi:10.1007/s10869-018-9549-6