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How Do We Know If Someone Likes Us?

Research reveals why we miss signs of positive attention.

Key points

  • Conversations make people vulnerable to social rejection, making some people reluctant to express interest.
  • People tend to underestimate how much their conversation partners like them, a phenomenon referred to as “the liking gap.”
  • Instead of being harshly critical of a first impression, it's more beneficial to try to keep the conversation going.

Have you ever reminisced about a pleasurable conversation that you really enjoyed, wondering if the feeling was mutual? Do you ask yourself whether the connection you felt was chemistry or wishful thinking? Research reveals that many of us second-guess the mutual attraction of interaction. But in many cases, our conversation partners like us more than we think.

 Mohamed Hassan/Pixabay
Source: Mohamed Hassan/Pixabay

The liking game

I have previously written about how conversation sparks powerful chemistry and builds relationships . But that assumes that all goes well. How do we know when it does?

Erica J. Boothby et al. explored this issue in a piece aptly entitled “The Liking Gap in Conversations: Do People like Us More than We Think?” (2018).[i] Recognizing conversations with new acquaintances as a part of social life that is both important and rewarding, they note that such social bonding can also be intimidating and anxiety-provoking, as people worry about the impressions they are making with their new acquaintances.

Thankfully, Boothby et al. found that after such meetings, people consistently tend to underestimate how much their conversation partners like them, an illusion they call “the liking gap.” They demonstrated the application of this phenomenon within different types of interactions, including laboratory conversation, college dorm mates getting to know each other, and personal development workshop attendees. Their research demonstrated that after conversations, most people are, in fact, liked more than they realize.

Why we second-guess first impressions

What causes the liking gap? Boothby et al. describe conversations as “conspiracies of politeness” where people do not disclose their true feelings. They also recognize that conversations make people vulnerable to social rejection, making some people reluctant to express interest lest it not be reciprocated. And they also note that because conversations can be cognitively demanding, even when people are exposed to green lights signaling positive response, they are too self-absorbed to even notice—often focusing more on what they are going to say next.

The results of conversational self-analysis and overthinking may lead to feelings of uncertainty and awkwardness, as we worry we were boring, said too much (or too little), or, God forbid, overstepped a boundary. Research indicates that when left to guess about how we came across, we usually sell ourselves short, especially when we met someone new. Boothby et al. note that while we can be our own worst critics, others do not have the same perspective of our faults—which causes us to overestimate how harshly others judge us while socializing.

Our own worst conversation critics

Boothby et al. report that their study participants systematically underestimated the extent to which their conversation partners liked them and enjoyed spending time together. They note that the liking gap was not present only initially but persisted over conversations from short to long, and even over the course of a year, as one of their studies involved developing relationships between dorm mates. They explain that the liking gap is evident through people viewing their personal conversational skills as worse than those of others.

Why do we feel like this? For several reasons. Boothby et al. note that people remember conversational mistakes in order to improve, hold themselves to higher standards than those used to judge others, and overestimate the extent to which they wear their feelings on their sleeves during social interactions. We tend to think our self-consciousness is somehow visible to interaction partners when (thankfully) it isn't.

Keep the conversation going

The good news for conversation critics is that apparently, we are more charming and likable than we think. Boothby et al. explain that in contrast to what might be running through our minds, most overt interactional behavior is automatic and usually likable due to years of practice.

So apparently, despite feeling awkward and rough around the edges, we are more likely to instinctively sound like smooth operators. So keep talking, remembering that new acquaintances probably like what they hear.

Facebook image: Prostock-studio/Shutterstock


[i] Boothby, Erica J., Gus Cooney, Gillian M. Sandstrom, and Margaret S. Clark. 2018. “The Liking Gap in Conversations: Do People like Us More than We Think?” Psychological Science 29 (11): 1742–56. doi:10.1177/0956797618783714.