We want to make friends for a number of reasons; it’s safer, it meets our needs for affiliation, it reflects our sense of identity and makes us feel good about ourselves. Friends are helpful when we want to get things done, but how do you get things done with people you would not usually want to spend time with?
Connected to this idea of making friends I have become fascinated by people who look friendly and appear easy to approach and those who are look to be saying ‘back-off’. I wonder whether the latter are deliberately giving off that vibe or are blissfully unaware of it. Giving the ‘back-off’ look can be advantageous and most of us will deliberately deploy it at certain times, such as when we walk by a person wishing to sign us up for something in a shopping centre. The problem is when we want to develop friendships and relationships but don’t recognise that our non-verbals are putting others off. Essentially we are conveying a message that we are foe rather than friend.
Even though I work in the area of human behaviour, I still find it difficult to overcome my biology when faced with someone who presents the ‘back-off’ look. My parents raised me to be polite, to walk down the street and acknowledge other people with a head nod, a smile and sometimes a hello. This conditioning means that I feel a tension when I don’t engage in these common courtesies. Imagine the extra tension I felt when I turned up to a friend’s apartment block to find a person waiting for a lift that possessed one of the best ‘back-off faces’ I have experienced. I was fully aware of what I wanted to do – to smile and say hello, but I was unable to overcome my anxiety about what would happen and the fact that I was getting signals that clearly said “don’t interact with me under any circumstance”. The tension during the short lift trip was palpable and it stood out to me because of the rejection I felt. The person’s face suggested at best I was something that should be feared and at worst something that disgusted them. The reality is that they could have been completely unaware of their body language and additionally that their state could have absolutely nothing to do with my presence.
Subconsciously we place people into one of three categories – we identify people as friend, foe or strangers. Our Reticular Activation System (a series of neuronal circuits that direct our attention to stimuli that our brain deems important) scans the environment and discards strangers but focuses attention on people who may be friend or foe because they provide the biggest opportunities for pleasure or pain.
The question arises about the motivation to consciously appear as friend rather than foe. I believe that we often appear as foe not by design but through distraction and by not being present to those around us. This was illustrated to me recently in a seemingly trivial interaction. I was doing the grocery shopping on Saturday morning at the local supermarket. As I waited to get my essentials checked through I watched the woman in front of me put her groceries on the conveyor whilst talking on her phone. Her conversation lasted the duration of the transaction and any communication between herself and the cashier was conducted by non-verbals (mainly pointing). It was clear to see that while the cashier remained professional she was affected by the subtext of the transaction, which translated to “you don’t matter”. It was a poignant reminder that a transaction that is trivial to one person has the power to either validate or reject the other. Interacting with another person in a way that affirms them is not just good for them but makes us feel good as well.
Appearing as ‘friend’ becomes important in all walks of life because we make judgements about people very quickly – within three to ten seconds and use our first encounter as a filter through which to view future interactions. If we make a bad first impression it tends to stick. So how do we get others to like us? How do we validate another person?
We increase eye contact with those we are interested in. This doesn’t mean holding a direct stare for minutes, but we naturally increase the amount of time we spend looking at people we are interested in and we look to catch their gaze. When we don’t want any kind of relationship we do the exact opposite – again, think about how much eye contact you give the pesky sales person in the shopping centre.
We naturally associate smiling with safety and friendliness. Smiling produces a release of feel-good drugs called endorphins and when we smile others are inclined to mimic our facial expression, smile and get their own hit of endorphins and associate the good feeling with us.
Mirroring Body Language
When we like people or want others to like us we naturally match body language. Because this is an instinctive and subliminal process we can deliberately use the technique of mirroring to build rapport. This can feel clunky at the start, but because it falls within the range of normal behaviour in social interactions it goes undetected by the other person. We recommend watching other people when you are out to see how it consistently occurs when two or more people are in a friendship.
When we are interested in someone we tend to lean towards them when they are speaking. This physical movement elevates the person’s sense of status and self-esteem by gesturing that we think what they have to say is interesting, valuable and important – we make them feel better about themselves and they reciprocate in the way they see us, including thinking of us as more intelligent, trustworthy and likeable.
Paying a Compliment
People want to feel good about their own selves and when we compliment them on an aspect of their appearance, their skill, their attitude or their effort, we affirm their sense of self-worth.
Showing an Interest
People want to know that they matter and when we ask questions about their day, or things that they have indicated are important to them, we send a message that they are important to us.
Laughing is good for us and we are attracted to people who have the ability to inject an element of light-heartedness into our day. Most of us would say that we would rather be around positive people who appropriately have the ability to see the funny side of a situation and help us to not take ourselves so seriously.
People who build strong personal and professional relationships overcome their biology to ignore or distance themselves from those they see as difficult or inconsequential and apply the ideas mentioned above…even with the person who checks their groceries at the supermarket.