I gave a speech at my college’s founders day last summer, a speech I carefully crafted and practiced delivering. And it went well. I was relieved and pleased with myself. Until months later—when I saw the cold, hard video documentation of the event. The triumph of that speech in my mind’s eye morphed into the duller reality unfolding on the TV screen. My body language was awkward. My voice was grating. My facial expressions, odd. My timing, not quite right. Is this how people saw me? It’s a terrifying thought: What if I possess a glaring flaw that everyone notices but me? Or, fears aside, what if there are a few serious differences between how I view myself and how others view me? What if I think I’m efficient but I’m seen as disorganized?
While many profess not to care what others think, we are, in the end, creatures who want and need to fit into a social universe. Humans are psychologically suited to interdependence. Social anxiety is really just an innate response to the threat of exclusion; feeling that we’re not accepted by a group leaves us agitated and depressed. The ability to intuit how people see us is what enables us to authentically connect to others and to reap the deep satisfaction that comes with those ties.
Your ideas about what others think of you hinge on your self-concept—your own beliefs about who you are. You filter the cues that you get from others through your self-concept. Our self-concept is fundamentally shaped by one person in particular: our mother. How our mother (or primary caregiver) responded to our first cries and gestures heavily influences how we expect to be seen by others. Children behave in ways that perpetuate what they have experienced. As an infant scans his mother’s face he absorbs clues to who he is; as adults we continue to search for our reflections in others’ eyes. We have a fairly stable view of ourselves. We expect other people to see that same view immediately. And they do. On average there is consensus about how you come off. For starters, each person has an idiosyncratic way of sizing up others that (like metaperceptions themselves) is governed by her own self-concept. A person you meet will assess you through her unique lens, which lends consistency to her views on others. Some people, for example, are “likers” who perceive nearly everyone as good-natured and smart.
Furthermore, if a particular person doesn’t care for you, it won’t always be apparent. People are generally not direct in everyday interactions. Classic work by psychologist Paul Ekman has shown that most people can’t tell when others are faking expressions. Who knows how many interactions you’ve walked away from thinking you were a hit while your new friend was actually faking agreeability? And there’s just a whole lot going on when you meet someone. You’re talking, listening and planning what you’re going to say next, as well as adjusting your nonverbal behavior and unconsciously responding to the other person’s.
People endowed with the trait of physical awareness have a keen sense of how they present themselves. If you are concerned with the observable parts of personality—voice, posture, clothes and walk—as an actor would be, you will control the impression you give, and your self-perception will be more accurate. If, for example, you slouch but don’t know it, your droopy posture registers in the minds of those you meet and enters into how they see you. If you are someone who craves approval, you will tend to think you make a positive impression on other people. And generally, you will.
People who have learned to regulate their emotions are in a much better position to know what others think of them. Learning to give concrete expression to your feelings and to calm yourself in highly charged moments will give you a much better grip on your own and others’ internal states. Those with personalities that feed the accuracy of their metaperceptions are handsomely rewarded. The more accurate you are about how others perceive you, the better you fare socially. Think of a person who thinks he’s really funny but isn’t. He interprets polite laughter as genuine laughter, but everyone is on to him and annoyed by him.
Do you really want to know how you come off?
Report cards and annual reviews give you information on your performance in school and at work. But you’ll rarely be treated to a straightforward critique of your character—unless someone blurts one out in a heated argument or you solicit it directly. You could always ask a family member or someone else who knows you well to tell you honestly what they think of you, it is challenging to take it in, but can be helpful.Perhaps the delicate balance between feeling good about yourself and knowing exactly how you come off is best maintained not by all those elusive “others.” Maybe it’s maintained by your most significant ones, the people who will keep you in line but appreciate you for who you are, not just for the impressions you leave behind.