Like many people, Shaun Mhonde feels awkward and uneasy when talking to someone he has just met.
Is my conversation dull? Is the other person bored? Oh, god, why did I say that?
“Coming off as interesting is the core worry,” says Mr Mhonde, a Melbourne-based software developer at MoneyPlace.
If you bump into someone and say something boring, they might just move on, he says. “Speaking to new people comes with a lot of pressure.”
But research shows he shouldn’t worry so much.
Despite people consistently ranking their ability to have a conversation as among their weakest skills, most people are much better conversationalists than they think.
People repeatedly underestimate how much their conversational partners like them and enjoy their company. In fact, often both people think the other person finds them awkward or boring, when neither do.
This is unusual because other studies show human beings tend to overestimate their abilities in just about everything, from driving a car to being a good husband.
Social interactions appear to be the exception to the rule.
“Our studies suggest that after people have conversations, they are liked more than they know,” writes the international team behind a series of studies on the phenomenon, which it has termed the “Liking Gap”.
The team identified three reasons behind the gap.
Firstly, conversations become “conspiracies of politeness” where people do not reveal their true feelings, making it difficult for people to know what their conversation partners really think of them.
“People who go into a conversation expecting not to be liked are going to interpret that ambiguous feedback in line with their expectations. Even smiles can be interpreted as smirks,” says Curtin University’s Professor Peter McEvoy, an expert in anxiety.
Secondly, people are scared of social rejection and fear expressing too much interest in the other person in case they don’t feel the same way.
Finally, conversations are mentally demanding, and people are often so busy thinking about what to say next they miss the subtle signs the other person is enjoying the conversation.
So we can’t tell if other people are enjoying our conversation.
Add this to a tendency for our own internal thoughts to be self-critical and negative, biasing us towards thinking we’re stuffing up, and overall people end up systematically underestimating how much other people like them, or guessing that they don’t like them at all.
“People with social anxiety tend to be self-focused. They are often stuck in their head, criticising their interactions, as they are in the process of doing it,” says Catherine Madigan, a clinical psychologist who specialises in social anxiety disorder.
“They’re so worried about what they are going to say next, perhaps they cannot focus on what the other person is saying or doing.”
And many people who think of themselves as “awkward” have much better social skills than they think.
“Most people with social anxiety have average to even above-average social skills, they just don’t believe they do,” she says.
“I’m usually pleasantly surprised; people tell me how bad they are at it, but you would not know. But because they feel very physically anxious, they think, ‘If I feel this way, I must look anxious too.’ ”
The Liking Gap was detailed in five studies presented at the Society for Personality and Social Psychology Annual Convention in Oregon last week.
In one study, pairs of volunteers were asked to have a videotaped five-minute conversation. Afterwards, each person was asked to rate how much they liked the other person, and how much they thought the other person liked them.
Consistently, the volunteers underestimated just how much their partner liked them.
But when the researchers watched the tapes back, they were able to accurately pick how much each conversation partner liked the other. The signs of liking were there, but the people in the conversation missed them.