People’s Impressions of Me are Wrong, So Should I Change?

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Reader’s Question

I’m 23 and recently one of my friends said that many people are afraid of me. They think I’m cold, distant, serious and seem “too perfect and independent.” Also, they think I often look grumpy, cranky and short-tempered. It seems like those traits make me a bit unapproachable, especially to guys.

I admit that I am an introvert. I don’t think I’m shy because I can be sociable when needed, and I have no fear talking in front of an audience. But I don’t really like small talk because I have to think hard about what topic to bring up, and it’s mentally draining. I like solitude and need more “me time,” but I do try to balance that by engaging in some social activities when I’m feeling good. Sometimes I can’t figure out if my friends are just joking or being serious, so I usually play it safe by not having any facial expression. And yes, I realize that I have a perfectionist tendency, and can be very stubborn and short-tempered at times, especially when things didn’t go as planned.

I used to be fine with all of this, but at this age I feel peer pressure to have a boyfriend. Unfortunately, I’m really not good with guys; they even seem scared of me. I want to change but I question how far I should I go. How much can I change and still be myself? Every time I have tried to change, I have ended up back to my old self, or even worse. I get more prone to irritability and withdrawal, and I find myself making the same mistakes. I know that no one can be perfect, but I end up feeling guilty. What should I do?

Psychologist’s Reply

Your letter highlights important distinctions between shyness and introversion. Many people inaccurately assume they are the same thing. Shy people experience intense anxiety over speaking up or interacting with strangers, regardless of whether they desire and enjoy social activity. Introverts, on the other hand, need time alone to replenish the mental energy expended during social activity. Extroverts tend to be energized by social interaction, whereas introverts tend to be drained by it, even if they enjoy being social. Research has revealed that the introversion-extroversion dimension has a solid genetic basis, meaning that we each fall where we do on the continuum primarily based on our biological temperament. We can alter our behavior, but we’re probably not going to alter substantially how we experience social activity vs. alone time.

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Your letter also highlights the importance of impression formation. We all naturally form impressions of other people based on our interactions with them. We rely not only on what is said, but how it’s said, facial expressions, body language, and so forth. We make attributions about others based on what we see (rightly or wrongly). So, if someone’s “default” or neutral facial expression appears angry to most people, that person may be mislabeled an angry person. Also, people who are quiet are often misperceived as being arrogant unless there are clear signs of social anxiety. In those instances in which you were unsure of the intent behind someone’s comment and therefore played it safe by not responding, you may have been perceived as cold, unfeeling, or “too good” for the others present as a result of your neutral expression. Unfortunately, once deemed to be a particular “type” of person, further interactions simply reinforce first impressions in the other peoples’ minds.

Rather than try to change the “real you,” it’s probably more realistic (and tolerable) to think about being more conscious of the impressions you might leave on others. Because you have access to your thoughts and feelings, it’s easy to assume that the way you come across to others matches those internal states. However, it sounds like there is a clear mismatch. Although it will take some conscious effort, especially at first, I’m suggesting actions that will probably feel like “extra niceness” to you. This impression management strategy starts with being sure to smile more, maintain eye contact, and ask people about themselves. Of course these are the outward behaviors we associate with people who are friendly, warm, and caring. Because those who know you have already formed impressions of you, it will take multiple interactions to begin changing those old perceptions. For example, at first your newfound friendliness may prompt people to think, “Oh, she must be in a good mood,” or “I wonder what she wants by being so friendly.” Stick with it, however, and it will get both easier and more natural (effective). Plus, when you meet new people, their first impressions will be that you’re warm, friendly, and caring, making future interactions with them that much easier.

As for dating, the same principles apply. However, gender roles do factor in to why you may not have been shown as much interest from men as you would like. That is, there is still the old cultural norm that men ask out women more so than the reverse. As a result, many men are sensitive to the possibility of rejection should they make a move. If you appear to be unfriendly or angry or arrogant, in the man’s mind the odds of rejection are very high. Plus, why would he be attracted to someone “like that”? Knowing this to be the case, you can be more conscious about expressing interest when you feel such interest, and being especially conscious about the impression management behaviors you’ve been practicing. Although it’s liable to feel artificial and effortful at first, like any skill, it becomes easier and more automatic with continued practice.

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