As Pope Francis has said, “Everyone’s existence is deeply tied to that of others.” We are social animals. We need to belong. We flourish when supported by close relationships. Finding a supportive confidante, we feel joy.
Longing for acceptance and love, Americans spend $86 billion annually on cosmetics, fragrances, and personal care products—and billions more on clothes, hair styling, and diets. Is that money well spent? Will it help us find and form meaningful relationships?
Consider one of social psychology’s most provocative, and simplest, experiments. Cornell University students were asked to don a Barry Manilow T-shirt (at the behest of researcher Thomas Gilovich and colleagues) and were then shown into a room where several others were completing questionnaires. Afterwards they were asked to guess how many of the others noticed their dorky attire. Their estimate? About half. Actually, only 23 percent did.
Other experiments confirm this spotlight effect—an overestimation of others’ noticing us, as if a spotlight is shining on us.
The phenomenon extends to our secret emotions. Thanks to an illusion of transparency we presume that our attractions, our disgust, and our anxieties leak out and become visible to others. Imagine standing before an audience: If we’re nervous and we know it, will our face surely show it? Not necessarily. Even our lies and our lusts are less transparent than we imagine.
There’s bad news here: Others notice us less than we imagine (partly because they are more worried about the impressions they are making).
But there’s also good news: Others notice us less than we imagine. And that good news is liberating: A bad hair day hardly matters. And if we wear yesterday’s clothes again today, few will notice. Fewer will care. Of those, fewer still will remember.
If normal day-to-day variations in our appearance are hardly noticed and soon forgotten, what does affect the impressions we make and the relationships we hope to form and sustain?
Proximity. Our social ecology matters. We tend to like those nearby—those who sit near us in class, at work, in worship. Our nearest become our dearest as we befriend or marry people who live in the same town, attend the same school, share the same mail room, or visit the same coffee shop. Mere exposure breeds liking. Familiar feels friendly. Customary is comfortable. So look around.
Similarity. Hundreds of experiments confirm and reconfirm that likeness leads to liking (and thus the challenge of welcoming the benefits of social diversity). The more similar another’s attitudes, beliefs, interests, politics, income, and on and on, the more disposed we are to like the person and to stay connected. And the more dissimilar another’s attitudes, the greater the odds of disliking. Opposites retract.
If proximity and similarity help bonds form, what can we do to grow and sustain relationships?
Equity. One key to relationship endurance is equity, which occurs when friends perceive that they receive in proportion to what they give. When two people share their time and possessions, when they give and receive support in equal measure, and when they care equally about one another, their prospects for long-term friendship or love are bright. This doesn’t mean playing relational ping pong—balancing every invitation with a tit-for-tat response. But over time, each friend or partner invests in the other about as much as he or she receives.
Self-disclosure. Relationships also grow closer and stronger as we share our likes and dislikes, our joys and hurts, our dreams and worries. In the dance of friendship or love, one reveals a little and the other reciprocates. And then the first reveals more, and on and on. As the relationship progresses from small talk to things that matter, the increasing self-disclosure can elicit liking, which unleashes further self-disclosure.
Mindful of the benefits of equity and mutual self-disclosure, we can monitor our conversations:
- Are we listening as much as we are talking?
- Are we drawing others out as much as we disclosing about ourselves?
In his classic How to Win Friends and Influence People, Dale Carnegie offered kindred advice. To win friends, he advised, “become genuinely interested in other people. . . . You can make more friends in two months by being interested in them, than in two years by making them interested in you.” Thus, “Be a good listener. Encourage others to talk about themselves.”
So, looking our best may help a little, initially, though less than we suppose. What matters more is being there for others—focusing on them, encouraging them, supporting them—and enjoying their support in return. Such is the soil that feeds satisfying friendships and enduring love.