Each of us has a narrative we’re peddling about ourselves, an image we think we present to the world: he’s gracious and funny; she’s tough but fair. But does this story line up with how other people see us? According to a psychologist who’s just written a book about the mechanics of being misunderstood, the answer is—probably not. But there’s a fix for that.
According to Heidi Grant Halvorson, a psychologist whose book No One Understands You and What to Do About It just strolled into the world looking savvy, we are all actually quite terrible at understanding where other people are coming from, what they’re really like, who they really are, what they even mean. We are also equally terrible at presenting ourselves as we imagine ourselves to be. In an excerpt from her book over at Harvard Business Review, Halvorson drills down why our interactions with fellow humans can be so fraught in spite of our best intentions and carefully cultivated visages. Halvorson writes:
The uncomfortable truth is that most of us don’t come across the way we intend. We can’t see ourselves truly objectively, and neither can anyone else. Human beings have a strong tendency to distort other people’s feedback to fit their own views. We know this intellectually, and yet we rarely seem to recognize it as it’s happening.
For example, you likely think of yourself as inherently trustworthy, good and honest—but what others see may be quite different. We offend people inadvertently all the time. We make the wrong jokes, butt in at the wrong moment, blather on when we think we are good listeners, reveal nothing when we think we are forthcoming and transparent. Our worst impulses get the better of us and we act out strange, complicated contradictions and neuroses all the time. It’s a wonder anyone can stand us.
Take me, for example. Sometimes when I’m around someone whose company I truly enjoy I will just make fun of them instead of complimenting them. Like an asshole. When I actually like them as a person. And I can’t make it stop? I’m doing the opposite of the thing I really feel inside and hoping somehow it comes across as lightheartedly provocative and fun, and not, you know, like something an asshole would do.
Then, when someone—gasp—concludes that being sort of a dick is part of my MO, I feel a little bit hurt because, hey, I’m really nice! And joshin’ around is just what I do to convey liking someone, remember?! Oh, maybe I never clarified that.
And of course, while I perceive myself as uniquely complex in this regard, Halvorson knows that I am basically up to 1000% unoriginal human business. She writes:
If you have ever felt yourself underestimated or misjudged, if you have stepped on toes without meaning to and been called to task for it, if you have wanted to cry out “That’s not fair!” when false and hurtful assumptions have been made about you, I’m here to tell you that you are right. The way we see one another is far from fair. In fact, much of this process of perceiving other people isn’t even rational. It is biased, incomplete, and inflexible. It is also largely (but not entirely) automatic.
But the good news here, Halvorson argues, is that in spite of all this human folly of perception, we can be known. We can show the world a version of ourselves that is like the version we actually inhabit inside. We can learn to do this by looking at people who are good at being “on message” with their “personal brand,” so to speak, and doing what they do. Halvorson:
These people seem to express themselves in ways that allow others to perceive them more accurately. Psychologists refer to this as being more or less “judgeable,” or as personality expert David Funder calls it, being a “good target.” What actually makes someone more judgeable? Funder has argued that in order for people to be accurate in their assessments of someone else, four things need to happen. The target must (1) make information available and (2) make sure that information is relevant. Then, the perceiver must (3) detect, or pay attention to that information and (4) use it correctly.
Translation for dummies like me: Do good self-PR. Get yo brand up. You have to open up and convey the qualities you think you have, or want people to think you have.
That seems simple enough, right? And maybe it’s easier understood by what happens when you don’t open up in predictable, consistent ways: People will fill in those spaces for you. They will project a wealth of assumptions onto you. And you have no control over whether this will work to your advantage.
Not leading with the qualities you value about yourself, and that you think are central to you, is like chucking your personality to the fates, essentially, and hoping they roll the dice in your favor. Halvorson tells the story of a situation where this did work to someone’s favor—a very reserved coworker who was, she says, a “closed book” in romantic relationships:
I once asked him if this caused problems for him with the women in his life, and he told me, with remarkable candor, that he did it intentionally – he had found that women would usually interpret his silences in positive ways. (He’s so mysterious. He’s a deep thinker. Maybe he’s been hurt before – I’ll bet he’s really sensitive…) The personality they would invent for him, he said, was in fact much better than his actual personality. As a psychologist, I found this fascinating. As a single woman, on the other hand, I found it more than a little terrifying.
But she cautions that this is unlikely to be the case for most of us. Judgment is inevitable, so we might as well work on being more judgeable, or more accurately judgeable, anyway. We might as well reinforce the way we want to be perceived. This pays dividends, she argues—in psychological health, happiness, personal and professional satisfaction, and sense of purpose. And this part of her piece rings true:
If people are seeing you the way you see yourself, then you aren’t getting all the unsettling, self-doubt-inducing feedback that the chronically misunderstood have to endure. Life is simply easier and more rewarding when people “get you,” and provide you with the opportunities and support that are a good fit for you.
Now here’s a question: How long does it take to get to this point, where people “get you”? Research suggests what you might expect—not that long, and also not necessarily ever.
In a study Halvorson cites, 400 college students described themselves and their roommates over time in an effort to determine how long it takes to for perception of self and other to line up. Mostly, it took about nine months for everyone’s understandings to line up, and still no one was getting a perfect perceptual match. Even married couples, she writes, have significant misperceptions about each other! At least, the ones who are in counseling do, according to a study of 44 couples with half in therapy. But even if you’re not in counseling, the disconnect makes sense—we’re invested in seeing certain people in certain ways.
When you’re happily in love, you tend to give someone the benefit of the doubt. When someone looks a certain way, you tend to think they’ll act whatever way you associate with their appearance. When circumstances are weighing on you—your friend’s just lost your favorite sweater, or your partner’s just taken you on a vacation because she got a raise—your perception of a person will change.
We are always moving through the world this way, orienting and reorienting depending on circumstances and biases that fit how we need them to. Halvorson notes:
So you’re never really starting from scratch with another person, even when you are meeting them for the first time. The perceiver’s brain is rapidly filling in details about you – many before you have even spoken a word. Knowing this gives you a sense of what you’ve got going for you and what you might be up against. And the more you can know in advance about your perceiver’s likes, dislikes, strengths, and weaknesses, the better equipped you will be to anticipate what’s being projected onto you.
This makes getting out in front even more crucial in the game of self-presentation. I picture it like holding the facts of you and how you want to be known like cards in your hand—cards you deal with deliberate calculation in the order you need them to be revealed. I should probably start telling people things like, “Oh you know me, I just mock people I really like!” (But what fun is that, being so predictable?)
If all that sounds really labor-intensive or even Machiavellian in terms of the work of self-presentation, it’s because it is. Which is why it’s not surprising that many of us take our chances in the world being misunderstood, hoping we get lucky enough to be gotten a handful of times over a lifetime. Sure, getting out there and upping your value on the personality market is a worthwhile evening or two. But who would blame you for looking at how much work it takes to maintain your image and calling it a night? Certainly not me. Those people, smart and deliberate and aspirational, are exactly the sorts of people I would admire—and then mock.
Illustration by Tara Jacoby
Contact the author at firstname.lastname@example.org.