Many years ago, I was talking to a woman at a party about relationships and mentioned that I hadn’t been in one for ages. She told me this wasn’t a problem for her. She always had a boyfriend—her current beau was a biologist at an elite university—and before him there were plenty of others.
“Men flock to me,” she said.
The hostess called us to dinner, where the woman continued to assert her superiority, informing the table of her culinary skills and deep appreciation of classical music, while I scowled into my plate. All I wanted to do was go home and turn on the TV and try to forget that I was an unappealing cipher who men didn’t flock to. But instead, I looked up at the faces of the other guests and saw that they were nearly as miserable and annoyed as I was. And I realized this woman had made a terrible mistake. Her attempts to impress everyone were having the exact opposite effect.
She might have been extreme, but I’ve seen this kind of clueless behavior in others—very often in myself. It’s a little tragic: Many of us are at our most insufferable with the people we most want to impress.
The impulse to say “Hey, check out how great I am” hits its apex when dating, of course. You want to let them know you’re worth the effort, so you casually mention your prestigious alma mater or that time someone said you should model. On some level, we all know this doesn’t work—because we’ve all been on the other side of it—but we con ourselves into thinking an expensive car or road race victory really will close the deal.
But a recent study published in the Harvard Business Review reveals a much better strategy: If you want to make someone think highly of you, don’t tell them you’re great—make them feel great. And the authors offer a simple one-step process: ask for advice.
The study found that, contrary to popular perception, people who ask for advice are seen as more intelligent than those who don’t. But the researchers also noted that participants only granted the perceived IQ boost to people who asked them questions. Deferring to the waiter or another person in the movie ticket line wins you no points.
“The benefits of advice seeking are contingent on direct flattery,” the authors explained. “Being asked for advice caused advisors to feel more self confident and, in turn, to view the advice seeker more positively.”
Writer Paul Ford offers another strategy: Tell the person that her job sounds difficult. In a lovely essay, Ford, who describes himself as, “big and droopy and in need of a haircut,” recalls the time he met a beautiful and very stylish woman at a party.
“I could tell that she was disappointed to be introduced to this rumpled giant in an off-brand shirt,” he said.
At one point, she told him that her job was helping celebrities choose expensive jewelry.
“That sounds hard,” said Ford.
Immediately, the energy changed.
“She brightened and spoke for 30 straight minutes about sapphires and Jessica Simpson. She kept touching me as she talked. Eventually someone pulled me back into the party. The celebrity jewelry coordinator smiled and grabbed my hand and said, ‘I like you!’” Ford wrote.
To be clear, Ford’s essay was called “How to be Polite,” not “How to Pick Up Beautiful Celebrity Stylists.” And we all know that flattering dates and people you meet at cocktail parties can be just as smarmy and manipulative as bragging about how much you bench press.
The Harvard Business School study found that asking for advice only makes a positive impression if it means something—that is, when the person has some knowledge of the topic. If your date informs you she knows nothing about wine, then consulting her on the right Pinot Grigio won’t help—and may even hurt. On the other hand, if she tells you she works for a brewery, get her consult on whether to choose the IPA or the stout.
The point is not to ply her with fake praise, but to simply step back and let the other person shine. Not only is this much easier than trying to impress, you’ll probably get a much better glass of beer.
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