We all have differing levels of social skills. Some people are naturally charismatic and endear themselves to others easily. Others might be outgoing yet socially awkward, and some might be shy or introverted and find certain social interactions overly effortful or unrewarding. In other words, being perceived as likable is more important to some people than to others.
More importantly, our likability is not entirely up to us. It depends on the context, our roles and functions within the group, the people around us, how much we have in common with them, their biases and our own, and a variety of other factors. Some people may never warm up to us no matter how likable we are. They might be staunchly opposed to our lifestyles, culture, or choices, rubbed the wrong way by one or more of our characteristics, have grudges and resentments we are unaware of, or just be difficult people whose minds cannot be changed. While it is possible to increase our likability in a general circumstance, it is important to remember we can’t appeal to all people all of the time.
That said, if you find yourself wishing people responded to you more warmly and openly, or with more acceptance, there are things you can do to make yourself more likable:
1. Be a better listener. People like being listened to, and there are no shortcuts here. To be a good listener you have to actually listen to what the other person is saying, instead of running through the great story you want to tell the moment they finish speaking) and you have to find ways to convey that you’re being attentive. Head nods, ohs, and ahs, can go a long way.
2. Be supportive. It might seem cool to make light of a minor complaint when someone expresses it (“I had to work all weekend.” “Well, that’s why you make the big bucks!”), but what the other person is looking for is validation (“Aw, that sucks.”). If someone tells you about something they achieved, offer sincere congratulations; if someone tells you about something upsetting, offer sincere sympathy. If someone tells you about an amazing experience, reflect some excitement.
3. Follow up. This is an opportunity most people miss. If someone tells you they have an exam coming up, ask them how it went. If you know they went on vacation, ask how it was. If they mentioned that their kid was sick, ask how their kid is feeling. People note when they gave you information and following up the next time you see them or by text indicates that you listened and that you cared enough to inquire or comment about it late. Doing this can earn you significant likability points.
4. Find common ground. People connect to others who are similar to them or who have similar interests and opinions, so when meeting people you don’t know well or are meeting for the first time, try to find common interests, hobbies, opinions, taste in movies, books, shows, music or fashion, vacation destinations, or anything else that might create connective tissue between you.
5. Utilize body language. Offer a firm handshake, make eye contact, smile, stand, or sit with an open posture (e.g., arms to your side rather than folded across your chest) and, as mentioned earlier, nod when someone is speaking to show you’re listening to them. We tend to note a person’s body language more unconsciously than consciously but we do note it and it adds to our impressions of a person’s likability.
6. Put your phone away. Really, just put it in your pocket or bag when you’re talking to people. If you’re at a table, at least turn it over. Stealing glances at your phone — which is so hard not to do when it’s right by your side or in your hand — signals that you’re not fully listening (at best) or that you’re distracted and disinterested, neither of which will endear you to the other person. So even if their phone is out, put yours away and be more present.
7. Don’t overcomplain. Complaints have a social function as they can be a way of finding common ground (“I hated that movie!” “Me too!”). But while a single complaint (or two) can offer the potential for common ground, peppering our dialogue with a litany of complaints and being too negative is a turnoff (“My boss is so annoying and the subway is just terrible these days, so it’s not my fault I’m late, plus I’m stuck down there and it’s crowded and well, you know how rude people are in the heat…”). If we want to come across as more likable, we need to make an effort to present a somewhat more positive outlook even if our mood in that moment is dour. The balance here is to be positive yet authentic so don’t put on an act. Rather, just try to discuss things about which you can sound positive even in a poor-mood moment (‘My nephew is such a delight”).
8. Don’t dominate the conversation. You might be a great storyteller and a fascinating conversationalist but other people want some stage-time too. So pay attention to how much (time) you’re speaking compared to the other person(s) in the conversation. People notice these imbalances and register them unfavorably, however much they might seem to enjoy your stories at the time.
9. Don’t brag. This includes the humblebrag. If the discussion is of the I-caught-the-biggest-fish variety, by all means, chime in. But name dropping (which includes not just people but universities, institutions, and organizations), success stories, social media followings, and other ways of letting people know how awesome you are, are often a turn-off.
10. Keep disagreement to a minimum. One of the lines people find most annoying is, “Let me play devil’s advocate.” Unless you know a person very well, in which case your likability is not an issue, it is not necessary or productive to focus on areas of disagreement, no matter how compelling an argument you can make. If they loved a certain movie because it "really made me think,” don’t say, “Really? I thought it was crap.” Say, “I wish they explored the friendship theme more deeply,” or offer some other constructive criticism. In other words, people like it when others agree with them, so don’t emphasize areas of disagreement unless the issue is truly important to you; even then, try to do it lightly.
Being friendly boils down to being agreeable, making people feel comfortable and welcome, and making them feel accepted, understood, and valued. Keep those directives in mind, and when in doubt about what to say, less is more.