However, it’s also true that people disclose more to those they like. So if that nutter on the train happens to be a major buyer in your industry it’s probably best to smile politely and hear him out. Similarly, people tend to prefer those to whom they have made personal disclosures. So again, stick with it.
The trick seems to be not to disclose too much, too soon, or too often.
Take internet dating.
Research suggests that the way internet daters reveal information about themselves provides clues to developing good relationships. Apparently, self-disclosure in terms of earnest conversations about your deepest hopes and fears is to be avoided. So no initial chat about global warming, quantitative easing or social unrest. Stick to your favourite music, food and books and a relationship will be formed more quickly.
Communicating online also gives you more control over the way you present yourself. Webcams excepted, nobody can see the nonverbal communication that a face-to-face conversation reveals. Like your nervous twitch, constant scratching, or lazy eye. Plenty of time for that over a candle-lit dinner. Truth is, it’s far easier to construct an online identity with crafted emails and retouched photos. A study by Gibbs, Ellison and Heino concluded that successful online daters tended to use large amounts of positive self-disclosure, along with openness about their intent.
The very opposite of many people’s actual practice in online dating.
The idea that self-disclosure is important in relationships is no big surprise. But while it may be easy to understand in principle, the complexity of the process means it’s much harder to do in practice. Generally speaking, it seems best to be open about yourself and honest and clear about your intentions. So don’t be afraid to give of yourself if you want to build a good relationship with someone. But remember that the art of self-disclosure is about giving information to others in the right way and at the right time.
But just how ‘familiar’ should you be?
Does familiarity breed liking or contempt?
Imagine a big house populated by self-serving egotistical idiots with very little in the way of common sense or moral fibre. No, I’m not referring to the House of Commons, although I can see your point.
I allude, of course, to the TV programme ‘Big Brother’. Like it or loathe it, the audience figures suggest that plenty of people find it compulsive viewing.
Personally I’d rather watch paint dry. In fact, I think I saw that episode in series eight.
Now imagine if you were put in a similar house for a week with people you didn’t know. Not a group of outrageous show-offs but ordinary people from all walks of life. A real cross-section with nobody weirder than perhaps a man with an unhealthy interest in steam trains who insists on sleeping with the lights on. How do you think you would get on with your house mates?
(A bit like an office environment really where people from all walks of life are thrown together and expected to get on.)
Psychologists have long since assumed that familiarity actually breeds liking rather than contempt. The theory goes that the more people are exposed to each other, the more they discover the things they have in common, and the more they like each other. When I say ‘exposed’ I don’t mean in the full frontal Big Brother sense. I mean discovering that you share a mutual interest in, say, flower pressing.
But a recent study by Michael Norton of Harvard Business School turned this theory on its head. His work concluded that the more you get to know someone, the more you discover the dissimilarities between you and the less you like them.
Think courtship, marriage, divorce.
Or best friends, holiday, nightmare.
So what is it that backs up Norton’s theory and why is he staring so intently at me and my wife? Well, according to his theory, when we meet someone for the first time we look for similarities, and we typically find them. It may be a mutual interest in a sport, foreign travel, the arts, or stodgy desserts. Okay, so maybe that last one isn’t a basis for a long-lasting relationship but it works for some. Unfortunately, after a while – say 250 servings – the assumption that this person is not only like us, but also likes us, starts to fade. And when this awful truth dawns, we like them less and begin to resent them eating so much of our cake.
So who’s right? Well, in the studies where people interacted face to face, the more they interacted, the more they liked each other. Whereas in Norton’s studies based solely on people’s views on other people’s preferences, the degree of liking was less. And perhaps, more crucially, whether familiarity leads to liking or contempt seems to depend on our motivation. So, is it in your interests to get to know work colleagues really well and generate liking or should you keep your distance?
Well, as is often the case with these conclusions it all comes down to balance. If you hang around with people for long enough, you’ll eventually generate some mutual respect and discover common interests, even if they’re not your type.
So get close, but not too close.
Get them to like you but don’t allow them to know everything about you.