Why We Listen to People With These 8 Traits

Based on “Messengers” by Stephen Martin and Joseph Marks

Image for post
Image for post
Photo by Product School on Unsplash

It was very immersive to read Messengers: Who We Listen To, Who We Don’t, and Why, by Stephen Martin and Joseph Marks. Personally, I want to be heard and trusted. Socially, I’m curious why some people are heard and trusted more than others and which traits might explain the difference.

  • Why are the memoirs of famous people so much more popular and highly valued than memoirs of ordinary people who are significant and interesting in their own right?
  • Are there certain traits that make people better messengers?

Turns out fame is actually one of them, in the form of status. Messengers covers 8 traits of powerful messengers, including hard traits like dominance, competence, status, and attractiveness; and soft traits like vulnerability, trustworthiness, warmth, and charisma.


“Dominant messengers are less willing to make reciprocal concessions or indulge in give-and-take with those over whom they believe they exercise superior status.” — Stephen Martin and Joseph Marks

Dominant messengers bring with them a sense of certainty, decisiveness, and authoritative command. We turn to dominant messengers in times of uncertainty, but value less dominant messengers in calmer times.

3 Tips on Dominance

  1. Even in daily conversation or interactions, people tend to take on complementary postures: dominant/expansive/prideful, and submissive/taking up less space/shameful.
  2. The color red is typically more dominant than blue and is more closely associated with power and supremacy. Apparently, a red background on a bidding website results in people bidding more aggressively to win an online auction than a blue background. The authors didn’t mention it, but perhaps this color association also inherently applies to the United States’ two major political parties.
  3. Theresa May and Margaret Thatcher — the UK’s only female prime ministers to date — both got training to speak at a lower pitch, with strength and resonance — aspects of speech that signal dominance.

While dominant messengers demand attention from their audience, competent messengers seek to inform their listeners.


“Believe an uncertain expert” — Stephen Martin and Joseph Marks

When signaling your competence it is tempting to humble-brag (or straight-out brag). Don’t do either! It looks and sounds terrible for your reputation, and it detracts from your sincerity, warmth, and trustworthiness.

To give a gist of humble-bragging, it could sound something like:

  • “Oh gosh, I was so klutzy when I went on stage to perform that stand-up comedy special for the Royal Magistrate that was translated in 50 different languages for live broadcasting, including sign language.”
  • “I don’t know how I ended up getting straight A’s in college. My sleep schedule was such a mess!”
  • “I can’t believe I’m up there with all the other people in the Hall of Fame.”

Instead of verbally signaling your competence through humble bragging, be subtle and let others speak to your achievements.

3 Tips for Competence

  1. People actually value potential over past achievements. The authors use this to partially explain why Donald Trump (whose 2016 campaign centered on his potential to not only excel as a famous billionaire — see also: status — but also as a President of the United States) won over Hilary Clinton, despite her proven track record as a competent politician.
  2. The “Halo Effect” is such that someone who is widely recognized to be competent in one area of expertise is also expected to be a reliable source of information in other areas.
  3. Don’t just believe any expert. Believe the uncertain expert — they will be more honest about what they don’t know. It’s no wonder scientists rely on terms of uncertainty in their publications, from statistical expressions of confidence to careful wording of correlation as opposed to causation: not “will” but “may.” For communicators, expressing uncertainty is to your advantage in case your claims don’t end up holding true.


“Work is worn, rather like a prestigious logo, as a sign of our socioeconomic position.” — Stephen Martin and Joseph Marks

Every time we ask someone ‘Where did you study? What do you do for work?’ we are gauging their status. The role of status in our judgments of people is that insidious. We also identify high status among people who display traits like monetary wealth, intelligence, assertiveness, ambition, drive, and tenacity (e.g. to rebuild wealth if it ever fades). And we listen to them more.

4 Tips on Status

  1. Counterintuitive: a high-status vehicle is less likely to be honked at — at an intersection where the light has just turned green but they haven’t moved yet — and less likely to be honked at sooner than a low-status vehicle.
  2. Intuitive: lower-status people have more desire to affiliate with other people and gain approval while higher status people are less inclined to make the first move in a waiting room full of strangers; the latter will occupy themselves with self-grooming.
  3. Surprising: Since we actually expect rewards to be given on a merit basis, we assume high-status people deserve it. This makes it problematic when we face the fact that actually, generations of social inequity have allowed status to be based on embedded racial and class privilege.
  4. Intuitive: We prefer to date people who’ve earned rather than inherited their fortunes because it signals hard work, grit, and determination.

We tap into the power of status when we reach for our wallets at an open market, or wear brand clothing to social gatherings. Some people are all for status symbols like owning a mansion, driving fancy cars, and wearing expensive watches. Indeed, status is one of the 16 Basic Desires from Who Am I? by Dr. Steven Reiss. Some people are more or less driven in pursuit of it.

But the point is not lost on us here: status is a powerful factor in determining who effectively gets a message across, and why we might listen to someone.

People with high status are favored as messengers more than people of low status, and this is not even context-dependent. Similar to the ‘halo effect’ of competence, celebrities are often recruited to promote unrelated brands — from shoes to shampoos — or support socio-political movements like the fight for climate action and calls to increase voter participation.


When we talk about attractive messengers, we are not just talking about physical beauty but also about traits that attract attention and goodwill like warmth and companionability. Such traits are some of the softer connective traits that constitute the rest of the article.

In the case of physically attractive messengers, they are compelling to us because they possess what is known as “mate value.” For this reason, we award the beautiful a higher status and allow them a greater influence in society at large.

5 Tips on Attractiveness

  1. Apparently, it is very attractive when women wear red, and women know this. When they come into a lab expecting to greet a handsome male physician, many will don an article of red clothing or accessory. (This was a heteronormative study).
  2. Having close ties with an attractive messenger can elevate your status too — based solely on that association, you may get invited to cool parties and have conversations with more attractive people, or get introduced to rich and famous celebrities.
  3. Babies spend a longer time staring at attractive faces than at unattractive ones; adults pay more attention and interact more with cuter babies.
  4. We typically find “average faces” more attractive, along with youthful, symmetric ones. These are all traits that would survive a generation of natural selection. We also find those who look similar to us attractive but require some divergence. Otherwise, it gets creepy. A Norwegian study found a “sweet spot of attractiveness” when participants looked at faces modified to include 22% of their own face, and that they no longer were attracted to a face that was modified to include 33% of their own face.
  5. When Tinder started letting people list job titles in 2016, heterosexual women preferred pilots, firefighters, and entrepreneurs — the ‘helpful hunk’ stereotype of “an athletic, tall man with good genes who is also reliable, doting and offers long-term compatibility; strong with kind eyes; someone able to defend and assert control over a situation, but caring and loving, unless pushed otherwise” — and heterosexual men preferred models, personal trainers, and nurses.

While we can do our best to groom, other traits are easier to change than physique and can be cultivated for our messages to be heard out, like vulnerability, trustworthiness, warmth, and charisma.


It is interesting to consider the spectrum of people’s responses to displays of vulnerability in a messenger. At one end, we might be moved to help out because we feel so compassionate and connected with their struggle. At the other end of the spectrum, we might dehumanize the vulnerable and respond with contempt, disgust, indifference, or even hostility.

While I was on the street outreach team in Harvard Square, I’d go around with the team to give sandwiches and water to the homeless on a night-shift as they were turning in. During the day, as a student, I’d walk right past them between classes. In the different roles I played, I responded differently to vulnerability. Different roles also determine in which cases it’s best for messengers to display their vulnerabilities or keep them hidden.

3 Tips for Vulnerability

  1. Stress your common humanity to build a sense of connectedness. Even wearing the shirt of the same alma mater can help you if you suddenly become an emergency victim, and a fellow graduate of your school sees you collapse in the street.
  2. Imagine what it would be like to belong to another group. This can increase your level of empathy in forming connections with that group.
  3. Turn toward people you can trust when exposing your vulnerabilities.


“Viewing someone as truthful and regarding them as trustworthy are not the same thing. Truth is fact-based and requires a weighing of evidence and likelihood. Trust is relationship-based and relies on broader and vaguer assessments.” — Stephen Martin and Joseph Marks

This segment was interesting because it touched upon the issue of how certain affairs have ruined public images and reputations of famous celebrities and politicians who would otherwise have been trusted messengers in society.

When famous socio-political figures have strayed beyond monogamous norms and breached marital agreements, their status as messengers has plummeted — sometimes beyond repair.

A touch of vulnerability can help. Establishing your values outright can help. But trustworthiness is more fragile than other traits. We need to cultivate our trustworthiness as we tend to our relationships – with care and conscientiousness – if we want to be trusted by other people.

5 Tips for Trustworthiness

  1. You’ll be perceived as less trustworthy for having to overcome temptation than someone who never experienced wandering-eye temptation in the first place, but you will still be more trustworthy than someone who gives in to the temptation.
  2. “Well he would [say that], wouldn’t he?” was Mandy Rice-Davies’ response in the witness box of a trial in which Lord Astor vigorously denied her claim of having an affair with him and denied ever having met her. Such a statement has become famous and draws attention to a messenger’s [in this case Lord Astor’s] underlying motive to hide the truth in certain circumstances.
  3. Be consistent with your core principles. If you stand for outlawing male prostitution, then you shouldn’t pay a male prostitute for sex.
  4. If you conform to group norms from the beginning, you gain “group credits” that can be chased in later to cover up the occasional mistake or even a major shift in approach or message.
  5. Delivering an apology confirms your guilt about a wrong-doing. When apologizing: be quick to apologize, be sincere, and demonstrate remorse; show that you’re committed to future change.


A few people come to mind who just give off the most amazing warmth vibes, and with whom it just feels great to spend time because they are also caring and good-natured. Compassion, humility, and positivity are other characteristics of warm messengers who can make for particularly compelling messengers under the right circumstances.

5 Tips on Warmth

  1. People want to see themselves as warm, good-natured, virtuous and caring.
  2. When doing something enhances your reputation as a warm, virtuous person, you are more inclined to such prosocial behaviors (e.g. recycling, voting, buying an electric car).
  3. When donations are made public, they are made higher. Also known as “conspicuous giving” or “competitive altruism.”
  4. People can see through fake warmth. Try to be sincere.
  5. If you are trying to be a messenger but you come off as too warm — too cooperative, express guilt and apologize too easily, or show that you care too much about what other people think — you may very well lose public favor to a harder-core opponent with more dominant traits.


You have charisma if you have a constellation of these traits:

  • You can articulate a collective vision and group identity.
  • You are optimistic about the future.
  • You are great with rhetoric — in speech and writing.
  • You have energy.
  • You are expressive in your communication.
  • You display an admirable level of self-confidence.
  • You challenge the status quo.
  • You are creative.
  • You are brave enough to take certain risks.
  • You tend to elicit awe in the people you interact with.
  • You are sociable and approachable.

Charismatic messengers have a knack for fostering the type of connectedness they need for their messages to be heard and valued in society.

Books Are Our Superpower

A space to write about how much you love reading and how books changed your life

Sign up for The Book Times

By Books Are Our Superpower

This fortnight in books and reading Take a look

By signing up, you will create a Medium account if you don’t already have one. Review our Privacy Policy for more information about our privacy practices.

Check your inbox
Medium sent you an email at to complete your subscription.

Aldís Elfarsdóttir

Written by

Writer, artist, and engineer, committed to advancing climate solutions and sending hope and inspiration to those who need it. https://spoti.fi/2HMUoJ5

Books Are Our Superpower

Book reviews, recommendations, summaries, rants — as long as it is related to books, your piece is welcome here. We aim to build a community of book lovers sharing about the books that moved them the most.

Aldís Elfarsdóttir

Written by

Writer, artist, and engineer, committed to advancing climate solutions and sending hope and inspiration to those who need it. https://spoti.fi/2HMUoJ5

Books Are Our Superpower

Book reviews, recommendations, summaries, rants — as long as it is related to books, your piece is welcome here. We aim to build a community of book lovers sharing about the books that moved them the most.

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store