Why Showing Vulnerability the First Time You Meet Someone Is a Genius Idea

By Vanessa Van Edwards

Think back to the last time you had a zit.

Did you venture out into the world praying no one would notice the volcano about to erupt on your chin? When talking to people, were you petrified that the only thing they would notice was the giant red bump on your face? Did you become convinced that everyone was talking about it?

We always feel our vulnerabilities are painfully obvious. That people are scrutinizing us at every turn. That our blemishes define us. I hate to break it to you, but no one really cares — and I mean that in the nicest way possible.

Image courtesy of Unsplash

Our mistakes are not noticed nearly as much as we think. This cognitive bias is called the spotlight effect. In one study, researchers Thomas Gilovich and Victoria Medvec at Cornell University decided to humiliate students for the sake of science.

First, researchers asked students to put on a Barry Manilow T- shirt — chosen for its high level of potential embarrassment. Then they asked each student to estimate the percent of people who would notice their Manilow T-shirt in a crowded classroom. The students made fairly high guesses, thinking most other students would notice (and probably make fun of the Manilow shirt). And then finally, they asked the students to walk into a classroom and join fellow students taking a survey. The results? The T-shirt-wearing participants grossly overpredicted how many students would notice. The estimates were twice as high as the actual number.

The researchers concluded:

Most of us stand out in our own minds. Each of us is the center of our own universe. Because we are so focused on our own behavior, it can be difficult to arrive at an accurate assessment of how much — or how little — our behavior is noticed by others. Indeed, close inspection reveals frequent disparities between the way we view our performance (and think others will view it) and the way it is actually seen by others.

The things we dread — tripping while walking down the street, making a social gaffe at a party, or misreading something in a classroom — are rarely picked up on. And if they are noticed, they are usually forgotten.

This is great news! If you mess up or expose your vulnerability, most people won’t even notice. Now I know what you’re thinking: “But Vanessa, even though most people don’t notice, what about the few people who do?”

I’m so glad you asked!

VULNERABILIT Y IS ATTRACTIVE

Most people will not notice your flubs and failings. But what about the people who do?

Researchers Elliot Aronson, Ben Willerman, and Joanne Floyd wanted to know what people really think about those who make mistakes. In their study, they asked participants to listen to a recording of a student explaining how well he did on a quiz. The student talked about his background and then modestly described his 90 percent score on the exam.

Here was the catch: One group of participants hears the student knock over a mug of coffee and ruin their clothes at the end of the recording. The other group hears no such spill. The researchers then asked both groups, “How likable was this student?”

Can you guess what happened? The student who spilled his coffee was rated as far more likable and socially attractive than the non- spilling student.

Why? Mistakes humanize us. We all make mistakes, and we like people who are like us. Having above average people skills is not about being perfect. It’s not about never making a social blunder again. Rather, people who have great interpersonal intelligence leverage their vulnerability.

And let’s be real: Trying to be perfect is not only impossible, it’s boring. Trying too hard smells like desperation. And staying in hiding is exhausting.

Vulnerability is sexy — it shows we are relatable, honest, and real. That is attractive. And the science proves it: “A blunder tends to humanize him and, consequently, increases his attractiveness.”

HOW TO BE VULNERABLE

I’m standing on tiptoes in a dark, stinky hallway. My high-heel-clad feet are killing me, and the wall I am leaning on is pulsing with the pop music blaring in the next room. I’m fifth in line for the tiny, crusty bathroom.

Amazingly, this dank little corridor is actually my temporary escape from sitting at the sticky high-top tables and yelling over the loud music to people I barely know. It’s my friend’s thirtieth birthday party and she wants to “party like a twenty-one-year-old.” In sum, I’m in my personal social hell.

I’m searching my clutch for some Advil when a girl I recognize from our party stands in line behind me. “Ugh,” she moans, “Seriously? This line is going to take forever!”

Now, I have a choice. I could nod empathetically and carry on waiting, or I could be honest . . . and a little vulnerable. “Yeah, I’m not sure what’s worse — standing in line in these heels or sitting out there at those tables,” I say.

She looks at me, looks down at my heels, and then bursts out laughing. “At least you’re not also wearing Spanx. My feet are numb and I can’t take a deep breath,” she says.

Thank goodness! A fellow human. I counter, “But would you really want to take a deep breath in here? It smells like stale beer.”

“Very good point. I’m just dreaming of my couch and my bathrobe right now,” she says.

“I think I might cry tears of joy when I get to go home, put on my slippers, and turn on Netflix,” I confess.

By the time it’s my turn in line, we are exchanging info and promising to get brunch next weekend. Later that night, I realize none of this would have happened had I not taken a small risk. I was uncomfortable — physically and socially — and I was not the only one. All I had to do was reach out.

Living in truth and embracing vulnerability doesn’t mean walking up to strangers and saying, “Hi, my name is Vanessa and I’m a recovering awkward person.” Well . . . that works, too. But there are much subtler (and less scary) ways you can use the power of vulnerability in your life.


This excerpt has been adapted from CAPTIVATE: The Science of Succeeding with People by Vanessa Van Edwards with permission from Portfolio, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © Vanessa Van Edwards, 2017.