It is a rare person who is not interested in being interesting. We care deeply about how others value us. Being interesting to others elevates our status and brings many benefits our way. It is deeply wired into our nervous system to search for this kind of esteem and most likely drives the extraordinary appeal of social media, such as Instagram, Tik Tok, Facebook, Snap Chat and so on.
Given the explosion of social media it has become a common observation that we have become super conscious of self-presentation. We feel an enormous pressure to be publicly interesting. Some suggest social media is promoting a type of widespread narcissism. Leaving such judgments aside, one thing is certain: many of us are becoming more self-conscious, viewing life more and more as a performance and ourselves the leading actor. And this is not a good thing. We know, for example, that anxiety disorders are on the increase, especially among teenage girls who are heavily involved in social media.
But this desire to be interesting is by no means a new phenomenon. Impression management is a well-researched field in social psychology. We demonstrate natural skill at impression management from a very young age and we consciously and unconsciously practice it throughout our lives. It basically involves the processes by which we try to control how we are perceived by others.
The dynamics of esteem have also been the central theme of many studies in evolutionary psychology. The basic idea is that esteem in our ancestral past was critical to us being provisioned and attracting mates. In other words our attaining of status was central to our wellbeing and lifestyle! It appears little has changed!
So, nothing new under the sun here. For example, some years ago in the context of therapy, a handsome young Irishman came to see me. He had that charming Irish lilt and had almost certainly kissed the blarney stone. Indeed, he spoke very entertainingly for some time and I began wondering why he had come to see me at all. As the clock behind my right shoulder wound inexorably around the therapeutic hour he eventually came to his reason. He explained that he wanted help in relationships, saying he didn’t have trouble initially attracting young women, but felt really awkward once a conversation was started up. In short, he said to me: ‘Chris can you tell what I can say to a woman that she will find interesting?’
Somehow managing not to chuckle, I leant towards him in full seriousness and paused. He, likewise, leant in. I said, ‘I think I know the answer’. He leant in further, absolutely intent now. I said: ‘the next time you are with a young woman, and you are here and she is there, and you’re wondering what you can say that is interesting, pause, and … shut up! Become genuinely interested in her and she will relax and start to find you very interesting’.
There was a pregnant pause as we sat in silence, face to face. Then he grinned broadly – a beautiful smile. He got it.
Why might this work? Being genuinely interested in others really tickles their circuits of self-esteem. We are designed to resonate to it. If practiced authentically it is not fake, nor a manipulation. Done with good intent it demonstrates a healthy self-esteem in the listener who doesn’t need to be promoting themself all the time. It really relaxes the recipient who feels a sense of safety and of being valued. They feel heard, understood and accepted.
Recent biological and brain scanning research indicates that this type of prosocial behavior towards another person typically produces a cascade of benefits: including lower blood pressure and heart rate, a calming of the fight-flight system, reduced vascular constriction and inflammation, a calmer clearer mind and feelings of warmth towards others.
In another context I once thought quite deeply about what makes for a great conversation. By that I mean a conversation in which time passes quickly and you lose a sense of self as you and the other person become as one jointly exploring some topic. I’ve noticed over time that these conversations are largely what gives life its richness and meaning. They are energizing and creative.
I came to the conclusion that these great conversations always involve three layers of experience: the experience of being heard, then of being understood and then of feeling accepted. If we are committed to giving a person these three experiences our attention on them will be quite deliberate and unwavering. Sometimes, I think of this as interpersonal mindfulness, where the object of attention is not the sensations of breathing or a mantra but is another human being. As in meditation, our attention inevitably wanders, but we are committed to tugging it back to the ‘primary object’. So, in listening to others in this deliberately interested way we can practice mindfulness many times a day, gently centering ourselves in the other person! Sometimes you really have to work at it. You have to hunt for the thing that you do find interesting. Then it flows naturally.
There is yet another dimension of this. People who are genuinely interested and curious, also become objectively more interesting to others. Think of people who have a passion or pursuit that they explore and refine. They tend to make interesting things and have original things to say. Note this is not by ‘trying to be interesting’. It is a delightful side-effect. A key thing here is that such absorption in passions is the opposite of self-absorption and self-consciousness. Non self-absorption is a very attractive quality leading to people who naturally have interesting things to say.
So, as Dale Carnegie put it: ‘If you want to be interesting, be interested.’