One of the most acute questions we ask ourselves in relation to new friends and acquaintances is whether or not they like us. The question feels so significant because, depending on how we answer it in our minds, we will either take steps to deepen the friendship or, as is often the case, immediately make moves to withdraw from it so as to spare ourselves humiliation and embarrassment.
But what is striking and sad is how essentially passive we are in relation to this enquiry. We assume that there is a more or less binary answer, that it is wholly in the remit of the other person to settle it – and that there is nothing much we could do to shift the verdict one way or the other. Either someone wants to be our friend – or they don’t – and the answer, while it is about us, is essentially disconnected from any of our own initiatives.
We are hereby failing to apply to other people a basic lesson we can appreciate well enough when we study the functioning of our own judgements: we often don’t know what we think of other people. Our moods hover and sway. There are days when we can see the point of someone and others when their positive sides elude us entirely. But, and this is the key point, what usually helps us to decide what someone means to us is our sense of what we mean to them.
The possibility of friendship between people therefore frequently hangs in the balance because both sides are privately waiting for a sign from the other one as to whether or not they are liked – before they dare to show (or even register) any enthusiasm of their own. Both sides proceed under the tacit assumption that there is some a priori verdict about their value that the other person will be developing in their mind which has no connection to how they themselves behave and is impervious to anything they say or do.
Under pressure, we forget the fundamental malleability within the question of whether someone wants to be friends with us or not. Most of it depends on how we behave to them. If we have a little courage and can keep our deep suspicions of ourselves and our terror of their rejection of us at bay, we have every opportunity to turn the situation in our direction. We can dare to persuade them to see us in a positive light – chiefly by showing a great deal of evidence that we see them in a positive light. We can apply the full range of techniques of charm: we can remember small things about them, display an interest in what they have been up to, laugh at their witty moments and sympathise with them around their sorrows.
Though our instinct is to be close to superstitious in our understanding of why people like us, we have to be extremely unlucky to land on people who genuinely show no interest in a friendship with us once we have carried out a full set of charming manoeuvres with any level of sincerity and basic tact.
Friendships cannot develop until one side takes a risk of showing they are ready to like even when there’s as yet no evidence that they are liked back. We have to realise that whether or not the other person likes us is going to depend on what we do, not – mystically – what we by nature ‘are’, and that we have the agency to do rather a lot of things. Even though we may initially get very few signs of their interest (they might be looking a little distracted and behaving in an off-hand way), we should assume that this is only a legacy of a restraint that springs from fear that they are not able to please – and that so long as we keep showing them warmth and encouragement to appease their self-suspicion, the barriers will eventually come down.
It is sad enough when two people dislike each other. It is even sadder when two people fail to connect because both parties defensively but falsely guess that the other doesn’t like them – and yet, out of low self-worth, don’t take any risk whatever to alter the situation. We should stop worrying quite so much whether or not people like us, and do that far more interesting and socially-useful move: concentrate on showing that we like them.