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in: People, Social Skills

• Last updated: May 30, 2021

Why We Like Some People and Don’t Like Others

Editor’s note: The following is an excerpted chapter — “Why We Like Some People and Don’t Like Others” — from Why We Don’t Like People (published in 1931) by Dr. Donald A. Laird, a professor of psychology. It has been condensed from the original.

What can one do to make certain that he is not being handicapped in his progress through life by unwittingly making himself disliked? How can one tell whether or not he is disliked without going to the embarrassment of asking his friends and associates? What can one do to control his own conduct and attitudes so that he will be better liked?

These are all practical questions of the greatest personal importance. And until recently no definite answers could be given to them.

To find the answers to these questions and other similar ones the Colgate Psychological Laboratory undertook experimental work in which the relative significance of nearly one hundred traits and habits, in their effect on personal likes and dislikes, was accurately measured. Only traits and habits which we can reasonably expect to be able to alter for the better by an application of good old-fashioned willpower and self-development were studied.

This experimental work produced evidence that some forty-six traits are of definite importance in determining the emotional attitude of other people toward us. About the same number of other traits, in spite of their apparently important nature, were found to have no appreciable influence, either favorable or unfavorable.

These traits make little difference

You can dress as flashily as Mayor Jimmy Walker or Glenn Frank, or as conservative as Herbert Hoover or Calvin Coolidge. It will make no difference to your acquaintances. They will continue to like or dislike you just the same. What does make a difference is whether you keep your clothing neat and tidy — but that is getting ahead of our story.

It makes no difference in your popularity whether you are always easy-going or always in a hurry. You can be a go-getter, a prodigious worker, or relatively leisurely, calm, and unperturbed. But don’t be lazy. As we shall see later, laziness makes a difference.

You can discuss your health in detail. You can sit down and enlarge upon your operations or your stomachache without incurring dislike. This is undoubtedly fortunate, since probably one-quarter of the world likes nothing better than to brag of its operations and other physical ailments.

We had expected to find that this talking about personal ailments showed up as a significant trait. It happens that personally I dislike to listen to other people’s pains. It bores me to profanity. That must be because I am rather a Pollyanna and like to see the pleasant side of things. At any rate the results showed that that dislike was just an individual peculiarity of my own.

It does not matter whether you watch the pennies closely or not. Tight wads and spendthrifts share equally in friends.

You can argue on either side of religious questions.

You can swear only under emotional strain, or swear as habitually as you like.

You can play practical jokes.

None of these things affects the feelings of other people in general towards you.

Your voice can be musical or rasping. That is another trait which I was surprised to find of no significance. I find myself taking a marked dislike to the voices of some people, but to the average person voices make no difference. It does not matter whether a voice is high pitched or low pitched. But there are some things about the voice that are important, as will be apparent soon.

You can giggle and laugh at everything.

You can use big words. You can use slang. You can talk on intelligent topics. You can have an accent in your speech. You can use foreign phrases. You can indulge a weakness for pet phrases, such as “I should say so.” None of these habits will have any noticeable effect.

You can pause and hem habitually in the midst of conversations, in search of the right word.

You can make puns.

You can pull on the coat lapels of your auditor, or even put your arm around his shoulder.

All these things, in general, may be done with safety. It may be, however, that the key man on whom your chance for promotion depends is one who, like myself, dislikes people who talk about their personal troubles, or who have rasping voices. If the liking of some one individual is especially important to your happiness or your advancement, it is hardly safe to go by any general rules. That individual’s tastes are worth a special study.

Watch these traits closely

Now for the more important traits, the ones which definitely make most people like us. In order of their importance, we have given these positive traits a weight that varies from one to three. The first nine in the list below all have a weight of three.

Be depended upon to do what you say you will. This trait alone may not make people like you, if you have others in large numbers which offset it, but it is one which you can gamble on. It affects not only your responsibility to your superior, but your relations to practically every person with whom you come in even casual contact. 

Go out of your way to help others.

Do not show off your knowledge. The teacher or parent or executive is apt to be disliked, from the very nature of the tasks he is called upon to perform. Those who want to be liked must try to gain favor by other traits. They must, for instance, possess the two just described above.

Do not let yourself feel superior to your associates, and be careful lest they get the impression that you do. 

Do not reprimand people who do things that displease you.

Do not exaggerate in your statements. In spite of the commonness of the habit of telling tall stories, and its apparent innocuousness in most cases, this is one of the traits which was found to be most important as a ground for dislike. We did not go far enough to make sure whether merely telling good fish stories would lose a sportsman friends, but a chronic habit of overstatement certainly will.

Do not make fun of others behind their backs. Here is a case in point. I know the general manager of a certain company, a man in some ways very clever in social matters. His company dominates the small town in which it is located. When he came there they almost had the brass band out to welcome him. Six months later he could hardly have found a townsman to give him a lift down the road without a scowl.

This man is tremendously capable. What got him into trouble was nothing that he did on the job. It was what he did after office hours. Out on the local nine-hole golf course, in the post-office while waiting for the evening mail, or to entertain guests in his own home, he would tell embarrassingly funny things that had happened to fellow townsmen, or would imitate in hilarious fashion a fellow golfer’s manner of making a shot. Good entertainment – but it left everyone feeling a little afraid that “tomorrow he may be making fun of me.”

Do not be sarcastic. This habit probably operates on the mental reactions of others in very much the same way as the habit of making fun of other people.

Do not be domineering. 

This completes the list of the traits to which I have given a value of 3. These alone give us already a pretty fair picture of human likes and dislikes and their reasons. People in general dislike exaggeration, dislike undependability, dislike the man who will not go out of his way to help others. These broader traits they feel very strongly. The underlying moral code indicated by the nature of these dislikes is definitely a good one. Needless to say, it is a code which lies much deeper than such surface manifestation as minor weaknesses for liquor, for gambling, for shady stories, and the like. In themselves those have no effect on the emotions of other people toward us.

Before we go on with the traits that have a weight of 2, it would be well to give some explanation of the psychological theories that emerge, so that the remaining traits can be viewed in relation to them. It appears from our data and discussions with individuals who have contributed to the work that in general we dislike people for one of three reasons. We may dislike them because we are afraid of them. They are sarcastic, or they are likely to make fun of us to our backs. We may dislike them because they deflate our ego. They boss us, they are domineering, they know more than we know, or in some way make us feel smaller. We may dislike them because they do petty things of one kind or another that annoy us. The traits with a value of 3 or 2 bear the closest relation to deflating our ego or making us afraid. Conversely, the affirmative traits of equal values are those which bring happiness and emotional exhilaration to those with whom their possessors come in contact. The traits of minor importance, those with a value of only 1, have more to do with annoyance.

Here are the traits with a value of 2.

Keep your clothing neat and tidy. Cleanliness is still next to the greatest virtues. It is liked almost as well as dependability and helpfulness.

Do not laugh at the mistakes of others. Never laugh at a man because he comes to a social function in a queer costume, or uses the wrong fork at table, or appears on the street with his shirt tail hanging out. Get your laugh from the movies, the vaudeville act, or the pages of Judge or Life. Don’t take it out on other people in real life.

Do not take a vulgar attitude toward the opposite sex. Although most people do not object to shady stories, they do object by and large to a generally vulgar attitude toward the opposite sex.

Do not be inclined to find fault with everybody else. Like a good many of the other traits which promote dislike, this one tends to increase a little with age, especially with extreme age. This accentuation of disagreeable traits with advancing age explains why young people think old people are harder to get along with.

Do not correct the mistakes of others. Don’t try to serve as a grammar or a book of etiquette for your friends. If they want to get criticism, they are perfectly capable of asking for it, or learning their errors from an authoritative book. It doesn’t pay to give gratuitous advice of that kind.

Do not tell jokes at the expense of those listening. Very similar to but not the same as the trait of making fun of people behind their backs. 

Do not try to have your own way. This is not the same as domineering! If your superior tells you to do such and such a thing in a certain way, don’t insist on going ahead doing it the same old way you always did just out of obstinacy.

Do not lose your temper.

Do not take the initiative in argument.

Smile pleasantly.

Do not talk continuously. It does not matter whether your voice is high-pitched or low-pitched, rasping or musical, whether you use pet phrases, foreign phrases, or slang. These habits are all neutral in effect, but continuous talking is not. This handicap seems to be more common among women as a sex than men, yet we have found in some experiments that, contrary to general impressions, young men talk more than young women. Moreover, the young women do not like this trait in their masculine acquaintances. 

Do not pry into other people’s business. 

The following traits have a value of 1:

Do not ask favors of others.

Do not be out of patience with modern ideas.

Do not talk about your personal troubles. You can talk about your health, but do not discuss your other troubles, such as your financial reverses, your family quarrels, or the mean things other people have done to you.

Do not spread gossip. Gossips are not popular even among their own kind.

Be cheerful.

Be enthusiastic, not lethargic.

Do not mispronounce words. James M. Barrie once used this characteristic, in his play “A Kiss for Cinderella,” as a clever trick to build up dislike for one of the characters, the policeman who continually made mistakes in pronunciation.

Do not be suspicious that people are trying to put something over on you.

Do not be lazy. You can be a high pressure worker or an easy going one without any visible effect on your popularity, but if you are lazy you will be disliked for it. 

Do not borrow things.

Do not correct the mistakes of others.

Do not try to get people to believe as you believe. This habit is similar to that of taking the initiative in argument.

Do not be a political radical.

Do not talk rapidly. Talking continuously has a value of 2, talking rapidly has a value of 1.

Like if you want to be liked

In one phase of our experiment we asked subjects to write down as fast as they could the initials of all the people they could think of whom they disliked intensely. At the end of a half-minute we stopped them. In that half-minute some had been able to think of only one person for whom they felt intense dislike. Others thought of as many as 14. Some thought of those they disliked as rapidly as they could write down initials.

This test showed that those who expressed their dislike for the largest number of persons were the very individuals who themselves possessed the largest number of generally disliked traits. This makes us feel safe in stating in a general way that if you dislike many people you probably are in turn disliked by many people. And by the same token if you like many people you are probably liked by many.