8 Ways to Avoid Being Unlikeable

Last Updated:Tuesday, July 4, 2023
  • Catherine Morin

Modern psychology defines humans as intrinsically social beings. Most people possess an innate need to form relationships and belong to groups and want to feel appreciated. The ability to establish meaningful connections with others largely depends on likeability. People considered as “likable” exhibit specific traits, and are able to avoid certain behaviors to maintain good relationships.

Psychologist Roger Covin, author of the book The Need to be Liked, explains in an article that people do not always perceive what makes them likable. When he asks his clients which qualities are most important in terms of their own likeability, they usually mention wealth, social status, and physical attractiveness. However, when he asks these same clients which characteristics they look for in other people, they list traits like kindness, honesty, loyalty, and trustworthiness.

Covin thinks that these contradictory answers reflect the pressure of popular culture. Many people think that the most celebrated individuals in modern society possess “what can be described as more superficial attributes.” However, their past experience has taught them the importance of qualities like kindness and loyalty in relationships.

A study conducted at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) in 2016 revealed that highly likable people exhibit traits like transparency, sincerity, empathy, and a capacity for understanding others. These personality tendencies have often been associated to the concept of emotional intelligence.

Emotional Intelligence

The American Psychology Association defines emotional intelligence as “the abilities to perceive, appraise, and express emotions accurately and appropriately, to use emotions to facilitate thinking, to understand and analyze emotions, to use emotional knowledge effectively, and to regulate one's emotions to promote both emotional and intellectual growth.”

This type of intelligence, also known as Emotional Quotient (EQ), can be thought of as the capacity for controlling your emotions and managing the emotions of others in social situations. People with high emotional intelligence pay attention to others' feelings. They use emotional information to understand situations and guide their behavior.

They can regulate their emotions to adapt to different environments, and they are able to accurately identify feelings. They can perceive emotions in faces at a quick glance, for example. These people possess great analytical skills that allow them to solve a variety of emotion-related problems quickly.

The current measure of emotional intelligence is the Mayer-Salovey-Caruso Emotional Intelligence Test. Constructed by psychologists John D. Mayer, Peter Salovey, and David R. Caruso at Yale University and at the University of New Hampshire, the test consists of a series of emotion-based problem-solving items. It is modeled on the famous ability-based IQ test. By testing a person's abilities on four branches of emotional intelligence, it generates results for each of the branches as well as a total score.

A high emotional quotient may be used to “read” people's mood for feedback, and predict how others will emotionally react to a given situation. It can also help communicate a vision and lead people.

The definition of emotional intelligence provided by modern psychology suggests that this concept is often misinterpreted in popular culture.

In an article published in 2009, co-creator of emotional intelligence measure John D. Mayer clarifies the concept.

He explains that journalistic accounts of emotional intelligence have often wrongly associated it with agreeable personality traits such as optimism, sincerity, empathy, motivation, or calmness. “Such qualities, although important, have little to do with intelligence, little to do with emotions, and nearly nothing to do with actual emotional intelligence”, he writes.

Mayer finds it “especially unfortunate” that even some reputed psychologists have confused emotional intelligence with personality tendencies. He affirms that the term refers exclusively to the ability to reason about emotions.

Considerate individuals may use high emotional intelligence to better interact with people. However, this skill can also serve decidedly evil purposes.  

Several theories suggest that individuals with high emotional intelligence can use this ability to manipulate others with emotional hijackings. In an essay called The Dark Side of Emotional Intelligence (2014), organizational psychologist Adam Grant depicts emotional intelligence at its worst. “When you know what others are feeling, you can tug at their heartstrings and motivate them to act against their own best interests", he explains.

Grant illustrates the negative side of high emotional intelligence in an eloquent passage: “Recognizing the power of emotions, another one of the most influential leaders of the 20th century spent years studying the emotional effects of his body language. Practicing his hand gestures and analyzing images of his movements allowed him to become ‘an absolutely spellbinding public speaker,’  says the historian Roger Moorhouse— ‘it was something he worked very hard on. ’  His name was Adolf Hitler. ”

While high emotional intelligence does not equate agreeable personality traits, it can be used to increase likeability. In fact, the great analytical skills provided by this ability help you understand how your actions affect others. It allows you to identify behaviors that negatively impact your relationships, and helps you figure out how to avoid them.

Eight Behaviors to Avoid

Identifying and avoiding these eight behaviors, or unlikeable traits, can help you project the best you have to offer.

1. Having a Negative Attitude

In 2015, the employment website Career Builder conducted a survey among 2175 managers across the United States to investigate which specific behaviors would dissuade a manager from promoting an employee. Results revealed that 62% of the responding managers were less likely to promote an employee with a pessimistic attitude.

Exhibiting a negative attitude can directly affect other people around you and lower morale. Consistent complaining or disagreeable behavior lead to stress within the workplace, which can ultimately damage the atmosphere and impair productivity. Your colleagues may eventually see you as a bad team member and may not want to complete projects with you. Management may consider your behavior as detrimental to the work cycle, and you may end up losing your job.

Friends can start leaving you out of get-togethers if they expect you to ruin the atmosphere with negative comments or actions. They may even be afraid to ask you for advice because they know you will most likely demoralize them.

You might not even realize that you have a pessimistic attitude. Try to be more aware of your thoughts and actions. Identify times when you feel angry or demoralized, and force yourself to look at the situation in the opposite way. Try to smile as often as possible. Smiling even if you are not happy can almost instantly put you in a better mood and help you have a more positive attitude.

2. Gossiping

Gossip is one of the most dangerous activities you can engage in when trying to establish good relationships. Spreading rumors about someone can ruin their reputation and affect them when trying to meet new people or find a job. If the gossip finds its way to them, it will most likely hurt their feelings and ruin your relationship.

Talking about other people's misdeeds tarnishes your credibility and makes you look negative. Your behavior shows that people can't trust you — their secrets are not afe with you, and they will assume you talk about them when they are not around. They may well not want to keep associating themselves with you if you have a reputation of being a gossiper.

3. Being Chronically Late

Chronic tardiness betrays a lack of respect and consideration for others. By regularly showing up late, you may indicate to your friends that you do not value their time. They may think you do not care about them and may decide not to make plans with you anymore.

Chronic tardiness is also disrespectful for your coworkers. If you need to be there for a team project to begin, everyone is held up. Your colleagues often have to make up for your share of the work, and you end up being a burden on the whole team. Perpetual lateness can seriously undermine your professional reputation.

Even if you are aware that your behavior can upset people and jeopardize your career, it may be hard to change when you are caught in a perpetual cycle of tardiness. In an article published in Psychology Today, Dr. Maria Baratta, clinician and therapist, explains that the main factor that contributes to this chronic problem is not being realistic about time. “Many people grossly underestimate how long it takes to do things or get somewhere”, she writes.

Many details do not get factored into the estimation of how long it takes to get ready. For example, you may linger on coffee, pause to watch the news, or try on several combinations of clothes to finally settle on what looks good. Dr. Baratta, therefore, recommends you increase the time you allot yourself to get ready. Since several factors can prolong travel time, such as traffic jams or bus delays, she also suggests leaving home at least thirty minutes earlier.

4. Having a Closed Mind

Being open-minded also makes you approachable and interesting to others. People will not want to interact with you if they know you are intolerant of different opinions and unreceptive to new ideas. They will avoid discussing issues with you, assuming that you have already formed an opinion and are unwilling to listen. This disposition can turn people away from you, and they may come to the ultimate conclusion that you lack the ability to think critically about anything different from your own way of living.

Open-mindedness is also an important quality in the workplace. Managers want to know that you have a willingness to learn new notions and consider alternative approaches to problem-solving.

Try to eliminate preconceived judgment and to examine every situation from multiple angles. Interesting people are curious about the world at large, and you should be motivated to find out why those around you have certain beliefs and opinions, as well as how their experiences have shaped their perspectives (even if you think you already know the answers). 

5. Interrupting Others

When you are having a conversation, you sometimes get so excited about a bright idea that you interrupt your interlocutor in the middle of a sentence. In social get-togethers, you sometimes think that you know where the person speaking is going and that you can give the same explanations faster. In a sudden burst of enthusiasm, you jump in and share your own thoughts.

Even though you have good intentions, interrupting others can be an extremely bad habit. It can make you look disrespectful, selfish, or megalomaniacally obsessed with keeping the conversation focus on yourself. This behavior can become a constant source of frustration for others.

Your conversation partners may feel like you are more concerned with your opinion, and that you do not really care about what they have to say. Your impatience might cause them to feel disrespected or unimportant. They can get really annoyed if they lose their train of thought because of your intervention. People rarely want to interact with someone who makes them feel this way.

Try auditing yourself. Before every interaction, stop and listen to make sure other people have finished expressing their thoughts. Breaking a habit takes time, so if you have trouble remembering to wait before speaking, apologize to those you interrupted and remind them where they left off.

6. Not Paying Attention

In today's fast-paced society, it has become a habit to perform several tasks at the same time. The ability to multi-task perhaps makes you feel like you are getting a lot done, but it can affect your interactions with others.

Never giving people full attention makes you look disrespectful. It can become extremely annoying for them if every time they try to talk to you about an issue, you glance at your phone, check social media, and/or type a mid-conversation text message, You can leave people feeling disregarded, and make it unlikely they will establish a significant connection with you.

If you are not in a situation in which you can give people your full attention, ask them if they can wait until you are done. Observe your ability to give each person and each activity your complete focus.  When you notice yourself being distracted, try to filter out everything except the person in front of you or the task at hand.

7. Humble-Bragging

People often wonder how best to describe their accomplishments while simultaneously getting listeners to like them. Many individuals seem to think that humble-bragging is an effective way to achieve both objectives. This behavior consists in letting others know about something you are very proud of in a way that makes it appear as if you are complaining or embarrassed.

For example, someone may say : “I cannot believe my coworkers nominated me for this award!” A person may make fun of themselves in front of everybody for having a strict diet, while what they really want is other people to know how healthy and disciplined they are. This behavior can be even more annoying than regular bragging because it is perceived as insincere.

A recent study conducted by researchers at UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School and published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology looked at the effects of humble-bragging at work. Even though this behavior is highly despised in professional environments, nearly one out of three study participants noted that they had witnessed humble-bragging in their workplace.

The research found that regular braggers and complainers are seen as more likable and competent in their work than people who humble-brag. Since this behavior is so disliked, “This false modesty also makes your coworkers see you as inept at your job and diminishes your successes ”, explains study author Ovul Sezer.

People expect you to be proud of your accomplishments because it is a totally normal reaction to have. You will not be perceived as pompous if you express how happy you are about an achievement in a polite and honest way.

8. Not Asking Questions

Not asking questions during a conversation can make your interlocutor feel like you are not paying attention or that you are simply not interested in what they are saying. A research conducted by a team of Harvard psychological scientists in 2017 suggests that asking many questions increases people's positive impressions.

Those who ask for more information with follow-up questions are better liked by their conversation partners. Follow-up questions show that you commit to a conversation, demonstrating interest, understanding, and validation. A simple clarification question intimates that you are not only listening but also that you care about what the other is explaining.

Previous studies have already shown that the act of disclosing information about oneself activates a part of the brain that is associated with the sensation of pleasure. Since people enjoy talking about their own experiences and sharing knowledge, your friends will most likely appreciate spending time with you if you usually ask them questions.

Not asking enough questions can lead to miscommunication, failed plans, and decreased productivity. For example, if you are not sure you understand the instructions your superior gave you, you should ask for clarification immediately instead of spending days trying to figure it out yourself.

A Skill Worth Developing

Traits exhibited by highly likable people such as loyalty, kindness, empathy, transparency, and trustworthiness do not define the concept of emotional intelligence.

However, this ability to understand and analyze feelings help you perceive the effects of your actions on others and identify unpleasant behaviors that could compromise your likability. Possessing a high emotional intelligence may even help you avoid people who use this very same skill with evil motives.

For a self-help starter, you may be interested in leafing through Emotional Intelligence 2.0 by Travis Bradberry, or the OG tome by Daniel Goleman: Emotional Intelligence