What Does Likeable Look Like?

My last post, “Have You Tried Being Likeable?,” prompted a bit of a debate about what it actually takes to be likeable. Smiling all of the time? No. Sharing credit? Yes. Insincere compliments? No. Acknowledging a colleague when you pass her in the hall? Yes. The comment-section banter was inadequate for some readers, and a handful of them wrote to me directly (and bravely, I might add) admitting that they have struggled to be likeable, but aren’t entirely sure what they are supposed to do to connect with others.

I think it is fair to say that likeability is similar to art and pornography. We know it when we see it, but we’re unlikely to reach uniform agreement on the concept. Still, the idea of a professional “Likeability List” is intriguing and sounds like a fun summer project. So, let’s get to work. I have my opinions and I’m sure you have yours. It will be interesting to see if our mutual perspectives intersect.

To get our list started, here are two characteristics that are important to me:

1. Confidence balanced by humility

We were doing introductions and the first person up went on and on. “I’m Dr. First Name Last Name, blankety-blank chair of so-and-so and winner of the X award. I hold joint appointments in the departments of A, B, C, and D and I’m best known for my research in the areas of blah, blah, blah. There’s more, of course, but I don’t want to go on all night. Ha, ha, ha.”

The next guy, one of our most respected and admired faculty members, was a bit briefer. “Hi, I’m First Name Last Name and I’m in the department of astronomy.”

Guy No. 1: Insecure? Overcompensating? Definitely a blowhard = unlikeable.

Guy No. 2: Quietly confident = immensely likeable.

2. Making people feel valued/not making people feel stupid

The principal investigator on the grant I had just been hired to administer was a skilled surgeon, a prolific researcher, and incredibly demanding. During my early days on the job, I spent most of my time trying not to be a disappointment to him. One day, while he was being interviewed about male urologic cancers by our local public-radio station, a woman called in with a question that made me gasp: “We hear a lot about prostate cancer in men, but much less about the disease in women. Why is that?” I held my breath, bracing for what I feared would be a biting and sarcastic response to this anatomy-challenged caller. After a brief pause, Surgeon Man delighted me with his charming response: “Other listeners might have the same question, so I’m glad you asked that. It’s primarily because women don’t have prostates. So with women, we tend to hear more about breast, uterine, cervical, and ovarian cancers.” I immediately fell in (work) love with him after that. Likeable people know their stuff and feel no need to make “lesser beings” feel inadequate.

Do these characteristics resonate with you? What else can we add to this list?

[Creative Commons-licensed photo by Flickr user atomicjeep.]

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