If you want to be more likeable, try showing more stress

As this week’s Wimbledon tennis championship has neared there has been a lot of fretting about Rafael Nadal.

Have doctors fixed the Spanish star’s dodgy left foot? Would he be distracted by his wife’s pregnancy with their first child? Could he really repeat his wins at this year’s French and Australian Opens?

Happily for Nadal fans like myself, one thing is certain. If he makes it on court, we will see the baffling series of tics and quirks that have helped to make him one of the most watchable, if odd, tennis players of his era.

There are the drink bottles he has to line up just so on the ground by his chair so the labels face the court. The lines he has to avoid walking on between points. Best of all, his service routine: a flurry of face-taps, nose-pulls and shoulder-touches — and a solid tug at the back of his shorts.

Nadal has described his behaviour as ritual, a way of ordering his surroundings “to match the order I seek in my head”. It can irk his opponents on court, yet he remains one of the game’s most popular players. Could this be because, to ordinary viewers, it looks as if he is dealing with stress?

I wondered about this last week after coming across a British study that revealed something unexpected about stress: the more we show it, the more likeable we seem to be.

I thought this improbable at first. Showing too much anxiety, especially at work, can be tedious and inadvisable. Some of the least likeable people I have known have displayed endless stress to those unlucky enough to have worked with them.

But mild stress is another thing and that is what the British study deliberately triggered in 31 volunteers.

Each was told to prepare quickly for a fake job interview; give a three-minute speech about themselves and take a thorny maths test with questions like: count backwards from the number 1022 in 13’s as fast and accurately as you can until asked to stop.

Questionnaires and saliva tests for the stress hormone cortisol duly revealed that some of the volunteers grew anxious.

All were filmed throughout and when a separate group of 133 people were later shown the videos, they identified the more stressed people, whose face-touching, head-scratching and other non-verbal signs of strain seemed to give them away.

The video-watchers also thought the more stressed volunteers were more likeable. The researchers were not exactly sure why, but think it might be rooted in evolution.

Being more co-operative than other animals, humans are attracted to people who are honest or open. Showing signs of stress or weakness is a good way to demonstrate such trustworthiness, which is useful.

As the study put it: “More likeable people may have more opportunity to develop social connections with others, build and maintain better social networks, and develop more friendships — something which has been demonstrated to have enormous fitness benefits in both human and non-human animals.”

In other words, it is possible we developed ways to fidget, nail-bite and lip-chew when stressed to protect ourselves in the jungle.

One of the study’s authors, Jamie Whitehouse, thinks this offers lessons for how to behave at work today.

“Show your feelings, good or bad. Don’t try too hard to conceal your stress levels during that big presentation or interview,” he wrote in The Conversation last month. “Communicating honestly and naturally through your behaviour may in fact leave a positive impression on others.”

I am not entirely convinced, though there are signs he may be right.

Years ago, one of my smartest and most accomplished friends found herself in front of a formidable panel of interviewers when she was applying for a position at a prestigious university.

She sat down nervously and promptly knocked over a glass of water that spilled towards said panel. Horrified, she told them she knew she was likely to do something idiotic, she just didn’t think it would happen that quickly.

Everyone laughed. She got the position, which would have undoubtedly happened anyway, even if nothing had got wet. But the mishap was not disastrous, and perhaps that is worth remembering the next time stress strikes.


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