Awkward Habits That Actually Make You Seem Trustworthy

They may not be sophisticated, but these work surprisingly well.

There’s a misconception that to win the trust of strangers one needs to be a confidant, smooth-talking Don Draper type. And while professional con artists agree it’s important to look the part you’re playing, building empathy is even more critical. Body language is a known empathy booster, as is active listening—but what about showing off your human imperfections? It’s also important to trust the brands of products that you use. Here are the most trusted brands in America.

A growing body of research shows that imperfect behavior could be a key to making friends. Want to give it a shot? Here are three science-backed ways to build trust by showing your awkward side.

Spill on yourself


Humans are flawed. And while many of us are quick to admit that to ourselves, we do everything in our power to hide it from others—especially in high-pressure social settings like a job interview, blind date, or court appearance (you lucky dog). However, decades of research shows that perfectionism could be working against us: to really make someone comfortable with you quickly, spill coffee all over yourself.

In one famous study from the 1960s, participants listened to four recordings of a student interviewing for a Quiz Bowl team. In two of the recordings, the student sounds highly qualified, and in the other two, he does not; One candidate from each group is also heard saying, “Oh my goodness, I’ve spilled coffee all over my new suit!” As you might expect, the qualified student was judged more favorably than the unqualified student—but the qualified student who spilled coffee on himself was the unanimous favorite.

According to the researchers, the clumsy candidate who showed his human side appeared easier to empathize with: “A superior person may be viewed as superhuman and, therefore, distant; a blunder tends to humanize him and, consequently, increases his attractiveness.” So, unless you are a surgeon, antique dealer, or underwater welder, build trust at work by being a butterfingers. (And if that fails, here are 8 proven ways to build trust at work.)

Swear (In Moderation)awkward_habits_make_seem_trustworthy_sweariStock/PeopleImages

In most American workplaces, profanity is considered unprofessional and inappropriate. But while you might suspect that following the rules is the best way to be seen as a trusted team member, language professor Michael Adams argues that a little profanity can build a lot of trust.

Bad words are unexpectedly useful in fostering human relations because they carry risk,” Adams writes in his book In Praise of Profanity. “We like to get away with things and sometimes we do so with like-minded people.”

Letting another person in on your little sweary rule-breaking moment is a form of reciprocity (“I won’t tell if you won’t”), which we know is a building block of trust. Of course, over-use of this trick can leave you looking like a crass Sopranos extra—so, when’s the right time to drop a bomb? As a rule of thumb never swear at the person you’re trying to build a bond with. Instead, swear about some mutual inconvenience, quietly, a long way from HR.

Stare and Stare Alikeawkward_habits_make_seem_trustworthy_stareiStock/monkeybusinessimages

In a subconscious quest to build empathy, humans mimic each other in hundreds of nearly-invisible ways every day: We yawn to show sympathy, alter our body language to match who we’re talking to, and musicians even regulate their heartbeats to match one another while performing. Recently, researchers at the Association for Psychological Science found that even our pupils change size to mimic our conversation partner’s, and this eye-for-an-eye empathy may have significant trust-building benefits.

When participants in an APS study were shown close-up images of potential business partners’ eyes, the subjects’ pupils dilated and constricted in mimicry of the eyes they were looking at. In general, dilated eyes are perceived as a sign of safety while constricted pupils are perceived as more threatening; study participants further proved this by judging dilated-eye partners as more trustworthy than constricted-eye partners, and were more likely to invest with them after. This is just more proof that a positive attitude is contagious. (Related: These games build empathy.)

Be warned: there is such a thing as too much eye contact. According to researchers at Michigan State University, four seconds of uninterrupted eye contact is about as long as the average person can take before feeling awkward (MSU recommends holding direct contact for four seconds, briefly glancing off to the side, then repeating.) This is all to say: Everything in moderation—including your awkward habits.

Next up: Here are the 40 most trusted companies in America.

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Originally Published in Reader's Digest