First impressions are important in any social interaction. When meeting new people, we put our best selves out there, and others do the same. Sometimes, these short first interactions are all that an individual may use to create a mental image of you. 

So often, we wonder what the other person thought of us. Did I say the right things? Did I have the right body language? Were my jokes actually funny? Now, it would be awkward to ask the person for direct feedback on how they perceived us, so we are left with unconfirmed beliefs of how the other person perceived us.

These beliefs are called “metaperceptions,” and many factors come into play when we establish them, such as the other individual’s response and overall impression of the interaction. However, our self-perception is more influenced by how we think we are perceived because knowing another person’s true thoughts and feelings during a conversation is difficult. Even if the person you’re talking to is completely open and honest with their opinions of you, your own thoughts and perceptions carry the most weight.

Our insight is poor when others do not agree with our views

In the 2016 book The Social Psychology of Perceiving Others Accurately, the editors Judith A. Hall, Marianne Schmid Mast, and Tessa V. West mention how the accuracy of our insight — specifically, our intuitive understanding of another’s thoughts and beliefs — is stronger when the other people in our conversation agree with us but is poor when they do not share our same views. 

This often leads to a ‘liking gap’ — when your perception of how another perceives or likes you differs from how they actually perceive you. Many studies have found that people tend to underestimate how much others like them, even children as young as five!

A 2019 US study published in Nature by Jeffrey Lees and Mina Cikara of over 4,000 subjects highlighted how negative metaperceptions of a group influenced the interactions between members of that group and external groups, which can lead to conflicts and barriers between them. These negative metaperceptions can hinder people’s social interactions and create a sense of alienation if individuals underestimate their likeability. Such a negative perception of someone’s conversational ability can lead to feelings of self-blame for how their interactions unfold. 

The liking gap with English as a second language

While researchers have conducted many studies about metaperception with individuals who speak English as a primary language, we don’t know much about the implications of the liking gap in those speaking English as a second language and its impact on communication and belonging. 

While the language can be quite difficult for non-English speakers, navigating the nuances of another’s communication style can be even more challenging. As an English speaker myself, even going to Montréal posed a challenge in assessing how likable I seemed, as I faced cultural differences in interactions on top of differences in communication, even when other people and I were speaking the same language.

A study at Concordia’s Applied Linguistics Lab looks into the phenomenon of the liking gap in students who speak English as a second language and its potential social impact. The researchers instructed a total of 38 pairs of students to read and discuss a short text. After, the students filled out a questionnaire rating their partner’s overall impression of them. 

The study aimed to explore two questions: does a student’s perceived rating differ from the actual rating by their partner after an academic discussion? Does the student’s metaperception influence their willingness to engage in future interactions with their partners?

The findings aligned with previous knowledge of the liking gap, extending its impact to international students, who, in this study, also underestimated how much their conversational partners in the activity liked them. Most participants rated their partners more favourably than how much they thought their partners liked them. This gap was also more prevalent for women participants in terms of speaking skills and interaction behaviours, and the women participants’ perception of how much their partners liked them influenced their interest in future interactions. The men’s interest in future interactions was not predicted by their partners’ liking.

Rachael Lindberg, a PhD student at Concordia and one of the main authors of the study, stated that “this [metaperception] insecurity could potentially have consequences for [some students’] academic and social integration.” Not only does metaperception impact their confidence in themselves as English speakers, but it can create an atmosphere of hesitancy when seeking social interactions. 

I believe a good starting point to help mitigate negative metaperceptions is through better understanding, communication, and empathy between groups and individuals. So consider ending a conversation with how you felt about it, whether good or bad, to help the other person better understand how the interaction went for you — rather than letting them create a biased metaperception which, as we now understand, is inaccurate in most cases.