in: People, Social Skills

• Last updated: September 26, 2021

Social Briefing #11: Don’t Have a Self-Disclosure Agenda

Officer Social Briefing.

Social Briefings are short bi-monthly dispatches that offer practical tips to improve your social skills. Read more on their raison d’etre. 

When it comes to how much to disclose to someone new, you generally want to match the intensity of the other person’s revelations, and lead with positive disclosures about yourself.

But staying positive doesn’t mean you should brag about all the great things you’ve got going on.

When you’re getting to know someone, it’s natural to want them to really like you. It’s also natural to feel that unless they know x, y, and z cool thing about you, they won’t be as interested — they won’t know you’re as smart, unique, adventurous, or accomplished as you really are.

But trying to convey those great qualities and achievements too artificially and assertively can backfire, showing people that rather being cool and confident, you’re actually insecure.

While it’s common and even advisable to want to put your best foot forward and highlight your good qualities to those you meet, there’s a wrong and right way of doing so.

Don’t Have a “Self-Disclosure Agenda”

When they interact with others, many people have what the authors of First Impressions call a “self-disclosure agenda” — a set of favorable facts about their lives that they want to work into the conversation. I run marathons; I make six figures; I have a nice house; I volunteer in my community; I’m a world traveler; I went to an Ivy League school; etc. Basically, “I’m a big deal” in some shape or form. These kinds of accomplishments show status, and we all intuitively know that the higher one’s status, the more attractive and compelling we are.

But we also know that outright bragging is socially unacceptable. So, we go about trying to forward our self-disclosure agenda in subtler ways.

One such method is to ask a question largely to get the other person to ask you the same thing, thus creating an opening to share something interesting or laudable about yourself. For example, you intentionally ask someone, “What did you do this weekend?” because when they boomerang the question back, you get to say: “Oh, I helped out a homeless shelter.” Or you ask, “Did you play any sports in high school?” so that after the other person replies and returns the question, you can say, “I was the quarterback of the football team.”

Another not-so-subtle way people forward their self-disclosure agenda is to add unnecessary details into their descriptions/explanations of things. To the question “Do you travel a lot for your job?”, someone with a self-disclosure agenda might answer, “I do. I’ve been to Bali, London, Moscow, and Greenland just in the last 3 months. I’m always being asked to meet with company CEOs around the world. I actually just met Richard Branson last week.”

While it’s possible to ask a “boomerang question” and add flattering details in a way that’s subtle and doesn’t register as covert bragging, oftentimes exactly what you’re doing is both obvious and off-putting. It shows your insecurity, which diminishes the very status you were trying to demonstrate.

Do Let Yourself Be Discovered

Rather than having a self-disclosure agenda, it’s best to let yourself be discovered. Things that people discover about you themselves always seem even more impressive than those which you share yourself. Indirect communication is powerful, so instead of forcing your self-disclosure agenda, allow folks to “overhear” the great things about you.

You don’t have to be completely passive in this process, however, and can subtly facilitate it in the following ways:

Show, rather than tell. Research shows you can judge a book by its cover; even after short interactions, people are generally able to accurately gauge a person’s personality and status based on external clues like body language and facial expressions — the way you walk, talk, dress, and hold yourself. So while you might feel it’s necessary to verbalize who you are to a new acquaintance, you’ve actually already been telegraphing that from the very moment you met.

If you’ve got a lot of inner positive qualities, that’s good news; it means you can rest easy, knowing that people will pick up on that fact without you explicitly saying so. (If you don’t have a lot of good things going on in your life — work on that!)

That being said, even if you are objectively a great guy, it’s possible to enhance your external body language and appearance to better reflect that reality, and to mitigate behaviors that contradict it and prevent people from getting an accurate perception of who you really are.

The way you do that is simple: staying fit, dressing snappier, standing up straight, conveying warm body language, etc.

Use a wingman. There’s a reason wingmen have become a social scene cliché — they’re effective. A wingman can surface the good things about you without you having to do it yourself. Will the audience know exactly what your buddy is doing? Probably, but it still sounds better than you bragging on yourself, and even when ladies know your wingman’s sharing your highlight reel intentionally, that doesn’t make it any less attractive or compelling.

Drop breadcrumbs. Sharing flattering details of your life isn’t a bad thing, as long as you don’t try to shoehorn them into spaces they don’t belong. Be patient, and wait for a natural opening in the context of the conversation to share something about your accomplishments and positive qualities. Err on the side of sharing less over more; if people are curious, they can ask you for greater detail.

Drop little bread crumbs here and there, and people will eventually follow the trail to your best qualities and achievements.

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