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

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With the approach of the Wimbledon tennis championship this week, Rafael Nadal was very worried.

Have the 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?

Luckily for Nadal fans like me, one thing is certain. If he succeeds on the court, we will see the disconcerting series of tics and quirks that helped make him one of the most watchable, albeit weird, tennis players of his era.

There are the drink bottles that he has to line up right on the floor near his chair so the labels are facing the pitch. The lines on which he must avoid walking between the points. Better yet, his serving routine: a flurry of pats to the face, nose and shoulders – and a solid pull on the back of his shorts.

Nadal described his behavior as a ritual, a way of ordering his environment “to match the order I’m looking for in my head”. This may irritate his opponents on the pitch, but he remains one of the most popular players in the game. Could it be because, to ordinary viewers, he looks like he’s coping with stress?

I asked myself the question last week after coming across a British study that revealed something unexpected about stress: the more we show it, the nicer we seem to be.

I thought that unlikely at first. Showing too much anxiety, especially at work, can be tedious and inadvisable. Some of the less likeable people I have known have shown endless stress towards those who were unlucky enough to have worked with them.

But mild stress is something else and that’s what the British study deliberately triggered in 31 volunteers.

Everyone was ordered to quickly prepare for a mock job interview; give a three-minute speech about themselves and take a tricky math test with questions like: count down from the number 1022 to 13 as quickly and accurately as possible until you’re asked to Stop.

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

All were filmed and when a separate group of 133 people then viewed the videos, they identified the most stressed people, whose touching of the face, scratching of the head and other non-verbal signs of tension seemed the to betray.

Video viewers also believed that the most stressed volunteers were more sympathetic. The researchers weren’t sure why, but think it might be rooted in evolution.

Being more cooperative than other animals, humans are attracted to honest or open people. Showing signs of stress or weakness is a good way to demonstrate such reliability, which is helpful.

As the study puts it: “The friendliest people may have more opportunities to develop social connections with others, build and maintain better social networks, and develop more friendships – something that has been shown to have tremendous fitness benefits in humans and non-humans alike. animals.”

In other words, we may have evolved ways to move, bite our nails, and chew our lips when we’re stressed to protect ourselves in the jungle.

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

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

I’m not entirely convinced, although there are signs he might be right.

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

She nervously sat down and promptly knocked over a glass of water which spilled towards said panel. Horrified, she told them she knew she might do something silly, she just didn’t think it would happen that fast.

Everyone laughed. She got the job, which no doubt would have happened anyway, even if nothing had gone wrong. But the crash wasn’t disastrous, and maybe it’s worth remembering the next time stress hits.

pilita.clark@ft.com

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