How to make a good impression

Ovul Sezer knows how not to be a jerk, according to science. Her research focuses on social behaviors we think will get us ahead but that actually backfire, like humblebragging and name-dropping.

Ovul Sezer flips her hair while bystanders watch with skeptical expressions
Ovul Sezer, an assistant professor of organizational behavior in the Kenan-Flagler Business School, poses for a portrait alongside MBA students John Nelson (left) and Mabel Acosta (right) on September 12, 2019, on the campus of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. A portion of Sezer's research focuses on habitual behaviors that people think are effective in social interactions but are actually ineffective, such as humblebragging. (Johnny Andrews/UNC-Chapel Hill)

Ovul Sezer knows how not to be a jerk, according to science.

Specifically, Sezer studies how social behaviors you think will impress your mother-in-law, like name-dropping, actually make you unpleasant to be around.

An assistant professor of organizational behavior at UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School, Sezer is undertaking the first comprehensive study of these social habits — why we use them, how they backfire and how they shape the way people perceive us.

“We all do them to some extent without even being aware of them,” she said. “They can happen in job interviews, in work meetings or on a very important first date, and these impressions that we make on others are really consequential in both the material and social rewards that we get.”

She shared a few takeaways from her research that can help us make better impressions at school, at home and in the workplace.

If you’re going to brag, own it.

You know that person on Twitter who is always complaining about how hard it is to be so successful?

That’s called humblebragging, and it’s an easy trap to fall into.

“It’s a kind of false humility,” Sezer said. “People say something great about themselves, but they try to mask it as a complaint or as modesty. We want to be liked, but we also want to be respected, and humblebragging seems to give us the advantage of both.”

But Sezer’s research shows that we’re better off owning our self-promotion.

“The reason why humblebragging backfires is that it seems insincere and fake,” she said. “Being genuine is much more important than conveying your competence or accomplishments.”

Try not to name-drop.

When you only have five minutes to impress someone at a networking event, you might pull out another casual social tactic: name-dropping.

Even if you are close friends with Oprah, name-dropping is generally an unsuccessful attempt to raise your status to the person listening.

It’s understandable to want to bask in the glory of a high-status name, Sezer said, but name-dropping doesn’t quite have the desired effect.

“When it comes to status, we think of it as a zero-sum game, so if someone is signaling high status, it creates this hierarchy. And we don’t like that as the receivers,” she said. 

Use humor for inclusion, not exclusion.

Humor can be a powerful social tool, but Sezer suggests steering clear of sharing inside jokes when others are around.

“There are so many benefits of humor that we know from the research. It helps with conflict resolution, it helps with negotiations, it helps with the impressions that you make,” Sezer said. “Humor is risky, but when it works, it’s great.”

When it doesn’t work, though, it can make people feel excluded and disconnected. In an ongoing study, Sezer is learning that inside jokes often backfire much more than we think they will. For the outsiders, they’re just plain annoying.

Give genuine compliments.

Most of us have received a backhanded compliment: Your speech was great for an intern. You’re really smart for a young woman. I love your outfit — you’ve really stepped up your fashion game.

While some people believe giving backhanded compliments will boost their status, Sezer said, “it’s actually much more costly in terms of being liked.”

Sezer recommended giving genuine compliments that don’t include comparisons. A simple “great job” can go a long way. Positive feedback increases motivation, while a backhanded compliment does the opposite.

The biggest takeaway from Sezer’s research is to be sincere and leave the status game behind.

“There’s no reason for me to show you that I’m better than you,” she said. “We value sincerity above and beyond that, which is a fundamental lesson for all of us in this world.”