One woman's quest for 'likability'

Email|Print| Text size + By Beth Teitell
Globe Correspondent / February 21, 2008

You've been there, I'm sure: at a party, trapped by a lay pundit bursting with election wisdom gleaned mere hours earlier from the cablesphere. Such was my situation the other night, when, moments into my tormentor's monologue about Hillary Clinton's "likability problem" my own insecurities kicked in.

Do people like me?

I tried to re-focus on the conversation (or, more accurately, pretend to) but I couldn't stop worrying about my own L-Factor. My mind wandered to public figures who had suffered, however briefly, for their unlikability - Tom Cruise, Paris Hilton, Martha Stewart, Camilla Parker-Bowles - and I realized that a charm boost wouldn't hurt anyone, including me.

So I undertook a likability tour of my own. I consulted the man whose firm measures entertainers' and athletes' popularity, or Q Scores. I conferred with an expert on Wal-Mart greeters. I sought advice from the 1963 Miss America pageant's Miss Congeniality, and, of course, an eighth-grade girl. The trick to making others like you? Smile, listen, and be sincere. (Even if you have to fake it, I've discovered. But you didn't hear that from me.)

"The person with highest Q Score ever was Bill Cosby when 'The Cosby Show' was at its peak," Steven Levitt, president of Marketing Evaluations/The Q Scores Company, told me. Out of a possible 100 points, Cosby scored 71. (Kevin Federline is a contender for the opposite record, with a negative Q Score of 81.) "Why would Cosby have had the highest number ever?" Levitt asked rhetorically. "What did he portray? Someone who was warm, genuine, objective, not fake, a little funny, maybe a lot funny."

What if you want to be liked, but you're not genuinely genuine? I was poised to jot down notes, but Levitt splashed cold water in my face. "I don't know that you can learn it. An actor can portray a sincere individual in a role, but that's not real. That's why he or she is an actor."

Aha! Acting! I hoped Nicholas Martin, artistic director of the Huntington Theatre Company, would pass along tips, but he said if you want an actor to portray a likable character, you get a likable actor. And, he added, likability is a quality most actors possess anyway. "Even someone like Tommy Lee Jones, who's played villains all his life, even he has a factor that makes you root for him."

I was learning about intangibles, but no closer to my goal. Perhaps an authority on those friendly Wal-Mart greeters could help. Or . . . not. The greeters' secret, company spokeswoman Sharon Weber told me, is that they sincerely like other people. "It comes from within."

From within? That sounds horribly challenging, but luckily there's a whole industry devoted to helping it come from without, including likability coach Tim Sanders, author of "The Likeability Factor." "The reason you like someone is because you think they like you, or they make you feel good," he said. When I wondered aloud if I made others feel happy, he e-mailed me an L-Factor Self-Assessment, but it was of little help. Years of lying to the StairMaster about my weight have taught me well, and I scored an almost perfect 10.

"I smile often and have a pleasant tone of voice." Check. "I have a unique ability to help others accomplish their tasks and reach their dreams." Check. And so on.

I called Sanders back seeking a more objective tool, and he sent along a list of the "symptoms" of likable people: They get more time with their doctors. They get better service than their friends. People smile at them all the time and compliment them on a great smile. As managers, they have almost perfect retention of workers.

Those perks sounded so nice I was more eager than ever to be likable, but how? Miss Congeniality 1963 Jeanne Robertson, now a professional speaker, spelled out the routine: "Rather than talk about yourself or craftily turn the conversation back to you, ask questions about others. Give people a smile when you see them coming. They'll like you before the conversation begins."

And don't forget good grooming and hygiene. "They play a greater role than you might think," noted Robert B. Dimmick, author of and an instructor at MIT's recent one-day Charm School. "If you're a brilliant conversationalist but you have bad breath or spit while you talk, no one's going to want to be near you."

Flossed, grinning, and deodorized, I headed out for fieldwork. I smiled, asked about people's kids, dogs, jobs, kitchen renovations - and listened to the answers. And? They liked me, they really liked me. But all that focus on others was so exhausting. The trick to life, I've learned, is to walk around charming others until you're lucky enough to find someone working on her own likability, and then, carpe diem: Drone on about yourself for as long as possible.

Like them or not

Bill Cosby was popular at his show's peak.

Tommy Lee Jones plays villains but is still liked.

Hillary Clinton has likability issues.

Tom Cruise has seen his L-Factor rise and fall.

Celebutante Paris Hilton. Enough said.

Kevin Federline likable? The numbers say no.

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