In freshman year of college my dorm was hosting a party. I was headed out that night because I had other plans, and on the way out I bumped into a couple of girls who asked me where Steve was (name changed to protect the innocent).
Without much thought, I replied “oh, you mean the party guy” and told her his room number. Steve and his roommate were the frequent hosts of parties in their room, and this was the night of a party so it just seemed like something to say.
Later that night when I returned to the dorm, I was confronted in the hallway by a distraught and inebriated Steve.
“Brian, why did you tell them I was the party guy. I’m not the party guy. I’m the chill guy.”
Apparently the girls had grilled him on why he had the reputation of being a “party guy” and thus ruined his hopes of getting laid that night.
Wherever you are Steve, sorry dude. I’d take it back if I could.
However, this experience did teach me the powerful effect of personality labels on how other people respond to you.
When we think about ourselves, we like to think that we are multi-faceted creatures with complex, unique personalities. But the reality is that when you walk in the door to a party everyone immediately thinks “that guy” showed up, anticipates how your energy is going to change the social dynamic, and responds to you based on that perception.
So the question is, what energy are you bringing to the party? And is that the energy that you want to bring to the party?
Recognizing the energy of others
Before I move on, I want to give you a more visceral sense of just what I’m talking about by the “energy you’re bringing to the party.”
You probably know someone who complains about everything. Sometimes you find yourself not mentioning things to this person or avoiding conversation topics because you know that it’s just going to open up a flood of complaining–and, frankly, you don’t want to hear it.
Likewise, you’ve probably known someone who turns everything into a sexual joke. It doesn’t matter what you say, you know that it’s going to come back at you twisted in some way or with “that’s what she said” tacked on the end.
You might have even had a quiet moment of realization and thought, “wait a second, I’m that person…”
These are just a couple examples of how our habitual ways of interacting result in either labeling other people or being labeled ourselves as “that” guy or “that” gal.
Of course, the labels need not always be negative ones. There might be a person that if they are with you that you just know that you are going to have a good time no matter what you wind up doing. Or a person that you know is going to always say the right thing and make you feel better about a problem. Or a person who just makes you feel good whenever you are around them.
You’ll notice that there are always two parts to this. What they do habitually, and how it makes you respond to them.
Recognizing your own energy
You also have habitual ways of interacting with people that affect how they respond to you–even if you don’t know what they are.
A trait I’ve noticed in myself is that I have a tendency to be a contrarian. When people say something I don’t agree with or is just slightly off, I just have this strong urge to leap out of my chair and point out why they are wrong in excruciating detail.
If I don’t watch myself, my Twitter and Facebook feeds turn into a trail of snarky comments about why people don’t know what they’re talking about and what idiots they must be.
I have supernatural talent for pointing out other people’s screw ups.
This results in people calling me a “negative person.” Sometimes people don’t want to suggest things to me or tell me about things they’re excited about because they think they’re just going to get shot down.
As I’ve become more aware of this pattern in my behavior, I’ve realized that this is not the energy I want to bring to the party. I try to just let more things go and not rush to give a point-by-point breakdown of everything people did wrong.
This is not to say that if you are a contrarian you should flip 180 degrees and never disagree with anyone ever again. Disagreement has its place in healthy social and intellectual life. It only becomes pathological when you overindulge–like how a few drinks here and there are fine, but binge drinking every night is a problem.
There is, however, one major insidious complication we haven’t discussed. You may be getting a secondary payoff from your habit. For me, it’s very easy to get attention by being a contrarian. It’s often the wrong kind of attention, but it’s attention nonetheless and I have to give that up in order to bring a different kind of energy.
Learn to cultivate an awareness of your own behavior. How do you habitually interact with others? How does this cause them to habitually respond to you?
Changing your energy
To change your energy, you have to change your habits. We’ve just discussed stopping bad habits, and now we’re going to talk about building new ones.
The first step is to decide what energy you do want to bring to the party.
In my case, when people are around me I want them to get a sense of expanded possibilities for what they thought possible for their lives. That the things they see as problems can be solved, that the things they want to achieve can be achieved. I want to empower people.
So the question is, how do you get empowered?
You get empowered by gaining knowledge you needed but didn’t have, someone pointing to bigger possibilities you didn’t know existed, getting a different perspective that helps you get enough mental and emotional space around a problem to tackle it without getting overwhelmed, a little encouragement, or even just the knowledge that others have faced the same problems that you have.
Does this mean that I want talking with me to be like a Tony Robbins session? No. But it does mean that I make more of an effort to find out what is really important to people and what they want to do with their lives. It also means that my antennas go up when I hear people talking about what they’re trying to accomplish and I make an effort to help if I can or just provide some moral support if I can’t.
As you may have surmised, this is quite a different role than playing the contrarian. Building people up and empowering them doesn’t come quite as naturally to me. Actually, it doesn’t come naturally to me at all. But I can’t think of any other type of energy I’d rather be contributing to the world.
So too, you may find that the energy you want to bring to the party is very different than the energy you are actually bringing to the party.
Changing your energy may be awkward at first. After all, people are used to interacting with you in a certain way. And in the beginning you will completely suck at bringing the new energy. You just have to stick to the plan and trust that this is the path you want to go down.
Watch out for pigeonholes
Sometimes, due to the vagaries of the universe, labels can land on your head that you don’t like and don’t resonate with.
For example, when I was in high school I was that kid who always blew the curve on the AP US History exams. A few months into the school year an odd thing started to happen. People started telling me how arrogant I was about scoring so much higher than everyone else. This took me by surprise because I consciously avoided ever commenting on test scores.
After this happening for awhile, I just thought “fine, if you’re going to be that way about it then I will rub your noses in it.”
Don’t do that.
Stick to your guns, be cool about it, and keep working on bringing the energy that you want to bring.
I can only imagine the conversation that took place between poor Steve and those girls. The first, possibly innocuous, lob of “hey, that guy downstairs says that you’re the party guy.” Steve’s quick and over-eager defense, “no, no, I’m the chill guy.” And things spiralling downward from there as the girls smelled his insecurity like bloodhounds.
A possible better response in that hypothetical would be, “yeah, we’re excited about hosting the party tonight.” Then simply moving right into another topic such as how their night was. All the while simply being “chill” instead of defensively insisting that he was chill–and thus proving that he actually wasn’t.
The “energy you bring to the party” is manifested in the ways you habitually interact with other people and how they respond to your habitual behavior. You wind up being labeled a complainer, a negative person, the dirty joke guy, a chill guy, a giving person, or even an inspirator and this affects how people treat you.
Often times the energy we’d like to bring is different than the energy we are actually bringing or the energy that we think we are bringing. Sometimes we even wind up playing a role chosen for us by others.
Learn to cultivate an awareness of your social habits. If you’re unsure, ask a close friend or family member. You will be shocked at how quickly they can identify your habits and the ways people respond to you as a result. Alternatively, you can find another clue in the arguments or praise you get from your significant other–anything you do habitually will feature prominently as a recurring theme.
If you don’t like the energy you are projecting to the people around you, then change it. For extra credit, choose an energy that creates more of what you want in the world.
For my part, I will keep trying to empower people and expand their sense of possibilities so that I can live in a world full of empowered and inspiring people.