Likable or credible? What are you really looking for?

Enya Eetickal, Staff Writer

There’s no drama like kid drama. That’s something I’m reminded of every time I find myself babysitting. The intensity with which children war over who gets to be the mom when playing house or the ways they decide who gets to play hide-and-seek interests me. These drama-inducing circumstances are perpetuated in various age groups as well, but they get less interesting and increasingly stupid the older you are. But the question I’ve pretty consistently asked myself is “why?” Why does it matter so much to them if they get to be the parents when playing house, or if they get to be a part of the group that hides in the static-filled hell that are elementary school slides?

The answer is quite simple, actually. All these seemingly small situations are directly tied to one thing: likability. For children, adolescents and even adults, likability is at the forefront of many people’s concerns. Everything people do can be tied back to likability. The way people dress, act, talk, what they do, what they don’t do—all of it shapes how likable someone is. Likability is a universally desired attribute. It’s perceived as a form of power. Those who are liked get what they want, or at least that’s the accepted belief. 

Recently, I don’t know how much I agree with that. Likability is useful, but I think people are actually looking for credibility. The issue is that likability and credibility are not the same thing, and confusing these two separate concepts is potentially problematic.

Likability is about favorability, meaning people find you agreeable or enjoyable. People assume that being likable also translates to having others defer to you more often—however, that’s not necessarily true and that assumption overlaps with credibility. Credibility is about being believable and trusted, no more or less than that. Credibility is what gives weight to words and encourages the masses to entrust someone with decision-making authority. 

There’s no doubt that an overlap exists between likability and credibility. But confusing the two can be a problem for a number of reasons. 

The first problem is that someone may obsess over their image in order to become likable. Since likability is solely about perception, it lies in the hands of others. What makes someone agreeable or enjoyable is heavily subjective. For some people, an “agreeable” person is bubbly and talkative. Others may find that annoying. In other cases, someone who’s soft-spoken and sweet may be perceived as enjoyable, but some may find that unsettling. There is no way to really ensure that you’re universally likable. Trying to micromanage likability can easily become a losing battle. The only way to be universally favorable is if you’re universally beneficial to everyone. 

That leads to the next issue—becoming a pushover. Being universally beneficial is an easy solution to trying to be universally likable, so it’s a popular path in pursuing likability. But if someone doesn’t have a thoroughly established sense of self or well-drawn boundaries for the sake of their health and wellbeing, they can quickly fall prey to someone who might take advantage of them. It’s devastating to watch, honestly. Worse, it’s hard to get out of that position. People who are used to it are afraid to stop being a pushover out of fear that they’ll lose their opportunity to be liked. The manipulators around us will always pick up on those who don’t stand up for themselves in order to please others. Be mindful of that. 

Misguided attempts at trying to be likable aside, achieving “likability” doesn’t ensure that you’ll have what you’re really looking for—credibility. Overlap between the two exists, but it’s not a guarantee. You can be likable and uncredible. Just because people enjoy spending time with you, it doesn’t mean that they trust you, have confidence in your decision-making skills or believe you’d be a good leader. Some traits of likability are inherently at odds with being credible. Being a pushover doesn’t lead to decisiveness or conviction—both of which are attributes that bolster credibility. 

Likewise, you can be credible and not likable. If people find you annoying or disagreeable, it doesn’t affect your credibility so long as they’re certain that you’re honest and have conviction. Being too honest or doubling down on decisions isn’t necessarily likable, but it fosters credibility. Sometimes, doing what’s right means acting directly against certain people’s interests—and that means catching some heat and potentially being disliked. Even if they dislike you, people are more likely to defer to someone whom they regard as brash and high-strung than someone who’s passive and swayed by the way they’re perceived. 

All this isn’t to say you should go balls to the wall with forgoing likability. What I’m saying is that you should closely consider what you’re really aspiring to do. If what you’re looking to build is credibility, you don’t need to die on the hill of likability. It’s all give and take. There’s a sweet spot of having both likability and credibility, but in order to achieve either to a higher degree, you need to let up on the other. Neither is necessarily better than the other, but it’s all about what you want and what you are looking for. Once you can figure out what it is you really want, committing to it is worth it.