It’s been several years since I was in high school, yet I can still remember the names of the popular kids. I wasn’t one of them. In fact, I was pretty shy and awkward back then.
The good news for me and any other recovering nerd, however, is that the criteria for being popular as an adult isn’t the same list of traits that make someone popular in high school—characteristics like athletic prowess, style, humor, or wealth. In fact, anyone can be popular if they crack the code and do the work, says Bernardo Carducci, Ph.D., coauthor of Shyness: A Bold New Approach (Harper Perennial, 2000).
"We all want to be accepted and admired, but just like every other psychological or physical characteristic, popularity can have a tremendous amount of variation," says Carducci, a professor of psychology at Indiana University Southeast. "If you look closely at people who are held in esteem by others or who have a large social circle, however, they exhibit specific behaviors that are similar."
Just like going to the driving range and playing golf on a regular basis will better your game, practicing the habits of popular people will improve your social situation, says Carducci. "In our work, we show people who are intimidated by social situations how to be what we call ‘successfully shy,’" he says. "You don’t have to be the life of the party; you just have to practice what popular people do."
Carducci shares five habits of popular people and how you can use them to expand your social network:
Carducci says popular people act like "the host to humanity." Rather than focusing on their own social needs, they focus on the needs of others with the idea that they can somehow better that person’s life. They’re genuinely interested in other people, actively learn more about them, and look for connections.
"For shy people, the biggest barrier to their becoming popular is that they have this tremendous sense of self focus," he says. "Shyness is like being in front of a mirror all day long, constantly focusing on your own weaknesses or flaws. Popular people focus on others instead of obsessing about themselves."
Conversation skills are not something you’re born with, says Carducci, they’re something you develop. Popular people have worked at and mastered this.
"Most conversations follow a predictable pattern," he says. "Shy people don’t understand the pattern or fail to get started."
The first step is having an opening line. "Too often people put pressure on themselves to come up with a powerful statement, but the simpler the better," Carducci says. For example, comment on the environment or a shared connection.
The next step is introducing yourself. Carducci says a good personal introduction includes enough information that the other person can ask questions. The third step is conversation exploration, where the pair or group goes from introductions to a topic. Carducci says popular people often revisit something a person said in their personal introduction and ask about it. Step four is topic expansion, building on the topic at hand by focusing on what the other person is saying and asking questions or adding your own personal experiences. The final step is to end the conversation by expressing gratitude for the connection, and establishing future contact if you wish.
"Good conversation builds on topics; people who are good at that don’t focus on themselves," says Carducci.
It’s hard to become popular if you’re sitting at home. Popular people often have a full social calendar and take charge of making dates and sending out invitations. These interactions allow them to continue to work on their social skills. Shy people; however, wait to be asked out. They also make mistakes when attending events, says Carducci.
"Shy people want to go to social functions; they just don’t know what to do when they get there," he says. "They often show up late to parties, thinking that it’s easier to blend into the crowd, but this strategy works against them."
When you’re late to a party, people have already formed conversational groups, says Carducci; it’s hard to break into established groups. Also, when you arrive late, there is more ambient noise, which can contribute to an even greater level of anxiety. Instead, show up early and welcome others as they arrive. Introducing yourself is easier with fewer people in a room. Then take on the job of introducing others as they arrive; it will make you appear popular and attractive, says Carducci.
Popular people are aware of what’s going on around them and appear approachable. They aren’t at a party sitting on a sofa on their cell phone or standing in a corner with a frown. They’re interested in others and are good listeners. They also introduce people to each other by sharing details that generate conversations, says Carducci.
For example, instead of saying, "Joe, meet Susan," a popular person might say, "Joe, I want you to meet Susan. She just returned from a trip to Italy. Susan, Joe travels to Venice often for business. I’ll bet you’ve visited some of the same places."
Finally, popular people are often kind people, says Carducci.
"They notice you and might compliment you on your jewelry or clothing," he says. "They’ll ask if you need anything, offer you their seat and help you by opening the door."
The key to being popular is leading with the heart, says Carducci. "Popularity isn’t gained through power; it’s earned by kindness. The more concerned you are with others, the more friends you will have, and ultimately that will help you in your work and social life."