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ELISE HU, HOST:
From NPR, IT'S BEEN A MINUTE. I'm Elise Hu filling in for Sam Sanders while he takes a much deserved vacation. I'm not sure where he's at, but we can just Instagram stalk him and find out. Today on the show, we're talking about something most of us can probably relate to - wanting to be liked - and how that can create some problems.
This desire to be liked and the trouble it causes is something Alicia Menendez knows a lot about. Alicia was recently named an anchor at MSNBC. She's a contributing editor at Bustle, and she's the creator and host of the "Latina To Latina" podcast. On that show, Alicia talks with politicians, entertainers, even psychic mediums.
She's also the author of the new book "The Likeability Trap." It's about all these experiences we encounter but maybe don't realize, centered around needing and wanting to be liked in our personal and work lives. Alicia talks a lot about how women and people of color fall into the trap - guilty. But the feeling can be universal. You might find yourself nodding along to the stories and experiences she talks about - the instinct to people-please and be liked in the workplace and in your relationships. If not, maybe this can help you see the people in your life who do experience this.
I was in LA. Alicia joined me from New York. Here we go.
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HU: Congrats on the book.
ALICIA MENENDEZ: Thanks.
HU: And the new baby.
MENENDEZ: Thank you. Thank you.
HU: Which one was more challenging to deliver to the world?
MENENDEZ: The book, for sure.
MENENDEZ: And my epidural only caught on one side, so that's saying something.
HU: I have yet to write a book. But what I hear again and again is that you have to be super passionate about the subject in order to devote so much time and energy to it.
MENENDEZ: It's also - I thought because I write 1,000-word pieces all the time that I would just knock out, like, 60 1,000-word pieces and, boom, it would be a book. But having a through line and, like, a thought that actually sustains people through 200 or 300 hundred pages is an entirely different task - not to mention the imposter syndrome that comes from being like, oh, I'm a talker who's now writing.
HU: What drove you to write about this topic in the first place - of likeability?
MENENDEZ: Elise, I am a person who cares a lot about being well-liked. That has always been the case. I'm still sort of working through the genesis of it. But what I can tell you for sure is that women and girls across cultures are socialized to care what other people think about them. I think in some ways, that can be a good thing. I wish more people were sensitive to other people's feelings. Where it becomes a challenge is that thinking about other people often becomes overthinking about other people and modulating our true selves. I certainly have experienced that.
But because I'm a person who cares so much, I sort of had this idea that women who don't care were just out there living their best lives, marching to the beat of their own drummers. And when I started talking to other women, I would hear one of two things. I would either hear a lot of women like myself who were like, yes, this is the story of my life; I care so much, and I wish I didn't. Or I'd hear from women who were like, no, I don't care. But just because I don't care, it doesn't mean that I haven't paid a price for not caring and for violating the expectation that I should.
And so what - I started to think about likeability in this broader context, where just letting go wasn't a good enough option.
HU: So you're bringing up a point that you really lay out in the book rather early on. I wonder if you might read a passage for us.
(Reading) What I came to realize is that encouraging women to just care less is an overly simplistic solution to a complicated problem. Rather than liberating women, framing likeability as a question of individual choice shifts the responsibility back to women. Learning to just care less becomes yet another to-do on the seemingly endless list of female self-improvement.
HU: And the book is called "The Likeability Trap." But you actually identify a lot of traps.
HU: So let's go through what the common likeability traps are for women.
MENENDEZ: Sure. The first trap is the one we hear the most about, which is this trade-off that women face between competence and likeability. So a woman tends to get one of two different pieces of stylistic feedback. She's either told that she is too strong, too comfortable with confrontation, too assertive and she needs to dial it down because what she's doing is violating the expectation that we have of women. Or she's told that she's too warm, that she's not enough, that she needs to be more assertive and more direct; she needs to take up more space.
And then, confusingly, there are a lot of women, like myself, who've been given both sets of feedback...
MENENDEZ: ...Who've been told that they are too much or not enough, which just tells you how subjective and context-specific that feedback can be.
What I heard from one woman in particular that really stands out to me is she was this person who was sort of hitting the mark on strength and warmth. She was a unicorn - so ascendant in her career at a tech company. And then I asked her who her authentic self was. And first, she gave me some sort of what she called CEO talking points, where she was like - I'm someone who wants to mobilize everyone.
And then she caught herself and was like - oh, like - if I'm being honest, I have lots of moments where I don't know who my authentic self is because I've poured so much energy into doing this performance of what a leader is supposed to be.
And that loss of authenticity or that inability to be authentic because you're so disconnected from who that person is is, to me, a big trap and one we talk about a lot less.
HU: In the effort to be likeable, we sort of lose our true selves.
MENENDEZ: Yeah. And I think what makes that extra complicated is that we're living in a moment where we're told that great leaders are authentic leaders.
MENENDEZ: So if you're telling women that they need to modulate in one of two directions and change themselves but they also have to be their authentic selves, it seems really hard to do both of those things at once.
HU: Given so many factors we can't control, how do we exist in that narrow space, then, between strength and warmth and somehow be our authentic selves?
MENENDEZ: Right. That's the problem - is that there's almost no way to exist in that space. And that's why we really have to blow up these notions of what makes a likeable leader. 'Cause - I also want to get to the third trap, which is the success penalty trap, which is that the more successful a woman becomes, the less likeable she is just because. That, I think, sometimes gets framed as this one-time choice. Right? Like, choose between being successful or being likeable.
MENENDEZ: And of course, like, I am an ambitious person; you're an ambitious person. I am all for ambitious women. If only it were as simple as a one-time choice - in reality, all of the little things that a person needs to do in order to succeed - advocate for ideas, advocate for yourself - make women less likeable. So it's not that you're making this decision once. For some women, you're making it every day or once a week or once a quarter about how you go after what you want without facing that likeability penalty that can have real consequences.
HU: What are some times in your own life where you feel like you fell into one, if not all, of these traps? And how did you navigate it?
MENENDEZ: All day, every day.
MENENDEZ: You know, I...
HU: This morning.
MENENDEZ: I once had a management assessment. And it was one of those things where you fill out a multiple-choice questionnaire, and then they come back and tell you about yourself.
MENENDEZ: And mine was wildly accurate. And it identified a few things, like the fact that I am, in reality, an introvert and that I was working in an office that needed me to be way more extroverted. And so I was way correcting for being an extrovert. And it was this really nice experience with the management consultant because they were like - are you really tired at the end of the day? And I was like, I am really tired at the end of the day.
MENENDEZ: And he was like, well, 'cause, you know, you're doing a performance of an extroverted person. And he was also like, you probably do need to do that. Right? Like, that is probably something that your team and your workplace requires. But the other thing he told me that was really interesting to me about me was that I'm really uncomfortable with lateral confrontation but really comfortable challenging those in power.
And so I have been well aware of the fact that very often the conversation shifts from being about the workplace issue that we're trying to address, which is often about resources or expectations or things that are finite, and instead become about the tone or the way in which I've brought the problem to someone's attention, which I'm sure there are opportunities for growth there. But there are also times where it feels like a distraction from the actual conversation or problem we're trying to solve.
HU: How are you solving for this, then, in your own life?
MENENDEZ: So one of the things that I found really helpful about focusing - as a likeability hound - about likeability and work is that in realizing and accepting that it does matter at work and that it is so much more complicated at work, it has freed me up to think about whether or not I want it to matter so much in the rest of my life - in my life-life. Right? If you are at work 40 hours a week - or in your and my case, like, 60 or 70 hours a week - and that workplace will always require an element of performance...
MENENDEZ: ...Then why would you want to spend a minute of your personal life performing? And that for me has come in the form of really just trimming the fat, being really intentional about who I spend my time with. Once I started focusing on the friends and people around me where I felt like I could be fully myself - show up as fully myself, left those interactions feeling energized and full of ideas. Those are the people that I wanted to spend my time with, and I began to shift my time and energy towards those people and away from people who I felt we had relationships that required an element of performance.
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HU: OK. We're going to take a break here. When we come back, someone who seems to have overcome the traps of likability, the one and only Cardi B.
MENENDEZ: A big part of her success has been that she is so specifically and authentically perceived as being herself.
HU: Back soon.
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HU: We're seeing a phrase on social media a lot more, something like, whether someone else likes me is none of my business.
HU: Do you think there's any truth to that?
MENENDEZ: Yeah. I mean, as it relates to our interpersonal lives, sure. There is a lot of time and thought wasted on a thing that we can't control. There was a late Yale professor, Susan Nolen-Hoeksema, who said that women were suffering from an epidemic of overthinking and that, because we think of ourselves in relation to others, that could actually become a hyper-relational focus. And there's a word she introduced to me that I found so helpful, which is ruminating.
So - right? - so if you and I have an interaction as friends, Elise, and then I walk away from it, and I'm thinking about it, I can sort of swirl - I can, like, replay it in my mind a thousand times. And for me, I can come up with things about it that were awkward or troubling or problematic.
MENENDEZ: And then, the next thing I know, I've developed an entire narrative that may not actually have anything to do with our actual interaction. It just has to do with my interpretation of our interaction. And that doesn't serve anyone.
HU: And none of us do that ever.
MENENDEZ: (Laughter) Well, I mean, I wanted to ask you, Elise, because I think of you as being such an affable person. I mean, do you care about being well-liked?
HU: Oh, of course. I consider myself a people pleaser, for sure. I can't imagine that anybody wouldn't think that (laughter)...
MENENDEZ: Right. Right?
HU: ...About me.
MENENDEZ: I know.
HU: Because that's part of my self-image, I guess.
MENENDEZ: And can I ask you - because you, like me, have daughters - I mean, do you notice in them that you have - that some of them care, and some of them don't?
HU: Yes. And that's how their personalities express themselves so differently.
HU: My oldest is quite fastidious, and she realizes that - I think she's old enough. She's in first grade now, and I think that she can see kind of this whole idea of self-projection. And she can sort of see herself out in the world, you know?
MENENDEZ: Mmm hmm.
HU: But as we're on this topic, it made - it reminds me of something that you wrote in the book about Cardi B, the rapper Cardi B, and how she seemed so unapologetically herself. So talk to us a little bit about what you learned there about what you call the Cardi B effect and what that is for all of us.
MENENDEZ: There was a piece that I read from an NPR editor, Sidney Madden, and she dubbed the velocity of Cardi B's ascent the Cardi B effect. She called it, I believe, a branding power rooted in specific authenticity. And I thought that was such an interesting framework - right? - to say that a big part of her success has been that she is so specifically and authentically perceived as being herself. And I wondered, can that effect, can that standard apply to someone who is in a more traditional, noncreative structural organization? Can a woman, or more specifically a woman of color, be so fully, authentically herself and be lauded for that?
And I certainly think it's possible. I certainly think it's the goal that we get there and that women be able to do that. But what I've heard more frequently from women is that, because it takes women and because it takes people of color longer to prove our competence because we're asked to prove our competence - our competence isn't assumed - that doing really anything that runs the risk of undercutting what competence you have proven is just a huge risk. And so to be...
HU: And for a lot of us, too risky, right?
MENENDEZ: Too risky. Yeah, really, really, really risky. And I think that shows up in different ways depending on the individual, depending on the organization. But this sort of just, like, do you and roll with it, it just - it seems like a far-off, distant ideal.
HU: (Laughter) Alicia, we've talked a lot about work. But I want to talk about how likeability and the traps for likeability apply in other aspects of our lives. How do they play out with regard to our dating relationships or our friendships?
MENENDEZ: How much time do you have, Elise? I mean, that - this is - it's the funny thing about likeability, which is that people do gravitate toward people that they like, people who allow them to show up fully as themselves. And there's no one definition of likability. You know, there are some psychological traits that - we call them the big five - openness to experience, conscientiousness, extroversion, agreeableness, neuroticism. They form the basis of a person's identity. And there's some belief that agreeableness, extroversion, that those things may make people more likable and that the only place where you consistently get a likability demerit is when it comes to neuroticism. But I like people who are slightly neurotic.
MENENDEZ: And, you know, someone can be agreeable and strike someone as, you know, being very loose in their convictions. So there's no standard definition of what is likeable because it is such a subjective measure. What we know, though, is that likeability matters when it comes to finding someone to date. It matters in friendships. And my core question when I think about those things is, are you being liked for who you truly are, or are you being liked for a performance of who you are based on your understanding of what another person wants and needs? And those are really different things.
HU: You interviewed hundreds of women for this book. I'm wondering what you found. What did they say to you about the moment they dropped the performance or what they found or discovered about themselves after they dropped the act?
MENENDEZ: One thing I found for sure is that over time through a woman's life, nobody seemed to learn to care more.
MENENDEZ: Everybody seemed to learn to care less and that, in many ways, it came down to a question of time and energy, that once people realized how much time they were losing, not just to the performance, but to the care - right? - to the question of, does that person like me? What can I do to make them like me? What is it they want from me? How do I give them that? - that just even that internal monologue, once they dropped that, they were freed up to do so much other stuff.
HU: When you dropped the internal monologue, did it free you up to write this book?
MENENDEZ: First of all, I have not dropped the internal monologue.
MENENDEZ: Thank you, Elise. One thing that I have found very helpful and that I think works in a variety of capacities is being really clear and intentional with yourself about whose opinion matters. So having a small cadre of people who you go to for gut checks, go to to have a sense of things, is really important. And I think part of that means really trusting those people such that they can tell you when you mess up...
MENENDEZ: ...And they can tell you when you're not doing a very good job or when there's something that you're responsible for. But when I go to those people, and they give me reassurance or tell me, you know, that I've done my best, like, that is sometimes all I need because otherwise, if you spread it too broad and too thin, and there are too many people whose opinions are being taken into account, then it's really easy to get lost in that.
HU: I call this the personal board of directors. So when I need a check...
MENENDEZ: Ooh, I like that.
HU: Yeah - I'll call my personal board of directors.
MENENDEZ: I need to get a pen and write that down.
MENENDEZ: I love that. I love that...
HU: Yeah. It's yours.
MENENDEZ: ...So much. Thank you.
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HU: OK. Time for one more break. I'm Elise Hu, filling in for Sam Sanders. When we come back, how likeability plays into politics, specifically how we view female politicians and candidates running for office. Back in a minute.
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HU: This whole idea of likeability is huge right now with regard to politics because we have more women running for president than ever before. And one of the front-runners is Elizabeth Warren, where this question of likability is coming up again and again. And you write, the media and public often find they can talk about nothing except a woman's likability. So we do seem to recognize that this happens, and I'm sure our listeners are familiar with this whole overplaying of the idea of likability. What are you noticing in the societal conversations about the female candidates this time around that maybe the rest of us don't see because we're not steeped in the subject?
MENENDEZ: We heard so much in 2008 and 2016 about Hillary Clinton's likability.
HU: So much.
MENENDEZ: So much. And one of the things that I noticed, and I wonder if you noticed this as well as a journalist, was that when I would talk with voters in 2016 about who they were voting for, if it was someone who wasn't voting for Hillary Clinton, they often have what they felt was a - you know, a good, policy-based argument for why they didn't like her, but it almost inevitably downshifted into, and I just don't like her...
MENENDEZ: ...And that that argument, even though it's wildly subjective, almost seemed to carry more weight because of it - because it's like, this is a thing I feel in my gut, and so you cannot argue with it. I don't know that we've heard about likeability. Like, that word, I don't think it's come up nearly as much this time. I think it has largely been replaced by its second cousins, electability and authenticity. Like, we've heard...
HU: Electability, of course. Yeah.
MENENDEZ: Yeah - much more about that. It's not just about Elizabeth Warren. It's not just about Kamala Harris. It is, for some voters, still about a notion of who is worthy of power and agency.
And for women, it's so complicated, right? Because when it comes to men, there's an expectation that men will reach for power, that men will want to be in positions of power. But because we think of women as being communal and wanting what's best for the greater good, even though that may be the reason, the motivation, for a woman running for office, because it's a woman's name at the top of a ticket, it still seems like a singular act. It still strikes us as a power grab.
And so it violates the expectation we have of women. And in doing that, it makes a woman less likable. But what that then sets you up to do is to never be able to have a woman who runs for office, certainly not the highest office in the land, and is seen as likable in the process.
HU: So let's take this broader view. If we could all express ourselves better, more authentically, and not be seen in these binaries - right? - of strong versus warm, what would that look like, big-picture-wise?
MENENDEZ: I think it would look like more people being given an opportunity to lead - and with different types of leadership, different types of results. I focused on women because there is so much pressure put on women and girls to be amiable. But there are lots of men that run up against these expectations of what leadership is supposed to look like. So, you know, the same way that a woman who expresses anger in a workplace will face a penalty, a man who is emotional and is able to express sadness...
MENENDEZ: ...In the workplace faces a penalty that he's not strong enough or tough enough. And so based on gender, based on race, based on ethnicity, there all of these ideas about who a leader should be and how that leader should act that is keeping so many people out of positions of leadership - that if we could really push back and expand our notions of what leadership looks like, it could change the entire game.
HU: How could we do that, or how could our organizations do that? Could our organizations, whatever we're part of - schools, churches, workplaces - could they shift, and how?
MENENDEZ: Yes. In fact, that is where I think the biggest opportunities for shift and change come from, and things like rethinking the bias that's baked into reviews and feedback. I'm a big believer in the benefit of sponsorship, which - you know, mentorship is advice, counsel, but sponsorship, this idea from Sylvia Ann Hewlett, which is really someone who will connect you with opportunities for advancement, someone who will provide cover for you when you take big risks, that if that is baked in from the organization, if that is a priority on behalf of the organization, then it's much more likely for the people who need sponsors most to get them.
HU: How can we individually take steps to push back? You mentioned a little bit about feedback when we were talking about organizations in that last question. I love that - I love what you write about it, essentially that so much of feedback that women get, but men too, is subjective. How can we push to change that that would help lift all boats?
MENENDEZ: This was one piece of advice that I took from an executive coach named Caterina Kostoula. And she - let's say you're in a feedback session. And someone says, Elise, you're just too assertive. OK. Well, it's hard to know what to do with that, right?
MENENDEZ: It's hard to know, like, is that true? Is that not true? So she has two questions that she encourages the person receiving that feedback to ask. One is, compared to whom? Which puts the person who's giving you that feedback in the position of considering whether or not they would give that same piece of feedback to someone in the office, whether or not there is some bias baked into that assessment.
And then the second question she suggests, which I think is a really good one, is, can you draw a line for me from how my style impacts the outcome or the results of my work? And in asking that question, you have to be open to the possibility that there is a corollary between your style and your outcomes.
So for example, I might say to you, Elise, I know you pride yourself on being really deliberate, but sometimes that manifests as indecision. Just last week, there were a series of editorial choices that need to be made. You dragged your heels when it came to making those decisions. And as a result, the piece that you were doing, it was late getting up on air. OK. Now at least you understand...
MENENDEZ: ...How some of your style impacts the results. So that's one thing that I found really helpful. And then the other thing I find very helpful is advice that comes from Catalyst about flipping the script on the language we use around women and work, such that if someone says, Alicia's very emotional, you say, you mean she's passionate, right? That - because those are two different things. And everybody wants to work with someone who's passionate about their work. Emotional has a very different connotation.
MENENDEZ: Even something that I have said about many women that I thought was a compliment, which is that a woman is helpful, often has the unintended consequence of reducing her to a helper role. If I say that Jenny (ph) is helpful, you don't know if Jenny got the coffee or if Jenny ran all of the spreadsheet numbers, right? There's a total difference...
MENENDEZ: ...In terms of someone's contribution. And so one of the things they suggest is, instead of saying she's helpful, really focusing on what her specific contribution was to a project and then, you know, doing that for others, where you hear people saying those things, helping correct towards a more outcomes-oriented approach.
HU: I love that. And now that we've had this conversation about the traps, and it's clearly identified sort of the various traps that we can fall into, what do you want listeners to know after we can kind of collectively recognize the problem?
MENENDEZ: I, for the longest time, thought of all of this as a me issue. And the more women I spoke with, the more I realize a lot of us have internalized these questions of women likeability and success as problems that we are somehow responsible for and problems that we are responsible for fixing. And just shifting towards thinking about it as a systems issue, as one where it is set up so that no matter how you are, no matter how you act, it is almost impossible to do it right, really, for me, lifted the feeling that I was constantly doing something wrong.
And so that is my biggest push, and that if we could liberate, take that responsibility off of women's shoulders and really think of this more as something for all of us to reckon with that could have benefits for all of us, that would be a much more constructive way of thinking about these challenges.
HU: Before I let you go, I want to talk about the next generation because you are raising two young daughters now. So this has got to be on your mind a lot as you raise them. What are you planning to emphasize as you raise your girls?
MENENDEZ: You know, what's so funny is so many people have asked me why this wasn't a parenting book or have suggested that perhaps the answer lie in parenting.
MENENDEZ: I'm not sure that it's entirely something that is learned at home, right? Like, I was taught that I should be ambitious and that I should strive and that I should confront challenges head-on. And even still, I ran up against these questions.
And so when I think about it in the context of my two children, I of course think that I want to raise them with all of those messages. But I'm more interested in making sure that the world around them and the culture around them shifts such that when they are ready to step into being those people, when they're ready to enter a workforce, that they're entering one that is different than the one we're in right now.
HU: Alicia Menendez, thank you so much for taking the time. I really enjoyed our conversation.
MENENDEZ: Thank you so much.
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HU: Alicia's book "The Likeability Trap" is out now. You can catch her reporting on MSNBC. And her podcast, "Latina To Latina," is wherever you get your podcasts. Sam is back next week. I'll be back on Friday with the Weekly Wrap. Talk to you then.
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HU: I loved that. I feel like I learned so much.
MENENDEZ: Was it OK? Is it fine? Is OK?
MENENDEZ: Oh, sorry.
HU: Don't fall into the likeability trap.
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