Cognitive Daily

This week’s survey was inspired by our efforts to get our middle-school-aged kids to behave appropriately when greeting adults. Both Jim and Nora tend to mumble, look away, hunch over, and give other anti-social cues when, say, an adult compliments them after a school band concert or a play. When we tell them to stand up straight and speak clearly, they often give us a look that suggests we are not only clueless to the social norms of respectable society, but also just plain stupid.

Now we have hard (though nonscientific) data to back up our claims: we asked Cognitive Daily readers what behaviors indicate to them that a person they’ve just met is friendly or confident. Respondents were allowed up to three responses to each question (though we didn’t actually program the survey to limit the number of responses — it’s casual, remember!). The first two questions asked about friendliness. What makes a man or a woman friendly? Here’s the result:


So the top factors for friendliness in both men and women were smiling, establishing eye contact, greeting by name, and having a relaxed posture. A strong handshake is a significantly larger indicator of friendliness in men than in women, and eye contact is more important for women than men.

What about confidence? Here are those results:


Now upright posture becomes more important, and smiling is much less important. A strong handshake is even more important for men, but is now also one of the top four factors for women.

Let’s take a closer look at the data: how expectations differ between women and men. There were no significant differences between female and male responses about men, but gender was a significant factor in how people view women. Take a look at this result from the question about behavior of friendly women:


For women, relaxed posture was more likely to be an indicator of friendliness than it was for men. Perhaps unsurprisingly, no female respondent said that winking was a friendly gesture from another woman, but 11 percent of men said winking was a sign of friendliness in women.

There was also a significant gender difference in perception of confidence:


Women value a strong handshake in other women much more than men do in women. So apparently women wanting to project confidence might be advised be especially careful to use a strong handshake with other women.

Most importantly, however, when we tell our kids to stand up straight, smile, and look people straight in the eye, we have some data to back it up!

Note: In case you missed it, next week’s Casual Friday survey has already been posted. Click here to participate.


  1. #1 Jen
    February 24, 2006

    I was really looking forward to these results because of the handshake thing. I’m 18 years old, female, and have a relatively strong handshake. I don’t think my handshake is overly aggressive or strong, but it’s certainly not that weak goobly-gook you sometimes get. People often seemed surprised or taken aback after I shake hands with them, though usually in a good way. I guess it’s always seemed somewhat strange to me that men are supposed to have strong confident handshakes, whereas women are expected to have weak, gentle handshakes. I don’t think I’ll change my style, but this data is definately interesting.

  2. #2 Dave Munger
    February 24, 2006

    I have to say, in my experience it’s always a challenge shaking hands with a woman. You never know what you’re going to get: sometimes it’s rock solid, sometimes limp as an overcooked noodle. If you start out strong, you can crush the wet noodles, but if you start weak, you risk showing a lack of confidence. It does appear that this data backs that up.

  3. #3 Daniel
    February 25, 2006

    This may go against norms, but hey… I find that standing out in a confident way is a good thing. If you’re worried about shaking hands with a woman and being too weak/strong, put your fist out for her to bump it — it’ll come across as confidently unique.

  4. #4 Jodi
    February 26, 2006

    The winking part is interesting. I regard winking, whether directed at men or women, as an entirely contrived and phony gesture. It seems that even men find it suspect since only 11% regarded it as a sign of friendliness.

  5. #5 Jennifer Grucza
    February 27, 2006

    Maybe your kids are subconsciously trying to appear deferential and modest towards adults.

  6. #6 Macrobe
    March 1, 2006

    I wonder how demographical analysis would alter the results and interpretation. Moving from the East to the West coast 22 years ago, I immediately noticed significant differences in external social cues, reflective of general attitudes. I still observe many of these differences when visiting back East.

    Interesting post.

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