Win Affection and Trust by Spilling Coffee All Over Yourself

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Businessman Spilling Coffee
Photo: Michelle Pedone/Corbis

Do you ever feel like you are just too graceful and competent and good at what you do? Like your every action only serves to intimidate your friends and colleagues? Same! Lucky for us perfect people, Fast Company has a hot tip on how to quickly win trust from your inferiors: spill coffee all over yourself.

To be fair, as the article notes, some professions really do come with this problem — therapists and psychiatrists, for example, must at once assure their new patients that they know what they’re talking about and make sure the patients are comfortable enough to open up to them. This happens over time, but there is a shortcut, and it is the aforementioned coffee thing.

In a well-known study from the 1960s, researchers played one of four different recordings for their participants, in which a student is interviewing for a spot on the university Quiz Bowl team. In two of the recordings, the student appears highly competent and qualified; in the other two, he does not. But in one of the highly qualified and in one of barely qualified recordings, the student also spills his coffee. (“Oh my goodness, I’ve spilled coffee all over my new suit,” is what the listeners hear.)

After listening, the researchers asked their study participants how well they liked the student on the tape. “As you might expect, they liked the high-performing candidate better than the low-performing one,” write the social psychologists Adam Galinsky and Maurice Schweitzer for Fast Company. “Yet strangely enough, it turned out that they thought most highly of the high-performing person who’d spilled their coffee.”

The study has been replicated many times over the years with similar results, and the lesson, as Galinsky and Schweitzer note, is that there are times when it can be helpful to show some vulnerability. But there’s a catch: This is only true if you’ve already clearly demonstrated your competence and credibility. And, of course, context counts, too. “Psychiatrists can build trust by spilling their coffee and saying, ‘I’ve never been very good with my hands,’” Galinksy and Schweitzer write. “Surgeons can’t.” No. No, they can’t.