July 28, 2017

‘Popular’ will set you right back in the playground


“Popular: The Power of Likability in a Status-Obsessed World” by Mitch Prinstein, 2017, Viking, $27, 273 pages.

 None of the other kids like you.

They don’t include you in anything. In fact, they often just plain ignore you, and some even pick on you. You don’t understand why this is, but there isn’t much you can do: Quitting your job is not an option. In “Popular,” by Mitch Prinstein, you’ll see why being Top Dog matters, after all these years.

Who remembers recess? You do, of course. You ran wild, swung, jumped and screamed yourself hoarse in every one of them. And then — wham! — came teenagerhood, where you, Mean Girls, jocks, bullies and the desperate stopped playing. Instead, you had two options: You clawed your way to popular, or you stood by watching others do it.

It kinda sounds like your workplace, doesn’t it? Why is popularity still so important?

Says Prinstein, there’s “more than one type of popularity,” and there’s a difference between popularity and likeability. Popular people have status but are often loathed. Likeable people are, well, likeable. Surprisingly, where you sat on the spectrum in your youth still affects your adult decisions, relationships, family, even your income.

According to researchers, most children fall into one of four categories: Accepted (the kids most kids like); Neglected (children who are basically ignored); Rejected (those actively avoided); and Controversial (a category of extreme like/dislike). Kids know instantly who’s popular and who’s not. They know where others lie within the categories, and they’ll sort one another out in short order. Adults aren’t much different.

We all know somebody at work who fits in each of those categories, and you may even have an inkling about where you fit. We need to be liked — it’s a matter of evolution — but can popularity be a problem?

Yes. Some people will go too far for status, to the point of violence and bullying. Others may be allowed too much status and power (as in the case of celebrities). Popularity can also be negatively addicting, because we believe it might make us happy.

It won’t. But one thing’s for sure: “following the example of likable people might just change our lives,” says Prinstein.

Oh, how “Popular” is going to make you squirm. Whether you were cheerleader, class leader, or the Last Kid Picked, reading it will whisk you back to high school with all its attendant issues and feelings. Wiggle, squirm, wiggle.

And maybe that’s the point. Prinstein makes us want to look inward to explain why we’re always invited for Happy Hour (or not), and why co-workers cheer or groan at certain names on team projects. The squirm comes, maybe, from embarrassment or chagrin, and the realization that, “We never really left high school at all,” and it still bothers us.

Fortunately, there are things we can do to change our likeability, and to begin to atone for any meanness.

This is an excellent book for anyone who wants to understand what happened in their childhood or that of their kids, or for anyone who wants to be more accepted. “Popular” is a good book for kids like you.

Terri Schlichenmeyer reviews books about businesses and business practice.


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