Why do we vibe with some people and not others?
February 11, 2024 8:29 AM   Subscribe

After talking to Stranger A for a few minutes about an unusual shared interest it was clear to that we clicked, and as we became close friends over the next year, we turned out to be startlingly similar in many ways. But when I talked to Stranger B, even though we share the same unusual interest, she makes my skin crawl—even though she’s a totally fine person. What gives?

I guess I’m interested in several aspects of this situation.

I knew from talking to Stranger A very quickly that we were going to get along, and when I get this sense from someone it pans out to a lifelong friendship 80% of the time (though could be confirmation bias). A has been in my life for a few years now and we text each other every day and have become very close friends.

But how could I have “known” from just a few minutes of talking to Stranger A that we were going to have all kinds of things in common, like shared family histories, shared parenting philosophies, and shared overall friendship values on top of our shared interests? What gives?

And why would Stranger B, who fulfills the same superficial criteria (unusual shared interest), instead make my skin crawl? For the record, B has also been in my life for a few years now as she’s part of an extended friend group, and I can say she has been nothing but genuinely nice the whole time. There is nothing really wrong with her. But we just… very much don’t vibe. What’s up with that?

What IS vibe?
posted by oh__lol to Human Relations (24 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
I'm sure people with actual expertise will come and chime in on this, but in my friend circle, we have "the smell theory," which holds that, on some level, there is something about some people's chemistry that we connect to unconsciously. Our brains are always collecting information and we are only superficially conscious of that process.

Also, for me, I know that if somebody reminds me of someone that I either liked or disliked a lot, I tend to be more or less accepting of that person. Sometimes it takes a while for me to realize where the resemblance is, and once I recognize it, I can soften the response sometimes, but not always.

In the case of your friend A, it sounds like the two of you recognized the connection and acted on it in the same way. But I'd be curious to know if B has shown a similar distancing response to yours, or has she tried to become friends? (In my case, I've noticed that the person I don't want to connect to rarely tries to connect to me either, even though I am always polite.)
posted by rpfields at 8:42 AM on February 11 [6 favorites]

I don't think you know B well enough to determine that she's "genuinely nice" and that there's "nothing really wrong with her" based on a few years as part of an extended friend group. She can hide all of her unpleasant qualities with that limited level of interaction.

That said, I think the answer to your question is one of those great human mysteries we're constantly trying and failing to figure out. Since most people have something in common, it's easy to click with someone and point to your commonalities to explain it. Sometimes, though, there truly aren't any and people click anyway - and then it's explained as an "unlikely friendship".
posted by wheatlets at 8:47 AM on February 11 [3 favorites]

Best answer: We're really really good at pattern recognition. It's something we do without having to consciously process it. Tiny details of appearance, dress, accent, word choice, etc are all things we notice and understand but probably don't really think about. It is absolutely absurd how many times I have hit it off with someone and found out weeks or months later that they were Jewish. (I am Jewish and grew up in a heavily Jewish area, so there are a million things that feel safe and familiar to me about other Jewish people, even if they're not from the region I grew up in.)

It also works with personality - there are traits that put my back up instantly, and others that put other people off that I know from experience I am perfectly fine with. Sometimes it's things that are more globally problematic, sometimes it's just personal preference, but usually at first meeting I couldn't tell you what I'm reacting to, it's just vibes.

And you know, sometimes I'm wrong! There have been any number of occasions where I did not vibe with a person instantly but after (usually forced) further interaction, I have discovered that they are awesome. There are people I have vibed with instantly but I have eventually realized I needed to put some boundaries around our relationship because we aren't that compatible. There are people who genuinely changed in some way, for better or for worse.

So, yeah. Vibes are a thing, but pattern recognition is something that generates false positives all the time. Enjoy it when it works but be aware that it's very far from perfect.
posted by restless_nomad at 9:08 AM on February 11 [22 favorites]

Best answer: I can tell when I’m talking to someone with adhd-autism in the same flavour as me because our conversations skip rapidly all over the place in a distinctive pattern. This is apparently quite common with neurodiverse people, that you can talk immediately very intensely with another neurodiverse person.

One of my dearest friends is someone I at times struggle for conversation with because she and I see the world so differently and we took five to seven years to become friends from acquaintances. Connection is not the only thing that matters in friendship.
posted by dorothyisunderwood at 9:23 AM on February 11 [24 favorites]

We're really really good at pattern recognition.

People think they're good at this and act accordingly. That's why it's important to be aware of your own biases and not just label people based on their looks or the exchange of a few words.
posted by SPrintF at 10:05 AM on February 11 [16 favorites]

Response by poster: I will add for additional context that B isn’t triggering any “gift of fear” instincts in me. She’s been accepted warmly by other people whose judgment I trust and who know her a lot better than I do.

This particular B and I landed on politely ignoring each other. My working theory is that something happened on our first meeting where—all subconscious—she read my introversion as aloofness and subtly adjusted her body language to match, I read her subtle adjustment as exclusion and adjusted in turn to withdraw and protect myself, she read that as rejection, and so on and so forth. Like a death spiral of vibes.

Maybe there’s an opposite spiral reaction in the cases of clicking where every little body language signal, every little emotional bid, is returned in a way that is interpreted as positive. I saw this happen with my normally extremely shy toddler and a 5-yo at the park—the more that they showed a positive response to each other’s emotional bids (by kicking a ball the other kicked, by bringing over a truck they could both play with), the more they liked each other, which made them make more emotional bids, which were then returned, etc etc.

But I don’t think vibe is just about whether your emotional bids are returned... other Bs in the past have pursued friendships, and I’ve often found that to be stressful or even suffocating. But the same kinds of invitations and interactions would’ve been welcome, fun, and exciting with people I do vibe with.

That said, I do have several friends I didn’t initially vibe with but who I grew to know and love over time (including my husband!) and several potential friendships that petered out quickly after an initial click. Vibes are definitely not the be-all end-all. But they seem like surprisingly powerful indicators (or even predictors) of long-term commonality or compatibility. I just wish I understood how they work and why!
posted by oh__lol at 10:46 AM on February 11 [4 favorites]

Sometimes your Stranger B feeling is a feeling that neurotypical people get about autistic people. Autistic folks often fake being neurotypical in public, to avoid stigma (sometimes called "masking"). But that slight fakeness, combined with the underlying autistic traits, can give a neurotypical person a sense of "something being off" - which absolutely can lead to wanting to avoid the person and being unsure why.
posted by quacks like a duck at 10:51 AM on February 11 [17 favorites]

Sometimes you get the bad vibe from someone for a reason, you may just not find it out right away.

I hit it off with most people, so it's pretty weird when I just fall flat with someone and have no rapport whatsoever. People tend to either love or hate me right off the bat, so just...getting nowhere with them and everything I say is "meh" to them is a weird experience. I have occasionally had a bad meet with someone and then we hit it off later, which was a relief.
posted by jenfullmoon at 10:55 AM on February 11

Best answer: I can't find my sources right now but we talked about this in my Psychology classes. On top of the obvious compatibility things you mention, there are at least two other factors:

There is good evidence that pheromones and smell have a strong impact on first impressions and how well people get along, but it's not at all clear exactly how this works. Our bodies and brains do some sort of unconscious "compatibility" test with the other person and that is often based on literal physical chemistry. This is particularly important for romantic attraction, but if someone "smells bad" to us it is very hard to overcome that even if it is completely subconscious. If there is a big difference between in-person chemistry and online/phone chemistry, smell is probably important.

One factor that does affect online and phone compatibility is timing and synchronicity. The word "vibe" is derived from "vibration" and this is not an accident. We all have a different cadence for speech and body language when we do different things and people generally really like it when the frequencies complement each other. This is why singing and dancing in groups is so powerful for creating closer bonds. If two people use very different timing when interacting (say a stereotypical California dude and a high strung New Yorker), it can often feel very uncomfortable when they interact because they are literally not able to get "in sync" with each other. I read some papers indicating that autistic people (like myself) are bad at automatically adjusting our timing to match other people and that is a source for a lot of the stereotypical awkwardness. Or, sometimes we match people too well and start mimicking them too precisely which is also considered to be "creepy".

Smell and timing compatibility are both pretty hard to study scientifically because there is a huge amount of variation, so these factors are probably more important than you would expect from psychology studies that work by averaging a bunch of people together. Compatibility is probably based on a bunch of dynamic processes like this that together affect our overall impression of another person.
posted by JZig at 10:56 AM on February 11 [20 favorites]

People who email, text and maybe talk on the phone often discover in person that they don't click. Smell, pheromones, class/ status indicators, so many very subtle things add up. I wouldn't use pattern recognition exactly, but I think it's similar. People recognize, in some manner that is not understood, when another person is related by DNA, and it doesn't seem to be because they kind of look like a family member, it appears to be a recognition of genetics.

You might enjoy reading Robert Sapolsky's Behave, which has a lot of fairly dense brain science but is also fascinating; his other books, as well, notably A Primate's Memoir. His 1st year neurobiology course videos at Stanford are free and exceptional interesting.
posted by theora55 at 11:01 AM on February 11 [5 favorites]

As it happens, I've been doing a series of interviews over Zoom lately, and some of these interviewees I click with better than others, which would seem to discount the pheromone angle.

I don't know what it is, but some people find it easier to open up to me, and me to them, even when in all cases we're talking about the same shared interest.
posted by adamrice at 11:33 AM on February 11 [2 favorites]

Best answer: +1 subconscious “tells” friend A gives off that are acceptable to your subconscious.

Tells around
- safety / attachment
- shame / judgment areas or lack thereof
- values
- status assumptions
- cultural familiarity

I mean there are so many. I always get along with Canadians (as I am) when we meet internationally. To the point where I was watching the academy awards once and some guy won for best short animation and as he’s giving his acceptance speech I was like man I REALLY like this guy what is is about him??? He seems so genuine and trustworthy and down to earth and without pretense. And then he says “and I’d like to thank the National Film Board of Canada” and I was like oh that’s why.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 11:55 AM on February 11 [12 favorites]

We receive so much information when we communicate with another person - what is being said, how it's being said, what isn't being said, body language and facial expressions. Even if you're only actively aware of one or two of these elements, your brain is taking it all in and reacting in the form of "vibes". If you really drill down into what elements of B freak you out and what they have in common with other people you feel similarly about, you can then consciously identify these factors in the moment when you meet new people instead of subconsciously receiving them as bad vibes. Same goes for A, you're picking up on fundamental culture/value similarities and anything more specific is coincidence.
posted by fox problems at 1:04 PM on February 11 [1 favorite]

Best answer: There is a whole sub-area of psychology on this phenomena which researchers usually refer to as a “thin-slice.” It has been studied in many contexts including ones like your example and it’s super super interesting.

If you want to read more about the research on the how and the why searching for thin-slice research plus something like “interpersonal” should bring up some good explanations relevant to your experience.

posted by forkisbetter at 1:52 PM on February 11 [9 favorites]

Best answer: While the old "7% of communication is words" myth has largely been put to rest, it's clear that we glean a tremendous amount of information from body language and vocal presentation. You're learning a lot more in ten minutes than you think, and learning it from all three.

Dialect is a very big part of it. It is unbelievable how many specialized dialects there are in English. I personally was raised broadly speaking "academic" and "geek" and both are blatantly obvious when somebody starts talking. It's not just vocabulary, it's a way of thinking about and approaching a topic, and often a way of thinking about and approaching the world.

It's not surprising that people who literally share your world view are going to have similar views on many topics. These are your people, they speak your language.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 2:34 PM on February 11 [5 favorites]

Though Malcolm Gladwell is I think distrusted by Mefi, he has a whole book on this, called Blink. If nothing else it'll give you a whole lot more examples and some analysis.
posted by zompist at 3:50 PM on February 11 [2 favorites]

Any chance you and Stranger A grew up relatively near each other? Or in similar sociodemographic communities? I have lived in a handful of places in the US, and haven't really lived as an adult near where I grew up, but I find it quite easy to communicate with people from that region. In the most recent example of this, I made a new friend who went to the same college as I did (we didn't know each other there), and we also discovered that we grew up pretty close to each other before we both moved several states away to go to school. So while we have some shared history, I also think our similar communication patterns have allowed us to find those commonalities.

After all, you could have a lot in common with Stranger B but you'd never know. With people we like, we tend to emphasize what makes us similar.
posted by bluedaisy at 8:27 PM on February 11 [3 favorites]

My wife and I met on the internet, we initially connected talking about war movies, and their use for clips in music videos, she knew the source of the clips In Motörhead’s 1917 and I was smitten…but there was a whole lot after that before i did something inadvisable to steal her from her life and now together forever.

Common interests are just talking points. Tons of assholes like the same songs and movies as me. What matters is how you approach that common interest, that little aspect of it you both get in the same way and you smile at each other and know.

It is always more about you and the other person than the similar interest. It’s maybe ineffable why people connect, but it’s cause they belong together, and the subject matter that they found each other over is irrelevant.
posted by ixipkcams at 10:35 PM on February 11 [1 favorite]

Sometimes we get turned off from people who remind us too much of parts of ourselves we don't like.
posted by bearette at 5:25 AM on February 12 [8 favorites]

Best answer: Shared interests aren't the same as chemistry. I share my interests with hundreds of acquaintances, but I only feel chemistry with about 50 people. There's a fallacy in Western culture that you have to like the same hobbies or music to have chemistry, but I don't find that to be true.

I find a lot of my friends' tastes don't align with my tastes at all. I have great personal chemistry with my partner but we really don't like many of the same things. For me, chemistry hinges more on things like

- Making each other laugh or have a-ha moments

- Feeling relaxed around each other due to energetic compatibility; like, we are both at approximately equal levels of self-consciousness , alertness, anxiety, physical movement, etc. Being able to co-regulate or co-energize each other (doesn't need to be both).

- Some matching level of interest in niceties like swearing, bluntness, conflict etc

- Having a compatible conversational rhythm - meaning speed, references, and tolerance for interruption etc

- Alignment in social values is needed for me to have long-lasting chemistry, but surprisingly it's not needed for me to have short-term chemistry. Meaning, I can have a great chat at a party with someone whose voting pattern horrifies me, but I couldn't be longterm friends.

- Shared neurotype and level of neurotype helps to a certain degree. In my case, I have mild ADHD and I feel alignment with certain ASD traits, and I often really have chemistry with people whose neurotype is similar to mine - but I'm less likely to feel compatibility with people who have the same neurotype but to a much different level - for instance if they have a lot of ADHD traits that impact how we communicate, I might find myself annoyed more than charmed.

- Matching personal space bubble size in terms of "intensity", like vocal volume, eye gaze, etc - people who are much louder, much quieter, or much more "stare-y" or "touchy" or emotional than me often make me uncomfortable. But I can be kind of intense and I often really like other intense people.

- Disclosure level - I LOVE when people unexpectedly disclose things that are slightly "too honest" or situationally inappropriate (like whispering "this guy is an asshole" or "someone farted" during a revered speaker's presentation). But I find over-sharers make me uncomfortable, as do people who deflect all personal questions. My comfort for others' share level definitely has limits on both sides.

Having shared hobbies and interests can be very nice, but as someone with very popular interests (the arts, and certain moderately niche sports), I have hung out with thousands of people who share my hobbies with passion, and I can tell you it's not enough to create a bond.

I think if one's hobbies are quite niche, it might seem that anyone else who likes them is a kindred spirit, but I think that's just a sample size issue. If a person only knows 10 people who share thier interest, it might feel like they should be able to be close with all 10 of them. But if that same person knew 10000 people with the same interest, it would quickly be obvious that finding 10 people they adore would be a gift of luck.
posted by nouvelle-personne at 12:44 PM on February 12 [10 favorites]

From my experience, my intuition has been both right and wrong enough times. Sometimes I've become instant friends with people where the friendship ended up turning complicated. And sometimes I've ended up becoming friends with people whom I didn't really like on first meeting, but that's not so often.
posted by ovvl at 3:41 PM on February 12

I don't generally buy "it's literal pheromones" type answers, but who knows, maybe it is. I mainly just wanted to say

> I knew from talking to Stranger A very quickly that we were going to get along, and when I get this sense from someone it pans out to a lifelong friendship 80% of the time (though could be confirmation bias). A has been in my life for a few years now and we text each other every day and have become very close friends.

I have had this exact same thing happen. It doesn't happen often, but a lot of my good friends started like this. Sometimes...you just know. And I've wondered about the exact same thing...what is it that makes us click like that, whereas with other people (most people!) it just...doesn't work? I have lots of theories but they're all fairly idiosyncratic and general.
posted by wooh at 3:00 AM on February 13 [1 favorite]

And why would Stranger B, who fulfills the same superficial criteria (unusual shared interest), instead make my skin crawl?

A note about people speaking the same dialect. I wanted to say that just because you share a language doesn’t mean that you’re going to like a person. There are plenty of unpleasant people in the world and having a good understanding of them can just make them feel creepier.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 7:11 AM on February 16

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