Our Fear of Rejection is Like Our Fear of Sharks... Totally Out of Proportion to the Real Risks

Worries about rejection and humiliation often hold us back from trying to make new friendships - but we need to show courage and dive right in.

By Laurie Santos

“As a kid I was terrified of the ocean, because I always thought that I would get attacked by a shark,” admits my dear friend, the Stanford professor Jamil Zaki.

Many of us - especially if we’ve seen the movie Jaws - share Jamil’s fear of venturing into the surf.

“Shark attacks turn out to be basically the least common way you can die,” says Jamil. “But shark attacks loom large in our imagination and change our behavior in a way that we don't really need to change it.”

Jamil’s not a marine biologist, he’s a psychologist and an expert on empathy – that vital building block in creating bonds with our fellow humans.

Jamil was on a recent episode of my podcast The Happiness Lab, helping me answer a question from listener Ivana Cole. She raised the difficulty many of us are having reconnecting and making new friendships following the disruptions of the Covid pandemic.

Jamil thinks fear plays a significant role in our reluctance to make those first steps necessary to engage with people. We dread being rebuffed or finding out the person we want to get to know better is mean… or kind of hates us.

“It’s the scariest thing on Earth, right?” say Jamil.

“Rejection and ‘mean’ people are the shark attacks of the social world. We think way more about the possibility of rejection than we need to and adjust our behavior unnecessarily because we falsely assume rejection is everywhere."

Just like people who stay on the beach, terrified that a hungry Great White is cruising the surf, Jamil says “we stay home because we want to avoid the mean people we imagine are out there”.

“It turns out that if we just take a little leap of faith and try to connect, we might be shocked by how accepting and friendly people are.”

Jamil points to the research of our pal Nick Epley of the University of Chicago Booth School of Business. Nick asks his test subjects to predict whether they’ll have fun talking to a stranger. Most participants assume it’ll be awkward, but it turns out that once people actually interact they admit to enjoying it far more than they’d expected. Talking to strangers just makes us happier

Getting talking – even the simple act of saying “hello” – is the first step in a journey that could lead to a stranger becoming our “new bestie or business partner, or even the love of our life”, says Jamil.

But if you’re still worried about starting up a conversation with a new neighbor or colleague – particularly at a time when there seems to be so many divisive issues that threaten to flare into disagreement – Jamil has some advice.


We’re all different and our views can never overlap 100% - but Jamil says “we find points of commonality” if we try to learn about our conversation partner’s life and experiences.

“It feels hard to get other people's stories... but in fact it's extremely easy. People - including people who are different from ourselves - actually open up very quickly if you show any genuine curiosity in them.

“And then after sharing those stories, they're more than willing to hear your stories. It turns out if you want someone to listen to you, one of the best things you can do is listen to them first, because we are a highly reciprocal species.”

If we want to get the full happiness boost that social interaction offers, we can’t just stay on the sand or paddle ankle-deep in the small talk shallows (to return to that ocean metaphor).

We need to take a deep breath and just dive right in. For the science suggests that the water’s lovely.

So stay well and stay happy,