By Chuck Cusumano
Even if you are blissfully unaware, you could be infected.
In fact, it is possible that you are so infected, an N95 mask might not help much at all. Sure, maybe wearing it can help you shield your smile or your frown from other people, but ultimately, if you’re infected with EC, the chances of you spreading it are severe.
Ok, you caught us.
We are not talking about the pandemic. And we are not doing commentary on whether or not you should wear your mask to reduce the risk of spreading COVID-19—what we are actually talking about is EC, an infectious, contagious condition that can really bring you (and your team or loved ones) down.
Scientists even say that EC can spread to third-degrees of separation—in other words, your friends can get it, your friend’s friends can get it, and your friend’s friend's friends can get it, too. People you have never even met can catch it and are infected with the contagion—so we all need to be extremely careful.
What Exactly is EC?
EC—or rather, Emotional Contagion—is a highly contagious phenomenon. Yes, we are talking about emotions—your positive attitude, your sadness, your depression, your apathy.
All of your emotions are contagious—and in a very sneaky sort of way.
Without even knowing it, we pass along our emotional feelings through our subconscious thinking and our actions. We mirror each other in conversations, we pick up on what others are doing, we begin to talk like those around us.
Each and every one of us picks up on the mannerisms of those around us, effectively ensuring that, to some capacity, we are mimicking the people we spend our time around—any length of time, in fact.
It makes sense, doesn’t it?
Think about it this way—what happened the last time you visited the town you grew up in? Your homegrown accent probably shone through (even ever-so-slightly) without any effort whatsoever.
In that exact way, we pick up on the small mannerism and intricacies of those around us. It only makes sense that emotions, perspectives, and attitudes would be contagious, too.
The Science Behind EC: Talking With Professionals
John T. Cacioppo, professor of psychology and the director of the Center for Cognitive and Social Neuroscience at the University of Chicago explains that this dynamic is most poignant when someone’s emotions or perspectives lean heavily in a certain direction.
“The more expressive someone is,” he said, “the more likely you are to notice that expression and mimic it. The muscle fibers in your face and body can be activated unbeknownst to you—at much lower levels than if you were to perform those movements yourself.”
In other words, we mimic each other by copying body language, facial expressions, posture, speech rhythms, word choice, and eye contact—all without ever noticing it.
The wildest part? This phenomenon does not just exist between colleagues, friends, or loved ones. It happens with complete strangers, too, and it usually begins just milliseconds after we meet someone.
Harvard Business School Professor and Social Psychologist Amy Cuddy discovered through research for her book, Presence, we reveal what we are thinking through our body language.
Further, her research shows, if we then change our body language, the emotions that are associated with those postures will become our emotions, too.
Amy Cuddy's TED TALK where she discusses this phenomenon is the second most viewed TED talk of all time. Her research furthers the blunt fact of the matter—others can really infect you with their emotions and attitudes.
Science proves this time and time again.
How to Improve Your EC Skills & Avoid Infecting Others
All emotions—positive or negative, happy or sad, simplistic or complicated—are all transferred the same.
Because, as humans, we have an innate desire to bond with others, we all strive to connect and communicate. It is built into us. It is part of our survival instinct.
This knowledge, paired with what we know about the phenomenon EC, proves that we should all work hard to monitor our EC skills and do our best to avoid infecting others with negative emotions, perspectives, and outlooks.
Understanding and sharing in someone’s emotions is the definition of empathy, and leadership is focused on understanding and communicating with those around you effectively— so it is exceptionally important that you are careful about what you catch.
You will undoubtedly become a carrier of the emotions you catch, and you might never figure out where it came from.
Looking to understand EC vulnerability better? Check out this Emotional Contagion Scale Quiz to get a stronger grasp on what emotions might be easier or more difficult for you, personally, to catch and spread.
The good news? You are not stuck living as a victim to whatever EC contagion you catch. You can work on your own EC skills and figure out unique ways to monitor them and avoid spreading negative EC. Here are a few specific tips to help you on your journey:
Be mindful of the people in your social networks. Are they the people that are positive most of the time? Are you always trying to cheer them up? Earlier this year we wrote a blog called The Average of Five that dives into deeper detail on who you should surround yourself with.
What emotions do I give off? If you are going for a job interview, confidence would be a great starter. Have you found yourself in a meeting for new innovation within your department? Make sure you are not the nay-sayer! The point is, know what you are feeling and make sure it is the emotion you want to be spreading around.
Take the emotional Contagion Scale Quiz and see if you are overly affected by others' emotions. If so, limit yourself to those people that do not match what you want to be feeling.
Just as we all—unfortunately—spread germs despite our best efforts, so too do we spread EC.
Make sure that the EC contagions you are spreading are positive ones—thankfulness, joy, gratitude, hope, enthusiasm, peace, kindness, acceptance, and importantly, love.
Understanding EC and working to spread only positive contagions can help lead you down the right track toward becoming a better person, a better leader, a better neighbor, a better teammate, and a better friend.