Watch Out: Familiarity Breeds Contempt!

by | Aug 21, 2015 | Sales Motiviation

By Jeff Beals

   “House guests, like fish, begin to smell after three days.”
   Benjamin Franklin famously penned that phrase more than 200 years ago. In other words, the more time we spend with other people and the more familiar we become with them, the more likely we are to get tired of them or find them irritating.
   Last week, I wrote an article about the role of gratitude and appreciation in your professional success. I argued we are all motivated when someone expresses gratitude or appreciation toward us but that the vast majority of us are not good at expressing it to others.  I talked about how too many professionals take for granted their clients and colleagues. I had intended to add a paragraph or two on how some people eventually develop a level of disdain for their clients, but then I realized that topic deserved its own article.
   That’s right; some professionals actually have a level of disdain for their clients, the people who pay them money. How can you develop such strongly negative feelings about the people who ultimately pay your salary and justify your job’s very existence?
The answer is, “familiarity breeds contempt.”
   You’ve heard that phrase before. It’s an old English proverb that traces its roots back many centuries. Chaucer wrote those words in 1386 inTale of Melibee. According to the American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms, “Long experience of someone or something can make one so aware of the faults as to be scornful.”
   It’s not just a saying…Familiarity can indeed breed contempt (unless you work hard to avoid it). I hear it all the time when I work with sales professionals, some of whom dangerously take their clients for granted: “That customer is such a pain in the ass; I absolutely dread his phone calls!”
   In his 2008 article, “Why Familiarity Really Does Breed Contempt,” psychologist Jeremy Dean cited a study that indicated people actually like people they know less about than those they know well. The finding runs counter to what people actually claim. If asked, most people say they like people they know very well, but as it turns out, the more you know about someone, the greater risk you’ll dislike them.
   Why is that? Dean claims that we like people with similarities to us, but the more we get to know a person, the more likely we are to find dissimilarities. Find enough dissimilarities and the person becomes irritating to us.
   It’s not just limited to your clients. Familiarity with colleagues, bosses, family members and friends can lead to contempt.
   And while “familiarity breeds contempt” is a natural human phenomenon, it’s generally not a good one.  We need our clients in order to keep companies in business. We need our bosses in order to stay employed. We need our friends and family in order to have love and security in this crazy world.
   So how do we as professionals transcend this natural human tendency and NOT hold the important people in our lives in contempt?
   These six items will help you live by a new phrase “Familiarity does not have to breed contempt:”
Start with Attitude
   In his article, “Does Familiarity Breed Contempt” in Psychology Today, psychotherapist Mel Schwartz talks about the need for positive energy. A good attitude can be a powerful antidote for feelings of disdain. If we think negatively, we might be more apt to be disrespectful and dishonoring toward others. If you are unhappy, you are more likely to dwell on the faults you see in others.
Gratitude and Appreciation
   In a nod to last week’s article, we are less likely to think of another person with contempt if we remind ourselves to appreciate everything they have done for us or could do for us. See your fellow person as a precious resource, something for which we should be grateful.
Be a Big Boy or Girl
   We can develop feelings of contempt when we perceive someone isn’t respecting or valuing us enough. Have a thick skin. Just because someone is not kissing up to you enough doesn’t mean you have any right to treat them with disdain. As a professional, you need to be confident enough to shelve those feelings even though they come naturally.
Be Forgiving
   You can avoid scornful feelings if you just forgive. The better you become at interpersonal communication, the more you will notice what lousy communicators the rest of us are. That’s okay. Just adopt a forgiving personality. Accept that nobody is perfect and that your business/career success is dependent upon a bunch of imperfect people.
Focus on Similarities
   As stated earlier, we like people with similarities to us, but we act contemptuously toward people with dissimilarities. If this is true, consciously focus on the things you have in common with your clients/co-workers/friends/family and mitigate your differences.
Walk in Their Shoes
   Empathy, seeing the world from another person’s perspective, is a powerful weapon in the fight against “familiarity breeds contempt.” There’s a reason for anything a person does and for anything a person says. We are more likely to think disparaging thoughts about a person when we don’t understand their background and the obstacles they must overcome. Figure out what makes a person tick. Discover why they do what they do.  If you know a person’s background and motivation it’s easier to give them the benefit of the doubt.
   Imagine all the money that is wasted and the business opportunities that are lost because of all the professionals who succumb to “familiarity breeds contempt.” Imagine how many office-environment tensions are unnecessarily created because contempt and derision.  Imagine how much more effective you and your organization could be if everyone made a conscious effort to truly understand other people.
   Ultimately, it comes down to respect. If you treat all your clients and colleagues with dignity while showing earnest appreciation and gratitude for them, you’re going to be more successful.
   Nobody is perfect including you and me. If you think about it, each one of us is someone else’s nuisance. Each one of us has a group of people we annoy, and we probably don’t even realize it!
Jeff Beals is a professional speaker and award-winning author, who helps professionals enjoy greater success through effective sales, marketing and personal branding techniques. He delivers energetic and humorous keynote speeches and workshops to audiences worldwide. To discuss booking a presentation, go to or email at or call us at (402) 637-9300.

Jeff Beals helps you find better prospects, close more deals and capture greater market share. He is an international award-winning author, sought-after keynote speaker, and accomplished sales consultant. He delivers compelling speeches and sales-training workshops worldwide. He has spoken in 5 countries and 41 states. A frequent media guest, Jeff has been featured in Investor’s Business Daily, USA Today, Men’s Health, Chicago Tribune and The New York Times.

To discuss booking a presentation, go to or send an email to

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