How to get along with difficult co-workers

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People with good social skills can get along with almost anyone, and if you want to be successful in your career, you have to make people like you: Figure out what matters to them, what makes them tick, and then speak to that when you interact.

The key to being likeable is to be able to adapt yourself to different situations. This does not mean that you have to be someone you’re not. Each of us is complicated, adaptable and curious. You need to know yourself well enough to understand a broad range of facets of yourself so that you can call up the right one with the right crowd.

The field of psychology that focuses on this particular issue is social psychology. And, fortunately, we have massive amounts of data from clinical research to tell us how thoughts, feelings, and behavior of individuals are influenced by the actual, imagined, or implied presence of others: Use this research to train yourself to be someone everyone wants to work with.

Think hard about how you approach a group. Do you hope that the group conforms to you or do you conform to the group? As long as you respect the people in the group, conforming to them enough to form a bond is not a bad idea. No one can be with their soul mate 100% of the day. But you can find pieces of yourself that match up with just about everyone, if you are in-tune with yourself and other people.

Social psychologists call people who analyze social situations and try to match their public self to the situation “high self-monitors”. Self-monitors are very good at gauging what their audience expects in each given situation. And these people are very sensitive to impression management techniques — they watch other people use them and then use the techniques themselves.

For some people, this skill of monitoring themselves within a group comes naturally — they are chameleons who can mirror other peoples' moods. Chameleons know what to say when their boss's pet gerbil dies and they know what to say when a co-worker suggests a date.

Other people are low self-monitors. These people attempt to alter a situation to match their private self. These people have one way of conducting themselves and have no idea how to change for a given situation. These are the people who make inappropriate jokes at a client meeting or are too stiff and formal at a company picnic. Chameleons generally disgust these low self-monitors, but I've got news for you: chameleons don't lose opportunities for being difficult to work with.

If you can get along with different groups of people, you won’t just be liked more at work, you’ll be more equipped to meet your personal goals. People who are able to develop friendships with a wide range of people are more able to change the way they think about themselves, according to Tracy McLaughlin-Volpe, professor of psychology at University of Vermont. Developing cross-group friendships as opposed to in-group friendships makes your more adept at creating a dynamic image of yourself — you are likely to be a person who can make changes to become the person you want to be.

You want to be someone who can make changes in yourself when you see the need, because social psychologists have also found that people remember negative traits more than positive traits. So if you tell a new employee your boss is “smart, open-minded, kind and disorganized,” the new employee will form an opinion of the boss primarily on “disorganized.” Your bad traits have more sticking power on your reputation than your good traits. If you want to be liked, face up to your weaknesses and compensate for them.

Most people who hate office social dynamics think people have to change who they are to succeed. But good social skills at work are really a reflection of empathy for the people around you. Anyone who is being their best self — kind, considerate, expressive, interested in others — will instinctively do the right thing at the office.

32 replies
  1. Tamar
    Tamar says:

    Thanks for the excellent reminder. Two questions. You write: “Chameleons generally disgust these low self-monitors…”. Me: I don’t understand the dynamics here. Why does this happen? Is it jealousy? Or, self-sabotaging behavior that does not encourage learning… to improve? Second question. You write: “… but I've got news for you: chameleons don't lose opportunities for being difficult to work with.” Me: I don’t understand this phrase. TIA.

  2. Penelope Trunk
    Penelope Trunk says:

    I think you’re right that low self-monitors are jealous of chameleons (high self-monitors). But by definitions, low self-monitors cannot identify how they are feeling toward other people well enough to pinpoint jealousy. So the low self-monitors come off as pissy and resentful probably without even knowing it.

    When I wrote, “Chameleons don’t lose jobs for being difficult to work with,” I meant that low self-monitors *do* lose jobs for being difficult or unpeasant.

    Everyone should strive to be a high self-monitor. The problem is, I think, that people need help — first, to know that they are not high self-monitors, and second to learn how to change.

  3. Wendy Waters
    Wendy Waters says:

    Are “low self-monitors” the ones who blame everyone else for their career failings?

    For example, if passed over for a promotion, they might blame affirmative action and say “I’m a white male and couldn’t compete with a hispanic woman for the job” (they do this without looking at the hispanic woman’s performance to recognize that she was delivering what the company wanted and they were not).

  4. Penelope Trunk
    Penelope Trunk says:

    Oh, that’s a really good question. People who blame other people for bad things that happen to them might be low self-monitors, but their biggest problem is their outlook — it’s pessimistic. here’s a link to stuff I wrote about the outlook issue:

    The issue of self-montioring oneself is can you read other people and adjust yourself so that you can relate well to each other.

    It’s in the same vein as having an optimistic outlook, but they are two different predictors of workplace success.

  5. Amanda
    Amanda says:

    I got to this post through a link from one of your other posts.

    I’ve observed people for a long time, and a number of things about your article and comments ring false:

    * The division of people into high and low self-monitors

    * The assumption that someone being their best self will get along with everyone

    * The assumption that people designated here as ‘low self-monitors’, when criticizing people designated as ‘high self-monitors’, are simply un-self-aware and jealous.

    * The apparent privileging of the ability to get along with people over all other abilities (goes along with the idea that if you are being your best self you’ll get along with everyone)

    * The assumption that people who criticize office politics obviously have something wrong with them.

    People might do well to remember that sociopaths — people with little or no conscience — are frequently extremely talented at social skills, and can often flawlessly make people like and get along with them in any environment. They often thrive in the world of office politics. And yet because of their lack of conscience, they are also usually doing extremely harmful things to other people in pursuit of their own selfish gains.

    They are not the only people who might have high levels of social skills, of course. But they are the most extreme example of why getting along with everyone isn’t a satisfactory gauge of someone’s character. Some people get along with everyone because they’re both nice people and socially skilled (those are two different things). Some people get along with everyone because they are manipulative and socially skilled.

    I’m autistic, which most people believe means lacking in social skills, although I think it’s a two-way street and research (genuine scientific research into autistic cognition, as opposed to pop-psychology platitudes about social skills being the most wondrous inventions since sliced bread) is starting to back me up on that idea.

    Because I need certain assistance with things, I was once a client of an agency that provided that assistance. One of the people in management was a sociopath with good social skills.

    I was the only person who could tell what sort of person she really was. Everyone else was charmed by her social skills, and thought that she was a really nice person.

    She would, while being incredibly sweet and nice-seeming to most people the whole time (I don’t know how all these supposedly socially-skilled people didn’t pick up on how frightening she was), do a bunch of things like:

    1. Start a program that locked a woman who had previously lived independently, into a bare room of her own home, and try to make it so that nobody knew this woman existed.

    2. Promote people when clients reported abuse from the same people.

    3. Try to pin abuse charges on the best staff there, the ones all the clients liked.

    4. Either sanction abuse or neglect towards clients who questioned the power structure.

    5. Win the trust of staff, enough to learn certain information about them, and then blackmail them with it later on so that they would quit instead of being fired, if they turned out to be good staff.

    6. Tell one client (that I knew personally) that his staff person never wanted to see him again, tell the staff person that the client never wanted to see her again, forge emails from this client (who couldn’t read or write) “complaining” about this staff person, etc.

    7. When I started complaining about practices at this company, refuse to pay for any staff for me for months on end, and/or deliberately hire staff for me who were unqualified for the job (i.e. couldn’t do the basic job requirements), etc.

    8. Spread false rumors about people. (I’d fired exactly one staff person, who abused me, and gotten along with other staff fine, yet new staff were always told that I hated staff and went through them really fast, etc.) Lied to and about people to get them to mistrust and dislike each other, apparently for her own amusement.

    There was one staff person at that company who did a very good job as staff. She even worked for me for free when she found out that this woman was not providing me with any staff. (During the time between that and when we could find a less corrupt agency.) She herself had been fired from the agency for having ethics.

    Some people would say her social skills weren’t so good.

    Personally, if given a choice, I put ethical skills way before social skills on my list of things that are important for people to have. Ethics are really important. They are more important than whether someone can get along with everyone in the world or not.

    Often, in fact, having ethics brings a person into conflict with a lot of people who are either highly unethical themselves (such as the woman I described above, who had wonderful social skills but no conscience), and also into conflict with people who do have ethics but are resistant to changing their practices. Often, having a strong sense of ethics is enough to cause some people to dislike you even if you also have a strong set of social skills.

    I have spent my life being targeted by people who have a good ability to make most people like them, but terrible ethics. (At least I think deliberate cruelty is a sign of bad ethics.) There is no way in the world, after what I’ve seen, that my distaste for such people is borne out of jealousy. (And the reason I blame these people for what they did is not a tendency to blame people in general for everything bad that happens to me, but because I tend to think that if one person is hitting or making fun of someone else without provocation it doesn’t take a social genius to figure out which person is responsible.)

    In fact, I have no distaste for the ones whose sense of ethics kicks in eventually and causes them to change their ways. Nor do I have any distaste for ethical people with good social skills. I do have strong distaste for people who use excellent social skills to skate along with horrible ethics without getting caught, and pick on people whose social skills (by most standards) aren’t so great, because they think it is fun.

    I’ve met people who are genuinely nice, whose social skills are very good, and who are very ethical. But I would never measure someone’s ethics or character by something as superficial as their social skills. Perhaps my lack of standard social awareness makes me blind to most of the tricks many unethical people use to fool people into believing they’re really nice people. My distaste for “office politics” comes from seeing people like that continually getting ahead over people who have strong ethical convictions. (Which might explain the way corporations act in general.)

    I do, by the way, adapt to people all the time. But there are genuine limitations on how much adaptation is possible given assorted ways my brain and body works. I don’t think these limitations make me inferior to people who can play the game really well, and I don’t think that social skills are the end-all and be-all of the world. I would rather strong ethics be emphasized whether a person has good social skills or not. Social skills are sometimes more important in the smaller picture or the short run, ethics are more important in the larger picture and the long run.

    • Dee
      Dee says:

      I have to totally agree with Amanda, thanks Amanda for your posting. It was very encouraging to me. I also do not play social games or politics, and believe these activities are harmful and unprofessional in any work place.
      The best game to play, if you must play a game socially, is to spread out genuine complements to the people you work with, to show appreciation of their hard work and their person. I would like to hear some of that myself every once in a while.

    • Ginny
      Ginny says:

      Amanda, I agree with you also. I have very high standards and will not deviate from the “right” path. My co workers deviate and take short cuts at the expensive of teaching children and giving them every advantage. They do not share any resources and they never include me in any of their activities. I am like a man without a country because I will not be something I am not. You are not being yourself at all if you are totally changing yourself to suit others. People are jealous of those who do what they are suppose to and over achieve. They are rexentful and do not want to keep the pace. I do not fault them for not keeping the pave with me but I do look down and frown upon not doing your job to the best of your ability. My favorite poem isd Man in The Glass. I intend to be able to look in the mirror at the end of my life and be able to save “Job well done”. These chameloens could care less because they have changed so much that they would not know their tral selves it they bite themselves in the butt! Be true to your self, either peole like you or not, I do not feel the need to get along with those that stand for nothing and have no backbone to be their own person and not change their personality according to which way the wind blows. I can not stand people like that. They are two faced. Be YOURSELF and realize there will always so me peole who do not like you, screw them, do your job and have other friends who are more like you. You will never feel good about yourself if you are a “jelly fish”. This is one of the most untrue articles I have ever read.

    • Drew
      Drew says:

      Excellent response Amanda and much better fleshed out than Penelope’s article.

      I am in a difficult situation in my office where a co-worker who displays the worst of the traits you mention just got promoted into a administrative position over me at work. I mentioned my concern to my boss privately and he said that I would answer only to him. My concern is the ability for these highly skilled sociopaths to influence peoples opinions of others.

      I have seen this girl completely alter others opinions of me from very high to very low and now that she is working closely with my boss I am seriously considering finding another organization.

      I haven’t read any of the other posts from the blogs author but it strikes me that those who are considered ‘high self-monitors’ are probably just much more self-centered than others. The lack of perspective and objectivity in the post smacks of this. The author clearly considers herself a high self-monitor and feels that this is the superior way of being.

      It is good that she points out that as long as you respect the people it is OK to try to fit in with them, and you shouldn’t feel required to if you feel that they have distasteful characters. Obviously it is not appropriate to be rude to these people but it is should not be required to completely conform to their behaviors.

      I have found that those at my office who are best able to get ahead on their attitude instead of performance often do things which are bad for the organization as a whole regularly. Self-promotion has become so egregious that each day at the office can be like watching Macbeth with credit being taken, blame being placed and constant backstabbing.

      I think that this truly is a reason for our corporate behavior. Those with the least concern for others naturally rise due to our species social makeup. This leads to morality and reason being overthrown by self-interest and conformity.

      Unsustainable levels of rapacious greed have spread from boardroom to boardroom over the past 70 years and at this point it is pretty clear to see what results this produces for average citizens.

  6. jrandom42
    jrandom42 says:

    As for why us so-called ‘low self-monitors’ hate the so-called ‘high self-monitors’, it’s simple.

    We think these ‘chameleons’ are nothing more than lying sacks of dog poop who will do anything, say anything and be anything just to get ahead, and will fold, spindle and mutilate the truth till it conforms to their temporarily molded image.

  7. himalaya
    himalaya says:

    Can a low or medium self-monitor become a high self-monitor by training, reading or coaching etc? If so, what options are available out there?

  8. Sue Vetrero
    Sue Vetrero says:

    I think anyone that truly loves their job and feels happy while working has reached the highest level of achievement and should feel proud. One should bend over backwards on the job and go the extra mile in order to achieve and feel successful. That’s the statement to satisfy the person striving for perfection on his job!

  9. ABF
    ABF says:

    Developing stable relationships with coworkers or peers at school can be a simple task if you say what the person wants to hear and do what they want. You can’t do everything they want you to do but as long as its logical and does not harm other people or yourself it is OK. That is the main reason why I am disliked becouse I don’t follow that rule. If you follow that plus lie cheat, and stesl with a little intimidation you have leadership within you. Sad but true. I think that a person should be as honest as they are able. Everybody should have a gimmic at least that’s what I have learned. You can not survive being yourself all of the time. People like to be told good things even if its not true.

    • Dee
      Dee says:

      The only way I know how to be is myself, all the time. If others don’t like that, well, then, they have not learned the skill of acceptance. I accept others with their shortcomings and give people space to learn and grow, because I believe this value is more important than being popular.

      • EMFHAAC
        EMFHAAC says:

        What a joke, the real world is about cliques and pettiness in the workplace. You better join the team if you know what’s good for you. You better suggest you’re of the same breed (religion, sexual preference, willing to accept abuse)… or you’ll know what the curb is. Introverts are evil! They don’t talk and they’re weird! Take away their jobs. Groupthink and ignorance is the reason people can get away with saying that good social skills at work show empathy, as opposed to those who naturally feel empathy for others but lack the social skills that the popular kids frame as “normal” or “good.”

  10. Mark Baker
    Mark Baker says:

    I would agree that relatively high self-monitoring is a good thing – but there are limits. I would have to take exception to your apparent assertion that high self-monitoring = good, low self-monitoring = bad, in that it’s an overly simplistic view.

    In my opinion, extremes are bad in most things, and the same is true here. High self-monitoring is good when it means being in tune with social situations and adjusting to fit the situation; but it becomes bad when it reaches the extreme of being completely different people depending on whom one is interacting with.

    By the same token, relatively low self-monitoring is fine in some jobs, when it means being genuine with everyone; but it becomes bad when it reaches the extreme of inability to adjust to social situations at all.

    The idea that all low self-monitors are jealous of high self-monitors is ridiculous on its face. In fact, there are excellent reasons to be disgusted with extremely high self-monitors – they are almost never genuine and will tell you anything to get what they want.

    Balance is the key. If one is interested in climbing the corporate ladder, the ideal is probably moderately high self-monitoring. If one is more interested in doing a particularly job (engineering, programming, whatever) for the long run, the ideal is probably moderately low self-monitoring.

  11. Heather Rose Russell
    Heather Rose Russell says:

    What about people with bad body odour? What if the coworker with bad body odour is a member of the opposite sex, and is patronizing you all day long because he “likes” you? How do you deal with that? I had to in my previous job. This stinky person only got the job, so I heard, because a relative of his, who is a doctor, plays golf with the CEO of the company.

  12. A.J. Smythe
    A.J. Smythe says:

    Social skills do get people where they want to go. Whether they use them for good or evil is a whole different conversation. Comparing a person with high-self monitoring social skills to a sociopath is ridiculous however. Yes these people do make excellent sociopaths but that isn’t the path that they chose.

    People with low-self monitoring do make for difficult people. They really do think that the world ought to change rather than going with the flow. Still it takes all types. As a high-self monitoring person, I really can see how mirroring people, reacting correctly, giving the appropriate body language makes for a much more pleasent experience and honestly gives you more control of the situation rather than a person who feels everyone else should change. The funny part is that when I was younger I was the opposite. I really thought that well its just dumb and they should change. I was so wrong. Now I pride myself on being able to adapt to my situations and getting people to move in positive directions. I never use my “super-powers” for evil.


  13. Kristen
    Kristen says:

    I understand the purpose of high self monitoring and have used it to adapt to new people and work situations.

    Having said that, I think there are limitations for people who are not natural high self-monitors. Yes, it can be learned a little,but people who don’t naturally do this are wired to approach work and social situations differently. Introverts, for example, process information differently from extroverts. Research shows they actually have more going on in their brains than extroverts and need less external stimulation.

    Introverts tend to be slower to react in social situations and having to perform like an extrovert would be very draining. They are just not wired to think as quickly on their feet and engage in chit-chat. This is not a choice, it is how introverts are designed.

    So, an introvert, according to your theory of self-monitoring is SOL much of the time. I know life isn’t always fair and you have to adapt to your environment, however the extreme idea that one has to fit in or die seems like a regression of our humanity. What about a more humanistic stance where people are encouraged to be genuine and not have to expend their energies performing and being someone they aren’t?

    Ah, someone might say that’s not the real world. And this is advice on how to become “successful.” I argue that a person can’t just become a chameleon if it doesn’t come naturally to them. They aren’t wired to “high self-monitor.” If they learn to do it at all it will never measure up to the degree of naturally high self monitors. And I don’t think these “low self monitors” are jealous at all. They view some of these chameleons as being shallow and overly political. Not down to earth or real.

    Besides, what’s wrong with being a true individual? Has that become a dirty word?

  14. Boe
    Boe says:

    i was always an introvert growing up, but saw that i needed to change. one cannot be happy if there is nobody in their life to ‘brag’ to. people need friends to share their life with.

    my social skills are deplorable; i severely lack tact no matter my intentions. i believe in the golden rule but find that others don’t necessarily appreciate the same social interaction i expect or would tolerate from them.

    i now have a family and all the adult responsibilities that go along with the life. i find that stress screws up my ability to self-monitor; one minute i am like them, the next i am saying something without the filter.

    i am becoming a nuisance to my employer for constant complaints from my co-workers and i am fearful of my job. i have decided to seek a psychologist to assess my personality and perhaps medicate me to give my verbal filter more control. i hope knowledge of my seeking help keeps me employed.

    i have worked with this grocery chain for 13 years and many wonder why i chose customer service as my career – i explain that i started on the 3rd shift as a stocker and have gradually moved to the daytime perishable department. no other unskilled manual labor can pay what i have earned and i am now trapped in a failing industry concerned more about customer appreciation than selling groceries.

      EMFHAAC says:

      There’s nothing wrong with you really, these people are scared of people who are strong enough not to latch on to the groupthink mentality. The saddest thing about these people is when they’re by themselves they don’t have the balls to say something to you. Only when they’re around their pack of fools.

  15. allie
    allie says:

    LABELED AS The crazy the nut i was different and a target to make fun of.  on these13difernt
    jobs I worked I can say only two real good friends came of it..  Now the men never tease…thy not I was not only mentally ill but very atttractive and of course they didn’t want to ruin their
    chance of trying to get sex or whatever they wanted with me.This too was offensive to me
    when I would refused their advances they would then commence to oh that old crazy bitch
    and  a lot of unnecessary bad mouthing.Also I have always been a person who worked hard
    always was early for work ,got awards for my excellent work habits.  I was highly crizitized
    for being an excellent employee but what really got to me was sure I did have a serious
    mental disorder but when the igorant co-workers learn I was winning  a cash award
    fully knowing I was a dedicated worker they say why are they giving that old retarded “B”
    an  award.This was one thing I found totally offensive because retardation is center around
    your IQ and I did have amental disability but I was not born mental retarded and ignorant
    scornful people need to learn that mentally ill is not the same asmental retardation. 
    I get sickof hearing people saying I should have just reported these people for teasing me
    while I tried so hard to ignore them by putting my time into my work and not arguing with
    stupid people but this not just cursing them out or kicking their asses as they deserve causeme
    great physically and emotional problems due to keeping  my feelings in trying to ignore the evil, scornfulness of ignorant people someof which even had the nerve to brag on their being a christian because they when to church but not really followed the bible to LOVE EVERYONE

  16. Sent
    Sent says:

    What’s wrong with being an individual who is genuine? You are narrow in categorizing people into two groups: high and low self-monitors. And what’s this jealousy accusation? It is ridiculous. I’m an introvert and I am glad to be who I am, wherever I am. I admit I have a hard time being social at work and in public, but I am not jealous of high self-monitors or outgoing people. You need to check your article’s assumptions. And your assertion that it is important to be liked by everyone is ludicrous. Like some famous actress said, “If everyone likes you, you’re not doing it right.” Think about it before you write another article.

  17. MW
    MW says:

    I am an assistant manager in a place with 18 women who all get along with each other,accept one. The manager. She treats people with no respect. Until I came on the seen she ruled with intimidation.Since I came on the seen 4 years ago and saw how she has treated people and have had many sassy fights about it,she has baked off. But still has many unreasonable moments.
    The head of our food service has told me to keep with putting her in her place because he doesn’t get as many phone calls about her as he did before.He used to get complaints daily.
    but here is the deal. I can’t stand her. I can’t stand to hear her voice any more. She makes us all crazy. Her boss avoids phone calls from her because he knows what a drama queen she is.
    Now my question is How do I get along with her? We are supposed to be partners!
    I can’t deal with her control issues. But until she retires or I quit we have to get along.
    After we have a blow up fight I feel aweful about myself. I really don’t like that.
    I need to find a better way to get along with her.
    Do you have any suggestions.
    I am trying to make it a better place to work and my dislike for her isn’t good for morale of the rest of the people!

  18. John
    John says:

    Any advice greatly appreciated. I am a 50 year old man, and due to the recession, I had to change my job. I am now working predominantly with women for the first time in my life. Now, whilst most are OK, there are a few there who talk loud incessantly, and overtalk me when I am speaking on a regular basis. They generally try to dominate at every opportunity.

    I have tried talking nicely to them, asking them to let me speak, but I usually just get overspoken by them, when I don’t I get ignored anyway, and the behaviour continues. It makes me very angry indeed.

    At staff meetings the situation is ridiculous, these women can all be speaking at the same time!!! The rest of us tend to just stay silent at such times.

    I blew up at one of them when she overspoke me while I was talking to my manageress. My manageress said the woman in question was only trying to support me and sent me for Cognitive Behavioural Therapy. I completed the course and the therapist reported that I am “managing” my stress.

    As far as my manager is concerned, she allows this behaviour to continue, and if I speak up, I am in trouble. She insists that I have got everything out of context and these staff members are only trying to help me. She is not concerned with the fact that it is rude, and that the other male member of staff has a similar problem.

    What can I do?

    Ps, All these women are the same grade as me.

  19. Laurie
    Laurie says:

    I was recently told by my boss that shes had alot of complaints about my attitude at work. Its not the first time shes talked to me about it. But it is the first time shes threatened to write me up if she gets another complaint. The problem is I don’t know what shes talking about. I feel like Im pleasant and polite to everyone. I don’t go out of my way to chit chat and make friends b/c I work in a busy office and there really isn’t time for it. Thats not to say I don’t socialize at all but not as much as my coworkers. I like to stay focused on my work. I really don’t know what to do. I’ve been there for almost 5 years and I love my job and Im scared Im going to lose it. Any advice would be appreciated.

  20. Jill
    Jill says:

    Making everyone like you isn’t possible. Getting along with everyone is possible. Your article denies the basic differences among people, to the extent that some people just don’t relate to each other very well.
    The CEO of my company doesn’t really like everyone, for example. He has tried to overcome his basic personality, but it’s not easy for him to show empathy. He’s a take-charge person, and he doesn’t make small talk. I’ve had other CEO’s who were great at small talk, but not as good at their jobs as he is.
    So, clearly it’s nice to get along, but your ‘chameleon’ idea is just that – an idea that lacks substance. Everyone needs to be ‘who they are’ to some extent, the trick is not imposing on others.

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