When do you experience your most awkward moments in life? Some people would say on a first date, others on a job interview. (Many would say, "um, both are terrible.") Too often self-consciousness and uncertainty ends in sheer embarrassment as you hear your too-loud laugh echoing off the conference room walls or when you accidentally expose yourself while reaching for the coffee cup you knocked to the floor. Dates and interviews don’t need to be so weird. Really.
It’s simply a matter of applied science, or in this case, applied social science, and it begins and ends with "impression management," which is all about making a very conscious attempt to control your behavior — mostly by using good old-fashioned body language — in order to make exactly the kind of impression you want to make. One caveat: There is a flip side to the impression management coin, and it is important to remember because this is where many people often fail. Along with controling the details of self-presentation, you might also become aware of your response to the other person. When your date or potential boss does the unexpected — or simply the expected — a weird reaction on your part could be more telling than all the pro-active steps you’ve taken to create a positive first impression. Keeping that in mind…
The oldest rule in the book is true, so stop fighting it and use it to your advantage instead. Appearance is the first nonverbal message received and strongly influences how we judge one another. This simple truth might inspire some people to sprint in the direction of a plastic surgeon's office, but a lot can be achieved simply through how you dress.
The most significant thing your clothes tell others is whether you fit in or, more importantly, whether you fit with them. Sometimes it means you take care to own a few but clearly expensive outfits; other times it means you spend some time digging through bins at Goodwill to find the perfect quaint style. Ever meet a person who makes a great first-impression, yet after knowing him or her you one day realize they’re actually not half as attractive as you originally thought? Clothes and attitude, baby. Clothes and attitude.
Act like you’re happy to be there. Entering an interview, try to calmly look at each person in the room and then repeat as necessary. While you’re at it, why not smile slightly, too. Though you know you’re nervous and about to pee in your pants, the other people in the room simply think you’re stuck up or ignoring them when you nervously stare straight ahead and don’t acknowledge their presence. Trying to appear happy to be there while on a date, your tendency might be to act overly (falsely) happy, but it’s more about controling your nervous gestures, such as glancing away, and simply maintaining your cool... and your eye contact. Pretty simple, right?
Remember this: Nonverbal communication trumps verbal communication whenever the two do not match up. So, whether you’re on a date or a job interview, you need to concentrate on aligning your nonverbal behavior with your desired message, whether that be "Take me home, now!" or "Gimme the job!"
Social psychologist Amy Cuddy suggests, whether you’re about to enter a job interview or go on a first date, stand in front of a mirror, put your hands on your hips, tilt your chin up, and make yourself as tall as you can be. “Power posing,” as Cuddy and others refer to it, even for just two minutes, increases testosterone levels (associated with dominance) and decreases cortisol (associated with stress). Together, this shift in hormones can help you feel more in control in the two situations most likely to make you feel out of control, and so encourages you to act more naturally and with greater confidence. You feel more able to be you.
In a study conducted at Indiana University, American participants watched videos of speed-dating events in Germany and then guessed which daters were sexually attracted to each other. Based on posture, tone of voice, and eye contact, all participants correctly judged men's interest and incorrectly judged women's interest. What tripped them up? They judged women who were "just being sociable" as sexually interested. Let that be a lesson to you.
So what are the true signs of sexual interest? Men tend to draw attention to themselves by laughing loud and at times spreading their arms wide. Men and women both smile more broadly. Women’s voices tend to sound sing-songy, while men’s voices drop an octave. When flirting, many people mimic the other person’s stance and movements. The final sign of interest? Making physical contact, as when you briefly touch the other person’s hand or arm. These are the signs understood as flirtation. If you’re naturally flirty, try to avoid displaying these behaviors while in a job interview or while on a date with someone you’re not quite sure of. And if you more naturally tend toward an Asperger’s-like demeanor, reverse engineer your behavior to match the above signals whenever you want to flirt.
Warmth and competence account for about 80 percent of how all of us, including potential bosses and first dates, evaluate other people. Unfortunately, people often see warmth and competence as inversely related so you must get the balance right in any given situation. On a date, well, you might want to aim for a more approachable behavior. Signals of warmth include: appropriate self-disclosure, use of humor, natural smiles, leaning toward someone, and getting physically closer.
In any business context and especially a job interview, Cuddy says it’s important you don’t come across as really really nice, because people might not think you’re the bulb with the highest wattage. How do you do this? Assume a posture that is expansive, open, and takes up more as opposed to less space. Such a posture signals power and dominance and will counter-act any possibility of over niceness. What you want to avoid is what Cuddy refers to as a ‘contractive’ posture — when your limbs touch your torso as if protecting your vital organs and when you take up minimal space by crossing your legs or not sitting up to your tallest height. When animals are prey they make themselves as small as possible, Cuddy warns.
The Big Bad Bonus Dating Tip
Trust the truth of who you are and what you want.
In a 2006 study, 39 male students were shown10 pairs of pictures and asked to pick their favorite. Yet each pair contained the same combination of one picture of an infant and another of an adult. The researchers gauged the men’s interest in babies by how many times they preferred the photo of an infant over an adult. Next, 29 female students at another university were asked to look at each man’s photo and judge how interested he was in children. Oddly, the women’s perceptions matched the men’s expressed interest in infants (as evidenced by the choices they made among the paired photographs).
Now here comes the interesting part: The women were then asked which men they would be interested in as a "mate." The women who previously said they wanted a long-term relationship found the men who were interested in children more attractive, while women who said they wanted a short-term relationship found the men less interested in children more attractive. Simply by looking at a man, a woman understands if he is potential “father material.”