Job interviews just got more complicated. While formal questioning during interviews gives employers the most job-related information about you, a new study indicates that pre-interview small talk, or rapport building, is more influential.

"Nearly all employment interviews, even those considered highly structured, begin with a brief meet-and-greet conversation typically coalescing around non-job-related topics (i.e., rapport building),” wrote the paper’s authors.

Rapport building is generally regarded as an “essential, value-adding component of the interview,” the researchers say, but they questioned if first impressions from rapport-building could unfairly influence interviewers’ evaluations during formal questioning.

To test the theory, mock interviews were given to 163 accounting students. Each interview consisted of 12 standardized questions, but first began with a few minutes of rapport building. Interviewers were also asked to write down their first impressions of each job candidate after the rapport building took place, but before formal questioning began.

The researchers found that students who made a good first impression were more likely to receive positive scores on the 12 standardized questions, indicating that good first impressions have more weight on formal questioning than the answers themselves.

But by comparing the interviewers’ scores to scores given by a separate set of expert reviewers (who were only shown video of the standardized portion of the interview, not the rapport-building portion), the researchers found the influence from first impressions was not biased or unfair, based on the fact that interviewers’ reports of first impressions highly coincided with the experts’ overall scores.

So what can you do to enhance the first impression you give?

Like a first date, a job interview relies on nonverbal communication. In any one-on-one scenario, including job interviews, we unconsciously mirror the behaviors of the other person to show comfort, trust and rapport, but this can backfire if an interviewer displays negative nonverbal communication, so pay attention to your nonverbal cues.

Physical appearance, too, plays a role. In the current study, the researchers found that students who were given a high image score (showed a good physical appearance) by the experts were the students most likely to give positive first impressions. In another study, physical attractiveness was shown to increase one’s chance of getting a callback for a job, but that’s a bit more difficult to control.

Source: Swider B, Barrick M, Harris T. Initial Impressions: What They Are, What They Are Not, and How They Influence Structured Interview Outcomes.   Journal of Applied Psychology . 2016.