First Impressions Matter: How To Make The Best One For The Situation

handshake
The age-old advice of delivering firm handshakes and a winning smile are good, but they aren't always enough. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock

While you were busy blinking, your future boss just had three chances to size you up. From that measly tenth of a second came a busy mosaic of body language cues, facial microexpressions, and many more assessments of your dress, posture, smile, and overall demeanor. Did you make it count?

As first impressions go, the simplicity of the advice we’re given as kids belies what psychology knows. Look the person in the eye. Give a firm handshake. Smile. These are the requisites to avoiding social disaster. No one wants the company of a frowning and avoidant dead-fish offerer. But to make a good first impression, you need more than just confidence, self-assuredness, and approachability. Those help, but they aren’t enough.

You’re Hired!

Like a lot of life advice, there isn’t any single prescription for making a good impression. The unsatisfying answer is: It depends. Thankfully, the research into first impressions tends to break the recommendations into professional and personal ones. What’s true for interviewing for your dream job isn’t always true for interviewing for the position of future son-in-law.

Dr. Christine Whelan, Director of the Money, Relationships, and Equality Initiative in the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Human Ecology, argues the social role of interviewee or networking professional is actually fairly straightforward compared to the harsh waters of a dive bar. The little things matter. “If you can be a good listener and if you can ask questions about other people, they’re going to be more likely to like you,” Whelan told Medical Daily. “Even in an interview situation, you might be able to ace the interview simply by asking insightful questions about the organization or about other people.”

The wrong approach, Whelan says, is shining the spotlight on yourself. Human beings are notoriously self-centered. We like talking about ourselves, and we perceive others’ interest in us as a potential sign that people are noticing our excellence. A recent study found people who asked for advice in solving a brainteaser were perceived as smarter than those who didn’t ask for advice. The takeaway was that asking for advice was tacit acknowledgement the other person was somehow “worth it,” and praise be to the advice-seeker for recognizing that brilliance.

Women may have an advantage in these cases. Well-polished shoes and a crisply ironed suit may help men to convey power, but alpha isn’t always best in the looks department. Sometimes warmth wins out. Consider a 2011 study that found makeup signaled a woman’s relative friendliness, trustworthiness, and competence to the subjects within a quarter of a second. But there was a catch: Too much makeup came off as glamorous and tone deaf. The makeup heightened their beauty, but at the same time reduced their perceived competence.

In this sense, the best professional first impressions seem to hinge on maximizing your perceived competence to the extent you still seem like a nice person to be around. Some bosses like you to be agreeable; others like bull dogs. But nobody wants to work with jerks.

Call Me

The game changes outside the normal nine-to-five, Whelan says. Making a good first impression with perfect strangers at a bar or party is generally harder, because the social role is no longer as clear.

“Let’s say you’re trying to meet people in a bar,” she said. “It’s a little trickier because it’s not just that you want them to like you. You want them to like the ‘real’ you. Or the you that you would continue to be in a relationship.”

Here Whelan makes use of the sociological idea of “impression management,” developed by the sociologist Erving Goffman. It presumes more or less the same Shakespearean idea of “All the world’s a stage.” We wear professional hats, romantic hats, parenting hats, friendship hats, and many others. When you’re alone with a stranger in a bar, Whelan suggests, the first impression you want to make is the perfect combination of all of those, so the person doesn’t think you’re a maladjusted loser who’s obsessed with their kids or their job.

How do you accomplish such a (potentially crippling) task and make a good impression? “You have to make sure that you are presenting the version of yourself that is true to you and who you want to continue to be within that relationship,” Whelan said. Too often, out of fear of romantic or social rejection, or both, people get caught up in appealing to what their conversation partner finds valuable in a person. They lose sight of what they’re “looking for” and settle. And by the second date, if there is one, the heat of the moment has cooled to the lukewarm chitchat of two people without much in common.

Reversal Of Fortune

Advice to “be yourself” isn’t popular. First impressions typically require some sort of upgrade to one’s existing look and behavior, or at least a conscious focus on certain looks and behaviors over others. What separates professional and personal impressions is how easy it is to reach the goal of likeability, in pursuit of something greater. That can be a job, a stamp of approval from her parents, or just a second date. In an interview, first impressions move us toward a concrete goal of demonstrating competence. But out in the jungle, we feel compelled to effect an air of perfection and grace that doesn’t really tell the whole truth about our imperfect, fall-down lives.

Even if you don’t make the first impression you had hoped for, research has offered a way out since 1965 with the gain-loss theory of attraction. First developed by social psychologist Elliot Aronson, gain-loss theory has since morphed into the popular notion of playing hard to get. It explains why compliments mean more from the people who once disliked us. For first impressions, Whelan says, it means that snap judgments aren’t set in stone. We may get sized up immediately, but the assumptions can change.

That isn’t to say you should throw caution to the wind in relying on gain-loss. Few new hires get where they are by coming across as bored and disinterested. You can’t make a good second impression if your first one falls apart.

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