Impressions make quite an impression on us as we're so eager to manage them. I've written about how to overcome a bad first impression and how science says you can improve them by, of all things, making sure your counterpart is holding a warm cup of coffee/tea. But now let's tackle first impressions right on the frontline, in the instant they're formed. And they're being forged astonishingly fast, on things that count. 

Princeton University psychologist Alex Todorov found that people make judgments on whether or not someone is trustworthy, competent, and likeable within one second of seeing someone's face (trustworthiness clocking in at an incredible 100 milliseconds).

As Todorov put it:

The link between facial features and character may be tenuous at best, but that doesn't stop our minds from sizing other people up at a glance. We decide very quickly whether a person possesses many of the traits we feel are important, such as likeability and competence, even though we haven't exchanged a single word with them.

Wow. And what's worse is that we don't change our impressions as that first encounter lingers on. Said Todorov, "If given more time, people's fundamental judgment did not change. Observers simply became more confident in their judgments as the duration lengthened."

Things get trickier when considering what scientists call fundamental attribution error. Meaning, if you screw up in making a first impression (by say, tripping and falling), observers are more likely to assign the blame for that bad impression on you/your incompetence while if they tripped they'd blame it on an external factor (the floor was slippery).

This all prompts the question: "So, what can I do about it?"

Six Degrees, a brand building agency that applies neuroscience and psychology to influence decision making, lends a hand. It starts first with an awareness of some common observed features or behaviors and the first impression they tend to create:

  • Dressing smartly: yields first impression of "Successful".
  • More eye contact: yields first impression of "Intelligent".
  • Speaking faster: yields first impression of "More competent".
  • Straight posture: yields first impression of "More competent, focused".
  • Multiple facial piercings: yields first impression of "More creative but less intelligent".
  • Multiple tattoos: yields first impression of "More promiscuous, less reliable".
  • Practical/affordable shoes: yields first impression of "More agreeable".

All good to know. Now, for some specific advice on creating good first impressions on trustworthiness, competence, likeability, and more (again with help from Six Degrees).

1. Dress slightly better than the occasion warrants.

For job interviews, dressing one level up from the position you're seeking is always good advice. Be mindful though if you're meeting with someone from a company with a well-known casual policy. Showing up in a power suit might make you seem too stiff and formal. The common denominator for any occasion is being well-groomed with untattered clothes.

2. Make frequent eye contact, especially when speaking.

Do avoid the stare down though. I've met with people for the first time that seemed like they were trying to stare into my soul--very unnerving.

3. Smile.

Six Degrees points out that we subconsciously search for smiles and notice them at great distances. And when we see someone smiling we're more likely to smile back, which can create an escalating, positive vibe.

4. Adjust your voice, gestures, posture and words to the other person.

I do this one a lot as I tend to speak fast--which is good and exudes competence as we learned above--but you have to be careful not to seem wildly dissimilar to your observer.

Snap judgments turn out more favorably when the other can see themselves in you. 

5. Be confident in yourself and don't try to be someone you're not.

The only one good at being someone else is an actor. We tune into phoniness negatively and connect with genuineness positively. Likewise, confidence (or lack thereof) is immediately discernable in someone. By the way, research indicates you can indeed connote confidence through a firm (but not too firm) handshake.

6. Express early those attributes you most want to convey.

I try to do this without overdoing it. If you want to come across as energetic, for example, it's easy to quickly go over the top and turn the other person off. Just keep in mind the qualities you want to connote right from the beginning and temper your approach accordingly.

If you're off to make a first impression, you may as well make it an impressive one. Follow these tips to win the moment.

Published on: Mar 27, 2019
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