How good are you at first impressions? Here are important tips and advice to keep in mind the next time you’re meeting someone new.
When we meet someone for the first time, we often worry “Is this person going to like me or not?”
First impressions are a big deal for most people. We want to make a good impression during job interviews, first dates, or business meetings because we know that they can often paint the rest of our social interactions with that person.
While first impressions can be inaccurate or incomplete, research has shown that first impressions can give us a lot of information about a person and their personality. When participants did a quick “speed dating” event, researchers found that most people walked away having a decent idea of the other participants’ personality and well-being.
A lot of our initial perception is shaped by how people look, how they act and talk, and how they dress and present themselves overall. If a person walks into a job interview with disheveled hair, ripped clothes, and a nonchalant attitude, an employer is going to reasonably suspect that this person may be unqualified, lazy, or unreliable.
We can’t ignore the power of first impressions. While it can seem superficial to judge someone based on how they look or act within a couple minutes, these snapshot judgments are a simple fact of human psychology.
Fortunately, there are positive steps we can take to build the best first impression possible. Here are the key things to keep in mind.
Building a Good First Impression
- Appearance – One of the first things people often notice about us is our physical appearance. While there are many aspects of our appearance that we can’t change, we can still try to present ourselves in the best way possible by living a healthy and fit life (including exercise, diet, and sleep), as well as dressing in nice and clean clothes (that doesn’t necessarily mean expensive or fancy). If you still worry about what people may think of you based on your appearance (such as things about your body you are insecure about) you can also find role models who share similar physical traits as you but don’t let it hurt their confidence or self-esteem. All it takes is one role model you can relate to for you to get that extra boost in self-image.
- Hygiene – The next basic aspect of building a good first impression is to have good hygiene and cleanliness. This includes washing your body and face every day, brushing your teeth twice per day, washing your hands when you use the bathroom, and other periodic habits such as getting a haircut, trimming your nails, and shaving when necessary. Smells and pheromones can also be a subtle but powerful signal when it comes to first impressions, so it’s important to smell good and not emit a foul body odor, including using deodorant, cologne, perfume, or breath mints (to avoid bad breath). While these can seem like commonsense habits, they can make a big difference when we neglect them.
- Manners – Another fundamental element to forming good impressions is to be polite and respectful. This includes common respectful habits such as shaking someone’s hand, saying “please” and “thank you,” holding the door open for people, making eye contact when you speak with them, not staring at your phone during conversation, and addressing them in an overall friendly and respectful tone. Of course these are simple and commonsense habits, but they can go a long way. Also keep in mind that sometimes being polite looks different depending on different cultures and traditions, so it’s something you may need to adjust depending on the situation.
- Body Language – A big part of how we connect with others is through nonverbal communication, including our tone of voice, posture, and body language. A good first impression is often associated with an open and expansive body posture (such as no crossed arms or legs, and a straight and upright back, etc.), as well as positive eye contact, friendly tone of voice (not bored/monotone, judgmental, or sarcastic), and expressions of positive emotions through smiling, laughing, and facial expressions. While it’s important not to become too self-conscious of our body language during social interactions (which can often make them come off fake or inauthentic), it is something to be mindful of every now and then. You can practice improving your body language when you are alone to make it more natural and automatic during social interactions.
- Positive Expectations – A lot of social psychology is a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you go into a social interaction expecting people to dislike you, you will end up acting in ways that make it more likely to become true (such as being more distant, reserved, or cold toward others). But if you go into a social interaction expecting people to like you and connect with you, you will be more friendly, warm, and likable overall. The good news is that most people are hard-wired to be pro-social: they want to like and be liked. In fact, some research suggests that people often like us more than we realize when we first meet them – psychologists call this the liking gap.
- Conversation Threading – One of the biggest things people worry about is “How will I keep the conversation going?” or “How do I know what to say next?” We fear awkward silences or conversations that can’t seem to find a flow or rhythm to them. One effective tool to learn is conversation threading, which teaches you how to listen to what people say and identify topics to respond to in an easy, natural, and fluent way. Master conversationalists already use this technique even if they do it unconsciously or without realizing it. You can learn how to as well with a little practice and dedication until it becomes more natural for you.
- Social Proof – As a social species, we often look toward others to find out what to do or how to feel about someone. So if a person is popular, we are more likely to see them as kind, intelligent, and friendly (sometimes known as the “halo effect” in psychology), and thus more likely to want to get to know them as well. The basic idea is, “If other people like them, I will probably like them too!” One way to build social proof is to go out to places with a couple friends or group of people. This subconsciously signals to others that you are a social and likable person. In fact, research suggests that we even look more physically attractive when people see us in a group, sometimes known as the “cheerleader effect” or “group attractiveness effect.” This isn’t meant to discourage you from going out alone every now and then (which can be a rewarding experience), but it is something to be aware of.
- Avoid Nitpicking and Complaining – One of the easiest ways to turn people off is to be an excessive complainer or nitpicker. If the only things you have to talk about are negative, people are going to naturally associate you with those negative feelings – and that doesn’t feel good to be around. Try to steer the conversation in a generally positive direction. Set an internal complain meter in your mind and realize when you’ve reached your limit for the day.
- Don’t Worry About Your Flaws – Everyone has certain aspects about themselves that they are insecure about. Often we let these perceived flaws hurt our social interactions by constantly worrying about them and trying to hide them from others. However, interesting research shows that people aren’t as judgmental about our flaws or mistakes as we often think they are. In fact, when people are vulnerable and willing to show imperfect sides of themselves, people often see them as more likable and human. So if you stutter, or mispronounce a word, or lose your train of thought, just let it go and move on. Most people won’t even notice it, or they will forget about it quickly, and those who do notice will often find it more endearing – because it proves you are human like everyone else (some psychologists refer to this as the beautiful mess effect).
- Practice Mental Rehearsal – If you really want to take the time to improve your first impressions, consider using mental rehearsal to practice new ways of thinking, speaking, and acting during your social interactions. Take into account all the advice above, and imagine yourself in social situations being more friendly, likable, and outgoing. Often mental rehearsal can get our minds moving in a new direction, even when we don’t have any positive past experiences to build off of or learn from. You have to start somewhere, even if it’s just changing your mind and perspective. In fact, research suggests that imagining positive conversations can better prepare our minds to be more trusting, cooperative, and friendly overall.
At the end of the day, it’s important to be yourself – the advice and suggestions above are just a way to present yourself in the best way possible.
First impressions are sticky but they aren’t set in stone. If someone rubs us the wrong way when we first meet them, that can be a difficult perception to shake off, but it’s not impossible.
One fascinating study published in the journal Human Relations shows that initial perceptions of trustworthiness can have a long-lasting impact on subsequent social interactions, so much so that we overlook future trust violations.
However, even a bad first impression can be overcome if a person proves themselves to be more likable and trustworthy in the future.
In the same study, people that initially got off on the wrong foot but later showed trustworthiness in a later interaction were actually seen to be most trustworthy of all. Everyone loves a good redemption arc.
Making a good first impression is important, but creating a positive lasting impression is what really matters. You have to sometimes give yourself a little extra time and patience to prove yourself.
The same goes for your first impressions of other people.
Keep in mind that you’re only getting a quick snapshot of who someone really is in a short period of time, but it’s often best to give people the benefit of the doubt and allow them to show a more positive side of themselves the next time you see them.
Perhaps you just met them on a bad day – or they were socially anxious about meeting you and accidentally sabotaged themselves.
To overcome a bad first impression, you have to be willing to let bygones be bygones and start every social interaction on a clean slate.
We are all human, never underestimate your ability to connect with someone on a genuine level, even if it happens to take a little extra time or effort.
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