Read an Excerpt
How First Impressions Are Formed
You’re in the waiting room at your dentist’s office. A woman walks in and takes a seat next to you. She smiles and strikes up a conversation. She talks about the People magazine cover story, and comments on how quiet the waiting room tends to be—considering what’s going on inside. She asks you about yourself and tells you a story about something that happened to her earlier in the day. You realize that you really enjoy this woman’s company; she’s fun and easy to talk to. You can imagine being friends with her. Ten minutes later you are called into the office, and you say good-bye.
Have you ever had a similar encounter? One where you met someone very briefly and were left with the feeling that you had a sense of that person? Just by the way she spoke and how she responded to you, you got a feeling about who she is. Maybe you imagined you knew her lifestyle or values, could predict what she is like in other situations, and had a good idea of whether you’d enjoy her company in the future. From a brief interaction you created a rich understanding of someone you just met.
How did this happen? How did you take a small amount of information and create a much larger picture? Knowing the psychology of first impressions—how it works and how you can use it—can give you a guide to deciding how you want to present yourself.
In a first impression, others see only a little sample of you, a tiny percentage of your life. But to them, that sample represents 100 percent of what they know of you. While you’ve had a lifetime of experiences with yourself—you know the full range of your emotions, behaviors, passions, and fears—strangers don’t know anything about you at all. That tiny sample of you is all they have to work with, yet they will unconsciously assume that the sample is an accurate representation of all of you.
Think about the woman from the dentist’s office that we just introduced. She was chatty, lively, and observant. At that moment. But because that’s the only experience you have with her, you will assume that is how she’d be all the time. Why would you think any differently?
Psychological research has shown that people weigh initial information much more heavily than later information when they evalu- ate people. It’s a simple fact: The first information people get about anything—a person, a place, an idea—influences the way they process later information. In other words, people are more likely to believe that the first things they learn are the truth.
For example, if you show a warm interest in people on a first meeting, as the woman in the waiting room did, they may form an impression of you as an engaging and connecting person, and not notice or not care later if you are distracted or self-absorbed. Negative initial information is weighted even more heavily. If you initially appear distracted and self-absorbed, others may ignore your later warmth and interest for a very long time. It can take many positive behaviors to overcome the impact of one initial negative behavior.
A first impression is like a filter. Here’s how others form an image of you:
1. People take in initial information—they notice your body language, what you say, and how you respond.
2. Based on this initial information, they form an impression and make decisions about what you are like and how they expect you to behave in the future.
3. They then see you through this filter. Everyone likes to think they are a good judge of character, and think “I knew from the first moment I met him that he was . . .” They seek information that is consistent with their first impression and will not look for, or even will ignore, behavior that doesn’t fit their impression of you.
Personality or Situation?
While the filter allows people to make sense of information quickly, there are some common errors in the process. For example, people tend to see a new person’s behavior as indicative of that person’s character or personality in all situations, when it may not be. If you meet someone who seems angry, you may think he is an angry person in general. You may not stop to consider whether something has just happened to make him act that way. Maybe someone just cut him off on the road or he just got some bad news. This is a fundamental error that we all make; we tend to see others behavior as indicative of their personalities, or characters, in all situations, rather than the result of a temporary external situation. However, that’s not how we tend to see our own behavior. When we are angry, we probably attribute it to the situation, not to our personality trait.
Halo and Horns
Another error people make is assuming that a person with one positive trait also has a cluster of other positive traits that he or she may not have. For example, you may assume that someone who appears upbeat is also smart, likable, and successful, even though you’ve never seen evidence of those qualities in her. This is called the “halo effect.” People also tend to see negative traits in the same manner—the “horns effect.” For example, we may assume that someone who complains a lot is also boring, unsociable, and weak.
If you understand these common errors of perception, you can better understand how others form an impression of you on a first meeting. And you can be in a better position to present an accurate image of yourself. If you know that others will assume that the tiny percentage of you that they first observe reflects 100 percent of your personality, then you can be careful about what information you present. Realizing that order matters, you may want to show your best qualities before your less charming ones. Knowing that people tend to assume you have a cluster of traits based on a single behavior, you may want to choose the cluster of traits you’ll be placed in. In other words, if you know how you will be perceived and categorized, you can better control the impression you make and ensure that it represents your real self. TWO
How You Make Others Feel
Perhaps you can remember an interaction with someone who made you feel really good about yourself, when you felt respected, valued, and understood. Now try to remember a time when someone’s words or actions made you feel bad about yourself—insulted, unappealing, or alienated.
Do you think about how others feel about themselves after they speak with you? You should. Because what you say and do impacts the way people feel about themselves. How people feel after interacting with you on a first encounter is especially important, because it will impact how they feel about you, at that moment and perhaps permanently. It’s straightforward: If you make people feel understood and happy, they may project that good feeling onto you and feel positively about you. However, if you inadvertently insult them or make them feel ill at ease, they may project inaccurate negative traits onto you. At the very least, they will associate their good or bad feelings with you.
This chapter shows you how these emotions come to play in even very short interactions and explains the different ways you may focus your emotions. Chapter 3 describes more specifically what it means to make others feel good in a first meeting—that is, satisfying the core things people seek out from social interactions: appreciation, connection, mood elevation, and enlightenment. Part II elaborates how specific behaviors communicate these feelings and satisfy core desires in others.
FOUR WAYS TO FOCUS
David, a First Impressions client, is a Wall Street analyst. He was chatting with “Susan” at a café. In the course of their conversation, David told Susan about his interest in the history of New York City and a class he was taking on the subject. He told her about a paper he was writing on the political history of the city. Susan complimented him on his initiative and insights. She said she would be interested in reading his paper. He expounded on some of the key points in his essay. David liked Susan; Susan made him feel good about himself, respected for his ideas, and understood.
Because of her expressed interest and respect for him, David naturally assumed that Susan liked him. But what David didn’t think about was how Susan was feeling or how she was feeling about herself. When the consultant asked him about this in the feedback session, David admitted he didn’t really think about that directly during the simulated date. But, since he felt good, he assumed that she did too. The consultant pointed out that she, as “Susan,” felt informed by David’s ideas, but she also felt that David didn’t care about her very much because he never showed any interest in her, never asked her about herself or her opinions, and made no effort to connect with her.
David’s misunderstanding is a common one. We often assume that if we are having a good time that the person with us must be enjoying herself too. That’s because, when you meet someone for the first time, you often focus on what you say and what you talk about. But how you come across to others is less about what you say or how you feel and more about how you make people feel about themselves in your presence. Every first interaction, even a casual conversation with a stranger on the street or at a party, can have an emotional impact on both individuals.
There is a simple way to look at the different emotions involved. An interaction can affect:
1. How you feel about yourself
2. How you feel about the other person
3. How the other person feels about you
4. How the other person feels about himself or herself
FOCUS 1: HOW YOU FEEL ABOUT YOURSELF
This is a common focus in new situations. You talk to someone at a party or a meeting, and you notice how you feel—whether you are comfortable, energized, bored, nervous, intimidated, and so on. It’s normal, unavoidable, and, of course, interesting and important to us all. It guides how you interact with people, what situations you seek out, and whom you choose to associate with. In this example, David felt confident, understood, and informative, and wanted to continue talking to Susan.
FOCUS 2: HOW YOU FEEL ABOUT THE OTHER PERSON
Once you feel comfortable enough with a new situation and a new person, you commonly relax your self-focus and turn your emotional attention to how you feel about others. You evaluate others based on how they respond to you and what they say and do. You make quick decisions about their personality, how much you like them, and so on. As discussed in Chapter 1, this is a natural, and often unconscious, phenomenon. David quickly noticed that he liked Susan; he felt that she shared his ideas and attitudes.
FOCUS 3: HOW THE OTHER PERSON FEELS ABOUT YOU
Making a good impression means making someone feel positively about you—so how the other person feels about you should be an important focus. And it usually is when you are in situations in which you consciously want to impress someone or know you are being evaluated—such as in a first contact with a client or a first date. During the interaction, you may notice whether the other person smiles and pays attention to you, laughs at your jokes, and seems engaged. Or you may reflect later and try to evaluate the kind of impression you made. David didn’t think about how Susan felt about him. He was caught up in thinking about how he felt.
FOCUS 4: HOW THE OTHER PERSON FEELS ABOUT HIM- OR HERSELF
You may not realize how powerfully you can affect how others feel and, especially, how they feel about themselves. Sure, you know that you can entertain or bore someone, but do you think about how you can make that person feel proud or insightful? It’s important, because how people feel about themselves after interacting with you will impact how they feel about you. Focus 4 is the most neglected of the four emotional focuses. Do you typically think about your emotional impact on others? Do others leave the conversation feeling really good about themselves?
When you are with people you know well, you may readily perceive how they are feeling—and strive to make them feel good. For example, you may compliment a friend on his fine cooking because you know it’s important to him and you want him to feel proud. However, in a first conversation, you may not think about how others feel about themselves. That may be because you don’t know them and can’t tap in to their emotional needs easily. And, in the discomfort of a first meeting, you may be distracted by your own feelings and needs. We’ve noticed that our clients are much more oriented to Focus 1, 2, and 3 than to Focus 4.
An orientation toward Focus 4—how others feel about themselves—is the secret to making a positive first impression. But it’s not obvious because it’s not an automatic emotional orientation. It doesn’t just pop into your awareness the way feelings about yourself do. It requires conscious thought and shifting of attention. But if you can shift your focus from your own feelings to making others feel good, you’ll be more likely to make a better first impression. For example, David neglected to think about how Susan was feeling and how she was feeling about herself. As a result, he didn’t make the impression he thought he was making or get the reaction he expected. We’ve seen that a lot of misunderstandings stem from a neglect of Focus 4.
Where is my emotional focus when I meet someone for the first time? Do I think about how I feel? Or do I think about how others are feeling about themselves?
After You: Social Generosity
Focus 4 is a form of social generosity. It’s what is commonly meant by being “nice.” It’s putting others’ needs and feelings before your own. While relationships are about mutual need fulfillment, first impressions are about meeting others’ needs. When you meet someone for the first time, it’s a short but special moment. When you put your own needs aside for that moment and shift your focus to the other, you demonstrate that you can be generous and selfless. If you don’t, it may suggest that you can’t and that you may be an emotional burden, someone who is draining to be around. It’s like telling strangers that you are interested only in yourself or that you have some unsatisfied needs that you’re hoping they can fulfill.
THE BALANCE SHEET
Being socially generous has advantages in the world. People unconsciously evaluate you by the social benefits you provide and balance them against any social “costs” you incur. According to the theory of social exchange, people seek out others who provide them with the feelings and benefits they desire and people who provide them with the most benefits are the most desired. So, if you make others feel special and put them in a good mood, you will be more socially desirable than others who don’t provide them with such positive feelings. You make yourself less desirable if you incur social “costs”—that is, if you deny others the benefits they seek by failing to show your appreciation, putting them in a negative mood, or boring them.
An important feature of social exchange is that it is an exchange. We evaluate, and are evaluated by, the benefits we provide to others. It may sound cold, but it explains a lot of human behavior. And to ignore this fact is to miss out on an important part of normal and healthy human dynamics.
As when looking for a friend, a spouse, or an employer, you like to feel that you’re getting the most you can. Everyone likes being with someone they enjoy, is good to them, respects them, and has a minimum of burdensome qualities. Think of someone you especially like to be around. What social benefits does that person provide? How does he or she make you feel? Think of someone who is socially difficult. What costs does he or she incur? GETTING WHAT YOU WANT
If you spend all your energy making the other person feel good, what about you? How can you be sure you get what you want? Although you may not have thought about it clearly (until now), you probably have a feeling of what you would like to get out of interactions with others. You may like to be around people who make you laugh. You may like to share a lot about yourself because it makes you feel understood, or you may enjoy talking about your work because it allows you to feel talented. How do you balance getting what you want while focusing your energy on others?
Paradoxically, the shortest route to getting what you want is to give to others first. It’s true. The more you listen and connect, the more likely it is that others will return the attention. A first interaction may be an opportunity for two people to experience a pleasant moment, or it may be the start of a friendship, social connection, business relationship, or romance. If you begin from a position of generosity, and meet others needs, you lay the groundwork for getting reciprocal fulfillment. Your act of social generosity will endear you to others and open the door to acceptance. It gives you more power to pursue the relationships you want—and you can decide later whether you are getting back what you want or need. THREE
The Four Universal Social Gifts
Now you know the value of focusing on how others feel. But you may not know specifically how to be socially generous. What do people want exactly?
While people vary in what they desire and need from others, there are some important social gifts that are universal. They are: appreciation, connection, elevation, and enlightenment. If you know which you are giving or not giving, you’ll have a good idea of the impression you make.
Everyone likes to feel appreciated and affirmed. You show appreciation when you let someone know that you understand and respect her for her positive qualities. For example, if you tell someone directly or indirectly that she is talented, funny, smart, or attractive, she will feel proud about that quality in herself and good about herself in general.
Our client, Nancy, a 30-something paralegal, told us about a pleasant encounter she had with Dean, a 30ish architect, whom she had met at the party of a mutual friend. In the course of conversation, Nancy was lucky to receive most of the four social gifts.
Here’s how Dean showed his appreciation for Nancy:
Nancy: I used to not exercise at all, but I started taking karate classes last year, just for the activity. Now I love it, and I just became a green belt.
Dean: That’s quite an accomplishment! I know a lot of people who put off starting something they want to try, and now you look like you’re in great shape, and have a green belt—a force to be reckoned with!
Connection is about finding where you intersect with someone. It can be a mutual friend, common interests, or similar experiences. It can be as simple as pointing out where you have the same attitude or feeling about something, as in “I feel the same way,” or “I loved that movie too.” In essence it’s saying “I’m like you.” People like it because it makes them feel understood and provides them with a sense of belonging.
Here’s how Dean showed a connection to Nancy:
Nancy: I really like detective stories and books about true crime, thrillers, and the like.
Dean: Me too! I love John Grisham, James Patterson, and Sue Grafton. Have you read them? A few friends and I pass these books on to each other. I’ll send some your way if you like.
People naturally like to be in good spirits, to laugh, and feel uplifted—and are drawn to those who make them feel that way. You don’t have to be a comedian. You can elevate others’ moods in many ways, such as by smiling, being in the moment, acting playful or entertaining, and directing your attention to the positive and humorous elements in the situation.
Here’s how Dean was able to improve Nancy’s mood:
Nancy: Man, it’s freezing outside. I just hate this weather, I feel like I can never get warm.
Dean: I know what you mean. It’s like the North Pole! But you just gotta love the snow, it’s so clean and refreshing. It’s so quiet in the city when it snows. Wasn’t it pretty last night when it was falling?
We’re all curious. We like to learn something new—interesting facts, ideas and perspectives, current events, even trivia. Bearing the gift of enlightenment makes you stimulating and appealing to be around. It doesn’t have to be about some heady book you read or international politics—it can be about the curious thing you noticed on the way to work, the movie you just saw, or an article you read in a magazine.
Here’s how Dean enlightened Nancy:
Nancy: What did you do today?
Dean: Nothing special, puttered around the house. But get this, I watched this TV program about World War II. Did you know that during the war, the Japanese sent a whole flotilla of hot air balloons across the Pacific to bomb America? Most landed in the mountains. . . .
Nancy: Hot air balloons, wow, no, I didn’t know that.
Here Dean was able to extract an interesting fact from his day and enlighten Nancy at the same time.
That’s all there is to it. You can make others feel good after interacting with you if you appreciate them for who they are, connect to them, elevate their mood, and stimulate them with new ideas and perspectives. And these social gifts transcend situations. It’s true that specific situations have different expected benefits. What is appropriate on a first date may be different from what is appropriate in a business meeting. But it’s a matter of proportion. In a romantic one-on-one interaction, you may desire, and wish to fulfill, feelings of appreciation and connection. You may also like to have fun and be informed about the other’s ideas. In a business interaction, on the other hand, information plays a bigger role, but the other benefits are still important. A customer who appreciates you and makes you laugh is certainly appealing.
THE IMPORTANCE OF BALANCE
A healthy balance of the four social gifts is charismatic. On the other hand, an imbalance can be off-putting. For example, David, the Wall Street analyst described in the previous chapter, was quite enlightening. During his first date he informed Susan of what he learned in a course he was taking on New York City history. He shared his insights and ideas. Yet he didn’t show any appreciation for Susan and didn’t find a way to connect with her or amuse her. While David focused on the one gift of enlightenment, Susan focused on all the things she felt deprived of. The imbalance was very glaring to Susan and made David much less appealing than he would have been if he gave a balance of social gifts.
People have personal preferences, of course, for what they seek out from others. For example, some may really like to be entertained and seek out those that make them laugh, and not care that much about feeling connected to people. Others may especially enjoy feeling understood and love talking with people who make them feel that way, and not care much about being enlightened. However, you usually don’t know this about people you meet for the first time. So balance is good strategy.
WHAT DO YOU GIVE?
So what social gifts do you give? This is, in effect, the fundamental question of this book. Maybe you never thought of yourself as giving or denying something in a first impression. But you do. Do you satisfy others’ desires for the things that they, like you, desire in a social interaction? Do you deny others the opportunity to satisfy some desires? Do you offer a balance of the four social gifts?
We recognize that most of us have a “strong suit.” Maybe you have a quick wit and are highly entertaining. Or perhaps you are well informed and like to tell others about current events and your opinions. But maybe you have some weak suits as well. You may not be aware of the feelings and social gifts that you fail to give to others or of any emotional costs you may incur. Would you like to give not only your strengths, but also the other desirable social benefits? Knowing what you want to give to others can help you understand if there are any gaps between what you would like to project, and how others actually see you. Of course, you may elect not to offer all these gifts to others; it may not be your style. But it’s helpful to be aware of what you do and don’t give to others. If you know how others feel when they interact with you, you’ll have a better sense of how they perceive you.
What benefits do I provide to others? Do I have a strong suit? Of all the social benefits—appreciation, connection, elevation, and enlightenment—which am I strongest in? How would others describe how they feel after a conversation with me? Are there any gifts that I tend not to give to others?
People form impressions of you quickly and unconsciously. They make assumptions about you based on the initial things you say and do, and then see you through the filter of these initial assumptions. They assume that your first behaviors represent how you act most of the time, even if it is not true. Based on the first things you do, they may attribute other positive or negative traits to you, even those they haven’t actually observed.
Making a positive first impression is straightforward. The secret is focusing on how others are feeling and especially how they are feeling about themselves. If you can shift your focus to the other person, you can better satisfy their needs. Keep in mind that, while relationships are about mutual need fulfillment, first impressions are about meeting others needs. You satisfy their needs when you show appreciation for their positive qualities, make them feel connected, put them in an elevated mood, and enlighten them with information and ideas. Remember, when you are socially generous, others are more likely to return the attention and satisfy your social desires.
In Part II we show how these psychological principles play out in the real world and outline the seven fundamentals of first impressions and the specific behaviors that communicate them.
The Seven Fundamentals of a First Impression
We take in and integrate information about people in a fast and usually unconscious manner. But what specifically are people looking for and reacting to when they meet someone for the first time? What provides the positive and negative feelings that so strongly affect their judgments?
A first impression is a small and intricate puzzle. But if you take it apart, you can see each piece clearly and how it fits into the whole. Then you can put the pieces back together again with a better understanding of how the impression was created.
In this section we take a first impression apart into its seven basic pieces. These fundamen- tals are: accessibility, showing interest, the subject matter of first conversations, self-disclosure, conversational dynamics, perspective, and sex appeal. If you take your own first impression puzzle apart, you can see how you come across in each of the seven fundamentals. Piece by piece, you can gain a nuanced understanding of the way you are perceived by others.
To help you understand these first impressions fundamentals, we provide examples of what our clients do and then challenge you to ask yourself “Do I do that?” We share research findings that show how specific behaviors influence impressions. At the end of each fundamentals chapter, we summarize the behaviors in a table where you can ask yourself whether a behavior is something you do usually, sometimes, or rarely.
In Part III, “Tweaking Your First Impression Style,” the pieces are put back together again, so you can create a comprehensive picture of the way others see you. We’ll show you how to synthesize the information and identify ways that you’d like to change to make a more desirable first impression, one that better reflects the way you see yourself, the real and best you.