Life is filled with meeting and greeting new people. Even though we’re reminded repeatedly; “Never judge a book by its cover,” we do. We’re constantly making snap judgments about the people we meet and greet. Curiously, it turns out, our first impressions tend to be quite accurate:
“We have long known that people jump to conclusions about others on the basis of very little information but what’s striking about these findings is how many of the impressions have a kernel of truth to them.”
– Psychologist Sam Gosling, The University of Texas at Austin.
In other words, we make assumptions, or jump to conclusions, with very little information and generally, we’re right!
Appearance, body language, intonation and interaction all work together to create a first impression. When they work in harmony, the result is positive. Let’s examine the four keys:
Appearance: What people see first
You may have seen the Tide® laundry detergent commercial with its clever tag-line; “Style is an option. Clean is not.” Although clearly, I do not agree with the first statement, I most definitely do, with the second. Fresh, clean clothes and impeccable grooming underscore a person’s social awareness; anything less implies a sense of carelessness. Sometimes referred to as “the unmentionables” —poor dental care, untrimmed eyebrows, nose or ear hair — send signals of negligence that sabotage even the world’s best haircut.
But back to style. It reflects our awareness of the world around us. I’m frequently asked to explain the difference between fashion and style. I guess my short answer is: Fashion could be defined as head-to-toe dressing in Banana Republic’s new Mad Men collection; (link http://bananarepublic.gap.com/). Style is incorporating elements—perhaps a narrow tie or pencil skirt —from that collection. In September’s Vanity Fair, American fashion icon Ralph Rucci answers the same question by explaining that Fashion is constant change, while: “Style is a continuum. It’s a refinement of the same vocabulary. Style takes you from day to evening, season to season.” Exactly!
Body Language and Intonation
A head held high is one of the magic keys to the Kingdom of Powerful First Impressions. It conveys an obvious sense of ease and a positive message. Who wants to be bothered with the round-shouldered guy in the corner whose chin rests on his chest? Pro-active is the way to go.
“We can pick up a smile from 30 meters away,” says Paul Ekman, professor of psychology at the University of California Medical School in San Francisco, and a pioneer of research on facial expressions. “A smile lets us know that we’re likely to get a positive reception, and it’s hard not to reciprocate.” When you consider that experts say we draw conclusions about a person in less than five seconds, a smile fosters a fine first impression.
During body language training, I help students learn very specific skills for mastering the art of conversation – fixed eye contact and the nuances of turning your body toward the person speaking; matching intonation and speech rate; unspoken responses that confirm the speaker’s message is clear. No question, there are subtleties about this training: the jokester learns to harness his stand-up routine; the passionate storyteller to edit her monologue and the inveterate interrupter to let the speaker finish his sentence.
The ticket here is to make people feel welcome. It’s about “time-sharing” with a new acquaintance. Neither hogging the conversation nor expecting the other person to hold the fort.
I’ve often heard so-called experts say; “When it comes to first impressions there are no second chances.” I strongly disagree. My experience as an image consultant has taught me that when interpersonal infractions occur, they’re often not intentional. However, when an infraction involves integrity, it’s very difficult for the offender to recover – getting caught in a lie, comes to mind. If on the other hand, the infraction is at a capability level, let’s say a person is on unfamiliar turf and clearly can’t follow the conversation, people tend to be more forgiving.
Misinterpretations: A few examples from real life
Meet Lucy – she thinks she’s listening to you attentively, showing tremendous interest. You keep talking and waiting for her to smile. And then you wait some more. Still no smile. Uh-oh. You’re starting to get a negative vibe. She’s just not there!
Point # 1: Smile to show engagement.
Meet Michael — he thinks, as he tells one joke after another, that he’s a funny, confident and positive person to be around. You feel he’s an obnoxious goof in desperate search of an audience.
Point # 2: Don’t be a road-hog. Share air time.
Meet Brenda – she thinks she’s informative and enlightening as she discourses with intense, detailed information about an endangered species she’s researching throughout the world. No detail is too minuscule. She even name drops in Latin! You can’t wait to escape her boring monologue and total self-absorption.
Point # 3: Curb your enthusiasm – when it comes to your own personal passion.
Meet Raymond – he thinks he’s showing interest in your recent holiday re-cap as he rudely butts in and interrupts. You can’t even finish a sentence and ask yourself; “Who is this self-centred twerp and why is he so disconnected?”
Point # 4: Don’t even consider interrupting. Ever.