There is a lot of information out there that teaches how to make a very good first impression, be it at a job interview, on a blind date, or even in an impromptu meeting with a complete stranger. This is because first impressions are long-lasting, and in most cases, you may never get another chance to redeem your image if you botch that first interaction.
The cruel part about first impressions is that most times, you don’t even get to say or do anything before people make conclusions about you. There is a lot of information out there that highlights how quickly impressions are formed on the first meeting.
An interesting one that Jean Baur, a career expert, discovered is that “it takes just 3 seconds for someone to determine whether they like you and want to do business with you.” Within those 3 seconds, they’ve made conclusions about you based on your posture, dressing, jewelry, handshake, gesturing, grooming, and facial expression.
Yeah! It sure looks like a lot to take in, but you will be surprised at how quickly the brain absorbs information and draws conclusions.
In another study conducted by J. Willis and Alexander Todorov, people decide on your trustworthiness in as little as a tenth of a second. This dynamic can be largely attributed to the limbic system of the subconscious part of the mind — emphasis on "subconscious" — that makes these assessments without the permission of the rational mind.
The inevitability of making first impressions is real, but how much should the rational mind rely on those judgments and draw lasting conclusions from them?
Judging A Book By Its Cover
Storytime: The year is 1982, and Naura Hayden just released a book titled Astro-logical Love. If you ask me, I'd say the book is some kind of case study on the alchemy of astrology and love. Well, the book sold 2,000 copies out of the printed 5,000 copies. Underwhelming performance to say the least. Hayden was then forced to sell the rest of the copies to bookstores and flea marketers for 99 cents.
Enter a New York publisher who came across the book, bought it, and read it. Contrary to my deduction from judging the book by its cover (or title, in this case), the publisher read it and realized the book is a great book on seducing women.
So he called Naura, bought the rights to the book, and republished it. He didn't change a single thing about the book, except for the title, which now read: "How to Satisfy a Woman Every Time… and Have Her Beg for More!"
The result? The book sold a whopping 2.3 million copies in the first 18 months, and was even a New York Times #1 bestseller for its category. Same book, same content, different cover. A classic example of how the idea of judging a book by its cover can go wrong and also right.
If you were to judge a book by its cover, you could miss out on a ton of good books. You would agree that not all good books have a good outward presentation, graphically, or even a thrilling title. So when you try to apply the same flawed principle to humans, it is a little more complicated (and expectedly so).
This is not to say that you can’t read people and come away with an accurate judgment of them. In fact, there is a whole dynamic to that.
When it comes to making conclusions about people based on first impressions, the accuracy of such judgments is dependent on two factors:
- The judgment skills of one person. If you are what psychologists call "a good judge" (as regards first impressions), then you are more likely to make accurate conclusions based on first encounters and brief interactions.
- The "readability" of the other. Some people are like open books whose distinctive personalities can be accurately perceived after a brief interaction, whereas others are more closed up and could be harder to read.
However, one part not talked about enough is the obliviousness of the observant to their own attitudes, biases, and complete misattribution of reason. In more direct terms, the feedback loop.
The Feedback Loop
Misattribution of the reason for someone else's attitude is one big flaw in our judgment as humans. Daniel Goleman illustrates this in his book “Social Intelligence.”
“On a five-day visit to Brazil with my son, we noticed that the people we met seemed to get friendlier day by day. The change was striking. At first, we largely sensed aloofness from the Brazilians we met. But by the third day, we encountered noticeably greater warmth. On the fourth day, it followed us wherever we went. And by our trip’s end, we were hugging people goodbye at the airport.”
Your uptightness and disposition toward another person (which you may be unaware of) may play a part in why they don’t reciprocate the good they have in them. Those we conveniently tag as unfriendly may not always be that. Chances are that we are the ones who don’t have our disposition in check.
Daniel Goleman further explains:
"Was it the people of Brazil that changed? Certainly not. What had melted away was our own uptightness as gringos in an unfamiliar culture."
I had a similar experience with a now very good friend of mine who was not a very pleasant person when I first met her. Several months later, when we got close, I reminded her of her unfriendly attitude from my first encounter with her. It turned out that it was my somewhat-unrefined approach that made her react the way she did. If I hadn’t gotten a second chance to approach her better a second time, I would have carried on with the thought of her being a mean person.
The Obvious Truth
First impressions don’t tell the whole story, which is why they are called first impressions — an initial perception you have of someone’s attitude from your first interaction with them based on their appearance, or a short interaction.
Just like judging a book by its cover can make you miss out on a couple of good books, judging people on their first impressions alone can cost you some good relationships. Forming conclusive opinions about someone takes more than first impressions; and you know that based on the assumptions you’ve made about people before that turned out to be wrong.
A lot of potential relationships have been put out just because one party (or both parties even) decided to place too much reliance on the first impression, unwilling to give it a second try, without considering the possibility that they might be wrong.
Don’t get me wrong, first impressions can be effective. But while some of these conclusions could save one a lot of stress, it is not always best to allow them to dictate the course of every new social interaction, considering that your impulses may be misleading. It could cost you a good friend, a business partner, or even a future companion.
A Counter-Intuitive Approach
Let’s take a quick spiritual turn into the metaphysical realm — Imagine, for a moment, that you have a strong intuition, or a soothsayer told you 🤨, that the next stranger you'll meet is a good-natured person and will make a very good and profitable association in the long run.
Even if your first meeting with them didn’t go too well (and largely due to their fault), you’d still give them a second chance because you think (or believe) that’s not the real them.
You trust that giving the other person another chance might give you the benefit of being friends with a supposedly awesome person that you had a bad first-time impression of. You could even find an excuse for whatever they did wrong on the off-chance that they might be "good people" after all. That is the counter-intuitive approach (but you could lose the soothsayer part though).
It suggests that the next time you meet someone new, you might want to reconsider hastily drawing conclusions about the kind of person they are right off the bat based on the first impression that your subconscious brain has fed you.
Give them enough chances to prove to you that they are good (or not). Exercise patience; listen a little more; stay interested a bit more; interact just a little bit more; don’t walk away yet; don’t draw conclusions just yet, and maybe, just maybe, you would thank yourself for it.
First Impressions Are Still Important
What you decide to do hereupon does not somehow make you immune to being judged by others based on their first impressions of you. So, you might still want to make a good impression when meeting someone for the first time.
There are already a million studies and guidelines on how to make a good first impression, and you might need to bury your head in those if you want to get a full, well-rounded approach to making a good first impression. Notwithstanding, here are a couple of short, effective tips that can come in handy.
— Keep eye contact and shake hands firmly.
— Make sure you are not all sweaty and clammy. Don’t look all frozen and nervous.
— Keep a good posture.
— Be humble and don’t talk too much.
— And remember to dress well every time (depending on the occasion).
Again, it’s worth noting that all of these tips are case studies on their own, and you might want to dive deeper to get a better understanding of how to go about them.
People are always going to have first impressions, partly because they can't help it, and partly because there's just not enough time (or tolerance) to give everyone a second chance (like an interview or a horrible first date).
The idea is to make the best of any situation regardless of the person you are interacting with by keeping impulsive judgments to a minimum but staying conscious of the possibility of you being on the receiving end.