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The Impact of First Impressions

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Imagine you were invited to be part of an experiment, to judge violin performances. You’re brought into a room and sat in front of a TV to watch videos of the violinists play. The recording starts, you watch the violinist walk on stage, pick up their violin to get ready to play, but then the video ends. And they then ask you to rate the individual on how well they play. Well that’s absurd, isn’t it? How can you evaluate how well someone can play, without seeing and hearing them play?? What would you base your opinion of their abilities on? Perhaps on how confident they looked, taking the stage? 

A team of researchers gave this very scenario to a group study on first impressions. The study also included 2 other groups: The first group would see the violinists walk on stage and were then asked to evaluate their abilities. The second group would see them walk on stage and play a single note before being asked to evaluate their abilities. And the third group could watch the whole performance before rating the individuals. Surprisingly the ratings between the 3 groups were almost identical!

We make snap judgments in the first moments we see someone.  We determine if we trust and like someone, and how competent we think they are. These first impressions tend to be very sticky, as we saw in the violinist study. Even with the group that could see the whole performance, their first impression seems to be what stuck.

Imagine now how people perceive you when you first meet them. When you ‘walk on stage’, how are you seen? When you walk into a job interview, will the snap judgment of you be that you’re the right candidate? Next time you’re giving a presentation, will the audience connect and listen to you? Meeting new people at a networking event, will you be memorable? When you feel nervous about your meeting with company leadership, can you still convey confidence? The outcomes of these interactions are greatly dependent on our first impressions.

The reasons for these mental shortcuts lie in our brains and how they’ve evolved to keep us safe. There is a part of our brain whose job it is to keep us safe. It’s always scanning the environment for danger. Like a meerkat standing on its hind legs, looking out over the African Savannah for lions, our brain is watching for potential hazards. And will quickly put us in ‘fight or flight’ when something potentially dangerous comes along. Consequently, when we first lay eyes on someone, our brain will do a quick assessment to decide if we like and trust that person.

How do we nail our first impressions to build trust and convey confidence? Let’s look at 3 research-backed ways of creating a foundation of trust and influence.

According to Mark Bowden, author, and body language expert, when we meet someone for the first time, and as our brains are assessing them, we’ll put the person into 1 of 4 categories. We’ll see them as a “friend”, a “foe”, a “potential mate” or “completely irrelevant and forgettable”. There are static features in our facial structure that contribute to which category we get put in.  But there are also nonverbal cues we can change, that help sends a message to a person’s brain to indicate that we’re friends and therefore can be trusted.

Hands

What part of the body do we first notice on a person, when we meet them? Most think of the face and eyes. While consciously we may look to the face first, the primitive brain that’s assessing if the person is a friend or a foe notices the hands first. It wants to see if there’s a weapon or some sign of anger (such as a fist). If we can’t see the hands, our defenses tend to go up a little. This is so powerful, jurors will find people on the stand to be more sneaky and less trustworthy if they can’t see their hands. Our hands, therefore, are trust indicators, and if we are visible, starts the first impression off on the right foot.

Friendship cues

Here are 3 nonverbal cues you can do, to get into the “friend zone”.

Cue #1 – Eyebrows

A quick ‘flash’ of the eyebrows is a nonverbal, ‘What’s up’. If they eyebrow flashback, that’s a good sign of friendship. Try this next time you’re passing someone in the hall, and see if they reciprocate. I’ve noticed this works, even with individuals from other countries. Just don’t overdo the eyebrow-raising, or it sends another message.

Cue #2 – Head tilt

A slight head tilt (don’t overdo it) is a nonverbal way of showing trust. You’re exposing your neck, a vulnerable area, which shows you trust the other individual. They, in turn, are more likely to trust and like you back.

Cue #3 – Genuine smile

French neurologist Guillaume Duchenne identified two distinct types of smiles. A fake one (like what you use for family pictures). Or a real smile that you can spot in the eyes. A real smile engages muscles around the eyes and gives you the tell-tale crow’s feet. Research shows that people feel a bit of a mood boost when looking at a picture of a real smile. But they don’t experience the same boost with a fake smile. Smile genuinely when possible. Or at least smile high to get the eye wrinkles to appear more genuine.

Fronting

Think about how you stand and how you orient your torso when talking to someone. Do you face them, or do you angle out? A researcher from the University of Brussels found an interesting result from how we are angled towards someone in a conversation. If seen straight on, we’re seen as more open-minded, trustworthy, and sympathetic. 

Additionally, turning our nonverbal attention towards a person greatly increases the intensity of the conversation. When we face a person with our head, torso, and toes, this is called fronting. It’s a simple way to show that you’re open and listening to what they have to say. You can even do this while sitting in a meeting. You can pivot your chair to face the speaker. They’ll immediately feel the difference.

There is a caveat with this advice, however. Fronting is also a behavior that’s common when there’s confrontation. If a conversation is getting heated, or the other person seems uncomfortable with that level of nonverbal attention, then you can angle out a bit to give them some space.

Conclusion

Do you want to take control of your first impressions and how people will respond to you? While it can be disconcerting to think that someone is making an assessment about you, without ever seeing you ‘play the violin’, these tips can help you take control of first impressions rather than being a victim of our own neurology and evolution. And while there’s a fine line between self-consciousness and being self-aware, these are simple changes we can make, that greatly influence how we’re perceived.

© 2020, Jeff Baird; LikeAbilities.com.

Hear more from Jeff:

Check out Jeff’s InSite course, Attracting Top Talent: First Contact, worth 1 Strategic & Business Management PDU (or 1 CEU for HRCI and SHRM certifications).

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