First Impressions: Your split second Opportunity for Success
How Important are First Impressions?
My one-word answer to that is ‘incredibly’…
First Impressions are Incredibly Important
In most cases, they are the make or break moment in your opportunity for successful interaction and ongoing relationship, be it at work or play. Many studies show that first impressions are formed within seconds of seeing somebody (before we even speak), and these impressions are lasting. That said, sometimes we hear, or smell someone before we see them.
Imagine walking and smelling the pungent body odour of somebody walking up behind you–sorry to have put that thought into your head! Is your nose wrinkling with disgust? At that moment you’ll have formed your first impression of them. Or, what if you heard someone yelling right outside the room you’re in? Even though you can’t see them, you pick up enough signals from their words and vocal delivery to judge them. It all happens within seconds, and we don’t even realise we’re doing it–it’s a subconscious process.
Like everyone else, you probably think you don’t judge, but you do–it’s a survival mechanism, you wouldn’t be here today if you and your ancestors hadn’t made snap judgements about people, because people can be a threat.
Most people I ask when training or speaking on the subject raise their hand when I ask, “How many of you have ever crossed a road or diverted your direction to avoid an iffy looking character?”. I’m guessing your reply would be, “Yes”, too. That’s snap judgement. Feel free to share your experience of this in the comments section.
Why are First Impressions Important?
Your brain responds to what you see, hear or smell, to keep you safe from being physically attacked, or attacked by someone’s pathogens. That nose wrinkle when you feel and express disgust–there’s some scientific evidence that it functions to restrict airflow through the nose to reduce exposure to pathogens. These snap judgements and our responses to them are essential for our survival.
These days, for most of us, depending on where we live, are less likely to be attacked when we leave the territory of our clan, and less likely to die of an infectious disease. However, our brain still responds in the same way it has responded to threats for many thousands of years. It’s designed to keep us safe, and that’s not going to change anytime soon. Once our brain responds, our body follows–usually with a facial expression and distancing behaviour.
So snap judgements are essential for our survival and because of this we make them about everyone we encounter. Our modern-day threats may have changed, but our responses are the same. Sometimes we may change our direction to avoid being attacked, other times we don’t want someone to bother us–it’s not always a life/death situation.
Some studies show that we can be accurate in the snap judgement we make, yet others show that we aren’t. Often we’re bogged down with stereotypes that we can’t think beyond, despite us not even being consciously aware of these prejudices. Once we’ve formed an impression, it remains, because it becomes accurate–as confirmation bias kicks in.
What is Confirmation Bias
Confirmation bias is when we make a snap judgement about someone or something, and then, we do everything we can to prove ourselves right. It’s a subconscious process that no one is immune to. We subconsciously start to filter information that we take in and our interpretation of it. We also filter the information we recall at a later date.
If someone made a good impression on us, we see more good and filter out the bad. It’s like seeing someone through rose tinted spectacles. Even if they do or say something bad, we dismiss it, “everyone makes mistakes”. If it had been the other way round and the person made a bad impression initially, the bad thing they do or say will register as important, confirming our initial impression of them. It’s hard to change our minds because we’ve backed up that initial belief–whether accurate or not.
Let me just remind you of something here–you’ve been thinking of how you respond to other people, but let’s not forget that people are responding to you–always. Yikes!
First Impressions and You
If you’re freaked out at the thought of the people you meet making snap judgements about you, then you’re on the right track to make improvements. It’s that awareness that can lead to change and improvement.
If you hadn’t realised how important first impressions are, you would have carried on, as usual, creating the same kind of impression you usually make–hopefully it’s a good impression. Now, you’re empowered to change things.
Be aware of your personal presentation–how you come across to others. Personal presentation covers your outward aspect, the clothes you wear, hair, make-up, tattoos, accessories, etc., as well as your nonverbal behaviour–your body language, expressions and vocal quality. All these are things that can be changed relatively easily. Small tweaks can lead to significant changes.
You can learn more about creating a great impression by reading this post: Elevate your Success with Six Tips to Make a Killer First Impression
When are First Impressions Important?
In one way they are always important–from the perspective of keeping safe and making snap judgements about others. But if we look at this from the standpoint of you creating a good impression–when are they important?
At work and play making a good first impression could be the difference between making or breaking your career or social success. I’ve seen this first hand, with new people joining organisations, only to be disliked by almost everybody. Often, in cases like that, confirmation bias is fuelled as other people reconfirm negative thoughts, as gossip spreads. Coming across as too much of one characteristic–arrogant on the one hand, or lacking in confidence on the other, could be enough to spark negative impressions, interactions and ongoing relationships.
The problem is, everything we do–nonverbally–sends signals to others. Sometimes it’s accurate, other times it’s not. So while you may look arrogant or lacking in confidence, it may not be the truth. Incorrect first impressions can be unjust, but they still impact your life. The best possible defence to combat this is awareness of your nonverbal behaviours and knowledge of how to make adjustments to appear more positively. Give yourself a body language audit–record yourself interacting or on the phone, to see how you come across. You can learn more about creating a great impression by reading this post: Elevate your Success with Six Tips to Make a Killer First Impression.
Sometimes making a good impression doesn’t matter too much, for example, if the people you encounter aren’t going to play a future or significant role in your life. That said, you never know who is watching. What if, one of those strangers turns out to be interviewing you for the job of your dreams in the near future? Positive nonverbal behaviours and words are not likely to be enough to change an initial bad impression. You may have scuppered your chances of winning the role. Unfortunately, we do hear stories like this from time to time.
Impression Updating: Can you Reverse a Bad Impression?
While first impressions are incredibly hard to change, it’s not impossible. As Peter Mende-Siedlecki’s explains in his TED-Ed lesson, we can change our impressions in light of new information. This is called ’impression updating’, but it takes out of the ordinary behaviour to make this happen–behaviours we don’t see often.
Typically learning very negative, highly immoral information about someone has a stronger impact than learning very positive, highly moral information. But it’s not all bad. Highly competent actions and abilities also weigh heavily.
Should you Trust your First Impression? TED-Ed Lesson by Peter Mende-Siedlecki
Want to learn how to create a great impression?
Start by reading this post: Elevate your Success with Six Tips to Make a Killer First Impression