‘First Impressions’ is a hot topic if Google Search or the number of results on Amazon.com is anything to go by.
The information online and in books, as we would expect, is aimed largely at those under the spotlight, those who feel the need to make a good first impression.
For the most part, it’s about how quickly we form an impression about someone we meet for the first time. Added to this is the minimal substantial and largely superficial information relied upon in forming these first impressions. For example, in Wikipedia, one source indicates that it takes as little as one-tenth of a second for people to make a first impression judgement about someone. Other sources put the typical figure at around seven seconds.
It seems to have certain characteristics similar to a primal instinct, from the caveperson days, when we had to decide in a split second who was friend and who was foe.
And the evidence would suggest first impressions are difficult to change, even if they turn out to be wrong.
Sources list factors such as how a person looks, acts, tone of voice, demeanour, mannerisms, etc., coming into play. And those we are trying to impress also bring their own past experiences, expectations, biases, and misapprehensions to the table in the forming of first impressions.
What it seems to come down to is a hodgepodge of subjective, emotional, nuanced human factors that one could debate have about the same chance of being right as tossing a coin. A lottery, a guess, at best. Very little objectivity and a lot of luck if we do manage to get through the noise and make a good first impression.
In cases where we may have formed a wrong poor first impression of others, we’ll likely never even know! In getting it wrong, we may have tossed aside wonderful opportunities and be none the wiser. Getting in our own way. Hence never even be aware of our particular misapprehensions and misjudgements.
Wrong good first impressions, such as perceiving positives where they don’t exist, may also happen. Perhaps seeing halos where nooses might be closer to reality. Such errors usually don’t wait long to expose our misconceptions, normally to our discomfort! Again, good reason to hold off immediate judgement if it isn’t absolutely necessary and look for clearer signals.
There seems to be little we can do to avoid being caught up in it all if we are still in the job hunting, interviews, recruitment, promotions, business phase of life, etc. Unfortunately, first impressions are a big deal in these spaces. It’s ‘just life’, we could say. So, we do our best to create good first impressions where it’s important.
Most of us will have come across people who regard themselves as, let’s say, almost infallible, at making first-impression judgements of people. We all get things wrong from time to time, despite our best endeavours. But it’s good to know that even the HIPPs (highest paid persons) can come unstuck with first impressions.
For me, a few CEOs I worked for come to mind. One in a large industrial conglomerate, and the other in a small financial services organisation. Without going into details, these two cases as well as similar others, illustrated a point. I was left with little doubt that authority, power and pay are not reliable predictors of skill and accuracy in respect of forming first impressions. So, let’s rest easy if we don’t get it right every time.
Daniel Kahneman is a psychologist, Nobel Prize winner and author of the seminal book on decision making, Thinking Fast and Slow. His book suggests that people have too much confidence in human judgement. And of course, the forming of first impressions is an act of human judgement.
Kahneman’s view is that first impressions can be ‘surprisingly’ accurate. However, even the experts disagree. Princeton University’s Alexander Todorov says, “We find judging others based on a single glance irresistible, but the judgments we reach are usually wrong” in his book, Face Value.
Fair to say then, looks like the jury’s out on the matter.
But maybe a time comes when we’re less under the cosh when attempting to make good first impressions. After we have moved on from the normal career and working life routine, how might things differ?
In this phase of life, most of us won’t have to worry about job interviews, climbing the corporate ladder, making critical sales presentations, and so on. Maybe it’s an opportunity to look at things in a different way?
It would be great to hear how readers feel their sentiments and approach may have changed over time, if at all, towards first impressions. For myself, thoughts are along two dimensions: first, when I’m forming an impression about others, and secondly, when it seems I may be the guinea pig.
Projecting openness, accepting those we meet on equal non-judgemental terms, and encouraging relaxed acquaintance seems a better approach. It won’t take too long to figure if the chemistry blends well.
We often see and hear the mantra ‘go with your gut feeling’. Cool and chic as those soundbites may be, there is quite a bit of informed evidence suggesting that our ‘gut’ often leads us in the wrong direction. Better to use a balanced mix of head and heart.
A lá the basis of many global multi-billion-dollar businesses and billionaires! The approach that works well for me at this stage of life isn’t elaborate. Just a few simple questions that quickly clear the fog. Is the person or are the people concerned close family, friends or acquaintances whose opinion I value? And does the person or people have a direct influence on my bank account?
If both those questions turn up a ‘no’ it leaves me relaxed and free to focus on more important things.
What other experiences or words of wisdom about first impressions might be interesting and useful? Let’s share what has worked for us, and what hasn’t. Comments invited and are very welcome.