First impressions matter


Last week a friend told me about an encounter she’d had on the phone with the leader of a large ministry. She had never met the man in person but had been referred to by a friend. Maybe the leader was busy or was simply having a bad day, but whatever the case he was very abrupt and rude to my friend. The conversation quickly deteriorated to the point where the man of God shouted swear words at her and cut the line suddenly.

The incident occurred over four years ago but my friend still tells the story today. I’ve never met the man of God personally but now whenever I see him on TV or advertised on a billboard, my friend’s story pops into my mind. The negative first impression he left with her has been passed on to me – and countless others with whom she has shared her unfortunate experience.

First impressions matter. We form opinions rapidly about people we meet, simply by looking. Research conducted by Princeton University psychologist Dr. Alex Todorov demonstrates that it only takes one tenth of a second for us to form a first impression about someone. Participants in the study made judgements about the attractiveness, likeability, trustworthiness, competence and aggressiveness of other people after looking at their faces for 100 milliseconds. Looking at the face for longer periods didn’t change their opinion at all, and only caused them to become more convinced their initial judgement was accurate.


Subjects in Todorov’s research also viewed a microsecond video clip of a political candidate and predicted with 70-percent accuracy who would win a forthcoming election. Apparently we make snap judgements even when voting in new officials.

Other studies have shown that employers make decisions about the suitability of prospective job candidates within the first 30 seconds to two minutes of meeting. In other words, an interviewee’s fate is sealed during the small talk before the actual interview begins. The interviewer then spends the rest of the conversation looking for evidence to support their first impression.

We make quick judgments on the internet too. Research published in the Behaviour & Information Technology Journal shows websites have about 0.05 seconds to impress internet users before they decide to stay or move on.


Making a good first impression is crucial because we don’t readily change our minds once we’ve formed an opinion. Research published by University of Oslo Professor of Psychology Geir Kirkebøen in the Journal of Behavioural Decision Making shows people tend to regret and be less satisfied with a decision if they arrive at it after changing their minds – even if they end up with a favourable outcome. Changing our minds is uncomfortable, so we tend to stick to a decision once we’ve made it. Any additional information is then filtered to reinforce our original conviction.

So how can you make sure you’re creating a good first impression? In the initial moment s when you me e t someone new, they’re forming opinions about you based on how you look and how you speak. A study by Professor Emeritus of Psychology Albert Mehrabian at the University of California, Los Angeles, found that first impressions are made up of the three V’s: what you say (verbal, 7 percent), how you say it (vocal, 38 percent) and how you look (visual, 55 percent).

When you meet new people, watch your body language. Adopt a confident but not arrogant, posture. The best thing you can do is smile. “People judge smiling faces as trustworthy, and angry-looking faces as untrustworthy,” says Peter Mende-Siedlecki, postdoctoral psychology associate at New York University and creator of TED lesson “Should You Trust Your First Impression?”

However, the number one tip for making a good impression is to focus on the other person, not on yourself. As the late poet Maya Angelou said, “People will forget what you said. People will forget what you did. But people will never forget how you made them feel.” We all like people who like us and naturally gravitate towards people who make us feel good about ourselves.

Susan RoAne, keynote speaker and author of “How to Work a Room: The Ultimate Guide to Making Lasting Connections—In Person and Online” states, “A lot of the time we go into a social situation thinking: How can I make myself more comfortable? Your attitude shift should be: What can I do to make other people comfortable around me?”

Give people your full attention. Don’t answer your phone or scroll through your mobile device, and don’t look over the other person’s shoulder to see if there’s someone more interesting you’d rather be talking to. Listen closely to what your new acquaintance is saying instead of thinking about what you’re going to say once they stop speaking. People love to hear the sound of their own name, so always ask for it and repeat it to help you remember and to ensure you’re pronouncing it correctly.

Ultimately, you’ll never be able to control what people think of you but you can do your part to present yourself favourably. And all is not lost if you mess up at the start. First impressions can change over time in the light of fresh information. We all know people we disliked initially but grew to like as we got to know them better. So there is still hope for the man of God.

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