THOUGH IT HAPPENED a few years ago, the memory is as fresh as a slap across the face. Julie Jones was introduced by a mutual friend to a man named Rich, who was visiting from out of town. Wanting to make a positive first impression on him, she spent a few minutes chatting him up. She was having a good time. “I thought he was a fun guy,” Julie recalls. That’s why she was so surprised when, later that same evening, he gave her the cold shoulder. “It was so odd,” she says. A few days afterward, she told her friend about the chilly reception she got. “Well,” the friend replied nervously, “it’s because he didn’t like you.” She seemed too aggressive, too brash, Rich had reported. Julie was stunned.
The 42-year-old Pittsburgh native, who has a Ph.D. in electrical engineering and does consulting work, made a decision. “I want people to like me. And it’s so hard for friends to be brutally honest. So I wanted an objective third party to help me understand how I was coming across and how I could reflect myself better.”
Julie’s quest took her to New York-based psychologist Ann Demarais, who, along with fellow psychologist Valerie White, runs First Impressions, a firm that helps clients put their best foot forward. With a combined 26 years of experience, they have coached everyone from seasoned executives to tentative first-daters. In Julie’s case, they suggested she go on a simulated date with one of their consultants, Charles Hymes. After an hour of conversation in a quiet café, the two went back to the office for a review of, well, Charles’s first impressions of her. The results opened Julie’s eyes. “I know I have a high-energy style and talk fast,” she says. “And I was told that. But I was also told that I ask a lot of questions. I thought I was being interesting and flattering.” Her bar rage of questions, Charles explained, felt a little like being cross-examined. Today, to establish a better rapport with new acquaintances, Julie knows to do simple things like match her speech cadence to the other person’s and to slow down. “I take a deep breath before I ask a question,” she says. “It’s made me a better listener.”
Forming a Bond
Since 1997, Ann Demarais and her First Impressions staff have been nudging clients away from a range of unflattering behaviors. One man refused to smile; he said it wasn’t his style. Another droned on about himself, thinking he was coming across as informative and worldly. One client used such short, gruntlike phrases that he personified Mr. Dullsville. And still another seemed so cynical and edgy that acquaintances couldn’t wait to say, “Hey, gotta run.”
In their new book, First Impressions: What You Don’t Know About How 0thers See You, Demarais and White say it’s all about connecting—of trying to bond with people in order to put them at ease. And mood is crucial. “If you make others feel special and put them in a good mood, you’ll be more socially desirable than those who don’t put others in a good mood,” they say. O top of that, the first take people have of you leads to assumptions.
“You may assume that someone who appears upbeat is also smart likable and successful, even though you’ve never seen evidence of those qualities,” they explain. “You may also assume that someone who complains a lot is boring, unsociable and weak.” The first information you see or learn about someone is weighed more heavily than what you learn later, say Demarais and White. But the door doesn’t necessarily slam shut after a few seconds. “It’s a process,” says De- marais. “It starts from the time you first talk to someone or see him or her. You start to make judgments—it’s natural; it’s human. But you can also change the way you feel about the person based on what comes next.”
They cite the example of Laura Brown, an IT specialist from L.A. who moved to a small town in the Southwest for its quieter, slower lifestyle. She was having trouble fitting in and didn’t feel welcome. Then a friend pointed out that her ultra-chic wardrobe and lack of interest in local affairs made her appear aloof and a bit arrogant. After she started dressing more casually and “learned to talk about ranching,” she found it easier to connect to her neighbors. Soon, people began warming to her.
Making Every Second Count
Demarais and White break down a first impression into several fundamentals to help people avoid making a early missteps. These include:
• Being able to radiate accessibility; seeming approachable.
* Showing a clear interest in others through body language.
• Sharing a little information about yourself to form a personal bond;
• Knowing what topics to talk about during a first meeting;
• Feeling positive about yourself, your life and the world you live in.
• Having that elusive sex appeal.
So just how fast does a first impression start to form? Five minutes? One? Try as little as 30 seconds. That’s the scary conclusion behavioral researchers have made after more than a decade of studying the subtle, sometimes wordless dance called Getting to Know You. Before you even utter your first hello, other people are absorbing tons of information about you.
Harvard-trained psychologist Frank Bernieri, an associate professor of psychology at Oregon State University, says a first impression is an emotional, not a rational, reaction, one that happens fast and locks in tight. He points to a study done by a Harvard professor, experimental psychologist Nalini Ambady, who asked college students to watch ten-second video clips of professors teaching and then rate each of them on a checklist of personality traits. Their ratings were uncannily similar to those of students who had had the same teachers for an entire semester. The study demonstrates that “thin slices of behavior,” as Ambady calls them, communicate a great deal about people.
And sometimes that “thin slice”—whether it’s a brief hello or a lunch meeting—is the only chance you’ll get. Ann Demarais cites the experience of one client, a man named Jason. While working as a young sales rep, he was having lunch with some new customers, including the chief financial officer of the company. During the meal the man mentioned that he was recovering from a back injury. He said it had been an ordeal finding the right doctors and getting the appropriate treatment. Jason, who had been reading about the subject, began talking about the health care crisis in America. As the group listened in what he thought was rapt silence, he delivered a detailed and incisive analysis of the problem, uninterrupted only when the waiter came to take their dessert order. When lunch was over, Jason practically skipped back to his office, thinking all had gone just swell. But when he arrived, he learned his clients had left a message at his office. The message? They wanted a new sales rep, one not as pompous or boring.” Jason had succumbed to a trait that Demarais and White call “male-pattern lecturing,” a tendency more common among men than women to hold forth ad nauseam on a subject. That afternoon, Jason learned a painful lesson about conversational dynamics. Today, with training and feedback, he’s become a skilled listener and is now a successful manager of a large technology company.
Julie Jones says that she, too, learned that the core of a first impression is at once simple and tricky: making the other person feel comfortable. Demarais and White say it all boils down to one thing: “The more you listen and connect, the more likely it is that others will return that attention.”
To increase your odds of making a good first impression, Ann Demarais offers these tips:
* Make eye contact at least half to two-thirds
of the time (any more than this and you may
come on too strong). And pay attention to
your body language. Lean toward others
when they speak. Nod every now and then.
* Smile, even if you aren’t in the mood.
“‘We actually encourage our clients to fake it,”
says Demarais. “It’s a gift of social generosity,
with a pay back.” Just going through the
motions of showing some teeth may make you—
and others—feel better, says the research.
* Be careful about “oversharing,” i.e., disclosing
too much personal information about yourself.
Keep it light. Keep it positive. No one—repeat—
no one ill be interested in your gallbladder operation.
* Try a little flattery. People warm to others who
pay them compliments even if they know they’re false,
studies show. “But, of course, it’s best when done
sincerely,” stresses Demarais.
* Got a prepared opening line as an ice- breaker?
risk coming across as shallow, aggressive and
* Check your impulse to use the other person’s
name repeatedly. Once or twice might work,
but overplaying the name game can Make you
seem “salesy” and forced.
* Think a neutral, inscrutable tyle makes you
appear thoughtful, deep or cool? Forget it.
Aloof behavior like kicking back at the table,
crossing your arms or showing zero emotion
makes you look bored or arrogant.
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