Snap! That's how long it takes people to judge you. In a split second, people decide if you are trustworthy, confident and likeable. And no matter how how much you know, how smart you are, and how well you prepare, if your first impression misses the mark, that's it. You won't get a second chance.
That sounds shallow and unfair. And it may well be. But this ability to make snap judgements about others on the basis of things like facial expression, posture and clothing, has let us survive as a species.
Thousands of years ago, when our ancestor - let's call him Harry - met a stranger outside his cave, he had to make a split-second decision. Is that bloke a friend or an enemy? Should I say hello or split his head open? Harry couldn't afford to lose time for pondering over his decision.
If he wanted to come out of this encounter alive, Harry had to size the guy up, decide if he's a friend or an enemy, and then take appropriate action. He could only base his decision on what he saw. The other man's facial expressions, stance, eye contact. Had Harry liked what he saw, he would have grunted hello and invited him inside. Otherwise, he would picked up his axe and resolved the dilemma there and then.
We like to think that we, as the human race, have made enormous progress since our caveman days. We don't act on an impulse. We consider all the available information before passing a judgement. We give other people a chance. Do we really? Science shows otherwise.
Princeton psychologists, Janine Willis and Alexander Todorov, have shown that it takes us a tenth of a second to form an impression of a stranger. In a split second, we decide if someone is trustworthy, likeable, competent, attractive or aggressive. Longer exposures don’t significantly change those impressions. They may, however, boost our confidence in the initial hunch. Just like Harry thousands of years ago, we still make snap judgements about others based on what we see.
You can fight it. You can protest it. You can call it unfair. But it is a fact. People can't look into your head. They can't see how smart, funny or hardworking you are. But they can see how you stand, how you move, how you use gestures and how you keep eye contact. And they will judge you on that.
First impressions are no longer a matter of life and death. But they can make or break that job interview, networking event or first date. Do you want to impress your potential employer with your competence? Make a memorable impression on your potential client? Or get to that second date? Take control of your body language!
Here are some tips on how to make the best of your first impression:
A handshake is the first - and sometimes the last - opportunity to touch another person in a social or business setting. Touch is the oldest form of communication and works as a social glue: when done right, it triggers the release of oxytocin, the bonding hormone, and makes you instantly likeable. Pay attention to the level of firmness of your handshake. Avoid both a "wet fish" and a "bone crusher". Instead, go for a fairly firm grip, but when the other person offers a very limp handshake, adjust yours accordingly. Offer your hand in a vertical position to show the other person you consider yourself and your partner equal. And make sure your hands are dry. Sweaty hands are a dead giveaway of your nervousness.
Your stance tells the other person a lot about your level of confidence and authority. Stand with a straight back, arms to your side and loose, and chest up. Keep your shoulders down and your head level. Your feet should be more or less shoulder-width apart to give you stability and grounding. Face the other person square on to show that you give them your full undivided attention.
When you look at the person who's talking, you show your engagement, respect and and interest in what they have to say. Avoiding eye contact might be read as a sign of disinterest, boredom or even dishonesty. That doesn't mean to say that you should look the person in the eye the whole time. That would be creepy! You should aim at keeping eye contact 60-70% of the time.
Always keep your hands visible to the other person. Never hide them away in pockets, under the desk or in your sleeves. Hands are trust indicators. Open hands show that we have good intentions and mean no harm.
When we get nervous, we start touching, stroking and rubbing different parts of our body, mainly face, neck and arms, to calm ourselves down. These gestures, known as adaptors or pacifiers, give away your insecurity and low confidence.
Smile makes you likeable, approachable and friendly. Smile is a sign of friendship, openness, and good intentions. Smile can help you make friends and influence people. But too much smile is not a good idea either. Especially when you're a woman! Smile, in its origin, is a submissive gesture, used to appease and signal we don't pose a threat. So smile only when you have a reason for it.
Clothes make a strong visual statement about how you see yourself. They also show how much importance you attach to the situation and to people around you. What you wear has an effect on you as well as the other person. When we are dressed to impress, we walk differently, we talk differently, we think differently about ourselves. And other people perceive us as more confident, self-assured and competent.
Your body says more than you think. If you want to make a good first impression, you need to become aware of the messages your body sends, practice confident body language, and create new habits. Of standing tall, of keeping good eye contact, of using open hand gestures. Don't leave your first impression to chance. Take control of your body language.
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