How to make an excellent (a good) first impression and why is it important
What are first impressions?
First impressions are “the initial perceptions and inferences one party makes about another party based on exposure to some set of cues” (Swider et al., 2022; pp. 346). Typical for first impressions is that they are formed quickly, based on a limited set of information, and we are often very convinced in our judgments.
In every social context, we will be evaluated, and we will also make our judgments. Even though we are all, to some degree, aware that first impressions often are not the most accurate estimations - we still hold on to them.
Why are first impressions important?
We all know that a good impression could make our life easier. Numerous studies (for details, see Swider et al., 2022) have shown that first impressions affect both our private and work life. For example, it was shown that first impressions could impact friendship decisions but also work-related outcomes such as job offers, performance evaluation, etc. Interestingly, it was shown that the impact of first impressions is not only limited to immediate judgment and behavior, but rather, it could have longer, lasting effects.
First impressions could be formed based only on photos or even voices. For example, some studies showed (for details, see McAleer et al., 2014) the link between perceived facial attractiveness and mate choices (which could be explained simply by attraction) but also job selection and voting behavior. Similarly, it was shown that we also form first impressions based on someone’s voice. Perceived vocal personality was associated with mate selection, leader elections, and consumer choices.
As we already mentioned, once formed, first impressions could affect our further judgment both positively and negatively. This is very well documented in the literature. For example, the halo effect is a “cognitive bias that makes a good attribute overshadow other attributes” (Nicolau et al., 2020; pp. 5). Complementary with the halo effect, there is also the horn effect which “makes a bad attribute eclipse the excellence of other attributes” (Nicolau et al., 2020; pp. 5).
Interestingly the same characteristics could be used as bases for both halo and horn effects. For example, beautiful people might also be seen as socially competent (halo effects) but also less intelligent (horn effect).
In the end, it is also important to mention another phenomenon that is connected with first impressions. It is a self-fulfilling prophecy whose result could be both positive and negative. Self-fulfilling prophecy refers to our expectations of others that could influence our behavior toward them. For example, one study (Dougherty et al., 1994) showed that positive first impressions affected further interviewers’ behavior towards applicants, such as being more positive towards them and providing more job information and information about the company while seeking less information from candidates. As a result, applicants also behaved more confidently and performed better.
How to make a good impression?
Impression management is “a process through which individuals attempt to influence the impressions other people form of them” (Gwual, 2015, p. 38). Various people use different strategies intending to make favorable first impressions, depending on the context, their personality, occasions, goals, etc. Forty years ago, Jones and Pittman (1982 cited in Gwual, 2015) defined five strategies for managing first impressions. These are:
- Self-promotion - emphasizing own abilities and/or accomplishments with an aim to present ownself as competent.
- Ingratiation - doing a favor or flattering to be seen as likable.
- Exemplification - going the extra mile or even making self-sacrifice to be seen as dedicated
- Intimidation - the goal is to be perceived as dangerous by using various strategies that aim to intimidate others
- Supplication - the goal is to be seen as needy by emphasizing own weaknesses or shortcomings.
Each of these strategies could be used independently or combined. Using them will not always result in a good first impression. If you are doing a job interview, intimidation will probably not be the best strategy to get a job, while self-promotion (unless it is extreme and therefore seen as not a genuine description of real abilities) and exemplification will significantly improve your chance.
One study (Gwual, 2015) investigated the frequency of use of the above-mentioned strategies of impression management in the context of academia and showed that the most used strategy was ingratiation, followed by self-promotion. In other words, to be seen as likable, you should make others feel good about themself and also promote yourself in the desired way.
However, when we are talking about a good first impression, it is always important to also take into account current societal norms and expectations. While self-promotion is a proven strategy for portraying yourself as competent, when it is used by women, it might actually create a negative first impression. The study from 1998 (Rudman, 1998) showed that self-promotion negatively affected the evaluation of competence, social attractiveness, and hireable but only for women when they are judged by other women. In other words, the same behavior could be differently evaluated depending on gender expectations and norms.
Tips for Making a Good First Impression
Even though we cannot completely control how other people see us, the good news is that we can behave in certain ways to increase the chance of being perceived in good light. It is even better if we make those behaviors our habits. Next time, when you have an important meeting - try this:
- Arrive Early
Showing up on time or, even better - earlier will present you as professional and as someone who respects others’ time.
- Be Empathetic and Actively listen
Sometimes, especially when we are nervous, we are more focused on what to say next instead of carefully listening to our interlocutor. If we do so, in the best case, we will miss a chance for real connections. However, more likely, we will look rude and not particularly interested in conversation, and that is the recipe for bad first impressions. Make efforts to understand the other person’s perspective before you jump to an answer. We all like to feel heard and understood.
- Be mindful of your body language and posture
Bad body posture could negatively impact first impressions. We judge not just what other people talk about, their facial expressions but also their body language. Try not just to sound confident but also to look like that.
- Modulate your pitch and tone of voice
We already mentioned that some studies (McAleer et al., 2014) showed that first impressions could be made solely based on our voice. Some people have more pleasant voices naturally, but even if you are not one of them, there are still things that you can do. First of all, pay attention to how loud you are speaking - both being too loud or too quiet could be annoying. Secondly, pay attention to the speed (again, not too slow or too fast) and tempo of talking. By modulating all these aspects, you can sound friendly and excited but also annoyed or even bored - so be aware of what type of message you are sending.
- Choose your words wisely
We already mentioned that it is important how you gonna say something. Of course, it is equally important what exactly you are going to say. Try to be concise and provide clear and direct responses to the answer. Use the same strategy when you are asking questions. Also, be aware that some terms could be offensive to some people - avoid using them. Perhaps it is needless to say but always be polite and respectful.
- Dress the part
Whether we like it or not, our clothes play an important part in how other people see us. Of course, that does not mean that you should pretend to be someone else - quite the opposite. But make sure that, regardless of your personal preferences and style, you always look clean and tidy. Also, dress up according to the dress code for the particular event.
- Make eye contact
Eye contact is a good way to grab someone’s attention and connect with others. It shows that you are an open, confident, and sincere person.
- Know your audience and come prepared
Whether you prefer to use self-promotion or you rather rely on ingratiation - knowing your audience is essential for good preparation and making good first impressions. Take your time to learn more about your audience.
- Be authentic
Although the idea that everyone likes as and accepts us sound tempting - in reality, that would not be the case. If you try to be everyone’s cup of tea, along the way, you will lose yourself. It sounds contradictory, especially because earlier, we provide some tips for making good impressions. So, let’s explain it better. The good first impression is not necessarily one in which you are perceived better, more favorably than you are. If that is the case, you will get some (at least short-term) advantages. However, in the long term, being authentic and being able to present yourself in that way should be your goal. So you know that people like you and accept you for your true self.
- Put your phone away
This might sound like odd advice. We all know that staring at our phone or mindlessly scrolling through our Instagram feed is rude and certainly not doing us a favor. We were all at least once annoyed by such behavior, and we were also guilty of it. Sometimes we are not even aware that we are using our phones as a shield from boredom but also anxiety. So, put your phone away- and try to be present.
- Make a connection
Fear of rejection often prevents us from making connections with others. So next time, don’t be afraid to make a move. Even if the outcome is not positive, you will be perceived as a confident person.
- Don’t forget to follow up
You did all right, you are sure that you made good first impressions, and you even made connections - what next? Don’t let it all fade away. Make sure that you stay on the radar.
How to Make a Good First Impression Online
Lately, our online life has become equally important as the real one. With the development of social networks, we are under the illusion that managing first impressions never was easier. We can create the desired persona that might have little or nothing in common with us - both regarding physical appearance and personality. However, it is also true that now, more than ever, information about ourselves, our attitudes, opinions, preferences, etc., is available and easily accessible. You might have put an extraordinary effort into creating and managing your LinkedIn account, but your drunk photos from the sophomore party might still be haunting you. Internet doesn’t forget - even when we do.
Before you impulsively delete all your social network accounts, keep in mind that even not having social networks might be used as an indicator in the evaluation and forming of first impressions. Being unusual for the current time, it will certainly bring attention. Depending on the context, it might be seen as non-compliance to social pressure but also as not being up to technology, being old-fashioned, having something to hide, etc.
So, now when you are starting to be desperate, it is the right moment to provide you with some tips on how to manage your online first impressions.
- Be aware of your actions and which message is sent
- Don’t argue on the internet (yes, even when you are right)
- Assume that everything you post will stay there forever
In the work-related context, other people will usually make their first impressions about us based on email or video calls (if they did not already check your social networks accounts). And don’t forget - for first impressions, we don’t need too much information, but all single details could be crucial. For example, in email communication, your tone, greetings even the length of your email will be judged. Spelling mistakes and mixing names will certainly not help you present yourself as competent. Also, silly signatures might be seen (depending on the industry) both as fun and creative but also as unprofessional, immature, or forced.
Regarding video communication - apply similar rules for in-person meetings. Showing up on time and dressing appropriately is a must. Unless it is agreed differently, always turn on your camera. Also, it is expected that you give full attention, so try to minimize all distractions. The sudden appearance of your curios cat probably will gain you some sympathy, while arguing with your partner/roommate will do the opposite. Background noise could be extremely annoying and unless you want others to hate you - make sure to turn on the microphone while you are talking and to turn it off while you don’t. We don’t talk all at once in person (or at least we shouldn’t), so we shouldn’t try to do it online. Finally, don’t make meetings (whether online or in person) longer than they should be - and whenever it could be an email, let it be.
How to Fix a Bad First Impression
First impressions are formed fast and easily, and it is often resistant to change, even in light of new information. Before you try to change or fix a bad first impression, you should ask yourself: am I perceived wrongly, or do I just don’t like how other people see me?
If the first is the case, sometimes it will be enough to provide additional explanation for the discrepancy, but more often, you need to be patient and consistently show your true self until (stubborn) first impressions are changed. Also, try the tips that we provided earlier in the text. On the other hand, if the second possibility better describes your situation - you should honestly analyze your behavior and attitudes, take responsibility, and change things that you don’t like about yourself instead of being frustrated that other people are noticing your flaws.
Dougherty, T. W., Turban, D. B., & Callender, J. C. (1994). Confirming first impressions in the employment interview: A field study of interviewer behavior. Journal of applied psychology, 79(5), 659.
Gwal, R. (2015). Tactics of impression management: Relative success on workplace relationship. The International Journal of Indian Psychology, 2(2), 37-44.
McAleer, P., Todorov, A., & Belin, P. (2014). How do you say ‘Hello’? Personality impressions from brief novel voices. PloS one, 9(3), e90779.
Nicolau, J. L., Mellinas, J. P., & Martín-Fuentes, E. (2020). The halo effect: A longitudinal approach. Annals of Tourism Research, 83, 102938.
Rudman, L. A. (1998). Self-promotion as a risk factor for women: the costs and benefits of counterstereotypical impression management. Journal of personality and social psychology, 74(3), 629.
Swider, B. W., Harris, T. B., & Gong, Q. (2022). First impression effects in organizational psychology. Journal of Applied Psychology, 107(3), 346–369.