“The answer is that we are not helpless in the face of our first impressions. They may bubble up from the unconscious – from behind a locked door inside of our brain – but just because something is outside of awareness doesn’t mean it’s outside of control.”
― Malcolm Gladwell,
When we meet someone new, we form a sense of their personality almost instantly. We may be right. We may be wrong. However, due to our human tendency toward confirmation bias, it will take much more to change our minds than to validate what we already feel.
There’s no doubt that making a positive first impression is important.
However, these assessments happen so quickly that it can be hard to tell what information goes into them. Are my clothes important? My posture? My smile? It’s hard to say what exactly it is that makes us like some people at first glance, and what makes us feel wary of others.
In order to make the most of a first encounter with someone, we must first understand exactly what about us people are unknowingly sizing up.
According to Harvard psychologist Amy Cuddy, it all boils down to two questions. In her new book, Presence, she explores first impressions through the following framework.
When we meet a new person, we subconsciously ask ourselves: Do I trust this person? Do I respect them?
The first question is our way of gauging someone’s personal warmth.
This is important from an evolutionary perspective, because humans are social beings. We need one another to survive. We need to know if this new acquaintance is someone who could be a part of our support system or not. Is this a person who is inclined to help me, rather than hurt me? Will they be empathetic to my struggles? Are they a threat? If I have a problem, will this person help me to solve it? Or will they exploit it? Can I lean on them? Can I believe the things they tell me? Would I be wise to let this person into my life?
The second question, by contrast, helps us to measure someone’s competence.
Rather than focusing on social connection, this question emphasizes strength and intelligence. For most people, this is the more challenging of the two assessments. Rather than gauging if this person is willing to help, this question asks whether the person in question is actually capable of doing so. Do they seem sure of themselves? Is this person confident in their abilities? Do they know who they are? Do they like and respect themselves? Do they appear to be in control of their life and comfortable with their choices? Do they seem intelligent? Strong? Engaged? Educated? Well informed?
A sense of competence is more difficult to project than warmth. It is also more highly valued.
Interestingly, however, all the competence in the world amounts to very little if the subject is not first judged to be warm and trustworthy. To make a good first impression in any situation, we need to exhibit both of these traits. It doesn’t matter if we are meeting our partner’s parents or interviewing for graduate school. The criteria remain the same. First, it is imperative to be likeable and trustworthy. Then, we can build a sense of competence and respectability. We need to be somebody who others can love, and can also admire.
As Cuddy herself explained, “If someone you’re trying to influence doesn’t trust you, you’re not going to get very far; in fact, you might even elicit suspicion because you come across as manipulative. A warm, trustworthy person who is also strong elicits admiration, but only after you’ve established trust does your strength become a gift rather than a threat.”