First Impression Power

I had the pleasure of watching the movie “Working Girl” again recently.  It stars Melanie Griffith, Harrison Ford and Sigourney Weaver and tells the story of how a girl from the “wrong side of the tracks” succeeds in the pressurized world of big business.  I never tire of seeing this movie.  The plot, direction and acting are all first-rate, but I love it because of what it teaches us about the power of first impressions.  Melanie Griffith’s character knows that she must remake her New Jersey image in order to be accepted as a Manhattan professional.  So she does just that.  She changes her wardrobe, hairstyle, even her voice.  And what happens?  She is instantly welcomed into the high stakes world of mergers and acquisitions.  She knew instinctively that, in order for her ideas to be heard, she had to first “look the part.”  By making some simple adjustments in her outer image, she was given the opportunity to reveal her inner qualities. 

This movie illustrates beautifully what psychologists, communication experts and image consultants have been saying for years.  First impressions count!  Packaging is important, whether we’re considering a house, a product or a person.  We think what looks attractive or reliable from the outside must surely be on the inside.  We judge books by their covers; we buy houses based upon curb appeal and we take people at face value.  And they do the same to us!

I’ll agree with you that none of this seems fair.  People should be judged by their inner values and beliefs, but it is often the first impression that determines whether someone will stick around long enough for you to reveal those wonderful qualities.  Very few people will ever see those documents that define who you are, such as your resume, diploma or birth certificate.  Like it or not, it is often that first impression that determines your future, more than your professional achievements, family background or educational credentials.

When you step into a room, people make subconscious decisions about you.  Within about thirty seconds, they’ve judged your economic and educational levels, your social position and your levels of sophistication and success.  And keep in mind that they’re basing those decisions purely upon what they see, i.e. your wardrobe, hairstyle, smile and posture.

After about four minutes, they’ve also made decisions about your trustworthiness, compassion, reliability, intelligence, capability, humility, friendliness and confidence.  At this point you’ve probably had the opportunity to speak, so they’re now taking into account the way your voice sounds, the content of what you say and how you say it.

Impressions are based upon instinct and emotion, not on rational thought or in-depth investigation.  They are the product of the associations we make between outward characteristics and the inner qualities we believe they reflect.  In other words, we filter everything we see and hear through our own experiences and biases and assign a stereotype to them.  First impressions are a kind of human shorthand. 

When we talk of stereotypes, we instantly think of race or gender.  But we all harbor assumptions regarding almost every human trait imaginable: tall or short, heavy or thin, articulate or not, clean or dirty, well mannered or rude, organized or disorganized.  Whether we like to admit it or not, we all believe that one trait is preferable to another. 

Part of the problem is that we have no time today to make informed decisions.  We have become a transient society, leading fast-paced lives with sound-bite mentalities.  Our encounters with others are brief and lack substance.  So we’ve come to believe “what we see is what we’ll get”.  I believe television is largely the culprit.  Television creates stereotypes and reinforces them constantly.  It’s also conditioned us to expect messages to be delivered in thirty seconds.  To prove my point, try watching a commercial, TV show or full-length movie without the sound.  You can easily determine the characters and plot just by watching them.  Analyzing the visual messages from their clothing, behavior and body language is all you need to understand the relationships and story lines.

Are first impressions lasting impressions?  Yes, for a couple of reasons.  First, our life experience has taught us that our first impressions of others have usually been correct.  And when these subconscious judgments were reinforced again and again, we grew to trust and believe in our instincts.

First impressions are also lasting because we hate to admit we make mistakes, so we cling to our opinions rather than revise them.  Psychologists tell us that, once we apply a stereotype to someone, we spend the rest of our days seeking to validate it.  Our rational brain kicks in and looks for every opportunity to confirm what the emotional side, with all of its biases and stereotypes, originally believed.  That’s not to say that negative first impressions can’t be overcome, but it will take much time and effort.  Remember that you’re trying to overcome human nature and that’s not an easy task. 

So what can we do to be in control of how others perceive us?  Confucius said, “In all things, success depends upon preparation, and without such preparation, there is sure to be failure.”  All you have to do is to decide who your audience will be in any given situation, determine your objectives and make choices that match the audience’s expectations.  Do you want the promotion, the recognition, the relationship?  Whatever your objectives may be, decide what qualities the decision-maker expects from that type of person and then dress, behave and communicate in the expected way.

Take a cue from successful salespeople.  They employ a technique called “mirroring”.  They know that when they reflect the posture, speaking style and wardrobe of the other party, they open the lines of communication.  That person begins to see them as someone who understands them and who shares their same values.  Trust is quickly built and the deal is sealed.  Try the same technique yourself.  Think ahead to your objectives each day and whom you will encounter.  Make choices that reflect their style of dress, behavior and communication and watch what happens!

© 2017  Jill Bremer All Rights Reserved

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