It’s an automatic response. We see someone or something and we make an assessment. With people, it encompasses our biases about everything. We notice skin color, weight, height, clothing, and a host of other outward signs. And while we are having that instant reaction, the other party is doing the same. Fortunately, there are things we can do to make strong and accurate first impressions that will support our success and create a strong foundation for new relationships.
In her article, Make a Good First Impression: Expert Tips for Showing Up at Your Best, Shonna Waters writes: “First impressions last. Whether they are accurate or not, it normally takes a long time and concerted effort to change a first impression. Because they are largely subconscious, first impressions are very persistent. Even in the face of contrary evidence. Because of our implicit biases and cognitive biases, we see the world and other people through our own set of filters and make decisions based on them. All of your relationships are affected by the first impression that you make.” So how can you make first impressions work for you? Waters top suggestions are:
- Make eye contact – Before you say anything, making eye contact sends a message of trustworthiness while giving you the opportunity to notice your own reactions and (possibly inaccurate) impressions of the other person. Waters says eye contact indicates you are listening and engaged. At the same time, notice if the other person has returned the eye contact. Are they open to listening to you or just waiting for the conversation to end as fast as possible? This is important information that can help you to know how to continue the conversation.
- Smile – A genuine smile puts people at ease and creates connection. You want the smile to reach your eyes, or it looks phony (yes, wearing masks makes this harder, but we’re getting used to it.). If you’re nervous, try thinking positive thoughts. This will help your brain activate a real smile.
- Dress for the occasion – How you look makes an impression, so be aware of what the situation calls for and how you can convey your awareness by your clothes. Dressing appropriately sends a subtle message that you value this interchange. Dressing for success is always wise. And for job interviews, the advice of “dress for the job you want to have” holds true. Remember to be mindful of what you might be doing as part of the day. Comfortable shoes go a long way for an extended interview or presentation.
- Be a good communicator – Listen more than talk. Pause before answering a question. Restate it to ensure you understand what is being asked. This allows people to notice your communication skills. And remember to really listen—hear what is not being said. Whether asking a principal to support a new program or going for a job interview, we tend to hear the parts we want to hear. Did the principal understand what you meant by digital literacy or were they not aware of all the aspects you meant? When the principal said their library was the heart of the school, what did they actually mean by that?
Outside of face-to-face interactions, remember your library also makes a first impression. It’s a good practice to pause occasionally before walking in and taking in the room as though you were seeing it for the first time. What message is it sending? Is it the one you want? If not, how can you change it? If it is, how can you strengthen it?
We can’t monitor or control all the first impressions we make. There are too many. But if you can stay aware of the ones that are important, you’ll be able to support your success by starting new relationships on the right foot.