Giving a Good First Impression: You’re Doing It Wrong

Trying to assert your dominance is not necessarily the best way to say “Hi”

Some people find talking to new people more stressful than others.
Some people find talking to new people more stressful than others. xkcd

Thanksgiving brings people together, for food, for drink and for awkward conversations with that weird great uncle you only see like three times a year. Big social events, like family gatherings or awkward holiday-themed work parties, also bring the potential for you to meet new people—those fleeting few moments in which to give a good impression. Whether you’re part of a new couple and meeting your partner’s parents for the first time or a staff veteran trapped poking at the cheese tray with the new guy from down the hall, first impressions are key. And, according to social psychologist Amy Cuddy, pretty much everything you know about making a good first impression is wrong.

Stand tall, back straight, cool, calm, collected. Look them in the eye, and close with a nice firm handshake. Right? No.

In Wired, Cuddy says, “I really think people make the mistake of over-weighting the importance of expressing strength and competence, at the expense of expressing warmth and trustworthiness. I think this is a mistake.”

She says that people’s first impressions are based almost entirely around perceptions of two things: trustworthiness and competence. Trying to be big and strong, asserting your dominance over the people you meet through body language and that firm handshake, won’t serve you well in the long run.

rying to be the more dominant one in the interaction is probably going to make it harder for you to get accurate information about the other person, because it’s going to shut them down. Or they’re going to feel defensive, or they’re going to feel threatened, or they’re going to try to out alpha you. It’s not going to be any sort of natural interaction. So I’m such a big believer in trying to establish trust, and there’s evidence that shows that trust begets trust. I know people find this very controversial but it’s true. If you are trusting, if you project trust, people are more likely to trust you.

If there’s no trust, they won’t see you as someone who is warm. And if they don’t think you’re warm, well, they probably won’t like you very much. They may respect your confidence, but they won’t like you.

So what should you do instead? Cuddy:

There are a lot of things that you can do. One is to let the other person speak first or have the floor first. You can do this by simply asking them a question. I think people make the mistake, especially in business settings, of thinking that everything is negotiation. They think, “I better get the floor first so that I can be in charge of what happens.” The problem with this is that you don’t make the other person feel warmth toward you. Warmth is really about making the other person feel understood. They want to know that you understand them. And doing that is incredibly disarming.

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