Every day we meet people for the first time. It does not matter what the context is -- completing a sales transaction, sitting in a church pew or interviewing for a job. And every time we need to be prepared in terms of how we look, how we sound and what we say.
Albert Mehrabian, a retired UCLA professor, did a lot of studies on verbal and nonverbal communication and was able to document that how we look and how we sound is much more important than what we say in the first few minutes of conversation with a new acquaintance. This is especially true when talking about our likes, dislikes and feelings.
Some of the first impressions are made about similarities or contrasts with the person who is meeting us for the first time. Gender is almost unconscious: babies differentiate from an early age. But if you recall a Saturday Night Live skit titled Heres Pat you know if people cannot quickly identify the gender of a new acquaintance there is great discomfort.
Age is also one of the first things people notice: Are we the same age, or older or younger? The similarity or difference of these two go a long way as people start evaluating someone for a first impression, and we generally trust our instincts more quickly with those who are more similar to us. Think of this simple example: If we are walking down the street and there is someone behind us, we expect them to be more similar to us than different.
The evaluation comes about in terms of contrasting expected appearance versus actual experience. If that person walking behind us overtakes us and looks different in terms of gender or age, we take note and become a little more wary or alert. We also immediately notice other appearance cues such as race and clothing. More and more the right clothing and grooming can mitigate differences of gender, age and race. Think of interviewing a job candidate who is dressed inappropriately. Do we trust their judgment on other issues? Think of going into a bank: Would we trust the tellers with our money if they are wearing T-shirts and shorts?
Depending on the true context, we notice other visual cues as well that might convey a different message than what is said, such as facial expressions (are they smiling or frowning?), eye contact (in most Western cultures we look people in the eyes to demonstrate honesty), how people move (do they talk with their hands?), and the personal space they grant us as we talk. (In some cultures people are used to being much closer when they talk when compared to the arms-length distance we are comfortable with in the United States.) We notice all of this and it has much more bearing on making a first impression than what we are actually saying.
In addition, how we speak can have an effect. Some folks speak much quicker than others, and some speak much slower. We notice the outliers. We also notice how high- or low-pitched a voice is and especially notice if it is not what we expect, such as a big burly guy with a squeaky high-pitched voice. These inconsistencies can make us uncomfortable. We notice when people speak too loudly and too softly, and we also notice how much modulation someone has in their voice (are they monotone or dramatically emphasizing every word). We also notice accents, pronunciation and word choice, especially if someones accent places them as an outsider.
In Mehrabians research, he found that 55 percent of what informed the communication was what we see, and 38 percent was what we hear. This leaves only 7 percent for the actual message.
This is why reflecting on the first impression we give to others matters. Eighty-five percent of the average work day is spent communicating with others, and in some fields it can be up to 99 percent. Managing our own first impressions can make a huge difference in our successes working with other people. Soliciting feedback from others whom we trust enough to be honest is very important to successfully manage the first impressions we make. And once we make those first impressions, it is up to us to deliver on the promise of the trustworthy person we have presented.
Matthew Liao-Troth is dean and professor at the J. Whitney Bunting College of Business at Georgia College & State University.