A brief interaction with lasting consequences: such is the power of the “first impression“. Studies show that the first 7 seconds of an encounter are crucial for forming opinions, and that those impressions – those labels – can stick for a surprisingly long time.
Nobody wants to disappoint. So, are there any “universal” rules about how to make a good first impression?
Social norms are always culture-contingent. Depending on the culture you’ve been socialized in, you may be tempted to either look confident or act humble and proper; shake hands or bow; be formal and predictable, or informal and flexible; be yourself or mirror the counterpart. But if there are universal rules for behavior during those all-important first seconds of a business meeting, then we need more generic terms to express them.
In my view, they can be expressed in terms of:
1 – Showing respect for the other person’s time, space, sensitivities and sense of self
2 – Behaving in a context-appropriate manner.
What 1 really means is respect the other person’s time, space, boundaries and beliefs. Be punctual and courteous, pay attention to cues and be open-minded. Being punctual also has the added benefit of signaling interest. Courtesy indicates good social skills and maturity.
2 is about aligning your presence and your actions with the requirements of the moment: the type of situation, the participants, the purpose of the meeting, the key in which it is being held, the venue. Check your tone of voice, your gestures, your topics of conversation, your attire. Be attentive and as authentic (and honest) as possible. I wouldn’t recommend being original at all cost, since research into similarity bias shows people tend to like those who are like them more. Be present in the conversation, not with the goal of impressing the other (which can make you self-conscious and self-centered), but with the aim of really engaging with the other person and building a human connection. Focus on your partner, listen and try to understand. Discover their needs and be genuinely interested.
What you need to be aware of is that a person meeting you for the first time will probably look at you through various different lenses and biases – many of which you cannot immediately identify. But keep in mind these three:
During that first meeting, people will most likely need to ascertain whether you are:
- trustworthy (friend or foe?)
- competent (can you be of use to them or their organization?), and
- agreeable and collaborative or rather likely to challenge their position and their self-esteem (remember, people prefer to save face, i.e. maintain and confirm their own sense of superiority at all times…)
Act accordingly. To gain a person’s trust and avoid threatening their face or position, project warmth and competence, concern for their needs (how can you fix their pain points?), an open mind and modesty (which is not the same as sychophancy!). Be reliable, as well as pro-active in offering relevant and concise information and support, without appearing overbearing. Practice emotional balance and prepare, prepare, prepare. Take first impressions seriously, you might not get a second chance to overcome them!
I hope this helps,