First impressions can be a real bitch.
It not just that you don’t always have time to prepare for them, and it’s not the fact that the repercussions of a bad first impression can last a very long time.
What really sucks is that if you don’t make a good first impression, you missed out the only opportunity you’ll ever have to tell your new acquaintance – no words necessary – who you are and what you’re all about. What a loss! It came and went, just like that! Snap, whoosh!
The only thing you can do is prepare yourself to make positive first impressions so that you’ll do so reflexively, without needing any preparation.
What makes a good first impression?
There are a few major things you want to convey when meeting new people.
1. Who are you?
It can take a long time to get to know someone well, and that’s good; you want to have depth. Being able to explain who you are to someone – possibly from across the room, or maybe with just a few words exchanged – is important, though, because you want to make others curious enough to find out more.
Think of it like a movie trailer: you want to give a juicy enough overview without spilling the major plot points and storylines.
Take a look at this trailer for The Watchmen real quick and you’ll see what I mean.
This trailer uses very little dialogue to tell a story. It’s not the story of the movie, but instead a tale the relates what kind of movie it is. The brooding music builds suspense while the dramatic special effects say that this is a movie with a lot of bright lights and action. The nature of the visuals and drama of the pauses and camera panning indicate that this is not your parent’s super hero movie, despite all the costumed people running around.
It’s very clear to anyone who watches this trailer what The Watchmen is all about, even though we know nothing about the characters, their stories, what the conflict is or anything else that makes the movie special.
If you can make your first impression like a good trailer for who you are, you’re on the right track.
2. What do you do?
One of the first questions that most people ask at parties in Los Angeles is ‘what do you do?’ I’ve gotten so accustomed to this that I am constantly bringing it up in places where what you do professionally isn’t quite so important (or at least not the first thing on everyone’s conversational agenda). I find myself back-tracking quite a bit to avoid a social faux pas.
“Good to meet you! What do you dooooo…ing here? What are you doing here? In Buenos Aires? Ahem.”
If you play your cards right, you can eliminate the need for other people to ask this question by giving off a certain professional vibe; again, the point is to make them want to know more, but to paint a clear enough outline that they know the broad picture.
This can involve more talking than just showing who you are, but your posture, your poise, how you dress and your facial expressions can also play an extremely important role in an accurate first impression.
Take a look at this intro from the TV show Dexter for some inspiration.
Here’s a normal guy, going about his regular morning routine, but every action is laced with menace. From Michael C. Hall’s facial expressions (he’s the guy who plays Dexter in the show) to the close-cropped shots of his breakfast being cooked and devoured, you know that he is probably a serial killer, despite the fact that he does all the same things everyone else does.
It’s incredibly menacing without being literally threatening at all. There’s some whimsy in there too, which is also a big part of the Dexter character in the show.
It’s the WAY he does these normal things it that make an impact, and the same goes for you. When you go about your day you’ll doing all the same things that everyone else does, but how you do these standard things is what makes you stand out.
3. What do you stand for?
It can be incredibly difficult to express your views, especially controversial ones, to people around you without either labeling yourself as an extremist of some sort or earning the ire of the very people you’re trying to make a good impression with.
The best way to make sure your thoughts are heard, but to also not put up your new- acquaintance’s defenses, is to be subtle but pointed in your support.
Take a look at this award-winning PSA for an idea of what I mean.
How would you feel if you had to get other people’s permission to marry the person you love? This is a clear message of support for the legalization of gay marriage – a super-controversial issue – but it doesn’t demonize anyone, play upon any stereotypes or make any efforts to shock the audience into paying attention. Instead, it’s well-produced and written, the actors play roles that mimic the intended audience, and the message is presented in a logical and clever way.
You should try to do the same with anything you feel strongly about. This will allow you to stay true to yourself without needlessly antagonizing everyone who doesn’t believe the same as you (and maybe even some of the people who do!).
And If You Fail…
A good first impression is something to aim for, though they won’t always go as planned.
When this is the case, all you can do is pick yourself up, dust yourself off and prepare to make the best second, third, fourth and fifth impressions possible.
Update: November 25, 2016
I’ve often told people that I’m glad I didn’t encounter things like neurolinguistic programming or the pickup community when I was younger, because these sorts of things would likely have appealed to me, and I would have overlooked their toxic approach to relationships in favor of feeling like I’d cracked the code. That code-cracking would have been even more satisfying, I think, because I didn’t grow up naturally predisposed toward socializing (not well, anyway).
I started to figure things out in high school — a moment that aligned perfectly with the first time I became passionate about something, actually. I discovered journalism, and realized that if I worked hard at it, I did better. This sounds obvious, but I’d always done well in school without really trying, and as such had the fear that so many academically talented kids have, of trying at something, and failing, and thereby showing themselves to be useless. That fear of no longer being patted on the head by authority and failing to live up to your reputation as ‘smart kid’ is crippling for some, and a lot of people I grew up with never seemed to escape that propensity.
All that is to say that I’ve remained fascinated with how all these things fit together, but I also recognize that you can’t hack everything. This post was an early attempt to explain that, I think; showing how you can ‘gamify’ the social process to a certain degree, but that it’s much better to understand those underpinnings, rather than simply manipulating them by rote.