How to Make a First Impression That Sets You Up for Social Success
“If you’re not going to try your hardest, stand up now. Seriously, stand up and leave.”
Those were the first words my secondary school headmaster Mr. Dick said to me and my fellow first years.
It almost felt like a command. Some people looked around, wondering, “should I get up?” Of course, no one did, but the authority he spoke with laid the foundation for how he expected us to behave.
In the following years, he maintained a certain gravitas. You didn’t want to get on his wrong side, but if you were a good student, he was pleasant.
That first impression was vital in setting the tone.
Confidence Should Ooze Out of a Handshake
Mr. Dick’s handshake was famous throughout the school. Whenever anyone shook his hand, they would always remark how firm it was. That was the man in charge — no doubt about it.
Physicality is often a prevalent factor in making an excellent first impression. A study done by researchers at the University of Texas found that when looking at photos of naturally expressive people (if they were smiling, for example), participants judged 9 out of 10 personality traits correctly.
So, of course, a well-dressed, imposing figure is bound to command authority. A handshake merely seals it.
When you first meet someone, you will judge their physical appearance. So when you shake a hand, you want to channel positive energy and confidence through your grip.
Whether you’re meeting a new client, a friend is introducing you to someone, or you’re saying goodbye to a colleague, it commands strength.
Strength is a quality people admire.
Know Your Audience
In The Office (US), Michael Scott, the seemingly incompetent but loving manager, meets a potential client. His boss, Jan, dives straight into business. Michael, an excellent salesman, opts for a softer approach.
He sings, orders cocktails and ribs — befriending the client. After a while, Michael makes a gentle pitch, even telling Jan to be quiet as she goes to interrupt. Michael seals the deal, securing a big sale while Jan, the seemingly more competent employee, could not.
Put differently, Michael knew his audience.
Where Michael knew a corporate tactic wouldn’t work, my old headteacher knew we needed to fear him a little because it set the tone early on.
An interviewer, for instance, will want to know your professional qualities, so talking about your pet cat probably isn’t going to get you anywhere. But on a first date, a funny story about the time your cat got stuck in a tree could help break the ice.
Knowing your audience allows you to adjust your persona accordingly. Most importantly, it makes you look competent.
Don’t Back Down on Your Character Choice
Mr. Dick never wavered from who he was. It was clear he was the headmaster from the moment he walked into the room, and we needed to respect that.
When meeting someone — particularly if you are trying to impress them — you will likely put on a facade. There’s nothing wrong with that, as we want others to see the best versions of ourselves. However, once you choose who you’ll be (particularly in a position of authority like a headmaster), backing down is a sign of weakness.
Of course, people unravel as you get to know them more. Your partner is probably quite different from the person you met two years ago.
Suppose you’re going to have a sustained relationship with someone, whether romantically or professionally; the first impression must be believable. Mr. Dick tried to intimidate us, and it was utterly believable (although the deep Irish accent did help).
Think of yourself as an actor starring in a movie seen by millions. From the start of production until filming wraps, you must maintain your chosen portrayal of the character. Audiences will find inconsistencies if you don’t.
Lay Down a Marker (State Your Intention)
Right from the off, we all knew what Mr. Dick wanted from us. He wanted to continue the school’s reputation for good grades and uphold its positive image in the community. For that to happen, he needed his latest batch of pupils to respect who was in charge.
That meant stating his intention.
From that very first assembly, I knew this was a big step up from my small primary school. It was clear what he expected of us, and we had better get in line, or we were wasting his time.
Take two widespread examples: dating and job hunting:
When you start dating someone, state your intention from the outset. If you want a relationship, say that. It’s perfectly fine if your date doesn’t; you’re saving yourself time and protecting your heart from breaking.
Although I was desperate for a job after graduating from university, I didn’t know what I wanted. I searched for ‘content creator,’ ‘marketing,’ and a few other vague terms. It resulted in months of wasted applications and upsetting rejections.
I failed to state my intention.
When job hunting, stating your intention starts during the initial search. If, for instance, you search ‘marketing,’ you’ll get too many results. Find out what it is you want and search that instead. This way, you find jobs you’re interested in and don’t waste time applying for roles you don’t want.
An Excellent First Impression Can Last a Lifetime
I saw Mr. Dick in a coffee shop a few years after I left school. Even then, he intimidated me a little. I felt I needed to impress him, despite holding no power over me anymore.
It all started with that first impression. It’s a moment I’ll never forget and one I aspire to emulate one day.
A solid first impression is about more than what you wear and how you’ve styled your hair that day. It’s about leaving a you-shaped footprint on their mind. As time goes by, that will be their reference point for you.
Don’t let it go to waste.
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