When we want to make a good impression, one of the most common mistakes we make is to forget the central role that the other party has in shaping our behavior. We become so preoccupied with what we should or should not do to that we easily forget the importance of the other--- the job interviewer, our date, our partner's parents -- in shaping their impression of us.
To illustrate how, it's informative to look for a minute into the arena of race relations, where- behold! - people are seriously concerned about managing the impression they make. Intergroup interactions arouse a lot of anxiety and threat along the lines of "what will this person think of me?" As such, a few of the lessons from this arena are applicable to managing first impressions more generally.
One of the classic studies in the field, by Word, Zanna, and Cooper (1974) was among the first to document how, ever so subtly, white interviewers differentially encourage positive or negative behavior from black vs. white interviewees. The researchers found that when interviewing black candidates, relative to when interviewing white candidates, the interviewers tended to sit further away, establish less eye contact, and provide less social responses indicative of listening. Unsurprisingly, this led the black candidates to perform more poorly in the interview. To really establish that it was the interviewers' behavior that was lifting or limiting the candidates' behavior, in a second study the researchers specifically trained new interviewers to give off either these engagement or disengagement cues in a mock job interview, but this time only to white interviewees. The results confirmed the hypotheses: the interviewees who did not benefit from eye contact and who received less positive feedback did objectively worse in the interview.
Lesson # 1: The behavior of the other party matters for your own success! If you are aware of this often-overlooked detail, you will be better prepared to stick to your plan, and to change your behavior flexibily depending on your interactant's cues.
More recent studies examining people's spontaneous behavior in actual intergroup interactions reveals a related but slightly different lesson. In one study, Shelton, Richeson, Salvatore, and Trawalter (2005) found that the less biased white participants were on an implicit measure of prejudice, the more prejudiced their black partner perceived them to be! Further research by Vorauer and Turpie (2004), as well as by Phil Goff (see his excellent recent column on the Trayvon Martin case) and colleagues, helps us understand why: people who value egalitarianism, who tend to be very concerned about being perceived as prejudiced, very much want to communicate to their partners just how unbiased they are. As such, they spend considerable energy monitoring their own behavior to make sure they are giving off the right impression. Ironically, however, this self-focus leads them to do things like stutter, have less eye contact with their partners, and sit further away from them-- behaviors which are then interpreted by their intergroup partners negatively.
Lesson #2: Too intense of a self-focus on your own behavior can lead you to forget the basic cues of social engagement, which can ironically hurt the positive impression you are trying to make.
Overall, these two lessons from intergroup relations are important for anyone who cares about first impressions: they underscore the fact that you are only 50% of the interaction, and it's just as important to pay attention to the cues and signals of the other party as to think about your own.
Copyright 2012 by R. Mendoza-Denton (MCN: BS8Y4-PNV7V-EVK9V); all rights reserved.