Thin slice methodology is an important term to understand when it comes to being an effective communicator, especially with nonverbal cues and elements. Firstly, let me be clear that the term 'thin slice' has nothing to do with the width of a slice of pizza!
What thin slice methodology does refer to is observing a small selection of an interaction, usually less than 5 minutes, and being able to accurately draw to conclusions in the emotions and attitudes of the people interacting. These observations are, often surprisingly to many people, very accurate compared to self-ratings and ratings based on the entire interaction. This holds true even when based on observing only a few seconds of the interaction with the first moments of the interaction being the most relevant (Ambady et al, 2000). 5 second clips have been reported to be just as accurate as 5 minutes clips (Ambady & Rosenthal, 1993).
What is interesting regarding these accurate reports is people are often not able to report the factors that influence their judgments. We can all recall moments in the past when thinking or saying aloud that someone is really pleasant, or someone else seems creepy. The accuracy of these macro traits includes: liking, trust, competence, dominance, nervousness, warmth, likability, expressiveness, sympathy, and politeness.
However micro traits such as: smiling, eye contact, open-handed gestures, fidgeting, stiff posture, facing another direction that correspond to the macro traits are not easy for people to articulate. Basically, it is easy to describe general attitudes and emotions but when asked to give specific details, this is where the trouble comes in. This could be due to the nature of nonverbal decoding by individuals is often automatic and happening subconsciously.
Thin slice methodology has been researched and its accuracy has been demonstrated in a variety of areas. This includes the first impressions of strangers with self-ratings, being able to identify sexual orientation, telephone operator's job performance, teacher ratings, sales people and trust, medical students and rapport, interviewers and job applicants, and between students and supervisors.
What conclusions and value can you can get from this?
Firstly, knowing these type of judgments are being made—both by you and by others, and often once the interaction begins—allows you to prepare now for these interactions. Being aware of and then preparing for the variety of interactions you encounter increases the chances that the impression you are trying to make will be the impression the other person has of you.
Secondly, knowing that these macro traits are observed and judged on a subconscious level and being aware of the difficulty of detailing and recalling the micro traits or specific gestures, practice is important. It takes practice to be able to connect the micro cues that collectively create the macro impression (read here about what to look for in trainings on nonverbal communication) and research has shown that practice can increase the effective use of nonverbal communication skills. So practice—and continue practicing!
Using these skills is important in the work we all do, regardless of our profession. Realizing the impact of thin slices, especially the first impression, is a critical first step in being an effective communicator and realizing the importance of nonverbal cues and elements.
*This article is based on an unpublished paper I wrote as part of my PhD research. If you want a copy feel free to email me.
Jeff frequently tweets nonverbal communication information, photos, and tips at @NonverbalPhD.