At A Distance
I think most people would be surprised to learn that we begin to influence each other at a distance. I say that because when I ask the usual reply goes something like, “. . . well I guess it begins when we first shake hands.
The truth is, as with many other species, we begin to influence each other at a distance. How far? That depends on context. Early explorers of Africa tell of warriors being able to see a lone figure just barely in the horizon and from their posture, they could tell whether or not they were a threat, even their tribal affiliation. In our modern world, that horizon may be the parking lot, if we are lucky, or the entranceway to our office. We have gone from being able to assess individuals at a significant distance to the limited time it takes to open a door after a knock.
Time has been compressed as have distances; yet, we still impart information to each other at a distance, no matter how near or how little time we may have. Our posture, stance, walking gait, and attire all communicate something about us. We may be in a hurry, or focused, tired and fatigued or excited and we communicate this at quite a distance. We may also be emotionally upset, angry, or even intimidating. Just look at the old Western movies, you don’t need to have the sound on to tell when those men go out into the street, what they are about to do, and who is confident, scared, or resolved.
Gavin De Becker, who opened my eyes to so many things in his book The Gift of Fear, will tell you that we assess danger at a distance and certainly as it gets closer we can further refine our sense of pending doom or increasing danger. Many a life has been spared because the careful observer saw at a distance someone suspiciously walking in their direction as they crossed through a poorly lit parking lot and were able to seek help before going further.
In the business world you may be noticed in the parking lot, well before you enter the building. My neighbor tells me of a salesperson who just happened to park where he could be seen from the conference room where he and others were sitting. Through the reflective window, everyone in the room could see the man exit his car, adjust his zipper, drink the last bit of coffee, comb his hair, gargle with Listerine and spit it out on the asphalt. I leave the impression he made to your imagination. As he walked in to the conference room everyone’s eyes were glued on him. As my neighbor stated, “That first impression had been made long before he was introduced and it is still there.” When I asked what the salesperson talked about he said he could not remember, all he could remember were all the things he did as he exited the car.
And that is the message of this article. That we begin to impress others at a distance, before the first word is uttered. So things such as grooming and attire begin to tell a tale about us long before we are close enough to talk. These things reveal whether or not we follow social conventions or we are trying to mimic the latest trends. Our clothes say we are dressed for success or we are clueless about social conventions.
The way we walk, the eagerness and speed of our gait, all testify to our emotional state and as well as whether or not we care. Don’t you just love when someone takes their time to come over to talk to you, as if time had no value? The speed and eagerness of our walk says you and your time have merit (more about this in Louder Than Words).
In our posture and faces we can see moods, concerns, fears, and emotions. We may see neurotic like behaviors such as nervous ticks or even nervousness through pacifying displays such as drying hands off on clothing, repetitively tugging at shirt sleeves, or ventilating behaviors (lifting up of shirt or collar) as they walk (more thoroughly explained in What Eevery Body Is Saying).
As the person walks we may be able to discern good manners and habits, such as opening the door for others, good eye contact with strangers, etc. I am reminded of Tony Hsieh, the CEO of Zappos.com, who stated to me that in their hiring process they often assess candidates by talking to people such as the bus driver who brought them on the property to see how the candidates treated them. Zappos, you see, hires for attitude, which they find more important than skill. So even at a distance we can see if someone smiles at everyone or only those that can help them. Which reminds me of a supervisor in our Tampa office who would only say good morning to those of equal rank or higher. When he retired, his wife, also an FBI agent, commented on how few people attended his retirement party – like that could not be predicted.
At a distance we can begin to flash, literally with our eyes, whether or not we care for others (eyebrow flash – WEBIS). How rewarding it is when we see that look of recognition and excitement when someone flashes their positive feelings for us at a distance. And how unremarkable we feel when at a distance all we get is a stare, no emotion.
Our scoreboard begins to subconsciously note these facts and we tally how we feel about others by how they have influenced us thus far, at a distance. Both consciously and subconsciously our behaviors at a distance will register as positive, neutral or negative. If we are lucky the person we meet will further evaluate us. If not, these distant impressions, however long, will leave a lasting imprint which will either positively or negatively influence how we feel about others and obviously how they feel about us.
Because life really is a stage, where unfortunately we don’t get dress rehearsals, nothing can be left to chance, especially our first impressions, which as we have seen begin far away.
(Part 2 of this article will focus on First Contact: how touch and proximity influences us). -----
Joe Navarro, MA is the author of the best selling body language book, What Every Body is Saying. For references and a free nonverbal communication bibliography, with no hassles: www.jnforensics.com or he can be followed on twitter at @navarrotells.