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6 Ways to Make a Bad First Impression

1. Don't try so hard to be "memorable."

Consider these two people you meet for the first time:

  • One listens to you carefully and pauses before offering his responses. He seems thoughtful and a bit serious, but also interested in you as a person. It’s clear from the look on his face that he’s someone who would be interesting to get to know and would want to do his best to make you happy. You feel that he’s holding things back somewhat, but it doesn't bother you because you’ve never met him before.
  • The second person is funny, witty, and high in energy. She seems to know what you’re about to say before you say it and provides you with a series of personal anecdotes. Some of these reflect her successes and others reflect times that people weren’t nice to her or she missed on an important opportunity.

After a few minutes, you’re intrigued by Person A but a bit fatigued by Person B.

New research explains why you might have such different impressions of these two people. When it comes to forming first impressions, many of us turn out to be quite willing to give other people the benefit of the doubt. University of British Columbia psychologists Katherine Rogers and Jeremy Biesanz (2015) distinguished between the processes of “knowing” vs. “liking” in first impressions. They claim that we bring our own biases to bear when we meet someone for the first time. For example, you might have a positive outlook of yourself and therefore bring a positive bias toward the way you evaluate other people who you don’t know. On the other hand, you may judge people on the basis of what you believe to be the “average” person’s characteristics. Other cues enter into the process as well, such as what people wear, their facial expressions, and how attractive you find them.

Rogers and Biesanz cite the work of personality psychologist Lee Chronbach in the area of “stereotype accuracy” on how to form an accurate first impression. If you are good at figuring out what the “average” person is like, then you should be quite good at figuring out what the people you meet are like. This can be a big help in promoting your social life. As Rogers and Biesanz point out, “Understanding what people are generally like and applying this knowledge can lead to more successful interactions” (p. 1106). In a way, this is like emotional intelligence, where you’re accurately able to gauge the personalities of the people you meet. Alternatively, if you let social desirability guide your impressions, you’ll tend to be inaccurate because you overemphasize people's positive qualities. The average is an average for a reason: If you think someone is “average” on introversion, you won’t be that far off if the individual is quite introverted, on one hand, or slightly extroverted, on the other.

In a series of studies, Rogers and Biesanz show that the more you know about people, the more likely you’ll use the average as a guide rather than be swayed by your own biases. With regard to how you can best impress those you meet, seeming average might have advantages over seeming to be extreme on any particular dimension. Blending in might not always be the worst thing in the world when you first come across a stranger you want to impress.

Let’s return to Person A and Person B in our example. Person A probably seems more average to you. Thoughtful and interested in you (i.e., average in introversion), not overly dramatic and not boring; you might feel that it would be easy to warm up to him. Person B might appeal to you as well, but only if you’re high in extraversion yourself. You may be the type of person to tell all to a stranger, and although some people like that, others are turned off and might run in the opposite direction.

This analysis doesn’t mean you have to hide or lie about who you are. It just means that until you’re sure of who you’re with, it may be best to stay on the average track.

Now let’s get to those 6 big mistakes. You may already know what the first one is; the rest are based on general psychological principles of impression formation:

  1. Don't try so hard to create a “memorable” impression. Seeming too different from the average might turn off the person you’re trying to impress. Stick with the average until you feel certain of whether your audience is prepared to handle the real you.
  2. Don't try to connect to people by revealing your personal history. You don’t know what other people’s lives are like so if you talk too much about your own without learning about them, you might bump into embarrassing or uncomfortable disconnects.
  3. Don't fill the space with a lot of talk. Person B didn’t seem to provide any room for you to contribute to the conversation. It’s exhausting to talk to people who expect you to follow along with everything they say.
  4. Don't assume others agree with you. Especially in a political season, you can make invalid assumptions by imposing your own views on people you don’t know very well. Just because someone comes from a particular part of the country, for example, doesn’t mean he or she is liberal, conservative, or somewhere in between.
  5. Don't ask nosy questions. Perhaps you meet a parent and a child who appear to be on vacation. You ask the child if she has any siblings (she says “no”); you then ask her if she likes having her father all to herself. There are many problems with this scenario: Maybe the family lost a child; perhaps the parents are going through an ugly divorce; or worse, maybe the mother recently died. Creating a good first impression means being tactful.
  6. Don't feel certain that you can trust this person. A social desirability bias may lead some people to ascribe positive attributes to those who don’t deserve them. If you’re revealing personal details that should be kept under wraps, you could show how gullible and therefore immature you are to someone you’re trying to impress.

Making good first impressions matters more in some situations than others. Whether it’s a job interview or meeting your partner’s family for the first time, your interactions will be more fulfilling if you start them on the right note.

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Rogers, K. H., & Biesanz, J. C. (2015). Knowing versus liking: Separating normative knowledge from social desirability in first impressions of personality. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 109(6), 1105-1116. doi:10.1037/a0039587

Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne 2016