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Why This Is Your Best, Most Attractive Look

Put your best face forward: Your expression can make or break a first date.

Syda Productions/Shutterstock
Source: Syda Productions/Shutterstock

You sit down across from the person you met online for your first face-to-face date. You are thrilled to finally be meeting in person, but nervous about making a good first impression. You want to appear excited yet relaxed to make your date comfortable. Sure, you have been communicating online, and probably on the phone, but first impressions are made in person, quickly — and they're based in large part on facial expressions.

So here is the question: How can you put your best face forward the very first time you lock eyes?

Think this through in advance, because according to research, you will be sized up in a matter of milliseconds. Over and Cook, in a piece entitled “Where do spontaneous first impressions of faces come from?” (2018), note that adults make trait judgments after viewing faces for only 100 milliseconds.[i] Some of the traits we spontaneously attribute to strangers, based solely on their faces, include intelligence, honesty, dominance, competence, trustworthiness, and likability. And of course, our perception influences our behavior.

No pressure, right? But preparation and relaxation will allow you to have a great first meetup that (if you remain interested yourself) should lead to a second. First, greet your date with a natural, authentic, smile — with your entire face, including your eyes. This conveys authenticity, and then, as time goes on, actively match your expression with your attention.

Face Time

Great first impressions involve positive emotion. Research demonstrates that smiling prompts a variety of positive behaviors. Yet for maximum impact, a smile must be authentic. To demonstrate the concrete benefits of a genuine smile, a study by Gujisic et al., entitled “Not all smiles are created equal” (2014), showed that smiles from serving staffers which are genuine and authentic prompt customers to tip more.[ii] And proving that service with a smile is not itself sufficient, they demonstrated that customers can distinguish between an authentic smile and a paste-on grin. How? Through the smile's warmth and duration.

Gujisic et al. note that while authentic smiles are warm, inauthentic smiles are perceived as cool, and forced. Perhaps even more interesting, they note that genuine smiles are longer in both onset and offset, while inauthentic smiles appear and disappear quickly.

What does this mean for you? That a great way to face a first date is with a smile. Yet because great beginnings often prompt great expectations, after you and your date exchange an authentic, early smiling exchange of preliminary pleasantries, what´s next? Your ability to maintain an appropriate affect depends on your ability to engage in active listening. But here is the caveat: You can't use active listening unless you are paying attention.

Match Your Expression to the Communication

One of the most common mistakes trial attorneys make in the courtroom is failing to listen to witnesses' answers. They shuffle papers, scroll on their computer, or mentally formulate their next question instead of focusing on the potentially dynamite testimony coming from the witness stand. This type of multitasking causes the loss of great evidence. Yet that is not all they lose: Unfocused advocates lose credibility with their witness, judge, client, and jury, because distraction signals disinterest.

The same dynamics are in play on a date. Mental or physical multitasking is a missed opportunity to make a great first impression. Looking at the menu (just check it out online before you arrive), continual fumbling with your electronic device (just keep it in your purse or your pocket), or even thinking about what question you want to ask next instead of listening to what your date is actually saying can create distance by conveying indifference.

And you will not be able to hide your lack of focus; your expression will give you away. You cannot pretend to be interested in what someone is saying if you have no idea what they are talking about because you are not paying attention. Your face will betray you.

Seeing Is Believing

Authenticity is believable and memorable. Over the course of a meal, you have an opportunity to establish a connection through sustained attention and positive expression. Regardless of the ultimate outcome of your new relationship, whether romantic or platonic, displaying genuine positive expression will allow you to make a great first impression, assuring that new acquaintances will like what they see.


[i] Harriet Overa and Richard Cook, “Where do spontaneous first impressions of faces come from?” Cognition 170 (2018): 190-200. Overa and Cook propose a framework entitled “Trait Inference Mapping,” explaining trait inferences as products of mappings between “face space” and “trait space.”

[ii] Milos Bujisic, Luorong (Laurie) Wu, Anna Mattila, and Anil Bilgihan, “Not all smiles are created equal,” International Journal of Contemporary Hospitality Management 26, no. 2 (2014): 293-306.