There is no doubt you’ve heard the adage that you never get a second chance to make a good first impression. What many people don’t realize is just how important a first impression can be. As a rule, people judge others within the first 3 to 5 seconds of meeting them. The judgment is made subliminally, without conscious thought, so it is important that individuals do their best to make a good impression, professionally and personally. Oftentimes, it is the simplest concepts of good manners or business etiquette that are forgotten. Nevertheless, there are steps that anyone can take to improve the impression they make in those crucial first moments.
The Basics of Good Impressions
The cornerstones of proper business etiquette are the following:
- Be on time.
- Dress appropriately for an occasion.
- Address everyone respectfully, such as by their last name.
- Maintain eye contact, but do not stare.
- Speak clearly, confidently, and do not rush through your thoughts or sentences.
- Offer a firm handshake.
Smile, Smile, Smile
A confident, relaxed smile is the best way to put other people at ease. Scientists have found that smiling is an important social cue, and that other people will respond to smiles on both a conscious and subliminal level. If a person smiles in joy, others around them will smile, and their brain activity will actually mimic the activity in the brain of the person that initiated the smile.
While people have some ability to detect fake smiles, this ability is not well-developed, and a good fake smile can fool most people. Whether or not you really feel it, put a smile on your face when meeting new people and, indirectly, people will also feel happy to see you. That feeling will resonate every time they think of you.
Good Manners Never Go Out of Style
While your parents should have taught you good manners growing up, here’s a quick primer on the basics that can really make a difference on your first impression.
Good manners are indicative of your respect for yourself and others. “Please,” “Thank You,” and “You’re Welcome,” are not meaningless words; they demonstrate to others that you value their effort, thought, and/or generosity. Using socially significant words, offer behavioral cues to other people when you meet for the first time; this is particularly true when engaging with your elders.
Nevertheless, good manners should not be reserved for superiors, but extended to everyone with whom you interact. Maintaining consistency with your interactions will avoid others thinking you play favorites or are a boss’s pet.
Furthermore, it is rude to use someone’s first name unless given permission to do so, since it indicates a degree of familiarity the other person may not desire. Always address others in business by their title (Mr., Mrs., or Ms.) and their last name, unless they request you use a given name or nickname.
In an informal business atmosphere, it may be customary to address everyone by their first names, but it is best to wait for an invitation and avoid offending potential managers or co-workers.
Attire and Dress
It is usually better to be overdressed than under-dressed. Once again, the way a person dresses can demonstrate their respect for whoever they are meeting.
For example, showing up for a job interview in inappropriate attire means either you do not understand the job, or you do not care whether or not you are hired. A suit is usually appropriate for office positions, while a clean polo shirt, dress shirt, or blouse, and khakis or jeans may be proper for factory or construction jobs.
Similarly, whether you’re interviewing for a professional job or meeting your boyfriend/girlfriend’s parents, you should always dress conservatively. Here are a few factors to keep in mind:
- Less skin – long skirts, shirts with sleeves, nothing too tight
- Simple colors – blue/navy suit, ties without designs
- Hide tattoos – I recommend classy tattoo ideas if you plan to get one
Eye contact is another important cue, and those who do not make eye contact place themselves at a social disadvantage, especially during public speaking. Most people believe that those who do not make eye contact are lying or avoiding something, or that they lack the confidence to interact effectively with other people.
While it is impolite to stare at other people, it is important to watch their faces, make regular eye contact when communicating, and occasionally look away.
When meeting someone for the first time, it is important to make your words count, especially when it’s your turn to answer interview questions. Additionally, others may not be able to understand you if you do not speak clearly and in a voice loud enough to be heard.
A clear, well-modulated speaking voice is an important social tool, and contributes to the ease of communication and a good first impression.
Shaking hands is a social ritual in America, and having a firm handshake shows self-confidence, an important asset for any employee. While the handshake should be firm, too much pressure shows a desire to dominate and can be a negative signal. Keep handshakes friendly and painless.
What Not To Do
While it is acceptable to talk about subjects other than business with employers or fellow employees, avoid discussing politics and religion. Many people have strong feelings about these topics and if your opinion differs from theirs, an unpleasant argument could ensue. Stick with neutral topics in the workplace to avoid offending co-workers or your boss.
While humor is essential to a pleasant work atmosphere, tasteless jokes, especially those which target a specific gender, cultural group or sensitive topic, are not funny and may create legal difficulties for you and your employer. The same is true of jokes with sexual overtones. Save these jokes for like-minded friends at your Wednesday night poker game.
Finally, never bad mouth a current or past employer, or engage in malicious gossip about co-workers. This also applies to any online presence you may have on social media, like Facebook or Twitter. Employers often monitor comments made on social networks, so use privacy settings or a separate private account if you intend to make any negative comments about your job or co-workers. Better yet, just don’t do it. If you would not want your mother to see a picture or read a comment, keep it off your public pages.
Before meeting business associates in other countries, it is wise to educate yourself on the customs of other cultures and the background of the individuals you will be meeting. Behavior which might be considered acceptable or even unimpeachable in the U.S. may be considered offensive by people with different social rules.
In Japan, for example, business associates formally exchange business cards, while in China, a small token on behalf of your business is usually presented at the first meeting.
In some Middle Eastern countries, a gift of wine, cognac or whiskey would not be well received since the predominant religion, Islam, forbids the consumption of alcohol.
Being unaware of the customs practiced in other countries can result in creating a bad impression, and the appearance that you or your firm does not research and prepare in advance.
While it may be trite, the best advice may be to treat other people as you wish to be treated. A friendly, courteous demeanor is always a good way to make a favorable first impression on the people you meet. When you think about the way others will perceive you, consider your reaction when meeting different people, and emulate the ones who made the best first impression on you.