When it comes to first impressions, there are a lot of things we know we should do: be polite, address people by name, ask questions, actually listen, respond appropriately, not talk too much about our self…the list goes on. And although we learn these at a young age, they’re often front of mind upon first meeting someone.
I don’t know about you but sometimes I’m so consumed by social etiquette that I hardly hear what the other person is saying. While my brain is doing circles trying to remember if it was Kirsty or Kristy (…or was it Kate?), I’m so conscious of what I’m saying with my mouth that I forget what I’m doing with the rest of my body.
Truth be told, it’s our body that we should be primarily concerned with. You’ve probably heard it before but the majority of our communication is actually nonverbal. Research done by body language expert, Albert Mehrabian, found that 93% of what we say isn’t through words. He broke communication into three components: words spoken, tone of voice and body language and discovered that:
Words (the literal meaning) account for 7% of the overall message
Tone of voice accounts for 38% of the overall message
Body Language accounts for 55% of the overall message
And while this was published in the 1970s, the crux of the findings are undeniably still true.
On a recent advertisement for Married At First Sight (ok, I’ve had the launch date in my calendar for weeks), it said that it takes around seven seconds to form a first impression. This got me thinking: if we only have seven seconds and what comes out of our mouth isn’t that important, how should we be greeting someone? According to body language expert, Carol Kinsey Goman, it starts with our posture.
“Posture affects how people perceive you. Just as someone with good posture sends nonverbal signals of energy, confidence, and health, a person with poor body posture appears uninterested, uncertain, or lethargic,” she writes in Forbes.
Not only is it beneficial for our health, but also a number of studies have linked good posture with improved confidence and productivity. By standing tall and open we appear stronger and more approachable to others. When we cross our arms and legs it signifies a lack of self-assurance and we can be perceived as timid or uninviting.
“Individuals with open gestures are perceived more positively and are more persuasive than those with closed gestures (arms crossed, hands hidden or held close to the body, etc.) Also, if you hold your arms at waist level, and gesture within that plane, most audiences will perceive you as assured and credible,” writes Goman.
By changing this small trait, it can make a huge difference to how you first come across. But it’s not the only thing that can help. Here are four other ways to nail your first impression.
We’ve all been told that a smile can go a long way and research from Duke University (cited by Goman in her book, The Silent Language of Leaders: How Body Language Can Help—or Hurt—How You Lead) has proven it. The study found that we not only like but remember those that smile at us more than those who don’t. Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), researchers found that the orbitofrontal cortices (a “reward centre” in the brain) was more active when subjects were asked to learn and recall the names of individuals that were smiling as opposed to those who weren’t.
“A genuine smile not only stimulates your own sense of well-being, it also tells those around you that you are approachable, cooperative, and trustworthy,” Goman writes. “Smiling directly influences how other people respond to you. When you smile at someone, they almost always smile in return. And, because facial expressions trigger corresponding feelings, the smile you get back actually changes that person’s emotional state in a positive way.”
Sitting still has been a struggle for some since childhood however it’s a good skill to learn if you want to be well perceived. Fidgeting, while being a trait induced by nervousness, can actually signify boredom. “Playing with your hair, touching your face, or any other kind of fidgeting can be a major distraction,” Tonya Reiman, author of The Power of Body Language, told Business Insider. “It also demonstrates a lack of power. When we touch our faces or hair, it is because we need self-soothing.”
This one can be tricky because there’s a fine line between too much and too little eye contact. If you end up on the wrong side of it, you run the risk of coming across disinterested or worse, aggressive (and a little weird). According to Goman, about 50-60% of the time is best. She suggests a simple technique to get it right: Whenever you greet someone, look into his or her eyes long enough to notice what colour they are.
I know I’ve told you not to fidget but don’t be a statue either. Giving no physical feedback or facial expressions will make your acquaintance uneasy and can be perceived as rude. Patti Wood, author of SNAP: Making the Most of First Impressions, Body Language, and Charisma, told Business Insider, “We often express interest through raised eyebrows, smiles, head nods, vocal utterances (like ‘uh-huh’), and leaning forward. If you don’t give feedback physically, people think you don’t care, that you’re stuck up, and a host of other negative attributes.” Show empathy and interest in what the speaker is saying and when you’re talking, use small gestures. Try to avoid looking like you’re conducting an orchestra if you want to appear confident and convincing.