You have 30 seconds to make others like you

First impressions often formed with breathtaking speed and accuracy

March 16, 2003|By Lisa Gutierrez | Lisa Gutierrez,Knight Ridder / Tribune

In the time it takes you to read this sentence, a stranger can size you up: How smart you are, how much money you make, your social status, your personality, your physical fitness.

Eight to 30 seconds.

That's all the precious time you have to make a good first impression. And forget about second chances.

"As kids we're always taught 'Don't judge a book by its cover.' But unfortunately, that's human nature. We have a tendency to judge by first impressions," says Kansas City image consultant Marlys K. Arnold.

"In the first 30 seconds, or even less, we're being evaluated. Often, someone has evaluated you as you've walked into a room, before you even speak."

Strangers will judge you by your clothes, facial expressions, handshake, voice. Tell them you exercise, and they'll think you're more confident, hard-working and intelligent than your sedentary friends. Wear your hair short and highlighted, and they'll think you're smarter than the woman with long, curly dark hair. Research bears out that these snap judgments really happen.

"What I always try to teach people is that you're not trying to create a false image," Arnold says. "But what you want to do is manage your image to send the kind that you want to be sending."

Let that image be one of confidence, counsels Ann Mah, the past national president of the American Business Women's Association.

Mah teaches women to hone their skills in the business world, an arena where a bad first impression can be a deal breaker.

"Your personal style is the whole package," says Mah, who lives in Topeka, Kan. "It's how you look, it's what you say and how you say it.

"Attitude is first on the list -- knowing who you are and being comfortable with that. That really shines through wherever you go. The first look that people get at you demonstrates how confident you are, or not, and your personal power."

Don't be a slob

Little surprise, really, that researchers contend that appearance matters most when it comes to making a strong first impression.

Studies reveal that what we say and how we say it accounts for less than half of that initial impression. Most of it depends on how we look.

"I think that's probably the first thing people will notice, and likely the thing that will be remembered the longest, either positively or negatively," Arnold says.

Like it or not, your clothes speak volumes about you, Mah says. So make sure they fit the situation, whether it's a job interview or meeting the in-laws.

"Apart from what you are wearing, your whole body language says so much about what you are about," Mah says. "When you are meeting people and networking, ... your whole posture should help you make an impression on people."

Look me in the eye

No matter where you are, looking someone in the eye is critical to making a good first impression, any image maker will tell you. We're not talking stare-down here. Just be sure to look at them more than you look away from them, Mah says.

"If you can't look me in the eye, I have a tendency to not trust you," Arnold says. "I've known people who always have their head down, but if they look up at you they don't lift their head, they just look out from under their eyebrows.

"It gives me the creeps to talk to this person because, OK, what are they really thinking? What are they hiding?"

Some cultures, though, consider it impolite to look someone straight in the eye. So, watch for clues from the other person. "If they look you in the eye and then glance away, you can feel comfortable doing the same thing," Arnold says.

Perfect a pleasant look. A scowl, a sneer or a leer says nothing positive about you. But don't smile too much, a mistake women often make.

"There's an old rule that says women smile when they want to please and men smile when they are pleased," Mah says. "As women we try very hard to please other people. That's one of the things we do to try to make people feel comfortable."

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