Photo from below of a young woman shaking hands with another person.

The research-backed first step to making a good first impression

Making a good first impression is key in a business setting. Research suggests you should think about these things before meeting someone new.

GAINESVILLE, Fla. – As well-known as the phrase ‘You never get a second chance to make a good first impression’ is, it’s easy to understand how significant first impressions are in our society – and how a Google search on making a good first impression will yield more than 428 million results.

Many search results will include important tips about how to act, what to wear and when to smile, but new research highlights an important first step to making a good first impression.

Brian Swider

Beth Ayers McCague Faculty Fellowship Associate Professor Brian Swider.

“It’s not about asking, ‘What should I do [to make a good first impression]?’” said Brian Swider, Beth Ayers McCague Family Fellowship Associate Professor at the University of Florida Warrington College of Business. “Instead, think about, ‘What do I want to get out of this interaction?’ If you want to maximize initial first impressions, then you need to think about the outcomes first.”

Swider’s tip is derived from new research he co-authored with T. Brad Harris (MBA ‘06) of Texas Christian University and the University of Illinois – Urbana-Champaign and Qing Gong of Georgia Tech. For this investigation, the researchers completed a qualitative review of over 200 studies about first impressions from the past 100 years, coding each study and deriving a fundamental framework of first impressions in the workplace, which includes four elements – cues, motives, processes and outcomes.

While previous research highlights that displaying certain cues, like confident body language, make for positive first impressions, Swider, Harris and Gong’s research indicates that a combination of the four fundamental elements – cues, motives, processes and outcomes – may be required to produce good first impressions.

After setting a goal for your first interaction, an additional consideration you should take before meeting someone new are the motives of the person you’re interacting with, Swider noted.

Consider what norm- or prototype-driven expectations your ‘perceiver,’ or the person interpreting your cues, might have in mind from their interaction with you. Specifically, what information could they need to get from the interaction to reduce any uncertainty about you?

For example, in a job interview setting, what cues could you display to demonstrate to your perceiver that you’re someone they’d want to interact with every day in the workplace? (Quick tip: Swider’s research notes that people who display warmth in an initial interaction are perceived as confident. That confidence tends to be important to a perceiver as it helps reduce their uncertainty about you and signals you’re someone who can help accomplish goals.)

As with Swider’s advice on making a good first impression, the first impression framework derived from this research provides insights on what you can do if you make a bad first impression.

First, as critical as the research shows first impressions are and contrary to the adage, if you mess up, you can have a second chance at a good first impression.

“If you make a bad first impression, then you need to do better going forward,” Swider said. “Think about ‘What did I not do? What information did my perceiver not get?’”

Once you understand the cues you didn’t display that would have been important for your perceiver to understand, then make changes to be sure you display them in future interactions.

“Although making a poor first impression is certainly not advisable, it is also not immutable and should not dissuade one from trying to achieve their goal going forward,” Swider, Harris and Gong write.

This research is forthcoming in Journal of Applied Psychology.