Chapter 1: An Introduction to Impression Management
Every day, every person you meet sizes you up within the first few seconds. They form impressions about who you are, what you think and how you are likely to act. And once those impressions are set in their minds, they are difficult to change.
The impressions others form of you are seldom based on rational thought or independent investigation. They are the product of hundreds of associations we all make between outwardly obvious characteristics and the invisible inner qualities we believe they reflect. These stereotypes and prejudices, some positive and some negative, are an intellectual and emotional shorthand. They arise from our past experiences, societal biases promoted or perpetuated in the media and the literature we read, and from the instinctive and emotional hardwiring within our brains.
When others form impressions of you, they follow the same process they use to reach conclusions about a package of taco seasoning on the shelf of their local market. They assume, without ever reading the list of actual ingredients, that it contains chili and other spices and preservatives. If it is a respected name brand, they take for granted that it is higher in both quality and price than the generic brand. If the package is attractive and inviting, they conclude the product inside must share those qualities. They make these assumptions because from past experience they believe such assumptions are warranted, and they don't have the time, energy or inclination to test their validity each time they reach for an item on the shelf.
Many of the stereotypical associations we make about others, like those we make about products on a supermarket shelf, are conscious, some are not. In seminars around the country we have challenged those who are reluctant to admit they judge others based on preexisting prejudices and stereotypes to answer a few simple questions about hypothetical people of whom they know nothing except one observable characteristic.
Who is more trustworthy: the salesman who fails to maintain good eye contact, or the one who does?
Who is more caring: the bank teller who smiles and says "Hello," or the one who doesn't bother to look up from her computer screen?
Who is more humble: the man who wears a ten-thousand-dollar gold Rolex, or the one who sports a Timex?
Who is more capable: the dentist who practices in a well-appointed office in a fancy medical office building, or the one with worn-out chairs in the reception area of his office in the corner of a neighborhood mall?
We're confident your answers will be the same as the hundreds of other people to whom we have posed these questions. And like them, you probably could articulate why you drew the conclusions you did. But many associations that are equally prevalent are triggered by subconscious or emotional reactions and are not so easily explained. Yet research has proven that they are just as influential to the formation of impressions.
Excellent examples of predominantly subconscious emotional responses are found in the extensive research that has been conducted on how colors affect everything from our moods, to the stimulation of our physical senses, to our impression of others. Children's hospital wards are often painted in pastel colors because they soothe patients' anxiety. Fire engines are painted bright red or yellow since our brains recognize and react more quickly to those colors. In research studies, individuals dressed in dark colors are consistently judged to be more competent, but less friendly, than those dressed in lighter colors or autumn hues.
The portion of our brain that processes cognitions, or rational thoughts -- the cerebral cortex -- accounts for only 10 percent of our brain's function. The balance of activity takes place in the brain stem, which is the region of the brain that controls such basic life functions as circulation, breathing and reflexes; the limbic system, which processes emotion; and the hippocampus, which is responsible for memory function. Many of our strongest and most lasting impressions arise from within the limbic system, or "emotional brain." The genesis of these associations often cannot be explained. But through interviews, surveys and clinical research, what those associations are and what traits trigger them have been identified. With that knowledge you can effectively manage the impressions others form of you.Put Your Best Foot Forward
will teach you how people judge you, and why. It is based on information gleaned from more than ten thousand interviews, our review of the scientific and popular literature about how impressions are formed, and our analysis of thousands of questionnaire and survey responses. You will learn which qualities others find most important, and how each of the seven ways you paint a picture of your personality and values -- appearance, body language, voice, communication style, the content of your speech, your actions and environment -- can be honed to project the best possible impression of who you are and how you are likely to think and act. We will explain how you can accentuate your positive traits and eliminate (or effectively compensate for) those characteristics that create negative impressions. You will be given specific and detailed directions for what we call "Impression Management."
Like all recipes, the key to a great impression lies in its ingredients. There are four qualities at the foundation of every great impression:
We call these the "Compass Qualities," because they are like the four points of a compass that guide others to the conclusion that you can and will satisfy their most fundamental cravings: the desire to feel important and worthwhile, and to have their physical, emotional and professional needs fulfilled. The secret to forging positive impressions is to convey your trustworthiness, caring, humility and capability through a combination of traits and characteristics from which others will infer that you can and will fulfill these needs.
The techniques for successful Impression Management (which you will learn as you read on) are as simple in theory as they are in application. They are based on a few basic notions:
- Some outward traits enhance all four Compass Qualities.
- Some outward traits are toxic to all four Compass Qualities.
- Most traits are toxic to some Compass Qualities and enhance others -- for example, a firm, powerful and confident voice enhances the impression of trustworthiness and capability, but diminishes the impression of caring and humility.
- For all but a few incurably toxic traits, there are other traits that function as antidotes.
Effective Impression Management requires only that you:
- Learn which traits have positive or negative effects on which Compass Qualities;
- Identify which traits you have;
- Accentuate the traits that enhance all four Compass Qualities;
- Eliminate those traits that are toxic to all four Compass Qualities; and
- Retain those traits that have both positive and negative elements, but "cure" their negative side effects with positive compensating traits.
If this doesn't strike you as simple, we assure you it is. A brief illustration will put the process into clear perspective.
One of our friends, John, is a huge man with a booming voice and hands like paddleball rackets. He is extremely intelligent, assertive, blunt, energetic and confident. Though relaxed and outgoing, John is frequently impatient, and often confrontational. John recently formed a publishing company and hired several employees. Since John knows that we write and lecture about Impression Management, he asked us to help him create an effective "Impression Management Plan" to use with his employees. An abbreviated summary of our advice to John will serve to demonstrate the Impression Management technique:
- John's outgoing and energetic nature are pure positives. They enhance others' perceptions of all four Compass Qualities, and have no drawbacks. John should maintain them, even expand on them, as long as he doesn't go off the deep end.
- Obvious displays of impatience and confrontation are toxic, and have no redeeming value in any but the most exceptional circumstances. John should resolve to eliminate them, except as a last resort.
- John's size, powerful voice, assertiveness, direct communication style, and obvious confidence are all double-edged swords. They enhance others' impression of his trustworthiness and capability, but they are likely to create the impression that he is neither caring nor humble. They can make him appear intimidating, overpowering, unfriendly and arrogant. Because he wants his employees to know he is caring and humble, as well as trustworthy and competent, John should apply other traits as antidotes to remove the toxic side effects of these double-edged swords.
Among many other ways to blunt his sharp edges, John can: lower his voice a bit; smile more; engage in warmer, more frequent eye contact; make a point to say "Good morning" and ask his employees about their lives and passions; wear warmer and more approachable colors and clothing styles; occasionally touch his employees' arms or hands in a nonsexual way; go to their offices when he wants to speak with them, rather than call them into his; remember their birthdays and their children's names and interests; listen intently as they talk; praise them more; and even bring in doughnuts on Friday mornings.
None of these suggestions will diminish his employees' positive impression of John's trustworthiness or capability. But collectively they will soften his otherwise intimidating persona in ways that will let his employees know he is also caring and humble.
Impression Management can be applied in this way by anyone in any relationship. It is equally effective in personal and professional interactions, regardless of gender, race, ethnicity, occupation, social or economic status, sexual preference, physical appearance or personality. It doesn't require that you compromise your integrity, abandon your individuality, or discard the traits you cherish most. It provides a process by which you can eliminate those traits you dislike anyway and enhance those that clearly improve your image. Impression Management leads to positive and lasting change because it brings out the best in each of us, not because it makes us all the same. It is one hundred percent effective because it empowers you to put your best foot forward. HOW TO GET THE MOST FROM THIS BOOK
You will benefit most from this book if you create your personalized Impression Management Plan as you read it. Keep a note pad and pen handy. Draw two vertical lines from top to bottom of the pages of your notepad to divide them into three equal parts. Write "Dos" on the top of the left-hand column, "Antidotes" above the middle column and "Don'ts" above the right-hand column of each page. Here you will create your personal Impression Management Plan -- a prescription for effective and lasting change that will transform the impression you make on others.
As you read on, each time you identify one of your traits that enhances all four Compass Qualities and diminishes none, write it down in the "Dos" column and whenever you spot a trait that diminishes all four Compass Qualities without enhancing any, write it down in the "Don'ts" column. If one of your traits enhances some of the four Compass Qualities and deemphasizes others, write it down in both columns. Next to it in the "Dos" column write down the Compass Quality or Qualities it enhances. Next to it in the "Don'ts" column write down the Compass Quality or Qualities it diminishes.
Now comes the critical part of creating your Impression Management Plan. As you read on, in the "Antidotes" column, write down the "remedies" for the toxic components of each trait you listed in both the "Dos" and "Don'ts" columns.
For example, as John realizes that his powerful voice is a double-edged Impression Management sword, he would make entries like these:Antidotes
Lower voice, smile, warmer eye contact, friendly greetings, warmer colors, touching, considerate actions, listening, praise, doughnutsDos
Powerful voice (increases trustworthiness/capability)Don'ts
Powerful voice (decreases caring/humility)
If you make these entries as you read through this book, you will craft the same Impression Management Plan we would customize for you were we to spend days in an interactive workshop together. It will list the traits you should always stress, those you should eliminate, and how you can "manage" the rest to preserve their positive qualities and mitigate their negative ones. An occasional review of what you have created will be like a quick visit to the Impression Management doctor for prescriptions of magic pills to enhance positive impressions and antidotes for toxic traits. Do this and you will find it increasingly effortless to put your best foot forward -- anytime, anyplace.
Copyright © 2000 by Jo-Ellan Dimitrius, Ph.D., and Mark Mazzarella