First Impressions

Last week I met a former colleague from an organisation that I had worked with almost two decades ago. We got talking and very soon we were sharing stories about our professional journeys, the ups and downs, the personal narrative along the way, winding with a long cup of cold coffee and a promise to stay connected.

This conversation lingered in my mind for many days. Something was not sitting right. Then it occurred to me. My first impressions of this colleague were way different from what I had just experienced. The ease and familiarity with which we spoke seemed to be the complete opposite of what I would have expected not just of her, but from myself too.

During our recent brief interlude this person came across as warm, knowledgeable and empathetic. But way back then, I recall her as being obnoxious, rude and almost arrogant. What had changed? Had she changed? Had I changed? Or were those first impressions born out of haste and then never tested to understand the real her?

First impressions

How quick we are to seize up people, events, locations, experiences…. Within milliseconds of seeing, hearing, or meeting someone, our brain has already mapped the person in front of us.

This unconscious mapping is based on our own perceptions, biases and past experiences. The rush of emotions that we feel when we see/hear someone for the first time gets crystalised as our impressions. Research says it takes only seven seconds for the first impression to be formed!

As they say, first impressions last forever. They are very hard to roll over or change. Like for instance in my own case, I had stayed with the impression of my colleague for almost 20 years! It was only a chance encounter that made me go back to my memories and pull out the initial footprint.

Our emotions can get heightened or rattled by the other person’s tone of voice, language, clothing, walking style, overall physical presence, posture, etc. There is really no one size fit all here. One can be impressed by a person dressed impeccably and at the same time, one can look with disdain at the same person if his/her tone does not match your frequency. And the person need not even talk to us!

We form first impressions of just about anybody, anywhere. It could be a stranger walking down the road. It could be a voice you hear over the train station. The dress sense of someone across a meeting room could trigger an avalanche of first impression for you.

I remember how fascinated I used to be with shoes and how quickly my mind would race to form an impression and a picture of the other person basis the shoe s/he was wearing! If they were flat shoes my mind would automatically assume the person prefers comfort. When I would see high heels or pointed shoes, I would jump to the conclusion the person was particular about appearances. Uncanny as it may sound, this is really how our mind works in the first seven seconds of an encounter!

The second time

There really is no second time or a repeat opportunity to recreate the first impression. That is why it is called the first impression! Which is why, it helps to be aware of this and then work towards creating the right impression that you would like to leave behind.

Be it during a virtual or face-to-face job interview, be it when meeting the Principal of your new college, or your new Manager – how you carry yourself and the impression you create, will stay with the other person for a long time.

The views and opinions published here belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of the publisher.

Sarita Bahl
Sarita Bahl is an alumnus of Tata Institute of Social Sciences and the Swedish Institute of Management Program. An experienced and versatile leader, she comes with nearly four decades of professional experience. She has over the years successfully overseen the communications and public affairs function and led the corporate social responsibility strategy for Bayer South Asia, Pfizer, and Monsanto, among others. Sarita has held multiple roles across diverse industries, the public sector, trade associations, MNCs, and the not-for-profit sector. Her areas of interest include advocacy, stakeholder engagement, sustainability, and communications.

As an Associate Certified Coach (ACC) from the International Coaching Federation (ICF) and Senior Practitioner (Mentoring) from the European Council of Mentoring and Coaching (EMCC), Sarita specializes in career transition, inner engineering and life issues. Sarita enjoys writing and is passionate about animals, books, and movies.

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