Education Guide — Summer 2014
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First Impressions Last
Paul Rogers


According to research by New York University’s Stern School of Business, people make eleven key decisions regarding one another – including education and economic levels, trustworthiness, credibility, level of success, and professional desirability – within the first seven seconds of meeting.

Over recent years, other studies have concluded that humans form initial impressions about each other within 30 seconds, 10 seconds or even, according to research published by psychologists at Princeton University in 2006, just one tenth of a second.

Regardless of the disparity in such numbers, experts broadly concur that our brains swiftly snap first-impression “Polaroids” – composites of all the signals given off by any new experience – of people we are meeting for the first time. The concept (and endless reports throughout history) of “love at first sight” is one popular manifestation of this phenomenon.

This blink-quick judgment of whether a new person will help or hurt us may lurk in the most primitive area of the brain and have its roots in ancient eras when such decisions could be literally life-or-death, but its ramifications can still mean make-or-break in today’s corporate world.

Yet while first impressions certainly count in a job interview, candidates can also “manage” the mark they make on recruiters in those crucial first few seconds.

“We do make judgments in seconds – even nanoseconds – and these judgments can stick pretty well,” said Karen Elizaga, an executive coach and author of Find Your Sweet Spot: A Guide to Personal and Professional Excellence. “I always encourage my clients to make as excellent an impression as possible because you’ll have to work much harder than if you just walked in making an excellent one.”

Indeed, there is evidence that the old adage “you never get a second chance to make a first impression” is more than just old wives’ wordplay. Research by a team of psychologists from the U.S., Canada and Belgium, published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General in 2011, concluded that even when new experiences contradict a first impression, our brains “bind” the contradictory experience to its context, while the initial impression continues to dominate in all other contexts.

Interviewees should also be aware that initial impressions are not all about what is said, but also about what is done – in fact, according to studies by UCLA social psychology professor Albert Mehrabian, actual words account for only 7 percent of the message an individual conveys, with the remaining 93 percent coming from body language and tone of voice. And if someone’s verbal and non-verbal communication appears incongruent, humans are hard-wired to believe the non-verbal.

“A firm handshake exudes confidence and preparedness,” said neuropsychiatrist Julia Samton MD, director of Manhattan Neuropsychiatric PC. “In most professional and academic interviews, it is important to dress neatly and conservatively. However, you should think about what your interviewer will be wearing and match that level of formality or informality.

“There is some evidence that suggests that women who wear makeup are viewed as more likable and trustworthy. Speak clearly, maintain eye contact, and smile.”

First impressions can start even before the interview – or before an applicant has even landed an interview.

“First impressions absolutely start the second you have an interaction with a company,” said Elizaga. “Use proper grammar. Start emails on a positive note (“I hope this email finds you well”), and end them similarly (“Thank you. I look forward to seeing you”). Spell-check your resume and any communication (any!) Smile when you’re talking on the phone – they can hear that positive energy.”

Once an interview is scheduled, preparation is a must. A sound understanding of the position being applied for; the company concerned; the candidate’s own strengths and qualities; and, if possible, of the interviewer, can be deal makers or breakers.

“It is a good idea to spend time preparing for your interview by researching the company and interviewer on Google. This will help you to ask and answer questions,” Samton explained. “Reach out to your network to see if you can build a personal connection with someone at your company. Make sure you have rehearsed how your assets meet the qualifications of your potential position.”

Arriving 10 to 15 minutes before an interview can give a job candidate time to use the bathroom and collect themselves, but any earlier could make an odd impression on the receptionist or causew the interviewer to feel rushed.

“Live by your mantra,” said Elizaga. “Walk into the building with a mantra that keeps you positive and energized. Often these one-liners can help you stave off negative thoughts that might affect your ability to make an excellent impression.”

During the interview, candidates should try to mirror the pace and tone of their interviewer (assuming these are positive), and to exhibit enthusiasm without appearing overly excited or too grovellingly grateful.

“Think of this also as an excellent opportunity for the interviewer - they get to see your skills and talents and potentially have the pleasure of hiring you,” Elizaga continued. “There’s a fine balance. So be grateful and excited, but not so much that they think this is your only interview ever!”

As well as implementing all of the above, interviewees should make a mental note of what experts say are some absolute “no-no’s” during a job interview.

“Do not openly disagree with your interviewer,” said Samton. “Do not bad mouth old bosses or your current job.”

Elizaga warned against getting overly familiar (“Use language that you would use to talk to your older aunt”) or overly comfortable (“Don’t kick your feet up or ease back into the couch”).

“[Don’t] play the ‘name game’,” she cautioned. “Unless you know that whoever you’re bringing up is in good standing with the company, refrain from asking about them.”