Appropriate Impressions

Appropriate Impressions -

How you look and communicate is the outward indication of who you are.  We make our first impression assessments of others in less than five seconds.  We notice how they are dressed, how their hair is fixed, their posture, their facial expressions, their gender, their race, their attractiveness and their cleanliness.  And we do it all in five seconds.  From these observations, our internal opinions and biases kick in and within another ten to fifteen seconds we have formed our initial opinion of this new person.  This happens at dinner parties, in business meetings, and in interviews.  Sorry, but this is the truth.

Have you ever been in a social setting like a cocktail party or a business setting and a mutual friend introduces you to someone you’ve never met before?  Your friend says, “John, I’d like you to meet Marty Jones.  Marty is an Account Executive from Acme Anvils.”  Although you clearly heard Marty’s name, title, and company, you cannot remember any of this information immediately after hearing it.  Why?  Because this information came at you during the first fifteen seconds while your brain was consumed running the “first impression” algorithm.  The key is to hear the information again after the impression is made while your brain is actively listening and ready to commit information into memory.  It helps even more for you to repeat the information with your own voice.  Typically, I will wait a few seconds and ask this new person to repeat their name and position again for me, pretending I did not hear it clearly.  My fifteen seconds of impression-making is completed, and I can now remember his name.   Actually, what I want to say is “I didn’t catch your name.  My brain was busy trying to understand why you are wearing the same hair style we wore back in college forty years ago. And Acme Anvils, how is that profitable?  You have one customer and he’s a coyote.”  But I get through that, say Marty’s name a couple of times, ask about selling anvils, and I now know Marty forever.  Almost.

All I know about Marty is the first impression I’ve made from his outward appearance.  Then Marty starts to talk with me and a whole other impression starts forming.  I pick up his accent or dialect.  My biases make me think other things about Marty.  He has a British accent, ahh he must be smart.  Or, wow – that is a strong Pittsburgh accent, we are from the same town.

Finally, my brain is finished doing all these things I wish I could control, and I finally start listening, really listening, to what Marty is saying.  My cognitive left brain is now making rational observations about Marty.   I have some biases to overcome, but it happens quickly, and Marty and I have a great conversation.  We decide to meet and discuss how we can collaborate on projects.  We share a few scheduling emails, meet and decide if this business acquaintance will become a collaboration partner.

The key takeaway is this, I made a lot of decisions about Marty before I ever heard his name.  I refined these decisions and formed new ones after I heard his name and what he does for a living.  Made more after hearing him speak, and even more after reading his emails and meeting him for a second time in a business setting.  Based on his verbal and non-verbal communications with me, I am prepared to make the decision whether I want to do business with Marty, be friends and golf on the weekend, or shake hands and part company.

Whether you want to admit it or not, this happens with everyone you meet.  And it continues to happen as you continue communicating with those around you.  We are constantly making new decision about people based on the new information we receive.  Our impressions, even long-standing ones, can be altered every time we interact with someone.  Communications matter.  All communications matter.  It is vitally important to make sure the way you present yourself and the way you communicate, orally and in writing, convey the message you intend.  Despite my story about my fictitious friend Marty, I am certainly no expert on hair styles.  In fact, my hair style is the same as it was in my High School Yearbook, just a lot grayer.  I am also not an expert in “Dressing for Success” or any fashion trends.  Let’s leave it at that.  When Mary Barra became the CEO of General Motors, the first female CEO in GM’s history, she implemented a formal dress code policy that had only two words – DRESS APPROPRIATELY.  If it is good enough for Mary Barra, it is good enough for me.  I am a big fan of Mary Barra.  So, with Mary in mind, let’s adopt an “Appropriate” impression:

  • Dress Appropriately – Know when to wear business attire and wear it. Business Professional for meetings and presentations is not too much to ask.  Business Casual is acceptable when permitted but go heavy on the business.  No “clubbing” clothes.  And for the love of God, guys, wear socks.
  • Speak Appropriately – Use proper grammar. Address people with appropriate respect.  If you did not catch their name when you met, ask them again for it.  It shows respect that you consider their name important enough to get right.  “Dude” is never an appropriate option.
  • Write Appropriately – Again, grammar matters. MS Word and Outlook, which uses Word as the text engine, has lots of tools to help you. It will check your spelling and grammar.  It also has a rarely used feature called “Read Aloud” under the Review tab in the ribbon.  Let Word read your document or email to you because, try as you might, you cannot proof-read your own documents.   I saw a meme that said, “When the younger generation re-write history, and they will, you can be sure it will be misspelled and have no punctuation.”


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