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What is the rule of first impression?

The rule of first impression refers to the idea that the first impression someone makes often strongly influences how people view that person going forward. First impressions are important because they can be difficult to change once established. Understanding the rule of first impression can help us make more conscious choices about the first impressions we make on others.

Why are first impressions so important?

Research has shown that people start forming an opinion about someone new within the first 7 seconds of meeting them. Within those initial moments, people make judgements about a person’s friendliness, trustworthiness, competence, intelligence, and other attributes based on their appearance, body language, tone of voice, what they say, and other nonverbal cues.

Once an impression is formed, it can be very difficult to change. The halo effect and confirmation bias influence how we interpret someone’s later actions – we tend to notice and remember things that confirm our initial view of a person. Because first impressions happen so quickly, they are often based on limited information and can be inaccurate. However, they still color how we interact with someone moving forward.

The halo effect

The halo effect is one reason why first impressions tend to stick. With the halo effect, one positive trait influences how we view unrelated traits. For example, if someone seems intelligent at first, we will also tend to think they are friendly, competent, and have other positive qualities. Even if we later learn something negative about them, it will take a lot to override that initial positive halo effect.

Confirmation bias

Confirmation bias also reinforces first impressions. Once we have an impression of someone, we pay more attention to information that confirms it and ignore or explain away anything that contradicts it. For example, if you view someone as untrustworthy, you will notice when their actions seem shifty while brushing off evidence that they are honest.

How to make a good first impression

Because first impressions form quickly and can be difficult to change, putting thought into the first impression you make is important. Here are some tips for making a strong, positive first impression:

  • Smile and make eye contact – This shows confidence and friendliness
  • Pay attention to your appearance and hygiene – Dress appropriately for the situation and make sure you are well groomed
  • Have a confident, upright posture – Avoid slouching or nervous behaviors like fidgeting
  • Offer a firm handshake – A proper handshake shows professionalism and trust
  • Mirror the other person – Subtly mirroring their posture or speaking style builds rapport
  • Ask questions and listen – Show interest in learning about the other person
  • Watch what you say – Avoid insensitive remarks and be aware of your tone
  • Mind your manners – Say please and thank you and avoid interrupting or being rude

Being prepared with some conversation topics ahead of time can also help you make a smooth first impression. Keep it positive by asking about things like their job, interests, or pets.

How to recover from a bad first impression

What if you get off on the wrong foot when meeting someone new? While bad first impressions can be sticky, there are some ways to potentially recover:

  • Apologize or acknowledge the situation – If appropriate, own up to awkwardness or mistakes
  • Find common ground – Bring up shared interests, values, or experiences
  • Praise or compliment the person – Point out positive traits to offset the bad impression
  • Make jokes – Light humor can smooth over bumps and show you don’t take yourself too seriously
  • Change the context – Interact in a new setting more suited to your strengths
  • Ask for help or advice – Getting guidance can change the relationship dynamic
  • Point out your mistakes – Show you recognize errors and are trying to improve

With time and effort, you may be able to gradually reshape a negative first impression. However, it is wise not to expect too much – some poor first impressions leave a lasting mark. In those cases, it is best to not force a connection and instead focus your energy on more fruitful relationships.

First impressions in different situations

While the rule of first impression applies broadly, expectations can vary across different contexts. Consider the unique priorities in these common first impression scenarios:

Job interviews

In job interviews, first impressions focus heavily on your professionalism, competence, confidence, and how well you seem suited for that workplace. Key tips include:

  • Dress professionally in a suit or appropriate work attire
  • Arrive early and be polite to everyone you encounter
  • Have a resume highlighting your qualifications ready
  • Make eye contact and have a firm handshake
  • Listen attentively and ask thoughtful questions
  • Speak clearly and positively about your experience
  • Send a prompt thank you note after the interview

First dates

For first dates, you want to seem friendly, interesting, and genuinely interested in your date. Tips include:

  • Offer a warm smile and greet your date enthusiastically
  • Compliment their appearance or something unique about them
  • Ask engaging questions about hobbies, interests, opinions
  • Limit awkward pauses by having some conversation topics ready
  • Avoid talking too much about yourself
  • Be polite if the date goes poorly – don’t make a scene

Meeting your partner’s family

Meeting your significant other’s family for the first time requires balancing friendliness and formality:

  • Bring a small gift or offer to help with any meal prep
  • Dress nicely and conservatively
  • Use proper manners and language
  • Show interest in getting to know the family
  • Avoid controversial topics
  • Compliment the home, food, or other hospitality
  • Offer to help clean up
  • Send a thank you note afterward

Meeting someone important

If you are meeting someone prestigious like your boss’s boss, a political leader, celebrity, or industry icon, you want to show extra respect:

  • Address them formally as Mr. or Ms. LastName unless invited to do otherwise
  • Have relevant knowledge of their work and accomplishments
  • Compliment their achievements
  • Adapt your speaking style to match their sophistication level
  • Ask thoughtful questions about their experiences
  • Avoid trying to be their buddy or equal off the bat

Public speaking

For public speaking, you want to establish expertise and win over the audience right away. Strategies include:

  • Have a strong, attention-getting opening
  • Smile and make eye contact with individuals
  • Speak slowly, clearly, and enthusiastically
  • Highlight your credentials early on
  • Use humor judiciously
  • Involve the audience with questions or interaction
  • Avoid reading straight from notes

First impressions based on demographics

Certain demographic factors also influence the impressions people form. Being aware of potential biases can help prevent unfair judgments. Some key areas where demographics impact first impressions:

Demographic Common Impressions
  • Young people seem inexperienced, immature
  • Middle aged people seem capable and professional
  • Elderly people seem warm but declining
  • Men seen as assertive, dominant
  • Women seen as nurturing, supportive
Race & Ethnicity
  • Minority races seen as “other” and less mainstream
  • Ethnic styles of dress or speech seen as less professional
  • Attractive people seen as friendlier, more successful
  • Less attractive people seen as less competent
  • Overweight people seen as lazy, sloppy
  • Fit people seen as disciplined, energetic

Strategies for overcoming demographic biases

To help make sure others’ impressions of you are based on merit rather than demographic biases, consider these approaches:

  • Highlight your skills, experience, education, character traits
  • Dress professionally and speak articulately
  • Counter stereotypes subtly through your behavior
  • Be warm and engaging to seem approachable
  • Have confidence in your abilities and qualifications

Measuring customer first impressions

For businesses, understanding the first impression customers have of your company is crucial. Some ways to gather data on customer first impressions include:

  • Surveys asking about initial perceptions of your brand
  • Focus groups with first-time customers
  • Analysis of reviews from new customers
  • Interviews with front-line employees
  • Testing response to trial offers or samples
  • Observation of in-store customer behavior
  • Monitoring reactions to ads, website, packaging

Look for patterns in the first impression feedback to identify strengths to leverage and weaknesses to improve. Compare results over time to measure progress.

Key metrics for customer first impressions

When analyzing data on customer first impressions, these are some of the most useful metrics to track:

Metric Example Benchmark Goal
Unaided brand awareness 40% can name your brand without prompting
Trial rate for offers 60% of new site visitors opt for free trial
Brand sentiment 80% have positive initial view of your brand
Brand associations 70% associate your brand with desired attributes like “innovative” or “friendly”
Brand favorability 80% rate initial opinions of brand as favorable
Purchase intent 50% indicate interest in purchasing after initial impression

Tracking metrics like these over time, segmented by demographic factors as needed, can reveal how customer first impressions are evolving and where to focus improvement efforts.


First impressions wield great influence, but with self-awareness and preparation, we can take steps to put our best foot forward. Understanding the rule of first impression allows shaping more positive outcomes in job interviews, sales presentations, first dates, and any situation where we need to quickly establish trust and credibility. While demographic biases can skew others’ impressions, we can counter them by showcasing our skills and merits. For organizations, monitoring customer first impressions through surveys and other feedback is key to managing brand perception. With data and attentiveness, first impressions can be honed to convey what is most accurate and effective.