How to Make a Good First Impression

4 min read

First impressions matter in work, friendships, and romantic relationships. When we meet someone for the first time, we decide if that person is someone we want to spend time with and get to know better, or if they’re someone we want to avoid. And once that initial impression is made, it’s difficult to change it. This is because once we start to avoid someone, we are less likely to learn whether our negative impression was wrong.

So what are the types of behaviors that lead to a good first impression? Should you try to be friendly or warm, or is it better to try to come off as confident and assertive? To answer this question, psychologists Michael Dufner and Sacha Krause conducted a study where they videotaped getting-to-know-you conversations among German university students (Dufner & Krause, 2023).

The goal of the study was to predict how participants’ behaviors during first meetings were related to two different types of liking: The first type of liking was general popularity, referring to how much you are generally liked by others. The second type was unique liking—this occurs when a specific person likes you more than others do. You are generally popular when everybody wants to get to know you, and you have unique liking when one person wants to get to know you much more than everyone else.

After the conversations took place, a group of experts observed and rated recordings of participants’ behavior on two dimensions: communality and agency. Communality refers to how warm and friendly you are during conversation. A highly communal person is someone who smiles and shares positive emotions, and is generally warm and accepting of others. Agency refers to how dominant and confident someone is during conversations. A person scoring high in agency is likely to dominate the conversation, speak loudly, and talk about their own accomplishments.

What predicts positive first impressions?

Both communal and agentic behaviors were strongly associated with general popularity. In other words, individuals who appeared to be both friendly and dominant were more successful across all of their conversations—although it’s worth noting that the effect of communality on popularity was usually stronger than the effect of agency.

In contrast, communal behavior was the only significant predictor of unique liking. In some cases, there was sometimes even a negative relationship between agency and unique liking. In terms of trying to make a particularly good first impression on one person, communal behavior was more effective than agentic behavior.

Interestingly, there were positive (but small) correlations between communal and agentic behaviors. This means that communal individuals also tended to be more agentic, and vice versa. This seems to suggest that popular individuals tend to rely on both types of behaviors, though they may focus on one area (either communality or agency) compared to the other.

Is there a one-size-fits-all approach to first impressions?

The present results suggest that both communality and agency contribute to positive first impressions. Both types of behaviors were associated with general popularity. If you want to make a good first impression, try to be both friendly and confident in your behavior. But only communality was associated with unique liking, the tendency to make a particularly good impression on one individual. This suggests that friendliness is really the key to making a particularly positive first impression on someone.

It’s also important to consider how these results might differ across different social contexts. In this study, participants had relatively open-ended “getting-to-know-you” conversations. They didn’t have specific goals or an agenda in mind when they started their conversations. But oftentimes we approach conversations looking for specific things from our conversation partners. For example, in a job interview context, we might care more about a job applicant’s agency (vs. their communality). Or, if we are meeting a potential roommate or friend, we might care only about whether that person is friendly and warm. While communality is likely to generally be perceived positively across situations, its relative importance, compared to agency, will probably depend on the specific situation.

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