A Second Chance to Make a First Impression
“For nearly 20 years, the cliché phrase “You never get a second chance to make a first impression” has become virtually an axiom. Its clear implication: If you mess up the first time, you'll never be able to overcome the poor impression you've made.
That's nonsense. We all have experience revising the impressions we have of people we meet, sometimes very dramatically. “I had the wrong idea about George. He's really a nice guy once you get to know him.”
In a sense, the moment of first contact is an audition. What we say, how we say it, how we move and act – all these factors and many more contribute to the first impression we give off. In cases such as selection job interviews, a salesperson's cold-call, and formal auditions for performers, one may not get more than one chance to make a winning impression.
However, in most cases, we get many opportunities to create a lasting impression. As impression-receivers, we are constantly revising the sense we have of other persons. In the most dramatic cases, spouses divorce when they discover that the person they married is very different from the one they fell in love with a few years earlier. Has the person changed, or has the perceiver changed? Actually, both.
We notice that different people often form quite varied first impressions of a certain individual. One finds that woman confident and articulate; another finds her “slick, a smooth talker.” In another case, one finds a guy to be “dumb, a bumpkin” because of a regional dialect, while a different perceiver finds him “down to earth, unpretentious.” As impression-formers, we bring our own preferences and values and stereotypes to the process. The truth of this is well demonstrated by social research, as happens when strikingly handsome or beautiful people are thought to be smarter or more competent than those less blessed by nature with physical attractiveness.
It is true that we don't get a second chance to make a first impression, just as it is true, as the ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus said, that we “can't step into the same river twice.” Everything is constantly changing. The river is changing, and we are changing. However, it is not true that we don't usually get a second (and third, and fourth) chance to make a lasting impression. Over time, people change and our impressions change. The most accurate sense we can get of a person is to observe them over time in many different kinds of situations. Only then can we see their most enduring characteristics.
In the event you think you've made a poor impression as a result of your behavior during a first contact, you can often revise that impression by offering some relationship repair that explains the earlier behavior. For example, a few days after the World Trade Center tragedy of 9/11/2001, I was scheduled to make a presentation to a professional group. At that time I was tense, stressed out. So was my audience. Pre-occupied and distracted and anxious, I had trouble staying focused, and the 50 people in the room gave me only fractured attention. After the talk, I was tremendously concerned that I had truly blown this opportunity to demonstrate my knowledge and competence. However, over time – and as I explained to key people that I was not my usual self because of the emotionally upsetting events in the days immediately preceding my presentation, those individuals understood and thanked me for my willingness to proceed within those difficult circumstances.
Many factors can impinge upon us that weaken our first impressions. Illness, family problems, financial reversals, bad news, and hundreds more. It is said that “Life ain't fair.” But in the case of the impressions we give off, life is at least somewhat fair because it often provides us the opportunity to explain our initial behavior and re-shape the first impressions we make.
First impressions are important and it's best to make good ones. However, don't despair, because impressions can be changed over time. It is not the first, but the lasting impression that counts.