Ideas

Q&A

First impressions really do matter

shutterstock

“Everyone knows what it’s like to be misunderstood sometimes,” says Heidi Grant Halvorson, a social psychologist at Columbia Business School. “What is surprising is that we’re actually misunderstood a lot more than we realize.” To help us understand how opaque we really are, Halvorson wrote “No One Understands You and What to Do About It,” out last month.

Ideas spoke with Halvorson about learning how others see us, trying to change those perceptions, and a few of her own personal misjudgments. Below is an edited excerpt:

IDEAS: Exactly how well do people understand us?

Advertisement

HALVORSON: Remarkably badly. If you look at it from a numbers perspective, a correlation of 1 means two things perfectly predict each other, and 0 means they don’t predict each other at all. When you look at first-year college roommates, it takes a full year of living together until there is any kind of significant correlation between perceptions of the self and the roommate’s perception. And it only gets to about 0.2. And then for people who know you well, the correlation tends to be about 0.5.

Get Today in Opinion in your inbox:
Globe Opinion's must-reads, delivered to you every Sunday-Friday.
Thank you for signing up! Sign up for more newsletters here

How do you find out how you’re coming across to other people? The best answer I can come up with is really good if you’re willing to do it. I’ve had a bunch of people try it and tell me that it’s actually very eye opening. Take someone who knows you well, and have them complete this sentence: “If I didn’t know you better I would think that you were BLANK.”

IDEAS: In your book, you mention a friend who for a long time miscalibrated his “listening” face.

HALVORSON: Tim Sullivan, the head of Harvard Business Review Press, he told me this story. When he first came to HBR, he wanted everyone to think he valued their opinions. People had talked about what an active listening face looked like, and he tried to model that. It turned out he looked really pissed off. He was trying to look alert, and it ended up being sort of ominous, a cold stare. There was no happiness in it.

Certain kinds of facial expressions are universal. Very strong emotions like surprise and disgust and anger, people can read those well above chance, but when it starts to be like, “I’m a little bit annoyed,” we can’t read those at all.

Advertisement

Brains don’t like vacuums. There’s always an interpretation, but we don’t consciously know that we’re interpreting, so it just feels like we see what’s there. The only saving grace in all of this is that the mistakes people make are pretty predictable. The big one, this is related to Amy Cuddy’s work [on the stereotype content model], is focusing so hard on coming across as smart and competent that you completely neglect to send signals that you’re a friend, that you’re warm. If there’s one mistake managers make, it’s that one — and leaders in general, and people in interviews. There’s no middle ground. If you don’t send signals of warmth, you come across as cold.

IDEAS: Can you come across as both competent and warm?

HALVORSON: You can absolutely come across as both. It’s harder for women than for men. One way to resolve the paradox is to focus not on the social aspects of warmth — being friendly — but the moral aspects of warmth, the character aspects, such as being loyal and principled and honest and fair.

IDEAS: Why is it so hard to change first impressions?

HALVORSON: Once we have an understanding of something, we interpret everything that comes after from the vantage point of the knowledge we already have. Let’s say I think you’re a jerk, and the next day you realize “Hey, I acted like a jerk,” so you bring me coffee. That seems unambiguously nice, but that action can be interpreted in a number of ways, and if I think you’re a jerk, I’m most likely to see it as an attempt to manipulate me.

Advertisement

IDEAS: Does knowing about stereotypes help people avoid them?

HALVORSON: A little bit. The problem is that the correction phase of perception takes time, effort, and mental capacity. Racism is not just for racists. All you need to do is know a stereotype to sometimes be affected by it. Even people who don’t believe them are affected by them. There’s a version of the implicit association test to test the bias that women aren’t good at science and math. I show that bias, and I am a female scientist. It goes to show how weird and unconscious it is.

IDEAS: What’s the worst you’ve misjudged someone?

HALVORSON: I’m divorced, so there’s that. Well, when I got to Columbia, the day I arrived for grad school, I was in a meeting with my advisor, and a guy knocked on the door. He was really disheveled, in greasy pants and a T-shirt. He asked Tori, my advisor, “Hey, are we still on for chess later?” I thought to myself, “That is so awesome that Tori plays chess with the facilities guy.” A month later I go to the first colloquium, and there he is talking about this statistic he invented. In my head, professors are not the snappiest dressers, but I had never seen someone who vaguely looked like he belonged in a soup kitchen.

IDEAS: How can you motivate people to perceive you accurately?

HALVORSON: The best way is to try to create a circumstance in which they need to deal with you, ideally where they need you in order to get what they want. If I’m working with you on something, suddenly I really need to know you because I need to be able to predict what you’re going to do and how you’re going to react. It’s not the most awesome sounding advice because what it means is that, if you have a colleague who doesn’t think that highly of you, what you need to do is get your boss to assign you to work together on something, which is not what people want to hear. They’re like, “Can’t I just buy them chocolates or something?” When it comes to people in a position of power, like your boss or a client, again it’s about “How can I help you get from A to B?” When you can help them achieve their goals, then suddenly you are worth paying attention to.

Matthew Hutson is a science writer in New York City and the author of “The 7 Laws of Magical Thinking: How Irrational Beliefs Keep Us Happy, Healthy, and Sane.”

Related:

2013: How ‘impermanence’ can help us all get along

2012: How kids make friends — and why it matters