Of those pictured above, whom would you trust most?
Here at Debrett’s, we often cite the statistic that it only takes seven seconds to form an impression of someone.
A new book, Face Value, by Alexander Todorov, suggests that it’s even quicker than that. 30 milliseconds of exposure to someone’s face can apparently provide sufficient information for our brains to form an impression of them – in particular their trustworthiness, dominance and attractiveness.
Todorov’s argument is that these impressions are often misleading, and can have damaging consequences. In countries where electoral candidates’ photographs are included on ballot papers, votes may be cast on the strength of someone’s perceived trustworthiness, rather than their competence and track record.
In countries where electoral candidates’ photographs are included on ballot papers, votes may be cast on the strength of someone’s perceived trustworthiness, rather than their competence and track record.
This implies that we have little control over the impression we create. If we happen to have a face that looks trustworthy and competent, isn’t that an accident of genetics?
In an interview with Radio 4’s All in the Mind, Todorov explained that we are in fact affected by others’ emotional expressions, which he describes as ‘a lousy guide for character’.
If someone's journey to an interview is particularly stressful and frustrating, they may be looking distressed or irritated as a result. That is of course no indication of their character, but the interviewer, encountering them for the first time, may be left with the impression that they are generally bad-tempered and hostile.
Simple techniques – smiling and making eye contact, for example – can help to mask inner anxiety or discomfort and communicate warmth, confidence and trustworthiness.
"Smiling helps us in two critical ways. It creates or supports what behavioural scientists call feedback loops. If we smile at an audience, the audience will smile back. When they smile back at us we relax and this helps the audience to relax (and to smile more), and so the virtuous circle continues. There is another feedback loop, too - an internal one. If we can smile, even if we're faking it a bit, we start to release the same hormones into the body that we release when we're naturally relaxed and happy. This serves to relax us more, until the smile is completely relaxed and genuine!"
If we can smile, even if we're faking it a bit, we start to release the same hormones into the body that we release when we're naturally relaxed and happy.
The impression we make (deliberately or inadvertently) can also be determined by our background and culture. Rebecca, a Californian, noticed a difference in others' apparent attitudes when she moved to London:
"I’ve been smiling less here than I did in California as it just seems less part of the cultural norm – I worry about giving off the impression that I’m going to stop people to ask for a donation!"
It's unlikely that Londoners intend to appear unfriendly, but their environment and culture has conditioned them to be reserved, while fear of others' reactions can make neutrality a safer option. In other cultures, making direct eye contact is considered a breach of etiquette.
Awareness of our emotional expression in line with these cultural expectations can help us to shape the impression we make, to communicate warmth and confidence, and to mask any inner anxiety or discomfort.
Is it really so easy to alter your mood (and change other people's impression of you)? Try it for yourself and see what happens. ?
Debrett's two-day Professional Finishing School, taking place at the end of August, focuses on first impressions, personal and professional impact, networking and interview skills for 18 - 25-year-olds. Our Preparing for the Next Role course helps those with more experience who may be looking to make a change or take an important step in their career.