It can feel as if first impressions have become like fax machines and phone books: Useful at one time, but now outdated. Because really, the idea that the first few seconds can make or break a relationship sounds a touch hyperbolic, right?
Well, not really. Want proof? Think about when you make a bad first impression. Maybe you mispronounced someone’s name or gave a moist-palmed handshake. Chances are, you remember it vividly.
“You go to great pains to correct it,” says Heidi Kevoe-Feldman, associate professor of communication studies at Northeastern University. “It matters. It’s our public presentation of self.”
A good first impression, at its core, is also about letting everyone know how approachable you are. This can be tricky. Our in-person interaction muscles have become soft. The pandemic aided in the atrophy. Social media, where we can craft how we look and sound, did too. And then there’s the fact that when you’re a parent, your world often becomes a bit more insular and it’s not uncommon to speak in your own particular language. All of this can make first-impressions tough.
“When confronted with a real human being, you have to act normal,” Kevoe-Feldman says.
And we don’t always do that. We stammer, ramble, or seem disinterested. Sure, it could be because you’re an anxious sort or more of an introvert or…take your pick. But here’s the thing: A good first impression doesn’t require perfection. Actually, a couple scuff marks make one more endearing.
“Showing vulnerability makes people relatable,” says Jessica Borelli, licensed psychologist and professor of psychological science at University of California Irvine.
But you also can’t just wing it. Meeting someone for the first time requires you to do something with intention. And that something is worth honing because first impressions still matter for job interviews and client meetings and sales pitches. More so, as a parent, you’re not just going to be meeting people all the time — teachers, other parents, doctors, coaches, neighbors — and those relationships are important for your family. Plus, modeling good social skills is part of being a parent.
So how can you make a good first impression? The following steps can help.
1. Be Sure To Smile
There are some First Impressions Basics: Make eye contact. Maintain eye contact. Unfold your arms. Be present. Say their name. Adherence to these “shows some intention and that the relationship matters,” says Borelli. Fair enough. But if you only do two things, they should be to say “Hi” and smile. “It’s the most beautiful package,” Kevoe-Feldman says.
Of all of them, the smile tops the list. Without it, the other stuff is undercut. It’s like when you’re in a store or restaurant and you get greeted but with a blank look. It feels underwhelming at best, annoying at worst. If you do anything, be sure to smile.
2. Read the Room
Here’s a scenario: It’s parent-teacher night. You have things you want to say about your kid and about what happened this quarter. But you decide to hold that in because you recognize that you are towards the end of the list and the teacher has probably been pelted with all kinds of “suggestions.” So instead, you just do the “Hi”-smile combo and add in, “I’m happy you’re our child’s teacher,” to start this on-going relationship with appreciation for what they do and what they will do.
The same approach goes for a coach and doctor. There’s time to get to know each other, so there’s no need to immediately bury any of them with information unless you want to create a far different impression, which is, “that person will take up a lot of space and be needy,” Borelli says. Of course, if issues need to be discussed, don’t hold them in. The point, however, is to read the room and find your opening.
3. Show That You’re Present
Here’s another scenario: You’re at the playground and see that you have some extra snacks. You ask another parent, “Any food restrictions?” It’s a quick way to show that you’re aware, thoughtful, and that you realize every parent has their own concerns or limits. You also don’t make the other parent have to bring up what can be an uncomfortable subject. All of this goes into the Much Appreciated column, Kevoe-Feldman says.
4. Express Appreciation
Maybe you’re picking your kid up from a birthday party or playdate. Find the parents, introduce yourself, and express thanks for what you received. After all, as Kevoe-Feldman says, “you got free babysitting.” Hang around and chat if that feels like the vibe. Whatever you do, don’t harp on your kid to hurry up or harshly discipline them for any reason. Doing so makes that home a bad memory, and the parents aren’t going to say, “Yes. More of you please.”
“The first impression will stick to your kid as much as to you,” she says.
5. Keep Your Head in the Game
There’s stuff in your kid’s life. Books they like. Games they play. Their teacher’s name. Their teacher’s name. You want to know that stuff, because it’s important to your kid. But also because when you’re around other parents two things are happening. You’re assessing each other as possible friends, and they’re seeing if the kids can hang out with you in charge. If you’re on the playground, every once in a while, pause and say, “Just want to make sure they’re OK,” to convey that you’re on the job and take it seriously. You don’t have to know every detail, but being the way-too-casual dad holds little appeal. It shows you’re an active participant in your child’s life and that gives a good impression.
6. Follow Up
You know what feels good? When you recommend something you love/offered advice to someone and the next time you see that person they tell you that they enjoyed it/followed it. It’s a simple, nice gesture that lets you know they have follow-through. Apply this to your own life. So, you met a neighbor and they mentioned some local even that sounds cool, or they might have asked about a good plumber and you said you knew one? Show that you listened and actually cared and follow-up. Text them the recommendation. Tell them about the event the next time you see them. Oh — and remember their name when you talk to them. People love hearing their own name, and, as Borelli says, nothing cements a good first impression like a better second one.
7. Ask A Simple Questions
Like “How’s it going?” It’s simple and benign and it asks for a response from the teacher, coach, doctor, whomever. You might find some commonality or something to laugh about, but usually that person isn’t getting asked about themselves so it’s a refreshing switch and a way to say that you’re not looking to compete or claim territory. You’re just genuinely interested in them, Kevoe-Feldman says.
That’s a good approach towards anyone who’s invested in your child’s life. You certainly can criticize and be demanding, but “it doesn’t make anyone want to help you,” Borelli says.
Curiosity works when meeting anyone, and it’s another thing we’ve become weak at since Google can answer everything. But people have stories, and more than learning stuff, it’s a chance to get to know them. So ask questions and be interested in the answers.
Ultimately, we’re social, and when we see others around us that we get along with, that makes us feel more secure in the face of uncertainty. It’s something that has helped us thrive as humans since long ago. As Kevoe-Feldman says, “I might be able to build a hut with them.”