What Really Matters in a First Impression

What really matters in a first impression?

If you consult job advice boards, they’ll immediately jump to a few standard tips: Smile. Give a robust handshake. Make sure you’re dressed to impress. Make sure you’re wearing matching socks. Seems simple, right?

A few weeks back, I sat in the lobby of an accomplished Executive Director to ask for some career advice.

I had been waiting to score this meeting for weeks and was unquestionably nervous as I sat in the company of his decorated leather furniture and company emblems.

As I looked down at the floor, my eyes froze in terror.

Shit.

I was wearing two different colored socks.

My entire morning was suddenly a blur. I didn’t remember getting ready. I didn’t remember opening my sock drawer. I had no recollection of the exact moment where I had decided it would be an acceptable idea to wear contrasting patterns. I had woken up, rushed to get ready and had now ruined the opportunity I had spent weeks finalizing.

What would he assume about my life choices?

I looked at the executive’s office door and panicked. I imagined a hypothetical scenario where he would walk into the lobby, scoff at my socks, severely lower his expectations of our meeting, and slowly spend the rest of the afternoon wondering how a walking abomination of fashion managed to even land a job in the professional services industry.

The door opened and I heard my name. I gulped, walked into the office, had a fluid conversation about intrapreneurship and career trajectories, and left smiling.

Not one mention of socks. No assumptions. No derision.

On a bi-weekly basis, we began to exchange emails where he asked for updates on my time at IBM. I started to help him share his company’s events on social media. During our follow-up meeting a month later, I wore matching socks. It didn’t make any difference in his perception.

There’s a certain paranoia in the professional and corporate world when it comes to first impressions. Every interview seems to deem a clean suit with zero wrinkles. Every networking event seems to invite a rigid conversation, devoid of personal questions and jokes. Limp handshakes are blasphemous. Occasionally chair slouching is egregious. There are constant eyes on what you wear and how you act in critical situations. Even inspirational quote boards carry the “first impression” as an immovable ideal — as if you have no choice but to knock it out of the park.

There is a strong extent to which I agree. No one wants a lackluster and apathetic facade to serve as their first impression. There are certainly ways in which a boisterous and obnoxious exchange can be a lasting first impression. In every first impression, I do believe it’s important to stay cognizant of boundaries when it comes to offensive statements, unconventional behaviors and stark prejudice.

But do all people simply write off those with a poor first impression?

Do things like fashion and stylistic resume fonts actually matter to key decision making powers?

Do people never absolve first impressions or care about second chances?

In a world where I had been taught everything was conditional on my first impression, these were questions I pondered.

The first time I was on the corporate side of IBM for an interview day, I worked as a greeter. In this position, I was in charge of greeting college students interviewing for a consulting position in our firm. In the late afternoon, one student rushed in two minutes late with an uneven tie and undone collar — with a purple face, he frantically apologized and I calmly led him to his interview room.

As the interview day went on, I watched as he walked out of the room devastated. As protocol, I gave him my business card to see if he had any questions about IBM; he sent me a notification later with an anecdote about how he really loved IBM and the interviewer but felt he bombed the case interview. He was nervous that his tardiness had left a poor impression.

The interesting outcome? He was one of our strongest candidates of the day. He gave important answers to questions we really cared about. He knew exactly what drew him to IBM, demonstrated a strong penchant for learning, and built rapport with every interviewer through small talk. I could’ve written him off in the ten seconds I met him for very understandable reasons — his second impression, however, far outweighed his first.

In Zero To One, Peter Thiel describes the early day of Paypal and their vision of recruiting — nobody at Paypal wore a suit and Thiel saw no extra earned merit from wearing a suit or a polished outfit to a Paypal interview. He would ask candidates why they wanted to work at Paypal and judged them on this answer alone — you could come in wearing a sweatshirt and jeans but there was no stopping you if you knew exactly why and how you wanted to contribute to the growth of Paypal. What’s the bottom line?

Your Impression’s Value Could Be Temporary

In fact, it depends entirely on the person who perceives that impression and what they value. There are many instances in which I could see intrepid fashion sense being key to a first impression. In most offices, especially in Silicon Valley, what you wear is not remotely integral to how you can contribute to the work place. If you wear a nice suit, it probably buys you a proud first glance and ten seconds in most interviews. Beyond that, you will have to win them over with your intelligence and candor. If you wear a tie clip to a networking event, it probably buys you five seconds before you have to dazzle them with your words and thoughts. Don’t assume that a strong outfit will have a permanent appraisal.

It’s Important to Be Yourself

This sounds cheesy until your hear how many people become complete robots during interviews or networking events to build some kind of positive reputation. If someone cannot accept your personality upon their first impression of you, remember that you will be the same person for the next 300 days. If you’re an introverted person, you don’t have to be an extrovert. If you like to talk about sports or have a passion outside of work that makes you unique, don’t think that sharing it will marginalize someone’s opinion of you any more. It’s the unique people that often stand out the most. If who you are is constantly changing depending on who you’re speaking with, it may be time to re-assess who you actually are.

Values Are More Important Than Statements

My opinion of you will not change dramatically if you happen to have untied shoes or a loose belt in a given moment. It will also not drastically change if you happen to be exquisitely dressed. While I do admire sharp dressers, I have full confidence that you can likely tie your shoes or tighten your belt in a situation where you haven’t. What matters to me is your empathy, tenacity, openness, kindness, humility, optimism, and appetite for learning. If you can build strong values upon a longer period of time, short-term slips will matter less and less. If you can’t build upon these values, your statements will carry as much weight as a Donald Drumpf policy proposal.

Perfect Is Not The Enemy of Good

Unless your prescient mind can predict every interest, expectation, and thought of another person, it’s likely that you won’t make a perfect first impression. Think of it like dating — it all comes down to gradually learning about the other person. You are allowed to be human.

There are often times I hear people say, “If he can’t even remember to straighten a tie, why should I trust him to straighten a client?” I personally find this to be a strange line of thought. Straightening a tie is something that can be done in two seconds. Straightening a client requires intangibles that far transcend a momentary gap in dressing up. If I find someone walk into the office with uncombed hair, I don’t find that person to be an unconscionable mess. I find them to be human. If you obsess over a perfect self-image, you’ll be expected to hold true to this image every day. Don’t exhaust yourself if you don’t need to.

So, are you saying that I would be fine getting a job at IBM if I roll out of bed to an interview as long as I’m a good person? As a general statement, of course not. There are many times where first impressions are important. There are many times where poor first impressions may close doors or work against you. There are certain behaviors, such as smiling, that will overcome tension in any situation. But unless you are speaking to Javert in Les Miserables, you also have every opportunity to evolve beyond your first impression. You will meet people who are understanding and people who value parts of you in a first impression that you may not even have recognized.

For those who tend to judge sharply on first impressions, remember that humans are in a state of perpetual learning. Remember your own life: There are days you’ll be totally out of control and there are days where you will be the point person for a large client deliverable — it is rare that you will be the same person on both of these days. Keep your impressions in perspective. Be transparent about your values and invite someone to treat you with the care your values deserve. Don’t let them guess. Most of all, don’t sweat the small stuff. If someone has a really terrible handshake, ask if that is enough to truly re-calibrate their other good qualities. It’s harder to teach a value than it is to teach a handshake.

“It takes a moment to judge someone but a lifetime to understand them.”

If you truly don’t believe any of this makes a difference, ask the guy who has been working as a strategy consultant for a large technology behemoth and hasn’t worn matching socks in two weeks.

Kushaan is an IBM Consultant based out of Washington D.C. His interests are rooted in strategy consulting, entrepreneurship, social media, and the intersection of technology with social impact. He enjoys blogging about life, career insights, social technology, and hacking the corporate environment. If you liked this post, follow him on twitter: @kushaanshah or click “Follow” at the top for more posts on Medium.