First Impressions, and How to Make Yours Better

Most people don’t barrel into conversation headfirst. Rather, they gently dip a toe in and test the waters. If you’ve never met someone before, you naturally feel like you should first remain reserved so you can calibrate your interactions, read your new acquaintance, and determine how familiar or relaxed you can be.

For instance, remember when you were in elementary school and you found out you would have a substitute teacher the next day? It was a scary moment for most, unless you hated your normal teacher. It was scary because you never knew how strict or vicious the substitute would be, and you would have to be on your best behavior for a few days until you figured them out. Who knew if this substitute was the type to whip out a ruler and smack you across your knuckles, or ferociously dress you down for daring to step out of line?

The next morning, suppose the substitute teacher walks in with impeccable posture and addresses everyone as “mister” and “miss” even though you are eight years old. That’s the tone they chose to set, which is obviously not ideal for you. But what if the substitute teacher were to walk in with an untucked shirt and sandals and immediately address the class as “buddies” and “dudes”? I’m not saying one is superior to the other, but a tone is intentionally being set by each of these teachers. It shows you how they prefer to interact with the students, and how they want to be treated.

In conversation and especially when small talk commences, we are sending the same signals, but we probably don’t realize it. We are all sizing others up in a similar way, and people are doing the same to you. They look at how you carry yourself, which lets them know what kind of interaction you might prefer. So what kind of substitute teacher do you appear to be to strangers, acquaintances, and even friends?

Knowing you are making an impression on everyone you meet, you should be cognizant of setting the right tone with others. What kind of signals are you sending? For our purposes, we ideally want to send a signal of comfort and familiarity. It’s understandable that you may not feel comfortable being the first to reach out, but it’s too often that this causes a game of chicken where there is no movement at all.

We keep ourselves from small talk success by talking like strangers, sending signals of discomfort and distance, and simply acting as if we aren’t yet friends. When you treat people like strangers, strangers they will remain. Setting the tone means making the mental leap to “we’re friends now” and treating them as such.
Set the Tone

At the risk of sounding redundant, at the most basic level, this means to speak like friends and stop conversing with everyone like you’ve just met them at a professional networking event. How do friends speak, exactly?

I’ve got a useful personal anecdote to share on how friends, familiar acquaintances, and those who quickly make friends speak. It was a couple of years ago, and you’ll never guess who the other party was.

We had a short back and forth exchanging the normal pleasantries and how-do-you-dos, and then we got right to business. It wasn’t particularly what my conversation partner said to me; it was the approach she had. My conversation partner essentially had no filter, and whatever came to her mind, she asked. This was refreshing, as most day-to-day banter can be uniform and vanilla, without a clear path to something more substantive or interesting.

Some people like to shallowly jump from topic to topic and not truly engage, and this was the opposite experience. The lack of a filter means the conversation will go places that are interesting, emotion-driven, and somewhat inappropriate.

(Of course, the best topics are always somewhat inappropriate. Very few topics are truly inappropriate—you just have to speak about those topics in an appropriate manner.)

Speaking to someone who wasn’t beating around the bush for the sake of remaining appropriate was refreshing. She wasn’t afraid of asking the deep and tough questions, no matter how often she had to ask, “But why?” to understand something. Often, our conversation went down a hole that others would have avoided. She had to ask a few times before I realized myself what I was saying.

There was no judgment, and it was apparent that her questions were motivated by sheer, genuine curiosity. It made me feel comfortable being vulnerable and sharing my more private thoughts. In essence, we had skipped past most phases of small talk and sniffing each other out, and dove right into the deep end and spoke like people who had known each other for a long, long time. Surely this is the type of interaction correlated with general well-being and happiness that was discussed at the opening of this book.

You got me—the conversation partner was an eight-year-old I met at an acquaintance’s barbecue. For most of us, we have trouble with conversation when we think about it too much. We analyze in our heads, attempt to plan, and unnecessarily filter what we have to say. What comes out may be overly formal or stilted through overthinking.

No matter how exciting or emotionally engaging the thoughts swimming around our noodles may be, what makes it out of our mouths can be downright dull. We stick to the tried and proven safe topics. We filter out the excitement and intrigue because we don’t want to rile any feathers or because we are self-conscious ourselves.

Children do not have this problem, and that’s the tone they set. As a result, we all act a certain way toward inquisitive and social children, don’t we? We follow their lead. This is always the choice you have as well. Just to be clear, the point is certainly not to act like a child, nor even childlike necessarily. It’s just to understand that we all send certain signals when we interact with others, and children send very unique ones that typically open us up and make interactions fun and entertaining.

Remember not to be so literal and serious; a playful, relaxed attitude like the one you already have with your friends is just right. Be less predictable and give unexpected, unconventional answers. If someone asks how you the traffic was, don’t offer a merely descriptive, accurate answer. Make something up, or say the opposite of what you mean (sarcasm in a nutshell). Play with language and use colorful phrases and expressions. Your car is your chariot, the sun is as bright as Elton John’s sunglasses, and the orange is as sweet as a truck full of synthetic sugar.

You can bring in some lightheartedness simply by exaggerating a little, being absurd or going over the top in a way that makes people sit up and take notice. At a stressful doctor’s appointment, a father may lighten the mood by looking at his pouting toddler with a deadpan expression and saying, “Doctor, is it too late for adoption?”

You may find it effective to deliberately misinterpret a situation in a completely absurd way. If someone says that they love little kids, well, you can fill in the blank there.

Pose hypothetical questions to gently break people out of the regular humdrum of life, or do a silly role play. You’re at the library and someone’s pencil rolls off the desk and toward you. You catch it and pretend to scold the pencil but then look sadly at the other person. “I’m really sorry, but I don’t think your pencil likes you anymore…”

Sarcasm is another tool. An acquaintance asks you how your day at the DMV was and you smile broadly and exclaim, “Fantastic! Have you been? It’s just gorgeous this time of year stuck inside that luxury hotel.”

Sometimes, deliberately drawing attention to the situation you’re both in can also create a feeling of camaraderie. When you “break the fourth wall” you talk about exactly what’s going on, perhaps having a conversation about the conversation you’re having. Many difficult exchanges have actually been revived by someone having the courage to say, “Wow. So this is a little awkward, huh?” If you for some unforeseeable reason happen to spend twenty minutes discussing the merits of chest hair, this would be fair game to point out as a self-referential dig.

How do you act like friends otherwise? There is no pretense, there is assumed familiarity, you say what’s on your mind, you show your emotions, and you ask deeper questions borne out of curiosity. The next time you spend time with a group of friends, try to sit back and analyze the interaction in front of you. How are people relating to each other, what kind of questions is everyone asking, and what are the signs that you are all comfortable and familiar with each other?

Also pay close attention to the topics being thrown around. You will notice very quickly that they adhere to the small talk stages from the previous chapter. Some facts will be shared, such as stories from people’s lives or funny events. Then people will engage in opinion sharing and exchange, and delve even more deeply into how those opinions impact emotions.

Sometimes it is better to play it safe and be cautious with how we present ourselves. However, those instances do not comprise the majority of our lives. The biggest lesson from this section should be that we are indeed capable of setting the tone, and most of us do it in a way that is self-defeating—but we are capable of changing that if we put in a little effort.