In general, people underestimate the importance of first impressions in professional and social situations, Linda Inmon, Extension specialist for the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff, said. Once first impressions are made, they are difficult to change.

“A good first impression can make the difference between receiving a job offer or not,” she said. “Most studies show that people form an opinion of someone within the first few seconds of meeting. In other words, your intelligence or experience often do not count as much as the impression you make.”

People naturally rely on first impressions to know whether the person they are talking to is trustworthy or competent, Inmon said.

“People form an opinion based on the way you look, act and sound,” she said. “Clothing, grooming, body language, etiquette and vocal communication all play a part in how the rest of the world sees you.”

Even slight changes in the way a person dresses affect how intelligent, confident, trustworthy or responsible he or she seems, Inmon said.

According to a study on dress and perception, men wearing tailored suits were viewed more favorably than those wearing non-tailored suits. Women wearing conservative clothing were seen as more intelligent and dependable when their skirts were slightly longer.

“Wearing clothing that will make a good impression on everyone is impossible,” Inmon said. “Since even the most expensive clothing and accessories can’t always have a positive impact on first impressions, it’s important to consider what your clothing says about you. Ask yourself if your clothing reflects your personal style, the image of the company you are applying for a job at, or the atmosphere of a particular event.”

Inmon said it is important that clothes fit properly and should not be too loose or too tight when standing or sitting. Clothes should be clean, including hems and cuffs. People should avoid wearing pants with frayed hems or strings hanging. Clean and polished shoes are a must.

Personal grooming is also important in making good first impressions and for ensuring personal health and the health of coworkers. It is essential that individuals keep their body, breath and teeth clean and fresh.

Hair – including eyebrows and beards – should be neat and tidy. Nails should be clean and neatly trimmed.

“Brightly painted nails are a ‘no-no,’” Inmon said. “It’s also important to limit the use of perfume and cologne. Jewelry should also be worn in moderation.”

Even if a potential job candidate dresses well and says the right things during a job interview, their body language can ruin a professional relationship in seconds, Inmon said. The same rule applies to body language in personal relationships.

A study by the University of California, Los Angeles found a first impression has nothing to do with words, but rather with facial expression, appearance, level of interest shown and vocal tone.

“When meeting someone new it’s important to smile often, be attentive and have a welcoming tone in your voice to show interest,” Inmon said. “Body language is closely connected to the last important element of first impressions – etiquette and vocal communication.”

A handshake that is firm – but not bone-crushing – shows confidence, she said. According to Forbes magazine, people should speak in a voice loud enough to be heard, but soft enough to avoid startling others.

People should remember to say “please,” “thank you,” and “you’re welcome” at the appropriate times. The use of last names with proper salutations is almost always best unless otherwise communicated.

“You can never take back the initial seconds it takes to form an impression,” Inmon said. “It’s important to remember that the outside – whether founded or not – gives others an impression of what’s on the inside. Since we continue to meet people throughout our whole lives, it’s best to remain positive as we continue to make first impressions.”

The University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff offers all its Extension and Research programs and services without discrimination.

— Will Hehemann is a writer/editor with the UAPB School of Agriculture, Fisheries and Human Sciences.