EF Education First Teachers

At a recent trainers meeting, my colleague gave a really interesting presentation on what makes people successful. Qualifications and intelligence can’t be ignored – of course not! But the difference that makes the difference is relationships. Every successful career is built on a network of relationships. This got me thinking about how these relationships are formed. And my conclusion is that a lot of it boils down to ten very important seconds…

No matter how open minded we think we are, we all judge! Every time you encounter someone new, your mind goes through a series of automatic steps, and whether you are consciously aware of it or not, these steps inform our opinion of the other person in what we call the first impression. This process occurs in the first ten seconds of the encounter.

Notice I said encounter and not meeting. Within the open plan offices and fully windowed classrooms at EF, many first impressions are made without a word being spoken and without one party being aware that an impression has been formed.

In his excellent book on this topic, Malcolm Gladwell1 describes the process of thin-slicing. Thin-slicing is a term used in psychology to describe the ability to find patterns in events based only on "thin slices" or narrow windows of experience. It causes us to use minimal information to form opinions or make decisions. While this is a necessary ability (think life or death situations), the process seems to be our default response and is used in situations of a non-emergency nature. On top of this, most of us subscribe to a WYSIATI2 mentality (what you see is all there is). This means that what I see before me and my interpretation of it is the evidence I use to make a decision, and I don’t consider anything else.

Let’s imagine that you are a senior manager visiting a school where a presentation is happening. As you walk past the classrooms, you see a teacher asleep at a desk. What is your impression of this teacher?

Did you think ‘I bet she was up all night preparing for the presentation’ or ‘She has probably just come down with a migraine’? Or do you think ‘That teacher is lazy’?

For many people, it will be the latter. You take what you saw in front of you and based on very limited information formed a first impression. And we know that first impressions are difficult to change. Because we humans like to be right! So once our decision is made (in this case the first impression being formed) we start to look for evidence to prove ourselves right. So this teacher would have a bit of work to do to get you to change your perception of her being lazy to being a dedicated teacher, because you’ll be (subconsciously of course) looking for evidence to support your initial finding of laziness!

So we all judge! And we all are judged. And we can’t change somebody else’s automatic response. But by considering what’s going on in that automatic response, you might be able to manage others’ perceptions of you. In that initial encounter, our unconscious mind is asking two questions. Firstly, do I like this person? And then, do I respect this person? According to Amy Cuddy3, the dimensions related to liking are warmth and trustworthiness, and those related to respect are power and confidence. So when making a first impression, you must first get the person to like you, then to respect you. And both dimensions are important. If people respect you but don’t like you, they may not approach you. If people like you but don’t respect you, they won’t want to work for or with you.

To make a great first impression, start with warmth and trust.

  • Smile – really smile… with your eyes.
  • Use people’s names when you talk with them.
  • Find things in common with the person that you are talking to.
  • Give compliments (real ones!)
  • Mean the things you say – be genuine and sincere
  • Keep your word
  • Keep your body language open
  • Ask the person questions about himself
  • Show that you are interested by nodding and encouraging him to say more

When working on generating respect, be careful not to go too far. Don’t appear to be threat.

  • Stand confidently with your shoulders back and your head up
  • Don’t cross your arms or legs – even if you don’t feel defensive these gestures can be interpreted like that
  • Maintain good eye contact
  • Use a firm (but not crushing) handshake
  • Talk about your achievements without boasting. Don’t belittle your achievements but don’t embellish them either. And remember, we rarely achieve things all by ourselves so mention other people that helped you
  • Make your point succinctly and clearly and give your opinion when you have something worthwhile to say rather than commenting on everything

And while you can’t control others’ automatic responses, you can work on your own snap judgements. After you’ve met someone for the first time, ask yourself

  • How do I feel about the person?
  • What evidence am I basing that on?
  • What if that isn’t all there is?

At the very least, you may be open to another perspective. And our teacher who gave herself a migraine by staying up all night to prepare a presentation for you would have a chance to impress you.



  1. Gladwell, Malcolm (2007). Blink. Back Bay Books, Little, Brown and Company
  2. Daniel Kahneman (2011). Thinking, Fast and Slow. Macmillan
  3. Cuddy, Amy (2012),  http://blog.ted.com/in-debates-watch-for-signs-of-warmth-qa-with-am...

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