You know the importance of making a good first impression, but what does “good” really mean? Is it a firm handshake? Is it wearing the right shoes? According to Harvard psychologist Amy Cuddy, how people judge you comes down to two key questions.
Cuddy has studied how people meet for more than a decade. In her new book, Presence: Bringing Your Boldest Self to Your Biggest Challenges, she says that people rapidly answer two questions when they first meet you:
- Can I trust this person?
- Can I respect this person?
In psychologist lingo, those dimensions are known respectively as warmth and competence, and ideally you want to be perceived as having both.
At first glance, you may think competence is more important, particularly in a professional setting. Who doesn’t want to come off as smart, talented, and confident?
But while those things undoubtedly are desirable, it turns out that warmth is the most important factor in how people judge you. “From an evolutionary perspective,” Cuddy says, “it is more crucial to our survival to know whether a person deserves our trust.” Competence is evaluated only after trust is established, and Cuddy warns that focusing too much on proving your strength can backfire.
She gives the example of MBA interns, who are often so focused on coming across as smart and competent that they skip social events, refuse to ask for help, and generally seem unapproachable. They may think their high performance will guarantee job offers, but the offers won’t come if no one feels they know them and can trust them.
“If someone you’re trying to influence doesn’t trust you, you’re not going to get very far; in fact, you might even elicit suspicion because you come across as manipulative,” Cuddy explains. “A warm, trustworthy person who is also strong elicits admiration, but only after you’ve established trust does your strength become a gift rather than a threat.”