Mere seconds. That’s all the time it takes for employers to decide four critical things about you as soon as you walk through the door. These almost pre-reflective assumptions can set the mood of the rest of your job interview – and they can be hard to turn around.

This is because when we first encounter a new face, our brains decide whether the person is attractive and trustworthy almost instantly.

“The link between facial features and character may be tenuous at best, but that doesn’t stop our minds from sizing other people up at a glance,” says Princeton University psychologist Alex Todorov in a recent study. “We decide very quickly whether a person possesses many of the traits we feel are important, such as likeability and competence, even though we have not exchanged a single word with them. It appears that we are hard-wired to draw these inferences in a fast, unreflective way.”

Eliot Hoppe, a leading expert on body language agrees. Hoppe says that hiring managers, while they may not even be conscious of it, “size up” a candidate for the position, right from the first glance.

And it’s literally a first glance. Says Hoppe, “In the first four seconds of meeting someone, you will have already answered four questions:

    1) Do I like you?
    2) Do I trust you?
    3) Are you safe?
    4) Who do you remind me of?”

“Consider too, that even in a short 20-minute meeting, a person can transmit up to 700 non-verbal signals, and that’s beyond the verbal communication already taking place,” he added.

Your chances of landing the job can be sunk just because you bear a passing resemblance to the bully who used to pick on the hiring manager in high school. That’s how powerful these first impressions and subconscious associations can be.

With that in mind, here are some strategies you can use to give you every chance of acing (or overcoming) that first impression.


    When you first meet your interviewer, smile. Smiling makes a person seem more attractive, sociable and confident, and people who smile more are more likely to get hired and promoted. If the interviewer’s reaction to your face was a negative one, your first defense against that impression is a warm and friendly smile.

    Have a good handshake

    A good handshake is an important part of making a great first impression. A well timed, firm but not aggressive handshake says you are confident, social and professional. A weak, finger-tip or overly-macho handshake can give the impression that you lack confidence or basic social skills.

    Use proper body language

    When it comes to first impressions, your body language goes a long way to demonstrating that you are competent and confident. Sit up straight in your chair with your feet firmly on the floor. Keep your arms at your sides, or use them to make friendly, conversational gestures. Crossing your arms can indicate that you are uncomfortable or possibly hiding something.

    Slouching, fidgeting, and avoiding eye contact can all give the impression that you are uncomfortable, usually from a lack of confidence or of interest in being there.

    Be positive and friendly

    Don’t let the job interview be a one-way interrogation. Turn it into a pleasant dialogue between two interesting people. Likeability matters, hiring managers are going to hire someone whose company they enjoy. Nail the ice breaker. Tell engaging stories. Ask smart questions.

    Show energy and confidence

    Think positive. Thinking and acting confident actually becomes self-fulfilling, making you genuinely more confident in your abilities and in your chances of acing the interview. Since interviewers are looking for someone energetic and enthusiastic about the job, acting like you are, showing them that you are, will help you make the right first impression.

There’s little you can do about those crucial few seconds when the interviewer’s brain makes its subconscious connections, but most job interviews last more than four seconds. That’s your window of time to demonstrate who you really are and what you can do.

“As time passes and you get to know people, you, of course, develop a more rounded conception of them,” said Todorov.

Peter Harris
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