The Hard Facts: Why The First Meeting Matters Most

It’s Research Wednesday! Where I share the latest, or most fascinating, in the science of friendship.

“There is more than a literal truth to the saying that ‘you never get a second chance to make a first impression’. [Recent] findings suggest that new experiences that contradict a first impression become ‘bound’ to the context in which they were made. As a result, the new experiences influence people’s reactions only in that particular context, whereas first impressions still dominate in other contexts.” (“Research Discovers Why First Impressions are So Persistent,” 1/18/2011)

When you’re on a friend search (or a romantic one, really) first impressions weigh pretty heavily. That initial meeting—with all of its potential for awkwardness—will likely be the deciding factor in whether you have a second get-together, and a third. There’s a lot riding on it.

If you do meet a potential BFF a second time, your initial assessment will likely hold up—for better or worse. This new research says that almost always, our first impression sticks. If you find a girl-date crass and abrasive, but later run into her at a party where she’s being sweet-as-pie, you aren’t likely to change your opinion. Instead, you’ll consider this behavior the exception to the rule. You’ll likely surmise that the PBFF is a grouch who turns on the charm in large social settings. That’s what the researchers mean when they say that “experiences that contradict a first impression become bound to the context in which they were made.”

Though I strive to make a positive impression when I meet people—who doesn’t?—I don’t always succeed. If I’m exhausted, or have had a bad day, I’m in real danger of coming off as distracted or disinterested. Especially if the meeting is in a group setting. (It’s tougher to disengage when the friend-date is just the two of you.)

The good news to come out of this research is that while first impressions are tough to change, they’re not impossible.

Take my example of the harsh PBFF who turned into a sweetheart at party time. You’ll think her nice side is party-specific, but only until you see it in other contexts. If you see her at a party, and then later run into her on the street, and the next day bump into her at a work event, and if all those times her nice-girl persona holds up, you might find yourself changing your mind. “In that case, the first impression becomes decontextualized and the first impression will slowly lose it’s power,” one researcher says.

Good to know. Having the power to change someone’s first impression is a pretty great weapon in the friending arsenal. Not easy, but powerful.

Have your first impressions of potential friends ever led you astray? How did you change your mind?


Filed under The Search

7 responses to “The Hard Facts: Why The First Meeting Matters Most

  1. LizC

    I had a bad first impression of someone I didn’t even know was going to become a friend. When I went to my potential college for a round of scholarship interviews and the whole campus tour this girl was in my group. I already felt out of place because I was surrounded by people who attended private high schools in urban areas while I went to a public school in a rural area (I chose to attend a private Catholic university) and this girl just rubbed me the wrong way. She seemed snobbish and everything she said and did struck me as just needing to be the center of attention.

    I didn’t think I would ever see her again but she ended up being in my orientation group, my freshman seminar and lived directly across the hall from me in the dorms. We ended up with the same group of friends. I revised my opinion.

    This actually turned out to be a mistake as 2 years later she did something that was just so fundamentally mean and that one friend should never do to another friend. Since then if I have a bad first impression of a person I tend to go with my gut and it’s worked out pretty well.

    While I would love to say that I’m willing to give a 2nd chance and revise my opinion, the older I get the less I’m likely to even want to go through a second or a third meeting to give the person a chance to change my mind.

  2. I went to high school with a girl who I had in some classes. She was pretty popular–captain of the cheerleading squad, homecoming queen, etc. She also came across as very stupid in classes. Always asking questions with obvious answers, always repeating what had just been said. I found her annoying.

    We ended up going to the same college and majoring in the same degree. One semester she was in every single one of my classes. Turns out, she’s an auditory learner and needs to hear things repeated in order to have it sink in. One day in class she turned to me and said (with her arm raised), “I know it’s obnoxious that I ask so many questions, but it’s how I learn and I’m not getting bad grades for being shy.” She and I have remained friends now for years.

  3. Suzannah

    I think what I like most about these research studies is the results are almost always something we already know…or maybe feel, but have not ever thought much about…..these studies kinda validate my understanding of society and the rules social engagement…
    As far as first impressions go I have to say I totally agree, it helps us sort, organize & predict ( wrongly a lot of the time) the people we meet….

  4. Kate

    I had a first impression blow up in my face with a girl-date once. My husband and I met this gal at a Christmas party, we had a BLAST talking to her and she actually suggested the two of us get together for drinks. She called, we set the date, done.


    That was one of the longest evenings of my life. We talked our head’s off, don’t get me wrong. But she was so rude to the bartender, I wasn’t sure if I could ever patronize that restaurant again. I haven’t seen or spoken to her since I was so turned-off by her bad behavior.

  5. I think I’m the complete opposite – I’ve learned never to trust my opinion on a first impression. The people I dislike at first (esp guys) are the ones who become a big part of my life, and the people I meet and hit it off with are the ones who usually annoy me after a while. On the positive side of that, I’m usually very forgiving of people not being so nice upon our first meeting. God knows I’m not in a chipper mood 24/7.

    • Anonymous

      I agree – there are so many things happening when you first meet anyone, not the least of which might be your own anxiety about the meeting, that the first meeting assessment is only that: an assessment. Like any other bit of data, it needs to be confirmed or disproved. Unless someone is (like Kate’s person) really rude to people they might think “don’t matter,” or (like LizC’s college acquaintance) does something unconscionable, everyone deserves at least one second chance. Who’s to say that the people you hit it off with right away aren’t just better prepared or better at first impressions because they know how to push the right buttons……

  6. Allison

    I’ve learned that my first impressions are quite often crap, to put it bluntly. When I’m meeting new people and not having the best time, I try to think about one of my favorite people in the world, a girl I met when studying abroad in college. My first impression was that she was bossy, a little overbearing, kind of like a “mom.” But luckily I quickly realized she’s actually one of the awesomest, most kick-ass people I’ve ever met. Plus, I try to be sensitive to the fact that I definitely don’t always make the best first impressions, so if I ever want to be given a second chance, I have to be willing to do the same. It doesn’t always work out that way, but I try.

    And on the other side of the spectrum, there was a former roommate in college who seemed alright the first time I met him — a decent enough guy I wouldn’t mind living with. And he turned out to be a TOTAL nutcase (although now, when I think back to that first meeting, I see soooo many red flags, so possibly my desperation to find housing had clouded my judgment).

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