First impressions and the importance of starting with a compliment

Research confirms that first impressions are more lasting than we thought

First impressions are lasting

First impressions are lasting

Everyone has heard the saying "First impressions are lasting".

Well, research is now confirming that first impressions are more lasting than we thought. In fact, it takes less than one second for people to formulate their first impression of you. This is true whether you are meeting someone one-on-one for the first time - or whether we are making a speech in front of an audience.

The difficulty in breaking an unfavourable first impression

Unfavourable first impression

Here is an anecdote by lead author, Bertram Gawronski.

Imagine you have a new colleague at work and your first impression of that person is not very favourable.

Then a few weeks later, you meet your colleague at a party and you realize that person is actually really nice. Although you know your first impression was incorrect, your instinctive response to your new colleague will be influenced by your new experience only in contexts that are similar to the party.

In other words, your first impression will still dominate in all other contexts, in this case specifically at work.

First impressions and everyday conversations

First impressions are lasting

Most adults are aware of the fundamental requisites it takes to make a good impression. By adulthood most of us tend to understand the importance of, for example, a good handshake (regardless of gender), giving eye contact, our verbal greeting, what we wear, our posture, our mannerisms and our etiquette.

What we tend to miss or merely underestimate is the role and importance that a (genuine, appropriate) compliment plays in engaging people in conversation - and in the first impression we make. But more on this later.

We also tend to focus so much on the first impression we make when we meet a person for the first time, yet we tend to disregard this in the subsequent conversations we have with that same person.

The bottom line is, we should treat every single encounter we have with people as if the impression we make in that encounter is as important as the impression we make when we met them for the first time.

Starting conversations with a compliment

Starting conversations with a compliment

It is difficult to give one-size-fits-all advice about starting conversations beyond an opening introductory line like "Hi there, my name's Hugh. Nice to meet you..."

We can control many of the first impression factors mentioned previously in this post, like our handshake (well, this may require practice), our eye contact, our mannerisms, etc. In fact, we can often initiate a conversation with someone (like with a close friend or familiar business associate) and the particular phrases we use don't matter that much.

But sometimes we search for engaging conversation starters and this is where starting conversations with a compliment fits in.

Starting with a compliment is starting conversations on a positive note

People tend to immediately think that by starting a conversation with a compliment implies that the compliment must be about the person we are engaging, like saying "Wow, you have such a nice handshake".

But the compliment could be saying something positive about anything really, like "Wasn't that presentation we just saw absolutely amazing?"

Likewise, if you are making a speech at a conference, you could start with a compliment to the audience by saying something like "Ladies and gentlemen, it is an honor to be presenting to such a distinguished audience of thought-leaders in our field".

Be mindful of inappropriate compliments

There are always exceptions to every rule. We need to be mindful of the fact that not all compliments are appropriate. One must use intuition and assess factors such as (but not limited to) the environment (workplace, social, etc), context, familiarity and gender.

For example, in the workplace a male paying a compliment to a female colleague "Wow, you look amazing in that dress" may be taken as inappropriate or in the extreme even be construed as sexual harassment. That same compliment delivered by a close male friend to a female friend at a party would, in all likelihood, be taken as just that - a compliment!

Me, my dog and a celebrity

Dog on beach

A while back I was walking my eight month old puppy when a 'celebrity' came along. "That dog should be in the movies!" she beamed. There ensued an enjoyable, relaxed conversation between two total strangers. I couldn't help but glow with pride as we parted, which set me up for the rest of the day.

Interestingly, I had noticed the 'celebrity' approaching from some distance but had made the conscious choice not to disturb her as I had assumed she would not respond positively to the attention. But her use of a beautiful open smile and a compliment totally melted away any pre-conceptions I may have had and we just became a couple of human beings enjoying an informal connection for a few moments.

A couple of lessons

A couple of lessons about first impressions and the importance of starting with a compliment:

  • Firstly, don't allow yourself to pre-judge how somebody may think or behave because of any pre-conceived conditioning on your part. Be open to the actions they take and respond accordingly.
  • Secondly, don't forget the power of a smile and a compliment.

So next time you are looking to engage someone in conversation, look for an opportunity to compliment them. Make them feel good and don't forget to smile!


8 Handshakes that make unforgettably bad first impressions
Impress literally everyone you meet
Don't let these 4 habits ruin your conversations
Start conversations
How to start a speech
5 Kick-ass reasons to give a genuine compliment and how to do it
7 Reasons why you should pay compliment someone every day
Why compliments are powerful


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