Face First: The Most Attractive Expression for a First Date

The Look: Your Expression is Your First Impression

You sit down across from your online paramour for your first face-to-face date.  You are thrilled to finally be meeting in person, yet nervous about making a good first impression.  You want to appear excited, yet relaxed—to make your date comfortable.  Sure, you have been communicating on line and probably on the telephone, but first impressions are made in person—and quickly. How? Based in large part on facial expressions. 

So here is the question: how can you put your best face forward the very first time you lock eyes? 

Think this through in advance, because according to research, you will be sized up in a matter of milliseconds.  Over and Cook, in a piece entitled “Where do spontaneous first impressions of faces come from?” (2018), note that adults make trait judgments after viewing faces for only 100ms.[i]  They list some of the traits we spontaneously attribute to strangers based solely on their face as including intelligence, honesty, dominance, competence, trustworthiness, and likability.  And of course, our perception influences our behavior.

No pressure, right?  Not to worry.  Preparation and relaxation will allow you to have a great first date that (if you are interested) will likely lead to a second.  First, greet your date with a natural, authentic, smile—smiling with your entire face, including your eyes—which conveys authenticity, and then as time goes on, actively match your expression with your attention.  Here is how to do it. 

Face Time: Smiling Like You Mean It

Great first impressions involve positive emotion.  Research demonstrates that smiling prompts a variety of positive behaviors.  Yet for maximum impact, a smile must be authentic.  As an example, to demonstrate the concrete benefits of a genuine smile, a study by Gujisic et al., entitled “Not all smiles are created equal” (2014), demonstrated that smiles which are genuine and authentic prompt customers to tip.[ii]  And proving that service with a smile is not sufficient, they demonstrated that customers can distinguish between an authentic smile and a paste-on grin.  How? Through both warmth and duration. 

Gujisic et al. note that while authentic smiles are warm, inauthentic smiles are perceived as cool—and forced.  Perhaps even more interesting, they note that genuine smiles are longer in both onset and offset, while inauthentic smiles appear and disappear quickly.

What does this mean for you?  That a great way to face a first date is with a smile.  Yet because great beginnings often prompt great expectations, after you and your date exchange an authentic, early onset smiling exchange of preliminary pleasantries, what´s next?  Your ability to maintain appropriate affect depends on your ability to engage in active listening. But here is the caveat: you can not use active listening unless you are paying attention.

Match Your Expression to the Communication

One of the most common mistakes trial attorneys make in the courtroom is failing to listen to witness answers.  They are shuffling papers, scrolling on their computer, or mentally formulating their next question instead of focusing on the often-dynamite testimony coming from the witness stand.  This type of multitasking causes the loss of great evidence.  Yet that is not all they lose.  Unfocused advocates often lose credibility with the witness, the judge, their client, and the jury, because distraction signals disinterest.

The same dynamics are in play on a first date.  Mental or physical multitasking is a missed opportunity to make a great first impression.  Looking at the menu (check it out online before you arrive), continual fumbling with your device (keep it in your purse or your pocket), or even thinking about what question you want to ask next instead of listening to what your date is saying can create distance by conveying indifference. 

And you will not be able to hide your lack of focus because your expression will give you away.  You cannot pretend to be interested in what someone is saying if you have no idea what they are talking about because you are not paying attention.  Your face will betray you.

Seeing is Believing

Authenticity is beliveable, and memorable.  Even over the course of a meal, you have an opportunity to establish a connection through sustained attention and positive expression.  Regardless of the ultimate outcome of your new relationship, whether romantic or platonic, displaying genuine positive expression will allow you to make great first impressions every time, assuring that all new acquaintances will like what they see.

About the author:

Wendy Patrick, JD, PhD, is a career prosecutor and behavioral expert.  She is the author of Red Flags: How to Spot Frenemies, Underminers, and Ruthless People (St. Martin´s Press), and co-author of the revised version of the New York Times bestseller Reading People (Random House). 

She lectures around the world on judging credibility, sexual assault prevention, relationships, and threat assessment, and is an Association of Threat Assessment Professionals Certified Threat Manager. The opinions expressed in this column are her own. 

Find her at wendypatrickphd.com or @WendyPatrickPhD

Find a full listing of Dr. Patrick´s Psychology Today posts at http://ift.tt/2jd9smD

[i] Harriet Overa and Richard Cook, “Where do spontaneous first impressions of faces come from?” Cognition 170 (2018): 190-200.  Overa and Cook propose a framework entitled “Trait Inference Mapping,” explaining trait inferences as products of mappings between “face space” and “trait space.”

[ii] Milos Bujisic, Luorong (Laurie) Wu, Anna Mattila, and Anil Bilgihan, “Not all smiles are created equal,” International Journal of Contemporary Hospitality Management 26, no. 2 (2014): 293-306.



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