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The science of first dates
on June 4, 2004
DeMarais and White have managed to find an untouched corner of the self-help world -- and a valuable one at that. As they point out, research shows that first impressions last a long time. And as we meet people, we create first impressions on dates, business meetings and job interviews.
Writing in accessible self-help style, the authors identify the "seven fundamentals of first impressions." These seven chapters make up the meat of the book. The authors discuss specific ways to show interest: body language, eye contact, name usage.
For instance, the chapter "Enough about me" encourages readers to show interest in their conversational partners.
The authors hold our interest -- and communicate effectively -- with examples and dialogues. Some of the advice seems fairly obvious (maintain eye contact, avoid closed-end questions) but much is new and useful (live vs. faux listening).
At the end of each chapter, the author not only list positive behaviors (e.g., make eye contact) but also show what each behavior communicates (e.g., "interested, socially aware"). They then list miscommunication behaviors in a clever chart form: "If you do this ("listen inactively") you may think you seem ... (neutral) but you may seem ... (uninterested).
I found the "you may think you seem" a little off-putting. Maybe we engage in these behaviors automatically without realizing how we seem! Or maybe these behaviors demonstrate an aspect of our personality.
However, that's a small quibble, easy to ignore.
The section on topics was one of the fun ones, although perhaps useful only in a social, i.e., dating, context. Don't go too deep into your own favorite topic, they say. Put some topics on the table and keep going.
I must say I love talking to people about their specialties. That's the writer/journalist in me! The authors describe "Ray," who delivered a monologue on washing machines, to his bored seatmate on an airplane flight. They suggest saying, "That's interesting. I don't know much about washing machines, but I do know about film..."
I must admit I'd have interrogated the poor man about his field, hoping to learn something to help with my own laundry day. I once sat next to a veterinarian on a long, dreary plane ride, and learned a lot of useful information about cats. Now that I have a dog...
I resonated to the 4 "wrong" styles of conversation: story telling, lecturing, sermonizing and telling jokes. I do all of those, though hopefully not on a first meeting!
The authors offer some tips for corrective action, which can be summed up as enhanced self-awareness. However, their strengths lie not in making change, but in identifying varieties of violations.
Although the authors briefly discuss "heavy" topics, they might have gone more deeply into reasons for varying degrees of disclosure. For instance, most people ask casually, "Do you have children? Brothers and sisters?" All seemingly innocent questions -- but I know someone whose only daughter died, someone whose father disappeared and others who have legitimate reasons for avoiding those topics. We could use some tips for maintaining a relationship along with our privacy.
Additionally, as a career coach, I wish the authors had discussed culture and gender differences that can create misunderstanding -- the material Deborah Tannen handles so well. They do include informative research highlights but I'd have liked to see more detailed suggestions in the main text. For instance, in many subcultures, men are given more leeway to talk about themselves and to use a lecturing style.
And, as Tannen says, a New Yorker interrupts while a southerner (especially a southern woman) will be trained to be more polite and reticent. When you're meeting a new person in a new field, company, or region, you need to pick up cues to clarify what's considered appropriate behavior.
Finally, the authors could have used their corporate business experience to identify unique elements of business and career first impressions. Certain behaviors create good first impressions during job interviews, sales meetings and first days on the job.
The last two chapters were extremely valuable and could have been expanded: How to overcome a bad first impression and How to cut others some slack, so you won't let a bad first impression deny you a relationship. I'd have liked to see an additional chapter on the second, third and fourth meetings, which often can be trickier than the first. By setting up a second meeting (especially in a dating context) you've indicated a willingness to proceed. Now what?