Most textbooks in communication (especially those in interpersonal communication) discuss impression management and impression formation, ways in which you communicate the impression you want to communicate and the ways in which you evaluate others. But, the concepts are equally applicable to the small group context, to interviewing, to organizational communication, to computer-mediated communication, and to public speaking. These are crucial concepts for understanding the role of the self and perception in all forms of communication.
Impression management (some writers use the term “self-presentation” or “identity management”) refers to the processes you go through to communicate the impression you want the other person to have of you. The strategies you use to achieve this desired impression will depend on your specific goal. Here are six of the major goals people have in seeking to communicate a specific impression and the strategies they’re likely to use. As you read these, consider your own attempts to communicate the “right” impression to others and the strategies you use to achieve this unique kind of communication.
To Be Liked
If you want to be liked—say you’re new at school or on the job and you want to be well liked, included in the activities of other students or work associates, and be thought of highly by these other people—you’d likely use what are now called affinity-seeking strategies; for example, you might display altruism and be of help to others, or show respect for the other person and help the person feel positive about himself or herself, or you might present yourself as socially equal to the other person.
To Be Believed
Let’s say you’re a politician and you want people to vote for you or to support a particular proposal you’re advancing. In this case you’d probably use credibility strategies, a concept that goes back some 2300 years and supported by contemporary research, and seek to establish your competence, your character, and your charisma. For example, to establish your competence, you might mention your great educational background or the courses you took that qualify you as an expert. To establish that you’re of good character, you might mention how fair and honest you are, your concern for enduring values, or your concern for others. And to establish your charisma—your take-charge, positive personality—you might demonstrate enthusiasm, be emphatic, or focus on the positive while minimizing the negative.
To Excuse Failure
If you were about to tackle a difficult task and were concerned that you might fail, you might use what are called self-handicapping strategies. In the more extreme form of this strategy, you actually set up barriers or obstacles to make the task impossible and so when you fail, you won’t be blamed or thought ineffective—after all, the task was impossible given the circumstances. Let’s say you aren’t prepared for your interpersonal communication exam and you feel you’re going to fail. Well, with this self-handicapping strategy, you might go out and party the night before so that when you do poorly in the exam, you can blame it on the all-night party rather than on your intelligence or knowledge. In the less extreme form, you manufacture excuses for failure and have them ready if you do fail. “The exam was unfair” is one such popular excuse but you might blame a long period without a date on your being too intelligent or too shy or too poor.
To Secure Help
If you want to be taken care of and protected or simply want someone to come to your aid, you might use self-deprecating strategies. Confessions of incompetence and inability often bring assistance from others. And so you might say, “I just can’t fix that drain and it drives me crazy; I just don’t know anything about plumbing” with the hope that the other person will offer help.
To Hide Faults
Much impression management is devoted not merely to presenting a positive image, but to suppressing the negative, to self-monitoring strategies. Here you carefully monitor (self-censor) what you say or do. You avoid your normal slang so as to make your colleagues think more highly of you; you avoid chewing gum so you don’t look juvenile or unprofessional. While you readily disclose favorable parts of your experience, you actively and strategically hide the unfavorable parts.
To Be Followed
In many instances you’ll want to get people to see you as a leader, as one to be followed in thought and perhaps in behavior. Here you can use a variety of influencing strategies. One set of such strategies are those normally grouped under power. And so, for example, you’d stress your knowledge (information power), your expertise (expert power), your right to lead by virtue of your position as, say, a doctor or judge or accountant (legitimate power). Another set of strategies are those of leadership where you might stress your prior experience, your broad knowledge, or your previous successes.
Impression formation (sometimes referred to as person perception), on the other hand, refers to the processes you go through in forming an impression of another person. Here you would make use of a variety of perception processes, each of which has pitfalls and potential dangers. Here are a few:
Implicit Personality Theory
You might have a subconscious or implicit theory that tells you that certain qualities go with certain other qualities. And so if someone is energetic and eager, you may also infer that this person is intelligent because in this theory, energy, eagerness, and intelligence seem to go together. And so, in forming an impression of someone you might fill in qualities that you don’t observe but nevertheless have confidence that they exist in this person. If you believe a person has a variety of positive qualities, you’re likely to conclude that this person also has other positive qualities that even though you haven’t observed them, you’re pretty sure are present. This is often referred to as the “halo effect.” Similarly, if you believe a person has various negative qualities, you’re likely to conclude that this person also has other negative qualities, a situation referred to as the “reverse halo effect” or the “horns effect.”
You may see what you expect or want to see. You see people you like as better looking and smarter than those you don’t like. You magnify or accentuate what will satisfy your needs and desires. This process, called perceptual accentuation, can lead you to perceive what you need or want to perceive rather than what is really there, and to fail to perceive what you don’t want to perceive, even though it is clearly present. For example, you may not perceive signs of impending problems because you’re focusing on what you want to perceive. You may not see signs of relationship deterioration or of your partner’s dissatisfaction because you’re so in love and you want to think that everything is fine.
In some instances you may be overly influenced by what comes first (called a primacy effect) or what comes last (called a recency effect). Research seems to agree that often your initial perceptions will influence your later perceptions. So, if on first meeting you don’t like someone, you’re more likely to find fault with this person or see negative qualities in this person on subsequent meetings. If your first impression is that this person is stupid, you may not see the clever insights that this person has. Not only are initial perceptions influential, they are also very resistant to change. This tendency to give greater importance to initial perceptions and to interpret later information in light of these first impressions can easily lead you to formulate a total picture of an individual on the basis of initial impressions that may not be typical or accurate. For example, if you judge a teacher as hesitant and ill-informed on the first day of class, you may be ignoring the influence of the context (for example, that’s it’s the teacher’s first job and she or he is really nervous). The teacher may be great on subsequent days but your perception may still be influenced by your initial impression. In some instances, of course, you might be more influenced by primacy, by the most recent things, as when you evaluate a singer or movie star by their last performance rather than by earlier efforts.
Often we maintain stereotypes of different ethnic groups or nationalities or affectional orientations. And, in many instances, we may see people through these stereotypes, these generalized pictures that we hold for a group and then apply them to a specific individual. Most often stereotypes are negative and are intended to distance ourselves from those who are unlike us in any of a variety of ways.
You can appreciate the impact that stereotyping has when you realize that it is often coupled with primacy. The process would go like this: (1) you have a stereotype (All Martians are stupid), (2) you apply the stereotype to a person you’re just meeting because you notice the person is of a particular ethnic origin (Martin is a Martian and therefore must be stupid like all other Martians), (3) your initial perception acts as a filter through which your subsequent interactions are seen (That last remark showed no insight; it was pretty stupid), and (4) you continue to see the person through the stereotype (Yep, Martin is just like all the others).
We all have a tendency to maintain balance among our perceptions or attitudes; we want consistency. You expect certain things to go together and other things not to go together. For example, you expect a person you like to like you in return. And, you probably also expect your friend to dislike your enemy and your enemy to dislike your friend. As you can see, this tendency to strive for consistency may lead you astray and to fail to see that your friend actually likes your enemy.
You also try to analyze the reasons or motivations for someone’s actions (or your own actions, for that matter). For example, if someone stands you up for a date, you probably want to figure out the reasons for this. Let’s say the person met some friends and preferred staying with them. If this is the case then you’d likely consider the person responsible for standing you up and you’d likely be disturbed by the behavior. But, let’s say the person was in a car accident on the way to meet you. In this case, you’d not consider the person responsible and you’d likely not be disturbed by being stood up. Generally, if you see the person as being in control of positive behavior, your perception is likely to be favorable. If you see the person as being in control of negative behavior, your perception is likely to be unfavorable. Of course, the down side to this analysis and the reason why so many attributions are incorrect is that you seldom can be certain of whether or not someone was or was not in control of his or her behavior. And when it comes to our own self-perceptions, you may come to excuse your failures by claiming that you weren’t responsible (if you do poorly at an interview you may blame it on the interviewer, for example). One of the dangers of this is that if you do make such excuses, you may not come to grips with the problem and its potential solution; after all, if it’s the interviewer’s fault why bother improving your own interviewing techniques.
Both impression management and impression formation are largely the result of the messages communicated; you manage the impression you give to other people by what you say (your verbal messages) and how you act and dress as well as how you decorate your office or apartment (your nonverbal messages). And you form impressions of others largely on the basis of how they communication, verbally and nonverbally.
Communication messages, however, are not the only means for impression management and impression formation. For example, you also communicate your self image and judge others by the people you and they associate with; if you associate with A-list people, then surely you must be A-list yourself. Similarly, you might form an impression of someone on the basis of that person’s age or gender. Or you might rely on what others have said about the person and form impressions that are consistent with these comments. And of course, they might well do the same in forming impressions of you.
Part of the art and skill of communication is to understand and be able to manage the processes by which others form impressions of you—to master the art of impression management, to present yourself as you want others to see you. Equally important is the ability to understand and be able to recognize how you form impressions of others. Are your impressions logical? Are they based on prejudices? Are they in need of updating? Are they the result of jealousy or compassion?