Impression management (some writers use the terms self-presentation or identity management) refers to the processes you go through to communicate the impression you want other people to have of you. This is a really strange area because it has so many ethical implications; in many cases these strategies are used to fool people.
Impression management is largely the result of the messages communicated. In the same way that you form impressions of others largely on the basis of how they communicate, verbally and nonverbally, they also form impressions of you based on what you say (your verbal messages) and how you act, dress, stand, sit, or move (your nonverbal messages). Communication messages, however, are not the only means for impression formation and management. For example, you also communicate your self-image and judge others by the people with whom they associate; if you associate with VIPs, then surely you must be a VIP yourself, the conventional wisdom goes. Or, you might form an impression of someone on the basis of that person’s age or gender or ethnic origin. Or, you might rely on what others have said about the person and from that form impressions. 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 impressions you give to others. Mastering the art of impression management will enable you to present yourself as you want others to see you—at least to some extent. The strategies you use to achieve this desired impression will depend on your specific goal. Here is a classification based on seven major communication goals and strategies. In addition to helping you communicate the impression you want to communicate, each of these strategies may backfire and communicate the opposite of your intended purpose.
To Be Liked
Affinity-Seeking, Politeness, and Immediacy Strategies. If you’re new at school or on the job and you want to be well liked, included in the activities of others, and thought of highly, you’d likely use affinity-seeking, politeness, and immediacy strategies.
Affinity-Seeking Strategies. Using the affinity-seeking strategies that follow is likely to increase your chances of being liked. Such strategies are especially important in initial interactions, and their use has even been found to increase student motivation when used by teachers.
• Present yourself as comfortable and relaxed.
• Follow the cultural rules for polite, cooperative, respectful conversation.
• Appear active, enthusiastic, and dynamic.
• Stimulate and encourage the other person to talk about himself or herself.
• Communicate interest in the other person.
• Appear optimistic and positive.
• Appear honest, reliable, and interesting.
• Communicate warmth, supportiveness, and empathy.
• Demonstrate shared attitudes and values.
Not surprisingly, plain old flattery also goes a long way toward making you liked. Flattery can increase your chances for success in a job interview, the tip a customer is likely to leave, and even the credibility you’re likely to be seen as having.
There is also, however, a potential negative effect that can result from the use of affinity-seeking strategies. Using affinity-seeking strategies too often or in ways that may appear insincere may lead people to see you as attempting to ingratiate yourself for your own advantage and not really meaning “to be nice.”
Politeness Strategies. Politeness strategies are another set of strategies often used to appear likeable. We can look at them in terms of negative and positive types. Both of these types of politeness are responsive to two needs that we each have:
1. positive face needs—the desire to be viewed positively by others, to be thought of favorably, and
2. negative face needs—the desire to be autonomous, to have the right to do as we wish.
Politeness in interpersonal communication, then, refers to behavior that allows others to maintain both positive and negative face and impoliteness refers to behaviors that attack either positive face (for example, you criticize someone) or negative face (for example, you make demands on someone).
To help another person maintain positive face, you speak respectfully to and about the person, you give the person your full attention, you say “excuse me” when appropriate. In short you treat the person as you would want to be treated. In this way you allow the person to maintain positive face through what is called positive politeness. You attack the person’s positive face when you speak disrespectfully about the person, ignore the person or the person’s comments, and fail to use the appropriate expressions of politeness such as “thank you” and “please.”
To help another person maintain negative face, you respect the person’s right to be autonomous and so you request rather than demand that they do something; you say, “Would you mind opening a window” rather than “Open that window, damn it!” You might also give the person an “out” when making a request, allowing the person to reject your request if that is what the person wants. And so you say, “If this is a bad time, please tell me, but I’m really strapped and could use a loan of $100” rather than “Loan me a $100” or “You have to lend me $100.” If you want a recommendation, you might say, “Would it be possible for you to write me a recommendation for graduate school” rather than “You have to write me a recommendation for graduate school.” In this way you enable the person to maintain negative face through what is called negative politeness.
Of course, we do this almost automatically and asking for a favor without any consideration for the person’s negative face needs would seems totally insensitive. In most situations, however, this type of attack on negative face often appears in more subtle forms. For example, your mother saying “Are you going to wear that?”—to use an example from Deborah Tannen—attacks negative face by criticizing or challenging your autonomy. This comment also attacks positive face by questioning your ability to dress properly.
Politeness too may have negative consequences. Over-politeness, for example, is likely to be seen as phoney and is likely to be resented, especially if it’s seen as a persuasive strategy.
Immediacy Strategies. Immediacy is the creation of closeness, a sense of togetherness, of oneness, between speaker and listener. When you communicate immediacy you convey a sense of interest and attention, a liking for and an attraction to the other person. You communicate immediacy with both verbal and nonverbal messages.
And, not surprisingly, people respond to communication that is immediate more favorably than to communication that is not. People like people who communicate immediacy. You can increase your interpersonal attractiveness, the degree to which others like you and respond positively toward you, by using immediacy behaviors. In addition there is considerable evidence to show that immediacy behaviors are also effective in workplace communication, especially between supervisors and subordinates. For example, when a supervisors uses immediacy behaviors, he or she is seen by subordinates as interested and concerned; subordinates are therefore likely to communicate more freely and honestly about issues that can benefit the supervisor and the organization. Also, workers with supervisors who communicate immediacy behaviors have higher job satisfaction and motivation.
Not all cultures or all people respond in the same way to immediacy messages. For example, in the United States immediacy behaviors are generally seen as friendly and appropriate. In other cultures, however, the same immediacy behaviors may be viewed as overly familiar——as presuming that a relationship is close when only acquaintanceship exists. Similarly, recognize that some people may take your immediacy behaviors as indicating a desire for increased intimacy in the relationship. So although you may be trying merely to signal a friendly closeness, the other person may perceive a romantic invitation. Also, recognize that because immediacy behaviors prolong and encourage in-depth communication, they may not be responded to favorably by persons who are fearful about communication and/or who want to get the interaction over with as soon as possible.
Here are a few suggestions for communicating immediacy verbally and nonverbally:
< Self-disclose; reveal something significant about yourself.
< Refer to the other person’s good qualities of, say, dependability, intelligence, or character——“you’re always so reliable.”
< Express your positive view of the other person and of your relationship——“I’m sure glad you’re my roommate; you know everyone.”
< Talk about commonalities, things you and the other person have done together or share.
< Demonstrate your responsiveness by giving feedback cues that indicate you want to listen more and that you’re interested——“And what else happened?”
< Express psychological closeness and openness by, for example, maintaining physical closeness and arranging your body to exclude third parties.
< Maintain appropriate eye contact and limit looking around at others.
< Smile and express your interest in the other person.
< Focus on the other person’s remarks. Make the speaker know that you heard and understood what was said, and give the speaker appropriate verbal and nonverbal feedback.
At the same time that you’ll want to demonstrate these immediacy messages, try also to avoid nonimmediacy messages such as speaking in a monotone, looking away from the person you’re talking to, frowning while talking, having a tense body posture, or avoiding gestures.
To Be Believed: Credibility Strategies.
If you were a politician and wanted people to vote for you, at least part of your strategy would involve attempts to establish your credibility (which consists of your competence, character, and 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 your fairness and honesty, your commitment to enduring values, or your concern for those less fortunate. 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.
If you stress your competence, character, and charisma too much, however, you risk being seen as someone who lacks the very qualities that you seem too eager to present to others. Generally, people who are truly competent need say little directly about their own competence; their actions and their success will reveal their competence.
To Excuse Failure: Self-Handicapping Strategies.
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. That way, when you fail, you won’t be blamed or thought ineffective—after all, the task was impossible. Let’s say you aren’t prepared for your human communication exam and you feel you’re going to fail. Using this self-handicapping strategy, you might stay out late at a party the night before so that when you do poorly in the exam, you can blame it on the party rather than on your intelligence or knowledge. In a less extreme form, you might manufacture excuses for failure and have them ready if you do fail. For example, you might prepare to blame a poorly cooked dinner on your defective stove.
On the negative side, using self-handicapping strategies too often may lead people to see you as generally incompetent or foolish. After all, a person who parties the night before an exam for which he or she is already unprepared is clearly demonstrating poor judgment.
To Secure Help: Self-Deprecating Strategies.
If you want to be taken care of and protected, or if you 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.
But, be careful: Your self-deprecating strategies may convince people that you are in fact just as incompetent as you say you are. Or, people may see you as someone who doesn’t want to do something and so pretends to be incompetent to get others to do it for you. This is not likely to benefit you in the long run.
To Hide Faults: Self-Monitoring Strategies.
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 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 hide the unfavorable parts.
But, if you self-monitor too often or too obviously, you risk being seen as someone unwilling to reveal himself or herself, and perhaps as not trusting enough of others to feel comfortable disclosing. In more extreme cases, you may be seen as dishonest, as hiding your true self or trying to fool other people.
To Be Followed: Influencing Strategies.
In many instances you’ll want to get people to see you as a leader. Here you can use a variety of influencing strategies. One set of such strategies are those normally grouped under power— 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). Or, using leadership strategies, you might stress your prior experience, your broad knowledge, or your previous successes.
Influencing strategies can also backfire. If you try to influence someone and fail, you’ll be perceived to have less power than before your unsuccessful influence attempt. And, of course, if you’re seen as someone who is influencing others for self-gain, your influence attempts might be resented or rejected.
To Confirm Self-Image: Image Confirming Strategies.
You may sometimes use image-confirming strategies to reinforce your positive perceptions about yourself. If you see yourself as the life of the party, you’ll tell jokes and try to amuse people. This behavior confirms your own self-image and also lets others know that this is who you are and how you want to be seen. At the same time that you reveal aspects of yourself that confirm your desired image, you actively suppress revealing aspects of yourself that would disconfirm this image.
If you use image-confirming strategies too frequently, you risk being seen as too perfect to be genuine. If you try to project an exclusively positive image, it’s likely to turn people off—people want to see their friends and associates as real people with some faults and imperfections. Also recognize that image-confirming strategies invariably involve your focusing on yourself, and with that comes the risk of seeming self-absorbed.