Psychology » Self Help

The best books on Making A Good Impression

recommended by Övül Sezer

From the classroom to the boardroom, everybody tries (and sometimes fails) to be liked and admired by others. In this interview, Övül Sezer—Assistant Professor of Management and Organizations at Cornell University—recommends five books that can help you make a good impression on everybody, including yourself.

Interview by Uri Bram

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Our topic for today is how to make a good impression. You’re an expert on impression management, could you tell us a bit about this field?

Impression management is the science of how people try to make a favorable impression on others; I study how people fail to make a good impression. While I examine the instances in which their impression management strategies do not succeed, there are many strategies that do succeed.

We want to be liked and respected by the people around us. This is a core human need, and it’s an essential component of any social interaction. In our personal and professional relationships, and in our social media presence, we care deeply about how we come across to other people and we want to make sure that we control it. I study whether the qualities and signals that we intend to convey actually get through to the other side.

In addition to being a professor, you’re a stand-up comedian. Can you please tell us what you’ve learned about impression management from comedy?

To my mind, impression management, stand-up comedy, and social science research go hand in hand. In my research I study what happens when things go wrong in social interactions. In my comedy I talk about what happens when things go wrong. Both these topics relate directly to the feeling of embarrassment.

Stand-up comedy involves observing people and writing jokes, and it also has a performance aspect. It’s one of the performing arts where it can be very embarrassing if it doesn’t go well. The audience feels concerned for you. When we watch ballet, we don’t have to worry about whether the dancers are going to trip or fall. When we attend a concert, we don’t think, I wonder if the guitarist is going to play the right chords. We rarely even consider this possibility.

I’ve performed in various clubs around New York City. These are well-known venues, and there are some established comedians in our shows. Still, I can tell that the audience is slightly worried about me when I’m performing. If it doesn’t immediately go well, the audience feels vicariously embarrassed. They’re thinking, I can’t watch this. It’s so painful. It’s cringe. There’s a pressure to tell at least two jokes in the first thirty seconds. You must prove very quickly that you’re funny.

Any instance when you or someone else fails to make a good impression always makes a good story to share. Sad, problematic, chaotic things are better for comedy, and impression management is a rich source of such material.

One of the earliest texts in this field is The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life by Erving Goffman. Can you tell us about this book?

This is one of the quintessential books on impression management and social interaction. A later Goffman work, Interaction Ritual: Essays on Face-to-Face Behavior, designates all social interaction as ritual and can be viewed as a complementary text to this one.

The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life is a fascinating book that provides a wealth of insight into social interaction, which Goffman describes in terms of theatrical performance. This concept is explored in Shakespeare’s pastoral comedy As You Like It. One of its most quotable lines is: “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players.”

Goffman contends that the roles we play in our daily lives and social interactions are performative in nature, because we always strive to create a favorable impression. According to Goffman, our social interactions are largely governed by avoidance of embarrassment. In every face-to-face interaction—whether you are checking in at a hotel, speaking with a receptionist, giving a talk, or going on a date—one of your primary goals is to avoid anything that is related to embarrassment.

“We want to be liked and respected by the people around us”

He describes us as social actors. We are theatrical performers who employ strategies, almost as costumes, in our social interactions to help us to achieve our goals.

My focus as a researcher is not on highly calculated behavior. While Goffman presents us as social actors who are conscious of our impression management efforts, my research and other recent studies show that this is not always the case. While we may be motivated to manage the impressions that we make on others, we are not necessarily hyperaware of this. Often, we are simply guided by intuition to speak or to behave in a certain way. Even then, it does not always succeed.

I wouldn’t go as far as to say that we are always calculating our social world. Goffman’s book leans in that direction but is still a very interesting book. I also find embarrassment to be an amazing phenomenon. If you can reflect upon the last time you were embarrassed, it is simply fascinating to consider whether you would feel comfortable telling someone else about it, and the reasons why you would or would not want to do so.

Can you tell us more about embarrassment?

Goffman writes that one of our primary goals is that we want to save face. Recent research, including my own, demonstrates that when you express embarrassment, it encourages people to trust you. If you share an embarrassing story about yourself, and you are able to laugh about it, this serves as a social lubricant. People may view you as being mature and easygoing, and they will want to work with you.

I’m not saying that embarrassment is always beneficial, but one of the proven benefits of expressing embarrassment is that it helps to build a higher level of trust. If you can also laugh at yourself, the benefit is even greater.

This is a good segue to your next selection, which is Mitch Prinstein’s Popular: The Power of Likability in a Status-Obsessed World. Being popular is the ultimate form of making a good impression; can you tell us more about this book?

The title of the book takes me back to high school. Who was popular? Where are those people now? In this book, Prinstein discusses and presents research on our innate and universal need for status and likability. When people say they don’t care about status or when they claim indifference to what other people think of them, it sounds cool; however, we sense that it isn’t true. It is part of human nature to care about how others regard us.

Prinstein writes that popularity is based on likability as well as status, but that it’s difficult to simultaneously convey both these characteristics. Research on social perception shows that we evaluate other people according to these two fundamental dimensions of social perception.

When we meet someone, we gauge their warmth. This happens almost instantaneously on a primal level. Do I like this person? Their perceived warmth indicates whether we can establish a friendship with them. Do I want to spend time with this person? If I host a cocktail party, will I invite them?

The other important aspect of social perception is competence. We appraise their intelligence and capability. Do I want to work with this person? Can I delegate a task to this person? We gauge competence fairly quickly, though it might take a moment longer than it does to assess warmth.

Demonstrating warmth and demonstrating competence require two completely different strategies. I will seem warm and trustworthy if I smile, if I agree, or if I give gifts; however, I’ll seem smart and competent if I don’t smile as often, if I occasionally disagree, and if I do not give gifts. Because demonstrating likability and status require opposite strategies, it is difficult to embody both qualities at the same time.

The book explores why we care so much about this and why it’s so hard. Back in high school, we may have been competent and nerdy, or maybe we were likable and sweet, but only a few people were incredibly popular. I find this dichotomy and these different strategies very interesting. Everyone wants to be the lovable star. We don’t want to be the incompetent jerk, nor do we want to be the competent jerk. I believe we can all benefit from knowing about warmth and competence and how these judgments influence our impressions. That’s why I think this is a useful book.

The next book you chose for us is Quit: The Power of Knowing When to Walk Away by Annie Duke. That doesn’t immediately jump out as being a topic relating to making a good impression! Can you tell us a little bit about the book, and how you find that it fits into this theme?

While my main interest and my main research stream is in impression management, I also come from the school of judgment and decision making as a researcher. I study biases and decision-making shortcuts and the mistakes that we make in that domain. This relates to cognitive psychology and behavioral economics, and one of my favorite biases in this field is sunk-cost fallacy. Management scholars refer to this as escalation of commitment.

The idea is that the more you invest your time, emotion, money or resources, the more likely you are to stay in that path, even after it ceases to be optimal for you. It is also called the Gambler’s Fallacy. The gambling mindset is that if you play just one more round, you will recover all the money you have lost.

It happens in investing or in a career. One may believe it is too late to switch career paths. It happens in relationships. The longer two individuals have been together, the more reluctant they may be to end the relationship, even if it is no longer serving either of them. I consider myself a fan of sunk-cost fallacy, not because I find it funny but because I often fall victim to it. I find myself staying on a given path for longer than I should, because I am averse to quitting.

“Quitting should be viewed as a skill”

This connects to impression management via Goffman’s idea of saving face and avoiding embarrassment. One of the reasons we stay on a certain path is because we don’t want to admit that we were wrong. We don’t want to say, I changed my mind, and I’m switching careers. I thought this person was my soulmate, but now I have met someone with whom I am even more compatible. Quitting is tantamount to admitting we have been wrong, which is embarrassing and difficult to do.

Quitting should be viewed as a skill. This book showed me that it is a superpower to know when to walk away. I believe I have learned to recognize when it is time to quit. I think we get better at this as the years go by. As a society, we celebrate not giving up. We revere perseverance and determination. While these are important values, I believe that we should also celebrate quitting. Even though quitting may not make the most favorable impression and it’s difficult to admit that we were wrong, doing so may set us on the path to happiness.

That’s why I like this book. It combines my interests.

There’s some research that looks at what can we do to avoid subscribing to sunk-cost fallacy. One way to do that is to involve other people in our decisions. This addresses the idea of embarrassment as well.

If you accept full accountability for a decision, it is much more difficult to quit. Most of us would rather keep on going until we hit a wall. How many times have we said to ourselves I was wrong? I doubt I’ve said that more than fifty times in my life, but without a doubt I’ve been wrong more than fifty times in my life. I still don’t want to admit it—not even to myself. Involving other people early in the decision makes it easier to quit, because it feels less embarrassing.

I’m embarrassed to say that feels very relatable to me!

The next recommendation you have for us about making a good impression is The Person You Mean To Be, by Dolly Chugh. What do you appreciate about this book?

This is a book about how good people fight bias. This is in a different domain: it’s not necessarily about impression management, it’s not a book about how to make everyone like you or adore you.

The term impression management suggests that we are trying to control what other people think about us. This is part of it, but there is also another element to it: we want to influence the way we think about ourselves.

Most of us would like to think that we are good people. We believe we are objective, fair, ethical, nice, thoughtful, and considerate. To preserve this view of ourselves, we might overlook our own shortcomings. Just as it is difficult to admit to our flaws, it’s difficult to admit to our biases. We don’t want to think that our ethics may be flawed.

This book reveals the ways in which we are not perfect. We may not be as good as we believe ourselves to be, because we all have these implicit forces at work within us. We all are biased in certain ways.

Chugh suggests that we aim for being a good-ish person in our interactions. It may be more effective to hold a realistic view of our shortcomings and strive to be good-ish than it is to cling to the delusion that we are perfect individuals who never do anything wrong.

The book addresses how our internal impression management works to prevent us from admitting our biases or from initiating real change. It challenges us to re-examine our values and to recognize where there is room for improvement, so we might better understand how we can cultivate equality and diversity in our society.

​​That’s fascinating. It sounds like one half of making a good impression is making a good impression on ourselves?

Yes, ultimately there are two aspects to impression management. One aspect relates to our need to ensure that other people like and respect us. The other aspect is intrapsychic. It concerns the way our behavior makes us feel about ourselves.

Goffman talks about this a little bit in The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. Let’s say you are ravenous and you are eating a juicy burger. If you were eating in the company of another person, you would observe the proper dining etiquette because you’re trying to manage that person’s impression of you. If you were eating alone, you would behave a little more freely, but you wouldn’t be completely uninhibited in your behavior. You would maintain a certain level of conduct, in order to preserve the view you have of yourself.

In my dissertation, I examined the concept of humblebragging. This is a fun thing to talk about, because we see it so often. A person might say, Why do people hit on me even when I’m in my sweatpants? This is an attempt to seem both competent and likable. It fails because the speaker is trying to assert both power and humility, which require two opposite strategies.

Humblebragging feels better than bragging, because the assumed modesty helps to mitigate the embarrassment factor of bragging. We do this to manage the impression we make on others as well as the impression we have of ourselves.

I am currently conducting a research project on the universal phenomenon of the phrase I told you so. Every language has an expression of this sentiment. In our study, we ask people to reflect upon why they say it. No one says it because they want to make a good impression; they say it because it feels so good to be right. There is tremendous power in being right. As much as we dislike being wrong, we love to be right. It’s even more enjoyable when we are right and someone else is wrong.

These are a few examples of how impression management serves not only interpersonal perception but also intrapsychic feeling. Our decisions about whether or not we will say or do certain things are guided by how they make us feel about ourselves and whether they support the ideas we have about ourselves. We will do, or avoid doing, all sorts of things. Yet these strategies are not always the most productive.

Your last selection for us is Homer’s Odyssey, the classic Greek epic. What can The Odyssey teach us about making a good impression?

I love ancient Greek mythology, and I love stories about journeys. Anyone who believes in the idea that it’s more about the journey than about the destination will enjoy this work.

In the Iliad, the warrior Achilles leaves home; in the Odyssey, Odysseus is traveling home to Ithaca after the Trojan War. In ancient Greek mythology, there are two ways of earning glory: either you leave home or you return home.

The Greek word kleos refers to glory earned through deeds that will be remembered for eternity. The pursuit of glory is a universal theme. Odysseus wants to return home because he wants to be reunited with his family, but he is also motivated by glory. Achilles leaves home to earn glory by fighting in the war.

I find the Odyssey so fun to read because it is partly about impression management. In addition to being a strong, savvy, competent hero figure, Odysseus is a storyteller with great powers of persuasion and negotiation. He influences people and convinces them that he’s trustworthy. At times, he needs to trick people.

Because this is my area of interest, I am often asked whether I manipulate other people. I never consciously try to manipulate others. As most people are able to detect whether someone is being genuine, I believe that being genuine is the best way to make a favorable impression in most situations. Coming back to the concept of kleos, the way to earn glory is not only through physical force. In many instances, you have to use language and charm, which are related to impression management. You must be a good storyteller.

Interview by Uri Bram

May 14, 2023

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Övül Sezer

Övül Sezer

Övül Sezer is an Assistant Professor of Management and Organizations at Cornell University. Her research focuses on Impression (Mis)Management—the mistakes we make when we want to impress others. She is also a stand-up comedian.