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Going to university for the first time can be a daunting experience for anyone. The biggest fear many have is leaving their old friends behind and having to meet lots of new people from all walks of life. The prospect of living with complete strangers is enough to make anyone nervous – especially if their culture is alien to you.
As a first year transition tutor in the University of Leicester’s School of Psychology, my role is to ensure that students have a sense of belonging and feel included. In my experience, students who fail to make friends at university can feel lonely and isolated.
These feelings can often manifest into anxiety and depression – especially if they’re far from home – which can lead them to become even more isolated, and ultimately drop out of university.
On the flip side, psychologists have found that a person’s sense of happiness and well being is likely to grow when they seek out social connections and friendship groups, which lead to positive relationships. All very well if you’re an extrovert, have natural charisma and get energised from being around people – you will make good first impressions easily. Introverts, don’t worry – I have some advice for you.
Psychologists have studied how to make good first impressions in detail. For example, research has shown that we form a sense of whether an individual is trustworthy in less than one tenth of a second. We can also deduce information such as their intelligence and sexual orientation, with some degree of accuracy.
We call this “thin slicing”: when people make quick decisions on the basis of limited information. That’s why it’s important to come across as likeable in your first meeting with your housemates, and other people on your course or on campus. But how do you do this if you consider yourself to be shy, socially awkward, introverted or if English is not your mother tongue?
The first thing to remember is that you are all in the same boat. Most people that you meet are as anxious about making a good first impression as you are. The best strategy is to use your strengths to your advantage. For instance, as an introvert, you are probably more comfortable making friends online than you are face to face.
Luckily, you can do most of the ground work on social media before you meet your housemates. People who find it difficult meeting others in the flesh for the first time can always create WhatsApp groups; perhaps one for intended housemates or for people in your tutorial group, before meeting face to face.
This way, you can build online relationships before you meet and so avoid thin slicing. The good news is that research has found people who are judged to be likeable via social media were also judged as likeable via face to face meetings, so go ahead and create that group.
Another way of making a good first impression is to shift the focus from yourself onto others. We mostly go into a social situation thinking, “What will people think of me?” Shift this mind set and reach out to the one person that no one is talking to. This way, the person you are talking to will become more comfortable, which will rub off on you. And they will probably be impressed by your confidence, which is a first step to building a good friendship.
Everyone likes to be listened to, so the four magic words that you can adopt are: “And how about you?” This takes the focus off you and allows you to learn a great deal about the other person, fostering a good feeling between you and the stranger you are talking to. They’re then more likely to want to talk with you again. This is a good strategy to adopt when waiting to enter the lecture theatre; then you’ll probably want to sit together.
We all engage in impression management, hoping to appear more interesting, successful or clever than we are – especially when we are nervous. We do this in the hope of being liked or accepted. But it’s important to remember that no one likes a fraud, and especially a show off.
We all like authentic people, so indulge in first impressions with honesty, humility and inclusivity. Authentic people make good first impressions as they show trust, forgiveness, gratitude, honesty, commitment, support, enthusiasm and gladness towards others, without wanting anything in return.
Diana Pinto, Fellow in Psychology, University of Leicester