In his book, Blink, Malcolm Gladwell popularized the term ”thin slicing”, and this is how he described it:
“(Thin-slicing)… is a central part of what it means to be human. We thin-slice whenever we meet a new person or have to make sense of something quickly or reencounter a novel situation. We thin-slice because we have to, and we come to rely on that ability because there are … lots of situations where careful attention to the details of a very thin slice, even for no more than a second o two, can tell us an awful lot.”
I remember many years ago, when I was doing research on the interviewing process, about studies that indicated that interviewers in an employment setting generally make up their minds about a candidate during the first few minutes of an interview. In a current human resources management textbook (Gomez-Mejia et al.), here is what the authors have to say about interviewers and first impressions:
“Perhaps the most consistent research finding is that interviewers tend to jump to conclusions – make snap judgments – about candidates during the first few minutes of the interview (or even before the interview starts, based on test scores or resume data). One researcher estimates that in 85% of the cases, interviewers had made up their minds before the interview even began, based on first impressions the interviewers gleaned from candidates’ applications and personal appearance.”
At about the same time period when I was doing my research, a non-technical book with the self-explanatory title “The First Five Minutes” was published that also described the impact of first impressions.
So we do judge a book by its cover, I thought. And nothing that I have read or experienced since (through numerous interviews with executives and managers) has contradicted this simple but powerful hypothesis about our human tendency.
Perhaps it’s a result of our hardwired behavior from the Pleistocene era, where our ancestors had to judge very quickly whether a person from another tribe was a friend or foe. Over the past several years, I have worked with executives to help them identify and develop potential talent in their organizations, and if anything, I find that many executives not only make these judgments very quickly, but also seem to make them very confidently (not surprising for them, of course). A manager who they may remember texting during a meeting, or another manager who made a less than stellar presentation – these are samples of behavior that executives generalize very quickly about, and can sometimes de-rail otherwise fine talent. In addition, the research on interviewing shows that interviewers are more influenced by unfavorable than favorable information about candidates. In my many years of working with executives on talent identification and succession planning, I would say that this is also true about executives who are making judgments about potential candidates for succession.
Ambady and Rosenthal actually coined the term “thin slicing” many years before Gladwell popularized it. And more recent studies have simply reinforced the power of thin slicing. For example, Todorov at al. did studies of people’s judgments. They showed potential voters pairs of black-and-white headshots of candidate who were completely unfamiliar to them. After exposing these shots for one second, the participants made judgments about the competence of the candidates that predicated pretty accurately the outcome of the elections – over 70% of the winning candidates in several U.S. senatorial seats, and about 68% of those sitting in Congress. They have replicated this research in elections held in other countries (e.g., Mexico, Germany).
According to neuroscientists (Pinker, p. 241), the ability to pick up emotional cues evolved in the amygdala. So the challenge for many managers working globally today is to beware of these thin slices when interacting with people who are members of different cultures. People from different cultures not only look different, they talk differently (even when conversing in English), and interact differently, even in a business setting. So the potential for creating unfavorable first impressions is significant.
In cross-cultural settings, I believe that there are at least two kinds of biases we may fall prey to. First is the “lack of similarity” bias that is created when we meet people who are not like us. The relevant dimensions of dissimilarity or difference may differ by situation. For example, in the workplace setting, gender is sometimes not as relevant as functional background. Marketing people tend to refer to those finance guys concerned only with numbers, while sales people tend to refer to those engineering guys who overdesign their products with little regard for consumer needs. In cross-cultural situations, our unconscious bias favoring people who are like us, or not favoring those who are not like us, can kick into high gear very quickly. The dimensions of similarity or dissimilarity might include physical appearance, body language (e.g., the way someone shakes your hand or expresses himself or herself), and thinking style.
The second type of bias is when we fix on superficial – and sometimes irrelevant - characteristics that lead us to jump to hasty conclusions. One example that I have seen on many occasions is the bias executives hold with regard to the ability of non-native English speakers to speak English well. In my experience, many executives visiting other countries will place undue emphasis on locals who speak English well, especially those who understand the nuances and idioms of the English language. English verbal skills may have little to do with local managers’ performance or their competence, but it inevitably impresses many executives who should know better. In their Harvard Business Review article, Neeley and Kaplan point to this as a blind spot by many executives, and I concur.
Here are three pieces of advices for avoiding these biases and withholding our first impressions (difficult as this may be) when interacting with a business colleague from another culture:
1. When you are about to engage with someone from another culture especially for the first time, step back for a moment and ask yourself what assumptions you might be making about that person or group. For example, suppose that you are getting ready to meet with a Russian manager in Moscow. From what you have read about Russian businesspeople and about the Russian culture, you will certainly have certain expectations about the person you are about to meet. You expect to meet someone who is most probably an ethnic Russian, who is rather formal (both in terms of attire as well as interaction), who does not use much body language or non-verbal communication, and who prefers to get down to business almost immediately. What information do you already have, or can you get, about this person to test these assumptions?
2. As you meet with and engage with the person (or group), refer to those assumptions and adjust them to see whether they are justified or not. Some of your thinking and adjustments might be done “in the moment.” For example, on meeting the Russian manager, you realize that he is younger than 30, and he informs you that he has only been in Russia for five years, having been raised in Ukraine. Furthermore, he got his MBA at IMD Business School in Switzerland. These are bits of information that you get to pick up as you interact with your Russian business partner, and it might change the approach you might take with him. For example, you might then decide to take a somewhat less formal approach and engage in some informal topics to break the ice and establish rapport.
3. After the interaction, reflect on your behaviors. How did you adjust your approach, and did you feel that it was effective? What would you do differently next time around? If appropriate, ask for feedback (not about yourself, but you could ask about how the meeting went for him, for example), although keep in mind that you might not necessarily get honest feedback, especially if you are in a position of higher authority than the person or group you are interacting with.
There is another approach that has worked for many, including myself. And that is to take the time to explore commonalities between the two of you. In some cases, this may be a love of sports, cars, certain movies or certain books or video games. In other cases, this might be around common experiences or common values, for example, having children of about the same age, having parents who may not be well, etc. Finding “common ground” is an effective way to reduce your unconscious bias and in many cases helps to establish an effective relationship with your colleague cross-culturally.
Ambady, N. and Rosenthal, R. (1992). Thin Slices of Expressive Behavior as Predictors of Interpersonal Consequences. Psychological Bulletin, 111(2).
Gomez-Meija et al. (2012). Managing Human Resources (7th edition). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall.
Mitchell, M. with Corr, J. (1998). The First Five Minutes. New York: Wiley.
Neeley, T. and Kaplan, R. What’s Your Language Strategy? (2014). Harvard Business Review, September, pp. 70-76.
Pinker, S. (2014). The Village Effect. New York: Spiegel and Grau.
Todorov, A. et al. (2005). Inferences of Competence from Faces Predict Election Outcomes. Science, 308.