At first blush, introductions may appear trivial. How we introduce ourselves to new people or new audiences may seem like a passing moment with little long-term relevance. After all, we have hours, days, months to get to know someone more fully. Just a few seconds at the start of a relationship could seem singularly unimportant. Useless even.
But that is hardly the case. Introductions matter across virtually every field — politics, medicine, education, business and many others. There are a growing number of studies and academic literature to support this reality. That old saw that one doesn’t get a second chance to make a first impression now has evidence to back it up. Studies show that when meeting new people, we “thin slice,” a term coined by Professor Frank Bernieri of Oregon State University and later used by popular author Malcolm Galdwell in his book, Blink. What’s more, we may not even be aware of what we are doing and its consequences.
In essence, we make judgments of people we meet based on split-second reactions, and even when presented with countervailing facts, we hold on to our first impressions. (Think of deciding whether or not to ‘swipe right’ in real life.) With lightning speed, we react to someone to whom we are introduced. We get messages of trust, openness, interest, respect and warmth — or the opposite. Without often realizing, we are internally answering these questions: Is there eye contact? Is there a firm handshake? Is this person smiling? What words are used as a greeting? What’s the tone? What about this person’s clothing? What impression does it give? And, for me, how does this person self-describe — do they use titles or other expressions to show their status or role?
The consequences of “first impressions” can be substantial. In healthcare, for example, how medical professionals communicate with patients and their families can affect the quality of healthcare outcomes. There is data suggesting that introductions in an acute care setting impact the quality of the patient experience. The preferred nomenclature used depends in part on the patient’s age, gender and culture. In the employment context, it can determine hiring decisions even when those impressions turn out to be misguided. In the educational context, students and teachers develop instant reactions to each other that can impact learning; indeed, that is why I used to say that the first day of class sets the tone for the whole semester. College students quickly sort out with whom they want to be friends.
Whether that introduction comes in the context of the forthcoming elections, the start of the academic year changes in corporate leadership where leaders and employees are making impressions or in a medical setting where all parties are dealing with the omnipresence of health issues and their outcomes, both understanding and improving introductions matters.
Consider these examples.
Think about how you’ve met a doctor or other healthcare professional in an emergency room, ICU or doctor’s office. As the patient, you might be sitting or lying in a relatively small space, sometimes in pain, sometimes disrobed, sometimes disoriented, often alone. Suppose the healthcare giver starts by saying: “Hello, Karen, I’m Doctor Johnson.” Well, the power dynamics are set from the get-go. The patient is treated with familiarity (through use of a first name only) and the professional is, well, the professional.
Trivial? I think not and science agrees.
More recently, also in the medical context, I have a vivid memory (and the accordant visceral reaction) from the cardiologist who came into my husband’s tiny room in intensive care. My adult son and I were there. The physician was wearing a white coat with his name and medical specialty visibly embroidered over the left pocket. Then, in a sing-songy tone that mimicked Mr. Rogers, he stood at the end of the bed and said to us all, “Hello, I am Doctor Davis. I am a heart doctor.”
To me, he sounded demeaning. He was infantilizing us with his tone and his effort to “simplify” medical speak by not using the medical term “cardiologist” and assuming that if he did, we would not understand it. I get the effort; some patients and their families might not have understood the term, and “doctor speak” can be alienating.
But my husband has a name (as do I and as does our son). One look at the medical chart would have shown that my husband was a professional, something illness does not eradicate. And his son — the holder of the health care proxy — is a professor at a well-known university. That was all in the chart. And me, the wife? I was totally missing in the chart. But this physician had made no effort to know who his patient was (and perhaps who the family were). That’s not smart; that doesn’t signal preparation and personalization. That bodes badly for trust and outcome success.
Already feeling that we were in an out of control situation, I responded to the “heart” doctor a tad tartly, “Really! Dr. Davis, you are the cardiologist but best as I can tell, you are not the electro-physiologist, right?” He looked at me as if I had entered some forbidden turf – his turf. Unfortunately, many patients and their families do not speak up because they are scared and want good care and fear that saying something will prompt the physician to retaliate by providing suboptimal care, lacking in compassion.
Here’s my point. My husband got amazing care in the ER and ICU for which we are deeply grateful. Bravo and brava to the teams. What my husband did not get was a trust-inducing medical introduction from the person responsible for his ailing heart. Instead, he and his family got what felt like a put-down.
And, with a little thought and preparation in a non-emergency situation, it wouldn’t have taken much to change the introductory words: “Hello, I am Dr. Davis, the cardiologist in charge of your heart issues here in the ICU.” That would have been respectful, open, and clear. None of us were ignoramuses. We may not have been cardiologists but we know a lot of them and know about the work they do. In short, Dr. Davis underestimated us, a common error among healthcare providers.
Another example from the medical arena. Several years ago now, I went to a new physician’s office and the resident who greeting me first introduced herself this way: “Hello Karen, I’m Dr. Kone.” She was young enough to be my daughter. I stopped her and said, rather firmly: “Have we met before? I’m Karen Gross and I assume Doctor is not your first name?”
She realized immediately and re-introduced herself to her credit: “Hello, I’m Sonia Kone, the medical resident.” She and I chatted about why these little words mattered big time. And when the actual senior physician walked in, he said (whether coached or not by his resident), “Hello. I’m David Gergon, the surgeon. Nice to meet you Ms. Gross” to which I responded, “Just call me Karen.”
Big difference. Why couldn’t we learn how a patient wants to be called when they first arrive in this type of situation? Or what if a medical provided his or her name and then asked how the patient would like to be referenced?
Consider how politicians introduce themselves to voters at a convention or in ads or in political rallies. And, these introductions — often short — form the basis for a vote at election time. Political consultants know this; those first 30 seconds count.
Another example. When I was a new college president, I had occasion to meet many folks – parents, current students, prospective students, alums, neighbors, government officials, other college and university presidents. At the institution prior to my arrival, everyone wore nametags — for real. When asked what I wanted mine to say, I paused and said, perhaps a tad too quickly, we were going to do away with nametags. The communications person was stunned: how will people know who everyone is? How will guests know? And I responded, we will introduce ourselves like this: “Hello, I’m Karen Gross. How can I help you?”
And for the eight years I was president, I always introduced myself by saying: I’m Karen Gross. Sometimes I would add, I’m the president of this amazing college or something to that effect. Some students would call me President Gross, others would call me “Prez.” Some even called me Karen. My title is not who I am; it is what I did (or do).
On one occasion, when the then-dean of students and I were delivering cookies to new students in the residential halls, a student come out of her room, looked at us and asked “Who are you both?” The dean of students responded, “I’m Anne Smith, the dean of students. You may recognize me from orientation – although it’s hard to identify faces on a stage.” The student nodded.
Then, the student turned to me and said, “Who are you?” I said, “Hi. I’m Karen Gross, the President of the College,” to which she responded, “No really, who are you?”
Reflect on how teachers introduce themselves to their students – from early childhood education through graduate school. Do you remember those introductions? “Hello I am Mrs. Popper, your third grade teacher.” “Hello, I’m Dr. Howard and this is Biology 101.” What happened to “Welcome to a new semester. I’m Karen Gross and this semester we’ll be learning about medieval art.”
Introductions matter. They set a tone. They establish trust. They signal power or its absence. They signal approachability. They reveal respect and the origin of that word is telling: to look at, to regard, to consider. We need to “see” the person with whom we are newly engaging.
I appreciate the need to focus on the “big issues” and the “big problems,” whether that is education or medicine or law or politics or any other discipline. If a patient’s heart is stopped, we don’t need to focus on introductions at all. If a terrorist attack hits, there’s no time for first responders to introduce themselves before they pull you from a burning building.
But make no mistake about this: addressing these big issues and big problems will go a lot easier if the introduction is handled thoughtfully, wisely and with respect.
Adjusting introductions would not require a big change. Yet, a small change could yield a big impact as the data show. We have nothing to lose and plenty to gain by reflecting on and adjusting how we introduce ourselves. It matters. Start with “hello” followed by your name. Even that is an improvement in most contexts.
Note: Names have been changed throughout this piece to protect non-public figures.