impression management and how we use it

I fully believe in living your truest (authentic) life, but it would be completely inauthentic to say we don’t engage in impression management (which may appear a little calculating). But, even when living our bestest, most truest, authentic life x’s muthahump’n infinity – we are still intentionally managing perceptions in some way.

What I found really interesting was this excerpt from “Downplaying Positive Impressions: Compensation between Warmth and Competence in Impression Management” by Deborah Son Holoien, Susan T. Fiske (Princeton) from Journal of Experiential Social Psychology (read full abstract here):

People desire to make positive impressions on others. They smile and laugh at social gatherings in the hopes of being liked, and they subtly mention their accolades in order to be respected. Indeed, the top two impressions people seek relate to warmth and competence (Leary, 1995; Nezlek, Schutz, & Sellin, 2007), perhaps because people care about these dimensions the most when making judgments about other people (Abele & Wojciszke, 2007; Fiske, Cuddy, & Glick, 2007; Wojciszke, 2005). The warmth dimension reflects traits related to other-profitable intent, such as friendliness, communion, morality, and trustworthiness; by contrast, the competence dimension captures traits related to self-profitable ability, such as intelligence, agency, and skill (Peeters, 2001). Although both warmth and competence judgments are essential to person perception, warmth judgments account for a greater portion of the impressions people form of others (Abele & Wojciszke, 2007; Wojciszke, Banzinska, & Jaworski, 1998) and occur prior to competence judgments (Willis & Todorov, 2006). Given the weight of warmth and competence judgments in impression formation, it is unsurprising that people also care deeply about how warm and competent they appear. People strive to appear warm or competent by displaying certain behaviors that are likely to elicit these attributions from others; in other words, they engage in impression management (Goffman, 1959;Leary, 1995; Schlenker & Pontari, 1973). When people want to appear warm, they tend to agree, compliment, perform favors, and encourage others to talk (Godfrey, Jones, & Lord, 1986; Jones & Pittman, 1982). When people want to appear competent, they emphasize their accomplishments, exude confidence, and control the conversation (Godfrey etal., 1986; Jones & Pittman, 1982).”

Appearing warm? Complimenting people to appear warm? Yeah.. that’s interesting. No time to deep dive, but I’ve provided some information for you to start diving. 🙂 Because whatever we may feel about impression management, it’s not changing and being informed is always helpful. I liken it to reading the “48 Laws of Power” in 2 ways:  I may not choose to operate according to the laws, but I surely want to know when others do (so I can prepare and/or respond according) and secondly, some of the concepts can be ethically used.


Sociologist Erving Goffman developed the concept of dramaturgy, the idea that life is like a never-ending play in which people are actors. Goffman believed that when we are born, we are thrust onto a stage called everyday life, and that our socialization consists of learning how to play our assigned roles from other people. We enact our roles in the company of others, who are in turn enacting their roles in interaction with us. He believed that whatever we do, we are playing out some role on the stage of life.

Goffman distinguished between front stages and back stages. During our everyday life, we spend most of our lives on the front stage, where we get to deliver our lines and perform. A wedding is a front stage. A classroom lectern is a front stage. A dinner table can be a front stage. Almost any place where we act in front of others is a front stage. Sometimes we are allowed to retreat to the back stages of life. In these private areas, we don’t have to act. We can be our real selves. We can also practice and prepare for our return to the front stage.
  • Clothing: The clothing we wear tells others whether we are rich or poor, whether we take care of ourselves, whether we have a job, and whether we take it seriously. Props such as a wedding band, a doctor’s stethoscope, or a briefcase tell others even more about us.
  • Physical stature: American society is obsessed with thinness, especially for women, and people often equate thinness with attractiveness. People commonly make assumptions about a person’s personality and character based solely on his or her weight. The tendency to assume that a physically attractive person also possesses other good qualities is called the halo effect. For example, thin and attractive people are assumed to be smarter, funnier, and more self-controlled, honest, and efficient than their less thin and attractive peers. Conversely, we tend to think that heavier people lack self-discipline and are more disorganized than their thinner counterparts.
  • Race: Anthropologically speaking, there are only three races: white, black, and Asian. Humans feel the need to assign every individual to one of the three races and then draw conclusions about their musical preferences, tastes in food, and home life based on that classification.
  • Stereotypes: Many of the assumptions we make about people based on physical characteristics are actually stereotypes. A stereotype is an assumption we make about a person or group that is usually based on incomplete or inaccurate information. An individual or two may indeed fit a stereotype, but the danger is assuming that all people who share a particular characteristic are inherently the same.

Impression Management in Professional Setting…

Anddd.. from a social perspective, here’s another great read written by Susan Krauss Whitbourne Ph.D ( –read full article here)

Manner of Interacting

According to Goffman, our manner of interacting is also a sign vehicle. Our manner of interacting consists of the attitudes we convey in an attempt to get others to form certain impressions about us. One of the most common ways to convey attitudes is through nonverbal communication, the ways we have of communicating that do not use spoken words. These consist of gestures, facial expressions, and body language.

Impression Management

Goffman coined the term impression management to refer to our desire to manipulate others’ impressions of us on the front stage. According to Goffman, we use various mechanisms, called sign vehicles, to present ourselves to others. The most commonly employed sign vehicles are the following:

  • Social setting
  • Appearance
  • Manner of interacting

Social Setting

The social setting is the physical place where interaction occurs. It could be a doctor’s examination room, a hallway, someone’s home, or a professor’s office. How we arrange our spaces, and what we put in them, conveys a lot of information about us. A person who lives in a huge home with security guards, attack dogs, and motion detectors conveys the message that he or she is very important, wealthy, and powerful, and probably that uninvited visitors should stay away. On the other hand, the owner of a house with no fence, lots of lights, and a welcome mat would seem much more inviting but perhaps not as rich or powerful.

How we decorate our settings, or what props we use, also gives clues to how we want people to think of us. A businesswoman with a photo of her family on her desk communicates that things outside of work are important in her life. When a professor displays her degrees and certificates on the wall of her office, she communicates that she wants to be viewed as a credible authority in her chosen field. When people decorate offices, hang pictures in clinics, or display artwork in their homes, they are using props to convey information about how they want others to see them.


Our appearance also speaks volumes about us. People’s first impressions are based almost exclusively on appearance.

In the psychology of impression management, it’s all about those first few seconds of an interaction. You know you’ll be judged, as you judge in turn, by what happens the moment you and a stranger see each other for the first time. However, did you realize that you may even form a judgement about someone’s personal qualities before you ever set eyes on each other?

In an online dating scenario, you have the complete freedom to describe yourself in any way you see fit. You may not be able to get away as much with manipulating your physical appearance though some people valiantly try.  However, you can slant the way you present your personality and skills according to the effect you hope to have on your online audience.

Given this complete freedom, then, think about how you’d most like to present your personal qualities. Would you rather seem to be someone who others can come to for help because they trust your generosity of spirit? When you meet the individual you’re trying to attract, do you want that person to want you because you are so easy to get along with? Or is being smart and on top of your game the quality that matters the most? Do you want to attract potential dating partners who enjoy the mental give-and-take as much as they do any other types of pleasure?

In a previous article, I discussed the advantages and disadvantages of trying to seem nice vs. smart on the basis of your dialect. Southerners trade off seeming intelligent for seeming nice and those north of the Mason-Dixon Line give off intelligence vibes. Political candidates who want to seem likable, therefore, will put on a Southern accent (or exaggerate the one they have) and those who want to look like trustworthy stewards of your resources will go out of their way to drop the drawl.

When you’re not actually speaking to someone, though, you’ve got a different set of options. You can represent your personal qualities through the written word, either in a self-description or in your list of accomplishments. Whether you put “Homecoming Queen” first in your resume or “Honor Roll” is the dilemma you face every time you apply for a position, whether it’s in as an office assistant or a dating partner.

Impression management isn’t just a one-way street. The people who form their impressions of you themselves possess a certain set of qualities. These will influence how they judge your self-descriptions. It’s important to take these into account when you ponder the words you’ll use to gain their attention.

Deciding which qualities to emphasize, then, should be a conscious decision you make at the outset. For example, if you’re trying to get hired by someone who will serve as your boss, you’ll need to present an image that will emphasize your competence. This would be the promote mentality. If, conversely, you want the people beneath you socially to throw support your way (as happens to a political candidate), you need to emphasize the down-to-earth nature of your personality. This would be the ingratiate mentality.

A similar set of processes might occur in online dating where, if you are relatively high status as gauged by your academic credentials and/or job prestige, you’ll want potential partners to see you as approachable. If you occupy a lowlier position in society, again as gauged by your education and job, you’ll want to emphasize how great your personality is and how much people like you.

We typically think of the ingratiation process as one that occurs over a prolonged period of time. If you’re trying to ingratiate yourself with someone whose positive regard you need (either for a job or in a relationship), there are certain tactics you must always be prepared to use. You need to be attentive to their needs, willing to put your needs aside to satisfy them, and so sensitive to their wishes that you can provide answers even before they ask their questions.

Sometimes people use ingratiation tactics as a means to secure a promotion. The underling who swarms around the boss, ready to meet every request, is hoping someday to be offered a better position. By appearing helpful and responsive to the wishes of the boss, the lowly assistant shows the kind of loyalty and dedication that must surely be deserving of a raise in pay and a better position in the office hierarchy.

Princeton University’s Jillian Swencionis and Susan Fiske (2016) were interested in impression management as it applies to situations in which two people of different statuses or ranks judge each other via written descriptions. They noted that we often judge people of high rank as “cold but competent” and those of lower rank as “warm but unintelligent.” These are, they observe “ambivalent” stereotypes where one positive attribute is offset by one negative attribute.

In a society as rife with economic inequity as that in the U.S., Swencionis and Fiske propose that people of lower income and status can feel better about themselves if stereotype those higher classes than themselves as cold even though they may be competent. If you’re wealthy, you regard the poor as dumb but happy. This makes it possible for the wealthy to ease their guilt about their lack of access the poor have to the resources available to them. If you’re poor, your stereotype of those better off than you allows you to rest assured in the knowledge that you may not have much, but at least you’re happier than those snobs at the top.

Now, the translation of all of this to impression management. According to this status inequity argument, ambivalent stereotypes will lead you, when presented with someone of a different class, to try to equalize the situation in the way you describe yourself. If you’re upper status, you’ll try to seem nicer (the ingratiation process). If you’re lower status, you’ll try to seem more competent (the promotion process).

Testing this theory on participants obtained through the online survey apparatus of mechanical Turk, Swencionis and Fiske conducted a series of studies in which people were asked to rate the impressions they formed from written descriptions of people presented to them as either higher or lower than themselves in status.

Summarizing a rather complex set of findings, it appears that downward comparisons (where you outrank someone else) produce a greater tendency for you to try to appear nice. Upward comparisons (where the other person outranks you) lead people to that promotion strategy of trying to look more competent.

The findings were additionally a bit more nuanced in that those who were made to feel higher in status seemed to want to show that they really aren’t all that cold as the stereotype would suggest. Conversely, those made to feel lower in status wanted to show that they were at least as smart as (not smarter than) the person who would be their boss.


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