First Impressions

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It’s common knowledge that first impressions are important, but how exactly does this apply in our industry and to our careers? Regardless of what stage in our profession we are, whether it is working on our private pilot’s license or applying to our dream job with thousands of hours of experience, it’s crucial that we be conscious of the manner in which we interact with others and how one’s behavior is perceived. Everything from our attire and personal hygiene to the manner with which we communicate with others is critical in establishing a positive first impression. These initial interactions have lasting effects on how each is perceived and the relationships that are created. This remains particularly true in the aviation industry as it is a small, tight-knit community in which networking plays a crucial role in professional growth.

So how important are first impressions? There is a concept titled Uncertainty Reduction Theory in which it is recognized that humans do not like the unknown. To manage this discontent for that which we do not know, people attempt to reduce uncertainty. You may notice this when first meeting someone, we immediately begin asking basic questions as a means of filling in the gaps. During this process, we begin to form perceptions about future benefits of engaging in a relationship with the stranger, which can be either an advantage or disadvantage, depending on the outcome. Additionally, first encounters are the building blocks upon which people establish credibility. While your actions, over extended periods of time, will either prove or disprove your credibility, people’s initial perceptions are often difficult to change. For that reason, setting the right tone that first time around is the foundation upon which you build lasting relationships.

Considering that each person possesses their own personality, it is important to realize you may not get along with everyone and not everyone is going to get along with you. However, considering that while at work we are in a professional environment, it goes without saying that there are certain guidelines and rules within which we ought to operate. Despite having differences of opinions or general disagreements with some in the workplace, understanding that when first engaging with someone new, adhering to basic social etiquette norms ensures that you come across as approachable and professional.

Now that we have discussed why first impressions are so important, I’d like to share with you how they apply to your career and the airline industry, jumping between both the private pilot and airline pilot. Some of the basic traits you need to be conscious of are your personal appearance and the manner with which you communicate. This includes, but is not limited to, language, facial expressions, body language and tone.

Whether you’re meeting your flight instructor or student for the first time or starting a four-day trip with a new captain or first officer, the first impression counts. You are inevitably going to be spending a lot of time with this other person in a confined space and you are going to have to rely heavily on being able to communicate and have trust in each other. It’s important to make the opportunity to demonstrate your character to establish a solid foundation upon which to build a functioning team relationship. Considering this, how much do the clothes you wear matter? How important is your hygiene? It may seem inconsequential on the surface, but to the other individual, these act as indicators of your character and credibility, whether accurate or not. If you are unable to take the time to present yourself in a professional manner by grooming yourself or taking care of your clothes, how does this reflect on your other professional duties and responsibilities? Again, while you have time to prove yourself over the course of each lesson/flight, that initial impression has been cast.

Similar to your personal appearance, how you communicate on initial contact has lasting effects on the relationships you establish. Upon first meeting your flight instructor or captain/first officer, everything from the words you use, how you say them, and what you say sets the tone for everything that follows. This includes body language and facial expressions. As mentioned before, it is recommended that one adhere to basic social etiquette norms – such as, avoid curse words and using excess tonal inflections (in other words, being loud). In general, you also want to avoid charged or sensitive topics such as politics, religion and other themes which typically ought to remain clear of any professional setting or environment. It’s not that you aren’t allowed to have opinions and that you can’t share them, but it is important to consider the situation and circumstances and recognize that there is an appropriate time and place.

While these may seem obvious, what may not be are the choice of paths we take with those who we encounter along the way. Your first student as a flight instructor may one day be your captain. As professionals, we need to consider the impressions we impart and how those will affect our relationships. The examples used above are not limited to just the two pilots sitting next to each other, but extend to others as well. Our chief pilots, maintenance crews, inflight, gate agents, additional crew members or even our customers all warrant due consideration upon first meeting. It is worth mentioning, that while significant, it is not a foregone conclusion that all first impressions are set in stone. As a new flight instructor, my first student and I had a breakdown in communication upon our first meeting. Everything from the attire he wore to how he responded to the questions I asked, seemed to conflict with my expectations and in turn did not impress upon me that he was someone with whom I was going to get along. Fast forward seven years and not only are we colleagues, but we are good friends.

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