For our ancestors, split-second decisions made on the basis of subtle visual clues could be a matter of life or death. Today, first impressions still evoke automatic responses, which may or may not be accurate.

Those automatic responses must be analyzed and filtered to ensure survival in a world where societal restrictions and nuances have added many layers to personal interactions. Goman proposes five filters through which to sift first impressions:

1. Context: The first filter involves judging whether nonverbal behaviors are appropriate to their context. A man screaming and flailing his arms may be reacting to danger, or he may be watching a football game. Variables like setting, time of day, and past experience shape the context of any behavior.

2. Clusters: Someone with folded arms may merely be cold, but when paired with a frown and head shake, those arms reliably indicate an unreceptive attitude. A good rule of thumb is to look for two other reinforcing behaviors before assigning meaning to the first.

3. Congruence: When people believe what they are saying, their body language confirms it, and their expressions and gestures are congruent with their words. Incongruence (such as saying “I am really happy about that” while scowling) may reveal the speaker’s own inner conflict between opinion and words, or it may betray deceptiveness.

4. Consistency: Consider whether the behavior is atypical. A warning carries more weight when it comes from a person known to be habitually unflappable. It is helpful to know a person’s baseline behavior before reading too much into any single expression.

5. Culture: The last filter has assumed increasing importance in today’s global economy. People under any stress tend to revert to the body language of their culture or subculture. In such situations, cultural literacy on the part of both speakers can prevent misunderstandings.

Author's Bio: 

Samantha Johnson is the managing editor of For more information, please visit