The Two Questions Strangers Use to Assess You (in the first 2 minutes)


One of my recent reads was “Talking to Strangers” by Malcolm Gladwell.

In the book, he advocates for job interviews where you can’t see the person but can only hear their voice.  Or better yet, can only interact with them in writing.

Which is madness in my view.

And an indicator that – while he’s an interesting writer – he hasn’t done many job interviews.

At one point, he says, “What do I care if my assistant has a tattoo on her forehead?”

And I thought, “Right, and what if that tattoo is a swastika?”

The truth is that strangers assess you for two simple things when they first meet you.  You do it too.

You see, very few of the people you meet have the competence to assess your competence.

How can I possibly know if my lawyer is a good one?  I can’t assess that.  I’m not a lawyer.

How do I know if my doctor is good or bad at her job?  I have no idea.

In my book “The Power of People Skills” I wrote:

“Did you know that 50% of physicians graduated in the bottom half of their class?”

My editor indignantly wrote back:


I guess 50% of editors also graduated in the bottom half of their class 😊.

According to HBR business school professor Amy Cuddy, people ask two questions about you.

They are:

  1. Can I trust this person?  (is this person warm?)
  2. Can I respect this person? (is this person competent?)

Read more about that here:

Here’s how to help them answer yes to both:

To help people trust you:

Stand up when you greet them.

Don’t sit there in your chair gawking around like a lump.  Get up and let them see that you value their presence and that they matter enough to you for you to make the effort to stand up and greet them properly.


Don’t assume that you’re doing this.  It takes intentional effort for many of us.  To prove my point, pick up your phone right now, (DO IT, RIGHT NOW!) turn on your camera and look at your face at rest.  Don’t make an effort to smile.  Just look at your face and ask yourself what it conveys to new people.

If you’re under 30, you still have the bloom of youth.  But if you’re over 30, you look sullen and mad unless you’ve had work done.  If you’ve had work done, you may look like a space alien.  In which case you’ll have to smile twice as big to cover up that uncanny valley vibe!

For most of us it’s called RBF.  Look it up.

Uncross your arms

When your arms are crossed, you’re in a ‘closed’ stance.  Have your arms at your sides, showing that you’re an open book.

Now you’re standing, smiling, and looking like an open, unthreatening person.  We’re making progress!

Do this in the first .04 seconds of meeting

Remember their name.  The simplest way to do this is to repeat it back to them immediately.  We forget names in the first .29 seconds of hearing them.  So, pay attention when they tell you their name and just say something like,

“Jason, it’s nice to meet you.”  That will help it stick in your mind.

Consider them the best part of your day

Not an interruption.  Not a nuisance that you have to get past.  A delight!  A joy to meet and serve!

Why do you like your dog?  Because your dog is so dang happy to see you!  Every time!

Do this and they’ll feel the difference, believe me.

To help people respect you

Consider your premises

If your counter is a mess and there are spare parts littering the ground, my respect for you goes down.  Same goes for your desk.  Clean it up.  Consider your workspace an advertisement for who you are and what you do because that’s what it is.

Throw away your old jeans

I know you bought them in college and they’re still perfectly good and they’re just now after 18 years getting worn in to how you like them.  But please consider dressing for success.

I always use this rule of thumb:  Dress one step above whoever you’re meeting with.

  • If your client wears greasy work overalls (nothing wrong with that btw) you wear clean jeans.
  • When you see your client wearing a golf shirt, you wear a button-down shirt.
  • When the button down shirt is standard, you wear that plus a jacket.
  • If you’re in a trade, make sure your clothes are clean and looking sharp.
  • If you wear a uniform, wear it well. We can all see the difference between someone who tries and someone who rolls out of bed and is in the car four minutes later.

You get the idea.  Probably stop when you’re considering buying a tux or digging out that old bridesmaids dress.

Do some detective work

Clients hate a salesperson, but they love a product expert.  Remember that.  I’ll say it again because that one is worth repeating:

Clients hate a salesperson, but they love a product expert.

Also, clients love deep knowledge.  The story behind the story.

When I was in the hot tub business, I liked telling the story of our designer, Max, who I knew personally, and who told me about how he designed our lounger using the #3 position of an EZ Boy recliner as his model.  And how another seat was the exact proportions of a (I forget the year) Chevy Corvette.

That’s deep knowledge.  Clients eat that stuff up.

The more you know, the more people trust you.

So, plan on making a positive first impression.  Earn people’s trust and their respect too!


Getting ahead is about getting started!


Trevor head shot in office 1

Trevor Throness is a speaker, consultant, and author of “The Power of People Skills.”  He is also co-founder and senior instructor at

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    6 thoughts on “The Two Questions Strangers Use to Assess You (in the first 2 minutes)”

    1. Enjoyed the hot tub analogy Trevor! Your comment around “salesman” and “product expert” is so true – I refer to this as being a “professional seller”, but your language is more specific.

    2. I would have bought a hot tub from you just because you knew that one of the lounge positions was based on the design of a Corvette seat – that’s such an awesome selling feature😊!!!

      Have a great Christmas season!!

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