May 6th, 2014

You had me at hello

I remember reading decades ago about how quickly we judge people when we first meet them. Yes or no, stay or move on?

This 1986 book said the judgments all happen within four minutes, but my impression is that it’s usually much much sooner than that. We are instantaneously and constantly evaluating almost countless bits of information being received, not just about superficial looks (although there’s that, too) but about body language (gesture, posture, movement, tension), expression, scent, intelligence, humor, health, and much more.

I’ve always been one to have strong and quick reactions to people (both pro and con), so strong and so quick it can be almost dizzying. For me, one puzzling aspect has been that my impressions have been nearly as strong even when only meeting someone for the first time over the phone. And those first impressions have almost never (or maybe even never ever) been wrong, on the occasions when I’ve had a chance to check them out in person later.

I first noticed this two decades ago, when I was in graduate school. I worked in a clinic where the staff fielded the initial phone calls from clients and did a short intake, then passed the clients on to the therapist, who had to make a contact call. At the point of making that first call I already knew a bit about the clients—most often a couple or family—but really not all that much. I’d have in front of me a sheet of paper with the names in the family, their ages, and a sentence or two about the presenting problem as the family member who had made the initial agency contact defined it.

But as soon as the person answered the phone and said “hello” I would get a feeling so powerful that it couldn’t be denied. I either knew it would be relatively easy to work with this person or family, or felt an ominous “oh-oh” that would make the hair on the back of my neck stand up, telling me that something was very, very wrong and I was in for a rough ride. These impressions always panned out when I worked with people.

Now, you could say it was a self-fulfilling prophecy. But I don’t think so. It’s a bit like another thing I’ve noticed, which is that when I’ve gotten massages, I can tell the moment the person first touches me whether this will be a good massage or a bad one. And that perception is independent of whether I’ve liked them or not during those first four minutes of meeting face to face. Sometimes I like them very much, but when the first touch happens I think “Oh no, that won’t do.” Sometimes I’m not all that keen on them, but it’s clear the moment the massage starts that this is going to work out very well. In other words, there seems to be no correlation.

Which brings us to this article:

Remember that famous line in the movie Jerry Maguire where Renee Zellweger says to Tom Cruise, “You had me at ‘hello’ “? Well it turns out there is some scientific evidence to back this up. People use voices to instantly judge people, researchers say.

Of course.

McAleer recorded 64 people, men and women, from Glasgow, reading a paragraph that included the word “hello.” He then extracted all the hellos and got 320 participants to listen to the different voices and rate them on 10 different personality traits, such as trustworthiness, aggressiveness, confidence, dominance and warmth.

What he found was that the participants largely agreed on which voice matched which personality trait. One male voice was overwhelmingly voted the least trustworthy, “the sort of guy you’d want to avoid,” McAleer says. The pitch of the untrustworthy voice was much lower than the male deemed most trustworthy. McAleer says this is probably because a higher pitched male voice is closer to the natural pitch of a female, making the men sound less aggressive and friendlier than the lower male voices.

What makes females sound more trustworthy is whether their voices rise or fall at the end of the word, says McAleer. “Probably the trustworthy female, when she drops her voice at the end, is showing a degree of certainty and so can be trusted.”

So, you gals—and guys, as you’ll see from this video—who constantly uptalk, beware!

27 Responses to “You had me at hello”

  1. waitforit Says:

    “On hearing just a brief utterance, we decide whether to approach the person or to avoid them. Such rapid appraisals, she says, have a long evolutionary history. It’s a brain process found in all mammals.” How the f k do they know that? I believe the phenomenon, just not the old trotted out “evolutionary history.”

  2. Ann Says:

    I was once told by a woman who was the head of a publishing house’s telemarketing department that the secret to success for her staff was smiling while they spoke over the phone.

    Just found this, which explains why that works:

    One way to positively affect the inflection in your voice is to smile, especially when you first answer the telephone. The reason is not psychological but rather physiological. When you smile, the soft palate at the back of your mouth raises and makes the sound waves more fluid. For those of you who sing in a choir (or in the shower), you know that the wider you open your mouth and the more teeth you show, the better tone you get. The same applies on the telephone. Smiling helps your voice to sound friendly, warm, and receptive.

    Some telemarketing companies are so convinced of the value of smiling when talking on the phone that they install mirrors above telemarketers’ desks to remind them to smile. These same people, by the way, call you when you’re just sitting down to dinner.

  3. waitforit Says:

    A pretty amazing ability, Neo. I’m sure I don’t have. What, if, any, impressions did it make upon hearing the voices of our various and sundry Presidents. For example, did Reagan find a good note in your heart and Klingon Klinton a bad one?

  4. M J R Says:

    “Early in his term, President George W. Bush famously said of Putin, ‘I looked the man in the eye. I found him to be very straightforward and trustworthy. We had a very good dialogue. I was able to get a sense of his soul; a man deeply committed to his country and the best interests of his country.'”

    (International Business Times, September 20, 2012,

    Just thinkin’ here . . .

  5. Ymarsakar Says:

    I think high level interrogators, people watchers, spies, assassins, sociopaths with high empathy quotients, already do this consciously.

    Gut instinct can either be trusted on a reactionary level, or it can be molded into a conscious active skill set.

  6. Ymarsakar Says:

    MJR, it looks like facts under Obama bore that assessment out. Although it wasn’t what the Left said he said, which is that he saw Putin’s soul.

  7. waitforit Says:

    You had me at jello.

  8. M J R Says:

    Ymarsakar, 7:42 pm — Putin “straightforward and trustworthy”?

    To quote Ricky Ricardo, ‘splain! (Please.)

  9. leigh Says:

    ” . . . a man deeply committed to his country and the best interests of his country.’”

    I think Ymarsadar means this portion of the quote.

  10. waitforit Says:

    You know what might be really interesting? IF McAleer would have made groups from, say, flyover v. elites, strong fundamentalists v. atheists, but 64 people from Glasgow? Who were they and who were the 320 reviewers? This study probably means nothing more than the uniqueness and strangeness of what is probably the most strident and preserved Gaelic population.

  11. Ymarsakar Says:

    Mjr, that depends on the context. Until Putin has promised something to you, personally, you can’t really say he did or didn’t follow up on it. So it depends on what Putin said to Bush or what Bush took as an agreement Putin signed off on.

  12. Ymarsakar Says:

    One should also not forget that Putin used a US based newspaper to write an op ed to the American people.

    That’s straightforward, even if he is using propaganda and manipulation in his policies.

    That’s more straightforward than Obama gave supposedly the American people (Hussein says his people are the black people only).

  13. Don Carlos Says:

    MJR reminds us:
    “Early in his term, President George W. Bush famously said of Putin, ‘I looked the man in the eye. I found him to be very straightforward and trustworthy. We had a very good dialogue. I was able to get a sense of his soul; a man deeply committed to his country and the best interests of his country.’”

    That Putin was “straightforward and trustworthy” is the only sentence with which I could take issue, and W said that while he was “early in his term” as POTUS. Public statements may have private purposes, often do, and W”s job was not to share his deepest thoughts honestly with the international “community”. Quite the contrary.

    Putin is deeply committed to Russia and its best strategic interests, I think we all agree. I wish Hussein had similar feelings for the USA. That is part of the reason Putin is respected; feared but respected, and Hussein is sneered at, not feared except by his own citizens.

  14. Cornflour Says:

    Oooh, you had me at jello?
    Better trademark that yesterday.

  15. M J R Says:

    Ymarsakar, 9:25 pm — “Until Putin has promised something to you, personally, you can’t really say he did or didn’t follow up on it. So it depends on what Putin said to Bush or what Bush took as an agreement Putin signed off on.”

    Speaking just for me, I do not base my trust in someone’s integrity on what that someone promises *me* necessarily, but on what that someone promises any/all of those to whom he has promised something.

    Thanks for the feedback, though [ smile ] . . .

  16. M J R Says:

    Don Carlos, 10:06 pm — “That Putin was ‘straightforward and trustworthy’ is the only sentence with which I could take issue, and W said that while he was ‘early in his term’ as POTUS.”

    That’s precisely the sentence/phrase with which I took issue.

    That “W said that while he was ‘early in his term'” misses what I perceive as the point: our hostess/landlord neo was discussing sizing someone up within minutes — “You had me at hello”, she titled her blog entry. My intended conclusion is/was that W was not nearly as blessed with instant ‘sizing up” as is neo.

    Your third paragraph is on target, except I’m not sure Putin is respected. If you meant respected by his own citizens, I concur. If you meant respected more cosmically, I for one am not sure I respect him (maybe I need to learn more about him). But I do believe I have some cause to fear him in the long run.

  17. Richard Aubrey Says:

    WRT Putin,
    He’s KGB. They work very hard at making impressions on the unconscious level. It’s about acting, body language, tone, and so forth.
    I recall he and Bush at a school in Texas. Bush said for the kids to ask anything they wanted.
    “Except arithmetic,” said P. Big laugh, great guy.

  18. Don Carlos Says:

    You overlook this modifier in my post: “Public statements may have private purposes, often do.”
    So maybe W was trying to set a stage or to set Putin up, giving him false confidence for some later encounter. Who knows.
    Agree with Aubrey: Act.
    As they have all done since the advent of TV. As we all do to some extent whenever we say “Hello”, extend our hand for a handshake done just so, not too strong nor too faint, no sweaty palm. Act.

  19. Gringo Says:

    A neighbor of mine works in customer service, taking phone calls from often irate customers. As such, she has a lot of practice in sizing up strangers quickly. She recently had a brief encounter with our HOA manager. From her encounter with him, which was less than a minute, she made conclusions about his character/MO which is in line with those on the Board who have been dealing with the HOA manager for 6 months.

  20. Ymarsakar Says:

    Neo doesn’t really deal with spies, assassins, and high or mid level sociopaths.

    In point of fact, many people talk about how friendly their sociopathic neighbors are.

    There’s a human level that can’t be penetrated by gut instinct, although it depends upon a person’s natural intuition.

    The idea that humans operating at high levels, is the same as the average mass of salesmen and human resources, is inaccurate.

  21. Ymarsakar Says:

    but on what that someone promises any/all of those to whom he has promised something.

    Then you’re just falling for somebody else’s authoritative propaganda and relying on information you don’t control and have never originated. Somebody else can always claim so and so did this and that in their promises. You have no way of telling.

    Just as you, MJR, have no way of differentiating between a Putin, and some low level functionary that has to call upon psychiatrists to “fix” themselves, at the top of this OP.

  22. DNW Says:

    “So, you gals—and guys, as you’ll see from this video—who constantly uptalk, beware!”

    This Valley-Girl-like quizzical and uptick accented speech pattern has existed in some male political populations for a long while.

    I noticed it first, and long ago, among some Canadians who seemed determined to offer their opinions on ostensible matters of fact, as if they were participants in a circle of kids playing a guessing game.

    Of course, if received wisdom stipulates that all knowledge is to be understood as “socially constructed”; and that mores are constantly evolving in an unpredictable manner, to which one must be continually alert, sensitive, and accepting; and if you are self-classifying as cooperative and “interdependent”, then you might be forgiven for fearing loss of social place and for always speaking tentatively as a result … as if you are perpetually sucking for permission, and seeking group validation, and terrified of giving offense.

    Since you are.

    Or, well, maybe I’ll just toss that idea out there … and see if it flies?

  23. neo-neocon Says:


    I agree that a skilled sociopath could probably fool me. Very fortunately for me, I’ve never (to the best of my knowledge, anyway) regularly dealt with one personally.

    However, I have dealt with a few people who turned out to be what one might call somewhat somewhat sociopathic. One in particular (and the exchanges were just on the phone) filled me with unease from the start. I couldn’t have explained why, or described what was wrong, but I did not trust him and did not like him. Something about his voice.

    I think that I am better at sizing up people on the phone than in person, strangely enough. In person there are more signals that are distracting.

  24. Ymarsakar Says:

    In person there are more signals that are distracting.

    They need to be filtered out and a part of the mind set to remember them for later analysis. Most trained operatives can do this automatically, though it does take some concentration. There are baseline movements that can hint at an emotion or motive, but it’s how a single person puts them together that determines whether it is A or B. A person can try to fake a body language signal, but it’s like how amateurs try to fake extremely difficult shots in basketball. There’s something always missing there, even before one sees whether the ball goes in or out. Most people don’t bother, since most people can’t consciously pick up body language signals and tell what is what. They only unconsciously/subconsciously pick them up and come to a conclusion, via the intuition and parallel processing.

    Verbal and body language data constitutes more than 70% of the total information humans receive via interaction.

    In text, textual analysis is used, but requires a large bulk of data and isn’t as accurate generally.

    However, I have dealt with a few people who turned out to be what one might call somewhat somewhat sociopathic.

    That’ll depend on what attributes you are assigning to the definition there.

    Narcissistic people like Hussein O, can be functionally normal or malignant or something in between. They can be friendly and loyal to their buddies and their Race/Tribe, a reliable and trusted member of their Tribe. But we cannot trust Hussein to protect America, though we can trust Hussein to defend evil. Reliability and trust depends on who is interacting together. Same applies to narcissists and sociopaths. How they operate depends upon their target. Some people react differently to people who are weak than if they are facing a strong or dangerous target.

    Many humans wear masks and they don’t realize it. They have one mask for their social friends and party. They have another mask, another behavior entirely, with their parents. Sociopaths merely juggle the masks around artificially based upon what their goals are. The people who are best at deception, tend to also be internally inconsistent. The honest, throughbred, types tend to be consistent. They act the same no matter who they are up against, so people who are honest tend to assume everyone is like that. Everyone isn’t like that. In fact, some are the opposite. They’ll treat their family and lovers well, then when a waitress comes and makes a mistake, they go off on the waitress and start pounding their 2 minutes of Hate for kicks and giggles. Then they go back to being “normal” with their friends.

    That’s not sociopathic even, that’s just normal human moral retards of the bottom 25% percentile. But narcissists and sociopaths tend to behave like that, except in more extreme ways. They have more things to hide.

    So, in many cases, low level operatives do not have sufficient control over themselves that their “mask” is on all the time. Or perhaps they forgot to don the “correct” mask at the right time. Whereas high level operatives tend to be more controlled, and manipulate others because they can also manipulate themselves. Given Hussein’s track record, that is certainly true, and Hussein isn’t even particularly High Level in terms of manipulation, in my view. I’ve seen better mind controllers.

  25. Ymarsakar Says:

    Addendum: Verbal and body signals constitute more than 70%, and words constitute what is left (including text).

    Text is more emotionally neutral. Visual ques triggers emotions better, since emotion is like a disease, it passes from one human to another, in the same area.

    One way to disassociate emotional and verbal triggers is to use a different language, textually, and use it to check one’s thoughts in English. English triggers affect those who think in the English language. Brainwashing requires a common way to communicate.

    If a person can not only write and speak in a different language, but think in a different language, this allows them a way to circumnavigate their own emotions and thoughts, to see if those come from the soul or from external influences.

    Religion is something that combines both text with experience (verbal and visual body). The strong influence on humanity from religion, or rather humanity’s strong desire for belief in religion, comes from that basic human desire to communicate, to understand, and to be understood.

    Childhood abuse can separate a person from their social triggers and influence, as an automatic mental defense. This also tends to separate children from social rules and boundaries (not killing people and stuffing them in freezers). Other mental defenses against childhood abuse or any kind of abuse one cannot run away from other than by dying is, cutting of self or others, multiple or split personalities designed to deal with trauma better, catatonia, memory loss, and so on and so forth (displacement, projection).

    Sociopaths, on another note, can come in a few variations. There are the trained and socially useful sociopaths, who obey society’s rules and laws for one reason or another. And then there are the sociopaths that find they have a need or goal to break society’s rules.

    Take the guy who beheaded an off duty soldier in Britain’s streets. He was apologizing to the cameras about having women seeing him do it, with his blood red black hands holding a blade, and then justifying it by saying their women (Islamic) have to see death in the streets too (bombs). Whether that guy’s a sociopath really depends. In his society, no. In our society, he looks crazy. But on a human level, if he has enough of a conscience to attempt to justify his actions, then he still obeys some kind of social writ and rule.

    A lot of it hinges upon why individual humans obey or disobey social rules. The idea that sociopaths don’t care about rules is broken by how certain people pay very close attention to rules at schools and Ft. Hoods, in order to plan out the maximum kill crime. The idea that sociopaths don’t know right from wrong is also shaky, as BTK guy obviously knew what was considered right, he lived an upstanding life if you ask his neighbors (who had no clue). He baited the police and posted clues and hid his crime, so he obviously knew society’s treatment of such actions. Of course they know what is considered “right” and “wrong”. And of course they “care”, if only for personal survival. But they don’t care in the same way sane socialized people “care”.

    The thing is, that kind of behavior, of self autonomy, can be taken two ways by most people.

    1. Alpha type leadership, autonomy, self independence, and trust.

    2. Craziness, danger, creepiness, con artist, predator.

    I think normal society doesn’t really want to recognize just how many instances where normal people have made use of the talents of sociopaths for socially acceptable causes. A person that goes out on the streets and kills random people, is a serial and mass murderer. A person that goes off and kills enemies of the state, is a hero or war hero. Same result, really, a whole load of body bags, different social interpretation. Violence was used in both situations, but whether it was good or evil as determined by people and society, differs.

    I think people are too complex and moldable for one term, like narcissist and sociopathy, to truly describe them. But until we find a field of psychology that isn’t dominated by Leftist totalitarians, those are the closest socially acceptable terms we have.

  26. Michael Adams Says:

    People often laugh at my quick judgements about people. I have found, over more than a half-century, that the only times I am wrong are those in which I ignore my initial impression and try to fool myself into believing someone is actually much nicer than they really are.

    OTOH, I’m usually pretty severe in these judgements, and that is not always regarded as my nicest quality.

  27. GrannyAesop Says:

    Not meaning to disparage you, neo (because I really like you, and have from the very first column I read: you certainly had me at “hello”), but “my first impressions are always right” does have a large element of self-fulfilling prophecy in it, because we tend to ignore or discount any evidence that contradicts our original assessments.
    I knew a guy who was always bragging about his always-correct snap judgements, and to my mind, he was invariably wrong.
    I have had a co-worker confess that her initial judgement of my character was almost 180 degrees wrong, because it was based on a conversation with another person for which she lacked any context.

    The validity of our initial gut feelings about someone has to be tested against independent evidence of that person’s personality or behavior. Only after repeated testings and confirmations should we assume our own assessments are correct, some particular percentage of the time, with a specific margin of error.

    HOWEVER, and this is a big however, when the assessments are made in the context of predicting how we will interact with someone going forward, our gut feelings are a good predictor of OUR response to the other person.

    Written after a long day of blogging, so TIFWIW.

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Previously a lifelong Democrat, born in New York and living in New England, surrounded by liberals on all sides, I've found myself slowly but surely leaving the fold and becoming that dread thing: a neocon.

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