Impression management is the way people influence how others think about something else, usually themselves. People usually do this either to get something they want from others or to establish an independent identity. There are several different means of doing this, which include things like controlling the flow of information in a relationship, mimicking others, and masking body language. Impression management can be used to help shape what people think of politicians, corporations, and brands, among other things. When a person tries to manage what other people think of him, it's also called self-presentation.
When trying to influence how they are seen by others, people generally use impression management in one of three ways: authentically, ideally, or tactically. A person's authentic persona reflects the way he sees himself, while the ideal persona is the way that he wishes he was. The tactical persona is used to get to a certain end, and is often created out of what other people want or expect the person to be. People tend to use different personae depending on the situation. For instance, a person might use the authentic self on a date, the ideal self in a job interview, and the tactical self at work.
There's a wide range of self-presentation methods, including everything from carrying certain objects to espousing certain points of view to telling other people what to think. These are all used to help people present themselves in a favorable light or comply with perceived requirements for joining specific groups. In classic impression management theory, there are five main self presentation techniques:
- Self disclosure: This method is often used to provide information to other people to establish an identity. It's commonly used with the authentic persona. An example of this would be a man telling a date about his job to show that he's responsible or financially stable.
- Managing appearances: This involves a person changing his outward appearance, like dressing or acting in a certain way to fit in with a group. It can be used with the authentic, ideal, or tactical persona. Common examples of this include things like a businessperson developing a firm handshake to look successful and powerful, or a salesperson smiling at a potential client to make a good impression even though she feels unhappy.
- Ingratiation: This method consists of conforming to the expectations of a specific group, opinion, or society. For instance, a person using ingratiation might say that he likes watching art house films when he actually doesn't because he thinks it will make him sound smarter around his new friends. Another common means of ingratiation is a woman acting like she's not as smart as a partner to boost his ego. This is generally used with the ideal or tactical personae.
- Aligning actions: This involves trying to make questionable actions seem like they're actually acceptable. A person using this method might say she couldn't finish a report on time because she suddenly got sick, or say something bigoted and then try to pass it off as a joke. It can be used with the authentic, ideal or tactical persona.
- Alter-casting: This consists of imposing an identity and set of expectations on another person, such as a girl assigning her partner the role of "good boyfriend" by telling him that she expects him to be a good boyfriend and help her with housework. If he chooses not to help her with the housework, then fails to meet her expectations and is no longer seen as a "good boyfriend."
Conscious and Unconscious
There are courses and seminars that teach self-presentation, but people also learn a lot unconsciously from social feedback and from their peers. For example, a businessman who starts working at a company where everyone carries a briefcase might suddenly start wanting a briefcase for himself, since he sees the other people at the new company as successful and feels that having a briefcase can make him fit in and look successful too. Even though he might not consciously consider the reasoning behind his decision, he could be using a combination of managing appearances and ingratiation.
Corporate Impression Management
The same ideas that are used in self-presentation can also be extended to how corporations try to manage the impression that shareholders and the public have of them. A number of impression management techniques can be seen in financial reports, press releases, and other official company statements. Internally, the company may be open among the senior management about problems the company is facing or risks it is taking, similar to the idea of the authentic persona.
Most businesses want to make themselves look as good as possible, however, especially to their investors, and try to present all information in the best light possible; this is very similar to the ideal persona. When a company releases its annual report, for example, the person writing the report may use language that downplays any negative news and emphasizes the positives. Bad news may also be written about in a way that makes it more difficult to understand so that readers don't full grasp its full meaning.
Corporations often have a tactical persona as well. A company that feels it can gain from being seen as environmentally conscious, for example, might introduce a line of "green" products or take action to reduce the amount of waste it produces. These actions might cost the company money in the short term, but by aligning itself with the values held by society, it could improve the image of the company in a way that gives it an advantage over its competitors. From the management side, an the annual report may credit any good news to the hard work and effective management of the people running the company, emphasizing the value of their continued employment, while any negatives are presented as caused by outside forces.
Some people raise questions about the ethics of impression management, since it can be seen as unscrupulous or being done in bad faith. Those who use a purely tactical self-presentation are especially at risk for being seen as manipulative, since it's very hard to keep up a purely tactical persona all the time. If the person makes a slip and a very different "real" persona shows through, he can appear to be untrustworthy. The same is true of a company that says one thing to consumers, but is found to act differently out of the public eye. Some people may also feel uncomfortable withholding information from others or saying things that aren't true as part of their self-presentation.
Despite this, almost everyone uses some type of impression management, so the process itself is generally seen as neutral, with the potential to be used positively or negatively. Many people pick certain methods that they feel comfortable with, and leave the others. For instance, a woman might wear make-up as part of her self-presentation, but wouldn't feel comfortable not telling the whole truth about why she was fired from a previous job.