A crisp new button-down. A sharp-looking haircut. A plate of home-baked cookies.
If you're meeting your significant other's family for the first time this holiday season, those gestures could certainly win you points when you arrive at their doorstep.
But if your would-be in-laws have already Googled your name, they may already have a very different first impression, formed from the digital dirt about you scattered across the Internet.
Thanks to Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, YouTube, Yelp and countless other websites and blogs, it's not just potential employers who can form opinions about you armed with only your name.
Your boyfriend's parents, your girlfriend's siblings, any one of your potential spouse's relatives can hit the Internet to dig up information about you. And, experts say, you should assume that they do.
"You no longer make the first impression when you walk in the front door. Your first impression is preceding you," said Michael Fertik, CEO of the online reputation management service ReputationDefender. "Certainly the siblings, if not the parents, are going to know a lot about you online… They'll dress you in their minds based on what they see on the Internet."
Online Reputation and Etiquette Experts: Make Sure You Look Good Online
Julene Newlin, a 28-year-old from Denver, said her boyfriend Nicholas will meet her family for the first time this Christmas. But Newlin's family already knows plenty about him, thanks to what she's told them -- and some independent online sleuthing.
"My dad researched him on the Internet and he didn't tell me, until he came to me saying, 'Hey, did you know that Nicholas holds the school track record at his college for the 10,000 meter race?,'" she said.
Newlin said she was surprised, but not disappointed.
"What comes up on the Internet are his racing scores from running. That's not something I necessarily talked to them about because it's from his past and not something you would necessarily know about him." she said. "My parents were impressed."
But digital first impressions aren't always so positive. If you're about to meet your significant other's family (or plan to bring someone home to meet yours), online reputation and etiquette experts have some tips for you. Click on to the next page to check them out.
7 Tips for Dealing With Digital Dirt
1. Do a vanity search.
First things first: Whether you like it or not, you are Google-able.
So look to see what others can learn about you online.
Look at yourself through a potential in-law's eyes and leave no stone unturned. Twitter posts, pictures on Flickr, blog posts from years ago, Facebook commentary from a particularly public friend – these all might have been funny once upon a time. Make sure that the most visible information about you online reflects the way you want to be seen in the present.
"If you don't control your virtual real estate… like the top 10-12 results, you're leaving yourself open to interpretation," said Fertik.
2. Beware of sibling due diligence.
For younger members of the family, Facebook is likely to be second nature. So be prepared to be be friended.
"Younger siblings are going to be very likely to friend you to find out who you are," said Fertik. "It's part of their sibling due diligence, so to speak."
But it's not just the comments you write on your wall or the pictures you post that leave an impression, he said, it's also the way other people interact with you.
"Good, bad or indifferent, judgments are being made now based on what you post, how you interact, how you post… and, also, who your friends are," Fertik said.
3. Make a human connection before a virtual connection.
But just because your significant other's family members want to be your friends on Facebook, it doesn't mean you have to accept their requests right away.
"It would not be considered rude to ignore it, but I would put a time limit of less than a month," said Elizabeth Anne Winters, author of "The Official Book of Electronic Etiquette" and a director with the National League of Junior Cotillions.
If you know you'll see them soon, for example, over the holidays, Winters suggests waiting until after meeting in person. If a real-life meeting is not in your immediate plans, then she said to accept the request, but on a limited profile basis.
However, Winters said, you might not want to reach out electronically yourself.
"It can be somewhat pushy, or almost creepy, to make the electronic introduction prior to the personal introduction," she said. "I would definitely advise to be human and wait for the personal introduction."
4. Do your "family planning" for the Internet.
If your girlfriend is the kind of person who tweets up a storm and constantly checks in on FourSquare, but you like to keep your Facebook profile on permanent lockdown, you might want to have a conversation about your mutual online privacy.
Talk about what you want to share while you're home for the holidays and even, as a couple, moving forward.
"It's family planning for the Internet," said Fertik. "In the digitally connected world, you're only as in control as the weakest link in your bond. …If you're dating a digital exhibitionist, you can't be private."
5. Think twice about making post-holiday comments.
After you've said your good-byes, think carefully about the public commentary you make about your visit with the family.
A flippant comment about the Thanksgiving meal or holiday tradition might amuse your friends, but it may not resonate with – and could even offend – an older parent or family member.
"Just remember that irony does not carry well across a generation, over the Internet," said Fertik.
6. Focus on relationships, not technology.
You might look good online, but your stock will fall if you spend family time talking on the telephone and not with the people around you.
Winters said that in the presence of your hosts, you want to keep the cell phones, BlackBerrys and iPhones muted and out of sight.
"It's time to step back from technology and focus on what's most important, which is relationships," she said.
7. Go low-tech saying a thank-you.
When it's time to thank your significant other's family for their hospitality, Facebook is fine for a casual note, Winters said. But to keep your real-life reputation as pristine as your digital one, she encourages you to go one step beyond.
"Please, for God's sake, make your mother proud," she said. "Be a cut above, send a note in the mail. It'll leave that strong, lasting impression."