Think about the last time you met someone new. Were you completely yourself? Or did you try to put the proverbial “best foot forward?” If that’s the case, evaluate the first impression of the person you were meeting. Did they get the full picture of you?
During initial interactions with others we tend to try and exhibit what we deem to be our best selves. There is nothing wrong with these actions but it makes our first impressions misleading.
We are hard wired for snap judgements
Our ancient ancestors had to make quick decisions about all sorts of different situations. This is what kept them alive and safe.
That same bias towards making quick judgements remains a part of our normal brain activity. When we meet strangers look for visual similarities and differences in the person standing in front of us. From there we box them in with stereotypes.
But what if we didn’t box them in.
Take for example the story of Les Miserables. There are two characters in particular who show this principle of snap judgements well: Javert and the Bishop.
Javert, an officer of the law, meets Jean Valjean after he is imprisoned for stealing a loaf of bread. He did this to feed his starving family, and yet was imprisoned for 19 years (escape attempts prolonged the sentence).
After finishing his sentence Javert gives Valjean a yellow passport identifying him as a criminal. He must carry for the rest of his life, limiting his opportunities.
After being turned away from several inns and even the town prison, Valjean stumbles into a church. There, the bishop instructs his counterparts to prepare a place at the table and a bed for him to sit in. Valjeans response demonstrates his shock.
“Really? What! You will keep me? You do not drive me forth? A convict! You call me sir! You do not address me as thou? ‘Get out of here, you dog!’ is what people always say to me. I felt sure that you would expel me, so I told you at once who I am. Oh, what a good woman that was who directed me hither! I am going to sup! A bed with a mattress and sheets, like the rest of the world! a bed! It is nineteen years since I have slept in a bed! You actually do not want me to go! You are good people. Besides, I have money. I will pay well. Pardon me, monsieur the inn-keeper, but what is your name? I will pay anything you ask. You are a fine man.”
The bishop demands no money but lets him stay the night. How does Jean Valjean repay his kindness? By stealing the church’s silver.
The next morning Valjean is returned by the police to the bishop who validates his claim that the silver was a gift. The bishop goes further to give him the silver candlesticks as well. He then teaches a lesson,
“Jean Valjean, my brother, you no longer belong to evil, but to good. It is your soul that I buy from you; I withdraw it from black thoughts and the spirit of perdition, and I give it to God.”
The bishop demonstrates the belief that Jean Valjean, as a human, is capable of change. He didn’t let his first impression of Valjean define his relationship with him. His willingness to postpone judgement allows Valjean to grow. He eventually develops into a contributing member of society.
On the other hand, if left to Javert, we would have a much less inspiring story. Javert first encounters Valjean as a convicted criminal – the same as the bishop – but in his eyes, people can’t change. Throughout the book, Javert hunts Valjean, seeking to making him pay for his first impression. It is this belief that Valjean is incapable of change that confounds Javert. Jean Valjean shows him mercy and the resulting cognitive dissonance leads to his suicide.
When we postpone our judgement we allow others the opportunity to change. Growth is what we are all seeking. A chance at a second impression allows us to prove that growth.
How do we postpone judgement?
Quita Christison, in her TED talk tells us to S.T.O.P. – See The Other Person. It is impossible not to make a snap judgement. If, however, we can work to be aware of what that judgement is actually telling us we can avoid having those first impressions be final impressions.
Sure the person standing across from you make look different to you, or the same for the matter. Either way, there is so much more to them than just their physical appearance. Look for the hidden messages they are sending. Are they giving you a smile, helping someone else, or asking you about yourself? Even though they may not appear inviting, most people are just looking for connection.
We need to understand that things out of the ordinary are what capture our attention. We place a disproportionate weight on actions that don’t fit normal constraints. Thing about a soccer game. If a person scores we immediately esteem that player as highly skilled. If that same player kicks it over the net we don’t respond by saying they are awful at soccer.
Our attention is naturally drawn to evens that don’t occur often. It is the same in people. If someone is gruff with we at the grocery store, we’re more likely to avoid that person in the future. Most people are generally courteous. But what if you found out that the same person had just found out about a death in the family. Would that change your impression.
Automatically jumping to conclusions is human nature. It’s not a fundamental of good relationships. Judging intentions is much more difficult than actions but vastly superior when judging character.
In statistics a minimum of 2 data points are needed to attribute a relational pattern. A first impression is only one data point.
They say you never get a second chance at a first impression. Well what if we started giving people a first chance at a second impression. 2 data points yields much more conclusive results.
Now what? How do we put our best foot forward?
It’s important to understand that not everyone has the same approach to life. Just because you start implementing something like giving people a second impression doesn’t mean everyone else will. The important thing to understand is that being authentic is far more important than being perfect.
No one is perfect and trying to appear so will only yield the perception of “fakeness.” The best foot forward is your authentic foot, not one you’re putting out for show.
The more we recognize this the more powerful our first impressions become. My best friends have seen me at my best and worst and they love me all the more because of it. Of course I’m trying to continually improve but I appreciate those people in my life that love me for who I am and, more importantly, who I am trying to become.
If you’re looking for more shocking truths about first impressions check out our ebook. We have had the opportunity to think about and compile some of the most important things we’ve learned about first impressions. Some of them are obvious but important and don’t get talked about enough. Others may surprise you. If you have thoughts we’d love to hear them on social media!