First Impressions are Overrated

“You don’t get a second chance at a first impression.”

You’ve heard the saying before; likely more times than you can recount. Logically, it’s a statement that can’t be disputed – one can only do anything for the first time once, just like you can only do something for the 7th time once. I can only go sledding for the first time once. Likewise, I can’t try sushi for the first time twice. Obviously the weight of the statement lies in the importance of first impressions.

I’m not trying to downplay the importance of first impressions in every circumstance. Our brains are hardwired to make immediate judgements. Not only is this built in as a survival instinct, but it also serves to simplify the incomprehensible amount of information our brains encounter over the course of a lifetime. There’s no doubting that a first judgement carries a lot of weight. In an instant, or a Blink, as Malcolm Gladwell puts it, many of life’s crucial decisions are made.

A job interview, for example, is an instance where the interviewer can, and often will, write a prospect off within the first 20 seconds, or sooner. The instant they detect poor eye contact, bad posture, or inadequate vocal quality the next 3-5 minutes become nothing more than an act of formality. When an employer is barraged with hundreds of applicants and a couple dozen interviews, a quick judgement is a helpful filtering device.

This is one of a limited set of examples where the first impression should carry a lot of weight.

However, the more common scenario in most people’s lives includes repeated exposure. When meeting the girlfriend’s parents for the first time, it’s a safe bet that your nerves will be stirring much like they would be during the job interview. Of course they would be, getting the parents’ acceptance is akin to passing a test. You’ve had it beaten into your head that the first impression is invaluable. This results in a perception of having a window of opportunity, and it’ll start closing at first glance. Undoubtably, this pressure will result in a Ben Stiller – Meet the Parents moment.

Or how about when you’re thrust into a new social setting. Something comes over us that alters our normal personalities. We feel a certain sense of urgency to impress. When the first poorly received joke is delivered, the remainder of time results in a downward spiral, presumably self induced.

Conversely, imagine meeting the girlfriend’s parents with the understanding that, if she likes you enough to keep you around, there will be more than one opportunity for them to get to know you. If your personality is something in which an adult might not approve of, then nervousness is appropriate (first impressions are the least of your issues). More likely, your personality is an asset and a reason shes letting your name sit on her Facebook profile page (the ultimate test of relationship status). If we relinquish this false sense of first impressions then suddenly the tension for perfection can subside and the Gaylord Focker within us all will vanish.

In my own personal experiences with friends, co-workers, or really anyone in my close personal network, my first impressions are merely a distorted version of the image that I currently have painted. More often than not, the person that you’re encountering for the first time feels a similar pressure make a good first impression. The result is a pair of people portraying phony personalities (alliteration at its finest). It’s very possible if you connect with someone immediately, you’ll end up hating that person a couple of weeks later. Similarly, if the first few minutes around the new co-worker tests your gag reflex, in a few Saturdays, you’ll be volunteering your free time to share a drink with them.

The misleading perception of first impressions doesn’t apply exclusively to human interaction. Take music for example (assuming your iTunes library isn’t loaded with top 40). Some of my favorite albums were painful to get through the first time through. There’s a sense of auditory relief when I finally get to the album’s first single. Slowly, as I get more familiar with the music, the sounds begin to make more sense. The following month, this album is on permanent repeat and I’m skipping over the quickly exhaustible single.

My point is not that our first impressions are likely to be wrong. Sometimes it’s tough to get through an album for the first time because it’s your first experience with a bad cd. My goal is to shed light on the importance of repeated exposure, and to put the initial impression in perspective. Try not to over-generalize someone’s personality based on the 30 second interaction you had with them in passing. Similarly, don’t beat yourself up over your initial portrayal if it didn’t go perfectly. They’ll get a better sense of the album the second time through.

After all, you only get one chance at a second impression.