First Impressions

Again, in my process of building a blog, things have come together in an uncanny way. The idea for this blog was suggested by a dear friend and longtime blog subscriber. While his words gave the blog its start, I attended a work seminar which provided additional insight.

There is the adage that ‘first impressions are lasting.’ Although that adage may hold some truth, it isn’t a positive or more importantly, a Christ like attitude. And it is a major obstacle in America today. It is impossible to really know someone based on an initial or brief encounter. Our humanness causes us to ‘judge’ based on appearance, or political views, or other superficial things which aren’t of eternal significance.

Our society has numerous adages that contradict. How we can we not judge a book by its cover, if we are taking first impressions as last impressions? I implement one of Stephen Covey’s seven habits as often as I can in relationships, seeking first to understand and then to be understood. I cannot seek to understand using just a first impression. Yet many of us want to use a tweet, post or other social media activity to make these first impressions or base our impression off of a comment/statement taken out of context. We have created undue pressure on the first impression. Think about all these relationships built remotely the past year, soon being subject to a first face to face impression. My daughter was nervous about meeting a co-worker face to face in a social setting after working only remotely these past 6 months.

First impressions are a piece of data in the evaluation process. But substance should have the final word. Imagine meeting Einstein for the first time not knowing who he was. Most likely that first impression would be negative. More like the appearance of madness and not genius. It is easy to make wrong first judgments based on incomplete or inaccurate information. We can jump to wrong conclusions about people and situations. First impressions distort reality, create false impressions, and can lead to dismissing information that doesn’t validate. Sometimes we extoll advantages and approvals to those who don’t warrant them, other times this practice can cause pain to others. Being transparent and candid, as a tall, physically fit, white male with a full head of hair and nice smile, I typically check all the right boxes for a first impression and no doubt have gained favor as a result. Whether I like or it even agree with it, this is an extension of the ‘privilege’ that benefits me.

The quote, “You don’t get a second chance to make a first impression,” has been attributed to both Oscar Wilde and to Will Rogers. But there is no evidence of either of them actually saying it. The essence of the quote is accurate in that one never gets a second opportunity to do anything as the initial attempt. However, we do get a second attempt – as well as third, fourth, fifth, etc. – to make a lasting impression. I find it ironic that the earliest documented use of the quote was in print in a 1966 Madison Avenue advertising slogan in an ad for Botany Suits – a marketing expression meant to sell a product becomes an idea to live by!

The seminar I attended for work was around “implicit bias.” We are hard-wired to presume past experiences into future interactions; this is a cognitive process behind our brain’s logic and reasoning skills, called “pattern matching.” We notice patterns and then generalize, taking mental short-cuts. These generalizations are an innate tendency. We form these mental simplifications over and over and make them subconsciously. Many of us choose to avoid the difficulty of reconciling conflicting information. It is easier to feel confident that our initial judgment was correct. These assumptions form the root of prejudice, stereotypes, and ‘fixed’ views.

That approach is an obstacle. We must incorporate new, atypical information into our decision-making process and avoid making these subconscious pattern matching decisions. We are creatures of habit, black and white thinkers, but do not have to stay that way. We do not have to let our hard-wired brains and our learned stereotypes dictate future interactions. We can allow new people we meet to define our perception of them with their words and their actions, not their appearance.

In the movie, The Shawshank Redemption, Morgan Freeman’s character Red, recollects in hindsight that he “didn’t think much of Andy first time I laid eyes on him; looked like a stiff breeze would blow him over. That was my first impression of the man.”

When it comes to God, the word ‘impression’ doesn’t apply. First impressions, second impressions, false impressions, last impressions— they are irrelevant to him because he knows us. He sees beyond what’s on the surface and recognizes us for who we really are. Jesus saw the best in people – the Samaritan woman at the well, the Roman Centurion, the poor widow, even Peter and Paul. He met them in their messes, in their realities, in their most desperate moments.

As Christians, we need to reconsider our first impressions of people and at the same time hope and pray others will reconsider their first impression of us. We are united as the Body of Christ across the human limits of nation, culture, race, and gender.

If we are not to judge, then we cannot give first impressions any weight at all. Misunderstandings multiply without right information. Even a positive first impressions is not necessarily a good thing. They do not honor people as individuals, created by God, with unique gifts and talents. True unity in Christ requires that we recognize subconscious perceptions and overcome them.

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