First impressions can sometimes be superficial–and wrong

Do first impressions really count? A lot of experts seem to think so.

Michelle T. Sterling, founder of Global Image Group, and an expert on ‘image, impression and impact,’ says, ‘This first impression process occurs in every new situation. Within the first few seconds, people pass judgment on you—looking for common surface clues. Once the first impression is made, it is virtually irreversible.’

Wow! How’s that for raising your anxiety!

So, let’s step back and apply a little perspective here. A lot of this ‘passing of judgment’ has to do with the nature of the first impression. There’s a distinction between doing something really bad, from which you probably cannot recover, and doing something awkward or a bit inappropriate. Minor mistakes are often forgotten once you have the opportunity to shine in some other respect.

A business executive, talking to the Wall Street Journal, comments on people showing up at job interviews chewing (and popping!) gum; looking like they ‘just came through a wind tunnel,’ or knowing absolutely nothing about the job for which they’re applying. First impressions like these clearly indicate something slipshod about the applicant’s fundamental approach to the interview—and maybe to life in general. Most people would certainly write that person off.

Ms. Sterling points out: ‘It is human nature to constantly make these appraisals in business and social environments.’ She does have a point. In today’s ‘sound-bite’ kind of world, we are more apt to make hasty, superficial judgments about all kinds of things. In a sense, we have to—we are continually overwhelmed with choices. Think about all the options you have in a big grocery store, or on your cable TV, or online. Life has always been full of choices, but never so much as in these high-tech times. The natural tendency is to make quick judgments, because if you delay too long, you might not get what you want.

So, are first impressions as crucial as our experts seem to believe? They do, of course, matter, but I think their importance has been overstated. The people who will potentially make a difference in your life—the ones who have something important to offer to you (and, perhaps, you to them)—will find their way into your life regardless of first impressions. All you have to do is let them in.

First impressions, though not completely irrelevant, usually refer to something rather transient or nonessential. Is it bad if you have something green stuck to your face when you go on a job interview? Yes, it’s bad. But if the interviewer is rational enough to recognize that you have the talent and skills, he or she will see past it. Maybe your poor appearance that day was an exception. A rational person will not instantly equate exceptions with ongoing personality traits. They are willing—and able—to make distinctions.

Years ago, while still in college, I had a summer job in a federal government office. At one point there were a series of job interviews for a new staff member. My work associate conducted the interviews, and I asked her how the most recent one had gone. ‘I didn’t like the woman’s teeth,’ she replied. A little startled, I asked her what was so wrong with the applicant’s teeth that it ruled out any consideration as a data processor. ‘I don’t know,’ she said. ‘I just didn’t like her teeth.’

Needless to say, there are good—and bad—ways to handle first impressions. For example, a more rational person in a different situation might have said, ‘Well, I don’t like the fact that this applicant doesn’t act very self-assured. But her resume is impressive, and she seems intelligent. In this job, intelligence is more important than self-assurance, so I’ll consider her.’ This is what I mean by ‘rational.’

That being said, the importance of first impressions in significant life situations can’t be overstated. And it applies not only to job interviews, but to personal relationships as well. In the case of a ‘first date’ or other social encounter, I have found that first impressions often don’t matter as much in the long run. I know happily married/coupled people who were involved in embarrassing or silly situations when they first met. It didn’t stop them from living happily ever after.

There’s always the opposite situation, as well: What about the people who impress you in the first encounter, and then progressively disappoint you later on? A primary example of this is in the realm of personal dating. I hear stories all the time about single people who very much enjoy their first or second dates, and then experience varying levels of disappointment after that. More than the fact that first impressions aren’t everything, very often they can be quite misleading.

Instead of dwelling too much on ‘first’ impressions, I suggest just focusing more on ‘impressions’ in general. Snap judgments can sometimes be right, but more often they’re just wrong. Why take the risk of a superficial conclusion when you know it doesn’t have a high probability of being right? Blissfully unaware of what could have been, you might have missed out on something, or someone, who could have made a long-lasting impression on your life.