Do first impressions really count? (DE Wave)

Michelle T. Sterling, founder of Global Image Group and an expert on ‘image, impression and impact,’ says, ‘The 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 tweaking your anxiety!

With all respect to Ms. Sterling, let’s step back and apply a little perspective. A lot of this ‘passing of judgment’ has to do with the nature of the first impression. There’s a distinction between doing something from which you probably can’t 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 interviewed by The Wall Street Journal comments on people showing up at job interviews looking like they ‘just came through a wind tunnel.’ First impressions like these clearly indicate something slipshod about the applicant’s fundamental approach, and maybe to life in general. Most people would 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. We’re overwhelmed with choices in today’s sound-bite world, so we’re more apt to make hasty judgments about all kinds of things. Think about all the options you have in a grocery store, on cable TV or online. The natural tendency is to judge quickly — if you delay too long, you might not get what you want.

So, are first impressions as crucial as our experts seem to believe? I think their importance has been overstated. The people who can make a difference in your life (and you in theirs) will find their way to you regardless. All you have to do is let them.

Though not completely irrelevant, first impressions usually refer to something transient or nonessential. Of course it’s bad if you have something green stuck to your face when you go on a job interview. But if the interviewer is rational enough to recognize that you have the required skills, he or she will see past it. Maybe your poor appearance that day was an exception. A rational person who is willing to make distinctions will not instantly equate exceptions with personality traits.

While in college, I had a summer job in a federal government office. At one point there was 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 wrong with the applicant’s teeth that ruled her out as a data processor. ‘I don’t know,’ she said. ‘I just didn’t like her teeth.’

A more rational person might have said, ‘Well, I don’t like the fact that this applicant has some problems with her teeth, but her resume is impressive, and she seems intelligent. In this job, intelligence is more important than dentition, so I’ll consider her.’

First impressions apply to personal relationships as well. In the case of a first date or other social encounter, I’ve found that first impressions don’t matter as much in the long run. Happily married/coupled people often laugh about embarrassing or silly situations that happened when they first met.

Of course, there are always the people who impress you at first and then progressively disappoint you later on. A primary example of this is in the realm of dating. I hear stories all the time about single people who enjoy their first or second dates, and then experience varying levels of disappointment after that. First impressions can often be misleading.

Instead of dwelling on first impressions, I suggest more of a focus on impressions in general. Why risk a superficial conclusion when you know it could be wrong? Blissfully unaware of what could have been, you might miss out on something that could have made a long-lasting difference in your life.

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