We are not impressed

Years ago I worked with someone who was always impeccably dressed, meticulously made up, poised, and confident. One day she hired me to wash her dishes at home, because she knew I needed extra money and because, she said, she was all out of clean dishes. I was sure she had exaggerated the extent of the problem until I arrived at her apartment and saw the food-encrusted plates and lipstick-smeared glasses covering every surface. As if that weren’t disgusting enough, the pile of dishes in the sink harbored a large, colorful colony of some species of fungus (getting it out of sight and mind ASAP took priority over identifying it). My first impression of Diane—that she was a clean, sane, well-organized woman—was immediately displaced by a new view of her as someone who was messy, lazy, possibly deranged, and probably sadistic (how else to explain her exposing an innocent coworker to that nightmarish kitchen?).

Even before this traumatic episode, I had been skeptical of the notion that first impressions are the ones that really count. Obviously when you have only an hour to convince someone that you’re right for the job, or that you would make a good romantic partner, the impression given at that first meeting is pretty important. I’ll even grant that, as studies have shown, the decision makers in those situations tend to make up their minds in the first few minutes. Where I part ways with the received wisdom is on the long-term consequences of those short-term impressions.

It’s easy to pretend, for a few minutes, to have qualities you don’t actually possess. Someone who shows up nicely dressed and smiling for a date or a job interview could easily be a depressed slob who manages to clean up and pull herself together when absolutely necessary. Too often I’ve seen relationships that started out all rosy and productive turn acrimonious and harmful when the first impressions that each person had of the other were supplemented by more in-depth information. On the other hand, people who start out despising each other can become wildly successful business partners.

To paraphrase Gwendolen Fairfax, my first impressions of people are invariably wrong. So I should give my therapist a few more sessions before deciding that she’s doing me more harm (financial) than good (psychological). Meanwhile I have an interview on Tuesday for a part-time, sometime job a thousand miles away; I’m not sure I want the job, but I definitely will try to make a good impression.

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