Guest Column

Is First Impression Really The Last Impression?

Elisa Patnaik

Our first impressions of others are formed instantaneously and are supposedly accurate, as far as we are concerned. It’s complex too. Sometimes, it’s like a kaleidoscope, quickly forming and shifting within a short span of time and at other times, it’s cast in stone, continuing unchanged over a long period.

But one thing is for sure. We tend to form impressions of people quite easily and quickly. Within moments of meeting somebody, we decide a multitude of things about them, from their status, personality, and intelligence to their attitude and moralities. Even of people whom we don’t know, people who are complete strangers and people whom we have never ever met!

Imagine yourself in an airport lounge or a café. You see a woman sitting next to you. You unconsciously notice her clothes, shoes, luggage, hair, body language etc. You soon start observing the way she talks on her phone, the language in which she speaks and other gestures. You quickly start forming an impression of the woman – rich, married, professional, reserved… all without even knowing or exchanging even a single word with the person.

When we see a person for the first time, we note their gender, skin colour, figure etc. We assess their body language, the expression on their face, and their gestures. As they start to speak and from their clothes and mannerisms, sometimes we place them geographically and ethnically. We soon categorise them by class, education and income, status.

We even develop such impressions of people, especially celebrities and public personalities without meeting them even once. Their images and the observed fleeting moments are enough to form a certain opinion about them.

Just think about the number of times we form such first impressions every day. When we meet a fellow jogger, a new vegetable seller, a commuter, a new co-worker, a client, our spouse’s colleague, our children’s friends, their parents, the person standing in a queue ahead of us…our brain unconsciously gets working, constantly creating these instant impressions. We draw immediate conclusions and make snap judgments even though we know very little about this person.

I am reminded of an incident from one of my earlier jobs where a new colleague had joined our team. My impression of her after getting introduced to her was almost similar to that of other team members – snooty, uppity and standoffish. Although I was polite to my new colleague, her seemingly ‘unapproachable’ demeanour dissuaded me from making her feel comfortable or familiar in the office, which I would have normally done.

However, just a couple of days later, I and my other teammates were proven completely wrong when this new colleague revealed a facet of her behaviour which was in total contrast to our mutual original impression of her. One of our lady housekeeping staff had a nasty fall on the stairs fracturing her ankle and hurting herself badly. There were very few people present in the office that day, among them my new colleague who immediately took the staff to the hospital, got the treatment done, paid for it and dropped her back home. When we came to know about it, we were not just sheepish but also began seeing her in a different light with a renewed sense of respect.

I also started becoming friendly with her and when we started working on a couple of things together, I realised how different she was from what she appeared to be in the initial days. In fact, she was just the opposite – modest, helpful, considerate and warm. Truly, if I would not have witnessed her generosity, humility and efficiency at work, I would have continued harbouring my first misjudged impression and would have perhaps unintentionally influenced others’ opinions of her.

When we meet somebody for the first time, we instantly start absorbing the ‘cues’ and begin to process information about them. Appearance and body language definitely play a big role in first impressions. Based on what we instantly notice, we begin making assumptions about their life, profession, status, etc. And when people start making conversations, we add other layers to our perceived impression.

I’m fascinated with the way first impressions are formed and the psychological process accompanying them. Apparently, it takes somewhere between a few seconds to 30 seconds to form the first impression making it an average of about 7 seconds. In fact, we form a First Impression Filter from the initial few seconds of our observation of people. So much so that if we meet the concerned person again, we tend to filter everything we see or hear about that person through our first impression. The 7-seconds observation-cum-assessment turns out to be a 100% impression of that person. At least till the other person makes an effort to change the impression or you get to see something different to change your opinion.

The term Person Perception in social psychology refers to the various mental processes that we adopt to form impressions of other people including not just how we form these impressions but also conclude our opinion based on these impressions.

Interestingly, besides appearance and body language, a multitude of other factors shape first impressions, including our own personal traits, biases, prejudices, past experiences and the roles and social norms we expect from people. Our environment, personalities, background and emotions also influence our early impressions of others.

In addition, we also tend to focus on the most conspicuous characteristic of the person rather than observing other background traits. For example, a person with a big tattoo in all likelihood will be assessed on this feature even when s/he is wearing conservative attire.

We also tend to unconsciously group people into different groups based on common characteristics like age, gender, occupation and race through a Social Categorisation Process. Moreover, in what is known as Implicit Personality Theory, once we know or notice a key or dominant trait in a person, we unconsciously assume that the person also possesses other related traits associated with it. For instance, if we find a new colleague cheerful, we might also imagine that s/he is also friendly, kind and helpful.

There are also other intricate factors which influence first impressions as well. When we first meet someone, the majority of communication happens in a non-verbal manner. Consciously or unconsciously, we generally prefer people who are similar to us in personality, attitude, beliefs, interests and behaviour.  People also tend to think that others share their opinions and beliefs more than they actually do, and when there is a discrepancy, it affects our impression of them. Cognitive biases also affect our early perceptions, as we are likely to ascribe behaviours of others to their inherent traits of competency or incompetency but tend to attribute our behaviours to external circumstances and environment.

First impressions are particularly complex in the case of romantic relationships. While some people reject their suitors or dates not developing an interest after their first meeting, others decide to go beyond the first meeting only to find them interesting in subsequent meetings once they get to know them. Sometimes the most dazzling, charismatic and charming person turns out to be a creep while the seemingly dull and boring person later reveals himself to be honest, decent and loving.

Undoubtedly, first impressions are important as it impacts our day-to-day interactions professionally and personally. From interviews and professional competency to dating and marriage proposals – are all influenced by first impressions. But are they accurate? Or truthfully portray a person?  Of course, not.

Though we are quick to form impressions in the blink of an eye, it doesn’t necessarily mean that those instantaneous assessments are correct. First impressions are made swiftly but can be shallow and unreliable. It can lead to biased and stereotyped perceptions, misjudgements or even prejudice depending on our ideas, thoughts, perceptions, backgrounds and circumstances.

We tend to make a judgement about people’s trustworthiness and competence in a few seconds, which can be unfair to them. At times, our snap judgements of people is based only on their appearance and first impressions which leads to crucial decisions in selecting candidates in interviews, voting in opinion polls, elections, marriage proposals and competitions etc.

However, unfortunately, it can be challenging to recover from a bad first impression as we don’t change our impression that easily. Even if they are inaccurate, first impressions endure as famously said by actor and social commentator, Will Rogers, “You never get a second chance to make the first impression.”

Mostly because our first impression creates a set of expectations in us, which tend to be self-fulfilling. We hesitate to admit that our assessment was wrong. Moreover, the supposedly bad behaviour of any person, in the beginning, may outweigh his good behaviour later.

But the bottom line is to remember that as we form quick impressions of others, so are other people constantly creating their opinions of us. And though it’s up to us to better manage first impressions so as to create a positive one, it is wise to be our genuine, natural and honest selves in the first place.

Elisa Patnaik

Media professional.

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