It’s all too easy to formulate theories based on first impressions. I know that I was judged many times over my life, and in most cases, the opinion-formers were probably right.
My parents dressed me in old-fashioned, homemade clothes. The fabrics and styles weren’t right for the times. They made me where black and white saddle shoes when others had moved on to loafers. With a penny in the slot, no less.
So here I am, wearing skirts down to my shins, long sleeved blouses with vests on top, and those godawful shoes. Picture me walking the halls of my high school. Add to that, my hair was never in style and I wore wing-tipped blue tinted glasses.
First impressions? That I was a nerd or poor or both. And they would have been right on all counts. No misconceptions there.
When I was a teacher, I became aware of what happened when a new student entered the room. One: all heads turned. Two: some students averted their eyes while others gaped. Three: students sitting near an empty desk either looked welcoming or recoiled. Four: once the student was seated, almost everyone stared, trying to determine whether or not those first impressions were correct.
New students arrived all throughout the school year. I decided to turn first impressions into what I hoped was a valuable lesson. I talked about what goes through a person’s mind when someone new appears. I asked my students to generated ideas. They were extremely adept at doing so, as long as I was the one recording words on the board.
Once we had covered the board with ideas, I had them write. Something. It could be an original story or something they had witnessed.
Students are incredibly perceptive. They can also be open to suggestions. Because of our idea-generating discussion, what they wrote touched on how first impressions can not only be wrong, but can also be damaging. Many of my students, who all had learning differences that made reading and writing challenging, had been subjected to negative impressions that colored their school experience.
In my own life, I have tried not to allow myself to fall into the misconception trap, but it’s hard. A tall, gangly man stumbling down the street? Not a danger to me, right? But why is he stumbling? Could he be drunk or ill? Disabled in need of a cane? I could give him an entire story based on first impressions.
How many of us, seeing a young man of an ethnicity not our own, formulates impressions that cause us to cross the street or grab our purse tight to our bodies? We tell ourselves that we are not racist, that that’s not the reason we were fearful, but if not fear-based racism, what is it then?
Recently I was hiking in a local park with a friend. We are used to bicyclists and other hikers. We know that people with dogs also hike the same trails. But when we heard motors approaching, we were taken aback. What could be causing the noise? What could they be doing?
When we made out riders coming up the hill, we both said, that can’t be legal. We froze in place, wondering what to do. We have never seen a ranger hiking the trails, neither of us had a phone, and the reception is poor anyway.
We had both decided that whoever these riders were, they were doing so illegally. Our first impressions matched. We just didn’t know what to do from that point forward.
Then the riders popped out from around a turn and it became obvious that our impressions were completely wrong. Every rider was from some form of police unit. There were officers in police uniform, in sheriff’s uniform and in park greens. They saluted us in greeting as they passed.
Imagine if we had allowed our misconceptions to report unauthorized riders? We would have been humiliated when some form of law officer arrived, only to change our story that only law officers had been riding through the park! We concurred that it was most likely some type of training exercise, then went on our way.
Misconceptions happen all too often. Many times, they cause tragic events, such as shootings or chases down busy streets. Sometimes store owners perceive individuals as potential threat and call for backup, only to find that all the people wanted was cold drinks and snacks. Imagine if the police had stormed in with guns drawn! Someone might be dead, all because of misconceptions.
There is a lesson to be learned here. We do need to check people out for potential threats to ourselves and others, but we also need to allow ourselves to change those impressions as soon as we realize that there is no threat.
This also applies when someone new enters our space. Instead of ruling out the person as a possible friend, lets give the person a chance. She might be lonely and frightened. He might be a gentle giant. She could love books and movies and he might enjoy the same video games.
First impressions often lead to misconceptions that deprive us of new friends and new experiences.
Don’t let that happen.