It has been brought to my attention that I can sometimes make a bad ‘first impression’ — which, I suppose, is a nice way of saying people REALLY don’t like you when they meet you. And once you’ve been hit by that kind of bombshell … the logical question to ask next is why?!

 

First, allow me to preface: I am no saint. Like all of us, I am drenched to the bone in imperfections, vice and sin. When I’ve had a couple to drink, it gets even worse. I, more often than not, transform into some weird hybrid of Pete Doherty, Vladimir Lenin and a total arse. … Great, I’ve got the self-deprecating part out of the way.

Now people are, of course, allowed to judge me — or whomever they choose — in whatever way they want. I do not want to convict anyone of ‘thought crime’ here. What’s more, I am sure that many of the people out there who absolutely despise me and my ugly mug are perfectly valid and justified in their deconstruction, or perception, of my deeply-flawed character.

But my question is this: why do we feel the need in contemporary society to instantly judge a seeming stranger on our first or even second encounter with them? How can we?

It completely baffles me, and hence the article, because I rarely make ‘first impressions’. It doesn’t really cross my mind to pass some sweeping, moral judgement upon a person I’ve just met because how can I know anything particularly fundamental or profound about them based on their appearance and a short, often boring conversation.

Much of our social lives is a façade anyways; certain socio-political structures have deemed it appropriate or normal to act in a certain way around someone you are not yet, and chances are will never be, intimate with.

First impressions are, in almost every instance, completely superficial. They are based on certain thin strands of information that we think we can deduce from very shallow, cosmetic things. Moreover, more likely than not, when we make first impressions we are, in fact, reacting to a slightly warped reflection of ourselves.

If you are a rather insecure and inward kind of person you will probably label a boisterous, confident character as someone ‘arrogant’ and ‘pompous’ upon a first meeting. Not because they are indeed arrogant or pompous, but because you are reacting badly to traits that you wish you shared. You’re not entirely happy with your insecurities or inward nature and this stranger, this person you’ve just met, is reminding you of this fact; this personal flaw you associate with your core sense of identity.

Paradoxically too, if someone is overly-confident and arrogant it probably means that they’re deeply insecure themselves and are attempting to compensate for this debilitating shortcoming in some exaggerated, theatrical manner. So you’re first impression is completely wrong. The opposite in fact of who that person truly is.

The modern notion of ‘identity’ also plays a part in first impressions, I suspect. In the post-Thatcherite world of ‘there is no such thing as society, just individuals’ identity has become a massive part of our lives. We want to be unique, we want to distinguish ourselves from everybody else, and thus will often do as much as we can to make this a reality. Consequently, when we meet new people, one could argue, we are subconsciously looking for instances in which they differ from us. We are actively looking for separation and division, as opposed to cohesion and similarity.

Furthermore, and this is reflected in not only our popular culture but current politics as well; many people do not want to grapple with the brain-aching complexities of our beautiful, terrible world. Instead, they prefer to look for simple narratives to explain why their life is the way it is. I am poor and unhappy because of immigration is a much more digestible narrative than, arguably, the reality: I am poor and unhappy because I live under a highly complex economic system with embedded social, cultural and political structures, both physical and invisible, that influence and sometimes even determine the choices I make, as well as exploit one class of persons and protect another.

The same applies to first impressions. Rather than grapple with the multifaceted nature of every human being on this planet, their capacity for both good and bad, we would rather boil their character down into a simple, brainless stereotype. ‘That person is rude and selfish because he didn’t ask me about my day when we first met’. Well, maybe he forgot to ask. Maybe he’s having a bad day himself. Maybe his mum just died and hearing about your day — which is probably the same as most people’s days — is the least of his worries. Or maybe, probably, he can sometimes be rude and selfish and, on other occasions, be very kind, caring and selfless.

Additionally, the superficial world of celebrity culture — the Kardashianisation of humanity — is another reason, I’ wager, for the prominence of first impressions. Let’s take celebrity chat shows:

When Jennifer Lawrence goes on Graham Norton and we all swoon over what a great person she is — which she might be, I don’t know, I’ve never met her personally — we are essentially being duped. Chat shows are a PR exercise in which the public are manipulated into liking the cultural avatar of Jennifer Lawrence, or whomever, so you will then, as a result, spend your money on going to see her movies. The character of the chat show celebrity Jennifer Lawrence plays on Graham Norton is designed to be instantly likeable and relatable. It is however, an act. A construct. As fake as Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games — if not more so. The problem is though, because of this, we expect everyone else to give off an impression which has been meticulously designed by experts in advertising and psychology. Something highly superficial, lacking any real sense of depth or grit. It’s as if celebrities make us forget what actual people are really like.

So to conclude … I have no conclusion. This article was simply a fun meditation on first impressions; and my attempt, feeble or incoherent as it might be, to explain why we’re obsessed with making them and, crucially, why it is often silly to do so.

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn famously said: ‘[T]he line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either — but right through every human heart — and through all human hearts. And even within hearts overwhelmed by evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained. And even in the best of all hearts, there remains … a small corner of evil’.

Let’s remember that next time we decide to judge someone we barely know.