First impressions.

Random thoughts on the theme of “first impressions.”


I’m wondering whether first impressions work as a pie chart, kinda thing. Or, more accurately, a frisbee you chuck at someone’s face. The total area of the chart is a fixed 100%. The only thing we can try and control is what we fill up the chart with – we cannot send out more or less than 100%.

We are constantly putting a lot of messages out there, but the loudest ones can crowd all the other ones out. Whatever is most obvious, or has the most impact on other people, can crown everything else out of the chart. For instance, if we’re super antagonistic, that can fill up the entire chart. It won’t matter that we are also kind to canaries, experts in medieval religious poetry, or champion scuba-divers. Our first-impression-chart will be filled up with aggro. If we’re super sexy, people may not notice that we’re also deeply empathetic, incredibly intuitive, or highly creative. Once the chart is full, all ‘excess’ information goes unreceived.

We ignore metacommunication at our peril. Our words matter, but our tone, posture, clothing, etc. also matter. I hate the thought of it, but clothing is the factor most of us have the most control over. I can change my shirt more easily than I can change my face. Most people will assume that we’re wearing what we want; that the messages our clothes send are deliberate. This makes them particularly significant. If people can’t control what they wear, that’s often a big indicator of socioeconomic status, so it’s a symbol in itself.

At the same time, “don’t judge a book by the cover” has now been, at least nominally, incorporated in our dogmas. However, it’s such a broad statement that it is essentially bullshit, both in its literal and figurative interpretation. At best most of us only ever half embrace it. I think it’d be insane to try and live by it.

I will absolutely form a first impression of a book by its cover. For instance, I will not buy “The Torture Garden” because the title mentions torture, the back blurb states that it includes graphic descriptions of torture, and I find the photo on the cover deeply unappealing. Having a deep-seated desire not to read about torture, I’m going to pass on it. If the sum total of the messages on the cover are misrepresenting the content – if the book is actually about happy unicorns organising dance recitals in Candy Land – then I might be missing out. But the problem stems from misrepresentation by the author, not on some kind of perverse judgementalism on my part.

In the same way, if someone is wearing a badge stating “fuck off home immigrant scum”, I’m going to assume that there’s a chance they’re not going to be friendly towards me once they hear my accent. I might be wrong; after they get to know me, they might learn to love me, and change their entire view of immigration as a result. We might go forth into the sunset, united as brothers. Or they might punch me inna face. Depending on the circumstances, I might not be willing to take that risk.

Then again, buying a Batman costume is easier than training to be like Batman. Wearing a cross is easier than acting like a Christian. The Italian semi-equivalent of the same idiom is “l’abito non fa il monaco” – “the habit (monk’s clothing) doesn’t make the monk.” It reminds us that superficial appearances can be deceiving, or deliberately aiming to deceive, rather than encouraging to dismiss every overt message. I like it much better. I can live by this one.

People seem to neglect the not-so-hidden meanings of certain symbols. People also seem to ignore the common gross misinterpretations of certain symbols. For instance, I learnt very early in my career that when I went to the doctors in my work clothes I did not get listened to, because ‘woman who does physical work’ = ‘too ignorant or too stupid to get a proper job’ = ‘not worth listening to.’ And yes, that shouldn’t be the case, but it consistently is. I could ignore it. I could fight against the system and insist on teaching doctors what’s what… but I have 10 minutes of their time to make my case, and my priority is to spend that time making sure that I’m getting adequate medical care. Do I go against or go with? What is most important to me at that point?


Some of the conclusions people jump to based on first impressions just suck. Two common ones are muscular guy/sexy woman = cretin. And it’s easy to say that if anyone judges you based on those prejudices, then they’re not worth bothering with. But what if, again, those people are people you actually need in order to access a public service, get a job, etc.?

Nobody sees your inner world. People are affected by how you look and how you act. If there is a huge disconnect between the person you are inside and how you present yourself, that sucks, but it can’t be attributed to maliciousness on the observers’s part.

[For writers, watching the reverse process unfold is interesting. Many more people know the inside of my head than know me. I’m a lot taller in writing than in person. In person I’m also nerdish and painfully goofish. I keep saying this, and people keep thinking I’m joking, until they meet me. Colour them underwhelmed.]

Many people don’t ever bother revising their first impression. It doesn’t matter how much proof to the contrary you give them; they stick to what they ‘know’ already. If your actions end up surprising them, you are ‘acting out of character,’ and that’s your bad. This is either deeply amusing or incredibly depressing, depending on whether you care.

The conclusions people jump to have more to do with their level of self-love and self-confidence than anything you do or say. For instance, some people will find it impossible to parse conclusions that reflect badly on them. They will believe that you’re deeply introverted, or intimidated by them, or have social anxiety, etc., rather than accept that you just do not like them. If you tell them to their face that, honestly, you just can’t stand them, they will assume that you’re rationalising your own inadequacies in order to protect your ego. I guess it’s because that’s what they constantly do – parse everything in ways that protect their ego.

Some people do the opposite, and every little “negative” action on your part will be received as a personal attack. You went home early from the party? Clearly you must hate them. The fact that you left because you got a call saying that your house was on fire must have been an excuse. If you show them a picture of the smouldering ashes of what was your home, that just proves how far you’re willing to go in order to avoid their parties. You really must hate them.

With first impressions, people take a single data point on you and assume it to represent you through time, and in all settings. This is stupid, unhelpful, and annoying, but also probably unavoidable. It can be used to our advantage, though, if we’re mindful to it. Maybe it’s time to go back to my grandmother’s etiquette books, or “How to win friends and influence people.”


This has come up partly from me watching people scurrying about, partly from thinking about “just socially awkward” people, and partly from the specific fallout of the last VioDy. I was exhausted and jetlagged the first couple of days after a 38 hrs trip, and sick as a parrot for the rest of the week. Turns out that my heavily zonked state has been interpreted in a variety of ways. Most of them come pretty wide off the mark, and some are deeply uncomplimentary. I find that largely hilarious, in a give-them-enough-rope way- but it does make me think.

How much of the miscommunication around me is due to the misinterpretion of temporary signals, and how much due to how I normally look and act? Should I change anything I do in order to reduce this problem? Some things are unalterable. I will never stop being a 2/3 scale version of a standard Caucasian adult. I will never stop being a spinal injury sufferer. These and other unalterable factors and their fallout are constantly getting misinterpreted. Should I consider ways to mitigate the impact of some of the factors I have no control over? Yes, if someone doesn’t get me, I could say that it’s their loss, neener neener. But if I want them to get me, then isn’t making that happen on me?


One thought on “First impressions.

  1. Holy cow! I always thought a woman who (presumably successfully) did physical work should be taken *more* seriously, given the various extra challenges — physical and social — she would have overcome.

    More broadly, great points about first impressions. I’d like to add that humans have evolved to pay much more attention to negative information than positive. Particularly when evaluating others — after all, presumably everyone wants to put their best foot forward especially on a first meeting, so any negative information that *still* came through should be especially credible.

    Check out:


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