An Honest Look at First Impressions
Do you really want to know what yours is? Do I?
What is your first impression? How do strangers perceive you? Do you know? Do you WANT to know?
Are you anxious to find out? That’s absolutely reasonable. To ask this question forces us to consider the concept of prejudice, which can be quite painful. Even when it is not vile, like overt racism or sexism, we have to admit that all human beings see others through a series of categorizations, attempts at pattern recognition, and assumptions. “You look like a person I have a prior opinion about.” We can work to be our better selves in this area, but this is humanity.
So again, I ask you (and myself!), do you know what your first impression is, when you meet a stranger? Perhaps you’ve been mistaken for a celebrity… that can be a clue.
I recently introduced my kids to Napoleon Dynamite, the classic indie comedy that I loved in my twenties. Just one minute into the movie, as Jon Heder as Napoleon sits in the back of the school bus, my kids paused the movie, mouths agape, slowly turned their three heads toward me, and asked, “Is that you?”
An actor prepares (to be judged)
Back in my acting days, I took a class that addressed this idea head-on. On the first day, the students were told to arrive, not talk to one another, and wait for class to begin. Then, one by one, each student would walk up on stage, and the class would offer their candid - and prejudiced - thoughts about who they thought the person was. How they carried themselves, their clothes, their attributes. All of these characteristics trigger biases and prejudices in an audience, but it’s rare to hear those things out loud. It was eye-opening to learn who you appeared to be.
Now, this might have been terrifying, but in the guided safety of a class, everyone was treated with reverence and kindness. And it was quite helpful! As an actor, it’s important to be aware of how an audience perceives you, so you can either lean into or change your appearance and mannerisms to more seamlessly slip into a character, and take the audience on a storytelling journey. Awareness of others’ preconceptions - and even their biases - is a valuable tool of the trade.
That’s cool for actors, but…
You’re probably not an actor, and simply trying to make your way in the business world, but I have to ask: is this information any less valuable to your career? To know how you appear in the minds of others? This isn’t just “personal branding” pointers - I’m talking about being true to yourself and adding communication tools to your skillset that allow you to be your most effective self.
Is there a way to get to this kind of openness, honesty, and clarity without signing up for an acting class? I assume career coaching, like personal therapy, can assist.
But I also wonder if this is possible in conversations between colleagues and coworkers, or as candid feedback during reviews. It’s difficult to open one’s self up to truly candid observation.
Or perhaps just humbly acknowledging that there is always a gap between who I perceive someone to be and who they actually are, is a start. After all, One of my favorite quotes is:
“Be kind, for everyone you know is secretly fighting a mighty battle.”
Can we find a way to share these things with one another, in a kind way, so that we all get better?
And he just walked away…
One more aside. A few weeks ago, I was walking out of a Whole Foods, kombucha in hand, when I noticed that a man was looking right at me and walking in a line toward me. He was one of those guys you see around Los Angeles: could be either homeless or a millionaire. I couldn’t tell his intentions, and so I tensed up. He walked right up to me and said, “You look like Napoleon Dynamite but 20 years later.” And just. Kept. Walking.
No context. No commentary. Told me his first impression and he just walked away.
So that locks it in. I have to accept the truth. This is me. Vote for Pedro.
Now, I’m mostly sharing this because it’s funny, but if I’m taking my advice above, I will openly ponder if people see an earnestness, a wildness, and a dorkiness about me that comes across, all things being equal. Now, it’s up to me whether or not I lean into this or steer away. That’s the work.
Have you tackled this? Do you have any a-ha moments about how you present yourself? Any stories about being surprised about what people think about you?
I’m told that I look like Denzel Washington. Hard to argue with that logic.
I wear fake glasses so that I seem smarter (I have both heard this and done this).
People think that I run marathons but I’ve never run a day in my life!
Add your own: