At First Blush

skin-3358873_640While traveling last week, I popped into Dairy Queen for a post-meeting milkshake. As I approached the counter, the cashier looked up and asked “How can I help you?” Before I could answer however, he spoke again. “You know, I can give you the senior discount.”

At first I was surprised, then amused, and finally more than a little bit offended. Yes, I have gray hair. That, combined with the suit I was wearing no doubt signaled “old guy” to the young man standing before me. I don’t feel old; at least I didn’t until this encounter.

In the days since, my mind keeps going back to that interaction. I’ve been wondering how often I make snap judgments about people based on split-second observations. We all do it. Research shows that first impressions are formed within the first three seconds. One study from Princeton conducted in 2006 found that 100 milliseconds (one tenth of a second) is all it takes – a single glance is enough to form an opinion. It happens so quickly that neither party realizes it.

As soon as you see someone, your mind forms an opinion based on their appearance: their body language, demeanor, mannerisms, and the way they are dressed. Before a single word is exchanged, the impression is created. And that impressions colors the behaviors that follow.

How we treat someone depends more on our initial impression of them than anything else that follows.

What’s truly frightening is just how strong first impressions can be. Time doesn’t necessarily make much difference. Even when confronted with contradictory evidence, first impressions form our dominant opinion about someone for months after the initial encounter. That fraction of a second sets the stage for the entire relationship.

Look for information on impacting first impressions and you’ll find plenty of tips on how to dress, act, and speak. But all of these suggestions put the responsibility for managing first impressions on the wrong person. I believe the real challenge isn’t to work harder at creating better first impressions, but to change the way we look at people.

When a customer or coworker approaches, what do I see? An interruption, a nuisance, a problem? An opportunity, a challenge, a possibility?

Looking back, I can see that I too formed a split-second opinion about the cashier. His youthful appearance and casual demeanor instantaneously created an image of a disrespectful, uncaring employee. Maybe I was wrong. Maybe he was just trying to be friendly and helpful by offering what he thought was a kind gesture.

Is it possible to train our minds to remain open for longer than a fraction of a second? Could we choose to ignore the initial mental image that’s formed in order to pursue something more meaningful? I’d like to think so. The answer lies in challenging our first impressions; in believing there’s more to the story than can be revealed in a single glance.

Perhaps a second opinion is needed.