First Impressions


So yesterday, the Deep Friar, posted one of his usual “whiney list” posts. (ha ha…I kid… they’re very clever and funny…really) Anyhow, this one happened to be about job interviews and the many ways they are designed to defeat the interviewee. But, some of  the resulting discussion veered off into a “don’t judge a book by its cover” discussion and my comments started getting too long, so I figured I’d just carry on with a blog post of my own on the topic. The Friar and I have completely different readers, so that’s okay, right?

The question therefore is whether or not it’s okay to judge people on appearance/first impressions. I maintain that for most of life’s situations we only have a very short window of time in which to make a decision about a person, so the only thing we really can judge them on is that first impression.

This is true for everything from job interviews to first dates to hiring a plumber to choosing a dentist to letting someone cut your hair to meeting someone at a party. Yes, in most cases you’ll also have some sort of frame of reference for them, but your real judgment will be made when you first meet them.

How a person chooses to present themselves to the world says a lot about a person and not necessarily what they are actually trying to tell the world about themselves.

It may be unfair but we humans like other humans who are attractive.  We are programmed to believe that someone attractive on the outside will be attractive on the inside. Studies with young children, who have no deeply ingrained prejudices, show that even children are drawn to and respond more positively to attractive people.

Of course “attractive” is a subjective thing.  And can encompass more than just being pretty and slim and well-dressed.  An air of confidence and comfort with one’s self goes a long, long way in making a person seem attractive who may not necessarily be a great beauty. And, some features are more important to some people than to others, but in general, attractive means someone who carries themselves well and looks like they have respect for themselves. Someone who looks after themselves and has made some sort of effort to look their best before putting themselves out into the world. Someone with a pleasant countenance.

We’re not looking for perfection. In fact, perfection can be off-putting because we tend to assume that really, really beautiful people are lacking in most other areas. We think they are probably arrogant, vain, self-absorbed and unintelligent. And we are very often right;  which is why we keep believing it.

When we judge someone on their appearance, we are also judging them on decisions they’ve made about how they choose to present themselves.  You make a decision to spend tens of thousands of dollars in surgery and cosmetic products to perfect your features, your hair, your physique and more money to clad yourself in only the finest designer duds – well then don’t complain if people liken you to Paris Hilton.

You make a decision to tattoo your face and shave one side of your head, dye the other side blue and wear orange garbage bags duct-taped to your body. Don’t complain if people think you’re a nut and won’t give you a job.

If you show up on a date dressed like a hooker, don’t complain that your date wasn’t at all interested in your mind.

If you’re 40 years old attend a fairly formal Christmas party in a Megadeath t-shirt and ball cap, don’t complain that all the chicks at the party were stuck up.

Underneath it all, these might all be very nice, caring, intelligent people, but how are we supposed to know that? We meet lots of people at parties, job interviews and in the general course of our lives. There’s no way we can spend weeks really getting to know all these people. So, we choose who we want to get to know or hire based on their appearance.

And, by the way, I also always judge a book by its cover for exactly the same reasons. Experts put a lot of time and effort into making book covers that express what we should expect from the book. There are millions of books on the shelves. So I choose ones that do not have Regency-era women in ripped bodices on the cover. I don’t choose books that are pink or bright blue or lurid black and red. I do not choose books whose covers are cleverly cut out to show a glimpse of something shocking underneath.

And, like with the people I meet, I am almost always right in my first impressions.

39 responses to “First Impressions

  1. Did you run into that 40 year old?!?! He’s a relative of mine!

    It is so true! I try and not take the first impression, as I feel that I can sometimes give a bad one, but it is extremely hard!!!

  2. It’s why you see so many couples who look like they could be brother and sister. And no that’s not just down to me living in the North East of Scotland where in certain parts the definition of “cousin” can be fairly loose.

    I think we tend to look for ourselves in people. We check out the landscape for folk we think will fit into our tribe. I, for example, seem to have quite a lot of scruffy looking friends. I am attracted to scruff.

    (Also folk who look a bit mental, generally are-c’mon!)

  3. I’m human and have made snap judgements based on appearance in the past, but I try to keep a blank slate when meeting new people and judge them more on what they say rather than what they look like.

  4. This is the main reason that I dislike tattoos.

    In choosing to be tattooed in visible locations on the body, the person getting tattooed has also chosen, whether they have realized it or not, to limit their future job possibilities.

    First impressions DO make a difference.

  5. “Whiney posts”….Hmph.

    Though going back to what you’re saying:

    “If you’re 40 years old attend a fairly formal Christmas party in a Megadeath t-shirt and ball cap, don’t complain that all the chicks at the party were stuck up”

    Exactly…!!!! I totally agree.

    Yet, if a man implies the same thing:

    “If you’re a woman and you dress like a dude, and have short hair like a dude, and look like a dude…dont’ complain that all the guys aren’t attracted to you”

    …then he’s labelled as mysogynistic and superficial, and the ladies start brandishing the pitchforks and tar and feathers.

  6. I like to base my first impressions on, at the very least, a conversation – not appearances. I love my friends, and a good lot of them may not have passed the “appearance” test if I had have let that be my standard.

    And myself. As I’ve gotten older (I’m 27 now), I’ve become less and less interested in exteriors, including my own. I work a (very good) job that doesn’t require me to wear anything more than yoga pants and a sweatshirt, I hate blowdrying my hair, and sometimes I don’t want to do my makeup (which consists of mascara and sometimes eyeshadow, and that’s pretty much it.) If someone happens to meet me for the first time on one of those days, which is statistically probable, and chooses to judge me negatively based on my appearance (and my tattoos!), then I’m not too concerned with having that person be a regular part of my life.

    So, I am nice, and I am caring, and I am intelligent. If someone doesn’t want to believe that based on the fact that I’m extremely low-maintenance, then d’oh well. I know plenty of people who are willing to look past my not-so-fashionable exterior.

  7. Helen – Instead of trying hard to make a good first impression, I think we should just work on being the best person we can be and being confident and comfortable with that. Then people will take us or leave us as we are.

    MisssyM – I think you’re right. We gravitate toward people that seem like us, have things in common with us or even seem like people we’d like to be. The good thing about judging people on first impressions is that we all have our own criteria so what one person might find repulsive or frightening, another might love.

    Hannah – Oh! I’m not sure I believe your. It’s all very nice to say you judge people on what they say, but what would prompt you to have a conversation with someone that’s long enough for you to make a decision about them in the first place? If you’re at a big party where you don’t know anyone, how do you choose who you’re going to talk to? Do you go spend equal amounts of time with each and every person there? Of course not. You look around and decide who you think might look nice or interesting and strike up some chat with them, don’t you?

    Mike – Ya, they’re so permanent. And people change so much from when they’re 18 or in their early 20s to when they’re 40 or 50. What you think is cool and represents you at 20 is certainly not the same even 10 years later. It makes me laugh when kids dress in spikes and leathers and chains and then get upset when people stare at them or seem frightened of them. What do they expect?

    Friar – Hmph indeed! I think that whole ranting at you about being superficial is something of a knee-jerk reaction because it’s the PC thing to pretend that appearances don’t matter and that we need to respond exactly the same way to every single person on earth no matter who or what they are. I think if the people who called you superficial really thought about it and reacted from their gut and brain instead of from their PC facade, they would agree with you. Of course everyone is perfectly free to dress, groom and deport themselves in any way they see fit, but they must also see that we are then perfectly free to respond to them in any way we see fit. (Just like your interviewer responds to your scruffy shoes and how you cannot complain/whine about his response when you were aware that shiny shoes were important to him and yet you chose to wear scruffy shoes anyway.)

    Meagan – I wasn’t at all saying that we all need to be fashion mavens. There is no reason why a person with tattoos, sweat-pants and no make-up couldn’t seem attractive, interesting and pleasant on first impression. Like I said, it’s more about how comfortable you are in your own skin and the attitude you present than what you’re actually wearing. And sure, for some people, someone in sweatpants in public would be written off immediately as someone they don’t want to know. And you probably wouldn’t wear that to a job interview, would you? But as you said, there are plenty of people to whom that doesn’t matter. Nevertheless, when you first meet someone or when they first meet you, it is all about exteriors. Unless you’re forced somehow into conversation, you will first know the person by their exterior. If you see something that appeals to you, you will pursue the relationship.

  8. XUP-At parties, I tend to gravitate towards people who smile and look friendly. But honestly, it doesn’t really matter to me what their wearing or what body shape they have. I’ve spoken with some “strange looking” people in the past who were awesome and I’ve met some “put together, normal looking” folks who were awful.

    Personality can shine through outward appearance. 🙂

  9. I expect you’re right XUP. I don’t think we get a whole lot of choice in the matter of how we judge others by first impressions, since it’s an instant and instinctive thing that we don’t consciously control. I suppose we do have some control over the first impression others have of us, though. Personally I’m very low-maintenance (no makeup, no fashion) and I’m not willing (and probably not even able at this point) to change that. I hope people get the first impression that I’m somehow likable because I’m easy-going and laid back and comfortable. If not, oh well.

    (By the way, speaking of first impressions, check this out, including some of the comments.)

  10. Try being judged on how old you look (or actually are). I used to go to medical appointments with my mother, only to have the health care person speak to me and ignore her entirely.
    Ditto a kid trying to pay for a purchase herself, a woman trying to attract the attention of the plumber (for instance) if her husband is there, a person in shabby clothes in a fashionable store, etc.
    I keep myself clean, neat and in more or less tidy, unimaginative clothing. Makeup? Fancy shoes? Nuh -uh. I hope to be popular because of my shiny smiling face and big smile. Works fine, believe it or not. Well, mostly. I do get ignored in upscale stores. And that is fine with me.

  11. Friar – Thanks for clearing that up. I’m pissed off about a lot of things I have to wear. I would prefer never to have to wear a bra, for instance, but I do it because it’s the thing to do in this particular decade. I usually dress up for work a more than I would like to – more than I really feel comfortable with (although I think I’ve found a fairly happy medium). Some parts of being a grown-up really suck.

    Hannah – Well, see – smiling and a friendly countenance are still “appearance” related. As I said, it’s a whole package – not just clothes or weight – a package based on what we see in the first few moments of meeting someone.

    Zoom – The first impression, as I’ve said to several others, is NOT just based on clothes or make-up or whether or not you look like a model. People, even at first glance, give off an attitude/aura/whatever that shows in their carriage, their eyes, their smile, their posture, whatever. The attitude combined with the purely visual, I think makes up that first impression. And yes, I think the first impression one gets of you is exactly who you are.

    Mary – Now you’re getting into the realm of “isms” – sexism, ageism, racism…this is people judging you on only one element of what you present to the world, not the whole package. They’re judging you only on your age or the colour of your skin. These people have a prejudice that won’t allow them to see anything but that one element. Definitely a problem. My teenaged daughter gets treated like crap a lot just because she’s a teenager.

    Brett – Oh, sorry. I had that at first and then I also saw it spelled with an “a”. I’m totally out of the loop on this subject. But anyway, how about the ball cap? Do you wear a ball cap around?

  12. @XUP,

    LOL that’s okay I was just kidding around, most folks would think it is a spelling error (and you never know, maybe it was, way back when the band was 18 or so…)

    I think a “megadeath” is what you would use when talking about “millions of deaths” in the context of nuclear war.

    (Sorry, sometimes I’m a useless trivia sponge.)

    I don’t own a ball cap, believe it or not. I like “normal” hats, and have several – this one is my current favourite:

    Well over $100 but it will last forever.

    I guess I’m a “closet metalhead”.

  13. Now, to add something useful other than trivia and links 🙂

    As I said at Friar’s, this is an interesting and complicated topic.

    Many people would agree that they are affected by a person’s chosen attire or appearance (e.g. tattoos or piercings).

    Many people would also say there’s nothing wrong with doing this – I am one such person, for instance.

    I mean, while I say it is a person’s right to dress as they choose, if they don’t get that job at the investment bank due to the pentagram tattoo on the forehead, too bad.

    And yet.

    It is still a form of discrimination.

    Like ageism.



    Mind you, no one can choose her race, sex, sexual orientation, or age. One can choose what one wears.

    But – at the base level, it is still the same.

    Except – most civilized governments prohibit discrimination based on the first group (race, sex, sexual orientation, age) – but not the second.

    It would be very hard to argue that it wasn’t fair I didn’t get that job due to my t-shirt.

    And then again… our government (Canada) won’t let people discriminate based on *religion* which *is* a choice, just like attire and appearance.

    This is why it is complicated, and a great topic for discussion.

  14. Brett- Every time we make a judgment about another person it’s “discrimination” of some sort. We are discriminating about our friendships as well as about our employees. And we make most of those judgments initially based on appearance. And if we’re not too shallow, we will recognize that much of a person’s appearance is based on choices they’ve made and there should be nothing wrong with making judgments about people based on things they’ve decided to do. There is a big difference, however, between this business of individuals making judgments about other individuals every day and OFFICIAL discriminatory practices. Because then it’s not about spontaneous responses to another person, but about policy and law and stuff. And, as we all know if policy tells you that you have to hire the grumpy old guy in the smelly pants instead of the dynamic young vivacious chickie in the tailored blouse because he has 6 months more experience than her, you’re going to follow the policy instead of your gut instinct, right? NO. And that’s why the government hiring practices are so convoluted and cumbersome and complicated and why we end up with the grumpy old guy in the smelly pants who spends all his time filing grievances while the young chickie gets snapped up by the private sector.

  15. Of course! I agree with you on the spontaneous vs. policy thing.

    I suppose that’s why my company often tends *not* to have young and energetic people.

    Any that do manage to get through the “grumpy old guy in smelly pants” filter tend to figure it out and leave, eventually 🙂

  16. @Brett and XUP

    How about Govt. jobs that are available to “visible minorities and women” …ONLY? (Their big letters, not mine).

    And ONLY those located in the National Capital region, at that?

    I came across quite a few of these ads on the PSC website when I was looking for work 5 years ago.

    Way to eliminate ~90% of all potential applicants living across Canada.

    Call it employment equity, call it making up for past sins..whatever. No matter how you slice it, it’s STILL not hiring someone based on their gender and skin color. (Not to mention geographic location).

    At the time, I can tell you, as a white anglogphone male trying desperately to find ANY kind of employment, seeing these job postings warmed my heart.

  17. Bad first impressions are sometimes…not so bad. Unbeknownst to me, I interviewed for my current job with a piece of kleenex stuck to my forehead. When I got back in my car after the interview, I glanced in the rearview mirror and was horrified (I had been blotting my dewy brow). I figured there was no way they would hire me but they did! I like to think it was b/c I was memorable and they said to each other “Oh hell, let’s just hire the kleenex chick.”

  18. I agree with all of that. Unfortunately I also apply it to wine and seem to lean toward the prettier labels. I can firmly attest to the fact that prettier labels do not neccessarily contain the tastiest wines. I think we should change the “…book by it’s cover” expression to: Never judge a wine by its label.

  19. I’m sure you don’t watch What Not To Wear but it definitely fits in with your post. As much as I know lots of people who make fun of the show, the very lesson that they’re trying to teach people is that first impressions DO matter and it makes no difference if you’re a genius lawyer if you wear clothes that make you look like a street hobo. It’s not that hard to find clothes that are comfy and fit you and project the right image you’re going for.

    That being said… I TOTALLY judge books by their covers (and/or titles) and have no shame at all at about it.

  20. Brett –Yup. It’s the both the best and worst of public service. At the same time.

    Friar – The geographic thing has pissed me off for a long time because I like to move around. But the staffing process would take 12 years if they opened every competition up to the whole country. The white/male preference thing… well, dude the public service is still white male heavy – especially at the management and beyond level and that does not make for good optics. And, eliminating 90% of the applicants is the general idea. They only open up the competition when it’s a very senior position. I have the same issues with the bilingual thing, but all that is part of the public service environment. Anyway, all this has nothing to do with making judgments based on appearance and everything to do with your general dissatisfaction with your current position. All I can tell you (as an insider) is to think outside the box and approach your goal from as many different directions as possible. Nothing is easy or sensible these days. If I were you I would look into contract positions, temp positions, term positions, consultant positions – whatever it takes. Sometimes the people involved really want to hire someone like you, but their hands are tied. You have to find a way to untie them. It’s a pain in the ass when you’ve spent a zillion years getting an education and honing your profession, but that’s the game.

    Elaine – I would hire someone with Kleenex stuck to their forehead, too. Did you ever ask them about it? On one of my first days on the job I inadvertently sent out a joke which was attached to another joke that accidentally included a large photo of a penis decorated with spectacles and a mustache. I reckoned no one would ever speak to me again, even after I abjectly apologized, but instead it completely endeared me to them. Go figure.

    Geewits – One of the first things you learn in wine appreciation school is to judge the wine by its label. So there you go. Of course, “prettiness” never actually comes into it.

    Heather – I don’t know who you are, but thank you so much for “getting” it. You really do only have a moment to make a good first impression. And you can talk all you like about being yourself and “take me as I am” and all that rot, but there isn’t a person alive who doesn’t make an extra effort to impress when it’s important or who doesn’t judge another person by that first impression.

  21. @XUP (and Friar),

    True enough about the public service being white male heavy. However, as a (younger) white male who had absolutely no hand in setting this up, I find it unfair to be excluded.

    I suppose I know how non-white non-males felt 20 or 30 years ago!

    Such is the way of the pendulum, I suppose.

    The way things are going, eventually we’ll be like an endangered species and they’ll create positions just for us 🙂

  22. @XUP

    No. This has nothing to do with my present situation.

    I just find it extremely annoying to find any company that eliminates people based on race or gender. (Even if it is reverse discrimination).

    Sorry, that’s just plain WRONG, in my books. (Despite what some apologists might say)

    As for finding a job in the govt. To be honest, I’m not even trying. Because I’ve been there, done that. Total waste of time.

    I was a fluently bilingual PhD engineer living in Ottawa. In 9 months of SERIOUSLY looking for work, I couldn’t even qualify for a single lousy interview with the Feds.

    In the same time, though, I had tons of interviews with private industry, including three lucrative job offers.

    My BiL also applied, and got in. But from the first career fair, to the time he sat down at his desk and started collecting a paycheck, over a YEAR had passed. Lucky his wife (my sister) was supporting him in the mean time.

    Sheesh…if that’s what it takes to get hired, no wonder the PSC says it’s having a hard time hiring the “best and brightest”.

    (*okay…rant over*).

  23. Brett & Frair – I totally agree. The hiring practices in the federal public service are arduous and can be very unfair. Even once you’re in. To get promoted it doesn’t matter if you work your ass off and are the top in your field -no. For a promotion you have to compete for the job along with every other schlub off the streets — even if you’ve been actually doing the job for years on an “interim” basis. That’s no guarantee that you’ll actually get appointed. It’s all about who can play the game best. And a year is nothing in the HR process. We’ve waited for 18 months for internal competitions to be completed. Nobody likes it, believe me.

  24. Hee hee, and that’s why I am applying to private sector jobs again.

    I’m tired of Vice Presidents with Grade 12 educations in a “technology company”.

    (not kidding about this one, seriously)

  25. The PSC process is slow, and after I got my last job, I was getting interview calls up to 16 months after my initial application. I think that’s part of the problem with PS renewal… my recent process was “fast” and it still took 5 months. Unheard of in most other sectors.

    People remembered the pink hair from last go around. (I actually think it helped me because my now-boss is into that.) Honestly I was going to cut it out before I “seriously” started looking for work.

    I know I do the same. I do the “do you think you could work with these people” day and night test. Is it fair? Not really… it’s the way it is.

  26. @Brett

    What about Project Leaders who try to bully engineers into accepting documents….

    …but who don’t’ know the difference between an infra-red BEAM detector, and a physical BEAM hanging from the ceiling?

    (not kidding about that one, either).

  27. *turns back firmly on Friar*
    *kicks bag of feathers under bed*
    *shoves can of tar in closet*

    @XUP – i don’t know what you two are talking about.

    *clears throat*

    I agree that we all judge by superficial qualities – at least at first, I certainly have changed my mind about certain folks over time, but like you implied, if you’re paying attention, very few people will surprise you. That much is true.

    It does seem to also be true that different people focus on different things. I have a friend, for instance, who has said in so many words that the first thing she notices about people are hair, shoes, and wardrobe (roughly). ‘Yes, I am that superficial’ she confessed. She really isn’t the person I would expect this confession from, even though we’ve known each other for nearly fifteen years now. She’s a good friend too, which is incongruent with our personalities, I suppose.

    I myself notice people’s expressions – whether they seem friendly or hostile is apparently the first thing on my radar. If you’re a normal person in a bad mood, I won’t notice that you’re impeccably dressed or that you have six children or that your shirt has the name of a school I went to or anything. And since I’m nearsighted, this means that in the main, I ignore people whose expressions aren’t in focusing range entirely, like they are part of the scenery. That is definitely not helpful when you’re looking for your mom in a crowd, which I did constantly as a teenager because I was always drifting away from our group and getting lost.

  28. Okay this post sucks…especially since today my Boss made the comment that my new co-worker will fill in the gaps with younger customers and co-workers who can identify with her more easily than someone in their 50’s. I like being reminded often I am past my expiration date in so many ways. Wait, I will put this on Friar’s blog….cause it was a whine.

  29. Um….

    Well there just seems to be nothing to say… you all have it covered from A to Z – is it discrimination that I didn’t mention the other 24 letters?

  30. i read this post just prior to going to a job interview. it really made think hard about first impressions, how i should present myself. and then i wondered if i should alter myself too much because that would be giving a false impression (like if i acted all serious and business-like). if i showed up in a skirt suit, they hire me, then see that i’m not really a skirt suit gal, would they be pissed?
    le sigh. i just went with being myself and hope for the best (i did iron my dress though 🙂 )

  31. You are spot on. If humans didn’t tend to form judgements in about 20 seconds flat, the entire advertising and marketing industries would not exist.

  32. what a very well written post about one of my most FAVORITE subjects.

    i’m proud that you threw out megadeth on us too, i’m a long time fan of that band. did you know the lead singer (dave mustaine) used to be in metallica and they have a “beef” between them. still. after a bunch of years.

    this sentence made me giggle, “Don’t complain if people think you’re a nut and won’t give you a job.” i suppose the literal of it is amusing to me.

    i think i take extra precautions when i meet a person who i’ve been “warned” about b/c i choose to make my own decisions about people. my judgments are almost always spot on, and i’m more than grateful for that ability.

    i think people that walk around in the world judging others by their outside covers are missing out on a TON of interesting people. did you hear that story of a man who recently died, was homeless and a millionaire? no one knew at the soup kitchens he went to. he just wanted to be free from the trappings of modern life i suppose. similar to your “who lives in your house” post.

  33. Brett – Good luck with your applications. There are things to be said for public sector. And then there are things to be said about private sector…

    Nat – 5 months?? Wow… But then again, I believe you work for an Agency?? They have a lot of discretion in their hiring processes and most other things, so things move along at a reasonably sane rate there most of the time.

    Friar – I don’t know what you’re talking about, so I’ll assume you’re talking to Brett??

    Hallie – Hey!! Nice to see you back. And nice to see you made up with Friar. I don’t thing there’s anything superficial about looking for any clues you can about the person you are encountering – be it shoes, hair, clothes, facial expression or attitude in general. We have to do this. It’s a primitive survival thing, I think. How else do we know when danger is near and it’s time to run or when potential mates are within radar distance?? Ha ha.

    Geewits – Ah, I didn’t know you were a graphic artist. Did I?? I think you’re right though – often an impressive looking bottle/label will speak to the type of wine inside. If it says “Wayne Gretsky Merlot” or Dan Ackroyd Chardonnay” I might stay away from it.

    Cedar – I don’t know why business people make this assumption. We are the BOOMERS. We outnumber everyone. We have all the money. We would much rather buy from and/or be “serviced” by someone our own age than some young chippy. Your boss is cuckoo.

    Jazz – Ya!! What’s wrong with F? I love F. It looks cool.

    Nancy – It’s Monet. Self-portrait. I’ll see if I can hook you up, but I think he might be dead.

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