Friday, March 6, 2009

Changing Impressions

People put a great deal of stock in first impressions, and perhaps rightly so. After all, many times, first impressions are all you get. At a job interview, you have only those first few minutes to sell yourself to the employer; the rest of the interview is merely a formality. This is why you wear a business suit instead of a sweat suit—that first glance and initial judgment could mean everything.

Then, there is “love at first sight.” I do not ascribe to this particular belief, but I certainly do believe in attraction at first sight. The minute you see someone, you can almost instantly evaluate whether or not you find that person attractive. This is significantly affected by how they present themselves. Things like clothes and hair and hygiene obviously factor in, but qualities that are often overlooked are posture; the way a person walks; whether they smile frequently; if their smile is genuine and reaches their eyes; their level of confidence; and their eagerness to please.

All of these attributes play a significant role in evaluating a first impression of a person, attractive or not. However, these attributes also contribute to a second impression, as well, The difference is that second impressions are formed from further observation, data collection, and perhaps most importantly, interaction. We can watch people in different contexts and see how they react when we tease them versus when we ask them about their parents. We don’t just “sense” whether they are physical people, but we begin to notice who they touch, if anyone, and who they avoid touching. Our ability to influence their personality helps us to discover who they are and revise our opinion of them.

Rare is the day when we tell someone of our first impression of them. Perhaps even rarer is the day when we receive feedback on others’ first impressions of us. This is logical, because after that first impression, the person either sticks around long enough to form a revised opinion—and therefore has no reason to retain that first impression or ever share it with us—or else we never see them again. Recently, however, I had such an opportunity. Ironically enough, it was afforded to me by this very blog.

Several months back, I began to attend open-court volleyball sessions at a public gym. I wasn’t familiar with the area, I didn’t know anyone at the gym, and the only reason I even went was because I missed organized sports so acutely and the gym was so inexpensive that I really had nothing to lose. Fortunately for me, everyone turned out to be quite accepting, and these are now some of my better friends in the city, but that’s neither here nor there. When I started playing with this group, I definitely felt like an outsider. Not only was I a racial minority—one of the only white people in a sea of ethnic diversity—but everyone else already seemed familiar with at least a few, if not most other people there. Thus, I mostly showed up and kept quiet, hoping to play as much as I’d be allowed and keeping my eyes peeled for any ounce of friendliness that would be extended my way.

Obviously, as I bided my time and observed those around me, I made initial impressions of people. A few of these, I included in a very early blog post, New Yorkers ARE Nice, in which I completely botched the names I tried to remember, never mind the ethnicities I tried to pin down. (I labeled one guy as being Hispanic, who I now know is so obviously Chinese. Talk about embarrassing.) Looking back at what I wrote, it’s funny to realize what I deemed important or notable at the time, plus of course how drastically my impressions of these same people I described have changed since I first wrote about them.

Some Revisions

The Gangster is not really a gangster—not by a long shot. He’s must too genial to be a gangster. He offers his hand to girls when they’re getting out of pools or up off of steps and allows other people to take his turn on the volleyball court, even when it’s an unfair amount of playing time in their favor. He’s also not actually cocky. Confident, yes—and he has a right to be, in many regards, because he is that talented an athlete and works that hard to become one. Cocky, though, is not the correct adjective, because that word implies debasing other people to elevate oneself, and he does not do that. Sure he teases them, but only the people he knows will take the teasing well. He does not insult, and he does not rub shortcoming in his teammates (or opponents’) faces. However, in addition to confidence, he does possess other “gang leader-like” qualities: dedication, perseverance, tenacity, focus, and dare I say it, charisma. Everyone does want him to like them, just as I initially described. So I wasn’t all that far off base from the start—except that he’s not Hispanic.

The Black Guy is no longer the only black guy who plays with us anymore, but he was the first, so I guess that’s still the label I’ll use. Looking back at my initial description, I am amused that I found him so “classy.” It really is a matter of self-conduct that creates these images. This guy doesn’t swagger at all; in fact, he walks a little bit stiffly for all of his athletic prowess, and that I suppose is why I labeled him classy—that and his quieter demeanor. He’s still one of the quieter of the group, although by no means shy, and more of a solitary guy, mostly because there are so many dynamic personalities that dominate the court. However, I also suspect that he feels intimidated by the age factor (he must be one of the younger individuals who attend these open court sessions), although there is no way for me to prove this, and I guarantee he would never admit it.

The Rail-Thin Asian, which is the only way I think I’ll be able to differentiate my third “First Impression” gentleman, is quite a bit different than I first imagined him. I’m not sure how I formed my initial opinion of him, although I did imagine him to be one of the “leaders,” because he was almost always there setting up the net those first few weeks I attended. He is also rather quiet (interesting how the quiet ones are the ones who intrigued me enough to mention in my blog), although this is not to say he does not talk—he merely talks to people more one-on-one rather than shouting about the gym during game-time. I was correct in my non-passive judgment of him—he is quite an energetic player and has a good serve as well—but he’s not what one would call “aggressive” in the violent, hard-hitting manner of other guys out there on the court. If I had to characterize him now, (personality-wise) I’d create of some sort of small, soft-spoken high-pitched Disney cartoon character.

There are certainly others I formed accurate and inaccurate opinions of. With one short, leggings-wearing, curly-haired girl, I was dead-on: she laughed loudly and easily, didn’t seem to hold any opinions back (no matter if she risks offending you or not), and seemed like she’d make a great teammate. She does, and she is.

There was an Asian guy who passed/set/hit with me tirelessly on the sidelines when I first began attending the volleyball sessions. He was a great partner for this, because he was friendly, encouraging, instructional, and, as I mentioned, tireless, so the practice was invaluable for me. Initially, I was really excited to find such an immediate friend and “teammate.” However, as I came to these sessions with more regularity, I gradually realized that he possessed the classic New York mentality: he was looking for the “best opportunity.” If I was the only one willing to pass/set/hit on the sidelines, then he’d do it with me. But if someone else came along who could do it better than I could, then he would avoid passing with me at all costs so that he could not only practice with them, but so that he could play the next game with them on his team. Not that I blamed him. I liked to play with better players, too. My initial “this guy is a coaching type” impression was simply supplanted with a “this guy wants to win” realization.

One of the more interesting realizations, however, was the realization of how someone initially perceived me. Obviously, in a new setting, I am not immediately my boisterous, chatty self. It’s particularly hard to acclimate to a new situation when everyone else seems to already know one another, which was how I found this group of volleyball players to be, accurate or not. Nevertheless, I never thought I would give off a completely opposite self-image as a result. Following, I quote the “first” and “second” impressions one volleyball player—whom I believe I can now claim as a friend—had of me:

when I first met you, I tho you were antisocial cause you didnt really speak to anybody in the gym…come to find out that you are exact the opposite. proof the theory of beyond appearance.

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