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The Rant of a College Student: It’s Time That First Impressions Stop Mattering

Ah, it’s that time of year again: back to school. For most, this means having new classes, meeting new professors, and most likely facing a myriad of unfamiliar faces. If you’re still a first-year student, you’ll be coming face-to-face with all the other late teens who are fresh out of high school and recently jumped into the flames of “trying to become a functional adult” – which includes figuring out how to turn on the washing machine by yourself or cooking an edible breakfast after years of being disbarred from your home kitchen. As such, it would only be appropriate if the days leading up to that first week of the new semester comes equipped with this one persistent anxiety: how do I make a good first impression on both my teachers and peers? In other words, how do I strike the right balance between being “friendly” and “cool,” “freaking hilarious” and “scholastically intelligent” without people noticing that I’m trying so hard to build a good reputation… In short, how can I build a good reputation while still being sincere? As we know, some top occupants of the social ladder can just be themselves to gain respect and admiration, while for few others being themselves can signify becoming a deviant and enduring social recluse.

Now, suppose that your first week back to school goes the way you want it: you log on to your courses’ respective Zoom meetings and manage to become the frontrunner of every one of your breakout room’s particularly-productive, eye-opening discussion, slipping in a good few laughs every now and then for good measure. You add dozens of new contacts into your phone, you hold Zoom meetings with your new friends, and you no longer need to worry about being the only one left out of the social scene the day you actually get to set foot onto your university grounds (a moment that is still in pending for many of us, I assume). That is, of course, if your first impression happens to not be too far off from your true personality, meaning that you don’t need to keep up an entire act for the three, four years you have left as a student, and/or if your classmates like you enough from your first impression that they’re willing to dive deeper into the eccentricities of what makes you you…meaning that the moment they find out you’re actually a total weirdo, they are already too attached to you to just cut and run like someone who’s acutely allergic to sheer individuality.

You’re probably wondering what my point is after reading through the entirety of the above “what if” rant – hence the title of this article – so I’ll just tell it to you straight: how much do first impressions actually reveal about someone’s personality? If you spend a lot of the last few days, weeks, or even months of your holiday thinking about how you should act and what you should say or do when classes start, isn’t there an extremely high possibility that your fellow classmates would do the same? The “you” that you’re putting out to meet the similarly polished personas of your classmates is just a small fragment of your true personality, made to fit into the image of a perfect, functional human being – though we all know that, that particular process often goes wrong in some way or another, even marred by a single, perhaps insensitive comment that instantly tarnishes your image.

Our first impressions go wrong more often than they, well, go right. And when that happens, I’m sure a handful of us are struck with that persistent thought of “life isn’t fair,” for it is difficult to get rid of a bad image and reputation once it has set in. A breakout room is just a microcosm of society after all; even if you only mess it up in front of a small group of people, you might feel as if you’ve messed up in front of everyone even remotely related to your university. It isn’t fair when people avoid interacting and/or contacting you just because of that one encounter that didn’t go as planned; they don’t know you very well, yet they’re insistent in keeping that surface-level image to remember you by and which, they may then share to their friends.

On that note, it’s time that we address why first impressions matter so much to people in the first place. Say you are an employer looking for a single, capable candidate out of fifty others; you are only able to spare five minutes each for an interview, and the decision has to be made within the end of a week. Expectedly, your only method of meeting this deadline is to skim through each laboriously-organized résumé, asking about each candidate’s strengths and weaknesses while you immediately cross out the names of those with the least work experience. Obviously, not all of us are employers, but as students and people in general, we most likely have the same reasons for relying on first impressions as an employer looking for someone to hire: 1) effort: we don’t have the energy to befriend every person that we meet, and 2) time: we don’t have enough gaps in our daily schedule to hang out with all our classmates or work buddies on top of studying, working, and personal leisure time… and both of these reasons lead us to compare our perceived images of the people we meet and then choose a select few – the best of the best of the selection of candidates – to get to know further.

Of course, times are a-changing. Many of us probably know by now, that we should never judge people just from a single encounter – unless we’re an employer or maybe an ultra-introvert – but while the idea that “first impressions are everything” has a weaker hold on people worldwide, it still remains an implicit bias that people often don’t realize they have ingrained, until someone else points it out for them. Now, I’m not saying that we should try to get to know everyone we even briefly encounter – even the most extroverted and social humans don’t have the capacity to befriend seven billion other people (as mentioned before, each of us have only a certain amount of energy to spare for socializing, hence the term “social battery”) – but there are surely a few steps that we could employ to finally get rid of this double-edged sword that is first impressions, stopping it from leaving unnecessary scars and open wounds on both ourselves and the people we meet: 1) don’t be frugal with your second chances – the eyes are not windows to the soul, nor does minutes of awkward conversation tell you the entire life story and psychological profile of the other speaker (even therapists take months-worth of sessions to pinpoint a single issue and help guide their client through it. Remember, second chances are free and unlimited) – and 2) you don’t need to understand someone to respect them – if you do decide to not interact further with someone after a first encounter or after several conversations in which you realize your personality still does not match up to theirs, despite active attempts to find a common ground, you still do not have the right to share unfounded information or possibly shallow observations of that particular person to your friends… in exactly the same way that other people do not have the right to badmouth or openly share mere assumptions of who you are to the people they know.

Life would be exponentially fairer if we all make active attempts to respect each other, and much of our energy would be saved for far more productive and happier things if we stop worrying about the need to be someone who we are not, in order for our lives to be deemed as meaningful within the harsh span of a mere half-hour or even a few minutes. It’s time we stop imposing an artificial standard and expectations on how we act in front of others since by the end of the day, only we can decide what makes our life meaningful and it is more important to find the right people than becoming the right person.

An aspiring writer and a nerd in almost every sense of the word, with a deep interest in books, film, anime, manga, and games.
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