First impressions…

I met a woman outside the village shop. We had the vaguest of acquaintance to begin with, a greeting over her garden fence, but enough, apparently, for her to decide she had reason to enquire after my entire family and circle of friends before starting to dig up anything she could about my past. It was done with eager curiosity, a toothless smile and no malice whatsoever. The lady is elderly and lives alone; she may simply have wanted the company, or someone to talk to… and possibly something to talk about when she next met her friends.

Walking home, I had to think about that. I had barely arrived when a knock on the door heralded the arrival of a couple of fresh-faced evangelists. Their interest was solely in my religious bias, not even the state of my soul. They did not seem intent on my salvation as much as coercing my cooperation. Brandishing the Bible under my nose they instructed me to pray in a particular manner for Government on Earth by God. Their perception of God, of course, not mine; they had no interest in that. They quoted Bible verses as if I knew nothing, assuming that I would know nothing, and seemed most disconcerted when I could quote them too. They had no interest whatsoever in listening to my view, or even my responses to their questions, only in promulgating their own.

The little old lady was sweet and made me smile, even though her questioning approached the third degree. I parried her curiosity as best I could and listened to her ailments. Although I had a lot to do, I was in no hurry to escape her. The evangelists looked earnest and tired. I can imagine that they had not been well received by the majority of doors upon which they had knocked. They were pleasant enough people, but the blinkers of their fervour placed a barrier between us through which no personality was allowed to shine. I might as well have been speaking with automata.

When we meet someone it is natural for us to be curious, I think. We like to know who it is that we are talking to, like to know something about the person behind the face, the clothes or the front door. Yet our assessment of whether or not we like someone seems to be made almost instantaneously, based not upon a detailed background knowledge of their life story, but simply on the ‘feel’ of them. Body language, a look in the eye, a smile… the ‘vibe’ we pick up from them. And perhaps what they reflect back at us of ourselves.

There is no need to give the third degree and question the past of a friend, their life’s journey is their own and those who become friends will share what they choose, when they choose, as the moment invites. Much is shared simply by them being who they are, without need for detail and history; their lives and choices, good, bad and indifferent; their stories, trials, successes and fears have shaped and made them who they are and it is who they are that we care about. Not who they have been, who they might have been or who they may yet become. Who they are right now, in this moment that they are spending with you, that is what matters.

There is not one of us who has not made mistakes, triumphed over something, suffered embarrassment, given joy or caused hurt to someone somehow. No-one goes through life without writing a story on the pages of time, and all stories call upon the gamut of human behaviour and emotion. Our relationships with people are seldom begun with a knowledge of that story, we simply reach out and ‘touch’ whether a person feels right or not in that first split-second of meeting and our smile or greeting will be warm, absent or polite in response to that feeling… and we are usually right.

And if that first impression is enough, why do we need the inquisition? I have known and loved friends others have disliked; it doesn’t matter at all who was wrong and who was right in their assessment of a character, what matters is whether the friendship was true. We look beyond the surface with a deeper understanding than facts and reason when we exchange that first smile of friendship. We ‘know’ that person in a way we cannot explain and which may bear little relation to the facts of their life or ours.

My little old lady and I will now exchange smiles and talk when we see each other again. The evangelists, their own human warmth closed and curtailed by their mission, I would probably not recognise in the street if I saw them. It felt as if they had not seen me as a person nor had they opened themselves for me to see. I found that sad, an opportunity missed. It seemed as if in opening my door, a door had closed between us. Perhaps they are so used to dismissal or antagonism that their personal shields are up. Or perhaps they had simply looked and not liked what they found. Those first impressions work both ways.

13 thoughts on “First impressions…

  1. When I lived in a more populated area, we got a lot of Mormon missionaries. They weren’t bad kids, but even when it was obvious — we said so and showed absolutely NO interest in any kind of conversion — they wouldn’t give up. We gave them dinner, introduced them to favorite TV shows, and eventually, we strongly suggested they move on. They didn’t want to go. They liked dinner and TV and just hanging out, even if a conversion wasn’t imminent.

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    1. I always liked the young Mormon missionaries here too… and they liked herbal tea and homemade cakes. A pair of them introduced me to Terry Pratchett years ago and we had wonderful conversations.

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  2. Nice one, Sue. Your usual thought-provoking stuff. And it reminded me of a time, years ago when I lived in Streatham in South London. One evening a couple of young Mormon men knocked on the door. I could never resist talking with such callers. We had so much to say they asked if they could come in and explain to me the finer details of their faith. “Why not?” I said, and took them into the sitting room. Having sat down, they looked at me with that fresh-faced earnestness that seems a trade mark of such people, and said that before we went further with our discussion, we should pray. I thought, “Whoa. Hang on.” And said to them, “Before we do that, please tell me who or what we are praying to.” It brought the meeting to a swift close. They could do no more do that than fly – their only response was to quote the Bible at me. They seemed not to be involved in any personal way in what they professed to believe. And like you say, they seemed to have no sense of who I was or what I myself believed – if I believed anything at all – and nor was that important. All that appeared to matter was that they bombarded me with all the stuff that had been fed into them and which to me, seemed more their defence against the world’s reality than an expression of any sincerely felt thing of their own. A rather sad evening, as it turned out.

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  3. Will Rogers said, “You never get a second chance for a first impression.” First impressions are usually right but not always. I like to ask questions and get to know people when I meet them. It embarrasses my hubby sometimes. Years of interviewing people have made it a habit.

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  4. I really LOVED this article, Sue. It speaks to my experiences too, and I was married once to a Mormon, and living with him every single day was like the experience some have had with these folks. There was nothing beyond the surface. I guess life is too frightening for some folks to face it head on, but it makes it really difficult to have even a surface relationship with some people. It is interesting about the kinds of people we encounter through our lives – people we have to deal with somehow through our own learned responses to others as we grow up. Somehow, between all the reactionary responses and the false faces, we occasionally come face to face with someone who is truly genuine, and who may care deeply for others even if they don’t know what to say. That is so incredible and we can feel it in everything they do. Thank you kindly for this excellent article.

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