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Lesson Thirty — First and Lasting Impressions

We all think we are pretty smart, but we are not.We form opinions about people before we have a chance to get to know them.We think we can take one look at a person and determine whether or not they are rich, poor, happy, sad, smart, stupid, energetic, lazy, trustworthy, dishonest, friendly, and many other things which have no other basis, other than it being our first impression.Sometimes we are right, but just as often, we are wrong.But, this doesn’t stop us from believing we are right all of the time.It is sad but true.

You do it also.When you walk into class on the first day of school, you look around and size up your new classmates.You are going to judge, or misjudge, them by their appearance.The kid with the dirty tee shirt and his fly halfway open is probably not the one you are going to try to hook up with after school.This negative impression is going to be very difficult for you and that person to overcome, and will last a very long time.He could probably be the class president, but you will have trouble getting over this very poor first impression.

Shake hands

This applies to both good and bad first impressions. We have all been told not to judge a book by its cover, but we all do it and it would be foolish of me to try and change that. What I can do, however, is to teach you to use it to your advantage.

If you judge others based on your first impressions, then isn’t it true that other people are going to judge you by their first impression of you?  Experience should tell you that this impression is going to be difficult for you to overcome, whether good or bad.  This knowledge can be a very powerful tool for you when used properly.  If you do not use it properly, it will hurt you severely.

When I think back to my younger days in junior high, high school and college, I can remember examples where other kids made a good or bad first impression with me that still lingers.  I remember that Jim Murray went out of his way to introduce himself to me when I was new to the school in a polite and friendly way.  He and I never became great friends but I always have had a lot of respect for him.  I thought he was honest, kind, trustworthy, friendly and lots of other good things.  That was thirty-three years ago.  Now Jim is the head custodian of our old high school.  Not the most glamorous job, but it has not changed the fact that I think very highly of him.

On the other hand, I also remember that Les McKay blew me off, or so it seemed to me, with some wisecrack when I was introduced to him as a freshman in high school thirty some years ago.  It should be no surprise to you that Les and I never became friends, although I still see him on occasion.  He is probably a bright, successful, caring person.  When I first met him, he was probably having a bad day or just showing off, but, unfortunately, I’ll never be able to shake that negative first impression.  I am sure it is my loss.

There are many elements to making a good or bad first impression, clothing, hygiene, mood, language, and attitude.  All of them are important.

Unless your first contact with a person is over the phone, dress, posture and hygiene are going to be the basic elements of your first and lasting impression.  Your clothes should always be clean and not too wrinkled, unless wrinkled happens to be “in style at the time.”  This applies whether you are going out on a date or headed for the gym or basketball court.  Not everyone can afford new clothes, but we can all afford clean clothes.

Fashion is somewhat controversial, at least to me.  Fashions come and go so quickly, it is impossible for the average person to stay on top of it.  I would suggest that even if you can afford to keep up with the latest, you should consider avoiding it.  Why?  Because keeping up with the latest fad may also make a first impression that you hadn’t considered.

If you keep up with the latest fads, you are probably trying to create the impression that you are “cool” or in with the “in crowd”.  On the other hand in my mind, the people that are always up with the latest fad are somewhat insecure.  They appear to be more concerned about how they look to others than who they are or what they stand for.  In fact, who they are seems to be what they can buy at the store.  To me, they appear to be followers, not leaders.  They are highly influenced by someone else’s idea of what looks good and how to dress properly.  In short, I am not very impressed.  (How’s that for judging a book by its cover?)

On the opposite end of the scale, we have people so far out of fashion that you wonder what they could possibly be thinking.  My wife would definitely say that I fit into this category.  Someone totally out of fashion is probably a free thinker, preoccupied with more important things, and interested more in the substance of a person than the clothes that they buy.  On the other hand, they could be total idiots.

Somewhere between the two fashion extremes is probably where you want to be.  It is far more important that your clothes be clean, neat and appropriate for the occasion than anything else.  You don’t want to wear a wrinkled tee shirt and raggedy jeans to a friend’s house for dinner, even if you are only getting pizza.  I don’t think you should wear these types of clothes to school, either.  Wearing disheveled clothing implies that you do not have respect for your surroundings, whether that is the school or your friend’s house.  In return you will get little respect.  If you dress in a manner that shows you have respect for the place, people and occasion, you will in turn get respect.  It is always safer to dress a little bit up for the occasion rather than the other way around.  If you are way overdressed, for example, wearing a coat and tie to a picnic, people will think that you are completely out of your mind.


Please be careful when wearing tee shirts with graphics or written messages.People will assume that you know what you are wearing and believe that you are trying to tell them something about yourself by the message on the shirt.Unfortunately, there is a good chance that they will misinterpret your message.Always avoid clothing that advertises alcohol or smoking or other questionable behavior.Never, ever wear tee shirts bearing obscenities or sexually suggestive materials.

Interviewing for a job or college is the ultimate first impression because a first impression is all you are going to get.You should dress conservatively.This means traditional types of clothing for boys, a shirt with a collar, perhaps a tie depending on the type of job, long pants, but not jeans.Earrings and jewelry should be avoided for boys.No funky hair colors, unless you are interviewing for a job in the circus.

For the girls, a dress or slacks with a loose fitting blouse, possibly a sweater.No high heels or sneakers, jewelry in moderation.

It is also a good idea to dress for the job.If you are applying for a job as a gas station attendant, you should not wear your rattiest clothes, even though that is probably what you will wear on the job.However, if you are applying for an office job, you should wear what people going to work there every day typically wear.If that means a suit or a jacket and tie for the boys, or a blazer for the girls, that is what you should wear.You should generally err on the side of overdressing for the occasion.A prospective employer would not hold it against you if wore better clothes than you needed to for the interview.More than likely he or she would appreciate that you respected the situation and are taking it seriously.On the other hand, if you do not dress well enough for the occasion, the interviewer may get the impression that you just do not care and your time will have been wasted.

Proper hygiene is a no brainer.It is hard to warm up to someone when they have food stuck in their teeth or crud encrusted in their ears or smell like the YMCA locker room.In this day an age, there is no excuse for poor hygiene.If you are dirty and smelly, people are going to think you are a real loser, and they will be right, because there really is no excuse.

Language and grammar are critical in making a first impression.  One of my heroes, perhaps my only real life hero, is Abraham Lincoln.  He was awkwardly tall, had huge ears and a crooked smile.  He also dressed sloppily and rarely combed his hair.  By any standards, he made a very poor first impression, and if you have read anything about his life, this impression hurt him badly early on and was a problem throughout his career.  However, he was extremely intelligent and well spoken, with the exception of having back woods, Kentucky accent to which Northerners were not accustomed.  To his credit, Abraham Lincoln was able to overcome these negative images with a good heart and his excellent command of the English language.

Like most of us, Abraham Lincoln used different types of language and manners of speaking depending on the circumstances.When he was hanging out with the boys and telling jokes he fell back into his old Kentucky dialect.When speaking to the nation, he used the voice of a diplomat.We do the same thing.The key is not to use the coarser language and slang in the wrong place.If you do, you are going to make a very, very poor impression and have difficulty getting a second chance.It may be cool to talk in slang or use coarse language on the street corners with your friends, but it will hurt you badly if used elsewhere.Just like using the proper dress under the appropriate circumstances, language and grammar should be used appropriately.And, just like with clothing, it is always better to err on the side of using proper grammar.

This applies to home, school, work and every place else.If Mark and Mary both work at McDonalds and Mark sounds like an educated, intelligent young man, while Mary sounds like a hoodlum, who do you think is going to get promoted first?Who do you think is going get the extra hours or choice of shift?

If you are having trouble using proper grammar, you should practice.Your current friends may not be great examples, but most television programs, not all, use language properly.I know for certain that all of the news programs use proper grammar.Watch them.Listen to them.Imitate them.Record your own voice and play it back.If you do not speak like a successful person, you have little chance of becoming one.

Your posture is also very important, yet difficult for me to describe.  Stand tall.  Shoulders back.  Head up.  Look proud and confident.  Smile.  Shake hands with authority.  You know what I mean.

The last element of first and lasting impressions is mood.By this I mean happy, sad, caring, intolerant, friendly, etc.Naturally, all of us are some of these things at various times in our life.The key is to control them as much as possible and to make certain that we don’t blow an opportunity to make a good first impression because we are in a bad mood.

Not too long ago, a friend of mine was pulled over for a traffic violation at a time when he was already in a very sour mood because of problems at home.When asked by the officer for his credentials, he grumbled.When asked if he knew why he was being pulled over, he grumbled something unintelligible.When he was given the summons he drove away without ever saying anything to the officer.I knew the officer and later asked him if he would please cut my friend a break.This normally cooperative officer said that he was not inclined to do so because my friend gave him a hard time and was uncooperative.The truth is, my friend is a great guy.There is nothing he would not do for you, or anybody else for that matter.He is an inner city trauma surgeon, which means that he gets calls in the middle of the night to patch people up from shootings, car accidents, drug overdoses, and anything else you can think of.This guy saves peoples lives, but he did not get a much needed break from this police officer because he was in a bad mood and made a poor first impression.

Making a good first impression can have a long lasting effect.I know a guy that sells insurance.A few years ago, he was caught selling insurance policies, collecting the premiums but never paid the money to the insurance company.In other words, the clients, many of them friends and family, paid for but did not have insurance coverage.This person was prosecuted and convicted and went to jail for a brief period of time.Fortunately for his family, he is the master of first impressions and he has bounced back and is doing well.He drives a nice car and lives in a nice house, none of which he owns.He dresses well, speaks well, says nice things about everyone, is always in a good mood and instantly becomes your friend.He is a master at making a good first impression.As a result, he is successful.I am not suggesting that you follow in his footsteps.Please don’t.I am simply trying to make the point that a good first impression can carry you a long way, even, perhaps, through a criminal conviction and brief stay at the county jail.

People are going to be greatly influenced by the first impression you give them.  Your clothing, your hygiene, your language and demeanor are all going to have a great influence on the first impression you make to others.  First impressions are easy to make but difficult to overcome.  If you make a good first impression, you will have many opportunities thereafter to screw up before it will really hurt you.  If you make a bad first impression, you are going to be fighting an uphill battle.  Use it to your advantage.  Make a good first impression.  It’s easy!