7 Reasons We Shouldn’t Cling To Knee-Jerk Impressions

A few months ago, I read an article I still share when discussions surface about judging strangers. If I ever manage to find the link, I’ll remove this description of said article, but until then:

The story was shared by a mother of young children, who overheard a stranger’s feelings on her parenting style. In a nutshell, she was exhausted and her kids were miserable, so she let them have a snack from the pretzel cart at the mall, despite her usual dedication to very clean, healthy eating and natural foods. A fashionable father with two perfect-looking children was sitting nearby, and when his spawn started begging for a pretzel, he clearly and loudly articulated to them that he would never let his kids eat that junk, while staring at the author in disgust.

Basically, the author’s point was the classic “don’t judge a book by its cover.” Specific to parents, if you watch that mom give in and hand her child a sucker he’s been screaming for, instead of looking down on her for not doing what you would do – which is walk away and force that little whiner to buck up – you could instead consider what her gawd-awful day up until now may have been like, and give her the benefit of the doubt that she doesn’t usually give in to her kid’s every whim.

We’ve been hearing adages like this for generations and yet, as a people, we still willfully glue ourselves to our snarky first take, with every incident we witness.

What I liked most about this woman’s article (damn, I wish I could find it!) is how she doesn’t tell people to stop judging others. Let’s face it – that’s pretty well impossible. Instead, she encourages us to 1) acknowledge that what we just saw might have a myriad of extenuating circumstances attached to it, and/or 2) keep our judgy judgments to ourselves!

Ok, after that rather lengthy introduction, I give you: 7 Reasons Your First Impression Could Be Wrong (And Why It Might Be Healthier To Assume It Is)


(Disclaimer: I’ve probably been guilty of every single point on this list.)

1. You really have no clue what their day was like.

Clearly a direct reference to what is mentioned above; I don’t think I need to elaborate on this one!

2. They might have other things on their mind.

The knee-jerk: You just spilled your angst-ridden soul to a friend who didn’t appear to give a rat’s furry little behind about your problems? The nerve of that selfish former pal!

The alternative: Take a close look at his or her face. Does she simply seem vacant, or could that distraction in her eyes be indicative of her own personal problem? Is he ignorantly disinterested in your agony, or does he just have so much going on in his head he simply can’t spare the brain power for some sympathy right now?

(Of course, if this scenario has happened time and time again – and you consistently prove yourself an excellent listener when your friend shares – perhaps it’s time to hunt for a new bosom bud.)

3. They could be the exception to your rule.

The knee-jerk: Wait, that person is a Southern Baptist? Oh no, there’s no way I’m getting involved in a conversation with that fundamentalist – they’ll only turn it into a hateful rant about gay marriage.

The alternative: Yes, stereotypes on groups of people often come from somewhere, but those stereotypes quickly become our own list of “written in stone” characteristics when we’re unwilling to give people a chance. Every collective has their (sometimes aggravating) fundamentalists – religious bodies, political supporters, vegans – and they also have their beautifully open-minded, kind-hearted individuals (yeah, that’s the key word here). If you don’t give them a chance, aren’t you guilty of the same biases you’re assuming of them?

4. You’ve been there before, too.

The knee-jerk: Oh. My. God. Did that person seriously just cut me off? I’ve been waiting in this left-turn lane for like an hour. Who died and made this jerk-off king of the highway? I bet he’s a horrible person in a thousand other ways, too.

The alternative: Ever been just driving along, assuming your turn is two blocks up, filing past a long line of cars at a standstill, then suddenly realize your turn is actually right here, your appointment is in five minutes, and you might not have any quarters in your bag for the meter?

Yeah, I thought so.

5. Maybe they really didn’t hear you.

The knee-jerk: Wow. That’s the last time I’m politely asking someone in the grocery isle to move so I can get by. Such ignorance in today’s youth!

The (extreme) alternative: They’re actually hard of hearing, dude. Calm down.

The (more probable) alternative: They just realized they left the stove on, forgot their grocery list, and their stupid phone is ringing somewhere in their stupid purse and they can’t find it.

6. Who are they really hurting, anyway?

The knee-jerk: Would you look at that woman’s ridiculous skinny jeans? The rips in the thigh are so big she might as well be wearing no pants at all. I can’t believe I can see the complete outline of her bra through that gauzy shirt. Who wears something like that to talk a walk through the woods? So gross.

The alternative: I’m sorry, I missed the part where her clothing choices either physically wound you, or present some threat to people you care about or are sworn to protect. Try to bat down the urge to snort derisively, or focus on her shoes, which are actually really cute, if impractical for the terrain.

7. They could just be obnoxious.

The knee-jerk: That person must be the biggest asshole in the country. Not only did they just (do this annoying thing), but then they went right on and (did that other annoying, perhaps slightly racist thing). Now I just know I’m going to be miserable all day. I’ll probably get into an argument with my partner when I get home, send a snarky text in response to my mom’s innocent computer question, and toss and turn for two hours before I fall asleep.

The alternative: Yep, that person is probably one of the biggest assholes in the country. And by getting red in the face, raising your heart rate, pissing off your loved ones and
contracting temporary insomnia, you’ll totally teach them a well-deserved lesson.

So next time you find yourself jumping to judgement about someone – be they friend or complete stranger – don’t beat yourself up over your potentially unfair first impression, but do try to temper it with an alternative possibility, and definitely keep it to yourself (unless, as I mentioned, their actions are actively endangering someone). If nothing else, getting into this habit could remove a lot of stress!

Stay cool 🙂



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