When my mother was in eighth grade, her St. Michaels Catholic School class went on a trip to Bear Mountain in upstate New York. Two kids — let’s call them Patty and John — disappeared into the woods for an afternoon of good Catholic fun. At the end of the day, the whole class had to wait on the bus while the nuns went searching for the sinners.
My mother said that, as an eighth grader, she thought Patty and John were the pinnacle of coolness, the most adventurous and daring kids in school. She continued to think of them that way until she ran into Patty at the age of forty, and Patty turned out to be a sad woman whom life just hadn’t been good to. “So it just goes to show you,” my mother said, “People change. They never are the same as how you thought of them when they were younger.”
First impressions are important. They are so important that they have inspired novels like Pride and Prejudice (which, ironically, was originally going to be named First Impressions) and too many movies to count. They have also inspired a multitude of products like lint rollers, Crest White Strips, and Binaca, aimed at trying to make their customers look and smell cleaner and brighter. But no matter how hard people try every to make a good impression most of the time, it’s not always possible. Inevitably, people mess up.
Last Thursday at about 8:00 p.m., when my roommate and I were on our way to Trader Joe’s to buy our weekly groceries, we were about to turn onto the bridge when a jerk in a BMW hit us going 50 mph. My roommate’s car was totaled on the passenger side (thankfully I was not, as the guy missed me by a mere 12 in.).
That was bad enough. But what made the situation even worse was how much of an asshole the guy was. He was a complete jerk. And all I kept thinking was that for the rest of my life, I will remember this guy in the speeding BMW (who made his girlfriend take down everyone’s information) and how mean he was. I don’t believe that I will never be able to think anything good about him.
So this got me thinking … have I let first impressions dictate my views on people? Luckily I had an experiment already in process that would be able to provide me with insight on how shallow I am.
About two months ago, a couple of friends asked me if I could write a piece about elevator encounters. They wanted me to write about those people we were friends with freshman year — but haven’t seen since ABC/No Record permanently placed the storm cloud of isolation over our heads — and how when we end up in elevators with them, it results in painful awkwardness and telepathic arguments. I know this sounds kind of meta, so I’ll give you an example of the kinds of elevator encounters I have been experiencing over the past two months.
Recently I stepped into the elevator closest to LaVerde’s to go to the Tech office on the fourth floor. A guy who was in my freshman year circle stepped in behind me. “Floor five?” I asked. “Yeah, thanks,” he answered. I pressed five and I could feel him peering over at me because … well … we had a little bit of a fling. And I could hear him thinking “I can’t believe I made out with you,” to which I responded, “I can’t believe I made out with you.” Following this exchange, we both proceeded to recount (telepathically) all of our festering notions about each other.
My experiment was to see if I could walk into elevators, look at people I used to know, and eliminate all of my previous conceptions about them. If I was unable let go of my old opinions, I forced myself to engage in thoughtful conversation that lasted for four floors of upward travel. In order to achieve statistical significance in my results, I asked a couple of people to do the same thing.
What the six of us found was that we label people. These “labels” aren’t necessarily bad. A few were things like “guy with good sweaters,” “girl who hung around outside my room,” or “guy who was mean to me.” But what bothered us was that it had been four years since we had labeled these people, and they have all most likely changed in some way. The guy who wore good sweaters might now be into hoodies. The girl who was always around probably spends most of her time at a UROP.
I have changed too. I know I am not the same person I was four years ago, and I cringe thinking about the fact that people still probably think of me as that guitar-playing girl with the obnoxiously long hair.
I am confident my high school reunion will rid me of my labels forever. I hope that people surprise me — that the kids who stood around smoking on the corner become mathematicians and the football players become brain surgeons.
But there is one person whose label will never go away. In my mind, asshole man will forever be an asshole.