Getting to Know Them

A number of years ago I saw a social psychology experiment in which people were shown film clips of job applicants walking into a room and shaking the hand of their interviewer. That was it. No soundtrack, no clue what the job was or even the candidate's professional background. The viewers of these three or four second film clips were then asked to select the candidate they would hire. Amazingly, the results correlated with the selections of the actual interviewers to a high degree. In other words, the old saw about first impressions really is true.

Unfortunately, I am, for whatever reason, constitutionally incapable of forming accurate first impressions. If I meet people who seem pleasant and agreeable, they will inevitably turn out to be spiteful, mingy no-goodniks. Similarly, if I had met Mother Theresa, I'd no doubt have thought to myself, "What's this old bag's problem?" I just get it wrong every time. Even if I try to outsmart myself and assume the opposite of my first impression, I will still be wrong. I recall meeting my wife--a woman of breathtaking good sense--and thinking she was some crunchy-chewy airhead. I could not have been more wrong.

There is an upside to my ineptitude, however. It's made me wary of first impressions. In fact, I usually refrain from making any judgments about people until I've known them for a while. The same thing is true for my classes. I may think that a group of students will be great or a challenge, but I am almost always wrong. The chirpiest first day class session can become the three hours every week that leeches energy from me and causes me dread at the sight of the classroom door. On the other hand, I've had a bunch of silent, careworn seeming first-day students make for a wonderful semester. I just never know. So I really have no idea how this semester will go.

I never do.

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