fighting for fitting first phrases

First sentences are the writing equivalent of first impressions – you have only a few seconds to gain the attention of another, and so there is a lot of pressure on getting it right. Every time I sit down to write something, whether it be recreationally, for class or for the internet, I agonise over what the initial hook should be. It needs to be snappy, but it needs to be clear what I am writing about. I want to sound intelligent, provocative and funny – but all in one sentence. It’s such a daunting task.

First impressions in social situations are the same. You have approximately 5 seconds to impress your beauty, intelligence and wit upon the other person, before their judgement is made. And I’m pretty sure there have been studies which prove that first impressions form a great portion of our impressions of someone.

Of course, there’s a reason this is so. As my marketing lecturer delights in pointing out to us students, we are all cognitive misers. We don’t want to have to think. In fact, it’s ingrained into the human psyche to make shortcuts (that’s why stereotyping and the linking of concepts exist). In our lives, we already have enough to think about, without consciously analysing the attributes of a person and consistently re-evaluating our perception of them in an active manner over time. So we make a quick judgement within 5 seconds on whether we want to spend more time on them, and maybe put some thought or effort into developing the relationship. Of course, they are doing the same.

It makes me wonder what kind of first impression I leave. Of course, it changes with each interaction, depending on the context and the mood I’m in. Some people initially think of me as stuck up because I am too shy to talk, others think I’m really quiet. I guess what stands out most would be my glasses when I wear them, or, yes, most probably my tendency to withdraw around people I don’t know.

Sometimes the judgements we make about others can be harsh, but it’s not always our fault for this. I’d say it’s a 50/50 split, where in that 5 seconds they’ve shown you some less than admirable behaviour (like not saying a word or making any eye contact as I do) and you’ve bought into your instantaneous judgement too quickly.

So while it’s useful to have these shortcuts so that they free our minds for greater things, I think we definitely need to be wary of how much our evaluation of people is influenced by the first impression we get.

Then maybe it wouldn’t be so stressful to meet new people, and we’d see their good traits coming through earlier in the acquaintance. And the same with writing; after all we’re told not to judge a book by its cover, so why judge a piece of writing by 20 words?

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