We are all judges.
One can try to stay open-minded, but inevitably they will judge and draw conclusions about every person that they meet.
In the wild, animals are hardwired to make quick judgments about predators and prey to survive. And in many ways humans do the same. Whether it is when you see a man walking towards you at night in an unfamiliar neighborhood, or when you are at sitting across the table interviewing a recruit looking for a job, you are actively assessing, measuring and judging people. It is human nature for us to draw conclusions about those around us.
For every person we meet each of us collects data, looks for patterns, and then uses that information to make judgments.
The key in the above sentence though is about collecting the data. Once you realize the way people are seeing you, then you can improve your relationships and interactions with those around you through getting better control and awareness of the signals you are projecting.
When it comes to human relationships it helps to think of each one as a filmstrip, or series of Polaroid pictures. Every time you interact with someone it generates another picture in the sequence. And lots of things are interactions – emails, conversations, meals, or even someone talking about you (and these interactions you have no control over!). Each one of these interactions adds another frame, or data point.
The more frames a person has about you, the more likely their view is more balanced. However, if a person has only heard about you, seen you, or met you once – then they have a very small sample set of information to determine their opinion of you.
Do you know someone who you have never met before but you think they are awful, a jerk, or worse?
Why do you feel this way about someone you don’t know?
Chances are it is because you have read or heard something negative about them. If you met them and spent time with them, it is entirely possible you might not think they are so bad. And if you spent a week with them, you may even grow to like them (now it is also possible you could grow to hate them too – but at least you would be doing so based on your interactions, not heresy and gossip).
Now think about the source of the information that colored your opinion of the “awful” person. Why do you trust that source?
Chances are if you have a strong relationship (which, in this analogy means a film strip with plenty of frames) with the person who shared this information with you then it is likely you believe what they said. Whereas, if the person who told you something was someone you had only known a short time, or you didn’t have a strong enough relationship to completely trust their judgment, then maybe you think that person “could be” a jerk, but you would be more open to figuring out that yourself given the circumstances.
As a source, your relationships can impact your messages to others.
And the opinions of those around you impact your judgements; and more so the closer you are to the source of the opinions.
This has many implications to relationships, work, and first impressions.
Being nice to everyone is important
You really should be nice to everyone you meet, in person, over email, and even on the Internet.
The world is small (Facebook verified people are really only 6 degrees apart) and so everyone you meet may know, or interact with, a person who could be your future coworker, family member, or customer. And if the people you now know and encounter don’t have the best impression of you, then don’t you worry that may hurt or hinder your future opportunities or relationships?
Here is a personal example:
When I interviewed for a position, it turned out that one of the existing employees on the team (who was on the interview loop) had met me when he interviewed with me at my previous company. If I had been a jerk in the interview process, and tried to make myself feel smart by making the candidate feel stupid (something that too many interviewers do – even at great companies), I am sure he would have encouraged the company not to make me an offer. I had limited interactions with him – one interview – but it carried weight and affected his opinion of me later.
Have you thought about how all your interactions with vendors, candidates, recruiters, waitresses, customer service staff, and even the kid bagging your groceries could affect your life down the line? Could it cost you a job offer? Or maybe it would help you get a leg up over the other candidates?
There is really no reason you can’t choose to make all your interactions positive and favorable.
First impressions really matter
Hopefully you get the idea that being nice and polite to others is important. But it is also important to make good first impressions, not just by how you conduct yourself and what you say, but by the way you look and carry yourself.
Earlier in my life when I was heavier and had no money, I didn’t care much for fashion, or even looking nice. Growing up we would each get $5 to buy all of our school clothes at the Goodwill – I hadn’t really owned new never-been-worn clothing until I was a teenager, except for a few rare occasions when someone bought us a gift. I would often wear fanciful clothes, but I never put in much effort. I picked things based on comfort would never wear high heels (and I didn’t start wearing makeup until I was 25). When I was younger the other children would tease me for my outfits, but I was such a misfit it didn’t really bother me. However, in my 20s when the guys liked and wanted to date wouldn’t even look in my direction, I started to realize that my tomboy I-don’t-care-what-I-look-like appearance was impacting my personal life and desires.
I started making changes; I lost weight and started dressing better. And the craziest thing was people started treating me better.
For years I had spouted that one should judge people on who they are and how they act, not on how they look. My utopian desires were in part because that was how I tried to see others, but I am sure part of that came from the insecurity around my looks and weight. As much as I wish the world was like that – or like Shallow Hal, where the looks were reflective of what was inside – the reality is that you are judged and you will continue to be judged.
The good news is that you can take control and improve the way you perceived. You can put an effort into your appearance and try to look better, so that when you meet someone the first frame of their film strip won’t be “wow, she really doesn’t take care of herself.”
Applying this concept more strategically
Okay so you get that first impressions matter and that there is value in being nice to people. Let’s extend this concept a bit further because it is actually quite powerful in other situations.
Your online presence
As you are reading this blog post what do you think of me as a person? Do I seem likable or a jerk? Now the more blog posts you read here, the more conviction and confidence you will have in your opinion on what I am like as a person. So now assume we meet in person, and I look put together and am polite and kind, hopefully reinforcing your impression of me.
Now I imagine that I ask you for a favor – are you likely to help me? Probably, right?
Now imagine I am applying for a job at your company. Would you be more or less inclined to hire me over other people?
Now imagine you met someone new, and they said they knew me and I was a real jerk. How much would you believe them?
My blog is essentially my place to project my image, to showcase who I am, and to have an impact on the conclusions and judgments people make about me.
If I were considering hiring you and Googled you, look up your Facebook, LinkedIn profile, Hacker News alias, or personal website would I be more or less inclined to make to you an offer? What if I found nothing about you, but I found something about another candidate that was positive, could it cost you the opportunity?
Commiserating & negative talk
If there were one thing I could change about myself it would be to add a 5 second delay between the time I think something and say something. Seriously, I put my foot in my mouth and say 100 things a day I wish I’d kept to myself.
One of the things I had to learn the hard way though (and I hope you don’t) is not to say something negative about other people – no matter what. And this is especially true for people you have to see on a regular basis, like coworkers and your boss.
If you talk badly about someone else 2 things happen:
- You create a negative Polaroid in the relationship of the person with whom you are talking about and the person you are talking to about them. This means that it can negatively impact their relationship.
- You are creating a negative Polaroid in your relationship with the person with whom you are talking. They know that you will bad mouth someone else, which erodes their trust in you, and moreover if you change your mind, or have to interact with that other person in front of them (and your actions don’t appear genuine), then that can erode your trust further.
In one conversation you have damaged 2 relationships. And potentially can damage you confidant’s trust even more if you change or mind, or if the person changes their behavior and you are no longer troubled by their actions.
For example, imagine that you commiserate with your coworker about your boss. You say that she is terrible and isn’t doing her job because a project isn’t going smoothly. Your coworker listens, maybe offers advice, or maybe throws into the conversation more criticism (and you may or may not agree). Fast forward 6 months, your boss receives a promotion because the project that seemed like it was going poorly launched successfully, and it turns out your boss was doing a ton of work to keep things on track (which you may or may not realize). Now she has to pick her replacement and you want the role.
What happens if you get it and your old coworker is now working for you? How can you be aligned with her and work on your team goals if your team doesn’t think you trust her? What does your coworker think of your judgment since the project obviously turned out well? How will your boss feel about it if your coworker happens to mention your opinions of her? It sure seems like this one conversation could backfire in all sorts of ways.
Now imagine that your boss was given the feedback about the project and made a bunch of changes as soon as she was aware it was a problem, and everything was back on track. Would that change your opinion? Are you planning on going back to your coworker and retract your negative statements? Most likely you won’t since admitting you were wrong kind of sucks. And likely that aforementioned promotion – it is probably going to go to the person on her team who trusted her enough to give her that feedback directly so she could make a change.
People can change.
Circumstances can change.
Your opinions are based on assumptions and incomplete information, and could change with additional data.
Trust is based on integrity and consistency.
Don’t talk negatively about people if you can help it. Give them the feedback directly.
Mending damaged relationships
Chances are there is a person in your life (either at work or personal) that you wish you had a better relationship. Maybe you fell victim to gossip, or maybe you were terse and caustic during a disagreement. Whatever the root cause of the damage, it is still within your power to fix it (well unless you did something really horrible like killed their puppy). In fact improving relationships is one of the best things you can do to improve your happiness – and it is easier than you think.
So if relationships are like filmstrips, and in a damaged one you may have a few bad frames. The best thing you can do is to create more positive ones. Fixing bad impressions is hard, if not impossible. Admitting you were wrong, taking responsibility, and trying to correct mistakes though, are good ways to create new positive frames. If you can’t make amends (like maybe things weren’t your fault, or you already tried) then try to find ways to interact positively with the other person. You can also email them a link or article of something you know that interests them with a note (which is a totally non-confrontational, even-the-most-socially-awkward-people-can-do-this tactic).
And hopefully given enough time and positive frames you can start to improve your relationships and interactions – rebuilding the burned (or slightly charred) bridge.
Being a technologist and rational thinker I like to think of things in numbers, templates and patterns. Learning to see relationships as a series of interactions (like a filmstrip or set of polaroids) and then taking the initiative to create more positive and authentic impressions has worked well to improve my interactions with others.
Do you have other ideas that help? Or do you totally disagree with me?
Do you have other examples of how to use these techniques to improve relationships?
If so, please include your opinions or any resources related to the topic in the comments.