First impression redirected by a single smile

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Column by David B. Whitlock

I was at one of my favorite restaurants, Jason’s Deli, when I noticed the man sitting at another table, eating with his wife and three young children. He was a big, raw-boned, burly guy, who towered over me when I walked by him, both of us on our way to sit down.

He plopped onto his chair, perhaps exhausted from work. I slid into the booth with my wife.

That’s when I took a good look at him. Stern-faced and serious, he cast what seemed like an intimidating aura over his family as they ate together.

On a second trip to the salad bar, I couldn’t help but overhear a piece of his conversation with his oldest boy, who appeared to be about 8 or 9 years old.

“You got three RBIs, but I think you can do even better,” he said, rather gruffly, obviously referring to his son’s youth baseball game.

Immediately, I began creating a personality profile of the man.

“He must be one of those dads,” I thought to myself. You know, the father who pushes his children to excel in sports.

As he sat there at the dinner table with his brow furrowed, his big hand enveloping his fork, which he used with rapid-fire efficiency to attack his food, and his broad shoulders slightly slumped over his plate, I found myself visualizing him at the ballpark, barking orders to his son to throw farther, hit harder and run faster.

Interesting, isn’t it, how quickly we form first impressions. In our mind, we create an image of what someone is like? Based on someone’s facial expression, body language, demeanor and dress we make a quick evaluation.

And, once our opinion is formed, it’s difficult to change it.

Evolutionary psychologists argue that making snap judgments is an evolutionary adaptation necessary for survival: Life or death situations demanded speedy decisions. The prehistoric hunter couldn’t dally before concluding either to run from a wooly mammoth or gather a team of hunters and spear it for dinner. And assembling a team of hunters was itself an evolutionary social development that required quick evaluations.

In his book "link: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking," Malcolm Gladwell, author of "The Tipping Point," concludes: “The only way human beings could ever have survived as a species as long as we have is that we’ve developed another kind of decision-making apparatus that’s capable of making very quick judgments based on very little information.”

Inviting a co-worker over for dinner, for example, is a conscious decision. It’s something we think through. A spontaneous decision to argue with that co-worker is made unconsciously from a different part of the brain.

“Whenever we meet someone for the first time, whenever we interview someone for a job, whenever we react to a new idea, whenever we are faced with making a decision quickly and under stress, we use that second part of the brain,” Gladwell says.

Sizing up that dad, I was forming an instant image of who he was. And imagining him sauntering over to my table and demanding my dessert, that part of my brain that evaluates danger instantly would process the situation - and estimating the size of his arms compared to mine, his large body frame next to my smaller one, a spontaneous decision would be made: Relinquish the dessert, grab my wife and run to the car.

Then something unexpected happened that totally changed my image of this man.

The big guy got up with his wife and kids to leave. For some reason, I glanced at his children and approvingly smiled at them. Then my eyes met his, and in that unspoken communication, one dad connected with another dad, one father - with a daddy-smile to another’s children, spoke to the other dad without saying a word, “I see your precious children and they are beautiful.”

In that moment, his stiff upper lip melted into a soft smile and with his eyes gleaming, it was as if he said, “Thanks, I appreciate that.”

My image of the dad was suddenly transformed from that of a hard-driving, performance-requiring, disciplining-demanding sergeant into a teddy-bear of a papa - a daddy who might invite his kids to sit in his lap while he read Winnie the Pooh, a guy who could break into a grin, and nodding in agreement to my smile, whisper, “Aren’t kids great?”

It happened, all in an instant.

First impressions can’t be avoided. But they aren’t always right. And when we are willing to take a second or third, longer look -and maybe flash a sincere smile - our whole perception can change for the better.

David B. Whitlock, Ph.D., is a Marion County resident and an instructor at Campbellsville University. He can be reached at drdavid@davidbwhitlock.com