Monday, October 15, 2007

Instant impressions

So it turns out that some people in the US office of my company believe that Singapore is a remote village in China where there are no computers, people do not speak English, and offices are up on trees with telephone cables dangling from them. Okay, that was a bit drastic, but you get the point. In fact, during a teleconference, one of my American colleagues very diplomatically asked me if I was familiar with the concept of a fax machine. Fighting all urge to say, "Fax machine? What's that? I don't have one in my tree, sorry." I assured him that we did indeed have a fax machine in the office.

It was very interesting - in the last decade, I have on many occasions found myself explaining and justifying India and all things Indian to people here who had a certain weird impression of it. The questions and statements I faced were of all kinds - whether elephants formed part of India's public transportation system, whether dowry was compulsory, whether my caste disowned me for marrying outside of it, whether Indian offices have air-conditioning, and what not. It was therefore a pleasant surprise when I realised that there are certain people out there in the world who have impressions of Singapore similar to what certain Singaporeans have of India.

And I started to think of impressions. First impressions. Last impressions. Lasting impressions. Instant impressions. Every time we say or do something, someone is forming an impression of us. Someone is judging us, thinking of us in a certain way, and we may not have the good fortune of being able to undo it. Ever.

My company has been hiring a lot of new people lately, and every time a resume from my ex-company pops up, my boss forwards it to me and asks me what my impression of the candidate was. It is a lot of pressure because what I say can invariably alter the chances of a candidate making or breaking it. At times I came across resumes where I did not really know, or had not worked closely with the candidate, but had vaguely interacted, and had somewhat of an impression of them. Too cynical. Surfs the net too much. Disturbs colleagues too much. Is frequently late. Takes faux medical leave. Fools around too much.

And it set me thinking - back then all of these people had no idea that some day I would be looking at their resumes and passing up my judgement to my manager. Was I even in a position to judge them? At times I felt that I was. It was work after all - and I would not want to hire anyone with the above traits - at least not for my team. At other times, I felt like I was forming instant impressions in my mind without giving them a real chance. And I wondered if people I have worked or interacted with have/had certain impressions of me which may not affect me now, but may prove to be a critical point in my life some day in the future. It was a very very stressful thought.

A few months ago, one of my blog readers whom I'd shared some cordial emails with, told me she had downloaded a picture of baby Aish from my blog and was using it as her desktop wallpaper. I was quite shocked as I was sure my sister would not approve of anyone using her baby's picture as their desktop wallpaper. So I asked the person to remove the picture. A few weeks later, she sent me another email asking for permission to make a collage of baby Aish's pictures. I told her that no matter how close she felt to me or Aish, her obsession with Aish was making me uncomfortable and I requested her to delete all Aish's pictures from her hard disk. Things turned ugly over a chain of emails, as I accused her of using my niece's pictures without permission, and she accused me of accusing her of stalking my niece. Till date, I can't figure out which one of us was wrong. Maybe neither was. It was just one of the things that just happen to people. But what I do know is that we went our own ways thinking each one of us was right, and forming certain impressions of each other. I would really like to patch up, but I figure we've moved on and are on totally different pages now. Trying anything would make it messier than it is, so it's best for both of us to just each other be. Of course I was partly to blame for putting up pictures of Aish on the blog. So I pulled out all the posts with pictures of her even though they were supposed to be my gift to her for her 13th birthday. Amazing how your impression of someone you have never met can be such a lasting one.

I recently had a tiff with a friend of mine who had the impression that I had a certain impression about him which in fact I did not. And I wondered if it was his impression of himself that he was trying to superimpose over my impression of him to prove himself right? It just got too confusing and I decided to shut my mouth and not make statements that could imply that I had formed an impression of someone when I hadn't. Till you completely open up with a friend, you can't tell what he is thinking. And in a formal setting like Singapore, no matter how close you think you are to someone, sometimes it's better to keep your mouth shut. Henceforth, I have maintained a very formal and diplomatic relationship with this friend. It's not something I like very much, but it's better than the mental distress both of us went through.

Tonight, someone Viv knows dropped by for a quick software lesson from him. I was in my teeny weekend shorts, and I didn't bother to change. His 'student' turned up in a salwar kameez and had vibhuti lines on her forehead. Whoa, maybe I should have changed, I thought. The entire time that she was there, I wondered if she was disapproving of me and the way I was dressed. But then I also wondered if it was my imagination, and tried to avoid forming an instant impression of her. Turns out she had made an instant impression of me. As she left, she gave me a 'look' and with a proud smile said, "You should come home for dinner sometime. I cook." Holy cow. What made her think I didn't? She had barely spoken to me! At first I thought it was in my head, but even Viv said he was offended with her 'Oh-you-wear-teeny-shorts-so-you-can't-cook' tone. I wanted to grab her hand and pull her into my kitchen and dunk her face in the matar paneer I had made for Viv and myself (but could not have because her goddam software lesson was so long), but like many other moments, I resisted. Sometimes it's just better to let it go. Especially when you have nothing concrete to base your hypothesis on. There is no point trying to undo something that may or may not be there in someone's mind. And even if some people do think of you in a certain way, what are you going to do about it? How are you going to hunt these people down and how are you going to make them change their minds? How many people are you going to worry about?

That's the problem with impressions – you have no idea how and when you contribute to someone thinking of you in a certain way. Sometimes you don't even actively contribute towards what someone thinks of you. Someone somewhere is always judging you, and you can't help it. And the truth is - no matter how strong we are - all of us at one point in time or the other, do tend to get affected by the who's-thinking-what syndrome. Yes, some impressions do help us become better people and even shape our own impressions of ourselves, but if we started taking each of them seriously, we're only setting ourselves up for misery.

The strangest thing is - the ideal solution to avoid all this stress and distress is a simple one in theory, but extremely complicated to carry out in practice.

Do not care about what impression someone has of you; worry only about what impression you have of yourself.


VR said...

i dont think its as easy as not worrying about others' impressions. its better to use something like an occam's razor (not sure if its a good analogy) and ignore those who dont matter and consider those who matter (in ur case definitely not the almost head-dunked-in-matar-paneer-girl). i know this does not exactly sound like a nice thing to do but thats how it is. ok now i am curious wot impression do u have of me after reading this??.

Aborigine said...

whats wrong in someone making a collage.Imagine the no. of people who could have downloaded it w/o ur permission.Such risks do exist when you put up easily downloadable pics.Atleast tht person ws decent in letting you know.

BP said...

Hmmmm this makes me wanna send in my resume, just so I can find out if I'd make the (your?) cut. Heheh :P

Sakshi said...

I agree with your last statement - You can never be perfect for everybody. And not everyone will have the correct impression of you. So the best thing to do would be to be happy with your image of yourself. You have to live with yourself, the rest of the people only have to get along with you.

Sudipta Chatterjee said...

Very well-thought post, bhai! I too remember having explained to someone in Scotland that we indeed have pucca houses and we live with proper paved roads and all. :)

Am linking this post from Blogbharti!

nycbewda said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
nycbewda said...

Dont you think.
Impressions -> living up to that expectations, have there influence on our life style.

Sayesha said...

Hmmm... interesting, but I think the problem with doing that is that sometimes it is not that easy to make a clear distinction about whose impression matters and whose doesn't.

//ok now i am curious wot impression do u have of me after reading this??.

Nice try, don't even go there! :D

Hi, welcome back to my blog! :)
Well, she did not seek permission for the desktop wallpaper (I found out during a casual conversation) so I wasn't already happy about that. And then the collage thing happened. How would you like it if someone you barely know has a collage of your kid (or nephew or niece) as their desktop wallpaper?

//Such risks do exist when you put up easily downloadable pics.

I totally agree that I was partly to blame. That's why I stopped putting up Aish's pictures on the blog, and pulled out all the posts on her even though they were supposed to be my gift to her for her 13th birthday.

Haha! Do not try to trap me, woman! There are a lot of other people in the office who also get resumes forwarded to them for 'impressions'. :P

//You have to live with yourself, the rest of the people only have to get along with you.

Ah. Wise words. :)

Thanks dear! :)

I totally agree. Not just our lifestyle, but also our own impression of ourselves. But sometimes you don't know where to stop worrying about what they think and start worrying about what you think. It's complicated. Sigh.

shub said...

Loved this post, Sash. Used to find myself judging people based on first impressions - glad to say that doesn't happen much now :) I'm quick to pass judgments on those that pass judgments now! Hehe!

aequo animo (advocatus diaboli) said...

Profound, Sayesha!, Profoundly funny!!.

Ab said...

well, jus thought of this question I had when i first read yr blog, is the copyright thing at the bottom of yr blog a real one, or is it just a scarecrow?

Shashikant said...


To me, this problem, somebody judging me, with or without my knowledge is not such a big concern. My real concern is me judging others (except the cases where I have to, like recruitment.) YMMV.

I have been guilty of judging people in past. Not to say, I don't do it now, but my brain automatically flags it when I try to. The images I formed about somebody in few random moments turned out to be so wrong that guilt and shame haunted me. Turned out I was losing way too much.

The result of not indulging in what's-my-view-about-him/her activity is very different and pleasant.

Sandew said...

Other people exist for my entertainment.
At least that's the view i like to hold.

Sayesha said...

Thanks! :)

//Used to find myself judging people based on first impressions

Tell me about it. I still have trouble not doing it! :/

Profoundly funny? That's an interesting term. :P Er... Thanks? :)

Hahaha! Why, which post do you wanna flick? :P

I can totally identify with that feeling! Sometimes I get so judgemental I feel sick! But I'm working on it and I'm glad it isn't as bad as it used to be. :)

Hahaha! That's an interesting perspective on this. :P

satish said...

sayesha bhai, aap GAWD ho. main bhi GAWD hun. we are the ones who judge people and punish them accordingly for their sins.

anyway, i think impressions are not that important. they can be changed any minute.

Harshi said...

Great post Sash. Yeah you are right! Everyone everywhere is probably forming an opinion, and we don't have much control really unless we are meeting someone on a day to day basis and then we have a way to show them our different sides. This post is a good reminder for us to not jump to conclusions about anyone and to see a particular case as perhaps something that happened in that particular context or circumstance. And gosh, I understand how you must have felt with the salwar-kameez girl...guess you could have said "Hey you should come over sometime too!" and perhaps mention a dish (maybe with a complicated name) :-))

I think it's very human to care about what's other think about us, and it is good to be careful where it really matters but at the same time, it shouldn't consume us. I am going off here...sorry :-).

Karen said...

Thanks for this post sayesha! It rings many chords with me, as I used to care so much about what others thought of me that I neglected the things that should really matter. Sometimes it's just good to let it go yar....

Kalpana said...

I guess the key is to stay objective. We often interpret things/people in a way that might not be true at all. But its always healthy to LET GO :-)

rt said...

hey gud post...
as it is said: u never get a second chance to make a first impression- means first impressions do matter, but one shud be open minded to accept the second and third impressions as well... be careful to avoid giving wrong impressions to right people ;)

Bivas said...

Forming opinions is anyday better than no-opinion at all...even if our fist impression about something/somebody is wrong, eventually we do realize that. That's what makes us human. Realizing our faults probably makes us know our own weaknesses and makes us a better form opinions but just don't stick to them/be rigid enuff to not be able to see the other side!
just my 2 paise [(rupee is appreciating so no pence/cents ;-)] on the matter :-)

The Ghost In Everyone's Life said...

Interesting post...
I personally disagree with the final solution though. One is perfectly capable of managing public impressions about oneself (precedent: I'm talking of smart people) and one puts that to practice every once in a while (read often at work and general whenever we are aiming for something we really want). The question is that whether we'd want to do it or not. It seems to be okay sometimes to don the "I don't care" approach". There are certain perils associated with the "I don't care" approach, or may be not. The gentleman who put up the "fax in singapore" question to you left an impression on you. 'Ignorant' would be the word. But, then he probably can afford to be ignorant when talking to you. (Americans have found themselves multiple reasons anyway to be ignorant about much else... my impression of them, hehe) I'm sure he can't afford that when talking to his CEO. He will be into impression-management then.
My personal opinion is that whenever given a chance to justify oneself, one should always make the most of it. A civilized human being can definitely be very convincing. It is only futile having a belief-system when you can't convince others about what you stand for. I know people can be very difficult but that only means that you'll take a lil extra time to get through to them. The humans after all have learnt to communicate even to animals (dogs, dolphins...), let alone other humans. The only things required are knowing their language, some energy and and some time. (I know time is of essence and we all don't seem to have it... but if we can have the time to blog, we can also have it for a few other things)

Sudeep said...

didn't come earlier to comment on this but i was having a bad day the other day coz of something which i took for granted and formed an impression.. but ur post made me think on my stand and i shld thank u for this post helping me to go thro the day

Sudeep said...

btw matar paneer khaye hue bahut din ho gaye.. shld ask mom to cook n teach me as well

Stone said...

Well, whatever one says, in back of mind everyone judges everyone and create some sort of image of other person!!

So IMHO 'I don't care' is not the best approach every time.

So,it all comes down to how you behave/act in different conditions/environments.
With friends we act differently, with mere acquaintances we act differently.

It's not about 'acting', it about sensible balancing act(which anyways mind does automatically).

All crap!!

As far Amruus are concerned they are like ID 10 T bugs.

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