Tuesday, September 4, 2012
First Impressions Are Overrated
There. I said it. First impressions are overrated. Now that's twice. However, there's a catch.
What we choose to focus on when first meeting someone makes all the difference. In other words, because people often pay attention to the flash during first encounters, what they glean is kind of useless. This is why the whole focus on "chemistry" above all else approach to dating is big trouble. Because wanting hot attraction with someone who is a stranger nearly always leads to overlooking the more subtle aspects of the other person. Which leads you to overrate your connection, and overrate the potential for a relationship to really work over the long run.
A few years ago, I had a brief fling with a woman who, when we first met, I thought was a good match. We had a magnetic kind of attraction. She was smart. Funny. Shared a lot of common interests with me. Etc. All those base-level things people ramble on about wanting in their online dating profiles. I went into subsequent dates with her having focused on those elements, and thus failed to notice - for a little while - the rest of the picture. That she was emotionally all over the place. That she was controlling. That she wasn't terribly kind or willing to listen to opinions that were different from her own. And that she really didn't have any passion around social issues or life's big questions.
As this other side of her unfolded before me, for a short time I justified staying with her because I was blinded by the physical attraction, and also placed too much importance on common interests that actually wound up to be superficial connections. Both liking poetry a lot didn't really matter. Liking similar music really didn't matter. An interest in travel really didn't matter. Both working in the non-profit field really didn't matter. That last one, I think, fooled me into believing she was someone who thrived on helping others, and giving back to the community. When the reality was that it was just another job for her.
But that's what happens when your focus is on the more superficial aspects of life and relationships. You hear something that sounds like a connection, and then in your mind turn it into a "deep connection," an oh my god this person is my soul mate kind of connection. It's pretty silly if you think about it, and I don't know anyone who hasn't done a bit of this in their lives. However, for some people, this mode of operation is the only one they ever do.
When you choose to focus on the more subtle, but I'd argue deeper aspects of a person in the beginning, it's much more likely that a first impression will be more useful. Here are some things I look for, just to give some examples:
Good listening skills.
A sense of compassion. Like if she's describing a difficult situation at work, what do the comments about particular co-workers sound like? How much blame and criticism is directed at any particular person?
Values compatibility. For example, as I hinted at above, it's really important to me to be with someone who cares about social issues, and feels compelled to do something that might make the world a better place. In other words, social engagement. Like volunteer in the community. Or be involved in a lobbying effort on a particular issue. If someone has no interest in social engagement on some level, then I might not be a good match for that person. So, it's really important to figure out what values you have, which ones are deal breakers, and then to pay attention to what values the other person seems to be displaying. This is one of those areas that can unfold pretty slowly, and is why the rushed dating culture that has developed in recent decades is kind of troubling.
Sense of humor. This one might seem shallow, but actually I think it's pretty key. People who can't laugh at life, at least a little bit, are pretty miserable partners. (Unless you also have no sense of humor, in which case, misery loves company, right? :)
Breadth of interests. Although I still lean towards dating someone who likes similar things as I do, what I have realized is more important is that the person have a wide variety of interests. A well-roundedness. Which leads to the last quality I look for.
An openness to lifelong learning. Wanting to keep learning about life and world is pretty sexy to me. And I also think that it demonstrates an openness and flexibility that spills over into other areas as well.
So, what do you think?