We Can’t Undo First Impressions But We Can Be More Compassionate

Nancy Diablo
May 9 · 8 min read
Image Credit: Oleg Magni

We’ve all heard “You never get a second chance to make a first impression.” — But is it fair?

I’ve been on the receiving end of making a bad first impression, and I think this is something a lot of people can relate to. It’s something we all do — judge people in an instant, and yet, it all seems so unfair when it’s applied to us.

When we see someone for the first time it takes seconds to make a judgment by subconsciously analyzing the person’s body language, facial cues, what they say, and how they present themselves.

If you have your arms folded in front of your body you can appear closed off or nervous — putting the other person on edge. If you have your arms by your sides you look more relaxed and self-confident. We also perceive someone as more honest if they look us in the eyes as opposed to avoiding eye contact which we determine is untrustworthy. But should we be trying to combat these natural processes and give people a second chance?

The Time I Made An Awful First Impression

I had been working at a company for over a year and moved teams several times, meaning I had various bosses at different points in time. During my first year, I had a great time. I learned a lot and made some great connections. Despite being somewhat nervous and socially awkward, I managed to form a genuine connection with the teams I worked with and the managers I worked for, I was happy.

My favorite manager during this time was a woman we’ll call Phylis. Phylis had a tiny team of mostly offshore contractors who frequently changed, so most of the time it was just us two. We grew close. She really seemed to get me. Phylis was/is really great at her job and knows how to get things done, but she also understood that having a healthy relationship with her staff would mean they are more likely to come to her when they need help and support.

My journey with Phylis came to an end because of budget constraints in her team and it was time for me to move on to the next team. This is where it all went wrong…

I had been working in this new team for one month when the team’s long term manager returned from an extended absence. Let’s call this new manager Susan. Although Susan was well known to the rest of the team, I’d never met her before and was nervous to do so. We were a large team and I already felt at a disadvantage by not knowing Susan or what she expected, and I was still getting my head around an entirely new role.

The truth is, I shouldn’t have worried so much at this point because it turns out Susan was completely uninterested in me. She sat opposite me on her first day back and briefly introduced herself before blanking me for the rest of the day. Oh well, I thought, I’ll just get on with my work.

I was going through a pretty tough time in my life at this point. Without going into all of the boring and also depressing details, I wasn’t coping well. My brother’s health was declining and my family was chaotic because of it. A few days before Susan came back my long-term partner and I broke up and I was moving back home.

And then I became ill with a stomach virus. It was a 24-hour bug, nothing serious, but the kind where it completely takes over your life while it’s using your body to thrive and you start to curse yourself for not being grateful of your health a few days ago.

It was protocol at this business to email your manager and anyone you would be meeting with that day to let them know you won’t be coming in. I emailed Susan, Susan’s stand-in while she was away, and the people I had meetings with that day. I also let my mentor know.

Towards the end of the day I got a call from my mentor saying Susan was furious I had let everyone else know but her! Didn’t I know she was my manager?

It turns out that Susan’s email address didn’t follow the usual email naming conventions and I’d emailed the wrong person, so she found out I was ill from somebody else.

My Mentor rushed over the next morning to meet with Susan and her anger had only intensified. Susan listed off everything that she felt was wrong with me. She said I was never at my desk, that I was too quiet, that I looked miserable, and that I had undermined her authority.

I remember the desk comment particularly upsetting me because my job involved a crazy amount of meetings, I was working on 6 projects! If she’d checked my calendar my desk absence would have made sense.

I’m miserable? I probably was. As I said, I felt like my life was spiraling at the time and I felt pretty helpless.

My mentor tried to help by explaining what I had been going through, saying that I’ve had excellent feedback from the other people I’ve worked with and this is very much an anomaly and not a reflection of my usual behavior.

None of this did anything to dull her anger. One particularly strange aspect is that she criticized my mentor for revealing that I’m gay. I assume she came up because my mentor said “Nancy has recently broken up with her girlfriend”, rather than “ALSO NANCY IS A LESBIAN”. This was incredibly weird to me because I’ve essentially never been in the closet. I told my parents I liked girls when I was 12 and fortunately for me, it has largely been a non-issue in my life.

I’m not sure what to take from this, but Susan is also gay. She told one of my close work friends and said something to the effect of “I don’t like to broadcast it but if someone asks I’ll tell them.” Evidentally she felt sexuality isn’t something that should be broadcast.

I was hurt, humiliated, and disappointed. The comment Susan made to my mentor made me feel even more alienated from her. Susan was very high up and well respected in the business, a woman in a powerful position — and she was telling me, a fellow lesbian just starting out in my career, to keep quiet about who I am?

When I returned to work I set up a meeting with Susan to apologize in person. And this wasn’t an “I’m sorry, but..” apology. It was a full acknowledgement of my faults and groveling, promising to be better type of apology. But the damage was done. It actually took three attempts before Susan even accepted my meeting request.

I went for coffee with Phylis and told her how badly I messed up and she listened to me with pained eyes and offered to talk to Susan for me. I declined, thinking it would be better if I handled this on my own.

From that point on I was cursed. Any time I asked for help I was told I should already understand the topic and she didn’t have time to help me. Any opportunities granted to others with ease were off limits to me.

It wasn’t long after this that my time at the company came to an end. I’d made some great friends there and I didn’t want to leave so I took one last shot at staying. I told someone senior that I’d be leaving soon, someone I had a good relationship with. He introduced me to the head of another department and sang my praises and this head of department, let us call him John, agreed to meet with me.

The meeting with John is a very fond memory for me. I explained how much I enjoyed working there and how I think I’d be of value in a pipeline project in his team. John listened to me carefully and was kind. He said that he would connect me with the person heading the project so I could start getting a feel for it, but that he couldn’t make any promises.

John also told me that even if this didn’t work out and they couldn’t fit me in, that I shouldn’t worry about the future. He said “By what you’ve said to me now and the fact that you set this up, it shows me that you’ll be fine wherever you go, you just need to be more confident. You’re clearly very capable.”

I think any managers reading should take note of that. The people we work with can really shape who we are and determine our attitude going forward and sometimes a few kind words can stick with you forever, I know John’s will for me.

It didn’t work out though. The person heading the project turned out to be Susan. My heart sank when I released this, but inspired by John’s words, I decided to give it a shot anyway, the worst that could happen is that I lose my job, and I was anyway.

Susan didn’t even entertain the idea. I tried to set up meetings, she declined. She was working at another site at this point so I couldn’t just walk up to her, and she ignored all of my correspondence. Eventually, her boss came up to me and told me that I must be confused by what John said and misunderstood it and I wouldn’t be working on that project. I saw Susan once after this and she immediately averted eye contact.

This isn’t supposed to be a sob story. There are two sides to every story and I’m sure Susan’s side would be very different. I often look back and think about how I could have handled the whole thing differently. I think she was someone who needed me to act a certain way after this incident and I never found out what she wanted. I also think it’s fair to say that I was scared of her, and after being iced out a few times I was considerably more reluctant to have any contact with her which no doubt worsened the situation.

Should We Be Better?

People aren’t perfect, they make mistakes, sometimes big mistakes, and sometimes they are having a bad day. That’s the thing, no one wants to be held to a standard of perfection all the time, so why should we expect it from others.

I think we should allow more room for compassion in our judgments for the first we meet for the first time.

Nancy Diablo

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I write about things that interest me. Science | Technology | True Crime | History | @nancy_diablo