First Impressions, Prejudgments, and Stereotypes

I have thought for a long while that first impressions are often wrong, prejudging people is bad, and stereotypes are inaccurate. I’m also very good at making prejudgments and stereotyping on the basis of first impressions. Hypocritical? Yes. Avoidable? Not so much.
We had a very interesting activity today in my communication class. Each student was given a list of possible characteristics or experiences of our classmates (Who do you think attends a professional play or opera several times a year? Who looks like they have run a marathon? Who looks like they know how to plant potatoes?) and a sticky note with a number on it. We then spread out against the perimeter of the room and stuck our numbers above our heads. At that point, we looked around the room at our classmates and wrote their number next to the characteristic they each looked like they might fit. It’s a large class, and most of us do not know each other, so these judgments were based solely off of looks and surface-level impressions.
When all of us had finished the exercise, our teacher named a characteristic from the list and asked several students what number they had written down. If a number was repeated several times, our teacher would stop, ask who had the number that had been repeated, and if the characteristic fit them. Many people came to the same conclusions, but few students were actually characterized by anything their classmates judged them to be like.
The point of this exercise was to show that good communicators cannot make hasty judgments or go by stereotypes because we often misjudge people based on a first impression. We cannot be sympathetic or active listeners to someone about whom we have already made conclusions. Instead, we become biased. Everything a person says is interpreted based on our prejudgment if we allow that to control how we think about an individual.
I’m not saying that first impressions aren’t important. The fact is, while first impressions and prejudgments can be replaced, they are unavoidable. We will always make prejudgments and hold to stereotypes because it is human nature to do so. However, first impressions are not everything. How many times have you changed your opinion of someone simply because you found that your original impression of them was wrong? It has happened to me on multiple occasions.
I was especially struck by how important this concept is to a Christian when it comes to witnessing. How many times have you decided against sharing the gospel because someone didn’t look like they would respond well?
I’m speaking to myself as much as to anyone else. We tend to base so much off of appearance, body language, and general first impressions, but we are commanded to share the gospel with every creature. Whether that person is going to respond to the Word or not is the Holy Spirit’s call, not ours.