What can a first impression tell us about anyone? Why no more than a chord can tell us about Beethoven or a brushstroke about Botticelli. By their very nature, human beings are so capricious, so complex, so delightfully contradictory, that they deserve not only our consideration but our reconsideration – and our unwavering determination to withhold our opinion until we have engaged with them in every possible setting at every possible hour.
-Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov (A Gentleman in Moscow)
I wrote the quote down as soon as I read it. I like it, but it’s a bit extreme and unrealistic to devote so much of our time to getting to know an individual. And it would have to apply to everyone we meet, right? Does everyone deserve that much of our time? According to his statement, we wouldn’t know if they were worth our time until we met with them in every possible setting at every possible hour. But still, I get it.
Count Rostov is referring to a judgment he made about a young woman he encountered in a hotel lobby. Later, while having dinner with her, he decided he wanted to retract his initial impression, based on new knowledge he gained about her childhood … well, that and his attraction to her.
In the end, his first impression was credible, but when we know a person’s backstory, we tend to be more accepting of their quirks.
To the Count’s credit, it’s not just first impressions that can be wrong. To know a person, we have to spend time with them. Otherwise, we like or dislike a part of who they are, and that’s all we know. There is emotion tied to action and we can’t possibly understand where each emotion of another person comes from. Usually, we don’t even understand our own.
I like to know what makes a person who they are. Whether we like each other or not, I like to understand them. Most people are willing to tell their story if they know your interest is genuine. And that’s the thing – I genuinely want to understand. Even if our personalities conflict, if I understand them, I can work with them.
Listen but Listen Wisely
If the goal is to understand, it is better to listen than to speak. Well, it is for me anyway.
We get to know people by listening to them but also by watching them and definitely by understanding that not everything we hear and see is what is meant.
Our interpretation of their meaning is altered not only by our own emotions based off of personal experiences, but it’s also hindered by the things we don’t know about the person speaking.
I have been accused of jumping to seemingly random topics many times in conversations. But the topics are all connected in my train of thought. One thing leads to another, and to me, it all moves right along. But to someone who doesn’t know me or doesn’t follow my train of thought, it might seem jumpy and disconnected.
Even when experiences are put into words, the other person is only hearing a piece of the story. Without context, misunderstanding is certain. I know that I leave out backstory sometimes, so I try to remember that if I don’t understand someone else’s story, I’m probably missing part of it.
If you don’t like who you are, change, but then be that person. I would say be 100% you 100% of the time, but that’s probably going overboard. There are usually reasons to filter thoughts in becoming words in various situations, but if you are looking to build any level of relationship with another person, whether as a friend, co-worker, more, or less, you have to be you or else whatever relationship you build is false.
Personally, I reveal myself in layers, but every layer is a real part of who I am. I’ve had people express surprise at my outstanding sense of humor (shocking, right?). They initially assume I’m a more serious person simply because I don’t say a lot when I first meet someone. I don’t say a lot because I listen first. I want to know who you are before I give myself away.
But once I get you, I have more to say. Sometimes that’s a good thing and sometimes it isn’t.
All of that to say – some personalities don’t mesh well together and that’s just life. That doesn’t mean you can’t get along, it just means you can know that and work around it.
But, I think the moral of the quote and this post is really just that the one thing we can always be sure of is that we don’t really know anybody. #AlwaysEndOnAHighNote