Have you ever wondered what other people think of you? Of course you have – we all have. Some of us care more than others, but who could honestly say they’ve never given a thought to how other people perceive them?
In the past couple of days near strangers have told me exactly that: how they saw me. Try as I might to tell myself that I shouldn’t care, I do. Speaking in airy-fairy terms, our ‘aura’ is what strangers perceive within the first few moments of meeting us. It is important when we want to make an impression, be that ‘authoritative’, ‘happy’, ‘cool’ or anything else.
Getting a stranger’s first impressions of you is relatively easy. Strangers have no stake in your life, your wounded feelings are of comparatively little interest to them. They can say anything, walk away, and never see you again.
Last night, on my way home from work, a man I’d never seen before stopped me as I got off the tube at Baker Street, and asked me about the book I was reading. I’m totally engrossed in this novel, and have almost completely devoured it in just a few days, so I was more than happy to talk. I told the stranger the plot of Sweet Tooth, how it was about a Cold War-era MI5 agent whose mission is to recruit up-and-coming writers, in order to build a cultural resistance to communism. We got talking about books and writing, and I learned that he was writing a novel. Initially wary of telling me his story, in case I stole the idea, he then began to tell me about the characters and the plot.
We sat on a bench by the platform for fifteen minutes, discussing our writing. It was bizarre, for me, to be talking to a stranger on the underground. I must confess, my initial reaction to being approached was to assume it was a trick; while he was distracting me, an accomplice would come along and grab my bag. Perhaps I’d just got too involved in my MI5 story.
Towards the end of our conversation the man told me he thought I had a “positive energy”. Now, I’m not one who makes a habit of talking about ‘auras’ or ‘energy’, so don’t dismiss me completely here. My point is less about what was said, and more the fact that this person had formed an impression of me within fifteen minutes. Whatever he thought of me, he thought something.
A similar thing happened at work today. Someone from a different department is currently working in my team. We’d never met before, and have been working in the same room for three days. While discussing what jobs we’d like to do ‘when we grow up’ my colleague said that he had the impression that I was a creative person. Not such a terrible thing to say, you might think.
Immediately, though, I started reeling through the three days we’d spent working together. What on earth had I said that had led him to form this view? As far as I could remember he’d asked me about various accounting policies, technical points and mathematical problems. Some I’d been able to answer easily, some I’d had to refer him to a senior colleague. By ‘creative’ did he actually mean ‘not good at accountancy’, I wondered. After all, creativity is almost anathema to this profession. Had my maths been so poor that he was using ‘creative’ as a euphemism?
I couldn’t think of a single thing I’d mentioned that would give him this impression. We’d barely mentioned our lives outside of work at all. The only thing I could remember telling him of my private life was that I’d been for a curry on Tuesday night…
I suppose I must have done or said something to give the impression he’d gained, although it was a totally subconscious effort on my part. How many things do we say or do, without realising, to give total strangers an insight into our personality or lives? How many times do we meet someone new, give out an impression?
Imagine going for a job interview, where you’re keen to make a good impression. Yet for all your conscious efforts to smile, give a strong handshake, dress smartly, you’re subliminally giving out a thousand different signals to the person opposite. Some may be positive; I wouldn’t mind if a potential employer went away with the idea that I’m a creative personality. But what if the impression you give off is less favourable? What if people think you brusque or offensive?
To a certain extent, I do believe that you can’t live your life based on what others think of you. It’s important to find your own personality and tread your own path. On the other hand, we can’t pretend that what people think of us doesn’t matter at all. In fact, it’s empowering to learn how others perceive us; we can choose to continue acting in the same way or, if we want, modify our behaviour at certain times. Either way, it’s a choice, and one you can only make once you understand how you’re viewed by other people.
So why not get talking to a stranger on the train, and ask them? You may never see the person again, and their response could be fascinating.