Less than a minute to decide

This is one of several columns I wrote as editor of the Genesee Country Express. Here, I share a personal reflection about being a newcomer to the community and an outsider.

By Les Bowen for Genesee Country Express   |   Sept. 30, 2010   |   Original source

I read once that when we first meet people, our opinions are set within the first 30 seconds – that is, when meeting new people, we have less than half a minute to make the best first impression we can.

Yet these impressions are so often wrong. I remember one day at my first job out of college when a tall, unshaven, tattooed, leather-clad man walked into our office and asked to speak with a reporter. He had a story.

This man was scary and looked like he had come straight from a biker bar. It turns out he had just come from a meeting of bikers. The group called itself BACA – Bikers Against Child Abuse.

My impression of this man changed in an instant. Every year, the group raised thousands of dollars for a local shelter for battered women and abused children. For years afterward, I’ve looked at the patches sewn on bikers’ vests and I have been surprised by the breadth of beneficial organizations these men and women support.

Some time later, I wondered what the biker thought of of me as I sat across the table: a pencil-necked reporter in his mid-20s who knows nothing about what he’s saying.

I’ve met literally thousands of people as a reporter and in the past two weeks, the list has gotten even longer as I’ve met officials and citizens at schools, towns and villages. I’ve met postal workers, cable installers, grocery checkers, gas station attendants and the list goes on and on.

There are so many that many of the names are a big blur – I can barely keep my co-workers names straight. This is nothing new to me; for the third time in a decade, I am starting over in a new community and at a new job.

But as I became aware of the error of my own conclusions about the big, burly biker, I learned that first impressions are so often wrong. I know some people are having the worst day of their life the day I meet them while others are masters at the art of smooth-talk and finesse.

And as I fight the urge to instantly judge the people I meet, I have to wonder what they think of me: the pencil-necked editor in his early 30s who knows nothing about what they are saying.