How Titles Affect First Impressions

 

I’m left-handed, an Angelino, a former Midwesterner, a designer, a sustainability and social media consultant, an ENTJ, an Aries, a humanist, a quinoa fan, a guitar player, a straight-laced rebel, a professional, a perpetual student, a Caucasian, a male, a human, a twenty-something, a blood type O positive, a mentor, a mentee, an outgoing recluse, a soon-to-be world traveler, a consumer, and a card carrying member of the local library.

These are just a double-handful of the titles that apply to me, and through them I am judged and categorized by others.

And in many ways, this is a good thing. Having mental containers to put one another in allows us to quickly and effortlessly figure out what’s dangerous in the world and who we might be attracted to. It’s an evolutionary shortcut that grew from ‘Looks like saber tooth tiger, must be dangerous’ to ‘Looks like hipster, must be my type’ and has allowed us to reduce the mating ritual, buying process, and danger-sensing stage of a new situation into a split-second worth of intellectual organization.

This is the same process that also leads us to be racists, sexists and homophobes. The same preconceived notions we have about a certain group of people can help us avoid danger or hinder our social development by convincing us that we already know all there is to know about that person because of the sub-category they belong to.

But this isn’t an article about not being racist…hopefully most people who are reading this already have plenty of reasons not to discriminate based on skin color and such.

What I want to get across is that knowing your own titles can help you see yourself the way others first see you, which can be a significant advantage when you want to make a good first impression or present a certain side of yourself to someone or a group or someones.

Will a person who knows the results of their Meyers-Briggs personality test have a significant advantage over someone who doesn’t? Perhaps, if they use the information well. Knowing how you score on such a test compared to others can help you choose the right combination of people to work with for optimal effectiveness. It can also help you put words to your personality traits that are tough to define.

Consider this: before college, I found myself constantly being pushed into leadership positions. In school, the teacher would pick me to lead the group. Hanging out with my friends, I would be in charge of choosing what we did and making it happen. And you know what? I hated it. With a passion. When you’re in charge, you are divided from everyone else by the burden of responsibility, and I just wanted to hang with everyone else; carefree and ignorant of the machinations going on behind the scenes that made the world work as it did.

In college I had a defining moment wherein I decided to just go with the whole ‘leader’ thing and see how it went. This decision was spurred by the results of the Meyers-Briggs test I had recently taken in one of my classes, which classified me as a strong ENTJ personality type (defined roughly as ‘The Executive’ or ‘The Born Leader’). And you know what? It made all the difference in the world. The feeling was a lot like when I removed caffeine and fast food from my diet at the tail-end of high school: I had no idea how bad I was feeling until I made the change and felt a whole lot better.

This is just one example, of course, and a lot of the benefit actually comes from knowing why people respond to you in a certain way and how you can change that response if you care to.

One title that I’ve worn, for example, is ‘atheist.’ This title is loaded with preconceived notions and historical baggage, and I’ve found that it can actually make people combative rather than friendly (a lot of people see a denial of the tenets of religion as an attack upon their beliefs). Knowing this, when I entered a discussion about atheism at a party (I know, I’m a party animal) with a molecular biologist, I was fascinated by his rejection of the term and his reason behind that rejection.

According to his argument, the term atheism is inherently negative because it tells someone what you are NOT, rather than saying what you ARE. This is an important distinction, because when you tell someone what you are, you establish points of reference that you can bond over and relate to. When you say you’re not something, however, you forcibly remove points of reference, in this case beliefs that might be very important aspects of their life. Not a great first impression.

This in mind, I decided to apply a different title to myself; one that is more inclusive but still very indicative of my values. I decided on ‘humanist,’ and since I started using that term instead of ‘atheist,’ I’ve had far fewer awkward silences and scoffs from religious and spiritual folk.

So keep in mind that your titles, however arbitrary and vague they might seem, are in practice actually very important. They are in many cases the first reference point that people have in deciding who you are as a person, and they can greatly color the implied intentions of even your most innocent action.

26 comments

  1. I’m an Aries INTJ and I find myself often trying to avoid leadership roles like you did. Perhaps I’ll try reversing that and see where it takes me. Thanks!

  2. I’m an Aries INTJ and I find myself often trying to avoid leadership roles like you did. Perhaps I’ll try reversing that and see where it takes me. Thanks!

  3. @Seamus: My pleasure! Great to have you browsing!

    @Raam: I highly, highly recommend it. I am actually quite the introvert myself in many ways, but now that I’ve done the leadership thing for a while, put me in the right position and, despite the stress that comes with responsibility, I feel a whole lot more alive. Be sure to let me know how it turns out! Or post the story on your blog (and post a link here so we can follow along)? Good luck!

  4. @Seamus: My pleasure! Great to have you browsing!

    @Raam: I highly, highly recommend it. I am actually quite the introvert myself in many ways, but now that I’ve done the leadership thing for a while, put me in the right position and, despite the stress that comes with responsibility, I feel a whole lot more alive. Be sure to let me know how it turns out! Or post the story on your blog (and post a link here so we can follow along)? Good luck!

  5. @Seamus: My pleasure! Great to have you browsing!

    @Raam: I highly, highly recommend it. I am actually quite the introvert myself in many ways, but now that I’ve done the leadership thing for a while, put me in the right position and, despite the stress that comes with responsibility, I feel a whole lot more alive. Be sure to let me know how it turns out! Or post the story on your blog (and post a link here so we can follow along)? Good luck!

  6. Great post here, Colin. I really like how you talked about saying what you ARE, as opposed to what you are NOT. Very smart thinking.

  7. Great post here, Colin. I really like how you talked about saying what you ARE, as opposed to what you are NOT. Very smart thinking.

  8. Great post here, Colin. I really like how you talked about saying what you ARE, as opposed to what you are NOT. Very smart thinking.

  9. @Nate: Thanks! I’m trying to do that more, especially after that conversation at the party. Take a day to look around and see how much of what we use to identify each other is negative rather than positive and it makes the choice to stop doing so to yourself very easy. But that being said, I’m sure I’m still breaking that rule with many other aspects of my life! Lots left to do!

  10. @Nate: Thanks! I’m trying to do that more, especially after that conversation at the party. Take a day to look around and see how much of what we use to identify each other is negative rather than positive and it makes the choice to stop doing so to yourself very easy. But that being said, I’m sure I’m still breaking that rule with many other aspects of my life! Lots left to do!

  11. @Nate: Thanks! I’m trying to do that more, especially after that conversation at the party. Take a day to look around and see how much of what we use to identify each other is negative rather than positive and it makes the choice to stop doing so to yourself very easy. But that being said, I’m sure I’m still breaking that rule with many other aspects of my life! Lots left to do!

  12. Colin, this is another fantastic post. We need to talk.

    Substantively, I agree completely with your point–that the way we consciously label ourselves has a profound influence on how we engage the world and are percieved by others. Something as simple as the election of one synononym over another can have a demonstrable impact. In that regard, your discussion of the aesthetic difference between “atheist” and “humanist” is a revelation. Nicely done.

    Sometimes the labeling that goes on when we make snap judgments about people, things, and circumstances isn’t conscious or intellectual at all, but rather subconcious and instinctual. Malcolm Gladwell did some awesome scholarship on this issue, finding that our instinctual “first impressions” are often more accurate than the judgments we reach after mulling something over and intellectualizing about it. For example, he references studies where people are asked to identify a particular individual from memory using a photo line up. Interestingly, the people who are asked to identify the person from the photos straight away are far more accurate in their selections than the people who are first asked to describe the individual verbally prior to making the selection (e.i., “well, he had brown hair, blue eyes, round face, big lips.” etc.) The process of verbalizing a mental image requires a level of intellectual processing that removes the person from their instinctual snap-judgments. Its called “over thinking.” The point is, oftentimes subconcious labeling and snap “first impressions” are the accurate ones.

  13. Colin, this is another fantastic post. We need to talk.

    Substantively, I agree completely with your point–that the way we consciously label ourselves has a profound influence on how we engage the world and are percieved by others. Something as simple as the election of one synononym over another can have a demonstrable impact. In that regard, your discussion of the aesthetic difference between “atheist” and “humanist” is a revelation. Nicely done.

    Sometimes the labeling that goes on when we make snap judgments about people, things, and circumstances isn’t conscious or intellectual at all, but rather subconcious and instinctual. Malcolm Gladwell did some awesome scholarship on this issue, finding that our instinctual “first impressions” are often more accurate than the judgments we reach after mulling something over and intellectualizing about it. For example, he references studies where people are asked to identify a particular individual from memory using a photo line up. Interestingly, the people who are asked to identify the person from the photos straight away are far more accurate in their selections than the people who are first asked to describe the individual verbally prior to making the selection (e.i., “well, he had brown hair, blue eyes, round face, big lips.” etc.) The process of verbalizing a mental image requires a level of intellectual processing that removes the person from their instinctual snap-judgments. Its called “over thinking.” The point is, oftentimes subconcious labeling and snap “first impressions” are the accurate ones.

  14. Don’t we all wish that people can wipe out titles, and labels the moment we meet them. I can see a lesson learned here though. By changing your label from atheist to humanist people changed their impression of you and made it positive rather than negative. Kudos to you!

  15. Don’t we all wish that people can wipe out titles, and labels the moment we meet them. I can see a lesson learned here though. By changing your label from atheist to humanist people changed their impression of you and made it positive rather than negative. Kudos to you!

  16. Don’t we all wish that people can wipe out titles, and labels the moment we meet them. I can see a lesson learned here though. By changing your label from atheist to humanist people changed their impression of you and made it positive rather than negative. Kudos to you!

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  19. Interesting thoughts. I have often felt that the label ‘minimalist’, too, was inherently negative, sharing this same phenomenon with ‘atheist’. You see, it is more referential to the things we want out of our lives, rather than those that we want in our lives. ‘Maximalist’ makes more sense, in fact, in that we’re trying to maximize the deeper qualities of life.

    Though, I tried ‘maximalist’ for about a week and it lacked the impact.

    Good reading!

  20. I was reading your ebook on Personal Branding when I saw this post on Twitter. In my perpetual need to assert a distinctive identity, I evaded labels or titles.  I now find myself online having to delineate with labels to clearly communicate myself. It’s an ironic dynamic. I am finding your text really helpful.  Thanks for shedding some positive light.  Oh, I am finally embracing my INFP label, too.  It does make a difference.  

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