Altered Impressions

I don’t make coffee often, mostly just when I’m having a party or a few friends over for dinner. Just before I turn on the coffee pot, I sprinkle cinnamon over the top of the filter pack. It gives the coffee a nice flavor with the added, healthy bonus of an antioxidant boost. Plus, it tastes good. Those Maxwell House coffee filter packs are pretty handy, but the last time I tried to purchase some, they were no longer being sold in the decaf version, at least not around here. Decaf in single-cup bags is still around, but individual bags are not convenient to manage with a group of 12 people.

Filters of many kinds are things we use every day, and most of the time we’re not even aware of using them. But filters are important. They determine what we notice first, and they vary from person to person. They are critical in creating first impressions, and first impressions are important. Maybe they shouldn’t be, but that doesn’t meant they aren’t. If you want a decent job, creating a good first impression should be paramount – it can make the difference between a second interview and a tossed application in the dreaded circular file.

Like any system of categorization, filters make it easier for our brains to assimilate and file information quickly in order to access it later on, if needed. If we didn’t stick these tidbits in some kind of mental file, how could it be easily recalled when we needed it? We’d find ourselves rummaging through that proverbial haystack – this one consisting of billions of bits of information in no logical order whatsoever. How do you find something if you have no clue where it went? There are many kinds of mnemonic devices to aid memory, but even they rely on the mind’s ability to categorize and file.

Our ability to organize data of all kinds in this way enables us process the mounds of information we must sift through to access other, related information we need. Our brains know where to look, which folder to open, which bit to pull out and put together with others similar to it. Using filters, close cousins of politically incorrect “stereotypes,” is how we make sense of our world, the individuals and communities that coexist in it, its singular thoughts, its comprehensive ideas. They are starting points, and we go on from there.

Stereotypes – bad, bad word in this era of political correctness. Are we even allowed to say that word anymore? Is there much of anything we’re permitted to say these days that won’t get us in trouble? If this isn’t “politically correct,” well, I don’t care. Moving on…

So think of your brain as just a filing cabinet containing multitudinous folders, and in each are pages and pages of papers pertaining to a specific topic. Without this, how could you hope to access that one thing on that one piece of paper you’re looking for that can bring a number of those pieces together?

We are constantly being told that people are the same, but how can we be the same when we are different in so many ways that can not be discounted – in little ways to be sure, but in big ones, too. We all have filters and that’s what makes us different. Individuals. Not a collective, not carbon copies of each other. We are differently impacted by geography (where we were born and raised), by the kind of parents who raised us, by the communities we lived in, and the schools we attended. Were our families intact during our formative years; and if they were, what factors kept them together? What advantages and disadvantages did we have? How have our innate temperaments shaped us, and what role have they played in determining how we view others who move in and out of the worlds in which we live at any point in time over the course of our lifetime?

It makes no sense to talk about how we are all the same when, clearly, we are not – and for countless other reasons than those I’ve mentioned here. But let’s give it a whirl to see if I can further clarify the point of all this.

Different people look at things in different ways, and that begins with what people notice – and they notice different things first.

Dentists – The first thing they notice are teeth, which, if neglected, signal health issues down the road. A dentist may not know why someone is neglecting their teeth, be that fear of dentists or drills, lack of money, or whatever – but they can see discoloration, empty spaces where teeth should be, chipped teeth, and the kinds of thing that affect one’s bit. Are there cavities? Antiquated bridgework? All you have to do is talk or smile, and they know what you have or haven’t been doing.

The first thing orthodontists notice is alignment. Their job is to prevent and correct irregularities of the teeth, usually by means of some kinds of braces. And they can tell if you’ve been doing what they’ve told you to do from one visit to the next and can get testy if you don’t keep up on your end because your perfect smile is the stamp of approval for their work.

Dermatologists – Skin is paramount in this field. They notice anomalies, even through your makeup providing it hasn’t been applied like a thick coat of paint. They notice spots and can quickly assess, pretty accurately most of the time, whether or not what they’re seeing might indicate a serious problem. They notice texture, coloring, raised and flat spots, and will advise which of the many sunscreens available are the best at filtering out the sun’s harmful UV rays.

Ergo, sunscreens can be added to this list, too.

Manicurists – They hone in nails, nail ridges, cuticles, and what they see can also provide information about one’s health.

Hair stylists can tell right away if your hair has been chemically treated or it’s been neglected. Does it have split ends, appear dull, or does it feel silky and glisten in the sun? Illness and various medications can have an impact on your hair. Does the way it’s cut shape your face in a flattering way or render the entire head – well, lifeless, for want of a better word?

Painters and sculptors are acutely aware of form, shape, size, and color, even venue – they pay particular attention to depth, perspective, and the overall theme of their creations and those of others.

Architects – angles, utility, light and shadow. Think Frank Lloyd Wright vs I. M. Pei. Some of us still wonder why Pei thought a glass pyramid would work at the Louvre in Paris where the two structures, separated by centuries, are currently juxtaposed – and whether or not that works.

A musician’s currency is envisioned and executed by means of choice, the voice of the instrument, the tempo and genre of the composition, and a vocalist takes these into consideration as well, including, if they are really good at what they do, emotive presentation that gives their music and their words greater depth and meaning.

Dance Instructors filter observations through one’s posture, frame, tone, poise, precision, form, and graceful movement on the dance floor. Do dancers move with fluidity and a lightness of being, or are they clunky and difficult to position for easy execution of complicated steps that look effortless if done correctly?

Jewelers look at fingers – Are they slim and long like a pianist’s or stubby and chunky? Will a ring that easily fits the finger on which it is placed today still fit five years from now? Is the setting compatible with the size and shape of that finger?

And Doctors – They see you in bits and pieces related to whatever their specialty happens to be. You are a part, not a whole.

There are, of course, many others kinds of filters through which we make assumptions about others. To wit, some people view everything as a result of the commission of a sin, while others see the same thing as separation from God – which sounds worse to you? Or I might ask – which sounds less accusatory? And for some, it’s a simple question of good versus bad. It’s all in the words we choose to use, which brings me to…

…Writers whose filters are composed of words: the one’s they use, and the ones they choose not to use. Writers live for words and hope theirs come alive for others. And believe me when I say, there are reasons for each choice made – every word, every punctuation mark, and each sentence with specific and thoughtfully-considered placement of both, to include the subtext that runs just below the surface.

Filters are assumptions often based on the most arbitrary of things, conditions, or circumstances. On what someone else has told us or what we think we see or hear in conversation. The problem comes when we are too quick to judge others based on first impressions – and that’s why first impressions do matter.

They matter if you’re interviewing for a job, where a first impression might get you a second interview or a place in the dreaded “circular file.” First impressions are created in the way someone is dressed, the words they use in conversation, whether they speak or remain silent, if they look down at the ground or straight ahead when they pass us on the street, if they “ignore” you when you say hello, the spring in their step, their gait when they walk, or whether they are handicapped (or the PC acceptable “physically challenged”) when they sport that blue tag on their car and walk into the store, seemingly fine to the uninformed eye.

How can we say with certainty which coffee we like best if we stop looking after the first one that tastes good – might we not find one that’s even better if we tried out the filter packs of a few other brands?

Political correctness notwithstanding, we all use filters of one kind or another. It would be impossible to manage the chaos otherwise. That’s easy to do if it’s coffee we’re talking about; if only that were as easy to do with people.


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