Wouldn’t it be great if we could always tell whether someone is who they say they are or if they’re just faking it? Usually our instincts help us differentiate between authentic and untrustworthy people, but sometimes we misjudge. First impressions are critical, but they are only a brief snapshot of a person’s character.
We are too easy to be fooled
When I met our (now ex) colleague, Adrian, he seemed like a great fit for Lifehack. He blew us away in his interview. Imagine the ideal first impression, and that is exactly what he gave us.
Adrian showed up in a tailored navy blue suit. He was tall, dark, and handsome. He was well-spoken, with an accent not unlike Benedict Cumberbatch. He possessed a confidence free of condescension, and an eagerness to be part of our team. He was polite during the interview, and it was clear that he had done his homework about our company. It should come as no surprise that we offered him a job.
In Adrian’s first few months, his work performance was top-notch. He had a way of listening that made his coworkers feel that they were truly heard. He was a complete gentleman around the ladies, but he was also a real guy’s guy.
It seemed like a match made in heaven, only at first
Oh how wrong we were about Adrian. The turning point in how we felt about him came when we put him in charge of a project.
Until this point, everyone had agreed with him about his ideas, but in a planning meeting for his project, someone disagreed with a point that he made. I can still picture the switch flipping in Adrian’s mind. A vein stood out on his forehead, his face turned red, and a harsh tone we had never heard him use escaped his lips. He became defensive almost immediately.
We have an unspoken rule about keeping our criticism constructive, and the point that our coworker made was valid. Instead of seeing this as an opportunity for growth, Adrian viewed it as a personal attack. Not only did he refuse to take advice from anyone, but he argued with those of us who tried to problem-solve around the issue. Needless to say, we all left that meeting feeling shocked and harassed.
So it turns out we are all bullies
We hoped that it was a fluke. Perhaps Adrian had a bad day. There was no way that the well-mannered man who had walked into that interview could have verbally eviscerated all of us like that.
Unfortunately, the outburst wasn’t a fluke. It was the thin carapace of the ideal employee cracking to reveal the monster lurking beneath. He began talking about us behind our backs. He ranted about how we should not have given him such feedback. We discovered that Adrian couldn’t handle negative feedback, nor did he value the other members of his team. Adrian was an arrogant jerk.
Thank goodness he spared our supervisor the trouble of firing him. When his probation ended, he resigned on the grounds that we, his colleagues, bullied him.
How do we misjudge people?
Getting the first impression correct, whether it is for an interview or a first date. Is the difference between a door opening or slamming in your face. It’s the difference between getting the job, the opportunity, or the significant other.
I think it’s common for us to pull out all the stops when we want to impress someone. We dress up, change the way we speak, and avoid our weaknesses. We try to show people what they want to see.
One of my friends dated someone who created a false impression about himself to fool others. He was an attractive and successful man with a nice home and good taste. If you met him, you’d probably think he was a classy fellow. That’s what my friend thought until she got to know him. She soon learned that the reason for his crisp appearance was extreme vanity. He cared for no one but himself.
I can certainly remember working hard to give a good impression at an interview for a teaching job. I was honest about my capabilities and training, but I wore my only suit. I measured my tone carefully. I did everything that I could to show that I would be a great teacher. I did get the job, but I didn’t wear a suit every day. There is a certain amount of self-fashioning that everyone does in a job interview.
When does working to create a great first impression cross the line?
I’m not going to tell you not to put your best foot forward in an interview or on that first date, but I can say that it is possible to invent a character completely unlike yourself if you aren’t careful. That character could wind up making you miserable by landing you the job that wasn’t a good fit for you or putting you in a relationship with someone who isn’t a good match.
The ideal first impression is best possible version of your true self, but it is still you. People get into trouble when they stop being themselves altogether.
How do we avoid inauthentic people?
Nobody wants to be duped into committing to a disagreeable person. We need to be able to like someone based on their true nature. Knowing who a person really is isn’t a big deal if you don’t have to develop a close relationship. When you have to spend most of your time collaborating and problem-solving, knowing who is on your team is essential.
When someone goes through their day to day in-character, it can work for a while, but eventually they will reveal their true colors. In Adrian’s case, it took us months to uncover who he actually was underneath all that charm. When it comes to beginning a new friendship, romantic relationship, or employment, we often commit based on information from our first impression. Sometimes our first impression is not the truest reflection of a person, though.
Identities can be summarized in a pattern of three concentric rings, as shown in the image above.
The outer ring:
Our outer ring is the way that we want the world to see us. This is the image that we keep in our heads about how we should look, think, and act. As we head into a first date, a networking event, or a job interview, we hope to project an image that we think will make us successful.
This can lead to us putting pressure on ourselves to conform. We rehearse our answers and work to make sure that we give the world something that it wants.
Beyond thinking about what we want the world to see, we actively fashion a reality based on what we want to show people. We carefully craft our answers when asked our opinions. We care what people think of us, and most of us work to show people the idealized versions of ourselves.
The yogis of Instagram are the perfect example. You’ll always see them executing a difficult posture perfectly, but you’re not going to see them struggling in class. In professional settings, we refrain from using certain language, and we address our colleagues in a more formal manner than we might use when we are with our friends. That is a filtered version of reality.
At the core of our being, our innermost circle, we are our true selves. This version of you is the one that you show to the people you trust the most. With our nearest and dearest, we can give our honest opinions and express our real beliefs.
Being our true selves requires us to be vulnerable, which may be why we are so guarded about our true nature. We can also become defensive if we are criticized in this state. If someone critiques us in our truest form, they are finding fault with who we actually are instead of a constructed version of ourselves.
For example, you may be your most authentic self around your family members or your partner. Accepting criticism at work can seem second-nature, but if your partner offers you some unsolicited feedback, you might chose to argue.
Time can be a factor in how well you know a person, but you can also meet a person and feel like you’ve known them forever. Truly knowing somebody isn’t about how long you have been acquainted with them. It’s about how far into these circles you can reach, and how much the person is willing to let their guard down so that you can do that.
If you want to learn someone’s true personality, you need to get as close to the core as possible
Building a bond based on authenticity instead of artifice can happen in a relatively short span of time. Close relationships and friendships tend to form more quickly when people face a common threat or overcome an obstacle together.
Going through a life-altering event together isn’t the only way to get to know someone. You can also observe how they interact with others or by present them with challenges.
People can’t live “in character” indefinitely
Notice unconscious habits that the person might have put in place to hide their true nature. We can often tell a lot about a person by the way that they speak about others. Individuals prone to gossip may be offering you a glimpse of poor character.
The manner in which a person talks about their ex can give you some insight into their character. Pay particular attention to how they handle people different from themselves and how they react in disagreements.
“The true test of a man’s character is what he does when no one is watching.”
You can learn about someone by seeing how they respond when they are tested
If Adrian had been challenged earlier, we would have known about his character flaws much sooner. We generally try to please people. We can mistake our willingness to cater to others for a good relationship.
The way that a person responds in disagreements tells you more about them than watching them in their comfort zone. Ideally, we want the people around us to be able to listen to others and communicate. They should be able to express their ideas and opinions and collaborate with others to find common ground.
Challenging a person’s core self can feel uncomfortable, but it reveals things that you need to know about them if you want to have a meaningful relationship with them.
Ask questions that require them to dive deeply into themselves and see what types of answers they give. If you don’t want to ask a private question, you could try asking them an ethical question. “How do you feel about diversity?” and “Is it ever okay to tell a lie?” can expose biases and principles.
In a conversation with a potential romantic interest, you could inquire about past relationships. Many people don’t want to spend time dwelling on an ex, but their reaction may indicate how they handle disappointments.
The types of things a prospective employee tells you about a former employer can help you understand whether they would be a good fit for your organization. What they chose to discuss and the way that they talk about their old boss can reveal their values.
We have to cut through the illusion
If we want to have meaningful relationships with others, it is imperative to be able to see a person’s core nature. Avoiding commitments to disingenuous people gives you more room to identify those personalities that do mesh well with you or your organization.
Getting to a person’s true self can take some practice, but it is a vital skill for unlocking your future happiness and success. There may be missteps along the way, but you will become a better judge of character with time. One way or another, they can’t keep up the illusion forever.
“When someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time.” -Maya Angelou
|||^||Forbes: How Important Is Your First Impression Really?|
|||^||Psychology Today: How To Become Your True Self|
|||^||Monster: How To Interview To Uncover A Candidate’s Ethical Standards|