Tuesday, July 29, 2008

First Impressions

First impressions are tricky things. They are often regarded as memories being written on the blank canvas of a scrap of your mind. What they really are is reality having a tete a tete with your expectations. Depending on how you were oriented toward something before your first encounter, your first impression will be more or less favorable.

When I first arrived in Japan in 1988, my image of Japan was that it was populated by quiet, polite, efficient people who lived in clean technologically-impressive surroundings. My expectations, particularly in light of the fact that the port of entry was Narita airport, were unrealistically high. This was no doubt a reflection of the overall impression of Japan in the U.S. in the 80's as an economic machine of awesome technological prowess fueled by super hard-working, monumentally clever people who were kicking our asses in world markets. I will offer a few words to those who were as naive as me at that time. Few countries are as bad as your negative impressions or as good as your positive ones. Barring areas with serious problems, every place has good and bad points.

As someone who teaches from her home, first impressions are frequently on my mind both in terms of how I'm viewed and how my apartment is regarded. Do the students think my place looks "dirty" (as the Japanese are often prone to believing about anything which shows wear and tear or its age is "dirty"? Am I what they expected? Was the lesson content as expected?

Through time, I've come to realize that how my place and I am perceived is based not on any objective information, but rather on the students' expectations and prior experiences. Those who have never met a foreigner or have limited experiences with them approach me differently than those who have traveled or lived abroad. When people have most of their experiences with foreign faces through a television screen, they form unrealistic expectations of appearance and character. They are more likely to expect you to be an entertainer and more attractive than average because their notion of "average" is so skewed. Similarly, those who have lived in old rundown places or have a greater variety of experiences with different apartments tend to see my place differently. Mind you, I've never quizzed people about their impressions of my apartment, but random (socially appropriate) comments do get made from time to time which clue me in.

The students aren't the only ones who have expectations based on prior experiences. Over the weekend, a new student came to may apartment, and before he came, I was forming my expectations of him based on the vague information I had been given about his age, job and study history. I have far fewer male students than female ones and I'm wary of men as students in general for a variety of reasons. I'm slightly nervous about them coming into the house when I'm alone, but I realize this is relatively irrational considering that they are sent by an agency so someone knows that they are coming here and when. Those intent on harming others generally don't leave such clear tracks to allow themselves to be traced. I'm not ashamed to admit that I have to spend some time talking myself down from what are no doubt mostly irrational and paranoid concerns. That being said, I did have an interview with a really creepy man at one point who was sent over by the agency so it's not unheard of that strange men make their way into the system. Fortunately, the new weekend student was a very nice, professional person who had lived in the U.S. for several years. He was expressive and friendly and spoke English at quite a high level.

First impressions are important, but I believe it's important not to fuss too much before making one. While we can do everything we can to make the best possible first impression, the other side of the equation is as or more important than how we actually present ourselves, and there's nothing we can do to control the context in which other people receive us.

No comments: