Have you ever wondered why first impressions have such lasting and sometimes unchanging impacts on how we feel about the people we meet, the places we go or the things that we encounter? And, under pressure, why is it that we feel completely justified in decisions that we make without first having to think about them? Making such a snap judgement is a powerful mechanism and is a large part of why and how our species survived. With such faith in our instincts, are they in fact as trustworthy as we regard them to be? Malcolm Gladwell, author of Blink, attempts to dissect our ability to “thin slice” an encounter or event, looking for clues in how our brain processes different kinds of information. I prefer to read nonfiction and Gladwell has always been on my radar, though I’ve never approached him for one reason or another. It wasn’t until I proposed to my wife that the book was recommended to me by a close friend, asking that if I read anything to prepare for a life of contentment, commitment and compromise, I at least read the first chapter of Blink.
First impressions are powerful things. I’ve worked with a Korean English language teacher at my school here in Korea for about 10 months now. The first time I met him, I introduced myself, “Hi, I’m Sean. How are you?” He stood from his chair, waved my words away, said nothing and ushered me towards our first class together. I have never heard him speak English though he translates a lot of what I say to our students. Since then, I have never tried speaking to him and he has still never said a word to me. He may lack confidence in his English and wanted to save face or he might not give a shit about me. It’s hard to know. But that first impression has stuck with me and as time goes on, it makes it harder and harder to break the silence. I didn’t have to interview him, question why he waved me away or continually evaluate my standing with him since we started teaching together. That first impression, the wave of the hand, determined 10 months of a working relationship. In Blink, Gladwell talked to psychologists, historians, military strategists, athletes, police officers, physicians and political strategists, trying to tap into the part of the brain that makes split second impressions and decisions as well as reason out why, in some situations, reacting fast on first impressions outweigh careful and methodical consideration and vice versa.
In the first chapter, “One: The Theory of Thin Slices”, Gladwell interviews John Gottman, a psychologist who can predict the success or failure of the future of a couple based on watching a mere 15 minute video of the couple talking with a success rate of 90 percent; given an hour of footage, his success rate is considerably higher, around 95 percent! He bases his predictions on a coding system used on interpreting observations made by monitoring the couple. Through his decades of experience, Gottman has come up with what he calls the Four Horsemen: defensiveness, stonewalling, criticism and contempt. The friend whom recommended the book to me wanted me to pay special attention to this part. Gottman’s in-depth analysis and explanation of these four horseman are well worth the read and so I leave it to you, the reader, to engage Gladwell’s text.
That said, chapter one has set a personal tone in how I deal (and will deal) with moments of frustration and tension in my marriage. I don’t constantly try to analyze our conversations or ascribe a horseman to a breakdown in communication, interjecting, “ha! I just stonewalled you! That’s going to ruin our marriage if I don’t chill out!” Instead, chapter one has helped me appropriate short-term impression and long-term contemplation, treading lightly on first impressions of what she has to say; English is, after all, her second language. Indeed, reading this book has given me a perspective shift on almost all my interactions with my wife. I know that we come from a place of deep love and respect and managing my first reactions when words and emotions get heated will help mitigate the escalation of misunderstanding. While instinct and first impressions are invaluable, they do not belong in such a dialogue. After all, one partner reacting instantaneously, shooting from the hip, does not make the other feel heard.
I hope the reader does not get the wrong idea: my wife and I don’t fight all the time. In fact, we have survived living together in a one-room apartment for almost a year and a half now without killing each other! I know that our path will not be easy, especially when we move to the US next summer. But I was left with a little nugget of wisdom from the Godfather of it all psychology, Sigmund Freud. In Blink, Freud is quoted as saying, “when making a decision of minor importance, I have always found it advantageous to consider all the pros and cons. In vital matters, however, such as the choice of a mate or a profession, the decision should come from our unconscious, from somewhere within ourselves.” If I, or any other committed person for that matter, sat down with a pad of paper and a pen, any one of us could fill pages of both pros and cons about our significant others and wouldn’t be any closer to evaluating our relationships. But as Freud suggests, there is something mystical in the unconscious and it is that mystique that Gladwell attempts to better understand in Blink.
The book was an easy read and a perfect springboard into what I hope to be a long and happy marriage (we married on November 2nd). If nothing else, it has helped temper my own reactions, giving both instinct and consideration plenty of breathing room at my work and in my relationship.
Pages: 296 FOA Pages: 31,038