Visual subtlety is lost on us these days, as we greet and see strangers while wearing masks. I’ve commented while in grocery stores to people ahead of me, “Maybe you can’t tell that I’m kidding.” I’ve also had those same strangers tell me, “I can see that you are smiling seeing just your eyes.” What mysterious clues do we use and what do we rely upon for “first impressions”?

It has been said we form our idea of a person within the first seven seconds of meeting them. I don’t know where or how such measurements are gauged, but I don’t dispute them. We do form opinions and impressions at the drop of a hat. (When I drop a hat, it often takes less than seven seconds.) Some would also chalk up these first impressions to auras or vibes – I don’t dispute these, either.

My daughter tells me that she saw her chef-husband to be long before they were dating, with his tattooed sleeves rolled up in a kitchen, and thought: Wow, he’s handsome! When she found that he was no longer “taken,” she reached out to him. (They were married last summer after a courtship that crossed years and thousands of miles.)

I saw my wife decades ago in a scene shop. She was up to her elbows, too, in wheat paste. Noticed her, maybe, but I really didn’t give any further romantic thought. I later helped her obtain an internship but didn’t expect to ever see her again. However, after I redefined myself as single, she stopped in my town for a visit. I absolutely saw her then in a totally new way, now that she was no longer up to her elbows in scene shop work, and my eyesight was back in bachelor mode. Seven seconds. A new first impression.

I remember seeing a loved mentor of mine for the first time, too. He was dressed in weathered jeans, sporting a well-trimmed beard, wearing a turquoise watchband and smoking a cigarette, hammer in hand. Another scene shop view. My other college professors at the time were wearing suits and ties, carried books and, if they smoked, it was likely to be a pipe.

I saw “Mr. K” as exotic and cool. His life of the mind proved to be a life in art, which, like that scene shop view of my future wife, was both grubbier and more appealing than that of any other academic I knew. Oh, yes, there was a college coach with whom I shot baskets, who also wore no tie, and I thought him quite fine, too. But this “Mr K” become someone after whom I long modeled my own style and life’s work. My first impression of him became fueled by his idiosyncratic style, passionate work ethic and an art based in language, character and music.

Can seven seconds can lead toward a whole life? In retrospect, both my daughter and I would say they can.

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