Judging a Book by Its Cover?

“Don’t judge a book by its cover.”  That’s what “they” say all the time. But the reality is that that is precisely what I do in book stores and libraries. It’s just good marketing: the bold imagery, eye-catching typography. Who would ever pick up a classic novel with an uninspiring, vanilla cover and Times New Roman title? No matter how enriching the content might be, we pass by a potentially great read because the cover made a negative impression, or worse, made no impression at all.

girl with blue mohawkWe do this with people, too. We generate instant first impressions often by what we see. I’ve noticed some of the friends of my teenaged kids experimenting with their appearance as they struggle to figure out who they are in this world. Some of the kids have been dying their hair colors that can’t be found in nature. One boy thinks he’s Neo from The Matrix, and another looks like he might be dressing for a bank robbery with a flowing trenchcoat. All he is missing is the sawed off shotgun. A few have pierced their faces — this one kills me because unlike hair color that can grow out or be reversed, facial piercings will leave a scar that they will have to look at long after they have come to their senses.  A little judgmental of me? Perhaps. But I have three decades of life experience on these kids.

My children have brought some of these teens home and introduced them to me as their friends. I’ll admit that I was initially taken aback at their appearance, but after spending time talking with them, I found that they were frequently delightful, intelligent, thoughtful kids who are just trying on different looks like I might test drive a car. 

I get the whole playing-with-one’s-appearance phase. In my early 20s, I bleached an almost platinum blonde streak in my black hair. At the time, it was age- and vocation-appropriate.  I played in a new wave band by night…but I worked in a corporate office during the day.  Not ready to come out as Cruella Deville to my co-workers, I only bleached a piece of hair that I could conceal at the office. Moderation in all things. Now as I get older, I try very hard to keep the “blonde” out of my hair.

It works both ways. People make first impressions on us, and we on them. If you want to make a positive impression — maybe it’s during a job interview, first date, new client, new school — here are a few things that might help:

  • Be yourself. Don’t try to act the way you think someone else wants you to act. Relax and be you. People will recognize and appreciate that you are genuine. And if they don’t like who you are, then it’s their loss. Not everyone in life is going to like us. It’s most important that you are comfortable with who you are.
  • Act and dress appropriately for the situation. Wear proper attire and pay attention to grooming. Remember that your actions and your choice of words paint a picture of who you are. Always be respectful of others.
  • Make eye contact. Not creepy or vacant staring but an engaging look that shows you are confident and paying attention to what the other person is saying.
  • Smile. It will put the other person (and yourself) at ease. (And while we are talking about smiling, be sure to brush your teeth, use your mouthwash, and check for stray spinach salad between your incisors.)

This month, we commemorated the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., whose dream was that we would live in a nation where we would not be judged by the color of our skin but by the content of our character. So while it is perfectly okay to judge a book by its cover, let’s try to keep an open mind and not judge people by outward appearances. Maybe they are just taking a new look for a test drive.

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