“Don’t Judge a Book…”: Going Beyond First Impressions

Published June 1, 2018

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Selling back textbooks is a common end-of-semester tradition. I had this experience many times as a college student, but one semester was different. While my intent was to earn some extra money for groceries or rent, instead I learned that my first impressions of people are not always accurate. I also became aware of the sometimes invisible ways that mental health and stigma impact people’s lives.

That semester, I had several textbooks that weren’t accepted for buy-back at the campus bookstore, so I went to local bookshops to see what offers I could get. After a while without much luck, I walked into a store for used books that looked much like the others I had visited. I walked up to the man at the register and asked whether he would consider buying my books. Without looking at me or the books, he abruptly exclaimed, “Why would I do that?!”

My first reaction was to take the man’s tone as condescending, dismissive, or rude. Feeling impatient, I turned to walk out. However, the man gently stopped me, handed me a brochure, and invited me to read. This clarified some things for me.  

It turned out that the man was the shop owner. Inside the brochure were pictures of the man, his store, and a local patron shaking his hand. There was also a written statement from the man. In it, he shared that he is on the Autism spectrum and, because of this, some of the ways that he communicates and perceives the world differ from many of the people with whom he interacts every day. The man noted that his circumstances had made it difficult for him to find and keep steady employment. However, he believed in his passions and talents and had a support network of people who stood by him. As a result, the bookstore was now his livelihood. He explained that many of the books he sold were gained through donations. As a way to give back, he pledged a portion of his yearly earnings to an organization supporting people with Autism.  

Being his own employer, this man was able to open doors that had previously been closed to him. Trusting the kindness of strangers, he sustained himself and provided a service to his community. My books had found their new home.

I left the store humbled, recognizing that I had made a quick, flawed judgment about the owner based on limited information. It is understandable and human to jump to conclusions like these, especially when we feel that someone could be rejecting us. But we may be able to form closer connections with others, repair conflicts, and spare ourselves some unnecessary pain when we stop and consider: Is there another possible explanation than my first reaction?  Is there a missing piece of this person’s story that could help me understand them better? If I stop to listen, what could I learn?

Emily Lazar, Staff Psychologist

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