When we meet others we form impressions of them, and they tend to stick. This automatic tendency motivates numerous social practices, such as grooming before a date or rehearsing before a presentation. It can be unfair, of course, to evaluate persons based on their behavior on any one particular occasion, as the behavior may not be representative. Nonetheless, first impressions are easy to form and difficult to overcome.
What's more, there is a well documented asymmetry between the impact of bad first impressions versus good ones. Consider the following: We are quicker to both form and recall bad impressions, and are also more likely to do so. We also tend to be more confident about bad impressions, take less time to arrive at them, and require less information to be convinced of them -- that is, relative to good impressions. Finally, once a bad impression is formed, we seal it away from revision or interference.
'So what?' you might think. Even granting such broad tendencies, it remains an open question whether or not any particular impression is accurate. Moreover, you might think yourself a 'good judge of character', that your initial impressions are routinely confirmed by subsequent data: the initially cold and distant colleague turns out to be just as cold and distant in the end, and those we warm up to tend not to disappoint.
Well, there's room for doubt here. At least two psychological phenomena that might play a role in producing false evidence for our impressions. The first, commonly known as the confirmation bias, is our general tendency to seek or interpret evidence in ways that confirm our previously held hypotheses. Bad first impressions render us more susceptible to noticing future behavior that is bad; behavior that is good is, by contrast, overlooked or discounted. The second is often called behavioral confirmation or self-fulfilling prophecies, and occurs when we treat others in ways reflective of our preexisting beliefs about them, thereby causing them to act in ways that conform to our preexisting beliefs. For example, we might think someone rude, and then treat her accordingly. She picks up on this, feels resentful, and reciprocates in kind, thus confirming our initial hypothesis. What's more, we are often ignorant of our own causal role in this process. In other words, owing to these biases, our initial impressions might be inapt in spite of the fact that they turn out be true!
All this brings me to the virtue of civility. In most philosophical discussions of civility, it is described as the practice of concealing one's negative appraisals so as not to hurt others' feelings, to show outward respect in spite of the fact that others are disagreeable. Here's a nice quote from Cheshire Calhoun:
In social life, there are unending opportunities to find other people boring, disagreeable, repulsive, stupid, sleazy, inept, bigoted, lousy at selecting gifts, bad cooks, infuriatingly slow drivers, disappointing dates, bad philosophers, and so on. The civil person typically conceals these unflattering appraisals, since conveying them may easily suggest that one does not take others' feelings or the fact that they may have different standards to be worth taking into consideration or tolerating. (260)I agree that there are unending opportunities to make such judgments. I just wonder whether being civil about them goes far enough, and whether we shouldn't instead foster a habit of calling such judgments into question. It seems as though we have good reason to, given the biases above, but then again there may be bad consequences for not being vigilant in our judgments of others.