Confession: I have a love-hate relationship with the High Holidays. On one hand, I very much look forward to the season of holiday meals, get-togethers and keeping all the family traditions. On the other hand I find all the talk of soul-searching a bit prickly. I am not the most spiritual of people and am frankly not keen on all the talk of penitence. I do not think that I am a bad person; I just can’t get into the “be-a-better-person” sermons — though of course, being a better person does resonate with me — who does not want to be better?
It sounds like you are in need of a more hands-on, less touchy-feely kind of navigation for the demands of the New Year. It might help you to think of soul-searching less as an intense mystical experience and more as an enhancement of everyday human life.
Consider this tweak of one of those ubiquitous self-help pop-ups that present themselves irksomely every time the computer is opened. One appeared on my screen recently offered the following promise: How to Make a Good First Impression — Five Pros Share Their Most Effective Moves. The five, by Anne-Marie O’Neill, are to the point and pretty reasonable. When I first read them I thought, Hey, these are good — and wait a minute, these are Jewish! Though they suggest quick techniques for acing an interview, they are, if taken truly to heart, methods of deep self-improvement. And as our mantra teaches, self-improvement leads to world improvement.
The five “first impression strategies” are very much in line with the classic Jewish practice of Mussar, a path of spirituality through inner growth. Not too frightening, though definitely on the track toward “an examined life.” Here are the “Five Tips to Follow to Make a Good Impression” and the internal work, the Jewish middah ideals, needed to stretch them beyond the interview experience.
1. Stop Talking. Ann Demarais, coauthor of First Impressions, reminds us that overtalking may make you think like you have impressed others with your erudition and expertise. Ironically, though, it is listening that makes others feel good and indicates your interest in them. Try it; make it a practice to pause, and to process, to slow down and to really listen. Train and discipline yourself to vigilantly watch your “airtime” — are you talking too much? Are you able to practice actively listening? Or are you rapidly thinking instead of your response, ready to jump, the moment the other takes a breath?
Silence surfaces several times in Pirke Avot, with teachings that specifically emphasize keeping quiet. Shimon ben Gamliel reveals that, “All my days have I grown up among the wise and I have not found anything better for a person than silence,” while Rabbi Akiva teaches that the very key to wisdom is silence. Later in the 12th century, Maimonides, in the section of Hilchot Deot in his Mishnah Torah, lays out his approach to personality development, reminding us that a person should never rush to respond and should not talk excessively. This discipline will surely develop your humility and self-control. Its practice will not only help you make a good first impression, it will improve your life with minimal discomfort on the piety barometer.
2. Use a Person’s Name, urges sociologist Julie Albright, and repeat it often. Do not stop there, but also find out the names of family members. She goes so far as to even suggest that we should actually care enough to ask after these people’s well-being; all in the name of course, of making a good impression. It is here that I ask which comes first, caring for others or behaving as if we care for others? Our tradition actually believes that our thoughts follow our deeds and thus, by all means start by trying to impress others by frequently using their name and by the asking after their family members. But, why not allow this practice to actually have an effect on you? Start with that first greeting of the day. Good morning, Mr. Cohen! Our tradition places pronounced esteem upon those who are the first to greet the other, with elders such as Shammai and of Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai, of whom it is said, no one ever greeted him before he had already extended a greeting himself. That our sages go out of the way to prescribe this “greet first policy” indicates its significant worth and is not merely a trivial social nicety; its very adoption may even lead to something profound.
3. Show Your Flaws, stresses Lucila McElroy, the founder of WeAreMomentum.com, a life-coaching company. Reality check: We are all only human, few of us have all the answers, nor is that ever the expectation. A classic sobering Mussar maxim is the teaching of Akaviyah ben Mahalalel: “Know from where you came and where you are going and before whom you are destined to give account and reckoning” — if that isn’t enough to shake us right to our disaffected core, then I don’t know what will. The good impression embodied in this practice will reflect humility and honesty to those around you. The lasting impression on your soul will be immeasurable and the relief of not having to know everything? Incalculable.
4. Don't Take All the Credit, asserts Ben Dattner, an organizational psychologist, workplace consultant, and the author of The Blame Game. Being self-serving and exaggerating one’s accomplishments do not make a good impression — ever. Channel your inner Ben Zoma, who proclaims that the wise person learns from every person and Rabbi Chaninah, who boldly declares he has learned much from his teachers and colleagues, but even more from his students. This quality of making sure to give credit where credit is due is a hallmark of redemption, with Queen Esther, ascribing her being privy to the perilous plot of Bigthan and Teresh, to the information that she had learned from Mordechai. Through this action the Jewish people are saved — all because she gave proper attribution to her source. Bottom line in the words of Hillel: One who aggrandizes his own name will lose that name. Redemption, a good name and humility gained in one fell swoop — a bargain.
5. Look Interested, counsels Joe Navarro, special agent to the FBI and author of the book, What Every Body is Saying. A slight head tilt powerfully conveys the message that you are listening. A quick eyebrow arch is another small but effective gesture that communicates curiosity. Here is where a “good eye” may come in handy. In response to being asked by his teacher, “What is the best approach to life?” Rabbi Eliezer answers, “A good eye.” It takes a lot to be interested in “the other” — time, patience and generosity. It is the truly generous person who can listen as the other speaks and communicate genuine care and interest. This stance is not easily faked — it must assuredly flow from a person’s true and sincere inclination. One more baby step toward being a better person and what more can we ask of anyone — especially at this time of year?