Column: First impressions

Manners maketh man. I saw that phrase in stained glass every day through high school, lugging an overstuffed backpack to my locker. It was my school's motto. My high school was all-girls.

According to my then-English teacher, in the 1980s some seniors decided they'd had enough of manly manners and decided that their senior class gift would be a new motto. They hit up some girls in Latin and emerged with "Dux Femina Facti." More or less, "a woman got it done." There was an outrage. It broke tradition; it was inflammatory; it was in Latin. What was wrong with the old motto--were manners becoming unfashionable? It apparently struck none of the naysayers, as odd that our school's motto described what makes a man when not one had attended a class there, or that lately, the school had been training its women to speak out in a most unmannerly fashion. Hearing the story, I was suitably indignant, and then forgot about it until graduation.

I feel differently about the motto now. Older and minimally wiser, I think it speaks in a broader tone, building on "actions speak louder than words" to include both the public gesture and life's daily minutiae. Reflecting on it makes me wonder, not on why my school embraced it, but why the rest of the world doesn't. Why, on a given newstand, are 80 percent of the magazines devoted to beauty, fashion and beautiful people? Sure, Playboy's "entertainment for men" has some great articles, but so does Atlantic Monthly--guess which has the bigger circulation.

First impressions fascinate me, especially the way they're used at Duke. As a p-frosh, I remember staying with a friend from high school, who took me to a sorority function at Shooters. I hadn't brought partywear, but I was assured that no one really cared how I dressed. I arrived at Shooters in a flip-flops, jeans and a tank top I'd slept in the night before. Two out of every three girls he introduced me to looked me up and down, lightly disguised a look of mild digust and turned away. The next day, I tried to think of a way to retrieve my deposit and kept my name on Columbia's waitlist.

But I'm a being bit hard on the Shooters crowd. Everyday bitchiness can happen anywhere. More specific to Duke was an encounter with a professor��a slightly more delicious example, if only for its absurdity.

I applied for a seminar class in the English department last spring, allegedly to be taught by a reportedly dynamic, awe-inspiring teacher, high-energy, unafraid to criticize the emerging McDuke and our complacent role in allowing it to happen. I vouch for this energetic Mr. Chips vicariously, mind you--my admission was denied. I met with him during registration to obtain a permission number, and after an hour of rattling on some random babble, he looked me up and down, in all my blonde-hair sweater-set glory, and told me I wasn't quite ready for his course; I lacked a certain "intellectual sophistication."

Later that week, I stopped by his office again. I'd cut my hair since then and had dyed streaks of it red. I was wearing a t-shirt with the arms cut off and pants very obviously from Thrift World. His demeanor changed. He didn't talk at me; he listened. I was no longer a bottle-blonde skating by on her looks--I was edgy and independent and obviously must have great things to say. He asked if I still wanted to take the class.

That disgusts me. This man, a highly educated man, formed a judgment based not on words, actions, or even looks, but on presentation, one half-hour on an unseasonably cold day. Rather than my manners, my entire person was determined by a choice of haircut and footwear and on my unwillingness to make glib remarks.

Obviously, first impressions matter. To say they don't is to deny a fundamental facet of Western culture. But why is this something we foster, something no one seems to mind? Do we enjoy knowing that one could manipulate our will with a simple manipulation of their flesh?

Meghan Valerio is a Trinity junior and arts editor of Recess. Her column appears every third Wednesday.


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