First impressions of countries and people

So I was walking off the plane last month in Brisbane airport still feeling decidedly unstable after my in-transit bout with food poisoning and there they were. Two photographic murals ten feet high and thirty long, one on each side of the concourse, full of spiders. There were hundreds of spiders dotted across these pictures. Maybe thousands.

That seemed to be the point.

“Australia has more than two thousand types of spiders,” the mural proclaimed. “The most deadly of these is the funnel web. If you see one, run!

Right below this statement there was a picture of a funnel web so greatly enlarged that that the spider looked as if it could have brought down a pony without even biting it.

This visual gauntlet of spiders was all rather horrifying. It was also (for reasons I have not yet managed to figure out despite having been puzzling over this for a month now) an ad for a phone company.

What could have possessed anyone (much less the entire team of people that were undoubtedly involved) to: (a) create this ad; and (b) place not one but two of them in an international arrivals terminal? I guess if people are walking through the arrivals terminal they’re already in Australia and are unlikely to turn around and leave the country on the spot. But, really, is this the first on-the-ground impression we want to make as a nation? Really?

First impressions are important. Multiple research studies show that we judge things like attractiveness and trustworthiness very quickly, within 1/10th of a second after meeting someone or even seeing a photograph. We make very persistent judgments about whether or not we like someone and want to have a relationship with them within the first half a minute. Mind you, these aren’t necessarily accurate first impressions, but they are self-fulfilling ones. Most of us form first impressions and stick to them, looking for further cues that confirm our assumptions (for all you psych geeks this is called the Halo Effect).

Part of me doesn’t like this. I don’t want to think that I sum people up so quickly, but I have to admit that I do tend to trust my instincts when I meet people, and I would say I’m right more often than not when I’m judging whether I like them or we would get on. I am sometimes wrong, however. I can think of several instances during the last five years when I’ve been spectacularly wrong. All of them have been times when I’ve mentally written someone off as silly, shallow, and not a person I could ever be close to. Often I met these people at church.

Church is funny like that. I can’t think of any other part of my life that consistently throws me up against so many people I don’t naturally get along with. I also can’t think of any other area of life that facilitates me spending time with people that I have mentally written off as obnoxious and annoying. Sometimes when I spend time with these people in ways that allow me to get to know bits and pieces of their stories and to see some of their different facets I find much more there than I had ever expected – kindness, beauty of spirit, valuable insights on life, and fun. Sometimes, of course, I don’t find myself revising my first impressions much at all, but those I’ve met at church have taught me far more about not judging others too quickly than those I’ve met in bars.

I no longer have much idea what all this has to do with Brisbane airport and spiders except to say that I still think those murals are in extraordinarily bad advertising taste. Even if the entire country is literally crawling with spiders (and I did have three encounters during my first ten days back – one fell out of a bath towel and onto my foot right before I touched said towel to my naked, clean, self!) there is no reason to visually assault people with an arachnid parade the minute they get off the plane in Australia. After all, first impressions are hard to overcome.

PS, I was going to illustrate this post with a picture of a funnel web, but then I googled funnel web images and decided I couldn’t do that to you. So here’s a picture of one of Australia’s better-loved animals instead.

(photo credit:

7 responses to “First impressions of countries and people

  1. Of course I googled funnel web spider. I’m never going to Australia! At least not with a small child or someone infirm! You’re right about the ad. That, and the wikipedia entry. 🙂

    • Now, of course, I googled the wikipedia entry. That is rather terrible. If it’s any consolation (or inducement to come to Australia) to the best of my knowledge I’ve never seen a funnel web in the wild and don’t know anyone personally who’s been bitten by one.

      • I think this is turning into a chain of horror, as I just googled “funnel web spider” too. Ick.

        But I don’t think it shall prevent me from hopefully visiting Australia one day. 🙂

        • Good! Australia’s definitely not worth missing out on just because of some itsty bitsy (OK, medium size and awfully scary looking) spider that only lives near Sydney anyway.

  2. My favorite excerpt from the Wikipedia entry: “For this reason, people are strongly advised not to approach them. Chances of being bitten are high if encountered.”

    It was reassuring to know that no one has died from a funnel spider since 1980.

    • Why anyone would want to approach them is beyond me. But, then again, I saw some idiot on a nature show recently put a king brown snake (even scarier than a funnel web spider in terms of possible consequences) up to his face and it bit him on the nose. The doofus was incredibly lucky the snake didn’t inject any venom or he would have died.

  3. Pingback: 30 great gifts for pregnant women and new parents | Lisa McKay Writing

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