I Have Gone Insane: Brutal First Impressions

Me next to my sign in Central Park.

Me next to my sign in Central Park.

On the subway ride to Central Park, I clutched my sign and bit my lip. “I can’t believe I’m really doing this,” I said to my husband. My heartbeat was pounding in my ears.

I made my way through Central Park, searching for the perfect spot: one with lots of foot traffic but still quiet, and I set up my sign and hat. I took a deep breath and prayed that no one would beat me up. Immediately people stopped and stared. Then the cameras came out. I started panicking that I would soon be ridiculed on the internet like the typewriting hipster.

A few months ago, I had the idea of starting a business called Brutal First Impressions. Most of us surround ourselves with people who wouldn’t want to hurt our feelings. While this can be good for our egos, it can also hinder our growth, and we can become comfortable with habits that might be off-putting for others. I figured that for a small price, I could be the one to tell it like it is: put on some deodorant, that shirt is terrible, you talk too much when you’re nervous…that kind of thing. But first I wanted to gain some experience. Why not try it out in Central Park!

The first guys to try it out.

The first guys to try it out.

I set the price at $5. At first, the people walking by would take pictures and laugh, saying, “that’s the best idea ever!” but they weren’t paying me for it. As soon as I lowered it to $1, people started lining up.

I asked each participant for their name, a handshake and a smile. Then I would ask them to take a few steps back and walk towards me, and then turn around slowly. At that point I would critique everything that I saw.

Here is some general advice I had to give almost everyone:

  • Make eye contact when you shake hands
  • Show your teeth when you smile
  • Keep your chin up when you walk

I couldn’t believe how many people needed that advice, and as soon as I said it and they tried it out, they seemed like new people.

2012-10-31 22.28.02It wasn’t easy being mean. A crowd would typically form around whomever I was critiquing and I could tell that they wanted to see tears. At one point I told a guy he had dandruff, and his friends practically cheered. I told another guy that he needed to pluck his uni-brow. When the crowd ohhed and ahhed at this, I asked to see a show of hands for who thought he should pluck his eyebrows. Almost everyone raised their hands. When I wasn’t mean, people would start heckling me saying, “Come on, this is supposed to be brutal.”

2012-10-31 22.23.04The whole time I was doing this I kept expecting someone to ask me my qualifications. I had my response all figured out: I’m classically trained in art and literature so I have a discerning eye and a critical mind. I learned how to evaluate presentation styles from my years as a teacher and teacher trainer. But the only person who asked for my qualifications immediately answered for me: “You’re a woman. Women know how to criticize.”

I was surprised that people were really interested in my story. At one point I had four guys sitting on the bench next to me asking my life story (ladies, this is a great way to pick up men if you’re interested). Everyone wanted to know how I got the idea and how much money I was making. So here’s the grand total…for 3 hours of sitting in the park, meeting interesting people, I made $43. I definitely want to try this again. I think I could make a lot more if I get better at working the crowd.

Originally, I wanted to do this because I thought it could help people present themselves better. At the end of the day I realized that I helped in a different way. I got people to laugh and not take themselves so seriously. I got people taking pictures and saying “only in New York.” I figured someone’s going to go back home and talk about the crazy lady they saw in Central Park. As an aspiring writer, I feel great that I gave someone a good story.


  1. When I read things like this, I’m always amazed at the creativity of people– thinking “outside” the box. I wouldn’t have the audacity or extroversion for this but applaud your guts and have a feeling a business model will emerge for you from this experience. If people are willing to dish out a dollar for a fly-by eval, imagine what they’d do for personal PR counseling!

    1. Absolutely! I’d love to take this to the next level : review someone’s business presentation, help someone pick a new wardrobe, go on a pretend first day :P There’s a lot of potential.
      I’m the furthest thing from an extrovert, so it’s funny you should mention that. Having a great idea definitely helped me get past my shyness.

      1. Just an afterthought: I was a career counselor for years in higher ed and am currently teaching a college course titled College To Career– I would love to have someone with that expertise as a guest speaker. Maybe there’s a way to start marketing your skills there?

  2. Telling people the truth isn’t being mean. If you tell someone they need to use deodorant you are being honest and kind. If you tell someone they stink, well that’s another story. I love this post, and I think this is a great business idea! But I HATE the line “Your Mother Lied To You”. Yours never did.

  3. Like the previous commenter, I’m amazed! I, too, applaud you for having the courage to put yourself out there…literally! I love the concept too. Suggestion… get a credit card reader for your smart phone! Please keep us posted as this new savvy business model evolves.

    1. I will definitely keep you posted! I wish I came up with this idea when it was warmer, though. There’s only a few more days I can do this in the park without getting frostbite.

  4. What a great idea. Thoroughly enjoyed hearing about your adventures with BFI. And you sure could have fooled me that you’re not an extrovert. Talk about having the guts to get out there and do something like this. Love the things you come up with.

    BTW – my mother never lied to me. I think.

  5. I give you credit – what a neat idea! Were people a little confused by the “brutally honest” aspect, thinking that brutality equaled pain of some sort, instead of directness? Either way, I don’t think I could have done this. Interesting extra income, though! :)

    1. Thanks! I never thought I would ever do something like this, but it’s good to surprise yourself. I think it also helps to have a blog so then I could justify my craziness as good material for posts.

  6. Well..i think i should give my brutally honest feedback as one of the first clients that day: i was walking by when i saw this sign and Tracy sitting next to it with a welcoming,though a little nervous, smile..i didnt think about it for a split second..i felt some positive energy calling me..plus i was walking alone so eventually nobody would know about this except me and Tracy..
    Tracy asked me what i would be interested in getting feedback for and i spontanously took out $5 and told her to give me any feedback she thought appropriate:) meanwhile she was already “reading” my body language! I have to say at this point that i had just finished my philosophy class so i was walking down Central Park very mindfully and enjoying every single moment of it! So i could clearly “see” where Tracy was focusing on..She first asked me to smile and immediately asked if that was my true smile! She was right on..it wasnt..i m not very confident about my smile and she cought this right away!! Good job i thought! She then noticed i was nodding a lot and suggested to keep my head still..she was right again..
    Being myself very interested in body language i asked her what was her background and as she was telling me about it i thought how women are so much better in this since nature gifted them with higher intuition so they could pick the right male to have a family with!
    After i thanked her for her feedback, i sat close by to let those thoughts sit inside me and curiosly watched as she went on with new clients..
    This really is a great idea that makes people aware of subconscious behaviors that might hurt their image..i couldnt believe it was her first time doing this cause she has a genuine talent for that! And as you mentioned on your blog, the only thing you need to work on might be “working” the crowd..i would recommend having somebody attracting people so he gives you the power of authority..i volunteer to help you out with this Tracy if you need my help:)
    Good Job Tracy! Keep it up!

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