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.
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.
It 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.”
The 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.