Twenty years ago, in a high school front office, I saw a sign hanging above the counter: “Character is what people see when you think they’re not looking.”

I have carried that quote around with me as a reminder that I need to be fully aware of what I’m doing and how I’m impacting others…all the time.

Another salient point that plays constantly in my head is: “You have three seconds to make a first impression, good or bad, your choice.”

Who doesn’t want to always make the best first impression possible?

I have learned that my actions will have a direct impact on other people. And from that impact, they will most certainly judge my character.

Many will conclude that my actions, behaviors, and attitude are representative of who I truly am. As I think most of us do, I want others to think highly of me.

So, I must constantly ask myself: “How do I want to be seen?” I consider myself a fairly self-aware person who manages his behavior well.

I like to think that I have a pretty good grasp on the first two pillars of emotional intelligence, or EQ: self-awareness and self-management.

Of course, there are always opportunities to be “even better.” I often conduct a personal inventory to double-check whether I’m showing up as I intend to show up.

I wish other people had an interest in gaining strength in these areas.

As I travel this summer for the first time since March of 2020 (due to the global COVID-19 pandemic), I constantly witness just how scarce these self-awareness and self-management skills are.

Just traveling on airplanes, spending time in airports, and navigating the various social interactions that go with today’s travel provides a plethora of examples of just how many people lack basic emotional intelligence skills.

For example, while recently flying on business, I observed a young person, maybe in their early 20s, who had the window seat in a three-seat row. There was an older person sitting in the first of the three seats and no one in the middle seat.

The young person tossed their backpack and personal item over the older person unannounced and then climbed over the older person, in an apparent hurry to get into their assigned seat.

Instead of saying “excuse me,” indicating they would like to move into the row and allowing the older person a chance to stand up or move their legs into the aisle, the younger person squeezed their legs between the older person’s legs and the seat back from the row in front and forced their way through to the window seat.

No apparent verbal communication skills and no apparent self-awareness or self-management skills. Sadly, the younger person’s character was on full display: I’m only concerned with myself.

This is but one example among hundreds that I witness on a frequent basis. How we tend to treat our fellow humans is disappointingly sad, at best.

Another indication of a lack of self-awareness and a lack of self-management I’ve observed is people who insist on putting their phones on “speaker” and having a loud conversation that everyone within 50 feet can hear.

I’m sure no one else is interested in hearing Aunt Sally talk about her colonoscopy results, how much the chicken wings cost at Popeye’s, or what Uncle Ed’s performance is like when he and Sally get “frisky” on a Saturday night.

Instead of asking, “what’s wrong with that person?” I have learned to ask myself, “what happened to that person?”

Have they suffered a trauma that left such a huge hole in their psyche that they need to be the center of attention?

Have they been so abused by society that they are insensitive to others and the impact their behavior has on them?

Did their parents never teach them about being aware of their space and not encroaching on others’ space?

Did they not learn to be self-aware and manage their behavior in more socially responsible ways?

Could it be they are so distracted by their smartphone, headset, earbuds, etc. that they simply don’t have the cognitive space to consider the impact of their actions on other people?

Or do they just not care because they never saw that quote about character and that what they do can lead people to determine who they REALLY are?

So, you may ask yourself, “why does it matter, anyway?”

Well, for the people who don’t notice such social behavior and don’t care about emotional intelligence skills, it doesn’t matter. They’ll probably never care…until they gain some EQ skills.

But for the hundreds of thousands of people who DO notice such things, it matters a lot.

It matters especially if those who value such skills are the ones deciding whether they should hire you, or give you a special opportunity, or invite you into their lives as friends.

If you’re interested in ensuring that the character others see in you is the character you want them to see, especially during those first three seconds of making a first impression, then start noticing your behavior and the impact it had, might have, or is having on other people.

Ask yourself, “Is what I’m doing right now: 1) having a negative impact on those around me; 2) is it demonstrating my character and who I really am to others, and 3) is it making a positive or negative first impression?”

Take a personal inventory after each social interaction to see how you could have handled that differently, better, etc.

Research emotional intelligence skills and learn about how you can be more emotionally intelligent especially by becoming more self-aware and having stronger self-management skills.

Remember: Character is what people see when you think they’re not looking!