Last week, during our daily check-in meeting with my team, one of my new team members stopped me mid-sentence, laughing, and exclaimed: “You look like a cartoon character!”
Needless to say, I was totally taken aback. Though not surprised.
I was announcing that we were about to start a new project, and I was pretty excited about it.
I’ve learned that for some reason, and no matter how hard I’ve tried to hide it, I am an extremely expressive person. One of my standby self-effacing jokes is that I’m the best person to win a lot of money from in a poker game, as my face immediately shows everything I’m thinking:
Finally received approval for my passion project? I exclaim, “YES!” at my computer.
Got an assignment that makes me want to cry (in my case, anything involving accounting and balance sheets), I groan painfully.
Hear a funny story? I have an explosive laugh that has resisted all my urges to quell it.
My CEO once told me, as I entered his office prior to a meeting: “I can always tell when it’s you. I can hear your walk…”
As a woman, these things can seem totally embarrassing. At least for me they have. The first thing that comes to mind when someone says that they can “hear me coming,” is “Oh NO! Do I stomp? Do I have that dreaded ‘stern teacher’ walk?” “Maybe I should try and walk more slowly or tread softly…”
Another coworker of mine came into a meeting room to find me once, and said “I couldn’t figure out where you were, so I just followed the voice.”
Mortification ensued. Am I that loud? What did I just say? Was it even intelligent-sounding? Who else heard whatever it was I was talking about?
And they weren’t the only people who have said this to me. Throughout my working life I’ve been told I had too much fun at work, a loud walk, a powerful voice, an expressive face.
And yet, even though I’ve had bosses that urged me to be more like my other coworkers, the quiet demure women typing away at their work, I have consistently exceeded performance expectations, developed relationships with bosses, colleagues, and clients that have transcended my job function, and have managed to find myself, at a relatively young age, in a position of leadership at the national level.
I work in an open office space, so my words and actions can be heard and seen throughout the office. I also hold a position of leadership, so people do ask me for my advice and opinion often. And I have employees for whom I endeavour to be a good example.
And I’m a busy, engaged, enthusiastic person with places to go and people to see—you know? So yeah, I talk to people a lot, and yeah, I walk to meetings with purpose. And yeah, I laugh. Things are funny!
In high school, that miasma of awful that we claw our way through, I was younger than most of my fellow students. This added layer of “difference” made it even more important for me to fit in. And I did okay, most of the time. I had the same struggles that many other kids do… not fitting in, trying to find a group that accepted who I was, and I managed to get through and out those doors relatively unscathed.
Over the years, when someone said to me that they knew it was me coming down the hall, or that they could hear me talking, or that they understood how I was feeling that day before I’ve said a word, I immediately turned it into a negative—a criticism. And my high school self wanted to shrink back into her locker and hide.
However, in recent years I’ve started to notice that I may have been looking at this all wrong. Perhaps because I’m female, and we are conditioned to be appeasing, non-threatening and relatively invisible, anything that made me “stand out” seemed immediately to be negative.
But it’s simply not true.
When I asked my colleague what she meant after she called me a cartoon (which I still don’t think was the nicest way of putting it), she said, “It’s great! You’re so animated and you make me excited about the work we get to do here.”
When I asked my CEO what he meant when he said he could hear me coming, he said “I always know you’re coming to tell me something important.”
And when I looked askance at the employee who “followed the voice,” she told me that she could hear me presenting and thought that it sounded interesting.
I had it all wrong. Instead of (not so) thinly-veiled insults, these comments were compliments and observations. If I got out of my own head, I could see myself through other people’s eyes, and noticed that they were overwhelmingly positive.
So I’m trying to turn it around. Instead of thinking about myself as a loud, obnoxious, stomping Tasmanian devil, I’m trying to see it more that I have a presence that is uniquely mine. I’m honest, caring, intelligent and enthusiastic. And I have a great sense of humour.
And the facts support it. I am often called upon in meetings to provide advice, colleagues and other managers ask me for my opinion. I have a knack for breaking tension in the room by putting things into perspective, and I’ve become a leader at a relatively young age.
I am now uniquely, and unapologetically, myself. Well, most of the time.
Am I perfect? No. There are so many things I have to learn, and I am always looking for ways to improve. But that’s the key: it’s less about changing who I am, but using those traits to improve myself and (hopefully) my workplace.
So, while I’m still trying to tone down the loud sighing at the end of every fiscal quarter, and not bowl over other colleagues in the hallways, I’m trying to embrace the things about me that got me to where I am, and appreciate them for being part of what makes me, me.
Next time a co-worker, friend, your boss, or someone close to you comments about you, try and listen to what they’re actually saying. Is it really negative? Or is there something about you that people really appreciate? We’re all unique, special little flowers, after all…so let’s stop worrying about it and start owning it.
See what happens.