Everything you didn't learn in school that will help you survive the world of work. A place for newbies, for working moms, for seasoned professionals and "free agents" to share strategies, tips and tales from the trenches.

May 20, 2006

Secret Identities

In our
last session, we discussed how strange impressions are formed around the office, and why it may be advantageous to let them lie. Miss Bender has recently learned another "fact" about herself that came as a complete surprise, but was greeted with a straight face.

Apparently, Miss Bender was once a med student.
Well, why not.

Part of the skill of maintaining an image as an International Woman of Mystery is to let these chips fall where they may. I don't tell elaborate stories of my days in a labcoat, as if it were true, but I didn't correct it either. I thought I'd find out what I could find out.

I have learned that the reason I took Latin for four years (which is true, and a fact I have volunteered myself as an apologia for my vocabularly -- which includes words like apologia. Why use Saxon when a Latinate will do?) ...the reason I took Latin for four years was to prepare for medical school. uh..huh.

I think this may have started because I did once tell a story that involved my preparation for doctoral school. (Also true. Also ill-advised. Also not the story I am telling.)

No one says "Doctor School." This is not a phrase. But I think that's what people heard.

Here then, are your Bender-style guidelines for creating your own aura.

Just enough backstory: Stick to the story you are telling. This is Miss Bender's general rule anyway. Too often, people provide so much backstory that one loses track of the main plot, and interest in where it is going. Remember Seinfeld's rule of the Yadda: "We went back to my place, yadda yadda yadda, I never saw him again." Besides holding your audience, what it does for your secret identity status is show only small windows of information that when strung together... don't seem to go together at all.

Play with numbers: I had a co-worker who was often referring to "an old boyfriend," in a Stanley Kowalski way ("An old boyfriend of mine was a skydiver..."). Somehow at 30, she'd had a fleet of "old boyfriends." Most of them were actually "old dates," and the remainder were the same guy.

Play with time: Miss Bender is fond of dropping that she saw Elvis in concert, which is true. She was 10 at the time.

Horde skills: If you can actually play ragtime piano, say, save that fact to whip out at the christmas party. In icebreakers, dig deep for the "something about yourself." Never repeat them. And of course... never say more than is required.

Acknowledge your contradictions: The tomboy who knits, the bookish type who is also a skeetshooter, the devout christian who swears like a sailor cause others to think, "well, ya think ya know a person..."

Nod agreeably with the stories others tell: Not only is it polite, it gives them the impression you identify with their story because you have a similar one. When you don't tell it, they decide you are just modest, or "private." You have no such story, but subconsciously, they tell themselves you do.

Remember your "outside obligations." (see previous post). Also a good phrase: "I am expected at home."


May 4, 2006

Other Obligations

When Miss Bender was an eager young professional, there was an often-told (and doubtless apocryphal) story told of the young woman who started a new job at a new campus with a wedding ring on her finger and pictures of her husband and young children on her desk.

But the facts eventually revealed themselves: the family was invented, and she was not married. But she wanted to set a tone in this new job that she had other obligations to go home to. For years, as the unmarried childless member of the staff, she had been expected to stay late, come early, work holidays, and take less vacation.

She and her story were invented, and also 100% true, as all of us living that story knew.

I always liked the idea, even long after I had left the kind of field (even position) that required that kind of dedication. My next move was to an hourly position, where I was too expensive to stay after hours. When I returned to salary, I adopted the unapologetic phrase, “obligations outside work.”

Here’s how it works:

Dear Boss,
Thanks for sending the information about the on-site training class to be held next month. I look forward to this opportunity.
You mentioned that this training lasts all day and goes into the evening.
Can you advise what hours we should commit? I need to reschedule my other obligations, depending on what time we expect to begin and end each session.
I understand the class is Top Priority that week, but adjustments will have to be made.

You see I still work nights and evenings when I have to. Meeting a deadline is still of greater importance to me than making a point on a time clock (I never said I was cured).

But this sets that legendary career gal’s tone that the Company has competition for my attention, with the added emphasis that the Company doesn’t get to decide whether it is more or less important than what they want me to be thinking about. Because I never explain what the obligations are.

Then this happened – subconsciously perhaps, but quite by accident.

I was in a second interview, and at this point in the conversation had already been offered the job. So I cut to the bottom of my list of questions and began asking the practical things about working from home, and doctor’s appointments, and other flexibilities of salary life (which one does miss when one doesn’t get paid for not working).

I got to the bullet point about my volunteer work. I volunteer once a week at a site about 20 miles from where I would be working, so there is always a sticky point where I have to flex-time myself into a schedule that accommodates that.

I meant to say "I have a volunteer job once a week that requires me to leave an hour early that day. Usually I come in an hour earlier that day, if that will work for you. I can choose any day of the week we like, but then I have to stay with that day." In my nervousness though, I didn’t say “volunteer job.” I said “community service.”

Read that paragraph again.

It hung there in the air, and I heard it, and I thought… well, let’s just leave it like that.

Community service. Why not just say…Standing appointment. Session. Meth dosage. Shock treatment.

So before this guy who had just offered me a job had time to think too hard about what I just said, I added “Am I required to travel in this job? Because I can’t.”

I’ve been waiting ever since for this rumor to come back around to me, but so far it hasn’t. I do show some occasional leg around the office, so he knows there’s no ankle bracelet. Maybe he’s forgotten it already.

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