Imagine walking into a crowded room. You woke up early that morning. You worked out and enjoyed a nice long hot shower. "What a Time to Be Alive" blasted through your Bose sound system. You brushed your teeth, looked in the mirror and smiled at yourself. You put on your best even down to your favorite scent. Your hair is fresh. Your shoes are shined. You have slight scoliosis. But somehow your back is so straight, it’s almost as if there is a puppeteer pulling your head, neck, and shoulders all the way up. You are almost floating in the air.
You arrived early. You head to the coffee station and get a latte with the foam forming a tree. Nice. You immediately notice that no one looks like you at all. Enh. Does it really matter? You are slightly introverted but you are feeling confident enough to start a conversation. You engage someone standing nearby. At first you make small talk and you are smiling big. More people walk in and even less look like you. The person you are trying to chat up is giving you condescending nods as you discuss your experiences. Your shoulders start to drop.
The conversation trails off and you decide to try again. So what do you do? The new person asks. Where'd you go to school? You share your alma mater with pride. Oh ok, so how long have you been doing this? They sneer at your credentials as well and you can tell they are starting to check out while you are mid sentence. You try to engage them but they've pulled out their phone and you can't tell if they are tweeting, checking email or taking a selfie. Ok… As the conversation dies, you decide to check the agenda. The chosen experts of the day also look nothing like you.
You came to learn, add value and make new connections. You know what you have to offer but the deliberate exclusion from those sitting at your table makes you begin to second-guess your significance. You start to wonder if you belong. You are now 4 inches shorter than you were when you walked in. You adjust your clothes. Was this an appropriate choice for this event? You consider walking out.
STOP! You've just been shaded. We have all been there. And if someone tells you they haven't they are likely unconscious. Social situations always carry the possibility of rejection. Everyone experiences this, but when you appear more different than alike to others in the room, that rejection can be amplified. It is human nature to crave homogeneity and we tend to connect quicker with those who seem like us. Unfortunately, in many corporate settings, people of color and women are frequently not a big enough part of the mix.
Last month, Pinterest released some numbers citing their diversity challenges in Fast Company. For two years in a row the diversity numbers remained consistently low. "The proportion of women in tech roles at Pinterest was 21%, while the number of African-American and Latino employees overall: 1% and 2%, respectively." The Fast Company article reinforced that this is the unfortunate standard of many tech companies.
While the tech industry is particularly challenged, this standard unfortunately transcends many industries. It is the duty of these companies to address and resolve their hiring challenges, but the employee that is faced with the challenge of being different has to deal with how to maintain their confidence in daily social situations, or in other words shake the rejection off. Frequently, it may not even be intentional, but it is a result of the failure of some to know how to or to make effort to connect with others of different backgrounds. Furthermore, a lack of intent doesn't negate the impact.
If you are faced with a situation where you feel shaded or just dealing with the discomfort of being different, it is important to have some go-to tactics for regaining your confidence.
Go into every social engagement with an agenda. It does not have to complex, it can just be to learn new information or meet a new colleague. When you feel a dip in your confidence, take a deep breath and remind yourself of what you are seeking to gain from being there. Having a clear agenda will help you regain focus.
Be prepared! Nothing boosts your confidence more than being knowledgeable about what you are talking about. Once your agenda for the engagement is clear, map out a few areas where you can add value.
Step away for a moment. Head into the bathroom or hall and do a quick activity that makes you feel good. Whether that’s listening to you favorite Drake classic, whipping your hair back and forth in the mirror or doing a few squats, do something quick that makes you feel like you’re on your A-game again.
Phone a friend (or text one). If you are shaken by feeling out of place and notice a drop in your level of “feeling yourself,” get in contact with that friend that is great at hyping you up. You have lifelines for a reason.