Tuesday, May 21, 2013


Several years ago I went to New York for a week-long conference at Columbia University. I was really excited, but also a little nervous because I was going by myself and I wasn’t sure how I’d spend all the off-time. “Surely I’ll meet other people to have dinner with,” I thought. “I can’t be the only person going by myself.”

Well, I was. Or at least it felt that way. Somehow when we formed smaller groups, the people I was with didn’t exude the Southern charm I’m used to. My comments about our projects were met with silence or sometimes covert glances and raised eyebrows. My questions about local school acronyms were ignored. When I called to take one of them up on a dinner invite, it seemed she was staying in that night instead.

I spent the better part of the week wracking my brain trying to figure out how I’d offended these people, what I must have said in the beginning to turn them off. Later, a friend of mine suggested it was probably my Southern accent – they just assumed any idea I had was the equivalent of a trailer park tattoo since most likely their only exposure to Southerners was as reality show purveyors of moonshine.

Perhaps something like this has happened to you – people pass judgment on you and you then spend an inordinate amount of time wondering what you’ve done wrong. The episode in NY made me feel insecure and unsure of myself, but why is that? Why didn’t I just blow it off and stay confident of the strength of my ideas? A great book I’m reading right now explains my reaction to this whole episode. Carol Dweck has written “Mindset”, about fixed and growth mindsets, and one tiny section caught my eye because it rang so true for me.

Women, she says, are used to being fed positive feedback as children. Generally, girls are treated somewhat gingerly by teachers, parents, and each other. “You’re so helpful!” we hear, or “I think your dress is pretty.” Boys, on the other hand, are often treated rougher and told to “buck up” and not cry. They easily call each other “slob” and “moron.” Girls, on the other hand, don’t call each other names (at least within hearing distance).

The result is that boys learn early on to brush off others’ opinions of them because so often they’re done in a teasing manner. Girls, however, learn to trust other people’s estimates of them. So much of what we hear is positive or at least very likely true (we hope), that we end up very vulnerable to other’s opinions. As Dreck says, girls think “Gee, everyone’s so nice to me; if they criticize me, it must be true.”

What’s the lesson here? It’s certainly not for girls to begin calling each other names in an effort to grow tougher skin. But perhaps when we’re faced with unfounded negative comments we can take a page from the boys’ playbook and practice some positive self-talk. In New York, I should have re-centered myself, been a bit more assertive about my ideas, and perhaps even asked what they felt I’d done wrong. At the very least, I shouldn’t have let it discolor my week the way it did.

Half the battle is simply being aware of the social patterns that impact our perceptions. The other half is in our response.

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