Ever meet someone who wasn’t quite who you thought she’d be?
Like she was decidedly on guard? Or putting on an act?
Some years ago I reached out to a woman at work I admired greatly.
She had the title and the poise and operated with the exceptional professionalism of someone worthy of her elevated position.
I, on the other hand, ran around more often in a state I’d call “Hurried and Slightly Disheveled.”
She had mentioned publicly how mentoring and sponsorship for the advancement of women and serving as a source of connectivity was important to her. (I’ve italicized those words to call attention to how she used them… read on for recurring theme). So I approached her for a cup of coffee, as networking experts suggest, to see what I could glean from our time together.
I had no agenda to advance my own initiative at that time.
I simply wanted to see what made her tick. I hoped to learn more about her. I thought maybe we’d become friendly. You know, not Super-Close friendly, but maybe Sit-for-a-Salad-in-the-Corporate-Cafeteria-Once-in-a-While kind of friendly.
So we met for coffee. In my memory of this event, I picked up a latte… there might have been a blueberry muffin on the side too, history would suggest this was likely… while she declined to order anything, noting she had ingested something hours earlier. Like, the night before. That should have been my first clue.
She was as poised up close as she was running those high-level meetings, the ones I occasionally attended when I was lucky enough to snag a seat in the outskirts of the room.
And yet, she was not at all real.
I think there was a language barrier. Which is odd because we both speak English.
What do I mean by that?
Well, I spoke like a normal person.
And she spoke like an alien from the Planet of Corp Speak.
When I asked about her career path, she spoke of the multitude of opportunities she had leveraged, the return on investment of her cross-section of relationships, the impactful assignments highlighted on her resume. And some other puzzling words, the kind that make you go, “Hmmm….”
She ran our chat like her executive meetings. She didn’t come with a deck of slides, but it was if she had them stored in her brain, a color-coded chart of her career trajectory over mine.
Had I given proper insight to my career stops? Did I have buy-in from key players?
Trying to cut through the formal verbiage, I asked about her life outside of work. She “had it all” in that there was a family too. Of them she was equally proud… of her husband’s sharing of domestic capabilities – they were true partners – and her kids’ work ethic and steadfast commitment to sports and dance and their personal demonstration of generous spirit. But there were no details that I could latch on to. Nothing that reminded me of my own Having-it-All-is-Sometimes-Way-Too-Much life. No hurried mornings, late evening laundry, rushed McNugget dinners in the car when you are gripping the steering wheel tightly to hold back the tears because it has all just gone to hell…
(Not that I’ve done that, of course. I mean, not that often…)
I spoke of balls in the air, the constant juggling and concern I was shortchanging everybody in the process.
If she had experienced any of what I admitted to – the daily struggles of the commitment to all parts (facets?) of my (complex, multi-dimensional?) life – she didn’t let on, only looked at me with a bemused expression.
At points I wanted to wave my hand in front of her face… “Helloooo? Anybody in there?”
Maybe her life wasn’t like that. Or maybe she just wasn’t willing to admit that it was.
To be fair, I’ve been told sometimes I share too much, too soon. I speak in overly familiar terms and make too many jokes. And then I laugh at my own jokes. Sometimes loudly.
Maybe I did this and it shut her down. Maybe she found nothing in common with a Hurried and Slightly Disheveled underling who would deign to order a non-skim latte and a blueberry muffin and finish both.
Everything she said was so polished it was like a smooth piece of marble – nothing to hold onto.
She was impressive for sure. But entirely impersonal.
I would later share my sentiment with a co-worker who agreed there was something not quite real about this Highly Regarded woman. She had a Stepford-esque quality that led us to begin referring to her as “The Robot”. She seemed programmed, as if you could hear the machines whirring behind her eyes before they clicked into the proper response. Equally creatively, we began to conceive what her life outside the office might be like.
ROBOT’S HUSBAND: “Hi honey, you look hot… wanna sneak upstairs for a quickie?”
ROBOT: “Let me weight the cost-benefit analysis of your proposal. I can see a circumstance in which it might be mutually beneficial if we can be both time-efficient and forthright about our goals for such an endeavor.”
(MEOW. I know. That was a little catty. Before you judge me for being catty to another woman at the office – something I HATE when other women do – please note I was not being catty to another woman. I was being catty to a Robot. There is a difference.)
I should point out the Robot had a generous spirit, the kind she said she had instilled in her kids. She did ask how she might assist me. That was nice of her. What were my core competencies, she wanted to know. How might I be opportunistic in the fiscal year ahead? How can she help empower me?
I sat, nodding in that dumbfounded way while considering her questions, wiping blueberry muffin crumbs off the table. I was still hungry… I needed something heartier, more filling. No, not another breakfast item.
Ultimately, I thanked her for her time and sent an equally appropriate email of gratitude after. It was carefully phrased and to the point. After all, we are the company we keep.
Did I still admire her? Not really. If that’s what it would take to reach the top, to speak in words that don’t mean anything outside of flow charts, utterly devoid of a sense of REAL… well, no way, I can’t do that.
But if I’m really keeping it real, I have to say, I felt somewhat sorry for her. If she had a true self – and there had to have been one in there – she clearly wasn’t comfortable sharing it. So afraid she might have been of being real that she became The Robot. And in doing so she was missing out on all the potential for a real friendship, one that involves authentic sharing, removing the mask (read Take Off Your Mask!), and relating on any sort of level.
You know, Keeping it Real.
I suppose I was looking for my own return on investment for the meeting. An opportunity to make an impactful connection, one that might provide payouts and dividends down the road.
My bad for seeking something that wasn’t quite real to begin with.
The blueberry muffin and latte were pretty awesome though.
Valerie Gordon spent two decades in the corporate world, producing and overseeing features for television. She’s now the founder and owner of Commander-in-She, a career and communications strategy firm. She helps clients use storytelling to find greater satisfaction at work and success in their future chapters. She tries to Keep it Real with everything she writes. Check out her other humor work on her Commander-in-She blog.