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Watching Your Words

Watching Your Words


As usual, I was running late. I left the building at a quick pace heading for the parking lot. Almost immediately I heard steps behind me. The steps approached rapidly until a rather disheveled man was by my side. He was wearing khakis that were slightly wrinkled as was his forest green shirt. His shoes were worn down and he slouched over under the weight of an overstuffed backpack.

“Good morning,” I said. “Looks like I’m not the only one who’s running a little late.” He chuckled. “Isn’t that what happens every day? It’s tough when the meeting is not within walking distance.” We continued to exchange small talk as we walked to our vehicles. We talked about the weather and exchanged other pleasantries.

I got into my car and sighed. I am so bad at small talk. It takes so much effort and quite frankly, I prefer to avoid it. But as I’ve ticked off the years in the professional world, I’ve realized its value. The majority of people enjoy taking to other people and find it satisfying to interact with someone who is pleasant. I’ve made it a point to be that pleasant person.

I arrived at my destination and quickly entered the building. “Hold the elevator, please.” I extended my arm to halt the doors as they started to close. “Thanks so much,” said the man in the wrinkled khakis and forest green shirt. We exchanged a look of surprise and laughed. I said, “Wouldn’t it be funny if we were going to the same meeting?” “It would indeed.” He told me where he was going and I said, “Well I’m actually headed somewhere else but it sounds like we’re working on something very similar.” He took a moment to explain a little bit more about what he was working on and I did the same. Before he turned to leave, he extended his hand and introduced himself. I reciprocated. We both headed for our respective meetings.

As I walked down the hall I thought about how much I like my current job. I was unemployed for over a year before landing this great gig. I found it through my network and quite frankly I would have spent much less time unemployed if I had used my network sooner. I’ve resided in the same city for my entire life. It’s a decent sized town but I am always amazed at who knows whom. And when people know each other, people talk to each other.

Early in my career I made the mistake of telling someone over the phone that “so and so flaked out and now I was looking for a backup instructor.” I really didn’t think anything about it but a few weeks later it came back to haunt me. The person that I had flippantly described as “flaking out” was the best friend of the person who knew my boss or something obscure like that. My offhand comment made the rounds and I looked bad. I was viewed as impulsive, disrespectful and unprofessional. I probably could have used the excuse that I was young and dumb, which I was, but regardless my reputation took a big negative hit. When you are a working professional, few things matter more than your reputation and if it is damaged, it takes a lot of time and effort to repair it. The news of my flub traveled fast and this was long before social media. People talk. Yes, social media has changed our lives. Our world has grown smaller and people are able to connect as never before. We watch as lives, both celebrity and not, are changed by hasty decisions, good and bad, to post something online. We have all been cautioned by someone who warns, “Be careful. You never know who might read what you write.” And yes, we need to manage our online reputations. However, how many of us recognize the great importance of managing our face-to-face reputations?

When I started my new job, I was blown away by how many people knew me.

“Hey, I know you. Didn’t you go to school with so-and-so? She said you were great to work with.”

“I remember you. You presented at that conference back in 2015.”

“I know you. My sister was in the class that you taught two years ago.”

People talk.

Yes, I manage my online presence, but I spend much more time managing my face-to-face presence. I am consistently mindful of how I am perceived. I make a conscious effort to be respectful and polite to everyone I encounter. I am cognizant of how I answer the phone. I work very hard at remembering people’s names. I say please and I say thank you. I almost never raise my voice or speak without pausing to prepare my message. People talk and honestly I put much more value in what someone tells me than what I read online. I would speculate that most people feel the same way—something told to us in person usually carries more weight than something that we read online. The latter we take with a grain of salt. But when people talk, we inevitably listen.

A few weeks ago, I was suddenly reassigned to work on another project. My colleague told me to meet her and she would introduce me to my new boss. As I entered the office and extended my hand to shake his hand, I was eye to eye with the disheveled man in the same wrinkled khakis and forest green shirt. He smiled broadly and said, “Hey, I know you. And I’ve heard some good things about you.”

My new position would have started in a much different manner had I chosen to ignore, or worse rebuff, the stranger in the parking lot a few months previously. People talk. Do everything in your power to ensure that they are talking favorably about you.

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