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Why Charm Isn’t All It’s Cut Out To Be

When we are in new situations, or meeting new people, we often “default” to behaviors or personal traits that have made us feel comfortable in the past. The trouble is, even if those are good traits, they may be the wrong thing at the wrong time.

When you first meet Jessica and Jack you immediately “get,” that that both are lovely junior businesspeople, and:

Jessica is vivacious, attractive, charming, and smiles all the time.
Jack is funny, exuberant, happy-go-lucky, sarcastic, and bouncy.

What you may not realize is how those first impression, “default” characteristics are working against them.

In fact, while both Jessica and Jack are well-liked, both are seen as younger, less focused, and less serious about their careers and their work than they actually are.  They struggle to get people to listen to them.

“How might that be?” you may well ask.  Aren’t charm, humor, exuberance, attractiveness, etc. all factors that make you memorable and charismatic?

The answer is – as is so often the case – “Yes. And….”

How A Good Thing May Be Bad

Jessica and Jack are hampered by three things:

  1. False Contradictory Stereotypes
  2. Outdated Success Strategies
  3. Authenticity, and Internal Stereotyping

They are, in fact, “leading with” their learned default behaviors –that is, showing first a habitual, comfortable characteristic.

At the wrong time.

It isn’t the behavior or characteristic that is wrong, just the timing.

Here’s why:

Hamper Factor #1 –  False Contradictory Stereotypes:

First, we are all victims – or beneficiaries – of the human tendency to judge on first impressions.  Second, those impressions are often part of a sneakier tendency to stereotype, short-cut, and simplify our impressions of others, rather than appreciating them as the complex and contradictory people they often are.

The problem is, many stereotypes are falsely contradictory.  One thing doesn’t have to exclude another, but we are surprised when Bill Clinton was a good saxophone player, or that President Obama would sing publically.  Charles Ives, a famous American composer was an Insurance Executive.

And here’s one:  The actor Jason Alexander, who played George Costanza on Seinfeld is a Tony-Award-Winning professional singer!

Here are some “contradictory types” I have known:

A global firm Director of Marketing, who is a world-class competitive big wave surfer
A successful plein-air painter who has invented a new car engine part
A CFO who sings in a hard rock band
A professional NFL player who relaxes by doing needlepoint

If these things seem a little odd, you’re not alone – but really, why should they?

We oversimplify. It uses up less neurological space if we can “box people up” in a simple way.  Then “confirmation bias” (the strongly-wired tendency to filter information through the assumptions we have already made) kicks in.

But people are complex.

Some of us are still surprised when a beautiful, smiley woman is also passionate, organized, and brilliant.  A man whom we first see as goofy and exuberant surprises people when he is also serious, deep, and sensitive.  These two stereotypes are admittedly a bit gender-biased – but stereotypes are often entrenched in bias.  There are many, many examples of how stereotypes keep us from seeing the uniqueness and power of each person, and how people don’t take the time to consider that there could be an “also” in the mix.

I have used relatively-positive stereotypes here; we also stereotype people who appear initially a bit shy as being incapable of also “powering up,” or people who appear initially abrupt and demanding as being incapable of also being good listeners.

Hamper Factor #2 – Outdated Success Strategies:

Second, absent a strong reason to change, we are all likely to use strategies that have given us success in the past. Jessica has made a positive first impression, gotten attention, gotten people to like her and has had successful interactions based on her sparkle. In the same way, Jack has had successful interactions based on his buoyancy. These positive first impression experiences has made each of them lean on those behaviors, especially when stressed.

The problem is, while those behaviors might have been great in social situations, or school, or family life, they might or might not work as well in the business world, or in some other arena.

Hamper Factor #3 – Authenticity and Internal Stereotypes:

Third, changing how we come across, especially in first impressions, makes us feel more uncomfortable, and as if we are being inauthentic, fake, “not ourselves.”

We stereotype ourselves.

So we don’t change. We think our behaviors are what we are, not what we do.

The problem is, we’ve set up a default which has become habitual, and feels safe because it’s worked for us in some historical situation. But we have so many other facets we could also choose to show, or show first – to “lead with” – but just haven’t chosen to do so up until now. In fact, sticking with the default, or stereotype, may keep other people from appreciating what else we have to offer.

What do you LEAD with now?

This is the first question to ask yourself.  This is not about “leadership,” but about which of your many wonderful facets you show first to people.

 What attribute, or combination of attributes, do you “lead with?”

Jessica “leads with” charming.  This does not help her appear powerful.|
Jack “leads with” funny.  This does not help him appear serious.
I, for another example, am a data junkie.  I have a tendency to “lead with” my intelligence, and facts, and curiosity.  (You can guess this made me successful in school!) It also has had a tendency to make me come across as somewhat unapproachable, and even (I’ve been told) pedantic if I am not careful.

 How do you WANT people to see you? 

Set an intention for a different or combined characteristic to lead with.  You don’t have to give up your “lead with” trait.  The likelihood is, you only need to add to it.

Jessica might want to be seen as “Focused, intelligent, AND charming.”
Jack might want to be seen as “Serious, competitive, AND amusing.”

Write it down. 

Write down how you want people to see you What do you want them to take away from their first impression?

Write no more than four or five words.  Put it on a post-it note.  Write it on your speech outline.  Recite it to yourself before every encounter.  Remember, people may be assigning you a stereotype that is far less unique, complicated, and interesting than you really are.

Me, what do I want?

“Smart, powerful, AND always kind.”

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Cynthia Burnham.

(619) 445-5100