As you go about your business today, take a step back and watch as you interact with others.Maybe you’ll find yourself in a conference room, talking with one or two colleagues about last night’s reality show before the meeting begins. Perhaps you’ll wander (or be summoned) in to a manager’s office, where you’ll swap condolences about the big game at the weekend before discussing the details of a project. Later, you might be on the ‘phone with a supplier or a customer, asking how the weather is in Poughkeepsie before getting into the details of a job or contract.
One way or the other, you’ll spend some part of today, if not chit-chatting or gossiping, at least talking informally with other people.
So far so good, so far so…normal.
It’s what happens next that’s of interest. When the time comes to move from informal, ‘normal’ chit-chat to the business at hand – say the meeting comes to order, your boss reaches for the project file, or the supplier on the ‘phone says ‘Anyhoo…’ – at this point, for 98% of the working population, two things will happen:
1. The pitch of your voice will change slightly but perceptibly. You’ll move up an octave (a small percentage of people’s voices will go down an octave).
2. If you’re face to face with an individual or group of people, your use of eye contact will change. You will use less direct, eye-to-eye contact, and more eye-to-bridge-of-the-nose contact.
These may seem like small changes – and superficially, they are. They’re useful to some extent, too, in providing a demarcation between formal and informal discussion. But mostly, it’s a destructive and inauthentic process. By subtly shifting to our ‘business voice’ and changing the way we make eye contact with others, we’re signaling – to ourselves mostly, but to others, too – that this is not truly ‘us’. That this business persona is ‘other’ than the real me.
The distinction between ‘business me’ and ‘real me’ varies from person to person. Some of us have very different ‘business’ and ‘real’ personas, and for others they are almost indistinguishable – but for most all of us, there is a difference.
The key difference is that we give ‘business me’ permission to do things ‘real me’ wouldn’t. ‘Business me’ might exaggerate, avoid, evade, opine, shade, interpret, bond, reject, embrace or promote in ways ‘real me’ never would. ‘Business me’ will talk about things in an artificial manner we would never use at home or around friends – and not just in adopting workplace norms, but by responding to situations and others in ways ‘real me’ wouldn’t.
In essence, what we’re doing is reducing the stress caused by cognitive dissonance – having to do and say things we’re not personally comfortable with – by shifting the responsibility of saying and doing those things to someone else – our fabricated ‘business me’.
Of course the downside of this is that everyone else notices. Everyone. All the time. Don’t kid yourself: just as you know when Jane or Juan are just being themselves and when they have turned on their ‘business me’, so everyone else knows, albeit at a subliminal level, when you’re doing it too. (In fact, because of our desire to subjugate dissonance, we can begin to ignore it in ourselves, while noticing it in everyone else.)
This is the heart and root (if something can be both a heart and a root…) of inauthenticity. As soon as we switch into ‘business me’ there is a character void formed, where inauthenticity lurks. We say things, do things, agree to things, condone things we otherwise would not.
For most of us these are small things, maybe even insignificant – agreeing with our boss when she’s made a silly suggestion, lightly shading data to prove a point, condoning a handling charge that we know is unnecessarily padded. At the other extreme, ‘business me’ can become a ruthless tyrant, a toadying panderer or a manipulative deceiver.
The problem is, being even a little inauthentic all the time is like being a little angry all the time – it colors and pollutes everything.
So today, try a simple experiment. In whatever environment you find yourself interacting with others, when the time comes to segue from the informal to the formal, pause for 5 seconds. Check for a tightening in your tonsils, and release it. Relax your throat and consciously return to your normal voice, make full eye contact, then talk.
Let ‘real me’ out. I guarantee you’ll be surprised – and pleased – by what happens.