You’re not special

You’re probably familiar with Dave Barry’s words “If someone is nice to you but rude to the wait staff, they are not a nice person.”

I think this is true in part because anytime someone demonstrates cruelty, their kindness becomes suspect for insincerity.

But I also acknowledge that humans have a natural tendency to be a little extra kind to the folks we perceive to be of our own ilk or higher in status.  Though ultimately self-serving, I don’t think it’s necessarily ill-intentioned or not nice.  It just is.

I have been thinking about this very human phenomenon over the course of the past year, as I have gone through a bit of transition at this university.  I started in a front line, customer-service support role at the lowest wage grade in the organization.  A little over a year ago I moved on to a coordinator role on a new team (this team) with more responsibility and impact, which is a few grades up but admittedly still not far from the bottom.  It didn’t seem like a big step to me in the grand scheme of things, so I didn’t anticipate changes in my social status as a result of this transition.

Later though, looking at Hollingshead’s 1975 “Four Factor Index of Social Status” I realize I jumped two levels on the 9-point Occupational Scale when I made this move.  So I should not have been surprised (though I was) to find that it did make a difference in the way I was treated by students and colleagues.

I can’t say I had many experiences where people were actually rude to me in my previous role as a clerk.  But there are much subtler things at play. People seem generally more interested in what I have to say now.  My thoughts and ideas seem to be taken more seriously, and are even actively sought out at times.  I am asked more than I am told.  Positive feedback I receive feels more genuine.  I am asked for feedback.  I’m ignored less often when someone more powerful walks into the room.  My jokes even seemed to get funnier to some, believe it or not.

To be clear, I wouldn’t classify any of these folks with those who are cruel to servers.  While some of it seems a bit self-serving, I don’t think any of it is ill-intentioned.  It just surprised me to notice a difference because I knew I was the same person.  I also naively believed I worked in a utopia where hierarchy didn’t affect they way we treat each other.

It made me wonder where all this comes from.

Are they more interested in what I have to say because they’re finally hearing my voice for the first time?  Is it because I’m actually becoming more confident, thoughtful, outspoken, and present?  Or because the role has afforded me more opportunities to have a voice?

Do some folks mistakenly believe that I might be in a position to give them opportunities if they’re nice to me and laugh at my jokes?

Maybe they’re actually just treating me the same, and my lense in the role is changing the way I perceive these interactions?

The answer is probably a combination of all of those things, and I’ll leave it to the academics to explore.  At the end of the day, it doesn’t really matter what the reason is or what people actually think of me anyway.  What matters is how I see myself.  The most interesting part of this transition has been seeing how this experience ultimately did change the way I feel about myself.

I reached a bit of a crossroads this spring when I was asked to take on a temporary leadership role on this team that I still wasn’t sure I even had any business being on.  I can’t forget that sick, uneasy feeling when they asked if I’d do it. Are they sure they have the right person?  Are they really that misguided in their judgement of my abilities? Am I prepared to face how badly I’m going to let them all down when they find out I have no idea what I’m doing?

In the immortal words of Maya Angelou:

‘Uh oh, they’re going to find out now.  I’ve run a game on everybody and they’re going to find me out.’

I spent some time bouncing back and forth between two thoughts:

  1. I’d somehow fooled my manager into believing I’m actually doing a good job, and everyone is going to be so disappointed when they find out the real truth about me when I fail at this.
  2. I am enough and I might be a bit too hard on myself sometimes.

I settled somewhere in the middle.

I found an idea in this article that really helped frame my thoughts on this.  Basically: nobody belongs here more than you, but you don’t belong here more than anybody else.

It helped me because it made me realize I was only daunted due to the mistaken belief that it required a particularly exceptional person to lead our team. I think I held that belief because our outgoing leader was, in fact, a particularly exceptional leader.  But the truth is, it probably took some time, some mistakes, and a lot of professional development for him to get there. I didn’t have to start where he left off to not ruin everything.  I just had to be brave enough to try and willing to learn from my own inevitable mistakes.

Afterall, do you have to be an extraordinary human being to lead a team of perfectly competent professionals through their regular day-jobs?  Or can you just be a typical flawed person with reasonably good judgement and a positive attitude and folks can still be trusted to do their jobs beside you?

I was forced to confront that my own unfair perception of leadership roles as being “above” me is what led me to this crossroads in the first place. If I’m not good enough, it must take someone who is above me to do it.  Wouldn’t it follow then, that my previous clerk role was “below” me now?

Obviously, this trail of logic was leading me well outside the bounds of my actual personal values.

By disparaging myself in the face of evidence that I’m actually doing a good job, I was just as cruel as the folks who are rude to servers.

Confronting those thoughts was an important first step towards accepting myself, managing the imposter syndrome and developing real confidence in the roles I’d chosen to pursue.

I’m not special and neither are you.  None of us are all that special, really.  Specialness isn’t what gets us into the various roles we find ourselves in.  No one is entitled to a certain level of respect or type of treatment by virtue of their vocation.  Respect is earned by all of us through our treatment of others.

That said, any change in roles may still change the way you’re treated by others.  Recognizing this phenomenon has given me the opportunity to pay more attention to the subtle ways in which I treat others differently based on their role.

You’re not special, and that’s a good thing because it means you’re free to choose to pursue any role that seems appropriate to you, regardless of its status.  It means you have permission to be imperfect and make mistakes because that’s how we all learn to do better.  It means you have room to grow like the rest of us.  Don’t be special.  Be brave enough to be you.