Trying to conform in order to fit in? Feeling like the odd man out — or the odd woman out — no matter how you attempt to work around it?
Maybe you’re the only single at a dinner party of couples. (Very Bridget Jones Diary.) Maybe you’re the only woman in the room without makeup or Botox. (Someone call the Housewives!) Perhaps you’re the youngest person at a meetup to discuss investing, or learn bridge.
More troublesome — you’re confronted with feeling “different” on a daily basis at your job — as the only person of color, the only person in a wheelchair, the only “older worker.”
We may celebrate our diversity or we may strive to conform. The fact remains that some differences cannot be masked or hidden, even if we were willing to do so.
Duck Out of Water?
In my first job out of college, there were plenty of days I would have loved to disappear under my desk — all very 1950s duck-and-cover. But instead, I was a duck out of water, with nowhere to hide. I was the only female in an all male group, in a predominantly male company, where most employees were ex-military. To top things off, relatively few of us were young, since recruiting out of college was new to the organization.
Much as I wanted to fit in, I couldn’t change the facts of my age or my sex, much less my inexperience.
I also know the challenges of being the oldest person in a professional environment. My most recent example dates to several years ago. I’d estimate that three quarters of my co-workers were aged 24 to 30, and my immediate manager was 15 years my junior, which didn’t bother me in the least. In fact, the management seemed fine with me. It was my team members who were less comfortable.
So I tended to keep my head down and my mouth shut. (Duck-and-cover of a different sort?) I completed assignments as quickly as possible. And, I was less inclined to socialize than the rest of the group. I simply didn’t have the time. I was a 50-year old single mother of two, scrambling to shuttle and be there for my kids, while working another gig from home at night.
Life was crazy busy. There was no slack. I delivered great work, but I never “fit.”
Belonging vs. Fitting In
Most of us want love, acceptance and approval from an intimate, a family member, a friend, our peers. At the very least, we want to “belong” to someone. Withought belonging, we feel terribly alone. Isolated. Distressed.
Not surprisingly, psychologists describe the desire to belong as a fundamental “human” need.
… human beings are “naturally driven toward establishing and sustaining belongingness.” Hence, “people should generally be at least as reluctant to break social bonds as they are eager to form them in the first place.” … A sense of belongingness is crucial to our well-being.
And if we’re the odd man out, as I was in my first job? Can we feel as if we “belong” even if we can never actually “fit?”
Fitting in, it seems to me, is about real or apparent differences. Belonging, on the other hand, is about positive feelings and behaviors. Belonging is about connection.
Isn’t this why the only female, the only person of color, the only employee in a wheel chair, the youngest at the table or the oldest in the meeting can eventually “belong” though he or she may not “fit?”
The Desire to Fit In
When we’re children and teenagers, we’re absorbing the standards of familial and social norms. We’re trying out (and rebelling against) a variety of identities. We’re looking for who we are. We’re zeroing in on where we “fit.”
Adolescence isn’t the only time we do this. When we enter a new school, move to a new town, embark on a new job — most of us want to feel at home — ASAP.
Sometimes, we do so easily. Who we are and who we appear to be match nicely to where we are and the people who surround us. They look like us, talk like us, think like us; we feel free to be “ourselves.”
At other times, we may not seem to fit at all. The color of our skin, our age, other aspects of appearance — these set us apart.
In this Psychology Today post, medical doctor and coach Dr. Susan Biali tells us to stop trying to fit in. She quotes Dr. Brene Brown, who is known for her TED talks on connection and authenticity:
Fitting in… is assessing situations and groups of people, then twisting yourself into a human pretzel in order to get them to let you hang out with them. Belonging is something else entirely—it’s showing up and letting yourself be seen and known as you really are…
Misfit or Stand-Out?
Dr. Biali continues in her own words, explaining her lifetime of never fitting in:
Most of my life I have not fit in. I was too smart, too awkward, and too much of a “goody two shoes” in high school… I still feel really awkward when I’m around other medical doctors. How do I explain that I’d rather dance flamenco than see patients? I’d rather not even try… My whole life I’ve known, usually painfully so, that I’m not very “normal”… Yet now I wouldn’t want to be. I love what my life has become ever since I decided to be the real me, full time…
Those facets of self that we bring to the table as fixed — age, sex, ethnicity, physical attributes, experience — offer an opportunity to use “what is” to the fullest, rather than dwelling on what isn’t.
Yes, that’s easier said than done. But since we can’t alter certain attributes — and really, would we wish to? — can’t we embrace our differences and exploit them to our advantage?
I’m not naive enough to think that they are assets in every scenario. Likewise, it’s certain that bias will win out at times, and then we’re faced with hard decisions. Do we persist in an environment where the stress of being different is a daily burden? Will persistence and good performance eventually win the naysayers over? How long are we willing to put in extra effort to show our value?
Exploiting Our Differences
I’ll mention that first job again, recalling myself as a fresh-faced girl, only 21, and barely five feet tall. I was surrounded by men who were older and physically imposing, most of whom had mountains of professional and “life” experience.
My survival in that environment? It depended on overcoming differences.
So I learned to read my audience, to keep mum when it seemed wise, to project my voice when I needed the floor, to master my gestures so they expressed self-assurance, and to reconfigure my environment — chairs, tables, podiums — to accommodate my diminutive stature.
But with time and growing confidence, what I had to say took notice in place of my appearance. If anything, I suspect the need to fight harder forced me to “out” my intelligence and develop my communication skills sooner than I would have otherwise.
Odd Man Out? The Four O’s?
So what happens when you’re the oldest head in the room, at the conference table, or in the cafeteria? Isn’t this what recruiters and HR people like to refer to as “fit” — ignoring the more important and evolved concept of belonging? And don’t you have to get the opportunity first — to find your way past those looming “three O’s” at play — if you’re overqualified for the position you seek, comparatively over-educated than your teammates, or clearly over 50?
Do three O’s invariably add up to a fourth — Odd man (or woman) out?
I don’t wish to be glib on a subject that is extremely complex. Still… While many areas of the economy may be recovering, we’re well aware that the job market isn’t booming for certain segments of the population. The New York Times, The Washington Post, AARP — all of these sources remind us of the challenges facing the older worker. And, we know that older workers comprise a larger share of the long-term unemployed.
Among the reasons cited for this:
Employers can be reluctant to hire someone who might come with higher health-care costs and have a shorter future with the company.
Higher health care costs? Hmmm. A shorter tenure? Interesting.
Those “reasons” sound very old school to me, as if we were still operating with the workforce assumptions of the 1990s or early 2000s.
And we’re not.
Psychology at Work, to the Detriment of the Organization?
How many employers use contractors so they avoid providing benefits and pay no employer-related payroll taxes? How many employees of any age believe their jobs are secure, and that they’ll stay more than a few years? Is the reasoning of higher cost and shorter tenure actually valid?
Are the reasons more psychological than our polls and reported data explore? Is it the inherent bias of hiring managers who incline toward people who resemble (but do not threaten) them? Is it really about fitting in, which may shortchange the workplace in the long-run?
Sure, there are certain jobs that require youth just as others require musical or artistic talent. On the other hand, we may prefer our physicians and our judges with a little gray at the temples. Yet how often, increasingly, do we speak to the advantages of a diverse work environment? A breadth of perspectives and experience, channeled productively, makes for successful results. Moreover, while some of us will never “fit” based on age, ethnicity, gender or appearance, we can certainly contribute as well as “belong.”
So what will it take to break down our “odd man out” bias barriers?
What actions can we take on our own, in our projects, in our jobs — to broaden the pool of candidates we consider?
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