On being ... an anomaly?

By Ingrid Sapona

Sometimes I wonder whether tidbits – little things you hear or read – “stick” with others the way they often do with me. I’m not talking about advice people have given me, I’m talking about ideas that have come up in discussions I’ve been involved in that have percolated within me and every now and then bubble up in my thoughts.

One idea that came to mind recently goes back to a discussion I had while at law school more than 20 years ago. The discussion was with a psychologist. I don’t remember the context, but I know I asked her whether, or how, someone might decide they need her help. That question led to a conversation about how a person might determine whether their feelings, emotions, and reactions are “normal”.

Rather than offer her opinion about whether something was normal, the psychologist said she suggests patients consider whether their behaviour is appropriate. She then mentioned that one method for doing this is to monitor other peoples’ reactions to what you’ve said or done. She noted that most of us do this subconsciously, but sometimes it’s useful to do it consciously. One thing she stressed, however, was that you must be sure to, as she put it, collect a number of “data points”. In other words, don’t let just one person’s reaction serve as validation (or, conversely, as cause for alarm).

I remember that her suggestion had immediate appeal to me (maybe because “data points” made it seem scientific and therefore at least a bit less self-obsessed). Over the years there have been many occasions when I’ve found myself doing a “reality check” (my term for it), consciously reflecting on others’ reactions to something in particular that I’ve said or done.

Indeed, I conduct reality checks in my business all the time. I’m constantly trying to gage how clients like my work and what value they attach to it (this relates to more than just what they’re paying me). After all, if the only signal you pay attention to is whether they pay your invoice, you may be scratching your head later, trying to figure out why you haven’t gotten any repeat business from them, or any referrals.

But, it’s not my on-going, intentional collection of data points related to my business that’s brought to mind the conversation I had with the psychologist. Instead, it was my reaction (or perhaps over-reaction) to a recent, rather off-hand, comment related to my business. I guess you could say it was my concern with whether my reaction was “normal” that brought to mind that long-ago conversation.

Here’s what happened: earlier this month I sent clients, friends, and acquaintances an announcement regarding my recent change of address. In the e-mail I jokingly noted that I had moved and I had taken my business with me. (The comment was clearly made in jest, given that my clients know I work out of my home.) For good measure, I included a link to my web site.

A day or so later, a friend e-mailed me about the announcement. (Though we don’t see each other often, we’ve managed to stay in touch once or twice a year since high school.) Anyway, she commented about one of the latest postings on my business blog (showing she checked out my web site) and then added, “I … never knew you had a writing business so I am glad you passed on the info.”

Well, her comment about not knowing I had a business threw me for a loop. (No, I don’t think she was teasing me – she’s a physician and tends to be rather serious.) Surely she knows I no longer practice law, I thought to myself. (It’s been more than 10 years since I practiced – I’m sure I mentioned that to her at some point!) So what could she have thought I do for a living? She knew my undergrad degree was in journalism, so my making a living writing should have at least crossed her mind. (My sister didn’t find it too funny when I commented that maybe my girlfriend thought I turned tricks to pay the bills.) Of course, my real concern didn’t relate to the fact that my friend didn’t know what I do for a living – it had to do with whether her comment is somehow indicative of the fact that I’m a failure at explaining my line of work.

When I eventually calmed down and tried to look at it more rationally, that psychologist’s point about collecting a number of data points popped into my head. On further thought – and analysis of other data points – I came to the conclusion that my friend’s comment is probably more a reflection of her lack of attention than it is of my inability to articulate what my business is all about. (That said, it’s also made me realized that perhaps I should “talk up” my business a bit more to friends, lest they start speculating about what I do to earn my hourly rate!)

Now, back to my original question: I guess I’ll never know for sure whether others are impacted by things they hear or read (after all, I can’t collect data points about it), or if it only happens to me. But I guess if I didn’t believe that others experience this every now and then, I’d never understand why anyone would bother reading On being …

© 2008 Ingrid Sapona


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