I could hardly believe that I was officially on the faculty of a University in the nation’s capital. My first assignment included teaching both undergraduate and graduate courses, launching a family program within the speech and hearing clinic, directing and conducting graduate research. My mentor reviewed my curriculum, provided me with positive feedback, and gave me confidence that I was off to a good start. Next up was my first Department meeting, an opportunity to begin connecting with my new colleagues. I would be introduced officially to the faculty and staff.
The Chairman called the Department meeting to order and stated that the first item of business was to introduce the new faculty. Sitting with anticipation of my introduction, when I heard him say “I’m delighted to introduce the charming Dr. Patricia Larkins,” I was disappointed. I couldn’t believe that after all of my hard work and extensive research, he chose to describe me to my colleagues as “charming.” What about “capable?” The other new faculty member, who was male, had been introduced as a “distinguished scholar.” My research track record was comparable to his and in some ways I had garnered more national recognition from my peers because of my dissertation findings. I asked myself, “What is it about me that makes charming my descriptor?
“Was it the way I was wearing my hair? How I was dressed? My demeanor?” I looked in the mirror and thought maybe my hair style was too curly. Looking at my wardrobe, I thought maybe I needed to get darker colors- wear more black and navy blue. I decided that the next time I interacted with the Chairman and during meetings, I would make sure my tone was modulated and my facial expression was more serious. I underwent an extreme total makeover.
Then one day, a colleague asked me “Why do you always wear such dark and dreary colors?”
I explained to her my perceptions about the introductory Departmental meeting and that I wanted the students and my peers to respect me as their colleague for my academic and research contributions. While agreeing that I should be attentive to my appearance, she suggested that I take another look at myself and see if maybe I had taken it to the extreme. Then she asked me if I had talked with the Chairman about how I perceived his introduction before I launched into my makeover. Well, I hadn’t. She then urged me to talk with him about my assumptions. Perhaps, he wasn’t aware of the impact of his word choices. I decided that meeting with the Chairman would be a good thing. To my surprise, during our meeting, I found out that he was unaware of how his introductions differentiated the new male faculty member and me. In fact, the Chairman indicated that he intentionally chose ‘charming’ because he was certain that my personality and attitude was going to bring about a more positive climate in the Department. He was surprised that I thought he did not value my capability. As our meeting ended, the Chairman apologized and thanked me for sharing. He assured me that my academic acumen and research skills were valued by him and my colleagues. Further, our conversation had alerted him to be more mindful in the future of how his words and actions might be perceived differently from his intentions, given the diversity of the audience.
I walked out of the Chairman’s office with two important discoveries. Before acting on an assumption, verify to determine if the assumption is accurate. It could save time, money, and unwarranted actions. Clarifying assumptions also helps others to recognize the impact of their words and actions. Clarifying assumptions is key to effective communication. So it turned out that my extreme total makeover wasn’t necessary. I was capable and charming!