Last night I sat down to dinner at a looks-like-a-hole-in-the-wall-but-was-delicious Chinese restaurant. The waitress came to fill our water glasses and I greeted her, smiled, and asked how she was doing. She replied that she was fine and asked the same question of me. I said that my friend and I were starving and, after a pause, pointed out that I liked her boots. Our initial greeting turned into a friendly conversation and, before I knew it, the whole waiter-customer dynamic had disappeared. To me, it kind of felt like she was a potential friend who just happened to be working at a restaurant.
After the waitress left the table, my friend chuckled and said, “Wow. Someone’s still in work-mode.” After I threw a puzzled look across the table he explained that I was acting like he’d seen me behave when interacting with anyone from work – donors, colleagues, or volunteers.
I think that when you work in development, it’s hard to leave your work personality at the office. It isn’t like being an athlete where you can spend a few hours a day doing something completely unrelated to sports, or like being a musician where it’s best to spend a significant amount of time away from your instrument. Development is about interacting with people, and (apparently I’m just realizing this) people are everywhere. I mean, you really can’t escape them.
So, was I still in work-mode last night at the Chinese restaurant? My behavior certainly wasn’t something I was consciously enacting. This could mean that being available is something that has become engrained in my personality after over a year of working in development. But is the work behavior of a development professional even genuine? Do we really mean the things we say, or are we just faking it until we get what we want?
I think the answer lies in the fact that it feels good to be nice to people. Once, while I was working in development at the University of Michigan School of Music, Theatre & Dance, I had just emerged from what I had thought would be a tense and angry interaction. Surprisingly, though, all had gone relatively smoothly because, I realized, I had tried to be as open, understanding, and responsive to the other person as possible. A (wise) colleague of mine responded to my explanation of the scenario with a simple phrase: “You catch more flies with honey.”
I continue to carry this sentiment with me. Today, I made many phone calls to the guests of an upcoming benefit for the institution where I work about a whole host (no pun intended) of issues – seating requests, meal requests, payment requests (ah, the life of an intern). During some of these calls, I held my breath (just a bit) while I waited for an answer from someone who I knew would be short with me or who was unhappy with the Festival or who might be having a bad day. By staying as positive as possible, however, I emerged from the experience relatively unscathed.
Perhaps the most important thing to remember when working in development is that there is more (or less, depending how you look at it) to the people we work with than we think. Inside everyone we work with – from the woman in the framing shop to the Vice President of your department to one of the most influential philanthropists in the country – is a person who, behind any façade of power and money exists the same way the rest of us do.
So that’s why I find the line between my work and personal personality becoming increasingly blurred. Somewhere along the relatively short life-journey I’ve had so far I’ve realized that it helps to remember that we’re all human, we all make mistakes, and, most importantly, we can all learn something from each other.
PS – Many thanks to the brilliant Regina Spektor. The title of today’s post comes from her song, “Ghost of a Corporate Future.”