Some weeks ago, the mother of a childhood friend brought up politics to my mother during a run-in at the grocery store. “Oh, I know how you voted,” she said with a knowing smile and a wink. “You’re a good person.”
Keep in mind that despite being on friendly terms with this other woman for years, the two of them have never talked about their political affiliations. Ever. But, since they’ve known and respected each other for years, she assumed that my mom held the same belief system — and then proceeded to give a scathing commentary about the other side.
When my mom called me later and told me about this story, we had a good laugh because my mother is actually a big supporter of the exact opposite political party. But we were also stunned by my friend’s mom’s blatant assumption that only the people who voted the same way were good.
This brings up a part of personal branding that we don’t normally think about — and we shouldn’t ignore:
We need to be aware of the automatic assumptions that people make about us based on stereotypes. Why? So we can negate them when they work against us.
Obviously, stereotyping is most prevalent in high school. Many students are quickly slotted into their category of jock, geek, popular person or weirdo – and build their friend groups accordingly. The students who don’t fit into an easily-designated category face an additional struggle in high school because a lot of people just don’t know how to react to them.
I should know: I was a major geek with giant glasses who adored Homer’s epic poetry and did all sorts of other nerdy pursuits. But I was also a 3-sport athlete who swam, played basketball and ran track. (And, just to ensure that I never fit in on the basketball court, I wore very fashionable protective sport glasses for years!)
Once the agony of high school was over though, I assumed that those too-easy stereotypes would fade away. But as the mother of my friend showed, that’s not true.
In fact, there are a ton of stereotypes running rampant through the minds of adults. From the assumption that liberal arts majors are doomed to a life of asking “would you like fries with that?” to the view of many college graduates that plumbing is not a good career choice.
Last year about this time, Dan wrote about some assumptions that people make: that tall people play basketball, that people who wear glasses are smart, that straight men don’t wear pink, that wisdom and ability only come with age.
People also have to deal with stereotypes centered around their jobs. Salespeople are haunted by the reputation of the used car salesmen. Accountants are viewed as math nerds and CEOs as greedy. And not all 20-somethings are social media fanatics nor are all middle-aged workers incompetent with social media. (Sometimes it’s even the other way around!)
The problem is that negative stereotypes can interfere with your personal branding efforts – and make it so you have to fight hard just to get back to neutral territory.
For example, not long ago, I was reminded of this when catching up with a friend I haven’t seen for some years. “I do marketing,” I told him when he asked about my work. He responded to that with an unimpressed “oh” and silence.
Luckily, I realized quickly that to him, marketers are people who spend their time trying to sell things to people that they don’t need. When I said I was a marketer, therefore, he automatically formed a mental image of a slick advertiser — which didn’t match-up with the Ancient Greek major I was in college!
Because of my friend’s image of marketers, I had to do some fancy footwork to convince him that I hadn’t mysteriously swapped personalities in the past four years. I did that by explaining how I actually help people and companies doing interesting things to get the attention they deserve (via social media) and then told him about some of my past projects.
Once we’d gotten beyond the job label, he was easily able to see the good in my work. It was the label that caused all the trouble – and I would have had a lot easier time explaining my current work if I had simply jumped past the term “marketer” and talked about what I do.
From what I’ve seen, the best way to combat a negative stereotype of your job (or political beliefs) is to shift the focus away from your label to your actions.
In fact, that is exactly what caused the confusion of my friend’s mother in the first place. The friend’s mother didn’t know my mom’s political affiliation, and so she based her judgment on how my mother has acted over the last decade.
So, next time you tell someone about what you do (or how you vote), take a moment to observe their reaction. Is it positive? Negative? Are they reacting the way you had hoped?
If not, you might have to think about how to present your personal brand so you can circumvent the negative stereotype and get off to a good start right away.
Katie Konrath writes about “ideas so fresh… they should be slapped” at getFreshMinds.com, a top innovation blog.