I went to an event for a global non-profit that I support. I was pretty excited because the event was the culmination of a week-long programme where innovators in the nonprofit space were honing their projects and creating pitches for donors who wanted to support their efforts.
The projects included an agricultural innovator in the Philippines, a group creating sustainable feminine care products so girls could stay in school even while having their periods, a group focused on digital wallets and financial inclusion in Peru, an app to link rural workers to jobs in the cities in Vietnam, a group working to provide childcare services so that women in Morocco would be able to work and earn income, and others.
As someone who has lived on four continents, traveled to 60+ countries, and seen that using business principles for non-profit endeavors can lead to positive outcomes for communities, I was really excited to be there. I sat down in my seat and a woman in her mid-20s started talking to me. She works in the social media space with the non-profit and asked me how I heard about the event and what interested me about it.
I told her that I’ve traveled to most of the countries represented in the event and that I’ve used my corporate positions and experiences to push for business solutions to social issues. Now, I’m not a big talker at those types of events but she kept asking me questions. So I told her I lived abroad for 10 years, was bilingual and had studied other languages, that I have a job of significant responsibility at a corporation, that I taught at a prestigious business school, and that I was a donor for her organization.
She looked at me and said, “No offense, but . . . you don’t look like someone who has done those things.” I was taken aback. And to be honest, I never know what to say when people make similar comments (as they do more often than I’d care to admit). I have chosen to interpret these as twisted compliments as I’ve been told I look younger than I am (which most think is a good thing in US culture, but I’m not so sure) and my demeanor is low-profile and accessible (and most think that people with significant achievements are perceived to be less accessible and more aloof). I wanted to ask her, “What would you think someone with those credentials should look like? What would I need to look like for you to think it made sense for me to have done those things?” But the programme started and I didn’t have the chance.
People make assumptions about you based on their conditioning and what they think would be “normal” for a person who looks like you. I have found this over and over, and I find that it keeps us all from really seeing others—who they are, what they’ve done, what they aspire to do, what their life path has been like, what they’re interested in, and where their joy comes from. Instead, we use stereotypes and snap judgments and decide that someone is not interesting to talk to without ever really finding out about them.
Some of the most interesting people I know are people who are likely disregarded by many others. A driver from Ethiopia, a housekeeper from Ghana, a fashionista from Nashville, an architect from Mexico, an advertising executive from Lagos. My experience is that those people who have done really interesting things aren’t necessarily going to tell you about it. You have to ask.
So speak up and tell people what you’ve done, who you are, and what you’re about. Don’t be shy about it (like I often am) when they speak with you. Tell them that you play the guitar or run marathons or tinker with antique automobiles or speak several languages. Tell them you are deeply concerned by misinformation that is spread in social media or the impact of gentrification or some other issue. Tell them you’re inspired by art or music or a great motivational speaker. Tell them you love hiking in the mountains or strolling on the beach. Just tell them so they don’t stereotype you and put limits on you and your awesomeness.
And when meeting others, be honestly curious about who they are, especially when you notice that you are actually stereotyping and judging them based on how they look. Ask them what they’re interested in. Ask them to tell you their favorite story of something that has happened in their life. Ask them what inspires them. Ask them anything else you want to ask that helps you see past the stereotypes you put on them based on how they look.
Seek to see beyond their exteriors, just as you want others to see beyond yours.