Let’s say for a moment you could be a unicorn. [click to tweet] What would your day be like? Are you picturing rainbows and sunny skies? More likely you’d spend your day hearing, “Wow! A unicorn. I’ve never met a unicorn. What’s it like to…” followed by lots of curious questions.
Many of us have had this experience. We’ve walked into a room of strangers feeling awkward and out of place. We’ve felt like we’re the “only ____” in the room, different from everyone else is some important way. We are momentarily grateful when a stranger approaches us and begins a conversation. We’ve been saved from standing by ourselves! We begin to second guess how fortunate we are when out of the gate, one of their first comments is…
- “Wow! You’re so tall. How tall are you?” [click to tweet]
- “You hair is so… can I touch it?” [Hand already entangled in your hair]
- “You’ve got such great skin. Beautiful mocha color. So lucky.”
- “I’ve never heard of anyone with your name. So exotic.”
These all seem like compliments, but in practice they are calling out difference. The result is you are more likely to feel “othered” than welcomed. Especially if the feature (height, hair, skin color, accent, name) that they just commented on, is the same feature that always gets commented on by strangers.
If you were a unicorn you’d have people touching your horn all the time without more than a cursory request for permission. It doesn’t even have to be a rare feature for someone to want to move into your personal space. This touching without permission happens to pregnant women quite often and pregnancy is far from rare – or we wouldn’t all be here.
If you were a unicorn, people would ask “Where are you from?” And when you answered, New Jersey, they’d say, no where are your parents from. You’d answer, “Oh, they’re from California and Texas.” But what they're really asking is where did your family emigrate from. This is not something you’d think to ask a person who wasn’t a unicorn and didn’t in some way stand out because of their difference.
Maybe the way you’ve experienced this hasn’t been quite so overt. Perhaps you tend to share a lot of features with other people in the room so your differences don’t stand out quite so much. It may then be jarring to learn that these conversation starters aren’t received as compliments. A compliment is when you say something nice about a feature that someone else chose. For example, the answer to any of the below observations can simply be a sincere “thank you” and the conversation is off to an upbeat start.
- “I love the color of your jacket!”
- “Your necklace is beautiful. Did you get it while traveling?”
- “You’ve got great style. Where do you shop?”
- “Those frames look really great on you.”
These are different than the first examples because the comment is about something chosen, rather than a curious comment or question based on who we are. We don’t choose our height, skin color, accent, or myriad other features that make all of us unique. [click to tweet]
Before uttering the first thought that comes into your head when meeting someone, check first to be sure you’re not asking merely out of curiosity. That usually means you’ve noticed something different about the person in front of you and you’re about to hone in on that difference by asking about it. Since that likely happens to this person all day, every day, they’ll give you a pat answer that likely won’t lead to further discussion. You won’t make a great or long-lasting impression and you’ll miss the opportunity to really engage with them.
Put yourself in their shoes for a moment. Remember that there have been times when you’ve felt like the “only ____” in the room. What has made you feel welcomed into new spaces?
My preferred opening line is “Hi, my name is Robbie.” I usually follow-up by asking someone how they heard about the event. This gives them an opportunity to share a little bit about themselves. I try to avoid the ubiquitous “What do you do?” question since it tends to restrict the conversation to whatever is printed on their business card. It’s also not a great idea to assume everyone is employed or loves their job.
Those curious questions that came to mind right away will need to wait until we’ve become friends and I’m ready to share about my differences too. Then it will feel like we’re deepening our relationship and not just being curious in a “Wow! You’re a unicorn. I’ve never met a unicorn.” kind of way.
When have you experienced the downside to being a unicorn? What are your strategies for handling these moments? Share your thoughts in the comments.
As a queer, transgender man who has had all of his identities questioned and experienced the blur of both gender and race, Robbie knows what it feels like to be a unicorn. The good and the bad.
Robbie Samuels has been recognized as a networking expert by Inc. and Lifehacker, and profiled in “Stand Out: How to Find Your Breakthrough Idea and Build a Following Around It” by Dorie Clark. Check out “On the Schmooze” his new podcast.
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