Odd Man Out: Acclimating to Professional Norms

I don’t remember where I saw this (on twitter) but a recent law school grad mentioned how awkward she felt going to dinner with people who have money and think nothing of ordering apps. She felt awkward because she grew up with barely having enough to make ends meet, let alone extras like appetizers.

It’s such a simple story, but it reminded me how out of place so many things can make us feel when we first join the professional world. This isn’t exclusive to the legal field, but for those of us that grew up with little financial means or exposure to “professionals” it can feel jarring and out of place when you’re networking and interacting with people who have always been financially comfortable (or have adjusted to their new reality). At times, it may feel like you will always be an outsider. But trust me, eventually, you acclimate. Though it does take some time–there are still times when I’m at an event or networking lunch and my neck prickles when the bill comes. I get a flashback of when I was younger and struggled to afford basic things. For me, it’s instinctive to feel a dread about paying something even when I’m able to afford it.

That dread is lessening as time goes on, but I’m aware of how feeling like an outsider held me back in other ways. Maybe you have felt it too? Sometimes I hesitated attending networking events because I would feel so out of place. Or maybe you don’t ask to join in on projects because you don’t know how to interact with upper management. Or maybe after certain events, you just question whether you made the right professional choice. It sucks to feel like you stick out–I remember the first networking events I went to and I didn’t really understand how important it was to wear a suit. Who wears suits? Why does a suit make me more professional? (it doesn’t). But wow, did I feel like a moron meeting attorneys in too-casual attire. There were a lot of other stumbles for me on presenting a professional front and interacting with other attorneys–stumbles that are easily avoidable for you if you take your networking and professional persona seriously:  

One. Let go of the burden of being good. When I first started going to networking events, I was so nervous that I wouldn’t know what to talk about with other white attorneys that I would leave a bad impression about other Latinx people. I placed an unfair burden on myself by believing that I represented my entire community. I realize now that I only represent myself and if my white counterparts have segregated themselves so much that I am the only person of color they know then that’s their problem, not mine. Giving myself permission to be “me” made things much more comfortable. I didn’t feel frozen.

Two. Still prepare to impress. Don’t get it twisted–you can’t be the same person all of the time in every situation. It’s important to present a professional persona in these settings and be capable of interacting with different people. I’ve trained myself to converse and get to know people that are far removed from my everyday life. Ask yourself, can you carry a conversation with anyone? Do you know what to ask to make others interested in you? Being warm and inquisitive is a great way to connect with people. When I started to get the hang of this, I asked everyone about their upcoming vacations and learned a lot about Europe, even though at the time all I could afford was cheap flights to Mexico. I learned that people love talking about themselves, so even if I don’t have anything in common with this male, white Partner, I can still make a connection happen. And I think that’s a struggle many of us have when it comes to networking. It feels weird to reach out and show interest to people you barely know–it almost feels slimy.  Welcome to networking. Eventually, it feels less weird.

Three. Get comfortable with being different. No matter how well you prepare and attempt to make connections, you will still likely be an odd person out–especially if you don’t pass as white. It doesn’t matter how nice your suit is or if you straighten your hair so much that all your curls are erased–our truth is hard to hide. You may struggle making those connections because as hard as you’re trying, the other side doesn’t want to play. You can take it personally, or you can take it in stride; realize that this isn’t your person/firm/group and move on.

Recently, NPR had an article about gifted students who are overlooked because of race. The idea is that the students’ of color behavior isn’t like other (white) gifted students. So it’s easy to overlook them. This struck a chord with me because this premise continues into adulthood. We are asked/forced to participate in a system and act in ways that aren’t always natural to us. Then we’re judged by that behavior and if it doesn’t match our white counterparts it impedes our ability to grow in our career. No wonder our instinct is to avoid it!  Knowing this, it’s important to give it your all, but also be conscious in your decision of how much or how little your participate in this system because glass ceilings, et al, do exist. And while participating in this system will eventually become common to you ( or at least, you won’t feel so weird about it), you’ll go further if you engage in a way that allows you to have the most control, awareness, and ability to craft your career. 

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