Last night we watched a movie called The Imitation Game (2014).

The movie stars Benedict Cumberbatch, the some-would-say-dreamy star of Sherlock and Keira Knightley, my arch nemesis, the woman my husband is in love with and would definitely leave me for. Thank goodness that’s a seriously unlikely event, although Julia Roberts did marry her cameraman Danny Moder from The Mexican…and my husband is a cameraman…so, it is possible.

ANYWAY, I digress.

The movie tells the compelling tale of mathematician Alan Turing as he worked with the British military in World War II to beat the Nazis by cracking the unbreakable code that the Nazis used to communicate all of their military strategy.

It’s a movie about the breathtaking brilliance of Alan Turing as he invents the first computer.

It’s a tale of sexism as the British army insists that a woman is not smart enough to do any job other than that of a secretary (which is insulting, too, since without secretaries nothing would have ever actually been DONE). Only men can be mathematicians.

And it’s a tale about the homophobia that Turing faces in a country where homosexuality was a crime (until 1967).

In The Imitation Game, there’s a lot of pretending going on.

Keira Knightly plays the female mathematician who spends most of the story pretending to be something other than she is so that she can do the work she loves: she pretends to her parents that she’s gotten a job as a secretary in order to help Turing as a mathematician; then she pretends to be that secretary during the day so that she can work at night with Turing on the math.

Turing pretends to be engaged to her so that her parents don’t force her to leave the job she loves. They’re afraid she’ll be a spinster if she stays on.

Turing also pretends to care about the other mathematicians on his team. He learns that to get people to do what you want, you have to be nice to them.

Pretenders, then and now

We pretend that sexism doesn’t exist until we’ve experienced it directly ourselves. Maybe even more so now as feminism is getting both a boost and a setback.

You may have recently seen the viral She said/He said articles about Nicole Halbert and Martin R. Schneider.

HE SAID: A Man Signed His Work Emails With A Female Name For 2 Weeks And His Life Sucked by Maria Guido “Man confirms sexism exists, women everywhere say ‘No Sh*t’”

It’s the tale of male and female coworkers who switched their email signatures.

He signed his emails “Nicole” and she signed her emails “Martin.”

If a client thought they were interacting with a man vs a woman, surely it wouldn’t matter. They were doing the same job. The only difference was their gender.

He reports that it was the hardest week of his career. Clients would not answer him and questioned everything he suggested when they thought he was Nicole.

She reports that it was the easiest week of her career. Clients answered immediately and thanked her for her advice when they thought she was Martin.

This is more than a little discouraging in this day and age. Maybe you’re saying, ‘No Sh*t’.

You may not have seen her version, which was not as viral as his, thus proving the point. Or maybe his side of the story had a catchier title?

SHE SAID: Working While Female by Nicole Hallberg

One thing I thought was really insightful about her article was this line related again to pretending: “I would like the record to show that I have the filthiest mouth in the tri-state area, and one of my pasttimes has always been trying to come up with jokes off-color enough that I can actually embarrass Marty. I would also like the record to show that I developed a trucker’s mouth and bawdy sense of humor precisely because I’ve always had to act “like a man” to be found funny and be accepted in male spaces.

Oh, the tribe!

The desire for acceptance!

My tale of belonging

I can relate.

I spent some time at a company with a party culture. I wanted to fit in, so yes, I partied.

Perhaps I use the term “partied” too liberally because, to be completely honest, I telecommuted, so I only had to perform every now and then.

It’s much easier to pretend when you don’t have to do it every day.

Most of the time I was able to be my regular self, but when the time came to perform, I’ll admit it…I did play quarters with beer at a pool bar with my peers. I’m cringing as I admit that because it is such a great example of trying to fit in with the tribe, of pretending to be something I am not so that I could hang out with the cool kids. (And it was also fun in small doses.)

But if I had to pretend to be something other than myself all the time? I’m exhausted just thinking about it.

Ways we’re “nice”

There are a million articles out there about all the things women should be doing to get ahead. According to just about every study, being “nice” is a key to success. This is not true for men. It’s rare that a male worker is told to “be nicer”.

You know the drill, “She’s such a b****” or “She’s a ball-buster,” or maybe, “She doesn’t smile enough.”

Deborah Tannen writes in her book Talking From 9 to 5 about the backlash women get when they act like men. It’s exhausting to act like someone else, but it’s even more discouraging when you find it doesn’t work very well. People hate you, it can destroy your soul and your sense of self on every level.

Even Sheryl Sandberg’s book Lean In spent a lot of time telling women to conform to what the men are doing. Many women found it enlightening and many found it insulting.

I think it’s a balancing act.

We know that we NEED to fit in to get ahead, how do we do that without pretending to be someone else? Especially since the modern work structure was created by and for men. It suits most of them, most of the time, to work in that tribe.

Brene Brown in The Gifts of Imperfection says “most of us use the terms fitting in and belonging interchangeably, and like many of you, I’m really good at fitting in. We know exactly how to hustle for approval and acceptance. We know what to wear, what to talk about, how to make people happy, what not to mention — we know how to chameleon through the day.”

Imagine your day, it may look like mine…

  • I drop my kid off at school where I play the part of “mom” and “volunteer.” I wear yoga pants (like the school tribe). I am nice and chatty.
  • I go to a client meeting where I play the part of “expert” and “coach.” I wear slacks (like the work tribe). I am nice and professional (well, I try).
  • I go to a class where I play the part of “student” and “learner.” I wear jeans (like the student tribe). I am nice and curious.

We learn early that nice is mandatory to get ahead. And most of the time this is fine because we like to be nice. It’s so built in to our interactions that it feels intuitive.

Ways we “soften” our approach

Tara Mohr’s book Playing Big has a whole chapter on Communicating With Power. She’s not the only one, she just happens to be the one I’m reading right now. Hit reply and let me know if you have a favorite book about this topic.

She points out the things we say to soften our tone that work against us as we strive to always be nice.

These conversational softeners make us come across as tentative, self-doubting weaklings (my words, not hers).

  • Words like “just,” as in, “I just wanted to check in” when we should say, “I hope you’re well.” You can convey warmth without weakness.
  • Or “a little bit,” as in, “I’d like to take a little bit of your time” when we should say, “I’d like twenty minutes to discuss…” You can convey a specific time without coming across as harsh.
  • Or “Sorry,” as in, “I’m sorry, are you busy?” when we should say, “Do you have a minute?” You can be clear and specific without being cold.

This is a world where we’re often criticized for being too direct, too assertive, or too ambitious, we’re told that we “have an edge” if we accidentally slip over the line of niceness.

In fact, many women are naturally collaborative, which makes niceness easy.

Many women also have a high level of Emotional Intelligence that helps you read the mood in the room, understand what direction is needed to keep others engaged and how to inspire action. These traits are subtly (and not-so-subtly) disregarded as “soft” in our culture.

So nice = soft, weak, easily talked over, ignored, disregarded, as in Nicole vs Martin.

Do I really have to be nice?

I think most of us consider ourselves “nice girls”.

Badass-fierce-warrior nice girls.

You want to get your way, and it’s so much more pleasant to do it in a way that’s delightful, kind, pleasant.

You don’t like having to be more like a man to get s*** done.

You resent having to change who you are to get ahead.

My experience tells me that you DON’T have to change who you are to get ahead. But you DO have to understand that what you think, what you say and what you do will affect the outcome of every interaction.

You don’t want to have to pretend to be something that you’re not. You want to be yourself AND get what you want.

What do you think? Tell me in the comments below!

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  • Melissa Hereford

    Facilitator Speaker Writer Coach: I teach business professionals how to have authentic, connected conversations.

    My lifelong passion and the bulk of my career has been in negotiation training, a conversation skill that you're required to use daily. Despite using these skills to get your team aligned or get buy in on your ideas, negotiation remains at the top of the list for dreaded conversations. Every single class I've taught, every sales person I've coached, and every customer I've worked with has agreed: these skills make your life better, help you understand what’s important to your peers, your boss, your co-workers, your spouse, your kids…and to YOU! It’s through conversations that you decide what to study, where to live, find a job, meet new office mates, connect with mentors and allies, get promoted. It’s through conversations that you fall in love, share your ideas, your hopes and dreams. It’s through conversations that you find happiness or disappointment. I founded Negotiate With Confidence to help you get what you ask for, learn how to be heard, and how to be a powerful leader. And I facilitate programs for clients that support this goal with skills that align with my core mission of helping you have conversations that connect you.