“What a jerk.”
C’mon, be honest now. You know you’ve said something like this – or worse - about somebody at one time or another. Maybe it was to a rude stranger who cut you off in traffic, an inconsiderate friend who said something to hurt your feelings, or even a family member who thought it would be funny to scare the begeebers out of you when you thought you were all alone. It might not be a term you typically use or a way you normally talk about other people, but in a moment of unguarded honesty, “jerk” seemed an appropriate word to describe the insensitive culprit.
In the same way you associate certain words with the image of a rattlesnake, a skunk, a Labrador retriever, or a kitten, you do the same when you think of other people. Your experience with them determines if those are good words…or bad ones.
It works both ways, you know?
Every time your name comes up in a conversation, people do the very same thing to you. They think of words to describe your behavior based on how you have treated them. Whether it’s a verbal declaration spoken out loud or a mental dialogue kept to themselves, when someone hears your name they immediately draw upon a succinct summary of words they associate with you. A split-second profile of your face appears on their mental teleprompter accompanied by a few words they connect with your name.
At the risk of igniting your fiercest insecurities, have you ever considered what words people might use when it’s you they’re thinking about?
Scary to think about, isn’t it?
What You’re Like When You’re Around
When your name is brought to someone’s attention, there are generally three ways they will refer to you in a conversation.
Sometimes they refer to you by your profession.
· “Oh, he’s the doctor, right?”
· “Yes, I know her. She’s an attorney.”
· “Now I know who you’re talking about. He’s the chef at that restaurant downtown.”
Other times, they will speak in terms of their association with you.
· “He and I went to high school together.”
· “Our sons play on the same baseball team.”
· “We actually live in the same subdivision.”
Most often, however, they refer to you by their impression of you.
· “She’s as quiet as a mouse.”
· “He loves attention.”
· “She’s kind of strange.”
· “He is so arrogant.”
· “She says whatever she thinks.”
· “He’s painfully shy.”
· “She’s really hard to figure out.”
· “He’s…um…a little…different.”
· “She’s so intense.”
· “He is brutally honest.”
· “Nicest person you’d ever want to meet.”
· “What a jerk!”
Fair or not, people have accumulated certain impressions over multiple interactions with you and then compiled them into a few words they use to describe you from their perspective. Even a total stranger, who has never actually met you, can have an impression just by what they have witnessed from a distance or heard about you from other people. Either way, people you haven’t even met may have a way of thinking about you.
All of this is about what I call “Presence.” Simply put, presence is “what you’re like when you’re around.” It is what you bring into a room; the impression other people get when they encounter you.
· You never enter a room full of people that you don’t have some kind of presence.
· You never engage a circle of people that you don’t bring with you some sense of presence.
· You never navigate a situation where other people are involved that you don’t exhibit some type of presence.
· You never sit quietly at an event, purposefully keeping to yourself, that you are not screaming something about presence for everybody in the room to hear. All without ever uttering a single sound!
Whenever you are anywhere with other people, you have presence. Even if you are the most obscure person in the room, you are leaving an impression. You contribute something to a situation that is influential in other people’s lives whether you are aware of it or not. Call it the impression you make, the personality you project, or the vibe you put off, your presence is a constant. You are always being “read” by other people in the room.
Wherever you are, whatever you’re doing, if there is just one other person in sight of you, your presence is showing.
The Story You Tell
Several factors play a part in how people perceive us. Fair or unfair, right or wrong, people read us by the clues we project.
In the minds of other people, our appearance speaks volumes about us. Whether we like it or not, everybody has certain prejudices about appearance. For instance, older people are often suspicious of the tattoos, piercings, and eccentric hairstyles favored by a younger generation.
People draw conclusions about us based on our gender, our weight, our grooming habits, and our fashion choices. How we present ourselves physically is often times the very first impression we make on people.
The way we cross our arms, divert our eyes, or shift our weight can suggest something about us in the mind of other people. Slouching in our chair, heaving a heavy sigh, or mustering a simple smirk can telegraph what we think or how we feel without uttering a single word. Many people put more stock in what our body language communicates than the words we speak. The danger, however, is that body language can be easily misinterpreted. What you portrayed may not have been at all what you intended.
The various expressions of our personality have an enormous influence on what people think of us. They either find us delightful or demanding, engaging or offensive, warm or cold. While it can be extremely difficult to consistently manage our personality because it is such an innate part of who we are, it is important that we live with a careful self-awareness of our unique “quirks” - those extremes of our personality that can become liabilities. For example, an otherwise quiet introvert can be viewed as arrogant if they are not careful to engage others in a conversation even as uncomfortable as that may be.
Again, whether it is fair or not, people find certain personality traits positive and others, negative. Trying to interpret a person’s response to our personality can be maddening. However, as difficult as it can be, it is still an essential discipline in the dicey world of social interaction.
They say, “Attitude is everything!” While that may not be completely true, it is true enough to affect the way people think about us. This is especially important in our professional, civic, and recreational pursuits. Any time teamwork or mutual cooperation with others is necessary, our attitude can make or break our success. If you are looking to create a really lousy impression of yourself in the mind of others, just exhibit a bad attitude when you are with them. Once you’ve secured the moniker of poor sport, lousy teammate, or difficult to get along with, it could follow you for the rest of your life.
Few things remove doubt about what you are like more quickly than the words that come out of your mouth. From profanity to criticism, from racist comments to an aggressive tone, people are quick to draw conclusions about you when they hear how you talk. Any doubts they may have had about you based on your physical appearance, body language, or attitude are quickly confirmed when they hear the things you say.
We have all heard, “actions speak louder than words.” And words, as stated earlier, are pretty loud! The way we behave is typically indisputable. Words can come out wrong, but actions usually come from a very authentic (and revealing) place. Nothing portrays what we are really like more than our actions. It doesn’t matter what we want to be, wish we were, or hope to become. Our behavior in other people’s company usually solidifies impressions they may have of us.
“What you do speaks so loudly I can’t hear what you’re saying.”
- Ralph Waldo Emerson
Some of us leave an impression that others see as positive, upbeat, happy, encouraging, or affirming. Some people are gregarious, sociable, friendly, and inclusive. For these reasons, other people like to have us around. They like it when we are in a circle with them.
Others of us leave an impression that is negative, grouchy, sullen, or angry. A lot of whining, complaining, criticizing, and judging tend to contaminate other people’s perception of you. Needless to say, not many people like having negative people around. They may tolerate it, but they certainly don’t prefer it. If you find yourself not being invited to a lot of parties, you might want to take a serious look at your “presence.”
What’s Come Over You?
We all have a bad day now and then. You know, those irrational moments and emotional meltdowns we wish we could take back. Who doesn’t have one or two of those moments we really wish we could do all over again, or at least, wish had never happened in the first place. We still feel a bit embarrassed when we remember those occasions.
Unfortunately, in some people’s minds, we never ever quite recover from the first impression we left in those unflattering moments.
However, I am more interested in “the cumulative average” – the collection of impressions we make as people encounter us in multiple situations over time. Bad days and stupid mistakes aside, there is “a way we are” generally. People who interact with us often come to think of us in those terms that best describe their experience when in our company over the long haul.
It’s in those long-haul relationships where presence is so crucial. We can’t live our entire life fretting about what complete strangers think of us or how a momentary encounter with a casual acquaintance might affect their impression of us. The week in and week out challenges of those important daily relationships is where it is imperative we pay keen attention to the power of our presence. Vital relationships with family, work associates, neighbors, and close friends deserve our best presence.
Presence is often a matter of averages. Over time and in multiple situations, certain people interact with you in a variety of ways. They get to see you on your good days and on your bad days. People who have a long history with you have the best vantage point from which to develop an accurate impression of you. It is when the good days outweigh the bad ones that the cumulative average reveals you to be as you truly are.
People come to know you as being a positive, helpful, and enjoyable person to have around. They speak well of you when your name comes up. These are the people who are quick to defend you if they are talking to someone who happens to have a negative impression of you.
But it works the other way too. If you have earned a certain reputation for negative behavior over the long haul of frequent interactions with certain people, it’s extremely difficult to undo the damage. Once you’ve been tagged with a negative impression in most people’s minds, it is a deep and difficult hole to dig out of.
Difficult, I say, but not impossible.
If you find yourself in the deep hole of having left a bad impression, there is a way out. If you have ever wondered how to change what people think of you, it’s really quite simple. You do it the exact same way that got you in trouble in the first place: you choose to conduct yourself in a certain way.
It was your choice to behave in a negative way that resulted in a less than admirable impression. It will be a choice to act in more thoughtful, responsible, and engaging ways that will turn a negative impression into a positive one.
When enough people find you acting in positive ways, they will take notice of the change that has come over you. Before you know it, “change” is one of the words that come to mind when they think of you.
“Boy, he has really changed since I first met him.”
While you may not be able to determine what people think of you, you sure can influence it in a positive direction by paying close attention to the kind of presence you project when in the company of others.
Present: Another Side of Presence
There’s another side of presence that most fail to truly appreciate. It too has a profound influence on the impression we leave with other people. This is the concept of “Present.”
“Present” is about being “in the moment.” It is about being fully engaged in what is happening right where you are at the time.
You know that phrase “a million miles away”? We use it when admitting we weren’t paying attention because we were distracted. We confess, “I’m sorry, I didn’t’ hear what you said. I was a million miles away, thinking about something else.”
“Present” is the opposite of “a million miles away.” It is being right here, right now.
How often can you be found in one place physically, and yet, a million miles away mentally? Be honest now. Your sense of presence is at stake here.
For instance, you’re sitting on the floor in the living room with your child after a long day at work. You feign interest in playing with Legos while she chatters on and on about…well, you don’t really know what because… you were “a million miles away.” You’re sitting there on floor mere inches from your daughter and her toys, but your mind is distracted by something that happened at the office that day.
You’re in a meeting at work. You’re at a restaurant with friends. You’re in the stands at your son’s baseball game. That’s where you are physically, but mentally you’re far, far away thinking about other things.
You’re not present.
These days, technology can be a serious threat to your being present. Mobile phones, WiFi, headphones, smart watches, television, apps, and social media seduce us into being a million other places than where we are at the moment.
· You’re with good friends at a restaurant, but you’re watching the big game on the large screen television over their shoulder while visiting with each other. You think you’re doing a masterful job of keeping up with the conversation, but they see your eyes darting past them while they talk. They’re feeling like you’d much rather be over at the bar watching the game than sitting at the table talking with them.
· Your entire family has convened around the fireplace on the deck at the lake house. Now that everybody has families of their own and live in different cities, it is rare that you are all together in one place at the same time. But you have a really funny thread you’re following in a digital conversation unfolding on Facebook. Without so much as leaving the comfort of the chair you occupy, you keep ducking out of what is happening on the deck to contribute to what is being said on social media. You think you’re being so sly looking down at your phone when all eyes are on somebody else, but they see your obvious interest elsewhere. Or should I say, your disinterest there.
Here’s the hard truth. You can be an extremely friendly presence on Facebook while being a complete jerk to the family and friends sitting in the very same room with you. Oh, you’re “there” all right, but you’re not really present. You’re engaged in a digital conversation with people miles away while real people speaking real words in a real conversation desire your undivided attention just inches from where you are sitting.
An impression of you is being formed in their minds by your digital distraction.
While you think you’re being cute with your latest reply to a funny conversation unfolding between friends on social media, you’re acting like an idiot to those in the room with you through your thoughtlessness to their company.
We are guilty of the same thing when we are constantly checking emails, frequently listening to voicemail, compulsively glancing down at text messages, and trolling the internet right there in the company of others more deserving of our time and attention because…well, because they are right there with you.
Being present is such an important factor to how people think of us when we are around.
You see, it all comes back to presence – what you’re like when you’re around. While you may be the life of the party on your digital platform, the people all around you at the actual party get the impression you are rude and aloof. You appear disinterested in them. In short, you’re perceived as an inconsiderate snob. While that may be the furthest thing from the truth, it is the impression your presence is creating in those moments when you are not being present.
“What a jerk.”
Never underestimate the power of presence. It has the potential of shaping a person’s opinion of you for a lifetime.