The Workplace

When the Voice and the Face Don’t Fit

By:Sam Carbon

It has been called “thin slicing” by psychologists, and it has to do with the infamous first impression. The practice of “thin slicing” involves people making their mind up about you and all sorts of things about you, ranging from your level of intelligence to even your conscientiousness within moments of initially meeting you. It almost seems unfair but it is something that we all do subconsciously.

So what is it  like when we build up a picture of someone in our mind before we have met face to face? Does the first impression concept come into play when we know someone through phone calls and email but have never actually met?

While I conducted most of my work over the phone working on a busy investment bank trading floor, I rarely overtly came across issues with anyone. For several months, a colleague and I spoke over the phone. I lived in London and she lived in France and we had never met. As an energetic individual I learned telephone first impressions could open the door to a variety of anxieties.

I knew who I was. I knew my sense of worth and merits, however in  my fantasy I wondered if I had an accent to my colleague or if my sense of humour came across appropriately, since not only did she not have the gestures to help her interpret my intent, she was not able to see that I was a woman of colour.

By phone we connected well, sharing common interests such as music, films, and past-times. While attempting to keep my anxieties at bay, I had a growing interest in figuring out what I represented to her on the other line. On reflection, I had a burning desire to put my colleague in a box and label it based on what I could tell, but I didn’t want to marginalize her.

What I discovered about not being able to see someone face-to-face is that labeling someone was very difficult to do. What I could tell about her from over the phone was that she was Caucasian as there was something in her narrative that confirmed her ethinic group, and she also spoke about getting her hair highlighted.

She was a committed worker, and she appeared to enjoy our mutual capabilities in our working dynamics. I questioned if I was unconsciously playing a game to fit in as my ethinicity never came up as I never shared I steam and weave my hair.

I have been raised to believe I am part of the human race and even though we come in all shapes, shades, and sizes, its idealistic thinking that we must accept all parts of each other. So, living as a minority in a Caucasian society it was easy for me to form a white image in my black mind and the image in my mind was a representation of how I viewed her based on how we laughed, connected, and positively communicated, so I felt excited when I learned she would be visiting my office.

When my colleague and I finally met face-to-face, I could sense a little surprise as she shook my hand. Her hand shake felt weak and distant. She looked at me tilting her head several times but avoided holding her eye contact. It was like she was processing the voice she had engaged with the physical presence of me.

Sadly, the way she related to me changed altogether, in fact, she didn’t really relate to me at all. The plans we had put in place to catch up during her time in London were swiftly cancelled and during her stay she emailed messages that could have benefited from short a face to face conversation.

Did the color of my skin contribute to her avoidance? I believe working relationships are co-created and I wondered if the relatedness had broken down. I could sense a little bit of fear, not that she was afraid I would do some sort of harm to her, but a fear of the unknown. Although we’d spoken on the phone for countless hours working closely together to meet deadlines, this did not assist in reducing the feeling that we were still strangers.

The common interests and discussions we once enjoyed during our work were overshadowed by discussions that now highlighted some of our ethnic differences. Questions such as “What’s your heritage?” and “where were you raised?”; came into our dialogue. I was happy to share who I am and realized through this process that my colleague was beginning to see more of me.

This experience showed me that people can imagine you to be anyone they want you to be. Yet, when a face-to-face meeting finally occurs, adjustments are made based on what we see. I have questioned, if we are likely to imagine someone that is similar to us perhaps to make ourselves more comfortable? What my colleague had seen in me somehow trumped what she had heard for months prior, and this, unfortunately, was mainly due to our ethnic differences.

Have you had any experiences with someone being surprised about your race after communicating with them over the phone or via email? If so please share your experiences below in the comment section.

Sam Carbon

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