I have been seeing a lot of posts lately about what experienced professionals would tell their 22-year-old self. It is hard to read those headlines without getting a little reflective. Unfortunately, I was a jerk in my early 20s. Maybe you were one of those “evolved” 20-somethings with perfect self-awareness, but I most certainly was not.
Looking back, my “jerkiness” mainly took three forms:
- I was terrible at remembering people’s names. And what is worse, I wasn’t self aware enough to even feel bad about it. I just rationalized that some people are bad at remembering names, so why try?
- I interrupted. A LOT. Looking back, I just didn’t have the skills to join in a conversation without blindly jumping in and cutting someone off. So I either interrupted or I kept my mouth shut entirely.
- I constantly told “me too” stories. Oh, you went to the beach last week? I went last summer. You have worked with a client in the medical device industry? I had one of those and I may get another one soon. A coworker, who shall remain nameless, actually said to me once, “wow – you have a story for everything, don’t you?” I don’t think they meant it as a compliment.
It is mortifying to think about how I handled myself in social situations at that age. So why bring it up now? Because I do not want to act like a jerky 22 year old anymore.
Three ways to not act like a jerky 22 year old:
Pay close attention to the details. Yes, some people are better than others at remembering names, but for most of us, it is a learned skill that can be perfected. When you forget a person’s name, however innocently, you are sending the message that the person isn’t important to you. Since my 20s, I’ve encountered a handful of people who sent me that message loud and clear. They forgot basic facts about my life or things that I had mentioned to them at our last meeting. It made me feel small and I lost respect for those people. That is not the type of professional (or human being) that I want to be. People matter and their details matter too. Whether you jump on the Dale Carnegie bandwagon or just try some name-remembering tips, strengthen this muscle.
Listen first, then speak. I did a whole blog post on why active listening is important. It is also a learned skill that you can perfect. I think breaking the habit of interrupting gets easier as you gain experience, because you also gain confidence. You learn that what you have to say is worth sharing, so you don’t feel as panicked to be heard. This is a random example, but have you ever noticed that Charlie Rose is amazing at this on CBS This Morning? Charlie, Nora, and Gale (because we’re on a first name basis like that) host the show in a round table format, and if you watch Charlie closely, you’ll see that he’ll casually raise a finger or shift his body to signal that he has something to add to the conversation. He is polite, but he gets heard. If only I had learned to do that at 22.
Practice multiple methods of connecting. Looking back, I realize that the reason I was constantly telling little random stories about myself is that I wanted a way to connect with the other person. Each story was a little “me too!” aimed making both of us comfortable and continuing the conversation. That is absolutely a legitimate tactic for handling yourself at a cocktail party… but it can’t be your only one. Business Insider recently did a fantastic infographic about becoming a master networker. Before your next work event, pick one or two new tactics to add to your arsenal, so that you aren’t only talking about yourself.
So let’s raise a glass to age and experience… and the knowledge that I’ll probably write another post like this in a decade or two about what an idiot I was in my 30s.