California State University, Dominguez Hills
University of Wisconsin, Parkside
Latest update: October 24, 1999
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Having explored in the last chapter some of the dimensions of choosing the appropriate message, we now turn to the process of image formation and projection in the work setting. We explore the role of language in the personal image, and suggest some ways in which transactions in the workplace serve to generate such images. This is another kind of "social construction of reality," (Berger and Luckmann, 1966). Language is our primary form of communication. So much so that we have come to designate behavior, which also serves as communication, a non-verbal language. Each of us projects an image. People receive impressions of us. And not always quite the one we imagined. Words - we depend on them so. Words are the source of misunderstandings (the taken granted assumptions that we discussed in the previous chapter). We suggest patterns for creating and sustaining an effective image in the work environment.
Much of the theoretical basis for this chapter focuses on the works of Erving Goffman. In Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, Goffman (1959) said that people perform as actors and actresses. In other words, "life is a stage," or what has come to be called "dramaturgy." Goffman perceived the self as a product of dramatic interaction between actor and audience. We are performers in a sense. He also saw each of us as "managers of impressions," (1959). These impressions are grounded in the kinds of appearances, gestures, costumes, props, settings, words and all that make up the individual as actress. In looking at this dramaturgical approach to society, Goffman tells us about "frontstage and backstage" behaviors. Just as in a play, where things are hidden from the audience it is backstage while the main performance is happening front and center on stage. We do the same in our everyday life and in the work world. For example, we might be dressed in a business suit at work (the frontstage) but the minute we get home (the backstage) we pull on our old worn out blue jeans and an old college sweatshirt. Another example might be an interview for a prospective job as a kind of "performance." Goffman also speaks of "creating a scene," and some of us have done that a few times in all kinds of settings.
When we create a personal image of our own, we take care to the costume, backdrop, and props. Does that thirty-nine cent BIC pen project an image of power and success as it leaks all over your brand new white shirt? Is it better to carry a purse or a briefcase or both? Is the sign of power, not carrying anything so that when you show up to a meeting what is needed is inside your head, not in a mountain of files and reports?
We have been discussing images in terms of their prior existence. That is, we have made the assumption that individuals are conscious to some extent of creating an impression, and that they know what impression they choose to create. However, there are stages in our life cycle when this is not the case. In this chapter, we examine the role of language in creating impressions through the confusion of image change and evolution.
Career, from the stage of "what will I grow up to be: to the stage "where do I go from here" are related to the stages in image revision. These stages are usually associated with rites of passage (into adolescence, into middle age, into retirement, etc.) and traumatic events (marriage, divorce, promotions, loss of job, etc.). The extent of trauma in each case will vary with the individual, and will vary directly with the extent of change the rite or event introduces. A promotion, or the denial of that promotion, may produce a small ripple if it occurs in an entry level job when one is pre-occupied with school or marriage plans. That same event may produce major trauma when it involves the culmination of a 15-year career pattern.
At times of trauma we have a tendency to take stock of our lives and our progress to date. This is probably the worst time to do so since everything is colored by the trauma. We are all familiar with the adolescent who laments "But I haven't got any personality." Like the experienced driver who has displaced to a subconscious level the complexity of skills involved in driving, the adolescent has displaced to a subconscious level all manifestations of his identity. And adolescence is only the first in a series of hurdles that force us to confront ourselves, to ask about an image that has been out-of-awareness for so long we're forced to search for it; and fear, like the adolescent, that maybe none is there. Consider the dilemma of the woman of 40 who tries to enter the labor market for the first time. What can she do, that industry cares about? Yes, of course, she can do something - but she may not see what that something is any more readily than the adolescent can see is personality. (Ironically, she is probably doing a good job of counseling her own adolescents through that very crisis).
Or consider the dilemma of the corporate president who has been given early retirement at 55 because his corporation merged with another. There is rarely room for two presidents when mergers occur; and they are occurring with increasing regularity. What can you do after being president? For that matter, what do former Presidents of the United States do? That's quite a job to lose.
The Range of the Dilemma
Too esoteric? There aren't so many ex-presidents as to create a social problem. Well, how about college professors? In 1980 A.D. a male college professor (Ph.d., Full Professor, publications, etc.) was heard lamenting the enrollment situation to a female colleague (Ph.D., Full Professor, publications, etc.) who was typing out a quick memo in the department office. We quote: "You're lucky. At least you can type. What can I do if I don't teach?" We regret to report that we have heard "But what can I do?" from males and females of all ages, across a broad range of occupations, in several major metropolitan areas of the United States. Each group is certain the dilemma is exclusively theirs. Media portrayal of the dilemma is as one bordering on collective hysteria. Popular books on how to get a job, how to keep a job, how to win on the job, how to get ahead, how to color your parachute, crowd the bookstore shelves in transit to anxious leaders. We seem to be developing a national paranoia of planned human obsolescence.
On a ski trip in 1980, one of the authors was asked by a fellow gondola rider what she did. When she mentioned her research on careers, two skiers immediately queried: "We're medical technicians, working in the same hospital for ten years. There's nowhere for us to go there. We want some challenge. What can we do with a degree in medical technology?" We've heard it in New York, in Racine, in Kenosha, in Salt Lake City, in Denver, in resort towns, in Los Angeles, and elsewhere. Ten years on the job, no possibility of promotion, early thirties: this is one of those traumatic times when people confront their images, and fear there may be nothing there.
The problem is two-fold. We don't mean to minimize the realities of unemployment, re-entry, career change. We concur with the therapist who told one re-entry woman: "There's nothing I can do. You have a `real world` problem." She was right, about the "real world" problem, anyway. One component to the "What can I do?" dilemma is a language component. Most people who ask that question, are really saying "How can I do anything different from what I can see myself doing, from what I can imagine?" They are reflecting their identities as they currently perceive them, and trying to project those identities into an unknown and sometimes unimaginable world. When they ask what they can do, they want in answer a concrete list of pigeon holes from which they might select one that fits. We deal with the pigeon holes elsewhere; here we can deal with the language, and the image it reflects.
We tend to carry a fixed image of ourselves somewhere in time and space like a daguerreotype, that we carry around in an inside pocket. We take it out now and then to remind us of what we look like, especially at times of trauma, when we are unwilling to accept the alternative reflections from the social context (our mirror, as it were). If the mirror is suddenly cracked by trauma its reflections shimmering and volatile, how much more comforting the daguerreotype.
The Emperor's New Clothes
The image of ourselves we have fixed includes the self-concept and all the untested clutter we've picked with it - expectations about roles, our roles and others' expectations about opportunities in the social system and where we "should" fit in, and so on. When our adolescent claimed not to have a personality he was suffering the trauma of the rite of passage in which he had to give up his old daguerreotype of himself - his child image. He couldn't make it fit into any pigeon holes anymore. He had to adjust his fixed image of himself to that of a young man. And he probably felt very much like he was wearing the emperor's new clothes; quite naked with no personality at all, having given up the "child" qualities. The adult qualities were all too new, and vanished occasionally, when he most needed their protective coloring, leaving him quite like the emperor whose courtiers refused to take notice.
That is all very well for an adolescent. But having survived that rite of passage we expected to remain safely clothed happily ever after. Unfortunately, someone forgot to tell us that the clothes were likely to suddenly turn invisible again at these terrible moments of trauma, when one is least prepared for any more stress. But turn invisible they do. And with our adolescent experience as a model, we cling all the more cautiously to our safely clothed "fixed image". It may be clothed as "Mother" when a personnel clerk asks us what we can do. It may be clothed as "medical technician" when we experience discomfort at the lack of opportunities in our present job. As adults, it's even easier to fall back on the fixed image. Society doesn't offer nearly as strong a supportive push as when we were forced to discard our "child" image. It is socially acceptable to continue as "mother," even if we are forced by trauma to somehow find a "paid work" role for that image. It is socially acceptable to continue as a "med tech," even if our career ambitions are mildly frustrated. In fear, we may even cling more strongly to the old image, sending out more messages about that identity than we would normally. Thus: "I am a med tech. What can I do?" and not "I have experience in applied laboratory science and am interested in exploring some new alternatives. What options could I pursue in the bio-sciences starting out with a med tech degree?"
Changing the Fixed Image
The literature tends to describe the "What can I do?" dilemma as peculiar to the adult female who enters or re-enters the labor market in middle age. Curricular plans, counseling programs, popular literature aim to help her translate the skills she has acquired in years of homemaking and child-rearing into "marketable skills." The nature of the translation may differ somewhat; but recycling old skills into new "marketable skills" is a dilemma faced by everyone from housewife to the "retired" corporate President. It is not entirely a matter of semantics. There is the "real world" problem of changing skills. But there is also the matter of transfer of knowledge. At many levels of a work organization, experience in the application of knowledge is as crucial as the knowledge itself. The first step toward answering "What can I do" is to re-examine the image which lead to the question. There is an incongruity in the message: "I am a med tech. What can I do besides be a med tech?" The first statement suggests an identity. There are stereotypical images attached to that identity. The second statement now asks where else can such an identity fit? But med techs are as different, one from the other, as mothers or corporate presidents.
This is the phenomenon we described earlier as the "shaping of our thoughts" by language. There are names I call myself. There are adjectives I choose to describe myself. And after a while I come to think of myself in terms of this image - using always these same names, these same adjectives. At some point, the image became frozen into a daguerreotype, and I no longer process new information about myself. Now, "knowing" who I am and what I am like, I unconsciously fit myself into the daguerreotype. Gradually, I change. I grow a little older, a little wiser, experience new people and events, until one day the image in the daguerreotype confounds my attempt to reconcile it either with what I feel and do, or with the events of my world.
Such confrontation is most likely to occur at the traumatic stages of rites of passage and major events. And even then, the new information we process about ourselves is filtered through the language we've grown so accustomed to. The mother talks about "going to work" but describes her skills with visions of children dancing in her head. The president talks about "moving on", with the authority of position resounding in his mind. The old language colors both the alternatives we see and the messages we send.
There is no answer to this dilemma. No right or wrong. Fixed images, like stereotypes, are simply one means of initially processing the overabundance of information with which we are confronted in daily life. Like stereotypes , they are useful, though they can be dangerous, if we allow them to limit our processing of information. Like stereotypes, too, fixed images function at an out-of-awareness level, and can shape our perceptions of reality as well as process input from reality. When old stereotypes are no longer appropriate for processing information, we need to bring them back to a conscious level, consider their validity in the current reality context, and then keep the revised stereotypes at a conscious level until our old reaction patterns have been extinguished.
Reactions of the Work Setting
We have addressed the fixed image as it includes the self-concept and language projections of self. However, the influence of the fixed image permeates the work world. Just as we cease processing information about ourselves at some point and fixate on an image, others also develop a fixed image of us. Thus, not only do our own perceptions tend to shape us to our "image"; others reflect that image back to us, adding to our pressure to conform. Children reflect "mother" messages in the midst of Mother's struggle to see herself in a work role. People respond with deference messages in the midst of the president's trying to dismantle his authority role.
On a smaller scale, we see patterns of image fixation throughout the work setting. The eager young executive, anxious to climb the career ladder, volunteers for difficult jobs, works late, uses every opportunity to contribute, seems indefatigable. Within a month or so she has established a "high energy" image. Once feedback messages indicate that the image is well established, she can afford to choose the tasks for which she volunteers, appear at a few less committee meetings, slow down a little. As long as she presents no incongruencies, like fatigue messages, her "high energy" image will remain fixed.
This is no different in concept from the university student who establishes an "excellent student" image on the first exam or term paper,and then sails through the rest of the course with confidence. Neither the young executive nor the university student can afford to turn in work of poor quality. The benefits do not lie in the privilege of reverting to not work or poor work. The benefits lie in relieving some of the stress performance review. Once the university student knows he's been labelled excellent, his anxiety level about performance is lowered. More of his energy can go into actual performance concerns. Once the young executive knows she's been labeled "high energy," her anxiety level about exhibiting career potential is lowered. She can afford to manage her time more to her choosing - efficiency is established.
Also a well established image affords one the luxury of a generous interpretation of mistakes. Mistakes are far riskier when one has not yet been labeled successful. The successful image says "most data about this person indicate success." Thus mistakes are a small proportion of the cumulative impression. However, if the image is not yet formed the mistake 1) has occurred early enough to be included in the formation of the image and 2) may loom as a larger proportion of the processed information about the person. Thus, the anxiety level over mistakes is higher during the initial process of establishing an image. During this stage, greater attention should be paid to incongruities in messages. In later stages, incongruities, like mistakes, will be proportionately less damaging.
However, the fixed image will stand only as much incongruity before people begin to re-evaluate. The dynamic vice president may return tipsily to his office at 2:30 now and then. Repeated occurrences will cause people to re-evaluate their image of him. And at some point, the organization will extend an ultimatum. The myth that one can establish success and then coast on that success, is just that, a myth. When incongruent messages become so frequent that they make up a noticeable proportion of incoming data, we do re-evaluate the image.
For a variety of reasons, at certain points in the life cycle, we are faced with the adolescent feeling of "no personality." In this section we consider one process of developing an image and the new language in which to cloak it.
Some of us had little choice about the self-images we acquired as children. We often filled our parents' vicarious needs to carry on in the family tradition in medicine, law or the family business, or their need to found such a family tradition. Some of us filled their need simply to found a family. As adults no such constraints remain. That freedom can be intimidating. We can no longer be "anything we want to be," but the choices still open are bewildering. Maybe I can't aspire to be a neurosurgeon - at least not if I've already missed out on medical school - but there's a whole new field opening up in public health and health maintenance organization, from entry level to doctoral level.
Again, this is a two-fold problem. One component lies in an actual analysis of the job market and skills acquisition. A new image is not composed of skills and job titles alone. As a matter of fact, the newly acquired image will facilitate the acquiring of those new skills and job titles. Half the battle in getting there lies in acquiring the firm conviction of who you are and where you're going and in projecting that to others. There are many ways to gain that conviction. We offer here some of the language components that may help.
As you contemplate the work world and the variety of roles you might play, consider the personal style you will bring to that role. In the previous chapter, we suggested a paradigm for exploring personal styles in the work environment.
One explanation for the adolescent sensation of "no personality" is that dimensions of style are changing. As we pass through the various age-related rites and life events, we may experience change in personal preference. We may shift our position on some dimensions and different dimensions may acquire ascendancy in the individual profile. In this state of flux, we are often unwilling to commit ourselves, particularly if we have no models to suggest what those preferences might mean. The better part of valor, in that case is to remain neutral. Many people respond under these circumstances: "I'm flexible." That's useful. But few of us really are, at least not to the point of having no strong preferences. This is merely a waiting game - a time when one has not yet made a commitment. Particularly on a new job - many of us would prefer to analyze the norms and work patterns before broadcasting strong preferences. There is wisdom in listening before speaking.
But having explored one's preference and determined the nature of the social context, one must begin somewhere. Image projection is the marketing of oneself. Good marketing requires the careful selection of the product's best qualities for advertising. No marketing director would try to tell everything there is to know about her product. A few good selling points are highlighted. That is what creates an individual image, too. Choose a few of the qualities you'd like to be known for, and concentrate on keeping the image congruent. For example, one might select "high energy," "good at complex reasoning," "considerate." Someone who selected this configuration would be an excellent prospect for a support position. "High energy" suggests the work will get done. "Good at complex reasoning" suggests that complex high level tasks can be assigned. "Considerate" suggests an ability to get along with others. On the other hand, that configuration would not be a strong recommendation for a line officer. Nothing in the image suggests the willingness to take risks, to make decisions, to accept responsibility. A good line officer may possess all the qualifications for a support position, but she will highlight those qualities that are important to line positions: risk-taking, decision-making, skills in supervision, etc.
Thus, the qualities we choose to convey should form an image that is internally consistent, conforms to our personal style and preferences, and conforms to our occupational goal we have in mind. This does take some planning, just as the smart young executive plans her wardrobe to fit the next job she's aiming for. It is remarkable that people spend so much time, effort and money on clothing themselves (either according to the dictates of the workplace or their rebellion against those dictates), yet balk at the prospect of applying a similar effort to the verbal cloaks in which they display themselves daily.
Most of us dress with care, gossip about those who don't and then talk about ourselves at random, leaving turbid bits of language strewn about, here and there. Then we wonder why our talents aren't appreciated! If Marvin Mienless craves promotion to a line position his verbal mantle had better match his blue jeans (or blue serge, according to the organization's persuasion). Consider this hypothetical compilation of Marvin's utterances as a representative sample of his total conversation in the presence of his supervisor:
"Did you see that Corvette, Mark had, last night? He's thinking of buying it."
"This report is well done. Carolyn did a good job."
"You want it out by when? You must be kidding!"
"No, I can't finish it tonight. I've got to get home by six. That's when the game starts."
"Janice just bought a Pantera. I drove it last weekend. Talk about power!"
"Sure, I could handle that assignment. I know how to percentage these out for you. But I couldn't do it over the weekend. I've got to work on my Jag. How about early next week?"
"Well, I don't know. I guess you could order more parts now; but then we might end up with overstock.
Of course, we do need the parts. Hey, Cheryl, what should we do about those parts?"
Now compare the hypothetical compilation of a representative sample of Percy Perceptovitz's utterances:
"Look at the way these percentages worked out. You know, I think if we tried a different breakdown, we might find what we're looking for. Cheryl, has anyone ever tried breaking these figures down by units instead of departments?"
"You need it by Monday? Are you sure it couldn't wait til Tuesday morning? How about if we have it walked over to you?"
"Carolyn, I saw that report you did. That was a nice write-up. I especially liked the way you handled that discrepancy."
"No, I can't get it out by tonight. There are some figures I'll have to look up. But maybe you could have someone pick it up around ten tomorrow. I'll stay late and work on it."
"Jim, can you play racquetball at 5:30?"
"Well, if you order parts now, and that project falls through, we could be way overstocked. Why don't you call and ask if we could return them for credit within a 2 month period? Then I'll compare the cost over-run and we can decide."
"Susan, I'm going to play racquetball at 5:30 with Jim Carson from Finance. Would you and Carla like to play some doubles with us?"
Suppose Percy Perceptovitz and Marvin Mienless are both up for promotion; and there is just one line position open. If their work is equally good in all respects, so that the promotion turns on the supervisor's impression, who do you think will get the promotion? We'd bet on Percy. Of the seven representative remarks, two relate exclusively to personal interest and/or leisure for both Percy and Marvin. However, Marvin twice adds personal interest excuses for not getting work out at a requested time. Percy also refuses twice to meet a requested deadline. But he never offers a personal excuse. And he never stops with the refusal. He negotiates an acceptable alternative. Once he says he'll stay late. (He may have fibbed. We don't know). Marvin refuses a deadline in a third response, and jokes at the preposterousness of the time limit. (He may have been justified). Nevertheless, in terms of seriousness in meeting deadlines, Percy wins hands down. He may not do any more than Marvin, but he gives a more efficient impression.
Also, Marvin's personal conversation seems exclusively personal. No ties to the workplace are evident. Percy has obviously made a date with co-workers, at least one, Jim Carson, from another department. Percy seems to be building a personal network with co-workers. Marvin may be, too -- but we can't tell from his messages. Marvin compliments Carolyn's report. Maybe she'll hear the compliment. Maybe she won't. But Percy compliments Carolyn directly and adds a specific detail that indicates careful attention to the report. For all we know, Marvin could have been impressed by the thickness of the report. When it comes to decision-making, Marvin passed the buck to Cheryl. He didn't volunteer any useful suggestions. Percy accepted the decision-making responsibility and asked for specific information that might help.
Both Marvin and Percy seem to be knowledgeable. But Marvin's message just says he knows how to do percentages. Percy expresses enthusiasm about some results and suggests a new way to analyze them - initiative. Marvin, on the other hand, coupled his knowledge with a deadline refusal.
All other factors being equal, we'd promote Percy. He may not be better qualified; but his verbal image is more impressive. This analysis cannot be generalized to mean that every word one utters in the workplace should be work related and carefully planned. Remember that we hypothesized that these messages were a representative sample of what Percy and Marvin say. What matters is not the individual message, (most are lost in the social context) but the proportion of messages that fall in the various categories. Rare is the supervisor who will consciously analyze what she has heard in the work setting. You can't consciously prepare messages in equal proportions of the qualities you choose to project. You'd never get any work done! But you can develop an awareness for what you hear yourself saying, and roughly analyze it as we have here. If you're in the process of developing an image, language analysis will help you protect that image more effectively.
Another effective approach to developing an image is to find a model. If there's no one in your immediate environment, look for models in the media, in popular magazines, in professional publications (newsletters). What are the qualifying adjectives used to describe successful people you'd like to emulate? Once you've found a reasonable set of qualifiers match them to your own preferences, and voila; that's the list you want to project.
Descriptions abound in newspapers, professional newsletters, on television, in biographies, autobiographies and novels. The writer of fiction is an astute observer of human behavior in the matter of work as well as intrigue. There should be no dearth of models.
We look at role modeling, drawn from learning theory, and from much of symbolic interactionist theory (Blumer, 1969). Humans are seen in this framework as active agents in their own affairs. We shape our lives by interacting with others. We have developed symbols, words, objects, full of meaning. and through this meaning we negotiate our share reality. Overtime, we ritualize some of the interactions themselves. They become roles. We make the roles. Yet the roles in turn now shape our behavior.
One of the problems with role models, of course, is that no one has the time for both, a real life and the model life. And no one is really an "ideal type" which is the way we normally tend to see our role models. This is as true for males as for females. The handsome, football player strong terse male, who is always sure of himself and his knowledge is by and large a myth. Maybe there are ideal lives out there somewhere, but we've never met one.
I am reminded of a woman I once knew. She was a full time professional with a grown family. She was honored by every group there was to honor the kind of activities she engaged in. She was in such demand by co-workers and friends that she was never alone. And then she became ill. I visited her, as we had some work to do. She was alone at home. All her children had left home already and she was a widow. She was terrified. She thought she was dying. And there was no one there, no one to help her through that terror. I stayed for several days. There were lots of calls. But not a single friend or family member ever guessed at her fear. Finally, I asked, "Why haven't you told them. They love you." Her answer? "They only see me as strong." She wasn't dying. She recovered and remarried and lived happily ever after. The role model is human, too.
We recall an old poster we used to have on the wall: Sometimes I just sits and thinks. And sometimes I just sits." Sometimes we are models of success. And sometimes we just are. And that should be okay.
Another problem with role models, aside from their being impossible of most human achievement, is that they are part and parcel of the social system or the social group. Role models are provided by those who fulfill the group norms.
Because most of our female sex role norms are the opposites of the male sex role forms, the male is bound through the reality he creates of his own ideal role.
Selecting Patterns of Visibility
Having developed a clear image of the qualities you plan to highlight, you'll find that remembering to devote a large proportion of your messages to them will become easier as you become accustomed to your new face. But how do you get people to notice the new face and re-evaluate their fixed images of you?
One of the most difficult problems in surviving traumatic events (and a new image is traumatic) is that they never qualify as national holidays. The rest of the world goes on as though nothing has happened. We recall a young widow describing her frustrations as she walked across a university campus where everyone pursued a perfectly normal existence, while her life was falling apart. There is a need to shout - surely, if they just knew - everyone should share in the trauma. But the truth is that as people we don't share others' traumas. We have our own, on other days. So we walk in one morning and send every conceivable message you've been able to think up. Far from being impressed, they're likely to send you out for repair. Try your messages one or two at a time, when a logical reason presents itself. And make effective use of two techniques: 1) look for organization related connections that will let you express yourself (whether your image is old or new) and 2) concentrate as much on what you don't say as on what you do.
Few of us even bother to realize the potential available to gain visibility for our image (new or old). Most organizations provide myriad opportunities outside the local work unit. Some modern corporations are formalizing this structure of opportunity (Stein and Kanter, 1980), but we are still a long way from formal managers of the quality of work life (QWL) in most organizations. You can find and/or create those opportunities on your own. You can develop social contacts in other work units by the simple process of saying "hello." Share a lunch with someone new. Volunteer for a committee. Volunteer to help someone who is overloaded. If there is no committee, invent one: "Committee to study the quality of paper towels and tissues in the restroom, with a view to finding cost-effective improvements. PRODUCTION INCREASED BY SOFTER/BETTER TOILET TISSUE." If you post that, somebody's bound to show up. Maybe only the company clowns; but at least you'd have some fun.
Join the women's committee, (which works even better if you're a woman. But audacious males might add new energy to some.) Volunteer to coordinate some activities with the health and safety unit. Education is generally one of their mandates; and it's not easy to get worker attention. Help organize something for your unit, like coping with alcoholism. (This should be a little more discreet than suggesting they're a bunch of alcoholics. The health and safety people will have ideas. Teetotalers should avoid this topic - they come off as moralistic.)
Join a men's service club in the community, (even if you're a woman. Only super-elitists will say not to a sincere woman in this day and age.) You'll meet people and have a chance to learn to do things. Volunteer to get some kind of cooperation from your organization - if it's only a $25 contribution. The process at work of finding the right people to ask will let you develop a whole network of new contacts. (Stay off the phone as much as possible. You want your voice to have a face!)
Once you start to realize the possibilities, the problem will be in choosing. There's always an abundance of activities in any organization. Practice your image projection in these activities. If you've decided that one quality you'd like to project is "willingness to try new tasks" - practice. As soon as a plausible task comes up, volunteer, "I'd like to do that." Notice I didn't say I could. I said I'd like to. Niceties of language are important. If it's something I've never done before, I may make mistakes - but I do want to do it. If they heard I can, their tough luck. They'll have to teach me. They should learn to listen.
Don't be intimidated in your volunteer activities. You aren't getting paid for them. Mistakes are free. Do volunteer within reason, (i.e., something you can presumably do with some help). But don't be afraid to ask for that help. Next time you can help someone else learn. Since volunteer activities are usually outside the immediate work unit, and not included in your performance review, you can achieve the same freedom from performance anxiety as the one who has already proven his success in formal work tasks. That may be just the extra edge you need to start developing confidence.
DO NOTmention your old image you want to leave behind. Concentrate both in the work unit and in any other activities you pursue on the new qualifiers you've decided to project. The old messages may be incongruent and could cancel you new image projection. And if you do find activities, DO remember what your basic goal is. You didn't set out to become Host or Hostess Twinkie for the organization. You set out to meet people, project an image, learn new skills, and translate those to your work. Don't get so enthusiastic that you project more interest in extracurricular activities than in your work. Do try to show competence, confidence, and commitment in whatever you do. That's part of any work image designed to afford new opportunities. That means don't be cavalier about volunteer activities. They're still serious business, especially if people are counting on you. Besides, you never know when one of them will lead to the change you've been looking for. For example, maybe the editor of the organization's newsletter will see your memo on the toilet paper crisis. Maybe he could use someone with a sense of humor, and your next job could be with the newsletter. Opportunities often come when they are least expected.
Coping with the Self-Conscious Image
Especially for those who are self-conscious, outside activities become essential. Talking about oneself can be an ordeal for any of us. If we're painfully shy, that extra anxiety can turn a simple task into a stress test. This is when the opportunity to volunteer, to practice sending the message you'd like to project, becomes an integral part of the career plan. Practice grabbing attention on the toilet tissue committee, before you try to volunteer for the next big assignment in your unit. The committee offers a safe place where you can learn how to cope with the more confident types who always rush to volunteer. You may have to learn to approach your supervisor well in advance, to ask for a chance at the next big job. The extracurricular practice, where there's less competition and less stress, will give you an environment in which to develop you own most effective style of communicating.
With this brief review of the tasks involved in selecting the language of the image and finding a setting in which to project the image, we now turn to some equally important extensions of the image.
In this section, we examine components of the image that go beyond the personal choice of words we send. We consider now the jargon image of exclusivity, the paralanguage components of image, and the visible image of non-verbal language.
The Jargon Image of Exclusivity
There are times when, for a variety of reasons, one prefers an inscrutable image. For example, our pollsters might have managed better had they dropped their educated tones and dressed in working clothes. More often, however one chooses an inscrutable image not to fit into the context, but to define barriers in the social context. To this end, jargon was invented. The term, jargon, is used not only to describe the specialized vocabulary of a trade or occupation, but also to indicate total nonsense and gibberish. There are transactions between professionals which actually require some unique terminology. Statisticians must agree on the precise meaning of terms such as: significant, correlation, causality, substantive significance, fit, representative, random, etc. Within the statistical context these terms serve, through their precise statistical meaning, to ensure accurate communication. However, to a layman discussions sprinkled throughout with such terms, would appear to be gibberish.
In certain contexts, the jargon serves its manifest function, i.e., to enable specialists to verify the precise meaning of their terms. Thus, a statistician might communicate with other statisticians that the correlation was significant at the five percent level, though the substantive interpretation of that significance was open to question because the sample was not in fact representative, owing to the inability to control for random assignment of the groups. Those few words tell us that a significance test was performed; that there are only five chances in a hundred that the same results could have been obtained by random chance alone; that the real meaning of what was found is unclear because the sample studied may not have been like the rest of the population under study; and the reason there is uncertainty is that the groups studied were formed in some way other than random assignment, (i.e., individuals may have joined the group by choice, thus affecting the results). How much simpler to use the jargon, as long as we are all agreed upon the definitions. The use of such language sends messages to others that she who uses it belongs to the special group who shares that language. Jargon thus becomes a badge of exclusivity is one of the latent functions of jargon.
Jargon serves to establish social distance between those who understand it and those who do not. This factor should be considered whenever jargon is used. If you do not wish to increase the social distance between you and your listener, then do not use jargon unfamiliar to her. If, on the other hand, you wish to impress, mystify, or condescend, then jargon is appropriate. This is the "puffed up bull phrog phenomenon". It has many uses in the world of work. Puffed up bull phrogs obfuscate whatever they have to say to such an extent that not even they know what it means. But that's okay, because it isn't supposed to mean anything. It's meant to keep you at a respectful distance. Try this example of bull phroggery:
Try Hoopdela program has proven itself to be of inestimable value to the traditional school program. In all intellectual measures the evaluation tests show significant differences when children are given the advantage of the Hoopdela program. Performance on the "willingness to overthrow the school system" dimension was highly significant showing our Hoopdela children to be much better prepared on this dimension. We, therefore, recommend immediate adoption of the program into our curriculum.
That's right. It doesn't mean a thing, except that the kids are apparently going to overthrow the school (which might not be such a bad idea in this case). Molloy (1981) said, "jargon is for jerks."
Technical people in the business world use bull phroggery to aggrandize their positions and to control production rates. As long as the department requesting a job doesn't know what's involved they have to accept the time-line given as reasonable. For example, suppose Jim wants Karen's department to produce three left-threaded widgets for the doomsday project. Karen and Hal might explain the difficulties to Jim in flagrant bull phroggery:
--Well, let's see Hal, what would that involve?
--I don't know, Karen, I think we'll have to take a right-threaded widget and warp it in the wracket.
--Yeh. Then we can invert the wratchet.
--Sure. Once we've wrung the wallfestinger, that'll work. You're right.
--Jim, I don't think we could do that in less than a week, though. And it will cost quite a bit. We'll have to tie up the wracket, you see.
Unless Jim knows the process, he has little negotiating power over the time and the cost. After all, what does it cost to tie up a wracket? Of course, if Jim does know the jargon, and it's pure bull phroggery, the phurr may fly!
A university who happened to own an off-set printing press once left a print job at the university print shop. When he called to ask if it was ready, the printer assured him that they have been working on it steadily and would soon have it. He was just about to develop the plate. Unfortunately, the professor knew that the only step before developing the plate was to shoot the camera-ready copy. The printer had just started the job he had promised to get out immediately - and he was caught in flagrante delicto. If you're going to use bull phroggery, you'd best be sure your victim really is as ignorant as you have assumed.
People who have acquired highly technical skills have a tendency toward elitism. They are convinced that few people possess those skills; and that they can identify those who do. Such condescension breed disaster. Recently, business has taken steps to eliminate some organizational barriers to communication flow. In the past bull phroggery was used by technically trained experts to befuddle administrators dependent upon the specialist's erudite opinions. Now major business schools offer courses to guide the less specialized executive through the bull phrogg pond. Thus, you will see special seminars on Finance for the Non-Financial Executive. Bull phroggs take cover. The mist is clearing over the pond. Of course, as fast as the haze is cleared from one pond all the bull phroggs hop to another. Soon the financial executives will have to take courses in strategic planning for the non-strategic executive, so they can keep up with the S.B.U. (strategic business units) phrogging of the generalists.
The Non-Verbal Components of the Image
Throughout the text we have referred to the messages and communication. This has been a subtle recognition of the fact that there are both verbal and non-verbal parts to all communication. In this text, we have chosen to focus on the language component, but that is a little like trying to separate heredity from environment in child development. Both are present simultaneously and continuously, and it is difficult to talk about one without the other tagging along. In this section we briefly enumerate some non-verbal components of messages.
Paralanguage Paralanguage is a term social psychologists have coined to designate "the encoding and decoding of spoken information that is not contained in the denotative meanings of the specific words. These include meanings conveyed through the tone of voice, the rapidity of speech, and hesitations and pauses," (Schlenker, 1980:236-237). Paralanguage accounts for the undeniable certainty that you have been insulted when all that was said was, "Yes, Sir." There are "yes, sir-'s" and there are "yes, sir---r---r's." A mother, as Maya Angelou once noted, can express volumes with no more than "hmm," and knows at least 57 different varieties of "hmm."
Speech and drama classes specialize in the paralanguage nuances of messages. We can do no more here than point out their crucial role when linked to language in the work setting. We offer one example as temptation for you to venture to the speech and drama classes in search of more. In a large research organization, three research associates occupied neighboring offices. Each was responsible for a completely separate phase of a major project, but they often shared problems and insights, so that they were familiar with each other's work. One afternoon, a crisis occurred in one associate's department. The other two searched for him, made calls, tried until the last possible minute to reach him. He had left no word where he was going, and no one seemed to know. A decision had to be made in order to avoid a major cost overrun. The other two associates knew what the alternatives were, but they didn't like choosing for their friend in his absence. Finally, unable to locate him, they decided that in his place they would prefer to return to action and no cost over-run than to no action and a cost over-run. They issued the necessary directives and hoped Hal would share their feelings. As they left that evening, one of them slipped into Hal's office, put a sheet in his typewriter, and pecked out: "Where the hell were you? Crisis averted. Tina and Sue."
The next morning, Tina was relieved to discover that Hal agreed with the decision they had made. They went on to discuss a new variable breakdown they were considering. Tina was amazed later that afternoon to find Sue crying. She had quarreled with Hal, over the note in his typewriter. Tina was confused: "But I did that. Why is he angry with you? He knows I did it - and he's not angry. Why should he be?" Sue protested that she couldn't explain it. All she did was come in that afternoon and ask him where he had been. Then Tina understood. The culprit was paralanguage. When Tina typed the note, the question was not an interrogation - it was a signal to Hal that they had searched for him before taking action, and her style and questions the next morning made clear that she was mainly concerned with the propriety of taking action in Hal's absence. He understood the note in those terms. Actually, it hadn't occurred to her to ask him where he'd been the day before. But Sue had asked him where he'd been. He thus assumed that her interpretation of the note was more literal. And on what ground has she demanded an accounting? Same words. Same note, as a matter of fact. But the tone and presentation changed the connotation completely.
The Visual Image
In this section, we shall briefly examine the many components of messages which are conveyed by spacing (distance from others, relative height, standing or sitting, etc.) body language, and physical adornment (clothing, makeup, etc.).
The Use of Space We have noted before the importance of space in the social context. Simple positioning of a desk in an office alters the message. In Power!, Michael Korda (1975:65-66) explains: "It is important to develop an eye for the 'geography' of power in the office. Generally speaking, offices are based upon a corner power system rather than a central one, because the corner offices tend to be larger and more desirable. The closer one is to the center, the less powerful one is, just as the offices in the middle of a row are less powerful than the ones at either end of it." The executive who speaks, while seated with her desk between you and herself is maintaining social distance. Her messages take on deferent connotations from those of the executive whose desk is against the wall with no barriers between you and himself. So also does it make a difference whether he remains standing, or is seated.
The closeness with which we approach others conveys a message of intimacy or aloofness. The more aggressive amongst us can back our timid cousins into a wall merely by drawing always a little closer as they back away. This entails what social psychologists have terms "personal space." Some of us require a larger personal space than others, depending on our reaction to physical closeness. Americans, generally, require a relatively larger personal space than some other cultures, though there are wide individual variations.
Territoriality is another important component of the space effect. People react differently in their own territory. On someone else's territory behavior changes meaning. In the business world this often translates to "Your office or mine?" or some neutral territory in between. Action for most people is stronger and more confident in their own territory. Space also relates to power. Those with the greatest power in an organization tend to occupy the highest (top floor) and most central locations. Thus, communications from "on high" are literally that, from the top floor down. These are but a few of the ways in which space colors the communication between us.
Body Language Entire books (Fast, 1970) have been written on the use of body positioning to convey messages, often at an out-of-awareness level. Social psychologists describe numerous standard messages. The open position invites others to approach and communicate. The body is turned toward them, unprotected by limbs. The closed position, on the other hand, discourages communication. The body may be turned at least partially away from others, legs or arms crossed. There is a confident, erect stance, and an anxious slouch of a stance. There is fingernail biting and hair twirling to indicate anxiety. There is the calm intensity of the steady confident gaze. All these add subtle overtones to the language messages. And they are fully as capable of producing incongruence in the image as are the words we choose. They warrant our careful attention. Though we cannot explore body language fully in this book, we recommend that you take time to explore it elsewhere at length.
Appearance The ultimate component of the image is visual. Not all the words at our command can overwhelm the strength of visual impact. The advantage goes to the handsome. But it turns out to be a modest advantage, since there are many equalizers in clothing, accessories, and (for women) make up. Most of us fall well within the average in appearance, so that we have more control over the first impression than nature first granted us.
There has always been protest against this all too human tendency to judge by appearances. Yet we still cherish our Miss Americas; and lovely young women of incredibly slender girth smile at us from our magazines. Poignant messages about the fleeting nature of outward appearances abound. Most of us have seen Diane Arbus' The Freaks have seen the play or film of the Elephant Man with his compelling and heart-warming, "I. . . am. . .a . . .man." We recognize appearance as a minor factor - and yet it colors our messages, often at an out-of-awareness level.
Blue jeans in place of a blue serge suit is still a newsworthy occurrence. Clothes may not make the man, but they do sometimes help to make it to the board room. Not too long ago, it was noted that ex-President Ronald Reagan made brown a fashionable color. As one observer explains: "Those who strive for corporate gold, however, do well to follow the lead of those who already have it. Style and dress filter down from the top." (Gross, 1986) On the other hand, Elizabeth Sporkin (1986) states: "Just when you thought you'd master the art of dressing for success, the rules, they are a changing. And the news is good for men and women who feel trapped inside their power suits. With few exceptions, most professionals today can dress with a flair." In the early 1970's and throughout the 1980's,we recommended strongly John Molloy's Dress for Success (1975), and The Women's Dress for Success Book , (1978). But today, we recommend Aburdene and Naisbitt (1992) fashion chapter in Megatrends for Women. Times change. According to Aburdene and Naisbitt, career women no longer have to "imitate" the business look of men. Women have established their reputation in their respective careers and are "ready to be feminine."
In this chapter, we began with the sociological concepts of Erving Goffman. He took a dramaturgical approach to his study of society. According to Goffman, we are all actors and actresses performing on stage. We take care to the images we project through props, costumes, settings, and so on. We explored the problem of creating an image from an adult perspective where language hinders us through the perpetuation of old, fixed images. We considered some of the factors to be included in recreating an image in the work world: style preferences, models, gaining visibility, coping with self-consciousness. Finally, we presented extensions of the image. We noted the use of jargon to obscure an image and generate exclusivity. And we summarized the effects of paralanguage and the visual components of the image.
The chapter thus gives an overview of the diverse problems we encounter in projecting an honest and effective image of ourselves in the work setting. Now that we have rambled through the adventures and misadventures of language at the workplace, we leave it to you to analyze and practice, making the knowledge your own. Language offers a fascinating and fecund source of material for analysis, with the special advantage of instant feedback. If you say something wrong, you'll know very quickly by the reactions in the social context. What a fertile ground for experiment!
In conclusion, the skillful use of language demands that you practice. Read, listen, and play with language. Then set off to realize your dream in that ideal setting for your career goals.
Suppose you have one position opening, and two young men on your staff are equally qualified. Both do excellent work. If your final judgment were to be swayed by the messages they send, which of the two men would you promote? Back up your decision with an analysis of their messages.
A. Representative sample of messages from Harvey Hallibut:
Well, why didn't you ask? Now look at this mess.
No, you can't possibly have next Thursday off.
That's much better, Mary. Next time, remember to ask if you don't understand.
Carol, let's go to lunch at 1:00.
Jim Peterson? What department is he in? I never heard of him.
Tom, that report was well done. Thank you.
Mark, you were late again this morning.
B. Representative sample of messages from Daryl Dipstick:
I can see how you came up with this figure. But look, you've forgotten the taxes. See, that will make up the difference. Thursday. No, that wouldn't work out. That report is due on Friday. Could you make the appointment for next Tuesday?
Ann, would you like to go to lunch with me and Sally? When?
Jim Peterson. Sure. I think he's in marketing. Why don't you check with Phil?
Carl, I thought that piece about the gas crisis fit in really well. I liked your presentation.
Ann, I noticed you were late this morning. Is your car acting up again? Maybe you could take it over to the garage this afternoon, if we finish the report early.
You forgot the taxes again, Ann. Why don't you make a note at the top of the form?
Below we have listed a set of qualities you might want to include in messages you send in the work setting. We have also listed a set of messages which reflect some of those qualities. First, select a quality you want to display in your messages, then select the messages that display that quality. Assume that you are new on the job (a trainee perhaps) and that you want these messages to convey the image of yourself that you want to create for this job.
1. high energy
2. skills in supervision
5. good at complex reasoning
7. _____________(any other quality that you would like to display and that is reflected in the messages below.)
1. Julie, I'm not going to get that Wee Willie Widget report in until late this evening. Mike's sick; and I'm going to cover his Harrington appointment for him. Tell Karen for me, would you?
2. Well, they insisted that the entire job revolved around warping the widgets while the walfestinger was in place. But after a half hour of observation, I noticed that in order to hold the widget properly they had to coordinate their movements almost perfectly hoist up on the walfestinger. The actual warping is simple enough; but a lot of verbal and non-verbal negotiation takes place about the preparation. And they have fairly close specifications to follow, with considerable variations for each new job. I'd rate it a 4 on data.
3. Carl, I just read your report on "helping hillpeople". I had thought that would be such a simple assignment. I had no idea how many different tasks those helpers engaged in. I was impressed with the way you wrote it up, too - made it sound kind of exciting. I'm going to use that report for a model.
4. Marilyn, I'm sure there's something wrong with this printout. I checked the balance and everything was okay. So there's no way this figure could be accurate. Could you call John and ask him if they're having any trouble with this program?
5. This is ridiculous. They insist the widgets are warped every 15 minutes and that's what they're supposed to do. But that's not what they're doing! You'd better check this out.
6. I'm sorry Ms. Pantheon. I know you're doing very well with the shop. You just don't qualify for that loan.
7. Carolyn, this is the third order form you've done wrong!
8. Does anybody have an aspirin?
9. I'd like to try that. I watched Jim do it last week. How about you let me try alone. Then you check it, okay?
10. I've noticed that Carolyn's order slips have a consistent error in the identification column. Why don't I go over that with her. I think that might straighten out the problem.
11. I think we'd better order new stock now. The surplus won't run our inventory too high; and if we are out of stock on that item we could lose customers.
12. This customer wouldn't normally qualify; but I think we should take a chance. She had developed especially strong ties with the local community, and I think she has a better than average chance at success with that shop. I've heard several people discussing it in the community - and they seemed very favorably impressed.
13. Well, that's awfully short notice. But I think if we get to work on it this afternoon I could finish it up by tomorrow.
14. I'm sorry, Hank. You know we need two days lead time.
15. Well, she's got a lot of community support; but she doesn't really qualify for that loan. What am I supposed to do in a case like that?
16. No, I couldn't possibly do that observation this morning. I have an appointment at Wee Willie Widget. But if you're desperate I could probably fit it in on my way back this afternoon. I can hold off on the Wee Willie Widget report until later this evening.
17. Carolyn, I know you've been having trouble with those orders. Why don't you just bring them to me? I'll be glad to do them for you.
For example, in this exercise, you might want to display risk-taking in your messages. In this case you would review the list of messages, looking for those where the person indicates a willingness to try something new or to take a chance by bending the rules a little. To display risk-taking you might select message 9, which shows a willingness to try something new, backed up by the recognition that the attempt will need evaluation before doing the same thing again - or going even further. This is a calculated risk - you can learn something from trying and there's not too much to lose, since someone else is checking the work. To display risk-taking, we would not choose message 6, which is decisive but sticks to the rules and refuses risk.
If you choose to display high energy in your messages, review the list for those messages that talk about what the person is doing, and that show willingness to fit many activities into a limited amount of time. Fatigue messages and refusals to fit things in displaylow energy and would conflict with a high energy image.
1. The old prime time television, The Incredible Hulk , presents an interesting commentary on the modern approach to the dilemma of judgement by appearances. The "hero" is afflicted with some vaguely defined radiation problem. He "hulks out" and turns into a kind of "King Kong of the Kind Heart" whenever he is trapped in life threatening circumstances. In the manner of the picaresque novel, he is threatened with such circumstances on a regular basis. The "hero" is repelled by the monster he becomes, and spends the entire series seeking a solution to his radiation problem. However, the monster, though causing considerable property damage, never appears without dire provocation, and then never seriously harms even the "bad guys."
Analyze the cross messages about "might is right" and "judging by appearances." What are some of the possible effects of these images?
2. Consider the "blue jeans inn the board room" example we discussed in this chapter. Discuss the effects on the firm's image under the following circumstances:
a) The firm seeks a large sub-contract from a giant East Coast conglomerate.
b) The firm recruits four creative engineers with an ability to develop new products and new product directions.
c) The firm seeks a major bank loan to increase its leverage.
3. Discuss the implications of appearance for the extremely attractive young woman who is Phi Beta Kappa with an M.B.A. degree and a genius for financial planning.
Backstage and Frontstage - As in drama, the backstage is the actions that take place behind the scenes away from center stage where the main performance is going on. Frontstage refers to the performance on stage for the audience.
Dramaturgy - The idea that life is a stage and that we are all actors and actresses performing on stage.
Impression management - How we control (or not control) the images we project to others.
Presentation of self - The images and behaviors that we project to those around us.
Answer T for True and F for False. Test your knowledge on creating an image.
|-----||1. According to Goffman, all life is a stage and we are performers.||-----|
|-----||2. Creating an image is as easy as changing into different clothes.||-----|
|-----||3. If women want to be taken seriously in the business world, they should dress like men.||-----|
|-----||4. The ultimate component of the image is visual.||-----|
|-----||5. Dramaturgy has to do with the kind acting you do in life.||-----|
|-----||6. It is sometimes difficult to change a fixed image.||-----|
|-----||7. Selecting role models might help us to create our own image.||-----|
|-----||8. According to John Molloy, jargon for jerks.||-----|
|-----||9. Jargon serves to establish social distance between those who understand it and those who do not.||-----|
|-----||10. Non-verbal components of the image are not as important as the verbal components.||-----|
|-----||11. Paralanguage includes tone of voice, the rapidity of speech, pauses, hesitations and so on.||-----|
|-----||12. Puffed up bull phroggery is important to use all the time.||-----|
Check the next section for the correct answers.
Score one point for each correct answer.
Your Career Forecast for this chapter:
10-12 points: You sly person!!! You understand the verbal as well as the non-verbal subtleties of creating an image.
7-9 points: A good start to creating an image but you took for granted a few of the subtle ways of image-building. But keep trying. You're on the right track.
4-6 points: You have been stumbling and bumbling along in this chapter. Go back and read the parts you skimmed over too quickly (or slept through).
0-3 points: You are working on an image -- which one, we're not really sure (and you're probably not too sure yourself!). Are you stuck on the question, "What do I want to be when I grow up? Let alone creating an image.
Aburdene, Patricia and John Naisbitt. (1992). Megatrends for Women.New York: Villard Books.
Berger, Peter and Thomas Luckmann. (1966). The Social Construction of Reality.New York: Doubleday.
Fast, Julius. (1970). Body Language New York: Pocket Books.
Goffman, Erving. (1959). Presentation of Self in Everyday Life.New York: Doubleday.
Gross, Michael. (1986). "It May Be Unwritten, But a Dress Code Is a Fact of Life," Milwaukee Journal, January 31, 1986.
Korda, Michael. (1975). Power!, New York: Random House.
Molloy, John. (1981).Live for Success . New York: Morrow.
-----. (1978). The Woman's Dress for Success Book. New York: Warner.
-----. (1975). Dress for Success. New York: Warner.
Schlenker, Barry. (1980). Impression Management. Monterey, CA: Brooks/Cole Publishing Company.
Sporkin, Elizabeth. (1986). "Dress Code: Rules Relax for the Office," USA Today,September 8, 1986.
Stein, Barry A. and Rosabeth Kanter. (1980). "Building the Parallel Organization: Creating Mechanisms for Permanent Quality of Work Life." Journal of Applied Behavioral Science.16:371-388.