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Theory, Policy, Practice of a Career

by Susan R. Takata and Jeanne Curran
Revision of Text from 1993
Copyright on Revised Text: Summer 1999. "Fair Use" encouraged.

California State University, Dominguez Hills
University of Wisconsin, Parkside
Latest update: October 24, 1999
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Chapter 12: Now, Who Am I?

Now we come at last to the final boundary in the social systems of careers -- you. Throughout all the social factors that shape the world of careers you play a major part. In this chapter, we analyze the means of social control at your disposal as you encounter the world of work. Much of the sociological foundations of this chapter are an extension of the previous chapter on creating an image, (i.e., the micro, social psychological theories of Goffman, Blumer, Garfinkel, Berger and Luckman , Becker, and so on).

Describing Yourself: Selection Techniques

You've grown so accustomed to your ways that chances are you'd have a hard time describing yourself. You're you. What do we mean, who are you? And yet, that's the social message you project continuously -- who you are. For most of us, the projection is so far out of awareness we are disconcerted by requests to "describe yourself" or "draw yourself." Only children play such games, at least openly. Besides you are so many things -- which one do we have in mind, anyway? And that's the point.

In the process of achieving adulthood we have grown into such complex creatures we have difficulty seeing the forest for the trees. We have professions, jobs, tasks to do, families, responsibilities, favorite things to do, civic roles, feelings, relationships, problems, pleasures -- we are all these things and more. Surely no one wants a ten-hour random monologue of all these things we are! True. And yet the social world with which we interact wants and needs to fit us somewhere, to know which of these many things we are it should respond to.

I am a woman and angry for women. I am a mother and fear for my child. I am an artist and live through my art. I am all of these. Through my behavior, both verbal and non-verbal, I define the world for which of these identities is currently primary. When my children are squabbling and I cannot work -- I scream at them to hush or leave. Now I am the artist. When my child is hurt and cries, I drop the art. Now I am the mother. These are the social clues that tell others who I am at any particular moment. And they are messages essential to social interaction.

We select subconsciously the portions of ourselves we present to the world. And since the process is subconscious we remain unaware that we make such choices. But make them we do. To a large extent, the social control at our disposal as we encounter the world of work lies in this very selection of who we choose to be. In this section, we examine social techniques for bringing these choices to a conscious level. To make the choice conscious at this point, is important, for at the subconscious level lie all our childhood fears and insecurities as well as our childlike candor. Although the candor may charm, the unresolved fears and insecurities may present a much less flattering image than the adult image we thought and hoped we were presenting.

The Rule of Positive Choice -- Choosing to See the Good Things About Yourself
One important selection technique to bring to consciousness is the Rule of Positive Choice. It seems a little silly to need a rule for that, but we've found we need not only a rule, but lots of practice. Most of us were socialized from an early age to be modest, to defer to our elders. Essentially, modesty was a great virtue. This socialization in modesty and deference produce learning interference in later life as we approach the world of work, where a strong, confident image is valued. Not necessarily an aggressive image -- that we seek primarily in leaders -- but a competent image of one who will not collapse at the sight of a crisis, or faint at the need for a decision, or be too sensitive to effectively incorporate critical advice.

Early socialization in modesty and deference in many cases has led to a dependence on the approval, permission and decision-making of others. Such patterns of behavior are unlikely to produce a strong, competent image. So, to the extent that we choose to gain control over the direction and nature of our new career we need to strengthen the images we present to the world. The Rule of Positive Choice is a simple expedient to this end. It states quite simply that you shall voice only positive thoughts about yourself, particularly in the workplace, and increasingly in the privacy of personal retreats. The more you practice thinking about the things you like about yourself, the more positive the image you will present to the world and the more confident you will feel about yourself. This approach fits logically into learning theory. In expressing only positive thoughts about yourself you are essentially rewarding the behaviors of which you are proud or with which you are content. Thorndike's first law of learning states that behavior which is rewarded is more likely to recur than that which is not rewarded. Simple behavior modification, encouraging you to approve of yourself!

Now, what about the behaviors you don't like? Why not voice disapproval? Thorndike's second law of learning states that behavior that was punished was less likely to recur than behavior that went unpunished. So if you express negative thoughts about those behaviors you dislike in yourself, you should improve your faith and confidence in yourself faster, right? Wrong! Thorndike repealed his second law. Research results had failed to support the second law, and only the first held true. So the Rule of Positive Choice holds -- stress positive points and ignore those which do not please you. The more positive you are, the more pleasing those behaviors will recur, and the stronger and more confident you will feel. In terms of your career, it's easier to convince someone to hire you or promote you when you feel good about yourself. As a matter of fact, it can do a lot for your personal relationships, too.

There's another important application of this principle to the world of careers. Organizations and corporations achieve success by creating strong, positive images -- by emphasizing their strengths like "a piece of the Rock." Their annual reports tout their successes, and if there is a weakness, they'll find a positive angle to it. Would you buy stock in a corporation that told you what a rotten year it had so far?

In the world of work we create divisions of labor, at least theoretically, according to competencies. Each corporation, and each person within that corporation, should have that share of the workload at which they are most competent. And you're most competent in things you're good at! But how often have we been told that we should work on our weaknesses? We should all be Superman and Superwoman, right? That's not how the corporation succeeds. And that's not how successful people handle their careers, either. As Andrew Souerwine (1978:20) points out one of the great phony myths of career counseling is: "If you really want to achieve in this world, you've got to determine what your weaknesses are and then work hard to correct them." Successful people discover their strengths, develop those strengths, and build support systems to back up their weaknesses. Beyond the level of a good basic liberal education you should concentrate on your strengths.

Finding a Positive Approach to Marginal Identities
One component of strengths you see in yourself and the image you present is the degree of comfort you have developed with who you are. In recent decades, rapid social change has often led to compound identities. Children of immigrants have wondered about their marginal status in both cultures; ethnic groups have wavered between presentation of their heritage and assimilation; women, as they gained acceptance in a man's world grappled with the image of man's world on woman's identity. Many of us remain marginal occupants of social and professional groups in which our identities struggle for definition. But today, the marginal identity appears to be more than the norm than the exception. Perhaps, then, we can find positive feelings in the new alternatives for individualized identities our marginal status has made available to us.

Whereas once women and minorities aspired to enter the "world of the white male," perhaps today we can feel more positively the right to retain our identities as women and minorities, right along with the white male whose domain is no longer much more secure than our own. The original confusion of the marginal occupant came from the need to make an effective transition from the identity of the old group to that of the new group. Today, some of us in marginal positions are less willing to readily adopt the identity of the new group.

For years, the attempt of marginal occupants to adopt an "imitation" identity led to controversy and bitterness. The term "oreo" entered our argot to designate a black who behaved in the manner of his or her white counterpart. And women who adopted an "imitation male" identity were described as either pursuing this path for lack of a man or as exhibiting a different sexual preference, hence, wanting to be a man. These myths which sprang up, would seem to indicate the general societal tension evoked by marginal identities. People often fear what they perceive to be different. Today, as so many of us, including white males, cross traditional barriers, the marginal identity appears less threatening. It is the growth of individualized identity that we must come to define as a strength -- not the acquisition of any given "group" identity. Then marginality will truly serve as a strength, not a weakness to be overcome.

Let's face it. If most of us are going to be marginal at some point in our lives, we'll be much more effective in presenting ourselves if we can accept marginal as normal and positive. Then marginality becomes an asset, a strength to be developed.

Exercise 12-1: Selecting a Positive Self Image

This exercise is designed to help you to build a positive approach to seeing and describing yourself. The more closely you follow the introductions about spacing this exercise over time, the more likely it is to make you aware of the variety of negative perceptions you've been carrying around, and how easily you can change them to a positive image. Our objective is to make you aware of how many good things about yourself you're failing to tell the world. Little wonder then if the world fails to see how great you are!

PART 1: Set aside a minimum of fifteen minutes for quiet contemplation. Concentrate on all the things you can think of that you do well and/or that make you feel good about yourself.

Now make a list of at least 25 of these positive choices about you. NOTE: If you do this conscientiously, it's not an easy task. (We know. We tested it on ourselves before we tried it on students). Work at your list until you have at least 25 positive traits. Then put your list aside, but don't forget it. Whenever you think of another positive trait, pull out your list and add it. Try to add items at different times of the day when you are engaged in different kinds of activity. Add at least 2 items everyday for a week.

By conscientiously recording your data every day and at different times you are more likely to pick up a well rounded picture of yourself. If we had to say anything positive about ourselves at 8 in the morning our egos would wilt at the prospect. But by 4 in the afternoon we're sure we can take on the world. You'll discover that you, too, have time cycles and good days as well as bad. Don't expect to write your greatest praises on your lowest day of the month!

How to Begin Your List

Most of us are so unaccustomed to saying good things about ourselves that we no longer know how to! Thus, we actually have some difficulty understanding what to include on the list. To help you get started, we'll offer some examples from our own lists:

I am a woman.
Strong logic.
Listen well.
I like animals -- and they like me.
There was just enough bacon left for breakfast this morning, I didn't run out.
We had to type this manuscript ourselves.
And so on.

Now, suppose I'm stuck at that point. How do I get unstuck? Well, let's look at a few of the items. "I am a woman". Fine. It's positive to feel good about being a woman. But a woman is many things. This is a very general "feel good" statement. Can I break it down into specifics? Well, being a woman gives me a special perspective on the world -- and I like that perspective. Now I have another item for my list. I feel good about the way I see the world. But again, that's very general. Photographers, men, artists,businessmen, sociologists, and many more categories of people feel good about the way they see the world. How is my way as a woman different? Is that special? Can I be more specific?

By questioning the general items that occur to me, I begin to develop a list more specific to me. This technique will serve you well whenever you are asked to describe any aspect of your personality, your achievements, your values, your ideas, etc. Development from general to specific is simply a good basic technique for organizing materials. Further illustrations are offered later in this chapter.

There is another important aspect to your list. During the week, as you take it out, review the items you've included. How much diversity is there? Do all the good things you notice about yourself fall in one or two areas -- for example, if you're female, nurturing and helping; and if you're male, responsibility and decision-making? Remember, that we fall prey ourselves to the very stereotypes (sex roles, ethnic, occupational, etc.) that we deplore in others.

Even if your list seems to indicate that you feel good about yourself in very limited areas,this doesn't mean that this reflects the real you. You must take the assumption of stereotyping into account. And you must also look at the time sampling of your data. Have you worked on your list at times when you're likely to be engaged in limited areas of interest or activity? Or is there something happening in your life right now that would tend to focus your interest in these limited areas? Or, are you just patting yourself on the back for those things others expect you to be proud of, and not expressing your own feelings? Consider this aspect of your list carefully, and try to make it as representative as possible of the breadth of your interests and values. Now go find a quiet corner and discover how wonderful you are!

PART 2: In the same way you set about collecting your list of things that make you feel good about yourself, now we'd like you to make a list of things you've accomplished. List ten accomplishments you're proud of, and then add at least two each day for a week. Can't think of any? Then for goodness sakes -- do something!

As in the case of your first list this is not designed to reflect who you are and what you've accomplished. That would take lots more time than you'll have for this exercise. These lists are meant to help you begin to think positively about yourself. Then, you're on your own to build this technique into a lifetime habit! With this list, too, start out with the first things that come to mind -- usually the most general. Then narrow it down more specifically to the precise accomplishments each item represents.

Example: "I married the prettiest girl in school." Fine. Marriage can be quite an accomplishment. Can we get more specific? This young man didn't just get married; he married "the prettiest girl in school." Is that part of the accomplishment? Probably -- it sounds like he's proud of having won this pretty young woman away from the other males. So part of this accomplishment is "achieving special recognition", and "winning in contests that include personal relationships". Now we're beginning to get a better picture of the kind of accomplishment this young man values.

You will also need to be aware of time and sampling with this list. Try to recollect accomplishments from childhood, from adolescence, accomplishments with your family, with peers, at school, at work, etc. Often our lives have a highly specific focus at certain times, and one of these times is usually when we're in college. We're concentrating then on goals that take up most of our waking hours. This can serve to reflect a limited set of accomplishments. By reviewing our sense of accomplishment at other times in our lives, we can develop a broader perspective. Now go find a quiet corner and smile over your accomplishments.

PART 3: Your third list. By now you should have a growing and healthy list of things you like about yourself and your accomplishments. Now start a third list -- things you want to accomplish.

As in the last two lists, take into account sampling and major factors in your life right now. Consider some immediate goals and some you plan for later. And recognize that goals we want to accomplish cover many areas. One executive we interviewed carried a typed list of five-year goals around in her wallet. The first section was for the present year, and the second for the following year and the last for five-years hence. And each section contained goals for her career objective (promotion, job change, etc.), her income (specific dollar objectives), her use of time (how much for job, family, friends, etc.), and the little things that made her life worthwhile, from traveling to pausing to smell the roses. Her projected income for her first year-end goal (based on her present job and last year's salary and promotion) was $200,000. If a list like this is worth her time, can you afford to treat this exercise lightly? And I might add, there wasn't a single mention in her list of any negatives. The whole list was positive. The Rule of Positive Choice, remember?

In summary, though we encourage strongly acquiring a broad, general education and a wide range of skills, we cannot too strongly emphasize the importance of building the identity we present to the world from a positive sense of our strengths. We should indeed understand our weaknesses and how to acquire the necessary support we'll need in these areas. But it is our strengths we present to the world.

Relevance -- Controlling Choices According to the Social Context

We must admit to a certain malicious delight in calling our students to task over relevance. But, turn about is fair play. It is an honored part of academic tradition for students to grumble about still being forced to take classes like "Sabertooth Tiger Catching." Modernize, they clamor; offer us topics of relevance. To a certain extent your complaints are just. Social change requires systems to adapt, and that adaptation often lags behind the need (pretty much like the income for the B.A. graduate is lagging behind inflation). But there is often considerable disagreement about just how much adaptation is warranted in most cases of social change.

"Sabertooth Tiger Catching" has been dropped from every university catalog of our acquaintance. But who shall define the "relevance" of what remains? Relevance, you see, is socially constructed through the context of your individual preferences. I, for example, being a little strange, would probably find highly relevant, as an historical precedent, the social patterns of cooperation and competition which developed in the catching of sabertooth tigers, if only an expert had survived to enlighten me. You, on the other hand, may believe that the social antecedents of violence, as reflected in hard rock, are of such pressing relevance that such a course should be included in every sociology curriculum. An appropriate university curriculum, though it will perchance change over time, will lie somewhere between our individual perceptions of "relevance" , that elusive justification. Relevant for what? To whom? We can always challenge.

We, on the other hand, are now able to turn this pregnant topic of relevance back on you with impunity. You, who have so arrogantly demanded "relevance" of your professors are about to have relevance demanded of you. And we have the upper hand, for we are going to offer an operational definition so that we can all agree on just what is relevant.

Having spent the entire opening section of this chapter encouraging you to bolster your ego and recognize your sterling qualities, we're now going to say, "So what?" Just as we intimated early in our discussion, no one wants to listen to a ten-hour monologue on how wonderful you are! It's not terribly relevant to me!

Now you see the trap! You are the message. It is an image of who and what you are that you convey both verbally and non-verbally. But I must be willing to receive that message -- I must see it as somehow relevant to me.

Imagine that you are a new student in my class -- you are brilliant, and you want to be sure to catch my attention, that I may notice your brilliance. You rush up to me after my first lecture and tell me that you had two Advanced Placement courses in my field, attended summer school at a famous university, graduate valedictorian from high school, have chosen my field as your major, got straight A's in your senior year in high school, were elected President of your senior class and will be running for Treasurer of the Freshman class here next month. You are thrilled at this opportunity to work with me. Am I impressed?

Yes, I am most definitely impressed that I've got one unbearable freshman ego in my 10 o'clock class! What on earth has any of that information you just dumped on me got to do with a course on the Sociology of Careers? Nothing! The whole monologue you inflicted upon me is irrelevant -- there is no single topic of interest we might share that emerges -- except that bit about the major, if it's real -- and that's pretty tenuous if you're an entering freshman. My conclusion? You're a small child who wanted to be noticed. This is not the way to influence professors and win glamorous career opportunities.

Let's start all over again -- and this time, be relevant. First, a definition of relevance: in presenting yourself to others select carefully to display those strengths which have a readily identifiable connection to some aspect of the others' interests. When the connection is not perfectly obvious (and the connection between love and marriage no longer qualifies like horse and carriage!) explain the connection as you see it. Don't expect others to try to figure out why on earth you brought that subject up. Tell them why you brought it up.

This definition of relevance entails a lot of planning. You don't just blurt out the whole catalogue of your achievements. You'll need to listen. Listen for clues to the social context. If you're talking to an older couple, the parents of a young woman you like very much, love and marriage may very well go together like a horse and a carriage. So if you tell of the great job that's going to let you travel to Europe; and how you can take their daughter along, with nary a mention of marriage, you'll be relevant; but you could also be out the door, very quickly. If you are attempting to persuade, you want not just relevance, but also a similarity of values on which to base that persuasion. Given this concept of relevance -- an identifiable connection, and some similarity of interest or values -- how could our freshman have impressed the Sociology Professor after that first lecture?

The first requirement would be to listen carefully for clues to the professor's interests. We can assume an interest in careers -- that's the title of the course. If one of the requirements for the course is some field work, we've got another clue, interest in actual field applications. If the professor mentions a research interest in careers -- that's another clue. There could be dozens more during the course of a lecture.

What can our freshman say after class? Let's try this? "Professor Workless, this is my first semester here at Moldy Rock U., but I've been interested in sociology since last Fall. I was lucky enough to be able to enroll in two Advanced Placement courses here at Moldy Rock. One was an intro course, but the other was Sociology of Work. So I've had a little background. I'm specifically interested in the problems my ownership is having with youth employment, and I wondered if you'd help me plan a field study to investigate that problem for my field assignment."

Now I'm impressed! You speak my name. That always counts in any interaction. (No, me student, you teacher -- but you actually bothered to remember my name). You say you're interested, and show me appropriate deference with "my first semester" -- not nearly as self important as "I plan to major in your field", "I was lucky enough" to get into advanced placement, but you're willing to admit that circumstances may have helped -- not boastful, and yet it gets the message across that you are smart. You tell me what courses you had -- intro and sociology of work -- you don't need to explain that connection -- it is obvious. Then you introduce a special interest -- a reason for having bothered to tell me how smart and well prepared you are -- you want to do a project. Now, a project is required, but already you've come up with a good, specific idea, and you're excited about it. But, of course, you have to ask for my help -- you realize that. Flattery, of this kind, will get you everywhere. You've got an appointment to see me, special counseling, and I won't forget you. As a matter of fact, if you do the field project well, you can probably talk me into hiring you to do some student assistant work on my research project.

I don't know that you were high school valedictorian, or plan to major in my field (though I hope you will), or get straight A's, etc. But none of that is relevant to what you wanted from me. In the second try, you carefully selected from all your wonderful positive attributes the ones that would convince me that you were a student I should sponsor. This is the control we can exert in presenting images of ourselves. All the qualities described were equally true and equally positive about our freshman. But most were not relevant to the social context of the interaction. Control comes from careful and logical selection.

Exercise 12-2: Relevance of the Selection

One of our jobs is make all this look easy -- to show you the sociological use of language in clear and simple examples so you'll realize just how easy it is. It's not! Remember, this is our job. It is easy to understand how the language (and the non-verbal behavior) you select must fit into the social situation. But making a skilled selection takes lots of practice. Now that you've got the idea -- try this exercise.

Assume that I am a guest speaker at a luncheon for university students. I am the director of a funding group which makes special grants to creative students who want to follow unique plans of study -- maybe in different parts of the world, maybe with access to special equipment, maybe with unique professionals outside a university, etc. You are interested and want one of my grants.

Here's a list of your qualifications:
--You have a 3.8 grade point average.
--You are a Sociology major.
--You are a junior this year (and would like the grant next year).
--You have taken several advanced methods classes already.
--You have written two seminar papers on "The process of professional ego identification for marginal occupants of professional roles". This means you've been studying how women and/or minorities manage their ego identities when they encounter professional role identities. If male doctors always remain aloof in order to inspire appropriate professional respect, must the female doctor sacrifice her "nurturing" identity to this aloofness? Or can she create a new professional norm that better fits her identity? (You may, if you wish, assume that you are either a woman and/or a minority group member. For goodness sakes don't say "I'm black," or "I'm a woman." I can see that) --You want to study medical sociology in graduate school.
--You are interested in studying identity management in female doctors (or male doctors, or minority doctors, or whatever).
--You think I am a wonderful speaker and am performing a great service for humanity.

My name is Dr. Handout.

You want to impress me. What are you going to tell me? HINT: Organize your approach before you write or speak. List each of the qualifications you are going to select and then explain what you expect me to learn from that.

Qualifications-----------------------------------------------------------What it tells me about you




Remember to limit the choices! I am very busy!

This matter of relevance will serve you in all situations. You are selecting the self you choose to present, the arguments you choose to persuade, even when you do so at a subconscious level. We should like, of course, to claim the power of this technique as a great sociological contribution -- but, alas, with a well-founded liberal arts education you would soon find us out in our immodest deception. The careful selection of arguments for persuasion according to the social context of the situation has probably been around since man first discovered fellow man.

Consistency of Image
In the previous two sections, we have stressed the importance of selecting a positive message and of clearly designating its relevance to the person receiving the message. In both cases, you will have noticed the importance of the social context to the choice and content of information. All messages are sent against the background of some social context, and it is essential that you consider the interactive effects between the two, in order to maintain consistency between the message and its context.

Consider, for example, the freshman student who wanted to impress the sociology professor. Let's take a look at the social context within which that message occurred. The professor had the greater power in the situation and the greater control. The professor had higher academic status and was operating on her own territory (a major factor in power). The professor also presumably possessed far greater knowledge about the main subject of discussion: the sociology of careers. Thus, one factor in the social context was the difference in power and status between the two actors.

A second factor was the control the student wished to exercise over the situation. In both cases, he chose to win higher status with the professor, to be seen as an outstanding, interesting student. In the first instance, the student chose to state accomplishments directly, and with little or no reference to the social context at hand. The student rattling off such a multiplicity of accomplishments which in succession could be interpreted as active (you've certainly done a lot), or as disorganized (there's no readily discernible pattern in this monologue) or as conceited (the whole list has been limited to accomplishments), among other possibilities. The student could be seen as a leader (lots of awards, honors, offices mentioned) or as being the type who grabs every opportunity for the limelight (so many honors reported, the object seems to be how many he could collect).

Within this context, why might the professor have reacted negatively, instead of choosing the positive alternatives? The random juxtaposition of so many activities made disorganization and/or grabbing the limelight seem more likely than high energy action. A high energy action person usually exhibits a pattern of activities and preferences. Maybe this student has one -- but it wasn't indicated. Why conceited, and not just eager to get to know the teacher? The whole focus of the monologue is on the student alone -- not a cooperative work or interest in others. This student has forgotten that messages are social. Sounds a little like one hand clapping.

Now, let's compare the second try. This time, there's still a series of actions, but now they are ordered -- for an interest -- two courses -- to this course -- to a real problem in my township -- to your help, please. The logical progression makes me less wary of disorganization. This time, the student uses the professor's name. The effect is less self-centered, as though the student is reaching out to others. The modest "I'm interested" sounds more sincere than definite plans for a major, with no facts to back up such a claim.

This is a fairly simplistic analysis of a hypothetical problem in conveying messages about yourself. But it should give you some sense of the degree of control you can exercise through taking into account the social context. There are several components in the social context you'll want to bear in mind. Let's summarize a few briefly:

1) Active-passive component. Some ways in which you can convey a sense of action through a multiplicity of statements, through the use of action verbs, sometimes through descriptive objectives. Drawbacks -- you may convey the appearance of disorganization or lack of commitment. Some ways in which you can convey a sense of passivity through a limited use of action verbs, through the passive voice, through large sentences and limited examples. Drawbacks -- you may convey lack of initiative or low energy.

2) Manager-doer component. Some ways in which you can convey a sense of leadership through descriptions of how you effectively got others to perform. Drawbacks -- you may convey the image of someone who dishes work onto others. Some ways in which you can convey a sense of dependability are through descriptions of what you have done. Drawbacks -- you may convey the image of a loner, or of someone who doesn't delegate responsibility.

3) Risk-taker-steward component. One way in which you can convey a sense of entrepreneurial ability is to describe innovative or unusual activities you have carried to success despite obstacles. Drawbacks -- you may convey the image of a misfit or troublemaker. One way in which to convey a sense of responsibility in carrying out the organization's stated objectives and procedures is to describe the effectiveness with which you have put scarce resources (human and/or material) to maximal productive use. Drawbacks -- you may convey the image of one who is too conservative for a promotion where they need a risk-taker.

Exercise 12-3: Control the Image You Present in a Given Situation

Write a brief description to convince Ms. Management that you are qualified for promotion to Director of Customer Relations for a large department store. Ms. Management is seeking a candidate who exhibits high energy and leadership.

In choosing qualifications to convey high energy: Choose several activities. To prevent negative impressions, such as disorganization or lack of commitment, order the activities you have selected in some logical progression. Be careful not to include so many different activities as to appear unfocused and easily distracted.

In choosing qualifications to convey leadership: Emphasize ability to delegate authority. Include what others have done under your direction. Include also offices held, with examples of what you accomplished through those offices.

Choose your qualifications from the following list. Choose a maximum of six qualifications.


___ were elected Student Body President at your university
___ implemented and supervised sales team plan that increased sales in Men's Clothing by 15%.
___ designed inventory management plan that saved 10% of inventory ordering and carrying costs in Men's Clothing
___ served as representative of the company in salary negotiations with the Retail Clerks Union
___ served as Chair of Procedures Committee in designing new aspects of training program for store
___ directed four management trainees in organization of junior fashion show with 23 teenage models. Show was success with attendance of 75.
___ were Salesman of the Week Award winner in Men's Clothing
___ were promoted to Department Manager in Men's Clothing 2 months after completing training program
___ were roving Department substitute during part-time summer work
___ organized a new voting procedure to include evening students while Vice President of Student Body at your university. With entire council participating student vote turnout improved 30%
___ designed new program for shift rotation which improved customer relations by better personnel distribution at rush hour
___ 3.6 grade point average while at the university
___ developed warm relationship with regular customers so that you could handle their complaints quickly and effectively

Now organize your list of qualifications into a brief statement to Ms. Management.

Identity: Self and Career

Having explored several techniques for defining your image positively in the social context, we now need to examine the source of the data from which you will draw to create the many images of the real you.

In the first section of this chapter, we began an exercise designed to make you aware of your positive attributes. That's one good source of data to draw from, but that exercise is really designed to help you develop a strong positive ego identity at a subconscious level, not to provide the data for the many formal messages you'll be asked to present throughout your life.

Whenever you apply for a job, often when your spouse applied for a job, whenever you meet new acquaintances to take on new roles, with each new promotion, move, career change, you'll be faced with presenting yourself to people who will be curious about who you are. And often, you'll be asked to describe yourself formally, as in a resume, progress report, promotional papers, or maybe just a letter of introduction. Sometimes you'll be asked to represent others -- your spouse, children, colleagues, subordinates -- and you'll want to help them select the most flattering data about themselves. This section explores the sources to which you can turn to collect the data you need to describe yourself, your activities, your career, etc.

The Portfolio -- Collecting the Identity Data Bank
The portfolio represents a concept we've borrowed from people working in creative fields, such as advertising, art, modeling, etc. They keep a portfolio with selections of what they believe to be their best work. These are the samples they show prospective customers or employers. One of the nicest aspects of a portfolio is that it includes what you consider your best work -- so, of course, you're proud of it. It's a constant reminder of accomplishments, something like the list we started in Exercise 12-1. And as you accomplish new projects, the portfolio is updated. A model doesn't want to show pictures from three years ago -- she wants recent photos in the latest fashion. So the portfolio is always up-to-date and ready when you need it. An artist doesn't have to rush about doing sample sketches so a prospective client can view his work. His collection has been growing over the years as the body of his work has grown. He needs only show his portfolio.

The more students, young and old, male and female, we encountered who couldn't tell us more than a handful of accomplishments they considered pertinent to a new job or career, the more we envied these beautiful portfolios of the creative fields. Sure, we know there are artists, and advertisers, and models, too, who don't keep their portfolios up-to-date -- who leave them in sloppy order. But not in our fantasies. A portfolio had to be the answer. Why couldn't everyone keep one, just like a scrapbook?

The Superchicken File So several years ago, when students joined our experimental program, we provided them with a crisp, clean, manila folder, neatly labeled with their name. We felt mildly intimidated at the thought of those slick artists' portfolios, so we called these SUPERCHICKEN folders. (SUPERCHICKEN was an old cartoon character who used to flap his wings and crow marvelously: "SUPERCHICKEN!" In graduate school, we had always emitted SUPERCHICKEN cries down the hallowed halls of academia whenever something great happened to us -- like a job!). To this day, some of our alumni maintain their SUPERCHICKEN files.

Into the SUPERCHICKEN file -- or your PORTFOLIO, if you're discussing it in public ("SUPERCHICKEN" is a shared representation symbol, a collective symbol that has meaning only within the initiated group. Don't tell your prospective employer you're bringing in your SUPERCHICKEN file. You may be greeted by men in little white coats!) You should put memos from school or work that say nice things about you -- like "Thanks for the report on customer shipping. You did a nice job on that." Put clippings from school or local newspapers that mention you. Add clippings from church or synagogue newsletters, from club newsletters, from any group that prints nice things about you.

But no one ever prints anything about me, you say. Well, maybe that means it never occurred to you that such clippings would be flattering, as well as useful some day. There are dozens of local service and religious groups in every community. Almost all print regular bulletins. If you volunteer your services in an organization you care about, you'll not only help your community, but find that they'll be glad to mention your work in a bulletin or newsletter. If they don't notice you, when you know you've done some special work, point to someone else's nice notice in the bulletin and comment on how exciting it would be to have your name in the bulletin like that. It's true "they also serve who only stand and wait" (Milton); but they're rarely noticed! It's an important rule of management that most managers haven't got the time to notice the quiet steady workers who never give them any trouble. Most of their time goes to smoothing out the trouble. So, if you want to be noticed you'll have to do more than stand and wait. You'll have to speak up and say, "I'm really excited about this; maybe you could mention it in your column next week." Or I guess you could get in trouble -- but that doesn't quite fit the positive image we're looking for.

The same procedure is true for positive memos and letters from work or school. Maybe no one ever wrote you such a note. Well, then you'll have to regroup and redefine the social context so that someone will. For example, if you're working on a report for your supervisor, spend a little extra time, come up with a good idea to make the report look more impressive. But don't do anything yet! Write a memo to your supervisor asking if she thinks it would be a good idea to . . . If you're lucky she'll write back saying it's a great idea. Write the report -- make it great -- and thank her for the memo. Reward good behaviors.

Collecting the Data
It should be clear by now that everyone can obtain material for a Portfolio if they so choose. You may have to work at creating a more positive social context, and you may have to develop an awareness of the importance of collecting evidence of your accomplishments. But you can do it.

There are, of course, some pertinent questions to be asked: what should you collect? everything? how much is enough? Our answer to this (and that means that you should re-evaluate this information to be sure it's an adequate answer for you) is that you ought to keep everything that shows your accomplishments (or samples of exemplary works if you have a large body of accomplishments). How much is enough? You'll have to discover that by trial and error. We suggest that you keep everything (meaning not just work related items, but social, community, volunteer, athletic items, etc.) because the real value of the portfolio is as a data bank. When you need to prepare a resume, a biography, promotional papers, a request for a recommendation, whatever, the more data you have in your portfolio to draw from, the more effective the choices of data you can select. You may have ten impressive accomplishments that should get you the promotion, but you've got to keep the memo short -- better cut to three. From the ten, you can pick three that complement one another and show your natural growth towards this new position. If you'd only kept four samples of these accomplishments in your portfolio, you might have forgotten about the nice growth pattern -- the examples in that pattern may have been the ones you left out. And those accomplishments that won you the promotion are not necessarily the same ones that will get you a seat on the Church Council. So the broader the selection; the better.

Another reason for keeping as much as possible in your portfolio is that most of us take very little time to periodically assess our goals and progress. The growth pattern we mentioned in getting that promotion may never have been seen until the portfolio was opened to pull out sample accomplishments. The portfolio serves to present all that data about you visually so you can pick out the trends and patterns which otherwise often remain at a subconscious level. When you select items from your portfolio you are really analyzing the collection of data about you. The more data you have, the better and the more thorough your analysis is likely to be.

Will you keep a portfolio like a diary? Probably not. And certainly not unless you are far more conscientious than we. Save the portfolio for things that stand out as accomplishments. But cultivate the habit of looking for your accomplishments. Some people will keep regular and carefully up-dated portfolios. They are probably the ones who kept their rooms neat when they were kids. The rest of us will sporadically make great efforts to collect something that justifies our existence. Because we are the bad kids who don't keep our portfolios up-to-date, we insist that this is again a matter of personal evaluation. If you're too busy to keep samples of your work , then chances are you'll have enough to choose from when you need it. Some of that lost work must be lying around somewhere. But when someone asks for a resume in a hurry, you'll be sorry. You'll have to hunt through all that mess and hope you can find what you need. On the other hand, you nice orderly kids will always have your whole collection of data right at hand, ready for analysis and presentation. Even though we hate to admit it, we feel compelled to point out the advantages the good kids have in this controversy. It's lots easier to file things away than it is to try and reconstruct them in your memory months or even years after the fact. What we gain in our carefree abandon of the portfolio has to be balanced against the disadvantage of little or no data to fall back on when we need it.
Uses of the Portfolio
Against this background in how to collect data and, when necessary, generate it, we are going to present a few examples of how portfolios can be used. That seems to be the best way to offer guidelines in the kind of data you might want to collect.

Portfolio of an Undergraduate University Student in Late Teens: This student has had no work experience, so the portfolio should reflect qualities that will balance this lack of experience: for example, volunteer experience in some area at least remotely connected to any career objectives. Memos, or letters of recommendation, or position titles to represent the acceptance of progressive responsibility either in the volunteer activity or some other. (You don't have to document evidence on everything in your portfolio, notes to yourself on what you have done will be adequate in many cases)! It's a good idea to keep a few examples of professional work. For a student that means a term paper or a project. Choose one that has some relevance to the graduate program you're applying to, the job you're applying for, or whatever else your objective is. You won't actually show this work, except under special circumstances, but you will describe it briefly, explaining how it is relevant and how it shows the development of your expertise in this area. If you are likely to be interested in a summer counseling job, a leadership position in your career, a management trainee program eventually, or any other pursuit where an ability to deal well with people is important, you should collect data on social and recreational activities which give evidence of cooperation with others. If you think you want to climb all the way to the top, collect evidence of leadership. This includes more than being president or vice president of some group. It includes an explanation of how, through your leadership, other people got the work done.

Thus, you can see that the contents of your portfolio should reflect your goals and interests. You should also periodically compare the kinds of recommendations you'll need (maybe years from now) to what you've collected in your portfolio. For example, if you know that one day you want a management position, and you have no items on leadership in your portfolio -- you'd better go out and find something to lead. Now is the time to fill in the gaps. Not two weeks before graduation when you're looking for a job.

You should also remember that the societal ideal is still the well-rounded person. Your portfolio should reflect academic interests, career interests, community service interests, social interests, recreational interests, etc. so that you have a broad range of choices for future needs. When you look through your portfolio, if it's all academic, it's time to go out and try some other activities. Your corners need a little rounding. Thus, the portfolio serves not only to preserve data records for your future use, but to provide you with feedback on your progress towards future goals.

Portfolio of an Employee Up for Promotion: In some agencies and corporations there are promotional reviews in which you are invited to go over your record with your supervisor. In others, the entire process is less formal. But whether the review is formal or informal you have the same kind of control in this situation as we have been discussing throughout this chapter.

If no formal review process is scheduled, simply make it a point, periodically to summarize your accomplishments for your supervisor. (May we suggest that this situation is analogous to that of the homemaker whose spouse fails to appreciate the value of the homemaking? Homemakers could use this same approach). This has to be a little more sophisticated then "Hey, look Ma, no hands!" And, especially in this informal context, you have to carefully plan to make the entire procedure professional. For example, in the last two months, as assistant art director you planned four projects, fully directed two, and are now working on a fifth. One of the clients on a project you fully directed is thrilled with you and has written you a quick memo, saying, "Great, Jack/Jill" (Too bad it's not a formal letter to your boss; but those are the breaks). It's time to remind your boss that you're looking forward to a promotion soon. What can you stress that just seems to come up naturally? One of the best approaches is growth. Consider chatting with your boss, over lunch (this just happened to come up) about how you're so proud of that note from Client X -- he was so pleased with your work. And you're proud that it was just the second project over which you had full control. You're excited about this new project, too -- it promises to be a real winner. It's really going to be nice when you get a chance to operate your own department. (The last line, of course, floats off in a fantasy tone). That's one approach. It assumes a good relationship with your boss and real expectations of promotion.

More formally, in the office, you might consider showing your boss some aspect of Client X's project, suggesting that you think that's really what prompted him to send over this note (note casually visible). What you've really been wondering about was whether that angle could be handled the same way in this new account and whether you should work up a presentation on this technique for the staff meeting Tuesday. Here you are emphasizing technical knowledge and sharing an interest in formalizing it for presentation. You also manage to slip in the informal memo. In this instance you are not assuming impending promotion.

Both examples emphasize professional activity and growth; both mention praise that has been won. Of the many approaches available it is the social context that will dictate the most effective. The first example shows a stronger emphasis, for example, on "Hey, look at me", the second is more subtle, placing the emphasis on the work itself. Only a knowledge of the personalities and the relationship between them could help predict which approach would work better.

In promotional papers, there are several factors you will want to bring out through your data selection and presentation. The principles will be similar whether your review is informal, as in the above examples, or given in a formal written presentation. These are some of the accomplishments you should highlight?

Growth -- Show evidence of learning new tasks, taking on more responsibility, gaining a broader understanding on the whole organization, developing new skills, etc. Identify specific results of this growth that supervisor can see; and, when possible, estimate their value to the organization in income or savings.

Commitment -- Illustrate your accomplishments in terms of their value to the organization. Identify specifically the relevance of each accomplishment to organizational goals.

Breadth -- Unless you are preparing papers for a specific promotion for which the exact qualifications have been laid out, most corporations expect you to display a breadth of abilities and interests. Include accomplishments which show community service. Include accomplishments which show an interest in other departments and divisions of the corporation. Also include items which show your concern for the humanistic goals of the corporation -- increasing work satisfaction.

Leadership -- If you seek a position involving supervision, include leadership positions you have held, and stress how much other people accomplished under your guidance.

Let's close this section on promotional papers with our fantasy about the presentation that might be made by the wife of a top executive of a Fortune 500 company to her husband, whom she believes fails to appreciate her full worth. The husband's company is one of those remaining bastions that prefers that executive wives not work.

Marsha: "John, I'd like to check your schedule for next Thursday evening (organized -- business-like). I thought we could have Bob and Ted and Carol and Alice over then, since that afternoon will be free for me (implied busy schedule). I could change my studio schedule (willingness to disrupt her work -- his career primary) to Thursday afternoon if Wednesday evening would be better for you; (see all the trouble you're causing me) but I'd have to pay an extra fee for the model then, and you know how expensive they are! (See how conscious I am of budget and line items?)"

John: "Marsha, that studio sent me a bill for $500 last month. (Why aren't you staying at home basket weaving like the other wives)"

Marsha: "I know, John. I really do think we should consider adding on a studio (surely, you meant that the studio, not I was, outrageous!) It would not only save a great deal in rental; but I think it might help you get that promotion. Ted is very impressed with my paintings, you know. So many of the other wives just play bridge all day! (My art contributes to your prestige).

John: "Marsha!"

Marsha: "John!"

Portfolio of an Adult Re-Entry Female: We are going to make the tragic but probably all too true assumption that the adult re-entry female in this example has not kept her portfolio up-to-date over the years. She has three children and a divorce. The divorce she could fit into the portfolio; but bronzed baby shoes, dolls and bicycles are a little bulky. What now? Suppose she is in her 40's, has never held a paid job, and wants to apply for a job as program director at a local service agency. How might she create a portfolio? Identify the tasks involved in the job: budgeting the program, recruiting personnel, supervising personnel, developing community outreach, etc. Then cull through her experiences to find documentation of skills in each of these areas. Five years ago, she organized a special fundraising job in her community. She had to operate from the limited budget of a community service organization (not a woman's club, please). She budgeted for media expenses in advertising the campaign, and took into account equivalent figures for media use donated to the campaign. She hired office personnel and supervised 85 community volunteers. What should she include in the portfolio?

1. A proposal for the entire campaign operation with a procedures and estimated budget.

2. Any brochures used to advertise the campaign, including proposals for media advertising.

3. Any training manuals or information packets prepared for volunteers.

4. A final report, including a budget analysis. Such a portfolio would attest to this woman's ability to plan and carry through an effective program. Yes, but she doesn't have the portfolio. How does she manage to put it together? This is the problem we bad kids have when we don't keep up our portfolios.

Actually, it may not be as hard as it sounds. It will take time. She can probably find help at a local university with the format for a proposal, budget, and final report. With luck, she'll find some old brochures and training manuals in the bottom of her closet (or a friend's closet). If not, she should prepare a brief description of how the manuals were designed, what her role was -- doing it -- or having others do it. (Remember that leadership is getting others to work effectively).

The proposal should show her organizational chart, and not only how she delegated authority to her assistant, but also how she supervised the effective delegation of authority to lower levels, so that the campaign was not dependent on a few select individuals, who were worked to the point of exhaustion. She should describe also the brochures, if she cannot find any, and explain how the cooperation of the media was enlisted. This is another element of leadership -- the ability to organize one's peers into a cooperative effort. She should put the whole megillah together in a nicely typed package to impress the agency -- synthesis, right?

Portfolio of an American Auto Industry Executive in the Crisis of 1990's: This time we're going to make the tragic assumption that our auto executive is not alone in his predicament. He has just been fired which means that it's going to be difficult to find a job in his field. But we are also going to make the more optimistic assumption that he was a competent executive who saw the crisis coming. He has prepared his portfolio. Of what might it consist?

He will have selected several projects which he directed. Each project will illustrate a different managerial skill: leadership in generating ideas for new product design, managerial skill in reallocating scarce resources to adequately cover a contract requirement, ability to start up a new unit from scratch by wise selection of the management team from outside corporate personnel, etc. Notice that he has selected each example to illustrate a managerial skill which appears to be sufficiently general to transfer to a different industry. This is important since the 90's crisis has spread throughout the entire auto industry, and his best options may be in a completely different industry.

Now that the moment of truth has come and he must seek a new position, he will re-examine this analysis of industry trends and patterns. When he selects an organization at which to apply, he will thoroughly research the technical aspect of that industry so that he can draw parallels in his portfolio description between his skills and those needed by the new industry. He will, of course, prepare a separate portfolio for each application so that each will be highly specific.

These are but a few of the uses to which a well-kept portfolio might be put. As we have illustrated, you can reconstruct the material from memory if you have kept no records, but risk the loss of a lot of valuable information. If you go back and glance over the respective portfolios as we suggested you construct them, you will see a pattern emerging. By making the statements very concise, and drawing quick and precise references to their relevance to your objective, you will have constructed the foundation of a resume. That's what the word means, a summary -- a brief and concise summary -- of who and what you are. And it is the portfolio that gives you the data base from which to draw the resume.

Since the resume, like any other message, exists in a social context which differs with every situation, you will understand why we recommend that you prepare a unique resume for every job application about which you are serious. As for formatting and practical aids of that nature, we recommend that you consult Bostwick (1977), Getting the Job You Always Wanted, and your local placement center. As for the common dictums that you must fit your resume on one page, or you must include this or that -- remember the skills we've practiced. Analyze why that might work. Evaluate its appropriateness in your social context. Synthesize from all the advice that appears logically to be best for you, and experiment with it. For goodness sake, don't include anything that isn't relevant -- no matter who says to! On a resume, you should have a good explanation for every word on the page. If you don't, revise it.

The variety of portfolios is limited only by the imagination of those who construct them. Yours, as your very own data bank, should uniquely reflect you. To the extent that it does, you will reflect messages about yourself that will stand out. Now that you know what a portfolio is and how it can be used, you can begin the collection process (or, at least resolve to begin the collection process). You've already lived long enough to have done some things worth collecting for the portfolio. Think positively now and go dig some of those accomplishments out from under your bed, or behind the dresser, or the back of the closet (we assume here you are a messy kid like us), or wherever they've gotten to. Remember, you're going to need them some day soon. Each time you draw from the data bank in your portfolio you have a social context in mind for the message you choose to send. In Chapter 10, we discussed the message and how to choose the appropriate ideas. It is always important to adjust the message to fit your objective.

Letter of Recommendation

Erving Goffman's sociological classic, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life (1959) illustrates the complex manner in which we manage our identities. We present different sides of ourselves to different people, much as an actor assumes different roles on stage, (as well as backstage). A considerable portion of our psychic energy is devoted to managing our identities so that others will like and accept us. In this section, we're going to take a close look at how data selection and presentation techniques can help us in this identity management.

Letters of recommendation are a familiar problem to all of you. You need them for work. You need them for graduate school. They are important, and your skill and efficiency in managing the identity you present to your sponsor are of paramount importance. You will rarely have the opportunity to write your own letter of recommendation. But have considerable control over the quality of data selection.

Most often, in career related messages, you'll want to give the impression of action and high energy. Few companies seek lethargy as a job qualification. One effective means of portraying activity and high energy, in addition to the careful selection of accomplishments, is the use of strong action verbs. Language has an important sociological effect. Whorf (1957) described language as a cloak, in the sense that we tend to see the world in terms we use to describe it. Eskimos, to whom snow is an integral part of life, have a different word to describe snow in every state they've been able to identify. We, to whom snow is less pervasive, are satisfied to refer to snow, in all its many states, as snow. But Eskimos also exhibit a greater ability to distinguish among these various states of snow. We, not having a word for it, don't even think to notice the differences. Language, then, to a certain extent, shapes the way we see the world.

In conveying a message of activity and energy, strong verbs help to shape the effect of the message. We offer here a brief list to get you started.

createsuggestcoordinateexplaincomplete project
supportplanassume responsibilitysynthesizeadminister

Whenever you encounter good action verbs in someone else's descriptions, add them to your list. Thus, sociological theory offers a means of control in adjusting the message you choose to present. Techniques of persuasion and the social effects of language must be taken into account for effective transmission of communication.

You generally request letters of recommendation from faculty and other respected members of the community. It is a reasonable assumption that these people receive many such requests, and have limited time to fill them. When you request a recommendation, you are really asking someone to go back in time and select those data about which are most likely to help you reach your goal. This is a data selection problem. Moreover, the person you have chosen must recall his/her interaction with you against a background of all his/her other interactions. The overwhelming amounts of data militate against the best possible selection -- there's just too much to consider. Chances are the sponsor will praise you in general terms, saying that you are a wonderful student whose perseverance is translated into successful endeavors in many different activities. This makes you sound wonderful, and it also makes everyone else who gets a letter just like it sound wonderful, too.

The Importance of Specificity
Your letter could more effectively sell you if it were true only of you. A unique product is always easier to sell -- it stands out. Since it's unrealistic to assume that your sponsor can devote enough time culling over the vast amounts of data in her/his memory of you, use your own efforts to jog her/his memory cells -- that is, the memory cells you have chosen for jogging after careful data selection.

Always request the letter of recommendation in writing, even if you deliver the request in person, which, by the way, is a good idea. In the written request include thanks for the time your sponsor is going to devote to this effort. Then, in order to facilitate his/her memory of your work, include highlights of the specific accomplishments you'd like to include. Remember, the sponsor has undoubtedly worked with many individuals, and you've got more time and concerned energy to devote to the selection process.

Sample Request for Letter of Recommendation -- 1


TO: Professor Pettybottom

FROM: Lotta Bull

I need three letters of recommendation for my graduate school application. I enjoyed my class in social theory with you so much that I hoped you'd agree to write one for me.

I know that you have many requests and it's been a while since I took the class, so I've jotted down a few of the things I did in Soc. 355 that I felt particularly good about.

1) Organized a small group discussion on the implications of Marxist theory for the feminist movement.

2) Developed a theoretical rationale for women's opposition to the ERA.

3) Traced the theoretical development of the Feminist movement in an extensive paper.

Thanks in advance,

Lotta Bull

Now, in addition to the general remarks we considered earlier we might be able to write specific remarks about Lotta Bull, since she has reminded me of her accomplishments.

Resulting Letter of Recommendation - 1

Dear Professor Foggythought:

A student of mine, Lotta Bull, has applied to your graduate program in Sociology. Ms. Bull is an excellent student whose perseverance has resulted in very successful endeavors in my class.

Early in the semester, she organized a lively panel discussion on the implications of Marxist theory for the Feminist Movement. In addition, she developed a tightly reasoned theoretical rationale for female opposition to the ERA.

Ms. Bull's well documented term paper traced the theoretical development of the feminist movement. She demonstrates an impressive ability to identify theoretical arguments throughout a broad synthesis of the literature.

I strongly recommend Ms. Bull to your program. She has the potential to become an outstanding sociologist.


Peggy Pettybottom, Ph.D.
Associate Professor

Notice that Professor Pettybottom's letter now applies only to Lotta Bull. Professor Foggythought won't get a hundred other letters just like this one. Notice also that Professor Pettybottom adapted Lotta Bull's material directly from the request. This assured Lotta Bull that the admission committee would hear about her professor's approval of her work on feminism. If she has identified the feminist movement as a topic of primary concern in her autobiography, Professor Pettybottom's letter of recommendation provides impressive support for the claim.

There is another important plus to Lotta Bull's request. She has chosen to highlight activities that show a build-up of importance -- from organizing a small group discussion to developing a theoretical rationale to a well-documented term paper, all on Feminism. This shows an ability to plan her activities effectively around a central concern relevant to her request. Again, a plus.

The Importance of Relevance
Your letter could more effectively sell you if it were relevant to whatever it is you are applying for. Take another look at Lotta Bull's request for a letter for her graduate school application. Notice the phrases:

"implications of Marxist theory"
"theoretical rationale"
"traced theoretical development"
"extensive term paper"

All of these accomplishments are relevant to qualifying Lotta Bull for graduate school. Obvious, right? Perhaps. But, the connection between each accomplishment and what it is good for has not been made explicit. It is not appropriate to place the burden of making those connections upon the person from whom you are requesting the recommendation., You are asking them to do you a favor, to spend some time on your request. It's too much to ask them to do all the work. The work of data selection, adding specifics, and making it relevant is yours. Doing this part of the work yourself not only puts the control of these elements in your hands, but often so impresses the recommender with your abilities that the actual letter comes out even stronger.

On the other hand, it's important not to go so far as to write the letter yourself. That would be a violation of status norms -- assuming that you (a person of lower status than your sponsor, otherwise wouldn't be asking them for the recommendation) know better than the sponsor how to write such a letter. It is important to practice appropriate deference in writing the request, so you gently remind the sponsor of your special talents by suggesting a few accomplishments that:

1) are related to the recommender's experience of you -- and how they are related

2) are relevant to you -- and specific about how they reflect your special interests

3) are relevant to what it is you are applying for (a job, graduate school, a scholarship, a grant, etc.) -- an specifics about how they are relevant to this objective.

Sample Request for Letter of Recommendation -- 2

Now, let's suppose for a moment that Lotta Bull has a chance to be a counselor at a summer camp for high school girls. She needs another letter of recommendation from Professor Pettybottom. How can she use the same classroom activities for this letter?

TO: Professor Pettybottom
FROM: Lotta Bull

Again, I need a letter of recommendation. This time I am applying for a job as a counselor at a high school girl's camp. Could you please recommend me?

I've listed a few of the things I did in your class in Soc. Theory that I think would help me in my work as a counselor:

1) My study of the theoretical development of the feminist movement offers lots of potential for leading group discussions on the feminist movement.

2) My paper on the ERA will provide good information for helping young women understand why some women oppose the ERA.

3) My experience in motivating panel members' participation in our small group discussion will help me in encouraging all group members to participate in our camp rap sessions.

Thanks in advance,

Lotta Bull

Notice the phrases in Lotta Bull's second request:

"offers lots of potential for leading group discussions"
"provides good information for helping young women understand"
"will help me in encouraging all group members to participate"

Now Professor Pettybottom is reminded not only of what Lotta Bull did in her class but of how those accomplishments might apply to a job as a summer camp counselor. In addition, in this instance, Ms. Bull saved the most relevant activity -- her skill in encouraging participation -- for last. There is again a build-up from simple relevant information to better human understanding to specific camp-related skills. There is also a recency effect. On the other hand, the primacy effect holds that the first impression carries the most impact. Had Lotta Bull had the primacy effect in mind she might have chosen to list her camp related skills first. Had she done so, however, she would have lost some of the impact of her effective build-up. To the reader, it appears that what comes first is what the writer considers most important. So we use a primacy effect when we put attention grabbers at the beginning of an argument.

Research has shown that both primacy and recency effects enhance the persuasiveness of arguments. There are no conclusive results to guide you in choosing one over the other, and in some instances, through the ordering of your argument you may actually gain the primacy benefits of a good strong opener and the recency benefits of a strong ending. The choice is really one of personal preference. You must analyze your argument in terms of the primacy and recency effects it presents to decide whether the whole effect is in fact the one you choose to create.

Exercise 12-4: Primacy and Recency Effects

Here is your chance to practice recognizing primacy and recency effects. Go back now and look at Lotta Bull's first request for a letter of recommendation. Look at the item she listed first, then look at the item she listed last. Which items seem to have the most relevance to her request and to be most persuasive? ________________________________________________________________

How is it relevant?

Is this a primacy effect or a recency effect or use of both?


Notice that in each of her recommendation requests Ms. Bull chose specific past activities that had some relevance to her goal. She undoubtedly took part in many activities in that class. However, then she selected data to sell herself. She chose just a few activities that highlighted her success. She could have maintained that she got an "A" in the course, that she read special extra articles that she contributed regularly to class discussions, that she was always on time to class, that she put up posters to make students aware of current theories on feminism, etc.

Letters of recommendation are most effective when they make their point quickly without rambling. If Lotta Bull had included everything she did in that class in her request, she would have left the important tasks of data selection to Professor Pettybottom. And what's more, Professor Pettybottom doesn't have the advantage of knowing what points Ms. Bull is trying to make in the other components of her application: other letters, autobiography, interviews, etc. It is to your advantage to do the important work of data selection yourself.

Moreover, when Ms. Bull culls through her experiences to choose the relevant items and order them effectively, Professor Pettybottom is additionally impressed by her competence and efficiency. She is communicating the non-verbal message that she's a hard worker who does not shift her responsibilities over unto someone else. How impressed we would be to have a student present such a well-thought-out request to us. Most students dash into our offices, or, even worse, call us, to say "Do you remember me? I need a letter of recommendation. It's due tomorrow." If they're not sure whether or not we remember them (and sometimes we don't) what kind of data selection process would you expect?

Finally, Ms. Bull chose only three of her many contributions to that class. Some of her other contributions could have been included, too. But she chose to limit the list and give qualifying explanations as to why these activities were significant. How much less effective would her request have been if she had listed her activities like this?

1) term paper on feminist movement

2) paper on ERA

3) small group discussion

Remember that when you present data to someone, they will not have your data selection process in mind. You must add qualifying explanations so that the relevance of the data becomes apparent. In the second request, Ms. Bull explicitly states the relevance of her selected accomplishments. In the first request, she makes the relevance clear through the details she chooses to include (another data selection process).

In selecting data, bear in mind that people can only process small amounts of information at one time. Think of each accomplishment as a butterfly. If you cram all your butterflies into a net and try to show them all at once, people will see an attractive mixture of shapes and colors. But they may very well be confused about what is really in your net. And they certainly won't come away with a clear picture of any one of the butterflies. A better approach is to display each butterfly simply on a branch or bloom that sets off its individual beauty. People can assimilate and remember that. When you select data about yourself choose the qualifying information as carefully as you choose the accomplishments themselves. It is more effective to limit the list of accomplishments so that you can devote adequate space to qualifying data rather than include many accomplishments with little qualifying information. You may have a great new mousetrap, but an important part of selling that mousetrap is showing people where the mousetrap fits into the scheme of things.

Exercise 12-5: Selecting the Most Appropriate Data for You and the Situation

1. Assume that you are a female applying for a job as a peer counselor on the university campus. Mark with a C by the three accomplishments you would include in a recommendation request. DO NOT CHOOSE MORE THAN THREE.

___ Have a 3.6 grade point average
___ Took 3 courses on counseling techniques (2 A's, 1 B)
___ Was elected to the supervisory board of the women's center
___ Completed volunteer training for suicide hotline
___ Worked as a counselor at summer girl's camp
___ Led a rap session on drug related problems at local YWCA
___ Majored in Sociology
___ Got an A on a term paper on "The importance of reference groups" in social psychology
___ Developed a questionnaire on students awareness of their use of reference groups
___ Helped teenage sister and two of her friends resolve a conflict with another friend (conflict was over friend's borrowing their clothes but never returning the favor)
___ Took 2 courses in survey research methods (got 2 B's)
___ Worked part-time for Parks and Recreation last summer (filed class applications and coordinated scheduling of classes)
___ President of department chapter of Alpha Kappa Delta, National Sociology Honor Society
___ Other (make up your own)_____________________________________

2. Now assume that you are a female applying for a part-time job in the research unit of the County Probation Department. Mark with an R the three accomplishments you would include in a recommendation request. DO NOT USE MORE THAN THREE!

Note: There are many reasonable answers. Do not expect your list to look like everyone else's. Remember, it's your data selection that makes you unique.

3. Now assume that you are a male applying for a job as a management trainee in data processing for a large corporation. Mark with an M the three accomplishments you would include in a recommendation request. DO NOT CHOOSE MORE THAN THREE.

___ Took 2 courses in statistics (1 A, 1 B)
___ Developed and directed a summer basketball program for the Boys and Girls Club
___ Majored in Sociology
___ Got an A on a term paper on "Applications of Labeling Theory in the Study of Deviance" in Juvenile Delinquency
___ Wrote a good report analyzing the results of an experiment on the effects of labeling
___ Wrote a computer program to analyze the data from an experiment on the effects of labeling
___ Vice President of department chapter of Alpha Kappa Delta, the National Sociology Honor Society
___ Took three courses in data processing, two of these in the computer language, COBOL (2 B's, 1 A)
___ Helped students in Juvenile Delinquency class with data processing for experiment in labeling
___ Worked part-time at a consultant in the campus Computer Center
___ Took course in the Administration of Social Programs (got an A)
___ Was elected to head the Finance Committee for Student Government
___ Other ______________________________________________________

4. Now assume that you are a male applying for a full-time job in the program development unit of the County Probation Department. Mark with an R the three accomplishments you would include in a recommendation request. DO NOT CHOOSE MORE THAN THREE!

Exercise 12-6: Making your Data Selection Specific to You

Suppose that for a part-time job in the research unit in Exercise 12-5, you had selected "Took 2 courses in survey research methods" (got 2 B's). You might make this selection specific to you by saying: "My interest in research has led me to take two courses in survey research in which I was able to gain experience, not only in standard research procedures, but in directing a small portion of a survey project." -- Important specific: interest, exceeded standard, directed (willing to accept responsibility).

Now, for the following data selections, write brief explanations making the choice specific to you and list the important specifics you had included in your explanation.

Suppose that for the job as peer counselor in Exercise 12-5, you had selected "Completed volunteer training for suicide hotline" (HINT: for specifics, consider willingness to help, crisis handling, persistence in carrying projects through, etc.).


Suppose that for the job as a peer counselor in Exercise 12-5, you had selected "Worked as a counselor at summer girls' camp."

EXPLANATION: __________________________________________________________

Exercise 12-7: Making your Data Selections Relevant to Your Goal

Suppose that for the management trainee job in data processing in Exercise 12-5, you had selected "Worked part-time as a consultant in the campus Computer Center". You might make this selection relevant to your request by saying:

"My experience as a part-time consultant in the campus Computer Center should provide a good background for understanding computer center operations."

This says not only what you did, but how it relates to the job you are applying for. It may seem that the relevance of any experience with data processing to a job in data processing should be obvious to the reader. But it's not. Remember, you are doing the data selection, (tell them what you did) but you also have to make the specific connection between the data and your request for the reader (tell them what it's good for). The example above tells the reader that your experience provides background in something specific to the job you are applying for.

Now, for the following data selections, write brief explanations making the choice relevant to the request and list the important specifics you have included in your explanation.

EXPLANATION: _____________________________________________________________

Suppose that for the job in program development in Exercise 12-5, you had selected "Developed and directed a summer basketball program for the Boys and Girls Club" (HINT: for relevance consider: background in successful program development, experience in working with boys and their parents, persistence in guiding program through bureaucracy to successful implementation, etc.).


Suppose that for the job in program development in Exercise 12-5 you had selected, "Wrote a good report analyzing the results of an experiment on the effects of the labeling."


Now it's time to synthesize the elements into your own request for a letter of recommendation. Don't panic! You've learned all the elements in earlier exercises, you have Lotta Bull's sample request to go by, and we're going to walk you through the process step by step.

Exercise 12-8: The Letter of Recommendation

Write a request for a letter of recommendation. First, decide what you are applying for. Choose either one of your own personal goals (a job, graduate school, a scholarship) or go back to Exercise 12-5 or 12-6 and assume one of the four identities listed there. Second, select the recommender. Who is most appropriate to recommend you for this position? (Consider a professor for graduate school, a former supervisor for a job). Now you are ready to write the first part of the memo -- everything that comes before the list of accomplishments. Use the first part of Lotta Bull's requests as a model for what to say.


TO: ________________
FROM: ______________

Third, select the data, either from your own experience if you feel ready to do that, or from Exercise 10-5 or 10-6 if you want some more practice. Remember here to consider relevance. Each item you select should be:

1) relevant to the recommender's experience of you.
2) relevant to your goal.

For this letter, select only three items. Not more than three! Fourth, organize your selection, taking into account primacy and recency effects, and the effect of build-up. Which items seems to be the strongest, the most relevant to your goal? Do you want to put that item first or last? Try it both ways. How does it look? Do you have more than one strong item? If so, which should go first and which last? Why?

Fifth, add specifics to each item selected so that it reflects you and your strengths. Look at Lotta Bull's first request as an example of specifics.

Use action verbs in describing your accomplishments. Note the verbs Ms. Bull uses in her requests: organized, developed, traced, offer, lead, provide help, motivate, encourage. These are good action verbs indicating abilities that will assure Ms. Bull of reaching her goals. Go back and look at Exercise 12-6 where you practiced adding specifics to your selection for another model to go by.

Sixth, add the relevance connection to each item selected. Now that you've said what you've done and how it reflects you -- what is it good for? How does it apply to your goal? What will it help you do in the future? Use Lotta Bull's second request and Exercise 12-7 as examples for relevance.

Seventh, and finally, you're ready to put it all together into a request. You write the first part of the request above. Now add to that the list of items you have selected, organized, specified and "relevanced". Then say thanks and sign you name, and that's it!

The Interview

The interview is analogous to a representative sample of your behavior while interacting with people. In other words, it is a "trial" of how you present yourself as well as communicate with others. There is a lot more to the interview than the one hour or one day session itself. It begins with the kind of image you project in the your letter of application and resume (neatness, being grammatically correct, etc.), your conversations with the prospective employer as arrangements are being made for the interview. Your own preparation in researching the company - knowing all there is to know about the organization is also important (we discussed this in an earlier chapter, remember?). In addition, looking the part -- "dress for success." According to Joan Lloyd (1985) as well as many others, "use clothes to your advantage. . . Loud plaids, polyester leisure suits and outdated hair styles are suicide even if you're talented." Remember that the purpose of the interview is to get you that job.

Recent graduates frequently have very little experience in the interview situation. According to Weinstein (1983:122), the more interviews you go on, the better you'll get." Practice makes perfect. For example, if 40% of what you say in an interview is negative, we can generalize that 40% of your interactions with people have negative characteristics. The Rule of Positive Choice operates in this arena, too. Your attitude and your data selection must be positive. That means that you should refrain from telling the interviewers what was wrong with your last job, your university courses, your mother, etc. If you haven't anything positive to offer on the subject, drop it.

Suppose you had a boss on your last job who came in drunk after lunch every day and expected you to cover for him. What could you say in an interview? "I was very lucky in my last job to have a supervisor who allowed me to assume responsibility for a broad range of operations." Suppose an interviewer asks how you did in an accounting course in which you got a "C"? What could you say? "Not as well as I had hoped. I studied hard, but that's one of the most competitive courses in our curriculum. However, I've been proud of my ability to use some of the accounting principles myself, and to help several friends prepare concise income statements to apply for loans." Notice the ease with which you can turn a potentially negative response into a positive approach. We should strongly recommend against lying. If you select your data carefully, lying is unnecessary. Why run the risk of embarrassing yourself? The secret is to choose those elements from the experience which really were positive. If you try hard enough, you can find some in most experiences. The longer you practice this technique, the closer you'll come to seeing just how much of your world does have its good points. It's a great trick for dealing with those moments of free floating anxiety and sense of impending doom.

Exercise 12-9: Practice Being Positive

This exercise is designed to give you some practice in responding positively in an interview situation.

1. Suppose you're applying for a job as school librarian. Your family was very poor. You never had a vacation in your life. The interviewer asks how you spent your vacations while in school? What could you say?

POSITIVE RESPONSE: "As soon as I started school, my parents introduced me to our city's library. I discovered it was a lovely cool place to spend the summer. It was so hot in the city. And with all those books I was able to travel to more far away places than I'd ever imagined. I've loved libraries ever since."

Now, for the following situations write brief positive responses for each situation.

2. Suppose you're applying for a job as office manager. Co-workers in your last job were very cliqueish. You never felt included. The interviewer asks about your relationship with co-workers. What could you say? (For a positive response consider that working relationships are not the same as personal relationships. Being excluded from the clique does not preclude developing an efficient working relationship and, in fact, may help promote one).

POSITIVE RESPONSE: _____________________________________________________

3. Suppose you're applying for a job as a management trainee. All of your previous work experience has been as a secretary. And on the last job your boss left you with all the work. The interviewers asks, "What did you enjoy least about your last job?" What could you say?

POSITIVE RESPONSE: _____________________________________________________

As a sample of your behavior, the interview offers you a chance to portray yourself to your greatest advantage. The interview is very much like a staged improvisation. You don't know exactly the what the dialogue will be, but you do know what kind of character you want to come across. You can't plan an exact script, but method acting should take you a long way. What will the traits of your role be? In selecting the data, you report you are projecting that image you choose to represent you to the employer.

Most interviewers use a question like "Tell me about yourself" or "Describe your outstanding characteristics." What kind of interaction behavior can be generalized from your answer? We would listen to see how well your data selection matched the job objectives you aspire to. If you tell us that your most outstanding characteristic is that you're honest when you're applying for a job as coordinator of a new agency unit, we won't be very impressed. We'd opt for the gaps, and institute procedures to improve the unit's interface with other units (or some other relevant skill).

Since we have only the interview on which to judge, we must generalize from the relevance of your answers how well you could actually address the work issues with which we are concerned. You know your job objective (within a reasonable range of choices) well before the interview. Take the time to plan answers that will show your ability to perform well in the job of your choice. Most employers seek people who are willing to learn about the organization, and to assume increasing responsibility. All firms, public, private, profit, non-profit, large and small need responsible workers. How can you project your potential and willingness to grow into an interview (aside from the blatantly obvious statement: "I'm willing to grow")? Actually, the problem is simple. The employer is going to use the interview to generalize about your behavior. So exhibit growth behavior in the interview. Plan to give answers that show your pride in having assumed increasing responsibility and improved your performance in past actions. You must plan ahead with your job objectives in mind. For example, suppose you're applying for a job in marketing research. In this job you would be expected to determine the best media mix for advertising a book on career development. How could you plan your interview to draw your growth potential? First, make sure you know the tasks the job involves. Then, prepare answers for questions like "Tell me why you think you'd be good at this job."

One possibility would be to describe marketing jobs you've had. You could start with your experience selling magazines to university students, and emphasize your interest in determining which magazines sold best and what their appeal was to university students. From there, maybe you moved on to a marketing research firm as an university interviewer. There you had an opportunity to assess the characteristics of different markets: the geriatric market, the university student market, the working mother market, and their reactions to the various media: TV, newspapers, throw-aways, magazines, etc. Now, university degree in hand, you are anxious to determine the most effective media mix for a product which should appeal to university students, women planning to re-enter the job market, people seeking mid-career changes, and the vast market of middle level managers who are dissatisfied with their career achievement.

The details selected relate directly to the job objective and increase in specificity with each of the three levels -- university sales job, marketing research survey -- ideas for the job you are seeking. Compare this answer to a statement such as, "Well, I understand people and am really good at selling." Who would you hire?

The career search and the interview, in particular is all about selling yourself. You are a one-person PR (public relations) agent for yourself. You need to convince the prospective employer that they'd better hire you or else they will be making a big mistake. Put yourself in the position of being a "hot item" -- one that everyone is looking for to fill an opening in their company. You must have something to offer -- some service or skill that is needed. It's nice to be in demand! Then you are in a position to pick and choose by providing yourself with a lot of options.

Learn from your mistakes, too. Sometimes you might aim too high too soon, highlight the wrong information, project an image you did not intend to, and so forth. Even though we like you and we think you're a great person, you will have to learn to deal with job related rejections. Weinstein (1983:124) notes: "Chances are you're not going to get every job you apply for. It would be nice, but realistically, it doesn't happen that often. . . Nevertheless the first rejection is devastating. . . It is important to profit from rejections." Grow from your mistakes. Sometimes we learn the hard way. Remember learning is messy!


In this chapter we have dealt with the individual's ability to control the image he presents, and consequently to affect positive career opportunities. Techniques were reviewed for selecting information about self that would be most likely to create the desired impression and effectively persuade a professor, future employer, or supervisor of his sterling qualities.

The concept of a portfolio was introduced as a means of maintaining a comprehensive data bank on one's accomplishments --a data bank from which materials can be readily selected for occasions which require an effective presentation of self. We also discussed the various techniques used in controlling the social context of identity as exampled in the letter of recommendation and the interview.

Appendix A - Sociological Terms in This Chapter

Behavior modification -- The process of changing behavior through rewarding those components of behavior that you want to reoccur.

Identity management -- The process through which we define ourselves, both to ourselves and to others.

Primacy effect --The effect in persuasive power gained through coming first on the ballot, in a debate, on the list, whatever.

Professional ego identification -- The process through which we develop a professional identity and sense of belonging to a given profession.

Recency effect -- The effect in persuasive power gained through having the last (or most recent) word.

Shared representation symbol -- Symbols which have meaning only to the group which has defined them. The use of these symbols identifies group belonging and reinforces group identity.

Social context -- The social context is the setting within which social interactions take place.

Appendix B - Self-Diagnostic

You have just been interviewed by the most intelligent, sensitive, supportive man you have ever met. What techniques of self presentation should you have used to get the job (and maybe the man, too)? Try your hand at identifying effective persuasion techniques. Enter a T for True, or an F for False.

-----1. All messages take place in a social context.-----
-----2. One of the most important things you can do is to work on your weaknesses, if you want to get ahead.-----
-----3. A resume should include everything of importance you've one.-----
-----4. If we were hiring people at a social service agency we would be impressed by someone who said their outstanding characteristic was "wanting to help people."-----
-----5. People are usually impressed when you link what you have to say to their interests.-----
-----6. A primary effect is the effect created by the most important item in your resume.-----
-----7. It is usually most effective to describe yourself with broad general statements, so that you will appear to fit many career roles.-----
-----8. Often the last item mentioned in a letter of recommendation will have the strongest effect (recency effect).-----
-----9. The only real control you have over a letter of recommendation is to make a good impression on the person you ask to write it.-----
-----10. An interview provides the interviewer with a sampling of data about your behavior and personality.-----
-----11. Research has shown that the primacy effect is more important than the recency effect.-----
-----12. If you wish to give the impression that you have high energy you should use active verbs in your resume.-----

Scoring and Career Forecasts for Self-Diagnostic

Score one point for each correct answer.
1. True.
2. False.
3. False.
4. False.
5. True.
6. False.
7. False.
8. True.
9. False.
10. True.
11. False.
12. True.

Your Career Forecast for the Chapter

10-12 points:Help! We're being held prisoner in a Sociology Department. Together, with your brilliance, we could make a great escape.

7-9 points: Okay! We'll hire you! We'll promote you! You're incredibly persuasive.

4-6 points: Sounds like you're not convinced yourself. Pick up your ego and wrap it around a book on the social psychology of persuasion. Then, when Venus lights over Mars, go get the job!

0-3 points: It is clear that in your present ego state you should avoid all motion. Avoid black cats, vampires, and personnel departments, too. Cheer up. When Neptune hovers over Southeastern Wisconsin your whole career outlook will improve.


Bostwick, Burdette. (1977). Getting the Job You Always Wanted. New York: John Wiley and Sons.

Goffman, Erving. (1959). Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, New York: Doubleday.

Lloyd, Joan. (1985). "Polish Your Profession Image By Dressing Intelligently," Milwaukee Journal, July 14, 1985.

Souerwine, Andrew. (1978). Career Strategies, Planning for Personal Achievement. New York, AMACOM.

Weinstein, Robert. (1983). Jobs for the 21st Century, New York: Collier.

Whorf, Benjamin. (1957). Language, Thought, and Reality. Cambridge: MIT Press.