Face Value : perceptions, people and fear

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Perhaps you’re new to your job. Maybe you have to pitch an idea soon and you’re really stressed. You might think one of your coworkers is quite a rude person. Let me remind you that everyone you encounter is vulnerable, and things are usually more complicated than they seem on the surface. Put aside your anxiety and take the time to look at your fear. You might find its teeth are not as sharp as you thought.

At the BizDojo the team is made up of people who work from both Wellington and Auckland, along with a couple of people who float between the two cities. It’s important to the culture of the business that the team, who often communicate through email, Skype, Slack, Trello and other online tools, get to know each other as people.

So I was sent on a trip to work from our Auckland coworking spaces, GridAKL and BizDojo Ironbank, for a couple of days. It might seem silly, but Auckland intimidates me. Every time I’ve been there I’ve loved it - it’s vibrant, culturally diverse, energetic, surrounded by water and trees - but it can feel enormous and challenging. People who survive and thrive in Auckland fascinate and frighten me because I grew up in a small Central Otago town where most people spoke of Auckland like it was pointless and awful. As I said, I don’t find this to be true, but I do feel a certain awe for the citizens of the city and, like many people, I am a bit spooked by meeting new people in general.

I had chatted with Anya, GridAKL’s Brand and Communications expert, via Slack often as we worked together on a few projects. She’s efficient, skilled and highly regarded in the company. As a relative newbie at the Dojo I was grateful for her help and looking forward to seeing what she was like in person.

On the morning I arrived at Grid I was nervous. I felt a bit dorky - apprehensive about meeting the Auckland team and carrying traces of ‘country bumpkin goes to the big city’ despite having left small town life after high school. Anya sat at her desk, dressed immaculately in a vintage-inspired outfit and surrounded by various items of novelty stationery. I introduced myself - ‘Anya? Hello! How’s it going?’ - and shook her hand.

Anya didn’t really look at my face when we shook hands. She looked at her hand. Then she lifted her head up and looked at me without smiling. She didn’t say much more than ‘Hi’. I tried not to think too deeply about this interaction but it was the first time we had met and I’m over-sensitive at the best of times. When I got set up at a desk I emailed my boyfriend, telling him I was having a rough morning because the team in Auckland seemed clique-y and I didn’t know how to approach a day of working with them. Why wouldn’t Anya even look at me? Had I done something wrong?

If you were working from GridAKL today and you had the chance to meet Anya, you would have no idea that she has no front teeth. When she was 16, she was playing touch rugby and had the very, very unfortunate experience of someone’s forehead colliding with her mouth. She broke six teeth and lost a lot of blood. Anyone who had braces as a teenager knows how hard it is to adjust to dental work in an already awkward phase of life. At a time when Anya was already shy and, as she puts it, ‘weird’, she lost the key players in her smile and her conversation.

She had teeth implants but they started to fail a couple of years ago. Getting her implants pulled wasn’t an easy decision because Anya was working in the fashion industry and was wary of the impact this might have on her career. She ended up with a plate, and it just so happens that the morning we first met was also the first time she had ever been out in public without her plate in. When she woke that day she found it had a crack in it, so it was taken away for repair. Going to work with no teeth was a huge deal for Anya. Understandably, she was uneasy about facing the world when feeling so self-conscious. She had discussed with her fiance that morning how best to go about meeting a new colleague when she felt so vulnerable.

About half an hour after we met, Anya started speaking about why that morning was different to other mornings. I noted that she was, indeed, missing her front teeth. Inwardly, I cracked up. Not because Anya was having a toothless morning but because I hadn’t considered that there could be a reason for her frosty greeting other than ‘she doesn’t like me’. It felt good to be reminded of how fear can make you blind to other people’s experiences.

I suppose it should be obvious that paying too much attention to your own anxiety makes it hard to be aware of other people’s. Looking back on that day, I am so embarrassed at my failure to understand what was going on for Anya. Recently when she was in Wellington for work, I told Anya I had initially thought she was quite a rude person and we shared a massive laugh. And now we know each other better as people.

Nik was up until very recently our Wellington Community Manager