I had the pleasure of hearing Clara Gaymard, previously the CEO of GE France, speak this week.  Among her words of wisdom:

Be the one to choose how people will make fun of you.

Gaymard shared the story of a young philosophy professor who always wore worn-out shoes.  When she inquired why he did not upgrade his footwear, he answered, “People joke about others.  When I wear these shoes, I give them an easy way to make fun of me.”

Clara Gaymard au petit déjeuner GEF
Clara Gaymard (right) at Grandes Ecoles au Feminin breakfast on January 29,, 2019

The issue is not whether colleagues will mock you.  They will.  Our choice is whether to re-act or to pro-act to their jokes.

You and I can each choose our response:

  • To try and change others so that they don’t joke or tease us
  • To interpret the joke personally and take offense
  • To offer others an easy topic for a joke that is acceptable to you too

Gaymard went on to explain that, as the CEO of a major company and the mother of 9 children, she had a lot on her plate (!!) and could not make every meeting.  Sometimes she forgot the teacher’s conference.  Other times she missed a meeting a work.

She willingly described herself as distracted.  If people wished to joke about her, then let it be about getting distracted by one meeting which meant she did not attend another.

Clearly, as a highly accomplished woman, she surely developed strategies to be at the right place at the right time when it mattered the most.   Possibly her joking reference to being distracted motivated team members and family to remind her of important dates!

How do you invite others to laugh with you (vs. at you)?

Personal and Professional Communication Styles

This anecdote resonated particularly with me since I am developing a program to help employees understand the unwritten codes in their corporate culture.  This led me to study Dr. Deborah Tannen, a linguist who studies differences in communication between men and women, and boys and girls.

Communication Styles of Men Together

Boys (rather, men of all ages) play-fight, asserts Tannen.  The lens through which men view relationships is one of status. It’s a game of one-upping, of trying to be on top, of friendly hierarchy.

In conversation, boys exaggerate and joke (women call this making fun of others).

  • Your hair is sticking up out of your head!
  • No, it’s not.
  • It’s flying to outer space!

Communication Styles of Women Together

Girls TALK, confirms Tannen.  The lens through which they experience relationships is connection.  The focus is horizontality, being on par with the other person.  Girls say,

  • “Same”…”Me too”
  • “Remember?…” (recalling a shared experience)

Communication Styles of Mixed Gender Groups

How do women and men act in mixed-gender groups? Tannen’s studies indicated that both genders do adapt to each other, yet exchanges resemble more the masculine style.

Culture of Communication at Work

How does this translate into deciphering cultural codes at work?

Whether we like it or not, many of the behavior norms and cultural cues at work were developed by managers of previous generations, notably men.  Specifically, educated, powerful, and wealthy men.

Office politics reflect some of the practices Tannen describes in boys’ conversations:  vying for status, play-fighting, and joking.

Gaymard’s story depicts a strategy to play-fight at work.

  • Be prepared
  • Choose the game
  • Make it fun for everyone

Be Proactive – Define Your Joking Topic

Since we will be the brunt of a joke, which one will it be?

You and I each have faults.  Our colleagues will find them.

We can make the search easy.

Know What is Important…

My positive outlook is a major value-add at work.  I truly view a challenge as a source of opportunity, and this mindset can be confusing to French colleagues.  Just this morning, a cohort revealed he had a hearing impairment which puts a burden on relationships.  Why not view this constraint as an invitation to explore new communication rituals? His eyes popped open with surprise.  He had focused on limitations and had not considered the gift to inspire meaningful sharing through multiple senses.

…And What Is Not

Both the challenge and the opportunity co-exist.  It is an uncomfortable concept for some folk to accept.  That’s where joking about my slight American accent becomes an asset (See?!  I find the benefit hidden in the dilemma.)

When I speak French, native Francophones note that my accent is “foreign” without quite being able to place it. I invite people to laugh over my American my accent.  It keeps them from ridiculing my ideas and gives them time to consider my paradigm-changing approach.

That’s a win for everyone.

Cultural Misunderstandings at Work

Do you want to find out more about the training on cultural misunderstandings at work?

It’s a series of experiential activities to help participants identify assumptions we each make about expected behaviors and communication.  People don’t recognize their own preconceptions…just like fish cannot describe water.  It’s our “normal.”

With the growing diversity in the workplace, it is increasingly important to decode these cultural assumptions in order to offer a full opportunity for effective contribution and professional advancement for all.   Click here to ask for more.

What have been your challenges in working with diversity?  Let us know in the comments.

What do you think?

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