Episode 101: Your Work, Your Private Life

Show transcript:

Welcome to The Broad Experience, the show about women, the workplace, and success. I’m Ashley Milne-Tyte.

This time…how open should we be about our privates lives when we’re on the job? Especially when we’re away from home…

“I've always been quite guarded with revealing details about my personal life as I wouldn’t really want that information to be out there, out of my control I suppose.”

But not everyone believes discretion is everything…

 “I also don’t want to go out of my way to play mental games and think about oh, how can I do my part to make sure this person is comfortable by my constructing a false reality?”

Coming up – when work, social media, and the rest of your life collide.

At the beginning of the year I heard from a listener in the UK. We’re just using her first name, Marie. She’s in her late twenties. She lives and works in the north of England. And she’s been grappling with this problem related her work. Her job involves a lot of networking and travel inside and outside the UK.

“I’ve always been happy with the way I do my job and I think I’m very good – well not very good, but I think I’m good at it.”

Typically female takedown of one’s own abilities? Check.

“I've just become increasingly aware of the fact that part of my success in my professional life seems to depend on how much of myself I am giving socially.”

Now not all of us are natural networkers, let’s face it – I did a whole show called the Hell of Networking a few years ago. But Marie is good at the talking to strangers part. It’s just that she wants to keep those relationships work-based.  She doesn’t want to share too much about her non-work self. And she feels that reluctance may be hurting her career.

“I suppose my issue is that I'm happy at events and when on trade delegations and things like that, and being sociable and going out to dinner. A lot of these times, we end up seeing the same people in the same circles. Generally, it's a nice bunch of people. I'm always happy to hang out, but I'm quite happy to leave it there at the end of the working day or at the end of the trip. "Great, maybe I'll see you next time." Whereas, a lot of people do seem to have these friendships that exist outside of work. And I have just begun to wonder whether I'm putting myself at a disadvantage by not socializing in that same way. By not extending those professional friendships.”

She’s particularly concerned about social media – a lot of her colleagues at home and abroad are Facebook friends with one another. She is happy to connect on LinkedIn where things are more formal. But on Facebook, where everyone shares family news and social lives…not so much.

“I’ve have had a few colleagues try to add me on Facebook, so I’ve either put them on limited profile or I've ignored their request and hope they don't take offense. I'm aware also of things that are said on some of these trips, when people say "Oh, yes. It was in that big Facebook message that got sent around. Didn't you see it?" So people assumed that I am Facebook friends with everybody, and that made me realize most people are.”

AM-T: “Tell people why this is an issue for you and perhaps it’s not a lot of your colleagues.”

“So I'm a married, gay woman and a lot of the countries that I visit for work, it's either illegal to be gay, so I visit a lot of African countries, for example. Or it’s maybe not illegal but it’s taboo. Because I know some of these U.K contacts are then say Facebook friends with local clients who I have a professional relationship with, I've always been quite guarded with revealing details about my personal life as I wouldn’t really want that information to be out there, out of my control I suppose.”

On Facebook one connection easily leads to another. And she worries about how those foreign colleagues would react if they knew she was gay. So far she’s dealt with it by revealing as little about her personal life in conversation as is politely possible. And also by not connecting with many of this circle of people on Facebook, where they could spot pictures of her and her wife.

AM-T: “What about other gay friends of friends in the LGBT community? Has anybody there have any advice to your or spoken to you about what they do? Or is it that they're in such a different job, it doesn't really apply?”

“I have spoken to someone I knew at university who works in the charity sector and that involves a lot of time spent overseas and getting into countries where it's illegal to be gay, and she's actually recently married too. For her, she was saying safety comes first. She doesn't have a steadfast rule for everything. It's very much a case by case basis. She'll sometimes be staying in a country for up to 3 months, and by then, she's usually figured out who's a good ally, and who's not gonna freak out if she tells them that she's gay. She's also mentioned coping mechanisms like referring to her wife by a slightly more masculine version of her name so that people would understand it as a man's name or using the word ‘spouse’, which is an interesting one. I don't know anybody who uses the word spouse in a natural way. It seems very clinical to me to say that word. I have recently found myself saying things like "my other half" because again that’s quite neutral I suppose, gender-wise.”

AM-T: “What's your status with regards to your colleagues there at home in Britain. Do people know you're gay, do they know you’re married?”

“They do. It did take me a good while to come out at work not through any kind of danger of personal safety. It’s just you just never know what people's reactions are going to be and my tendency is to play it on the safe side there. But certainly now, yeah, in my office it’s very open. A few of my colleagues did attend a wedding-blessing thing we had a few months ago.”

But that comfort level disappears on business trips.

AM-T: “And how do you feel being in those countries where being gay is taboo or illegal?”

“It does feel quite strange. I think it's something I have to figure out in the long-term is whether I am happy doing a job in international traveling to countries where I've always had to repress a little bit of myself and switch a bit of myself off. Otherwise, it'll be quite upsetting I think. You see some harsh signs in the airports. I think it's in Ghana, when you go through the visa and immigration section, there is a sign that says, I’m paraphrasing, but something like "Ghana does not welcome sexual deviants. If you are a sexual deviant, for the good of yourself and for this country, turn back around and go back where you came from.” It's quite brutal. And I think that these countries themselves, the laws don't exist in a vacuum. In Nigeria, they did an opinion poll a few years ago, and it was like 95 percent of the population thought it was immoral to be gay. That it was morally wrong. And so that's probably 95 percent of the people I've met, if you want to put it that way.”

I looked into this too. The most recent poll found 87 percent of Nigerians think homosexual relationships are wrong, and should remain banned in Nigeria. That’s down from 96 percent five years before. And yes, Ghana’s airport does have a sign that warns about sexual deviants and basically lumps homosexuality together with pedophilia.

I mean how many of us would feel comfortable talking about our same-sex partner to a Ghanian colleague if we’d seen that sign at the airport? In a minute Marie wonders what’s next for her career, and we meet someone with a different take on openness.

So that knowledge about public attitudes in some countries stops Marie in her conversational tracks. The whole situation sometimes makes her wonder…is she even cut out for this work?

AM-T: “You did allude to this in your email as well, you said something along the lines of ‘maybe I’m not right for this kind of job long-term.’”

“Yeah, I do wonder if…because a big part of my job is this maintenance of relationships and networking, whether I am not fully visible on social media or having these really pally conversations with clients about family or any more personal matters. If I can't say, can't send an email, ‘oh like, I saw a picture of your kids the other day, haven't they grown?’ or something. Maybe that just means I am not able to do my job as effectively as someone who is not in my position.”

She says if she were married to a man, it wouldn’t be an issue. She could talk openly about family when she’s abroad just like everyone else, maybe strengthen those relationships. And she thinks if she were connected to a big group of colleagues on Facebook, popping up in people’s news feeds, maybe they’d be inclined to think of her more when new opportunities arise. For now though, she’s holding back…

“And part of it is the professional and personal aspect, and part of it is…obviously the being gay of me part isn’t going to change… what I can change is the situations that I put myself into. I have never really felt physical danger, but I've definitely felt uncomfortable quite a few times. I think there is this thing, especially interacting with local clients of just wondering "what if you knew?" A lot of the times, I am able to compartmentalize private and professional so it doesn't affect me a great deal on every trip that I go on but I do have these moments sometimes where I am chatting to someone and it's a client I have met a few times and we get on really well, and I think "Oh, I wonder what you would say if you knew I was married to a woman? Would we be having this conversation? Would you be happy chatting with me? Would you have invited me around for dinner? Or would we have just kind of stopped and be speaking the bare minimum?" It is a strange one, and how I feel about it varies a lot depending on not only the country but depending on who I am with, whether I am traveling with groups of colleagues, whether I am by myself. I haven't made up my mind about what I think about it. Hence, why I wrote in to you as well. I am interested in seeing other people's takes on this situation.”

“Where I personally come down on it is I try to create the reality that I wish to live in.”

This is Dorie Clark. She’s been on the show before in that episode on networking. She’s the author of the books Reinventing You and Stand Out. She teaches at Duke University’s business school…

“I do a lot of professional speaking but my main thrust is helping professionals become recognized experts and make sure their talents are standing out in a crowded marketplace.”

Like Marie, Dorie travels extensively for her work. She’s a big social media user, and she is also gay.

She says the people around you – they take their cues from you…

“…about how you want to be treated and how you expect to be treated. Of course there’s outliers but often you set the tenor, and so if you go into something in a nervous or apologetic way it’s almost telegraphing a kind of weakness and I prefer not to do that. So I literally go into the scenario thinking, ‘how would a straight person handle this?’ So if it is germane to a story to say, ‘oh, I did this with my girlfriend last weekend’ then I will include that. If someone in a reasonable situation would say, I did this with my husband, then I will do the exact same thing.

I don’t think it’s politic or advisable to make a big deal of one’s sexuality, just as you wouldn’t if you were straight, I don’t think it’s really helpful to engage on politics or get into a big discussion about the nature of the country’s policies on homosexuality unless your colleague somehow brings it up or you’re sure there’s political common ground. But I also don’t want to go out of my way to play mental games and think about oh, how can I do my part to make sure this person is comfortable by my constructing a false reality?”

AM-T: “When you are in one of these countries where they are less than friendly at least outwardly, to gay people, would you still do what you said you would do…if it was natural you would mention your girlfriend if you had one?”

“100 percent I would. It’s important to keep in mind if you’re in a situation where you feel you could be at risk with your physical safety then obviously you need to be smart. But if you’re in a professional context, you’re at a cocktail party with your colleagues and this is more about how people will respond to you emotionally, in terms of their interpersonal connection, then absolutely I would not hesitate to be honest about my life. And with regard specifically to Facebook and social media, that is a place where I feel like people have many different views. If in general you have a policy where you don’t want to connect with professional colleagues on Facebook that’s fine, nobody needs to do that. But if you do in general and there’s a concern that specific people from a different culture wouldn’t know how to respond to your personal life they have a lot of options. I don’t think it’s our job to shield them. I mean maybe if your Facebook feed is like mine maybe they’ll see a picture of you and your girlfriend at a restaurant or at a play. Even if it’s clear it’s your girlfriend these are things that are mild, they’re not in and of itself they’re going to be upsetting to someone…it might be upsetting to think you have a girlfriend if someone is not happy with homosexuality, this is not overt, you making out with someone, it’s you going to a restaurant. If that is so traumatizing to them they can unfriend you, they can block you, but I like to give people that choice because I have found you can be more professionally successful if you also have a more real personal connection with other people and I think actually in many foreign cultures that is even more true. In the US and Britain we tend to have a more transactional view of business relationships…’oh, we do business together but we’re not friends.’ Well if you go to Asia or Africa they don’t want to do business with you unless you’re friends, unless you have a connection. That’s why it’s so important to go to these endless banquets in China and drink all night…they want to get to know you, they want to know about your family. So if you are cutting that off it may lead them to feel less close to you and they don’t know why. And that may actually be in the long run an even more damaging way to handle the issue of sexuality.” 

And that of course is exactly what Marie is worried about. That maybe she’s cutting herself off from deeper connections and a better career by not connecting more personally on Facebook. I told Dorie she’s even questioning whether she’s suited to this kind of work…

“Yeah, to me in a lot of ways this harks back to Lean In. Meaning Sheryl Sandberg’s argument in Lean In was that women often are the ones who take themselves out of contention too early. Women are the ones who say, ‘oh I shouldn’t accept that promotion because I might want to have kids in a few years.’ I think the truth is we shouldn’t be taking ourselves out of contention. If it turns out, I mean this would be horrible, but if it turns out that for some reason her being gay is just too much for these foreign colleagues to bear, let it be on them – I think it’s inappropriate for us to guess what they can handle and what they can’t handle. I would give them the opportunity to show her exactly what kind of people they are. We’re dealing presumably with people who are well educated, that are professionals, perhaps quite cosmopolitan, maybe they’ve done a lot of business themselves in other countries. And so homosexuality is not gonna be something that is so new to them. Even if the cultural context of their country is disapproving, a) that doesn’t mean that they are personally disapproving, and b) even if they are personally disapproving there are a lot of people who are perfectly able to hold opposing things in their own minds. I mean I grew up in the south and there’s a lot of people who might not be so crazy about homosexuality in general but you don’t want to mess with their homosexual, and I think a lot of people operate like that, there’s people they like and they’ll be very protective of you if they like you.”

A couple of years ago Dorie went to Kazakhstan for work. Kazakhstan de-criminalized homosexuality in the late ‘90s. Still, according to Human Rights Watch, ten years later 80 percent of LGBT people there felt they faced disapproval and disrespect. So she wasn’t exactly in friendly territory.

“…I think it’s really just a question of what is appropriate in a particular context. I was there --doing a stint teaching business school. I was talking with my students and other folks in the academic community, mostly about business and careers and things like that. But I am friends with many of them on Facebook and I don’t hesitate to post pictures of me with someone I’m dating. I feel like Facebook, it’s your space essentially, and they’re opting into your space…and if they can’t deal with it that’s on them. But if they have indicated they want to get to know me better as a person and see what my life is really like I’m glad to open that door and let them in…as long as they’re willing to be nice and good intentioned…and I’ve never had any blowback about it. People have been great.”

The first time she was out and overseas things didn’t go smoothly. In the early years of college she spent a summer in Norway at something called the International Summer School – it was a program at the University of Oslo. She said it soon emerged that she was gay and some people weren’t happy about it. Some weeks into the program one of her friends there put on a talent show. Dorie wasn’t going to be part of it but at the last minute her friend said not enough people had signed up – please could she do something? Anything! Dorie had written this short story and the protagonist was gay.

“So I read the short story and at the talent show…and during the show a woman from Mexico I believe, stood up, yelled me down, and encouraged other people to walk out, which some did. And you’re sensitive enough of your short story anyway…but actually what was impressive to me then even 20 plus years ago was the Americans and people from a few other places, really united around me, and a bunch of people came up and they were so mortified and so apologetic that this person had done this, and many of them, they weren’t necessarily people who were so pro-gay, but they didn’t want to see me treated that way, they thought that was wrong…that was a very formative moment. It took my patriotism up a notch because I realized first of all these people feel a kinship with me and are coming together. But it impressed me the level of decency and understanding, that even if you don’t 100% agree with someone if you like them enough as a person you don’t want them to be treated poorly…and I think for a lot of folks that more than ideology is a central organizing principle. And I think often we don’t expect to see that as much as it might really happen. So I think that if we give people the chance to rise to the occasion oftentimes they will.”

AM-T: “Really interesting, thank you so much for doing this. I mean I feel like you’ve given a lot of great fodder for this person and anyone else who’s thinking about this. But is there anything else you’d like to say about this topic that you haven’t got across, that you think is important for people to bear in mind?”

“When people are thinking about how out they should be in the workplace I think that once you have covered your bases and are clear you are not at risk for losing your job, that legally you’re protected, then you can transition into a much more important question, which is how you want to be in the world. For me personally I’m a big believer that if someone is uncomfortable with me that’s on them, and it should be on them. I am not going out of my way to try to make people feel uncomfortable, but if they happen to be uncomfortable I’m not gonna contort myself to try to please them. I think that’s a losing battle for almost anything whether you’re a teenage girl trying to be the weight that you think your classmates expect you to be or whether you’re a gay person in the world of work trying to be the colleague that you think your colleagues expect. We’re able to let go of a lot if we let go of those expectations. And I actually think that it’s an exercise in becoming the kind of person that I think almost anyone gay or straight, should aspire to be…which is driven by authenticity and our own convictions about who we are rather than letting anyone’s expectations factor into that.”

Thanks to Dorie Clark and my listener Marie for being my guests on this show.

So that’s Dorie’s view, but what about yours? Do any of you have experiences or ideas that could help Marie? You can post a comment under this episode at The Broad Experience.com or email me or post on the show’s Facebook page. Both of us would really like to hear from you.

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I’m Ashley Milne-Tyte. Thanks for listening.