It seems like everywhere you turn these days people are talking about how to cope with workplace stresses, particularly in reference to those co-workers who drive us crazy. There are books, like Working with You is Killing Me, that talk about how we can be trapped in relationships with a co-worker, boss, or subordinate who just pushes your buttons. We all say we know these kinds of people. But here’s a scary thought–what if that person is you but you just don’t know it? What if you don’t come across to others as the amiable, suave sophisticate that you think you are?

Think about it for a moment. We all know, for example, those people who can’t stop talking; the ones who go on and on in excruciating detail about some minute event in their lives. You can’t get a word in edgewise and you can’t get away from them. (I call encounters with these people “paw-chewers,” because they make me feel like the animal caught in a trap that will chew its own paw off rather than stay in the trap.) But the talker never knows he’s the talker, does he? He doesn’t pick up on the subtle signs, like your glazed-over eyes, your stifled yawns, your loud snoring. Could you also be lacking that self-perception?

Last week I was talking to my 3-year-old twin nephews and made a joke. They laughed and laughed and I basked in the chuckles thinking I must be one cool, funny aunt. That is until one twin, still laughing, said, “Did you hear her? Who talks like that?” Well, there went my illusions. I went from being Cool Aunt to Instant Dweeb Aunt in one second, cut down in the comedic prime of life.

Of course, children have a complete lack of artifice. If a thought swirls around their brains, it comes out their mouths. So if you don’t measure up in their worlds, you’ll know it. Stories like this make me think about the difference between how we see ourselves and how others perceive us. We can’t always have a small child around to point out our obvious deficits. Most of the time I’m pretty confident that I appear to others as I really am, but sometimes I just don’t know. For example, I’ve had colleagues tell me that as a public speaker I come across as very self-assured and calm. That’s amazing to me because I feel like I’m coming across as The Nutty Professor. In that case, I’m pretty happy with their erroneous perceptions. But it could just as easily work against me.

I once had a co-worker confess that, before he’d gotten to know me, he was scared to death of me. Of course, I was about 14 months pregnant at the time and generally pretty surly so I imagine I was fairly scary to the uninitiated. But still, it just floored me that I would have given someone that impression of me.

So what if I have other characteristics that are being misinterpreted that I don’t know about? I mean, we all know that person with low self-esteem who comes across as completely arrogant or the shy person who comes across as snobby. It’s easy to make assumptions about co-workers when you only know them so well. Of course, if we all communicated as well as we should (my constant mantra it seems), we’d eliminate or at least ease many workplace problems. But since there aren’t any three-year-olds around the workplace, what are we to do?

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