When was the last time you worried about what others think of you? Have you ever received feedback to stop caring about it? Have you reached the stage where you realise that it doesn’t matter?
I realised that it doesn’t matter right before a pivotal life milestone, moving abroad to study. I learned that if you accept and own yourself, you will naturally attract like-minded people. But throughout my experience, I learned something even more: it does matter. Just not in the way I thought.
Yet, I realised that my “radical self-ownership and vulnerability” failed when, just before a Government-announced lockdown, I was at home alone while the rest of my household had been invited to various gatherings. I was confused. It’s not as though I was trying to appear smart. Why doesn’t my intent match the impact I’m making? Why were the people telling me to stop caring about what others think also giving me feedback about how I come across to others?
That’s where I realised that I had got the idea all wrong. And many of our generation do. The key to reconciling these lay in three truths.
Self-awareness is not just about knowing yourself, but also your impact on others
As Maya Angelou famously quoted, “people will never forget how you made them feel”. Say that you realise that what others think isn’t important, but a principle such as “respect” is. Well, to respect someone is to acknowledge them, heir sensitivities, warts and all – which means caring about what they think and feel. The key difference is that it’s not for self-image, but for genuine concern for the other person. It’s not about you, it’s about them.
In most situations, it’s more appropriate to treat others the way they want to be treated. And you won’t know that until you listen and get to know them.
Ensure others understand your good will first
There’s this scene in Gran Torino where Clint Eastwood’s character has his teenage Asian-American neighbour listen to his racial slur and insult-peppered banter with his local barber to show him ‘how men talk.’ Yet his verbatim imitation of Clint’s character gets a shotgun pointed in his face.
You may not be held at gunpoint, but it’s easy to forget that just because you know you respect others, others don’t know you enough to know. And just because you assume good faith, it doesn’t mean they do.
My friends know me for dry wit or a tease. And my new peers ridiculed an early diversity and inclusion seminar for pushing political correctness to the point of encouraging a humourless environment. I mistook this, and the fact that misunderstandings are inevitable in an intercultural context, as a free pass to let my humour shine, forgetting that my new peer group hadn’t yet understood that this was all in good faith. At best, peers told me that “I know you mean well, but you risk humiliating others with your humour.” At worst, relationship opportunities were lost.
Treat others how they want to be treated
We grew up told to “treat others the way you want to be treated.” But that assumes that everyone is just like you, which in a diverse environment, could not be farther from the truth.
I assumed that the immense personal sacrifice and high calibre needed to get into a global MBA meant that my peer group would be just as, if not more, mature, than me. At its orientation, the school’s Dean addressed FOMO and peer pressure. I suggested that true knowledge and self-awareness should allow us to not only withstand these, but also own the consequences of pursuing what’s important. She said that if I knew that at my age, then I was mature well beyond my years.
I should have stayed silent. Or at least, taken her comment as advice on how to treat my peers. A friend described me as “difficult to like”, and another told me that I came across as “an intellectual snob,” who “sounds like you’re flexing.” I realised that my behaviours and words subconsciously communicated that I expected highly of others, and that this expectation, and the frustrations when they weren’t met, made me come across as standoffish.
Maturity does not make you immune from insecurities. So don’t expect highly of people, for everyone struggles through something. Baptisms of fire may strengthen you into steel; but steel is cold, and people appreciate warmth. And, to go full circle, make sure that your approach makes others feel respected.
After working in corporate strategy, he moved to Singapore to chase his dream, motivated by his Filipino heritage: change the global mindset towards Southeast Asians by growing businesses and leaders that can solve sustainable development and show the world what the region is capable of … and enjoy kampongs, humidity, Peranakan food and bak kut teh.