Air Travel : A Social Experiment

 

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Traveling is one of the greatest joys of my professional career. Below is a post I wrote a while back…

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After several weeks of work travel, I am finally back on the homefront, although I did return with a little present.   I caught a nasty stomach virus on my last trip to Detroit.  One minute I was feeling ok, resisting the urge to curse out the gate agent for rebooking me on a less than desired route and the next minute, I was feeling feverish and nauseous.

So anyway, I am taking a sick day, which still does not explain why I am sitting on my couch watching TV instead of demolishing this mountain called my work inbox.

While I sat at my gate awaiting the call for Zone 5, I realized how interesting the subject of air travel is.

When I was younger, the mere thought of boarding a plane was a big deal.  I remember as a child, my first air plane ride was a family trip from Lagos to Abuja, Nigeria.  Man, was that exciting! We got all dressed up for the occasion.  A few years later, my family went on our first intercontinental vacation to Europe, which was an even bigger event.  Although we were flying coach on both occasions, I distinctly remember the feeling of luxury, of being catered to.

Fast forward to last week when I asked for a blanket (what the heck was i thinking!) because I was freezing and was told it would cost $10, cash and exact change only!  Airlines have gone from offering a choice from a wide selection of beverages, to abrupt service offering just water or…water and ice lol.

Few other things that caught my attention:

 The glaring difference between Frequent Flyers and “The Others“.  You can typically spot the frequent flyer – characterized by speed as they navigate the self-check in kiosks (if they did not already print off boarding pass, or have it downloaded on their smartphones), expertly packed travel-size liquids and gels as they make it through security with shoes and belts already taken off, or even the seamless way they hoist compact carry-ons into overhead bin and swiftly  take their seats.  “The Others” tend to appear confused and lost which ultimately annoys their speedier counterparts.

Boarding by class zone.  I am sure the airlines were simply devising an efficient and easy way to board planes to avoid chaos and delays.  So why does it seem like a way to humiliate those of us who are not fortunate enough to fly first class? Has anyone ever noticed the look of smug superiority on the faces of the first class passengers as the rest of us make our way to the back of the plane?  Is it pure coincidence that we have to walk past them, drinking their “pre-flight” refreshments, legs comfortably stretched out on our way to our seats, knowing that our own experience way back there will be less than pleasant?  What about the almost see-through curtain that separates them from us? Transparent just enough to allow us imagine the sights and sounds, but solid enough to keep us away from using their bathroom. I remember once being shooed back to my seat when I attempted to use the bathroom in First Class, to avoid the long line in Coach. 😦

Black woman with natural hair = potential terrorist? Has anyone with natural hair ever had their pony tail searched when going through security? I don’t get it. Could I be hiding a gun or knife in there? Since when did my Shea Butter and coconut oil mix become chemical weapons of mass destruction?

I apologize if this is common knowledge, but as a newly natural sista, this was a new one for me; especially as I hate people touching my hair.

In-flight speed dating. Most times when I board, I just want to sleep, read or work in peace! If this is the case, my headphones are slipped on as soon as my butt touches the seat. I may as well have a Do Not Disturb sign on my forehead.  Of course, once in a while the Chatty Cathy next to me will keep talking to me anyway.

Sometimes, however,  you are lucky enough to sit next to someone whom you connect with and you both stay in touch after you arrive at your final destinations.  Other times, the  interaction lasts only as long as the flight.  I’ve always been amazed at how much personal information is shared in a relatively short time. People will talk about their families, jobs, hobbies, likes, dislikes, past relationships, fears, opinions, etc within minutes of sitting next to a person on the plane.  One key piece of info is typically withheld though.  Can you guess?  Name!  In my experience, people will have these personal and intense discussions without an actual introduction!

Have you observed any of these? Are there any interesting tidbits you have noticed about flying? Please follow and share your thoughts.

It’s Partyyyy Time! Or is it? …

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Last weekend, I attended a Nigerian party in the LA area with some family and friends.  In true  Owambe fashion, the “turn up” was real.  Food, drinks, music, “money spraying” were in full effect and everyone truly had an awesome time.  We partied into the wee hours of the morning and the next day, I woke up sore and achy from dancing to Wizkid in my high heels.  I remember at many points that night feeling like…myself!  I ate enough jollof rice to feed four big women and then proceeded to dance and sing at the top of my lungs with friends when Sir Shina Peters played, as it reminded me of my childhood.

There was no worry of eating or drinking too much as I was surrounded by love and friends and family.

This is what I call a party.

Now, contrast this with the so-called parties hosted within Corporate America.  Sigh…

I have had the dis pleasure  of attending more than a few corporate parties.  I shouldn’t even call them parties really.  Events is more like it.  Take the Christmas party at one of my previous employers, a very conservative Accounting firm. Here are a few of my favorite observations:

  •  Deciding how to dress for one of these is almost impossible. The task at hand is to find an outfit that is not too short, not too long, sexy but not too sexy, flattering but not too form fitting, conservative but not business-suit like, etc… Inevitably, I end up with the contents of my closet scattered all over my bed before I decide on something.
  • The menu is another one.  Now, I have been described by some as “bougie”, but let me tell you, sometimes you just want food you are familiar with.  Somehow, my definition of party does not include some dried up veal or King Fish-caviar or drinks such as Cynar and Punt e mes. Often, after these “parties”, I have been known to stop by the nearest drive-through or Chipotle on my way home.
  • Now everyone knows that at these dinners, there is a fun end and a boring end of the table. The fun end is where you sit with your peers who are hopefully not arrogant, self-important jerks.  Here, you can maintain some semblance of real talk and not have to worry whether you used the salad fork to eat the main course.  No one cares too much. As long as you manage to remember to drink out of your own glass and not that of person next to you (haha, this happened!), then you should be ok.
  • If you find yourself on the boring end then… Via con Dios! Here is where real talk ends as you are seated next to some big shot, or big shot wannabe who continues to crack dry jokes you do not understand, but you are obliged to laugh anyway.  The kind of fake laughter that makes the side of your face hurt and can cause facial spasms later.  Here, the steak is very rare, almost raw and although said big shot is allowed to order endless bottles of wine, you, my fellow dual citizen, dare not exceed your 2 glass maximum!!
  • Here’s one that never ceases to amaze me!  Some of my fairer-skinned compadres still manage to turn all the way up at these events! Invariably, someone ends up (a) sitting on a partner’s lap, (b) making out by the bathroom,  (c) grinding obscenely in the name of dancing, (d) telling very, very inappropriate, sometimes racist or sexist jokes, (e) passing out (f) drinking way too much, which I guess causes all of the above.
    These have all happened at these events and the thing is, in many cases the perpetrators not only remain employed, but this seems to have absolutely no negative consequence on their careers.

I often think of how it must feel to be that free.  To know that you will be ok, no matter how much you screw up.  The stern faces of my Nigerian parents and grandparents come into focus in those moments, reminding me of how much they toiled so I could be here, rubbing shoulders with them. I used to think that I would stop feeling this way once I rose to the level of management and was no longer at the bottom of the totem pole.  Now as a mid-level manager, I know this feeling will never change.  I will never be able to completely relax in this world.

So no matter how many times they call it Christmas party, or Thanksgiving potluck or company picnic, or corporate happy hour, it will never be a real party for me.

What are some of the things you have observed at company parties? Please share your thoughts.

Performance Evaluations: Who Should I be This Year?

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Most people I know do not like the process of being criticized evaluated; much less in the workplace.  At least once a year, someone, likely your boss, gets to provide feedback on how you have fared. If you are lucky, this process is constructive and painless, where your successess are highlighted and rewarded and your few shortcomings discussed in a collaborative way.  Many of us are not quite so lucky.

I am sure many social experiments can and have been conducted on performance reviews. I, for one, am usually amused by the use of euphemistic terms such as “Areas needing improvement” or “Development needs”.  Rather than saying, “You just don’t cut it” or “Start looking for another job”, these terms are replaced with the aforementioned, even though every experienced person knows what they mean.

My particular beef with this process is how almost completely subjective it can be.  No matter how hard you try during the year, you can never really score a perfect 10; unless your boss wants you to.

Let me give you an example:

Some employers use a forced ranking system where they list a bunch of attributes and basically grade on a bell curve.  One of the attributes we are typically measured on is Passion and Determination to Achieve.  This means that you stop at nothing to achieve your targets which by the way, get more unattainable each year. It may include employing tough tactics with your competitors, other departments and even your coworkers just to get ahead.  After all, a forced ranking system means that if Joe is ranked 1st, Jane would have to be ranked 2nd or lower, so no ties.  This attribute is the often most important  and is usually rated highest which is no surprise: it’s how we achieve results.

Another attribute is Empathy which measures your willingness and ability to relate with others and help them solve problems, even sometimes at your own expense.

Is it really possible to score a perfect 10 on both at the same time?

One of my natural strengths has always been the former.  Having been blessed with the competitive gene, I  work extremely hard to achieve KPIs as this is how I am measured quantitatively.  This may mean that I am not always available to chit chat and schmooze with coworkers. But it does mean that my numbers are met and often exceeded.  However, rather than passionate or driven,  I have been called aggressive, pushy, a bulldog and some other less than flattering names because I do not go out of my way to socialize and am more likely to go straight to the point.

Being a West-African woman adds another dimension. I was raised to distinguish between work time and play time.  I was brought up to speak carefully about my personal life, divulging as little as possible and only to those who needed to know.  So I may not be the loudest at the lunch table, nor will I be the one pretending to understand pop culture references that are foreign to me (hmm, I think I should do another post on this).  Point is, I am pleasant without letting it affect my work.

Once, during a discussion on my performance and upcoming promotion, my White, male boss said to me, “You can definitely do the job but you just don’t smile enough”. This was hard for me to deal with seeing as neither him nor his boss nor anyone else at their level walked around the office all smiles.  Why were the rules different for me than for them??

To further complicate things, I have observed other colleagues who would probably score very highly on the Empathy attribute be considered soft and weak and unable to lead. They too, have been passed over for promotions.  Many companies pride themselves on valuing diversity, which is not only about skin color and gender, but also about personality types. Still, I find myself contemplating if there truly is room for diversity at the top.

So … what would it take for me to not only fit in but move up? Will my fate be determined by whether or not my boss likes me, or is there a more objective form of performance reviews?

Please leave a comment and let me know how you feel about the review process at your job.  Is it objective, fair, easy to understand? Or do you find yourself wondering, “Who Should I Be This Year?”

“Your hair! It’s so…interesting.”

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I remember my first day in the Corporate American work place.  I had graduated with Honors a month prior with a degree in Accounting and had accepted a position as a First-Year Associate at a “Big” Accounting firm.  I recall the feeling of nervous excitement as I walked through the shiny sliding doors, eager to start my new life. The day before, I had micro-braided my hair.  Having just moved to a new city, I opted for a low-maintenance hair style until I figured things out.

The HR coordinator met me in the lobby to welcome me and begin the New Hire Orientation.  She was blonde, petite and dressed impeccably in a grey skirt suit.  Her black heels clacked as she strode confidently across the room towards me. As she approached, she introduced herself, firmly shaking my hand, subtly eyeing me up and down.  And then, there it was…the dreaded double take.  She looked twice at my hair and said, “I like your hair.  It’s so…interesting.”

As I mumbled my thanks, I recall thinking that I had never seen my hair as different before.  I wondered if ‘interesting’ was a euphemism for something less…pleasant.  Would I be considered “less-capable” or “less professional”? Would I fit into this ultra-conservative work environment being the only Black woman on my team?  I pondered some of these questions within my first few weeks as I met my other team mates.

This was only the beginning of my hair journey in the Corporate space.  Throughout my career, as I have moved departments, offices, jobs, I have had a plethora of adjectives used to describe my hair- whimsical, cool, unique, fickle, ‘out-there’.  I would often wonder if they ascribed these same descriptions to me as a person and not just my hair.  Someone, a middle-aged, White male colleague once said to me, “It’s like a Chia pet.  It can grow from nothing to several inches in like 2 weeks!!”

The biggest change was when I transitioned from relaxed, straightened hair to my natural, more kinky texture.  Although I knew it was the right move for me personally and health-wise, my biggest  concern, believe it or not, was how my work colleagues would view me.  After my ‘big-chop’, it was as if I was no longer the same person.  Some thought it was cool and wanted to touch it, while others just stared as if I had been deceiving them all along with my ‘fake’ hair.  I have even had the discussion with other Black female colleagues about whether or not my short twist-out was considered “professional” and appropriate for our work culture.

I consider overcoming my hair struggles in the corporate world as a badge of honor.  I could very easily have continued to wear my weave at work just to fit in.  I could have continued to apply perms to my hair just to avoid the stares and questions.   However today, I choose to embrace my hair in and out of work. I choose to maintain confidence even through the stares.   I know deep down that I have become a better professional woman for it!

Dual Citizenship: The Chronicles of a Black & Corporate-American Woman

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Have you ever felt like you were constantly ping-ponging between 2 worlds? You spend 40 or more hours weekly in one; and the remains of your life are spent in the other? You wake up each morning, don your mask and enter the corporate world, doing your best to blend in. You tuck away your essence and try not to be too “different”, too obvious.  You don’t want to upset the apple cart.  You are in “their” space. When they grudgingly decide to set you free, you remove your mask and enter into another world.  Where you are free to be yourself.  Where you can let your hair down figuratively…maybe even literally.  Where your name isn’t too difficult to pronounce and your music isn’t too ethnic.  A place where you do not have to explain yourself.  It doesn’t matter if you are alone or surrounded by friends and family.  The point is, this is your space.   You cling on to the sacred moments spent in this world because you know it won’t last forever.  You will have to return to their space…sooner rather than later. You, my friend, are like me.   A dual-citizen.