Tuesday, October 22, 2013

No Virginia, I am not an intern

I have been traveling a lot lately and by a lot I mean, I have traveled every week in September and thus far in October. I will travel nearly every week of November, except the week of Thanksgiving (and that is by choice).

When I travel to various conferences, conventions and meetings I have the opportunity to meet a lot of  interesting people. Which brings me to a recurringly awkward (and sometimes offensive) occurrence: The Introduction. I have no problems with introducing myself to people or striking up a conversation, but what I do have a problem with is people automatically assuming that I am an intern. I understand that I may look young, but why do people think it is appropriate to ask me, "Are you an intern?" or ever so presumptuously ask, "When did you start your internship?" What further exacerbates me is when I respond that I am not an intern, they almost always follow up with, "Were you an intern?" No. No. and No. I am not an intern. I was not an intern and I do not appreciate this line of questioning. Now that I have answered your question, why do you now assume that I must be a former intern. What is that about? Why can't you just ask me what I do and let me explain it? Why is it so important for you to make this distinction. Will our conversation be different if I had answered yes?

At first this did not bother me (about 3 years or so), but lately it has been getting under my skin. I used to hear it and take it as a compliment, "Awww they think I look young enough to be an intern." I would travel to athletic events and folks would assume I am one of the athletes.  People would always ask, "What school do you play at?" Depending on where I was going or coming from I would reply with, "I run track at Georgia, play volleyball at Butler, etc ..." I loved that one.

I remember arguing with a woman about being in the command center office we set up at an event. She kept trying to tell me I couldn't go in there and that I needed to check in and find my team. I gave her the suck-my-teeth, eye-roll-and-walk-away move and continued to where I was supposed to be. She had egg all over her face when she followed me into the command center and my executive vice president let her kindly know that I was presenting at the conference.

It didn't dawn on me that this might not be a good thing until earlier this year when I was in a meeting a the NFL offices. This was the second time we convened on this particular topic. A woman whom I have met and worked with previously, introduced herself to me and then asked "Are you an intern?" I replied no and that I have been working with this organization for five years. I casually reminded her of the things we had worked on together. That interaction opened my eyes to the fact that not only do they think I am an intern, they also don't know who I am. I have worked in this industry for five years and people I have worked with before didn't remember me. That is a problem. It opened my eyes to the fact that maybe they don't just think I look young, but something else about me might be giving them the impression that I am an intern. I pride myself on my appearance and the clothes I wear on business trips, so I don't think that is it, but I am not so arrogant as to rule it out as a possibility. Maybe its my haircut? It does make me look 12.

The girl on the right is in High School. This was an event where I was asked several times to find my team
My most recent occurrence was during a meeting last week in San Diego. I found an empty table at the awards luncheon and decided that I'd let the people come to me. That sounds more arrogant that it really is. My intention was to find a seat where I could see the stage without turning my neck (I am still nursing a neck injury from a bad car accident two years ago) and to instead of looking for someone to sit next to/network with, I would just sit down and see who else sat down as well. Kind of like natural selection, but not really. A co-worker sat on my left and women from other organizations joined us. The woman on my right immediately introduced herself and her organization. My co-worker and I did the same. A few minutes later, she turns to me and says, "When did you start your internship?" I replied, "Excuse me?" I was trying to give her an opportunity to ask that question differently. She didn't take the bait and repeated her question as if I didn't hear her "When did you start your internship?" Then I had to let her know, "I am not an intern." Perplexed, she followed with "When did you finish your internship?" I took a slow deep breath, finished chewing my bread and replied "I was never an intern. I am an associate director." With egg all over her face she tried to backtrack with "Oh you work for ____. That is such a great organization to work for." Girl bye! I have no interest in talking to you anymore. Why she couldn't just ask me what I do, I have no idea. Why did she have to assume some forgone conclusion? She could have afforded me the same respect I gave her in asking "What do you do for your organization?" What is so hard about asking an open-ended question? This way you don't put your foot in your mouth (or put toe jam on an idiot cracker as Roxy from Army Wives said on the show once.)

I know it was a little petty to ignore her for the rest of the 2 hour luncheon and not engage in conversation with her or her colleagues, but I was thoroughly annoyed by this encounter. I am not sure what the lesson to be learned from all of this is because I can't and won't try to control what people think of me or the idiotic things they say. Perhaps I can preempt the awkwardness by introduce myself first, including my position.

at the conference posing with the Queen and sharing a laugh with Oprah

Does this sort of thing happen to y'all? How do you handle it? I would love to hear your suggestions on how I can respond professionally.


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