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Tuesday, November 25, 2014

On Being an American Working in the UK

"That's the problem with you coloreds. You're always focused on the treatment you expect to get, instead of the treatment that you're getting." - Line from Dorothy Dandridge (1999)

Everytime I step foot into a new classroom or place of work there is that flutter of apprehension at the pit of my tummy -- one-third nerves, one-third adrenaline, one-third exhilaration.

You never really know how you're going to be received by the new lot of people. First you worry about the women. Will they be kind, welcoming and warm or will they feel threatened, question your intentions and resent you silently?

And then there are the men. Will they respect you and see your value or will they think of you as a cute face, here to make things pretty, and then overspeak you in every meeting.

I would expect to experience this in every new workplace situation. That has been my truth. Understandable after all, we are all human and judgemental by nature. You do have to prove yourself in each new instance, so I really wouldn't expect to feel any differently.

However, I must say, it is a bit more burdensome to face this new office hazing as -- a smart woman, a beautiful woman, a charismatic woman, a black woman -- in a world where you are used to being classified as a minority and continually gauged against generalizations based on age, race and sex.

Gifts from my UK team on my last day of work

What surprised me about working on my particular team, in my particular office in the UK, was that the burden I usually felt, the burden to prove myself and fit in, felt slightly lighter.

Even though I was the only American woman on a team of young, British men, there was less of a hurdle there, less of a disconnect between me and the guys on the team that I, and I alone, would usually be forced to bridge if I were working in the US.

They spoke to me genuinely, no forced small talk, and connected with me as if we were cut from the same cloth. They laughed at my jokes and I at theirs. We related with one another easily. I felt a part of a team much sooner and deeper than I had ever felt in any other place of work.

They invited me out for lunch and drinks, more than once. And not that awkward obligatory invite extended to the new person (that you secretly hope they will decline). They seemed to genuinely like my company and showed sincere interest in conversation with me.

I didn't feel like an outsider shrinking myself to help others feel more comfortable around me. I shone as bright as I wanted to and the guys didn't seem to mind one bit, they related to me just the same.

The women in the office, were slightly different. Most were kind and inquisitive at first, but warmed up to me and showed me sincerity or pulled away from me and became more cold as time passed and as they saw more and more of me.

I had limited exposure to most of the women in the office, as my team was comprised solely of men. Most women were kind in passing, but there are always one or two who try to show you that they are the alpha female (even if it's only in their mind).

The young, and young-at-heart women in the office were the kindest to me. No surprise there. It felt similar to how it is in the States. My relationship with women in an office setting is always a bit more complicated than I'd hope for.

All in all, I was highly attentive to how I was being received and perceived in the UK office setting. I was keen to take notice of the nuanced differences between an American and a British corporate place of work, for a woman like myself.

I felt at home with my co-workers in the UK office faster than I have ever felt at home in any of the American offices where I've worked.

Maybe my year studying and exploring abroad has changed me. Maybe I'm more humble and less defensive in demeanor. Maybe the treatment that I expected to receive was more positive than before I left my home country.

Maybe that's why reception was a bit different.

Or maybe that soreness that still exists between the assimilating cultures in the US is ever more evident when you are working in a place where that lingering angst ceases to exist.

Here's a recent vlog on a day-in-the-life working in the UK. Press play. 

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