Living in Seattle, I have met people who knew Amanda Knox and even more people who knew people who knew the young woman now convicted of murder in Italy. I’ll forego comments on whether she might be guilty or innocent. But I want to point out what many in the media noticed: the impression Amanda made in Italy generally and the law court specifically.
Among other things, the news media report, Amanda wore t-shirts with slogans to court. She had turned cartwheels in the police station when she felt restless while waiting to give evidence. She didn’t demonstrate the expected emotions.
People don’t usually get prison sentences based on image, although it happens. (Ever see Paradise Lost?) But they do get stuck in their careers and even lose jobs when they don’t fit the image that is expected. A few years ago, famed columnist Penelope Trunk wrote an online article on image. She shared a tip that might seem surprising, even shocking, at first: “..Get rid of that perfectionist streak, do a little less work, and use that time to make yourself look better.”
In her own early days, Pennelope’s image was too youthful to be taken seriously. She hired an image consultant. That’s probably not a bad idea if you’re moving up the executive track and if you choose an image consultant who knows your field, and industry. In the US courtroom defendants can hire image consultants; awhile back I saw a movie made on the premise of an image consultant who specialized in making tough criminals look like choirboys, with some pretty interesting outcomes. (Alas, the movie was flawed, but the concept was awesome.)
We rarely hear about another aspect of culture: expression of emotion and openness. It’s pretty explicit in courtrooms. Personally, I’ve always wondered why defendants are supposed to look remorseful if they’re pleading “not guilty.” They can show sorrow, but isn’t the whole idea that they have nothing to be apologetic about?
Workplace cultures have expectations of emotion that are just as irrational. I believe just about everyone frowns on crying, except in sports, where both men and women are allowed to cry when their teams lose. There’s wider variance in expectations of being upbeat, friendly and open. There’s even wider variance on conversational topics. Once I read about someone who was the “first woman” to hold a traditional male position in a Silicon Valley company. She read the sports pages to prepare for informal pre-meeting chatter. To her surprise, one male senior manager asked another where he got his sweater and they talked about shopping at Nordstroms.
Ultimately, I think that’s why theatre majors often achieve success in all walks of life. Their parents may shudder, “I sent you to college to learn something useful.” Often the most useful lesson to learn is that being in a workplace or business setting isn’t about expressing yourself. It’s about playing a role, recognizing that people want your costume and actions to be consistent with the character you have been assigned.
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