A Call for Authenticity in Online Communication
Authenticity is a core part of who I am and how I approach the world around me
Authenticity is a core part of who I am and how I approach the world around me. This is also why I put it in the name of my new company, Authentique UX.
The question I pose today is: How can we be more authentic-more genuine-in our online communications?
“I finally feel like the main character in my own story.”
In the past, I’ve had some online interactions that left me feeling a bit empty afterwards. The development of the Internet and the rise of Social Media has drastically changed the way that humans communicate online.
I did research at Microsoft Outlook for 3.5 years specifically looking at communication (over email and otherwise) and how people manage their time. It was a fascinating area of research!
Behind each online digital persona, there’s a real human deserving of respect. With real pains and desires, reaching out for connection and acceptance in the world. We are all trying to figure things out and do the best we can to be happy and to thrive in this world.
But it’s important to recognize that behind the digitally curated identity, there is a real person. When we forget that, we fall prey to one of the following traps.
Trap #1: Entitlement
When we communicate with others online, especially ones that we don’t know very well, it’s easy to approach the communication with a sense of entitlement: That other person owes me a response! I’m spending my time writing to them, of course I deserve to be written back.
Just because someone sends you an email doesn’t mean that you are obliged to respond to it.
You can’t just approach other humans as tools to help you get your life together. It’s just not their responsibility. Is is, in fact, your own responsibility to take care of yourself, since you are your best ally and the one person in this world who is most looking out for you.
Others are there for you too, but you have to deserve their help. You have to gain their trust. You have to earn it.
You also have to give back. Communication is a two way street, just like any relationship. If Person A is always moving towards person B, but Person B doesn’t move towards Person A, the balance is off. Person B might not value Person A, or might just be busy, or might not see it as a partnership of equals.
It’s when we misdiagnose the type and quality of our relationships that we fall into the trap of Entitlement.
Here’s an example: a work colleague forwarded me the resume of a potential candidate, so I took a look, added them on LinkedIn and reached out to say hello. We exchanged a few messages and then he went silent.
A couple months later, I got an apologetic email and a link to his Google calendar for me to find a time.
I didn’t know exactly how to respond. I was pretty busy and when I offered to have a chat, I was ignored. I didn’t feel like I was getting the same respect back. If you are looking for a job and a hiring manager wanted to talk to you, wouldn’t you do everything you could do to talk to them? Don’t make the busy one do all the work just to fit into your schedule. It’s the other way around.
Here are some ideas on how to approach this situation better:
- If it doesn’t work out to meet now, say so. Let the other person know what’s going on with you and suggest a timeframe in the future that works better.
- Don’t ghost people.
- Don’t assume bad intentions of the other person. Maybe their grandmother was sick. Maybe they got another job.
- But, if you do disappear and then email again months later, explain what happened. Apologize. You’ll be surprised how far a little honesty and humility will take you.
- When you are reestablishing a connection, do so without any expectation of the other person. People are not Tools. Just because you ask for something doesn’t mean they are obliged to give you what you want.
As I reflect on this experience, what bothers me most is the lack of consideration. If we treat people as fellow humans, with compassion and consideration for their needs, I think we’d approach communication differently.
Trap #2: Aggressiveness
Perhaps everyone has had the experience now of someone adding you on LinkedIn only to immediately start pitching their service. Maybe you politely say you’re not interested but then they keep going. And keep pushing. The underlying expectation is that if you push hard enough on enough people, you’ll close some sales.
This happened with a financial advisor. I accepted the connection and he asked if I was looking for a financial advisor. No, I wasn’t, since I already had one that I was working with.
But then he kept pushing his services… Are you happy with that person? Can I buy you coffee and tell you more about my services? No, thank you, I’m not interested right now…. OK, but can I follow up with you in a month??? It honestly kept going on like this. He just wouldn’t accept a polite, “No, thank you.”
If someone isn’t interested in your services, just let them be. You can’t force another person to be interested in something they just aren’t interested in. If he had responded instead with something more like, “Ok, I’m glad that you’re already working with someone.
I feel like it’s really important to plan for our financial futures. If you’re ever interested in the future, I’d be happy to talk to you some more about how I help my clients,” Wow. That would have been a great reply! And I think it makes the financial planner look better for recognizing where his potential client was at while still making himself open.
Unfortunately, by pushing so hard, he went from an, “I’m not interested in working with you now,” to an, “I’m not interested in working with you ever.”
Has social media simply become a means of solicitation? If you were at a friend’s birthday party, and someone came up to you and treated you like this, would it be ok? No, of course not.
Online communication isn’t just about pushing your product on others. It’s important to meet people where they are at and not blindly start pitching your financial advice or real estate business on any unsuspecting person who clicked the Accept button.
Make yourself open to the other person
When I get a request from someone on LinkedIn, I usually follow up with something along the lines of, “Thank you for connecting with me. How can I help?” This tactic has proved to work very well when it’s met with the same level of authenticity.
Most people just say they are expanding their network or something like that-which is fine. Every once in a while, I end up having a wonderful conversation with someone.
I met a young Designer this way. He was new to the Seattle area and had interned at another big company. I could tell he was extremely intelligent, passionate, and driven.
We had a call and I confirmed all of my initial impressions. I offered to help him out because I wanted to help him out. He was from another country and was still learning English. His resume was ok, but didn’t have the polish of a native speaker and he needed to tell his story a little bit differently.
So I helped him out. He came over one weekend and we went through his resume and letter of intent and I helped improve his writing.
He turned into a good friend and very soon afterwards, he got a job offer at Microsoft. I was thrilled for him because he was really good and he deserved it. I’m so proud to have watched him succeed over the subsequent years as well.
By being more open, I’ve made some good friends, hired some amazing people, and helped others get hired just because I took the communication one step beyond hitting the Accept button. When you make yourself open to others, they in turn open up to you.
And once you are both open to each other, you’d be surprised at what happens next!
Trap #3: Disingenuousness
I think this last trap is the worst. Instead of being clueless or pushy, the worst that one can be is disingenuous. When you pretend to be one thing only to fool the other person into thinking that you care just long enough to bash them over the head with your sales pitch.
There was a friend of a friend who reached out to me and sent me a friend request. I accepted it and we chatted back and forth a bit. We talking about grabbing a drink some time but it never went anywhere. That happens. People get busy. I thought eventually I’d run into him, but it just didn’t happen. And that’s ok. Life is busy and it happens.
Three years later, I received a message out of nowhere pitching their real estate business and asking if I want to be in the database to receive newsletters. I had bought my home a couple years prior and we weren’t looking at selling anytime soon, nor buying again anytime soon.
So it really wasn’t something I was in need of at the time. It seemed odd and yes, I’m sure they were just trying to increase their reach and possibly get more sales… but I wanted to be their friend. I felt duped. Is that all I was? Just a potential lead?
Maintaining Genuine Connections
If you communicate with someone because you want to be friends, let that be genuine. If he had wanted to reconnect as friends first and then just mentioned his company later, I would have been more inclined to have him add me. I will do anything for my friends.
Even if I wasn’t interested in buying or selling a home, I would be added to the list just so that I could learn more about what my friend was doing and maybe learn something about the real estate market.
In order to be genuine, you have to really care about the other person. You have to care about where they are at. What their needs are. How they are doing. You have to listen first.
Being a good researcher requires being a good listener. Because only when you truly understand where the other person is at can you begin to tear down the walls that divide us.
I’ve hired several researchers over the years and have gone through all the official Microsoft training about how to evaluate people in an interview.
One of my best tactics for hiring a quality candidate is to maintain authentic connections with researchers that I think have potential, even when I don’t have a position available, and then hire them later on when the perfect position arose.
However, when I say, “Maintain connection,” I mean it in a sincere way because I care about the people I choose to keep in my life. Most of us spend more time with our work colleagues than we do with our significant others (except me, since I just opened a company with my husband!). It makes it extremely important to be careful about who you decide to let into your life.
When I hire someone onto my team, I do everything I possibly can to ensure they are happy and that they succeed. The order here is intentional.
My first goal is to ensure they are having a good work experience and they are happy with what they are doing. Next, I help them succeed. I want them to have impact on the product we are working on because that makes them look good. It isn’t about me.
The most important prerequisite for being a good manager is being a good human being. It’s about being genuine and not about being narcissistic.
By caring about others as humans first, you show them that you see who they are. That you understand them as people just like yourself. This is where our tagline for Authentique UX came from: “UX Research with humans at the center.” Because deep down, at the core of who I am, I believe that humans come first.
That quality of relationships come over sales. That genuine connections with people trump meaningless ones. And that openness to listening to others brings about deeper connections that matter.
That is how I treat my clients. That is how I treat the users that I do research with. That is how I treat my friends. And that is how I treat my family.
The Authenticity Manifesto
- I will treat people the way that I want to be treated
- I will see people as people
- I will find our common ground
- I will say what I mean, and mean what I say
- I will be this change that I want to see in others
- I will first seek to understand and not to be understood
- I will help out others who are also trying to help me
- I will treat everyone with humility and respect
- I will respond out of love and gentleness
- I will be Authentic