Why work personality is rarely your real personality

C1P4NozWQAEeyUgSeveral years ago, when I still believed that the student organisation I joined had more authority than which biscuits to serve during academic seminars we had a training session with a guest lecturer. He did a great job, with his quizzically raised brow and wild gesticulation and, somewhere between it all, I heard about four basic personality types:

a) the Good-natured Showman
b) the Aggressive Dominator
c) the Friendly Empathiser 
d) the Silent-and-Serious Watcher

After his speech we were supposed to determine which personality type was the most dominant in him and we all united under the flag of the Good-natured Showman.
“Wrong!” the man bellowed with delight in our stupefied faces, clasping his hands together. As it turned out, our lecturer likes nothing more in his free time, than to revert back to his truthful, silent and serious self.

As I hadn’t had any real work experience by that point, I clapped politely and left as soon as possible. I felt that switching between two personalities was too diabolic of an idea- clearly something that could never happen to me. That is, before I started working at The Museum.

I will call it The Museum to avoid the guaranteed impulse of eye-rolling, hand-wringing shudder of revulsion its real name causes me. When I wasn’t trying to burn my dishrag-esque uniform T-shirt or avoiding our abusive supervisor, my responsibilities included:

a) looking after the exhibits and telling off people who touched them;
b) giving guided tours in three languages.

Now, I’ve explained many times why it’s a very bad idea to make university students tell adults off for touching stuff (“who are you, anyway?” “get away from me, maggot.”), but I never had much problem with guiding. What I didn’t expect, though, was that it made me develop whole new personalities just to cope with bored people, people who asked silly questions, rude people, condescending people – OK, just people.

One tour lasts 1,5 hrs. At times, I had 3 tours a day, without stop. Sometimes we were required to manage groups as large as 50 people without a microphone. Soon friendly assertiveness and expressive gesticulation had become our second nature. I morphed into whatever my customers wanted. It came so far that I once, being dead tired, slithered up to a group with a murderous glare and, as soon as they turned to face me, my face slid into a cheerful beam. At least that’s what my terrified colleagues told me.
I now realise that was how I coped with my work and gathered my wits to do stuff. Maybe being a different person meant detachment from difficulties and upsetting situations.

The only thing I didn’t like were children’s tours. There’s just something about kids and their calm, wise eyes that just doesn’t let all that bs slide- they know immediately. Sometimes I looked at them and they looked back, all of us unhappy to be stuck in a museum on a sunny July day and mutual understanding sprang between us.

I guess what I want to say with all this is that now, when I enter an empty shop and I see an exhausted salesperson hibernating in the corner, I cringe when their faces take on that forced smile. I say ‘thank you’ and ‘have a nice day’ to cashiers and I never, ever blame the corporate pawns for mistakes made by the management. I feel a bit bad for having taken this personality shape-shifting for granted.

I quit The Museum shortly after I caught myself using the same chipper tone when talking to my annoyed parents and boyfriend.

Photo credit: http://www.newyorker.com

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