Editor Note: Today's guest post was written by Akemi Gaines of Yes To Me. Thank you Akemi!
Is uniqueness an asset or liability? Can you accept others when they behave differently from what you consider to be the norm? Do you love your own uniqueness?
We all have an internalized standard of how we should do certain things. We learned it when we were growing up, and it keeps the society run smoothly. However, it also causes stress in us because ultimately, we, each one of us, are unique and different from the abstracted idea of the norm.
The areas we feel different from others and the degree we feel we are different are unique to each of us. Maybe some of you can ignore the differences and declare yourself to be a typical American, a good Christian, average man or woman, and so on. And for some of us, we just have to admit we are different . . .
If you are feeling isolated, or suppressing the "real you," here is a story how I reconciled the issue.
Some people say "That’s different." meaning they don’t like it.
Well, I’m different. I am originally from Japan, and no matter how hard I try, I can’t get rid of my accent.
I came to the US in May of 1995 to complete my college degree and to rebuild my life. My English at the time was good enough to pass the test to waive ESL (English as Second Language) courses, so I started taking regular classes immediately. For that summer semester, I took History and Visual Art. The History textbook was about 2 inches thick. My vocabulary wasn’t big enough yet, so I had to check the English - Japanese dictionary often. I spent most evenings reading that book in the dorm room that summer. But that wasn’t the biggest challenge. . .
My biggest challenge was speaking up. Some American kids sneered at me when I spoke. I was embarrassed, and this made my speaking even clumsier. Same thing happened when I went out for shopping. I would ask for coffee and get coke instead. I felt uncomfortable, and even afraid, of going out by myself.
Some people seem to assume that, if someone can’t speak fluently, he or she is dumb. Until I got my English to certain level of fluency, I was often talked to as if I were a five-year-old. Some others assume yelling helps. And yet others plainly make it clear that immigrants, like me, don’t belong here and they are not happy to serve such customers.
I started studying English at age 13, which is too late to learn proper pronunciation of a new language. By age 10, linguists say, our ears become 'stiff? and cannot learn new pronunciations. Yet I practiced. I practiced even harder when I came to America. I had to.
In my college classes, I realized what I had to say mattered far more than how I could say it. This restored a great deal of my confidence because I did have a lot of great ideas. Gradually, other students started to listen to me. Two years later, I graduated with honors.
The real challenge is within me.
I started working for a bank, utilizing my bilingual skills. I was living in Columbus, Ohio, and the city was growing. As more internationals joined the community, more Americans learned how to speak with internationals. As long as I was in the metro area, I always got coffee when I asked for coffee. There were so many other internationals with heavier accent than mine that I hardly drew attention. Life was getting more comfortable. . .
Comfortable, yes. But did I really reconcile the issue within myself? It is one thing to exercise discipline and improve my English. My English, however, is never going to be exactly the same as that of native speakers. Is this a liability I have to live with? Do I have to feel secretly alienated about this liability for the rest of my life? Or can I accept and even love it as my unique asset?
This internal challenge took far longer than getting good grades at college because on the daily life level, I had no problem communicating with my friends. I hardly noticed there was an issue left within me. Until I left my corporate job to build my own business as a life coach?
Coaching sessions are done over the phone. It is all about listening and building a constructive dialogue. When I attended the orientation of the coach training course, I gathered I had all the qualities to be a good coach. My only concern was: How do I sound on the phone? Will people - American people - trust me enough to hire me as a coach? This was a critical question I had to ask before I invested several thousand dollars in this professional development. So I aired the question during the Q& A session. The response took me by surprise?
"You sound professional . . . yet cute." said one of the fellow attendants. "I have no problem understanding you," said another. "Akemi, I’ve only known you for two hours now, and it’s obvious you are ahead of many of us. You have something valuable to say, and people who understand the value will listen to you." This comment made me think. She may be right... if someone judges me by my accent, maybe that person is not my ideal client.
The mentor coach who was leading the orientation spoke up. ?You have a very memorable voice. Once people hear you, they will definitely remember you, and your accent is part of your signature voice. You might want to get a radio gig for your marketing.? What? You mean my uniqueness is an asset I can utilize to set myself apart from others? This last comment shocked me. I had to think.
Can my difference be an asset?
I have overcome the challenges as an ESL. My English is very good now. Further, I have accepted my difference. I am an immigrant who came to America to have a new life, and I am proud of myself. But can I see my difference as an asset and really love it?
It is an interesting approach. I can sense this is the wise approach, but after spending so many years trying to speak like a native speaker, presenting myself as I am is a daunting task. Part of me is still afraid of ridicule. Part of me is confused to get used to the new way of seeing myself. And I am taking steps to reinforce this new approach?
I started attending Toastmasters meetings and made a few table topic speeches. I make it a point to speak to new people every day. Before I do this, I talk to myself, ?It’s okay. I will be there, listen what other people have to say, and when I have something to say, I will say it, in my unique lovely way. I am Akemi.? I also started to write more about my real life challenges and share the lessons I learned the hard way in my blog.
Is my accent my unique asset? Can this be my sales point? I’m not sure yet. But I feel better about my difference now. I feel more at ease presenting myself as I am, speaking in my way.
We all have some unique qualities.
Looking back, I notice it wasn’t just my accent that I felt bad about. I felt shy about my quarks and distinctive experiences that made me, me. I tried to hide them in my attempt to be more ?agreeable? to others, to be more like the typical person everyone seemed to like. By doing so, I have alienated large part of me. I was afraid people wouldn’t like me if they found out the real me with plenty of special features. . .
Here is my suggestion for those of you who are feeling the same way:
Dare to stare at your differences. Maybe it is about your appearance. Or the way you do things. Or the creative ideas you stuff in yourself. Your quirky talents. Bring them out for yourself to see.
Examine. Is the difference really negative, or is it just your perceived idea of ?Being different is no good?? It may be helpful to ask for your friends’ opinions. Their response may surprise you.
Think possibilities. The possibility that what you perceive to be your differences may be the very things that make you, you, the special you.
Capitalize. This is an additional advanced step. Think if there are ways you can utilize your differences to your advantage, and try it out.
We are not manufactured goods. In manufacturing, products must have the same quality, must be within tolerance. But we are humans. There is a reason why there are so many of us on Earth, and yet each one of us are unique. It may be the very reason why you are here.
You know, what I find really interesting is the fact that our perceived differences can often be both "negative" and "positive," depending on how we choose to look at them. I have always been a bit shy and reserved, which I used to think of as being a detrimental quality, especially in the networking-happy professional world. Then I stepped back and started to assess my "shyness." I realized that it wasn't really shyness at all. I was able to see that I am sensitive to others, try to make people feel comfortable, am a great listener, and a keen observer, to boot. When I started to see this quality as something that had the power to deeply connect me to others rather than alienate me, it completely changed my perception of myself.
Yeah, it's kind of an amazing thing when you stop looking at your shortcomings as shortcomings and start thinking of how they have actually contributed to a higher quality of life for you. A lot of facets of myself that I've seen as challenges to be overcome are now things I see as making me inimitable and perfect just the way I am (that includes crooked teeth, by the way--there is beauty in the distinctive).