Beautiful young woman blowing a bubble gum balloon

LATELY it seems I’ve been in many professional settings where people are chewing gum. And it’s very distracting.

People chew gum for a variety of reasons. I like gum occasionally. But smacking gum in a meeting or chewing so much that you see the gum is a bit much.

But this got me thinking about other irritating behaviors. And I was reminded of the many years of sales call role plays I have videotaped.

Many of us have habits that we are unaware of. Taping the role plays helped open many students’ eyes to those behaviors.

One time, I was the buyer in a call. When the student salesperson spoke, he bounced his leg. While it was under the table and I couldn’t see it, I could hear it. When he stopped speaking and I began to talk, his leg was still. As soon as he began speaking again, his leg bounced. After the call was finished and I had turned off the camera, I asked him about his leg. He had an almost comical look on his face as he had no clue he was doing it. When we viewed the call in class, the camera clearly showed his bouncing leg and picked up the sound. Then he believed me!

On another call, a young man said the word “fantastic” over and over, in different ways. For example: “This is a fantastic product” and “That’s just fantastic!” When we debriefed after the call, I asked him if he realized he had said “fantastic” over and over and over. He was unaware. I suggested that he count the number of times he used the word when we viewed the call in class. In less than 12 minutes, he said “fantastic” 17 times. There were two groups of students—one group noticed the overuse and another group did not. How could the latter group not have been bothered by it?

When we teach students how to do effective presentations, we counsel them on what to do and what not to do. One thing to think about, from a positive standpoint, is to make eye contact with the audience. Knowing your presentation well enough to not have to refer to the PowerPoint slides or notecards is impressive. Dressing professionally removes distractions.

There are many behaviors we caution students about, too. We encourage young men to keep their hands out of their pants pockets as many, while nervous, jiggle their change. We talk about not leaning on a podium. When people hold pens that click on and off, many times we hear the clicks as nervousness sets in. Those who follow me know one of my biggest peeves is people reading powerpoint slides in presentations. We certainly encourage them not to read verbatim, but that happens anyway.

How can you know if you exhibit any behaviors that speak negatively of your professionalism? Obviously you can control some of them. Take the gum out of your mouth when making presentations or going to meetings. Remove change from your pockets, guys, and you won’t be able to jiggle it.

But what about the words you use and habits like the bouncing leg? You have to ask people who love you—or at least who you respect a lot—to make you aware of when you are less than professional. Your loved ones and close work colleagues want you to be successful and should be able to tell you things you need to hear without creating animosity.

Or you can tape yourself. The tape does not lie!

We are responsible for our actions, even our irritating ones. Awareness is the first step. After that, it’s up to the individual to make changes.

Lynne Richardson is the dean of the College of Business at the University of Mary Washington.

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