'Don't look so miserable, cheer up!', he said.
I was stood in the doorway, between the hall and the living room. Minding my own business. Curious who my mum was talking to.
It was a tradesman. Someone who sharpened scissors and knives, I think. It was the seventies, these people still came round the house back then. Well, they did where I lived.
'Don't look so miserable!', he said as he looked - around my mum - at me.
I remember it vividly. There I was, minding my own business. Nine years old. With a face that was obviously somehow offending this person-I-didn't-know.
I was embarrassed. I was bemused. But mainly I was FUMING!
You see, what I learned from that was that it was not OK to just stand there, minding my own business.
That - in fact - my face (which up until that moment had only just been my face) had to have a perpetual smile on it.
That it was OK for some random guy to have an opinion on what my face should look like.
That, somehow, he felt completely entitled to express that opinion to a complete stranger's daughter, and to totally ignore my mum.
That my mum didn't slam the door in his face after a last-minute grab of the family's scissors and knives.
That she didn't tell him to go away, mind his own business and never to expect any more business from our household, leaving him trembling on our doorstep.
That she didn't appear embarrassed and most likely didn't even find this odd, let alone infuriating.
That instead she handed him over her cash and the scissors and got on with business as usual!
Oh, culture, the patriarchy, the upholders of that culture and the messages that they perpetuate and continue to spread.
I can talk about them for hours! (I won't, don't worry).
Looking back I'd like to think that is the moment of my awakening.
The moment I realised that I was 'supposed' to be different. That there were cultural norms to adhere to.
That there was an expectation that I would never have a miserable face.
That, instead, it was my duty to always smile.
To be pleasant (even if I was minding my own business).
To have a 'nice' face.
To never swear (which I did - once - when I was seven, at my - very protestant - primary school, after which I had to wash out my mouth with soap and water, Which I thought was harsh).
Work hard. Be selfless. Don't be loud. Be sensible. Get married. Have babies. Be safe. Behave. Don't be rude. Don't swear. Be lady-like. Be pretty. Be thin. Be successful. Have a sensible job. Don't laugh out loud.
Smile, smile, smile. Even if the world collapses around you. Even if you're fuming inside. Even when you're. Just. Minding. Your. Own. Business.
What I'm saying with this is this.
There are systems and cultures all around us.
And the messaging about what's correct and what isn't are being broadcasted by everyone.
By your parents and family, your friends, your partner, your community, the media, the government, the institutions, schools and work.
By a random guy at your front door.
And yes, even by you.
Some messages you don't even recognise as messages.
It's like this story about goldfish in the water. Where an older goldfish says to two younger ones 'lovely water today, isn't it?', and the two goldfish say 'what is water?'
Some of the messages you only recognise by the knot that forms in your stomach.
The searing pain of holding in your anger. The frustration and the rage. The anger directed outward or inward.
If you recognise them at all.
There are systems all around us. Broadcast to us with explicit and implicit messaging.
I don't mind systems in itself. Systems and processes make our lives easier.
As long as we're aware of their existence and know where they came from.
As long as we're able to query them and change them.
As long as we realise that we don't always have to adhere to systems.
Especially if these systems are just opinions. Especially if they are not serving us. Especially if they clash with our own values.
So, my question to you is:
What systems are YOU noticing? And how do they align with YOUR values?
And - perhaps even more poignantly - how do they (and have they) influenced YOUR direction?
What messages have influenced you and your (career) direction?
Tineke Tammes is an ICF credentialed Career Coach, who supports professional women in making successful transitions to careers of Freedom, Flexibility and Fulfilment! Besides that she is also a lifelong feminist, part-time portrait artist, never-only-read-one-book-at-any-time reader, and obsessive doodler.
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