I can’t believe it’s my first big conference where I am a Keynote Speaker at the event. A stranger approaches me as I internally build my sense of worth (yes, you belong here, and yes, you have something to give these business owners). I take a quick sip of my drink because cold networking always creates nerving fatigue in me despite everyone’s praises on how good I am at schmoozing.
I am at a typical business happy hour welcome reception. The theme is “Summertime Pool Party” while everyone walks around in sports jackets and athleisure golf tees.
“Hi,” says the stranger.
“Why hello there,” I say with my best approachable smile.
I scan his face like the networking robot that I am. He is a prominent sponsor of the event. He is “someone to know,” and here we are, plastic cup in hand, about to connect over beef wellington bites.
“Which one is your husband?” He points to the crowd building by the roll-away bar.
“What?” The word immediately hurtles out of my mouth.
He repeats his question, but I am not listening. Instead, I try to rationalize his question within the desperate few seconds I have to respond. I think rapidly to myself, “But I’m wearing my badge, which clearly states my purpose here. I even have on my company shirt. I’m in the dang program he skimmed through. How the…” Then a moment of tolerated acceptance settles over me.
“No,” I said through a hopefully imperceivable sigh. “I am actually the keynote speaker for tomorrow’s programming.” I smile wide with practiced politeness.
“Oh,” he says as he straightens his back. “I am so sorry. I did not mean to imply…” he trails off. “I mean…” his words trip over his embarrassment.
“No,” I interrupt, trying to save the moment. “It’s completely fine.”
“Of course, you are more than a wife!” He says quickly with an apologetic smile.
“No, really,” I say with my hands up, chuckling. “Happens all the time.”
I crack a joke to disarm this moment between us. Maybe networking is still possible with this exec, though the moment is quickly evaporating.
I think back to this exchange often. The gentleman’s question really was fine in its nativity. I am sure he did not mean any ill will or try to insult me with his question. He probably more often than not got the answer he expected (which in itself is a statement, but I digress). Then I think: has this man ever approached another man at a sales conference and asked which one of the “real” attendees was his wife? I most certainly think not. Perhaps he was trying to feel out my relationship status? Possibly, but then why the immediate embarrassment and regret? He had obviously eyed my wedding ring before approaching me, but then again, that could mean anything at these events.
Why was I immediately categorized as a wife and not a colleague? He could have opened with anything as his pick-up line if that was his intent. There are so many things to make fun of at the generic ABC National Sales Conference. Instead, this matter-of-fact question instantly made me feel like a visitor in this space, an imposter in my own industry. Yes, I work in a male-dominated space, but I was thriving, wasn’t I?
It is incredible how one seemingly innocent assumption can affect how you act and feel within a space. I immediately shut down, threw up walls, and felt sad, angry, and exhausted all at the same time. I felt as if I needed to prove my reason for being at that conference. Does everyone else have to feel this way too?
I want to hear your reaction to this exchange. What do you think the gentleman meant by his question? Did I interpret it reasonably? Should I have reacted more positively and made it a teaching moment for the two of us? Should I have more outwardly expressed my disappointment and called out the literal b*llsh%t behind his statement? You tell me.
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