“My employees can tell you. I’ve gone from being a big dick…” he gestured with his hands. “…to a little dick.” He spread his thumb and forefinger just a couple inches apart.
The crowd chuckled as he paced back and forth, like a human metronome, black hair forced into place with half a tub of gel. I admired his honesty even if his speech’s anatomical associations probably weren’t serving him well.
He described how he’d worked on resolving his anger issues — he used to swear all the time, but had quit cold turkey.
I was sitting amongst roughly one hundred people in a hotel’s second floor ballroom, just off Larimer Street in downtown Denver. The man on stage, Carl, had helped organize this yearly event for entrepreneurs. We heard speakers talk about cryptocurrencies, negotiation tactics, ancient Roman battle history, and, from Carl, how he managed his anger.
This evening, I had dinner with him and six other people and he sat to my right.
The server, dressed in black except for some colorful beaded wristbands, greeted us. He put bread on the table and hurried away.
Then, like a gentle fart transforming into something much worse, Carl exploded.
“Why are you wearing wrist beads — this is the F***ING FOUR SEASONS! And why don’t you just THROW the bread onto the table?”
Carl growled as he panted, his sweaty head looking like a sliced-open red bell pepper. He swiveled his gaze back and forth.
I looked at him and said, “So, how’s that not swearing going for you?”
He just stared at me – more red bell pepper panting.
Watch people when they’re off their stage.
You may not be in an industry where they literally pace back and forth on a stage spouting platitudes to make a living. But everyone has a metaphorical stage where they don a mask. Observe them when they peel their mask off, which might involve shrieking about beads and bread-tossing, as they expose their true face.
If you’re on a dinner date with someone, they know they’re on a stage and might have firmly secured their mask. But you can get glimpses through it. The way they talk to the server is the “off the stage” and so is the way they talk about their exes.
If you’re interviewing someone for a job, they’re on a stage. How they treated their former employers is off the stage. If you can discover this, great. Otherwise, consider working on a small project with a potential employee to give their mask a chance to slip. I did this with a couple potential business partners. Both talked a good game – they had a great “stage presence.” But when we began our projects, one of them revealed himself as a lousy communicator. It got bad enough that I cancelled the project. That was painful. Taking him on as a partner and then having to buy him out, would have been worse.
If you’re on a Zoom call, the talking and public chat is on stage. Private chats are off the stage. Sometimes people accidentally leave their cameras or microphones on and reveal their off-stage selves. A friend of mine once said that he could see when people were watching YouTube videos because he could see the reflections in their glasses.
When you meet someone and are considering working or sleeping together, observe this person both on and off their stage. Take note of how they act when they know they’re being seen. Watch how they change when they think their behavior is no longer making an impression.
How does their persona shift? How substantial is their mask?
Sometimes a person’s stage is related to how their life is going. When someone hits a string of good luck and feels energized, you get to see them at their best. Watch for when they’re hungry, hungover, tired or scared.
None of this is easy. We are wired to judge people based on our first impression – which is almost always the on-stage impression. Remind yourself that you need to get the second impression from off-stage.
In mid-December 2019, I moved into my fiancé’s condo, bringing only a duffel bag and a backpack’s worth of stuff – everything else was in a U-Haul storage unit. We planned to move into our house when the remodeling was finished, which our contractor had said would be around Thanksgiving. When I mentioned that to my friends, they laughed.
When the contractor said it’d be December, I figured we should plan for January. My friends kept laughing.
No, seriously, February, the contractor said.
I decided I’d be happy if we ever moved in. In the meantime, we were crammed into a one-bedroom condo with no wall or door between the bedroom and the bathroom sink, stall shower or tub. We had one desk and both worked from home. We couldn’t open the windows because a chain-smoker lived downstairs. Throughout the day, he emitted a symphony of hacks and coughs that sounded like a pickup truck engine turning over, but not starting. We were also surrounded by chronic door-slammers who blasted music at 1AM until we jumped up and down on the floor to get their attention.
The last six weeks of the year, I had an on-again, off-again throat sickness that baffled me, which may or may not have been some early mutation of Covid.
I was also going through one of the deepest emotional purges of my life, as our Daoist meditations worked like backhoes, tearing into gunk caked six feet deep around the surface of my soul.
When pandemic fears exploded and Amazon stopped grocery delivery where we lived, we took a trip to Natural Grocers and picked through empty shelves. My fiancé has lived in the Middle East with bombs going off around her and bullets whizzing over her head. The empty shelves triggered her PTSD because, where she used to live, they signaled a military invasion.
A couple days before April, we moved into our new home.
I don’t list these challenges to whine. We’re lucky, blessed, and grateful. I write this to show that before we got married and moved into the house we wanted, we got to live with each other “off stage” and to see each other when we were cramped together, scared, and tired. We weren’t living through a life-or-death disaster and overall we were fortunate and comfortable. But we saw each other during challenges that could bring out bad behavior – that can trigger someone to peel off their mask, if they’re wearing one. It was still the happiest time of our lives. Our only masks were the ones we wore when going shopping.