How can I project confidence when I look so young?
June 27, 2010 8:52 AM   Subscribe

I look young. What are some techniques to ensure that I am taken seriously in professional situations?

Here's my situation: I'm in my late twenties. Female. Next year, I will be a postdoctoral researcher in Israel. I will be interacting with academics, but also teachers and administrators in pre-college settings.

The problem is that I'm frequently told that I look like I'm about 18. I want to be taken seriously in professional situations, treated respectfully, and as someone with some level of expertise with something to offer.

Question: What are some tips/techniques for looking older and for projecting confidence and expertise?

Other notes: I realize that dressing professionally can make one look older, however people in Israel tend to dress informally and casually.
posted by franc.o.bolos to Work & Money (32 answers total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
Model your personal presentation and dressing style after women who are older than you who hold positions of respect. Do not make the mistake of seeing informal/casual dress on men who are respected as the standard to meet. It sucks, but it works.
posted by kch at 8:58 AM on June 27, 2010 [1 favorite]

yeah, you can dress casually without dressing young. Shop at stores that women your age shop at for work--here in the U.S., that means places like Eddie Bauer, Ann Taylor Loft, Banana Republic, J Crew. Talk to the sales person and tell them that you're putting together a casual professional wardrobe and see what they pick out.

Assuming you go the khakis/jeans route/simple, not-too-short-skirt route, stick to knit and woven tops (not frumpy t-shirts, if you tend to err in that direction, but also not strappy or too tight). Try to avoid anything sparkly or glittery or overly ruffled. Knit tops are totally fine as long as they fit well and have nicer details (i.e. not a Hanes t-shirt).

Otherwise, be yourself. You got the job on your merits, and don't forget that. Good luck!
posted by thinkingwoman at 9:07 AM on June 27, 2010

Perfect (and initiate) a professional handshake: firm (not bonecrushing) and matter-of-fact. Look people in the eye when you meet them and hold for an extra beat. Examine your speech habits for elements that might be construed as youthful or insecure, e.g., ending sentences with a rise in pitch, sprinkling them with "you know" and "whatever," etc. Make sure you have a good haircut, a nice pen/folio, flattering eyeglasses, and quality bag/shoes. Arrive on time to meetings or a few minutes before the scheduled start time... neither too late nor too early.
posted by carmicha at 9:17 AM on June 27, 2010

Oh and stand/sit up straight: good posture = confidence and competence.
posted by carmicha at 9:22 AM on June 27, 2010

Some things that might help:

- Dress very slightly more smartly than everyone else.
- Dress towards the masculine side of things, avoid skirts.
- Have a short haircut.
- If you are not very tall, wear shoes that make you taller.
- Go to a course on projecting your voice.
- Work on your posture. Make sure you stand up straight with your shoulders back.
- Use less of phrases like "I think that..." or "Maybe I'm wrong, but..."
- Introduce yourself and provide a little background, if there's any doubt that people present may mistake you for the work experience kid or similar. "Hi, I'm X, and I spent five years studying so I'm really interested in ".
- Don't let people get away with interrupting you. Call them out on it and get back to what you are saying.

If there are people who persist in acting like you are three years old, I've had good results with a single rapid over-complex explanation of something I know more about than they do. It's a bit obnoxious, but not as obnoxious as hitting them over the head with a brick.

posted by emilyw at 9:22 AM on June 27, 2010 [2 favorites]

Wear glasses and mascara.
posted by thirteenkiller at 9:37 AM on June 27, 2010 [1 favorite]

On the cultural front, there are few better places in the world to try out a more assertive personality than Israel. You will likely find men and women alike are brusque and speak their minds, and if you overshoot and are too forward, no harm done. Women aren't automatically labeled bitches for being assertive in Israel like they often are in the business world in the US.

I'd really recommend contacting an Israeli immersion program (Ulpan or the like), even if you already speak Hebrew fluently, to match you up to a mentor who is a woman in academia or business. She can give you pointers on your tone and posture, how to dress, and even grooming issues like where to get your hair cut.

As for dressing "older" but not out of place in Israel, focus on hair/makeup and accessories. Glasses could help and project an older look, and the person above who suggested short hair is right on; it's confirmation bias but I feel like I've met more Israeli professional women with short hair than long hair.

The next time someone tells you that you look "about 18," tell them, "That's very kind of you to say, but I'm actually 29, and a postdoctoral researcher in the field of XYZ." Don't act apologetic about correcting them or self-conscious about looking young. Simply correct them and move on. (Also: revealing your age isn't the taboo in Israel like it is in America. Just say it.)
posted by juniperesque at 9:38 AM on June 27, 2010 [3 favorites]

You could look into Toastmasters. Not only will you learn how to practice public speaking, but also interact professionally with most people. It's an excellent resource for anyone from shy teenager to a Forbes 500 CEO.
posted by WhiteWhale at 9:39 AM on June 27, 2010

Yeah, this is a problem that I've had as well. Agree with all of the advice here, too, but especially want to emphasize dress and mannerisms.

I choose not to wear many skirts because I don't want to project a particular image of femininity in a way that separates me from men. Buy yourself well-cut pants (and maybe a jacket) in black, brown, navy, and gray. Wear shirts with appropriate necklines. If you wear makeup, keep it simple, conservative, and professional.

Handshakes are important - good handshakes are strong and solid. Voice (imho) is much more important. Practice projecting so that if you are interrupted, you can talk over (and call out) whomever interrupted you. Don't be afraid to make yourself heard.
posted by honeybee413 at 9:40 AM on June 27, 2010

You're going into a postdoc, which means you have a doctorate. In an academic environment, so does practically everyone else (except the students, but who pays attention to them); not only that, but there will be people with doctorates and tenure and publications and decades of experience. In most circumstances you will be the most junior person there who isn't a student or support staff (but they don't matter either). So you'll be the junior academic there -- but you'll still be an academic. Which means that there well may be some sociopathic associate professor who shits all over you when you're in a departmental meeting, but you'll still be accorded some measure of respect. Your appearance won't change that.

Honestly, I doubt that your appearance will make that much of an impact; you'll still be a young postdoc no matter your appearance, and I'm not sure any steps you could take to compensate for it wouldn't backfire -- wouldn't be seen as trying too hard. Particularly if, in your field (and especially in Israel), snazzy dressing and firm handshakes -- the typical alpha-corporate horseshit -- would come across as a bit ... off.

It depends on whether this is an anticipated problem that may fail to materialize, or an ongoing, existing problem that you expect to continue or worsen when your postdoc starts.
posted by mcwetboy at 9:58 AM on June 27, 2010

The advice above is excellent. I just want to add: treat everyone at your office with the same amount of courtesy and respect, and if you have coworkers you don't like, don't complain about them as soon as they're out of earshot. Cliquishness, pettiness, and gossip will make you look immature and unprofessional no matter how much you contribute or immaculately you dress.
posted by Metroid Baby at 10:07 AM on June 27, 2010 [2 favorites]

About avoiding skirts: depending on your body type, it might be considerably easier for you to look put-together in a skirt rather than pants, so don't dismiss skirts outright. If you're going to wear skirts, just tone down the femininity of the rest of your look.

If you look really young for your age, the larger issue here is making sure that you look like a put-together adult woman rather than a little girl playing dress-up. A big part of that is making sure that your clothes fit you well, and if you're petite/have a boyish figure, properly filling out dress pants can be an issue sometimes. If that's something you're running into, just go with skirts.
posted by thisjax at 10:12 AM on June 27, 2010

A short, stylish haircut made a huge difference for me.
posted by something something at 10:16 AM on June 27, 2010

You ARE young.
posted by DieHipsterDie at 10:35 AM on June 27, 2010 [1 favorite]

Great advice so far... thanks!

Let me specify that I'm less concerned with being respected by academics, and more concerned with interactions with teachers/principals. They are almost certainly going to be significantly older than me, and may look at me as unqualified to be making suggestions or working with them, because (for example) they have 12 years of teaching experience, and I'm only 28...

But I like many of your ideas, and think that some of them can help me with my interactions with all people.

Thanks again. Keep 'em coming!
posted by franc.o.bolos at 10:52 AM on June 27, 2010

You ARE young.

Not helpful. The OP is trying to make it clearer at first glance where she is on the academic pecking order. If she looks 18, colleagues who don't know her yet will think she's just a research assistant, when she already has a PhD and is doing a postdoc. That's a big difference and her actual age is not really what's at issue here; it's getting credit that she's due for having completed most of the training for her career. Postdocs are independent researches, while research assistants generally never design experiments, are not published, and have only the most basic grasp of statistics. It does matter then that she is not mistaken for the latter.

For me, it's all tone of voice. I can't tell you when or how I developed it, but somehow toward the end of college, I had figured out how to speak so that people listen when it's my turn to talk. Ask a friend if your voice conveys confidence and authority, and if not, think of someone you know who does speak like that, and work on emulating them.
posted by slow graffiti at 10:54 AM on June 27, 2010

Stop worrying about whether you're being taken seriously and perform.
posted by cmoj at 11:16 AM on June 27, 2010 [1 favorite]

Sorry, hit post too soon.

If someone is going to discount you for any reason before they know what you've got aren't going to change their minds because of you posture or glasses or gray cardigan. All you can do is what you do and do it well.
posted by cmoj at 11:18 AM on June 27, 2010

I had a consulting type job where people would hire me, I'd show up at the workplace, and more often than not they'd look disappointed and say, "You're younger than I thought." I wasn't; I just looked it.

I dealt with it by ignoring the comments and ignoring the age, and just doing what I was there to do. Even if I were younger than they expected, it doesn't matter. I was there on the spot, I had the skills they wanted, and I just moved right on and got started with the job. After about 10 minutes they would completely forget about my age, and were focused on my work instead.

FWIW, height doesn't help. I'm 5'10". It's possible dressing-to-impress might have changed their first impression of me, but in my work environment anything besides a polo shirt, jeans, and work boots would be ruined immediately. Same goes for makeup; if I'd worn it, it would have sweated off and left a horrible mess within a few minutes. Perhaps these might have changed the first impression--but a competent skillset with an air of "let's do this, shall we?" made it so the first impression didn't matter anyway.
posted by galadriel at 11:34 AM on June 27, 2010

Very similar boat here. I'm often told by colleagues and clients that I look like I could be in high school, but I hold a graduate degree and a few solid years of experience in my field. It's helped a little to dress more "professionally". I also try to speak with a little more "oomph" and authoritativeness, and also sort of trained myself not to speak in a "little girl voice" and to use more diaphragmatic breathing to deepen my voice a tiny bit.

But what REALLY helps is feeling confident and representing myself to others with that confidence. I do my best to show a potential client that I know I do great work, and then I follow that up by doing great work.
posted by so_gracefully at 11:52 AM on June 27, 2010

Always, always look people in the eye. When they are talking to you...look them in the eye. When you are talking to them...look them in the eye. Always.
posted by nickjadlowe at 11:57 AM on June 27, 2010 [3 favorites]

I'm a male, and my environment was computer programmers -- so I took on the aspect of basically a unix guru nerd - long hair, full beard. I identified "unix gurus" early on as a type I in some ways aspired to, and it did get me taken more seriously. I knew about those folks because I attended professional events and that's what I saw.

So in your professional situation, what would be the equivalent "guru?" I would keep that in mind when assembling how you dress and look.

Demeanor is something else: you're going for wise, serious, professional, almost stern, taciturn. Keep in mind the gravity when you're consulting. What you have to say you feel needs to be taken seriously. So as you speak to people, keep in mind seriousness. Think about how people considered "wise" speak less and listen more. They have a certain tone. Consider people you have met, or read about, or seen in tv and movies, and how they communicate in official circumstances. A recent example in film would be the younger woman in "Up in the Air" - now, the plot ends up deflating here completely, but the impression she gives in the first part of the movie is competence and seriousness. In any situation you have a goal for the interaction, your job is to identify what impression you need to give to make that interaction successful. It will vary based on the goal and the audience.
posted by artlung at 12:10 PM on June 27, 2010 [1 favorite]

The fashion advice is good, but probably about 35% of the game, and as you indicated in your question, only goes so far when the environment is casual.

I adopted a mantra about the time I hit 35. Wish I had adopted it sooner:

"I'm x, and I don't have to take that any more."

(let x = your current age).

The late 20s is none too soon to start.

For me, anyway, I find it kind of liberating. Rather silly, actually, as your qualifications and the earned trust of whoever hired you and entitled you to whatever position you hold are what really matter, but as a (much) younger sibling I went through the early part of my life with really nice-seeming people (like my family) just kinda pushing me around. The older I've gotten, the more I've realized there are just some jerks around, along with a lot of people who are so self-centered that it's just impossible to change their viewpoint. Take yourself seriously, and they'll have to come along. You don't have to really act different with them; in fact it's counterproductive. Fortunately, they're rarely that smart, so just do what you gotta do (with the rare, occasional "Excuse me, but you're in my light" only when absolutely needed) and let it all happen to them.
posted by randomkeystrike at 1:12 PM on June 27, 2010 [1 favorite]

I've not spent time in the academic world yr entering, but I end up having to quickly size people very frequently. People I'm interacting with usually range from 20-40 yo.
These aren't "red flags", but they are things that will make me pay attention
- Childish postures, putting feet up, folding knees under, etc.
- Where they put their belongings when they enter a room or meeting
- If they have playful/decorated items like wallets, binders, phones
- If I catch a look at their organizer and it's crazy, w/notes in the margins, too much stuff crammed into one page
- Cell phones

You can think of the game as needing to "project confidence and expertise", or you could think of it as NOT living up to their prejudices, and not giving them reason to reinforce those presumptions.
posted by Jack Karaoke at 1:13 PM on June 27, 2010

What you are looking for is what we in the po-po biz call "command presence." One thing you could do is contact your local police department and request a ride-along or two with some female officers and watch how they act out in the field. At the very least it's an interesting experience, and you will probably pick up some tips on how to project authority.
posted by Menthol at 1:54 PM on June 27, 2010

Go to the gym and staring a lifting regimen. If you eat enough, over the course of the next 6-8 weeks you will start seeing results, if not sooner. You will look stronger, healthier, and more mature.
posted by Risiko at 1:59 PM on June 27, 2010

A couple of suggestions on dress and comportment: Don't plan to be too chummy with anyone. Really limit your social interactions to work (at least for a period of time until you've proven yourself) and stay away from taking personal calls at work, etc. So, don't go to lunch with your coworkers. Be friendly, polite, yet distant.

Also what has helped for me is to dress conservatively - always in pants, and an appropriate neckline (does not have to be up to your neck, but make it classy and conservative yet attractive, NOT frumpy or dorky). Glasses really do make an impact I've noticed. Accessorize with a scarf, and some conservative jewelry. Ralph Lauren makes some good jewelry thats understated, classy and adds some femininity to your outfit. I notice the men in my office take the women who wear skirts and show cleavage (i.e. trying to emphasize how attractive they are) a lot less seriously.
posted by dmbfan93 at 5:14 PM on June 27, 2010 [1 favorite]

Mid-20s female here. I also used to have problems in a professional setting with people thinking I was/treating me as if I were younger than I am. (It wasn't usually co-workers who did this, but rather clients, which I think is similar to your situation). This is what has worked for me.

I actually realized this when I was watching, of all things, Justice Alito's confirmation hearings a few years ago. Alito was being asked some pretty difficult, complicated questions by a senator. Each question took a long time even to ask. While the senator was speaking, Alito sat there, completely still, with a completely neutral, serious expression, and looked at the senator without moving. I realized that I, on the other hand, would have been nodding my head as the senator was in the process of asking his question.

I started imitating this demeanor. The demeanor of being very, very serious, dignified, and, while still being 100% courteous, not doing anything to make the other person feel more comfortable with me. I think this last thing is a big part of the problem. People feel too comfortable with you.

I used to have a very upbeat and pleasant personality when interacting with people in professional settings; partly because I genuinely felt that way, partly to convey goodwill and sincerity. Now I just keep the upbeat-ness completely on the inside, and convey sincerity with seriousness. I don't smile by default; I look very serious by default. I think it's better to err on the side of behaving too seriously than not seriously enough.

Part of this is- if people offended me or didn't behave appropriately, I glossed it over by being nice. Now I let a little bit of it show in my face and in my voice for a moment. It was astonishing to me how quickly the way people treated me changed in the instant after I started doing this.
posted by Ashley801 at 6:22 PM on June 27, 2010 [9 favorites]

I don't smile by default; I look very serious by default.

This is exactly what I came in here to say. Don't smile.

Now of course there's a caveat to that - what I mean is, don't smile as much as young women are socialized to smile. Watch your behavior over the next few days, and see how often you give a smile in response when someone's talking to you, a little laugh at their joke, smile when they're done talking, smile when you begin your reply, a little laugh to soften some point in your reply, etc. All of these are undercutting you. (We get socialized that way for certain situations, where indirection and getting along with the group are the most important things, because the constant smiling helps with that. But it's the wrong approach for businessy/authoritative exchanges.) If you notice that you do this, start working on keeping it under control.

Don't make undercutting or softening remarks either (eg, "Well, I'm not certain of course but I think" etc). I was amazed and how often I did this, as a gesture of friendly humility, but the last thing you need is friendly humility.

The point about introducing yourself with "Hi, I'm Dr Fullname, I'm the new researcher at Prestigious University." and have business cards ready to exchange, is a good one. As is the point about Israelis being extremely direct and even (depending where you're coming from) scarily assertive.
posted by LobsterMitten at 7:34 PM on June 27, 2010 [1 favorite]

Also, think about what body language an actress uses if she wants to come across as young. Playing with hair, that sort of thing. Look at Drew Barrymore's presentation of herself in a movie like the one where she goes back to high school. That's the body language you need to avoid.
posted by LobsterMitten at 7:39 PM on June 27, 2010

I, like many answerers above, have had this problem as well. I've been at my academic institution 9 years, and this fall, I will be just the 2nd youngest person for the first time. It is a difficult position to be in. Nearly everyone in academia has imposter syndrome, and being constantly told you are too young to be where you are compounds the problem. I agree with a lot of the advice above about projecting confidence (without overcompensating) and dressing and behaving professionally (even overdoing it a bit).

I would add another piece of advice about how to react when someone does make a comment about your age. I have found that acknowledging or confronting these comments really gets me nowhere, neither chastening the other person nor assuaging my own feelings. For example, when someone would say, "Trarnoir, you're so young," I might have tried to joke back (Me? Look at these grey hairs!) or cut back assertively (Actually, I've been here longer than half the people in this room. How long are people going to keep commenting on my age?). Neither of these responses really works-- it took me years to really learn this. Joking seems defensive, and a serious response makes it seem like I can't take a joke. It's a bit of a Catch-22, so I just deflect and continue with the subject. Someone might say, "What do you know about Nixon? You're too young to remember him!" I ignore the age part and just say, "Nixon? He's fascinating! Do you know he started his own fraternity?"

Now the part that reveals the less forgiving part of my opinion about this situation. I think people point out the ages of their younger colleagues and treat them differently because the younger folks' presence makes them feel old. Sometimes, this thought calms the hurt of having been treated differently due to my age.

Good luck with your new job!
posted by TrarNoir at 8:13 PM on June 27, 2010

I had *exactly* the same problem, but in a corporate setting, not academic. I grew a beard. I'm assuming that's rather more difficult for you than it was for me. :-)

Act professional. Be professional. They'll start to forget you're age.
posted by kjs3 at 3:14 PM on June 28, 2010

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