Updated: Apr 17
Few questions have stopped as many good ideas and suggestions as ‘what will people think?’
Let's explore this some more.
The question, 'what will people think?' can stop us from attempting something new or even exploring possibilities of doing things differently. At work. At home. Within ourselves.
I’m sure that we’ve all had this question put back on us when we have spoken up and made a suggestion that may be kind of ‘out there’. It’s been said to us either by someone in a meeting, or within our families or by our friends.
I’m very confident that you’ve even asked yourself this question many times after you’ve thought of an idea.
It’s time to understand what this question really means and how it affects us.
What’s the problem?
I struggle to think of a way in which the question ‘What will people think?’ does not come from fear. These four words may be said in the most innocuous and innocent of ways, but the very fact that the question is asked indicates that the questioner is coming from a place of fear.
Intentionally or otherwise, it is a question designed to keep us small. It is a question that stops us from showing up in a real and authentic way.
Let’s start by breaking the words in this question down.
Will – Is a modal verb used to indicate the future tense. Despite best efforts, and as far as I’m aware, we humans have not yet mastered the reading of the future when it comes to human interactions with certainty.
People - In my blog post ‘Are you a scared diplomat?’, I wrote of my disdain for the use of ‘people’ to justify changes to our words, thoughts and actions. ‘People’ is too general. Is it one person or a thousand? Who are 'people' exactly?
Think - Let’s explore the word ‘think’. How could we possibly know what anyone else is thinking at any given time? Humans are gloriously complex creatures. For instance, if I was there with you now, I may notice that you may be sitting and reading these words with a quizzical expression on your face. Behind that expression, you may be thinking 'where's this going?' or any one of thousands of other thoughts. How am I to know what you think of my words and the thoughts they convey until you tell me?
Let’s recap: Seventy-five per cent of the words in the question ‘what will people think?’ are fraught and laden with uncertainty and doubt.
No wonder it’s so efficient at keeping us quiet and stops us from being seen and heard. The very question is perfectly designed to create feelings of angst and to keep us small. 'Yes,' we think, 'how could I be so stupid?' We can feel ashamed that we didn’t think of every possible eventuality and response to our idea before proffering it. This is why the question is so effective at keeping us quiet.
Shame is a powerful behavioural driver in humans. We will do almost anything to avoid feeling it. The work of my intellectual crush, Dr Brené Brown, studies the effect that shame has on us humans and how fear can stop us from authentically showing up in the world. See the 'Want to Know More?' section below for two book recommendations that will change your life once you've read them. I promise.
For diplomats and those living the diplomatic life
Think back to when you first started in diplomacy. The possibilities before you seemed endless. The world was exciting and a wondrous future of making good things happen in the world lay before you. For me, my head was full of ideas and I was eager to get into the world and to make a difference. But at some point, I started to adapt my words, thoughts and actions to fit in and to get ahead. I wanted to fit in. I wanted to show that I was made of the right stuff.
I’m not sure how much of the world I’ve changed or influenced, but I certainly worked very hard to change myself to suit the image that I thought people thought I should have.
Please read that last sentence again, especially the words I've italicised. Can you see how troubling that is? If it doesn't make you a little uncomfortable, you may need to read it a few times. Those who have read my post on language (link in the 'Want to Know More?' section below) will know how much I recoil from the word 'should'.
We have all given parts of ourselves to please others to a greater or lesser degree. We have all been the doe-eyed new starter with a head full of ideas and the will to do it. We have all adjusted our words, thoughts and actions to fit into an ill-defined and ever-evolving mould.
Our job is based on pleasing people. People who like us want to work with us and want to work with our countries. People are more likely to exchange information with someone that they like and find agreeable. And diplomacy is all about information.
Successful diplomats are, by necessity, successful people-pleasers.
So, that’s what we do; we work hard to please the people. These are the same amorphous people lurking in the question ‘what will people think?’.
For diplomats, the fear of not being thought of well is real. Therefore, the question ‘what will people think?’ can stop us in our tracks. Furthermore, it’s an extremely effective tool of self-censorship, for it is better to be thought of well and as a safe pair of hands than being thought of as unreliable or a renegade.
In a competitive environment like in our employing agencies, perception is everything.
When it’s time to contribute in a meeting or other work situation (and as diplomats and those living the diplomatic life, we are always working) we can run our idea through our finely-honed and busy internal ‘what will people think?’ filter. If our contribution is not guaranteed to be met with the universal approval of the people – or at least the approval of the most important and influential person in the room – we can not say anything. Speaking up and giving an idea becomes an act of great courage.
If we deny our voice to that part within us that thought of the idea, we can further disconnect with ourselves. Once more, we change our words, thoughts and actions to better fit what we think amorphous people may think. This sounds like a minor trade off when looked at in isolation. Do it hundreds, or indeed thousands, of times through a career and we can discover that we’ve lost sight of who we are and that for which we stand.
For me, I gave so much of myself to please other people. If I made people around me happy, I was happy. If I disappointed or upset people around me, then I was distraught and worked hard to fix it. Putting so much of myself into the hands of others was a key factor in me becoming disconnected with myself. It was a key source of my feelings of loneliness.
How is it working for you?
What are we to do?
I’m taking as fact that we’re all smart and extremely good at our jobs. We know the importance of well-planned and well-laid seating plans and we know the importance of the order of precedence. We know that our profession is ruled by long-established rules and norms so any risk of cross-cultural confusion is reduced. Our ability to interpret current events and place them into a broader geopolitical strategic context is finely honed. We have an acute sense for when a consular case is going to become one that attracts media interest. We can make things happen quickly when working within a bureaucracy – our own or that of another country with a phone call and a well-timed and well-worded Note Verbale.
Our analytical minds and general sensibility when applied to our work mean that we’re not prone to making wild pronouncements.
With all of that said, I want to ask you a question: How many great ideas of yours have not made it all the way through your ‘what will people think?’ filter so far in your career?
In writing this, I've been reflecting on my answer to this question for a few days. I can think of many examples of ideas that have not made it through my filter. Sometimes, like the idea of starting a blog and sharing my thoughts, experiences and insight with others, the filter can be overcome with courage and support.
I'm very confident that you can cite more than a few examples right now of how your 'what will people think?' filter has stopped you from speaking up or has led you to make safe suggestions that you're confident will be accepted. I'm also confident that you know how much courage can be needed just to make your contribution.
Your contribution is needed. At a time when diplomats need to work on complex global issues innovatively and creatively, perhaps our collective ‘what will people think?’ filters need to be recalibrated and relaxed. The focus needs to move from rewarding the successful outcome to also reward and recognise the effort.
I feel that it's a good time to reflect on the times when we chose to please others rather than give voice to our own thoughts and ideas. Knowing when we've done this is a good clue of when we're repeating the behaviour.
While we're generally not prone to making wild pronouncements, we need to hear klaxons and imagine that all the lights around us have gone to red when we hear the question ‘what will people think?’ either in our minds or expressed verbally.
With the alarms sounding, we must kindly examine what, or who, is attempting to shame us into not sharing our idea. Such examinations need to assess who exactly ‘the people’ are and then clarify what they think. This examination requires courage and bravery, but I suspect that some innovative and creative ideas will ensue. We will have gone some way to reconnecting with the idealistic part of ourselves who wants to be part of something meaningful.
Rather than installing alarms that trigger when ‘what will people think?’ is asked in our offices, we need to install the alarms within ourselves and pay attention when we say and think these words.
When you notice the alarms, ask yourself:
What’s happening here?
What are you trying to avoid? Failure? Success? Judgement?
What story are you telling yourself? Do you know it to be true?
Want to know more?
Oby Bamidele, ‘How to Overcome the Fear of ‘What Will People Think?’, accessed 30 August 2019.
This post covered the central themes of diplomacy, competition, loneliness and connection.
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Important notice: All views expressed above are my own and do not reflect any official position. The words published above are intended to support, challenge and inspire diplomats and those living the diplomatic life as they reconnect with themselves and the world around them. They are not intended to, nor should they, replace the advice of a licensed helping professional.