Honing your personal act

Posted by Allen Rucker in Life After Paralysis on February 06, 2018 # Mobility

Many years ago, a sociologist named Erwin Goffman wrote a now-classic book called “The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life.” He wondered how and why people acted as they did when entering any public situation, social or work. (Goal #1: don’t embarrass yourself.) He thought of this interaction as like a theatrical production or play-acting. You have your backstage self and your on-stage self. Whether you are aware of it or not, your on-stage self is carefully crafted.

I’m in the entertainment business, and probably like your business, you have to present yourself a lot, at pitch meetings. business lunches, and the like, and these are often first-time encounters. You roll into a meeting in your chair with execs who don’t know you and you are, in the blink of an eye, different. First, you probably had a hassle getting into the building or office, which in itself can be awkward and even prompt you to shame your host. Don’t do that. Shaming is not a good calling card.

Physical obstacles are rarely the worst problem. The actor Chill Mitchell, wheelchair user and co-star of “NCIS New Orleans,” once cajoled a casting director into leaving his inaccessible office to come down to Chill’s car in the parking lot to hear his audition for a role. Stairs or no stairs, he wasn’t going to get huffy and go home.

How you initially reveal yourself in the room, usually before any business is conducted, is the “act” every person with a disability must deal with. It’s more about psychological than physical access. I am continually amazed how many perfectly bright and decent people are either ignorant that people with disabilities exist in any meaningful way or simply disarmed around a situation that appears disturbing and/or unpredictable.

Knowing that you are seen as an oddity coming in through the door is your first cue. Chill Mitchell contends that you have about ten seconds or so to set the mood. In the modern world, no one in the room is going to have a built-in bias – they won’t think you are ipso facto inferior or of a criminal bent. They might be antsy or patronizing around you, but they won’t call security.

The main task in those first few seconds is to make your disability a non-issue, because in this situation it is. The force of your personality can often blow right by any negative undertones to having a disability. It’s the disability version of a charm offensive.

My own mantra in such encounters is: be playful. In an instant you can dissuade others of the notion that you are “wounded” or morose or chronically testy -- powerful, upspoken stereotypes. Don’t do a stand-up act, unless, of course, you are a stand-up. Be sincere but don’t take yourself or your disability too seriously. As the great George Burns once quipped, “Sincerity…if you can fake that, you got it made.”

If that sets the tone, as it usually will, you then play it like any other poor slob hawking his wares. Don’t take any awkward or embarrassing questions personally and when they turn your pitch down flat, don’t take that personally, either. If you think your disability has anything to do with it, which is probably not the case, you can point this out. You will get one of two reactions: A, “No, I don’t really think so…” and B, “You think that I’m that heartless? Please leave.” In either case, the answer will still be no.

I say all of this because I need to remind myself on occasion not to take offense at every slight, not to feel personally insulted when someone tries too hard to sympathize with my “struggle,” and not to inject my paralysis into the conversation to score points.

Being in a one to one situation like this and not being inhibited by self-consciousness or a need to explain your condition is a skill. Some will always be better at it than others but if you practice it, you will probably get better. Like any skill, it takes a lot of repetition.

Many stage performers, to go back to Erwin Gofman, are completely insecure or even shy off stage, but you wouldn’t know it when you see them kill on stage or screen. They’ve created an on-stage version of themselves. So can you – light-hearted, relaxed, confident. To paraphrase George Burns: “Confidence…if you can fake that, you got it made!”