After being hoodwinked and skewered on national television, a high-profile friend and veteran at being misrepresented by the press said to me, "Welcome to the N.F.L."
But hey, I don't even like football.
The morning after my ambush, my nice husband installed a Prozac salt lick by the kitchen door for me to use on the way to and from the coffee pot. I caffeinated and e-mailed friends and family that I'd be going into the witness protection program.
I don't usually write columns to plug books other than my own, but what the heck. I've decided to temporarily come out of hiding--someone needs to feed my son's cat--to tell you what I now regard as a funny story about how I used The Power of Nice with a late night show on ABC--let"s call it Niceline.
"We're doing a piece about The Power of Nice, ABC producer Shani Meewella told me on the phone. "What do you think about their message? Do you think it really works to kill people with kindness, to always smile, to always be nice in the workplace? We're looking for a different perspective."
I'd read and admired this book by Linda Kaplan Thaler and Robin Koval after our books had been paired in a nice The New York Times "Books of Style" review. The authors and I share a message: Women can be fabulously successful in the workplace without sacrificing integrity or kindness.
I told Shani, "My message is that we women also need to realize the importance of being nice to ourselves, which means it's sometimes necessary and okay to confront hostile people in the workplace, but that we can do it with integrity and in a respectful way that doesn't humiliate the other person."
Shani asked me if I wanted to come on the show to talk about my new book, amBITCHous (def.) a woman who 1. makes more money 2. has more power 3. gets the recognition she deserves 4. has the determination to go after her dreams and can do it with integrity. Morgan Road Books ~ Random House.
We talked at length about my message. Then I agreed, reminding her, "This is emphatically not a book about being bitchy and mean to get what you want."
Nice! I'd just lined up the first national TV "hit" for my book tour.
Shani additionally asked to film me teaching a scheduled class of M.B.A. students at Fordham University in Manhattan. In between packing and flying to New York from the San Francisco leg of my book tour and frantically sprucing up my apartment for the interview at my home office, I spent the next two days leaping through flaming hoops, trading call after call with the grad student host of the lecture as he, too, graciously did back flips trying to coordinate with the dean of students and the dean of the MBA program to get permission to bring the Niceline crew in.
Finally, permission granted! Then Shani canceled the classroom visit hours before the filming. But I was nice about it; these things happen.
On the day of my interview at my home office, Shani and her camera crew arrived at my home over an hour late, so I had to reschedule some career coaching clients--but hey, I was nice about it. Who hasn't been caught in traffic or stuck on a phone call?
While the camera crew was setting up, Shani cozied up next to me on a couch in the dining room. She'd read in my book that my husband and I had managed a bi coastal relationship for six years.
"Was it hard?" Shani asked me. "My husband just took this job on the west coast and we'll be doing the same thing." She seemed concerned and I was reassuring; it's hard, I told her, but it can work out. It'd be worth it if she could pursue her career with passion. She seemed relieved and grateful for the advice. I was a little uncomfortable with the sudden intimacy, but I was nice about it. We women have to support each other in our career goals--hey, hadn't I just written a book about that?
The correspondent, Jessica Yellin, also arrived late, casually attired. We sat down for a half-hour with Shani on the sofa and I talked with them about the message of my book: We women can be ambitious while holding fast to our integrity and treating ourselves and others with respect. That ambition is a virtue, that loving our work with a grand passion doesn't mean that we women are bitches, but does mean that we can be good, kind, loving women, wives, mothers, friends, community members and ambitious and decent at the same time.
Shani and Jessica really seemed to get it. In fact, weren't we all living proof? Three successful, ambitious women, ready to spread the word. It was all so lovely and nice, like a soothingly civilized tea party.
"Now I need to go and change," Jessica announced, and she and Shani went into my son's bathroom together, laughing and giggling like middle school girls. There was a whispered conference behind the closed door, but I was nice about it; they probably just needed to go over last-minute details of the interview.
The interview started late, and went long because Jessica kept asking me the same questions, phrased slightly differently, over and over again: "Is it okay to just be a bitch sometimes if you have to confront people?" "Is it okay to come down hard if someone is attacking you in the workplace?" "Isn't being nice the last message women need to hear? Haven't we heard that our whole lives?"
I started to get the distinct sense that they wanted me to assume the nickel-plated bitch mantle.
Over and over, I stuck to my message: "This is emphatically not a book about how to be unapologetically bitchy to get what you want. This is a book about redefining your ambition in the face of social sanctions and unapologetically going after your dreams. This is a book to help you to see your ambition as a virtue, not a dirty word that makes you mean or a bitchy, horrible woman. This is a book that shows you that even when you need to stick up for yourself, even when you need to set limits with people that would, well, play dirty with you--including steal your credit or power or otherwise undermine you--you can do so with integrity and while also treating those detractors firmly, but with respect."
I must have been flunking, because Shani repeatedly instructed Jessica and the camera crew, "Let's try that question again; re-shoot it."
After four hours of set-up, pre-interview and interview, during which I'd repeatedly refused to be Queen of Mean, Shani and Jessica and the camera crew packed it in. By now I was horribly late for another media interview to which the Niceline folks knew I'd committed, but when Shani and her team asked me to autograph copies of my book before running out, I did it, well, to be nice! I ran out, leaving all of them in my home. Wasn't that nice and trusting? (I missed the subsequent media interview with a CNN affiliate; the producer didn't think that was very nice.)
When I tuned in to Niceline a few days later, I got a not-nice surprise. The show was 98 percent about Linda and Robin, coauthors of The Power of Nice. The two women were shot laughing together in their office, then the cameras went swooping into conference rooms and down hallways. The camera offered lengthy quotes from the two women, shot in flattering light, and ample footage of their impressive awards.
I was on the segment for a grand total of 1.8 seconds here, 2.5 seconds there, the footage so diced and spliced that I could barely recognize myself or what I'd said. Deftly paring away the leading set-up questions, and chopping away the beginning parts of my sentences, the clips showed my comments completely out of context, making me sound like a--you guessed it--total bitch advocating chilly tough love in the workplace. They'd cut out every single word I'd repeated endlessly about the importance of honoring ambition with integrity and respect.
I can't say I wasn't quoted correctly. I can say that the way that they took a fraction of my message, cherry picked my quotes, and didn't even remotely completely include what I actually said utterly misrepresented the heart of my message. They also identified me only as a "career coach," conveniently omitting that I am so much more: a Ph.D. business psychologist and researcher; founder and director of the Women"s Business Alliance, an organization that has served as a motivational think tank for 2500 women over ten years; recipient of a U.S. Small Business Administration "Women in Business Advocate of the Year 2000" award, the nomination of which was endorsed by U.S. senators Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein; and an advisory member for an American Psychological Association's Presidential task force for the empowerment of adolescent girls, for starters.
Give me a bad review. Tell me you hate my book, that you disagree with my message. Hey, that's fair. But don't deliberately distort what I stand for--that's just rotten to the core.
My "lapsed Catholic" friend labeled the dishonest and manipulative editing job as "a sin of omission"--withholding the real story, selectively revealing snippets of information while concealing key facts, but claiming that you've told the truth, twisted and self-serving though it may be. The way they juxtaposed my quotes with Jessica's commentary and Linda and Robin's words made it seem like I was advocating the polar opposite of nice--which I had emphatically and repeatedly told Shani and Jessica was not my position.
The most telling moment was what came after Jessica leaned in and asked me, "Don't you just have to sometimes be mean if nasty people are walking all over you in the workplace?" (Naturally that set-up didn't make it into the segment.) I explained that you could "set limits, either explicitly or through your actions." (Again, I emphasized "with integrity," but this part didn't make the cut.) "...There is, for example, the inscrutable stare. For example, you're in a meeting and someone mutters something under their breath. You can just stop the meeting for a moment, and..."
The camera zoomed up in my face as I demonstrated.
Then the segment returned to the "Nice Ladies."
When it flipped back to me, the camera dove in for another angle on my now-infamous "inscrutable stare," this time a two-shot with me and Jessica. The cutting prolonged the moment, so viewers saw me give not a quick, calm, two-second inscrutable look at an inappropriate, repeatedly hostile co-worker, but the wild-eyed stare of an unhinged maniac sizing up her next chainsaw victim.
Jessica reeled back in horror: "That was awkward."
And call me vain, but honest to God, I don't have triple chins. I'd been given the Hillary treatment, when the camera zooms up and under to punish the ambitious woman by making her look mean and, well, unattractive.
I'd been utterly blindsided. Phone calls and e-mails poured in from friends who'd watched the segment. "How on earth did they manage to twist your words that way?" "You don't look like that!" "How could they possibly think the message of your book was 'it's good to be a bitch?'"
Some colleagues and I watched a tape of my TV appearance on a local The View from the Bay, shot only four days earlier. An appearance where I'd said exactly the same things before, during, and after the interview as I'd said on Niceline. Only this time, my message came through loud and clear. And I had only one chin.
I read the lovely, comforting e-mails I received from Linda Kaplan Thaler and Robin Covey after the segment ran. (These authors really are nice! Please, buy their book too!) Robin wrote, "I was quite surprised to see the angle they took on your book and philosophy knowing that we are really very much in agreement on so many things." Linda reassured me that "whenever I think I've been misrepresented or treated unfairly, I am reminded that within 24 hours, it's yesterday's news."
So the TV waves showcasing my "inscrutable stare" are probably well beyond Jupiter by now. What's done is done. But I wouldn't be true to my most cherished beliefs--the ones I poured into my book--if I didn't take this opportunity to make sure my message is clear--and unedited:
Read my book, amBITCHous--or look at the unedited footage of Niceline (I wish!)--and you'll see the ultimate irony--the producer Shani Meewella and correspondent Jessica Yellin ended up reinforcing exactly the cultural paradigm and tired stereotype I'm trying to overturn: that ambitious women are bitches. Bad enough that it's the only stereotype we ever see on TV shows and in the movies. Now we saw it played out here, with the Niceline women's unprincipled, intentional distortion of my message: admit to your ambition, and there are those people who will try and knock you to your knees, especially if it advances their ambitious agendas.
I have always had and will always have an utter commitment to niceness, but for God's sake, let's all realize that you can be nice AND successful AND ambitchous--and do it all with integrity.
Instead, we saw yet another socially sanctioned misogynistic cultural split: nice, lovely, successful woman vs. mean, bitchy, unattractive women. One or the other, with no continuum, no spectrum, nothing in between. Not unlike the Madonna/whore split, or pitting working moms against stay-at-home moms. How very stereotypical--but that's sensationalistic, dumbed down t.v., designed to appeal to the lowest common denominator. Are we viewers really incapable of intelligent, critical thinking? Is it too much to ask for serious, sophisticated programming that educates rather than sends us slumming?
I didn't want to blindside Shani and Jessica the way I felt they blindsided me, so I sent Shani an e-mail giving her a head's up that I'd be writing this blog. Shani told me that she'd be editing the piece, plus I spoke with her the day prior to airing and she confirmed that "she was still editing the segment," so I directed my correspondence to her.
Shani e-mail replied: "...In regard to your feeling that we did your book a disservice, I don't believe we did, as we did not characterize your book in the script and merely showed the spine of the book with the title when we introduced you as someone with a different point of view. We showed the title because this is what we often do as a courtesy to authors."
Oh, it was a courtesy. Nice.
Shani continued: "I told you up front that I was seeking a commentator with a different point of view, which was the reason we wished to interview you."
Last I heard from intelligent folks, a different point of view does not have to be a polar opposite point of view.
I admit that now I'm cherry picking here from Shani's legalistic e-mail. She continued, "I would be more than happy to talk with you and hear why you believe that these quotes misrepresent your point of view."
Nice. Maybe Shani, Jessica, and I can talk it over on Dr. Phil's show.
Too bad that these Niceline folks are stuck in an all-too familiar paradigm of pitting women against women--the nice lady and the bitch--instead of revealing the continuum of qualities we strive to embody.
And trying to sell people on the idea that you can't be all of that--that you can't be ambitious, ethical, treat people with respect, and have the determination to go after your dreams with integrity--is the worst socially sanctioned self-sabotage of all. Shame on Niceline's Shani Meewella and Jessica Yellin for what I consider unethical behavior. It's, well, just not nice. You two did a disservice to me and my book. But more importantly, you did a disservice to all women.
Time for a collective paradigm shift--the real, honest message of my book.
Let's reclaim ambition as a virtue, as the best of who we are. We women owe it to ourselves, and to the world, to make the contribution we were born to make. The life I dare women to lead is a life filled with hope, dreams, aspirations--and the hope of having them fulfilled. When we make the choice to lead that kind of life--even if it requires sticking to our values and to our dreams under social duress--who knows how many others we'll inspire?
What we don't hear from the cultural messages telling us what we ought to value as women in this society is that ambition is a part of living our best and greatest life--and that we can go after our dreams with integrity, ethics, and dignity. There is no societal clarion call ringing with the message that our ambition is a vital, irreplaceable component of our lives.
Our pact is to change that. Let's each of us agree to be an ambitious woman--with integrity--and to be her now.
As the ambitious woman you are entitled to be, I encourage you to answer for yourself, every day, a question posed in Mary Oliver's poem "The Summer Day":
what is it you plan to do with your one
wild and precious life?
Now that's nice.
Oh, and Oprah...call me!
Sincerely and ambitchously,
Dr. Debra Condren