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09 January, 2009

Red flags, faux pas, and other embarrassing moments

Before I start, let me mention that I am not sure of the plural of "faux pas" but I know it is definitely not "fauxes pas" or "faux pases". So forgive my faux pas for this lack of French prowess.

The red flag is a metaphor that we all understand. It means "danger" and it can apply to an infinite number of contexts. Our friends warn us to be ever-vigilant for potential red flags in our relationships, or at job interviews, or when purchasing a used car. And the red flag usually does not refer to something overt. For instance, if you go to purchase a 1977 AMC Gremlin, and when you test drive it, you discover that flames are coming from under the hood, this would not constitute a "red flag" in the traditionally useful sense. In this case, we don't need to search for signs. They're obvious. Likewise, if we are making plans to go on a date, and we discover that the name and address of our prospective partner for the evening is the same as what you've seen in a recent notice at the Post Office for a most-wanted criminal, this is not a red flag, no.

Red flags are more subtle. They are indicators, hints, warnings, cautions, harbingers, curiosities, signs, footnotes, caveats, and all sorts of other pieces of data that, when taken alone, may mean nothing, but as they start to add up, usually signal a potential problem.

And, as I said, we are tuned and trained to look for red flags. 

But what we are not as ready for is the fact that we, ourselves, often are the originators of red flags to be detected by others. And people usually won't tell you about your red flags. Or, if they do, they won't refer to them in such fashion. They will just tell you that they're concerned, or that they think you should be aware of certain tendencies that you have. Our friends and colleagues usually soften the blow, because nobody wants to be a walking red flag.

The thing is, it might be much more instructive to hear it like it is. "Hey! I'm seeing a red flag here!" You don't get it very often. People say it behind your back. The candidate interviews, and everyone treats them politely. Then, after the interview, everyone tells each other about any red flags they saw with the interviewee. We don't usually get the opportunity to defend our red flags. The flag is observed, and the judgment is silently made.

Today, I had the interesting opportunity to be told about a red flag that I had unknowingly been flying. It's important to note that what is a red flag to one person might be completely innocuous to another. But here it is, and there I was. And it was not particularly complicated, but it was something I had not considered. And I felt a little embarrassed, because I really don't like to be one to give a negative impression. I am sure it was not a *net* negative, but I have this completely delusional idea in my head that I should be striving to please all people, all of the time. It's absurd. It does not upset me to know about the red flag, but it causes me to step outside myself for a moment, and see things from a different perspective. The "thing" was something that I already know about myself, and am aware that I do. But I had never thought of it in the context of a red flag that one might use when making judgments or decisions about the type of interactions that they will feel comfortable having with me.

And it creates a small conflict in me. I completely see the validity in the concern (I'm not going to tell you what it is!). And I would like very much to not be putting up this red flag. But I would need to consciously alter aspects of my behavior in order to avoid it. And I am not sure if that is something which is sustainable, or even wise to do. What behaviors constitute "personality" versus "judgment?"

I am not really sure. 

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