I was at an event in Mumbai recently. Emcee for the day, I reached early, oriented myself with the stage and acoustics, and walked around meeting attendees who had arrived before time. A smartly dressed young lady caught my attention. I walked up to her, and said, “Hi! I’m Anusha. I’m emceeing the event. So, what brings you here on a Saturday morning?”
“Oh hi…I’m Karishma.” (Name changed). She stopped at that, not telling me why she was there.
I persisted: “So Karishma, are you an attendee? Or are you part of the organizing team?”
“Oh no, no…I’m just a volunteer.” And she looked away, as if hoping she was invisible.
“Lovely! All the best!” I said, and went on to meet a few other people. But her response stayed with me. Partly because I was surprised, partly because I was disappointed.
That young lady had such a critical role to play in the success of the event. And volunteering demands multi-dimensional skills like no other. Yet, ‘just’ how little she thought of herself. ‘Just’ how dismissive she was of her mental and physical agility to pull off being a volunteer at an event scheduled to run for 10 hours with more than 200 attendees and over 30 speakers.
How I wish she had answered emphatically, “I’m a volunteer.” And not apologetically, “I’m just a volunteer,” that too after being prodded.
As women, we’re used to undervaluing ourselves and what we bring to the table. And that has nothing to do with the role. For example, I could’ve thought “Oh! I am just an emcee introducing speakers and sessions. I’m not a speaker myself.” A speaker could think, “Oh I’m just a speaker for a session, not an awardee at the event.” An awardee could think, “Oh I’m just a runner-up, not the winner.” The winner could think, “Oh it’s not like getting a Grammy or Oscar.” It can be a never-ending loop of ‘just’, ‘just’ and more ‘just.’ There is no end to toning down who we are, what we do, and what we achieve – in our own eyes.
I’m reminded of what my mother said when I mentioned I was emceeing. She said, “You’re not an emcee beta. You’re a performer.” I felt elevated. It wasn’t about using a different word to describe the same job. It was about her approach, the value she attributed to the role.
She went on to say, “When I announce numbers at a game of Tambola even in a small gathering at the club, I’m not only making people play the game. I look at myself as the life of the evening, the mover of people’s mood, the one who ensures the right messaging comes through.”
Yes, young women today are more confident, they want to be financially independent, and they want to fiercely safeguard their careers while enjoying a happy family life. Yes, women in India have certainly come a long way. But behind the smokescreen of the quintessential modern woman, smartly dressed, bold and articulate, she is also grappling with years of social conditioning and unconscious biases that make her undervalue her self-worth and underplay her contributions, whether at home or outside. A reflection is subliminal messaging such as the use of ‘just’ at the drop of the hat each time she expresses her opinion, makes a request, or explains her work.
On this Women’s Day, may I suggest an activity? For a few days, notice the times you say or are about to say ‘just.’ You’ll be surprised how often and how smoothly this innocent four letter word slips off your tongue, softening and undermining what you actually wish to convey. Now try saying your thoughts aloud without using that word. Here are a few examples.
“I have a request. Could you ‘just’ come early today?”
“I have ‘just’ a point to make.”
“He’s a pilot. I’m ‘just’ an air hostess.”
“I ‘just’ think you could have done better.”
“I’m ‘just’ tired.”
“May I ‘just’ correct you here?”
It’s amazing how a simple tweak can make an impact on how you feel about yourself, how assertive you come across, and how much you value your work. Why? Because whatever you do with your life, it is and can never be ‘just.’ And if you don’t think it’s just, no one else ever will.
PS: That young lady at the event, no surprise, she was an outstanding volunteer.
This column was published at Hindustan Times on the eve of International Women’s Day.