advice

Ask a Boss: Should I Try to Act Older at Work?

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Dear Boss,

I want to ask about workplace etiquette relating to a person’s age.

I work in digital media and have done well for myself in my career. Recently, I was attending a conference with my boss and presenting on a project to a group of his peers from other companies when one of them interrupted me in the middle of my presentation and asked how old I was. I was so taken aback that I gave the truthful answer (30), but immediately regretted answering the question. For the rest of the session, I had the feeling that I was suddenly an amusement and not taken seriously because I was at least a decade younger than the rest of the group and they had all lumped me in that broad, nebulous, and maligned category of “millennial.”

I am now incredibly self-conscious because I’m aware that I look younger than I am. I have never dressed unprofessionally or behaved inappropriately at work and I now take great pains to try and be that much more professional in the way I put myself out there, to the point where it’s a bit exhausting and others have noticed my stone-cold dead-seriousness as of late. But regardless, isn’t it inappropriate to ask someone their age in a professional setting? And what should I have answered instead to deflect from the irrelevant question?

In talking with other female friends my age, many noted that they too have experienced something similar, and we’re uncertain whether it’s an age thing, gender thing, or a bit of both. It’s not like I am 22 and straight out of college. This year, I plan to start looking for jobs a step up from where I am now, but I am worried the “looks too young” issue will continue to haunt me and cause people to not take me seriously as I try advance professionally in the near future. I would love to hear your thoughts.

Yes, it’s inappropriate to ask someone their age in a professional context.

That becomes especially clear if you imagine asking it of someone near retirement age. But of course, people don’t do that. This is a question that people put to young people, or to people who look young, because the subtext is, Oh my goodness, you’re just a baby!

For what it’s worth, most people who ask your age probably don’t intend to be condescending. Often they even mean it to be complimentary — as in, “You’re impressive for having accomplished so much in your career already.” On the other hand, that guy who interrupted your presentation to ask how old you were? That’s like announcing, “I’m questioning your authority and credibility based on your appearance, and I feel the need to announce it to everyone.” He was rude.

But regardless of whether people mean it rudely or not, being asked your age at work can be undermining as hell. Instead of thinking about your skills and your accomplishments, now we’re thinking about your youth … and youth tends to go hand in hand with inexperience, and that’s rarely a good thing to inject into the impression you’re trying to make professionally.

So, what can you do if someone asks you your age in a work context? Some people swear by deflections like “I’ve stopped counting,” “old enough to know not to answer that question,” or “83.” Few people are going to keep pushing after that, because they’ll look rude for not recognizing and respecting a polite evasion. And in some contexts, you can even respond with, “Why do you ask?”

But I think there’s an argument not to play coy about it, and instead just to demonstrate that you don’t think your age is a Thing: “I’m 30.” Say it confidently, and then move back to the topic at hand, preferably one where you will devastate the room with your competence. If you act like it’s obviously a nonissue, a lot of people will take their cues from you.

That said, since it’s on your mind and you feel like it’s coming up as an issue, it wouldn’t hurt to give some thought to how you present yourself. Some language, mannerisms, and ways of speaking can read as younger and less capable. So make sure that you’re speaking with confidence, and that you’re comfortable sounding — and being — resolute. If you regularly sound hesitant or unsure — for example, regularly ending sentences with a question in your voice when you don’t really intend to be posing a question — people may assume that you don’t know what you’re doing. (At the same time, though, don’t be afraid to admit when you don’t know something; not only is that a good practice generally, but it will actually will make you look more confident and secure.)

Other gravitas-builders: Don’t apologize for things that aren’t your fault (a hallmark of young women, in particular). Watch out for young-reading mannerisms like playing with your hair or slouching. And some of the old-school business advice that might sound cheesy to you can actually be pretty effective for helping to project gravitas — for example, cultivate a firm handshake (really! people are influenced by it), introduce yourself with your full name (if it makes you feel old, that’s the idea), and sit near the head of the table in meetings.

Think, too, about the physical image you’re putting out. If you look polished and carry yourself with poise, that can counteract a young face. The same thing goes for wearing well-tailored clothes, dressing more up than down (a suit will give you more gravitas than a pair of jeans), choosing outfits and accessories that are classic rather than trendy, and keeping makeup more natural than edgy. Annoyingly, longer hair often reads as young (at least unless you put it up), so factor that in, too.

You can also try paying attention to women you know who project gravitas and command respect — whether they’re older than you or not. You don’t need to imitate anyone or take on mannerisms or styles that don’t feel like you, but paying attention to what does and doesn’t help people get taken seriously can help you work out whether there’s anything you want to do differently. And if you have a particular rapport with any of them, you might even explain what you’re grappling with and ask for advice.

All that said … you also don’t need to force yourself into some mold of “professional businesswoman” in order to succeed, at least not in most fields. If you’re good at your job, once people see that, your age is going to pretty quickly fade into the background. It makes sense to give some thought to how you’re presenting yourself, especially since the age thing is bugging you, but this is more about helping you feel more comfortable than it’s about helping other people come to terms with the fact that, eeeek, there’s a youngish woman in their midst. Really, the most important thing is the quality of work you do and how you operate professionally. I know that sounds like it’s a trite platitude, but in most work settings, it’s really true.

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Ask a Boss: Should I Try to Act Older at Work?