JTP’S Side Eye Symposium: “Wait, How Old Are You”?

Yesterday, the Daily Post posed a question, “What question do you hate to be asked? Why?” It really wasn’t hard for me to access one… the question that grates my ears each time it passes: “Wait… how old are you? Can I ask how old you are?” I mean this question gets a “You just tried it but I still have to be composed”, First Lady Chantal Biya level side eye from me.


Image Credit: http://awesomelyluvvie.com

It’s not so much the question, per se. It’s how the question is asked, specifically because this question is asked in situations where I’m meeting someone new, and I’ve talked about where I’ve studied, or the work that I do, areas of interest, or really any other thing that they feel doesn’t match how old I look. I have been asked this question by professionals, pastors, artists, entertainers, parents, clients, students, strangers, and more. My usual response is, “I’m a busy millennial,” or, “I’m not as young as I look – I’m just youthfully effervescent”. Yet inside, you’d better believe I’m cringing.

In an article for the Student Affairs Collective, I talked about this question in depth, citing the ways that young professionals have to manage their image through the use of either verbal or nonverbal cues (Leary & Kowalski, 1990). Yet, to talk about image management without really unpacking the question doesn’t really gave the full picture. There are a lot of assumptions hiding behind questions about our age in the workplace, especially those asked in public settings. As stated in that article, they include:

  • Assumptions about how competent and capable younger professionals are or should be
  • Assumptions about work / life balance being easier to obtain, the younger that you look
  • Assumptions that age = experience, credentials, and / or lack thereof
  • Assumptions that you may be “out of your depth”

All in all, what lurks behind that question, in professional settings are the slight hints of ageism, based on someone’s perception of age. This is why the question makes me cringe. In my experience, more often than not, it is condescending. It shows that you assume credentials (or receipts as I like to call them) are directly tied to the perceived age of someone. This is problematic for me, specifically because, let’s be honest… I’ve looked about 17 for the past 10 years or so.

Oh, make no mistake, the question is nerve-sy (as my Gramma says). Because there is a certain age bracket when that question fades away, when it might seem incomprehensible to even ask. But it is one that many millennial professionals hear quite often.

My response to the question, “Wait…how old are you,” varies, considering who might be asking it, why, and when they might be asking. When I was asked at an important conference, I’ve simply responded with, “I’m not sure what makes that relevant to the presentation / session”. If it is a student, I simply pose more questions to try to clarify their purpose in asking. If it is relevant to something that we are discussing, then I share my age. But most times, I give a (slightly shade-filled) smile and speak my truth: “I don’t tell my age”.

Sure, there are ways that young professionals manage their professional image and identity, and this varies for each person. I always keep a resume on hand, along with a few business cards. I tend to dress a bit more formally on days where I’m meeting with important stakeholders or while attending conferences. Some would contend, “That’s just best practice,” and I would be inclined to agree with them. Yet there are also those who understand that some professional image management is going on at the same time.

One of the commenters asked a very interesting question under that initial article, stating:

…I struggle with the balance of appearing/ seeming older (either with props or just giving my confidence/ attitude a super boost), but also remaining authentically myself. Any suggestions as to how to manage those two things simultaneously?

And I knew that I could communicate a more contextualized and nuanced answer in this space (cuz it’s mine. Ha)!

Yesterday, I was at brunch chatting with my friend T.J.* and we started talking about navigating the perceptions / stereotypes of young, professional women of color in professional spaces. She expounded on some of tools that she uses as a millenial woman of color, educator, & PhD candidate. For example, we talked about dressing more formally for business meetings and teaching sessions, bringing documentation or research that would assert our professional critiques, wearing a name badge that connected us to the institution,  etc. However, it was what she said at the end of our conversation that really stuck with me, “Other people may not have to use these same tools as me, and I usually encourage them to reflect in those instances to see if there is any type of (race, class, socioeconomic, age) privilege attached to that. But individually, I make sure to never compromise my soul. I can get dressed up to teach; that doesn’t compromise my soul. But there are other types of image management that I just won’t do – that compromise my soul. It’s different for everyone”. I think T.J.’s advice applies in these cases. It is the same advice that I give people who ask, “Should I change my hair for the interview space? Should I engage in a certain type of image management?” The answer to that lies in the question, “Does that compromise your soul?”

In addition, though I am not comfortable with someone asking me how old I am, I am also not interested in “looking older”, per se. I am interested in communicating my professional identity in a comprehensive way both verbally and nonverbally, as it is appropriate. This can be done with or (hopefully) without being asked how old I am. This is much like when I am attending an arts festival and I’m done up in all kinds of eclectic jewelry, accessories, hairstyles, etc. that communicate my artistic identity / expression. Neither one of these modes are inauthentic and neither one of them require me to compromise my soul.

So, to those ends, there are some image management practices that I’m just done with – they require too much shape-shifting and at the end of the process my authentic self feels hidden. There are some image management practices that I just refuse to engage in (like answering the question, “Wait, how old are you?). For each individual, figuring out whether to engage in image management or not is a process that requires you to remember your personal values. In addition, calling attention to problematic questions about identity and perception takes finesse, self awareness, and self advocacy. (Because there are those times where you have to say, “That question is neither relevant nor appropriate…” – and it makes all the difference if you know when).

Further Reading & Sources:
Leary, M. R., & Kowalski, R. M. (1990). Impression management: A literature review and two-component model. Psychological bulletin, 107(1), 34.

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JTP’S Side Eye Symposium: “Wait, How Old Are You”? by Jade T. Perry is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.