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Tom Petersen works at a company in the Midwest, where he processes e-mail, attends meetings and recalibrates management expectations. His book of essays on work and faith is currently lurking outside of publishers’ back doors, trying to meet a naïve editor. Contact him at

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Talking Myself into Being Important

By Tom Petersen Where did we get the idea that we all need to feel important? Why aren’t we satisfied when God tells us He thinks we’re important? And why does my stapler always seem to run out of staples when I have only one more pile of documents to staple? (Sorry, that question will have to wait: I can only handle one earth-shaking problem at a time.)

The gathering of the needy
Beyond producing a product or service, I’m convinced that work’s primary purpose is to bring together needy people so we can talk about ourselves. I am amazed at how much of my daily work conversations are simply me and the other person saying things that serve only to give us a greater sense of worth. We apparently define our value by the number of syllables we can utter that in some way are about us.

I’m not sure how work became this big game of one-upsmanship. Maybe it is a result of the constant stresses we feel trying to meet others’ expectations. Maybe it is our response to feeling beat down when work makes us feel small and unappreciated. Maybe we feel compelled to talk ourselves up as winners because work sometimes feels like a competition that produces lots of losers. (Think grade school, only with sales quotas and timesheets.)

Whatever reason, people – and I include Christians in that group – seem to spend a lot of time telling one another that we have value.

Talking about ourselves
I’ve noticed many variations on how we do this at work. (And when I say “we,” I mean, of course, “other people.”) We can try to deluge the other person through sheer volume of things we say about ourselves. (I had no idea that some of my colleagues had that many words in them.) We can brag about activities that we think will impress other people. We can find ways to talk about our accomplishments even when they don’t fit into the conversation we’re having.

A colleague of mine was particularly good at this. She served on a national professional association board. She could mention that fact several times in a conversation, regardless of our topic.

Me: “I don’t know how we’re going to make budget this month, with the extra expenses and income shortfall.”
She: “Well, as you may know, I am on the National Trade Association Board of Trustees, so why don’t I ask them at our next meeting in Coral Gables how they would handle this?”
Me: “Um… uh…. Sure.”

Subtle attempts at substantiation
Even when we try to be subtle about it, our conversations always seem to be about us. Here’s a recent example, with the translated “real meaning” of the conversation helpfully provided to make my point.
Me: “Wow, Bob, you look tired.”
(Translation: “Wow, Bob, here I am, standing impatiently in this elevator, late to an incredibly important meeting that probably can’t start until I get there. Yet despite that heavy – yet well-placed – responsibility, I am still sensitive enough to the needs of the little people around me, that I can’t help but notice you look tired.”)
Bob:  “Yeah, it’s been a long week.”
(Translation: “Wow, given my incredible commitment and capacity to put others’ needs above my own, it is just like me to not even realize how much energy I have expended for the company’s benefit. But I guess after spending over 200 hours at work during these past four days, I should no longer expect to be able to hide the superhuman strain from others.”)
Me: “You can say that again!”
(Translation: “Commitment! Hah! What do YOU know about commitment?! I’m so committed to other people that I don’t even look tired because it would make them feel uncomfortable and they’d feel obligated to comment! I guess I win this round, ol’ pal, Bob!”)
Bob: “This is my floor. Take care!”
(Translation: “Don’t think for a minute you’ve won this round, you self-righteous twerp! I’ll be back at my desk, completing the mounds of work, while you’re spending company time joy riding on the elevator. How will you explain that on your timesheet this week?!)
Me: “See you later!”
(Translation: “Curses! Why didn’t I just go to the vending machines on my floor!?”)

Rising up by putting others down
 Beyond the subtle “me-ism” of talking about ourselves, some people have such a need to feel important that they take this one step further; they put others down. I had a boss who was a master of this. She had such a patronizing tone; she could reduce even powerful executives to a quivering mess. She would drop in oh-so sweet lines like, “I’m sure you didn’t mean to do this, but…” or “I guess we can’t all have higher brain functions…” Last I heard, she had gone on to a rewarding career as a junior high gym teacher.

Valued for who we are
While this may just be an annoyance to the rest of the world, I worry that our passion for talking ourselves up has bigger implications for we Christians. Particularly since scripture is already very clear about our value to God. In his letter to the Romans, for instance, Paul describes a God who values us so much, He calls us to Himself. For his Holy Spirit speaks to us deep in our hearts and tells us that we are God's children.” Romans 8:16 (NLT).  He sounds a similar theme in his letter to the Ephesians: Long ago, even before he made the world, God loved us and chose us in Christ to be holy and without fault in his eyes.” Ephesians 1:4 (NLT). And again in the next chapter: “[God] raised us up with Him, and seated us with Him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus…” Ephesians 2:6 (NASB)

We don’t need to talk ourselves up to obtain value that God already has ascribed to us. Anything I could say to assert my own importance pales in comparison to how important I am to God.

I know that, and yet I can’t seem to stop talking about myself. How do I change that? Simply being aware how often I put myself into my conversations would be a good first step. Then maybe I would do a better job of making the conversations more about the other person than about me. Maybe I could even share with other people that they, too, are valuable to God.

But that doesn’t mean I’m giving up the by-line and my picture at the top of this page. That’s simply my selfless way of helping you know me better. It’s a little technique I learned that at the Annual Meeting of the International Association of Self-Focused Web-Based Mid-Length Essay Authors.

I’m a member, you know.

What most frustrates you in workplace conversations?Send Tom an e-mail and let us know.

Tom Petersen works at a company in the Midwest, where he processes e-mail, attends meetings and recalibrates management expectations. His book of essays on work and faith is currently lurking outside of publishers’ back doors, trying to meet a naïve editor. Contact him at


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