Act British, Think Yiddish ABTY


My husband likes to bullet point. He’s the Chief Strategy Officer of a large media company, so this makes sense for him. I’m the Chief Talky Officer in a few different mediums, so I can learn from his pith. And one of his favorite mantras is, “Act British, think Yiddish.” This life-changing maxim has become so commonplace in our lives that we often text each other simply, “ABTY” when we need a reminder of the best way to get what we want.
Acting British while thinking Yiddish means you take a breath and you give some charm. The “British” is the polite, and the “Yiddish” is the connection. It means you focus on the best outcome for a given situation, and then—even if you’re impatient or annoyed to the hilt by someone’s incompetence or arrogance—you adjust your behavior to be a little, well, nicer. More engaging. Human. Far more often than not, you end up with a better result, whether it’s persuading folks to do it your way or just getting an aisle seat. Finding the energy to be pleasant to someone who’s being a spectacular tool may sound daunting, but as you practice ABTY, you’ll begin to find that it drains you less than whirling around in frustration and getting nowhere. 
As a young feminist, I used to think I owed it to my gender to be feisty, spunkily intractable, to approach a perceived adversary by speaking so loudly I didn’t need to carry a big, phallic stick. As an older feminist and someone who spends a lot of her career interviewing people, I’ve learned that Acting British—speaking softly, listening more—gets me a lot further. Oh, I do lean in. But sometimes I lean in for a hug. Being charming doesn’t mean being a pushover; no, it makes you more like a Weeble who wobbles and firms her core while not falling down.
Occasionally when I interview a famous person, he’s grumpy, because he’s having a bad day, or this is his 15th interview, or he’s Neil Young. I ABTY by thanking him sincerely for his time before the cameras roll and making it clear that I’ve done my research—I mention my appreciation of a detail in his film or his book; I demonstrate that I got all up in his oeuvre. Or we talk about his kids. This approach almost always leads to an interview that’s revealing and compelling and spontaneous, because we’ve started with a human connection. (This doesn’t work with Neil Young, who seems immune to this technique.) I find it’s even more important to ABTY when I’m sitting down to talk with someone who’s not used to being on camera, such as the many scientists I interview or the occasional wonky curator. While I could use my time to prep my notes or check my iPhone for the latest crisis update from the nanny, I spend it focusing on my interviewee to make her comfortable before we start filming. We can chat about anything so long as she forgets to be nervous. The outcome is that we have an un-self conscious, meaningful conversation on camera, and she’s actually enjoying herself and not worried if her face looks shiny. 
I myself have been managed by black belts in ABTY. When I was writing my book,Approval Junkie, my British-ish/Yiddish-ish editor midwifed me through several drafts. She could have attacked them with a red pen, doing literary liposuction on my bloated chapters. But she must have known that would have undermined my confidence as a first-time author. Instead, she gave me general gentle guidance, asked me provocative questions and showed faith in me by trusting I could come up with the answers myself. She led me to improve my manuscript organically. She encouraged me, in that way, to be my own editor. Her harshest feedback in the margins was, “Don’t love this.” That said it all. I mean, I’m an approval junkie. I wanted her to love. So I kept writing and we kept cutting until we both felt like we got it right. 
Acting British and Thinking Yiddish doesn’t always involve managing difficult people. Sometimes it’s a matter of praising your colleagues (or your spouse or your kids) to get more of what’s already working. The executive producer of CBSSunday Morning is masterful at offering approval. His compliments are specific and sincere. He delivers them sometimes through email and sometimes in person, in passing or during a sit-down conference. His approbation makes me feel noticed and appreciated and proud to be part of his team. I’m convinced that’s one reason why Sunday Morning is a beloved show for viewers; its architect makes his team want to produce a show we’re all proud of. 
I recently had the pleasure of meeting Cindi Leive, the editor in chief of Glamour, and she, too, recognizes the power of praise. She credits a mentor who told her, “You should count the number of times you praise somebody and then double that.”
These leaders know it’s at least as powerful to give validation as it is to receive it. There’s simply no downside to expressing genuine approval. It doesn’t make someone rest on his laurels; rather, it makes him feel observed and valued. What he does matters, so he’s going to do more of it. (This is a useful tip when you’re enjoying a massage, by the way.)
But you don’t have to be a boss to offer it. Try smacking your colleagues’ hands with a high five and see if it doesn’t inspire you, as well. Don’t hesitate to acknowledge your co-workers’ dedication or thank them for helping you do your job better. Feeding other people’s fundamental needs fills us up too. Rising tides lift all cubicles. 
And don’t be afraid to compliment your boss. Just avoid being fulsome. Something like, “Thanks for your guidance” or “I really appreciate how you listen to us,” rather than “Ma’am, I’d like to just say that your husband is so hot it’s amazing you get any work accomplished.” 
Let me be clear that I’m not advocating being disingenuous with people to get what you want. (Except at the DMV. Do anything you need to do at the DMV.) Here’s the really magical part of Acting British and Thinking Yiddish: the side effect is you humanize an interaction. I love talking with people off mic at least as much as I do on camera. I’ve witnessed my husband charm everyone from hotel managers to TSA agents. He’s never insincere. The best that can happen is an upgrade . The worst that can happen is he gets someone to smile through a real connection. When you get people to like you a little, you sort of end up liking them too, even if they’re giving you a thorough pat-down. 
So the next time you want to reply all and fire off a caps lock email to your impossible colleague reminding him that he’s A NIGHTMARE TO WORK WITH!!!!…pause. Collect yourself. Perhaps visit his desk and ask him if you can have lunch. Maybe then he’ll remove the tuna sandwich that has been moldering in the office refrigerator for three weeks, giving everyone mercury poisoning by proximity.
The Chief Strategy Officer in my life has given me a life strategy of civility and connection. I invite you to make it yours. Obviously you don’t have to be British or speak Yiddish to harness the power of ABTY. You will still enjoy making friends with the toffs, shmegegges, and shtunks.