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Romney Goes to the Deep South: Lessons in Authenticity

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Mitt Romney

Mitt Romney and Southern culture. Just putting those two phrases in the same sentence feels strange.

Because for months, Americans have seen Romney in his true form: the elitist business executive from the Northeast with his perfectly coiffed hair and jacket/blazer combo straight out of a Martha’s Vineyard yachting regatta. Then, this past week, while stumping for the GOP nomination in the Deep South, Romney made an abrupt turn from his upper-crust persona and suddenly became…you guessed it…a son of the South.

“Hi y’all!” he said to subdued applause as he strode onto the stage in Jackson, Mississippi. He then proclaimed that, for breakfast, he had just eaten “a biscuit and some cheesy grits.”

In a word: awkward.

We see politicians pander all the time. They say whatever necessary to win over a strange crowd and force – er, I mean, forge – a connection. In Jackson, he came across stilted and uncomfortable. Some people might buy his shtick, but others see right through it.

In fact, last week voters DID see right through it because Romney lost Alabama and Mississippi. So much for his Southern drawl and choice of grits (both cheesy).

In the real world – far, far away from the campaign trail – the game is different, but our response similar. We typically find ourselves in one-on-one or small group conversations that demand a choice: do we act like ourselves or the person we think we are expected to be?

Consider a job interview. Once you sit down in front of the boss, it’s just you and your resume. The best candidates stay within themselves; they draw on personal experiences and respond to questions honestly. Just like GOP voters in Jackson, a boss can tell right away when you’re straining to be someone you’re not.

Rather than come across as phony, say you’re interested in the topic at hand and want to learn more. Make your weaknesses seem like opportunities for learning and growth (and chances for know-it-all bosses to impart their wisdom).

It’s impossible to know everything about a certain business or its industry – at least when you’re in the interview phase. Similarly, Romney can’t fully understand Southern delicacies and vernacular from a quick trip to the Deep South. But humans are perceptive beings. We would rather teach you about our unique culture rather than have you pretend to adopt it from us. It’s ours, not yours.

In short: be inquisitive, not manipulative.

Romney did the latter in the Deep South and he lost.

So much for being cheesy.

Danny Rubin is a national news consultant for media research firm Frank N Magid Associates. He is a former television news reporter, lives in Washington, D.C. and tweets as @dannyhrubin.

Brazen powers real-time, online events for leading organizations around the world. Our lifestyle and career blog, Brazen Life, offers fun and edgy ideas for ambitious professionals navigating the changing world of work.

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