2013: A new identity awaits in Chile

Surprisingly, I haven’t yet posted about the fact that we are in the middle of a massive life change (again…!). We’re currently enroute to Santiago, Chile, where we will live for 3 years. The short of it is, my husband (Joachim) was offered a great position with his company, and we decided to take on a new adventure: Latin America.  Why not, right? (insert deep sigh here).  I’ll be continuing my PhD part time from Chile, and will fly back to Oz a few times during the year for some teaching/facilitation/PhD work.  Thus the flavour of my writing will likely take on a bit more of an intercultural theme – I’m sure I’ll have interesting stories and embarrassing moments to share about living abroad. So far I dont speak a word of Spanish and I’ve never spent any real time in Chile, so I imagine when we arrive (in 1 day!) I’ll be completely OUT of my comfort zone. Not that living in China was really in my comfort zone. Heck, maybe my entire life is one big out-of-comfort zone experience.

So far I’ve lived and worked in Canada, Switzerland, China, Australia, and soon, Chile. My husband is from Germany, and my daughter was born in Australia. I’ve been on the go for nearly 10 years now, and I’m often asked the question: where is home for you? Where will you make your ‘home’ in the future?  Funny thing is that I don’t really know anymore – I cant figure out where I feel the most home. Is home where you’ve spent the most years of your life? Is home where you feel the most comfortable? Is home where your ‘people’ are?  Where you speak the language?  While I feel very grateful I’ve had the opportunity to move around, sometimes I feel sad that I haven’t really set any roots, and sometimes it’s really, really lonely….

The different places you’ve lived (countries, cities, villages, communities, or various houses!) can really form a big part of who you are. It’s funny, because in Melbourne, you can even take it as far as identifying yourself as a “south of the yarra” type versus a “north of the yarra” (my Melbourne friends will know what I mean). Perhaps you’re a strong Berlin-type rather than a Munich-type? Cities, towns, communities all have their own sub-culture, and you can definitely start to identify with the place you live. Alternatively you can not identify with where you live, despite being there a long long time. Some define themselves by not being part of where they live (you know, those badasses).  When plucked out of a place you identify with strongly, you’re like a fish out of water.

For example, I’m from a town called Tweed, (in Ontario, Canada), and I consider that to be my first home – it’s a bit part of my identity. I have roots and so many memories there, and many of the people I love the most in the world are close by. In Tweed,  I do feel like I can just ‘be’. I love spending time at the family home, cottage, and hanging out with my family.

Now, parting with Melbourne after 4 years, I feel like I’m deeply mourning the loss of a place that has really become my adult home, another big part of my identity. We were married here, Emily was born here, I have very good friends and colleagues, I like my career, and I love the little community we live in (not to mention the coffee, which I’m pining for as we speak). It’s sad to part with a place you hold so dearly, that helped turn you into who you are (at the moment, at least!).

I guess every place you live gets a special place in your heart – a piece of who you are. Moving on from Melbourne, toward Santiago, I’m both excited and nervous about our new ‘home’ and – yet unknown – piece of my future identity. Watch this space – next time I write it will be from the opposite side of the world. Eek!

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Having a daughter has made me much more attuned to the media and how it represents women. I never really gave it all much thought before Emily came along. I always assumed I was pretty immune to the antics of hollywood, and those trashy-magazines that fly off the shelves because some random actress has *gasp* gained 10 pounds. Or Julia Gillard has *gasp* chosen another pantsuit. But the messages this kind of media sends slowly seeps into the subconscious. Nobody is immune. When waiting in line at a checkout and reading the latest headlines, you just cant help but have an internal dialogue with yourself that sounds something like this:

  • Me:  Alright, I’ll just quickly pay for these groceries. It’s a nice day and I’m feeling good about myself. *notices a 2-for-1 chocolate bar deal and contemplates her well deserved reward*
  • Magazine:  Hey you, Chubbo, look over here…random actress lost her baby weight after 3 days.  What’s wrong with you?  Are those maternity jeans you’re still wearing? *evil snicker*
  • Me: I dont care about her, she’s got hoards of staff cooking for her and nannies looking after her children. Plus she’s probably dumb and unhappy. I have way more going for me. It’s not real life…. right? *feels confident and sassy, but opens cover to see pictures*
  • Magazine: Oh it’s real life, check out this other random actress who did the same. And those other ones over there. You are inadequate, face it. *evil belly laugh*
  • Me: Bah, I’m not listening to you, I am above this. *slowly puts back the chocolate bar, tucks stomach into well-worn maternity jeans, and vows to get fit*

While we can’t escape the mass-media, with a little understanding of what message its sending to us – consciously or not – we can at least try to change some of our media consumption habits.  If not for ourselves, then for our daughters.  When it comes to role models about the options she has in life, or what is important when you’re a woman with a career, I really want Emily to have choices – not role models handed to her by the popular press.  You would never say to your daughter: “Sweetie, to be happy when you grow up shouldn’t be kind to those around you, follow your passions or build a career if you’d like. No darling, you should have a filthy rich father, be dangerously skinny, have a perfect husband and flawless children, and god-forbid, never-ever age”.  The problem is that this IS what much media professes to women of all ages – media is just a bit more sneaky and sub-consious about it all.

If the mass media gives this subliminal message to grown women, I wonder how it impacts young girls.  How do kiddie movies, TV and advertisements influence who they become? Who they want to become?  When I was a kid, becoming a princess (Auriel from Sleeping Beauty was my princess of choice) was high on my list, and I’m darn sure that it wasn’t my parents who were promoting that.  It’s fascinating, because some of the most non-princessey mothers I know have daughters who are absolutely obsessed with princesses despite Mom’s best attempts at providing other options. It’s an epidemic that doesn’t quit (and one that I am likely be going to face in about a year with Emily). So where does it come from?

On that note,  I enjoyed Sonia Sotomayor’s recent clip on Sesame Street. Not that I’m suggesting there’s anything wrong with dressing up like a princess –  I just want Em to have choices. And Supreme Court Justice is a cool halloween costume, no?


Also, a really interesting documentary – that I think everyone should watch -about the portrayal of Women in the media is called Missrepresentation.  While it has a very American slant on things, I’d say that a lot of it is pretty applicable to many many countries. And even if you disagree, it makes you think about the messages you’re taking in, and those that your daughter might be exposed to growing up.

Here’s the trailer. It was free-to-TV in many countries, so you can probably find it online somewhere:


I’m not really sure what the solution is; I hate it when people harp on problems and don’t offer any solutions. Perhaps at this point I’m just banging my drum to raise more awareness of what’s going on.  The next time you’re at the grocery store gazing into the latest copy of trash-magazine, try to fight back: avert your eyes, resist purchase, run, hide, and fight that soul-destroying internal dialogue. If not to save yourself, to save your daughter!



More great reading:

One of my supervisors, Amanda Sinclair, does amazing work about bodies and leadership. Well worth exploring if you’re interested. For example: Sinclair, A. (2005). Body possibilities in leadership. Leadership, 1(4), 387-406.  http://lea.sagepub.com/content/1/4/387.short

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My topic: Identity Discrepancies

It just occurred to me (well, was pointed out to me) that I never really explained my PhD topic.  So this week’s tardy blog post is dedicated to me trying to turn what I’m studying into plain English.  The sad thing about doing a PhD is that sometimes you lose the forest for the trees; you’re so caught up in the detail of the theory and analysis you forget the big picture. I’ll do my best.

Identity Discrepancies

In a nutshell, I’m looking into what happens when you believe that your co-workers see you incorrectly. That is, when you think that they just don’t see you for who you ‘really’ are.  This has happened to me quite a bit throughout my career, and to put it simply – it’s ticked me off.  It’s that experience when others at work put a label on you, and you think it’s the wrong one. A quick overview:

identity disrepancies

Also,  a few examples to explain what I mean:

  • The age identity discrepancy: many, many times in my career I’ve been considered to be ‘the young one’ at work. Maybe I actually was the young one, but that doesn’t matter. Despite how many successes I had, or how competent I was, I always felt that my coworkers treated me like a kid. (yes, I know, I’ll whinge about the opposite in a few years I’m sure). 
  • The gender identity discrepancy: Women face this quite a bit in business – particularly in male dominated organizations, boards, or just at any level of senior leadership really.  You just cant seem to rid that big invisible “woman” sign that seems to be plastered on your forehead in the office.
  • The competency discrepancy:  I’m sure there’s a lot of us out there who believe that at work, we’re just not seen to be as competent as we think we are (of course I dont fit into that category…).  We think our bosses, and the powers that be just don’t recognise our real capability, and so they’re holding us down.
  • The “insert your own” identity discrepancy: Who hasn’t been labelled incorrectly at some point in their careers..

Importantly thought, not all ‘incorrect labelling’ is a bad thing. There might be times when you think that others see you in a more positive light than you see yourself. Perhaps you think you’re not up to the job and you’re offered a big promotion. In this case, the outcomes could be positive or negative, depending on how you interpret it.

Who cares, really?

I know, it’s a pretty specific thing I’m investigating – that’s what you do for a PhD, you get really, painfully, specific.  Why it matters to individuals and to organizations is that I’m exploring what kind of impact these discrepancies have on things like engagement, trust, emotion, well-being and turnover at work. Lots of interesting results are forthcoming about the potentially damaging – or motivating –  impact these dynamics have on people (well, I hope at least a bit interesting or my PhD will be pretty tough to finish off).  I’ll not go into any more specifics for now, but that’s the gist of it.  Make sense?

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I wish I didn’t care

Two questions to think about:

1. How often do you think about how others see you?
2. How much do you care?

How we think others see us can have a big impact our thoughts, emotions, and behaviour (1,2). That makes sense, because if you think your coworker finds you incompetent, you might act differently toward him/her, right?

This kind of dynamic underpins part of my research.  Over the past year, I’ve been interviewing professional women to find out how they think their colleagues see them, and what impact that might have on them at work.  As you can imagine, loads of interesting issues come up (I’ll be writing about those later!).  However, coupled with a sigh of resignation and maybe an eye-roll, to the questions above I often get responses like:

1)  Too often: I wish I didn’t think about it.
2)  Too much:  I wish I didn’t care.

Of course that’s a highly condensed version of their answers, but you’ve got the gist of it. I’d answer exactly the same way.  I know that at work (and also when I should be sleeping at night) I’ve spent far too much valuable brainpower in rumination mode:  was my tone too negative in the last meeting?  Did I come across as competent? Do they think I’m: too young, too opinionated, too pushy, too quiet, too bubbly, too ‘American’….”fill in the blank with your own neuroses“.

 Unfortunately how people perceive you does tend to matter at work, particularly when it comes to getting promoted or rewarded, getting offered the ‘good’ projects, or to winning customers.  Haven’t we all had that experience when the self-promoting but under-performing coworker got the glory while you, the hard-working and under-recognised over-performer wept in the shadows?   So it’s not necessarily a bad thing to think about how you come across to people, and whether others really see ‘you’, so to speak.  But it is a bad thing indeed to let this consume you, and particularly when it happens to be about useless, negative, or irrelevant information.

So with all this worry about how others regard you, you first have to ask yourself: is this doing me more harm than good?  It’s a fine balance – how do I put thought into how I’m regarded, without completely distracting and stressing myself with thoughts about how others see me? This worry can consume you, and exposure to most modern media (particularly as a woman) will leave you believing that you should obsess about that one wrinkle on your forehead, or the size of your thighs (read: irrelevant to most workplaces).  The more cognitive resources you devote to thinking about the impression you make, the less you have to dedicate to – potentially – more useful things.

For fun I’ve put together a cheesy little flow-chart to help you determine whether your pre-occupation with how others see you is worth the effort. For many of us who wish we didn’t care but unfortunately do, this might help save some time and energy. I fully intend to consult it during my next internal-drama.

More reading and references:

(1) King, E. B., Kaplan, S., & Zaccaro, S. (2008). Metaperceptions in diverse work groups: Intrapersonal perspectives and intragroup processes.

 (2) Kenny, D. A. (1994). Interpersonal perception: A social relations analysis: The Guilford Press.

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Parenthood: an identity crisis

When you think about starting a family, everyone will tell you how hard it is to manage your time, your lack of sleep, caring for an infant, your suffering relationships with friends, your bank account, and your newly sprouted and impossible-to-work-off-muffin-top. But rarely do people talk about the identity crisis you’ll go through. Becoming a parent is an identity crisis, plain and simple. And some people get through that more gracefully than others. I was not so graceful.

To varying degrees, everyone who starts off on the baby-adventure will eventually face the challenge of integrating a new identity (mother, or father) into their other suite of well-used and comfortable identities. If you think of yourself as a pie-chart, nicely divided up into many different pieces, things seemed to be an a decent balance, or at least manageable before. If you’re like I was, perhaps the “professional” you took up 70% of the pie, whereas the other identities fit nicely in the 30%. I took pride in that professional side, and had lots of space for the other identities like friend, sister, wine-lover, restaurant-frequenter, jogger. Little did I know what was to come.

When pregnant I was in denial. Deep denial. Ever-expanding, I was still squeezing into cute little shoes, getting dressed up, having nice dinners-out (while having a whinge about missing my wine), or camping trips away, and working like a maniac. I fantasised about maternity leave as a nice relaxing break from the busy life, and that a baby would simply add to the other identities; it would fit right in!

When little Em came along boy did she set me straight. In the space of a few days, out the door went ALL of the other identities, and “Mother” took over. You dont really get a choice in the matter, do you? I certainly didn’t. Impossible to picture getting the others back, three months into motherhood I went into mourning for my ‘lost’ identities. Normal people out for a run, on their way to the office, having an after-work drink, camping trips. I watched them with intensity and pure envy. With that came an overwhelming sense of guilt as I really did love being a mother. If I was happy being a mother, why did I desperately long for my other parts? Why did I end up sneaking a fancy cocktail in on a Friday during baby-nap-time?

Because as I’ve said before, you get lots of things from your identities: intellectual challenge, self-esteem, fun, belonging, love. It’s hard to get everything from one identity and you’ll miss the other stuff, you’ll mourn it. You’ll mourn the old as you renegotiate the pie so to fit in the new one. So 18-months in, I realise that it’s normal (and in retrospect, should have been expected?) that the baby will take over your entire ‘self’ for a while. But eventually the others do creep back – you start finding time for that jog, you take on some work, you will see friends again (if they’ll have you back), and you’ll keep the bits of the old you that you really loved. While you’ll never be the same again, you’ll find the new, expanded pie and you’ll (hopefully) love it.

Well, until you think about having another. *Sigh*

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What your office says about you.

Next time you’re strolling around at work, take a peek into your colleagues’ office space and think about what it says about them. How are they communicating their ‘selves’ to you?  What does their office decor says about who they are? What does your office say about you?

Like it or not, unfortunately your colleagues are constantly making interpretations of who you are, based on how you decorate (Elsbach, 2004). Think: first impressions – you just cant help yourself but do it.

People tend to use “physical identity markers”, or material objects, to communicate their identities to others at work (Elsbach, 2004).  People surround themselves with symbols that help to reinforce – both to themselves and to those around them – who they are, who they want to be, or maybe even who they want you to think they are. Looking through the offices of colleagues you’ll find things like: diplomas, family pictures, awards, momentos, books, art, plants, or even sports equipment. The particular combination of identity markers one has in his or her office can tell you a lot about that person before you even say hello. Chaos? Organized? Picture of kids art or fine art? Cluttered or minimalist?  Interestingly, if you take away people’s ability to express their identities at work they can find that highly threatening on a number of levels (Elsbach, 2003).

Based on nothing in particular, and about as accurate as your daily horoscope, here is my own personal theory of office decorators. By all means not exclusive – I’m sure there are a few other good categories out there. Please share if you think of one!

1. The self-affirmer.  These people decorate for themselves, not for others. The self-affirmer surrounds themselves with family pictures, kids artwork, their hobbies, favourite sports team, inspirational quotes, or perhaps their favourite artwork so they can gaze around when they need a reminder of who they really are.  The picture of the latest family holiday or trinket will often be placed so that they can easily see it, not so that others can see it.  They may use a pen that was a family heirloom or an important gift because of its sentimental value; colleagues may never know these objects are identity markers.

2. The aspirational. The aspirational surrounds himself with objects that represent who he would like to be – or at least who he would like others to think he is.  He is the fellow who drives a 1990 buick, but places a picture of himself learning over someone else’s Ferrari square in your vision. Longing to be seen as powerful and important, his identity markers relate to status; he strategically places the Mont Blanc pen not in a drawer, but on his desk where others will certainly take notice.  You leave his office very aware of his ‘importance’.

3. The strategic.  The strategic decorator has a clear image that she wants to project to others. Whether real or aspirational, she knows how she wants to be regarded, and arranges herself accordingly.  That photo of her running the Boston marathon was chosen to communicate her mental fortitude and endurance, that family photo of a gorgeous and colour-coordinated family is situated mostly so that others can see it, everything is neatly arranged and her office is immaculate. She is competent and organised and makes sure you know it. No matter how hard you look you really cant figure out what she’s all about; can she really be that perfect?

4. The innocent opportunistic decorator.  Highly misunderstood, this person simply does not put any thought into his office. This is the poor soul who received the 365 Bad Cats 2012 Wall Calendar in the latest office ‘secret santa’, thought “great, a free calendar, I needed one of those!” He proudly displays the calendar on his desk as a gesture of solidarity with his team.  This unassuming office decorator is unaware that people, upon seeing the calendar, may assume this is his taste (disclaimer: not that there is anything wrong with that!) and that that ‘cat lover’ is part of his identity. He is confused when others buy him cat paraphernalia for his birthday.

5. The non-decorator. This person has read the first 4 types and thought “I don’t care about my office and I have never put one second into thinking about how it’s decorated. In fact, I haven’t replaced the stock photo of some random kid from the picture frame on my shelf”. This person is somewhat of an enigma – it’s hard work to get to know her.  Does she have a life outside the office? Is she really just so busy that her calendar is three months off ? Can I really trust her? Hmmmmm. This person could also just be planning her escape route – in the event of getting fired she will never have to clean out personal belongings and endure those looks of pity as she drags out her office plants and pictures in a shoebox.

While I’ve been making up theory for fun (on a Saturday night, yes, I’m lame), research shows that these issues actually do have impact at work. Think about it – do you want a boss who seems ‘human’ in the way he decorates, or do you want one who doesn’t allow any ‘cracks ‘to show?  Personally, when I walk into a Dr’s office that is cluttered with kiddie artwork I instantly relax. Or if a boss displays a picture of his last vacation, or an interesting trinket he was given as a gift, it gives me something to ask about; I start to to see him as human, not some office automaton.  So take a think about how you’re coming across to others, nothing wrong with appearing human at work, right?

The articles I referred to above:

Elsbach, K. D. (2003). Relating physical environment to self-categorizations: Identity threat and affirmation in a non-territorial office space. Administrative Science Quarterly, 48(4), 622-654. 

Elsbach, K. D. (2004). Interpreting workplace identities: The role of office decor. Journal of Organizational Behavior, 25(1), 99-128.


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Doing “dirty work”?

Some of the articles I’ve recently been reading are those about people who do ‘dirty work’.  Dirty work is defined as occupations that are viewed by society at large as ‘physically, socially, or morally tainted’ (Ashforth, Kreiner, Clark and Fugate, 2007).  Although their more specific definition seems to include a large part of society that I’m not sure would actually tag themselves as doing ‘dirty work’, it’s interesting to learn more about these occupations that we may look at with the question “how do you do that every day?!”

A few examples of ‘dirty work’:

  • Physically tainted occupations associated with garbage or death: septic-tank pumpers, exterminators, slaughterhouse workers, etc.
  • Socially tainted occupations working with the more ‘challenging’ societal groups: correctional officers, welfare aid workers, psychiatric ward attendant, etc.
  • Morally tainted occupations regarded as somewhat sinful or dubious: exotic dancers, psychic healers, personal injury lawyers, etc.
  • Jobs that are thought to employ methods that are a bit sneaky, deceptive, or intrusive to others:  collection agent, tabloid reporter, parking-ticket attendants, etc.

If we spend such a big part of our lives in our working roles, how do people who do stigmatised jobs keep a positive sense of self day in and day out?   When society might look at them with an ‘I could never do that’ glare? Or for the morally tainted jobs, with that “you are the devil” glare?  How might, for example, Mr Spivey deal with the nay-sayers of the world?

The Study

This study conducted interviews with 54 managers across 18 ‘dirty occupations’ to understand some of the challenges they deal with and how they counter the societal stigma associated with their work.  For example, the researchers interviewed used-car-salesmen, exotic dancers, janitors, and abortion-clinic workers among many others. Without further rambling, here are some of the things that came out of the study.

A few challenges

  • It’s tough to be judged.  The people doing these jobs have to deal with all the regular challenges associated with any other job, like training, performance evaluation, office politics, terrible bosses, etc, but they also have to deal with the downcast looks by society.  There’s nothing like doing a job that’s made to be a laughing stock or something you should be ashamed of on TV (personal injury lawyers or used car salesmen get a pretty bad rap), or that makes people shudder when you tell them about it. That’s a lot of load on your shoulders. This makes the job even tougher than doing a more ‘normal’ job, not to mention the actual content of the job itself.
  • The job requires a unique set of skills. The content of these jobs is often very mentally or physically challenging. Dealing with death, angry or challenging people, or doing jobs that piss people off (I’ve never seen someone happy about a parking ticket, for example) requires a mental fortitude that most of us don’t have to conjure up when we get out of bed on a Monday.
  • It’s even tougher to be boss.  Not only do the supervisors have to keep themselves ‘up’ and motivated, but they have to inspire their employees and keep them motivated. That’s a tough ask.

Combatting the stigma

Interestingly however, the researchers found that those doing these jobs would actually recommend them to family or friends.  So they  looked into the ways that those who do these tough jobs handle it, and even turn it into a positive (and without the aid of a stiff drink, which seems to always fix me up after a bad day….). Below are a few things that the dirty-workers came up with:

Reframing or refocusing the job

  • Focus on the positives: They turn the job into a positive by reframing it, or focusing on the positives of the job. For example, rather than concentrating on ‘what’ they’re doing, they look at the more structural benefits of the job. Things like: flexible hours, or work-life balance opportunities. Or the positives that come from the job; how would we have meat without abattoirs? Many ‘dirty work’ occupations play a huge role in supporting society.

Social buffering

  • Make friends who do the same thing: Other people who do the same job can understand the challenges and provide social support.  Nothing like a little group hug; you’re not alone.  Think national conventions and associations (which are really just code for industry parties, right?)

Defensive tactics

  • Confronting others: These people were prone to putting others in their place (sometimes through dark or sarcastic humour) when they made rude or judgemental comments.
  • Biting back:  Some interviewed took a negative view of those who looked negatively at their profession. Things like: “Others are judgemental and falsely informed of what we do, it’s their problem not ours.”
  • Avoidance:  Simply avoiding dealing with comments or stigma by not telling others the specifics about what you do.  For example, a medical staff member at an abortion clinic simply told others that she was a “physicians assistant working in womens health”. Easier than dealing with the confrontation with strangers. My favourite reframe of all time was when an ex-boyfriend called himself a ‘petroleum transfer technician’. Sounds pretty fancy right?  See definition: http://alturl.com/2jd3p.
  • Social comparison:  Taking a look at some of the even ‘dirtier’ occupations and thinking “well at least I’m not doing that“. For example, a person working in animal testing for medical research might look at someone who does animal testing for product research (e.g. makeup) and say “wow, what they do is terrible”.
  • Don’t shoot the messenger:  So, if you work as a collection agent and must go in and ‘collect’ peoples’ personal things  you may say something like “it’s not me they’re mad at, it’s the bank. I’m just the messenger”. This is about separating yourself from the work, you’re just the conduit, you dont make the decisions.

So there you have it – the world of ‘dirty work’. Although I’m not such a fan of the expression, something about it is enticing and a bit exciting, isn’t it?

For the actual research studies, see:

(1)  Ashforth, B. E., Kreiner, G. E., Clark, M. A., & Fugate, M. (2007). Normalizing dirty work: Managerial tactics for countering occupational taint. Academy of Management Journal, 50(1), 149.

(2) Ashforth, B. E., & Kreiner, G. E. (1999). How can you do it?”:  Dirty work and the challenge of constructing a positive identity. Academy of Management Review, 24(3), 413-434.

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