Sunday, April 23, 2017

Are you the colleague you want to meet in the hallway?

Figure 1. Edmund Wilson's version of auto-reply.
There's been a movement afoot to light on fire, in Twitter terms, anyway, anyone who tells a woman to "smile!" Next to "you look really tired," I can't think of any phrase that's less welcome, especially if you are really tired. Also, some of us have RBF and aren't going to look happy no matter what.

Just so we'll get the obvious out of the way:

1. Do people say this to men? No.
2. Do they treat women who smile all the time any better? No.
3. Are women who are all smiles treated well in the workplace? No, because they're taken less seriously.
4. Are women who are direct and/or abrupt treated well in the workplace? No, because they're seen as -- well, fill in your own uncomplimentary adjectives.

But despite this double-bind, you might want to think twice before embracing "grumpiness for grumpiness's sake," as recommended in  "The Case for Being Grumpy at Work." 

The author cites a number of studies about emotional dissonance, about the emotional labor that women especially experience when forced to pretend to be happy in the workplace, and so on. Women are expected to be more caring, which means that their anticipated response in the workplace is effectively lagniappe for employers, a trap especially for service workers like cashiers (been there, done that). 

But the author's equation of grumpiness with some superior form of pessimistic insight is wrong. You can be plenty pessimistic and not present yourself to others as grumpy. One's a way of perceiving the world. The other is a way of acting out so that the world can see that you have All The Feels. 

Look, nobody has to be happy or pretend to be happy all the time, especially at this point in the semester. I suspect that most of us cut our colleagues a little slack in April, knowing the stress we're under, and we hope for the same from others.

In other words, we're being the colleague that we want to meet in the hallway.

A curmudgeon thinks that this is a one-way street. Everyone should be charmed by his (or her) grumpiness, and all should cut him some slack, but he doesn't have to return the favor. You may think your grumpiness is adorable, but other people may not share your high sense of self-regard.

A "lovable curmudgeon" may exist in literature--who doesn't like to read about Edmund Wilson's famous postcards or Mary McCarthy's acid reviews?--but in real life, the term is an oxymoron.

One of the great lessons of adulthood is that except for a few of those close to you, nobody cares how you feel. They want to know if you get the work done. 

My approach is the same thing that I do in emails: mirror what I'm receiving. If you're professional and at least marginally pleasant, I'll respond in kind, and promptly.

If not, not.

I realize that this is a position of privilege and that not all jobs will allow this luxury. (See cashier experience, above.)  But at the very least, those of us who do have the ability to respond to rudeness or curmudgeons shouldn't indulge their behavior. 


3 comments:

Fie upon this quiet life! said...

When my children are rude, I say, "Please find a better way to speak to me and try again." I can't imagine saying that to a colleague, but sometimes I really want to. Like when that one colleague attacked me in Starbucks in front of a bunch of Humanities students. Awkward. Instead, I just took it and apologized for being me. Ugh.

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Undine Spragg said...

Fie--that's a great response. I'm still shaking my head over that colleague who attacked you publicly. What could she possibly be thinking?