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Help me figure out why some find me arrogant.
December 27, 2012 10:46 PM   Subscribe

Help me figure out why some find me arrogant.

Hi, I’m a female postgraduate student. I often received comments like efficient, motivated and productive. My workplace is a bit toxic with at least one student (known as A) who constantly talk behind my back. Recently I was shocked to find out that my supervisor thinks I’m arrogant. My supervisor heard this from other students and would avoid complimenting me.

One possible explanation is I’m an assertive and direct person although I do believe A has something to do with this. I often take initiatives to improve the workplace so it may seem to others that I like to take control and boss people around. I also have to help and guide other students. It is very important that they value my time, do some background reading and be aware that I’m very busy. Therefore, I find it extremely rude when another student interrupts me, demands attention immediately and engages me in a discussion.

I was never critical of others nor I talk bad about others in front of their supervisors. I like to ask questions and give comments during their presentations. Once I got very aggressive response from A after commenting a lot on A’s presentation. Ever since then, I keep my opinions mainly to myself or unless I’m invited to offer advices. One friend told me that I’m a strong character who can’t communicate well with weak characters. This friend warned me that others might feel threatened and I will face obstacles in the future if I don’t change.

I feel frustrated because it seems like the more responsibilities I take, the more criticisms I get. The reason I’m posting this is because I will get a job next year. I don’t want to be seen as young and arrogant in the new workplace. At the same time, I want to focus on my job and avoid workplace politics as much as possible. Appreciate other points of view, e.g. what did I miss, why others perceive me as arrogant and how to prevent this?
posted by liltiger to Human Relations (64 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
 
It is very important that they value my time, do some background reading and be aware that I’m very busy.

That, right there, is arrogance, and presuming that you are categorically entitled to such treatment by virtue of all the things you've described so far is (IMO) what is making you come off as abrasive to others.
posted by These Birds of a Feather at 10:54 PM on December 27, 2012 [50 favorites]


It's hard to really say because all we have to go by is your self-description. But a lot of the time arrogance comes out in the self descriptions that people give and I really don't see anything like that here. You sound like you are an intelligent, competent person with a healthy amount of self-respect, who considers her contributions and work product to be valuable. My stab in the dark is that you might be in a workplace with people who are annoyed by women with self-respect, who aren't self-effacing and deferential.
posted by cairdeas at 10:55 PM on December 27, 2012 [5 favorites]


You expect other people to conform to your expectations and get behind your initiatives, but can not even spare the time to discuss with others when they want to? Well, that only makes sense if you are much smarter and more valuable than everyone else, which other people are less likely to believe, thus the presumption of arrogance.
posted by themel at 11:00 PM on December 27, 2012 [8 favorites]


I also have to help and guide other students. It is very important that they value my time, do some background reading and be aware that I’m very busy. Therefore, I find it extremely rude when another student interrupts me, demands attention immediately and engages me in a discussion.

This comes off as arrogant. It sounds as though you think your time is important and theirs is not, even though you are paid to help them.

You might equally well have explained the same facts in this (less arrogant sounding) way, "I am paid to guide other students. I find it an honor to be entrusted with this very important task, and I enjoy teaching them. Unfortunately, I am often too harried with my other duties to explain things thoroughly or to help them at the very moment when they first approach me."
posted by salvia at 11:00 PM on December 27, 2012 [37 favorites]


If you are getting criticism from multiple sources including friends, there is truth there for you to explore and consider.
posted by cecic at 11:02 PM on December 27, 2012 [5 favorites]


It sounds like you are a tad arrogant. But being arrogant is simply a personality trait. It doesn't have to be negative. To be honest I like people who value their time, and take measures to improve their workplace, even if I don't like their personalities.

If others feel threatened that's honestly their own problem. I don't see why you need to change.
posted by Peregrin5 at 11:03 PM on December 27, 2012 [1 favorite]


There is a great deal more to communication than you seem to realize. It isn't all about facts & figures.

Fortunately, you can get people to like you, in a couple of minutes if you do it right.
posted by trinity8-director at 11:04 PM on December 27, 2012 [2 favorites]


When you say you comment a lot during others' presentations, do you mean you interrupt a lot? That can be very frustrating for the presenter and may give the impression that you think you know more than everyone (which might be true but can still seem arrogant!).
Also, your use of English suggests it's not your first language. Possibly you are missing out some of the more polite ways of phrasing questions, suggestions etc? This could be contributing to the abrasive impression you seem to be giving.
posted by KateViolet at 11:19 PM on December 27, 2012 [5 favorites]


I get the sense there's more to this story. Looking at the example you give, you say you "commented a lot" on a presentation by A and A responded poorly, and since then you keep your opinions to yourself.

I'm guessing these comments were actually criticisms.

Your tone suggests you feel that A was the one in the wrong, and maybe A was the one being too sensitive and you were just being a direct communicator, but we can't know that without more details. Most people don't find giving constructive criticism to others to be a natural skill - it's something they have to consciously work at. I suggest reading about how to give good feedback to others on their work/how to give constructive criticism, and I suspect once you have done so if you take what you find out to heart, you will no longer feel the need to keep your opinions to yourself so that others don't get upset at you.

Another thing that many people learn the hard way is that people's personal initiatives to improve the workplace may not make them very popular unless the time is taken to ensure that the other people in the workplace want the "improvements" to be made, and that they are made by consensus, with some compromises. To a someone who likes being assertive and direct, this process is probably frustrating, but you can't function as a single unit when you're actually working as part of a team.
posted by treehorn+bunny at 11:26 PM on December 27, 2012 [9 favorites]


My stab in the dark is that you might be in a workplace with people who are annoyed by women with self-respect, who aren't self-effacing and deferential.

This.
posted by greta simone at 11:29 PM on December 27, 2012 [6 favorites]


Recently I was shocked to find out that my supervisor thinks I’m arrogant. My supervisor heard this from other students and would avoid complimenting me.

Wait, how did you "find out" this? If it's any way except the supervisor telling you "I think you're arrogant" to your face, consider the source. Ugly gossip is poisonous and best ignored until you hear it straight from the person who supposedly has the problem with you.
posted by drjimmy11 at 11:38 PM on December 27, 2012 [3 favorites]


I also have to help and guide other students. It is very important that they value my time, do some background reading and be aware that I’m very busy. Therefore, I find it extremely rude when another student interrupts me, demands attention immediately and engages me in a discussion.

I don't know if these students are your peers, but junior in your program, or undergraduates, but it's important to remember that as frustrating as it can be when undergraduates don't do their reading, etc., that there is a tremendous power imbalance between you and them, even though you still a student yourself. You may simply think you are correcting them for impoliteness, but they may see it as someone in authority smacking them down. It doesn't mean you can't correct and guide, but it's not bad to try and take care when you do it, otherwise it's counterproductive.

The most useful piece of advice I got for dealing with students (both peers and students I taught) was to remember that there's a human being hearing or reading the things you say or write about their work; it doesn't mean you have to be uncritical or a walkover in class, but you should remember that your responses to criticism are not necessarily those that others will have. People get attached to their writing and ideas in a way that is not rational sometimes and it is not a bad idea to take that into consideration when you critque or comment on their ideas or presentations. It's great that you're engaged with your peers' work when they present it, but sometimes commenting all the time or making a plethora of comments can make it seem like you're trying to dominate the conversation or slash their work into shreds. I'm not saying that's what you're doing, but I've been in classes with people who always dominated the conversations and it did make it seem like there was little space for others to comment or talk.

Lastly, I'd suggest talking to your supervisor if you have a good relationship with them. You'll need to have a conversation about your self-presentation if you're looking for jobs anyway, so why not do it now?
posted by lesbiassparrow at 11:50 PM on December 27, 2012 [4 favorites]


Even though this whole post dings the crap out of my admittedly antiquated "Shit, the Turing machines are on to us!" meter, I'll try and give an honest answer:

Your supervisor and your co-workers think you're arrogant because, from your post, it sounds like you keep commenting on everything like you think your commentary is more important than the actual things people are saying, and that's arrogant as hell. I don't care how tall you are, I don't care what gender you are, that is straight up arrogant.

What you're interpreting as commentary is what other people usually see as criticism, because what you are doing is actually criticizing. If someone else (not you) is doing anything approaching a presentation, sit down, keep your mouth closed, and sip that tea. Maybe write some notes that you could use to address your colleague somewhere in the future. Possibly when they aren't in a public forum. Maybe even privately.

Above all, in no circumstances feel like you have to interject your ideas on their presentation.
posted by Sphinx at 12:10 AM on December 28, 2012 [19 favorites]


It is very important that they value my time, do some background reading and be aware that I’m very busy. Therefore, I find it extremely rude when another student interrupts me, demands attention immediately and engages me in a discussion.

Try asking your friends what they honestly think of you. Emphasis here on your friends. This is a tactic used in some self-help groups. Let them be totally honest. Don't rebuke any one observation, instead follow up with some pointed questions about your arrogance. I think it's sort of an open debate whether or not we put input like this to use, but a friend may word something in a way that sticks, and in a way that doesn't set off your triggers that cause you to defend yourself.

You are very observant about arrogance in the workplace. I had a job once where I was extremely arrogant because I was way better at my job than anyone else and that did not end well. Let me tell you, way more important than the quality of any work you might do anywhere is having healthy relationships with people. And if people you are really unhealthy, then just get the hell out. So good for you.

I just want to say the quote I pulled from your post - maybe it was hastily worded, I'm not going to crucify you for it - but I interpret it as falling somewhere between insensitive and just plain mal-adapted. You're saying students can't interrupt you with questions or engage you in discussion? This probably makes you stand out from even your superiors, in a bad way. Think of discussion as the foundation for the didactic/peripatetic style of teaching. Hopefully you're not smarter than Aristotle. My best teachers held the best discussions. This may be an aspect of human interaction you may want to give in to, although it does lend itself to unpredictability and perhaps the possibility that you wont get through all the course material. But I say give it a shot, maybe even set aside some time for discussion, and see if you aren't pleasantly surprised. After all, funny how you like to ask questions and provide comments during presentations, but you don't like that favor returned.
posted by phaedon at 12:36 AM on December 28, 2012 [7 favorites]


It does sound to me like you're exasperated and somewhat impatient with your colleagues (or are they actually your students?). The way you express this does sound arrogant! You want others to listen to your criticisms and do their homework before speaking to you, because you are so busy and important, but if you hurt others' feelings they're not supposed to get upset.

It also sounds, from some of your sentence constructions, that English isn't your first language, which means that this may be a problem of communication as much as anything.
posted by jrochest at 1:07 AM on December 28, 2012 [1 favorite]


I think it's an exercise in frustration (and probably unanswerable) to attempt to determine if your behavior is actually arrogant. What you must determine is if it is arrogant in this setting, because behavioral expectations and norms are different from city to city, workplace to workplace, even neighborhood to neighborhood.

The thing to do is observe the people at your level who seem comfortably successful, on their way up the ladder, and are respected in the place where you are, when you are there. What's considered the preferred attitude and behavior in one place may be weird, rude, unsettling in another place, so, unless we're talking about really extreme behavior, there's not really any universal standard for what is arrogant. Just consider it like dressing appropriately for your school or workplace: you figure it out by seeing what others are wearing.

But I'm not saying adjust your attitude to reflect the mean average; pay attention to who is getting ahead and try to notice if your mode of interaction or work practices are very different from theirs; if so, adjust a little.

This is actually a talent that some people have; they can sort of auto-adjust their demeanor and participation to blend with all sorts of different groups and people in wildly various settings. But it's also a skill one can acquire via observation and practice. There's no need to make vast changes in one's own personality, it's more a question of what bring forward and what to dial back at any given time.

Your friend sounds like a person who can help with this. If you feel comfortable doing it, you might ask them for specific things to look out for in your interactions, and combine this info/advice with what you can observe and deduce from those around you in your work/school setting.
posted by taz at 1:17 AM on December 28, 2012 [4 favorites]


"One possible explanation is I’m an assertive and direct person although I do believe A has something to do with this. I often take initiatives to improve the workplace so it may seem to others that I like to take control and boss people around. I also have to help and guide other students. It is very important that they value my time, do some background reading and be aware that I’m very busy. Therefore, I find it extremely rude when another student interrupts me, demands attention immediately and engages me in a discussion. "

That looks like two possible explanations, one of which you're trying to blame on someone else (A) and the other, you blame on students being inconsiderate.

Did you really just say you find it extremely rude when another student engages you in a discussion? They're there to learn. Is their time and education not valuable as well?

I can't help wondering if you think you're better than the other students, and I don't mean academically. I realize nobody wants to admit that sort of thing, but if you think it, your actions almost certainly convey it. And everyone knows.
posted by 2oh1 at 1:20 AM on December 28, 2012 [2 favorites]


Check out the Dunning-Kruger Effect and re-examine your 'questions and comments'. Nothing is more arrogant, more irritating, than presenting on a topic and having some well-meaning but ultimately ill-informed colleague ask what they think are penetrating questions, or incisive comments. I hated it as a fellow student and I hate it even more when presenting. It is disruptive because the questions and comments aren't organic and aren't useful, they are performative.

Particularly if the same person asking treats everyone badly when it comes time to ask questions of them.
posted by geek anachronism at 1:33 AM on December 28, 2012 [27 favorites]


It is very important that they value my time, do some background reading and be aware that I’m very busy. Therefore, I find it extremely rude when another student interrupts me, demands attention immediately and engages me in a discussion.

I can't tell from the description if these are students you're teaching or not. If they are, then I would strongly advise you to change your approach to this. Lord knows it's frustrating when students don't do the reading, but you really can't take it personally that they're not as conscientious and mature as you think they should be, and they won't learn (and you won't teach) half as well if you do.

Even if they're your peers, though, I would suggest working on finding it less frustrating if another student interrupts you or tries to engage you in a discussion. And I know how frustrating it can be even when it's your friends - in the final year of my PhD I was working loads of hours in my other jobs and had precious little time to write, but I'd somehow got a reputation as the person who understood computers, so every time I was in the office someone would want to ask me about Word or tell me about the latest department gossip and argh. But the best way I found to deal with it was to realise that it wasn't about them not valuing my time, but about them just not really thinking, and answering with "Sorry, but I'm rushed off my feet and I really need to get this done - do you have the number for IT support?" or "Love to catch up but I don't have time right now, catch you on Saturday," etc.

But, you know, all that said - postgrad working environments are just poisonous sometimes, and you're not necessarily doing anything wrong just because the grapevine says you are. And if your supervisor is really deciding not to compliment you on stuff because other postgrads have said you're arrogant, that is messed up and you need to speak to your supervisor about it directly.
posted by Catseye at 1:52 AM on December 28, 2012


The term "arrogant" comes from the latin arrogare which means to lay claim to something as your own. We tend to see the term as solely a negative trait - but it rather depends on whether the thing you are claiming is really yours, and yours alone. Smart, creative, innovative, hard-working people are often labelled arrogant by their colleagues simply because they are justifiably asserting ownership to their large pile of work and ideas. Sometimes those colleagues will also call somebody arrogant when they mean that they are direct, honest, assertive. What I am saying is that there are some cases when a person labelled arrogant may not be in the wrong. That might especially be the case for women who are expected to be less assertive or falsely modest.

However making special claims to the value of your time spent in a meeting or conversation is an example of "bad arrogance". You may be able to demonstrate that your are the highest paid, the smartest, the busiest or the most productive person in the room (although I doubt it) - but the proper behaviour is always to take pains to value the time and the contributions of everybody present equally.
posted by rongorongo at 2:15 AM on December 28, 2012 [1 favorite]


Nobody told me I was arrogant in my twenties, but that maybe because I hid it/was shy. I have developed a veeerrrrrrrrrrry self-deprecating sense of dark humor for health related reasons. I now get all sorts of comments about how I am *not* arrogant, and I have been sort of surprised by it, actually. So -- develop your sense of humor a bit? Not like knock-knock jokes, but saying something when you make a mistake. I dunno -- it depends on your workplace. I can think of law environments where that would be a terrible strategy, but litigators are supposed to be arrogant as hell.
posted by angrycat at 3:35 AM on December 28, 2012


Dial back on the interrupting. It sounds (from the little information you've given) that you're causing conflict here. Doesn't matter if you're right or wrong - you're actually reducing your ability to communicate with your work collegues by doing this. They may perceive what you're doing as arrogance, but I think the more damaging aspect of it is a perception of "showing off".

You can get away with a degree of arrogance at work if you temper it with a side of self-awareness and self-deprecating humour. There's nothing wrong with telling other people that you're awesome as long as you don't make other people feel worthless. I've seen incredibly arrogant people who are beloved at work. I have a friend who regularly tells people he's always right, that there's no point even trying to disagree with him because that would make you wrong. He's about as direct as you get. He gets away with it because when you work with him, you know that your contributions are meaningful, and you *feel* he's not doing it to be self-aggrandising.

(Oh - and because he's a man. Sadly, it is so much harder for women to be direct and professional in the workplace)

The biggest problem for you at the moment is that you've been tarred with a brush and you have a gossipy enemy. You need to pull yourself back from that position, and you need to stop yourself getting there again. This isn't a question of modifying your behaviour until you act like everyone else. People will be looking for and seeing unwarranted evidence of arrogance in you. They have a liltiger arrogance allergy

Here's a couple of things you could try.
1) Demonstrate an awareness of your flaws, and make sure people know that you're trying (and sometimes failing) to fix them. People love a heroes journey. The more they can do to aid you in this task, the better it is.

2) Try and move the type of arrogance you exhibit from "belittling others" to "loveable flaw". Poke fun at yourself. Self depracating stories about how you assumed you could do something, but you utterly failed at that thing.

3) Start listening to other people. Their time has exactly the same value as your time. Their problems are just as important as your problems.

4) You need to get A on side. When you're round her, subtly mirror her actions. Get her to do a small thing for you (Benjamin Franklin effect). Highlight similarities between the two of you. Remember that she's not your friend though. Don't give her anything back.

OK - That's it. This comment probably contains equal amounts good and bad advice, so take with a pinch of salt.
posted by zoo at 3:41 AM on December 28, 2012 [2 favorites]


One friend told me that I’m a strong character who can’t communicate well with weak characters.

Okay, I'm sure your friend was honestly trying to be helpful, but this is a shitty, immature way of framing the situation. Someone can dislike or misunderstand your approach to communication without being "weak" or "bad" or "inferior." Put this belief aside because it is not going to help you.

I think someone probably linked to How To Win Friends and Influence People upthread, and it's a great read, but I'll distill the most important lesson right here for you: in any interaction with another, ask yourself this question: how can we both get what we want out of this exchange?

You're welcome.
posted by trunk muffins at 3:42 AM on December 28, 2012 [6 favorites]


This friend warned me that others might feel threatened and I will face obstacles in the future if I don’t change.

Yes, this may well happen. It doesn't, however, necessarily mean you're wrong in your behaviour - some insecure people will feel threatened by you and try to block your progress. It can happen anywhere, in any workplace.

I feel frustrated because it seems like the more responsibilities I take, the more criticisms I get.

Yep, that's what happens when people get more responsibility - they have to deal with more crap from others. And, yes, this is even more difficult for women.

It is very important that they value my time, do some background reading and be aware that I’m very busy. Therefore, I find it extremely rude when another student interrupts me, demands attention immediately and engages me in a discussion.

You've been described as efficient, motivated and productive - be aware that most people you encounter will not be these things and most will not care as much as you do. Many students are self-centred and will demand things/attention immediately. This is the nature of the beast. It may frustrate you beyond belief, but they will not change for you, so make peace with it as soon as you can.

When you commented on A's presentation, you may have stirred up feelings within A about their level of professionalism compared to yours. I think you're right to keep quiet during presentations, because you don't want to run the risk of being the person who is seen to be publicly destroying others (even if that was not your intention). People are more sensitive than you think - you'll get a lot of pushback from people if you don't take into account their sensitivities.

At the same time, I want to focus on my job and avoid workplace politics as much as possible.


Some people will find you arrogant because you want to focus on your job and avoid office politics - and all they want to do is gossip and work as little as humanly possible. And these people may be at your level or above. You may not be considered a team player by not engaging in this. You'll have to find a way to deal with this because, again, they will not change for you.

But, some workplaces place greater emphasis on the work, so these might be ones for you to deliberately seek out in the future.

Having said all that - arrogance is often a shield behind which some people hide (there are many shields people can hide behind) so that some kind of inadequacy is hidden. Some people I know who are arrogant cannot make decisions; but their arrogance hides their fear of decision-making. Others are arrogant to hide their shyness when dealing with other people.

Ask yourself whether you feel you have something to prove to others or whether you're hiding something you don't want others to know about because you think it will make you seem less professional if they did know. If there is something there, it might be something to work on.
posted by heyjude at 3:56 AM on December 28, 2012


While you sound a little arrogant in your dealings with others, a lot of this depends on context. Different fields and research projects involve different modes of communication and levels of collaboration and peer-interaction.

I'm also an efficient, motivated and (occasionally) productive female postgrad, so I feel somewhat qualified to give you advice. However, I'm approaching this from a UK Arts & Humanities perspective - and my department is peculiarly productive and drama-free - so bear that in mind.

Firstly, when dealing with peers or superiors, always remember that you are still a student. A PhD is a qualification and an advanced degree. Yes, you have knowledge, skills and expertise that you are exercising in order to gain your PhD. But until you have completed your degree (and arguably offered a job), you are still on a really low rung, and only in training for an academic career. The upside is that you are given space and time to get up to speed and know thyself as a researcher. The downside is that you are not yet the expert in your field. Chances are, your time and advice are probably not as valuable as you think they are - yet.

It's unclear if you are advising your peers or undergraduate students. If the latter, then I would still suggest you reframe your perspective and try to empathise with them. They are only just learning what it is to be an adult. They have friends, social lives, part-time jobs, household chores... Reading ends up really low down on their list of priorities. Really, you should be valuing their time - after all, they're paying for yours.

(But you can still tell them off for not doing the reading. That's expected.)

Lastly, what improvements are you making to the workplace? Last year, a bunch of us postgrads clubbed together and put up posters and shelving in our shared office. As a result, more of us spend time there, and we now collaborate more readily when it comes to organising conferences and other extra-curricular things - a definite improvement! If, however, you have been filing other people's work or whatever, then that could be construed as passive-aggressive. Equally, if you're taking on the role of leader or manager of the team, then that's just aggressive-aggressive.
posted by dumdidumdum at 4:14 AM on December 28, 2012


The whole "taking initiative to improve the workplace" could be seen as arrogant. You are saying that you understand the workplace better than they do and that you are in charge. It is great to be proactive like that, but you have to understand that a workplace is a communal organism - one person cannot change it from the top down. When you act like you can, that makes your coworkers think you are acting like their boss - arrogant. I would quit trying to fix your workplace and focus on your work instead.
posted by yarly at 4:29 AM on December 28, 2012 [4 favorites]


"I often take initiatives to improve the workplace"
"the more responsibilities I take, the more criticisms I get"

Pardon me for asking, but has your boss ASKED you to "improve the workplace", or are you just unilaterally deciding that you know how to do things better than anyone else? Are those "responsibilities" you mention your assigned duties, or just you taking over other tasks, perhaps telling other employees in the office how to do their jobs? This alone would come off as overly-agressive and definately arrogant.
posted by easily confused at 4:42 AM on December 28, 2012 [3 favorites]


There's a distant, sort of stiff tone to this question. If you come across similarly in person, that may influence others' perception of you as arrogant.

One friend told me that I’m a strong character who can’t communicate well with weak characters.

Ew! No one can blame you for your friend's turn of phrase, but regardless, this is such a nasty sentiment. The key to communicating well with any kind of people is to avoid classifying them as "strong" or "weak." It doesn't matter whether you're smarter, more assertive, older, more prepared, higher up the social/professional ladder, or all of the above.

It is very important that they value my time, do some background reading and be aware that I’m very busy.

To you. It is very important to you. Even among people who are respectful of your schedule, never interrupt, and come fully prepared, the only part of your time that they truly value is the time you spend fully engaged in helping them. This goes for students as well as supervisors. Most people are interested in how something affects them: you're concerned about being arrogant because you don't want to look bad, not because you're worried that you're alienating your colleagues or giving people a poor experience. Pay attention to where your wants intersect with theirs.

You have more in common with people than you or they might think. Look for the similarities rather than the differences, and you'll have a better time relating to them.
posted by Metroid Baby at 5:02 AM on December 28, 2012 [22 favorites]


It sounds like you're getting 360 degree feedback that you're arrogant, and much of what you wrote sounds like that's plausible.

I often take initiatives to improve the workplace

When you come up with "initiatives" to "improve" the office, do you socialize the ideas and build consensus, or do you just assert them as improvements and expect compliance?

I like to ask questions and give comments during their presentations.

Everyone in the room has reactions, thoughts and questions, but if we all interrupted at every point, every presentation would be a disaster. Even great presentations would be a disaster in such a world.

----

Communication skills are amongst the most important skills for business success.

Once you're in the working world, you'll routinely meet the very technically talented individual who complains that a "lesser" colleague got the promotion because of politics or what not. But this is not because of "politics". It's because the "lesser" individual has superior communication and leadership skills.
posted by grudgebgon at 5:11 AM on December 28, 2012 [4 favorites]


I feel frustrated because it seems like the more responsibilities I take, the more criticisms I get.

Why shouldn't this be true? If you are looking to avoid criticism, don't take responsibility.
posted by Obscure Reference at 5:12 AM on December 28, 2012 [1 favorite]


One friend told me that I’m a strong character who can’t communicate well with weak characters.

Your friend did you a disservice by saying this, because it frames the conflict not as a legitimate problem with your communication and teamwork skills, but as other people being inferior to you.

Forget you heard it. It's an inaccurate and arrogant frame.
posted by grudgebgon at 5:16 AM on December 28, 2012 [15 favorites]


Just remember that effective communication is about meeting the other person where they are. Expecting them to meet you where you are is arrogance.

That doesn't mean you need to be a push-over. It might mean that they come to you to ask about X and you realize they didn't do the reading so you engage and shift the discussion to Y (they need to do the reading to keep up). But even there you are meeting them as they are, not as you think they ought to be. And you are letting them know that in this moment that they asked for help you are on their side, but that they are now living with the disadvantage of not preparing and what you can do for them is limited as a result.
posted by meinvt at 5:36 AM on December 28, 2012 [3 favorites]


One friend told me that I’m a strong character who can’t communicate well with weak characters

You do sound arrogant - weak characters? What's a weak character? Maybe you're getting crap advice. Were you overly critical of A's presentation? Were you constructive - or critical?
posted by the noob at 5:46 AM on December 28, 2012


Your post reminds me of two otherwise very different women I've worked with. They both seemed very arrogant to most people, and it caused them a lot of difficulties. I think maybe it was/is some sort of defense strategy on their behalf. As I saw it, they worried too much about being female in a competitive academic environment, and because of that, were always trying to be perfect, which no one is. They were also much too critical of others, because they misunderstood the professional discussions we were all having all the time as personal criticism. There is a not very fine line there, which must not be crossed.
I see one of them now and again, and she has relaxed a lot after getting a job in a less aggressive setting.
Another possibility is that you are introverted - shy. Some introverts come across as arrogant because they don't know how to small-talk and engage personally with co-workers. There are ways to overcome that.
posted by mumimor at 5:54 AM on December 28, 2012


I went through this type of situation with my first job. By the time I got my second job, after pretty much being forced out due to "my behavior", I'd figured a bit of this out:

(1) Those people you see in higher positions who behave like this (pushy, don't have time for you, take initiative without including minor stakeholders) are bullies. They are not who you want to mimic.

(2) The best managers (project or otherwise) *always* make it look like they have time for you. If you come to them and they are busy with something else, they find out two things: how important is the topic and when else are you available. They work their asses off to accommodate everyone and make them feel like they matter. They are people you *want* to do good work for, as they are quite obviously doing good work themselves and quickly recognize that ability in others. They are not pushovers and will stand their ground when needed, but know they can only ask so much of each person (higher or lower than themselves) they work with.

(3) Allies at work are very important. You need them at every level if you don't want to be marginalized. You get allies by doing people meaningful favors and asking them to do favors for you in return.

(4) Find people who you really *enjoy* working with and do *great* work and try to understand why and how that is happening. These are the people to copy. If you can't find someone you work with who has these two attributes, it is time to change jobs until you can.

(5) Stand up only for things that really matter. You can be a dick every once in a while, but not all the time or no one will want to work with you.

(6) Believe in your own abilities, but also believe in the abilities of others. Find the good people and promote them internally "John's done an amazing job on this project!" "Alice is great to work with, I'd love to do another project with her!" and they will do the same for you.

(7) Calm down. The work doesn't matter that much.

I can't tell for sure why people may feel you are arrogant, but having been in a similar position earlier in my career, these realizations and slight adjustments in my work, life and framing of both helped me considerably.
posted by chiefthe at 6:00 AM on December 28, 2012 [52 favorites]


Welcome to the workplace. Interruptions become the norm, perceived slights balloon into horrible conflicts if not attended to immediately. Really what you should be asking yourself is whether your personality is suited to being in cooperative workplace relationships with peers, superiors and people working for you or whether you would be happier as an entrepreneur or business owner. Your personality sounds like a business owner. Your time is valuable. Interruptions by well-meaning but clueless people suck and getting things done that benefit the productive process can get swallowed in a welter of interpersonal resistance and turf struggles. Only a business owner or entrepreneur has the kind of personal latitude to really move stuff forward. Maybe you should consider a career change.
If you want to stay in your career, then changing your attitude toward relationships is going to be key to your success as you need to have folks in your corner in the workplace to really be effective.
posted by diode at 6:23 AM on December 28, 2012


One friend told me that I’m a strong character who can’t communicate well with weak characters.

Others upthread are saying this is terrible advice, but it really resonated with me if you take the word "weak" in a certain sense. Years ago I worked with someone who was in charge of the technical stuff in our office - setting up new computers, helping folks with email and spreadsheets back when all this was new in the workplace. This guy was really smart and knew a lot, but he apparently expected everyone else to have the same knowledge and he was outright rude as he helped them, to the point that nobody wanted to ask him any questions for fear of the reaction they would get.

As it became my job to train under him and take over his position when he left, I looked at his behavior and made one vow that I have kept ever since: I will treat people WITH DIGNITY when they need help, and I will do what I can to HELP them, and to make them feel good about the help that they received.

I can see this same issue in your question - it seems that you feel as if you are better than other people and your time is more valuable, and you always let them know that (in your voice, body language, and word choice) when they come to ask you a question. Instead, treat them as people with dignity, and see what you can do to help.
posted by CathyG at 6:24 AM on December 28, 2012 [3 favorites]


I am very arrogant and have had to make an effort to mellow as I age. Let's hope it has been successful, at least in part. Here are a couple of mantras that have helped me. This is under the "how to prevent this" portion of your question. Say you perceive you may be about to go from curious question to arrogant question at someone else's talk:
skbw: Hey, this is fascinating. Out of curiosity, do you remember what technique they used in part A? I ask because I have to do something like that next week.

Speaker: Oh, not sure, but I think they used blah and blah.

skbw [silently, in lieu of next question]: I don't have to be the smartest person in the room. I don't have to be the smartest person in the room. I am NOT the smartest person in the room. I am NOT the smartest person in the room...

skbw [out loud]: Cool, thanks!
Then when some purely workplace, as opposed to academic, matter comes up, maybe falling under "initiatives to improve," repeat to yourself:
I am replaceable, I am replaceable, the next person in this slot will do just as good a job, I am replaceable, I will soon be out of here and the cycle will repeat, I am replaceable...
Because you are replaceable...no matter how good you are--and let's assume you are in fact an asset to your department (even if you know it--grin).

As for dealing with students (I'm hoping these are undergraduates). I say this as a person who ALSO suffers from hubris. You are just a [post]grad student. Just a TA [teaching assistant--US-ism]. Just a grad student, even if you are teaching your own classes (many TAs do). The students know this. The fear of the Lord is not going to be in them when they approach you. They will learn what they do from you mostly out of love and camaraderie--I don't mean romantic love, I mean love as opposed to fear. I don't have undergrad students--I have younger students who don't prepare (at all). To which I say:
I can teach them something anyway. I can teach them something anyway. How many times did I not prepare? How many times did I not prepare?
posted by skbw at 6:26 AM on December 28, 2012 [5 favorites]


Just one more general tactic I use. It doesn't always work. I'm about to say something. Ask myself: Must I say it? What will happen if I don't? Will the discussion be the worse? Really?
posted by skbw at 6:29 AM on December 28, 2012 [4 favorites]


One way to lessen the blow of criticism is by giving a compliment first. The compliment can't just be a one-sentence statement for it to be effective, you need to elaborate on it so it sounds just as meaningful as the criticism that will follow it.

Also, you need to learn to pick your battles. While you may be inclined to give your opinion on every single part of A's presentation, you should perhaps consider scaling back some of your less important opinions. Realistically, to be most effective, you should give only your top 3 criticisms per encounter. Anything more is considered nit-picking, and will likely overwhelm your receiver. Remember, for every bit of criticism you give, the receiver has to remember it, or jot it down, plus they lose a little bit of confidence in themselves. The more critical you are, the more the receiver will feel that they can't do a good job. Criticisms are important, but so is trust.

When it comes down to it, A is not going to fail as an employee if four or five things aren't in tip-top shape in his/her presentation. Even if A just sucks in general at giving presentations, life will still go on, you will still get funding for your research, etc... I've found that people have an amazing tolerance for mistakes, because we all make them at one point or another.

And remember, the compliments are important! They go a long way, and it can do wonders for self-esteem. Too few compliments are given in the work place these days.
posted by nikkorizz at 6:32 AM on December 28, 2012 [2 favorites]


From your question, it sounds like you're blaming A for your supervisor thinking that you're arrogant. You don't know that your supervisor thinks you're arrogant and if your supervisor does think you're arrogant, that is not A's problem. Your tone sounds almost conspiratorial, like "A is ruining my life!" Even if that's the case, you do not have any control over what A does. The only person whose behavior you can control is your own.

Assertive women are more likely to be called the B-word than men. But I know people who would describe themselves as direct communicators. If I asked them, "Do I look fat in these jeans?", they would say, "Absolutely, and that top isn't doing you any favors, either." That's direct but it's definitely not nice. And I don't like to spend time with people who aren't nice, regardless of their gender.

It sounds like you don't know how to give constructive criticism. People frequently suggest that you pad criticism within compliments - "Those jeans are a great color. I'm not sure they fit you well in the waist. You have great legs, let's find some jeans that really show them off!"

"I also have to help and guide other students. It is very important that they value my time, do some background reading and be aware that I’m very busy. Therefore, I find it extremely rude when another student interrupts me, demands attention immediately and engages me in a discussion." - This totally rubbed me the wrong way. How is it that helping other students is your job but your time is so important that they can't engage you in a discussion? If my job was being a cook, I don't get to say, I'm too busy to cook. If helping and guiding other students is such a burden, you're in the wrong field and again, that is not their problem, it's yours. If your time is so much more important than anyone else's, why are you in this position? Why isn't someone whose time is less valuable than your own doing this job?

"One friend told me that I’m a strong character who can’t communicate well with weak characters. This friend warned me that others might feel threatened and I will face obstacles in the future if I don’t change." Was this friend a character in a novel?

"I feel frustrated because it seems like the more responsibilities I take, the more criticisms I get." Asking for help and feedback yourself will make you seem less arrogant.
posted by kat518 at 6:59 AM on December 28, 2012 [1 favorite]



Hi, I’m a female postgraduate student. I often received comments like efficient, motivated and productive. My workplace is a bit toxic with at least one student (known as A) who constantly talk behind my back. Recently I was shocked to find out that my supervisor thinks I’m arrogant. My supervisor heard this from other students and would avoid complimenting me.

One possible explanation is I’m an assertive and direct person although I do believe A has something to do with this.


This seems puzzling. Your supervisor really takes her cues from other students, in terms of how to view you and how to treat you? And particularly from one other student, A? This sounds strange and implausible to me. How does A. have that much power?

Also, is it just A who talks about you behind your back, or do you have serious reason to believe others are doing it? "At least one" suggests to me that you only think there may be others.

If you were my friend in graduate school, I would say, "Look, you're being a little paranoid." I don't mean paranoid in any clinical sense, just in the popular sense that people assume everyone's out to get them. In graduate school, it is likely ALSO true that everyone is out to get you and talking behind your back. But your question makes this seem to be your main problem and the problem that makes you different from everyone else. That assumption in itself is kind of arrogant! The fact is, people gossip and backbite in graduate school but they do it as a general thing. You are likely not that important to them, in either a good or a bad way.

In practical terms, I think you need to tune your interactions and mend a few relationships, particularly with your supervisor. Don't go to her and say, "Do you think I'm arrogant?" Just start doing better. The amount of self-justification you're doing in this post is worrying. You need to drop it and start working with people on a more equal basis. (I do believe it's possible that there is sexism at work here, and people being threatened by your superior ability and no-nonsense presentation, but the self-justification makes me think there's a problem on your side too.)
posted by BibiRose at 7:07 AM on December 28, 2012


'Perhaps English is not the first language' has been suggested here more than once; I don't quite know what to think.. OP's writing is a bit stilted and overly formal; it is so much "Just the facts, ma'am" that one could argue that the entirety of OP's personality save for the potential arrogance has been kept out of the posting.

Which is something I occasionally struggle with; it may or may not be an accurate insight here... If it is, though, it's likely this particular tone is also conveyed to people in real life, and that it is something to work on.

Writing (and speaking) in a friendly, informal fashion does not involve writing badly and it may be useful to keep that in mind -- communicating in a manner appropriate to the circumstances is a skill; 'good writing' is not the same everywhere and a more laid-back approach in dealing directly with individuals would probably serve you well.

Do you want to be considered a "strong character"? Particularly in a context that involves "weak" actors. It may seem counter-intuitive if you aren't used to it, but going through life with humility (critical! As mentioned, you are totally replaceable to your co-workers) and feeling that your purpose is to help others (as is everybody else's) will produce in you, and convey to others, a much, much "stronger" character than bluffing about how important your time is. When I was in Comp Lit I used to make jokes about how if [the entire floor we were on] disappeared overnight, absolutely nobody was going to notice or care, and that was true. Life's short and what you're doing is really nowhere near as important as you may be thinking it is. Which isn't to suggest that you need to slack off, but a sense of humour about it and prioritising humanity above all else makes for a happier course through it all.
posted by kmennie at 7:08 AM on December 28, 2012


First of all, if you're concerned that your supervisor things you're arrogant, go to the source. "I've been getting feedback lately that I'm percieved as arrogant. While I hope that I'm projecting a professional demeanor, I don't want to come off as arrogant. Can you think of anything that I'm doing that would cause people to think this? Can you help me come up with some strategies to overcome the perception?"

Now, you're asking for help and for additional feedback from someone whom you resepct.

As for dealing with people reporting to you. Remember this, a supervisors job is to remove impediments so that their direct reports can easily do their jobs. You should encourage people to come to you, to talk to you, to solicit your advice about things in the workplace. If you're supervising others, that is your PRIMARY job, everything else can wait.

I often take initiatives to improve the workplace so it may seem to others that I like to take control and boss people around. I also have to help and guide other students. It is very important that they value my time, do some background reading and be aware that I’m very busy. Therefore, I find it extremely rude when another student interrupts me, demands attention immediately and engages me in a discussion.

This paragraph smacks of arrogance (as others have noted.) It's not rude when people interrupt you, if you're charged with helping them. It's not rude to demand attention, if you're the person they need to help them. And engage in discussion??? I'm sure you didn't meant to say that. People are allowed to talk to you.

Also, during presentations, just don't speak. See what happens. I used to mouth off all the time and then I learned to ask three questions:

1. Does this need to be said?

2. Dose this need to be said by me?

3. Does this need to be said by me now?

Usually, the world would continue to spin if I kept my mouth shut.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 7:51 AM on December 28, 2012 [2 favorites]


It is very important that they value my time, do some background reading and be aware that I’m very busy. Therefore, I find it extremely rude when another student interrupts me, demands attention immediately and engages me in a discussion.

As others have commented, this is quite arrogant. It has nothing to do with being a strong-minded woman with "moxie".

Please allow me to lend some perspective. Multinational corporations pay hundreds of dollars an hour for my time, so unless the compensation of postgraduate students has dramatically changed since I was in graduate school, the market values my time rather more than yours. With that in mind, I realize that I will have interruptions from co-workers and other people, people will "demand" my immediate attention (what does this mean? I hope not someone saying, "could I ask a quick question?"), and that yes, people will actually engage me in discussions. If "people engaging in discussions" is part of the definition of "rude", there is no such thing as politeness.

But, even though no one gets to interrupt you or have a discussion with you, you have a favorite pastime of commenting during presentations given by others. Why do you think that behavior is polite? I give and attend a good number of presentations in my line of work, and pretty much everyone in every audience knows to keep their mouths shut when someone is presenting. Yes, there might be an occasional question during a transition in the presentation, but people generally have the good sense to keep them to a minimum because they are interruptions that disrupt the flow of the presentation. Questions are usually reserved until the end, and there is definitely not any "commenting a lot" as you did during A's presentation. If I were A, I would I have asked that you save the comments until the end of the presentation. I don't know what A's "aggressive response" was, but if you kept blurting out comments while he was attempting to give a presentation, I think he response was probably justified.

I am not sure what "I often take initiatives to improve the workplace" means. Do you take it upon yourself to make change that you think are an improvement without consultation with anyone else? Again, maybe things have changed since I was in graduate school, but in my day, postgraduate students were on the bottom of the totem pole. If you have an idea to improve the workplace, it would certainly be acceptable to share your idea with the appropriate person in charge. It doesn't just "seem" that you like to take control.

I am sure that you are smart, motivated, and productive. However, I bet so is just about everyone else you work with. No matter how smart and competent you are, there is still such a thing as courtesy. It is a way of treating people in the way we wish to be treated. A good way to be more inclined to courtesy is not to classify people as "the strong" and "the weak". As a piece of practical advice, no manner how much of a "strong character" you might be, there is always going to be a stronger character and they just might decide that you are a weak character and deal with you accordingly.
posted by Tanizaki at 8:09 AM on December 28, 2012 [7 favorites]


I think a lot of your issues can be mitigated by adjusting your thinking and approach. I was particularly struck by how you talked about needing to help students...and then described it in a way that essentially sounds burdensome and profoundly annoying.

Part of guiding people is building them up emotionally. Being successful in any endeavor requires both knowledge AND confidence in your knowledge and problem solving skills. You are clearly competent, but I'm sure you didn't pop out of the womb armed and ready with your skill set. We all need help and mentoring, and sometimes as we advance we forget when we we were green and bugged other people with questions that now seem obvious. If your instructors were really good, you probably didn't even know you were putting them out, but I promise that at least once in your life you were.

Now maybe you did way less of this than others because you are quick and industrious. Awesome! That will serve you in your career and help you scale the ranks faster than your less quick-witted peers, but if you want to go all the way, you will need to work on your people skills. There will always be people who are slow to grasp things around you - at school, at work, in your family - and they will slow you down and make you crazy. Help them anyway. Be nice anyway. If anything, they need your help that much more, and if you truly embrace a mentoring verses a helping mentality, you will probably become a more effective teacher and you will gain respect and goodwill in the process.

Being likable isn't necessarily essential to being successful, but I promise it will make your road to success a hell of a lot less difficult.
posted by amycup at 8:14 AM on December 28, 2012 [1 favorite]


Thank you for all your comments. I found some very good suggestions here. I have to clarify that I'm not paid to help the students because I'm in a different environment. Instead I'm paid by a scholarship to complete a PhD within a given timeframe. Most of the time I voluteer to help the students but appreciate them to value my time in return. When I mean "engage in a discussion", I'm referring to an unplanned conversation (mainy that person talking) that can take up to an hour (which in my opinion, should be a properly scheduled meeting). And no, I only give constructive advices during Q&A but most students don't see it that way. Many think comments will only prevent them from completing their degrees as soon as possible. Ya so it totally make sense not to comment at all. It's clear that there are issues I need to work on which has a lot to do with how I think. I believe that identifying the problem is half way to solving problem :)
posted by liltiger at 8:23 AM on December 28, 2012


You sound like some successful academics I know except you are one step lower on the totem pole and you are also a woman. I don't want to totally dismiss any of the potentially valid complaints about you (there is almost always room for improvement) but it's also hard not to acknowledge that people are quicker to ascribe negative personality traits to women who are not letting people walk all over them.

People interrupting is a very frustrating thing, because often the sort of works academics do takes a long time to even be prepared and it can be thrown out the window by interruptions. The key is to be clear about your expectations and to be nice about it rather than letting your frustration show. "Sorry, now is not a good time to talk. Can you send me an email about your question and then maybe we can set up a time to talk about it?"

Also, unless criticism is actually your job (you are in an instructor/student relationship rather than a peer relationship) criticism should be reserved for those who you think will value it. I hold in most criticism during presentations unless it is during a "practice talk" for a more important talk elsewhere.
posted by grouse at 8:35 AM on December 28, 2012 [1 favorite]


I have to clarify that I'm not paid to help the students because I'm in a different environment. Instead I'm paid by a scholarship to complete a PhD within a given timeframe.

Do you teach classes/TA? Do you supervise undergraduates as part of your research? Because in that case, part of being a member of the "community" involves shooting the breeze about research/discussing something about your field, etc. When I was an undergraduate, I never went up to grad students that I didn't actually know/work with/were taught by, and I suspect that the undergrads are the same. They have some pre-existing relationship with you and want to talk to you about work/research because that's the expected day-to-day norm. If you can't talk right then, it is ok to say you're busy working on something.

When I mean "engage in a discussion", I'm referring to an unplanned conversation (mainy that person talking) that can take up to an hour (which in my opinion, should be a properly scheduled meeting).

When I was a grad student, the only time I told a fellow student to "make an appointment" to meet with me, it was highly in jest. As I said, people understand if you're busy and don't have time. But if your reaction is, "please send me a Meeting Request via Outlook", then, yes, that can come across as arrogant.

I think there's a culture clash here. It might be that in your home country, there are stricter, well-defined hierarchies and formalities in graduate school, whereas in the US and the UK, there are the professors and "everyone else." The graduate students don't schedule appointments and keep "office hours" outside of scheduled sessions for the classes they TA. They're not supposed to have opinions about other grad students' work, unless they're collaborating, and they're definitely not supposed to act as surrogate advisors (eg, declaring that the student needs more data or micromanaging their presentation).* And someone who takes "initiatives to improve the workplace" are bad enough at an actual workplace, much less in a grad school office. People have their routines and don't want someone else imposing by "shaking things up" for their own good. Because everyone is just trying to finish their thesis. It's why this story in The Onion is funny.

* OTOH, there was a situation where I do wish some friends had given me a hand with pointing out that I needed more data for a job talk, but they were trusted friends. That said, my favorite catch phrases during talks are, "that's coming up in another slide" and "let's talk about that offline."
posted by deanc at 8:57 AM on December 28, 2012 [2 favorites]


It it bugs you to sit there and endure rude students talking to you, stop volunteering.

I think you misunderstand. It doesn't appear that liltiger is going to some organized volunteering center and waiting for students to show up. Rather they are going to her regular place of work while she is doing the work she is paid for and expected to do, and interrupting her for help with their work. The only "volunteering" she is doing is voluntarily helping the other students at that point.

I can't imagine a male academic ever being admonished with "sweetheart" and "doll." I don't care who it comes from; that's just inappropriate.
posted by grouse at 9:05 AM on December 28, 2012 [8 favorites]


Hello, fellow academic here (humanities, if that matters). In my department, asking multiple questions and offering more than one piece of constructive criticism during a presentation would be seen as extremely aggressive, especially if you are a peer of the person giving the presentation (it's aggressive either way, but the faculty can get away with it). Your gender is immaterial to this point - I've been in multiple conversations about male graduate students that pulled that sort of thing, and they all went along the lines of, "what a dick."

There's no need to entirely keep your opinions to yourself, but it's a good idea to give yourself one question per presentation - maybe one followup queestion, but only if it's clear that the question is coming from a place of excitement and engageement, not criticism. It's not your job to tell people what's wrong with their work - the faculty have that shit covered.

As far as the discussions go, it sounds like what's happening is that these people are just trying to engage you in conversation, and you're telling them to schedule a meeting with you. This is, in fact, extremely arrogant. It's totally ok to not have time to talk, but you need to figure out a way to communicate that to people without implying that they're a bunch of trivial idiots. It's great to value your own time, but it's arrogant to assume you're the only one whose time is valuable. See the difference?
posted by Ragged Richard at 9:24 AM on December 28, 2012 [2 favorites]


The cultures between disciplines are radically different, so it's actually hard to know how to answer your question without that info.

In a science or engineering lab, while you may need to soften your style in responding to more junior students or explaining why they need to prepare you are totally reasonable in expecting them to value your time and/or not interrupt your experiments without good cause. In fact, I might even hazard that it is a valuable skill that too few women learn, and that competent people become overburdened taking care of other people's things in lab settings. However, it's still worth keeping in mind that these are (and will be) your peers and colleagues, so it's important to treat them with kindness and respect, even when being firm. In addition, if you're staying in academia, you WILL need to mentor students, and drop everything for them all the time. That is, in part, what you will be paid to do. To address one of your other points, in the sciences, it is often part of the culture to hold all but the most technical clarifications until after a talk (unless it's an informal lab group) and then to only ask one or at most two of your juiciest content-related ones (often prefaced by "great work! I was just wondering....") I actually don't know how questions go in engineering talks though.

In most of the humanities/soft sciences, your core justifications are mostly reasonable, but yeah, you need to be more responsive and open and immediately helpful and quiet during talks unless the culture of your subdomain happens to be more individualistic than most. It doesn't sound like it is. Again, you could probably achieve a lot of this just through style and friendliness levels.

And if you're an economist (or in finance, etc), carry on as you are, because the behavior you describe is actually somewhat common and useful in that (incidentally male-dominated) culture. A strong personality and sense of self will help you there, but make sure you have the merit to back it up because you'll get jumped on if you make a strong assertion that you have to withdraw.
posted by synapse at 9:33 AM on December 28, 2012 [1 favorite]


OK, so it's difficult to tell students you don't have time to talk. But you don't, so you shouldn't. To be honest, even if it's not part of your funded research, I think assisting students is a great thing to do as part of your professional development, but not if it prevents you from completing your thesis in the allotted time. These students don't know your circumstances, and even if they did chances are they won't wholly understand because they've yet to experience the world of research and the associated boundaries. You need to set boundaries.

I get paid a pitiful amount to teach alongside my research grant. I'm only paid for the hours I am teaching, not for any prep or feedback time. At the end of a session, if students ask a question that I can't answer at that moment, I tell them to email the course convenor. I actively discourage them from getting in contact with me outside of class because they'll get better, more thoughtful response from the course convenor who is actually paid to give feedback as well as leading teaching sessions.
posted by dumdidumdum at 9:42 AM on December 28, 2012


My workplace is a bit toxic with at least one student (known as A) who constantly talk behind my back.

Yeah, and you're talking behind A's back. What's your point? I'm not saying that just to be contrary, but instead to point out that you might need to take a step back to view your own behavior as objectively and critically as possible.

As a thought exercise, don't think about your own wants and needs. Think about yourself as a black box, observable only from the outside. How does your behavior make you look to others? When you're trying to help out a student, or trying to organize your own time by eliminating distractions, how does it come off? Can you think of a specific scene from your life where, looking back, you feel that you handled something less than perfectly? If it were a scene in a movie, how would the audience feel about your character?

It is very much true that women who are dominant and assertive are generally perceived more harshly than men who behave similarly. This is wrong and unfair. That said, it does not mean that how you interact with students must be 100% perfect, and that to modulate your behavior would be to appease the patriarchy.

Relating to others, giving feedback, etc. are all skills unto themselves. You are not perfect at these things. Nobody is perfect at these things. These skills can always be improved. People spend a good deal of time and energy learning how to better work with and lead others.

Try getting into a mindset where you know that you have to get better at this, while also having faith that you can make yourself better at this. Whether your interpersonal skills are just fine or if they're in need of immediate attention, there's no harm in thinking of better ways to go about things. With that in mind, how will you improve your interpersonal relationship skills? I don't know what your environment is like, so I can't say specifically "how" you should act. What I can suggest are old chestnuts like How to Win Friends and Influence People and The Gentle Art of Verbal Self-Defense. Think about ways to make it clear what you need, and what you have to refuse, without devaluing other people or making them feel stupid.
posted by Sticherbeast at 10:10 AM on December 28, 2012


And no, I only give constructive advices during Q&A but most students don't see it that way. Many think comments will only prevent them from completing their degrees as soon as possible.

The main thing that stands out to me in all this is the complete certainty that your advice/comments are constructive and useful. Why are you so sure of this? Do you have lots of experience with giving / receiving constructive advice and seeing the results? Training in research mentorship? Giving constructive feedback is a skill, and not necessarily one that is quick / easy to acquire. It is especially challenging to learn to give feedback to peers. For example, I can tell you that it is not particularly useful to discuss every idea occurs to you during someone's talk, something it sounds like you're doing. In fact, in most circumstances it is much better to pick one or two that are important (and the exercise of trying to see what is important is useful in itself.) It is reasonably common for ambitious younger grad students to over-talk in their peers' talks, and this is also usually seen as a signifier of arrogance. In my experience, most grad students who do this are forgetting that the talk isn't about them and their ideas. If you really want to ask lots of questions, consider doing it offline, over email. (And if this doesn't appeal to you, think very very hard about why.)

I'd also recommend trying to pay attention to the cues of other people in the talk. If a grad student does what you describe yourself doing, I or another faculty member will eventually shut it down. Is this happening? If you are the only one asking lots of questions in the middle of the talk, consider that you are probably violating some cultural norms, which you should learn not to do. The reason that this is perceived as arrogance is that this involves putting your ideas and questions above what is the norm, ie again making the talk about you.
posted by advil at 10:29 AM on December 28, 2012 [8 favorites]


And no, I only give constructive advices during Q&A but most students don't see it that way. Many think comments will only prevent them from completing their degrees as soon as possible.

If most students don't view your comments as constructive, then they're not. One person, it could just as easily be them as it could be you, but you have multiple people who find your comments unhelpful and unless they have stated that you are holding them back from getting a degree, you are just assigning a motive to them. Don't to that. It's not fair to the students and is actually quite arrogant to assume you know what someone else is thinking.

Try something totally different and pledge to yourself that during the next three presentations you will stay totally silent. Don't worry so much about the presentations, focus on how the professors and your peers act in these settings. See how they phrase their comments. Watch how often they speak up and when. Ad then go home and get real with yourself. Do you talk more than the average? More during the presentation? More during the question period? Are you trying to steer conversations more towards your area of study and do other people do that? Success at work is, at times, more about fitting in than standing out. Being able to gel with the atmosphere is a very important skill. Long-term I'm not saying stop talking, but take some time to observe your peers.

I was very insecure as a child and always had the need to be the smartest in the room. It was an awful thing and it alienated me so much from my peers. I still have moments where I need to remember to bite my tongue. For me, once I realized this was my problem, I just got used to observing the flow of a group before I started making more than one or two comments in a meeting.
posted by GilvearSt at 10:52 AM on December 28, 2012 [3 favorites]


They're not supposed to have opinions about other grad students' work, unless they're collaborating, and they're definitely not supposed to act as surrogate advisors (eg, declaring that the student needs more data or micromanaging their presentation).

This is definitely something that varies between departments. In my field, students who don't offer constructive criticism and share opinions about each others work are considered sort of out of the community and not invested in helping others, which is not a good thing. Every department/field is going to be different, so it seems like perhaps what you need to do here is just be more aware of how others are behaving and try to do a better job of matching it.
posted by rainbowbrite at 11:28 AM on December 28, 2012 [1 favorite]


In my field, students who don't offer constructive criticism and share opinions about each others work are considered sort of out of the community and not invested in helping others, which is not a good thing.

Well, there's a difference between discussing research and approaches together up at the white board and, "I think your topic is derivative and bullshit and that you're threatened by the brilliance of my work." Everyone is just trying to finish. Though in my program, there were specific forums to offer feedback while we were trying to hammer out our thesis proposals. Unsolicited input to offer "helpful guidance" would have come across as odd.
posted by deanc at 11:41 AM on December 28, 2012


To those saying that these students are interrupting her normal work, she said, "I also have to help and guide other students." For some postgrads in lab environments, supervising and training undergrad lab assistants and orienting new graduate students are components of their paid responsibilities.
posted by salvia at 12:26 PM on December 28, 2012


I can't imagine a male academic ever being admonished with "sweetheart" and "doll." I don't care who it comes from; that's just inappropriate.

Why are you making this comment? The words sweetheart and doll aren't mentioned anywhere in her post. Did I miss something?
posted by grudgebgon at 3:24 PM on December 28, 2012


Why are you making this comment? The words sweetheart and doll aren't mentioned anywhere in her post. Did I miss something?

It was a response to another comment that appears to be deleted now.
posted by grouse at 3:53 PM on December 28, 2012


There are two possibilities: your communication style is mismatched to your professional environment, and you would be well served to work on adapting it, or a large number of people in your professional environment are turned off by your professional style for extraneous reasons (you remind them of their jerky school principal, they don't like international students, they don't like women students in your discipline, your hat smells like rotting apples, who knows).

Based on how your communication style has meshed and not meshed in this environment here on AskMe, I would suggest that it's worth looking at whether you could develop some more effective communication skills. Not to say that there might not be a bunch of extraneous stuff going on as well, but you do have control over how you communicate.

And volunteering to do things that make you impatient is probably not a great strategy.
posted by Sidhedevil at 4:18 PM on December 28, 2012


It's probably because we live in a sexist society and lots of people react badly to women who value their time and draw boundaries and say "no" instead of going along to get along. I wish things were different. Maybe you can try framing your comments in a more friendly way that allows others to, effectively, save face instead of looking like they are in a confrontation. Also academia can tend toward passive-agressive behavior, people do feel threatened by those who are motivated and efficient and productive - that's not your fault - but maybe you can strategize to say things in a way that makes them feel better, like asking open-ended questions that emphasize your interest and curiosity, and invite the person to elaborate on their work, rather than questions/comments that are critical.
posted by citron at 5:25 PM on December 28, 2012 [3 favorites]


Here's another angle on prevention I don't see mentioned above. Let me be very, very clear that I am not talking about batting your eyelashes and playing dumb. But, in general, in the workplace, especially the academic workplace, I have found it helpful when people underestimate me just a little. That allows for a reserve of competence with which to surprise them.

Now, as a fellow arrogant person, I am asking, as you may be right now, "Wow, what kind of idiot would possibly underestimate ME?" OK, when someone is constantly laying it down in their interactions with others, it's easy to tell that they prefer to lead with their strong suit (and let's hope that intelligence and competence actually ARE their strong suits). Rather than underestimating them, the casual observer is a lot more likely to think, "Geez, what an asshole," or "geez, that person is smart enough, but she sure is impressed with herself."

But in the case of someone who is always mellow, mellow to a fault, there's room for a little benign underestimation. Now, I am far from the always-mellow ideal, but at least that is now my ideal, rather than the fourth-grade-front-row-fractions-are-easy ideal I formerly embraced without meaning to.
posted by skbw at 10:05 AM on December 29, 2012


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