tension with a coworker
April 24, 2009 4:38 PM   Subscribe

Problem with a coworker

I am in a graduate program and I am having problems with a female coworker of mine. Since the past one year, I have noticed that she has been avoiding talking to me and also been ignoring me. I haven't been able to figure out the reason for this. The only clue I have is that she might be feeling a bit competitive with me. Once when she, I and some people were in the office lounge, someone asked my age. I told them what my age is. It turned out that she is one year younger than me and yet she has finished her topical while I am still working on my coursework. She said "Beat you to it" implying that she has gotten her topical done sooner than me. So that is what makes me think that she might be feeling jealous of me. I could be wrong. I don't think I am any brighter than she is, on the contrary I think that she is much more articulate than I am, so her feelings of competitiveness are unlikely to be for professional reasons. So I do not know why she behaves this way. At the risk of sounding vain, she might be feeling jealous of me for personal reasons, perhaps because she thinks I look better than her or something like that. ( This is pure speculation on my part.) I think she is quite attractive but she might have low self-esteem.

All this while I have been incredibly nice to her, complimented her when I genuinely liked something about her ( be it her dress, if she makes a nice point in class and taken an interest in her and so forth. I have also always tried to greet her. I have also tried to do this in a non-intrusive way. But there has been no response from her side.)

Anyway, things have come to a stage where this has begun to affect me. She always organizes social gatherings in which I am not invited, so this affects my social life. I try to avoid going to the lounge when she is there and this unnecessarily restricts my movement. It is also frustrating that I cannot talk about this with anyone in my department, so everyone is completely unaware of it. This angers me and hurts me.

I would like to make one formal attempt to normalize my relationship with her. Trying to talk to her hasn't helped so I was wondering if I should send an email to her and ask her if I have unwittingly done something to hurt her . I would also like to ask her if we can have a cordial working relationship for our remaining time in the department. ( I am not trying to be friends with her at this point.)

Do you think it is a good idea to email her? If yes, what exactly should I write in the email? What is her response likely to be? Can having one conversation with her in which she and I clear the air help?

posted by anonymous to Human Relations (22 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Don't put anything in writing. Have a conversation with her. Do it face to face where nobody else can hear you. No need to bring anyone else in on this.
posted by torquemaniac at 4:52 PM on April 24, 2009 [3 favorites]

Definitely second not putting anything in writing. Also, if the social gathering situation bothers you so much, could you organize some social gatherings yourself (in which you always invite her)?

If you do decide to speak with her in person, don't apologize for yourself or act that you assume she is jealous of you. Just ask her politely if you've ever done anything to offend her because you notice she's rather stand-offish with you and you would love for that to change so that you two can have a better working and social relationship. If she tries to duck out of the situation claiming she's just busy or whatever I wouldn't press it any further. Unfortunately you can't force people to like you and sometimes shitty situations like this just come up. In a few years from now once you've graduated, you'll have long forgotten about this.
posted by sickinthehead at 4:55 PM on April 24, 2009

She doesn't seem to like you. I would just ignore her back. If you talk to her or email her, she will probably be even more pissed at your need to interact with her. Don't bug her.
posted by anniecat at 4:59 PM on April 24, 2009

There's nothing good that can come over confronting colleagues over personal issues like this. I'm in the same boat. Do what I do, draw a picture of her falling into a snakepit and then throw it out. Draw her on a banana and smoosh it. If you wanna out-awesome her in some way, feel free, I'm sure you have plenty of options in that area. But if she's already acting like this to you, RUDE, sounds like, don't make yourself vulnerable to her by opening up. Just focus on other social avenues, and don't avoid her deliberately; that's awkwardness. Just pretend you have no interest in her one way or the other, and be cordial.
posted by Ambrosia Voyeur at 5:08 PM on April 24, 2009

People who behave this way in a work situation are rude and unprofessional. I think the best thing for you to do is to stop worrying about her and her behavior, and not worry about fixing it. Throw your own parties or get your own social stuff going. You can invite her, or not, it clearly doesn't matter to her.

As Americans we have this disease where we want to be liked by everyone. She obviously doesn't like you for some reason, so don't waste your energy and your emotions on her. Detachment and cool professional behavior are your answer here. Maybe once she sees that you really don't care if she's ignoring you she will stop, but my guess is that both of you will be happier out of each other's hair.

Also - don't avoid her. If she is somewhere you want to be, like the lounge, be there. It's a free country, and if she has a problem, then she can leave.
posted by anniek at 5:14 PM on April 24, 2009

Yeah, do not put anything in writing.

For clarification, if she's inviting a bunch of people to these social events, they aren't saying "Hey, where is Anonymous?" to her? They aren't asking you, "Anonymous, where were you Friday?" If these questions are not being asked, then part of the problem is that these people are not huge friends of yours. Cultivate new friends who are not related to your work.

I might not confront her at all. I would probably just act as if she has no effect over your life. Stop avoiding the lounge; you have as much right to be there as she. Like they said upthread, have your own gatherings. Once you've established this, any discussion with her will not take place from a position of weakness. You will have a lower chance of being perceived as begging for inclusion in her social circle.
posted by adipocere at 5:22 PM on April 24, 2009

No additional help here, except to say that
I think she is quite attractive
is completely irrelevant to
she might have low self-esteem.

Witness: anorexic supermodels, movie stars ODing on drugs, and half of the beautiful "in-crowd" from your high school.

Then witness: happily married fat, gap-toothed, funny-looking, old & wrinkly people, behaving as though no one cared how they looked. And good-looking people too: it really is irrelevant.
posted by IAmBroom at 5:26 PM on April 24, 2009

Ditto the above, with an added caveat - are you in a field that is competitive? In a competitive program? Guess what - you're the competition. She doesn't give a crap about you, because she's one of those super-achiever types. They can indeed be assholes. They don't have to be, but this one is.

Here's an anecdote: When I was in grad school, our year bonded pretty well. The second year, a new kid came in. He was from a super-competitive school for archaeology. (Why the hell he wanted to do his PhD at a state school with a meh track record still eludes me.) For the first half of the year we were convinced he was a freak. In fact, one of my good friend was convinced he'd murdered someone at some point. (Again, I don't know why.) Suddenly, one day in the pub - he'd accepted one of our invitations when he realized even the Mormon guy came - he came clean. He'd finally accepted that we weren't going to stab him for grant money.

She always organizes social gatherings in which I am not invited, so this affects my social life.

If they're professional things, well,...that's kind of uncool. Figure out why. But what, she doesn't invite you to parties? Pfft. She doesn't have a monopoly on them. Also, go with a friend. This kind of reads like you don't have any friends in the program, and I wonder why.

I try to avoid going to the lounge when she is there and this unnecessarily restricts my movement.

Why? Just go and do your work. You don't need to interact with her, unless you're all, I don't know, in a PhD for voice acting or something.

It is also frustrating that I cannot talk about this with anyone in my department, so everyone is completely unaware of it.

You mean you can't say to ANYONE, 'Hey, Steve's kind of a bitch?' Once again, I question your general socialization in the program. Is that something that's acceptable/wanted/possible? Why just this one person? Why are you letting one person screw with you like this? I spent enough time being a doormat myself, and only after working in customer service after quitting my PhD have I generally stopped letting this get to me. It now takes a big guy physically menacing me to get me to shake.
posted by cobaltnine at 5:27 PM on April 24, 2009

Ask her. You obviously want to know, and it's been eating at you, and unless you find someone else in your department that can tell you why, you're going to have to ask her. Is it a good idea? Maybe not, but at least you'll know that you tried to figure out what's going on.

Pretty much what sickinthehead said: Ask her if she's mad at you, and why. If she replies honestly, then you can decide how to take it from there: If it's something that can't be fixed, you don't have to put in any more extra energy or go out of your way to be friendly to her. Just be civil. If it's reparable, then you can work on your relationship with her.
posted by Seboshin at 5:37 PM on April 24, 2009

Hello, and welcome to adulthood, where not everyone will like you and there is jack shit you can do about it except shrug and move on.
posted by DarlingBri at 5:42 PM on April 24, 2009 [10 favorites]

I work with one lady who I find extremely annoying, but is nice and sweet in her own way I guess, so instead of throttling her physically, or beating her into the mold of someone else, I ignore most of what she says that is not work related, it keeps me sane.
posted by kanemano at 5:53 PM on April 24, 2009

The "suck it up" answers here aren't exactly helpful...but you're going about things in absolutely the wrong way.

I'm in a graduate program and I took a class in which I managed to offend not one, but several classmates. I can't explain exactly how this happened...I can be quite argumentative when pressed on a point, and I don't think I had quite adjusted to grad school culture, in which people are generally much more sensitive then in the "real world" (I took some time off before coming back to school). The professor was also quite bad at moderating debates in class and help let things get out of hand. At any rate, having so many people suddenly not think much of me caused me a huge amount of stress, because, as you intimate, graduate schools are small worlds, and these people are literally everywhere you look. Reputation also plays a big role in navigating grad school life, so you don't want enemies.

But you're going about things in almost the exact opposite way that you should be. You really should be looking out much more for yourself, and not caring about this person's feelings. Here are a few pointers:

- Quit trying to be friends with this person. It's not going to work. In fact weird compliments are just going to make the situation much worse. I can't fathom what things would have been like for me had I tried that approach...it's really a bad idea.

- Instead of keeping quiet about the situation, talk about it...in fact, talk about it as much as you can. I told everybody I knew who I got along with about what happened in my situation, and I think every one of them took my side on the issue. You have to build up allies in a situation like this...and people gossip, so your allies will then become your PR men and women.

- Walk around with absolute impunity. Do not avoid the lounge or other places because this person is there. If you are forced to talk to them, be polite, but don't overdo it with the compliments like you are doing.

- Here's a sneakier strategy: instead of trying to be friends with this person, see if you can become friends with their friends. Don't bring up the issues you have with them. Just be a nice, regular person and have conversations. Stories of you being a decent person will again start circulating again, so if this person gives you attitude, you'll stand a better chance of winning the PR battle.

These strategies worked for me. I managed to avoid some of these people I alienated for the rest of the year...some of the others actually came around and I get along with them well enough. So quit with the weirdness and start fighting this like it's an actual fight.
posted by hiteleven at 5:57 PM on April 24, 2009 [4 favorites]

I think she is quite attractive [...] All this while I have been incredibly nice to her, complimented her when I genuinely liked something about her ( be it her dress, if she makes a nice point in class and taken an interest in her and so forth. I have also always tried to greet her. I have also tried to do this in a non-intrusive way.

Perhaps she thinks you're romantically interested in her and is not at all interested in you. I'm in a male-dominated field (no clue what field you're in) and if I think a coworker is getting too friendly, I get very frosty, very fast. If a guy complimented my clothes and I wasn't interested in dating him, I would definitely start giving off these mean vibes. I don't want that kind of crap going on at work and certainly want to nip it in the bud the second I catch wind of it.

You are under no obligation to try to compliment her or make her feel better about herself. Do you make your male coworkers' self-esteem your business? She's your colleague, not your daughter.
posted by crinklebat at 6:34 PM on April 24, 2009 [2 favorites]

I think crinklebat may be on the right track.

You mention that your colleague is female. This is a relevant point to you. She avoids you. You then mention that she might feel that you are too attractive and she is jealous. She is attractive but may have low self-esteem in your view. You give her compliments about her clothes and things she says. You always say hi. You want to talk about whether you hurt her feelings.

I fail to see how most of this could be described as professional commentary about a co-worker. It sounds more like you creep her out by talking about how she looks and thinking about how attractive she is.

Instead of emailing her, I'd suggest leaving her alone. All of her actions seem to indicate this is what she wants. Emailing her that you want to be friends will not help.
posted by hardcore taters at 6:53 PM on April 24, 2009 [3 favorites]

Also - if she is acting like this to you, everyone else can sense it. These people are going to be your colleages (yours and hers both) after school is over, too. Don't do anything to lower yourself to that petty level.

I don't see any reason why you should avoid the subject, though. Don't say anything negative about her - not "Oh her, she's this or that," just "Oh, her? Well I get the impression she doesn't like me, but I don't know why. (shrug)" Maybe someone will tell you why.
posted by ctmf at 7:00 PM on April 24, 2009 [1 favorite]

I attended a very competitive graduate school and the students a year ahead of me were generally condescending, distant and competitive to the new students. I managed to offend the queen bee in the art studio next to me and became a pariah. I am laughing as I type this because it's so irrelevant to my life now.

I decided to focus on my artwork and my solo show because that would benefit me the most, rather than trying to please a bunch of petty competitive people. The first year I frequently described myself as "lawn furniture" because that's how my social position felt. My body of work became a great support.

During my second year, I lead a seminar with all first years, and vowed not to do that to the new students. I created a very high energy, shared resource environment with the newbies, and they complied because they didn't know they were supposed to be hazed by the older students. The seminar tripled in size and became the talk of the department.

The energy from the seminar helped me gain momentum and have a very successful graduate show. And those folks who didn't have time for me suddenly became aware of my existence.

Put your energy into your work and people who are kind to begin with and not those who don't treat you well.
posted by effluvia at 7:03 PM on April 24, 2009 [5 favorites]

You need to say something along the lines of:

WTF womam? What's with organising social gatherings and not inviting me? That makes me feel like crap, and makes me think that you have a problem with me.

Do you have a problem with me?

If so what it is?

If not WTF with not inviting me to social gatherings?

Life's too short for shit like this, and who's got the mental energy to spend on someone else's opinion of you? Get to to fess us or fuck off.
posted by mattoxic at 12:31 AM on April 25, 2009

I agree with crinklebat - She may think you're romantically interested in her.
posted by belau at 7:05 AM on April 25, 2009

All this while I have been incredibly nice to her, complimented her when I genuinely liked something about her ( be it her dress, if she makes a nice point in class and taken an interest in her and so forth. I have also always tried to greet her. I have also tried to do this in a non-intrusive way. But there has been no response from her side.)

It would be very helpful to know whether you are a man or a woman. Could you email the mods and ask them to post this? From the way you wrote I guessed that you are a woman, but other people seem to be assuming you are male.

If you are a man, and you're complimenting her clothes even though she obviously doesn't like you, then you're being kind of creepy.

Either way: your comment about being nice to her stands out for me. If she's being an asshole to you, why are you sucking up to her? From your description, it sounds a bit like an alpha/beta girl relationship in high school: she's the popular one, and you're trying to join the popular crowd. She's bullying you (in a way) and getting away with it.

I wouldn't suggest trying to discuss it with her. I would suggest that you stop being nice - in fact, I would suggest that you start being rude - and work on making friends with other people in the program. Have parties and don't invite her, hang out in the lounge and talk over her, etc. Send the message that you're not submissive to her.
posted by medusa at 8:25 AM on April 25, 2009

Don't discuss it with her in writing or in person. Leave her alone. Make friends in the program or elsewhere. Figure out why you care about this one person's approval so much.
posted by vincele at 11:30 AM on April 25, 2009

(I assume the poster is female because one of her possible theories is that her coworker thinks the poster looks better than her and is jealous. I guess it's possible for a guy to think a female coworker is jealous of him because he's better looking than her, but it seems unlikely.)
posted by Ian A.T. at 12:12 PM on April 25, 2009

let it go. don't avoid her, don't try to beguile her into friendship. she isn't interested. invest in an ipod so you can sit in the lounge where she is without paying attention to her. make friends, be friendly with other people.

i wouldn't obsess about this.
posted by thinkingwoman at 4:37 PM on April 25, 2009

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