Contempt as a response to cynicism: Is it a trap?
November 23, 2009 10:34 PM   Subscribe

Out of despair I've started to respond to a co-worker's cynicism with contempt. I feel like I'm heading into an emotional trap.

A guy at work is a bit of a cynical git who jumps into conversations unwanted and starts mocking the participants if he doesn't take a personal interest in the subject topic. I'm not sure why. Maybe he's too cool for school. Either way I've taken to ignoring him but he's recently started actively jump into conversations pointing out the faults of others in the presence of superiors (despite getting aggressively defensive himself should his personal failings come up) and generally being a conversation derailing douche when said superiors are not around.

I've gotten to the point where I let him say his spiel and then when he finished I turned back to the original person and said "as I was saying before dingus interrupted" which seemed to have shut him up for a bit.

But it just don't sit right. I feel like I'm going down a bad road but it was just so effective.
posted by Talez to Human Relations (24 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Is this guy your friend? I'm not sure what the problem is. Sounds like you did exactly what was needed. I often find myself wishing I'd said something like this in similar situations after the fact. I bet all the other folks involved were glad you were there, and that this probably deterred him from being an interrupting jerk again when you're around. Worst that can happen is that he'll say something about you behind your back to save face, and everyone else will nod or laugh nervously while silently wishing they could stand up to him like you did.
posted by a.steele at 10:46 PM on November 23, 2009 [3 favorites]

I'm sorry it's a PDF but it's only two pages.. Teaseproof Your Kids is a cute read about how a teacher managed to almost eradicate bullying (which is roughly what your guy's doing) in her class by giving the kids some techniques to cut meanies (like your guy) down to size.

Basically, the guy wants to look superior for whatever reason (low self esteem, narcissist, just bored, whatever) and if you let his words grind you down, he's achieved that in a way. Your new response, however, shows that you don't really care about his shenanigans, but not only that you don't care, that they don't really piss you off that much.

The one liner given to the kids, however, was confidently saying "Thanks for sharing that with me/us" before heading back to whatever you were doing. Your approach doesn't seem too far away from that sort of thing.
posted by wackybrit at 10:47 PM on November 23, 2009 [11 favorites]

Bravo on keeping your cool! Short of the 'dingus' bit (touch juvenile, if deserved), I'd say that's one level response to someone seemingly intent on your professional demise. I'd probably punch the guy. Ideally you would voice your concern to the assailant in a non-aggressive environment, however if you have trouble with confrontation perhaps a carefully worded email would help. If you're worried they might retaliate, cc your/their superior and detail how their behaviour is affecting staff morale/ office environment/ etc. If all that seems premature or an overreaction, stick with your current route. He's clearly begging for attention, deny him that and he may just go away.

Good luck!
posted by Miss Mitz at 10:52 PM on November 23, 2009

This is when you give him a withering, extremely bored look and wait. Just look at him like that and say nothing and don't react in any other way.. until he becomes embarrassed of himself.
posted by citron at 11:05 PM on November 23, 2009

But still it feels like contempt is the wrong way to address something like that. Like I'm going down into the gutter to fight it out.
posted by Talez at 11:05 PM on November 23, 2009

Maybe your wording left something to be desired the first time, like Miss Mitz said. But my guess is that it was effective enough that there won't be a second. If it happens again, you can maintain the higher ground by refraining from insults while still dismissing his unwarranted behavior. And it might give other people the confidence to do the same. Stand your ground and good luck!
posted by a.steele at 11:29 PM on November 23, 2009

A bit of light sarcasm can be just the thing for a dose of heavy cynicism. Top effect gained if you can say these in such a way that the interrupter is not actually sure if you're serious or sarcastic.

"Thanks. That's not an idea I would have had."

"Really, that is interesting. I'd not thought of it that way".

And then go straight back to what you were saying.
posted by handee at 11:45 PM on November 23, 2009 [2 favorites]

Honestly? Some people are bullies with words, and, like their physical contemporaries, only back down when they get a whuppin'. I don't know if it's the "right" way to deal with it, but phrases such as, "What value are you adding to the conversation?" and "Grown-ups are talking" can be remarkably effective.
posted by rodgerd at 12:18 AM on November 24, 2009 [2 favorites]

Teaseproof Your Kids is a cute read ...

But like all the Love and Logic product the anecdotes are fictional. Just look at the vocabulary they are putting into the mouths of second graders in that article. I call BS.
posted by LarryC at 12:19 AM on November 24, 2009

It sounds to me like you don't like that he got a rise out of you to the point that you publicly acknowledged and called him out on his behavior. It's ok that you did that. Sometimes that needs to happen, and you're not demonstrating any lack of control or lack of civility by reacting harshly or negatively towards him. But maybe your reaction was an indicator to you that a warning switch labeled 'emotional game playing ahead' was just flipped. Meaning that, you recognize that this is a potential trap of something, whatever it is, and you want no part of it. I guess my advice would be to not engage with him...even in your head. In fact, disengaging your thinking about him and his behavior might be beneficial, so that you are not indulging his attention needs with your valuable brain-power. Decide something to say around him when he's obnoxious so that you may continue your conversations, but don't give the matter any thought beyond that. It's not worth it, because overthinking this is being involved in it, and you don't want anything to do with this guy. It's a good opportunity to practice the art of letting go. That might be a way to deal with this that you'll feel good about.
posted by iamkimiam at 12:21 AM on November 24, 2009

There are two things here. Do you want to stop your coworker being cynical, or do you want to be able to deal with your coworkers cynicism? If the former, then short of having a quiet word, there's nothing you can/should do.

If the latter, then what I do (when I've been in this situation) is to counter all cynicism with an unbridled & optimistic love of life. I don't do this to make the situation better. I do it because it's a fun game that makes me chuckle when I think about it. This is my thing though, so may not work for you. However, I'd recommend that you consider this situation as a failing with yourself and look for a way for you to behave that (a) doesn't make you look like an idiot. and (b) allows you to cope with this guy.

also what iamkimiam says.
posted by seanyboy at 12:56 AM on November 24, 2009 [1 favorite]

Contempt is a powerful social weapon that can be used for both Evil and Good. For me, expressing contempt for cynical, poisonous attitudes falls firmly in the Good category. I mean, if you believe contempt has any place in human interaction at all, then surely putting down douchebags has to be it, right?

I admire you for your composure and level-headedness. If you want to defuse and discourage the behavior you describe above, calmly giving them the cold shoulder is very much the correct approach. I've met a few people like this (not at work, though), and every time I've lost my cool they seem to get a little kick out of it. They are not easily reasoned with, either. Essentially, if they manage to disrupt the conversation and distract the participants, they feel like they've won.
posted by Orchestra at 1:43 AM on November 24, 2009

I wouldn't see it as a trap. Subtle condescension works wonders with assholes when in these situations. Particularly if employed consistently for a certain duration, after which a sudden drop into a less thinly veiled tone will have even more impact.

Polite professional disdain and sarcasm is a powerful tool . . . particularly well employed in Britain, I might add . . .
posted by protorp at 1:48 AM on November 24, 2009

"as I was saying before dingus interrupted" feels weird because the message payload is too complicated, and it's not 100% honest.

The messages I see are
1) A message to who you're talking to: "The guy was interrupting, I didn't like it - I would like to resume talking."
2) A message to dingus: "You were interrupting without having anything to say. Do not interrupt. You are not allowed to interrupt my conversations."

The thing is that message 2 is not explicit enough in the actual words. It is being delivered with pain and shame - which mr. dingus deserves! - but it just WORKS much better if it's said directly. And you don't have to get your hands dirty.

My suggestion is: Find a honest, unselfish, loving and pure way to directly and explicitly mark boundaries for Dingus. Such as directly saying "Sorry, but we're having a conversation here that you are interrupting, please don't do that.". And then having said it softly once, next time can be "You are interrupting again. Do not do that." Preferably do that in private. Then next time, if there is one, you can say "You are INTERRUPTING ... AGAIN. DO NOT DO THAT." in front of some people. Most likely, if you deliver it gently the first time, the baser instincts of anger and retribution won't be invoked and he'll say "oh shit sorry". Just as long as the message is delivered directly. Probably he thinks he's lightening the mood and being a cool guy. But who cares what he thinks he is doing? Just deliver a direct message.

Honest, unselfish, loving and pure in what ratios fit the situation. And direct.
posted by krilli at 1:54 AM on November 24, 2009

I get where you're coming from. I've had to deal with more than my fair share of people like this ("more than my fair share" is the assessment of other, well-placed people who knew all parties involved, by the way, and were often involved themselves). Fellow managers have taught me a multi-pronged approach that works better than anything else I've yet tried, and it has the added bonus of sparing your soul! (I so, so understand how poisonous even "mild" contempt feels, even when you and everyone else recognizes that the person on the receiving end has given incontrovertible proof of being a dipweed.)

The Consensus-Building, Soul-Affirming Approach:
1. Do not respond to barbs, but do listen to them. I use the word "barb" purposefully; they're remarks that are fishing for a reaction, usually negative. Do not bite that hook.

2. Look for anything in their remark that can be construed constructively, towards a common goal, even when you know they're making the remark with a negative intent. I won't deny that this step often relies more on having excellent improvisation skills and a well-honed imagination, then on the actual words the negative person uses. Now, what's important is that that does not mean to invent something constructive whole-cloth; it is very important that it be a grain of truth, even if unsaid. A good fallback, if a grain of truth isn't quickly forthcoming, is to cheerily (as sincerely as possible) focus on teamwork and how everyone has everyone's backs. Insist on the assumption that everyone has everyone's backs, even if/when you know the person sowing discord doesn't. More on why in the next step.

3. Build consensus, using that constructive bit of what they've said! You will come across looking incredibly awesome to others, and the person trying to sow discord will be put in the position of either a. flat-out denying you, which they know would be an actionable offense (an employee who gives straight-out proof that they do not want to work towards a common goal), or b. keeping silent, perhaps even agreeing, since you did listen to them, after all. The brighter discord-sowers will nod and agree, since they know it's in their best interests — because it actually is! (See step 2.)

4. If the discord-sower escalates by refusing consensus, make note of it. Enough direct refusals to work in a team environment will eventually become good cause for some sort of discipline. (It all depends on your position and your company, of course.)

It can take an immense, sometimes seemingly superhuman, amount of strength to remain cheery and constructive when faced with the most poisonous cynics. It's essential to truly believe that your project is the end goal; this gives perspective. I've also found that being dedicated to this approach gives the advantage of knowing that you are sparing your soul and giving a good example to those who aren't trying to poison things, which makes it a bit easier to stand firm, smile and sincerely focus on the team unit. Also, it helps to know that if the discord-sower really does escalate, and does it often enough, and you've documented it well enough, well... at best, they can be put in positions where they can do little harm, and at worst, they may not keep their job for much longer, and you won't have to feel too rotten since you gave it your honest best.

If (when...) the pressure of dealing with an incorrigible saboteur gets too overwhelming, save it for a private time. Try to turn it into a joke. I tell my cats about dipweeds and congratulate them on being cats and only having to deal with regular weeds. (They like to eat my plants. Sigh.)

I will say that I have seen this approach work wonders. In the years I've seen it used, no one has ever had to be fired — the most "escalatory" among them have, however, been put in positions where they can do the least harm possible, because thanks to the documentation of escalations etc., everyone recognizes their difficulties. Yes, even managers around whom the saboteurs are on their best behavior, because when you've made an effort based on integrity, teamwork and the success of the project, it comes through in your own interactions with management. Even if it never cures some saboteurs, it essentially "boxes in" their poison and gives breathing space to others to do their jobs and know someone has their backs.

And you keep your soul happy. :)
posted by fraula at 2:00 AM on November 24, 2009 [19 favorites]

It took a while for me to figure out but if someone is being rude it's not rude to point it out.
posted by jon_kill at 5:09 AM on November 24, 2009 [2 favorites]

I think you can achieve the same effect without the contempt. Depending on the context, you could just stop talking, and when he's done continue what you were saying without acknowledging that anything happened, or with an "as I was saying". This will be even more effective if you can get other people on board, so you can pause and restart the conversation with no break in eye-contact, body language, etc. Treat him like you would a jack-hammer suddenly going off in your vicinity rather than a legitimate part of the conversation (alternatively, do exactly what you did, just use a very matter of fact tone of voice and cut off the "by doofus").

If you're having a non-work conversation and he's just bringing in negativity you can say something like "quit raining on my parade" or "why do you want to spoil this for me/us?". I've used this with pessimists and nay-sayers about things to point out that I'm enjoying a conversation and they're spoiling it without making a big confrontational issue out of it, but mostly with people I have otherwise good relationships with, so this may be less effective in this situation.
posted by carmen at 6:03 AM on November 24, 2009

Do what citron said. No reaction.
posted by jmmpangaea at 6:34 AM on November 24, 2009

I'd like to come at this from a slightly different angle.

Sounds like your co-worker is struggling with something and it has festered to the point that he's looking for any way at all to get management's attention in order to address his issue. And, of course, he's gone and picked the absolute worst way to do it. Other suggestions upthread are good, and it's illuminating for me to read fraula's answer from the management perspective.

I speak from experience: when a problem has festered long enough, you stop thinking outside of yourself or being able to see things from other people's perspectives. All you know is you really, really want for this struggle and pain to be over, and you yell for help in any way you possibly can. When at work, and faced with superiors, you can't at all assume they will stop to ask what your problem is; they will simply find ways to get rid of you or sideline you because you suddenly become a problem to them.

So, with that in mind, another way to address your coworker's cynicism is to quietly take him aside and remind him there are better tools to address his problems, like speaking directly to the manager, and not to uninvolved third parties. Or asking for a transfer. Or whatever. It might just be that tap on the shoulder he needs to get back on track.

This is, of course, if you feel like doing your good deed for the day.
posted by LN at 6:40 AM on November 24, 2009

Be up-front. "Hey, _______, don't be an asshole" might work.
And then, "Hey, _______, you're being an asshole again."
posted by bunny hugger at 6:46 AM on November 24, 2009

Well, since I think his behavior is contemptible, reacting with contempt seems appropriate.
posted by Capri at 10:34 AM on November 24, 2009

As a reformed cynicist, the relentlessly cheery approach is not only obnoxious, but damnably effective. Not only as a 'shut up' sort of approach, but as a far more effective change for good (see the reformed bit).
posted by geek anachronism at 4:36 PM on November 24, 2009

I like to just wait until I'm in a moderately grumpy mood anyway, which it sounds like you were, and then just snippily tell it like it is. "Hey, I'm not really in the mood for your boring "humorously cynical" routine today, thanks. Do you have anything positive to say?" Then let that hang for a minute.

Apologize later - for snapping at him in public, but don't say any BS like "I don't really feel like that." Just, I'm sorry for snapping at you. It should not take more than a couple of times.
posted by ctmf at 6:03 PM on November 24, 2009

Also, have your boss make a "employee worksite improvement committee" and put him in charge. Best way to make a blowhard STFU is to make them responsible for coming up with solutions, not problems.
posted by ctmf at 6:06 PM on November 24, 2009

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