How to deal with social grace-less boss?
August 14, 2010 5:05 PM   Subscribe

Do you have any advice for me in this strained but simple social situation with coworkers & boss?

I work in a chemistry lab with only two other people (they're post docs; I'm a grad student). It's a summer internship so I don't know everyone too well. Because it's a lab, I wear jeans+shirts+crosstrainers on a daily basis and don't wear makeup or do anything with my hair beyond a ponytail.

Our advisor is taking us (me, postdoc + spouse, brand new postdoc + girlfriend) to dinner tonight to celebrate some recent accomplishments. She's kind of sarcastic, a bit tactless, and otherwise lacking in social graces. I never know how to respond to her comments; she seems quite passive agressive and makes statements that seem odd--then says she's "joking". The place for dinner is casual-nice, not fancy, but I'm going to be wearing nicer clothes/putting more effort into my appearance than she's used to seeing.

I'm generally friendly and easygoing, but social situations often make me nervous, especially when I'm "alone" like this (don't know these people well) and also especially when I know I have to keep relations normal because I have to see all of these people daily after this.

Where I need your help: what is a good response to say and how should I act when she makes a rude/sarcastic comment on how I look different than usual? I'm pretty sure she will. I don't want to engage her, I just want to rise above her roughness and maybe somehow seem a little classy. Should I just smile? Say some witty one liner?

Your advice will likely help me in future situations with her, not just tonight, so thank you for any suggestions you have!
posted by rio to Human Relations (22 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Yes, I clean up nice.

Or something along those lines, then just let it go from there.
posted by misha at 5:10 PM on August 14, 2010 [12 favorites]

1) say "thank you for noticing, i appreciate your compliment"
2) smile
posted by jchaw at 5:13 PM on August 14, 2010 [1 favorite]

You've already given the answer to your question. Smile. OK, really she might be different tonight than she is in the situations you know her in; she might be gracious and human and screw up all your plans (God! I hate it when that happens!)

But if she isn't more human than you expect, you already have given he very best answer: Smile. And if she goes on: then smile more. After that: smile. Really, really they hate it when you do that! (and that always makes me smile)
posted by Some1 at 5:13 PM on August 14, 2010

Best answer: I wouldn't try to be witty, especially if you're nervous. If she says something sort of snarky, smile and say thanks. Or something bland about how nice it is to dress up a little. Everyone else knows what she's like. Don't appear to be flustered, distressed or upset. Maybe she's nervous, maybe she's a clod.

You're not really alone--everyone at the table is aware of her routine, I'll guarantee. The best path to "classy" is to have the same manners for everyone--polite, cheerful, helpful.
posted by Ideefixe at 5:13 PM on August 14, 2010 [1 favorite]

Them: "Hey, look at you at dolled up (or insert snarky comment here)!"

You: "Yeah, well, if I'm not back by midnight, my fairy grandmother says bad things will happen. This a real nice place, thanks for inviting me!"

The key here is to meet the comment with grace and immediately, gracefully deflect to something else. Yeah, I dressed up just for you guys. So, freaky weather we're having, huh?
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 5:14 PM on August 14, 2010 [4 favorites]

"Oh, how nice of you to say so!"

Or the nuclear option: "Bless your heart."
posted by tel3path at 5:14 PM on August 14, 2010 [14 favorites]

Best answer: When I'm in an awkward situation where I have to interact with someone who seems tactless or rude or otherwise socially clueless, I try to smile, say a quick "Yeah" or "Thanks" to the awkward comments ("You look different"/"Yeah, I decided to dress a little different tonight" or "That outfit is much nicer than your other clothes"/"Thanks, I thought I'd dress up tonight") and then change the subject to the awkward person herself with a compliment or a question--and then keep the topic on that person for the duration of the conversation.

People, even tactless people, like talking about themselves. Try to think of some topics that you might want (or at least, can fake interest in) to ask your boss about. Then, keep smiling and asking your boss questions about herself or her career or her interests or her travel plans or whatever else she wants to talk about.
posted by Meg_Murry at 5:18 PM on August 14, 2010

Best answer: Mu usual tactic is to smile, say something small-talky, and change the subject. At dinner tonight that should be easy to do -- you can ask someone how they liked their meal or comment on the restaurant, for example. Similarly at work -- change the subject to somehting work-related. I like to change the topic by asking a question, because in my experience it re-directs the conversation by engaging the other person.

So for example: "Thanks, I just got this outfit! Hey, do you think I should order the steak or the fish?" Keep the smile and keep it light. It usually works.
posted by DrGirlfriend at 5:19 PM on August 14, 2010

Best answer: Oh, and I wouldn't try to be witty. I find that snarking back in any way, even mildly, tends to backfire if I'm annoyed by the person I'm talking to. What might be ok to say to my good friends comes out with an edge if I say it to someone I actually actively dislike.
posted by Meg_Murry at 5:20 PM on August 14, 2010 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Sarcastic, slightly tactless, and not socially graceful? That describes me and my entire lab -- if you told us we weren't allowed to snark at each other, all conversation in the building would cease. In our case, it's pretty much all affectionate, though it takes newcomers a little while to realize it. So consider the possibility that she also is socially nervous and the only thing she can think to do is make backhanded remarks, and genuinely doesn't intend any malice.

Incidentally response to similar statements from labmates (when I started wearing buttoned shirts to work instead of printed t-shirts) was "Well, even grad students can't look like hobos all the time."
posted by dorque at 5:21 PM on August 14, 2010 [7 favorites]

Best answer: Say "thank you, it's lovely to get out of the lab and have a reason to dress up. I almost didn't recognize X with his/her hair down/up/in heels/long pants". That expresses a common sentiment of the group, thanks her for taking you to dinner again and draws the attention away from you with a compliment in someone's else's direction.

This is assuming they don't all show up in their regular lab clothes of course, which they might!
posted by fshgrl at 5:26 PM on August 14, 2010

I'm a heavily sarcastic person and often get myself in odd situation because I spew diahrea of the mouth. I suggest, as people said above, to smile and act like she didn't say anything or rise above her by not engaging in the passive aggressive crap.

good luck. remember, people you work with are NOT your friends, they are just people you work with.
posted by zombieApoc at 5:27 PM on August 14, 2010

I'm going to agree with dorque. I'm also a chemist and every lab I've worked in has been on the sarcastic/socially strange end of the spectrum. (yes, I fit right in). In that situation I'd say something like "Yeah, my Mommy dressed me today" or "Yeah, I had to steal this nice blouse because you people don't pay me shit" or the always-appropriate "I like to keep people on their toes".
posted by Green Eyed Monster at 5:38 PM on August 14, 2010 [5 favorites]

I like "thank you!" and "bless your heart!." Say with as much chipper abandon as you can muster. Sometimes I add a little squeal. I am a super sarcastic, sometimes crass science nerd.
posted by fifilaru at 6:03 PM on August 14, 2010

"So do you!" And then wink at her.

Not really, but if you imagine saying it, and her reaction, it might loosen you up.
posted by Stellaboots at 6:32 PM on August 14, 2010

"Thanks! I have an interview right after this."
posted by The Potate at 6:44 PM on August 14, 2010

I have to disagree with those who suggest snarking back at the boss. That can be a career-limiting move. If there no one else is doing it, you don't want to be the one that starts.
posted by grouse at 7:02 PM on August 14, 2010

posted by Jaltcoh at 7:19 PM on August 14, 2010

I default to "Oh, yeah, I'm capable" when coworkers notice I'm dressed up. If I know they can take it as sarcasm and not as a serious comment, I default to "Oh, yeah, I was trying to make you guys wonder if I had an interview somewhere else."

I don't suggest you try that last one.
posted by fairytale of los angeles at 7:28 PM on August 14, 2010

On further contemplation, I want to strongly advocate against "Bless your heart" or any similar sentiment. Being bad at generating social pleasantries does not necessarily equate to being bad at perceiving social pleasantries; personally, if my clumsy attempt to comment positively on a person's appearance were met with "Bless your heart," I would definitely be aware of the intent and be pretty offended. If you aren't in a situation where it's correct to snark back (agreeing with grouse here -- only do it if it's the prevailing culture), something bland is much safer.
posted by dorque at 7:51 PM on August 14, 2010

Best answer: The best response to this has almost nothing to do with the words that you use; it's not about a clever turn of phrase.

It's about allowing her negativity to pass right around you, so that it doesn't ruin your mood.

Whatever it is that you want to do at the dinner: get to know your coworkers in a social context, tell them about something funny that happened to you, unwind at the end of a long week; whatever that is, so long as it's reasonable and not inconsiderate, just keep doing that, and don't allow her to distract you from it. Briefly acknowledge her comment ("Thanks."), and then get right back to enjoying dinner however you wanted to.

It's like if you're walking to get to the theatre with a friend, and someone stops you to ask for directions, you pause and give them directions, and then you're back on your path to the theatre. You're not rude, you did the right thing by giving the stranger directions, and then you continue going where you have to go.

This is just like that: if you are at the dinner to have a good time and bond with your co-workers, just do that, and if someone distracts you from that, take a moment to acknowledge what they need and do what you can for them, and then you're straight back on your path again.

Have a good time at the dinner!
posted by surenoproblem at 7:53 PM on August 14, 2010 [4 favorites]

Response by poster: Just got back from dinner and you all helped so much! The comments I got came from both the boss and one of the post docs. I did what most of you recommended: I smiled, said "thanks", and changed the subject. It worked fine!

I marked the answers that best predicted the situation (fshgrl that is exactly what they said to me!) and best reminded me that THEY are probably a bit nervous themselves (dorque) and of what the point of the night actually was (surenoproblem). Thanks to you all! Also it's really nice to know there are other scientists on AskMe that totally understand the types of folks that are in our field!
posted by rio at 8:26 PM on August 14, 2010 [2 favorites]

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