I think my personality / attitude may be sabotaging my career
March 5, 2011 5:29 AM   Subscribe

How can I adjust my probably quite irritating pub-clown-ish personality to be more work appropriate?

I have recently begun work in what is essentially my dream job, and as a result feel very lucky and happier in my life than I have in a long time. However I am starting to be concerned that the personality and behaviour that might win me a few laughs at a party, so to speak, is going to cause me problems in the workplace, and that I need to make some changes. I am quite extroverted, I suppose I’m a bit of a loudmouth really. I like to speak up, but I do try to be conscious of only doing so where appropriate – I can’t say objectively how successful I am at this though. I would describe myself as a friendly, cheerful and hardworking person however I do joke around a bit, and I guess this could come across as sarcastic and irreverent. My new team and manager and boss all joke around also, and our workplace environment is such that it is commonplace to laugh and wisecrack a lot and make occasional digs at each other.

Even as I’m typing this, I cringe a bit at how it sounds, as I’m starting to realise I probably engage in this kind of banter more than anyone else. And I’m new (to the department, although not the organisation as a whole)! Another example of my behaviour that I’ve become really conscious of, is that I will often use the F word when I’m chatting socially to work people, as well as everyone else. It’s like it just rolls off my tongue.

The fact that I’m probably being overfamiliar with my new colleagues struck me like a tonne of bricks after Friday’s afterwork drinks, when I think I may have made one crack too many and one was actually at my boss’s expense. He ‘gives as good as he gets’, so to speak, and did not seem specifically offended, but I suddenly realised after leaving that this is not just another mate at the pub, however friendly things seem – this is actually my career and my professional reputation that I put at stake every time I run off my mouth.

I find it really hard to tread the line between being friends with workmates (which I do believe is possible, despite what many people say) and having the proper amount of respect and propriety around colleagues, especially when people of all ages are sharing the same social networks (I am a 29yo female, my boss is a 60yo male, yet we share many common acquaintances, if that helps to describe the situation). It’s like I don’t want to suck up to the boss, but end up going too far the other way. I have had a horrifying realisation this weekend that perhaps I don’t come across as ‘competent but still fun’, and rather as arrogant and completely inappropriate. I wasn’t previously concerned about my work, which I feel confident is good, but am now starting to worry people won’t even notice the work because of the personality thing. After all, my job is not permanent, and these senior people will one day sit on my interview panel and assess me not for my entertainment value but my capacity to be a responsible professional.

What i would like to know is how to learn to bite my tongue, how to have the correct amount of 'reverence' at work and to stop trying to sound witty or clever at every opportunity – how to be friendly without being overfamiliar? And should I apologise to my boss for possible cheek (even though he makes jokes and jibes all the time too)?
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (9 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
You are good to be conscious of this. Sexism is likely to be play a role; you may earn status as an honorary man, with the good and bad and unfair that entails, but it may also backfire.

Imagine your sainted grandmother or first grade teacher in the room, and it may cut back on your F-bombs.
posted by Clyde Mnestra at 5:57 AM on March 5, 2011

Yes, I probably would apologize. You know better than we if it is necessary or appropriate, and let that decide how formal or not you make it.That can accomplish two things: 1) letting him know you really do know where the line is and are aware that you may have crossed it; and 2) putting some reality into your intention to meet your workplace on more appropriate terms. Which is to say, beginning some new habits with real actions. Good for you for calling yourself on it, before someone else does.

About where is the line? It sounds like you already have a pretty good idea, but some things to consider if you haven't: Are you in a customer/client/supplier-facing position, or if not, are you in a position visible to any of those? If you were to sit back quietly and just observe the others' interactions, what are they like? Are you working with people in similar places i their lives as you are in yours (age, coupled-ness, parenting or not, political/social outlook, etc?) Not to say you need to match your behavior to theirs, but how differently to their norms you act and how often, will affect their perceptions of you. And the more similar to one another they are, the more someone coming from a different place will appear 'different'. And that's not necessarily bad. Maybe you inject some needed life into an otherwise staid atmosphere; maybe something else is happening. Do a little more observing for a while and then imagine how this person - you - might be perceived in that scene. Just not too harshly; and make small changes.
posted by TruncatedTiller at 6:07 AM on March 5, 2011 [1 favorite]

Maybe you need to place a line between jokes and witticisms that are about someone and jokes and witticisms that are about other things. Not all jokes need a butt. You can be clever and funny without involving people. And if you are about to tell a joke that needs a butt, consider making that butt yourself (although too much self-deprecating humour can be bad too), or a celebrity, or some vague guy-you-once-knew.
posted by keeo at 8:02 AM on March 5, 2011

I'm an incurable smartass. It's just what I am to the core. It's out of my mouth before I know it. And a minority of the time it skates the edge or crosses the line. I worry about it at work and have definitely gone too far on numerous occasions. What has helped me in the past is to find someone else who is gregarious and good natured but never inappropriate and try to act just like them, keep reminding myself how they'd handle themselves in whatever situation I'm in.

It does mean that you give up some of the gold - - the jokes that pay off - - but as you've described, this is your job and you have to be practical about what's appropriate. If there's ever a "should I say this?" in your head, that's your clue not to, just in case, because there will be plenty of other opportunities for zingers that come with no potential damage. When you bite your tongue, the person right next to you may then say what you were thinking and everybody laughs and no harm is done and you've sort of "lost". But it's not really a loss, is it. You don't need that validation if you're already liked and seen as a fun person. You'll have other moments. It's so hard to let a great zinger opportunity pass, but experiment with it at your next meeting. Keep sunny, laugh when others do a good one, but let the quip opportunities pass and just see what happens with that. Pretend you're a psychologist doing a test and just gather some data.
posted by Askr at 8:10 AM on March 5, 2011

Completely agree with Askr.
Also want to add: before you vocalise that smart line you have in your head, take half a moment to think "Do I really need to say this?" You may fear that in doing so the timing of a great line will be lost, but if you're quick enough to always have something on the tip of your tongue, no one else will notice the difference and having that filter will be incredibly valuable. After you start doing that a few times it will naturally become a habit and you'll find yourself easily letting go of a lot of things that are probably better left unsaid.
posted by droolshark at 8:47 AM on March 5, 2011

This is so me. Or was so me. I did finally learn that just because it pops into my head, doesn't mean it has to come out my mouth. I save my witty remarks for Facebook and Twitter. Even if your boss is a jokey guy, he's still entitled to some outward signs of respect. Also==drinking with colleagues? Have 1 drink and go. Or don't drink alcohol and stay longer. Never mix the two.
posted by Ideefixe at 9:32 AM on March 5, 2011 [3 favorites]

At my last long-term job I had three bosses. With the first two my jocularity was a plus. We were a team and the familiarity was valued. When the third came in and wanted to restructure it was VERY EASY to make me look unprofessional.
posted by kristymcj at 12:42 PM on March 5, 2011

A note of caution: if the culture of your team is generally jokey and jocular, DON'T tone it down too much. I was really sarcastic and sometimes a little mean at my last job, and while my coworkers never seemed to mind, when I got a new job elsewhere I decided to turn over a new leaf and not be "that girl" all the time, because I felt terrible whenever I did cross the line and say something genuinely mean to someone without thinking.

Well, it completely backfired. I learned that if I can't say anything nice, sometimes I really don't say anything at all, and as a result my team started seeing me as shy and unapproachable. This became this horrible vicious circle where I felt like anything that I *did* say would be given way too much importance and I ended up kind of fading into the background on my team, to the point where it came up in my performance reviews. I have had to work very hard to get past it.

This may not be as much of a problem for someone naturally extroverted, but I am very, very shy and the only cures for my social anxiety appear to be humor and alcohol. Barring constant drunkenness, I have learned that the only way for me to operate in the workplace is as someone funny, and trying to be seen as serious and hardworking rather than funny and hardworking means I don't get seen at all.
posted by troublesome at 4:20 PM on March 5, 2011

Sounds like you're in the UK, where the drinking with colleagues thing is widely accepted.

What I would do is:
1) Save the joking around for people who aren't too senior to you
2) Save it for the pub
3) When you do joke around, don't do it at other people's expense; not all people are cool with that
4) Possibly most importantly, tone it down till you've been there for a while and are better able to judge the atmosphere and organisational culture. Harsh though it sounds, for the first few weeks your colleagues will be judging you!

I don't think there's anything wrong with being friendly and cheerful. Imagine if you were a miserable sod, that would be much worse! So don't worry too much.
posted by Ziggy500 at 4:01 PM on March 12, 2011

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