Dealing with a harsh comment from a superior at work.
August 23, 2011 1:47 PM   Subscribe

Though I can be broodish and moody at home at times, I keep it in check. People at my workplace find me enjoyable and fun to work with. They find me humorous. I have friends there. Today, one manager out of the blue from another department told me "You are the most negative person I know." I told her in an even tone "That is not too nice a thing to say, you know?" She just rolled her eyes and laughed and said "You're a downer…like Eeyore". Context: She sort of glides from department to department with this air of superiority and says edgy things to people in a joking-but-not-really way. Many don't find her funny. I let her get to me as it cut me deeply. Real deep. Before that I was in a zen mode all day and at peace. How do I deal with interactions with her in the future as I can't change her and I secretly think she likes taking jabs at people. (moderate sociopath?) She is higher in the chain and is liked even higher up as a hatchetwoman and I don't want to be rash with something I might say back. I wish I could buy Thick Skin on ebay or something. Thanks for your answers. (If it matters, I am a male.)
posted by snap_dragon to Work & Money (47 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: one manager out of the blue from another department

Avoid and ignore her, especially since everyone else thinks you're enjoyable and fun.
posted by desjardins at 1:51 PM on August 23, 2011 [5 favorites]

Best answer: If it bothers you, document it for a while and report her to management for creating a hostile work environment. Other than that, ignore her.
posted by tomswift at 1:52 PM on August 23, 2011 [2 favorites]

The first thing I do when someone says something like that to me is attempt to ascertain if there's any truth to the criticism.

For better or for worse, this woman appears to have this perception of you. There may be value in a little self-reflection to see if there is a kernel of truth in it.

You've described this woman as some sort of cross between Cruella De Ville and Darth Vader (sociopath? really?), and it seems a little defensive.
posted by DWRoelands at 1:53 PM on August 23, 2011 [5 favorites]

Ignore her.

And if you cannot do that, stop and ask yourself if there's any truth to her comments. Do you bitch/complain about things a lot, even if in a lighthearted manner? You can be funny and get along with your coworkers and still be an Eeyore.

I think immediately assuming she's a moderate sociopath might be a bit much, however. I understand her comment hurt, but if you don't want people to assume the worst of you, try and not assume the worst of them either. That came across as very defensive.
posted by Windigo at 1:55 PM on August 23, 2011 [3 favorites]

Ignore her and if she ever says anything like that again, say, "Well, that's something," or something else non-responsive before walking away.
posted by Maisie at 1:58 PM on August 23, 2011 [2 favorites]

Best answer: If you throw out enough edgy, assholeish comments you will strike lucky. This is the reverse of astrology, where if you throw out enough vague, optimistic comments, anyone can read their own situation into things.

In short: you feel bad because it is has struck a nerve. It has struck a nerve because, even though this manager doesn't know it, you can be negative at home. Remember, unless you show it, they don't know they've struck a nerve. You keep it in check because a little voice should pop into your head that says "you're an asshole".

Also, they are a practiced, professional asshole. They need the thrill of other people's intake of breath to replace feelings of self worth. Proper swimmers don't need to stand on someone's head to keep their head above water.

FWIW I had a colleague who seemed to glide upwards even though he was crap and an asshole. He also couldn't keep his ego in check and would humiliate people. He was a peer of mine. He did this to me. Well, he didn't because I remembered that he was an asshole and by that point the people whose opinion I cared also thought he was an asshole. There is karma. When there were layoffs nobody could find a good word to say about him. He's someone else's asshole now.
posted by MuffinMan at 1:59 PM on August 23, 2011 [11 favorites]

Response by poster: "Sociopath" may have been hyperbole but she told someone else just the other day "Susan, you need to lose weight! But you have a nice haircut! Is that new?". Granted, I ain't a psychologist so probably shouldn't throw that word out especially when on a discussion board where people might not know me. Understood. And I probably shouldn't have read "The Sociopath Next Door" two months back, either. (Though as a librarian, I recommend it to the casual reader of nonfiction but that is a tangent.)
posted by snap_dragon at 2:00 PM on August 23, 2011

Best answer: Worst case scenario: she's right. You are the most downer person she knows. So what? Someone you don't like doesn't have a very good opinion of you. Well, it's mutual. Why do you care if she likes you when you don't like her? Other people seem to like you just fine and the opinion of a sociopath should probably matter much less than others, on balance.

Ted Bundy hates you. Congrats.

Mutual antipathy is a perfectly functional workplace relationship. Embrace it and move on.
posted by DarlingBri at 2:00 PM on August 23, 2011 [13 favorites]

Best answer: Eeyore is a perfectly charming character. I recommend you look up some Youtube videos of Eeyore, as rendered in the Disney cartoons. Imitate his distinctive vocal deliver (I believe his catchphrase is, "Eeyore"). Now you have something to say to this person that implicitly disagrees with her take while remaining light-hearted.
posted by grobstein at 2:01 PM on August 23, 2011 [4 favorites]

Before that I was in a zen mode all day and at peace.

Many people find it easy to be at peace until something frustrating comes along. The trick is to be at peace afterwards.
posted by dubold at 2:01 PM on August 23, 2011 [27 favorites]

Best answer: The best advice is to ignore. Next maybe some self reflection. But me? I'd probably say "Thanks!" and smile in a really weird way. Some people are not nice. And no, you shouldn't encourage them. Does this person even matter at all? Does what she thinks about you even matter?
posted by mokeydraws at 2:02 PM on August 23, 2011

Best answer: Even though she's higher up, is there any way you could say with a sincere smile and shrug, with a hint of snark, "I guess some people bring out my inner Eeyore!" Someone made a similar comment to me once, which I still feel that it was completely unfounded, and that's what I said. It was very satisfying. I also like what Grobstein said. To that effect you could also say "Eeyore is so cute! Thanks!"

Otherwise I second avoid/ignore. I can't believe she made that weight comment to someone else, yiiiiikes. I've found even in my young age that people who are unpleasant like this are generally unhappy. Pity her if you need to.
posted by lovableiago at 2:03 PM on August 23, 2011 [5 favorites]

Best answer: I tend to take things very personally, even when they're not meant that way, so I understand how you feel. Regardless of whether or not you are like 'Eeyore,' it's really not something that should be said to (or about) another person, especially in a work environment. If she keeps it up, I recommend this beauty. Then, ignore her. Don't let her see that it affects you - don't let it affect you. Keep telling yourself that it doesn't matter, and eventually, it won't.

Children can be very cruel when they tease others; I think some people don't grow out of it.
posted by mitzyjalapeno at 2:10 PM on August 23, 2011 [1 favorite]

Just show her that you feel bad, in a way that even she can't miss. She may have impaired empathy; if she knew she hurt you, it might really startle her and make her feel bad (which is a desirable thing in this case). Just telling her, "When you say things like that, it can really make me feel bad" might make some kind of impression, but letting her see your stricken face is more likely to make an impression.

Also, if it doesn't make an impression, or if it leads to more taunting, then you know that she really does have problems, and it will probably be easier to adjust your expectations of her.
posted by amtho at 2:11 PM on August 23, 2011 [1 favorite]

Tell her something like: "I find that comment inappropriate for a professional environment and would ask you to refrain from commenting on matters unrelated to my job performance in the future"
posted by IanMorr at 2:12 PM on August 23, 2011 [4 favorites]

Response by poster: Excellent answers. I probably went over the top with selecting so many but they all seem so relevant and fitting. Thanks again. I did tell someone and they leaked that she had left her former fiance' for her current one --- who was his best friend. May not say much but could say millions. Oh well. Time to move on. Again, thanks all.
posted by snap_dragon at 2:17 PM on August 23, 2011

Best answer: snap_dragon: "She sort of glides from department to department with this air of superiority and says edgy things to people in a joking-but-not-really way."

She is a troll (in an IRL sense) looking to get a rise out of people for any reason, not to engage in conversation.

Better to ignore. Or maybe give weird responses like bad quotes from bad movies or a synopsis of last night's weather forecast as a counter. It doesn't really matter what you say because she is not interested in hearing your opinion on the subject of the comment she made. It is all about getting you flustered to whatever degree she can.

Hopefully, she will tire of not being able to get under your skin and leave you alone.
posted by lampshade at 2:32 PM on August 23, 2011

I suppose you could make some reference to her being a boss of little brain ....

Actually, you did the right thing by letting her know that kind of remark wasn't welcome. If she persists, you should document future occurrences. This will help you if you ever feel you need to complain formally about her behaviour (though I wouldn't count on a good outcome - things like bullying and harassment can be hard to prove).
posted by Perodicticus potto at 2:42 PM on August 23, 2011

Best answer: I find her behavior a bit bullying. People like that use joking-but-not-really to be mean, use put-downs, and gain a sense of status or superiority. The way to respond is with the blank stare and no comment, as Greg Nog notes. Inside, remind yourself that bullies bully because they don't know how to be equals. Your recognition of her bullying will help you be strong.
posted by theora55 at 2:48 PM on August 23, 2011 [3 favorites]

report her to management for creating a hostile work environment.

This isn't a hostile work environment. As was pointed out just a few days ago, the term doesn't mean what people think it does.

The woman is a clod and I would ignore her. But if she says something like this again, you could reply with something like "Why are you telling me this?" and get others to do so as well. No sarcasm, no eye-roll, just straight.
posted by Ideefixe at 2:52 PM on August 23, 2011 [2 favorites]

I would just look at her, smile, and walk away.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 3:05 PM on August 23, 2011

Best answer: [This post comes with the caveat that I obviously don't actually know this woman, and is based on conjecture.]

A slightly more empowering way to look at this might be as a chance to practice compassion.

Think about what it must be like to be her, for a minute. You spend your days being mean to people for no good reason whatsoever. Just think about how much hurt and pain you must be carrying around with you to make you be mean to that many people, to make yourself feel good by comparison. How awful must that be? To go through your days with all that negative energy. To have to be mean to people who can't even fight back in any meaningful way. Sounds like hell to me.

Now stop and think about all of the nice things that you do for people. You have friends there, so you must be doing something right. How many friends does she have there? Not many, I'm guessing. You spend at least part of your day in a zen-like state. How much of her day do you think she spends being happy and calm and content?

She's not trying to put you down. She's trying to drag you down to her level.

Having more compassion for her won't mean you get hurt more by what she says. It will mean you get hurt less, because you can keep what she says in the proper perspective. You know how a child will have a temper tantrum and say nasty things in an effort to express its anger and frustration? That's kind of like what she's doing. Just as you wouldn't blame a child for what it says, you can get to a point where you won't blame her for lashing out. You'll be able to see her as some kind of wounded animal, lashing out in pain.

This isn't an easy thing to do, necessarily, but even getting to a point where you can do it slightly is worth it. I've been attempting this technique with some success.

I totally agree that this behaviour is unacceptable in the workplace, and other people have commented on how to handle that aspect of it.
posted by Solomon at 3:08 PM on August 23, 2011 [15 favorites]

Tell her you don't understand. Ask her to explain. Flat affect but with a slight note of attention - she has said something and needs to resolve it. Raised eyebrows, attentive but not angry gaze. Don't use passive aggressive language, talk to her professionally, as to a subordinate who is interrupting you with something that may require professional attention if it is serious enough. Like she is telling you some piece of technology is broken but in too vague terms to understand. Ask her to explain. Then to explain further. Then to explain again. Then to explain further still.

"I'm sorry? Can you clarify? Yes? [Nod, keeping gaze fixed on her] I'm not sure I understand? I'm sorry, what is the context?" Etc.

This is pretty crushing if done correctly.
posted by krilli at 3:14 PM on August 23, 2011 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: Solomon....a fitting moniker. Wise words. I wonder if MeFites are laughing (in a good way) at me b/c I have highlighted the whole damn page with all the great comments. You guys (and gals) are really wonderful and I hope you realize how your compassion has really helped me today...and by saving this, I can come back to it and read it over and over and learn.
posted by snap_dragon at 3:15 PM on August 23, 2011 [1 favorite]

You could always pop into her cubicle and tell her that everyone thinks she's a sociopath.
posted by notsnot at 3:20 PM on August 23, 2011 [1 favorite]

By the way, the correct Eeyore come back would be "Thanks fur noticin' me".
posted by TooFewShoes at 3:20 PM on August 23, 2011 [4 favorites]

Be fun to say 'huh, didn't realize I was working in a children's book! You being a manager should have tipped me off though, shouldn't it? What exactly do you do around here, again?' but you couldn't probably get away with that.

If your work performance is solid, and your immediate supervisors know it, just start spreading this around as an amusing anecdote-- which it actually is, by the way, as long as people have the impression it didn't touch you, and they will if you regale them with it.

If I were your manager and heard this, I'd say a few things to her that would make her next peel purely superfluous.
posted by jamjam at 3:24 PM on August 23, 2011 [1 favorite]

I'm with Solomon on this one and all those who suggested ignoring her pathetic behaviour as much as possible.
posted by southof40 at 3:30 PM on August 23, 2011

Best answer: "Yeah? You're shitty. Like Pooh".
posted by padraigin at 3:43 PM on August 23, 2011 [1 favorite]

I work with someone like this (also a manager who never seems to be at her desk) and I play "kill 'em with kindness." Be as nice as fucking possible, over the top. It will throw her off.
posted by radioamy at 3:45 PM on August 23, 2011 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I think this woman sees you being a fun dude who is liked by all, and is envious, and wants to take what you have. Now she can't literally take your fun personality away from you and incorporate it into herself. So she aims to take it as far as she can: at least take your fun personality away from you, even if it has to stop there.

And her remark worked, in that respect. You went from being a fun dude to someone who was deeply troubled, all because of what she said.

I am not going to chastise you here for "letting her win" or "giving her headspace". That's just doing her work for her. I am going to tell you that the part of you that finds this troubling, and seeks to understand it, is right. And so I'm giving you an explanation for what's going on.

I don't know so much that this woman feels bad about herself, however much the rest of us may be comforted by that thought. I've spent extended periods of time next to people who have this kind of superiority complex and I feel in my bones that they really do believe themselves to be superior. The bad feelings that they have, that the rest of us see and onto which we project what we would feel in their place (i.e. we would feel inferior and inadequate) I think are better explained by an attitude of envy. If you feel entitled to all the good things in the world, you're going to get mad when you see somebody else enjoying something that rightfully belongs to you, even if it's something intangible. But they're not "insecure" in any way we would experience insecurity, so it's hard for me to recommend pitying her for how incredibly bad she must feel inside. Sorry.

I can't say based on what you've told us that she sounds like a sociopath. She does, however, sound a lot more like a sociopath than someone who habitually rescues kittens. Or than that guy who goes around calling everybody "pizzaface" even though a lot of people don't like that. I think you're right to feel endangered by her.

However, in the face of all that, ignoring her is probably the best tactic. Not quite ignoring but more a disinterested "o rly? bless ur heart" and getting on with what you're doing. Show that the attack registered, but you don't give a shit.
posted by tel3path at 4:09 PM on August 23, 2011 [8 favorites]

She just rolled her eyes and laughed and said "You're a downer…like Eeyore".

And I gave her my sweetest smile, and said "Why, fuck you very much!"
posted by flabdablet at 4:59 PM on August 23, 2011

Response by poster: tel3path - That was a very interesting and insightful analysis. I hadn't considered that. It is funny...all these books in my library and at bookstores on "How to Deal with Difficult People" etc and the examples inside are usually straw-man characters that many of us readers see through easily. Granted the books can't make all the examples complex and made to order to my situation...but what I have learned here on this posting today is GOLD and not something to be found in those books (which ironically would be found in the various sections I run...the 155.1 area and the 650s for you dewey decimal lovers...)
posted by snap_dragon at 5:23 PM on August 23, 2011

I work with someone a bit like this. My best tactic to avoiding being a target is, when he lays down a zinger, I just simply say "OK" and carry on as if he were informing me that the rain falls from the sky. It first increased his behavior as he tried to get my goat but now he has totally given up and I WIN.
posted by Foam Pants at 5:43 PM on August 23, 2011 [2 favorites]

Own it. I'm the depressed emo guy, and I accept that. Its part of my personality, and I play it up sometimes for humor.
posted by Lovecraft In Brooklyn at 6:05 PM on August 23, 2011 [1 favorite]

Worked with a guy like this once. Another coworker put him in his place with:

Opinions are like assholes, everyone has one.

This saying works so great because it's not really an insult, at least not the kind that can come back to haunt you from HR. But it kinda IS, because it just sounds so vaguely insulting.

Follow with a big, sincere smile. I promise you this works like magic.
posted by raisingsand at 7:21 PM on August 23, 2011 [1 favorite]

I like the "Dave Chappelle as Lil Jon" approach to these characters, with a veneer of professionalism over it.

Sociopath: You're the most negative person I know.

You: I'm sorry, what?


You: I didn't catch that, come again?


You: Oh, okay.

Trick to that method is keeping calm and sincere, like you're listening but you just don't know what she's saying. At some point, she'll decide that she can't joke with you and leave you alone, which is the best you can hope for with these types.
posted by mornie_alantie at 8:16 PM on August 23, 2011 [2 favorites]

If it were me, I would look up a nice definitive Eeyore quotation, and would keep it in my back pocket. Then, the next time she spoke to me -- and every time thereafter -- I would say it in my best Eeyore voice and walk away.

Specifically, I would go with "That Accounts for a Good Deal. It Explains Everything. No Wonder." I don't think there's a statement in the world that you can't respond to with that quote.

Mind you, she won't have any idea whether you're being sincere or fucking with her, and if someone else witnesses it and asks WTF, you can just say "She came up to me out of nowhere and said I was the most depressing person she ever met, like Eeyore. So when she tries to talk to me, I just say that Eeyore quote and walk away. It sure beats talking to her." You will be a hero.
posted by davejay at 9:49 PM on August 23, 2011

Best answer: "You might think I'm negative, but one day you will die. Everything you've every loved will become nothing. Try to sleep tonight, but think only of the encroaching oblivion'.

Or something.
posted by Lovecraft In Brooklyn at 9:50 PM on August 23, 2011 [2 favorites]

"Thank you for sharing"
posted by brujita at 10:02 PM on August 23, 2011

Best answer: "You are the most negative person I know."

"Only when you're around, darl."
posted by honey-barbara at 11:02 PM on August 23, 2011 [3 favorites]

I think any aggression in return is always going to be spun against you. All the people I've known who've been like this have always filed a lot of complaints about people, which somehow have to be taken seriously in ways that complaints against them never have to be.

So here's what else you could do: SO YOU SAY, JENNY, THAT I'M THE MOST NEGATIVE PERSON YOU'VE EVER KNOWN? YOU SAY I'M A DOWNER LIKE EEYORE? WELL, WELL, THAT IS A PIECE OF FEEDBACK. I'LL TAKE THAT INTO CONSIDERATION. Make sure others are within earshot when you say this. Do a walk-and-talk if you have to.
posted by tel3path at 2:22 AM on August 24, 2011 [1 favorite]

'I'm hung like a donkey, too.'
posted by obiwanwasabi at 2:40 AM on August 24, 2011

Next time she wanders in, just say, "Oh, by the way, I always thought of myself as more like Rabbit." And find something nearby to kick over as you fetch something from the printer.
posted by TheSecretDecoderRing at 2:50 AM on August 24, 2011

How do I deal with interactions with her in the future as I can't change her and I secretly think she likes taking jabs at people.

My mom is kind of like this, really into "casually" making nasty little joking-but-not-really barbs that she hopes will embarrass, hurt, deflate self esteem, etc. She watches for and enjoys the reaction.

This is what I learned as a child: Get her to go after something you don't really care about and won't hurt you.

So, say my mom was trying to embarrass me. If she brought up something that really, really humiliated me, no matter how upset I was I would not protest at all, and just completely didn't react, as if she had said something totally irrelevant to my life.

Then, if she brought up something else, that only was a little embarrassing in reality, or she THOUGHT would embarrass me but actually didn't, I would give her the whole show - turning red, crying, begging her not to talk about it, etc.

This happens to be exactly how you train dogs. Give this woman what she's trying to get out of you, the reward she's looking for, in exchange for making her comments about something you don't care about. And just ignore her and dont' give her what she wants at ALL (any indication she has bothered you) when she comments about things that hurt you.
posted by Ashley801 at 3:31 PM on August 26, 2011 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: @Ashley801....It sounds like she need Skinner conditioning, no? Interesting to ponder and I know if to do so I will need a 'skin' to not show when she strikes at times that I'm vulnerable.
posted by snap_dragon at 5:22 PM on August 26, 2011

I know that "You should'a' said..." is cold comfort, but for some reason this belated retort came to mind: "That's just a facade--I really love everybody!" --it is humorous rather than defensive, yet refutes the initial rude comment. Cheers.
posted by markhu at 11:53 AM on October 5, 2011 [1 favorite]

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