I don't know what I'm doing wrong
November 13, 2014 7:27 PM   Subscribe

So I think I'm going about my business normally, trying to do the best I can...then I find out I am offending people or pissing people off and I just don't get it, it is like I said one thing and they heard a totally different thing with hidden meaning that I didn't intend at all. I am starting to find this pretty distressing and I am second guessing myself all the time. Other people must go through this too and if you have...maybe you can help me?

I posted recently about how I love my job and felt like I got along really well with everybody (except that my boss kinda doesn't like me). The good news is, I did have an actual meeting with my boss once and the work-related feedback was good, so however annoying she may think I am, it doesn't seem to have affected her perception of my work yet and that's what matters.

The bad news is, I'm really starting to feel like I'm wearing out my welcome with people. I've been surprised to hear that someone was offended or angry about something I did or said...and now I'm super sensitive to any signs of rejection when maybe they're all in my head? But I totally missed other things so maybe not?

One example is, someone asked me to give her some information and I gave her the forms where I had written the information down. Then she comes back up to me asking to actually go over it verbally (i.e. not just check my form), and I say something like, "oh, I thought you could just read it, but ok" and we go over it. I meant it in a neutral way--explaining why I left her the paperwork when I didn't realize she actually wanted to talk about it-- but apparently, she heard it more like, "Oh, I THOUGHT you KNEW HOW TO READ," and as me really insulting her. I did apologize to smooth things over once I found out she complained behind my back about it, which seems to have worked. This person isn't my boss or even someone in my office, just someone I have to deal with because of my job, so it's not a big deal in that way--it's just a good example of the type of thing that happens.

Or there's one that's actually getting to me in my office. Let me start by saying, we are all super swamped in our office, but in the nature of the work we can do a pretty good job of stepping in for each other if need be, and I thought that was ok by the culture in our office. And when people ask me for help, I can't think of a time I've said no. Recently, I asked someone to fill in for me on a few things because I didn't think I could do a good job on all the things I had for that day. She agreed and didn't seem to mind, I thanked her...then I find out she was complaining about it. And then something went wrong with one of the projects we had both worked on, and I asked her and she agreed to work on it together and we were discussing how to fix it until...she just went and took action without me, leaving me to find out about it after the fact. When I replied to her email and said, I would have appreciated you involving me in this like we agreed to but please let me know what happened...no response...and she has given me the cold shoulder since then. This is not a person who is known for being difficult so I'm hesitant to say it was just her problem. Obviously something bothered her, legitimate or not, but I just don't get it.

Now I am just starting to stress generally about how maybe I am doing this all the time, that I am putting my foot in my mouth but people don't tell me, and that I'm just getting on people's nerves. Like if someone doesn't respond to my email...which seems to happen frequently...I must be bothering them. And I think, maybe they're busy so I should catch them in person if I need something, but if they're already ignoring me for a reason, isn't it just going to be more annoying if I just walk in?

I've thought about asking someone I trust if there IS something I'm doing wrong that I could fix, that I am just not getting something socially but could see when it was pointed out. (However, I fear there is no one I trust enough to think I wouldn't just be bothering them about this!)

Has anyone gone through this? Is there a good way to deal with it? Did you ever find out what it was about you that got on people's nerves?
posted by picardythird to Human Relations (49 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
 
Well, it is either something you are doing or something to do with your workplace. So the first question is, has this happened to you a lot? Or just here? Does it happen outside of work? If not, then its about your workplace, which may have an odd little culture of weird unspoken rules you will eventually learn, or, is a place of people who are just kind of assholish and touchy.
posted by emjaybee at 7:34 PM on November 13, 2014 [4 favorites]


This sounds like a slightly dysfunctional work environment in terms of communication and responsibility (which I suspect applies to most offices). Alternatively, you may be afflicted with a sarcastic tone of voice.

So, observe: what are the predominant ways that people share information and workload? What's the function of complaining? Is it something everyone does to let off steam and it's forgotten and on to the next job, or is everyone harbouring grudges and plotting revenge? There may be ways to align more smoothly with the office culture, or it may just be a bit of a shitshow where you have to cover yourself in shit to fit in.
posted by holgate at 7:40 PM on November 13, 2014 [1 favorite]


Emjaybee asked: "So the first question is, has this happened to you a lot? Or just here? Does it happen outside of work? If not, then its about your workplace, which may have an odd little culture of weird unspoken rules you will eventually learn, or, is a place of people who are just kind of assholish and touchy."

I would say a little of both? I have definitely had this problem before, but it really seems to have stepped up in this environment, so maybe people are more touchy than average as well.

I didn't want to stereotype (and I wasn't sure it even made sense because many of my coworkers are not from here either) but I did just move to the southeastern U.S. when previously I had lived in the northeast. So maybe what sounds "neutral" to my ear (which has sometimes been misread as sarcastic) sounds even worse here.
posted by picardythird at 7:51 PM on November 13, 2014


That's a tough situation to be in.

It's hard to know what is really going on without actually witnessing anything, but it's possible in a busy work environment that people are stressed out and cranky, and it's just not personal.

In general when I've been in work situations like that, I try to avoid taking things personally, but at the same time try to think of things that might take some stress off your coworkers. People's attitudes do change.

On preview, holgate's advice is really sound.
posted by maggiemaggie at 7:52 PM on November 13, 2014


the only way I have been able to assuage this problem is by adding what feels to me like 50% overboard sugar-frosting on every damn thing. Start each conversation with a compliment - wow what a great ring! Hey I heard your project got green lighted, so awesome! When agreeing to do something - oh sure, I'd love to! Thanks for including me! When expressing anything negative -- hey, I've got a bit of concern about this, I wasn't sure whether now would be a good time to discuss it... I always feel like it's too much, but in truth it's almost not enough, and if I don't do this I get in trouble, every time.

(btw the "I thought you could just read it" line does sound sarcastic and bitchy to me as well. It sounds like an implication that they are either lazy or illiterate. "Sure" or "absolutely" is a better answer in most cases when someone is asking you to do something at the office.)
posted by fingersandtoes at 7:53 PM on November 13, 2014 [33 favorites]


> "oh, I thought you could just read it, but ok"

That definitely reads as sarcastic to me. I mean, you handed it to her, and she had either chosen to read it or not. And either way, she decided would prefer that you go over it with her verbally.

I would say something more like, "Sure, I'd be happy to answer any questions you have about it." Or "Yes, let's go over the parts that might be unclear."

Basically, if you're willing to do what they ask, then say that. Ignore the part about how they could've avoided needing your input/help.
posted by ethidda at 7:54 PM on November 13, 2014 [36 favorites]


Be patient and kind to everyone. Period. This won't make putting your foot in your mouth never happen, or mean that nobody ever takes something you say the wrong way. But it will go a long way towards making your coworkers take your behavior in good faith.

Also, seriously, just strive to be more generous than "oh ummmmm you could just read it", in general. Again, that isn't going to be a magical secret voodoo spell to make people like you, but it's just so much better and you lose nothing by having "helpful and kind" as a life goal.
posted by Sara C. at 7:55 PM on November 13, 2014 [10 favorites]


I did just move to the southeastern U.S. when previously I had lived in the northeast.

Oh god yes honey you need to waaaaaayyyyyyyyyyyyyyy step up the politeness and sweetness and helpfulness like ten billionty percent. This is the problem, right here. Even if most of your coworkers aren't originally "from" the South.
posted by Sara C. at 7:57 PM on November 13, 2014 [63 favorites]


I think you are probably not doing anything wrong and they are just being themselves, sometimes up and sometimes down. If there is anything you can do to change things it might be more in the area of a shift in focus when dealing with others in the workplace. After years of worries of the sort you describe, I gradually learned to focus on tailoring the way I approached and interacted with others, adjusting my 'pitch' to the individual needs and foibles of my fellows.

I had to stop worrying about how I saw myself and keep my eye on what I was trying to accomplish in my interaction with them, making it a game of improving my people skills in order to get my job done. Some people needed lots of reassurance that I was supporting and appreciating them (definitely not criticizing but recognizing the difficulties and frustrations of their job) even when I just needed a single total or fact from them while others needed me to treat them as if they were superior and in a position to do me a favor and to ask for it with some humility. Some needed me to explain why I wanted something done, others just needed me to tell them the basic task they were being asked to do without taking up their time. Some needed me to walk them through the process they needed to execute in order to get the information--teach them their job almost--and furthermore in a way that came across as respectful.

It wasn't about how I was projecting myself as much as it was about seeing them and understanding what they needed, how they perceived themselves, their job and their place on the team. There is no single demeanor or way of behaving that will result in the whole world reacting a certain way--people are different and have to be recognized and addressed in their uniqueness.

It's a life-enhancing skill to see other people with all their needs, fears and aspirations. I think it goes a long way toward promoting empathy and harmony when we can do that.
posted by Anitanola at 8:00 PM on November 13, 2014 [7 favorites]


Being unable to observe the situation directly, all we can do is speculate about what's really going on. Here's my speculation: I think it's fairly likely that your efforts to suss out the negaitive feelings of people who haven't complained to you directly are counterproductive, and your attempts to smooth things over and make nice with everyone are backfiring. Other people are just people, like you. They have bad moods and bad days, and the fact that they sometimes have a bad time while near you does not mean that their unhappiness is your fault. The fact that they sometimes dislike something you've done also doesn't mean you did anything wrong. Going out of your way to hunt down and apologize to people who haven't expressed their displeasure *to you* is problematic in a number of ways. If you want to have healthy adult relationships with these people, then I suggest treating them like adults. If they don't take their issues to your boss or talk to you directly, then the ball is still in their court and there's nothing for you to do. Learn to tolerate other people's unhappiness. It's not all about you.
posted by jon1270 at 8:01 PM on November 13, 2014 [1 favorite]


For what it's worth, when I moved from the southeast to the northeast I had trouble in the opposite direction -- that is, a lot of neutral comments sounded snarky and mean to my ears. (In NYC, "fine" means "fine." I'm used to it meaning "Well if that's the BEST you can do I won't press you on the point any more, but that's barely acceptable.")

Those cultural things sometimes just take time to adjust to, but in the meantime it can't hurt to try to adjust in the direction of being a little sweeter and more deferential.
posted by Jeanne at 8:02 PM on November 13, 2014 [8 favorites]


Agree wth Anitanola. I look at it as a coach with 15 different players on his team and he has to figure out how to get the most out of each one. Of course there are team rules, but some need to be kicked in the butt and some need the pat on the back. Some people just need to be told "No" or "Yes" with nothing else.

I would lay low and when interacting be as nice as possible until you learn what is the best way to deal with each person.
posted by 724A at 8:04 PM on November 13, 2014 [1 favorite]


I don't know a lot about you or your situation, but here's some information that could have helped me years ago. Possibly you know all this already, but I sure didn't.


There are many many times when multiple interpretations can be applied to a word, phrase, action, or lack of a word, phrase, or action. I think the interpretation that people choose is influenced by:

1 - very local culture (i.e., your workplace)

2 - the individual person's personal history (i.e., did they grow up to distrust people? Or do they expect everyone to generally be nice to them?)

3 - their actual history with you (do they think you like them? Do they think you are smart?)

4 - their history with people whom you resemble, in function, age, appearance, or other means (are you the same age as their parents? Have thin, beautiful people like you been mean to them historically? Have older women treated them badly, maybe out of jealousy? Have all the other IT people in the company been condescending or super clueless?)

5 - their physical or emotional state at the moment

6 - probably other factors I can't think of right now.

7 - additional information you give them at the time of the communication


You have little control over 5, unless you can just give a cookie to someone with low blood sugar :)

The only factors you really have any control over are 7, giving additional information, and 3, their actual history with you.

Their actual history with you is, in effect, your relationship. If you can build up a connection with people so that they know you mean well, this can help a lot. Even if they don't "like" you, knowing that you aren't hostile to them can help tremendously. If you're a very logical, task-oriented person, you may be omitting the kind of extra communications with people that let them know what your general tendencies are. So, some occasional, unguarded clues about your values and intentions might be what you need here.

Additional information given at the time of your communication can seem redundant or like a waste of time, but it can help in situations like this. For example, when asking for help, maybe indicate why you're pressed for time or that you feel regret for inconveniencing the person. It's hard to balance this so it doesn't seem like you're making excuses, or like you're being insincere (you have to tell the truth and be sincere). However, if you do this in a genuine way, with understanding of the other person's current situation (i.e., will they care, do they have time to listen to your five-second explanation), it can really help you both with the current situation and with forming part of your history with the person, as described above.
posted by amtho at 8:08 PM on November 13, 2014 [8 favorites]


Is it possible your previous office has been less hierarchical and this one is more so? Because both your examples strike me as the sort of thing that might be problematic if that were the case.

E.g. maybe people aren't used to others questioning their requests in any way, so if this person asked you to go through the document verbally, she was expecting a "yes ma'am" rather than anything that might come across as passive-aggressive resistance.

And could it be that you have misread the workplace as being where people cover for each other, and rather it is more of a place where people ask those who are slightly below them on some sort of complex hierarchy to cover for them, and so your requests have been inappropriate because you misread the hierarchy? It might not be something as obvious as supervisor/subordinate, either: it might be more a case of who has been there the longest, and whose boss answers to who and I don't know, the fact that everyone knows the widgets department is not really as awesome as the wotsits department and so anyone associated with widgets is slightly inferior to the people associated with wotsits.

As the newer person, maybe you have been asked to help out a lot, and you see this as a favour you can ask to have returned, while they see this as their due because you are new and therefore fair game.
posted by lollusc at 8:10 PM on November 13, 2014 [5 favorites]


and I say something like, "oh, I thought you could just read it, but ok"

Not going to sugarcoat it; this is asshole-ish. I am not saying you are, I am not saying that you meant the comment to be, but this comes off to lots of people as flippant, dismissive, and pedantic. Whenever someone requests assistance in the workplace, and especially in personal life, you render it without pre-commentary, exclamations, or even jokes. We are all, ever so slightly, vulnerable and sensitive when in need and seeking help and it is an easy time to make enemies if you don't treat them with manners and empathy.
posted by incolorinred at 8:12 PM on November 13, 2014 [35 favorites]


When these coworkers complained about you, and you found out about it, was it another coworker who told you? If so, that's either the office drama queen or your best office friend, one or the other. Keep a sharp eye on them and try to suss it out.

oh, I thought you could just read it, but ok comes across like "I don't want to talk to you." When I replied to her email and said, I would have appreciated you involving me... sounds like a conversation that should have happened in person, or at least over the phone, so that you could use tone and body language to soften your criticism. Calling people out in email is aggressive, like you are purposely trying to create a paper trail.

These examples make me think maybe you are an introvert who prefers written communication (hello, friend). But this office expects you to be more open to spoken communication. Try to do more in-person and by phone in general. If your coworkers feel like you have time for a conversation with them, maybe that will help them take the opportunity to let you know what's up instead of complaining behind your back.

When you ask someone to do something unfun as a favor to you, and they say OK, say "are you sure?" and give them an out, like "I could ask Person A instead, or I could try to get it done over my lunch hour..." and make them convince you that it really is OK.
posted by Bentobox Humperdinck at 8:50 PM on November 13, 2014 [9 favorites]


someone asked me to give her some information and I gave her the forms where I had written the information down. Then she comes back up to me asking to actually go over it verbally (i.e. not just check my form), and I say something like, "oh, I thought you could just read it, but ok" and we go over it. I meant it in a neutral way--explaining why I left her the paperwork when I didn't realize she actually wanted to talk about it-- but apparently, she heard it more like, "Oh, I THOUGHT you KNEW HOW TO READ," and as me really insulting her.

This is standard for everyone I know. Sometimes people misunderstand. Sometimes we are a jerk. The cycle repeats. Its okay every time either one of those two things is true.
posted by Ironmouth at 8:57 PM on November 13, 2014


How about inserting the word 'sorry' into your responses more often?

When you mean it genuinely, it can really put people onto the back foot and soften them.

"oh, I thought you could just read it, but ok" becomes...
"oh, I'm sorry I thought you could just read it, but ok."

Even better... Remove 'you' as much as you can.
"oh I'm sorry, sure, let's go through it."

'You' is very accusatory. Try and avoid it.

Good luck!
posted by Youremyworld at 9:33 PM on November 13, 2014 [12 favorites]


Most of the time when I have this issue it's due to my tone of voice. A lot of the time I'm not fully aware that my tone is entering a more "insulting"-sounding or sarcastic tone (even when my intention is not either of those things). Sometimes that makes all the difference.

Same words, different tone can really change things. I still screw this up somehow. I feel like I should always be aware of it or that it'd be obvious, but somehow it's not.

I also think that is a reason that written / online communication often causes flare-ups unnecessarily. Text doesn't always convey the correct tone.
posted by kup0 at 9:38 PM on November 13, 2014 [2 favorites]


These examples make me think maybe you are an introvert who prefers written communication (hello, friend). But this office expects you to be more open to spoken communication.

Yep, meant to say this. It is an issue in Ango-American work environments as well, because (forgive the clich├ęs) Americans love them some loooong meetings, but British people would much prefer circulate chunky reports that fulfil a similar purpose, then have a five-minute confab to say "have we missed anything really obvious here? No? Good."

It sounds like you're in a talky-worky kind of office now where face-to-face interactions carry a status and purpose that written communication doesn't. The complaints sidechannel may be a side-effect of that. If your observations bear this out, then you're probably going to need to tune your talky-worky skills to feel comfortable.
posted by holgate at 10:31 PM on November 13, 2014 [5 favorites]


You know any office can have this sort of thing so it's hard to tell if it's anything you're doing or if it's just the people you work with. I will say this though... I do think from what you've written it's become clear to others that you CARE what they think of you and this may be enough to make them want to come up with excuses to hate you. If someone with Ego problems is having a bad day and needs the ego stroked a bit, they can feel a little better about themselves by kicking someone else a peg down. Though I do think that it's ok to evaluate your general impression on people, I don't think trying to seek these people's approval is going to serve you.

I think the advice given above of adding I'm sorry might work sometimes, but not usually. However it's worth a shot: "oh, I thought you could just read it, but ok" becomes...
"oh, I'm sorry I thought you could just read it, but ok." A person who feels insulted hearing the first line will also feel insulted hearing the second one in my opinion. Give it a try and if you find people are still complaining you know that you're just dealing with someone who's looking to find things to gossip about.

I worked once in an office once where fake gossip was spread around about me and about others as well. It was in particular one person who then tried to get others against me and some believed that person so it worked. How nice and helpful I was didn't make any difference in the matter. In fact, it almost made things worse because those people started taking advantage of me AND continued the vileness. I'm also an introvert who prefers written communication and because of this one of the rumours that was spread about me was that I try to get people to put things in writing so that I could use what they say against them. This took flight despite the fact that I never once shared any of the private info that people shared with me. In the end people are going to believe what they want to believe and there's nothing you can do about it so there's no point in bothering. I'm someone who doesn't talk about people behind their backs so the whole concept of that is alien to me, but I've learned that there are a LOT of people who smile to one's face and then talk shit about them when they're not looking. I've seen people do this with me and with just about everyone else around them as well. So don't think it's just you. These people just like to complain and it's best to keep your distance. You DON'T have to be friends with your coworkers and it's often best if you're not.
posted by rancher at 2:12 AM on November 14, 2014 [3 favorites]


Hard to know and you have some good ideas above. One thought of mine is that seeming as you care how you are perceived and about not offending you are probably pretty sensitive (meant in a good way :). Yep could be a stressed out place.. often is.

I am used to working in teams.. some more socially cohesive than others and work we do need to be able to pull together for. I am pretty collective by nature and perspective (or at heart). That said though, I still don't ask people to cover unless I am literally desperate. I wish I had felt more ok to do that.. but inspite of team culture in theory I generally find work quite a horribly individualsitic place, where everyone has too much to do, people might not do what I've asked/may forget/cock it up etc. I'd rather just do it all myself these days then I know its done and it's a resaonbale job, allbeit a bit later than I'd like in an ideal world. That sounds horribly negative maybe, but it's just become how I think now.
posted by tanktop at 3:13 AM on November 14, 2014 [1 favorite]


I'm from the Northeast. I'm also not as attuned to social cues as I would wish. When I've traveled to the South (or even Midwest), I've had to have it explicitly pointed out to me that I needed to make some basic shifts. For example, I needed to smile, make eye contact, and greet people like cashiers and people passing in a shared space, a LOT more. It could be that there are interactions outside of the immediate ones that are the underlying culprits for the problems you're experiencing. Your coworkers may not be getting all the nice-friendly-person cues from you throughout the day that would otherwise buffer some of these flare-ups.
posted by daisyace at 3:58 AM on November 14, 2014 [8 favorites]


" sounds like a conversation that should have happened in person, or at least over the phone, so that you could use tone and body language to soften your criticism. Calling people out in email is aggressive, like you are purposely trying to create a paper trail. "


Wow. When I read bentobox's remark saying this it brought to mind the situation that happened to me! I prefer writing to people via email so a rumor started spreading that I was trying to "catch" them in writing with something. So weird. I guess this must be a common thought among people when you prefer to write to others. In that case perhaps it is best to write as little as possible to others.
posted by rancher at 4:51 AM on November 14, 2014


Do you have any more examples? The ones you gave -- and how you could adjust your actions in those circumstances -- have been pretty well covered. But if you have more examples, that might help give greater context and maybe show some kind of trend that is helpful (or the lack of a trend, which would also be helpful for evaluation what's going on).
posted by J. Wilson at 5:04 AM on November 14, 2014


Your examples offer your criticism before they offer your value. Not a big deal in a low context culture, but potentially hazardous in a high context one. The complaining behind your back and avoidance without confrontation go with that, too...as does the group's willingness to support each other, actually.
posted by gnomeloaf at 5:07 AM on November 14, 2014 [2 favorites]


I live in NYC and I think your responses are abrasive, so it's not just a regional thing. You need to work on the art of both (a) not taking responsibility for these problems and (b) allowing the other (presumably at-fault) person to save face. Basically, you have to treat it like you and the other person have a secret agreement that some unknown third party is at fault for the present situation and the two of you have to team up to solve the problem.

Do not apologize -- it blows the problem back onto you and makes it look like you're constantly screwing up. Look forward at a solution rather than backward at the cause of the problem.

Examples:
"oh, I thought you could just read it, but ok" ---> BAD; doesn't matter why she needs help, she just does
Better response: "Sure, no problem. Give me a few minutes to finish up XYZ and then I'll swing by your office to discuss [or: I have to finish XYZ by noon, are you free at 1pm to discuss?]." Problem gets solved, they know you care, but also that your time isn't completely flexible. In the future, when handing out written material to this person, preempt their request by saying "here's the information you requested, let me know if you'd like to schedule a time to discuss."

"I would have appreciated you involving me in this like we agreed" ---> BAD; doesn't matter that she didn't involve you, it happened, get over it, solve the problem. If this person isn't your subordinate, then you really shouldn't be speaking to them like this.
Better response: "Ok, so we have problem ABC. Let's try solution DEF. In the future, the sooner you can let me know about ABC, the easier it will be to solve." If this is a recurring problem, add "as we've previously discussed" between "in the future" and "the sooner." If it happens more than a handful of times, speak to the person's supervisor.

Other phrases that are helpful:
"Hi Jim, I just wanted to touch base about the status of Thing 1."
"Person, Please let me know the status of the request below [previous emails below]."
"So-n-So, I sent the materials on Date, but have not yet received confirmation of Thing 2. Please advise."

Stop pointing fingers and start solving problems. Allow the other person to save face.
posted by melissasaurus at 5:12 AM on November 14, 2014 [23 favorites]


Oh god yes honey you need to waaaaaayyyyyyyyyyyyyyy step up the politeness and sweetness and helpfulness like ten billionty percent. This is the problem, right here.

Yep. I'm on the opposite side of the country, but when people here describe someone as "kind of east coast" they aren't saying "wow, what a polite and charming person who is so pleasant to work with."

Stop pointing fingers and start solving problems. Allow the other person to save face.

Yes, this a million times over. Almost always, once something not-great has happened it isn't helpful or worthwhile to spend any time assigning fault, compared to finding a way to move the newly created situation forward in a positive direction. Stop doing that (very east coast) verbal tic of first saying something critical, and just move straight to the "how do we move forward" step.

So instead of "oh, I thought you could just read it, but ok", go for just a straightforward "Sure, I'd be happy to go over that with you." (And in doing so, find out for the future how this person needs to receive information to save a step the next time around.)

Also, be proactive on this, don't just be waiting for people to come to you with requests. Look at the patterns in the office -- it wouldn't surprise me if people are doing more casual communication before making an official "please help me on this project" request, and may well be informally stepping in on other people's projects when they see a need. In other words, make sure you are helping other people more than you are asking them to help you, and that you are doing so fully in keeping with the group culture of how it is done, how credit is assigned, and how authority is designated.
posted by Dip Flash at 6:09 AM on November 14, 2014 [3 favorites]


I don't have any idea how to deal with the nice-ities required in a business office in The South, but this stuck out to me:
Like if someone doesn't respond to my email...which seems to happen frequently...I must be bothering them. And I think, maybe they're busy so I should catch them in person if I need something, but if they're already ignoring me for a reason, isn't it just going to be more annoying if I just walk in?

I had to get in the habit, when making requests by email, of including a response date if I expected a response, as easy as "Please let me know what you think of these plans for world domination by cob tomorrow so I can move forward!" This gives the responder a time frame, it means an email from new employee, potentially lower on the hierarchy (you) doesn't just fall into inbox wasteland AND it gives you a followup time. When close of business tomorrow comes, you can either check in in person, "Hey colleague just wondering if you've had a chance to look over those world domination plans I sent you yesterday morning, I really value your input" and then a short conversation about when they'll respond to you, or send another email of basically the same with another response date or maybe "I'll swing by your cubicle tomorrow to check in, I know you're really busy with your laser transponder project." OR, by the third time a colleague doesn't respond, I tend to go nuclear and start cc'ing my manager and their manager on the email thread. This should get a response quickly, but it marks you as either an enemy or someone not to be trifled with.

Also, as a general rule, praise should be written and issues/problems expressed verbally, at least the first time and definitely if you're lower in the hierarchy generally (even if it's regarding a project for which you are responsible).
posted by worstname at 6:39 AM on November 14, 2014 [2 favorites]


... I did just move to the southeastern U.S. ...

It's this. Speaking as another transplant to the South, I've found that Southerners have perfected passive aggressiveness and two-facedness to an art form.
posted by Jacqueline at 6:48 AM on November 14, 2014 [10 favorites]


It's this. Speaking as another transplant to the South, I've found that Southerners have perfected passive aggressiveness and two-facedness to an art form.

Bless your heart. It's not that. Not exactly.

You have to be more relationship-oriented with your office mates. We in the South are not slower and stupider than our Northern counterparts, our folksy charm and laid-back demeanor is a facade. We're just as sharp and quick-witted as any Northerner, we're just going to hide it under a layer of mollassas.

A little self-deprication is helpful, remembering that miscommunication works both ways. "Oh my bad! I should have followed up with you on that. I'd love to walk you through that."

I think in any busy business that getting responses via email is a challenge. One method I use to to assume X unless they tell me other wise. "I need to know if you want to do A or B by COB tomorrow. I'll do A if I don't hear from you by then." See, now they can ignore me and I'll do A, or they can get back to me and tell me they want B or Q or W.

Be nicer, don't be snarky and watch your tone. It gets easier.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 7:08 AM on November 14, 2014 [7 favorites]


I don't think you need to apologize, self-deprecate, or act like you are taking blame. This can quickly go too far in the other direction, making you look sycophantic and feel crappy besides! I think a "thanks" goes a lot further than a "sorry". People like to feel appreciated and acknowledged in their efforts - and that goes even if to you it doesn't look like they made an effort. You can certainly ask people for feedback, along the lines of: "Let me know if there's something I can do to be clearer next time." That lets you take responsibility without acting like you're admitting a wrong, and also shows a desire to cooperate.

Also, smile if you aren't already, including on the phone. I know some people who inadvertently look grumpy all the time, and talking with them makes me feel uncomfortable, like I'm constantly on the defensive. Smiling makes other people feel relaxed. I started doing this myself and I've frequently had people tell me since that I'm cheerful, pleasant, always smiling, easy to get along with etc., and that has even happened at times when I've inwardly felt frustrated with the situation. It makes such a difference. I know this kind of falls under 'dumb things we tell women' - I don't want to be like that guy on the bus who tells you you'd look so pretty if you just smiled - but I think in the work environment, unlike an environment like a bus where your facial expression is no one's business but yours, this is gender neutral advice.

When I replied to her email and said, I would have appreciated you involving me in this like we agreed to but please let me know what happened...no response...and she has given me the cold shoulder since then.

I think this happened because you didn't set expectations from the beginning. Before you start working on a project, send an email out to everyone working on the project that outlines deadlines, who is responsible for various tasks, who needs to review things, who is responsible for checking in on project deadlines, and who needs to be looped in on communication. I used to work with someone who always did this and it just made working with her so nice. Easy, straightforward, clear.
posted by capricorn at 8:39 AM on November 14, 2014


I'm from NYC, born and bred, and "Oh, I thought you could just read it, but ok" comes across as seriously nasty to me. And that's even just on a cold reading without actually hearing your tone. Obviously, I don't know what your tone sounded like when you said it, but I can't think of any way that the response could be taken well by anyone hearing it, no matter what the tone. The implication is, "Well, I'll go over it with you if you insist, but why are you wasting my time?" Not a good way to speak to your co-workers. Obviously, she was aware that she could have "just read it," but she chose not to do that, and reasonably was offended when you seemed to suggest that she was bothering you by asking for clarification.

My own rule of thumb is that the one and only correct answer to anyone asking you to go over something with them is, "Sure, do you want me to come down to your office?" or some variation thereof, full stop. Telling someone, even in a "neutral" way, that you thought she could just read it herself is not a good idea.
posted by holborne at 8:47 AM on November 14, 2014 [1 favorite]


This person isn't my boss or even someone in my office, just someone I have to deal with because of my job, so it's not a big deal in that way--it's just a good example of the type of thing that happens.

This line jumped out at me. Treat everybody like they're the boss. By that I mean treat everybody like they matter, like their input is important and you value and respect what they have to say. It will serve you very well.
posted by futureisunwritten at 9:42 AM on November 14, 2014 [8 favorites]


Then she comes back up to me asking to actually go over it verbally... and I say something like, "oh, I thought you could just read it, but ok" "Sure, I'd be glad to!"

See if you can temper your speech to indicate friendliness and helpfulness with everyone.
posted by BlueHorse at 12:24 PM on November 14, 2014


I posted recently about how I love my job and felt like I got along really well with everybody (except that my boss kinda doesn't like me). The good news is, I did have an actual meeting with my boss once and the work-related feedback was good, so however annoying she may think I am, it doesn't seem to have affected her perception of my work yet and that's what matters.

No, that's not all that matters. Organizations get rid of strong performers who aren't good cultural fits all the time, and that includes people who just don't get along with others. It doesn't matter how good your work is, or how important your contribution is, or how indispensable you think you are. If you're not a cultural fit, you're at risk of getting tossed out on your ass (and rightfully so - culture matters for organizational success and employee satisfaction).
posted by NotMyselfRightNow at 12:32 PM on November 14, 2014 [7 favorites]


You might find some of Deborah Tannen's books very helpful with this. She writes about the differences between what you say, what you mean, and what people hear (that's a very simplified summary, sorry). They literally changed my life when I was working.
posted by still_wears_a_hat at 2:24 PM on November 14, 2014


As an HR professional I strongly disagree. A company's main objective is to make money. If you are making them a good portion of money and not losing them any money, you can be the biggest a-hole on the block and they will keep you on. Companies do not fire strong performers that are not good cultural fits unless they feel that performance can easily be replicated by someone else.

In all my years in HR I have come to know various people who are hated by EVERYONE in their company- including their own bosses, but they've been with the company for over 20 years and are still there because they make the company a lot of money. Only once did I witness one of these people get fired and the result of that was that a year later they begged that person to come back and they fired the guy who fired that person just BECAUSE he fired him. I guarantee you, the cultural thing is only a problem if they believe your performance can easily be replicated by someone else. If you're making them good money, and not losing any for them you are safe no matter how you are perceived.
posted by rancher at 2:48 PM on November 14, 2014


I don't know what I'm doing wrong

That statement rings a bell for me.

20 years ago, my ex and I moved from the NE to the SE. She had one hell of a time adjusting. She got fired or let go 4 times and never knew why. She went from being a very valued office manager who continually redefined her position on her own terms to just being a lost soul in a cubicle who didn't understand anything that was going on around her.

She began to expect me to listen to her whine for hours every night. Initially I was incredulous. Things were going fine at my work. How could her's be so bad? Then I spent a day in the closet behind her desk. And holy shit! She should have been throwing punches at those people. Other women knocking her down for being smart and having ideas. Fuck that. She was beginning to doubt every good quality she had going for her.

I like living down here and my ex does too. But she understands the manner of gas lighting that goes on. Bless your heart.
posted by Mr. Yuck at 3:11 PM on November 14, 2014 [5 favorites]


Hi all--I am really appreciating the varied responses and you guys are really helpful. Especially helpful as it applies to the people in my office, who are on my team.

This: "This line jumped out at me. Treat everybody like they're the boss. By that I mean treat everybody like they matter, like their input is important and you value and respect what they have to say. It will serve you very well." and comments along this nature have left me wanting to clarify/ask a follow up question.

I have been vague about what I do because it is a small field and I really don't want to be identified. I mentioned that the first anecdote did not involve someone actually in my office--and it does make a really important difference. Basically, I am at an advocacy organization and these "people I run across in my work" are people who are working directly against the interests of the population I work for. And in my line of work it is NOT considered my job to be deferential to these people. They have too much power already. I think many of them are unethical and they might think the same about me. Some of them are deliberately hostile and talk to me as if I am stupid as a manipulation/power play, and acting like their needs are a priority is going to make them walk all over you. (In fact, the woman I mentioned often has a super bitchy tone of voice and acts like it's her job to tell me what to do (not just me who thinks this) and I thought she was trying to be intimidating--as some of her colleagues do--but now I think she doesn't realize how she sounds, is easily on the defensive but wants to get along.)

That said, catching more flies with honey is a thing. Reading these replies makes me think I should ask a more specific question: How do I avoid miscommunication and foster a good working relationship while not losing power in a situation like this?
posted by picardythird at 3:46 PM on November 14, 2014


The plot thickens. I'm not really sure that you can have a good working relationship with people who you believe are unethical and who likely believe you are also unethical, who you're expected to be confrontational with and have power struggles with. It doesn't seem surprising at all that you're getting into conflict with people who are aren't really on your team and don't seem to need to or want to respect you.

In a situation like that I would probably smile a lot but make sure whatever I said was strictly professional and to the point (i.e. rather than "I thought you could just read it", simply say "yes").

If you send an email and one of these people does not respond within a reasonable timeframe, you can forward it back to them and say "What's the status on this? or "Could you get back to me by the weekend?"

I would not ask anyone to help me in this sort of working environment unless truly desperate - it doesn't seem worth it.
posted by treehorn+bunny at 8:45 PM on November 14, 2014 [2 favorites]


Basically, I am at an advocacy organization and these "people I run across in my work" are people who are working directly against the interests of the population I work for.

Oh, you're talking about the opposition? Yes, of COURSE, you will have tension with them. Of course you will wear out your welcome.

Ideally, you will earn a reputation as someone to be respected, someone who must be dealt with, a straight-shooter, and someone that they can have a pleasant conversation with (e.g., if they wanted to try to negotiate a deal with you). But you're not going to be friends. Focus on maintaining a high degree of professionalism, being really good at your job, and building a personal connection wherever possible (do they have kids? do you? where are they going on summer vacation?).

Try to figure out whether they're nasty to you because they think you're a pest who is not effective (ie, someone they can dismiss rudely), or because they know you are incredibly effective (ie, they are angry at you).

"oh, I thought you could just read it, but ok"

I'm imagining that you made a handout about your campaign? I can somewhat picture why you would want to say that, because it's an awkward situation. But this still comes across as petty and snarky. Maybe you could have said "hi Beverly. That handout outlines some of the concerns I have -- the ones I brought up last time I spoke with you. I'd be happy to answer any questions you have about it." In some (rare!) instances, you might have done well to run the handout past them for their reaction before a public hearing.
posted by slidell at 2:06 AM on November 15, 2014 [1 favorite]


Just to clarify: the original question applied both to my actual office (my team) and the opposition, in that I'm having the "what did I do?" issue everywhere. But I really appreciate the additional answers regarding the latter situation since, upon reading the original answers, I realized the same advice may not apply as well.

(And "needing to work out a deal" is the frequent area of conflict, where they're trying to make me think I'm a clueless newbie is a legit negotiation technique.)
posted by picardythird at 4:43 AM on November 15, 2014


From slidell: "I'm imagining that you made a handout about your campaign?"

It was a short list of data that in my experience has not usually required a conversation unless a particular thing was unclear--simply handing it to people to read is often what I've been asked to do. (So I realize why my comment sounded bad--but in my head, it was because it literally had not occurred to me she expected something different than what other people had.)

And I'll stop threadsitting now :-)
posted by picardythird at 5:02 AM on November 15, 2014


How do I avoid miscommunication and foster a good working relationship while not losing power in a situation like this?

Power doesn't come from tone. You can be super polite to people without losing power. If someone wants to go over information with you and you didn't think that was necessary, you can meet their needs without that meaning that they can take advantage. Power comes from standing firm and defining clear boundaries. Yes, you will review this material with this woman. No, you unfortunately don't have time to do it right this second but could she come back at one of these three times?

I'm an east-coaster now living in CO and I have often been told I'm a little...harsh around the edges. One strategy that has helped me prevent miscommunication from tone is a well-crafted not-obnoxious paraphrase. I am constantly amazed by how powerful it can be in working relationships to ensure the other person knows I heard and understood them. For example, "You prefer that I review this information with you in person rather than just providing it in writing." (You can tell an obnoxious paraphrase because it often starts with "I'm hearing you say that..." and is overly repetitive instead of a summary. You don't want her to be like, why did this dummy just repeat what I said?) Followed by "Great let's do it!" or scheduling a time to do so.

In the case of your coworker who went ahead with an action step before consulting you, it's a question like "How did you determine to do X?" followed by a paraphrase - maybe it'll be "Oh, you really wanted to make sure this got done in a timely fashion." Then you can decide whether or not this makes you feel better. If you're like, oh great point I didn't realize this person felt this way and that this is why she did this, then move on. If you're like, that is not cool and I'd like that to not keep happening, present your own value statement and an "I wonder..." So it might sound like, "I really valued getting to work with you on this, and having a voice in the decision process. (maybe insert more superfluous comments here because you're about to push back a tiny bit.) I wonder how in the future we could honor your need to complete projects in a timely fashion and also make sure we're collaborating throughout the entire length of the project."
posted by violetish at 9:20 AM on November 15, 2014 [2 favorites]


Just adding my voice to the chorus that's saying it's a Yankee vs. Southerners thing. The south is full of passive-aggressive "nice" people who will do exactly the opposite of giving you the benefit of the doubt, every chance they get. Not all, but a hell of a lot of them love to assume the worst, and will interpret every neutral statement as being actively antagonistic. So your choices are learn to be excessively fake-nice, decide not to give a damn what they think, or move.
posted by MexicanYenta at 3:51 AM on November 16, 2014 [4 favorites]


So your choices are learn to be excessively fake-nice, decide not to give a damn what they think, or move.

The fourth way is to be very clear and quiet but direct instead of trying to conform. And you have to do it without a hint of aggression. Absolute control of your emotions whacks passive-agression every time. "So you really think X is best? I just don't see that" is a good way to answer.

Ex became a leader after she unbolted her feet from the floor. We had saved before the move and losing a job was not a big deal, so she took some risks that many people could not. Other women started envying her approach.

There was a fascinating article that would be a great link in this thread, probably in The New Yorker or The Economist or the NYT Sunday mag, late eighties or early nineties, comparing North-South cultural differences in the USA, Germany, Italy and France. Can someone find that? I can't.

And crap, I'm remembering all the good things about my ex. I wanted her to soar out of her nasty childhood. Fuck you Metafilter. In a nice way.
posted by Mr. Yuck at 8:24 AM on November 16, 2014 [2 favorites]


Re your update about working for an advocacy group and having to negotiate with the "opposition", I'm wondering if this is compounded by the Northeast vs. South thing. Because depending on what exactly your group advocates, it is very easy to fall into certain stereotypes southerners have about northerners.

And even if you're not a northeastern liberal working on some godless heathen issue like reproductive rights or environmentalism, often in the south people rush to deem people they disagree with -- especially new people, young people, transplants, etc. -- as outsiders and not worth negotiating with. Your yankee ways are going to serve you poorly here, because it plays right into their hands and gives them a ton of ammo in favor of not taking you seriously.

It probably seems counterintuitive, but you need to really pour on the charm when dealing with these folks. It's especially true here that you need to treat everybody like they matter. Maybe even be more delicate with them than you would be with a coworker or a boss. Ask these guys about their families, their sports loyalties, their golf game, WHATEVER common ground you can possibly find. Even if you don't share those interests, making small talk about that stuff with them will be a way to show respect and deference to them and send the message that you may be on opposite sides of an issue, but you're all part of the same community.

Being cold with them or dismissing them out of hand because they play for the other team is the opposite of what you need to be doing.
posted by Sara C. at 10:18 AM on November 16, 2014 [1 favorite]


I'm sorry that I haven't read everything in this thread. One thing that stuck out to me in your example about reading the forms ... try to avoid telling people to "just" do X whenever possible. I have learned this over years of providing technical support. It's an extra unnecessary word that makes it sound like you think they are unable to do something that you see as simple. I realize it sounds like a really small thing, but it truly can be a big deal.
posted by freezer cake at 10:08 AM on November 17, 2014


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