How not to get on your supervisor's bad side
February 28, 2015 6:32 PM   Subscribe

I have a new job I really don't want to mess up. But I'm in an atypical situation and I lack office interpersonal skills. Already my supervisor, we're both women, is growing wary of me. Help me with your brilliant advice. Wall of hardened snowflakes requiring blowtorch inside...

I just started working three days a week in a small office with almost all women. Interactions with groups of women have always been a problem for me. I am often the target of gossip and end up the pariah. From a young age I've always lacked social skills, was frequently rejected and eventually accepted that I was going to be excluded from groups to the point where I sometimes precipitated it.

Office etiquette and politics are a confusing mass of bird calls and wing flapping to me. Similarly, social etiquette, notably among women is so mysterious to me that I might as well be a guy. (I think I may be on the spectrum and/or have ADD, though I haven’t been tested.) I frequently put my foot in my mouth and cause other women to feel competitive or threatened, I think due to the way I approach work, social engagements and friendships, inevitably leading to gossip and ostracism. Add to this my avoidant, dismissive attachment styles and you can see how I’ve entertained one social disaster after another. I am afraid of this happening in my new job, which is extremely important to me, so I’m turning to you Metafilter for advice. Here are the details and questions:

1) I’m an ideas person. Either due to ADD or some sort of mild form of mania, I get really excited about ideas and find it hard to contain that excitement. Also, I'm always writing things down--this helps me process what I’m hearing. These two attributes feature in how I handled my first meeting with my supervisor, let’s call her Laura, and members of our team including our Area's senior exec Pam in Chicago. So there we were with Chicago on a video connection, coming up with all these great ideas. I was silent, but scribbling down their ideas and my ideas, having a great time at it. Laura didn't take many notes and she didn't contribute any ideas though she did make some comments. Since I’m Laura’s subordinate and this was my first meeting, I thought it wise just to take notes and nod along. That said, I think my enthusiasm and scribbling may have given her the wrong impression.

How do I put Laura, who is younger and in some respects less experienced than me at ease without hurting my own chances of doing well in Pam’s eyes? This is a concern because women over time tend to react negatively to me. Maybe I come across as too aggressive or threatening when I'm scribbling down ideas with such enthusiasm? I know I can charge ahead in a job (I hyperfocus) and that I've provoked feelings of competition in other women. I should also mention that I battle with my own feelings of competition as I grew up with an extremely competitive sister but I feel like I’m pretty aware when they come up, which is not as often as is my desire to share ideas in an open forum.

How can I make sure Laura and I stay on the same team? If Laura cold shoulders me, I think it would be only a matter of time before the other women in the office do. Incidentally, I don’t want Laura’s job. I’ll be leaving Area X in a few months (job is temporary), but I want to continue working for the company as a freelancer. I am much closer in age to Pam and during our phone interview, where I felt we had a strong connection, she’s said she would consider giving me work in the future (assuming I do well now).

3) I'm older than Laura by 12 to 15 years, though I look at least 10 years younger than my age. In her area, let's call it Area X, she has more experience than I do and I’m genuinely there to learn from her, which I told her. One reason Pam wanted to hire me was because she felt I could contribute a lot more than the job requires in the area where I do have experience, let’s call it Area Y, which is closely tied to Area X. That said, I have plenty of ideas for Area X, too. I want to make sure I live up to Pam’s expectations because she’s the one who can hire me for future work. The thing is I’m not sure how to present new ideas for either area without making Laura (or her colleagues in Chicago) feel threatened. Trust me when I say I’m not being overly concerned. This sort of thing happens nearly every time I interact with women in a job setting. The result is that there’s always one woman who tries to damage my reputation through gossip, exclusion, bad reviews, complaints, omissions of vital information, etc. And because of my passive tendencies (except in the generation of ideas), I’m an easy target. Women take aim, almost as if I have a bull’s eye stuck to my back. I have changed, btw, I do plan to fight this stuff in the future.

4) During my initial interview with Pam, I had mentioned sending her a link to something that might interest her. But what are the rules of engagement here? Am I allowed to contact Pam, who is Laura’s supervisor or would that be stepping over Laura? Should I talk to Laura first? cc her in the email? Also I have some ideas I’d like to share with Laura and the Chicago team for Area X that I came up with during that first meeting. Do I talk to Laura about this first and let her present my ideas at the next meeting (this hasn't worked out well for me in the past) or do I chime in at the next meeting with my ideas? How do I know I can speak up at the meetings without overstepping my bounds? This may seem obvious but I have ruffled feathers in the past when I spoke up above my position in a meeting.

5) So my youthful appearance brings me to another of my concerns. I don't look or act my age, I'm not married and I don't have kids. Once my age gets out in the office it could lead to ostracism. This actually happens to me on a regular basis. Recently a woman went out of her way to find out my age and let others know, which had a profound effect on my ability to progress in the org. On several occasions younger folks who are interested in befriending me give me the cold shoulder once they find out my age. While Laura knows I'm older than her I don't think she realizes by how much. How can I gracefully head off any awkward age issues?

Thanks in advance, Mefites, for your wisdom.
posted by kewpiesockpuppetdoll to Work & Money (16 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
I have an answer that applies to most of your questions. Your main responsibility is to make your boss look good. You need to make that your top goal, and most of the problems you listed will just disappear. Each time an issue comes up, just ask yourself what choice will help Laura the most.

Taking everything into consideration, I think you should focus on that. And try to communicate that to Laura in the most professional way you can.
posted by raisingsand at 8:10 PM on February 28, 2015 [9 favorites]

to make your boss look good

This. If Laura is a good boss, she will reciprocate by talking you up to Pam and others in the best ways possible. If Laura is not a good will still be evident to Pam and others what you're doing.

The other critical function is working well with your team and your supervisor to collaboratively accomplish goals.

I'm a manager of a dozen folks and the person who I'd most like to let go from my team is a dedicated, hard-working individual who has many otherwise remarkable qualities but does not check in with me, ignores my guidance unless couched as a direct order and takes the credit for his, our team and my accomplishments for himself whenever possible.

He works harder than anyone else on my team, and he would still be the person I'd let go if I could select anyone to let go, simply because he doesn't collaboratively engage with the rest of our team and prefers to act unilaterally without input from me or his team members at all times. For balance, this includes at least one employee who is "retired in place" - lacking the ability to be a team player and to take instructions from his boss is so disruptive to my team that I'd rather have a RIP employee than him. If this is a possible factor for you, talk to your boss about weekly check-ins where you can list your priorities for the week and check in with her on her goals and priorities for your time. Also think about ways to work closely with your other team members if you have areas where your work overlaps. If you're not sure how to begin doing this, ask your boss for guidance and assistance.

Good luck!
posted by arnicae at 8:30 PM on February 28, 2015 [6 favorites]

I want to scream JUST STOP!!! I have had employees working for me like you - over-thinking themselves into a big disruptive fuss about nothing all the time. It is exhausting for everyone and I don't know why they think me or their coworkers or their team can perfectly serve up life and career fulfillment when they themselves clearly have no clue what they want. If you just focus on the work, be pleasant to people, and do a good job then your manager will most likely love you.
posted by meepmeow at 10:16 PM on February 28, 2015 [16 favorites]

Best answer: The cause & effect as described here don't match up to me. For example, scribbling notes, even enthusiastically, isn't aggressive. It's actually what I would have suggested for taking focused in a meeting without taking over. Nothing you've said here points to Laura growing wary of you, so it is hard to know what you might be doing specifically in this office to hurt your career.

Is is possible that you are self-sabotaging based on a wrong impression due to your past history? For example, if you think your boss is growing wary of you, and you start going over her head, then you really have given her a problem.

You're saying that by virtue of being yourself, at least one woman in every office environment has tried to sabotage you. That must be upsetting. Is it possible that you are overestimating how much effort other people put into you? Speaking for myself, in my office people are mostly concerned with getting their own work done, lunch, and quitting time.

But okay, let's say these things did happen exactly as you say. For the time being, forget about Pam. Pam will get at least some of her information from Laura. Laura can make or break your future opportunities.

A conversation with Laura about her expectations would ameliorate much of your concerns. Approach her with your ideas regarding Area X and ask what the typical meeting protocol is – should you email your ideas to everyone? Run them past Laura first? Bring them to the next meeting? Same thing with the link of interest, especially if it's work-related. Mention it to Laura and ask her if she wants you to cc her. Some supervisors like to be cced on everything. Some don't need to be. Find out which one Laura is up front, and then you will know how to proceed.
posted by lyssabee at 5:34 AM on March 1, 2015 [1 favorite]

I'm not sure if I understand you completely, but I wanted you to know that I feel with you if the situation is really as you say.
I recently got hired to assist a lady and pretty much all of my colleagues told me that I am there to pick up the slack because that lady is completely incompetent. (And apparently really trying to throw me under a bus.) When I expressed worry about that, everyone told me that my boss knows who they hired and that they will know if I'm a good worker. Maybe knowing this can help you, too.
posted by LoonyLovegood at 8:16 AM on March 1, 2015

Response by poster: Thanks, this is all great advice. Exact directions such as lyssabee's and rainydayfilm's are really helpful. I don't plan on threadsitting but I thought I'd clarify some things in case anyone is still listening.

Yes I self-sabotage in the sense that I precipitate ostracism because I've come to expect it. I grew up with a rejecting mother and an emotionally disturbed sibling. I dissociated and retreated inward to deal with it. We also moved constantly so social learning never happened at home nor with a cohort. When you've internalized group social skills from a young age it's hard to understand how damaging it can be when you're clueless.

So, yes, the problem has been to a large extent me. I definitely trigger feelings of competition in other women. I also read too much into women's actions because of my history. But here's my history: I have literally had women accuse me, to their supervisors, of stealing office equipment, of cheating on documents, of being disrespectful in meetings. On that job two supervisors took me aside to talk to me about my behavior. They felt sorry for me--incidentally they were men. One of them said it's clear I'm smart, have things to say, etc but to tone it down. I realized gossip was a problem when a friend's spouse called me up furious because she'd heard from a woman that I left a dinner without paying--actually I hadn't eaten, the gossiper was just trying to make me look bad. On one outing with a group of women the gossip and exclusion was so bad that an older motherly figure took me aside and spelled it out for me. I've followed her advice since.

I appreciate being called out on feeling superior, rainydayfilms. I used to ruffled feathers because I came across as intellectually elitist. That's one reason I was ostracized on the outing. The male in the group, a father figure, advised me to stop talking about intellectual things except in private with him because I was referencing books and thinkers the women, who were mainly artists, hadn't heard about. I've wondered if I'm too masculine in my behaviors and come across to the women like I'm steamrolling them. This why I thought my scribbling and excitement over everyone's ideas during the meeting with Laura and Pam might be the wrong approach. Maybe instead I should imitate what Laura does in meetings?

I don't think I could do Laura's job, incidentally. Area X requires social skills that are beyond me and I respect Laura for having that knowledge. What I meant is I don't want to let Pam down since she is expecting me to add value beyond my job description. Given my history, I'm not sure how to this without ruffling feathers. I'll proceed by running everything by Laura, as you've advised. Raisingsand, thanks for the wise words. Are there any specific things I can do to make Laura look good?

Your comments have also made me realize something: that I want to develop a lasting relationship with Pam and I my goal is to do a good job in her eyes. Perhaps my anxiety comes from concern that Laura will pick up on this and see it as undermining her role. Maybe the answer is that I need to forget about Pam for now and focus on doing a good job for Laura.
posted by kewpiesockpuppetdoll at 8:39 AM on March 1, 2015

If Laura is a good boss, she will reciprocate by talking you up to Pam and others in the best ways possible. If Laura is not a good will still be evident to Pam and others what you're doing.

Sadly, this is not always the case. By all means work to make your boss look good, but keep documentation of those efforts (even if it's just an email to yourself). Hopefully your efforts will be appreciated and you'll never need it, but it's good to have just in case things go pear shaped.

Keeping documentation is also something we can do to take some control of the situation, and that makes us feel more confident about it. If you are feeling more confident, others will sense that and feel more confident about you. That will put them at ease and make them seem less insecure.

Also, you mentioned that this job is temporary. In the future, I recommend looking for more diverse work environments. Among other things, they inhibit the development of dysfunctional cliques and provide more checks and balances to the ones that do develop. I mention this because you mentioned being the brunt of gossip and ostracism in the past. These things are never OK and tend to be more a problem in homogenous, cliquish environments.
posted by jazzbaby at 8:57 AM on March 1, 2015

Best answer: I used to work with someone like you, and yes, your behavior will generate ill-will and competitiveness all around if you don't change it. Especially if you're appearing to undermine your own boss. That will not go over well with anyone, including Pam.

Here's a short answer for your situation: Ask, don't tell.
Also, based on your follow-up: Talk less, listen more.

I'm a big proponent of paying your dues as a new person and, at least for the first six months, just shutting up and observing.

Ask questions rather than offer opinions. You would be amazed how far you can push a solution just by asking insightful questions.

Ask how to do things, even if you think you know - you are in a new environment and things might be done differently here. I can't tell you have many times I was annoyed at the New Person in my workplace barging on and doing stuff wrong instead of just asking.

If there's a problem, ask how you can help rather than tell others what you think they should do.

You say you're an ideas person - but that doesn't mean you have to immediately share out loud every idea that comes into your mind. That's because, unless you're a certified genius, I can guarantee you that most of your ideas are actually unworkable or not the optimal solution for a given problem in this particular situation; either due to cost, time involved, resources, or any of the myriad reasons you have NO idea about since by your own admission you're new. That's the nature of having lots of ideas - most of them will not work, but it is good to have lots of ideas to choose the right ones. So do your boss and teammates a favor and step back on offering an idea until you had time to think it through and determine that it has some merit, because there's nothing more annoying than having a New Person constantly pipe up with absolute certainty "We should do X!!", like they're some God-given problem-solver for a team who has been working on these issues for years and are fully aware of all the problems with X that the New Person is completely clueless about.

When you thought it through and determined that an idea has merit, consult it with (as opposed to presenting it to) Laura in your one-on-one meeting. When you talk about your ideas, couch it in terms of questions, not statements; again, because you're likely not fully aware of all the relevant issues that might come into play.

Don't say: "We should do X" or even "I think we should do X".
Say: "Have we ever tried doing X to solve the Widget Depreciation problem? Would that work? I thought replacing a Widget at an earlier stage would prevent the break-downs, but maybe it would be too expensive for us?"

You might be concerned that if you take a step back, then your contributions will be invisible to Pam, but people with average social skills, and more importantly bosses with average observation skills, can easily tell when someone is being a help rather than a hindrance. And alienating a team and your own immediate supervisor would count as a big hindrance that I doubt all your ideas can balance out.
posted by Ender's Friend at 10:43 AM on March 1, 2015 [8 favorites]

You might find the Unstuck app and blog to be helpful. Some related blog articles:

7 things no one tells you when you start a new job

Your Guide to Good Work Relationships

Office Politics for People Who Hate Politics
posted by heatherann at 11:58 AM on March 1, 2015 [6 favorites]

I'll admit that your post gets my hackles up a little, because in my experience women who 'don't get on with other women' come with a range of issues and difficulties to be navigated. (I say this as a woman who spent her teenage years with that particular affliction.) Note that if you were on the spectrum, you would probably find men as hard to read as women. Despite popular opinion, female social environments are not magical and special and complex beyond all understanding.

With that said, if you are genuinely trying your best and are concerned, it might be worth sitting down with your boss and outlining your worries. I don't mean throwing everyone you've ever worked with under the bus, just indicating that you recognise you are not blessed with superior social skills and would find it really helpful for people to be very upfront and clear with you. Couch it in terms of a problem you have and are solving rather than ways in which this workplace is terrible. Don't, for heaven's sake, mention gender.

In the day-to-day, being aware of your struggles with relating to other people in the office is key. Going out of your way to exchange friendly words with people, thanking them for something they've done or apologising for appearing standoffish would all be good ways to reverse the trend in how people see you. You don't have to glom onto people and be their best friend, but you can be friendly and personable and pleasant to be around without forming a lasting attachment.
posted by averysmallcat at 3:31 PM on March 1, 2015 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I can identify with a lot of what you wrote. There is an unspoken undercurrent here: "I must be doing something wrong, even though I have good intentions, that makes women dislike me on the job. I have absolutely no idea what it is." And then you proceed to guess. Maybe it's the note-taking. Maybe it's the fact that you have ideas. Maybe it's the fact that you like to discuss intellectual topics. Maybe it's the fact that you look young. It seems like you are grasping at straws and I have the utmost sympathy for you because I've had similar experiences, including thinking I am on the spectrum and going through maybe-it's -this-maybe-it's-that to no real conclusion.

I don't quite agree with the comment that if you were on the spectrum you would find men incomprehensible as well. I've heard the Aspie female brain compared to the neurotypical male brain. In my experience, the level of subtle nonverbal interaction among women does make it much more difficult to parse than interactions with males.

Anyway, I'm picking up some subtle hostility in some of these answers, people hinting that you are a "drama llama," think you are superior, and "I've worked with people like you" type comments and I don't think it's fair and I noticed that you didn't really stand up for yourself in your update. I wonder if maybe you don't assertively address microaggressions in person either, thus giving people unspoken permission to escalate if they want. I used to not notice aggressions until they were "macro" and due to some bad experiences have become more sensitive.

I read your question twice and you don't sound deserving of such comments at all. If you were a drama llama you wouldn't be trying to head off this dynamic at the pass, you'd be reveling in being a victim. As far as "people like you," I don't even know what that means. If it refers to your stress, it sounds like you have a legitimate reason to feel as you do. And you certainly don't seem to feel superior. Quite the opposite, in fact.

Being bullied at work sucks and it can be traumatizing. It's perfectly understandable that if this has happened to you before that you would want to be prepared to prevent it from happening again. That being said, you haven't said why you think Laura is wary of you and it wasn't clear from your question. You may be projecting due to past trauma. I'm thinking that your entire problem might be that you act like you expect to be the office outcast and in doing so, you see everyone's behavior as rejecting, and create a self-fulfilling prophecy. And back to the whole autism thing, it is very common for people on the spectrum to have a different vibe and to be scapegoated. It's not even easy for neurotypicals to put their finger on what's different or why they don't like the Aspie. A lot of it is subtle body language and eye contact/smiling stuff, and a tendency to go on about a special interest or to not know how to join in small talk. I can recommend resources if you think these things might be an issue for you. (I don't have a diagnosis either but I was really helped by these materials).

It sounds like you did fine at the meeting with the note-taking and listening. I think you should continue to do that, and and definitely keep it in your mind that you should make Laura look good. A lot of things that most people take for granted, like making your boss look good, are not known or obvious to everyone. I was lucky in that I got to take an intensive soft skills course as part of a training program, which covered workplace etiquette, how to do meetings, etc. If everyone knew how to do these things automatically, courses like that wouldn't have been invented. You're not alone!

Every workplace culture is a little different, too. I've worked in places where being social and outgoing is imperative (much more common in all-female spaces) and other places where productivity is monitored to the point where you can't even get up to grab coffee. It will take time to figure out how this office is. Spend your initial weeks mostly observing, and be polite and professional with coworkers. Offer to help them when appropriate, smile, and make eye contact. Don't get too personal or go on about esoteric interests with them. I feel a bit like the blind leading the blind here, but those are the things I remind myself to do in new job situations. It does take a bit of bandwidth but it's so much better than the stress of wondering why you are disliked.
posted by Beethoven's Sith at 8:01 PM on March 1, 2015 [2 favorites]

Find out what Laura wants you to do, and do it well. Minimize the amount of her time you use up with new ideas. Nail the job's basic requirements before you suggest expanding the workload. If you were there because Pam wanted you to change how Laura did things, your position wouldn't be temporary.

I don't know why groups of women end up feeling competitive with you or not relating well to you, but since women as a whole are very diverse, then if you're experiencing the same thing every time you deal with them, it might be coming from you. And if it only happens with groups of women and not men, it might relate to your views on gender.
posted by salvia at 8:16 PM on March 1, 2015 [5 favorites]

When you say "scribbling", do you just mean, well, taking copious notes while silent? Or do you mean the other thing that people sometimes do, where it is a very loud and borderline performative act of loudly flipping pages, occasionally humming/laughing quietly to yourself, nodding knowingly, periodically murmuring "ahhhh!" or "yes, of course," or other such comments?

Because I cannot think of a single scenario where silently taking notes would bother anyone. But I have worked with people whose version of taking notes is more like the latter, and it is irritating not because they are engaged and thinking about the project/meeting/discussion, but because to the outside eye it seems like they are super-invested in SEEMING engaged/enthusiastic/thoughtful.

The way you talk about women in general/as a monolith concerns me. You say that you take responsibility for all these conflicts of personality, but in every explanation you go on to blame women for not liking intellectual discussion/feeling threatened by your "hyperfocus"/aiming for a bulls-eye on your back/not being as rational as men who Really Get You*.

There are certainly toxic women in toxic workplaces, and maybe you have run into a lot of them, but if your "oh gosh, women are just so complicated and weird" attitude here comes through at ALL in person, then that is your answer. It isn't about taking notes. It is about you continuing to engage in behaviors that you know upset people and then being "shocked" when you are yet again being treated like a person who upsets people.

(*By the way, the speech you got that went "One of them said it's clear I'm smart, have things to say, etc but to tone it down" is, almost verbatim, the speech that problem students in lectures get because they keep taking over discussion, talking over classmates who then stop trying to participate, and generally making every class meeting All About Them. To interpret it as "all the men think you are GREAT but all those women are intimidated by your masculine smartness" is very misguided.)
posted by a fiendish thingy at 10:06 AM on March 2, 2015 [7 favorites]

Response by poster: Beethoven's Sith: Thank you for your words of understanding. They were more than words. I feel less alone reading them, so I'll just keep doing it. Yep, I have a hard time standing up for myself because I either can't 'see' it (definitely not microaggressions), I overanalyze the person into being right, or I dissociate. I think what's happened here is a pretty good simulation of what happens in real life in a group of women. Which has been very helpful, painful though it is. I've never to my knowledge met a Beethoven's Sith in real life. I'll look out for her.

I agree that nonverbal communication among women can go over my head. The fact is, if you as a woman don’t grow up learning how girl groups interact, as I didn't, you will be at a disadvantage until you learn it--and it can be complex. And if you're on the spectrum I think it would be nigh impossible to pick it up later in life.

What you said above rings true, if I'm on the spectrum then the direct style of communication preferred by most men (aside from flirtation, which took me years to 'get') is easier for me to parse than the ways women interact. Bottom line is I have traits that don't go over well with most women I meet. I take things at face value, I lean more towards traditionally male topics, I'm single, no children, I don't get girlchat and social niceties. One male friend said women need to be able to categorize other women so they know if they're a threat to their family. I wasn't categorizable. Incidentally, I think the competition must comes more from me. I've been generous to a fault but I've also been jealous to a fault, and I can't seem to shake the ghost of my sister.

a fiendish thingy: you're comments have been a real eyeopener. I don't blame women monothically what I blame is the culture whereby some women routinely squash another woman's attempts at intellectual expression because it makes them feel inferior, threatened or pissed for whatever reason. Women's intellectual inferiority is a thing with a long history since at least Darwin. What's misguided is your effort to put me in my place by claiming that this thing that's been part of what's kept women down for so long, that we ourselves help to perpetrate by ostracizing women who don't act the way a woman 'should,' is an excuse for me to brag about how GREAT I think I am. Seriously? That kind of attitude is part of the problem. I don't think the woman in the office who reported me, she was my direct supervisor, was intimidated by my intellect--this was an office of some of the most intellectual people I've ever met. She disliked my attitude b/c I didn't act the way a woman or an entry level 'should' in that office. The women rarely spoke at meetings and here I was coming in and shooting my mouth off, in her eyes at least. She thought I was acting above my position so she got aggressive, reported me and shut me out. My actions did not deserve this.

I actually only think men 'GET' me in the sense that when I utter words they are less likely to get offended? I wanted to clarify that those supervisors were men for that reason., i.e., they were being understanding, and, look, they were men, further supporting my case that I have a problem with women. Certainly not that there was a problem with the women because, look! the men like me! Again, I think I'm finally understanding what goes on in people's heads when they're deciding they can't stand me. This has been very helpful.

The hijacking discussions is spot on. I can see how I could have done this in college and later spoken too much at meetings relative to my position. This is possibly from a spectrum disorder or ADD. All I know is my mind is racing and it's tough to control. I know some ADDers can't stay still. For me I can't keep quiet and I wonder if its coming from the same disorder. I've learned to stop it for the most part at meetings, but I was worried my note taking had given off the same impression. I scribble when I'm genuinely excited about a topic. I'm not performing to look engaged.

Before I returned to work I looked at heatherann's links (helpful thanks!) and reviewed everyone's advice. At the meeting I took fewer notes, remained very still and smiled a lot. I also asked Laura questions about her needs, commented on her knowing so much about her field and expressed gratitude that I'd be learning from her. I agree I overreacted, she didn't seem to be wary of me.

Thanks, again, everyone. This was tough to hear, touching and worthwhile. Feel like the shades lifted a tad.
posted by kewpiesockpuppetdoll at 5:35 PM on March 7, 2015

She disliked my attitude b/c I didn't act the way a woman or an entry level 'should' in that office. The women rarely spoke at meetings and here I was coming in and shooting my mouth off, in her eyes at least. She thought I was acting above my position so she got aggressive, reported me and shut me out. My actions did not deserve this.

I think you may have misunderstood me a bit, because I wasn’t trying to say that you were bringing it on yourself, or that you deserved it. AT ALL. But this is a dynamic that I have seen many, many times, and since you were asking for ways to get out of the old patterns, I was trying to explain where they frequently come from. I was trying to say that in situations like these, it is rarely the content or ideas that cause friction (intellectual or no), but instead the presentation.

For example, your response to me featured this line “Women's intellectual inferiority is a thing with a long history since at least Darwin.” Now, you couldn’t possibly know that I’m currently finishing my dissertation on this exact topic, but your presentation of that information as if it is probably something new to me is part of the dynamic I’m trying to discuss here. I’m not offended at all— really!, but if the colleagues you have worked with in the past felt like you were ever trying to teach them something they already knew, then the issue is not the topic being discussed, but the way it is being presented, and the perception that someone has taken on authority in a way that is presumptive.

Whether the response of resentment/retribution is right or fair or aggressive was not, as I understood it, the question you were asking (and it is neither right nor fair), because what you were asking was how to avoid interactions like that terrible boss story in the future. I’m not saying that you should quash yourself, because you sound enthusiastic and fun! I am saying that I have seen many well-meaning people accidentally step on toes in exactly this way, and here are some ways to avoid it.

Here’s an example from when I was still teaching undergrads: students in a group project came to me because one of their group members was making them FURIOUS. She had made herself leader of the group, she kept trying to hold other people accountable for their work, she demanded that every part of the project be submitted to her for proofreading before it was turned in, she gave very blunt feedback to group members that they needed to “fix” things, etc.

Now, the thing is, her group members actually knew that she was one of the top students in the class, that she was right 98% of the time, that her feedback was sound, that her suggestions were making their work better, and that their grades were going to be better because she was in their group. But they were still furious! Because to them, she had assumed a position of authority without anyone else consenting to it, and she was supposed to be their colleague/classmate, not their boss/teacher. The fact that her work was great was not what made them angry. Her presentation of that work was the problem. They had no problem with that kind of feedback from ME, because it was my place. But from her, they found it to be completely inappropriate and insulting.

From a purely utilitarian point of view, it might seem crazy that they resented her so much. She was right! The things she said were true! She was helping! But in terms of human interaction, her unilateral decision that she had the right to Be In Charge and Explain Things was nearly disastrous, and it absolutely meant that some of them never wanted to work with her again.

To people who are straightforward and goal-oriented, the whole situation would seem like everyone else was just being ridiculous. But in work environments, there is usually a delicate ecosystem of power, and disregarding it, or failing to understand it in the first place, is professionally very dangerous.
posted by a fiendish thingy at 8:49 AM on March 9, 2015

Response by poster: Well, a fiendish thingy, this does sound embarrassingly like me. Not the girl in the example taking over in that particular way (She sounds confident about being a leader, I wouldn't have been), but my tendency to try to "teach people" things hits the nail on the head. I love sharing knowledge, that's how I see it, but I'm also struggling with some insecurities about my place in life, so I can see how I'd come across as a know-it-all. What made me a subject of gossip is that I would use my own mishaps as an example of what not to do--my attitude was, "Hey, I did this stupid thing, learn from my mistake!" --again part of my interest in sharing knowledge. But this just fueled gossip from people I must have already offended with my know-it-all attitude.

I adopted the tone of the lecturer in my youth--I think because I had few other models of how to interact with people other than rather self-absorbed male intellectuals who talked just like this. Lacking typical social skills, esp the ones girls learn playing in groups, this is what I relied on. I am very conscious of changing this, and I still have a lot of work to do.

It sounded to me like you were taking me to task for feeling full of myself because men 'get' or appreciate my wonderful intellect, and women don't. I was pointing out that you misread my intent. I'd wanted to support my case that I more so have a problem with women vs people in general. I was also pointing out that your interpretation is, in fact, how some women, some of whom are threatened by my elevation of ideas that seems to exclude them from the conversation, react. "Wow, this woman is kind of full of herself." No offense but that is how you came across.

Why not instead: "Hey, she's an ideas person, she's a women, good for her because we need more of that. So let's applaud it rather than hate on her because she's socially clueless and talking about things we know nothing about!" But the problem is, in my experience at least, women rarely support one another in this way. Especially if you're socially clueless. Being socially clued in is, in my experience, much more important among women than men, and if you're not you will get ostracized. So I accept that it's my job to change, not anyone else's.

I really appreciate your spelling things out to me and with great examples. I sometimes feel like I have a chip missing and I don't 'get' certain social things unless they're spelled out like instructions in a manual. Even feeling the pain of rejection for so many years didn't lead to me 'getting it' because people rarely tell you why you're being rejected and I was never in a position where I had to figure it out or not be able to hold a job. I'm actually glad I'm in that position now and am being forced to come to terms with it.

Thanks again everyone for your advice.
posted by kewpiesockpuppetdoll at 8:32 AM on March 10, 2015

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