How do I stop giving off bad vibes?
January 28, 2020 6:04 AM   Subscribe

In just about every single job I've ever had I've had unnecessary conflict with people. They're incredibly passive aggressive and find reasons to dislike me. I'm very quiet and non confrontational. I don't understand what's happening. How do I handle this? What do I change about myself to stop this from happening?

My partner at my current job decided randomly that she would distance herself away from me. She's passive aggressive in very subtle ways. She blew up at me for asking a very simple question. She purposely is friendly to others and go out of her way to not speak to me. At first we were fine I'm not really sure what happened. There's another girl in the office who decided that she dislikes me because I forgot to tell her happy birthday after she left cake in the office break room. I know it's my fault I should have said something but now she really doesn't like me. We don't even work in the same department or have to interact with each other. I'm doing well in my current job and haven't had any issues in regards to my work ethic.
In my previous job, as a customer service rep my manager made it known that she did not like me. She also did it passive aggressively by talking behind my back. It was a personal attack toward me. I've also had one more manager that made it obvious that she did not like me either. In both of these jobs I did well and neither manager wanted me to leave even if they disliked me.
My coworkers at my previous job also did not like me at all. They assumed in the first month I was there that I would start drama. I know for a fact that one of the women pulled other people apart and told them that she had a bad feeling about me. I overheard one of the women say that I'm nice for now but later my true colors would come out. They were at times disrespectful but not enough for me to report them.
I have the issue of always looking sad/angry. I'm an anxious person and all of my emotions show on my face unfortunately. I don't know if that makes people uncomfortable enough to not want to be around me. I feel like I've become a punching bag for people and I have no idea what's causing it. I am very distant at work but polite. I am very shy. I do not speak ill of others because I'm afraid it will come back to me. It's usually women that react this way but I've also had men react this way as well.

What can I do to make this stop happening? I usually keep to myself and I'm getting fed up with other people's issues. I'm not imagining these incidents either, I know these people want me to know that they don't like me. It's been like this at almost every job. I'm sick of it and it's giving me anxiety.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (34 answers total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
This sounds very hard. You say that you are distant, keep to yourself, and often have an angry expression on your face. You have every right to be that way, but it's very easy for the people around you to interpret it as being about them. They may feel that you are shunning them or disapproving of them. I myself have felt this way around a person who I later realized was simply very shy. So, they may be mirroring what they perceive to be your own attitude toward them. It's not very fair, but doing some small things that show that you are friendly and you think well of them might go a long way.
posted by Ausamor at 6:25 AM on January 28 [21 favorites]

In just about every single job I've ever had I've had unnecessary conflict with people. They're incredibly passive aggressive and find reasons to dislike me.

Even if it feels like it can’t possibly be true, I would recognize the disconnect between your first and second sentence here—you have had a problem in every single job you’ve ever had, and yet your first explanation for that is that there’s something wrong with everyone else (literally everyone else you’ve ever worked with in your life???), instead of the more likely explanation that the source of this issue is you, not everyone else in the world.

I don’t think your understanding of why these people dislike you is an accurate reading, but as none of us here knows you, it’s hard to know what the real problem is. This kind of thing is what therapy is made for!

Further, you seem to perceive like and dislike as a black-and-white thing:

I've also had one more manager that made it obvious that she did not like me either. In both of these jobs I did well and neither manager wanted me to leave even if they disliked me.

Being liked at work isn’t only “these people want to be my friend,” it can also be “these people appreciate me.” I work with people I respect and like deeply as coworkers and yet I don’t want to hang out with them outside the office and don’t particularly enjoy goofing around with them or chatting with them about life stuff, the way I do with my friends. That doesn’t mean I dislike them, at all.
posted by sallybrown at 6:36 AM on January 28 [49 favorites]

I wish I could tell if you were a man or a woman as I think the approaches are different. In my last meaningful office job, I made it a point to try on a new persona. I dressed more feminine, I smiled so much more than I am naturally comfortable with. I purposely engaged in meaningless small talk and would often say, “my weekend was great!” when previously I declined to engage in as many minor pleasantries. I also practiced slowing down and really listening to people. I decided that a charm offensive was going to do far more for my career than striving to be overwhelmingly competent.

I remember a particularly stressful stretch of work when the resident dillhole made a comment about how unhappy I seemed. I was totally telegraphing my anxiety and stress and after my initial defensive reaction, I decided it wasn’t worth it. Telegraphing my emotions wasn’t going to help me deal with them and while that guy often drove me nuts, I certainly didn’t need more attention from him.

Lastly, when my team was dragging its heels for months on these stupid tasks which we were contractually mandated to do and it was my job to make them do them, I started a monthly pastries breakfast where we would all do the tasks together. People started lobbying to be on the team because they were jealous of the high-end pastries I was bringing in.

So always, I recommend when things start going sideways, a donut offensive. Bring in a box of donuts or cupcakes and/or fresh fruits and watch the good feelings roll in. This works for men and for women.
posted by amanda at 6:38 AM on January 28 [40 favorites]

I have this problem too, although I suspect it's for somewhat different reasons. I laugh and joke a lot, and I think it's perceived as not taking things seriously. It's still happening to me, so take my advice with a grain of salt, but:

-First impressions are important. When you start a new job, concentrate really hard on being open and friendly for the first couple of weeks. If your co-workers' initial impression of you is that you're angry and anxious, it'll be impossible to change that in the future, so give them a better first impression. The same is true for new co-workers: if you get a new boss or partner, make a conscious effort to give a good first impression.

-If you have opportunities to be social outside of work, take advantage of them. A lot of cliquey office environments get that way because the cliquey people socialize with each other after hours, and then those cliques find their way into the office. If you're not participating in the social events, you're by definition not going to be part of the group.

-Focus on the quality of your work. Your co-workers may never like you, but it's hard to actively despise someone who's really good at what they do. Make sure you're not messing anything up that would cause additional work for them, as this is the single quickest way to make a co-worker dislike you. And if you are doing perfect work, don't be snooty. Offer to help others and take on projects. Managers especially like good workers, even if their personalities clash.

-Take the lead on things. If there aren't social events, organize some. Invite people to a happy hour, lead a company volleyball team, start a monthly pot luck. If your manager doesn't see your successes, make them visible. Ask for more frequent one-on-ones, for example. Volunteer for projects.

-DGAF what your manager thinks of you socially. Sorry if I'm making this political, but management and labor have different priorities, and your manager is always going to be under pressure to make you do more, better. It might seem like they're friendly with you sometimes, but watch what happens if you do something (make a mistake on the job, request vacation during a busy time, etc.) that makes their job tougher. Your goal with your manager should be to make them respect your work, not to make them like you personally.

-Have a life outside of work. If none of this works, have a social system outside of the office that you can turn to. Friends, hobbies, etc. Even if it does work, it's good to have as a counter-balance. Some of the best office relationships I've had have been when I've integrated work friends into my non-work friend group.

Good luck.
posted by kevinbelt at 6:59 AM on January 28 [11 favorites]

Are you somewhat underemployed for your skill level/general competence level? I ask because you say you’ve done well at all your jobs. I have found that too much competence especially in a new hire can be very threatening to established employees.
posted by stockpuppet at 7:15 AM on January 28 [8 favorites]

Honestly, I'd shoot for bringing in snacks and being relentlessly positive.

If you're working call center/customer service/ high turnover jobs where the work is stressful and kind of deskilled, it may be that you are again and again encountering jobs where the climate is unhappy and the group is always seeking a scapegoat/weirdo/outsider. I noticed when I held those jobs that some bad, high school type dynamics could develop because the environment was authoritarian, competitive, constantly monitored and metered, etc. In this kind of situation, it may not be a personality problem that's making you the scapegoat; it just may be that you seem vulnerable or different. (On that note, were you bullied in school? It might be that you've learned to enter a room like you're going to be bullied, which can help make you a target.)

Very often people say, "if it's always happening, the problem is you", but that's not exactly true - sometimes, if it's always happening it's because you find yourself again and again in situations where you're vulnerable. You can learn to avoid those situations or be less vulnerable, but it's not, like, a personal failing.

. There's another girl in the office who decided that she dislikes me because I forgot to tell her happy birthday after she left cake in the office break room. I know it's my fault I should have said something but now she really doesn't like me.

I mean, this is bananas, very weird and childish, but not totally impossible in a horrible McJob climate where people's worlds are very small and experience is very limited - people who don't have very much to love or think about often put a lot of weight on really childish office stuff because they are sort of emotionally bored.

1. Are you friends with anyone at work? Can you deepen that friendship a bit by eating lunch together or chatting a bit more? Having a friend or two will probably help the general dynamic.

2. Bring in some treats every couple of weeks - people may be weird about it at first so don't build your hopes too high, but treats have a way of softening people's hearts at least a bit.

3. Be as "fun" as you can, to the best of your ability. Start small - if you're a woman or AFAB, compliment someone you have a good relationship with. Be sincere, don't lie, but pay attention and when you can sincerely say something nice about their new haircut or their bag or some other small thing, do so. When people greet you, practice sounding upbeat. Wish people a happy weekend. Again, this isn't going to make everyone like you immediately, and any change in behavior is remarked on in this kind of office setting, but over time it will pay off.

4. How are your outside-work friendships? Can you try to have more fun in your personal life, even if that's just watching some funny shows or something? If you're coming in feeling a bit upbeat, it should have a ripple effect.

Sometimes people can be shitty. I've seen this even in an otherwise good job, where someone who was in fact a harmless, nice, rather odd person got talked about a lot behind their back. I liked this person and tried to undercut the talking-about when I heard it. I think that in a lot of workplaces, there's always an Other. If you're lucky, it's a rival business or a department located in another building or Central Payroll or something; if you're not, it's an actual person in your part of the office. It's troubling and sometimes I'd prefer to move to the woods.
posted by Frowner at 7:24 AM on January 28 [27 favorites]

It's true, people judge others based on their facial expressions. For some people what they have to do is put on a performance for work. It involves eye contact, good posture, a smile. It feels fake but unfortunately it is often necessary to get people to relax. Once they are relaxed they can start liking you.
posted by perdhapley at 7:28 AM on January 28 [3 favorites]

What struck me from reading your account is that except for two notable examples (the person with a "bad feeling" and "true colors" person), what you are describing is your perception of how others see you. It's worth considering whether what you describe is objectively true based on clear facts, or whether it is one interpretation, and others are possible.

I've found that I get along better with people when I am less disposed to look for evidence that they don't like me.

For instance, the birthday girl: you don't interact with her, yet you say she "decided she doesn't like you" -- but you don't explain what that means. Has she said she doesn't like you? Or is this just your impression from "reading between the lines" when you interact with her?

Even if I'm wrong about the above, I suggest focusing on concrete actions rather than perceptions and interpretations. And keep in mind that people's behavior is shaped by more (often much more) than just the person they're interacting with at any given moment. This seems especially important since you aren't able to identify anything that you've done; it's possible they are angry or rude for other reasons.

It's also possible you are unaware of social cues which you are giving that make you seem hostile, as somebody suggested above. I have only your account to go off of, but based on what you've written I suspect it isn't this, especially since you seem to be quite sensitive to nonverbal cues from others.
posted by dbx at 7:28 AM on January 28 [19 favorites]

You mention that you always look sad/angry and that you are very distant to people at work. These are the bad vibes you are getting off. I, and I think many people, am made incredibly uncomfortable by people who appear angry. If they do not actively work to make it clear that, despite their angry/unhappy exterior, they have no issues with me then I will tend to assume that they do have issues with me/are kinda of angry and mean. People should not gossip, that’s unkind, but if you want to have better interactions with your colleagues then I’d recommend putting more onus on yourself to appear like someone they can interact with in a pleasant fashion.
posted by pie_seven at 7:29 AM on January 28 [13 favorites]

You don't say if you're a man or woman but all of your examples of people who don't like you are women. Certainly there are things you may be doing that regularly piss these women off, but it is also my experience that in some workplaces women are Like This to other women who don't follow expected norms. These rules don't apply to the men in the workplace, however, which is unfair and totally sucks for women who fall outside expected norms.

As a woman who isn't interested in performing femininity in this way, my way of dealing with this is to not work in these types of environments. Not great advice, I am aware, but the most straight-forward way of addressing the problem. Right now I work for a huge corporation and it's just too big for people to be up in each other's business in the ways you describe. It's great.

For now, I would focus on being approachable and calm in the workplace. Do a really good job and be useful. Worry less about what other people think of you. As others have said, if you're great at your job people will appreciate you even if they don't want to be your friend.
posted by scantee at 7:29 AM on January 28 [10 favorites]

I am guessing that you are a woman, mostly because my experience has been that quiet, grumpy-looking dudes don't get read as troublemakers or problems in the same way that women who are quiet and grumpy-looking do. I was very baffled that I had a reputation as an "ice queen" for the early part of my adulthood. I was shy! But I think people felt that a feminine, relatively well-dressed woman (not designer labels at all, but wearing skirts and dresses mostly, so a level of formality more than many of my age group) who was quiet meant that I was arrogant. I've seen this assumption play out for other friends and acquaintances.

My interaction style changed A LOT after a few massive blow outs, with the one at my volunteer group being the most startling. Just because I didn't mean to hurt someone's feelings didn't mean that I hadn't hurt their feelings. The issue in this case was that I didn't like to make small talk before meetings, and so would be "let's get this started" and not think that social chit chat was important. That really really hurt the founder of the volunteer group, who felt that I was there to take over her group, and that I didn't respect her.

I learned to shift both my behavior and my perspective on social interactions, but it was a deeply confusing process for me to understand that my interpretation/meanings were not universal.
posted by spamandkimchi at 7:34 AM on January 28 [19 favorites]

I will quote one of the assholes at my office for this one: "People don't have reasons, they just like to be mean."

Also, being quiet and shy and looking sad and keeping to yourself probably translates into "bully catnip." I have lived this one myself (see above). I don't have a solution for the problem other than "get the hell away from people," but some people do attract trouble and bullies because either you look like an easy target, rub them the wrong way....really, who the hell knows what. I can't tell you what I did to annoy the jerk I quoted except for existing.
posted by jenfullmoon at 7:36 AM on January 28 [12 favorites]

I'm very quiet and non confrontational. I don't understand what's happening. How do I handle this? What do I change about myself to stop this from happening?

Adopt a work personality. Be less quiet, less non-confrontational. Practice on having a neutral-to-positive facial expression, even if you think it's phony and obvious. Practice not being distant- go out of your way to interact with coworkers (during and after work), even if you feel you shouldn't have to. I struggle with all these things, but I find when I put more effort into these things, people are more likely to interact positively with me.
posted by 23skidoo at 7:48 AM on January 28 [1 favorite]

With the caveat that this is hard to answer without being able to interact with you/meet your colleagues (maybe they're all assholes!)

I think it's easy to think that work is just work and social niceties are unnecessary, but - especially if you are a woman - people do still want you to smile at them, make a little inane chat about what they did at the weekend, and laugh at the occasional joke. As someone upthread said, it just relaxes them, lets them slot you mentally into a file marked 'nothing to worry about here'. A small, regular dose of this can get people off your back enough to then be able to just get on with things the rest of the time. This is also harder if you happen to change jobs frequently. Once you've got a bit of social credit in the bank, you can afford to have the odd spell of being untalkative and even if people interpret it as you being grumpy, they just wait for it to blow over rather than permanently revising their opinion of you. Whereas if you start a new job every year or two, you have to start from scratch building up that social credit again.

I have one colleague who I was sure thought I was a total idiot, just from her tone of voice when she spoke to me (which wasn't actually a problem for me, we don't interact a huge amount and I wasn't too fussed about her opinion of me). Then someone referred to her as being incredibly shy, and I realised I was totally wrong about her. Her tone and facial expression were not "Oh my God you're such an idiot I can't believe I have to speak to you", but "Oh my God I'm so anxious I can't believe I have to speak to you." But the two were indistinguishable for me until I was clued in by my colleague.

If you're not already, perhaps look into getting some treatment for your anxiety, so that you feel a little more able to relax and give just 5% more sociability. I don't have first hand experience of it, but I've seen people here recommend group therapy before, because it surrounds you with people who can give you feedback on how you come across socially, within a supportive framework/with a facilitator who can keep it positive, rather than becoming a pile-on.
posted by penguin pie at 7:51 AM on January 28 [8 favorites]

A lot of people when they first meet me, assume that I don't like them. I'm kind of scowly and quiet, which comes off as mean and snobby. Then, I back this initial impression people have by being a little too shy (snobby) and sarcastic and jokey (mean). Also my family is really into teasing each other, and it turns out that most people aren't like that.

I know this about myself because when I was in college, my roommate told me she really liked me and that I am fun and nice, but she used to think I was (to quote) "a huge bitch", and then a BUNCH of people agreed with her. Now, in my head I'm very not-mean, so I had never seen this coming and was pretty flabberghasted at the time.

Anyways, I've made an effort to look and be more pleasant - to smile at people, to make small talk (or even just smile and say "good morning!" - seriously, greeting people goes a long way.) and to not make jokes where people are the butt of the joke, and people tend to like me quicker now.

I'm sorry to say but it probably IS you - in general, if the same problems are recurring around you in multiple places and from multiple sources, you're causing them. Try to objectively look at the way you act towards people and assess if you're coming off badly. If you're a woman this will be worse because the expectation is that you should be perky and friendly and if you're neither, people are going to assume you don't like them, and most people will immediately not like you back.
posted by euphoria066 at 7:56 AM on January 28 [5 favorites]

This is such a pattern for you that I wonder if you work in an industry that is particularly contentious. I work in business software implementation and so spend months at a time with each of my customers, and I have noticed this dynamic repeatedly in a few types of industries. Often the nature of the business or the work that most people do is unpleasant-to-traumatic and the juvenile dynamic is a coping mechanism (often encouraged by management because it keeps people from quitting because they're so caught up in the game, and often the managers are caught up in it as well). I suppose sometimes I see companies that get this way because of local economy, with a semi-captive workforce that can't really go anywhere else AND many people have known each other all their lives, but it sounds like you've had enough mobility that this is probably not the case here.

People in healthy systems do not give a fuck about being wished happy birthday by someone in another department. There is no winning when that's the game. You may have to assess whether this dynamic is avoidable and whether you might need to pivot your career some to get into something less volatile.

I am a shy introvert who's not huge on small talk as well, and I don't doubt that eventually I get pigeonholed as the benign weirdo who doesn't know how to play stupid high school games at work, but I do make a point from the start to manage my resting scowl face, be generous with my hellos and thankyous, and just generally aim for neutral-pleasant and that gets me that pass from being expected to play. You may have to work on upping your apparent energy to other people, and you may need to front-load expectations a little bit - like, when I worked in an office, I just told people I was a terrible scowler when I was concentrating and was prone to getting lost in thought, "but I promise I'm much nicer than my face!"

I disagree with everyone who says you have to socialize outside work, but I would say have an awareness of how much other people are doing and decide if you need to make more pleasant excuses than just refusing to participate. Do make a token appearance at all on-the-clock events.

This is happening to you so much and in such dramatic ways I think it's worth digging into this with a therapist if at all possible. Certainly anxiety can make you less than your best professional self at work, and it can make you seem hostile; treating the anxiety more effectively can improve both your demeanor and your experience of the office culture.
posted by Lyn Never at 8:10 AM on January 28 [15 favorites]

Yes, if you don't play the small talk game you will be seen as hostile, or odd, or arrogant. While small talk is not my jam at all, I admit I now get somewhat frustrated with people who won't do it--we're thrown in this situation together, I'm doing my bit even though it does nothing for me, pull your oar a little!

It doesn't take too much if you're not already starting from a perception of hostility. When I'm standing at the bathroom sinks with someone, I will often compliment some aspect of their outfit (note: NOT their body--NO remarks about weight, and if the person is of another race from you, NO remarks about hair). Maybe they've painted their nails in an interesting way. Maybe their blouse is a striking color. Whatever. A little of that, in a reasonably sincere tone, goes a long way. I think it also helps to keep my frame of mind towards them reasonably friendly and positive.
posted by praemunire at 8:12 AM on January 28 [5 favorites]

This is only my experience. My spouse was diagnosed in his 40s to be on the autism spectrum by a psychiatrist. He was referred by his gastroenterologist to consult with one. His digestive issues seemed to stem from his anxiety. Medication to regulate the anxiety has made things better. He spends less time laying in bed curled up in abdominal pain or trying to schedule activities around restrooms.

A lifetime of bad social responses to his character has resulted in few friendships and a fear of genuine expression. He would rather notice and not say anything for fear of it being misinterpreted (His best friends are people who work in Special Education and social welfare) He has worked structured jobs most of his life, so small talk isn’t practiced.
posted by ayc200 at 8:12 AM on January 28 [7 favorites]

Yep, this sounds like ableism at work - possibly neurodivergence on your part. Get evaluated for disabilities, get diagnoses for your anxiety and any trauma if you have access. Social discrimination is utterly real. My answer has been to stop working, which not everyone has access to. Ableism and social discrimination are a huge problem. You have the right to exist in your body precisely as it is, you are meaningful and significant just as you are. I am happy to talk if you drop me a memail. You are not alone.
posted by Mistress at 8:17 AM on January 28 [5 favorites]

What stands out to me in your post is how vague your impressions are, and how non-specific your description of every relationship is. You haven't given a single detailed account of any specific interactions at all. For example, the ONLY specific bad interaction you allude to is when you "asked a simple question" and your current work partner "blew up" at you - and you see how vague that is? What was the simple question you asked? What did your work partner say when she blew up at you? What does "blow up" mean: did she yell? if so, did she yell specific words? which words did she yell, and in what order? what was your response? how did that affect the situation in concrete and immediate terms, such as, did your partner yell more when you responded? etc.

You mention people being passive aggressive, and you give zero examples and zero details of instances that show it.

You mention people talking about you behind your back, and you give zero details on what exactly they said about you, to whom, how you happened to find out what they said about you, who told you and under what circumstances, etc.

I suspect that you are keeping these details secret even from yourself, not wanting to think about it too explicitly because it's a painful subject for you. But as long as you refuse to face the full facts, you won't get anywhere with your desire for better relationships.

When you become relentlessly honest about each and every single interaction that leaves you with a bad feeling, you will start to see a pattern that will lead you to the answer. You don't have to write out these details here or tell us about any of it. You can just sit down with a journal or a tape recorder and narrate these incidents to yourself. Be extremely methodical about it: list every single name that you can think of who has disliked you. Then for each of these people, start from the moment you met them and describe every single interaction that you can recall, with all its details. If that's too many, list only the bad interactions you had with them. Be scrupulously honest and detailed.

When you've got all of it written out, I'm betting you'll see a pattern. That's the pattern you're going to have to change. You'll probably need professional help to work through this - a therapist would be a great idea for you. Whether or not there is neurodivergence at work, therapists are the specialists who will help you gain insight into your behavior and change it.
posted by MiraK at 8:24 AM on January 28 [23 favorites]

Please, if you can, go to therapy. Whether this is on you or on your coworkers, therapy will help more than strangers going off only your rather vague descriptions. Go see someone who you can talk things through in real detail, help you alleviate some of your anxiety, and work on communication skills so you can have an easier time. Work is unavoidable for most of us, and you deserve to suffer less during it. But we are all just throwing shit at the wall to see what sticks because there is no way we can know if you're being bullied or experiencing ableism, or if you are being passive aggressive or rude and don't realize it. Your social calibrations may be way off and your causing offense without knowing it, which I've certainly done! I think a therapist is your best shot.
Also, I'll say this: whenever my students tell me someone "just hates them" or "they freaked out on me for no reason" a little investigation usually reveals there is a lot more to the story, and they aren't quite so faultless. A therapist can do the investigation part for you, not to assign blame, but help you experience a work life with less friction.
posted by wellifyouinsist at 8:41 AM on January 28 [5 favorites]

My guess is that this is them, not you.

I could make a lot of suggestions about making a good first impression and maintaining relationships with people, essentially by doing emotional labour for them and placating them, or trying to assert dominance. None of these will be very effective if you are pinging some people's radar as an Other.

We make unconscious judgements of people all the time. You do it when you decide which cashier to approach, or let someone merger or make them wait. It is very likely there is something essential about you that is setting them off. It could be an accent. It could be the fact that you look like their crazy old aunt Linda, or turn your head the same way that she does. It could be that you look blank when they gush about their media darling. It could be that you have blunted affect and talk in a monotone, or that your features are so reactive that they feel anxious that you will become emotional around them. You may have a different amount and duration of eye contact - which is often one of the cross cultural things that make it difficult for people from different cultures to work together. One is signalling diligence and respect and the other is seeing rejection badly suppressed resentment. This frequently happens to people on the spectrum, but is also likely to happen to typical people. It can be cultural, behavioral, or genetic. You might smell wrong, not because you smell, but because you have different proteins on your skin. Often when this happens the person who is being pinged doesn't even know what pinged them, only that they don't like you, and then they will grasp at whatever features they can observe and object to those. Sometimes there is an uncanny valley experience going on, and they can only say at first that something is off about you, and they don't know what, but whatever it is, is creepy or weird.

It doesn't matter why, what matters is how you manage the situation. It doesn't make sense for you to change what you are doing to try to prevent it, or even to stop it because it is almost certainly not only things that are out of your control, but also things that are wonderful about you and worth appreciating and cultivating in yourself. None of these things that ping people and make them define you as an Other are bad traits. There is nothing wrong with any of them.

My question is how many people are doing this with you? If it is a lot of people then in the long run forward facing employment such as waiting on customers in person mean that it is a handicap in terms of those jobs. But if it is only a few people then the problem is not you, it's that those particular people are ones with poor anxiety and hostility management. The one who said she just knew you would be a source of drama was projecting, and inciting drama. The manager who made it clear he didn't like you was failing at managing, because with a good manager you would have no idea. With an excellent manager you would have found yourself swiftly promoted out of her department.

In your position I try to mitigate the side effects of their behaviour, and work around them, the same way I work around people with other types of behaviour that makes working with them difficult, such as the chatty co-worker, or the boss who says there is no hurry for a job and comes back twenty minutes later to demand the finished work.

I would also try building and strengthening my work relationships with the other people who aren't like that. I'd focus on them. How many people do you work with. Are there a few mature and sensible ones who are good at what they do? These are the interesting people with potential.

It is important to avoid your turning into length on going drama. Saying "I'm sorry I make you feel like that," and then dropping the subject protects both you and your coworker, and if other people discuss it, just say you don't want to comment so that you don't make her look bad. Then if she continues it's all about her and not about you.

Let's say Katie at work acts grumpy around you and tells other people you're not appreciative so she hates working with you. Avoid interacting with Katie, but make sure that you express both verbal and written appreciation when appropriate, briefly but not effusively. If someone else brings the topic up "I'd assign you to work with Katie but you upset her so much..." respond with "I'm sorry I make her feel that way. I can apologize again if you like," and then enumerate all of Katie's strengths and the reasons why she's good at her job, without ANY reference to her weaknesses or the difficulty she has relating to you. "She's so good with customers, prompt, quick to look after things, so well focuses and does good work," Do not say anything along the line of "I can't help it that I upset her. I did say thank you. I don't like working with her either," etc.

This is important to prevent it appearing to be a significant conflict rather than Katie being Katie. If you defend, contradict, argue, placate or triangulate then you will make yourself more vulnerable. It's part of the office politics game that is so bad for a well run office. The fact that you can observe this going on shows that the people doing this are being unprofessional. If they were good at it you'd have no idea. It may not come back to bite them, because a good manager will lay off their one good employee to placate the other ten mediocre to bad employees, simply because it is much easier to cope with replacing one person however good than to deal with ten people behaving badly let alone replacing them. However it is quite likely to come back to bite them, and if handled well will only give you a reputation for good personal skills. "It was easy to see that anonymous was upset. Her face fell so completely! But she never said anything to Katie. And her half of the project was finished on time and with more than enough data."

There will always be people that hate us, or act like jerks to us. Out there are some incels that would be gleeful if you or I died in a fire. When the people nearby us are mean they give us really valuable information. Katie is never going to surprise you by stabbing you in the back. She has clearly signaled that she will never be your partisan, and that it would be far more effective and productive for you to cultivate other co-workers. You don't want to snub her - "Perhaps you'd prefer to work with Missy, and I'll work with Chris, if we're all agreeable?" Basically she needs breathing room, so you give her that whenever possible, and perhaps even feel a little sorry for her that she makes such obvious and clumsy efforts to triangulate.

Of course it's no fun and it's scary and it makes us feel insecure when we have to work for or with people that are working actively to make our lives harder and are acting mean. You'll have to look after your own emotional well being and do whatever necessary so that you can be calm, professional and not bring your work home after the shift. Co-workers like this are like psycho customers. They are irrational, but calling them on their being irrational is so ineffective as to be equally irrational. If you had a customer who came storming in to return a product complaining that when she used to buy it thirty years ago it didn't taste like coconut and now it tastes like coconut and she is all but yelling at you and keeps repeating that it's not supposed to taste like coconut, you don't argue with her, you don't look at the ingredients list to see if it even contains coconut, you don't take it personally, you don't look for any recognition or sympathy from her, you merely tell her you are very sorry that it disappointed her, and refund her money. Coworkers and managers who bring inappropriate personal emotions into work relationships are like that customer. Expecting all your co-workers to wish you happy birthday is the same level of ridiculous. If you had wished her happy birthday she would have gotten upset at you for not bringing balloons.

Your own emotional regulation so that you handle your own distress around this is the key, not managing their emotions. I'm not saying that is easy. However keeping focused on the simple fact that it's not you, it's them, and they are being petty, ridiculous, and unrealistic is helpful. So is keeping in mind that you are there to do the job and you are doing that, and what they are doing is a detraction from their work and yours. "I'm so sorry we don't have time to get into this Katie, but we have work to do," is a good phrase for deflecting attempts to get into it with you in person. And as for the passive aggressive, - that's your signal that they know that being upfront about it would be a complete flop because it's just drama. Your coworker who is mad at you for not wishing her happy birthday is not bringing your manager in to mediate because if she did you would simply nod and say, "Happy Birthday," and then anything else she did or said would make her look absurd and annoy the manager intensely for wasting everyone's time.

Passive-aggressive behaviour is deliberate failure behaviour - it's a form of nursing a grievance that is designed to prolong issues not resolve them. When you see passive aggressive behaviour you can either approach it head on - "I see you left a note for me on the refrigerator. I won't move anything of yours in there in future," and then walk away and forget the encounter the way you forget it when your coworker farts, or ignore it without even acknowledging it. Unless there is a prompt brief direct response possible, it's just noise, not communication.
posted by Jane the Brown at 8:55 AM on January 28 [10 favorites]

Some concrete ways to stop giving off bad vibes:

- say good morning to coworkers you pass on your way in

- say good bye to coworkers as you leave

- consciously arrange your face into something pleasant-ish when you talk to people. Relax your facial muscles and smile a little. You may want to try this in front of a mirror first.

- if a coworker says something about what they're doing tonight/this weekend, ask them about it later. Set an alarm so you get reminded before you walk by their desk in the morning.

- never, ever badmouth a coworker or say that you've noticed they dislike you. "Oh, really, I hadn't noticed." "I assumed they just had a lot on their plate with... ."

- do say blandly pleasant things when a coworker does an adequate job. "Thanks for completing that report." Send that extra email that is just "Thanks!"

- do show interest in something about at least one of your coworkers, about weekly. Again, this goes on your to do list / set a reminder if you have to. "Nice shoes!" "Where was that picture on your desktop taken?"

- bring snacks in, probably 1-4 times a year. Watch to see what other coworkers bring/like and do that. Either leave a note on the box or send out an email to your group so people know it was you. If someone thanks you, say something like "no problem, I like Snack but a whole bag is too much for me." or "yeah, they're from Shop, I like that place so much and want to keep them in business." You're making a small amount of social chit chat and conveying that you're not score-keeping over bringing stuff in.

You're sitting in relatively close quarters with these folks all day long, the absence of hostility is not enough for a lot of people to feel at ease, you need to do the social niceties to keep things running smoothly. It's pretty formulaic and I learned from watching what other folks did, it's not some inbuilt skill or tendency. It doesn't matter if it feels awkward, it matters that you try to do the socially-expected thing.

Some folks may still dislike you or try to start drama, work on not caring, it sounds like nobody is maneuvering to get you fired, so it ultimately doesn't matter.
posted by momus_window at 9:46 AM on January 28 [8 favorites]

As others have noted, there is very little concrete substance to your description of your interactions with your coworkers. You're not talking about specific actions taken against you, or citing things people have said to you. It's all whispers and bad feelings and secondhand notions of behind-back-talking... Vaporware.
Something I've read once (possibly on these very Asks) that has been a transformative mantra in these situations is this: it's none of my business what other people think of me. Not "it's not important", not "it doesn't matter", not "fuck them if they can't take me as I am". It's none of my business, as in I have no control or entitlement over others' perceptions, judgments and feelings about me.
The only solid grounds on which to base our interactions with others are actions and speech. The rest, what's in their head, is ultimately unknowable and belongs to them only. Maybe your coworker did decide to dislike you cause you didn't say happy birthday, or maybe she has a huge crush on you and is backing away because you're clearly uninterested, or maybe she hasn't thought about you at all ever. None of your business, so why waste time trying to guess? Look at how she is acting, listen to what she is saying, and try to calibrate your interactions with her based on that evidence only.
Likewise, what's in your head in none of your coworkers' business, and they shouldn't have to mindread to make sense of you. If you're acting distant or saying things that sound cold, they probably won't probe deeper to get the underlying anxiety, or if they do (failing to mind their own business), they might get it wrong. That's why the bulk of the advice you're getting here is to try a little human small talk and smile here and there, and just do your job well. Let your speech and action, not others' thoughts and judgments, lead the way to better social interactions.
posted by Freyja at 9:46 AM on January 28 [2 favorites]

I think the above advice is great, and I would like to add one suggestion for the future: try to angle your career into something more skill-based if you haven't already done so.

I find that more ephemeral, poorly delineated, and fluid work environments tend to breed contentious social hierarchies. If cliques are a thing in your office, someone is always going to be at the bottom of the social ladder and it tends to be the quiet, non-confrontational people who end up there.

On the other hand, as has been mentioned before, if your workplace trades in skilled workers rather than standard office functions, it's hard to put down someone who is demonstrably better at X than others. It's funny how "quiet and sullen" becomes "business-like and focused" if that person's value can be quantified.
posted by FakeFreyja at 11:15 AM on January 28 [9 favorites]

Wait, FakeFreyja is agreeing with Freyja? That seems...about right?

I did want to add to the chorus here and say, it’s remarkable how little and how shallow the social niceties have to be to create a general positive impression. I so chafed at the idea that I had to be a certain way to get by as a woman in an office that I had it built up that it would harm my soul or something. There were a few edge cases where I found the feminine put-ons to be a disadvantage but then I could switch tack and be very direct and it would shock the hell out of people. I don’t read that as your issue so grain of salt, etc..

I have also found it helpful to pick a person to emulate. I had this mom friend who was so outgoing and confident and she just creates circles of friendship with ease. When I’m trying to quickly gel or create connections, I think about her attitude and demeanor and try to channel it. I also, when going into mixed social situations, think “What would Tami Taylor do?” In fact, I just channeled her today in greeting and leaving a client meeting. If you’re a guy, I think that would work, too. Coach Taylor is a terrible role model for that sort of thing.
posted by amanda at 11:37 AM on January 28 [1 favorite]

I'm a generally non-smiley, downright disgruntled looking woman who's often absentminded and absolute shit at remembering birthdays. I'm sure some people perceive me as arrogant and/or odd, at the very least aloof. A guy from school, one year below me, once told me I always seemed to him untouchable.

But I highly doubt my actual classmates would share that sentiment (after a bit of a warm-up phase, I mostly felt pretty well integrated; I'm still friends with a couple of them, and not just on facebook), because I have one saving grace, and that's being reasonably good at small talk. Sometimes I can even use small talk as a jumping-off-point for a more substantial conversation.

That wasn't always the case. When you don't practice it a lot, you'll be bad at it, and for a while I didn't practice at all, because I had a phase of hating small talk in my early teens; not even so much because I felt so above it (okay, maybe a little ... teenage-me's self-loathing was only matched by her delusions of grandeur), but mostly because I didn't see the point; it just didn't seem to lead to anything meaningful ever, not fast enough for my taste.

I've learned a bit more patience since them. But even if small talk never leads to something more substantial, it's still absolutely wortwhile, as a simple show of goodwill. See it as peace offering, an olive branch. Some people will say this shouldn't be necessary, peace should be the default assumption. But the plain fact is, that it isn't for a lot of people. And it doesn't seem to be for you either, judging from what you wrote. Your default attitude towards others seems wariness, and that will also apply to a lot of the people you meet. But while you are content with a truce, other will need more to feel at ease - not just to lack of any aggression in the moment, but also the promise of no aggressions in the future. For that, simply "not being hostile" is not enough. You need to show some active effort to display good intentions.

If you don't do that, the message some people take away from that, might be "might not be hostile _for now_, but also doesn't care enough about my opinion to reassure me about future intentions, so I'll better stay on me toes".
I suspect this sentiment might not be entirely unfamiliar to you. The only difference is that you can deal with that uncertainty, and remain weary, but non-hostile while you're on your toes, and other people just can't. The ability to deal with uncertainty is called negative capability and some people just lack it completely. So in a situation where they're waiting for an attack, they'd rather cut to the chase and be the first to strike. My guess is that this might explain some of those interactions you described.

You're probably rarely terribly reassured by small talk, so it might not easily occur to you to use in that manner. To be fair, you write nowhere that you're opposed to it, so maybe you're doing everything I said already, and I'm completely barking up the wrong tree here. In that case, please forgive my presumption. It's entirely possible that you're just unlucky enough to be in a line of work where people feel pressured to get extra-high school about that kind of stuff (because it's too competitive, because it's not competitive enough and people have too much time for this shit; because it's too stiffling and people are hungry for drama to feel alive, etc.). Try to get as much social interaction as possible outside of work for the needed reality check.

But just saying, in case it hasn't yet occured to you - a fair number of people really do find small talk genuinely reassuring. To them it signals this is a person willing to play by the rules, and a person who plays by the rules is someone I can predict. Always remember: the primary goal of small talk is not to seem impressive or interesting, but to seem conventional and well-intentioned - because conventional means predictable (to people familiar with the conventions), and predictable means safe. You need exactly zero wit or charm or charisma to achieve that, just knowledge of the conventions and a genuine desire to actively set the other person at ease.
posted by sohalt at 12:28 PM on January 28 [3 favorites]

I've had the exact same issues, so hear me out. And I genuinely hate to say this but: work on fixing bitchy resting face. In an ideal world, women would not need to worry about that any more than men. But that world isn't here yet. No even close.
In my case, even my own father and brother would misinterpret my perfectly relaxed, just woke up from delightful nap face as "clearly pissed, judgmental, and just itching to pick a fight" face.
It sucks and at first it's exhausting, insulting, and just plain weird to have to monitor your facial muscles for other people's comfort, but in the end it added to MY quality of life in such a significant manner that I have to recommend it.
Same goes for how you speak.

You mentioned passive aggressiveness. Humans tend to mimic whatever mood and facial expression they see, and voice tones they hear. Even though it could be the absolute last thing on your mind/mood (see my example above) people are repeatedly getting that vibe from you. So try to pay closer attention to your tone and facial expressions and that start making an effort. At first (at least to me) it seemed really awkward and Herculean of an effort. But you'll get there.

Lift up those cheekbones and mouth muscles into an almost smile when talking to your colleagues. Make small talk. Try to project peaceful. Try to make others feel good about having you there. Baby steps will get you there.
posted by Neekee at 1:28 PM on January 28 [1 favorite]

We tell ourselves lots of stories about things going on around us. Often the stories we tell ourselves re-confirm our ideas of who we already are, and who other people are. If you feel down on yourself, then you tell yourself a story about how no one has ever liked you. But our stories don't always hold up.

In my previous job, as a customer service rep my manager made it known that she did not like me. She also did it passive aggressively by talking behind my back. It was a personal attack toward me.

If your manager was talking behind your back, it might have been about you, but it wasn't a personal attack at you. And if she was talking to someone else, was she really letting you know this? And how do you know about what she said? Did the other person tell you? In which case, I'd look at the motives of the person who told you this.

I can't tell you what's really going on or how to make things feel better, but I can tell you that therapy is an excellent place to explore the stories we tell ourselves.
posted by bluedaisy at 1:55 PM on January 28 [2 favorites]

Oh this was me for a long time. When I got to a job I liked I went about fixing it in two ways:

1) I became studiously oblivious to the kind of back channel office politics you are describing. Anyone who tried to tell me anything got bafflement back from me and a swerve into “oh did you see the lovely sunset yesterday?” Type small talk. Pleasant, bland, entirely non responsive. It took therapy for me to learn that other people’s opinion of me is none of my business. (I think this attitude helped - it helped me not be so visibly guarded, and people seemed nicer.)

2) I made a pot of tea in the breakrooom every morning and invited people to come have some. Took about 10 minutes with boiling water and steeping and we all chatted about how our previous evening had been. And then I was the quiet person who obviously liked people because I made them tea, not just an ice queen. This worked better for me than bringing in baked goods because of the little bit of built in socializing where I went out of my way to smile and be nice.
posted by stoneweaver at 2:06 PM on January 28 [4 favorites]

Only if you're sure you can afford it, Botox can make you look a lot more relaxed and pleasant. (and maybe even feel that way, a little)
posted by serena15221 at 2:37 PM on January 28

You’ve framed this question as if you’re the problem, and that is reflected in a lot of the advice that I see here.

But it seems to me that you are actually being bullied.

Anxious, meek, quiet, isolated women who avoid socializing and quietly excel at their work do often get bullied. It sucks and you don’t deserve it at all... but iit’s how the world works.

My advice is to take on some hobbies that will raise your confidence and improve your nonverbal signals to lift you out of “low pecking order” territory.

To upgrade your social skills: take improv comedy, Meisner acting, or public speaking classes.

To level up your posture and eye contact: take “aggressive” sports like powerlifting, boxing, kickboxing, or dodgeball.

Better living through better body language.

Also, you may find you get some extra status if you upscale your clothing and grooming a bit, it works for some people.

And do work on not frowning.... You don’t need to smile, but you do need to not frown. Maybe videotape yourself during some phone conversations so you can see when you tend to frown a lot.

I would work on these superficial self improvements for 6 months or so, then start fresh in the new job. Life is too short to be unhappy!

It sounds to me like this bullying is completely undeserved- you actually sound very nice, and I’m sorry the world is like this and you have to deal with it. I wish you all the best!
posted by nouvelle-personne at 3:42 PM on January 28 [4 favorites]

I have the issue of always looking sad/angry. I'm an anxious person and all of my emotions show on my face unfortunately. I don't know if that makes people uncomfortable enough to not want to be around me.

I think the answer to that is yes - that's exactly what is happening. When you look at someone with a sad or angry expression, that person will most of the time interpret that as meaning you are feeling those things about them. So every time they see you, they feel bad about themselves. It's totally understandable that you aren't feeling relaxed and happy at work - it's work, you'd rather be somewhere else. The thing to remember is that so would all of them! Every person you run into at work would rather be somewhere else, and if they look at you with a pleasant expression, that means that they are putting in the effort to not make you feel bad. It seems silly to have to look happy when you're feeling anxious, but think of it as a common courtesy. I'm sure that the last thing that you want to do is make others feel anxious, but wearing those feelings on your face does exactly that. Experiment a bit with putting on a wisp of a smile when you look at people - you may be surprised on how much it changes their feelings about you. You will likely also get the same positivity reflected back, and end up feeling better yourself.
posted by 5_13_23_42_69_666 at 5:07 PM on January 28 [1 favorite]

I've had some professional relationships where I sensed that someone didn't like me or was uncomfortable with me, and I couldn't understand why. I learned later from other colleagues that they sensed that I didn't like *them*. I had given off an unfriendly vibe and they had taken it personally. (In one case I really didn't like the person in question, but in most cases I did).

Now, in many of these instances, it was hard for me to understand why they cared so much about my opinion of them. I have a relatively senior role at work, and there are times when I am simply too busy to have a long chat with someone, and it isn't personal.

But I realized that it is probably worth it for me to take some time with new people to smile, say hello, and ask them how they are doing or ask them about how something is going in our work. I try not to be fake about it, I just set aside a few minutes and express interest in how they are doing. It seems like it has helped.

You could do the same. Pretend like you have no idea that these people dislike you, and just be a bit friendly to them. Say hello, ask about their kids or whatever. And if they still dislike you, don't take it personally because it's probably not really about you.
posted by mai at 8:42 AM on February 1 [1 favorite]

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