Can I be Sleepy and Dopey too?
April 19, 2017 10:45 AM   Subscribe

The case for being grumpy at work "Research shows that forcing workers to appear more pleasant and more cheerful than they actually feel can lead to a whole host of negative consequences—from emotional exhaustion to withdrawal. And women in particular suffer from the expectation that they should constantly demonstrate happiness." Constantly being expected to smile, or other types of emotional dissonance, can wreak havoc. Other studies indicate that appearing too cheery can actually harm a woman's chances for promotion.
posted by I_Love_Bananas (50 comments total) 50 users marked this as a favorite
 
When I was in HR phone training for my first real job, one of the choice quotes was "A false smile is better than a real frown." It struck me then, as it does now, that this is also something The Joker would say.
posted by selfnoise at 10:53 AM on April 19 [39 favorites]


This article has validated my entire existence. Now get the FUCK offa my lawn!
posted by briank at 10:55 AM on April 19 [9 favorites]


I loved the title of the section "Smiling to make others feel better." So much of employee-manager relations seems to be built around that. Most managers feel that the employee should want, of their own initiation, to do something--to see the "right" choice (for the company, of course), and take it. The last thing they want to do is be put into the position of ordering someone to do something they don't particularly want to do, or to make a sacrifice. Instead, they try to convince them to say, "sure, I'll give up my family obligation and put in those extra hours to make the share price improve .00000001%."

But really, this is about the manager wanting to feel better about the request--they don't have to be the bad guy. For me, this is almost counterproductive. Have the balls to make the tough decision, rather than make me be cheery about doing something for the sake of work just to make you feel like less of a jerk.
posted by MrGuilt at 11:02 AM on April 19 [24 favorites]


researchers are also discovering that anger may push people to engage in out-of-the-box thinking.

Well, this matches my experience. I end up with a lot of annoyance and anger driven solution-finding. It's some sort of internal-monologue challenge "oh yeah? well FUCK YOU, PROBLEM. I'LL FUCKING SHOW YOU."
posted by rmd1023 at 11:11 AM on April 19 [8 favorites]


I don't think it's really about productivity. I think that employers want you to smile so they don't have to know they're making you miserable and thus aren't bad people.
posted by Obscure Reference at 11:12 AM on April 19 [68 favorites]


I can't wait for "corporate happiness strategies" to come in. I'm sure with my employer, it will involve pie charts.
Fortunately, I work pretty much alone and can scowl at will.
... and I'm a fairly happy guy
posted by MtDewd at 11:15 AM on April 19


But really, this is about the manager wanting to feel better about the request--they don't have to be the bad guy.

And this is the profoundest instance of class privilege (and other privileges) - demanding that others conceal even the slightest hint of suffering or discomfort, or even demanding that others pretend that they have never even considered doing something in any way but the way that is the most pleasant and convenient for the privileged. It's the way the elites want a world which is both absolutely in line with their most trivial desires and a place without conflict or unease. They want to be rich and pretend that the world where they are rich is the best of all possible worlds.
posted by Frowner at 11:23 AM on April 19 [76 favorites]


I like to think that spending over 8 years working in retail and having to deal with managers and customers constantly telling me to smile (even when I didn't think I was projecting any overt grumpiness) prepared me wonderfully, as a generic white dude, to completely and totally believe women who are also singled out for not presenting a comforting, cheery affect that flatters the male gaze.
posted by Strange Interlude at 11:33 AM on April 19 [26 favorites]


My most recent work hell is a bunch of "culture training" that has resulted in a bunch of people nagging everybody else about where they are on the mood elevator and it's exhausting. And I can't help but notice that the lowest rung on the mood elevator is an actual mental health condition. Really charming.
posted by Sequence at 11:33 AM on April 19 [7 favorites]


You got a mood elevator? We had to use the stairs.
posted by Obscure Reference at 11:35 AM on April 19 [23 favorites]


Now we just have to teach everyone that a glower or a snippy remark from someone else doesn't really constitute danger or a character flaw.
posted by amtho at 11:40 AM on April 19 [7 favorites]


> But really, this is about the manager wanting to feel better about the request--they don't have to be the bad guy.

As someone who took (mandatory) management courses at school, and has taken ("voluntary") preparing-to-move-into-management training classes at my current job, the impression I get is that a big part of management's job is getting people to do things they don't want to do and using various psychological techniques to "convince" them that they are, or at least should be, "happy" about it.
posted by The Card Cheat at 11:43 AM on April 19 [2 favorites]


Those years of evangelical-flavor Baptist school were great training for this. Because it's sinful to not act happy all the time, because you and your life have to be a walking, talking, 24/7 advertisement for Jesus.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 11:46 AM on April 19 [5 favorites]


My most recent work hell is a bunch of "culture training" that has resulted in a bunch of people nagging everybody else about where they are on the mood elevator and it's exhausting.

My workplace is using that in its culture-improvement-or-whatever program and I don't hate it. Having other people nag you about your feelings is crap, but having people reminded that we're responsible for how we deal with our own feelings in the workplace is not necessarily bad.

In my office it's caused more people to say things like "sorry, my mood elevator was kinda low there -- could you run that by me again?" Which is more than a bit silly, but it's a shared vocabulary that can help smooth over or prevent office conflict.

We also got some explicit "we don't expect this to be applicable to serious personal problems" disclaimers on it all, and that helped.

And I can't help but notice that the lowest rung on the mood elevator is an actual mental health condition. Really charming.

That part is also pretty crap.
posted by asperity at 12:01 PM on April 19 [5 favorites]


Media: "Research shows that happy employees are more productive."

Management: "Oooh, let's try to make employees our employees happy then. I guess we'll have to hire a consultant."

Media, now: "Research shows that it might be better if employees are unhappy."

Management, now: "Hold my beer."
posted by kevinbelt at 12:05 PM on April 19 [19 favorites]


I had a really terrible boss for a while. He also hated me because I was good at my job (or something? I have no idea why he resented me and he really would've fired me if he could have found a reason. I never gave him one). Anyway, he was also my boss during a particularly miserable period in my personal life. I understand that wasn't his fault but anyway, it was a really bad time overall for me.

He'd come in in the mornings and ask me "Are you having fun?" I would say, "I am doing my job."

It wasn't a yes or not, but the way I saw it, if I was having fun or not having fun or feeling happy or sad or whatever was completely irrelevant to my job. I always got everything done that was asked of me and I was really good at what I did. I didn't care if I was having "fun" and I certainly wasn't paid enough to fake that I was.

He moved on and I move on and good riddance, honestly.

I like my job now (work from home!) and I can understand some times where being cheery is necessary. But honestly? My emotions have nothing to do with my ability to work.
posted by darksong at 12:16 PM on April 19 [9 favorites]


Oh my god, my old boss was all about the smiling. There was a period of time where I genuinely wasn't able to be my peppy cheery self all day every day at work (unexpected painful pregnancy will do that to you). As such, I wasn't smiling as often and I was just generally more subdued. Only my boss objected, and I eventually got both a tersely worded email AND an in person meeting during which I was instructed to start smiling immediately or else because I was apparently ruining morale. "You need to reevaluate how good you have it here and realize how ungrateful you've been acting lately." He told me. The day prior I had expressed to the team at large how much I appreciated their hard work in support of a major project and complimented them each on their individual contributions. How my boss missed this when he was one of the people I thanked during said conversation will remain one of life's greatest mysteries forever.

Gosh. 😤
posted by Hermione Granger at 12:17 PM on April 19 [25 favorites]


I work in a retail establishment/tourist attraction, so a certain amount of at least, pleasantness is required, and usually I can deliver, but there's times where it's wearying. Which is why we drink.
posted by jonmc at 12:25 PM on April 19 [4 favorites]


Not to be a downer, but I worked for many years I the complaint department of a major corporation, and spent all day talking to angry people. I had to remain relentlessly cheerful throughout the day. I now recall that period of my work life as the happiest I've ever had -- even though I now make about four times as much and have a thousand times more prestige. I think the effort of smiling and being cheerful on the outside made me smiling and cheerful on the inside. What is especially interesting is that while it was the happiest period of my professional life, it was the most miserable period of my personal life by far. Obviously, this isn't the experience other commenters seem to have had, but I post it here as another data point.
posted by Modest House at 12:31 PM on April 19 [7 favorites]


The expectation that one must reveal painful truths to justify to justify anything other than a Stepford Face at work is one reason I detest this place. I will forever regret allowing myself to be bullied into sharing private things in that context. It pains me that people I detest know things about me that I would give anything to take back. They do not deserve that part of me, and it's none of their business. As others have said- I excel at my job. Why is that never enough (especially for women)??
posted by I_Love_Bananas at 12:32 PM on April 19 [26 favorites]


Something I have noticed at work lately is the way management will completely avoid referring to staff as staff, employees or even people.

We're under-resourced and need more staff to join the team and we're actively recruiting. But they never say that. They always say "we need more bodies" or "we need more resource". I'm not sure what it is about referring to people as people is so unpalatable to managers, but I hopefully won't be a "body" for a while yet.
posted by winterhill at 12:35 PM on April 19 [9 favorites]


I've been thinking a lot lately about work in the US, and it occurred to me that at some point (in my lifetime? or maybe it's only become explicit in the last few years? I'm not sure) we transitioned from this notion that a person could earn a job and keep it or not (through experience, qualifications, performance*) to the notion that a person had to earn the right to work at all (e.g., demanding emotional labor regardless of the quality of the work). Just before reading this article I read this one in the New Republic about employers leveraging social and economic pressures to control employees' personal and emotional lives, which included this chilling observation:
On top of their actual jobs, contractors and temp workers must do the additional work of appearing affable and employable not just on the job, but during their ongoing efforts to secure their next gig. Constantly pitching, writing up applications, and personal branding on social media requires a level of self-censorship, lest a controversial tweet or compromising Facebook photo sink their job prospects. Forced to anticipate the wishes not of a specific employer, but of all potential future employers, many opt out of participating in social media or practicing politics in any visible capacity. Their public personas are shaped not by their own beliefs and desires, but by the demands of the labor market.
It's almost as if employers are trying to automate humans, to redesign work so that instead of having to accommodate the natural friction of people being thrown together in a building or on a project they have to strip out everything that doesn't fit in the organization.

Sorry, this is still a half-baked thought. But this seems like part of a larger and troubling trend, which I'm struggling to identify.

*It goes without saying that the history of meritocracy in America has been that it is, well, not, so I'm just referring here to the values that qualify as theoretical (i.e., what we like to think we use to determine) merit.
posted by Fish, fish, are you doing your duty? at 12:54 PM on April 19 [38 favorites]


So... instead of telling people to pretend to be happy and cheerful and getting mad when we're not, it'll shift into expecting us to be happy and cheerful for real and blaming us when we're not.
posted by bile and syntax at 1:09 PM on April 19 [1 favorite]


Sorry, my sixth chakra was flaring up, what was your point again?
posted by benzenedream at 1:28 PM on April 19 [2 favorites]


I do hate it when strange men tell me, "Smile." (Needless to say, I'm a physically small white woman, not a NFL linebacker.) But I've never had much problem with work demands to "be cheerful." I don't have to BE cheerful, any more than I really have to be interested in what's shoveled out at staff meetings, or shared between co-workers about their private lives. I very very rarely share actual details of my life with people I know only at the workplace.

When my kids were in school, they would be assigned to write about their thoughts or feelings about some topic. If they were stuck, I reminded them they didn't have to tell the truth.

We are, after all, merely players, who strut and fret their time upon the stage, and then are heard no more.
posted by kestralwing at 1:35 PM on April 19 [3 favorites]


It's almost as if employers are trying to automate humans, to redesign work so that instead of having to accommodate the natural friction of people being thrown together in a building or on a project they have to strip out everything that doesn't fit in the organization.

I agree absolutely: this is a part of what I see as businesses ongoing efforts to push organizational risk onto the labor force and consumers: there's this mindset that we should be grateful to depersonalize ourselves and put our own individual life stories and social existences almost completely in service to the needs and priorities of our employers. Personally, I don't think employers really even understand how destructive and socially damaging that mindset is. People need to be whole.
posted by saulgoodman at 1:59 PM on April 19 [8 favorites]


Working in a female-dominated job with heavy expectations of emotional labor, and where this kind of affect-policing is harshly enforced by female higher-ups, makes me wonder whether there's an element of internalized misogyny at play here. Why do so many women expect other women to engage in this kind of kabuki theater of performative happiness? Many of these enforcers appear to be in their in their late 40s to 50s - could it be at least partly generational?
posted by the thought-fox at 2:01 PM on April 19 [15 favorites]


I don't think employers really even understand how destructive and socially damaging that mindset is.

I think that destructiveness is, if not the point, a highly desirable side effect. Whole people have friends and families and lives they want to get to outside of work. Whole people are comfortable setting and enforcing boundaries. If an employer plays their cards right, their employees are too emotionally drained by work to have anything left for healthy relationships, isolating them from their support networks and causing them to immerse themselves further in employment to pursue meaning or anesthetize the creeping lack of it in their lives.

Why do so many women expect other women to engage in this kind of kabuki theater of performative happiness? Many of these enforcers appear to be in their in their late 40s to 50s - could it be at least partly generational?

I had a boss like this. It didn't occur to me at the time (I may have been too busy sobbing under my desk), but maybe those women, exhausted by the emotional labor they have to do, are looking to younger/lower-ranking women to replenish that energy? That's not to justify it, just to say the shit rolls downhill. And I think there's that generational friction that transcends gender: I had to do this to get where I am, and I'll be damned if you don't have to do it too.
posted by Fish, fish, are you doing your duty? at 2:37 PM on April 19 [20 favorites]


Read this yesterday, which seems apropos.
posted by orrnyereg at 2:54 PM on April 19


There are plenty of female same-age putatively-egalitarian friendships in which the cooler* friend gets to require sunny positive behavior from everyone else. So I'd guess that this is largely an expression of power, wherever that power comes from.

What puzzles me about changes in the modern workplace are how rarely I hear anyone talking about rewarding, or even identifying, useful work and workers. There must be somewhere where someone can tell the difference, as the lights and water are on and the trash mostly gets taken nominally "away".

* In either sense -- having more social status to share, or needing less from the friendship and being therefore more able to risk it. BFF or BATNA?
posted by clew at 2:54 PM on April 19 [2 favorites]


I find myself torn. On the one hand, people should be able to feel what they feel, and there is an undeniably gendered component to this.

On the other hand, working with people who are consistently negative sucks. I'm working with someone at the moment and I've found myself starting to dread meeting with them. Everything is a problem; everything is personal; everything is a big deal. It's exhausting, and if we're talking emotional labour, geeing then through anything that happens definitely counts.

I guess ultimately it's how much "happiness" is basic professionalism - a quotient that I think also goes in line with salary. No one on minimum wage should have to be very happy.
posted by smoke at 2:59 PM on April 19 [11 favorites]


> On the other hand, working with people who are consistently negative sucks. I'm working with someone at the moment and I've found myself starting to dread meeting with them. Everything is a problem; everything is personal; everything is a big deal. It's exhausting, and if we're talking emotional labour, geeing then through anything that happens definitely counts.

There is a big, huge, enormous middle ground between "forced constant smiling" and "Everything is a problem; everything is personal; everything is a big deal."

Thank god I'm a freelancer, is all I can say. Nobody can see or hear me cursing at my work except my wife and the cats, and they're used to it.
posted by languagehat at 3:06 PM on April 19 [9 favorites]


Enforced performative happiness goes hand-in-hand with being part of a sick system. I urge everyone who has commented here to consider reading this brief, but profoundly insightful article - Sick Systems: How to Keep Someone With You Forever.
posted by the thought-fox at 3:14 PM on April 19 [13 favorites]



There is a big, huge, enormous middle ground between "forced constant smiling" and "Everything is a problem; everything is personal; everything is a big deal."


Yes, and no I think languagehat, my experience has been that" the line" is very subjective. One person's basic courtesy and being constructive is another's forced stepford happiness, I've found. Likewise one person's telling it like it is can be another's relentless cynicism/rudeness.

In abstract, I agree the division seems clear. In practice, people may disagree. I think it's very situational and also goes to how people are feeling about their jobs in general.
posted by smoke at 3:38 PM on April 19 [8 favorites]


I had a boss once tell me that some of my coworkers thought I was intimidating, and: Good. Nobody's got any reason to assume I'm violent or vindictive or that I'd tattle on them or stab them in the back or anything like that. I think they were worried that I might be a little short with them if they habitually wasted my time or got too familiar, sticking their noses in my personal business. And that is good. People should worry about that.

I very rarely interact with clients, so 90% or so of attitude policing I've gotten is pure, unadulterated office politics with a double standards enhancement. Most of the time, my work (in different areas, even) consists of me sitting quietly by myself figuring stuff out and fussing around with details, and muttering and frowny faces are integral to that process. I cannot do that stuff while I'm smiling and chatting.

I can manage being socially engaged in short bursts as I need to, but it wears me the hell out, and that distracts me from the part of my job(s) that I was actually hired to do and that I am good at. So from a business perspective, requiring me to project a positive attitude and to act like I'm all 'motivated' doesn't just make me miserable. It's actually counterproductive.
posted by ernielundquist at 3:49 PM on April 19 [13 favorites]


Sorry, this is still a half-baked thought. But this seems like part of a larger and troubling trend, which I'm struggling to identify.

Enforced performative happiness goes hand-in-hand with being part of a sick system. I urge everyone who has commented here to consider reading this brief, but profoundly insightful article - Sick Systems: How to Keep Someone With You Forever.


I feel like, especially with the election of Trump, that there is no more pressing public project than articulating the psychology of emotional abuse and making every single human being on earth explicitly aware of it and its costs. I want every child in every school to spend an hour of their day studying this.
posted by saysthis at 4:01 PM on April 19 [13 favorites]


I wonder how much of this is an American problem as well as a (possibly) generational one.

We just finished our yearly reviews where the employee is encouraged to write their own thoughts on how they can improve. My three previous bosses - all American Baby Boomers - told me I had to work on my attitude and my resting bitchface (not said like that) and be more positive.

So, coming into this review with my Gen X, German boss, I had already mentioned that I could work on being more positive. He looked at me like I had grown a second head and said my attitude was fine and I could actually stand to be more assertive.

Interesting in view of this article.
posted by asteria at 4:57 PM on April 19 [23 favorites]


FWIW I've been affect-policed by older female mentors, but I'm in a male-dominated field. (I'm still pretty pissed at said mentor for it, no I'm not going to grovel and be joyous about getting a job I've worked quite hard for; instead I'm irritated that the system hasn't done better by my friends and colleagues who don't yet have stable positions.)

Speaking of, who decided "grateful" is the top of the emotion elevator? It's sure as hell not the top of mine. If I'm "grateful", then I feel as if I've been given something I don't deserve; that is, I'm suffering from impostor syndrome (why yes, I am an academic). I do feel lucky, I do feel grateful, but I think those things are mostly signs of the pyramid scheme that is academia; I feel lucky because I've seen so many peers who are just as good as me end up leaving and not always by choice. It's not a healthy feeling.

For me, the top of the emotion elevator is "curious". I'm a scientist. I'm productive and happy and all that jazz when I have the space and time to be "curious". Which for some random reason is about halfway up the elevator posted above. ("Curious" is also far from "impatient"; I don't have any idea how that page decided those should be adjacent).
posted by nat at 5:42 PM on April 19 [7 favorites]


People in power have always wanted people with less power to act happy whether they are or not. Nobility and serfs. Men and women. The Victorian Middle Class and their servants. White people and black people. Rich Californians and their gardeners. Bosses and secretaries. People feel guilty about power imbalances and want to be reassured they're not doing anything wrong and aren't going to be challenged by unhappy underlings.

It's a double standard to judge women more harshly for this than men (though that's not surprising -- people are always more critical of women who have power than men who do.) If anything, women in management positions are going to be extra worried about happy everybody is around them because as everybody knows, for women authority is inversely correlated with likability (men with power can be both respected and liked, women cannot).
posted by mrmurbles at 5:43 PM on April 19 [13 favorites]


To add to my comment above, another dynamic among women in the workplace is that the workplace is unfair to women, and it's difficult to know how to point that out without perpetuating it. It may not be helpful for a female mentor to be critical of how happy you seem, but it's entirely likely to be subconsciously well-intentioned. I'm frequently in situations where I know the behavior of younger female colleagues is working against them. I want them to succeed, I know these things are holding them back, but they're also very personal. In one case it's a woman who speaks in one tone of voice and cadence in small meetings with other women, and another in large meetings with men. Her nervousness in those meetings causes her to speak in a higher, up-talkier, more "feminine" way -- basically her nervousness causes her to fall back on mannerisms that traditionally women use to be liked but work against their authority in the workplace. Another colleague wears short-shirts and leggings-as-pants. This is not a dress-code issue, the clothes are not too casual. They are too "revealing" they are "distracting" in the parlance of school districts. And, more unfairly, they are particularly distracting because through no fault of her own, she has an unusually nice figure.

In neither case do I have any desire to "police" the way these women self-present. I know that it's not fair on about a hundred levels. I also know for a fact, being privy to the way male colleagues respond to and treat these women (and it's a male-dominated workplace), that these kinds of personal expressions are working against them.

I know that all I want to do is help these women. I also know that raising these issues with them could easily turn into a comment from either of them on metafilter 5 years from now about how they were subject to some female colleague who policed their clothing because she thought "I had to do this to get where I am, and I'll be damned if you don't have to do it too."
posted by mrmurbles at 6:03 PM on April 19 [7 favorites]



In neither case do I have any desire to "police" the way these women self-present. I know that it's not fair on about a hundred levels. I also know for a fact, being privy to the way male colleagues respond to and treat these women (and it's a male-dominated workplace), that these kinds of personal expressions are working against them.


Is it not a possibility to instead police the way (at least some of) your male colleagues behave, with respect to their treatment of and discussion of female co-workers? I know you said it's a male-dominated space but I hope that means you have some male subordinates who could be given a talking-to. if you are in a senior enough position to drop some wisdom on the badly dressed, drop it on the boys who disrespect them first. if that is not impossible for office-politic reasons.

to establish my cred, so to speak, on the topic of policing younger women: years ago I rashly interviewed to be an English department secretary and one man asked me what, as a supervisor of student workers, I would do if a student worker came in dressed "inappropriately." so I said, I guess I would refer to the dress code, identify the part of it that was being violated, take the student aside and give them a warning and an extra copy of the dress code, and if they did it another couple of times after that, I don't know, fire them. I would follow whatever the policy is, is what I said. I thought it was a dumb question.

oho, he said, but I am not speaking of a cut-and-dried policy violation, he said with the kind of avuncular creepsmarm only middle aged male English professors are capable of, in or out of novels. I mean if a student was dressed provocatively. Distractingly.

so I said, Well, I cannot imagine such a situation ever arising, because as a competent adult I am never provoked to harassment or other criminal behavior by anyone's clothing choices, and in any case it is not the job of any student worker at this university to worry about whether or not they have inspired their elderly professors to have erections. that is a highly inappropriate expectation to place on them and if it is part of their job duties to monitor and subdue their own youthful physical allure, that must be put in writing so that it can be enforced evenhandedly. Any reasonable and non-biased standard can be articulated in a WRITTEN DRESS CODE, I concluded.

anyhow, I did not get the job. surprise. and thank goodness. though I did get a nicely restrained rejection note that said I had been very "interesting" to talk to. and that is the story of how I discovered exactly how far you can push back against a room full of dicks before they turn against you. most of it is fairly accurate to my recollection.
posted by queenofbithynia at 6:58 PM on April 19 [28 favorites]


I'm white, male, not all that young, and pretty high up in my organization. And I *still* get people (including the one guy who is unequivocally higher up the chain within my organization) commenting on my mood or facial expression.

I think, based on a lifetime of getting asked "are you upset about something?," when I'm not, that I have one of those faces that always registers a bit grumpier looking than I actually am, at least to a certain type of moron who doesn't have the emotional intelligence to determine other people's mood by noticing more than whether their lips are highly upturned at the moment.

And to compound the matter, I'm actually a pretty easy-going guy, I hope, but few things irritate me more than having someone get in my grill about my mood or whether I "look" happy. So it rapidly turns into a vicious cycle where someone needling me about my expression turns a neutral or happy mood into one that is not so much.

As a case in point, I recently found myself sitting around with a group consisting of my boss, other employees, and some vendors at a bar extremely late during the week of a trade show. I was happy to be there, and was in fact enjoying the conversation, but the fact was I had been running on 4 hours sleep all week. And about then the wife of one of our employees decided to start telling me to "smile!" and then critiquing how my smile didn't look genuine. I tried telling her that this was just the way I was made, with a self-deprecating laugh, but she wanted to engage in what I felt was an embarrassing dialogue about what I guess was my obligation to look more like what she wanted to look, so it ended up with me just having to start ignoring her, which greatly dampened my ability to be there doing what I needed to be doing.

So while I don't deny the classist, racial, genderist, generational implications of it all, I'm here to tell you that no one's immune, and the only common denominator I can really find is a certain kind of emotional stupidity that can't register what someone's general demeanor is without a big shit-eating grin attached to it, and doesn't recognize that not everyone is on a high point all the time.

And a particularly low circle of hell is reserved (I can only hope) for people who not only can't stand it if those around them aren't grinning, but who, upon recognizing that someone *is* a bit tired/low/down, set about to make it worse by picking on them about it. It's the one irritant in what is otherwise a good relationship with my boss, and what he doesn't realize is it means I don't work as hard as I might otherwise, and I actively avoid being around him when I'm the least bit stressed, tired, etc., because I don't want to end up handing it back to him and ending up in a confrontation.
posted by randomkeystrike at 8:03 PM on April 19 [7 favorites]


Is it not a possibility to instead police the way (at least some of) your male colleagues behave, with respect to their treatment of and discussion of female co-workers?

You've framed this rhetorically but it's not rhetorical. So tell me -- how do you tell a man to listen to what a woman says instead of looking at her ass? What do you say about that to a man at your level? To all the men at your level in the meeting? All the men above your level? Every man in the organization who is going to determine what happens to this particular woman in this organization. What do you do when -- let's say you're willing to risk your own career and be a pariah -- you say something to them, to HR, to whomever, but all of them deny it?
posted by mrmurbles at 12:02 AM on April 20 [6 favorites]


You've framed this rhetorically but it's not rhetorical.

Amen to that. Woman manager here, and I face many of the same issues + at a client worksite + dealing with overt racism towards the people I manage. Overt.

Can you tell people their remarks are hurtful and they can do better? Yes.

Here's the thing: they know they're being hurtful. Another manager cracking a joke about burqas versus ties in a business district in front of the three Muslim women he manages is not something the dude is unaware of. He's doing it on purpose.

Which means if/when you point it out, you know what happens? Your Muslim women colleagues will get wide-eyed and tell you to hush because you'll only make it worse for everyone.

Generally the same thing goes for sexist behavior. They know they're being sexist. There is a buttload of men on this planet who know what they're doing and deny it because it makes their lives easier.

So what can you do? Set an example. I had a director crack a joke about me needing to wear a short skirt to get a client. I did that thing you do when someone farts and you need to pretend you didn't hear it. He no longer talks to me like that. He's started to think twice about talking to other women like that. Other women noticed and one of the youngest came to me and said she'd never seen a woman flat-out ignore a comment like that and she'd be taking it as a new thing she could do.

We're human, we're not black and white, you can't expect to successfully explain to white dudes who KNOW they have privileges, and WANT those privileges, that they need to change. Likewise it's a minefield to legitimize those privileges. So. Live your life without apology, so long as you're not hurting anyone and not taking privileges that aren't rightfully yours.
posted by fraula at 3:07 AM on April 20 [14 favorites]


You've framed this rhetorically

No I haven't! That's why I included the long dumb anecdote -- so you can see I'm aware of the ways to do it when you have nothing to lose and only satisfaction to gain -- but I have never actually been in a large organization where I had a senior position but there were not large numbers of other women around. [1] and that is why I restricted the question to your male subordinates, because I am aware that telling your bosses to stop being dingdongs will not go well and telling your peers is iffy.

what is frustrating to me is that A. there is nothing more dismal than having a respected female senior colleague take an interest in you, you think they're going to talk about your projects and interests and maybe talk you up to the bosses, get you a promotion, who knows, but actually they just want to kindly advise on your wardrobe or (in my case) tell you to stand up straight and look people in the eye. It's very lowering to find out exactly what about you is of interest to others, even female others, and what about you inspires them to want to help you. and B. what is the incentive for them to be ambitious and forgo their (INCREDIBLY UNPROFESSIONAL AND YES CASUAL) legging behavior and rise up, if rising to the higher levels still doesn't give a woman any power?

(I mean, the incentive is money. sure. but to find out that a sophisticated knowledgeable woman they look up to is no more able to shut down unprofessional men than they are is just depressing. should they lash out and resent the messenger who is only trying to help? no, but if they do, it's not the 'policing' angle that gets them, it's this.)

[1] The closest I've come is being team lead of a four-person team where the other three were guys who liked to make really vicious remarks about our female overboss's personal appearance, because they hated her and that's how men express that they hate a powerful women. so over drinks I told them to stop calling X fat, that wasn't why she was a bad boss and don't be dicks. but that only worked because I was their supervisor and they liked me reasonably well, and of course they only stopped doing it when I was there. that was not what I would call a professional environment, but it was also not a place where anybody would come to work without pants on so who knows.
posted by queenofbithynia at 6:58 AM on April 20 [2 favorites]


I am renowned where I work for being grumpy. My grumpiness is celebrated. My boss has a candy jar just for me. The sign over my door reads; "I can be your friend or I can fix your problem and I'm not gonna be your friend" Smiling on the inside growling on the outside...
posted by judson at 7:29 AM on April 20 [2 favorites]


I know that all I want to do is help these women. I also know that raising these issues with them could easily turn into a comment from either of them on metafilter 5 years from now about how they were subject to some female colleague who policed their clothing because she thought "I had to do this to get where I am, and I'll be damned if you don't have to do it too."
posted by mrmurbles at 6:03 PM on April 19
[1 favorite +] [!]


Speaking as someone who has been on the receiving end of these conversations, it helps when the would be mentor doesn't just have the "how you should present yourself" conversation, but other mentoring conversations pertaining directly to your work. At least then the intent is clearer (being helpful vs policing). Almost all of the conversations still left me feeling a bit... Bleh. But I also recognized that they're in a crappy situation too.

I have had one conversation along those lines that I went very well, and actually left me feeling fairly upbeat. It was quite recent, when I started a new job a few months ago (with a move from academia back to private sector). Part of what helped is that my mentor is a very charming person in general. The other part is how she discussed it. Our conversation involved many different aspects of the job, not just how to present ones self. She was also fairly straightforward "In my experience, doing X helps with Y," while also being sure to note that my experiences may wind up being different and/or my professional goals may be different. It struck the right balance​ of being informative while also trusting I will make the right decisions for myself.
posted by ghost phoneme at 8:44 AM on April 20 [2 favorites]


This is sort of like all that 'lean in' stuff (or at least the parts of it I've gleaned--I didn't read the book).

All this stuff about managing your demeanor shouldn't be necessary, but right now, it is. Right now, if you need a paycheck, you have to fit into the culture you're in, and that culture is often ridiculous. Sometimes, you can and do stand up to it, but when you do, it costs you something. You have to pick your battles. If you pick every one, it's going to end up hurting you professionally. People will see you as an annoying buzzkill, and if you're a woman in a very heavily male dominated organization or industry, they sometimes generalize that to all women. You can't fix the whole thing all at once.

I worked in a super bro startup company that had a lot of fucked up stuff pretty baked in. There was briefly a really sexist and discriminatory dress code, fortunately at a time when there were several women in my area, so we raised a pretty big stink and ultimately did a hostile compliance thing until they got rid of it, which put us all on the wrong side of upper management, at least for a while. That cost us something, I'm sure.

Later, I knew people looked at porn at work, but I walked out one day after I found some in my project folders on the development machine, and told them I wasn't coming back until it was all gone. I had the social capital at the time to do that, but I spent a lot of it on that, as you can imagine, me being the asshole who took their porn.

But that was also the job where they fired a guy who'd stolen some of my work and frog marched him out as soon as they found out what happened. I liked the work part, and believe it or not, I even kind of liked the workplace environment except for the porn bombs and some of the subtler creepy behaviors. But I couldn't spend all my time and reputation going after every single cultural problem there, because I had a life and actual work to do, as most people do.

And if another woman had started there after I did, odds are pretty good I would have given her advice about navigating the workplace sexism, letting her know what to expect and how to manage it, not because I endorse it, but because fucked up system or no, you need a paycheck.
posted by ernielundquist at 9:14 AM on April 20 [6 favorites]


what is frustrating to me is that A. there is nothing more dismal than having a respected female senior colleague take an interest in you, you think they're going to talk about your projects and interests and maybe talk you up to the bosses, get you a promotion, who knows, but actually they just want to kindly advise on your wardrobe or (in my case) tell you to stand up straight and look people in the eye. It's very lowering to find out exactly what about you is of interest to others, even female others, and what about you inspires them to want to help you. and B. what is the incentive for them to be ambitious and forgo their (INCREDIBLY UNPROFESSIONAL AND YES CASUAL) legging behavior and rise up, if rising to the higher levels still doesn't give a woman any power?

(I mean, the incentive is money. sure.


Quite frankly, this is so *immensely* privileged and resentful that I'm not even sure where to begin.

Some of the pointers more senior colleagues will give you involve social skills. For people like me (borderline ASD, which means I'm generally not trying to be an asshole even if I come across as one), this is fantastic -- it means that they're assuming that I'm not trying to come across the way other people might think I am! And, yes, some of that might involve clothing. (For some people, that's a way of inspiring confidence. I have a coworker who hates giving presentations, and she spent two hours before she gave a talk to the company debating which shirt and necklace to wear. She was ecstatic when her mentor lent her a jacket, because that was one fewer decision she had to make.)

And, hey, social skills matters! Sometimes they matter because you're terrible at them. And sometimes they matter because being able to act assertively is the thing that's standing between you and your next promotion or your next opportunity.

I've never had a more senior colleague give me a promotion. I've never had a more senior colleague praise me to my boss to my face. Maybe some people have experienced this, but I never have. (I've had more senior colleagues praise me to my face, and I've had them give praise to my boss behind my back.) Quite frankly, if a senior colleague wanted to meet with me and brought me over to my boss, I'd be terrified.

And as for whether or not rising to the higher levels gives women power ... it definitely does! But advances occur when you're not looking, and individual advancement has yet to lead to the complete overhaul of the patriarchy that we'd need to not have to deal with a double standard. Advancement on the part of my coworkers means that I'm going to be able to get a seat at the table, and that several of the assholes in other departments are on their way out. It means that there will be other people around to prevent what remains of the sexist old guard from cutting me off completely during conversations, and that the sexist old guard continues to be gradually shown out the door.

Change happens slowly, and that sucks. But battles are chosen carefully, and throwing your hands up in the air and declaring that the only thing career women care about is their own money because they still can't wear anything they'd like is really insulting.
posted by steady-state strawberry at 7:34 PM on April 20 [5 favorites]


I have two forms of disability that are gender coded feminine (inattentive ADHD, the symptoms of which tend to be stigmatized as negative "feminine" traits toward daydreaming and lack of "muscular action" and "decisiveness" and abandonment trauma PTSD which makes me excessively anxious under stress about my own personal security and the integrity and reliability of my intimate and family relations, which in practice gets me labeled and stigmatized as too sensitive and emotionally needy, tendencies which have also traditionally been gender coded feminine). I still identify securely as male, because despite these specific areas where I'm gender-nonconforming, I still feel comfortably male and have cisgender/hetero sexual preferences otherwise in adulthood.

That said, it's impossible to ignore how rigidly normative the traits and tendencies coded as male in contemporary pop culture have become in the workplace. Being decisive and firm is valued over circumspection and respect for the messiness and nuances of reality, competitive instincts have been elevated to such a degree managers even encourage intra-team competition with only lip service to "team work" and mutually supportive work culture and healthy collegiality. To me, whether you identify as a man, woman, or any other way, the practical harm from those kinds of subtle, gender-biased workplace cultural norms can be personally devastating and hard to negotiate all the same.
posted by saulgoodman at 5:19 AM on April 22 [3 favorites]


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