How to Avoid Killing Your Colleagues
It’s Thursday afternoon at 3:50 PM. You’ve managed to end a phone call with a very talkative client who just happens to spend $3 trillion dollars with your firm every year. If you can make it out the door in the next 15 minutes, you’ll blow through the parkway before traffic gets bad, swing by the sitter to pick up the little kids, make it to the dry cleaner before they close, and have dinner on the table by 6:30, assuming the older kids didn’t eat the dinner ingredients when they got home from high school this afternoon. (Seriously – I can’t even count how many times I said over the years “You know where Kroger is. I suggest you get there and back VERY fast and replace what you just ate so the rest of us can have dinner. Who cooks ground beef as an after school snack?!”) If anyone delays you by even 10 minutes, you’ll sit in traffic for an eternity, have to pay a late fee at the sitter, the dry cleaners will be closed so you’ll have to wear your suit with the Gogurt stain on it for your big presentation tomorrow, and no one will eat dinner. Maybe ever. Are you getting tense just reading this? Did you check your watch? Drink some wine.
Back in our horror film scenario, just as you start to slip out your door, a familiar refrain can be heard from the next office door. “Leaving already? Wow. I never knew this was a bank.” Yes, it’s Carl. Carl is the engineer in the next office who has made it his life’s ambition to provide the public with a living history exhibit of a 1955 stereotypical male, cartoon-style. He sits down at his desk at 7:55 AM, he goes to lunch from noon to 1:00 PM at the same artery-clogging spot every day, he leaves at 5:05 PM, and he observes every little fragment of standard company protocol. He only knows that his kids wore diapers because he doesn’t trust his wife’s financial skills and checks over her purchases every week. He gets his oil changed every 3,000 miles because the manufacturer says to, and he enjoys halting construction projects so he can tell everyone involved that he’s “the engineer, and the engineer has the final word.” Carl is lucky no one has killed him.
Carl’s words burrow under your skin, even though this is the 3,712th time you have heard them. Seriously? Is he kidding? You haven’t slept in three years. You put in 60 hours last week, and a big chunk of it was when Carl was sleeping like a baby in his old man pajamas. You have an agreement with your boss. She said it was okay to leave now. She says your work is great. So why can’t you just shut the #$@% up, Carl?!
Actually, you mumble something about you wish it was a bank ha ha, and you sprint out the door. But Carl has ruined your afternoon. Again. And why? Does he really think you don’t belong here? Is he implying that your work is suffering because of your non-traditional hours? Is it suffering? Maybe the boss is just being nice. Maybe she’s been trying to find a way to tell you that you’re falling way behind. Maybe you never should have become an engineer. Maybe your kids and your husband think you’re a failure, too. Who were you kidding to think you could do all this?
(For the men in our audience, yes, this is how it really sounds in a woman’s head. It’s like a constant Hitchcock movie, in terms of tension).
On a calmer, saner note, let’s take a look at Carl. First, he’s an engineer, so chances are his personality really needs order and rules and consistency. Yours does, too, but there are ranges within every group. Carl happens to be at the psychotic end of the spectrum. In addition, who actually says something out loud to their co-worker about when she’s leaving, even if they’re speculating about it mentally? Is that Carl’s job? No. So that means that Carl is a meddlesome, arrogant, passive-aggressive control freak who constantly tries to compare others to himself so he can feel superior. In southern Indiana, they call that nibby. It’s not a good thing. So Carl is not such a great person, regardless of whether he’s a guy or a woman. Sexism is just one of the many negative attributes of his crappy personality.
Let’s go back to you. Do you have an agreement with your boss saying you can work this flexible schedule? Does she appear to be pleased with your work? Are you getting it done? Are you being sure to point out to your boss when you do things well so that it won’t get lost in the day-to-day fray? If the answers to these questions are yes, then what’s the problem?
Well, you say, the problem is that I’m sick of hearing Carl say these things, and I want him to leave me alone. As ideal as that may sound, life is truly just one long stretch of seventh grade. Carl has a personality problem, and it’s probably not going to change. And you’re going to work with a lot of other people who will have other personality problems, and they won’t change either. None of this has anything to do with your choices/position as a woman or as an engineer. This has everything to do with life being like seventh grade. The real lesson in life is learning to deal with the other seventh graders and developing enough confidence to believe in yourself.
It’s true, Carl is dreadfully annoying, as are the concrete guys who say every day, “Are you just getting up? I’ve been up since fill-in-the-blank.” These people have an insecurity and need to have a way to feel like they’re better than you. Just ignore Carl. No, he won’t go away. But you have lots of options to give it right back to him, if you choose to expend the energy. (If you do, be sure you are doing it for entertainment purposes only. You don’t need to lash out at Carl to prove your worth). You can say in your sweetest voice, “I KNOW! Isn’t it fabulous? I think I’ll go shopping!” Or you could send Carl e-mails every hour in the middle of the night, beginning each subsequent message with, “Well, I guess you’ve already gone to sleep. I’m glad someone gets to. Please try to respond whenever it is that you’ll be working again.” For a quieter offensive attack, you could just say, “Am I?” Is it?”
Carl’s sexism is just a symptom of his poor character, so don’t concentrate on the wrong disease. You won’t cure him with earnest talks about equality and opportunities.
For your part, you have to be very careful not to do the same thing Carl is doing. Maybe you think your job as a mom is very noble, and you comment to one of your friends that can you believe that new project manager gets to come in early on Fridays so he can leave at 2:00 PM to go backpacking every weekend? Here you are slaving away 23 hours a day, and this kid gets a flexible schedule so he can go play. No. You chose to have kids, just like he chooses to go backpacking. You can’t go getting outraged about others criticizing your choices and then attack someone else’s choices. It’s good for everyone or it’s good for no one. This isn’t The Handmaid’s Tale, and you aren’t being forced to breed. So tell that backpacker to send you some great photos of the Red River Gorge, and you’ll have your kids draw adorable sketches of mountains for him. Everyone will appreciate the variety of choice that is the spice of life, and you’ll all be in a better mood to get your work done. Except Carl. He’ll be too busy documenting for the boss how much time you and the backpacker spent talking, and he’ll make her a spreadsheet of lost productivity. Give your boss some of your wine – I guarantee you she needs it.