Tall, Dark, and Mysterious

2/20/2006

Everything I ever needed to know, I failed to learn in kindergarten.

File under: Righteous Indignation, Know Thyself, Welcome To The Occupation. Posted by Moebius Stripper at 4:32 pm.

This just in: I come across as blunt, abrasive, aloof, distant, and ostensibly averse to small talk - and damned if some people don’t much care for that.

Pardon me, allow me to clarify: this just in from my supervisor, who took five minutes to get [above] across to me. I knew exactly what was coming halfway into the “Well, I’m not quite sure how to tell you this, but sometimes in large groups…” prelude, but coaxing it out of him any faster would have required me to bypass the requisite small talk and cut straight to bluntness, and never let it be said that I can’t take a hint.

Anyway, this is apparently a problem. Not just to my supervisor, but to the anonymous chorus of indeterminate size (”some people”) that has approached him with concerns about my demeanor. Oh, they all know I mean well, but would it kill me to smile a bit more? Spend more of my lunch breaks indoors with others in the lunchroom, instead of running errands or relaxing at the park? Interrupt my work (which I’m apparently doing quite well, thankyouverymuch), whenever the circumstances demand it, with multi-word commentary about how by gosh, it is raining again, whenever will the madness end?

It’s not that I’m not aware of all of this, mind you; it’s that what others see as friendly banter, I see as distractions from my work - work that no one else in the office can do. I am a task-oriented person, dammit, not a people-oriented person! It’s that, much as I like my coworkers, I don’t come to work to better my social life. It’s that in my metric, it’s better to approach people, possibly bluntly, than it is to mediate your concerns through a third party, so that the offending individual is left suspecting all of the friendly chit-chatters of filing complaints with that party and leaving her to guess whether this modification of her behaviour is enough, because it’s not like she’s had the chance to speak directly (that word again!) with anyone who actually wanted her to modify it. So help me, this all strikes me as remarkably inefficient, not to mention, highly inconducive to creating a pleasant working environment, at least for me. I’m just saying.

In summary: damned if I know what precisely I need to change (goddamn, it’s hard to get straight answers from the directness-averse HR set), and damned if I could make whatever changes are necessary without driving myself insane even if I did know exactly what they were. The good news is, I continue to provide my employer with a sort of specialized expertise that they’ve been seeking for years; and by all accounts, I do a very good job of what I was hired to do.

Call me old-fashioned, but right now, I plan to just continue to do my job well, and I reckon that’ll be enough.

35 Comments

  1. At my earlier place of employment, a large state office building full of civil servants, I knew and was known to only the small handful of people who worked at my tiny special-purpose agency (we did econometric forecasts for the state treasurer). The chronic smalltalkers would catch me in the elevator or in the lobby and strike up — or try to strike up — a conversation: “Wasn’t that a great game last night?” (I’m a male; sports topics were always the favorite opening gambit from other guys. Women were more likely to content themselves with “Nice day.”) I’d usually reply something like, “Oh, was there a game yesterday? What type?” Once I gave this reply to someone after Superbowl Sunday, eliciting a look of horror. During my five years in the building, more and more folks learned to ignore me or just nod their heads. I was always prepared to give a friendly nod!

    Good luck, MS, on trying to succeed at your job merely by doing good work. It goes against the grain, you know.

    - Zeno — 2/20/2006 @ 5:42 pm

  2. As long as you’re thanking people who do stuff for you and asking them nicely with a “please”, and using your “Hello” and “goodbye” and all the other polite words you learned WAY before Kindergarten, I don’t see why you’d need to modify what you’re doing. That sort of little politeness, not small talk, are the grease that keeps all society from creaking.

    I don’t see why you ought to be faulted for not wanting to interact socially with people. If they can’t work with somebody without get ting all chummy with her, THEY have the problem, not you. The world is full of people who won’t want to be chummy with them, and they have to learn to deal with it.

    I’d give good odds, by the way, that the “some people” are all female. Men in general don’t seem to have a problem working with people who don’t make small talk.

    And last, your supervisor needs some better leadership skills. The job of the supervisor should not include passing along gossip about you. It should include pointing out to the gossipy complainers that you are not obligated to attach to them socially, and that as long as you’re doing your job they should just work with you and leave the rest alone.

    - Wacky Hermit — 2/20/2006 @ 5:45 pm

  3. Thanks. I specifically asked my supervisor if I was perceived as being rude, because that would be cause for concern. But I’m not, apparently. And why would I be? I say please and thank you, and I am actually quite sociable when the topic of discussion is something substantial. (Oh, and here’s something that just makes my head spin: I have become quite friendly with the smartest person in the office, the woman from accounting, who is something of a pariah, for the same reasons that I am destined to be: she is amazing at her job, but has no patience for small talk. But…me being friendly with her, counts as being unfriendly. Feh.)

    Zeno - I have a (male) friend, who introduced me to the Superbowl Game, which is played with any number of players, as follows: after the Superbowl, if you know who won, you’re out. Last player in, wins.

    And Wacky Hermit, I’m pretty sure you’re right about the demographics of “some people”. And as for my supervisor, to his credit, he was receptive to hearing what I had to say. I explained that the personality traits that make me do things that he doesn’t like, are the same ones that are responsible for developing a specialized skill set that the company values HIGHLY. Yes, I like to work without chatting every five minutes. But I’m not in HR; I do technical work that requires sustained focus.

    - Moebius Stripper — 2/20/2006 @ 6:00 pm

  4. Welcome to the much-derided, nebulous, but potentially career-breaking category of “collegiality”.

    - Friede — 2/20/2006 @ 7:04 pm

  5. You could maybe wear a few more pieces of flair.

    - Tom Harrison — 2/20/2006 @ 7:24 pm

  6. I like straightforwardness too, which is why some of my fellow Chinese people drive me crazy, because they can’t admit when they don’t understand something. I was asked to set up a database for an organisation, and the woman in charge really knew very little about computing and networks, but discussing with her what they wanted to accomplish and the giving her my proposals about how to accomplish this was a nightmare, because she would pretend to understand what I was proposing, and then later on by her actions show she had no idea what I was talking about.

    - Jen — 2/20/2006 @ 9:45 pm

  7. I was going to say something about pieces of flair, because Stu has been hounding me with that quote when I was talking about performance reviews.

    I mean, do you want to be known as the person who just gets by with 15 pieces of flair? Think of your attitude, woman!

    Seriously, the good thing about this is if you cultivate an anti-social reputation, nobody will try to push you into management. I think most orgs are clueless as to who would make good managers…clue: you can’t just pick the people who are the best at getting their jobs done right now. Unfortunately, that seems to be the major criterion.

    - meep — 2/21/2006 @ 1:17 am

  8. Ah, yes, yet another thing that annoys me about my presumed gender role. Usually the attempts to make small chat about professional sports die when I ask how many periods or innings or whatever the game in question has, and it’s clear that I honestly don’t know.

    I like that super bowl game. I have my own variant: when I hear which day the game is, I lose. Happily, I’ve won two of the past three years.

    - mvc — 2/21/2006 @ 9:30 am

  9. Heh…my advisor is pretty blunt, which is something I really appreciate…but he insists on mixing it with “jokey” to attempt to make criticism less painful or something. Unfortunately it comes across completely the wrong way (I mean, who wants jokey criticism?) and I’m trying to decide if it’s worth saying something or not…and if so, how to go about it. Talking to people is not my strong suit.

    - Today Wendy — 2/21/2006 @ 9:49 am

  10. “blunt, abrasive, aloof, distant, and ostensibly averse to small talk”

    Ever notice how these adjectives never seem to get applied in a negative way to men?

    - Kirsten — 2/21/2006 @ 10:32 am

  11. They do sometimes, actually. I worked at a design company where the best technical guy in the production department got hassled by management for exactly this.

    - Atlantic — 2/21/2006 @ 10:57 am

  12. Thanks, everyone; this all makes me feel a lot better. Confirmation bias is fun!

    Jen - yeah, and it came to my attention when I moved out west that the collegiality/straightforwardness divide isn’t just an East (Asia) versus West (North America) thing, it’s also a West (BC) verus East (Ontario) thing as well. In grad school I had the pleasure of coming thisclose to being screwed over by administrators who were totally incompetent but awfully nice about it, so whatever was my problem?

    Meep - I think most orgs are clueless as to who would make good managers…clue: you can’t just pick the people who are the best at getting their jobs done right now. Unfortunately, that seems to be the major criterion. Oh hell YES. I have no interest in any sort of managerial position. I would suck at same. I would be good at - oh, I feel like I’m repeating myself here but what the hell - THE JOB THAT HARDLY ANYONE IN MY OFFICE CAN DO.

    I aspire, by the way, to be the employee who wears NO flair, but keeps her job anyway because the employer needs her enough to make those sorts of allowances for her. Having specialized skills gives me leverage. Being warm and friendly might get me a managerial position. I’d much rather have leverage.

    Wendy - jokey criticism, ouch. Mind you, I’ve told you about MY former advisor, so.

    Kirsten and Atlantic - yes and no. I have it on good authority that a highly competent yet blunt/abrasive/aloof/distant/small-talk-averse male employee got a similar dressing down. (Clue: it’s called introversion and it’s highly correlated with technical skills. Like…the ones I was hired to provide.) That said, if anyone can find me a case of a professional male employee in a non-customer-service position who was counselled to smile more, I’ll wear high heels to my next staff meeting.

    - Moebius Stripper — 2/21/2006 @ 3:29 pm

  13. And then there are the gold weekends, I’ve already ranted to you about those.

    - Jen — 2/21/2006 @ 5:21 pm

  14. MS, If I had been playing the Superbowl game as you described it, I would still be `in’ (and I mean ‘in’ for every single year of my life).

    - oxeador — 2/21/2006 @ 9:13 pm

  15. er, that was “golf” weekends.

    - Jen — 2/22/2006 @ 12:50 am

  16. My experience as a working woman was that women say these things when what really bothers them is that you are more competent than they are. Men say these things when what bothers them is that you aren’t treating them with enough respect.

    I’m an introvert (INTP) too. Here’s a great tip I read somewhere. Usually if someone asks you a question, asking them the same question back is what is needed. If they ask whether you had a nice weekend just make the simplest possible reply and ask them the same question. You’ll often find out that they want to share something unexpectedly serious like their dog died or whatever.

    - Susan — 2/22/2006 @ 7:20 am

  17. My experience in techie companies is that everyone is equally chatty (overall), only its within gender lines, mostly.

    - wolfangel — 2/22/2006 @ 9:08 am

  18. The production guy I mentioned - I don’t know for sure if he was explicitly told to smile more, but the fact that he spent most of his time scowling was definitely addressed.

    - Atlantic — 2/22/2006 @ 11:13 am

  19. Atlantic, there’s a big difference between spending most of one’s time scowling, and not spending sufficient time smiling. The former is openly hostile; the latter is neutral. And as I said, I did have my supervisor clarify that I was not being perceived as hostile or rude.

    - Moebius Stripper — 2/22/2006 @ 5:57 pm

  20. I wanted to sleep on this before I commented, and now I find that Susan has said part of what I wanted to say. But only part…

    When you said “I plan to just continue to do my job well, and I reckon that’ll be enough,” I had to wince. I’m hearing myself many years ago. It took me a long time for me to accept that “getting along with others,” although it’s never in the job description, is always useful. So don’t paint yourself into a corner. I’ve been the lone wolf and the office eccentric, and believe me it’s a lot more fun when your co-workers are on your side. (For one thing, they’ll make you their lone wolf, y’see. They’ll brag about your prowess, and even run interference for you against outsiders!) And it’s usually easy to achieve this, without any “flair” and without turning yourself into some phony suckup. Instead, it’s using your smarts to figure out how people work. Then training them how to deal with you.

    Know that what’s been going on has little to do with anything you’re doing, but lots to do with how you’re being perceived. Intelligent, introverted (or focused!) people (especially the people who do “THE JOB THAT HARDLY ANYONE IN [the] OFFICE CAN DO”) == SCARY. They’re wizards. They control powers beyond those of mere mortals. (Trust me on this– they really believe!) But anyone who’s read LOTR knows all about wizards: Either they enslave you as part of their plot to conquer the world, or they swat you like a bug the first time you irritate them. So right away, without meaning to, you’re a bit forbidding. (Which, by the way, makes it SCARY for people to approach you directly, especially “bluntly”. After all, who knows what you might do? Why, you might just disintigrate them, right on the spot!)

    Socializing and small talk: It’s not about the Super Bowl, it’s not about the weather. It’s about making reassuring noises that brand you as a “known quantity” and as “part of the group.” It makes the others feel comfortable with you, which is a good thing because once they’re comfortable, they won’t be afraid of being direct (”even blunt”), which saves time, right? ;-)

    So, chit-chatting. You need to do some. Not a lot, not constantly, and certainly not as an interruption to your work. What to say? If you’re stumped, think reassuring patterns: Make standard, encouraging responses, and let the others talk. If you don’t know something about the game, turn others’ questions back on them and let them answer them! (Most people would rather talk than listen anyway.) Again, think predictable and reassuring. (And note that clever geek tricks such as coming up with unexpected answers to “How are you?” or engaging in feigned ignorance (”Oh, was there a game yesterday?”) achieve the exact opposite of what you want: They break the patterns, which lebels you an outsider. Withhold your clever geekiness until after people get to know you.)

    And as to interruptions… People who would never interrupt someone who was talking on the phone think nothing of breaking in on someone pounding away at a keyboard (or staring blankly at a screen). They just don’t know how irritating it is, but at the same time they’ll say your “don’t bother me now!” response to their interruptions is “unfriendly.” So you need to educate them– in a nice way– that you’re not being unfriendly, but that their interruptions really mess you up. Talk about being “in the zone” (good sports metaphor), as, “Sorry I blew you off just now, but I was in the zone and it would have taken me an hour to get back if I’d stopped.” Most people can understand this. You might even try to work out some pattern where you can acknowledge someone’s presence without starting a conversation (a raised hand works), with the understanding that you’ll be with them as soon as you reach a stopping point.

    One more thing. Although bosses would like employees to believe it, you’re not expected to be on-task every minute of every day. A stop every so often is good for you (avoids things like eyestrain, backache, and carpel-tunnel syndrome) and blanking the mind for a bit can help your concentration later. So don’t begrudge every interruption.

    You already know most of this. But I hope it helps to get confirmation from somebody else… and I wish I’d had somebody give me this advice years ago!

    - Old Grouch — 2/22/2006 @ 8:02 pm

  21. Well, but at least you are being encouraged to talk, instead of discouraged to say anything. At my work place my boss has put a ban on “fratenizing” which means any form of talking or even looking at other employees. Even if you are discussing your work, even if you are figuring out how to do something on the computer or what not, you are “fratenizing” and need to stop.

    I have found that it is easier to do some things if you have work friends on your side. Heck, when you have a large task to do and are hungry you can always ask one of them to pick up lunch for you or something ;). But I am, alas, an extravert and use it to my advantage. I also have those skills that no one else in my office has, which makes my boss not want to fire me and let’s me get away with a lot of stuff that other people could not get away with.

    When I am seriously trying to work on something though, I do the same things that Old Grouch has mentioned. Like putting my hand up to acknowledge their presence and saying “hold on for just a sec” until I finish my paragraph or data entry or whatever. You could always have an Excel file or something with a bunch of fake data up and that’ll scare people away enough (always works for me). Not that you would need technical things to scare people away anyways, but it never hurts.

    Once you let people into your world though, they will become much more comfortable with you and really befriend you. The only things that I would have to add those are also that (a) yes, your supervisor was wrong to confront you about this (b) it is unreasonable for them to expect you to “smile more” because not everyone is friendly that way and I am sure your politeness makes up for smiling. They have to learn how to deal with your friendliness, not the other way around (c) I would not wear more flair to attract people to you. It seems like they are interested enough in getting to know you, but they feel like you are on the opposite side of the spectrum. People fear what they do not know. They don’t know you, so they are afraid. Let them in and discover what an awesome person you are and how funny you can be. Everyone likes someone who is funny. (d) Keep up the good work, I’m sure when your performance reports come in your supervisor won’t be complaining ;).

    Hope that helps, even just a little. I agree with what everyone said, but had to add my own 2 cents. If you really want to stay introverted though, put a “I Love Math” bumpersticker or something on your cubicle, then they will back off cause they think you are weird ;).

    - Vanes63 — 2/23/2006 @ 8:54 am

  22. Old Grouch, thanks for your thoughtful comment (though I’m sure I don’t have to point out the irony of someone who calls himself “Old Grouch” offering advice on collegiality). However, it’s clear that I’ve somehow given the impression that I am far more distant and isolated than I actually am. Specifically:

    So, chit-chatting. You need to do some. Not a lot, not constantly, and certainly not as an interruption to your work.

    I do do some chit-chatting. Name anyone who works in my office, and I can tell you if they’re married, how many kids they have, their kids’ ages, what neighbourhood they live in, what their hobbies are, and what TV they watch. They know the same about me. This has all come up in friendly conversation that I’ve enjoyed having. But I am seriously being asked to chit-chat constantly, whenever anyone else wants to, and as an interruption to my work. This is the issue.

    Socializing and small talk: It’s not about the Super Bowl, it’s not about the weather. It’s about making reassuring noises that brand you as a “known quantity” and as “part of the group.” It makes the others feel comfortable with you, which is a good thing because once they’re comfortable, they won’t be afraid of being direct (”even blunt”), which saves time, right? ;-)

    Actually, socializing is about whatever the socializers want it to be about. Disinterested as I am in sports, I’d much rather make small talk about hockey than about the sorts of things that those of us with extra X chromosomes are expected to discuss - for example, the issue of I So Wanted To Eat That Pastry, But I Didn’t Because I’m On The Kraft Dinner Diet And It Would Add Five Pounds Directly To My Thighs. Suddenly, the question of “what to say” becomes a lot more difficult. When I had this conversation (well, close enough) imposed upon me today, I had only a few seconds to decide what to say in response, and my options, as I saw them, were as follows:

    You weigh eighty pounds. This response, while true, is not friendly.

    You know, I just read a study that linked the Kraft Dinner diet with alarmingly high incidences of scurvy. See above. Extraverted dieters want reassurance and cameraderie, or so I’m told; I skipped that chapter of my anthropology text, so I can’t be sure.

    That pastry weighs fifty grams. By the Law of Conservation of Mass, it will not cause you to gain more than fifty grams. Ditto, plus it’s nerdy. I’m trying to make friends here!

    Oh, I KNOW! I have gotten so fat ever since I started this job, but these sweets are so tasty, it’s hard to stick to the six varieties of Kraft Dinner I’m allowed to eat on this diet! I think that this was the correct answer, but I couldn’t even type it without choking on bile.

    I ended up smiling and nodding, and our insecure, extraverted anorexic looked visibly uncomfortable. Maybe she filed a complaint about me! THIS is the sort of thing I’m talking about.

    And as to interruptions… People who would never interrupt someone who was talking on the phone think nothing of breaking in on someone pounding away at a keyboard (or staring blankly at a screen). They just don’t know how irritating it is, but at the same time they’ll say your “don’t bother me now!” response to their interruptions is “unfriendly.” So you need to educate them– in a nice way– that you’re not being unfriendly, but that their interruptions really mess you up.

    This is a good point; thanks. Actually, as I mentioned above, my conversation with my supervisor was actually rather productive, so the education process has already begun. But I like your metaphor.

    One more thing. Although bosses would like employees to believe it, you’re not expected to be on-task every minute of every day. A stop every so often is good for you (avoids things like eyestrain, backache, and carpel-tunnel syndrome) and blanking the mind for a bit can help your concentration later. So don’t begrudge every interruption.

    I’m certainly not on task every hour of the day, and I do take breaks…walking in the park or running errands. However, you capture part of the problem with the quoted paragraph yourself:

    It took me a long time for me to accept that “getting along with others,” although it’s never in the job description, is always useful.

    That is, chit-chatting is now considered to be part of my job - in fact, it is the most taxing part of the job for me - and doing it properly counts as being “on task”. I am entitled, per the contract I signed, to one hour for lunch and two additional fifteen minute breaks per day. I am entitled to spend those as I see fit, provided I am not disrupting anyone else’s work.

    Also,

    engaging in feigned ignorance (”Oh, was there a game yesterday?”)

    I personally know two of the three male commenters who said that they made comments like that, and I can confidently say that for oxeador and mvc, their ignorance is not feigned; it is real. They don’t know or care about sports. If knowing about sports is part of the job, then employees who don’t possess that knowledge should be given paid opportunities to learn about baseball or hockey or what have you - just like they’re paid to undergo other types of training related to the work they do.

    - Moebius Stripper — 2/23/2006 @ 2:42 pm

  23. Hmm, my first reaction was similar to Old Grouchy’s, but based on your response it sounds like you are in tough, so maybe more tactical advice is in order.

    One thing you might consider (cautiously) is the Crazy 8’s school of conversation, in which, instead of dumping your cards, you want to dump anecdotes which are ideally about yourself, but should at least not be too interesting. For example:

    Annoying visitor: blah blah blah blah blah blah 2 of Hearts
    You: Yes I’m sorry to hear about your 2 of Hearts, I remember one time I had this 9 of Hearts….

    Annoying visitor: blah blah blah 6 of clubs blah blah blah blah.
    You: Yeah, what can you do about a 6 of clubs, I’ve always wanted to try a 6 of hearts but I never had time, but I was thinking maybe this summer….

    Real world examples:

    Annoying visitor: blah blah blah did you catch the football game last night?

    You: No, I’m not really a big football fan. I had a stuffed football once when I was a kid, but then my brother lost it on a camping trip up to Lake.. what was that lake called again? it was up in cottage country .. oh well, it doesn’t matter, anyway, who ever heard of a stuffed football…

    (a good generic alternative in these cases is to simple start describing whatever you did instead of watching the game, chances are people aren’t interested).

    note that if you stopped after the first sentence you might have been considered ‘rude’ or ’short’, but by the end of your story, you are simply a bad person to ask about football.

    Example #2:

    Annoying visitor: blah blah blah I So Wanted To Eat That Pastry, But I Didn’t Because I’m On The Kraft Dinner Diet And It Would Add Five Pounds Directly To My Thighs.

    You: Its funny how these diet trends came and go, I was watching Felicity last week, did you ever watch that show, no?, well I was watching it, and one of the people on the show was on a low carb diet and that show was on like, I don’t know, 10 years ago? I wonder if there is some kind of law that diets come and go every 10 years. Do you think that the low carb diet fad 10 years ago was the first one, or do you think there was another one before that one? Or maybe Felicity was just ahead of its time. It really went downhill after the first season. People say its because she cut her hair - you know, Felicity - but I think it’s just standard J.J. Abrams, he starts a good series but then he gets bored and the whole thing falls apart. Look at Lost this season….

    My Mom is a master of the art of constructing and traversing tenuous links between what you *were* talking about and what she is now talking about, but it’s not that hard. Even if you don’t change the topic, but just change the focus to yourself, it should help.

    It won’t work on everybody, but you might be surprised how many people who seem to want to chat forever get bored and move on quickly once the topic becomes you and not them - at least that’s been my experience (I could just be exceptionally uninteresting, in which case, lucky me!). Similarly, if you get a rep. for talking about boring topics, that can put a damper on the number of conversations as well.

    Now, you might think that this strategy is counterproductive because wouldn’t people would prefer someone blunt and concise to someone narcississtic and banal but - and I really can’t explain this one - this is simply not the way it is in the vast majority of cases.

    Maybe it’s like going to a restaurant - if they refuse to serve you then you get pissed off, but if the food is simply average you just don’t bother to come back, but you’re not upset about it.

    - Declan — 2/23/2006 @ 6:29 pm

  24. Declan, I’m laughing because those strategies are right up my alley…in fact, I’ve employed the “segue into something I find tolerable (or even interesting)” tactic before. The example I remember was when I was working at a summer camp with a hundred-odd gifted teenagers, most of whom were American, but 25% or so were from elsewhere. Every now and again people would start talking about politics - American politics - and the tension was palpable, because (differing) opinions were pretty strong. So I’d gently talk about how oh, that was quite interesting, but you know in Canada…and people listened raptly. Few of the people who’d initiated the conversation knew much about Canadian politics, but they were all interested in learning more. Best of all, no one gets worked up over Canadian politics! (Mind you, this was, oh, pre-2002, when we’d all pretty much resigned ourselves to living forever under Chretien’s reign, and, well, God did grant us the serenity to accept the things we (feel we) cannot change ;). Things got different recently.)

    The problem with the above strategy is that there’s a fine line between directing conversation toward something I find more interesting, and coming across as really, transparently manipulative. And - as I’ve said before - I actually do like most of my colleagues. I can be very successfully manipulative when I choose, but I employ that particular superpower only when I’m in the company of people I have zero respect for. I can count the number of such people on the fingers of one hand - none of them work with me.

    (For the record, the dieting woman is someone I expect to see maybe twice a year. And this is the problem with these anonymous complaints to my supervisor - I have no idea if it’s a majority of coworkers who feel this way, or if - and this is possible - it’s just my supervisor himself. He didn’t say. I’ve actually managed, to the delight of the higher-ups, to build a rapport with some of the our more “difficult” clients, so I’m obviously doing something right. And since I have the sort of personality that polarizes people, it’s not that unlikely that the people who didn’t complain about me, actually really appreciate the way I behave. Changing to appease the complainers might actually upset the non-complainers. Ugh.)

    Oh, and an amusing aside on small talk: one of the chit-chat topics that came up quite unexpectedly a few weeks ago was America’s Next Top Model, which fully half of the people in my office - myself included - follow closely. Ironically, of course.

    - Moebius Stripper — 2/23/2006 @ 6:59 pm

  25. So, is ANTM still worth watching, even if you have no one to snark about it with? Not that I enjoyed it or anything . . . I am sure I have much better taste than that. Really.

    - wolfangel — 2/24/2006 @ 11:42 am

  26. Also, have any of the winners actually become top models?

    - wolfangel — 2/24/2006 @ 11:43 am

  27. I think you need to find an R&D department to work in. Mine is full of people who you’d get along with really well: highly intelligent, and they understand how to interface with technical people (which is hardly surprising, since most of them _are_ technical people), and the “small talk” is always about interesting things. (We also do Smalltalk, the programming language. And sometimes even small talk about it.)

    The bit about interruptions is probably the single biggest protocol thing, and one that I actually didn’t consciously realize I (and most people I deal with) did until a lot more recently than I have any excuse for. (Never having had to deal with nontechnical people in much depth is probably my reason, but it’s not much of an excuse.) How effective would it be to just start following the same protocol when you have to interrupt somebody else? (Make sure they’re aware that you’re there, and once they’ve acknowledged you stand and wait until they’ve swapped out what they’re doing before you get started.)

    And, yes, there’s really no need to “feign” ignorance about sports when the real thing is so easy. True story: The Boss once made a comment about rushing home (this was at 8-9ish PM, so if either one of us was in a hurry we’d've been long gone) to catch a [team name] game. So I said, “I don’t follow football”. But apparently the team he named plays basketball, so: “I obviously don’t follow basketball either.”
    (I also once replied to a comment about “the game yesterday” with “I didn’t know Kasparov was playing…”, which got a laugh out of the only other geek at the table at the time. But you have to be careful with that, since if the person/team-playing-obscure-thing you name actually *was* playing you’d have to be prepared to discuss it intelligently.)

    - dave — 2/24/2006 @ 1:58 pm

  28. I was actually fired for something similar to this. The office was the worst rumor-mill I have ever seen, because nobody actually talked to people they had a problem with. The atmosphere was so conflict-averse that nothing ever got resolved, it just festered because the cause never even knew it was there. Eventaully, my performance reviews toward the end went something like this:

    Boss: “We feel that you aren’t perfoming up to the proper standard.”

    Me: “How so? I do my job, and better than most of the other people that work here.”

    Boss: “That’s true…but still, we feel that you don’t have the proper attitude.”

    Me: “Am I mean to people? What am I doing wrong?”

    Boss: “Nothing, nothing [scared now - direct question about my performance = punch in the jaw by her reaction]. Just, see, we feeeeeelllll….blah blah blah.”

    Eventually, they canned me pretty much because their feelings just weren’t in it. It was like a bad marriage.

    - francis — 2/25/2006 @ 1:27 pm

  29. i’ve recently realized one thing that makes me very bad at small talk. i’m not so bad at coming up with things to say that make me seem engaged in the conversation, but the problem is that i have a lot of trouble hiding it when i’m bored with a conversation. my mind wanders, my gaze wanders…even if i can follow the conversation.

    which is not my way of just talking about me, but of pointing out that one source of perception that you’re not friendly might just be your facial expressions and body language in small-talk situations. even if you’re doing it (which it seems like you are), that might not be enough. you have to do it and convincingly enjoy it. which is easier said than done.

    - Polymath — 2/25/2006 @ 9:43 pm

  30. ms, i had an experience very similar to yours when i was out in the working world a few years ago. (now, i’m just a full-time graduate student.) eventually, after receiving what to me seemed somewhat dispirriting advice from my boss on how to comport myself in a more friendly way, i made some fairly dramatic changes to my outward behavior, re-making myself as a more “chatty” and personable person. my new personna didn’t help me do my job any better yet it decidedly did help me to be better liked by others in the office, fundamentally removing the whole “problem” my supervisor had initially approached me about. but i never viewed myself as being genuinely more friendly: i always simply viewed what i was doing as playing a game. somehow, though, the “game” that i played left a bad taste in my mouth that stays with me even now, several years later.

    please don’t construe this anecdote as advice; i just wanted to share my experience with a similar situation.

    - wes — 2/25/2006 @ 10:24 pm

  31. You don’t happen to have dark red hair, glasses, a green jacket, big boots, a monotone voice and a best friend named Jane, do you?

    - Geoff — 2/26/2006 @ 4:54 pm

  32. Chiming in a bit late here…I’ve learned that generally what people want is some kind of empathy or acknowledgement of their experience. Similar to Susan’s advice, generally - if you can frame a question or acknowledge what the other person is saying, they’ll be happy to carry the conversation on their end.

    For instance, to the pastry/Kraft dinner lady, “those pastries do look good, don’t they?”. Thus, you can acknowledge her desire to eat one, without having to tackle the diet part if you don’t want to go there. I might even add “my favorites are the cherry ones.” To the sports, you can always as “did you see the whole game?”, or “do you think they have been doing their best this season?”

    Of course, then you have to be patient and nod cheerfully while they babble away….

    - oliviacw — 2/27/2006 @ 9:32 pm

  33. (Sneaking back in after taking a few days off to go antiquing in Kentucky. Let me tell you about all the different place settings I looked at…! Anyway, herewith some responses to your response– didn’t want you thinking I was indulging in drive-by comments.)

    Re: Chit-Chat (again). There’s a book by Eric Berne called Games People Play” that you might find useful and enjoyable. (He comes up with some amusing labels for the meta-conversations that sometimes go on beneath the surface.) It’s been a while since I’ve read it, but IMO your friend the anorexic was playing a combination of “Ain’t It Awful?” (…that I’m on this diet and couldn’t eat that pastry) and “Aren’t You Proud of Me?” (…that I didn’t eat it). If you determine there’s a game, you’ll have a hint of how to respond: “Oh, I know, isn’t that the way it always is (and that pastry looked so good, too), but you were really strong not to give in!” From your story, your first thought was to provide answers and information, but she only wanted to express her feelings and get reassurance. So yes, your (third, sick-making) choice was probably the right one. (Aside: Some psychologists blame this same dynamic for confusion in men-woman interactions, usually in the form “she’s trying to tell him how she feels, and he responds by trying to fix it.” YMMV!)

    I didn’t intend to speak slightingly of your friends, or their lack of interest in sports. (Not particularly interested here, either. So don’t quiz me about the Stanley Cup.) It just seemed to me that to be unaware of the most-hyped sporting event of the year requires taking active measures far beyond those that any reasonable person would bother with. (Now knowing who played and the final score, that’s something else.) (And Zeno’s Superbowl-Monday remark is reminiscent of ones I used to make when I wanted to irritate the recipient. Which can be fun, if that’s what you want to do…)

    “…someone who calls himself “Old Grouch” offering advice on collegiality…” Well, O.G. is a partially-invented, partially-copied persona: Forbidding enough that people don’t interrupt me with trivia, but approachable enough for those who have real problems (and have already RTFM). Sometimes it works… Guess it takes a “twentysomething curmudgeon” to spot the inconsistency, huh? ;-)

    - Old Grouch — 2/28/2006 @ 6:49 pm

  34. Polymath, whether or not the people you chat with are interesing, I say they are important as you. (Bentham said it’s not if they can think but if can they suffer, which puts into words a simple thing I couldn’t.) I think not putting in the effort to concentrate when you signaled willingness to chat is casually cruel. But I’ve done much worse.
    If you try to be interested, you will get interested, and you will be glad you did, and not just for yourself. It worked for me.

    - Richard Peterson — 3/2/2006 @ 1:35 pm

  35. Oh, I’m dreadful at feigning interest, and on the list of skills I would like to develop, it ranks well below pottery, math, teaching, writing, and washing my hair, though somewhere above sticking a rusty fork in my eye. I can also be a hell of a tactician when I put my mind to it, but most of the time I am completely transparent in my behaviour, which, yes, blunt and abrasive, but I also know that some people appreciate the fact that they don’t ever have to wonder what I really mean.

    Also, new development: the other day I was having lunch with a coworker I’ll call Bubbly Extravert. I work closely with BE, as we share both a supervisor and an area of expertise, and I like and respect her. The topic of my discussion with my supervisor came up, and she - a VERY social person, but one who is also very open and would tell me if she had a problem with my behaviour - was shocked that “some people” have been complaining about things that she just thought of as part of my personality. “Yeah, you’re not as social as me,” she said. “But you do chat with folks, you’re friendly, you’re never rude, and you do your job - well. Who cares if you don’t spend every minute of the day willing to chit-chat?”

    And, yes, confirmation bias, but this is confirmation bias from someone who, personality-wise, is quite different from most of the company I keep outside of working hours - and it’s confirmation bias from someone with the sort of personality that I have been instructed to emulate.

    Seriously, I am now beginning to suspect that my supervisor is the only person in my office who is at all troubled by my behaviour, but thought he’d seem petty if he told me as much - hence the fabrication of “some people”.

    - Moebius Stripper — 3/2/2006 @ 9:29 pm

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