My at-work/client-facing persona is a friendly one. I’m typically all smiles, very positive and conversational. I like my work to feel like I’m building close relationships. Sometimes, though, you get a tough cookie. As I mentioned in my #metoo post, there is a segment of the male population that talks over and interrupts women, and it can make your work life pretty infuriating. It happens often enough that I have a system on how I deal with it.
Naturally, I have a few disclaimers. No, of course not all the men I work with are like this. In fact, I was careful to select a workplace for a day job that supports women, and I rarely come across a man at work that is anything less than a supportive peer. And when you own your own business, you get a lot of control over who you work with, so that’s a big help. But you don’t get full control over everyone you talk to, and it happens outside of work, too.
I also never approach a conversation starting out in defensive mode. I give everyone a chance to be friendly first, and if they fail, then I deactivate my nice circuit, because a woman’s desire to be liked is a liability when it is prioritized over our own self-worth. So, just as I have with the rest of this blog, I’m sharing what has worked for me in case It works for you.
1. Stop Smiling. Women generally use smiling as a tool, in many ways. We use it as a sweetener when we have to say something uncomfortable or negative. We use it as a defense mechanism to attempt to diffuse harassment. I feel it softens what we’re saying when, sometimes, we need to let our words land hard. When I get angry (and I’m not in casual company, because when I’m at home, all bets are off), I stop smiling, and I’ve been told that my withering stare has a devastating effect.
For example, I was out with a sales partner once visiting a prospective client. The prospect was rude and inattentive, and nothing annoys me more than when I feel like my time is being wasted. My smile disappeared from my face immediately, and the tone at the table changed. The three men sitting around me suddenly sat up a little straighter. When we left, my partner commented, “I could tell you were really mad!” The funny thing is, I never raised my voice, or made an angry comment. I didn’t have to. I just stopped smiling.
This seems to be very effective in a world where women tend to be punished for displaying anger in scenarios where men would be considered serious or decisive. It reminds me of how women are constantly told to “Smile!” when they’re just walking on the street with no expression. Your smile is a signal that everything is cool, and in the right situation, withdrawing it helps me take back control.
2. Elevated Vocabulary. I don’t like to toss words around just to be superior to others (although I do it accidentally from time to time). When it’s time for me to assert myself in a meeting I like to deploy some five-dollar words or statistics that demonstrate that I’m not just there to listen. I have value to add that deserves to be heard. It also has the added benefit of quieting some meathead who may pause to rack their brain for what “obfuscate” means while I get a chance to speak. Notice I said $5 words, and not $10 words - there’s no way to be smooth about trying to shoehorn a word like “eleemosynary” into a conversation.
(N.B. Subscribers, you're going to get a link to my secret weapon in keeping my vocabulary tight, and I assure you, it isn't some pedantic word of the day email. That nonsense insults us all.)
3. Silence. This has to be used carefully, because silence in a situation where there are many competing voices means you will be totally ignored and no one will remember you. But in a small-group situation, it can be impactful. Humans hate silence, and they react in strange ways to it.
I used it once when, with a client, I sat down at his desk to begin our discussion, and he turned to his computer. He asked me a question, as if I were going to hold conversation with his ear, but I did not answer. I sat there, no smile, and was silent. He turned to me with a puzzled look on his face, and I said, “I wanted to make sure you were ready for me.” He got the picture, and turned away from his computer. This brings me to my last tactic.
4. Uncomfortable Directness. There are some people, and I think women do this a lot, who soften criticism as much as possible when delivering it. In many cases, I do believe that if you can deliver bad news in a soft way it can help the receiver process it, but if your message is lost, it is ineffective. This is why I cut directly to the point when in these scenarios. I want to make the other person squirm. I don’t want to humiliate them - that’s not kind - but I want to be clear.
I use this most often when I get called my least favorite word to be called at work: “honey”. If you work with me, let me give you a piece of advice. Do not. Under any circumstances. Call me honey. I am not your daughter, and I am not your wife. If you do, I will stop smiling, take a pregnant pause of icy silence, look you in the eye and say, “I respond to Michelle,” and that will be your final warning.
That's my advice, but here's one last disclaimer - I can't say this advice will certainly work for queer women or women of color. Plenty of statistics and anecdotal evidence from women themselves will tell you that for every ounce of unfair treatment I've described, they experience it in a magnified fashion. What works for me won't work for everyone, but I feel that I've struck a balance. What would be even better would be a world where we could all just go to work and be judged on the merits of our efforts.
Okay, now I’d like to hear from you! How do you deal with this kind of behavior at work? Let me know in the comments.