Write for Advice
I have a problem with my disposition. I don’t know if I can do much about it, but I would love your perspective on how to cope with it.
I am a fairly normal, social, functional person. I have several very close relationships, good rapport with people at work, I am sociable, nice, a hard worker, sometimes too amenable to other people’s views. I am open to other views but when I get on the defensive, I get argumentative. I am insecure about my intelligence, though I know I am intelligent. I can be jealous and kind of spiteful, but I also always feel genuine happiness for people’s success and well-being, and feel genuine sadness at people’s difficulties, and want to help others in need. All in all, I think I’m a normal mix of human qualities.
The problem I’m noticing now that I’ve started work (I graduated this past year) is negotiating the power dynamic with different people, and there’s always a power dynamic with everyone — in the classroom amongst students and teachers, at work, in club meetings, at home. My particular trouble now is at the office. My boss treats me with respect and values my work but I hesitate to contradict her opinions. I’m friendly but very guarded around her, and I suspect she wants me to be more open. It’s a power thing. I’m very conscious of authority and authority figures.
Then there is a colleague, the only one who I’m really friends with at work, who has more experience than I do and is generally really nice but I feel is quite insecure around me, and about himself in general. It shows in his conversational disposition: in nearly every conversation I have with him he criticizes my ideas or thoughts, or tries to disprove them or point out flaws, or temper them, even if the thought, idea or comment wouldn’t normally elicit that kind of response (“I’m a little wary of social media because of state surveillance” will get a biting, weird response about how it doesn’t really matter). I’m not that way, and neither are my friends or people I spend time with so it took me three months to realize he was doing this. I eventually realized that talking to him was grating on my nerves. There’s one way for him to stay nice: if I play to his ego, and let him feel smarter than me. Don’t contradict him, don’t fight him, agree with him. I don’t like doing that, but if I do choose to disagree with him he will. not. back. down. until I really stick it to him. I don’t like arguing over pointless things, and oftentimes his gripes are pointless, so we’re okay for the most part. But he condescends to me constantly, and I often take it because I just don’t know how to respond professionally in the moment to it.
Then there’s our intern. She’s the only employee that I’m technically ‘above’ in the organization. She does basically what we need her to do. I’ve tried to make our relationship as equal as is reasonable: she’s a smart girl who works hard, and I want her to feel like she’s growing and benefiting from this work so I include her input a lot. I call her out on it when I think her work is shoddy, and compliment her when her work is good. I tell my boss when she deserves a shout-out email, and encourage her to follow up on her ideas, and not to conform to my ideas. She’s a self starter, so she does well. The thing with her is that she acts with a kind of irreverence to authority that I don’t have; she is argumentative in a way that is sometimes rude (she said she thought one of my colleagues’ opinions on a serious issue was ‘silly’, when I’m sure she could have found a better way to express her disagreement), I’m pretty sure she once said the way my eyebrows were threaded was weird (to which I laughed because I brought them up myself, but found a little odd) and looks over people’s shoulders at their computer screens. I actually had to tell her that i didn’t like her doing that for her to stop. Short story: she is a little odd, not entirely respectful of authority, but while I don’t appreciate it sometimes, I also like that she’s not afraid or intimidated by positions of authority. I am, and it shows in how restrained/unnatural I am around them. I think she needs a lesson or two in etiquette, but don’t mind her otherwise. I am fine with our relationship.
Where my own approach to people is concerned: I realized when I moved back to my country that people might be insecure about my qualifications. I also knew I had lots to learn, so my approach to every conversation has been to listen and try to make myself amenable to other viewpoints even if I don’t particularly agree.
I know. It sounds bad. It kind of stems from not liking conflict, from needing people to like me, and from not wanting to appear arrogant which I think stems from my parents. In college I realized my parents never praised me for my achievements growing up, thinking it’d go to my head. Just as an example, my mother’s words on my graduation card were ‘don’t forget the oppressed in your success’ (the only words on the card) and when I topped the world in a high school exam once, my dad asked me to find out how many other people had taken the test because his colleagues weren’t impressed. I used to feel terrible when my mom would say I was arrogant when I’d get into fights with her, but I realize now that I never have been, and that she said it because she knew it’d hurt me. It doesn’t anymore, but you can imagine how that kind of childhood and adolescence hurt my confidence. My parents warned me about being too arrogant and didn’t realize the sad fact that I’d never built up the self esteem that arrogance requires. In humbling me, they also hurt me.
Being away from home for four years made me realize this. I’ve been fortunate to be around professors and incredible friends who are similar, as smart and smarter than me; it’s helped me gain confidence even as it has increased my insecurities. I’m comfortable telling my mom, my sisters, my close friends etc. exactly what I think when I’m annoyed or uncomfortable with them (including the graduation card and their treatment of my achievements). And I had a sit-down with said insecure colleague when I felt he was really out of line. I don’t run away from conflict because I don’t like people taking advantage of me, but it’s not in my natural disposition to fight either. My natural instinct when it comes to conflict with someone I’m not reasonably close to is to curl into a ball and hide, and it takes effort fueled by anger to fight that instinct. Dealing with this colleague means being on my defensive, ready to argue back, ready to push back, all the time, and dealing with the fallout after. I don’t have that kind of natural fight in me, and not for a job that I’m not all too enthusiastic about, and that I’m only in for another 9 months before grad school.
I’m in an odd position where I’m not confident in myself, I’m not arrogant, I know I am intelligent and have things to offer, and yet feel powerless among other intelligent people, or figures of authority, or generally people who think they are smart and assert themselves, even if I know I can do better than them. I don’t want people to dislike me, so I don’t disagree with them unless I really disagree with them, most times I just stay quiet instead of dissenting. I don’t want conflict on a daily basis, and yet I don’t want to feel unappreciated or condescended to. I don’t want to live a life of insecurity and yet I can’t seem to shake this disposition, or decide if I should: is it just in my nature? Would it be silly to fight it at this point? How do I push back against condescension, how do I build confidence?
Courage the Cowardly Girl
Dear Courage the Cowardly Girl,
You say, “When I get on the defensive, I get argumentative.” How about doing this: As soon as you realize what you are doing, stop and say, out loud, “Why am I arguing with you?”
This will do several things. It will stop your behavior. It will raise an interesting question. It will change the subject. And if he is original and quick-thinking he may say something surprising.
One interesting thing for him to say would be, “I think you are arguing with me because I’m a stand-in for somebody else in your life that you’re going to spend your whole life arguing with unless you figure out once and for all that what they think doesn’t matter any more because you’ve moved on.”
But maybe he will say, “Duh, I don’t know why you’re arguing with me.” At least you’ve stopped doing what you were doing, and you’ve stopped doing it without pushing him away, and you’ve made yourself vulnerable but not in a manipulative way, though you may appear to be flirtatious.
I wonder if there is a problem with seeming flirtatious. There might be. It’s great when people can be playful in the workplace but when a woman is playful she may seem flirtatious and then she must deal with what men think she means and what they think they should do about what they think she means and since they are often wrong it can get confusing and of course you might say that’s because of the regrettable gender-based power differential and what the hell do you care and why must it always be the woman who manages this host of annoying possibilities, to which I would reply Heck if I know, it certainly isn’t fair but who else is going to manage it?
By the way, are you actually arguing with somebody who isn’t there — your parents, perhaps?
Now before leaving I would like to make a general observation. You seem to feel anxious and unsure of yourself, and you bear some emotional scars from not being treated with ideal kindness by your parents. But you don’t sound anxious or depressed. You just sound like you haven’t figured everything out yet.
That is a common problem.
The problem of not having figured everything out yet will probably persist for your lifetime. Working with others in harmony is an art you practice every day. The more skills you acquire, the better you can do it. But it is an art. Good luck. Keep practicing!