Thursday, February 15, 2007

I wish I could write back to Dear Abby's correspondents

In today's Dear Abby, readers give advice in reply to a previous letter from a young woman who was receiving unwanted attention from her male colleagues. I really wish I could ask the writer of this one letter for clarification:

Before complaining to the management about sexual harassment as you suggested, "Plain Jane" might take a careful look at herself. Is she dressing inappropriately for the workplace (low neckline, exposed midriff, short skirts)? Does she smile too much?Is there candy on her desk, encouraging co-workers to stop and chat? "Jane" might ask a trusted older working woman friend or relative to look over her wardrobe or share other hints.

I would love to get her to elaborate on the "smiling too much" concept. How much smiling is too much? How do you tell? Personally, when I smile at my co-workers, it's a natural smile - I haven't faked a smile since I worked in customer service. So if your natural smiling in reaction to context has you "smiling too much", how do you deliberately not smile without looking like you're being deliberately mean?


Fran said...

I went back in the archive, to the original letter writer...she says "I am a young woman who has entered the workforce for the first time. I work at a large company that employs very few women...How can I discourage random people from coming by just to say "Hi" and have a conversation all the time? They don't start conversations with all the men who sit near me, so why should they start one with me?

Didn't the letter writer expect to get a lot of attention as one of few women in the company? I think she is overreacting to a typical response. I had a couple college classes where I was one of a handful of men among a large number of women and I got an unusual level attention from those women. I suppose a few of were overcome by my wit and charm and wanted to take me home with them, but I suspect the majority were mostly interested in talking to me because I could offer a perspective their female classmates could not provide.

I think the letter writer must be naive not to have expected this under the circumstances. I think Abby's suggestion that this is sexual harrassment is ridiculous. I think the commenter's suggestion that the writer should consider how she is dressing or whether she is smiling "too much" is ridiculous.

I think what we have here is a "normal" social situation being blown out of proportion. I can understand the letter writer's frustration that the attention is keeping her from getting her work done. I think a supervisor could make a general announcement to keep office interaction from interfering with productivity.

Beyond that, I think the letter writer should count herself lucky. There can be much worse things in an office politics setting than to be on the receiving end of "too much" attention or friendliness.

impudent strumpet said...

I see two possibilities in the original letter:

1. It's a normal social situation to which the letter-writer is unaccustomed.

2. It's the early stages of a subtle insidious sexual harassment that the letter-writer can't quite articulate.

I've been in both situations, and I think if I'd tried to describe them at the time my descriptions would have come out nearly the same. The quasi-harasser was a customer at my first job. He would lean really close to me and order a coffee like it was some kind of conspiracy, us against the world. He would ask me questions about myself, and respond strangely. (For example, after finding out that I was enrolled in the Humanities program: "Oh, then you're not in for a MRS degree!" I think this was the first time I ever talked to him too. And he got like personally offended when he found out I was moving to Toronto). It was really bizarre (and my co-workers noticed how bizarre it was), but the best I could articulate it at the time was "He's talking to me like he's entitled to talk to me," which of course sounds stupid as a complaint from a front-line customer service person. It was only when I read Gift of Fear years later that I learned that this is actually a red flag.

Now I can articulate the problem much better, but that's because I've had it kicking around my head for 8 years and done far more reading on red flags, plus I've gone through extensive training that's intended to help me put thoughts into just the right words. But at the time, shy, nervous, flummoxed, unaccustomed to the workplace, the best way I could verbalize my reaction to this weirdo was very similar to my reaction to my next job, on finding out there was an unexpected and instantly-accepting social aspect to it: "Why is he talking to me like he's my friend?" But the emotions behind the two situations were very different.