miércoles, agosto 30, 2006

You Look Nice Today

I used to think that complimenting someone was a good thing to do. Then I got a job.

OK, so not all compliments are bad. Perking up a friend or family member is good. Certainly when trying to convert a customer’s money to your money, it doesn’t hurt to remind said customer of their more amazing qualities. And in the dating scene, it can be essential. Flattery gets you underwear.

But workplace complements are apparently out.

One of my earlier jobs was in a steel shop. In that type of environment, kind words are in short supply. You show your respect for someone through jovial disrespect. While it seems counter-intuitive, trading good natured insults fosters camaraderie in some circles, especially in male-dominated groups. In such a setting, strength is an admirable attribute; weakness is, well, a weakness. When you hurl an insult, you communicate to the insultee that you know he is a strong enough person to take the jibe and to the group that you are willing to take on a challenge. By taking the insult in stride, the insultee proves that he possesses that strength. Furthermore, by returning the insult, the insultee demonstrates his willingness to match the challenge. The group may acknowledge the exchange by holding up their clubs, spears, blowtorches, or whatever manly implement is used in the setting, and grunting approvingly.

It was nice to get a “good job” from the foreman, but I took much more satisfaction when he’d say, “glad to see you didn’t f- this one up.”

Direct personal praise can reflect weakness, therefore most personal complements are avoided. For the most part, it depends on what is being praised. Acquisitions and accomplishments are one thing, appearances are another. In other words, it is perfectly fine to say “nice belch” or “nice truck;” “nice pants” is right out.

I figured that this would change when I moved into an office job. Office work is gender-neutral; hence the male-female ratio is not as skewed as it was in the steel shop. Plus there’s a lot less spitting. I figured that in a professional environment, all those manners my family tried to instill in me would finally be of use. After all, guys are guys, but women are supposed to be more like human beings.

Boy was I ever wrong. Insults are out, as I had suspected, but so are compliments. They are not good at all. I had this drilled into me the hard way by a female supervisor who didn’t take too kindly to kindness. I never knew that “you look nice today” is an insult (and not a good natured one). It infers that the person does not like nice on other days. Also, positive statements about a person’s physical appearance – especially if that person has a different X:Y chromosome ratio than your own – indicates that you do not respect that person’s personal qualities, which of course indicates objectification, which of course means sexual harassment and hostile work environments and all that other stuff. Slippery slope, I tell you.

Before I met this supervisor, I had always assumed that one sure-fire way to avoid sexism was to take gender out of the equation altogether – you know, treat everybody the same. I guess I was off in some fantasy dream world where reason applies. Silly me.

It was not at all uncommon for a male in that company to be jokingly asked by his coworkers (male and female alike) if he had an interview on a day where he wore a tie into the office. The dress code was relaxed, therefore ties and suits and such were rarities. One day a female coworker came in wearing a suit skirt. We had a positive working relationship, so it seemed awkward saying nothing. I knew I couldn’t tell her that she looked nice, though, so I decided to act the way I would to any of my male coworkers.

“Interview today?” I asked.

The supervisor overheard. I got a talking to.

Apparently, “real world” equality has nothing to do with treating people equally. I was duly informed that a male (if he is feeling particularly daring) might ask a female coworker “did you do something different with your hair?” In general, though, the only way he can show respect for his female coworkers by treating them as if they have no physical existence whatsoever.

This same woman would fawn all over the young guy that they brought in to run our department a few months later.

Alrighty, then.

Fortunately, I have had better luck with managers in the years since (with one notable exception). As for my peers, I think I have been lucky as well. I try to keep a good friendly-yet-professional rapport with all of my coworkers. I tend to remain tight-lipped until I have identified the men and women with whom I can interact in a more relaxed fashion. Even with them, it seems I am hesitant to repeat any of my prior faux pas-es.

I was waiting for the elevator this morning. The doors opened and out walked one of my coworkers. He was wearing jeans and a black T-shirt with a design on it. Our workplace attire is relaxed, but not that relaxed. He nodded hi; I surprised myself with what I said next.

“Interview today?”