“I’m Sorry You’re Upset” and other ways to patronise a colleague

I’m quite physical with my moods and feelings. I quite literally raise the temperature in a room by two degrees the moment I become irritated with the way a conversation is going. I don’t make unusual levels of effort to contain my facial expressions or moderate my body language, because, well, I’m busy thinking about the thing that’s provoking such a physical reaction, and I figure that it’s all part and parcel of human communication, seeing how someone feels about something, as much as discussing it and fixing it.

However. The problem I have is that, when things around me are difficult or not working, people treat me as if I were the only one experiencing this, as if the actual issue was my emotion, or feeling, or discomfort, rather than the problem itself.

Some of me wonders if this is because I’m a girl who, whilst not quite in manic-pixie-dream-girl land (I’m simply not skinny enough to take the lead in an emo-romantic comedy, for starters), is obviously a bit unusual, quite possibly has silly hair and ‘immature’ clothing on. Perhaps I don’t project ‘stereotypical businesswoman’. I understand that feelings are difficult, that it’s human nature to want to stop someone experiencing negative emotions from doing so, but, especially when we’re in a business situation, rather than a personal one, I’m tired of people asking me if I just need to ‘take a break’ or if I’m ‘a bit tired’.

No. Or perhaps, yes. It doesn’t matter. It isn’t about what I’m actually feeling. It’s about the fact that there is a clear problem, which needs to be fixed. This happens to me a lot, usually when I try to, quietly, professionally, sensibly, fix something. And when I talk about being emotional, I’m not talking about being in floods of tears, being incomprehensible, or being hysterical, simply about being visibly pissed off or even just explaining that you’re uncomfortable with/unable to work amidst a state of affairs.

And this is where it seems to get wider, and how I do or don’t look is maybe not as relevant as I’ve wondered. I’ve talked about this with a number of friends, all of whom are far more professional and experienced than I am, and they’ve all got experiences that match. Times when you’re visibly experiencing an emotion as a result of a problem, and colleagues/bosses choose to focus on your emotional response, rather than the problem itself.

There’s little more irritating than being patted on the head/back/arm and told to go and get a coffee when you genuinely need to address an issue about computer systems or server backup tapes or Jeff in the post room or whatever. That look of concern/understanding/fear that says, “I can see you’re in strife and all I want is to get the hell out of this conversation ASAP” but disregards everything that would actually get them out of that conversation quickly and effectively and, eh, cease the negative emotion! Namely: recognising and resolving the problem.

I’m not sure if this is an exclusively female problem, so don’t let me be reductionist here. I’ve also had this experience of having actual, business problems reduced to my personal emotional problems from both male colleagues, and male and female bosses in the past, so there’s that. I do think, though, that there is a level of perfectly normal emotion in younger women that is treated as needy and out of place, rather than symptomatic of an actual, fixable issue. If I think of male colleagues experiencing frustration with a clear issue, say, infinite misdirected telephone calls, and their equally tangible and emotional responses, it’s laughable to imagine the boss coming up to them and gently placing a hand on their shoulder and asking them if everything’s okay at home.

I’m not saying that there aren’t times at which it’s appropriate to be compassionate or kind in the workplace, and I realise that this sounds rather like I’m complaining about an abundance of that, which is unfortunate, but when you’re trying to do your job properly and the environment lets you down in an obvious, fixable way, the fact that I’ve been driven to a place of emotion does not mean that I am not capable of continuing to be my workplace self and sorting out that problem. Telling me you’re sorry is fine, but I don’t need an apology from someone whose fault it is not; I need an issue fixing. Asking me if I’m okay is a peculiar response to my need to have access to my email.

I’m always wary of talking about anything as common to any group of anyone, but I’m curious as to whether more people understand what I’m talking about.


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