These things have been said to me in the workplace:
Once in a work lift, someone asked: “Is there a cure for that? I couldn’t handle looking like you.” (Superficial much?)
Another time, a colleague brought their partner into work and said: “This is Carly. I’ve told you about her before. Do you think she’s as red as you imagined?” (Gobsmacked.)
A colleague answered my phone on my behalf and then told me they couldn’t hear the caller because the headset was caked with Vaseline.
Someone asked me to stop scratching because the sound annoyed them. (I told them that I’m sure it’s more inconvenient for me than it is for them.)
An interviewer told me that they worry if I got the job, my face would be a distraction to the doctors who I’d be selling the company’s service to. (I didn’t get the job.)
Just recently, someone asked, “What did you do to yourself?”…”What did you do to look so marvellous?” (I didn’t know what to say. I couldn’t figure out whether they were really asking if I did something to my face or if I really do look marvellous!)
And a well meaning, unknown colleague sat me down to tell me about a treatment that will cure me. (I need to forward then my no cures, no pyramid selling, no prayers posts! People don’t seem to remember that I’ve lived with this all my life and have a great team of specialists treating me.)
Can I also add, the majority of people I work with in my day job and freelancing are very, very good. Respectful, appropriate, concerned without being intrusive, wonderful to work with. And I got nothing but praise for my Minnie ears in the office.
Lately, when I write or talk about these sorts of intrusive, curious encounters, people tell me that I have to expect being asked questions – and answer them, that I have to be more polite in my responses, and that it’s my role to educate people everywhere I go. (How can I think strangers’ questions are intrusive when I write my blog?, I’ve heard them say!) There’s an expectation that I will take it gracefully. A friend with MS joked to me:
“My name is not Grace and I’m not full of it.”
She’s right. Assertiveness doesn’t make anyone less of a role model.
I understand that way I react will determine how others react. I react politely and positively most of the time. But I also gauge their tone and intent, and respond accordingly. Sometimes it’s not possible to be all sunshine and lollipops and things happen for a reason. Sometimes it’s discrimination. Sometimes it’s upsetting. Sometimes it’s hard to hear that we are put on the earth to educate (what about those people we have to educate? What’s their purpose?). Most of the time I just want to get on with my day rather than be a higher purpose.
My dear friend Michelle said
“People really need to learn just how inappropriate that kind of thing is. When it comes down to it, unless they have the same disorder, in which I will give a little lee way, or they are your treating doctor, they have no business saying anything except “I read your blog and really want to learn more about your condition.” I really begrudge the fact that we are supposed to sit and take it and stuff down how it makes us feel, because the other person is just trying to be nice and would be offended if we respond how we want. Why do we always have to take the higher ground? It gets tiring to have to educate others all the time. It becomes a job on top of everything else.”
So, back to difficult conversations about disability or appearance in the workplace. When someone in a position of power – a senior staff member, a client, an editor, or a person of authority – makes an unsolicited comment about my appearance or condition, or gives me medical advice, it gets awkward for me. I don’t know what to say. I don’t know how assertive I can be. So most of the time I just take it gracefully and smile. Because I think I have to. There’s the code of conduct and values we – the recipient and the deliver of clangers – need to abide by, and then there’s having to see them again in a work context. Most worryingly, there’s the fear that if I do speak up, a future opportunity might be lost. Let the employee with the disability lead he discussion.
I know that some people feel like they know me well through my writing, or my confident, candid and humourous attitude towards Ichthyosis. But it doesn’t make it any easier for either of us when they offer advice or make awkward comments.
Mark, a friend and colleague, gave some wonderful advice.
“I think if people mean well then it is less offensive and less inappropriate as opposed to someone who was not meaning well.
I could also understand that it was the people who mean well that are the hardest to deal with as you don’t want to upset them or hurt them with a response at the same time you want to be able to explain how what they are saying is not considered to be appropriate by yourself.
I feel that People who don’t mean well are easier to respond to as life has a way of preparing a person for negativity. So you either don’t care for that persons feelings and you can lash out. Or you can go to your safe place to weather the storm.
I think your best strength in dealing with these situations (advice I never follow is about to be dished) is to be honest and kind.
Look them in the eye.
Thank them for taking the time out of their life to do something for someone else and to think of someone other than themselves.
And then explain:
“While I know your intentions are good, I feel
Thank the person again (remember eye contact and smile).
Even if the person does not react well. The fact that you reacted well will see itself paid forward the next time that person want to be well meaning.”
Next time this happens I will take Mark’s advice. That or put it back on them. Ask them about their appearance. Comment on their food habits. Stare blankly. Because while they mean well, it’s not always appropriate or comfortable.
And to those who comment on someone’s appearance or disability, or offering them advice, think about whether what you’re about to say to them is polite, intrusive, scientifically proven, awkward or damaging to your relationship. If it’s in the workplace, chances are, this encounter could be very uncomfortable.
How do you deal with awkward conversations in the workplace?