I was recently told by someone (a man) that sometimes when he communicated with me, he got the impression that he was bothering me or that I did not want to talk to him. In discussing this with a friend (male), he said that he knew a few others (2 men) who could see where the first man was coming from. Then he asked if we hadn't previously discussed the possibility that I might need to "soften up" in the business world. (A conversation that I do not remember.)
Are you kidding me?
First, let's put aside the fact that the man I was communicating with sent me a one word email. Yup, that's it. One. Word. Can you say "cryptic"? I can. Cryptic. Let's also set aside the fact that his email came at 10 a.m. on a SATURDAY. Yes, I am an attorney. No, I do not practice criminal law, therefore I do not take calls from clients, associates, or anyone else business related on the weekends (unless they've eaten dinner in my house, in which case I consider them a friend and it's o.k.) I am also not a nurse or an ER doctor or any other manner of career choice which would lead to a requirement of 24-7 availability. I am also a wife and a mother of two young children who do not always understand the idea of "business" versus "personal" and will do their damnedest to get my attention when I'm on the phone, no matter who I'm talking to. So I tend to try and limit my business calls to normal business hours. This man has no such boundaries in his life and apparently expects all around him to conform to his style.
Second, let's clarify something. We (the man and I) were communicating via email. There was no "tone" or "inflection" or even a "voice." It was words, typed on a small hand-held device, albeit briefly, sent over the waves of communication, to his small, hand-held device. It always amazes me when people forget that they are reading plain words on a machine and try to imply some sort of tone in my writing. I am not in front of them, speaking to them, so how can they possibly know what I am thinking or feeling at the time I am typing it and then read that into my message. It is simply not possible. What made this even more amusing is that when we (the man and I) discussed this situation the following Monday morning, he acknowledged that "we have to be careful with emails". I would say "DUH!" but would that be condescending?
Finally, let's discuss this idea that I need to "soften up." When did it become necessary for me to change who I am because I make men uncomfortable? This is not a new thing, that some men are threatened by strong women. It is also not a new thing that in some businesses, a woman who is tough, takes a stand and refuses to take crap from anyone is viewed as a "bitch" or another 4-letter word that starts with "c" and rhymes with "runt." I hear it myself from some men, when talking about opposing counsel on cases who are women. 9 out of 10 times, they will say that she is a "bitch" or use the other word, then turn to me and say "no offense." Oh, none taken, really.
The simple fact is that I am who I am. (Insert Popeye voice here.) I get along well with clients (both male and female) and some of my clients even go so far as to tell me that they LOVE me or prefer to work with me over the men in the office. As far as I know, I have never had a client complain that I was unapproachable or acted like I did not want to work with them. Until that time, I think I am o.k. sticking with what works for me (and my clients.)
Circling back to men in the office and the man who started this whole conversation - yes, there are times when you contact me that I might seem distracted or frazzled or frustrated or just plain pissed off. First, do not take it personally. Unless I am cursing your name to your face, odds are good that I am distracted by something else, or pissed off at someone else. You (men) tend to operate in black and white. Women (at least the ones I know well), as a general rule tend to operate in several shades of gray (or pink, purple or red, you pick.) Nothing is ever as cut and dry as you would like.
Perhaps when you asked me to look at that document, I just got off the phone from a fifteen minute conversation with a court clerk that accomplished nothing. Perhaps just as you walked into my office, my computer crashed and I lost an hour's worth of work. Maybe I was up all night with a sick toddler and am trying to function on a few hours of sleep. To quote a familiar "chick flick" - "Maybe she's praying because the elastic's shot in her pantyhose." You just never know what it is that set us off.
And you cannot have it both ways. As men, "women problems" freak you out, so you do not want to know what is bothering us. You expect us to leave our personal lives (and female emotions) at home. Womens' tears are your kryptonite and you do not want breakdowns or screaming or *gasp* PMS in the workplace. You (men) expect us to be professional and not to come to work covered in spit up or smelling like yesterday's dirty diapers. We come to work with debilitating headaches and cramps and yet we still function. These are the things that you do not want to (or can't) see. In order to do that, we must become tough as nails and leave the "soft" stuff at home.
It would seem then, that the choice is ultimately up to you. If you prefer that I "soften up," I'm sure I can do that. But with that softening comes a reduction in productivity for at least one week each month when I've got cramps and a headache that could drop a rhino in its tracks. I will be reduced to tears at least once a week when I get a run in my stockings or break a nail, or any other trite thing happens, just because my hormones are out of whack. I will smile sweetly when you walk into my office, but the walls will be covered with my babies' artwork (scribbles in bright colors) and my suit will probably be wrinkled and have some strange substance stuck on it from the little one's breakfast. My hair may not be brushed either, or it will be strangely styled because I played "salon" with my 6 year old.
Or, I can come to work looking "together" and keeping it all inside. You won't know when I have a headache, other than when you look closely and see the pain behind my eyes. You won't be troubled when I have PMS, although my responses to your questions might be a little shorter or snappier than usual. I will continue to get my work done in a professional manner and won't bore you with the details of the latest flu bug to circle the elementary school. You will have an employee/associate/partner who is businesslike in manner and who gets the work done (and done well) and who the clients like.
And I won't cry in front of you at the office. Probably.