General Etiquette > All In A Day's Work

Getting scolded because of a conversation I'm trying to shut down

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I have a question regarding interactions with a co worker that I am not sure how to deal with.  I am part of a small team at work.  There are only two women (one other woman and me).  There are about eight men.

I've been a part of the team for almost 4 months and in that time I've been "scolded" three times by the team's head because of this type of interaction with the other woman on the team.  She is very close to the team's head, they've been working together almost as long as I've been alive.   I don't have that relationship with the team lead, so maybe I am just taking things too seriously.

The other woman on the team is a self-proclaimed fashionista. That was one of the first things she told me about herself.  If I come into work in some article of clothing that she hasn't seen or forgot I'd ever worn she'll make a comment about it.  And the comments never seem to be kept to an appropriate time.  She just spits it out as soon as she notices.  I don't mind that she says "Hey, Ayla, I like your shoes, are they new?" when we meet in the break room.  But sometimes it happens when is shouldn't.

For example: today we were about to test a product we'll be using in a demo tomorrow and she came in, saw that we were about to start and then saw that I was wearing something I hadn't worn before.  She said "Hey, Ayla, I like your shoes, are they new?"  I said "Yes, they were a gift" and then wanted to redirect the conversation to something work related.  As I tried to think of something she made some other small comment.  And then we successfully go back on track.  Unfortunately it was too late.  The boss said, very sternly,  "Ladies! Can we focus on this?  And stop talking about shoes, this is important!"

I've never heard him use this tone of voice for anything else.  He seems rather easy going most of the rest of the time.  But, as I've said, I've been caught out on this three times.  I don't even have anything to say in these conversations.  I am generally trying to get back to work related stuff because other than thanking her for her compliments I rarely have anything to say about my clothes.  "Thank you, it was a gift"  and "Thank you, it is one of my favorites" are about the extent of my knowledge on the matter  :) .

The thing is, this woman is the one who warned me when I came on that in our field in this area the workforce can be dominated by WASP men and to be careful about how girly I act.  I'm annoyed that I keep getting scolded in front of the rest of the team whenever she does this at an inopportune time.

Is this something I should ignore/let go?  If not ignoring it, how should I address this? I can't just ignore that she said something, but boss seems to be quicker to scold than I am to redirect.  So I'm not sure what my next step should be.

I think you should completely ignore the clothes related comments from your coworker.  By replying you technically *are* part of the conversation.  Your boss doesn't know that you are planning on shutting it down and redirecting back to work.  It would be nice if he gave you more benefit of the doubt but clearly he is trying to curb this type of conversation altogether.     If you don't want to engage in conversation about your clothes/shoes then don't, the interaction can go something like:

"Oooh I love your dress, did you get it from X store"
"Thanks where is the ABC for XYZ experiment?"     

Say it warmly so you're not too curt, but don't answer the question or address the non work related part, immediately go straight into work talk.  Basically don't say anything that could be seen to encourage that line of conversation at all.  That way your boss won't have anything to be annoyed about.   I can't think of any way to raise it with your boss that won't sound a bit petty to be honest.   I don't think he cares who started it.

Honestly, I think this has been painted as a gender thing because a) there is somewhat of a numbers imbalance, and 2) Senior Woman told you that on your first meeting.  This could  just as easily be about personalities - Senior Woman sounds like she is more prone to "chasing squirrels" than your boss is.  Which is annoying to highly-linear people. I have also seen this dynamic with the opposite genders, and with 2 people of the same gender.

I think this is a "pecking order" thing.  The other woman is annoying him by distracting you, but she is less affected by his comments because she is more senior. Also, in your example, the boss said "Ladies!" Is there some reason you feel that this was directed more at you than at her?

In your place, I would not add anything to the "thank you".  Your comment about being a gift, etc. is really sort of lobbing the conversational "ball" back to her, rather than shutting it down.

Like this:
Her: "Great shoes! Where'd you get them?"
You: "Thanks.  Now, about this item we're demo-ing."

In other words, you can acknowledge the compliment without following her conversational lead.  Or even, if your relationship/interaction with her will permit it, "Later, Jane.  Let's focus on X."  If you have a jokey relationship with her, you could pretend you have a "date" to talk fashion in the breakroom and deflect to that. "Tell you in the breakroom, let's talk about this demo!"

I would not, in your position, try to confront this or bring it up to either Boss or Senior Woman.  Your boss has already given you the feedback (multiple times) that he finds these conversations, however brief, to be unprofessional and inappropriate.  Your job is to modify your behavior accordingly - and let him see that you are taking the direction. Just don't engage the "bait".

First, are you *both* getting scolded?

Try not to take it as directed personally at you if it's not.

--- Quote ---The thing is, this woman is the one who warned me when I came on that in our field in this area the workforce can be dominated by WASP men and to be careful about how girly I act.  I'm annoyed that I keep getting scolded in front of the rest of the team whenever she does this at an inopportune time.

--- End quote ---

I wonder if she's setting you up. Knowingly or unconsciously.

I agree--just say, "Thanks, [work item here]." Not any other detail (they're a gift, no they're not new).

Or, maybe say, "Thanks, but let's not talk about clothes now--boss would like to get the show on the road."

And if boss says, "Ladies, let's not talk about clothes!" say "Thank you" to him gratefully, as if he just rescued you from an awkward conversation.
Another possible tactic is, when boss says "Ladies,"

Just like Toots, I wondered when I first read this if maybe you're being set up to look "less serious" or "less businesslike" somehow.  The other woman already has established her reputation with the boss; could she be intentionally making you look less serious?


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