Colleagues who read as “cold”

When I was a teenager, I was intensely shy and withdrawn. People who know me now don’t believe me when I tell them, because I am pretty outgoing. As a young person, I was pretty quiet, I read and studied a lot, and kept to myself quite a bit.

One day, I was on the train coming home from school, and a homeless man (seriously) looked at me and said, “You’ve got to smile, baby. It can’t be all that bad.” It was a weird moment. I wasn’t having a bad day and I wasn’t in a bad mood. The face he saw was just my face.

I realize that I probably read pretty cold to this day. I have gotten “feedback” about this a couple of different times in the workplace, that I can be stiff or that I come across as overly critical. I try to temper my desire for efficiency as much as possible, especially in meetings, when people can see my face and mannerisms. The worst instance of this was during a one-on-one meeting with an author, many years ago, who had delivered his book with complete disregard for our specs, despite the fact that he has worked with us before. He was so proud that he had organized his book so much better than our current system. In actuality, he had created about a week of extra work for me. When I told him that the delivery was incorrect, and he became extremely upset at what he called “my bad mood.” It was very tough. In order to assuage his anger, I ended up telling him that everything was fine, despite the fact that this was not the case and his work would cause a long delay.

Now, I used to think that the people giving me this feedback  on my “coldness” were reaching for something to use as criticism, since I interpret my own behavior as a “let’s get down to business” type of focus that would be helpful to other people who are overburdened and often pressed for time. (I used to love working with my authors in North and South Dakota for this very reason, they didn’t want to waste a single minute of their day, and more than any other people I have ever worked with, just got right down to business.) It seemed to me that not spending 10 minutes on the phone talking about the weather was a good thing. But I think I am probably wrong.

While temping, I worked with someone who reads very much the same way as I think I do. Her manner is reserved, she is tough to impress, she can be a little short. When you don’t work with someone closely, these brusque interactions can be really awkward. I am realizing how important it is to have kindness and a friendly word for everyone you work with. I have started trying to include a personal moment in all my phone calls (like “How was your weekend?” or “I hope you enjoyed the holiday!”) and to smile a lot more than I normally would, especially during meetings and presentations. You catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.

As an aside: I will probably never be the most emotive public speaker. Despite a background as an actor, in grad school, a teacher once told me that I was a frightful public speaker (until it came time for me to facilitate a discussion, at which point I became intensely fun to watch). In that instance, I was not prepared enough to be comfortable, I didn’t “know my lines.” I need to practice this stuff. I want to be a great public speaker. I’d also love to teach someday, so I really need to develop this skill.

But I still think there is a way to be reserved in the workplace without being cold. Maybe I just need to meditate more? That seems to be the solution for everything.

  1. Alycia said:

    I struggle with this exact same problem. I tend to be pretty no nonsense in meetings and such, wanting to use the time efficiently so I can get on with whatever else I need to do, and am also told by strangers on the street that I need to smile, when in fact they are responding to my normal face. Sigh. Though I think you’re right that it’s easier/”better” to try to make an effort to be actively friendly, I very much doubt that this would be an issue if we were men. :/

    • I have never thought of it as a gendered issue, but you really might be right.

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