During the final years of completing my bachelor’s degree, I was overly focused on attaining my diploma and not whatever part-time job I held while working toward that milestone. This one-sided focus was driven by my personal laws of conservation, which includes not putting energy into dead ends. In the years leading up to completing my degree, I struggled to pay bills, working entry-level positions or engaging in entrepreneurial pursuits. Worse, as a single parent, I had another person to provide for while making below a living wage. When I finally surrendered to the reality that a college education was a more practical way to increase my income, my primary occupation became acquiring a degree. I had already completed a year of college several years before strapping in to complete my degree. When it came to selecting a part-time job to maintain for my final three years of college, I wasn’t too picky. I just required a certain pay per hour, which wasn’t much without a degree: between $11 and 15/hr. Given the dead-end nature of the type of job that would pay so little, I did not emphasize excelling at the position I landed. I wasn’t getting any younger and neither was my son, so instead of pouring energy and ideas into another low-paying, entry-level job, I concentrated on degree completion. That was my first mistake.
I decided, based on past work experiences, to be a “nice girl”: convivial, even-tempered, and accommodating – I was hired to be a receptionist, after all, not an executive. This is not to say that I was a mean girl in my past jobs. I wanted to play it safe, given that half my previous jobs were some form of tech support or computer repair with minimal social interaction, and the other half of my occupations were entrepreneurial pursuits, wherein I worked alone and didn’t have to concern myself with impressing or socializing with coworkers or a boss. My other baseline of experiences was as a student in high school. I grew up in small towns with white, conservative insular attitudes. Whenever I was assertive while living in those areas, teachers protested for me to calm down, as if I was out of control or being too aggressive. So, I made adjustments. Ultimately, in deciding to lead with the nice girl persona at my part-time college job – my first corporate job (excluding a couple of corporate tech jobs with non-traditional work environments) – the decision was founded in both my high school experiences with authority figures and other students and my experiences as a standalone worker for many years. I had never tried to be the nice girl before, and I admit, I’m not a highly social person by nature; therefore, I had no idea of the consequences, especially in a corporate workplace.
Nice People are Stupid
I’ve heard anecdotally that many people view nice people as stupid, and I’ve been on the receiving end of this belief. About a year and a half into my part-time employment, I often wondered why my coworkers thought they had to explain everyday matters to me, like how to clean the inside of a tall water bottle. One day, a coworker felt the need to explain how to do that simple task, telling me to use one of those sponges on an extended handle, called – wait for it – a bottle cleaner. The fact that he thought he had to explain that to me was insulting, as I’ve raised a child. How can any parent get through the first two years of their baby’s life without using one of those sponges to clean a baby bottle? He must have thought I was a stupid and terrible parent who didn’t know how to clean basic items for a baby. Another coworker once thought it was necessary to explain the difference between a transvestite and transsexual to me (a random topic). These are super simple concepts: the names couldn’t be much more self-explanatory. Even if I couldn’t decipher the difference via simple a breakdown of the prefix and stems of the words, I’m also a past viewer of Logo TV and a once frequent watcher of The Kids in the Hall; moreover, I’ve been alive for more than the past 10 years, so knowing the difference between two ever-growing elements of pop culture and gender identity is not difficult for me to understand. This “nice girl” attitude, involving not speaking my mind as often as I would have liked to — which, admittedly, was not all down to my choice of being nice and convivial, but also down to the fact that I pictured that particular position, being part-time and low-paying, as temporary. Consequently, and unfortunately, I wasn’t assertive, outspoken, and I didn’t try to defend my knowledge in really any area because my position didn’t require it. Bad choice.
But I was most insulted when I was assembled to be a simpleton, someone who “see[s] things as black or white” – which anyone with a college education is familiar with as a euphemism for simple-minded aka dumb. Any college graduate is acquainted with, and probably well practiced with, the following overused boilerplate phrases that are seemingly compulsory during any debate: “not to sound overly simplistic,” “let’s not oversimplify this,” “it’s not that straightforward,” “there’s no hard-and-fast rule,” “it’s not black and white,” etc. These statements not only serve to say, “I’m college educated, and this is a cover-my-ass statement (albeit, often a valid one),” but is also stating the obvious, which in itself is insulting and irritating to the recipient — and also adds nothing.
Oscar Wilde said, “When you assume, you make an ass out of u and me.” But in my experience, assumptions make an ass out of you and only you — the assumer.
So, the assumption was made that I see things as black and white based on a one-sentence summary I created from a page and a half of back and forth dialogue over a yes or no question. Eventually, the person I was summarizing answered one of the two, and that’s what I summarized. But, my manager saw this as error and jumped to a conclusion about my worldview based on that one sentence. He had only a glimmer of information about me personally because I never give away more information about myself than is necessary in any public venue, including my place of work. Many people, especially those who view themselves as intellectuals, an idea cultivated by either their education level or social standing, have an impulse to rank and file others, and the quicker they do that, the smarter they believe they are. So, naturally, I give people as little to grasp on as possible. After over a year of my working at the above company, my manager believed he found his category for me: someone who fails to see complexity in a ostensibly binary situation; someone who sees things as black and white: a simpleton. And he probably thought I was too simple to catch the insult.
This accusation that I’m unable to grasp nuance especially devastated me because I’ve lived in a gray area all my life, having, as I wrote earlier, grown up in close-minded, small towns as a child of a family of non-assimilating recent immigrants and, therefore, being very much unlike what I’m stereotyped to be.
One of my fiercest motivations as a writer is to sufficiently spotlight nuance: variety, gradations, and individuality among otherwise marginalized — and far too often, summarily ranked and filed — groups of people. So when I was mistaken for being a simple thinker — who sees things in black and white — obviously, not literally but figuratively – I really understood that my representation of myself was out of step with who I really am. That misrepresentation, although inadvertent, also tarnished my image with my coworkers, who by then had notably started ignoring my input, even at gatherings outside of work. This was when I learned that despite my desire to skate through this part-time, temporary job with friendly apathy, my coworkers still expected me to be all-in. And having been a person who has worked in relative isolation for years before, I was unfamiliar with how important it was to be as adept when working socially as when working in isolation.
Take a look, It’s in a Book
To transition from inept to adept in social workplaces, I sought out resources to help me remedy the unfortunate situation I created and, hopefully, redeem myself with my coworkers. I found Nice Girls Still Don’t Get the Corner Office, the second installment of Lois P Frankel’s series for career-minded women. I found its advice to be incredibly helpful; although, I was first skeptical of how practical it would be. The book highlights the personally tarnishing traits I was presenting to my coworkers, traits I initially thought would be helpful based on feedback I received from previous social encounters–primarily in my small town and my non-social experience as a mostly isolated worker at my previous jobs. Almost immediately, I began adjusting my behaviors in ways that were noticeably effective. But I knew I couldn’t make drastic changes to how I interacted and spoke to coworkers by shifting my personality on a dime. Instead, I began avoiding behaviors that caused my coworkers to view me as an idiot, such as failing to state when I already knew or understood something. Realistically, it was probably too late to shift the opinions of my coworkers at that company, but, nonetheless, the experience was invaluable, although painful. It revealed to me how unpracticed I was at working within a social environment, especially how terrible I was at coping with a semi-open-floorplan workplace. I now know that regardless of my position, part-time or temporary, possessing some modicum of social competence is worthy of learning and that my opinions are worthy of expression and should be expressed when suitable to avoid being relegated to the category of mentally vacant. For how much my social performance has improved, I recommend Nice Girls Still Don’t Get the Corner Office to anyone who has allowed themselves to become a workplace doormat.
It’s Not All the Nice Girl’s Fault
I won’t blame all the issues I experienced at my first corporate job on my decision to be a nice girl. As stated earlier, I’m a person who spent many years working alone, a person who does not get lonely very often when isolated, someone who performs proficiently when isolated. I wasn’t well practiced in a social working environment. I am not the kind of person who is best suited for a front desk position, which was my position. So, some of the follies I made working in that environment were down to my lack of experience in that setting and not solely my decision to be a nice girl.
How I Approach Social Corporate Environments Now
I’m far more true to my personality type. I’m observant and not overly concerned with presenting a jolly, smiley image. I make sure to display my confidence in the areas in which I was hired to excel in and in any other capacity I can. I don’t let things go unsaid where I can help, as I once did. I’m not so quiet that I appear to be mentally vacant. I’m no longer awkward during company outings and events. My approach now to these corporate social environments is no one way, there’s a balance. You can’t go in too hot or too cold or, even, too warm by being too nice, accommodating and a mat to be walked all over. But you also shouldn’t be what you’re not, or, I should say, misrepresent who you are. The best advice is to consider what qualities about yourself are best to share, what habits to leave at home, and what traits you should perhaps enhance to best interact with your coworkers and excel at your duties. Most importantly, regardless of how long you believe you’ll hold a certain position at a company or what other factors in your life you find more important than excelling at a company, you might be surprised at how the adverse effects of under-representing your abilities, knowledge, and withholding your ideas can linger after leaving a position or company.
When playing the nice girl (or guy), an emphasis on being easy to get along with and non-confrontational can often serve as barriers to asserting your knowledge and defending your ideas. Creating a poor image of yourself can hurt your confidence outside of the job, leave you mulling over your mistakes, and hoping you don’t repeat them elsewhere. Even if you recognize that this misstep resulted from your conscious decision to focus on other things besides your job, you can still slip into believing that you were truly incompetent in some way.
Whether you’re a loner, ex-entrepreneur, or not, we all at some point have to present our knowledge and ideas to others, including at times when we may not feel it’s necessary. Every social situation is an opportunity to let your knowledge shine and save you a night of regrets over things you could and should have said. Most of all, for your confidence going forward, being familiar with how to navigate social situations will prevent people from believing there are gaps in your intelligence and, therefore, abilities.