Wednesday, January 10, 2007


I had a weird thing happen today.

Everything was pretty normal at first. I was sitting in my office working, minding my own business.

A friend came bursting into my office in tears, and proceeded to tell me a story that I can't tell here.

It's not like this never happens, but for some reason today I was really caught off-guard.

I tried to comfort her the best I could and promised I would try to help as much as I can.

But in the course of her story, I found out something someone else said about me.

Suffice it to say, it's not so much what was said - I don't really care what people say about me - but that it was said by someone with whom I thought I had a warm and mutually respectful relationship. Someone whom I thought was pretty straightforward and would actually give me useful feedback, even negative feedback if they had any.

I would like to confront this person, but I don't want to let on that I know what was said or who told me.

So I'm tossing around options. I'd rather get no information than have it blow up into a huge fight, of course, but I'm also tempted to just get everything out in the open.

Either way, I don't want to spend a lot of time building up to my point - I've got too many other things to do.

Do I say

a) "Do you have something you want to say to me?"

The idea being that if this person has as much spine as I thought, what was said will be repeated.

b) "What do you think about (thing related to what was said about me)?"

The idea being that this would give a more casual segue and maybe give me more context for what was said, to interpret whether it was really meant the way I heard it.

c) "If someone held a gun to your head and said you had to describe all my good and bad professional qualities, what would you say? And said you had to give specific examples. "

Again just to see if this person takes the bait. This would also provide more context. Or maybe I just had the wrong impression about our relationship.

Meanwhile I think my New Year's resolution (arrived at just this moment) is to not care if people at work like me, so long as they don't get in my way.

I've been pretty lucky thus far. Where I went to grad school, rumors were the currency of the day. I was able to ignore it because I heard as much dirt on everyone else as I could possibly ever need, where leverage was an issue.

I do not, by the way, recommend this. I hate gossip. Somehow, perhaps because I enjoy and am good at listening to other people's problems, I became the unwilling recipient of far too much information. People who are upset tend not to filter. At all.

But as a postdoc, although I've heard lots of other people's troubles, I haven't heard much gossip about me. I've either been unaware, or able to ignore it (gossip from people I never liked or respected doesn't bother me one bit).

I would rather not be aware, but there you have it.

Is it ever possible to work with people who actually just mind their own business and do their job? I have to assume that this is a problem everywhere, so I should just get used to it.

I still wish I could work alone most of the time.

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At 8:43 PM, Anonymous TW Andrews said...

Since option 'a' is just going to leave this person wondering what the hell you're talking about and options 'b' and 'c' are about as subtle as a baseball bat in the face, I'm going to suggest option 'd': Accept the fact that no one, even (perhaps especially) someone with whom you have a "warm and mutually respectful relationship" is going to give you the unvarnished truth 100% of the time. Part of having a good relationship with people is trusting their judgement about whether or not a negative personal trait is a big enough problem that it needs to be mentioned (with the hope that you correct it), or not mentioned and just dealt with.

At 9:07 PM, Blogger carolina wolverine said...

Hmm...I vote for (b). It seems to me like you'd still have to give an explanation for (c), or at least some kind of segue into it, like "I'm trying to make a New Year's resolution, and...". That's a pretty lame intro, actually, but you see what I mean.

At 10:44 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I agree with your idea of ignoring it if it does not get in your way. However, if what this person is saying behind your back is going to create an adverse (however low or high) opinion about you in the minds of people who may otherwise not think poorly (or even know you) of you, then you will have to bring it up.....just walk up to the person...tell them you want to know something about what you heard (you dont have to reveal the identitiy of this person who passed on the info) and ask them what's up with that...tell them you think (thought) highly about them and value their opinion and that you would like to clear it up...sounds simple...but needs to be executed with finesse. The embarassment, if any, will be short lived, and who knows you may get along with that person (personally, I don't care if you get along with that person...I think one of the keys to success cutting across professions is acting...don't give away your true that smiling budha..just get along apolitical or at least come across as being so)

At 3:34 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Are there government research posts in your field? That might be an option.

At 5:30 AM, Blogger Lossy said...

Are you sure that what you heard from your friend can be taken as 100% accurate?

Your friend didn't, say, paraphrase the original comments badly because of being in tears at the time?

I would bear in mind that the most charitable explanation of what you ended up hearing has a possibility of being true, and not just barge in to confront the original commenter, only to find out that that's not what was said and you've just done more damage to what you thought was a "warm and mutually respectful relationship".

At 6:45 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

FYI, for some reason the comment link for your previous post doesn't work. So I'll address it here. In a nutshell, you can't have your cake and eat it too. You want to test your own hypotheses, yet you are stuck in a dead end postdoc. If you leave and go to industry, you will not have the same freedom you have now, therefore you resist that option. Would it be the end of the world to go to a company for a couple of years and just see how it goes?? You never know how things will turn out, until you try. Just because you have friends who may say industry is bad, doesn't mean it will be. And you might actually make some contacts there that help you make it back into the academic world. At the very least, you will be doing something new, and learning things, and making new friends and business contacts. On the other hand, you can stay where you are, and gut it out. You seem miserable with that, so my sense is you should make a change. The only other thing I can think of for you is to try to become a teacher. You like mentoring people, and helping, I can tell you from my limited teaching experience that this aspect of it is pretty cool.

So, to put it bluntly, shit or get off the pot. If you want to come up with a "creative" alternative career, that's fine, but just be aware that anything creative is probably going to entail more school/training. I'd say your best bet is to use your years of education and experience in a new way, rather than start over from scratch.

At 7:21 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is a trap! First of all, it would betray the trust of this person who came to dump all their problems on you. Second, if that person with whom you thought you had a good relationship really was a good colleague, s/he'd have come to you directly. Third, the first person was in a funk at the time and maybe (maybe) subconsciously wanted you to feel bad too. So, my advice is to not do anything with this information just yet. Don't use this information.


At 8:45 AM, Anonymous Nicole said...

I would only bring it up if this person affects your reference letters in any way. If they do, then it's best to confront them. Otherwise, I personally would let it go.

By the way, the comments I leave take a very long time to be posted, and some never appear at all. What's up with that?

At 9:57 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am sooooo glad you brought up this topic. I HATE gossip and try to stay out of that kind of activity. My only problem with it is when my *boss* starts believing negative gossip about me, because he/she is a total moron and doesn't know how to filter that crap out of their perspective of me as a worker. I've even brought up the topic of lab gossip with my current PI more than once, hoping to drop hints that it's going on and includes really negative gossip about him/her as a PI to other people (including other PIs) in other labs, but it seems not to have worked.

Otherwise, I am a very quiet individual (unusual for a female, I know : ) ). So, when other, more enthusiastic talkers start gossiping about me, I not only don't know about it until much later because I don't talk about much outside of science at work, but I also tend not to want to waste my time arguing over stupid things like that.

A big source of comfort is knowing that only stupid people believe gossip without coming to their own conclusions about the people being gossiped about.

If I were you, I'd ignore the gossip that got back to you. It'll fade away with time, or if it's a big enough issue, then it'll be brought to your attention by someone who will want you to address it in front of them. But, if people talk about you behind your back in a negative way, maybe you can also find some more comfort in the knowledge that they are wasting their energy on you and not on things that may help them to get ahead. So, let them talk - it makes them look bad and wastes their time and energy. It only makes you look better if you take the "high road" and ignore it.

At 11:38 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wow. Do you hear yourself talking/gossiping? You claim you hate gossip but you constantly write about how you hate your co-workers. You put them down all the time and call them all incompetent misogynistic pigs. When you have these feelings about them it is sure to come across in the way you interact with them. Your feelings are probably very obvious to others and they treat you accordingly.

You are never going to love every person that works with you. The skill comes in being able to get positive interactions out of the situation and to get along.

Hopefully your horse isn't too high and you can still hop off.

At 12:07 PM, Blogger Lou said...

I'm wondering, is this "warm and mutually respectful relationship" a work thing or a personal thing? If that happened to me, and the person who said it was someone who I only interact at work (like, I wouldn't go out with drinks in a pub on a Saturday night, for example), then I probably wouldn't confront - I'll keep a mental note about that person.
Also, it depends on whether the other party and you can have a fight/bust up, then just make up and live along - kinda like the "two porcupine in the cold" scenario. If you have to work and you have to cooperate, then you are better off getting along.

If this is the case, and in your particular case where you don't want to disclose the source, maybe it's best to let it lie for a while.

If that person is a more personal friend, that's different. S/he will be struck off my "best friends" list, and I would be very wary being close to that person...

I don't know what was said, but I say things about people all the time. They might sound like insults, but it's usually just an observation I make (e.g. "she's a careful worker but anal" or "she's great at a party but sucks mightily in the lab"). Maybe the person didn't mean that much by it?

At 1:38 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

This type of thing rests so fundamentally on so many variables... what was said, your relation to who said it, your relation to the supposed 'offender', and what this might do to your relationship.

First of all, keep in mind this is coming second hand, so you don't know for sure what got said. Secondly, only confront if: 1. the 'offender' is a personal friend, and/or 2. the 'offender' is tarnishing your reputation or stands to cause you trouble with whatever it was that was revealed to you.

Only love or defense of livelihood are real reasons to confront coworkers.

If you do end up feeling that you need to confront, I would just take a very low-key but direct approach. Make sure you are not feeling emotional, find a time when the person is not distracted but will not be expecting you, and then just say, "look, ordinarily I wouldn't address something like this, but there is word going around that you feel X about Y and this bothers me for Z reason. I didn't want to jump to any conclusions so I wanted to see you personally about whether this was true and if you had any comment you wanted to make."

Confrontation always sucks, and generally leads to your relationship being worse. An alternative might be to get a third party who knows both of you to try to feel it out with the 'offender'.

The fact is, everyone talks about everyone, and we've all said hurtful things and yet then feel surprised when we get a whiff of what's said about us. I always assume that in the same way that I know more than I should about others, they probably know more than they should about me.

Choose carefully on this one.

Does it hurt because it's true? Or because it's not true? Or because you expected more compassion from this person?

At 9:37 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

AFGS here. I noticed something kind of funny... About 1/3 of your readers who filled out your poll on the right sidebar there said they were going to be postdocs soon. Then I added up the people who said yes they are currently a postdoc, and that is roughly another 1/3. The remaining 1/3 are of course NOT postdocs...either done with their postdoc or not going there. I thought it was a little weird how the numbers were so in line with 1/3, 1/3, and 1/3 because I was assuming you'd be read by an unequal proportion of people who are in academia.

At 9:09 AM, Anonymous Sarah Philips said...

No matter who I talk with - no matter where they work, everyone seems to have to put up with the "inter office politics" and people who just don't seem to have any emotional intelligence whatsoever. The best thing to do is stay true to yourself and treat people in a respectful manner - all while being assertive while defending your boundries.

At 6:39 PM, Blogger Dr. O. said...

A reply to the snarky "anonymous" who wandered by: maybe this is where Ms. PhD goes to get feedback and advice, or else just some bloody sympathy, without it risking her tenure bid? Maybe she's human and gets nervous when social relationships that are critical to her position are suddenly exposed as tenuous?

Oh. Wait. She violated the First Rule of Being a Woman in Academia: "Thou Shalt Not Bitch, i.e. Say Even One Negative Word About Anyone or Anything." Whoopsie. Thank god you pointed that out. For a minute there, Ms. PhD was teetering on strident.

*headdesk* *wanders off muttering to self about anonymous asshat coward snarkers, considers whether current headcold is making her unusually touchy in response*


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