Thursday, January 20, 2011

on astonishment

Let it never be said that I did not try my hardest to not care what others think of me.

I can talk the talk, of course, and say breezily that I don't care, but my walking of the walk is limited at best.  There are a lot of things that others will say about you that you have to attempt to not care about.  Hair?  Not a problem.  Clothing?  Whatever.  Sense of humor?  Meh.  People can say what they want about those things and it doesn't phase me.  As of today, however, I have discovered a chink in my shield of self-awareness and I'm still reeling from the shock.

I've genuinely been enjoying my job at the bookstore.  Granted, the honeymoon phase of this new job has just recently worn off, but I've still been doing my best despite working 40(+) hours a week. (Did I mention I was only hired to be part-time?)  I mean, it's a bookstore!  The customers are lovely, and the people I work with are great.  I'm significantly younger than most of my co-workers, but whatever, right?  We still get along fine....or so I thought.

One of my managers pulled me aside today and began talking to me in a low voice, which is never a good sign.  "Katie," she began, and my inner organs collapsed.  Did I get here on time this morning?  I thought quickly.  Did I screw up a transaction?

"You have great customer service skills--really.  The only problem is that you don't have the same courtesy for the people inside the store."


"Your co-workers.  I've been getting complaints from members of the staff that you're not treating them very well--you're quite abrasive."

Abrasive?!  I thought, horrified.  Images sprang to my mind of sandpaper, bruises, scrapes, fingernails on a chalkboard.  Abrasive is the opposite of good, the opposite of nice.  Abrasive is mean and rough and annoying and unforgiving.  I kept trying to formulate a verbal response or even other thoughts, but the word kept banging around in my head.  My eyes practically popped out of my face trying to keep it contained.

"You need to stop acting like you're their boss.  You're not their superior.  You can't talk to them the way you do--you need to talk to them the nice way you talk to the customers.  Have you heard the way you talk to other employees?  It comes off pretty nasty."

If my lips hadn't been so tightly pressed together, my jaw would've dropped.  I talk to the customers like I would speak to children!  I wanted to say, but the words got lost.  90% of them are over the age of 60 and have no idea what's going on in this store!  (No offense to anyone reading this that might be over the age of 60.  If you found this blog, you are automatically exempt.)

I don't speak to my co-workers that way because it's condescending.  It's insulting their tenure at the store (everyone besides me has been there for years) to treat them like I'm guiding them around and explaining every little thing.  I was under the impression that I spoke to them like equals--never mind the fact that many of my older co-workers constantly treat me like a child in front of customers, interrupting my sales pitch to point out something I "missed" (hadn't gotten to yet) or to interject comments of their own.

"Do you understand?"

I realized my manager was waiting for a response.  I opened my mouth--no words followed.  I tried again and managed to squeak out "I didn't know they felt that way" before I felt my face turning red in complete humiliation.  How long has this been going on?  How long have my co-workers dreaded working with me?  How long have I been that girlI was frantically trying to backpedal through my memories and come up with an example of my supposed abrasiveness.  My train of thought snagged on something from that morning--the phone had been ringing for a good two minutes while I was trying to make a sale, and a co-worker was unoccupied.  I paused to ask her if she could pick up the phone.  Is that considered abrasiveness?!  I was becoming more upset by the second.  At previous jobs, asking a co-worker to answer the phone was letting them know that you wouldn't be able to answer it because you were busy.  That's all.  Suddenly, though, side comments from fellow bookstore employees fell into place in my mental puzzle: A co-worker asking if I was an only child.  A manager asking if my previous job required a lot of interaction with others.  Every thought that my brain formulated buried me deeper in mortification.  What was I doing wrong?

"I don't--" I swallowed hard. "I don't mean to be like that."

I try really hard to be kind to people.  I don't always succeed, of course, but I was completely astonished by the idea that I had failed in my attempts at kindness so consistently and on so many attempts that multiple people had spoken to a manager about my behavior.  By "astonished," of course, I meant "sick to my stomach."  It's rough business discovering that people you thought you got along with actually don't like working with you at all.

I've been called a lot of things, but it's been a long time since I was accused of rudeness, or meanness, and I've certainly never been called nasty.  This was the mirror that I had been missing.  Am I really that way?  Do people see me that way and say nothing out of politeness?  How have I managed to work effectively in previous jobs without ever having this kind of discussion?

I didn't say anything else to my manager.  I should've, but I couldn't...or wouldn't, I'm not sure.  I had to bury myself in the empty children's section for a few minutes before I could face the shame of talking to my co-workers.

If some (or all) of this post seems whiny, it's probably because it is.  I'm still upset about the whole thing.


Anonymous said...

You should be upset! If some grown men and women can't take a 22(?) year old talking to them like an equal, that's their problem. And I can't IMAGINE you ever being "nasty" the way your manager said. You're right, a thick skin is a good thing to have, but holy cow, you have to see these people all the time! This isn't like rude W&L kids who would come and go at Joyful. Ugh. I'm so sorry you are having to deal with this. Screw 'em, I say!

Anonymous said...

Oh, poor Katie! If they had a problem with you, they should've talked to you about it first. Going to a manager not only makes you feel awful (as you said), but also makes the problem appear that much worse to the manager. You are NOT abrasive! As soon as you get over your humiliation (jerks!), you could always talk to all of the fellow employees about it and say something along the lines of what you said here; that you didn't mean to come across that way and you thought you were treating them like equals...That's just low-down, dirty, and mean of them to go behind your back. I worked with you and actually preferred working with you over a lot of the other people in joyful. I did not take offense when you asked me to do something, because it got busy in there and if we didn't communicate then it would have been chaos. I'm sorry they were sneaky.

Kaitlyn said...

I think people really have issues with age. I think they automatically assume that since you're 22 that you're not a competent adult, just some punk kid who needs a job. Also, I think people feel intimidated by how much you've accomplished in your 22 years: you are in a graduate program, married, working like crazy, and so they project this idea that you must be a spoiled, nasty person to make themselves feel better. How is it rude to ask someone to answer the phone when you can't? In fact, I'd say that it's rude of them not to try to help you. And have they tried to befriend you? To make you feel comfortable since you're the new employee? Why is it that people can easily see the faults in others, but don't take the time to realize that maybe they're the ones with the issue? Matthew 7:3.

Katie, you're one of the best people I know. And definitely not on my list of abrasive people. Your manager handled that very poorly, and I'm sorry you had to go through that.