I am not your sister! An observation of behavior in the workplace.

I apologize for the delay in some posts–NaNoWriMo has devoured my soul this month. Also, rant alert.

Recently I have been embroiled in passionate discussions with some men and other women about my experiences working with male peers in the workplace–particularly those in a certain age range older than I am. While I was doing a little digging to find similar experiences with others, I found this horrible article that I REALLY hope is satire (but based on his other posts, can’t possibly be) and this one with the terrible advice to treat everyone you work with like family. And a whole lot of awkwardly conservative blogs advising that women control men’s sexuality, yadda yadda.

So, with my luck in research, I’m not going to be citing a lot. Instead, I’m going to talk about my own experiences. You can agree or disagree with my interpretation of them, but remember that I have personally experienced these and therefore it really happened. I encourage you to share your own experiences, provided they aren’t “well, I’ve only ever experienced perfect gentlemen in the work place, and you’re just prejudiced against male coworkers.” Not true. I have dozens of male coworkers, and I only have this problem with three of them.

First, let me say that I have worked with my brother, with my wife, and with my mother. I have also been known to tell people who volunteer under me that I’ve got so many younger siblings that I am stuck in permanent “big sister” mode–which has been my way of explaining when I worry about what people eat, whether they are drinking too much, etc. However, I have never used that attitude as an excuse to bully people into taking the actions at work that I expect of them. And as I am realizing how frustrating I find this series of events, I am also making the effort to let people figure out their own eating habits without my help.

As some of you may know, I have been in the IT field for about 11 years–for the first 6 of those in a retail capacity, but nonetheless. As I moved into the more professional sector, I have encountered many male figures of nonauthority who seem driven to take it upon themselves to be my “protector.”
And while it might seem nice to have someone big, tall, with a booming voice or whatever rushing over to get you out of sticky situations every time you talk yourself into a corner–that’s not what is actually going on here.

At the moment I have only two key examples of this, but there were three before one of them moved on from the company. All at the same time.

Exhibit A: Individual decides he likes me. So any time anyone mentions my name, he makes sure I know about it. But that also means that he doesn’t want me to move out of the role I am in, he wants to keep his “little sister” around. So he tells me stories about how this person or that person is holding me back, trying to pit me against other coworkers.
Oh, and he always warns me to watch my back if I get into a verbal sparring match with someone. (This is the person who is now gone).

Exhibit B: This one picks fights with me via email to “show me” that I need to learn to be more positive and present more solutions via email, instead of only presenting what won’t work. That would be a totally valid point if it came to me in a private conversation instead of a CC-all fight wherein he ribs me for not having my usual humor.
Oh yeah, he usually tells me he thinks of me as a little sister. But he also sends me emails saying “Really? Why would you say something like that with people CCed?” and then doesn’t realize I am being sarcastic when I tell him “Thanks for your dedication to my career.” He likes to say people are “always” saying that I “always have  negative things to say,” but of course can never provide examples.

Exhibit C: This guy does it to everybody, not just me. I should say, all the women. He pokes and prods. He tries to tickle me. He pretends to punch me in the face and teases me if I flinch. He walks up behind me and rubs my shoulders. He’s constantly coming up with weird pet names. He’d totally be the perfect big brother, except we’re not related and I work with him. Did he ever check in with me to see if I was cool with being touched? Nope. Not even a little.

So here’s where there is a pretty fine line. I’m casual friends with each of these people, and I am also personally a fairly open individual. So it’s not like I am hiding my family life or personality from anyone I work with.
However, what I have found in my own experiences is that this sliding over the line from “colleague I like” to “my little sister” eliminates something that drives the coworker to actually listen when someone like me says “Stop that! I’m really bothered by this thing you are doing!”

It also appears to be a convenient and patriarchal way for these men to try to make me do what they want–because they just want what’s best for me, because they are more experienced and know about these things, because I am raw, unfiltered, loud, etc etc and will make waves or make enemies…

Don’t get me wrong. I like having friends at work. I like chatting about non-work things. I don’t like being told by a peer who has no management clout over me that I’m going to get myself in trouble if I don’t toe his imaginary line.

The last two of these both have daughters, so I suppose I should be grateful that they aren’t treating me like a daughter?

Interestingly, I have foils to these people in the real world who don’t treat me this way. I haven’t been able to determine if it’s the difference in perceived respectability (IE at work I’m one of many, outside of work I have other accomplishments) or if it’s just flat out personality of these people.

So now that the rant half of this is out, and most likely one part babble, let’s talk about the behaviors.

Essentially, a friend would point out “Hey, you might want to consider rephrasing that,” or “Hey, I think a breather is in order.” They would not say “You need to change your behavior and/or do this thing my way because I have your best interests at heart and I know what’s best for you.”

You know what? You don’t know what’s best for me. If it’s not OK for the government or my father or a random stranger to dictate who I am (and it isn’t!), it also isn’t OK for a colleague to take on the role of some kind of protector who can only protect me by telling me what to do. You don’t have my back. You have what you think is a leash. And I am not yours to tame, my friend.

I promised I was done ranting, but I guess that’s not entirely true. Ultimately, my point is that no adult can prove their own value and respectability when being overshadowed by a “big brother” figure who insists on holding their hand whether they want it or not. Get out of the way and let me succeed or fail on my own merit.


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