One of my pet peeves is when people excuse abuse by citing culture. “That’s part of the culture” is valid for many tihngs, but not when it comes to abusing another person. I was reading a post on Ask A Manager with the question from a reader asking if they could thrive under a hypercritical manager. My immediate thought without reading the post was, “Yeah, but only if it’s for a evry short amount of time and you have a very thick skin.”
Then I read the post and became more concerned with each paragraph. The ltetter writer (LW) started by saying they were in a competitive technical field and had always been great at it. Until this boss, whom they call Jane. LW said that they knew Jane was just trying to coach them, but then went on to say that Jane made them feel like a complete failure. Jane said their work was 95% good, but LW felt as if 95% of the feedback from Jane was frustrated, critical, and accusatory.
This was when I started to get concerned. I mean, I was already biased in the beginning, but the first few paragrpahs did not paint a pretty picture. “She doesn’t really give positive feedback” cemented it for me. I didn’t actually have to read any more to know that the boss was a lost cause. It got worse–so much worse.
LW’s colleagues told LW that they would never work with Jane and that she made them want to pull their hair out. She’s made many people cry, including the LW. It broke my heart that the LW was trying so hard to be fair to their boss, who was crushing them under her foot. The ysaid they had lost their motivation, their creative spark, and was their self-worth.
I related so hard to this because of my parents. I will get to that in a second. There was one comment about how it might be cultural difference and blah, blah, blah. Obviosuly, I did not agree with this comment. The person claimed they worked with people from 50 different cultures and that French people, for example, were like tihs, more interested in pointing out errors. Someone who acutally worked in France said, no, they were blunt, yes, but not cruel. Another person working in France said that they had a boss who was like this and she got fired.
And it’s interesting that the person making the initial comment of that particular thread was not French (they were from New York). It’s a form of soft bigotry that is annoying as hell. When someone who is not part of a culture broadly stereotypes that culture and ignores evidence to the contrary–even when it’s a purportedly positive stereotype–it’s still bigotry.
Side note: It’s similar to ow Asian people used to be called the model minority and praised for being smart, quiet, and obedient. By the way, there was a time when people used to gush about how smart Asians were. I used to snap, “That’s because oll the stupid ones are in Asia!” Which I would not say now because it’s cruel, but my point was that for East Asians who came here in the 60s, it was for grad school. It caused a brain drain back in Asia ,and many of them didn’t go back.
Positive stereotypes hurt, too, because it denies people their personhood. It turns people into carboard cutouts rather than let them be actual people. Asian
Anyway. Something I used to say on the regular–being a minority and an asshole aren’t mutually exclusive. When I was getting my MA for Writing & Consciousness in San Francisco, I wrote a short story about a serial killer who was a Taiwanese American woman. It was really graphic and she was horrible. My supervisor said I should change her race because poeple would get fixated on that. I refused because I felt it was my duty to present minorities in all light. I had no interest in pepetuating the stereotype that Asian people couldn’t be, well, evil.
My point is taht there are assholes in every culture. In the case of the letter writer, if several people have been reduced to tears by Jane, then it’s pretty clear that she is the issue. I think part of the problem is that in our society, people are really uncomfortable admitting that some people are just jerks. And some people can deal with jerks, but it always comes at a cost. The people in the comments who said they were able to deal with it had many qualifiers (including, importantly, that the person they had done it with was nowhere near as bad as Jane and the commenter didn’t have to work with them that often/wasn’t their report), which rendered the comparisons useless.
Other people said earnestly that the LW should try to talk openly with Jane about how she (Jane) was negatively affecting the LW. Which is not a good idea. Someone who is like Jane isn’t going to change, at least not in a short amount of time, and if she actually takes glee in making people cry, then she’ll be even harder on the LW.
This is one of the difficulties in having an experience that is so far out of the norm–people can’t grasp how far out of the norm it is. Someone else in the comments said this behavior wasn’t abuse–it was just being a jerk. And that the LW should not let a jerk chase them away from a job they loved. Totally ignoring the part about the LW being in therapy (implying that it’s at least in part to deal with the job situation) and is feeling hopeless.
This is another attitude that I hate–the ‘rub some dirt in it and walk it off’ attitude. Putting aside the question of why Jane is the way she is and whether it’s *eye roll* cultural, it doesn’t matter. The LW is suffering terribly from it and try harder to not let it affect you is a bullshit, facile, and damaging answer.
Alison’s resonse was spot-on. This is abuse and what would the LW do if they had a friend describe being in a relationship that made them feel the way the LW described feeling. What would the LW’s respons ebe? That they should try to grow from the criticism or that they should not buy into the framing and at some point, to get away. Alison told the LW that the danger in trying to win Jane’s acceptance is that the LW will be warped by the toxicity and come to expect this is how a workplace should be.
The answer was a strong one, and several commenters were moved by it. One said it was probably Alison’s best resonse ever. Which was interesting because it was a great answer, but it was also a common sense answer that I thought was fairly obvious. But, again, abuse is so horrific that it warps you the longer you’re in it. At some point, you start accepting that it’s as it should be and you are the broken one. That’s why it’s important to get away as soon as you can. Otherwise, it’ll take longer to get over it.