Underneath my yellow skin

Unspoken (and ever-changing) norms

Today over at Ask A Manager, in the first post of the day (5 questions type post, which is typically the first post), the first two questions got the most response. Thefirst question was about training a coworker who was hopeless, and the second about a pumping mother who was getting heat from HR. I knew those two questions were going to get the bulk of the comments, and I was not wrong.

However, it was the third one that had the most interesting responses (to me). The question was from someone who worked in fundraising in a room with two big whiteboards. They used the first one for work, but the second one was blank. They put up five pics of their family on that board. Their question was if that was too much. The usually saw the donors offsite. They didn’t want to be unprofessional, but they were in an office that talked freely about family. They (I think it’s a woman, but not 100% sure) were in their thirties, but perceived to be younger. They did not want the pictures to make them appear anything less than professional.

Alison’s reply was measured and thoughtful. She said it was probably fine in that office, but tif the letter writer (LW) really felt uncomfortable, they could pare back. Alison also said that it wouldn’t make the LW look young (that was another part of the concern) in the way photos of partying would. I had no disagreements with Alison’s answer; however, the comments from the commentariat were all over the place.

First thing to note is that I swear the LW mentioned putting up five photos, but I can’t find that referenec. In her answer, Alison says a dozen in too much. I was pretty sure someone in the comments–found it. Someone did mention 5 family photos. And the LW did say threeof their new baby and two of their wedding, but they also mentioned that they ‘filled’ the whiteboard and those seemed like an example so I don’t know how many.

That’s besides the point, though. It jjust seems wild to me that people in the comments were coming down so hard on the LW for the amount of pictures. One went so far as to do the ‘of course I want to hear about people’s families and of course I support people bringing their whole selves to work’–which was followed with the inevitable ‘but’.

It’s amusing to me bceasue I never put up anything personal when I worked in an office and that was considered weird. There have been letters to Alison about that as well. How people find it troubling when the OP didn’t have anything up on their walls. One said they got so many comments, they just brought in a few random things and the comments stopped.

In this case, people were saying that the whiteboard was too much. One pic of the wedding and one pic of the baby was all they could tolerate. Er, appreciate. Or something. There were several comments that it would be unprofessional to have more up. Which befuddled me. Since my brain is weird, I like to know what the exact limits are. So one of each kid and one of the wedding is the upper limit. What about pets? What about friends? What about vacations? Or is there is an upper limit as to total pics? Alison suggested a dozen was too many. Which, yes, but is that the lower limit of the upper limit, if you see my meaning?

I’m not being oppositional or trouble when I ask these questions. Ok, I am, but that’s not the main reason. I truly don’t know the norms that other people seem to grasp implicitly. One pic for each child and one for the wedding is ok. two of each–not ok. If you remarry, would it be ok to have a pic of both weddings? Or only the latter? What if you’re a widow vs. someone who was divorced?

None of this makes sense to me. And, as Alison has said, it’s because business norms are capricious at heart. Many of them are just because we’ve always done it that way and no one has pushed to change it. Such as why can’t people wear shorts at work? If they fall to the knee, then what’s the problem? Women wear skirts that are that short. Or, and this is a very contentious one, apparently, bras. Why does a woman have to wear one at work? Or a non-clothes one, why is microwaving fish considered such a taboo? I get popcorn because it’s so easy to burn it, but I don’t find microwaved fish to be an unpleasant smell as long as it’s not burnt. It’s a strong smell, yes, but so are most meats.

I am not even arguing that we should not have norms, but they should at least make nominal sense. I’m not arguing whether a company has a right ot do somethnig (in America, they can pretty much do whatever they want), but whether they should. Like working in the office, especially since Covid is surging again. I’m not saying that no one should ever be made to go into an office again, but I think we’ve proven that working from home can be feasible in more roles than companies initially allowed.

In the case of the pictures, there was one person who said it depended on the office and that in their office, five photos would not be a big thing. Someone replied to them (in half-agreement) that if the LW liked it, that should be all that mattered. A third person said that if it made them happy and it wasn’t egregious in their office, they should do it.

Other than that, though, the dozen or so other comments were all harshly negative about it. It’s unprofessional; it reflects badly on her as a woman; she should put professional pictures up instead. I’m not necessarily disagreeing with this, but it just reminds me how so much of this shit is unspoken. And, thus, for some people, inaccessible. If everyone ‘just knows’ that’s how it is in the office, then someone who doesn’t know is SOL.

Side note: Huh. Shit out of luck should bet SOOL, but it’s shortened to SOL. Funny.

In the end, it’s probably best to look around the office and see how others handle the situation. If you’re in an environment where people don’t have pictures up and rarely mention their families, then, yeah, don’t do that. But if you’re in an environment where people talk freely about their families and have several pictures up of said faimly, then have at it.

The only thing I ask is to not give the person without anything up any grief. There are plenty of reasons why someone might not want to put up anything personal in their office/cube, and it should not reflect badly on them.


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