Brassy or sassy?

Atalanta,

My whole life, people have mentioned to me that, even though they are sure it is unintentional, it sounds as though I am talking down to them. I always apologize and thank them for telling me before asking what I could do to change the way I talk so they don’t feel that way. They usually say, “Just be aware of it.” Unfortunately, after ten years of “being aware” and trying really hard not to “talk down” to anyone, it appears that I am still having the same problem. Today, someone I trust and respect told me that several people have complained to her about my manner. I am a very honest, “cut to the chase” kind of person, but I always try my hardest to be polite and considerate. I’m also a generally happy person, which sometimes seems like a double-edged sword. On the one hand, people usually like being around happy people (as opposed to sad people). On the other, it seems to annoy people that I’m not as grouchy as everyone around me.

Anyway, back to the point: I DO NOT intentionally talk down to people. I even make the effort to be as polite as possible. But I’m still offending people. The person kind enough to come to me today to share her thoughts and concerns spent some time with me trying to figure out where I go wrong and a few possible solutions. She pointed out that I tend to be solution-oriented and that will sometimes influence a response from me that comes across as sarcastic. Example: Someone tells me a problem. I offer the solution that seems simplest to me. They think I’m calling them stupid.

I’ve noticed that, in meetings, people tend to discuss problems and complaints for hours at a time before anyone offers possible solutions. Sometimes, they even complain that we discuss problems too long before coming up with a solution. So, I decided, years ago, that I would be solution-oriented and changed the way I think and my general approach to life. I try to go into every situation with the mindset that there is something everyone wants out of the next minute. What do they want and what can I offer? Sometimes, I realize that they’re not sure about what they want or there’s nothing for me to do and that’s okay too. I simply move on.

It was suggested that, instead of jumping to solve problems and work efficiently, it would be worth my while to respond by repeating back to everyone what they say in a way that shows I was listening and, if for some reason, I don’t know how else to respond, I could ask them what they’d like from me. The weird thing is that this sounds even worse to me. I’m worried that they’ll look at me like I can’t possibly be serious, like I’m being sarcastic or talking down to them (precisely the OPPOSITE of what I’m trying to convey).

In everyday life, I’m still offending and insulting people unintentionally. I try harder every time someone brings it to my attention, but I can’t seem to get the hang of it. I’m starting to believe that it’s just part of who I am. I genuinely don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings, but here I am, with tears pouring like rivers that I don’t have control over it. I really don’t know what else I can do.

I know you are a kindhearted, sensitive and generous person. So we’re not talking about reality here, we’re looking at perception. And I have to say something a little challenging: I know what these critics mean. You do sometimes can have a condescending air about you. I noticed it more before I knew as well, which tells me that it’s just a question of getting to know you. That’s a good thing overall, but unfortunately in work and other situations, there’s not that luxury of time and attention.Please take all this with affection and sincere desire to help you see some alternate viewpoints.

I think the crux of the problem is a kind of overcompensation. Let me highlight this point:

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I always try my hardest to be polite and considerate. … Anyway, back to the point: I DO NOT intentionally talk down to people. I even make the effort to be as polite as possible.

I think you might be making too much effort to be nice, which counterproductively reads as making a huge effort not to be mean. In conversation, I’ve seen you take a deep breath and pause and then give a broad smile. You may mean absolutely nothing by it, but I can see how it would combine to create a question in the other person’s mind: What is she really thinking that she just swallowed? What’s she hiding?

Here’s another possibility:

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I’m also a generally happy person, which sometimes seems like a double-edged sword. On the one hand, people usually like being around happy people (as opposed to sad people). On the other, it seems to annoy people that I’m not as grouchy as everyone around me.

Again, maybe people think you’re hiding something. It’s their own problem if they can’t believe you’re basically happy and cheerful and optimistic and think you’re being “fake”. (thanks for nothing, reality TV shows that have created this impression that being cheerful and civil is something to deplore and criticize.) So this makes them suspicious, and people being the paranoid, self-conscious narcissists we are, they might project their own negativity onto you, allowing them to interpret your cheerfulness as a superiority complex. In this case, I think that’s too bad for everyone else, since there is no way you should act or be less optimistic and sunny. There’s not nearly enough of you around. 🙂

One more, and this one is a little bit of sociology. Being a solutions-oriented woman still subverts the patriarchy. People expect women to be collaborative, submissive, and make decisions based on feelings and consensus. Especially younger women. So when a “girl” acts like a man in business situations, she comes off as unlikeable. A man doing the same thing is totally normal, but a woman is a bitch. As more women shake off this mousy manner (and men stop being so “me-first” and competitive) in business situations, this attitude will be less threatening and negatively perceived. (Short real-world example: I have a boss who is incredibly brusque in conversation and MANY people think she “hates” them. I’ve learned she’s just short spoken, but is actually very kind and generous in other ways. In meetings, she has literally put her hand up and said, “Enough. I get it.” and shut me down abruptly, but then soon after bought me a lunch with her own money for no reason. Both sides are just part of her way.)

And that’s just in business situations. Socially or in quasi-business situations like recreational/volunteer organizations? Even more so.

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Example: Someone tells me a problem. I offer the solution that seems simplest to me. They think I’m calling them stupid. … I try to go into every situation with the mindset that there is something everyone wants out of the next minute. What do they want and what can I offer? Sometimes, I realize that they’re not sure about what they want or there’s nothing for me to do and that’s okay too. I simply move on.

You know I love efficiency, so when dealing with like-thinking people, this approach would be treasured! But if time is not of the essence (or if the others involved don’t recognize an urgency) can you see how this kind of cut-to-the-chase method also cuts the other person(s) out of the solution? Just because a solution seems simple, obvious and highly workable to you within a short time, it’s important not to think that is the BEST or ONLY solution. It’s merely AN option, and YOUR OPINION. If you don’t strongly think it is the most superior path, then you probably won’t broadcast your certainty (aka superiority) as strongly in verbal or nonverbal communication.

Deciding (out loud or just to yourself) colleagues don’t know what they want or need to accomplish, and/or there’s “nothing for you to do here” can produce a dismissive and negative attitude. You are reacting to a situation, not the person, but, again, the person often will definitely take it personally. Perhaps you could work on not getting to that point in your mind where you realize it’s over and mentally check out. Stay in the moment and allow the question to remain unresolved in your mind so you are still open to further options and input for a longer time.

If you can let go a little, other people might come to you and your ideas more easily. Lead gently.

Those are several things to consider. Any of them might resonate with you. Or none. Let me know either way, so I can learn too. 🙂 We all have better and worse qualities. Ultimately, you may just have to come to love yourself fully and accept that not everyone will. You know you have a lot of love, loyalty, generosity and enthusiasm to share with those who understand and appreciate you. I know you are sensitive and care very much about making others uncomfortable, so growing a thicker skin might be more important for your own sake than others’.

I offer you many big hugs and tons of empathy.

Response:

Thank you! All of the feedback is so great that I’m bookmarking the page so I can come back and read it every once in a while. I think reminding myself of the different ways to approach these situations will be helpful. Remember that the point was to be able to look at myself and adjust things as needed to keep my social and work interactions “happy.” I believe your words will help.

So, again, thank you.

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About amywinns

Semi-snarky, semi-sincere, occasionally ranting, always paying attention. Feminist who can work a skirt and crack a joke. Grammar nerd who is also fun at parties. Mid-career writer/editor with 15 years’ experience in newspapers & magazines who now helps developers at a major media corporation communicate with the suits who write the checks. Pro-women, pro-family, pro-choice, pro-workingclass, pro-entrepreneur, pro-farmer. Like every other bourgeois Brooklynite, I choose local/organic/raw food — mostly vegetables — whenever possible/reasonable/affordable but I’m not a smug asshole about it. Hometown: Atlanta. Weird hobby: lindy hop. No pets, no kids, no thanks.
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