A reader writes:
You are always so great at getting to the heart of matters, so I’m hoping you can help me figure out a few witty retorts to the following problem. I’m writing you today about a situation I’m sure most women have been in. I am a female in an office with 15 men and 3 women. I am not an assistant of any sort, nor am I a manager. I am not on the front lines; it is not in my role to answer phones, order lunch, order office supplies, etc. However, I find myself responding to frequent requests for things such as:
Where are the cleaning supplies stored?
Were you aware that the men’s room is out of toilet paper?
Where is the nearest seamstress / tailor where “insert client name” can get a zipper replaced?
Not to mention that when the receptionist is away from her desk, the phone will ring and ring and ring and ring…unless I answer it. (We ALL have phones capable of picking up incoming calls).
What gives here? I am super tempted to remind my coworkers that I am not their wife, mother, or personal assistant. And just because I wear a bra does not mean that I inherently know where the Mr. Clean wipes are kept, am better equipped to answer the phones, or change the toilet paper roll when it’s empty. I just need a response that is going to make the point and have a long-lasting effect, that I won’t lose my job over.
“Why are you asking me?”
Delivered totally neutrally, even pleasantly.
It’s a question that should force them to pause and think about why they really are asking you.
I’d go with that versus a witty, snappy retort, because it keeps it simple and straightforward. And really, it belongs in the “huh?” realm rather than the humor realm anyway.
Regarding the phones, if everyone else is getting away with not answering them when they ring, then you might consider doing the same. Yes, you want to be responsible and not shirk a shared responsibility just because everyone else is, but if you take that stance, you’ll essentially be agreeing to be the sole sub for the receptionist when she’s away. If you join your coworkers in not picking it up and it becomes a problem, the office will address it, and everyone can be told to answer it, rather than you picking up all the slack. (And yes, I am slightly uncomfortable with that solution, but I’m far more comfortable with it than you doing the work for everyone or with you having to nag your coworkers.)
Speaking of nagging, I’m not a big fan of reminding coworkers that you’re not their wife or mother. First, it implies that other women in their lives are responsible for doing things that capable adults handle on their own, and second, it puts you in the role of … well, mother, by admonishing them to do something differently.
Instead, pretend that gender isn’t involved here at all, and just don’t play along.