can I ask my manager to coach me on being more professional?

A reader writes:

I have been job searching and obsessively reading your blog as I go, and I finally got a new job lined up!

One thing I’ve noticed about myself from reading your blog and reflecting on my work experience is that I’m not nearly as attuned to professional norms as I would like to be. Given my background, it’s not terribly surprising. My parents are musicians, and there were large parts of my childhood that we spent living on tour. Neither of my parents ever had a regular “9 to 5” (or any go-to-work-every-day) job while I was growing up, though they both worked very hard at what they did. I was taught to value curiosity, non-conformity, self-expression, and independent thought. I spent my early adult years as a musician myself, and I still perform sometimes, though it’s no longer a significant source of income for me. I mentioned both living on tour as a kid and being a performance artist in my interview with my new boss.

I have worked in offices in the past, but the office where I had my most long-term position had really dysfunctional boundaries. Everyone knew everything about everyone’s personal business, including health, relationships, and for some people, even their sex lives. The CEO had to be repeatedly told not to put his hands on employees (he once “jokingly” rapped me on the knuckles because he didn’t like a piece of bad news I had to deliver). There would be long, informal, VERY personal conversations in the middle of the front office that included questions like, “Is your husband a boob man or a butt man?” So it wasn’t the best opportunity to learn professionalism. Other jobs have let me wear my hair in bright colors, shave my head, or given me other ways to be my artsy self without it being a big deal.

Now I’ll be working in legal support for a firm that is a bit highbrow, and I’m really concerned that I’m going to run afoul of my new colleagues’ boundaries and expectations.

I’m smart, I work hard, and I do everything I can to pitch in and support my team whenever anyone needs help. I also try hard to make an extra effort to be kind and friendly, partially because I know there will inevitably be a time when I say something strange, and everyone will look blankly at me while cricket chirps fill the air, and I want to be sure I have some capital on hand when those moments arise. I’d rather it be, “Oh, she’s quirky,” or nerdy, or whatever (and forgivable), rather than just, “Um, what?” (I have moments like that all the time. I have a kind of offbeat sense of humor. Mostly I find things funny that other people just think are part of the normal landscape of things.)

Would it be out of line or too red flaggy to ask my new supervisor for a little focused coaching in this area? I don’t want to signal that I’m not prepared to do the job she hired me to do. Part of my new job will involve going to board meetings to take minutes, and I’m really anxious about making a bad impression. I’m also concerned that if I “try” too hard it’s going to seem like I’m trying and something will seem off, anyway. If it provides a clearer picture, I’m going to be 40 this summer. It’s an area of embarrassment for me, but I’d rather be coached ahead of time than corrected after making a mistake.

It should be fine to say something to your boss like, “I’ve previously worked in pretty informal environments, and I want to make sure that I’m getting the cultural norms here right. I’d welcome any input you have, either now or as we work together, about the best way to succeed here. And if you ever have specific feedback for me about something I should handle differently, even if it’s minor, I’d really welcome hearing it.”

I would start with that rather than asking for broader coaching, and see how she responds. It can actually be pretty hard to give broader coaching on this right off the bat, since she won’t have a good feel yet for what will be helpful to you — but she might after you’ve worked together a while.

Also, it can sometimes be easier to get really useful feedback when you tie it to specific situations. So for example, before you go to your first board meeting to take notes there, you could ask your boss, “Can you tell me a little about what to expect at these meetings and what the most important things are for me to do my role there well?” And afterwards you could ask, “Since that was my first board meeting, is there anything you’d like to see me do differently next time?”

Or after a team meeting where you felt like you did have an “Um, what?” moment, you could say to her, “Can I check something with you? I felt like the joke I made in that meeting went over really strangely — am I right in thinking I should rein that sort of thing in?” Maybe you’ll hear, “Yeah, typically it’s better to stay really work-focused in these meetings.” Or who knows, you might hear, “No, that was funny!” But you’re going to be making it really easy for your boss to coach you, because you’ll be showing you’re not just open to feedback, but actively eager for it.

If you make yourself very easy to give feedback to, show that you’re eager for it, and handle it well when you do get it (don’t get defensive or weird), you’re likely to get more of it.

And over time, as you’ve worked together longer and you see what her style is, you might be able to divulge a little more. If you do feel like you’re having weird moments where people are thinking “Um, what?” and if you have decent rapport with your boss, you could lay out some of what you’ve said here and tell her you’d welcome her coaching. But I’d wait and form more of a relationship first, and see how things end up going.

Also, quirkiness is not a terrible thing, even in more formal offices. You say that you work hard, help others, and go out of your way to be kind and friendly, and that counts for a huge amount. Having a few strange “huh?” moments isn’t necessarily a big deal (assuming they’re not because you’re talking about sex, politics, religion, etc., which it doesn’t sound like you are).

{ 96 comments… read them below or add one }

  1. I'm A Little TeaPot

    OP, another source is observation. Pay attention to the people around you and other’s reaction to them. That will give you something to start with in terms of professional norms.

    Reply
    1. Countess Boochie Flagrante

      This.

      When in doubt, go conservative, go quiet, and keep your ears and eyes and social senses wide open.

      Reply
      1. Kathleen_A

        And in situations where you’d rather not conform, pick your battles. So for example, looking unconventional isn’t important to me, but being able to talk about some of the less conventional non-work things that interest me (the unusual – unusual among my workers – books I read, science fiction, and the archaeological site I visited on my last vacation, because I visit an archaeological site on nearly every vacation) is important to me. I think the fact that I look conventional and can discuss conventional things at the appropriate time have made people more tolerant of the things I am unconventional about.

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        1. Red Reader

          Yes! My boss gets excited about listening to me talk about going to gaming conventions and dressing up in Victorian garb and the Vampire LARP I used to help run (for the record, it wasn’t originally my INTENTION to discuss these things with my boss, but she happened upon a conversation I was having with another coworker and got super interested) because she’s never seen me wearing anything other than business attire and maybe jeans on Fridays.

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          1. SimonTheGreyWarden

            This. People I work with get excited to hear about the cons I go to because I am immersed in Steampunk in my private life, but am generally very conservative and more reserved in my work life.

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      2. Not So NewReader

        In an odd turn around, it’s those quiet people that look so very intelligent. For the most part, people will assume that you get what is going on if you are quiet from time to time. This works well when paired with being a superstar at other times. Don’t be afraid of not joining in every single time.

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      3. Courageous cat

        Yep, this was basically going to be my comment. There’s never any harm in talking less and listening more for a while.

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      4. Barney Barnaby

        Exactly.

        My usual belief is that people don’t find the humour of strangers, co-workers, friends of their significant others, etc., to be nearly as funny as they would want. You almost can’t go wrong by cutting the comedy routine until you get to know people better.

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    2. Former Hoosier

      A friend of mine was a partner in a law firm where they hired a summer law student. Law firms are one of the last holdouts for requiring suits and very professional dress. That isn’t a secret. This firm did have casual Fridays if you weren’t making a court appearance. The very first Friday, the intern showed up in jeans with holes and a ratty concert t-shirt.

      My best advice is always choose the more conservative option first and then you can relax. This firm’s casual Friday meant khakis and a open collar dress shirt that was probably not white or blue.

      Observation can go a long way but I also agree that asking for feedback and being receptive to it goes a long way especially if you ever do violate a norm.

      Reply
  2. TotesMaGoats

    OldJob had really skewed ideas of “business casual” for higher education. No one would have blinked an eye if I’d been in “dressy” shorts and blouses all summer. Our prez regularly wore shorts and flip flops around campus on normal day. Had to be told to dress up. As much as I’d been in higher ed settings my whole life, I did a check with my new job and bluntly asked.

    I think Alison gave you a great script and kudos to you for recognizing that you might need this kind of help.

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    1. Lynca

      Not higher ed but my husband was a clerk for a licensing board. It ranged from professional dress to the head of the board coming into work everyday in shorts and sandals.

      He was a very laid back guy and very good at what he did which is why he could wear whatevs. He’d hold board meetings like that.

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    2. Rock Prof

      As a geologist in higher ed, I can get away with basically anything. I’m wearing chucks, jeans, and university-branded hoodie today, as I was doing a field interview this morning, but I’m normally business casual cardigans and blouses on days I teach. But I could easily get away with wearing hiking shorts and flip flops.

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    3. Kj

      As a child therapist, professional dress is a bit of joke. I try! But I have to wear shoes I can run in (hyperactive kids) and I have to be able to sit on the floor. Jeans were 100% ok at my last job. Now I wear mostly dresses, but with sneakers or keens. But I work with folks who wear graphic tees and jeans with chucks 100% of the time.

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      1. Julia in Finland

        Ha! I work in a public library and our clothing has to fulfil pretty much the same requirements (shoes that you can walk A LOT or even run in, and you have to be able to sit on the floor or climb ladders if necessary, and also carry stuff and occasionally clean something).

        Some coworkers look pretty much like what you get when you picture-google “business casual”. Then there’s those who sew or knit their own clothes (which includes my grandboss), and those with the graphic t-shirts, and those with visible tattoos; and, what with this being FINLAND!!, the occasional guy who braids his beard. At my current location, one coworker is a Romni who wears full traditional dress.

        And then there’s me, with my tie-dyed clothes and my colorful hair (at the moment it’s dark blue) and my 80s-style makeup. The only time a patron complained was when I tried out a pale blue lipstick and she found it awful because it made me look sickly.

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        1. Librarygeek

          Excellent. Our library only allows jeans on Friday/Saturday and is otherwise a little more formal than yours, but we’re just coming off a very image-conscious toxic boss and our new one seems like she’s not going to care so much.

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  3. Parenthetically

    Kudos to you, OP — someone with your level of self-awareness and eagerness to learn and succeed is going to be a DREAM to work with.

    Reply
    1. Willis

      Yes! Often the big problem with someone not following professional norms is that they don’t realize there are professional norms they should be following. But OP’s self-awareness and receptiveness to the new environment makes it sounds like she’s already past that hurdle. I think Alison’s advice and other’s advice to observe colleagues, coupled with the OP’s friendliness and openness to feedback, will go a long way!

      (Also, OP, I would probably be the person in the room that thinks your odd or offbeat jokes are hilarious, so I hope you don’t have to rein that aspect in too much :))

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    2. Curious Cat

      Absolutely! I commend OP for recognizing this about themselves as a potential issue and wanting to nip it in the bud early. I also definitely agree with Alison’s scripts to focus on learning within the cultural norms of that specific office, rather than a general professional environment lesson.

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    3. Jane of all Trades

      Agreed! Kudos op for recognizing this about yourself, and best of luck finding out what the cultural norms are without stressing out too much!
      If I were you, I’d commit to listening more than contributing in the first few weeks, until you have a bit of a sense of the expectations. It’s a lot easier to open up more when you’re comfortable with the norms of the new environment rather than reining it in when you feel like you may have come across too strongly.
      I think in general I’d stear clear of topics that can be very controversial (at least at first) like religion, politics, issues of race, gender and so on, as well as issues that are personal or relate to body functions… so no talk about sex, no fart jokes, and so on.
      The other thing is that I would generally assume that people are friendly, but not your friend. So I wouldn’t tell them intimate details and wouldn’t gossip about other people.
      I think those are the general things to avoid, but on the whole I think just being perceptive to people’s reactions is the way to go – if they’re enthusiastic about a topic, great, if you’ve asked something and people are really quiet about it, move on.
      On the other hand, most people I can think of that I work with and very much respect have had a time or two of saying something odd, and it hasn’t changed my opinion of them. So if you do feel like you said something that was a little of the mark, I’d not worry too much about it!
      Best of luck, I hope you love the new job!

      Reply
  4. Observer

    You seem to have done a pretty decent job of picking up some of the most important items, so that’s encouraging.

    As others say, observation is really important, because not all things about any given office are universal.

    Also, make it easy for your manager to give you feedback. Not just in the sense that Alison mentions, although that is HUGE. but also in a pragmatic sense. For instance, your manager may not have time to spend 1/2 hour on coaching you, but if you have a narrower question that can be answered in email, or in 5 minutes, she’s more likely to do that. The specifics of how this looks are dependent on the office, of course.

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    1. Chinook

      As someone who has bounced between industries (and helped others get used to working with rural field staff), I have learned a thing or two about how to figure out what the cultural expectations are for a job and Alison and the others are saying is right on. By asking for guidance out of the gate, you are signalling to her that you are open to feedback as well as know that you will make mistakes but you expect to be called on them.

      But, there is stuff you can do for yourself as well. Number one is observe. I equate it to being an anthropologist trying to figure out the cultural norms of a new society and that can’t always be done through questions. Also, you may find yourself become work friends with colleagues that you can ask more direct questions of. Be open to the idea that you may be able to be mentored on something like this by a well-mannered intern or someone newer to the job than your boss because they are better able to remember what it is like to be starting out.

      Then, you take your observations and decide which of those norms you are comfortable implementing for yourself. Everyone has hard lines they won’t cross but may not realize it until you are asked to cross them. It usually happens going “culturally down” (I wish I could think of a better, less insulting phrase) around things like swearing or clothing items, but if you come to one of those lines, you have to ask yourself if the job is worth it (because you are not going to change the existing culture as an outsider).

      And, once you have figured out how to blend in (maybe even well enough to “code switch” between your family and work so that you live seamlessly between the two cultures 0 it can be done), keep an eye out for anyone else that may feel as out of place as you once did and see if they are looking for guidance.

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      1. Xarcady

        I would second the acting like an anthropologist and keeping a low profile at first and just watching what other people do, how they dress, etc.

        As a military brat, I moved every 1-2 years as a child. In second grade, other girls made fun of my Brownie uniform, which still had the troop number from my old troop that first day. There were 4 digits, and in my new area, all the troops had only 2 digit numbers. Not a huge thing, but something the other kids teased me about mercilessly. The hive mind can be cruel.

        That was my introduction to the fact that customs change from place to place and you have to be careful to fit in, or you get bullied. I got better and better at this as I got older. Adults tend not to bully so much, but have other ways of making someone aware that they don’t fit in.

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        1. OP

          I’ve always felt a certain affinity with military brats, because I also know what it’s like to always be the new kid. You do have to learn to read people and situations pretty quickly, but I’ve found that sometimes I don’t realize how odd I’ve been until I reflect on it later. My sister approached things more like you mentioned, and tried to fit in. I tended to make a splash because I didn’t want to be forgotten. This is not how I want to be an adult, though.

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        2. Alienor

          That’s awful. :( I wouldn’t put it past mean girls to tease anyone about anything, but they must have been hard up for material if the best they could do was “Ha ha ha, your uniform has four numbers!”

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      2. Daffodil

        I want to reinforce this idea. I think things like business norms are hard to coach on in the abstract because once you are familiar with them, it feels like something “everybody” knows so it’s hard to figure out what isn’t obvious. But if you can ask some targeted questions “do people typically chat for a while at this kind of meeting or get straight to business?” “how do people usually dress for this event?” “I’m thinking of sending this email, can you look it over for me?” that might help draw out what you need to know or if you’re reading things right.

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        1. Chinook

          “But if you can ask some targeted questions “do people typically chat for a while at this kind of meeting or get straight to business?””

          ooohhh…chitchat as social lubricant varies so much from place to place and yet it is so hard to pin down the when’s and how’s. I remember training one replacement when I was in Ottawa. She was from Nova Scotia and she had to handle a return with a company in New York city. The conversation was very short and she hung up with a confusing look. We talked and it turns out that she had never before had a conversation with zero polite conversation and it was quite disconcerting because she felt like she had been rude but couldn’t figure out why. It was a nice way to segue into the subtleties of working with our American office.

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          1. Kate 2

            Oh my gosh, this is so familiar. I am an American, and we have a vendor in the South. When we need to talk to them it is so hard to balance our office (super busy, calls every 2 or 3 minutes usually) with their desire for polite chitchat and I can hear how taken back they are when I have to rush them, which is every time unfortunately. They probably think I am rude, but I really can’t spend 5 minutes talking about the weather when the phone is ringing off the hook. I still feel a little bad about it though.

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        2. Former Hoosier

          These are excellent suggestions as well. Although I used to have a boss who sometimes dictated what I should wear. She had many things in my wardrobe memorized and she would say, “tomorrow for the xyz meeting you should wear that red jacket.” It was weird and I was very glad to leave that place.

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      3. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock

        This is great advice.

        It’s also worth just googling some of these norms. There’s a million websites about law firm culture, and I suspect they can help OP set a baseline while she observes and tweaks her approach. But when in doubt, dress up (not down), and observe/listen a lot.

        Reply
        1. OP

          Yeah, I just came from a short term position with a much stuffier law firm and it was torture. I had also worked in a law firm that was anything but stuffy (one of the jobs that let me wear my hair purple), and I was expecting this one to be a lot more like the stuffy corporate place and I didn’t want a repeat of constantly wondering if I was doing all right or not. Fortunately it’s turning out to be a little more relaxed, with much clearer, spelled out expectations.

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    2. Not So NewReader

      Seconding the idea of making it easier for your boss. I joined a new-to-me arena and the most formal of work places i have ever had. A few things helped.

      I made it clear that I wanted to know how best to handle something BEFORE we went into it. For example, one type of meeting we had, there was a Q and A period. My boss said, I should ask her or write my question on paper and pass it to her. She would ask or just explain it to me, if she already knew. Perfect. I knew how to handle this. And it made my boss feel great because she knew I would do it the way she said.

      Another thing we settled on was that I would come to her with the unusual stuff. “If something is different check with me first”, she would say. Of course, when you are new at a job EVERYTHING is different. I settled on never asking the same question twice. And when I did ask, I put some thought into possible solutions. “Boss, I have problem X, I was thinking I could do A or I could do B. But I wanted to check first to see if I am getting this straight.” Initially I had to write the answers down because it was a whirlwind of new info. Questions about a specific situation are great because you can build from there and begin to see patterns.

      And I totally agree with watching others. Copy the Best of the Best ideas you see. Picking out what to copy gets easier as you go along. And probably you will fall into a Best of the Best idea on your own, too. You will recognize this idea, it’s when the boss says, “How come no one else here thought of that?”

      Reply
      1. OP

        I like this a lot. This job is in a completely new area of law for me, and it depends on a completely different set of skills than I expected. All the information is new. (I’ve been going to bed early a lot so I can let my brain process my days better.) But I really like your approach of at least thinking through the question first, and also letting her know up front that I want to do the best I can and want to learn things the right way the first time around.

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  5. bonkerballs

    I had a somewhat similar but much smaller scale situation when I started my current job. In my case it just going from a job I had been at for years where our dress code was pretty…out there. I mean, it was not out of place for coworkers to come in in jammies. And I did basically what Allison suggested. I told my boss “look, I’m coming from this environment, I am aware that it’s a very different environment and I do know what business casual should actually look like, but there may be some behaviors or ideas that carry over from there that have become ingrained in me that I don’t realize are weird for this new workplace. Please absolutely come and give me a reality check if you ever see that I need one.” That way if an issue does come up, your boss has some context to redirect you and it won’t feel awkwardly out of the blue to need to discuss something like that. But you’re also putting the bulk of the responsibility for making sure you behave appropriately on yourself.

    Reply
    1. Engineer Woman

      Agree. This way it’s not asking for active coaching, which could burden a boss who would like to help but then has to think of how to coach someone on professionalism.
      But rather, 1. Acnowledges to boss that you know professsionalism is needed 2. You’re doing your best to fit into the culture 3. You’re aware of your potential gaps and allows for boss to come to you without any awkwardness if she witnesses anything that she could then coach you on.

      Reply
  6. Boredatwork

    OP – I relate so hard to this one. I too, am that person. Alison’s advice is spot on, asking for regular feedback will save you so much time and awkwardness. I once had a supervisor tell me after months that something I said to her made her cringe. I thought I was being funny and endearing but I was having the opposite effect.

    In the beginning, just use a mirroring technique. For physical appearance, match what your boss/co-workers wear. Pay attention to things like skirt length, amount of skin exposed and heel height. When you’re having a conversation, stick to “weather” things. Ask the other person questions, and get them to talk about themselves. People with kids, love to talk about their kids. This will fill 90% of the talking time.

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    1. Red Reader

      Important thing about getting people talking about their kids: If you can’t show convincing (real or otherwise) interest in their kids and are going to glaze over because you’re not actually a kid person, that will probably shoot you in the foot. So steer clear of the “getting people talking about their kids” if you can’t actually handle being on the receiving end of people talking about their kids. :)

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    2. Not So NewReader

      Humor. I am assuming you are good at humor, it’s just that you want to stay in boundaries at your new place. Until you learn the culture, my best thought is don’t crack jokes. If you are overwhelmed and absolutely must joke about something pick a topic that everyone can agree on. “Oh this crazy weather, blah, blah, blah [insert joke here].”
      Watch and make mental note of what types of jokes go over well and what types of jokes cause eye rolls. Typically I would pick something involving that Thing way over There, such as the nasty pot hole in front of your building. Here not only is this something most people would agree on, it’s a pretty safe bet that no one is somehow involved with fixing the pot hole problem (public road) so you are not accidentally putting down someone’s work effort or worse yet putting them down personally.

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  7. Naptime Enthusiast

    I’m so glad you asked this question, OP. I’ve been struggling with how polished I am – for my current role I’m fine, but when I’m outside of my technical group I feel like the embodiment of the “awkward engineer” stereotype.

    I’ve found that asking about specific events ahead of time is crucial. I recently traveled internationally for work, and I am so glad I talked to the other people going on the trip ahead of time. I changed the clothes I was planning to pack in favor of something more formal and came better prepared for my discussions because I learned the conversations would be much more high level than technical, which is not what I would have expected. If you have high brow functions coming up, like client meetings or dinners, I would absolutely ask about the details and what advice your boss has for you, and don’t be afraid to ask follow up questions.

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    1. No Mas Pantalones

      I work in a company chock full of engineers, many of whom fit the stereotype. Advice: make friends with your admin. If you don’t have one, make friends with your boss’s admin, or the department admin, or any admin. They tend to have a finger on the pulse of just about everything going on around them–if not exact specifics, they can give you the general feel for what the Big Guys want, what certain meetings will be like, what moods people are in, what’s expected, etc.

      Admins, receptionists, IT, and cleaners/janitors/facilities are the best friends you can have in any office environment. And each one of them can make or break you.

      Reply
        1. No Mas Pantalones

          That’s how most of my coworkers started to recognise my quirkiness. I’ve got a vast collection, including the Munsters pictured. (and omfg, I want the silver-glitter munsters that just dropped.)

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          1. Anonym

            Same!! I try to contain visible eccentricity to the shoes. And they’re an excellent conversation starter. I have about 10 at this point… The glitter Munsters are *amazing*.

            I’m working on figuring out the right balance for how much weird humor/hobbies to share. Someday, hopefully, we’ll all get there, OP included.

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    2. Chinook

      ” I recently traveled internationally for work, and I am so glad I talked to the other people going on the trip ahead of time. I changed the clothes I was planning to pack in favor of something more formal and came better prepared for my discussions because I learned the conversations would be much more high level than technical, which is not what I would have expected”

      The best question I ever asked about a workplace culture was when I was getting ready to work in Japan. I asked what the dress code was and they said “business.” I was smart enough to ask for clarification with “Vancouver business or Calgary business?” When they replied “Toronto business” I realized that I was going to have do some serious shopping to bring my wardrobe up to snuff (which made my mother happy because I swear she had been training for this type of shopping trip all her life and was a little wistful that she would never need to wear a business suit for anything.)

      Reply
  8. bopper

    Also if you are taking minutes at a board meeting, you should mostly just be quiet unless you have specific questions on what was decided or whatever.

    Reply
    1. OP

      I learned this immediately! I wrote to Alison right after I accepted the offer, and I’ve been working at Newjob for about 3 weeks now. One of the first things I found out was that I must keep quiet and observe a LOT. Also, I was very happy to find a couple of eccentrics already there, who moan on the days they have board meetings because they hate dressing so stuffily. I haven’t spoken to my boss about it yet, but I did take a minute with the woman who’s training me today to ask her how she thought I was doing overall. I explained being “unschooled” while growing up, and sometimes just not knowing how I come off. She said I was doing fine, so phew! So far, so good. I have to say it’s moving to see so many people chiming in to say they feel the same way or have similar issues. It makes me feel less alone.

      Reply
  9. No Mas Pantalones

    You aren’t alone in your quirkiness, OP. I too am the quirky one. I’m 42 and both of my parents were the 9-to-5 professionals and somehow, they created a very “beat of her own drum” artsy type. But art rarely pays the bills, so I’ve worked office jobs for most of my adult life.

    The best tip I can offer: watch everything for a while. Make friends with people around the same level as you are. Watch some more. You’ll get a feel for what the office culture is like this way, and then you can test out some quirks on your same-level compadres without a big ole “Ummm what?” moment in the middle of a make-or-break meeting.

    Dress code will be in the handbook. It should cover hair colours, but if not, just ask. Often, it’s department or boss specific. While visible tattoos aren’t forbidden at my company, for example, I still cover mine, as my boss is really high on the food chain and I want to make him look as best as possible. He’s never asked me to cover them up–in fact he’s asked to see them; but I do know he appreciates that I don’t go sleeveless and rock each of my large shoulder tattoos out in the open. (Even though are both incredibly beautiful, dammit.)

    The fact that you’re concerned about this means you’re a lot further along than you might believe. You’re self-aware, which is the first step towards your goal, and way further (farther?) than most people in the world. Give yourself some credit, observe everything for at least a week, and proceed accordingly. Then decorate your office with garden gnomes like I did. ;)

    Reply
    1. Amber T

      Regarding dress code and the like – it may not be explicit (at least when it comes to hair colors/piercings/tattoos), in which case – ask! I’d be cautious for the time being until you get a feel for the office culture, but considering they hired you already, they know what you look like (so if you interviewed with a nose ring or wrist tattoo, it’s already out there). In my business casual office, I’m not the only one with a semi visible tattoo, and no one flinches or gasps in shock when they see it on my neck (or one coworker’s back of the shoulder, or another’s ankle), but I think it would be pretty frowned upon in my office to get one in a really permanently visible place. I joked about coming in with bubblegum pink hair, and the result was “hahaha that would look great on you, but yeah no don’t do that.”

      Reply
      1. No Mas Pantalones

        I got the same comment re: the fun hair colours cos I’ve seen it on other floors. Message received. :)

        Sometimes my tattoos peek out a little here and there. The one on my back (a vine of ivy up my spine from bum to neck-hairline) peeks out when I’m not wearing a jacket, cos my hair is short. No one has said anything other than the occasional compliment on it. A gal on my team has a very big (and poorly done) inner wrist tattoo. She makes no effort to cover it. …Just not my style. I want to at least present myself as if I’m going the extra mile. (My inner wrist tattoo is in a very light shade of pink, not far off from my skin colour and is small and fine-line. No one can see it until I explicitly point it out.)

        Reply
  10. LadyKelvin

    Its great that you are concerned about this, but I also want to suggest that you look to your peers as well. When a good friend/colleague of mine first started we hit it off pretty quickly as we were both fairly new but I had been around about 6 months longer. Now she comes to me when she experiences something weird within her team and I can either go yeah that’s weird, how would AAM suggest handling that or no, that’s normal don’t be too upset by it. It helps that I’m technically more senior than she is but not a supervisor ans she often says she feels better when I say, nope, totally normal, nothing to get worked up over. I have other people at my level that I can talk pretty bluntly to about things that I might find weird so I can calibrate my normal.

    Reply
  11. embees

    If you’re looking for resources outside of your boss, I have found the website http://www.corporette.com useful for conservative/professional wardrobe examples and discussions of professional development and “what about xyz scenario”. A (high?) percentage of readers are in law/finance/etc so it may be particularly applicable to your new position. (As with any website with a comments section, some days are, uh, more helpful than others.)

    Similarly, google searches on things like “professional etiquette” or “unspoken business rules” are likely to turn up useful tips or things to think about, if you’re someone who likes to pre-plan/visualize how to handle new scenarios – which I suspect you are given your thoughtful question here :)

    Reply
    1. Oxford Coma

      Corporette definitely has the right vibe for an ultra-professional environment, but her crowd is mostly high earners and MAN is there sticker shock. Kat’s idea of inexpensive washable dress slacks are > $150. It’s a bit like reading Vogue. I need to find a more middle-priced business clothing blog.

      Reply
      1. Ellen Ripley

        Wardrobe Oxygen is a pretty good source for this. She recently quit her corporate job and is now a full-time blogger, so it’s gone a bit more casual, but if you look at the archives or filter on business casual/business you should get some good stuff, and much more budget friendly than Corporette.

        Reply
  12. Falling Diphthong

    I was separating out the exciting hair norm until we got to law office. So useful fashion advice for conservative jobs, beyond the “dress to blend and absorb norms” starting out standard–if you’ve decided to be a more fashion forward member of the buttoned-up legal office, you can do one thing. So it can be bright shoes OR a crew cut OR unusual lipstick, but not all of them.

    Reply
    1. Joielle

      Definitely agree with this! I’m a lawyer and this is the basic rule I’ve followed. My one thing is short hair with unusually-colored highlights – so I dress very conservatively, wear understated makeup, and keep my tattoos covered. It’s worked out so far!

      Reply
      1. envirolady

        Question — do you have arm tattoos? If yes, do you find it really hard to keep them covered up or that people ask you questions? I’m thinking of getting one and would love to know someone else’s experience.

        Reply
  13. Bea

    Self awareness and observations are so important, that point can’t be driven home enough. You are doing the right things by being aware of where you’ve come from.

    I’m not from a professional family and have been in some ridiculous positions. Now that I’m in a functional business atmosphere I laugh about so much of the crazy stuff I’ve been accustomed to over the years. I’ve always melded with my environment, loud somewhat crass days working in the timber industry and take charge mentality from years of nobody ever stepping up. Now I have a strong leader, I’m not climbing up on trucks or crawling around a warehouse in between all my accounting/management duties. So I can slip back into just focusing on wearing clean clothes and how to talk to people who aren’t long haul truckers or millwrights.

    Stay aware and know when to ask, I would ease into things as you go. Don’t sell yourself short, you know TMI and rapping knuckles is not correct. You know more than you think but do be forward with your boss and coworkers that their input is extremely valuable to you! So they won’t be shy on feedback.

    Reply
  14. There All Is Aching

    OP, thanks for fessing up to the inevitability of your awkward moments! It’s truly comforting to hear others own that part of themselves. I’ve only come to realize in the last year or so that my goal for myself can’t be “I never elicit a weird reaction from anyone ever” because, hello, oddball nerdiness was baked into my graham cracker crust when I was a kid. After I finally came to terms with that, it’s been easier to see my clunkers and other not-near-misses as the price of admission of being me. And thanks to plenty of therapy and building my family of choice over time, being me has become (luckily, thank FSM) a pretty happy thing. Go, OP!

    Reply
    1. Not So NewReader

      I have to add, just by admitting and asking, OP, you will get yourself through the learning curve much, much faster than you would if you said nothing. And you will save yourself endless nights of pain and worry.

      Reply
  15. sfigato

    I relate to this. Do your best to find the fine line between fitting in and still being some version of yourself that feels authentic. And take some comfort that this is awkward and unnatural for most of us. Most of us aren’t “professional.” “Professional” in the U.S. generally means educated, white, upper-middle class Protestant. Heck, even most educated, white, upper-middle class Protestants are faking it at work. Just know we all put on our work drag and act out our “work” role and it isn’t totally who we are, and that’s ok because if everyone was their true authentic self at work it would potentially be A Lot.

    Reply
    1. Mananana

      I have all the trappings of adulthood, I’m married, have a mortgage, work in a white-collar setting, have a graduate degree and am old enough to remember a time before cell phones. And I’m still convinced that one day someone will see that there’s a zipper on my grown-up suit and that I’m really just pretending to be an adult.

      Reply
      1. Susan

        100 million percent this. I’m not married, but I am an independent adult, manage my own finances, have actually had people ask me to be their mentor (!), but still have that feeling of “I don’t know why they trust me! I have no idea!”

        Reply
  16. Traveling Teacher

    The best Moth story I’ve come across about trying to make it in at work when you think you’ve prepared for absolutely anything that could happen, including workplace norms, and suddenly that one thing that you never thought to prepare for happens. One of my all-time Moth faves!

    https://themoth.org/storytellers/abhishek-shah

    Reply
  17. Zosia

    Alison, first paragraph of OP’s letter made me think of the interesting jobs interview series. Maybe OP would be willing to do one?

    Reply
  18. Tax Accountant

    I think one important thing is not to go too fast developing office friendships or confiding in coworkers. I’m not saying don’t be friendly, but just get a lay of the land before deciding where you fit in and who you can trust (that sounds overly dramatic, but you know what I mean). My last workplace had really weird lax boundaries that developed because we worked such long hours that we saw each other more than we saw our own families. It was a bit of a shock to come to a new place and learn that I needed to keep my mouth shut more often than I was used to.

    Reply
    1. OP

      This really strikes a chord with me. I have some pretty unconventional ideas about things, and a lot of the people at Newjob are pretty conservative. My mom is also very open and frank and never really taught me good boundaries about what you talk about and what you don’t talk about. This is further complicated by some quality that I possess that makes people confide in me when they meet me. I’ve had people tell me all kinds of things, like painful family history, illegal drug use, personal health stuff—the first time they have a conversation with me. I’m not sure what it is, and I really don’t mind, but it has in the past led me to reciprocate, with predictably awkward results. I’ve had to learn the hard way to button up, and sometimes I’m still not the best judge of where and with whom to draw the lines.

      Reply
      1. BeenThere

        I have this issue so much, by background is a culture where directness is valued and industries where you are right or people can die. I literally get the feedback “your are too direct”. For me the book White Collar Dreams Blue Collar Roots was cathartic and eye opening as to all the things I’m not meant to say in American workplaces.

        Reply
  19. Lorange

    Your question reminded me of a book I’ve been meaning to read. It’s called Limbo: Blue-Collar Roots, White-Collar Dreams by Alfred Lubrano. “Alfred Lubrano identifies and describes an overlooked cultural phenomenon: the internal conflict within individuals raised in blue-collar homes, now living white-collar lives. These people often find that the values of the working class are not sufficient guidance to navigate the white-collar world, where unspoken rules reflect primarily upper-class values.”

    I was raised by blue collar parents in a rural area and now work in a law firm. Professional and social norms in this workplace were confusing and opaque at first. I still feel out of my element in larger, chatty work situations.

    (Tip: If anyone is interested in the book, don’t buy the print version as the font choice is nearly impossible to read.)

    Reply
    1. Gloucesterina

      Thanks Lorange for the reading suggestion! My parents worked in customer service roles for much of their lives, and I started off in retail jobs as a student, so I think I will find this very interesting. My experience crossing over into different professional contexts is that due to a mix of baked-in personal patterns + being acclimated to workplace interactions that are highly structured and scripted (as customer service often is), I need to work on getting more comfortable with sharing about myself and my work in in service of building collegial relationships (as opposed to being completely task-focused and essentially anonymous).

      Reply
    1. Empty Sky

      I agree, and I’ve been trying to think of a way to say: don’t focus so much on adapting to the professional environment that you lose the cool. It may have been part of the reason why they hired you. I get that you want to err on the side of caution until you have things figured out, and I think that’s sensible, but maybe be prepared to relax a bit again once you feel more comfortable of where the boundaries are. Watch how people respond when you do it, and see if you can chart out a behavioral space that fits within the norms of the organization but is still ‘you.’

      (If you worked in my office, I would probably be coming to see you whenever I wanted my assumptions challenged, or needed a second opinion on something from another perspective).

      Reply
  20. Allison

    In my experience, if you’re invited to take minutes at a meeting, you are likely much junior to the others attending and wouldn’t otherwise have been invited, so you don’t really need to participate other than listening and writing.

    Reply
    1. OP

      Yes, that’s certainly the case during the meetings, but there are certain boards that tend to be chattier before and after the meetings. I’m planning to pretty much keep to a “speak when spoken to” rule indefinitely. But that doesn’t really ease my anxiety about those conversations that crop up afterwards. When spoken to and it’s not information-based conversation (as in, it’s not a question for which I simply provide an answer), I worry about my lack of polish.

      Reply
  21. Drama Llama

    OP, we had a colleague who was pretty out of sync with normal workplace norms (and unfortunately not as self aware as you are). It became a source of annoyance that he was asking people to tell him when he was being inappropriate. It seemed like a way of deflecting his own responsibility to behave professionally at work. The best thing you can do here is to observe and reflect on your own behaviour, and of course be open to hearing feedback. I’m not sure if you can ask someone to provide ongoing coaching for you to be more professional in the workplace.

    Reply
    1. Data Lady

      This, precisely this. There’s a fine line between signalling that you’re open to feedback and appearing to not take responsibility for your behaviour.

      Reply
  22. Famous Blue Raincoat

    OP, you seem like you’re on the right track already by simply being aware of yourself and your surroundings. (Also: Sounds like your upbringing was awesome! I hope that at least a few folks in your new workplace are cool enough to appreciate it if it becomes appropriate to share with them.)

    This letter reminded me of myself in some ways… I was homeschooled for almost all of my pre-college years; and grew up in an extremely religious household where “normal” things like TV, movies, and a lot of other cultural touchstones were not allowed. When I turned 18, I wanted to get a job in the “real world” and I started attending community college. I was super worried that people would notice my knowledge deficits of cultural things, or that I wouldn’t adhere to the norms of the workplace/classroom. I ended up reading a lot of books and magazines on subjects that would make good neutral conversation starters, and focused a lot on listening to other people and asking follow up questions. And guess what? People were cool! It turned out fine! No one thought I was a weirdo (that I know of).

    I didn’t disclose my unconventional background to very many people, and waited til I had established my reputation as a hard worker/thoughtful person/friendly helpful type. If I heard something in a conversation or observed something that didn’t make sense to me, I would wait til later and ask someone I knew and trusted about it rather than drawing attention to my lack of experience by asking in the moment. I tried to become a subject matter expert in specific things about my job, and I paid attention to social cues in class to avoid major faux pas.

    I think the key is being aware that you’re different, and treating that as a feature rather than a bug. Because you don’t come from this corporate background, you will have a different and therefore valuable perspective on things. You may have more curiosity about things everyone else just takes as a given, and so long as you don’t make a habit of openly questioning every decision or workplace norm, that can turn into a positive.

    I wish you the best! You’re going to do great.

    Reply
  23. That Cat Lady

    Thank you OP for asking this question. This is actually a question I’ve been agonising over since beginning to read Ask a Manager. I’m in my first “proper” job and the office is small, very casual and people are really up in each others business. I sit next to the owner of the company (my bosses-bosses-boss) and regularly backchat him because he responds well to it and knows how to take it with the humour it’s intended but I know that in pretty much any other job if I spoke like that to my superior I’d get a swift reprimand if I din’t get outright fired. I dress how I want and leave my hair whatever way it comes out after a shower because nobody cares.

    I’m legitimately so terrified at the thought of having to get another job with dress codes and personal boundaries because literally everything I’ve ever learnt professionally has come from this job and AAM has really shed light on how truly outside the norm it is. I’m starting to feel professionally like a child whose parents have spoiled and indulged her to the point where she’ll have no way to function in the real world. I’m trying to absorb as much of Alison’s advice as I can so that hopefully I can at least be self aware and adaptive by the time I get to my next job.

    Reply
  24. jo

    Alison’s opening script is good, but I’d go even further and say that you’ve worked in “informal *and unconventional*” environments, not just informal ones! I feel like describing your prior experience as merely informal is soft-pedaling it, and it might prevent your manager from understanding where you’re coming from. She might still assume that you understand certain norms you really don’t get.

    For example, if someone told me they were used to informal environments and wanted feedback, I’d think something like: “Okay, so this person might need tips on stuff like dress code and appropriate email salutations,” not “This person may not know when it’s inappropriate to make jokes.”

    Reply
  25. The Rat-Catcher

    I have a situation where my totally serious observations are perceived as funny by other people. I don’t intend them to be! I’m told I have a “unique way of looking at things.” The solution for me is usually also to be quiet when I am not sure.

    Reply

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