people say my tone sounds mean

In today’s Ask a Manager podcast, I talked to someone who’s worried her tone sounds mean. Here’s the letter:

I really appreciated your episode about tone and I was just listening to it again today because I’ve realized that *I* am the coworker who is too direct and makes people feel defensive.

This problem has emerged over the last year, when I learned from my boss that a colleague says I’m hostile and mean. My boss and I talked about this, and a specific example that had occurred months before, and I agreed with her that I could have handled that situation differently. We also agreed that I’m a direct person, which can be productive and can sometimes create conflict.

After that, I started to think really carefully about my tone, and I’ve been practicing being non-confrontational. I loved your examples of tone and have tried hard to consciously incorporate some of the phrases that you demonstrated.

Unfortunately, I keep stepping in it with this one colleague, who in turn complains about me to our boss. We never discuss this directly—I presume because I am too confrontational—I just hear about it later. And now, every time I need to talk with this colleague about anything, I am extremely anxious and I spend a lot of time planning out what I’ll say. It never seems to work and it seems like an endless cycle in which I am always the aggressor and the colleague is always the aggrieved party.

The show is 33 minutes long, and you can listen on Apple Podcasts, Google Play, Spotify, Stitcher, or wherever else you get your podcasts (or here’s the direct RSS feed). Or you can listen right here:

Or, if you prefer, here’s the transcript.

{ 256 comments… read them below }

  1. Anon For Always*

    I’m very glad you brought up the gendered way that women are often told off for being “mean” or “bossy” when the same is not true of men.

    To me, the fact that the OP was concerned (and has stressed about individual conversations for hours or days) about her tone leads me to believe that on some level she is being judged for not behaving in a stereotypical gender appropriate manner.

    Although I say this as a task focused direct person myself :).

    1. soon 2be former fed*

      I don’t care for snippy cold male communicators either. Not as gendered as you may think, the behavior is just off-putting regardless.

        1. soon 2be former fed*

          Yeah, I’m a woman forty years in the workforce, a black woman at that. Yes, men are rewarded for taking charge and not putting appeasement and relationship building first, but men can damage their careers also by not being aware of how they come across to other people. I work with one in particular now who notbody wants to interact with because of his bristing conversational style.

          The Original Podcaster’s voice sound just fine, a little nasally and high pitched but it’s likely an effect of recording.

          Sometimes folks just have personality conflicts. I also think people expect soft voices on women and those of us who project and are authoritative in how we speak sometimes, without any intention at all, generate fear in people. I’m not sure there is a solution other than avoiding oral communication or maybe lowering your volume. I do this sometimes. But I’ve accepted that I am not a dragon lady and that cultural expectations may not change and I’m not going to feel badly about myself because of it. Don’t be afraid to speak up if you feel that you are being held to an unfair standard.

          1. I See Real People*

            This is so perfectly said! I am thirty years in the workforce. I’m very direct and practical in my communication. Some women tell me they feel like they’re talking to a man except for my female voice pitch. I’ve tried to alter my communication at times, like you’ve done. It’s just the way I am. I can’t be sorry for how more sensitive people of any gender perceive me. It’s not intentional!

            1. D'Arcy*

              One will note that the social expectations are literally a no-win situation for women: we’re called “bossy” and “mean” (plus derided as unfeminine) if we communicate directly and “manipulative” and “passive aggressive” if we communicate indirectly.

      1. AnonEMoose*

        I think it’s interesting that you’re characterizing this type of communicator as “snippy” and “cold.” I mean, yes…some people can be like that, but that seems like a pretty uncharitable view.

        1. pleaset*

          I’ve never heard the term “snippy” used with men. “Abrupt” yes – but not snippy.

          Frankly, the word “snippy” seems to be a gendered insult.

          1. soon 2be former fed*

            OMG I work with a man who is the personification of snippy! I’m a woman OK, please stop with the word parsing. Ya’ll are finding issues where there are none.

              1. Carly*

                I don’t think folks intend to pile on, but as far as the “I’m a woman” comment — I think I speak for many of us who have been told to “watch our tone” that it’s come from both men and women in the workplace. It’s not just men who are put off by women with matter-of-fact, direct communication styles.

                1. AnonEMoose*

                  This. No pile-on intended, and I’m sorry for sounding a bit abrupt.

                  But Carly is also correct above; I’ve had far worse experiences with women complaining about my tone and directness than with men. For what that’s worth.

            1. Close Bracket*

              “Ya’ll are finding issues where there are none.”

              I don’t think that’s really a fair characterization. You personally might see things and experience things a certain way, but your individual experiences don’t negate societal trends. You might work with a man who is the personification of snippy, but you don’t know how often the word snippy is applied to him vs how often it’s applied to similarly personified women. And even if he does get called snippy as often or more often than similar women, his individual data point doesn’t change larger trends across populations. There *are* issues. That you personally don’t see them doesn’t mean they aren’t there. Denying that there are issues makes you part of the larger pattern of denying issues, and that’s exactly what allows gendered *and racialized* double standards to exist. Comments like “I don’t like snippy men” don’t add to the conversation unless they are accompanied by some self reflection on how you avoid gendered reactions. Also, applying feminine-gendered terms to men doesn’t make them less gendered. It just adds in an extra layer of misogyny by feminizing men in order to criticize/insult them. I know you are not the enemy, but you are not being very thoughtful in your responses.

              1. soon 2be former fed*

                I meant finding issues WITH ME where there are none. And thank you for schooling me…but not really. I appreciate your intense reaction to the word snippy, but I don’t share it. Please read my other comments here before preaching to me like this. I really don’t appreciate being told I am not thoughtful in my responses because you are over analyzing one of them. I’ve dealt with misogyny and racism for 63 years in and out of the workplace, so don’t tell me I don’t know about the issues.

                The bad side of AAM rears its ugly head again…posters micro-critiquing other posters and being the thought police. You are really out of line here. Time for me to take a break.

            1. soon 2be former fed*

              But to some people, only their perspective matters. I’m 63 and have heard it a lot over the years. Damn.

        2. soon 2be former fed*

          I have the same issue as the podcaster. People can definitely take an uncharitable view hence the podcast topic! I’m just saying that men have these same issues, please don’t parse my words, there is no hidden meaning and I have noting but empathy for the podcaster.

    2. RUKiddingMe*

      It is absolutely gendered. Sure males who are too abrasive can be off putting but they have to be very, very, very abrasive for anyone to ever mention it. A woman on the other hand not speaking in an acceptably feminine way gets called out pretty much on the spot. It’s the whole “males are authoritative, women are pushy” thing.

    3. Aaron*

      That’s unfortunately true.

      When a man acts forcefully, he is considered to be “commanding” or “knowledgeable”.
      When a woman acts the same way, she is considered to be “bitchy” or “monthy”.

      It would be nice if it could be changed.

    4. LadyCop*

      I swear this was written by me…who was also told in high school I was intimidating (I took it as a compliment) and was on the debate team….oh and is from Minnesota… I decided a long time ago to embrace being who I am and everyone else can get bent. I have friends and family who get my sense of humor, and I’m glad to not be a doormat.

      I know I’ve said this before, but “Minnesota Nice” is not actually about being nice…people here mistake that ALL THE TIME and it’s both funny and sad. Minnesota Nice is a Master level of passive aggressiveness. Like your aunt who says you’re pretty for your size, or your neighbor who says your roses look good “for you.” It’s not actually about being nice…which is generally more of a Midwestern trait, but ultimately we’re not actually that nice, and people need to get some of their goofy stereotypes out of their heads…

      1. TardyTardis*

        I’m related to a sizable portion of the state of Arkansas, and I saw how Nana used the “Bless your heart” version. What a pity Scarlett O’Hara never took lessons from her…

  2. ThursdaysGeek*

    My commute isn’t long enough, so I’ve only listened to about half of the podcast. And wow – you do not sound mean or pushy or aggressive AT ALL. You sound like a person who is self-reflective and wants to improve yourself, not knowing all the answers (in spite of what you say about yourself). Sure, you’re calling and asking for advice, but from what I’ve heard so far, you’re not the problem. I suspect you’ll learn some ideas on how to be the solution anyway.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      I wondered that myself, but from talking to her, I think she probably does get so task focused at work that she comes off as brusque (in a non-gender-specific way) — in a way that she didn’t on the show. I can be like that myself (social in social situations, but focused to a fault in work situations if I don’t watch out for it), so I related to it.

      1. fposte*

        Yes, I haven’t listened yet, but I can get very “Just the facts, ma’am.” It’s basically like I’m emailing the person in front of me and forgetting to add the pleasant tone signifiers.

        1. AnonEMoose*

          I can also be really task-oriented. To the point that, sometimes, people who’ve known me socially who are then exposed to me when I’ve got stuff that Needs to Get Done Now can be kind of shocked. Because I can be kind of “Are you helping?” “Yes? Great. Please do this.” “No? Then now is not a good time.”

          I have to wonder if the OP is, in some sense, being bullied by the coworker, just in a particularly backhanded and passive-aggressive way. Basically, calling her “mean” to the boss is undermining her in a particularly insidious way.

          It might be worth, maybe, asking the boss to sit down with both of you and discuss whether it’s possible to, essentially, “reset” your relationship with this co-worker. If he can dial down his perception of hostility, and you can take a little more time for “relationship tending,” maybe you can meet somewhere in the middle.

          But I think it might be worth talking to your boss about why you are expected to accommodate his style, and he’s apparently not expected to understand any understanding to you, as well. That heavily depends on your relationship with your boss, but it might be worth making the point, at least.

          1. Lil Fidget*

            “why you are expected to accommodate his style, and he’s apparently not expected to understand any understanding to you” – this is a good point. Not necessarily in OP’s specific situation, but I agree that it seems reasonable to expect OP to put in 50% of the effort, or maybe 75% – but probably not 100%.

            1. Myrin*

              Yeah, I’m dreading conversation with her coworker and I don’t even have to have it, that’s how irritating he sounds!

              1. AnonEMoose*

                I do mostly try to be understanding, but yes, I’m feeling a little exhausted just thinking about dealing with this guy.

                Which isn’t to say the OP couldn’t improve her communication skills, but I don’t think the burden of this should be entirely on her.

            2. Kathlynn*

              I have this issue at work. Even before a coworkers (puzzling) promotion, my boss decided that I had to ask him everything, as a request. Because otherwise I was too demanding, and he didn’t like it. It didn’t change his behavior ,and I still just work around him. The only thing now, I just don’t bother my manager about it. Since she decided to promote him, and I’m tired of her saying it’s just an interpersonal issue. (him refusing to talk/respond to me about work things like “do you want to do thing xyz or shall I”, or help me at all isn’t an interpersonal issue)

            3. Jane of all Trades*

              100% agree. So long as the LW makes sure to not be condescending (phrases such as “that’s stupid, why would you do that”) I think her coworker needs to take some responsibility for his feelings at work. You should always be treated professionally, but that doesn’t mean that everybody you interact with needs to have your personal style.
              LW, I think I would try for one reset, let your boss know that you tried, and let it go. To be honest your coworker sounds a little childish.
              If you want to soften your style a little without sacrificing who you are, I think you could make sure to explain a little of your reasoning or the background when you’re giving instructions, so that your subordinates feel included and that their perspective matters, and when you have new reports you might even say “I’ve been told that I come across as cold, so if I seem that way I assure you that it’s not personal.”
              But I wouldn’t sweat it too much, it seems like this is more on him than on you.

            4. TootsNYC*

              yeah, when does the OP get to say, “That’s just the way I am”?

              I have had that “Wait–why isn’t it MY turn?” reaction in a few situations. Once at work, and I actually said it: “Why doesn’t she have to worry about offending ME?”

      2. OP*

        As I’ve reflected on our conversation, Alison, our discussion of being “task oriented” has been super valuable to me. My closest friend at work agreed and we’ve talked about places/times when it has emerged and maybe overshadowed the purpose of a conversation or project.

        1. hayling*

          That’s great to hear! I am glad you have a friend at work who can help you strategize this. It can be helpful to have a more neutral party give you feedback.

      3. OpalD*

        I can also relate. It helped me to remember that perception can be more important than reality and to take the time to manage that and those relationships (ultimately, they are relationships). I, too, value genuine people and genuine interactions, but realized that I can’t have that with everyone at work without it coming at a cost which wasn’t worth it to me. I’ll choose genuine friends, outside of work.
        The caller should remember that within every strength is a weakness and every weakness a strength. As long as she is self-aware (she sounds self-aware), and makes adjustments as necessary to mitigate negative impact to her career and personal relationships, she should take care not become insecure and obsessive about this.
        Additionally, remember that it is going to take time to change how people perceive you, so do your best and be patient!

      4. LadyCop*

        I can definitely say from experience that being interpreted as brusque in non social situations is more of a thing.

    2. smoke tree*

      Yeah, based on the OP’s tone in the podcast, I get the impression this is someone I could easily work with–she comes across as really thoughtful and collaborative here, and I don’t have an issue with directness. But I’m guessing this is partly field-based, and that her colleagues are expecting a level of warmth that she doesn’t typically bring to workplace interactions. I do suspect this one coworker’s combativeness is probably making this issue feel more dire than it really is, but it’s really frustrating to keep getting feedback about something that you can’t see yourself and can’t figure out how to fix, so I sympathize.

    1. Anonym*

      Seconded. She sounded pleasant and composed, with a totally normal voice.

      Probably many of us have little things that grate on a few people here and there, but not sure this is something that it makes sense to generalize on how people respond to her voice.

  3. all the candycorn*

    I’d bet $50 that you’re a woman, so just uptalk and play dumb and bat your eyelashes at this colleague. That’s what they’re asking for.

    “Oh you, um, *giggle giggle* want some, like, information? On the project? Like, I’m not sure I can like *giggle* handle anything that like, hard? I’ll need your Big Strong Male Help for it, because I’m a dainty lady whose brain is full of makeup and pixie dust and not much else *giggle giggle*.”

      1. Close Bracekt*

        It would be gross if I didn’t feel so often that it was true (from both men and women, bc men are not the only patriarchs in this society). I’m going to memorize this comment and recite it internally as a coping mechanism.

        1. Heynonniemouse*

          It’s both gross and true. I worked with a woman who’s interactions with our boss were virtually on that level, and it was gross not only that she did it, but that it worked. He ate it up with a spoon, and she got everything she wanted out of him. It was almost awe-inspiring watching her.

    1. College Career Counselor*

      I’m assuming this is sarcastic, as I don’t think you need to overhaul your entire affect in order to be successful in the workplace. What I would look at is whether this continues to happen with multiple people, or just this one co-worker. Because if you’re moderating with everyone (and only this person is complaining), it’s possible that the colleague is the problem and has decided to feel aggrieved no matter what you do.

      Possible suggestions:
      1. Ask your boss to sit in on conversations with this person to get a 3rd party take on what’s going on
      2. Ask your boss for specific, actionable things you can do to help the situation. (vs. “be less mean”)
      3. Have that difficult conversation with the colleague about style (what does colleague want from you? is this person re-litigating the comment from months ago, or are there more current things going on?)

      After all of that fails to address the issue, then I would ask the boss to direct the complainer to do at least as much work to change his/her attitude as you’ve done and/or to stop reporting the issue, as it seems to be the pet peeve of the complainer and no one else.

    2. Anon anony*

      I get your point and often feel like this. Some people think that if you’re not smiling and giggling, there is something wrong, ie: you’re mad at them, etc.

    3. AmazinglyGuileless*

      My first thoughts too. I’m a woman (and a very short woman at that) and I once had a male supervisor (who was also Indian) tell me that “women should not question men in the workplace, ever.” HR did not care when I reported (“Well, what WAS your tone like?”). I’ve never been the girly, giggly, “gee whiz I don’t know what’s going on” type, and definitely a certain subset of men (and to a lesser degree a certain type of women) CANNOT tolerate it.

      1. all the candycorn*

        I have been advised to play dumb to male superiors to make them feel better about themselves, and to do secretarial work that’s not in my job description so they feel powerful.

        I am having none of it.

        1. Bea*

          I cackle at the thought. I’ve worked only for crotchety laborer men and they never would have hired me if I had acted like they were all powerful and smarter than I am.

          But with my size, nobody has the nerve to tell me that I need to be docile and dimwitted.

    4. Jennifer Juniper*

      I’m guessing the co-worker wants her to act deferential and like a customer service rep.

  4. Lil Fidget*

    Urgh for me the hardest thing about working in an office is keeping my tone light and airy even when I’m stressed out or people are coming at me. When I get tense, my voice drops flat and low and sounds pissed off and aggressive. I know I sound unpleasant and unwelcoming. I have to constantly remind myself that we’re talking about paperwork in an office setting, we’re not like, meeting under the bridge with switchblades.

    1. Sack of Benevolent Trash Marsupials*

      Haha, YES, and “under the bridge with switchblades” is my new go-to phrase.

    2. Ellex*

      “When you’re a Jet, you’re a Jet all the way; from your first cigarette to your last dyin’ day!”

  5. Jenny Jenny*

    As an African-American woman, I’m just going to say it (even though I know it’s going to open a can of worms): I have been told this my whole career. It doesn’t matter if I’m sugary sweet or just stating the facts, I’ve been told that I come off as “aggressive” so many times. It’s irritating at best and makes me feel targeted at worst. And my story isn’t unique. I know of several other colleauges who have been called into their supervisor’s office for this, when nothing warrants it.

    I wish I had advice, but I’ve learned to just stop saying anything.

    1. soon 2be former fed*

      Another black woman in the US here and DITTO for forty years now. Aggressive, angry, all of that for merely being assured and confident and yes, not soft-spoken. It’s annoying as hell.

    2. Sabine the Very Mean*

      Yes and the same thing happens with ‘attitude’. Rarely are men told to adjust their attitudes and WoC are targeted even more. I do think there is a gender element to consider here and I also think sometimes we just had some weird past life issue with someone and nothing will fix that.

      1. soon 2be former fed*

        Ha! If I had a dollar for every time I was chastised for having an attitude, I could have retired long ago! It just means that you aren’t subservient enough, don’t kiss ass enough, are too direct, ask too many questions, and are difficult to BS. I wear my “attitude” with pride now, and accepted long ago that I’m not a political player in the workplace.

    3. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

      Not a Black woman but a WoC from a community typically stereotyped as “passive,” and YES. I’m exceedingly pleasant, but I’m assertive, direct and tend to cut to the core of an issue. As a result, I’m often told I’m abrasive, mean, angry, aggressive, “emotional,” even when my tone and affect/body language do not telegraph any of those things. When men or white women communicate the way I do, they’re seen as “strong leaders” and “brave.”

      I used to lose sleep over all of the negative feedback, but I’ve decided there’s no way to win. I try to still be kind, open, and pleasant, but I’ve decided I’m not going to win the tone war.

      1. A New Level of Anon*

        It’s interesting that you mention this. I’m a black WoC who works with WoC from ethnic communities that are stereotyped as “passive” (perhaps even the same community as you), and I have to admit that I sometimes find myself taken aback at the way some of those women perform assertiveness, to the point that I perceive some of these women as being aggressive and out of line with our org’s communication norms. There’s something hypocritical about this, of course – being black and wanting to keep my job, I over-correct to the point of being criticized as too “Minnesota Nice” for my professional role, but I find myself reflexively wanting to tone police women who are making an effort to be more assertive in the face of cultural stereotypes.

        It’s an ugly thing, and I want to apologize on behalf of other racialized minorities who, like me, might struggle to fight on the right side of the tone wars.

    4. OP*

      Jenny, I don’t think this opens a can of worms–your comment is so important and I’m really sorry that you have been targeted in this way. I wrote to Alison because I want to be thoughtful and proactive about how I relate to my coworkers, but this interview was a really good experience because I we talked through what I can do to address this, but I also gained a sense of the limits of what I can do.

    5. Carly*

      Hear, hear! As a white woman, I have both experienced this feedback and 100% witnessed black women colleagues receiving the same “aggressive” feedback at an even more egregious rate. I have not worked with a single black woman who *hasn’t* received negative feedback about her “communication style.” Tone policing women in the office is absolutely rooted in racism and sexism and it’s something I’ve run into at every single job, with every single woman who I would, personally, describe as utterly professional and deservedly comfortable in their expertise and abilities.

    6. JSPA*

      Part of it’s how our educational system rewards, ignores, and punishes people differently.

      Black girls who are not self-starting, self-aware, empowered, “lean in” types still so very often get ignored and low-tracked (at best) or chewed up and spat out of the educational system. Deliberate or temporize in class and you’re presumed to be hiding ignorance, and are passed over. (Statistically, boys are called on more and teacher’s expectations for white vs. minority students are quite dramatically different, especially but not only when the teachers themselves are white–references in next post.) So black girls with drive to succeed are trained to have their hand up before the question’s out of the teacher’s mouth, to participate as hard as they can, to be super-extra-assured in their answers and opinions, and to push hard past all obstacles.

      In college, so many young Black women have to navigate “being the black person who helps white people figure out their race issues,” on top of completing a full day’s classes, homework, and often, a full shift at a job every day. That can become a situation where every choice and decision must be made both as quickly and unilaterally as possible, and where the mounds of BS from classmates and roommates are sometimes best ignored / refused, rather than processed.

      Hit the work world, and you sort of get slammed if you continue to use what have, up to then, been your best (or your only) winning strategies. Because all of a sudden, assertiveness is only for upper management. Plus select “stars” (and if you’re not seen as a star, no amount of assertiveness and determined sparkle is going to win you entry to that club). It’s not in every place, but it’s So. Damned. Common.

      I don’t see this changing until we as a society stop accepting that schools hemorrhage Black students, and that so many Black students are shunted away from AP and gifted programs, or washed out of school without a degree by a combination of overwork and debt. If many, many quirky, neurotic, quiet, sardonic, phlegmatic, day-dreamy and/or nerdy Black girls also make it through with flying colors (as it’s assumed will be the case with their white peers), then assertive Black girls will have peer role models for so many more ways to be here, be strong, and be successful. And until we as a society stop assuming that the next “star” is going to have the look and feel of the previous “star.” And a…whole bunch of other race and class and regional accent assumptions that we seem to be just about as bogged in now, as we were 20 years ago.

      (If it makes you feel any better–it probably shouldn’t–a lot of Asian girls are equally stuck on the flip side of this coin, and it doesn’t necessarily serve them better.) There’s a poster (class focused, but nevermind) that I think of, when I consider how the same problematic assumptions hit people who may not think of themselves as having common cause. I’ll put that in the next post, too.

      1. Julia*

        Thank you so much for this post, and for the resources you shared. If I ever get to teach again, I will make extra sure to keep everything you said here in mind.
        (Also, this is off topic, but after your comment, I want to doubly smack everyone who says Hermione Granger can’t be black.)

    7. Triplestep*

      I am not a WoC, so I don’t know from personal experience what it’s like to have racial bias as part of this mix. But I feel similarly to Princess Consuela Banana Hammock and Jenny Jenny – I’m not winning the tone war, and I’m just learning to say nothing.

      It doesn’t matter how many colleagues say they love my communication style. It doesn’t matter how many project team members have applauded me for my straightforward yet friendly manner. Managers have even professed to have no problem with my tone, but if they hear from their peers it needs work, they pass this info along by way of coaching.

      As you can imagine, examples are hard to come by when no one will cop to having an issue with my communication style themselves. Occasionally a situation will be alluded to, I will be left to fill in the blanks, and often that passes as “giving an example”. I’ve even had these “examples” recycled from previous review periods at review time which is just so unfair.

      I’ve come to the conclusion there’s just something about me – probably a mixture of my gender (female), my age (55), and my weight (not slender), and my NY Jewish upbringing (I talk like every other NY Jew I know, but I live and work in New England).

      99 times out of 100, I do just fine with my tone, but it’s that 100th time that gets remembered and alluded to later. So while I am not going to completely let my hair down and toss my filter, I will say its hard to see the incentive to improve when my tone can always be brought up from any random time and vaguely thrown in my face.

    8. Close Bracket*

      I’m sorry. I know African American women have much larger cans of worms to open than white women.

    9. Phoenix Programmer*

      White woman here and I was guilty of doing this to black women. Your feelings and experiences are totally valid and I am sorry.

      I realized my bias one day when speaking on the phone with our HR rep. She made a joke about being busy. A simple, innocuous joke that umpteen coworkers had made to me. I remember getting upset and feeling she was rude. I almost complained to her supervisor.

      By happenstance I had recently read an article about black Americans experiencing more nagative reviews and particularly being considered abrasive more often.

      I stopped myself and asked – why do you feel this way? I thought about all the times coworkers made that joke without me thinking about contacting their supervisors. I realized for me it was tonal.

      I then thought about all the black women I know and realized their tone is typically deeper reasonating and that I was taking her deeper tone on a light joke as a rude thing when I’m reality it was probably just her voice!

      Since then I consciencly remind myself to expect a deeper tone to prevent the emotional response.

      This is why it’s so hard. Because a rude tone is a legitimate thing but the subconscious bias is turning on a woman or minorities ok tone I to rude in that person’s mind.

    10. Dw*

      Also black female. I also bend over backwards with please and thank you, smiley face emails and even do some vocal code switching at times.

      Definitely people assume black women are aggressive.

  6. Former Librarian*

    OP, I think that your problem comes up often in the library field. I chose to leave the library field after working there several years because I am task oriented, and I found it exhausting tending to relationships, and worrying about coworkers feelings instead of the task at hand. I am in corporate America now, and it suits my style a lot better, though I miss the social driven mission of libraries. I really appreciate this segment–you articulate this problem well.

    1. anon anonymouse*

      I understand your point, but I’m also in corporate America and still have to “tend to relationships, and worry about coworkers feelings instead of the task at hand.” I think it can happen anywhere.

      1. Escapee from Corporate Management*

        OP, there are definitely options for a librarian who has a direct, task-oriented style. One of the most direct people I knew was a high school librarian. With her communication style, there was no talking, stealing books, littering, etc. in that high school library!

        1. OP*

          I don’t work in a K-12 school library, but I am in a higher education setting, mostly with undergrads, and I don’t really get comments about my tone in the context of teaching or consulting with students. But you’re absolutely right that librarians in media centers/K-12 settings have to take a strong approach.

      2. Mskyle*

        I’m another former librarian and I feel like librarians are just the wooooorst about tone policing! It’s not a big part of why I left the profession but boy do I not miss it.

    2. anonnonaanon*

      I have noticed this too — I’m pretty extroverted and I’ve struggled with the same thing as a librarian. My most productive collaboration at work, ironically, is with another librarian who has been spoken to for being too blunt.

  7. Jodi*

    I know personality tests aren’t for everyone, but I would be very curious to know what the OP’s Myers Briggs personality type is! I’ve had similar issues in the past (been told that I’m too blunt, etc) and reading more about the ESTJ personality type has been really eye opening to me.

    1. Quiltrrrr*

      I’m an INTJ female, and all my life, I’ve struggled with the same things as the person on the show.

      Dealing a lot with that now at work, actually, since the folks around me know nothing about my rather unique role, and nothing about what I’ve done…they just know that I’m not warm and fuzzy, and have no desire to be.

      I think a lot of it is gender-based, too…I really do. I get comments, like ‘smile more’, and ‘lower my voice’ (it’s my normal speaking voice!!), and I NEVER hear the same comments made to the males around me. I went through years of Toastmasters to try to help too.

      1. Carly*

        INTJ woman here, too. It is absolutely gender-based and we’re often gaslit into believing that it’s truly an individual failing or “personality problem” as the OP said, but speak to other women? And it’s obvious we’re not alone. It’s a clear pattern.

    2. Canadian Public Servant*

      I would recommend against Myers-Briggs (it’s not particularly rigorous or scientific), or other “personality” tests, and perhaps look at a behavioural typology, like DISC. Because ultimately it’s not about changing your “personality,” it’s about communicating effectively and respectfully, and knowing that how you like to be communicated with isn’t how everyone likes it. Manager Tools has a good set of podcasts on this.

      Also: in DISC, I am a high D, high C. Blunt, task-focused, process-oriented and deadly serious about accuracy. Lots of very gendered feedback about this, but also some useful guidance from people I trust and respect about how to avoid my tunnel vision and use my focus on results strategically. I’ve worked on my soft skills a lot, because people are important. But that only goes so far.

      1. No imagination*

        Another DC here, and I mean really high D. My coping strategy was to chose a career in audit where I expect everyone to hate me anyway. (Only half joking.)

      2. thestik*

        Thank you so much for the Myers-Briggs caution. I’ve actually brought it up in a meeting at my job and ended up discussing how the Barnum Effect turns the test into semi-officially sanctioned astrology in the corporate world. Clearly I have issues with that and managed to have kept MBTI out of the office sofar.

  8. CRM*

    I disagree, despite the fact that I was actually expecting this to be the case. She sounds confident and conscientious. I like Alison’s explanation, but I also think that this coworker may have other issues with OP and this is how those thoughts are manifesting.

  9. AnonymEsq*

    I listened this morning and think Allison did a great job responding. OP is clearly conscientious and wants to improve and do well, but I think so much of this has to do with the unconscious bias of those around her, right back to her HS debate coach.

    1. Myrin*

      but I think so much of this has to do with the unconscious bias of those around her, right back to her HS debate coach

      I have to say – and this is not directed at you, AnonymEsq, your comment just happened to have the perfect wording to quote! – that, almost paradoxically, I often find this line of reasoning incredibly grating. I don’t think I’m able to phrase this all that well, but while it’s suuuper important to be aware of biases and preconceived judgments and all that, sometimes a Thing really is a Thing and it becomes frustrating when people try to deflect one’s wish for improvement/change with “oh no, you’re just socially conditioned to see it that way” or similar.

      I have a very loud voice. That’s a fact.
      I also have a voice that sounds like I’m irritated or annoyed when I’m feeling no trace of irritation or annoyance. That’s also a fact.
      I could identify with OP a lot when she muses that there seems to be something in her voice she’s not hearing, because that’s 100% me. I’m super close with my family and they tell me about this irritation/annoyance thing periodically and you know what? They’re right. They’re right and I can’t hear it while I speak. But we have records, both audio-only and video, where I can 100% hear what they’re hearing. I do sound annoyed and angry and hysterical, even when speaking normally about a regular topic. But there’s basically nothing I can really do about it because I can’t tell in the moment and have weirdly little control over my vocal chords anyway so I’m not sure I even could change it, but I try nonetheless.

      And as someone in that situation, it’s incredibly frustrating to be told that that problem is just in other people’s head. I get that it’s kindly meant, and I appreciate that (although no one has actually said that to me IRL; I’m from a culture where assertiveness is valued and where the threshold for rudeness overall seems to be much higher than in the US), but it’s not really helpful if there actually is a real problem. And I got that feeling from OP, too, when she says in the very end that she thinks this is “a long-standing personality trait” (although the part after that was heartbreaking! No, OP, don’t lose confidence or feel like you’re in the wrong profession! Nooo!). Which is why I really liked Alison’s advice because it was very actionable and acknowledged that if OP comes across that way, she can still do things about it.

      That being said, I wouldn’t put too much stock into what this particular coworker has to say. He sounds a bit hyper-sensitive, to be quite honest, like someone who can’t deal with no-nonsense at all, like maybe he doesn’t like OP and finds everything about her grating, and like he’s just so stuck (mentally) on the fact that he has problems with OP’s tone that he can’t seem to to want to get past it. And, like Alison, I’m not impressed with the manager here, but Alison has already talked about that perfectly.

      1. Kit-Kat*

        Agree. I’m the opposite- I have a really SOFT voice. So I do get comments like “speak up” which can be aggravating and not anything I can do much about though I try. People think I’m not confident because they just hear a soft voice, etc. However, I was persistently getting slightly different comments about “speaking up” in x situations, that I asked for more specific feedback. And it turned out that they felt I wasn’t contributing enough to these work discussions not that I wasn’t being loud enough. THAT was something legitimate I could work on and was actually helpful. It could also be a mix of both types of things (maybe a gender bias AND something about the person’s tone). Don’t get me wrong I appreciate when someone backs me up on the whole “can you please be quiet so we can actually HEAR Kit-Kat?” thing I also appreciated a chance to work on other ways I could improve how I’m perceived at work!

      2. Spider*

        There’s an old Kids in the Hall comedy sketch about a man with a speech impediment that makes everything he says sound sarcastic (link in my username) — I think about this sketch *all the time* because I work with people who always sound sarcastic (or whining, or abrasive), but if I mentally strip off their tone of voice and just listen to their words, they are saying neutral or even positive things. One of my coworkers has a kind of “weepy” voice that makes her sound like she’s crying, and I’ve heard a lot of people describe her as whiny, but she doesn’t actually whine or complain much at all. It’s a shame that something as (idk…surface? cosmetic?) as one’s natural voice can influence people’s perceptions of you, but that seems to be part and parcel with the development of language and communication in human culture!

        The great thing is that people can change their default tones and pitches of voice with practice (and if need be, speech therapy) — there are a lot of free podcasts and voice tutorials on Youtube to start. (Myself, I have a problem with speech cluttering, so I’ve been using these tutorials to speak more fluidly and melodically.)

        1. Anonymous Ampersand*

          Aaaaaaargh any of my uk peeps remember Newman and Baddiel and “Oh no what a personal disaster”?

        2. Butter Makes Things Better*

          Yes, this! So much this. This is what I was trying to get at in my comment downthread about OP’s voice. Sometimes a person’s default voice “packaging” conveys something not intended, and it can be useful to take that into consideration. So helpful that you had multiple examples handy. Great tip re: YouTube. Curious to see if OP tries that out.

      3. Ann Non*

        This really resonates with me, and I agree that there may be two separate issues; OP’s tone which might accidentally sound aggressive when she is focused on a task, and the hypersensitivity to tone of the coworker.

        Story time: I sometimes receive the feedback that my tone is “brusque” or “angry”; this happens when I am passionate about a topic and try to drive my point home. One time I was assigned to collaborate with a person who was really taken aback any time I said the words “I disagree”. To them, this was a personal attack/I was judging their character/… while to me, I was just stating a fact and I was ready to start discussing how to develop a strategy so we could eventually agree on a plan of action. Unfortunately what ended up happening was that I kept trying to police myself more and more, but meanwhile coworker got more and more sensitive to more and more perceived insults, so we ended up not being able to work together anymore. Luckily the project we were collaborating on ended eventually.
        So I don’t have any useful tips for how to make it easier to work with OP’s coworker, but maybe they can rearrange the team in such a way that OP and coworker don’t have to talk to each other, or only in the company of others.

        1. JSPA*

          Sometimes, as a last-ditch, hail-Mary pass, naming the problem in excruciating detail (which we’re conditioned not to do, as it’s much to revealing / honest / personal!) can clear the air.

          “I was raised in a large plain speaking family in a small town [or whatever] where we generally felt safe presuming common goals, felt secure in liking each other, and trusted each other’s level of competence. As a result, we all speak very directly and factually about things like disagreement, we are comfortable disagreeing with people we like and admire, we spend very little time discussing the bits we agree on, and we focus passionately on points of disagreement. When I appreciate and trust a co-worker and am hammering away in problem solving mode, I can fall into those same habits. I know that in the outside world this can come off as horribly unkind or cutting or undercutting, which is the opposite of my true feelings and intentions.

          “I want to put on the table that I think your work is top-notch. I appreciate the chance to work with you. I love that we come at the project from different points of view. The fact that we have disagreements to navigate is a sign that if the final product pleases both of us, it will be a far stronger project than either one of us could create alone.

          “I’m aware that when I get too comfortable with the project and with you, my responses can become telegraphic, curt and offputting. I have a very hard time accessing my problem solving skills while also policing my tone. I’m hoping that in our problem solving discussions you can cut me considerable slack for a half hour or so at a time. And that if it gets wearing, you will tell me so, in so many words, so we can take a break and have a normal, friendly, non-problem-focused conversation (or take a break alone, if that’s better for decompression) before I’m on your last nerve.”

          This can be adapted to whatever your issue is. Mine includes a voice that, after an overuse injury, sounds stressed or angry if I have to project much, and a tendency to consider problems from too many sides and in too much detail [/probably not news].

      4. bonkerballs*

        I think this was important to say. I’m at work so haven’t actually listened to the podcast and can’t comment on OP directly. And I absolutely agree with many of the commenters today that there *are* implicit biases that affect women and in particular women of color when it comes to their speech patters. It is so, so important to be cognizant of that when someone has an issue with the way you speak. But it is *also* important to be able to contextualize feedback and realize when there’s an actual tonal issue and not someone policing your femininity.

        Also, sometimes tonal issues have more to do with environment than with you personally. For example, I used to work with ex-con, usually middle aged or older men who had been in prison 10 years or more. I was consistently told by those clients that I was so nice, so friendly. That even when they didn’t want to come to their appointments, knowing I would be there made them feel less anxious about it. That when they were feeling really crappy about their situation, a conversation with me would make them feel more positive and hopeful. And then I started working at a preschool and had a really hard time when my boss had several conversations with me about how when I talked to our families, I didn’t come across as warm and kind. After years of one my parolee clients telling me he was pretty sure I was a literal angel, my new boss’s opinion was virtually impossible for me to comprehend. But apparently what is super kind and friendly to ex-cons is not the same to young families.

        1. wherewolf*

          +1 OP, it could be both societal expectations, your coworker being oversensitive, and your voice actually sounding that way. I think listening to the recording of the podcast or of a meeting, or asking a neutral third party will help clarify.

  10. Bea*

    I can’t make that call based on a recording. Recorded voices are the devil, I’ve had folks confirm my phone voice and my IRL voice are nothing alike.

    I can hear some speech patterns from the blurb I listened to that you’re possibly picking up on and can see where it may be an issue but still it’s not pinging on my radar as grating.

  11. Bea*

    I have only had this thrown in my face by insecure men. I had to slow down and sugarcoat as benign as “I have some checks for you to sign. Thank you!” despite always (always, I’m not exaggerating, it’s muscle memory now) saying “thank you” and adding in please as much as humanly possible.

    I would take stock in who complains and adjust for them as much as I can but seriously unless you’re snapping, snarling and raising your voice, the one jerk complaining constantly is grinding an axe nobody can stop his BS for him.

    1. Jennifer*

      Been there. I pour on so much sugar people should get sick. I’ve been complained about a billion times but so far nobody complaints about “too perky” or “too apologetic.”

      1. Jennifer Juniper*

        People always complain about me being too apologetic. I even got this on my last job as a customer service rep. I’ve actually annoyed people by being too cheerful in the morning as well. But then, I’m one of those weirdos who doesn’t need caffeine to wake up.

      2. Bea*

        I’ve since learned to leave these situations.

        But I have that luxury and have a skill set that’s high enough demand in a metropolis. I hate that others just take it.

        Honestly I would stop trying. Fire me for tone. I don’t care. Prove it to employment department that my tone is misconduct.

  12. Amber Rose*

    This sounds like a clash between someone who is direct, and someone who is excessively conflict avoidant. There may not be a good solution for that particular relationship.

    As for the general, LW is there any chance that when you’re distracted, you start sounding more sarcastic? I know the busier I am, the drier my tone of voice becomes. If you pause, greet the person and then smile, that can help take any edge out of your voice.

    One of my coworkers walks into our office with a booming “greetings! your hero has arrived!” before complaining about stuff. It’s very silly and only works because it’s him (it would be grating from basically anyone else), but that momentary cheerful sidetrack sets the tone pretty neatly.

  13. Anon From Here*

    The best thing I ever did for my own RBF and get-to-the-point conversational style was to become a lawyer.

    1. soon 2be former fed*

      I always think that I missed my calling, but I was/am too poor for law school. Yep, work with it not against it!

    2. Under Cover Lady Lawyer*

      Self-employed lawyer is the pinnacle. I wish I could express the joy of being unleashed. There is nothing more professionally satisying than being able to name the horseshit you’re stepping in and then putting your shoe on the table when they won’t listen. It is truly sublime.

  14. Ask a Manager* Post author

    I will add — I do not think we need to analyze the caller’s speaking voice, and in fact doing that to anyone would be rather cruel and I’m going to remove any further comments that attempt to do so. (Amy, this is not directed toward you in particular but intended to head off further discussion of it.) Whether or not someone has vocal fry or whatever is not relevant to the question she’s asking.

  15. Myrin*

    I had the same reaction to a milder degree, but I do wonder if that was recording-based (or maybe even the-speakers-on-my-computer-based). I can’t explain it well (especially not in English), but it sounded to me like the kind of voice which is at the same time nasal and coming from deep down the throat. My cousin sounds very similar, only with the nasal-ness amped up a lot, and although she’s perfectly lovely and we have a good relationship, I sometimes have to force myself to listen to her because she sounds so whiny all the time (voice-wise; she’s actually not a whiny person at all); with OP sounding less nasal, I can see how the thing remaining could be some form of “grating” for sure.
    However, about halfway through the episode, OP suddenly started to sound differently to me, so I’d say I’d really have to talk to her in person to accurately gauge my perception.

    1. Butter Makes Things Better*

      I think I heard what you heard, Detective Amy Santiago, because I was debating whether or not to post a comment somewhat similar to yours. I wasn’t on edge listening to OP; her tone on the podcast conveyed thoughtfulness and openness, and the whole exchange was engaging and full of useful tips for anyone to employ when interacting with others. But (and I’m also struggling to find a way to say this; and I’m also not saying I’m right, either ==>) … I heard a pinched quality to her voice that seemed to fight her intent, maybe because for me, that tone kicks up associations of either know-it-all-ness or defensiveness. (I know that definitely happens with me when I’m having an uncomfortable conversation or feel under attack, because my voice gets pinched or more nasal, which gives it a hard, unrelaxed edge that sounds like I’m digging in my heels instead of listening.) Which obviously is not where OP is coming from or wanting to come from.

      Regardless, I’ll bet Alison’s suggestions — esp. the “Hey, I’m sorry our conversations have been fraught, and that’s not at all what I intend”* lead-in and the follow-up questions about the other person’s concerns — go a long way toward mitigating the issue, if not with Guy in Office Doing The Most, then with others. And I’ll put in a plug for vocal coaching too, because a good vocal coach can really help with warmth and the way one’s voice comes across.

      [*This tip reminded me of a classic Frasier bit when Niles opens a card from Daphne’s mom that reads, “Dear Niles, I know we’ve haven’t always gotten along.” And that’s it.]

  16. Dovahkiin*

    OMG managing this dude’s emotions sounds EXHAUSTING.

    FWIW, I am also a brusque, to-the-point, just-the-facts-please type woman.

    1. Jennifer Juniper*

      I would constantly fall over myself apologizing to this guy, then wondering if my autism was showing, which meant I was Failing Adult Human.

  17. NicoleK*

    I’m at work and haven’t listened to the podcast. OP, have you and your colleague sat down to iron things out? I had major issues with a former coworker at a past job (communication was just one of the issues). I’m task oriented and she’s relationship oriented. After sitting down with a neutral third party, we were able to improve our working relationship somewhat.

    1. Anonym*

      Would love to know more! What were you able to resolve, and what remains? Were there any aspects that were effective, others not so much?

      1. NicoleK*

        I will try to keep this brief. Background: We were peers, on the same level, I was a program manager and her role was program evaluation, process improvement, and data analytics. My main issue with her was that she didn’t deliver on any projects I asked her to work on. Her issue with me was that I wasn’t friendly to her or didn’t want to be friends with her. As I was task oriented, the more she delayed or just flat out didn’t bother to work on projects I needed her to do, the more I became irritated with her and wanted little to do with her. As she was relationship oriented, she was really focused on the poor working relationship but it was hard for her to connect it to the fact that she wasn’t working on the tasks that I needed her to. I was at BEC with her so our boss made us meet with a neutral party. We each had time to share our feelings and perspective. It was a difficult, emotional conversation; there were raised voices and some tears from her. At the end of the meeting, what stayed with me was that it is best to assume the other person is coming from a place of good intentions, I was tasked oriented, she was relationship oriented, we had very different personalities, work styles, and communication styles. After the meeting, she did put a little more effort into working on the tasks that I requested from her which reduced my irritation with her.

        1. marmalade*

          WTF. As you say, these things go both ways, and I understand why she got upset if you were being a little short with her – but this honestly sounds much more like her problem than yours.

          You were coworkers who need to collaborate on projects, but she wasn’t doing that work. Then she wondered why the working relationship isn’t great?
          Your BEC status aside, did she not understand that she was being a poor coworker?
          Like, you can’t just drop parts of your job like that. It sounds like she was basically shirking the responsibilities of her job.

          1. NicoleK*

            Prior to the meeting, I don’t think it ever dawned on her that she was a poor coworker. I don’t know if it’s because she’s totally clueless, that arrogant, has trouble reading cues, or all the above. She was just focused on the fact that I was terse with her, didn’t chit chat with her, and wasn’t too friendly with her.

        2. Ann O.*

          And this is why I have such a problem with the task-oriented/relationship-oriented dichotomy. It positions them like their equal orientations, just different. Except work is about tasks, not freaking relationships. You have to get tasks done. You don’t have to be friends. Shirking on tasks is an objective problem; shirking on friendships is not.

        3. Ellex*

          This reminds me of a conversation I had at a former job, where I was asked, “Why don’t you like Fergus (not his real name, obvs)?”

          My reply was, “I don’t especially like or dislike Fergus, but I find it annoying that he doesn’t do his job, and when he does do it, he does it poorly, which makes my work harder.”

          “But that’s no reason to hate him!”

          “I don’t hate him. I just wish he’d do his job.”

          And around and around in circles we went. It wasn’t the first, nor the last, time that someone assumed that just because I wasn’t BFF’s with a particular coworker, or didn’t go out of my way to socialize with them, that I hated them – and because of that perception, that coworker or others who were particular friends with that coworker actively disliked me.

          The result has been the adoption of a “work personality” – I go out of my way to be friendly and personable in ways that aren’t really natural to me. Occasionally I run across someone who seems to be able to discern that this is a public personality and is put off by it, but not often enough to stop doing it. At this point, people tell me I’m friendly in person and “terse” or “brusque” in emails, which are by far my preferred form of communication – I can get right to the point and just ask relevant questions or provide relevant answers without having to preface it with a bunch of socializing.

          I find the use of exclamation marks and salutations (Hi! Thanks!) mostly keeps anyone from complaining about my unfriendliness in emails, although I notice that emails from men are far less likely to have salutations or exclamation marks, and no one complains about them being terse or unfriendly in electronic communication.

          Basically, I don’t need to be someone’s BFF to work with them. But some other people don’t seem able to distinguish between a professional relationship and a friendship.

            1. Ellex*

              It’s always heartening to know I’m not the only one to feel this way or experience it.

              I can’t remember where I saw it, but I once read an anecdote about a couple of young women in college. Student 1 was complaining to student 2 about how much she hated student 3, but when asked what she didn’t like about student 3, couldn’t actually articulate anything more than being “put off” by her. Student 2 pointed out that being “put off” was incredibly insufficient reason to hate someone, and that just because you aren’t instant BFFs with someone, or just don’t particularly get along, isn’t justification for something as active and nasty as “hate”.

              That really resonated with me and explained a lot about the behavior of a number of people I’ve met throughout my life.

          1. Quisty*

            “I don’t hate him. I just wish he’d do his job.” Sounds an awful lot like what I’ve said. I’ve been accused of being bitchy, terse, angry, etc. I may have that tone of voice, but is it wrong to just want coworkers who can do their jobs? That, combined with Bitchy Resting Face sometimes leads to unfortunate assumptions.

    2. OP*

      I can’t really say my colleague and I have “ironed things out.” Alison’s suggestion that I suggest we “reset” was my first attempt. We needed to talk about something that was pretty benign, so I took that as an opportunity to start off by saying that I knew our working relationship had gotten off track, I’m sorry for my part in that, and I hoped we could try to start afresh. My coworker asked what I meant and I said that I know my tone can be confrontational and I understand that can be off-putting. Unfortunately, he replied, “Okay,” and that was just our segue into the meeting agenda.

      1. Amber Rose*

        That sounds like a him problem, not a you problem. At this point i’d argue you’ve done your due diligence in trying to repair things with that specific person and it’s just not gonna happen.

        1. Marion Cotesworth-Haye*

          Agreed. Holy passive-aggressive conversational style, Batman! Complaining about you to your mutual manager several times, and refusing to engage when you apologize directly to him? While sure, you should continue trying your best to stick to an objectively reasonable tone with him (as you would with the rest of the office), but otherwise I think you should relay this to your manager (to demonstrate that you took his/her concerns seriously and consciously tried to resolve) and consider your due diligence complete.

          1. OP*

            I haven’t relayed this to our manager yet because I wanted to see if things got better after that conversation. I don’t feel like I’ve given it enough time.

      2. Dot*

        Can you go back to your manager and relay this conversation to her?

        It’s clear that this guy has just decided that he doesn’t like you and isn’t going to make it possible for you two to work together, and he should be held accountable for that.

      3. Bea*

        Ef this jerk. I’m sorry that they’re passing his complaints on because HE IS THE PROBLEM. Not you. It never was.

        He’s a delicate flower and has issues. He’s not interested in getting along or respecting you.

        Tell your boss this is how you’re addressed it and so he’s not pulling his weight in the situation.

        I would fire this guy if I were fielding constant petty complaints and then refusing to acknowledge the attempts to rectify.

        He sounds like the scumbag I used to work for. A coworker apologized about his tone and the dimwit just shrugged at him. What a terrible human. I’m sorry he’s causing you stress.

  18. Jennifer*

    I have the same problem. People don’t like a direct speaking woman and find them very offensive–and I get complained about with regards to how my voice sounds in general as well. I’m with Jenny Jenny in that the only solution is to not speak at all–except people won’t stop asking me questions and getting offended because I didn’t say “Dear Name,” at the start of every single e-mail or just the slightest anything. I am apparently just offensive for existing. So I hedge and apologize and soothe all day. Doesn’t work on someone who is always offended by you though–I just pissed mine off again.

    1. Sloan Kittering*

      Heh, I was told as a young woman that my voice was too high pitched and uncertain, people couldn’t take me seriously. Now that I’m an old fart, people tell me that my tone is aggressive and unpleasant :P I suspect my real crime is … existing as a female in a work space. See also, all the stuff about “vocal fry” (100% nonobjectionable when male radio hosts do it, a huge issue coming from female voices) and “uptick” (more characteristic of young women, therefore immediately wrong and bad and Should Not Be Done). What I think is odd is that all the soothing digital assistant voices (Siri, or the google navigator, or the amazon things) are women’s voices, because apparently people feel less threatened receiving directions from a woman. Whelp they never liked it much from me! (I assume also they just assume women are more servile, who knows).

      1. Jennifer*

        Yeah, literally everything boils down to “How dare you exist as a woman around me.” Sad but true. I’m just so sick of being the worst because I exist and I’m here.

      2. Julia*

        What annoys me as a woman with a high-pitched voice (seriously, I once recorded myself when I had a cold, thinking I finally sounded dark and raspy, I could have passed for the long-lost little sister of Kristin Chenoweth), is that when we try to drop our voices, which is basically what vocal fry does as the fry register is the only one where I don’t sound squeaky, we get chastised for that as well. You really can’t win for losing.

        1. Jennifer Juniper*

          I once answered the phone in my hotel room. The front desk asked to speak to my parent. I was 40 at the time.

    2. Under Cover Lady Lawyer*

      Throw the needy a bone – when emailing star with “yo” and end with “later.”

  19. JSPA*

    First, if the person has reached “b*tch eating crackers” stage with you, they will tend to read attitude into any highly inflected speaking style. If you’re tense, the tension in your body will push your vocal cords further in that direction. That will amplify any underlying drama.

    So, if you have an inflected speaking style–and you do, and there’s nothing wrong with that!–it can help to have an intro sound that’s fairly immune to that inflection. It’s what you learned to NOT do in debate: put a thoughtful “Hmmmmm” or “Oh!” and a pause between whatever he says, and whatever you say.

    This goes double (and serves a double purpose) if you pre-think interactions, or if you think very fast, such that every answer from the other person is immediately met with your intense and thorough counter analysis.

    Even (especially) if you already anticipated his information…even (especially) if you already know what you’re about to say…take a moment to elicit a response from him and then “reflect” on his words (i.e. take a moment to study the pores on the side of his nose, or the stapler). He’ll feel more “heard,” even if you don’t say, “so what I hear you saying is X.”

    This also leaves open the possibility that you’ll hear something other than what you’ve expected to hear; that you’ve developed a habit of completing tasks by yourself, then pseudo-including the responses of your team-mates.

    [ahem] not like I’m speaking from experience. ; )

    1. nonymous*

      Have you every played one of those video games where to clear the area the character must move in a very specific sequence? Max out health points, bop robot and then smash zombie because if you start with the zombie, the robot will attack you and there aren’t enough health points to survive fighting two characters off simultaneously.

      Only in an office setting, it comes across more like: Ask Fergus about his weekend, share an anecdote from yours [max out health points] and then transition into Teapot Paint Fiasco. Fergus to inform customers that vermilion & periwinkle teapots are experiencing delayed shipment [Fight off the robot]. Jane to reconfigure part of the periwinkle paint production to vermilion. [Fight off the zombie].

      And if I were to break it down further, I would say that the [max out health points] part of this formulation likely looks very different to different people and is tied to some big issues including personality, identity, culture and internal value systems. Some people only do work if there is an extrinsic motivation.

  20. Kramerica Industries*

    I noticed that some comments pointed to how tone might be a bias against women. I’m in a similar situation where my boss has said that my tone (in writing and verbally) can be too direct, almost being abrasive.

    Her suggestion was that instead of being fully direct (i.e. Can you do X and have it to me by Friday?), that I can soften language by appearing more helpful (e.g. Can you do X and have it to me by Friday? Let me know if you need anything!).

    Very rarely do the men in my office say “Let me know if you need anything else” (or to that effect), so I’m wondering if there’s anything I can point out or say to my manager without going being accusatory?

    1. Myrin*

      I honestly think that this is an example of what Alison talks about in the very beginning of this podcast, of a situation where it isn’t that women get criticised for something too much but rather that men don’t get criticised enough (although I personally don’t see much of this in either direction, but I’m positive that has more to do with my country/culture).

      I’m very direct, too, but at the same time, my writing style naturally follows the style of you “softened language” example. And I personally appreciate that style of writing much more than the “fully direct” one, regardless of who it’s from (although I don’t particularly mind the fully direct one, either, I just prefer the other one). I realise that’s not directly an answer to your question but maybe you can reframe it in your mind as your being given a valuable tool for written communication in general? (Doesn’t negate the annoyance of not seeing the same directed at men, of course!)

      1. Empty Sky*

        Yeah. I had a female colleague once who was very smart and capable, but inclined to be a bit too blunt in meetings when calling out stupidity. She never made it personal, but she could be quite scathing about a proposed course of action (for example) if she thought it was a bad idea.

        Another colleague, male, did the same thing but far worse. He would go beyond just advancing his viewpoint into contrarian/devil’s advocate territory. He had a knack for finding people’s weaknesses and he WOULD make it personal. And he was very smart as well, so he could really stick the knife in very effectively.

        Guess which one of the two raised the hackles of older male executives to the point where they refused to even attend meetings with them?

      1. Kramerica Industries*

        I asked for direct examples and she didn’t want to provide any without identifying who complained. But she said that people say that “relationships and perception are important”.

        Or the one example that sticks out is that the VP of another department said that I can’t speak to him like that through email, but this was an isolated incident where I’ve brushed this off as being direct put a damper on his ego.

        1. Triplestep*

          I hardly ever get concrete examples because it’s a *style* issue and people have a problem putting their finger on what it is that is irking them. AND/OR when they hear themselves actually articulating the example, they hear how stupid the example sounds and they backpedal and make it vague. Search my user name for my other comment here and you’ll see more about “not getting examples.”

          You are not alone!

    2. swingbattabatta*

      My boss is constantly telling me to “be nice”, when from literally any man anywhere, it would be considered a normal business response. It makes me insane.

  21. Faith*

    My boss is a woman and she actually told me that she appreciated my directness when dealing with others because she was tired of being the only “strong woman” in the office. Her mantra is “I’m not a bossy b!tch. I’m the boss, b!tch”. So, while she believes in maintaining civility and treating everyone with respect, she doesn’t believe that she should not be assertive just because it can make some people (mostly older men) uncomfortable.

    1. Those Mini Teapots*

      I had an old boss who was the opposite of your boss. She basically told me that my emails (just written language) sounded “harsh” and that I should “soften it up” because she was copied on emails to vendors and I would say things like “Hi Jane, What is the status of the mini teapots we ordered?” without saying something like “I hope you are having a great day!” or making small talk via email before asking what I needed. I did as she said after that feedback and she said “Your emails are sounding better.”

      Luckily now, I work with people who are more direct. One time I tried saying “Hi Client, I hope you are having a great day. Here are the photos of the mini teapots you requested.” and my boss goes “No. Here are the photos you requested. Skip that other stuff.” My kind of boss! :D

      1. Robin Sparkles*

        This goes to show how we are all different. I would absolutely add the “hope you are having a great day” because that is so natural to me and my style. At the same time- I would not be offended by someone more direct (email or otherwise) – because I recognize we all have different styles and personalities.

      2. trying to make emails softer*

        Interesting that you say this. You know, Alison had a post related to this ‘softening emails’ thing, and what you did with the ‘hope you are having a great day’ is similar that. I also think this is a good thing, because compared to speech, emails do tend to come across colder in tone, in general. I’m not sure why your new boss needed to actively correct you about it? Especially to a client?
        I tend to come across as brusque in emails and actively try to soften it. A few softening words makes a world of difference, in my opinion. I also corrected my direct report that her requests came across as a bit demanding (and I noticed, was sometimes making the recipient sound defensive in response) because she didn’t use any softening language. We are both women, and I really don’t think it’s a gender thing – I think the email element takes out most of this bias. Frankly, I often don’t know the gender of the person writing to me (my report’s name was also such that probably most people couldn’t figure out her gender).

        1. Mini Teapots*

          I did as I was told by boss but had to add the “fluff” [How are you?/I can’t believe it’s Fall!] back at the top of the email after I had written what I really needed [the mini teapot status] I guess I’m just more task oriented? As long as someone isn’t being actively rude, I don’t mind them asking directly for what is needed. I tend to skip over the first line of emails most of the time because it generally says “I hope you’re well” and I go for what they needed.

          Regarding the current boss, she was there when I was drafting the email. She did not say it to the client. Sorry that was unclear! Client had also pissed her off because this was the second set of mini teapot photos sent because client did not make clear what color teapot he was expecting to see photos of.

      3. Jennifer*

        God, that sounds nice to not have to soften.

        It’s like, in my job everything is on fire and urgent. I don’t have the time to give you a blankie and a warm toddy and a hug and make sure you feel good before I ask!

        1. Julia*

          I once told someone I sort of managed to do X urgently, and he completely flipped, yelled at me that I only ever gave him work (what did he think he was being paid for?) and then went to complain to our boss. The result was that I got a lecture about softening my language and being more accommodating, never mind something being urgent for the entire operation. I was so done with that job at that time, so I told the boss they were being unreasonable and that I refused to be yelled at.
          Later, the same guy said he just overreacted because my English was hard to understand (I’ve taught English to the point of making recordings for my students, checked by three different native speakers!), which was only a problem because he didn’t speak the local or the working language of the office either. (How he even got the job is beyond me.) When I then started using easier sentences and speaking more slowly, he complained again that I was being condescending. I said it above in a different comment, but you really can’t win for losing. I quit that job.

        2. Mini Teapots*

          THIS! I’m someone who’s more interested in getting things done, not having to BS people to get them done. Like I mentioned, my current job doesn’t do this and I’m so grateful. In fact, my current boss is so direct that sometimes she has me look over her emails before she sends them to make sure that she isn’t too “rude” sounding.

          I work for a small company and the owner of the company is never seen as rude but she is direct, kind and firm. She said “I don’t have time to hem and haw with people. Tell me what is needed and we will get it done.”

  22. gecko*

    What a snarl of things that you can, can’t, and shouldn’t control, OP! The factors I see, OP, are: your gender, your definitely feminine vocal intonation, this specific guy being a pain, your directness as an element of your personality, and where you live.

    I think the other commenters and Allison really capably have addressed the gender etc. But, I’m from the East Coast and lived in Wisconsin for a time, and I think it may be playing a larger role than you think. I think this in particular because of the comment you mentioned getting in your feedback to “read the room”. Someone who is direct-but-reasonable in one region is unacceptably aggressive in another.

    Here are some of the things I’d say you could try to look at in this area:

    1. Are you accidentally ignoring people, or overlooking their requests for you to do or change something because they’re phrased too softly, and making people feel unheard? Try paying special attention to indirect statements and what may seem to you like passive comments.

    2. Are you asking people, particularly peers, for things too directly? There’s a big tonal difference between “oh, can you take this to the shredder too?” when you see someone passing by with old forms and “oh, are you on your way to the shredder? Can I put another on your pile?” The first one sounds like an ORDER, even though it’s just a direct request.

    3. Do you interrupt people? The Midwest is an increeeedibly non-interrupty culture, so this was really hard for me–I come from a very interrupty culture! Keep an eye out for it. Even if someone’s saying something wrong, let them finish.

    1. gecko*

      To be clear…I think that the “midwest culture” thing is something you can try to adjust to if you want to. I do think there are factors going on that you can’t control.

      For instance, I think since you’re a woman and have an intonation that reads feminine to my ear, I think that your directness may stand out a LOT to someone who has a kind of cognitive dissonance about that tone + anything other than submission (for lack of a better word).

      Interestingly, I think that Allison has a very similar intonation/vocal pattern (though a different accent). She manages to be direct without triggering that cognitive dissonance by injecting a liter of focused warmth directly into the veins of her tone. It’s a huge pain to listen back to your own voice, but I wonder if there’s a way you can try to do something similar without feeling phony, especially comparing your and Allison’s voices in conversation.

      1. Ask a Manager* Post author

        “by injecting a liter of focused warmth directly into the veins of her tone”

        Ha! This is not far from what I try to do. I think this is very much a function of the fact that I have always thought A LOT about tone (mine and other people’s), probably to a weird extent.

        1. Triplestep*

          Maybe you’re like me. I put a lot of stock in cultural differences and similarities when it comes to tone and communication style. I look to most people like your run-of-the-mill white middle-aged office lady, but I was raised by a pack of NY Jews and that’s where my communication style comes from.

          The “Diversity and Inclusion” team at a former workplace of mine took on the subject of communication by holding meetings and discussions during lunch and after work, but I quickly learned that they were gearing these towards the experiences of people who had come to work with us from outside the US. (It was Big Pharma, so quite a few people from quite a few places.) That’s great, but the US is huge and we have our own cultural differences (even between some people who look the same) that really could be acknowledged.

  23. Gloucesterina*

    I have found knowing about task-orientedrelationship-oriented spectrum really useful. I’m currently in exactly zero positions of authority and am quite soft-spoken, to a fault, so I haven’t had to navigate the same challenges as a woman more on the task-oriented side of the spectrum. But it has helped me develop better working relationships: being able to identify over some initial interactions who I should turn the relationship-building side on with; and knowing who I can turn it on and off at will without affecting that working relationship.

  24. Panda Bandit*

    The complaint is only coming from one person? Yeah, you don’t have a tone problem, you have a problem coworker.

    1. Robin Sparkles*

      Actually she said in the podcast that it is multiple areas she has received this feedback (about being direct and knowing the answer). However- I do think this may be a combination of coworker problem and tone problem.

    2. Detective Amy Santiago*

      I think she said that she’s received similar feedback for at least a decade, starting in high school.

  25. Q without U*

    A question for strongly task-oriented people — is it possible to re-frame a task to include managing relationships as part of the task? In other words, would it make even sense to tell yourself that the task is, “I’m going to talk to Jane about this and make sure we’re both on the same page at the end of the conversation,”?

    1. AnonEMoose*

      That’s kind of what I’ve had to do, over the years. So I try to start conversations with a bit of small talk “how are you. how’s your week,” that sort of thing, before moving into “I’m wondering if you can help with…”

      With emails where I’m giving bad news, I’ve found a phrase like “I understand this isn’t the outcome you were hoping for” to be useful. For a coworker, you could be a bit more casual like “I’m really sorry to be the bearer or bad news,” or “I’m sorry, I know this wasn’t how you were hoping things would work out,” or something like that.

      I do sometimes get a little annoyed, but I also recognize that it makes my work life smoother, so I try to appreciate it on that basis.

    2. WannaAlp*


      For example:
      Start task by engaging in a few how-are-you small social pleasantries with co-worker. Then proceed to rest of the task that requires interaction with co-worker.

      This probably comes over as cold or unfeeling but it doesn’t have to be. In reality, I’m pleased to see my co-worker and happy to check with her/him, and I know it’ll help lubricate the working relationship. I just need the reminder, that’s all, to not forget to do that!

    3. AnonAcademic*

      Yes! I have coworkers I am lukewarm on as people but they are fine as coworkers. Whenever there is a chance to make small talk with them, it’s like I check off a box on my to-do list, “Be nice to Bob so he feels you have a warm professional relationship.” It feels very fake because I don’t actually like Bob that much. But it’s benefitted our relationship anyhow – I recently had a setback similar to one Bob went through, and I reached out to him about it, and he was actually really nice and reassuring. So the relationship has gone from performative to more genuine over time.

  26. Dot*

    As someone who lived and worked for several in the same part of the country you mentioned, the sad truth is that you will never not be the “outsider”, never not be the person who’s pointing out the problem and therefore icky to be around because why didn’t you just cover it up and smile (nevermind that that’s your job), and never not be the person who once got on this person’s bad side and so is condemned forever. I encountered people like this and there’s really nothing you can do about them. They’re set in their ways beyond anything you can image. Add in the gender aspect and it’s even more hopeless.

    This is probably not helpful but please stop taking this on yourself, like you’re the problem. Maybe you’re too direct sometimes–I am too, in my job. But how open-minded and willing to forget other people are is totally outside of your control. It’s great to learn and grow but you can’t take other people with you.

      1. Dot*

        Getting laid off from that job so I could fly on the wings of severance back to the West Coast is one of the best things that’s ever happened to me.

  27. Ms.Vader*

    This could be me – exactly. I am always being spoken to about coming across as aggressive and “snarky”; but to me – I’m just speaking normally and I am having such a hard time trying to hear what they hear. I have tried so hard to monitor my tone and how I am coming across and it just seems impossible. I’ve tried recording myself and doing role play and I just don’t hear what others are hearing. Maybe it’s because I hear it with my intent? My tone of voice is loud and I am fairly straight forward. How do you change your voice? I get frustrated because I find it’s always me having to somehow change my voice or word things in a more “airy fairy” way. When does it become enough is enough and that is the way someone speaks. If somebody is quiet and mumbles, the explanation is always “that’s the way they speak”, why doesn’t it go the other way?

    This struggle has left me in tears many times. What is the line between aggressive and assertive?

      1. Ms.Vader*

        Ha absolutely and I have pointed that out especially when I actually got in trouble for saying “hi” too aggressively to a male coworker. I literally said “hi, how’s it going” and it apparently sounded too threatening!

        1. Close Bracket*

          I had a coworker tell me I was unprofessional for opening an email with “Hey” bc he thought I was aggressive. I admit to being casual, and that’s what “Hey” as a greeting is. Casual. Yes, I’m a woman.

          1. Elfie*

            O.M.G. Some people are just too sensitive!!

            How many men get told that they sound intimidating or scary? Probably none, because if a woman admits to being intimidated, that’s her problem. If a guy is intimidated by a woman, that’s … also her problem.

            1. AnonEMoose*

              And yet, women are the ones who are “sooo emotional”. I think I just strained a muscle rolling my eyes.

  28. Carly*

    I have been literally champing at the bit since listening to this episode on my commute this AM, waiting for this post to show up, so I could comment and scream ME TOO ME TOO ME TOO! I could have written your letter, OP.

    You are not the problem. YOU ARE NOT THE PROBLEM! Yes, there are strategies you can use to “soften” your tone. Yes, you can try different approaches. Yes, you probably need to adjust a bit at work for the sake of keeping your job. But it’s not fair, and it’s not your fault. I want to say, from a fellow woman who has been told since childhood that I’m intimidating, scary, too direct, blunt, whatever: you are not alone. Please don’t try to change your personality. Please don’t worry yourself into a frenzy about pleasing others by constantly policing your tone. There are people for whom you will never be soft enough, deferential enough, and quiet enough for, no matter how polite you are, no matter how professional you are, no matter how much expertise and command you rightfully wield — they will be threatened by you for simply existing as you are. That is not on you.

    And, for the love of all that is holy, do NOT reconsider your career based on feedback about your tone. To me, you sound passionate, wonderfully direct, and professional — all qualities that should be admired and considered leadership qualities but, in a woman, are *so often* coded as threatening and brusque. Don’t let them grind you down, I beg. Shine on, librarian.

    Final word: I would *pay* to work in an office of women like us, who valued direct communication and no need for pretense about hiding our task-oriented professional approach. PAY.

    1. Barb*

      Agree, this OP sounds competent and thoughtful.

      I am from the Upper Midwest and the passive aggression drove me nuts. It always felt like it was more about avoiding problems (letting them fester, rather than making sure everyone is on the same page and clearing the air if needed. Women are policed much worse on this, by women as well as men. But I was also able to win some people over, as they learned my style. You shouldn’t feel bad about yourself, you sound awesome!

  29. Lucille2*

    So much of how tone is received is cultural. I come from a part of the country where being assertive comes off as aggressive, and passive-aggression is the preferred method of handling conflict. However, after having spent most of my career working with global teams, I have really had to adjust my expectations from others. Now, I actually prefer working with cultures that are more direct. IME, It leaves less room for misunderstandings, and expectations are generally more clear.

    Now I’m considered too blunt and occasionally aggressive among friends & family from my home town. Communication is a two-way street. If OP is having trouble with one colleague in particular, I would argue the colleague is the problem or is failing to meet the OP halfway.

  30. Engineer Girl*

    So I’ve listened to the podcast and have several comments. And by the way, I’ve been in the exact same position as you. Also, as someone that’s grown up in the Midwest and now living in California I can see some of the cultural things going on. Here’s my breakdown.

    OP, I see three things that are a “problem”. These are gender based but you need to know it:
    • Many of your statements are declarative and said with authority. There is absolutely no hint of uptalk, questioning, or “feminine” in them. That’s offensive to a lot of people, especially insecure ones.
    • Your voice pitch is lower than most. That adds to the authority tone.
    • There’s a small hint of glottal fry. It’s not much, but it’s there.

    All of these create a veryauthoritative voice (to my Midwestern ears). That’s super offensive to avoidant/insecure types. I’ve seen women counter it by:
    • speaking in a higher pitch
    • speaking in a softer (throaty) way. Alison does this to some extent.
    • speaking in an questioning information gathering way Vs declarative.
    • speaking in a cheerful way

    In a perfect world you shouldn’t have to do any of this. But this world is far from perfect. I would also like to suggest the book “Crucial Conversations”. It has a lot of great techniques for interacting with someone.

    Now for the other part.
    Your coworker sounds like a real piece of work. While you didn’t say it, I suspect that he has performance problems and he is using any excuse to get out of it. He’s a poor victim you see. It’s never him. There may be sexism behind it, or merely passive agressive manipulation.

    With that said, in relationship oriented people the best thing you can do is spend happy time with them. Work with them on career development, etc. The focus is on having positive interactions.

    I would also go back to your boss and ask for specific and actionable things you could do with your coworker. Don’t let her off the hook. And if there are performance problems then your boss needs to step up. You may have to be direct with with your boss. Ask her to explain the coworkers “feeling sad”. Ask her what her actual expectations are.

    1. AnonAcademic*

      I’m curious why you admit that people bothered by the OPs vocal style are “avoidant and insecure” but then suggest she cater to their preference? Why not recommend they work on being more direct and confident, or at least meet her in the middle?

      Putting the onus of voice coaching on the OP, to avoid triggering other people’s insecurity and gender-based stereotypes, seems like asked the OP to capitulate to sexism and dysfunction. If OP got the same feedback from the majority of her coworkers, I could see these recommendations being helpful, but it seems more like it’s That One Guy. And maybe he needs to work on his confidence instead of making the OP change her vocal style.

  31. Elizabeth W.*

    I’ve been told I’m too intense. In fact, a relative told me once that no man would ever love me because I was too intense. :( I do tend to be dramatic, especially when I’m telling a story or get involved in a very focused conversation. I’ve been trying to use the mindfulness to dial that back as well as for anxiety.

    However, where do you draw the line? I think warm and fluffy is so fake. I don’t want to come off as fake. I’m striving for Buddha-like serenity, but damn it’s hard.

    1. Holly*

      That’s really rude!! I’ve been told throughout growing up I’d never meet a guy if I’m not more ladylike and next year I’m getting married to a guy who gives me a high five if I burp. So, there you go.

      Depending on what you mean, it’s less coming off as fake and more “I understand that social niceties are appreciated.”

    2. fposte*

      I second Holly’s post throughout–what your relative said is rude and also very untrue, given that all kinds of people get loved regardless of their intensity.

      But I also agree that casting warm and fluffy as “fake” isn’t right either, on a couple of fronts worth considering: first, people come in all different kinds of cuddliness and no engagement level is inherently fake; second, that “fake” isn’t inherently bad if what you mean is “conscious and considered.” What’s natural to us in practice is mostly from ingrained habit and acculturation rather than hard-wiring, and there’s nothing wrong or untrue to yourself about consciously choosing to change that habit. That doesn’t mean “change what you do” is always the answer, especially when the request is dubious, but it’s also not a betrayal or an alteration of my fundamental nature to remember to put a salutation at the top of my outgoing emails before I send them.

  32. Birch*

    OP, you don’t need to go to a voice coach or spend your free time training yourself to speak with all 15 Principles of Perfect Female Voicing or whatever. EVERYONE has little idiosyncrasies with their voice and communication style–some people have vocal disorders!–and the rest of us have to live with it. You are spending so much effort to communicate with this guy in a way that makes him comfortable, and he knows it–this isn’t like the boss who yells and smashes the table, this is not about you having said something offensive to him, he literally has a problem with your voice. That’s like having a problem with your face, or your height. You are not having your voice AT HIM and he knows it. He’s using this bizarre victim play to manipulate you by going behind your back. Think about it this way. If you had a colleague who you thought had kind of a sharp edge when they talked to you, what would you do? Wouldn’t a reasonable person just say to that colleague, “Hey, I just wanted to ask if I’ve done anything that bothered you? I might be wrong but I thought you’ve been a bit short with me lately so I wanted to clear it up.” A reasonable person does NOT go behind someone’s back to their boss about this kind of thing! And there is NO way he would have pulled this BS with a male coworker.

    IMO you should feel free to bring it up with him directly and let him squirm in the awkwardness of knowing he got caught going behind your back. And proceed with your life knowing that you have much more important things to do than to worry that your perfectly nice voice is hurting this guy’s ears. Maybe spare him an ingratiating smile to “soften” your perfectly reasonable directness.

  33. Episkey*

    I don’t know, I don’t hear anything wrong with this person’s voice. I listened to the whole podcast. I feel very sad that this one coworker is making her question her entire career.

  34. Galahad*

    Alison – I think you missed the obvious solution. I have worked with very blunt direct managers (men) who had to be coached by HR to soften up a bit to be more effective with the team. It was not natural for them. When people identify a male, in male dominated field as needing coaching, you better believe that it is an issue. Yet these people also tend to add the most $ profit to the bottom line.

    As Alison indicated, the core problem is that the co-worker feels talked down to, or that you don’t like them, at all, etc. This is because of an absolute absence of any relationship queues that you do. From warm and welcoming “hello! how was your weekend” when you casually see them in the day, and following up later with interested questions about their life, making a point to be appreciative and glowing about their work, to only focusing on the facts (and problems!) when you do talk.

    The obvious solution is to , yes, sit down at your next meeting and in a sentence or two address it directly. Alison’s phrasing however made it sound like the speaker is blaming the co-worker –“lots of you seem tense, on guard ” “you.. you. statements.” (that would put me in the defensive) instead of saying “I know I am brusque and very direct and I create tension when we talk am trying to change that”..
    THEN — you need a blunt statement about what you like / appreciate about the person. THIS IS POWERFUL to change the dynamic. “I wanted you to know that I like you as a person and what I especially appreciate is your ability to add X to our project teams. When I discuss a problem or change, to me, it is fairly minor in the big scheme of things and I am just trying to efficiently get it out of the way so we can focus on getting the work done. But I need you to know that I would like to continue to work with you long team as you abiity to X adds to our success.”

    TLDR — Just bluntly tell the coworker that you like them, and what you appreciate most about them, and that you know that they add a lot of value. You are direct, so it is ok to be direct about saying this too.

    1. Sue Wilson*

      Okay but what if she doesn’t like them and doesn’t appreciate them? Let’s not add to the fallacy that people are always likable just because they exist and the default is liking everyone.

      1. Jennifer Juniper*

        Then she can fake it. Isn’t that what professionalism at work is? I’m being serious.

  35. YB*

    I’m a male librarian working toward a PhD in gender relations between librarians, and I’ve done a lot of work around these kinds of interaction (both academic study and fieldwork) so I hope my comments are useful here.

    I love what Alison has had to say here, and can confirm: the gender-performativity bar and double standard about assertiveness is very high for librarians, especially librarians in places like Wisconsin. Reading through the comments here, I thought that this situation may or may not be gendered, but now having listened to the podcast and realized that the caller is a female librarian whose tone is being received poorly by a male colleague…yeah, I’m comfortable saying that gender is definitely a factor here. It’s not necessarily the only factor, but it’s definitely a factor (especially if the man is a librarian as well).

    Almost all librarians are women. Female librarians – even moreso than most women in most workplaces – are expected to be nice, gentle, accommodating, eager to please, relationship-focused. Male librarians, because they’re such a rare breed, tend to benefit from their privilege even more than most men in the workplace—they tend to be fragile, to expect to be deferred to, to feel entitled to a lot of emotional labour from female colleagues.

    In my own fieldwork, there are absolutely some female librarians who are “mean” to some good-hearted, well-intentioned male librarians. It can happen, much as Halley’s Comet can happen. And there are absolutely a significant number of situations where one colleague is task-oriented and one is relationship-oriented and they clash, and it’s not overtly gendered (though gender dynamics still play subtle roles). But for every one of those, there are a hundred where a male librarian gets mad that a female librarian isn’t performing her gender role in the way he feels entitled to.

    Having talked with a lot of female librarians who seem “brusque” to their male colleagues, and then listened to how you express yourself on this podcast, I can totally see how some male librarians might find you too direct. But that’s about them, not about you. If you want to change how you come across for your own sake or for the sake of your career/relationship with your manager/etc., I think Alison’s ideas are great. But it’s really likely that you aren’t doing anything wrong—that you’re just doing your job in a perfectly acceptable way and that this guy just feels entitled to police every little thing about how you come across. If you want to change, change for you – please don’t feel obligated to change for him.

    There’s a part toward the end where you say you might want to find a different field…where you don’t have to deal with people. That last part made me so sad. The problem doesn’t seem to be how you deal with people. It seems to be how one man deals with you. If I were in your situation, I would probably look for a different position with a manager who’s more aware of these issues, if that’s possible. Good luck!

    1. curious*

      Hi, you say that male librarians, because they’re rare, benefit. In most professions where women are rare, women lose out. Why this difference? I think in other fields where men are the minority (teaching young children, nursing) men have their share of difficulties from being a minority. Is it because women are ‘supposed’ to be good at caring for kids, while men are ‘supposed’ to know about intellectual things like books? If that were really the case, why wouldn’t there be more male librarians?

      1. marmalade*

        Have you heard of the “glass escalator”/”glass elevator”? It’s the phenomenon by which men in female-dominated fields tend to have more opportunities for professional advancement than the women.

        It’s pretty well-observed in many fields, not just librarianship.
        And while men in fields X or Y may well face their own challenges, they are also likely to benefit from the “glass escalator”.

        (my comment disappeared, sorry if this posts twice!)

      2. marmalade*

        Oh, and the difference is due to sexism, basically – women get short shrift whether they’re a minority or dominant in a profession.

        1. anonnonaanon*

          Also, librarianship used to be a male-dominated profession way back in the day. When women started entering the field in larger numbers, it became a less prestigious field for men (I think it’s more a complicated story than that, but I don’t know the full tl;dr version for sure). Now it’s female dominated, but you still see men in leadership positions.

      3. Jennifer Juniper*

        Men are higher status than women. Therefore, they are worth more.

        So says society, not me.

    2. anonnonaanon*

      Thank you! I am a woman librarian who gets this kind of pushback from *women* librarians at my workplace as well. I’m also from academia originally, where it was important for me *not* to be passive, which I think feeds the pushback as well. Academia is gendered this way, too, but the library world feels much more gendered. It gets exhausting, because if I’m nice and accommodating, I get stepped on, but if I’m more assertive or direct, I’m being mean or arrogant.

  36. Argh!*

    I knew from the title that this would be coming from a woman.

    Men are “non-nonsense” or “all business” when they’re direct, and women are abrasive or bossy.

    It’s doubly outrageous for someone in a knowledge profession to be criticized for having an opinion. Why pay someone for their knowledge and then tell them to tiptoe around coworkers? All coworkers paid for their knowledge should expect knowledge to come from their peers.

  37. Tabby Baltimore*

    I don’t know if anyone has already addressed this, but OP, if you’re still reading, and if you think your relationship with your supervisor is stable enough to ask this question, you might want to consider asking some (more diplomatic) version of the following: “Boss, how much longer/how many more times are you going to listen to my co-worker’s complaints before you stop him in mid-sentence and immediately re-direct him back to me to solve the problem?”

    I don’t know how long your co-worker has–from what it sounds like–been at BEC stage with you, but I honestly don’t think you would be out of line asking your supervisor a nicer version of “How much longer do you think this can go on?” Because what happens if none of your strategies work, and your co-worker continues complaining to your boss about you? It might be worth asking her this, just to get her to think more about how much of this constant carping she’s willing to put up with. One more month? Six more months? A year?!? If she doesn’t want to be hearing about his “issue” with you any more, she needs to give some serious thought about what SHE is willing to do (NOT you, NOT hr) to make it stop (or least prompt less-frequent complaining).

    Good luck. Please let us know what you did, and how things turned out. We’re all rooting for you.

    1. OP*

      Thanks, your questions are very reasonable. I have told our manager that it’s frustrating to hear about my tone second hand and I’ve asked that we find another way to address this because it doesn’t seem to solve any problems. So now our entire organization is going to do Strengths Finder, which I mentioned on the podcast, and then we’re going to have mediated conversations about our how our various strengths and qualities fit together?

      I doubt that this is going to lead to a “celebration” of my directness by any coworkers who find me off-putting, but my director says she hopes this will help all of us understand each other better?

      1. Argh!*

        I am also an East Coast woman working in a Midwest environment. I have been called “abrasive” and called out on my “tone.” Curiously, all the people who have complained about me are men. Am I a horrible person and the women are just tight-lipped? Or are the men annoyed by a woman who isn’t tight-lipped? Or both?

        I have talked to a few people I’ve gotten “short” with after some self-reflection. One of them is a woman who has trouble putting a period on a sentence. She repeated herself over and over and kept apologizing for asking me to do something for her after I’d said yes repeatedly. I tried to say this jokingly but I think it was a little sharp: “What part of “yes” don’t you understand?” hahahaha … not funny. I apologized later and said I won’t lie to her to make her feel better, that when I say yes I’m committing to it and she to give me an out. She admitted that she does tend to repeat herself, so it was all good. Last week, she & another woman kept apologizing for their opinions, and I disagreed but didn’t apologize for myself. I always come away from these things wondering if I should learn to be midwestern-style girly but I just don’t think I can do it.

        Is your organization at all diverse? Mine isn’t, and it’s very provincial. I’m an outsider even thought I thought I’d fit in when I applied for the job. It’s very distressing. My latest complaint came from a man who has called me out for “invalidating” him when I disagree, but he disagrees with me all the time. The conundrum for me: retaliate and complain about him? Or become “defensive” i.e., defend myself from unfair criticism? It seems there’s no way to “win” or even survive.

        So… I feel your pain. This exercise that sounds hokey may really be helpful if your organization is homogenous. If they can’t handle your difference in style, they could use a little awareness that not everyone is like themselves.

        Good luck with this! I want to hear how things come out.

    2. Jennifer*

      “How much longer do you think this can go on?” Because what happens if none of your strategies work, and your co-worker continues complaining to your boss about you? It might be worth asking her this, just to get her to think more about how much of this constant carping she’s willing to put up with. One more month? Six more months? A year?”

      In my experience, I want to say this but can’t…and the situation continues. No manager is going to tell the guy, “Look, she’s trying to change to please you but nothing she does can please you. Let’s just accept that you’re never going to be happy with her behavior because of Bitch Eating Crackers, and I don’t want to hear any more of the exact same complaint over and over and over again any more.” Even though I wish that would happen.

      We did Strengths Finder here but I don’t know if that is going to make any kind of difference in the long run. I would guess that OP is pointed out as being an Activator or something similar and Pissed Off Guy has all the relationship themes or something like that, and then well…who knows.

  38. Former Expat*

    I felt before that I was in a situation like OP’s. It was volunteer, so the stakes were lower in a sense. It seemed like a co-volunteer (who reported to me) was at BEC stage with me. I thought that he really did not like working with me at all. I could do no right. So I did do the thing that Alison suggested of just putting it out there. He…. did not take it well. The whole situation ended with him finding something else to do with his time. So for my .02, as someone who did take the option of putting it out there, be prepared that it might end with one of the two of you leaving.

  39. Amanda Fisher*

    I can relate to this podcast so much. I also am told that my “tone” is a problem. I have done quite a bit of work over the years in figuring out exactly what is going on. This is what I have figured out.
    1. I don’t see the workplace as a place for me to find friends. I usually try to keep the two realms as separate as possible and instead treat co-workers as just that.
    2. I am direct and do not believe in sugar-coating work communication because this should never be taken personally.
    3. I do not appreciate anything that does not make sense, cannot be explained clearly or fully, or anything that resembles work-speak platitudes.
    4. I will then question peers, managers, or groups to be clearer in why something is happening, especially if it doesn’t make financial sense, if the work it will create does not given the necessary ROI, or if a change is made without attention to the details that matter sometime no longer be successful with the change.
    5. I am at the director level, so I am not afraid to show my frustration.
    6. I am a woman.

    I have found that it took me taking the narrative back to reinvent how I was perceived. I can’t believe it works, but it does. I often say things like, “I need to be direct and clear here, because I find that leaves no room for ambiguity so we can move forward with an honest conversation that I feel needs to be had about x decision.” Or, “My interest is in the health of this corporation, so I must question how the man-hours on this project are allocated.”

    What used to be perceived as a “tone,” or people saying they are unable to work with me because I’m so blunt and direct- now people say she cuts through the BS to the heart of the problem, or she asks all the right questions at pivotal times, or even- she has high-standards.

    The change all came about by me framing my insubordination / calling BS in different terms. Now I have 4 people who have all asked to be my mentee.

    1. Argh!*

      I have cut to the chase a few times by asking “What is the purpose of this meeting?”

      You’d think all meetings would have a purpose, but when you catch someone off-guard with that question they will accidentally tell the truth. One surprising answer can be summarized as “Although I gave you the impression I want your input, the purpose of this meeting is to make you see things my way.” Another time it was “Although I *said* the purpose of the meeting is to work on problem xyz, the real purpose is to make sure you feel heard so I won’t feel guilty for not solving your problem.”

      I find it really useful to learn when the meeting has a completely different agenda from what I thought.

      I also do something I call “leading from the side,” i.e., saying the things the chair of a committee or working group should be saying, or drawing the group back to the agenda items, or summarizing what was accomplished at the end of a meeting. When you add up everyone’s salary for that wasted half hour or hour, it’s very expensive to let a meeting get out of hand just to satisfy someone’s weird psychology. If 7 of 8 people agree, let’s vote and move on. That eighth person (and it could be me) needs to get over it.

      Harsh? eh… I agree with you. These aren’t my pals. We’ve been hired to accomplish something that somebody else values. That somebody else is almost never in the room physically.

    2. Tabby Baltimore*

      Your comment rang a bell, and I had to go back to a 2008 article (“Gender Stereotypes at Work”) to find it:

      I know the article is about how a woman’s anger in the workplace is viewed, and how a woman could mitigate the effect(s) of that and still get taken seriously, but I was really struck by how Amanda Fisher seems to have adapted the mitigating strategy suggested in the article as a way of handling how she is perceived, and made it her own. Perhaps this quote from the article will clarify:

      “What can women do to mitigate a backlash in response to their anger? Brescoll has found that providing a credible explanation for the anger is a simple, yet effective strategy. … the angry woman who explained her anger with a straightforward, two-sentence reason was perceived as having nearly as much status as the angry man and her salary increased.”

      I do realize that directness *does not equal* angry, but it does come across that way to some. Amanda Fisher’s specific examples might not work very well for someone with less power. After reading the article (back in 2012), this seemed like an actionable strategy to me, and could work even for people who are relatively low on the corporate food chain.

  40. KT*

    OP – you’re living my life! But for me, the criticism of my tone was made through an annonymized survey that was shared at my annual review, so I have no way of targeting my tone issues and it feels completely like an attack on my personality. Best of luck with this!

  41. CM*

    I wished there were some role-playing in the podcast, so we could hear what the OP sounds like in a work interaction. Listening to the OP describe her problem and her workplace, she sounded so reasonable and thoughtful. It was tough for me to connect her demeanor in the podcast with the criticisms that she said she had received all her life about her tone. Then again, I am a Northeast lawyer and not a Wisconsin librarian so maybe I interpret her tone differently. I would be furious and would be tempted to quit if I were held responsible for making my coworker sad because I was being mean by not… I don’t know, listening to his problems and bringing him cupcakes?

  42. Me*

    Side note that it is intensely frustrating that when woman are talking about an issue they disproportionately are faced with (facts,btw, there’s lots of studies out there on how women’s speech is interpreted over men as well as gendered insults), that there are people who seem to find it necessary to derail it by bringing up how men have this problem too or how they haven’t experienced it so they just don’t think it’s real. It’s diminishing.

    As I once said to my boss, you don’t get to decide the experiences I’ve had in the workplace. Just don’t do it. Believe people when they are telling you of issues they face because of their gender, orientation, race, nationality age etc.

  43. Eviltwinjen*

    I was so excited to comment on this because I’m also a very direct task-oriented librarian! When I first started in the field, I got feedback about seeming unfriendly or snobbish, and I admit I WAS a total know-it-all (still am, but I’ve learned to give other people’s perspectives more room). I’ve developed strategies over the years, and I’m now known for and loved for my frankness (I’m pretty sure I’m not being Lady Catherine de Bourgh here, people have straight up told me they appreciate that I will say what no one else will, or that I have a gift for saying tough things with a smile). The first step was smiling more and making chit chat. I know, I know, but I know I have a rather forbidding resting face, and my family was not given to small talk. I had to learn how to do it, with patrons and coworkers. Luckily, I was able to find a style that worked for me by channeling my genuine curiosity about people and solutions. I also use humor a lot, with a big friendly smile, and I’m careful to phrase criticism constructively and acknowledge other people’s contributions. I like being effective, and when I embraced that being effective was better than being right or showing I knew the answer, it made a big difference for me. I try to go into an interaction with a strategy for what will get me the best outcome, even if that means holding back a bit or presenting my opinions as one perspective among many (which they are, even if I think I’m right!). I invest in relationships with key people by just dropping by their offices and sharing a story or observation. Most importantly, I try to disarm people’s reactions by acknowledging that I’m about to be direct or frank, or calling attention to the potential for discomfort. “I’m going to be really frank here…” “Part of me feels like [insert opinion here]…” “Here’s where I’m coming from/what I’ve been seeing” “I want to talk about something that’s sensitive/difficult…” “This is tough to talk about, but…” are useful phrases for me.

    I don’t at all mean to overlook the gender and race dynamics at play–I’m just speaking for myself as a white female librarian in a pretty privileged position. Some of this may not be relevant for you, but I think the technique of acknowledging and even making a light joke out of your communication style might be helpful for you. Another really effective technique is to ask people for help. I love being asked for my opinion or to help, and others do too, so phrasing things as requests for someone’s help or insight can often strengthen your relationships.

    Please don’t think you’re in the wrong field! Not everyone is going to like you and that’s OK. You can find little ways to be more effective, but being direct and caring passionately are good things.

    1. ThursdaysGeek*

      I really hope the OP comes back and sees this comment. It sounds like she needs to use that ‘Wisconsin nice’ as a learned tool, at least when working in this area. And you indicate that you have done so, and what it could look like.

    2. OP*

      Thanks, it’s validating to hear from other people in my field who’ve had this same challenge, and who have also done what they can to address it.

  44. Queen of Alpha*

    This is a personal issue for me because my soon to be ex partner is like this. We have had many communication meltdowns because of her tone and directness. What makes it worse is that if someone turns around and does it to her, she breaks down, cries and accuses the other person of being mean and/or spiteful. She lost a career after having so many issues with managing a team and reporting to upper management. Tone is so important, and being direct is good, but if you don’t know how to combine the two you will put other people off.

  45. AzEsq*

    Alison’s advice is spot-on, though for determining whether he is able/willing to police his own response, but to be honest, his behavior sounds deliberate. The fact that the boss is also a woman and she is unable to see what this is is quite odd. She seems to know, but not be willing/able to address it. Perhaps because he’s doing the same thing to her? I’m confused.

    I am a very direct and assertive female litigator, I also happen to be black. Fortunately, I’ve generally worked with strong women and secure men. When I haven’t, this has happened. This sounds to me like a problem with him, not you. Although, tone adjusting is sometimes necessary, I would really consider how tied you are to this role and this organization, because I listened to the entire thing and ESPECIALLY when you were talking about the difficult things you had to address with co-workers/subordinates, it resonated. He is insecure and “threatened” by you as ridiculous as it sounds. I would document everything with him in writing. This can turn toxic and have you second-guessing yourself forever!

    Fortunately when this happened to me, it was my direct boss (she was very incompetent and when I casually noted the things that were incorrect, or brought up how I’d ‘fixed’ stuff-without even knowing she did it- she lost it) and I got fired. It was the best thing that ever happened to me! She was fired 8 months later, but my career has never been better! This was pre-law school and I might not have gone if I’d stayed in that role! This is a learning experience, but I’d be looking for a new role AND documenting this coworker’s responses with HR and his supervisor.

  46. Francesca*

    I listened to this podcast on a long drive last night.

    I’m an (female) ED of a small not-for-profit and find when it’s “crunch time” I get focused and don’t take time to fram directions and leadership with the extra softness my staff appreciate. Fortunately my staff have no problem pointing this out and I can correct and we use a lot of humour to cope. When we get into the last minute details of an event or decision, I often joke my leadership style morphs into “benevolent dictatorship”.

    So I understand your guest’s challenge, and I agree gender also can play a role, more than we know.

    I worried, in listening, if your guest only interacts with the challenging co-worker when there is something negative to address. If she only seeks a meeting or conversation to redirect etc, then I would understand him think “oh geeze now what?”.

    If she can find opportunities to spend time listening when he gets something right, it might shift the relationship.

    “Hey ______ was a really great idea, tell me how you came up with it. I thought it was brilliant!”

    If he no longer dreads her emails or face in his office door, it may help.

  47. AnotherDirectLady*

    I’m late to the game on this one, but after I also listened to this recently on a long drive (seems to be a common theme here!) I felt the need to comment too. I SO feel the OP’s pain and relate to this too. In my case, however, the “other coworker” was my boss, and he used this to sabotage my performance reviews by saying that I lacked communication skills and had problems with coworkers. It definitely had me second guessing myself and worried that I was somehow offending people without even realizing it, which made me feel terrible. What I found to be really helpful was to just make a mental list of the different coworkers I interacted with and really consider how each of those relationships were. I discovered that I could actually point to a lot of scenarios where I had great relationships with coworkers (for example, I was the only person outside of one department asked to join their fantasy football league, they wouldn’t have done this if they hated me!) and over time came to realize that the problem was I was working in a really chauvinistic office, my boss felt threatened by me, and that *he* was actually greatly disliked by others. Now, this didn’t help fix the problem, but it 1) helped me keep my sanity and prevented me from getting too down on myself and 2) made me realize that my boss was never going to support me and I was never going to get promoted. I recognize your situation is different (it sounds like your boss is more or less behind you) but please try to not get down on yourself or take what your coworker says too deeply to heart! You got this!!

    Side note: I’m so curious about what the coworker’s interactions are like with others…

  48. nnn*

    Regarding task-oriented vs. relationship-oriented, one thing I’ve found useful is to pay attention to things other people are doing to attend to our interpersonal relationship or to attend to my emotional needs. For example, a while back I was in the hospital, and every single person I dealt with had fantastic bedside manner. So I reflected upon what exactly they were doing and why this works, and being able to recognize it adds to my toolkit of ways I can attend to other people’s emotional needs.

    I’ve also found an easy and effective way to attend to others’ emotional needs is to thank them in specific terms for anything I can perceive them doing for me. Example include “Thank you for your super-fast reply!” or “Thank you for catching that typo!” or “Thank you for your patience with my frustration.” It’s easier for me (in the sense of it comes more naturally and I’m not blind to it) to recognize and acknowledge when someone has done something for me than it is to manage ongoing relationships with small talk and mitigation and such.

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