coworkers treat me as a therapist and I just want to get back to talking about work

A reader writes:

I’m trying to figure out how to deal with a situation I’ve been facing quite frequently.

I’m a (younger, female) assistant professor. Rather frequently, (mainly but not always) male students mistake me for their therapist. To be sure, I’m happy to help students navigate campus/academic life beyond the scope of my class, but I am not a therapist and so when the “here are the 90 terrible things that happened to me this week” and the “I’m such a screw-up, probably you’ve never gotten a D in your life” monologues start, I manage to steer the conversation back to the problem at hand, make sure the student has a support network in place, refer to counseling, and clarify my role. Not always easy, but usually fine.

My issue is, I face the same kind of thing from my (older, male, tenured) colleagues as well. The other day, a colleague apologized for not getting back to an email I sent — great! thanks for the acknowledgement! — but then proceeded to tell me a whole litany of issues, which really were best reserved for a friend or therapist. I’m having my own life issues, and I don’t share them unprompted when I miss something important — I apologize and move on, or move on with a very succinct and non-specific explanation.

This happens with some regularity, although to be fair it’s not always the same people doing it. I want to say, “Wow, that sounds tough. Anyhow — back to the email….” The issue is being untenured — tenure cases have been sunk on “fit” and “being a good department citizen,” and if I’m perceived as rude, that’s not a good thing for me. I’m already from an area of the country perceived as being a bit abrasive.

In general, I’m friendly at work, I enjoy nice times with most of my colleagues, and I don’t think people perceive me as hostile. But are there better things I can say in the moment that will (nicely) cut a person off so we can get back to business?

(My husband has an interesting theory about this. He thinks that “nice guys” have realized that they need to be in touch with their feelings, which is good … but don’t always realize that there’s another part to that, which is knowing when to share and with whom.)

Yep, a lot of the people who do this to women are not doing it to men. Some of them are, but a sizable portion of them (I’d guess a majority) aren’t. It’s the old thing about seeing women as, at some level, caretakers and fonts of sympathy and caring.

And caring is a lovely thing! But there’s a time and a place for it, and women who are trying to do their jobs shouldn’t be expected to provide it at higher rates than men.

On top of that, as you note, women can pay a professional price for trying to cut off the oversharing and moving the conversation back to actual work — it can mean that now they’re seen as cold or a ball buster or unlikable. And that matters because, to twist the knife a little more, research shows that women have to be seen as likable in order to be viewed as competent and influential at work. Men just need to do well at their jobs.

However, one caveat here that’s always important when we talk about this stuff: This is about data in the aggregate. It doesn’t apply to every woman in every situation. If you’re a woman reading this, it’s not a sentence of doom for you; many, many women are successful despite this crap.

In any case, what are you supposed to do when you want to short-circuit this kind of over-sharing from colleagues (sounds like you’ve got it handled already with students) but have a particular need to stay likable because of your office politics?

I actually think you can do a version of your “Wow, that sounds tough. Anyhow — back to the email….” You don’t want to literally say “back to the email” but you can just return to the subject.

That’s the basic formula — a very concise expression of kindness/empathy, followed by a return to the subject. For example:

* “Wow, that sounds really tough! It’s fine if you need more time before you respond to the email, but I’d love your thoughts whenever you’ve got them.”

* “I’m sorry to hear that — that sounds rough. Well, how about I go ahead and send you the report I mentioned and you can take a look and see what you think?”

Quick expression of kindness, then right back to the subject. As long as your tone sounds genuinely warm, this usually works.

You can also be explicit that you’re short on time:

* “That sounds really rough! Sorry you’re going through that. I’ve got a student coming by in about five minutes so I’ve got to be quick, but I wanted to get your reaction to that proposal if you’ve got time.”

I cannot stress enough that tone is really key here. If you sound warm and caring in that one sentence of empathy, it’s very hard for people to come away thinking you were cold or dismissive.

But I also want to recognize that I am a down-to-business east coaster, and while this style works for me, it’s possible that it wouldn’t work in all areas of the country or in every business culture. So let’s get other people’s thoughts in the comments too.

{ 397 comments… read them below }

  1. Eillah*

    I hate that as a woman I have to be “on” all the time. I feel like I can’t just be a neutral person and like….have an off day, or an off-appearance day. Men don’t realize how much of a privilege it is just to *be.*

    1. Old Biddy*

      Totally! I didn’t pick up all the socialization as a kid and my default setting is to just be. It has had repercussions in the workplace and I’ve had to train myself certain behavior and etiquette.

      1. dealing with dragons*

        lol I def tell people I was a feral child and not well socialized to try and garner some forgiveness for it

      2. Close Bracket*

        I’m on the spectrum, and, same. It’s had repercussions outside the workplace, too.

    2. Madame Tussaud*

      This is just SO true. I can be sitting at my desk, literally WORKING, and one of my male co-workers will poke his head into my office, and say “Why aren’t you SMILING??” I mean come on. Does he say that to his male co-workers? No, he does not.

        1. Drew*

          Betting that he doesn’t see a lot of smiles as he approaches people, if that’s his go-to.

      1. AKchic*

        Oh no. No no no no. That is harassment. Call him out on it or go to HR. Preferably call him out on it first to see if it stops. Because I can guarantee he’s not going office to office to ensure male staffers are smiling blankly at their desks while they work on the off-chance someone walks by and peers in. I can guarantee he doesn’t do it to woman who is above him on the organizational chart, either.
        Shut him down, either on your own or through HR.

        1. Lance*

          Basically just all of this. Though for some additional context, I am curious: is that all he comes to say, or is it at least prefacing asking a question/making some sort of actual conversation?

          Not that that makes it any better, but at least then he has literally any reason to be talking to you in the first place. Either way, this guy’s a jerk worthy of reporting, and otherwise coming back with, perhaps, ‘do you smile while you work? then why are you asking?’

      2. Manon*

        People said this to me ALL THE TIME when I was a kid/teen so I’ve trained myself to have this weird resting smile whenever other people are around. I hate it.

        1. Archives Gremlin*

          I got told, when I was 7, by an adult male neighbor, that, I needed to smile more. I was 7. It’s made me angry ever since.

        2. Zombeyonce*

          Whenever a man tells me to smile, I immediately do but only with my mouth. It makes for glaring eyes and a disturbing gash of teeth. Technically, I’m smiling, but you didn’t get what you wanted, did you, dude?

      3. Booksalot*

        “To confirm, you want me to grin maniacally at my computer when I’m alone in the room?”

      4. Librarianne*

        Once I blurted out “Because I’m not a psychopath.” Luckily this was to a friend and not at work… but I still chuckle when I picture their shocked expression.

        1. MOAS*

          I know that was a joke but I am curious about this.

          So, like, I get the (rightful) vitriol about those telling women to smile. But I personally have had the opposite? issue most of my life where I smile/laugh too much? Nowadays I can blame earbuds or phones but even without them..I can’t help it, I think of funny stuff all the time, either something that happened or someone said something or whatever. Its funny cz I come from a culture where women in public are actually NOT expected to smile or look friendly/approachable.

          Now I wonder if people think I’m a psychopath for smiling so much lol

          1. Lissa*

            I think it depends. A pleasant smiley expression isn’t going to make anyone think you’re crazed, but if you are grinning at nothing or laughing out loud people might think it’s a bit odd. (and I am constantly laughing at my podcasts when out and about so no judgment here!) But I took the “because I’m not a psychopath” reference as a jokey reference to people in movies who have a big rictus grin or something.

          2. JSPA*

            Nah, that’s fine! “Resting smile face” is also a thing, too. But in some professions, you deal with enough negative stuff (whether it’s bankruptcies, causes of death, medical mistakes, or even just really, really regrettable font choices) that it would be strange to be happy to the point of actively smiling every single moment of every day.

        2. SunnyD*

          That actually wouldn’t have been unprofessional. It is very unusual behavior to grin fixedly at objects while sitting alone.

          It might have been unprofessional to joke about wearing a skin suit or eating people… But not in some offices.

      5. Alli525*

        There’s a gif that I love of a woman (can’t remember who) pushing up the corners of her mouth with her middle fingers to form a “smile” (while keeping the eyes flat, of course). I know most of us can’t do that at work, or at least not with most of our coworkers, but it’s a nice dream.

      6. Princess prissypants*

        This guy would get the same treatment back from me. Best to do it when there are other people in his office, or he’s on the phone, or clearly against a deadline or anything really, that would remind him that people are there to work, and not to exist as pretty decorations for others. “DUDE WHY AREN’T YOU SMILING!” a few times, loudly, ought to make the point.

      7. Middle School Teacher*

        Just out of curiosity, have you mentioned this to him? I’m not sure it’s really fair to go to HR if you haven’t.

      8. crochetaway*

        You can tell him to stop doing that. I once had a man call me both trouble and sunshine within the same day. I flat out told him not to call me nicknames with a completely neutral expression. He never did it again. If he continues after you tell him to stop, then go to HR or your boss (if they’ll go to bat for you). Because that is harassment.

    3. mf*

      This! I feel like I have to be FRIENDLY! and POSITIVE! and UPBEAT! all the time, every day. If I’m in a bad/low mood and just want to work quietly at my desk, I have to worry about how that will reflect on my “attitude.”

    4. Database Developer Dude*

      Some men do. Those of us who are minorities and don’t have the privilege realize how much of a privilege it is to just *be*

    1. seller of teapots*

      Oooh, i’ll have to read this. I think about this issue *a lot* as a mother to a son.

      I’ve watched this play out for my husband, who has a lot of close relationships with both men and women–but his male friends are definitely “buddies” and they rarely talk about the deep things. Those conversations (generally speaking) happen with his female friends. Thankfully he’s a great listener, too, so I know he’s able to offer emotional support to his female friends making it a two-way street. It’s hard out there to be a guy who has access to his feelings.

    2. Arts Akimbo*

      “a generation of straight men”

      I… feel like it’s more than one generation though.

      1. Snark*

        It is, and I think it’s much more generally applicable to earlier generations of men than millennials and later.

      2. MK*

        Yes, but I think in the past (as in 19th century, certainly pre-WWII) deeply emotional, even passionate same-sex friendships were normal and socially acceptable. At some point, this began to be considered a sign of homosexuality and f weakness for men, who then turned exclusively to women for emotional support.

    3. Snark*

      Speaking as a man in his late thirties, I think there are aspects of that article that are true for many men and which can be generalized to most men, but I think it paints with too broad a brush and makes some connections that strike me as not appropriate to my lived experience and those of my friends.

      1. Snark*

        If that’s what you got from my post, that’s really unfortunate and maybe I needed to include more particulars to avoid being rudely dismissed in this fashion. Note to self.

        1. Princess prissypants*

          Or perhaps, just not. We *KNOW* not all men. We know, we know, we know, we know. It’s okay for you to not say so.

          1. Not a guy, but*

            I read his initial comment, which was polite and reasonable. We know not all men — but it is par for the course for people to chime in about how things don’t apply to them. (“Ahem” let’s mention “introverts” for a second and see how that tangent goes).

          2. Snark*

            Or perhaps that’s not what I’m saying at all, but you’re rushing to dunk on me all the same.

            1. Princess prissypants*

              Ok, man. Enlighten me as to which part of

              “Speaking as a man in his late thirties, I think there are aspects of that article that are true for many men and which can be generalized to most men, but I think it paints with too broad a brush and makes some connections that strike me as not appropriate to my lived experience and those of my friends.”

              doesn’t boil down to “not all men”?

              1. Snark*

                It boils down to “there are discrete issues discussed in that article that are true of many or most men, but it draws connections between them that don’t ring true.”

                If you didn’t parse it that way, glad I got the chance to clarify once and for all.

              2. Princess prissypants*

                If you want to add something to the conversation, then by all means do so. But *your* rude and dismissive comment just takes away.

                The point isn’t what is or isn’t universal to men – it’s about what’s universal to women. And this is.

            2. RUKiddingMe*

              Maybe just listen to the women without feeling compelled to rush in to defend *the men that don’t*?

              1. Princess prissypants*

                Snark, what *are* you saying? You’ve repeated the not-all-men/this-doesn’t-happen-to-me thing several times, but you’ve haven’t actually said what you say you’re saying, so…??

              2. Snark*

                Like I just said to you above: there are discrete issues discussed in that article that are true of many or most men, but it draws connections between them that don’t ring true.

                The broad sentiment and the dynamic being discussed is dead-on. But while men’s lack of emotionally satisfying relationships with other men, and their social alienation and overreliance on women of social contact, and their lack of inclination to pursue therapy, are all highly contributory and related, I don’t think those can all neatly be connected into a causal explanation of why men demand lots of emotional labor of women. Men are definitely cut off from appropriate and diverse venues to discuss their feelings, and that drives the need, but I think it boils down more to….laziness? The path of least resistance?

                I think one quote in the article really pointed at it – “why do I need a therapist, when I have you?” I think a lot of men, especially priveleged men, are really used to expecting women to do shit for them. It’s kind of a perpetual adolescence, maaa get the meatloaf kind of thing. It’s not that they’re necessarily emotional cripples who can only open up to their girlfriend, though some are, and it’s not that they don’t have buddies they could open up to, though many don’t. I think it’s more common for men offload on their female significant others because they’re in the habit of being mothered, and expect their partners to mother them, and would honestly rather be mothered than bother to have an open peer conversation with another man.

          3. RUKiddingMe*

            This. It isn’t necessary to tell us this all the freaking time, every single time. We KNOW. But ftr it seems like it’s most of them..,

            1. Mallory Janis Ian*

              Exactly. We KNOW “not all men”. But enough women that I have never talked to a woman who has not experienced the things that “not all men” do.

            2. Working Mom Having It All*

              Also… even the men who “don’t” kind of… do.

              My husband is a feminist. He really, really gets this shit. He’s one of the good ones. In fact, he’s one of the REALLY good ones.

              He’s still terrible when it comes to certain things, though. That’s why it’s Yes All Men. Because I promise that, even if you think you are very good at emotional labor type stuff, you’re probably not as good as you think you are, and you probably still have blind spots in other areas.

        2. GradStudent*

          I think it’s rude to try to make a conversation about a well documented phenomena that has negative consequences towards a particular group (which you are not a part of) about yourself.

          1. Snark*

            I wasn’t doing that, and speaking of rude, this is becoming quite the little dogpile, particularly when none of you are responding to what I actually posted.

            My point was more that the author is attempting to generalize multiple issues in mens’ mental health into a coherent thesis, but my impression as a man is that they’re more discrete and not generalizable into that big picture. If, that is, you give a damn.

            1. ragazza*

              I think maybe you are not aware of the annoying phenomenon (particularly on Twitter) of men jumping into discussions about men’s behaviors that affect women negatively to defend themselves and others by saying “not me/not all men.” No one is saying your experience is valid. The fact that all men don’t behave in ways that affect women negatively is understood. This conversation is about men that do. And I was actually being very polite, but I do notice that many men tend to get upset when women point this out.

              1. Snark*

                I’m aware of it. That’s just not what I was doing. See my reply above to princess prissypants.

            2. boo bot*

              I did actually read this as the “author generalizes too much about the issue,” rather than “author generalizes too much about men,” for what it’s worth, and I agree – it’s describing various things I’ve seen to be true sometimes, but the article felt a bit like it was combining a number of different subjects without really being clear about it, and frankly – kind of generalizing about men. Like, there’s an aside in there about a woman having to “replace another broken bedside table because he didn’t realize he needed to talk about his feelings,” which is kind of tossed in without further comment, like, you know how men are: it’s either therapy or furniture-breaking, no third option!

      2. Snark*

        No no, I think the overall picture of how men behave in that article is dead on accurate, it’s more the attribution of some of the causes that doesn’t fit as comfortably. I don’t think failing to seek therapy is as big a reason as the article discusses, and I think that mens’ social alienation and overreliance on women for social life is a related issue to the gendered expectation of heavy emotional labor, but a little more of a contributing factor rather than a prime cause.

        And, frankly, I think more should have been discussed about how our culture is really permissive of mens’ perpetually adolescent laziness and reliance on other people to do shit for them, which I think is incredibly salient. I don’t think men lean on women primarily because they’re emotional cripples who can’t talk to each other, I think they lean on women because, as one guy says: “why should I get a therapist when I have you?” I think a whole lot of it is learned, misogynistic helplessness.

        But definitely, I think the broad sentiment and the dynamic described are accurate.

      3. Snark*

        Oh, definitely, the broad sentiment and the dynamic being discussed is dead-on. But while men’s lack of emotionally satisfying relationships with other men, and their social alienation and overreliance on women of social contact, and their lack of inclination to pursue therapy, are all highly contributory and related, I don’t think that’s why men demand lots of emotional labor of women. Men are definitely cut off from appropriate and diverse venues to discuss their feelings, and that drives the need, but I think it boils down more to….laziness? The path of least resistance?

        I think one quote in the article really pointed at it – “why do I need a therapist, when I have you?” I think a lot of men, especially priveleged white men, are really used to expecting women to do shit for them. It’s kind of a perpetual adolescence, maaa get the meatloaf kind of thing. It’s not that they’re necessarily emotional cripples who can only open up to their girlfriend, though some are, and it’s not that they don’t have buddies they could open up to, though many don’t. I think a lot of men offload on their female significant others because they’re in the habit of being mothered, and expect their partners to mother them, and would honestly rather be mothered than bother to have an open peer conversation with another man.

      4. Ask a Manager* Post author

        Removed a long derail here in response to this comment. All, please move on. That said, if anyone wants to discuss the issues raised by the article elsewhere on the page (not right here, as this spot on the page became a disaster zone that is now unsafe for habitation), feel free to so, but it needs to be without personal sniping.

    4. AKchic*

      That was my immediate thought too.

      All of these men are coming to her because she is the most easily accessible woman available to them and they see her most often and she is removed enough from their personal lives while still technically being “personal” that they *can* (because it hasn’t been shut down) dump their emotional baggage on her. These guys need friends to talk to, and she is not a friend at all. This is so inappropriate. Students… well, students I get, because they don’t understand the norms; but coworkers are supposed to, especially the higher-placed and older ones. This boils down to toxic masculinity and their refusal to change the status quo in their own lives.

      However, it’s not up to LW to fix that for them. All she can do is choose how she participates and how to deflect, redirect, and interact.

      1. bleh*

        Well, as tenured and untouchable (look up how hard it is to get rid of white, male, tenured faculty compared to letting go of WOC faculty members for example; men can literally harass for years and not lose jobs), he does expect LW to fix that – and anything else he can dump on her plate. Especially if he’s “productive” which means lots of publication, he can get away with almost anything. Add to that the way that academia does management – chairs have no training usually, no firing power, and are picked for reasons that have nothing to do with managing skills – and you have a bad environment for untenured women.

        LW – Duck and run as often as possible. Friendly but always moving on – I have a meeting or a student waiting or my class plan is unfinished as Alison suggests are about the best you can do. But pleasantness and warmth and never showing the real emotions (or opinions) works best.

    5. ThatGirl*

      You know, it’s interesting – my husband is a licensed therapist, he spends his days listening to people (students, actually) talk about their feelings. In his personal life he thankfully knows that I am his wife and not his therapist, and he has his own therapist and several close friends who he regularly talks about various issues and problems with – and they’re all women! And I suspect he’s always been drawn more to women as friends because we’re socialized to be Better At Feelings. He does have a few guy friends but most aren’t close.

    6. SunnyD*

      That was a great article. I actually sent the article and the men’s group link to my husband. He feels that lack of real, genuine male connections.

    7. Princess prissypants*

      Cheeky, thanks for posting this article.

      As a woman in my late thirties, there are aspects of that article that are true for all women and it strikes me as 100% appropriate to my lived experience and those of my friends.

      Yes. All. Women.

      1. Snark*

        Wow. Three times you’ve posted this, twice it’s been deleted with a reminder of no personal sniping, and yet.

        1. Princess prissypants*

          If your comment is on topic, not snarky, and not snipe-y, then so is mine. Yet you’re the one coming after me.

        2. Ask a Manager* Post author

          Princess prissypants’s comment here is fine. It’s a response to the article itself, not part of the personal sniping thread I removed earlier (at least that’s how I’m reading it). Snark, I suspect you are feeling heated from the earlier discussion, but this comment is fine as it stands.

    8. JSPA*

      Some people use shared, bad experiences (or the sharing of bad experiences) as a way to build camaraderie and a sense of “knowing the other person as a person.” It’s one of the safer ways for someone with higher rank (e.g. tenure) to do that with someone of lower rank (e.g. untenured). That is, it’s both very “personal,” and frankly…fairly impersonal.

      It’s often best to treat disclosures that way–not as something you’re expected to fix, or even commiserate with at length–but as something the other person is using to demonstrate their essential humanity. A one line statement of understanding is just FINE. “Oh, I know, it’s so miserable and exhausting when all those things happen at once!” Or, “do what I do: subvocalize ‘this too shall pass,’ until it does.”

    9. Nina*

      Saw a meme today that said “Nice women are not free therapists”. Louder for the people in the back!

    10. Jack Russell Terrier*

      Thanks for posting this excellent article. My husband is 15 years sober and has a sponsor and many sponsees. I think AA actually does a lot of what the group therapy in this article talks about – sometimes even in AA meetings themselves. Mainly, though, it’s the work you do with sponsors / sponsees as that really is emotional work: you’re supposed to be working the steps and that’s a lot of vulnerability – see ‘taking inventory’. My husbands sponsor and his sponsees are all men – as a sponsor should be the same sex. The AA community and the fellowship is extremely important to my husband’s emotional well-being in the same way as the men in the article describe.

    11. Elizabeth West*

      That’s a good article. When I got to the part about support groups, I thought immediately of that scene in Endgame, where Steve Rogers is leading one after The Snap. I think it was valuable to show the quintessential “man’s man” character doing it as a normal, expected way to deal with emotional issues and trauma.

      Sorry, everything in my head right now is going through an MCU nerd filter, lol.

    12. OP*

      This is great, thanks! Ironically, it really does seem to be the more “sensitive” guys at work who do this–they’ve figured out it’s good to talk about feelings and hard stuff, but not WHEN.

      1. Anax*

        You know, I’m not sure I’ve ever heard a male-socialized person talk about “casual friends”. “I don’t want to talk about serious stuff but I’ll invite you out for coffee periodically” friends. Friends who you enjoy in certain spheres, but crossing the streams would be Super Super Awkward.

        Maybe if you don’t have practice forming intimate friendships, that nuance is hard to develop. I feel like I was socialized to think about tiers of trust and friendship from a very early age, but it seems like many men… aren’t.

        (Or maybe this is more Geek Social Fallacies at play than a broader social issue?)

        1. SunnyD*

          I talked to a good friend lately about the bullseye approach to friendship. She is consistently disappointed by a friend who wants to be an outer circle friend rather than inner circle (where my friend wants their friendship). That was a new idea, and gave her a framework for keeping the friendship but also letting it cool a bit.

        2. Else*

          I have male friends who seem to have friends like that – they do things like play board games or watch sports or run together, and might also go get a drink. Activity or event based things. I think most of the men I’m actually friends with have friends like that. I have friends who are men who are activity friends myself, but I’m female, so…

    1. Snark*

      I think OP realizes that! What she needs help with is navigating the more treacherous waters of how to do so without sinking her tenure chances.

        1. Lucy*

          In the absence of any detailed examples, I wonder if they are actually seeking solutions from LW, or just ranting.

          If they are just ranting, then Alison’s scripts (acknowledge, validate, move on) should meet their needs in the short term without requiring any actual engagement or deep thought by LW.

          If on the other hand they seem to be wanting LW to offer solutions I might be tempted to add a line directing them to actual counselling solutions – universities often have specialised helplines or peer listeners or qualified therapists, if you know where to ask. LW would be being helpful/friendly/accommodating by suggesting helpful avenues so not failing at woman-ing in the eyes of old-fashioned decision makers.

          Whether LW should have to engage in this emotional labour is almost moot: currently she does have to, and doesn’t feel she has the standing to kick back. If this is the price she has to pay the patriarchy to get tenure (or equivalent secure status) then I can’t blame her for doing so, assuming she intends to change the system from a position of power once she reaches it!

          1. Jules the 3rd*

            I think LW can assume they’re just ranting unless there’s a specific request for solutions. She doesn’t need to do the extra work, she’s doing enough with the emotional support.

            When someone is already causing extra work, you don’t need to hunt for ways / reasons to do even more. It’s actually really good for you to *not* seek ways to help even more. That conscious decision about your boundary (ie, ‘listen, express sympathy, nothing more unless there’s an explicit request’) helps you hold to it.

          2. Federal Middle Manager*

            I would not presume that tenured male faculty are looking for junior faculty to suggest counseling to them. Even as hippie liberal as academia comes across to outsiders, that would still likely be considered presumptuous.

            1. RUKiddingMe*

              And most male tenured faculty IM(considerable)E are not liberal hippie types. They tend towards straight-white-guy-paternal-misogynists once you peel back the first layer of their particular onion.

              1. Pippa*

                My favs are the ones who think of themselves as liberal hippie types, and are indeed progressive on all issues except, funnily enough, gender. I can think of more than one white straight male PhD-holding political scientist who thinks gender (and race!) issues are a “distraction from the really important things, like class and economic issues.” (I’m quoting a colleague, unfortunately.)

                1. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

                  Oh, hello, old-school Marxist philosophers. It sounds like the Sociology department is missing their dude.

                2. Miss Pantalones en Fuego*

                  Man, this comment just shed so much inadvertent light on current UK politics. I don’t know why I didn’t see that before. I guess because I’ve never been that interested in Marx?

                3. TardyTardis*

                  Nat Hentoff used to be a liberal wanting liberation from all kinds of things till he discovered women wanted liberation from *him*. Somehow, that was different.

            2. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

              Absolutely this. I understand Lucy’s intent, which is helpful and could be appropriate outside of the academy, but this approach would be like a poison pill for OP.

              OP, please do not refer your tenured male faculty to counseling services. It’s a great way to destroy your tenure prospects, and it will likely infringe on their egos (and nothing is more dangerous to a young woman’s tenure profile than an insecure, tenured male faculty member with an axe to grind about his bruised ego).

            3. Impy*

              It’s also pretty presumptuous to assume junior colleagues are your free counsellors. But I get that there’s a pretty obvious power differential here.

          3. OP*

            OP here. I think it’s more ranting. And possibly confusing explaining with … over-explaining (I feel like there have been letters on this, but I have no good terms at my fingertips). Similar to how a person might tell you about their nausea and then how they forgot to feed their dog and then the train was late…when they could have said “Sorry to be late.” It puts burden on the person hearing the excuse, which shouldn’t be the case.

            1. DrTheLiz*

              I have a friend like this – he *has to* feel like he’s been correctly understood and by golly he will keep explaining until he is. It’s caused him real trouble at work because when he spends ten minutes explaining why he didn’t do Thing X it sure sounds like an excuse. It’s possible you’re getting the pedant-explainer who wants you to know *exactly* why he’s late with the poster notes (or whatever). A “sure, I get that, no problem” (or an “I understand but this is a problem – is it likely to reoccur?”) will work for this subtype.

            2. Lucy*

              Thanks for clarifying – and to everyone else for the context. When I reread your letter I realised you are already redirecting students to more appropriate resources, which I had missed first time round and which I think I was thinking about. Brain is not firing on many cylinders today.

            3. MentalEngineer*

              I think some of the over-explaining is the culture of academia/academic personalities. The state-level staffer for my union, who (unlike all the chapter people) is not and never has been an academic but has worked with us for years and years, once put it like this: “You academic types care too much about why sometimes. You want the person you’re talking to to understand why you did something, why you want something, whatever. Which is great – for your teaching and research – but you don’t always need it.” That really struck a chord for me, and now I see that exact behavior all the time. (Which of course might be confirmation bias, but I think there’s something to it.)

      1. Hey Karma, Over here.*

        OP, redirect them.
        “Oh Bob, John was telling me something similar. You should talk to him. He might have some ideas for you. But I need to get back to this email.”
        “Well, this isn’t really something I’d tell John.”
        “He’d be a better resource than I am. Can I get the email info?”
        “But you understand…”
        “Oh, everyone understands. We all have the same issues in our positions. [Like I need something from you and you are holding me hostage to get it.”]

        1. OP*

          Well here it’s more like “my wife has cancer and my daughter is in trouble and this all brought up issues from 15 years ago” so (THANKFULLY) directing to another colleague isn’t going to really help.

          1. Hey Karma, Over here.*

            GOOD LORD! I was thinking that you were their socializing/venting/general bitching outlet. Yes, you DEFINITELY can’t take that on (and I didn’t think you should get stuck with the other) but WOW. I got nothing but sympathy. I hope someone can give you a good script, because no. Just no.

          2. Liza*

            I would argue that it’s definitely ok to suggest someone seek counselling if that’s the sort of thing they’re bringing up. I’ve recently taken to deflecting this kind of talk with “It sounds like you’re going through a lot. Maybe you need to speak to a professional and work through some of this?” Empathic and not dismissive, but laying down a gentle boundary. Somebody who is actually going as far as recognising historic issues would probably be open to the idea, because they are using therapeutic language already.

  2. Sloan Kittering*

    Uugh this is definitely A Thing. Like most explicitly female coded things it’s a bit of a trap, because if you DID actually undertake all this counseling business, you would later get dinged for not being a serious scholar / too much of the mommy type / not getting as much done as Chadwick who gets to work quietly without having to deal with everybody’s emotions all day. But as OP pointed out, being quick to redirect will bounce back as you are curt, brusque, aggressive, whatever. So like many things it’s a balancing act to pull off.

    I think with true wannabe allies who are clueless and are your friends, you can gently call them out on this and they may hear you. (“do you realize you come talk a lot about your feelings with me at work? You probably don’t realize it, but it can be a bit of a gender thing, and I’m trying not to be the office therapist …”) But that’s the minority of sensitive-dude types IMO, and only at your same peer level. And it’s a lot of work to project that warm caring tone that won’t hurt his feelings and make him lash out later.

    1. MsMaryMary*

      For repeat offenders or someone going through some serious issues, OP may be able to gently suggest they talk to a professional. “Wow, that sounds like a lot to deal with. Have you ever considered therapy/grief counseling/couples therapy/family therapy/calling our EAP? I know it really helped me/my brother and sister-in-law/my friend when they were going through something similar.” I kind of underlines that not only is OP not their therapist, but that seeing an actual therapist would be a better option.

      1. Zombeyonce*

        I think OP should do a version of this for everyone that comes to here with their personal issues. Instead of volunteering that something helped her personally (which they can latch onto), just recommend they talk with a therapist about it. Then she should become a broken record when the same people come to her and keep giving out the same sentence: “That sounds rough and more like a conversation for someone that can help you, like a therapist”. It says she cannot help them and doesn’t want to hear more without explicitly calling it out.

        Eventually they’ll get that she’s not going to engage them on their problems and hopefully stop, but they can’t ever claim she is being unkind.

    2. Artemesia*

      This. Women need to protect their time and give great attention to projecting academic work excellence if they have a chance at tenure. And yet they are often tapped for tasks in the department that are time trains AND show them as ‘not serious scholars’ because the serious scholars are not on the diversity committee, arranging the student retreat, organizing the potluck or serving on the student honor council. And of course if they become the emotional support for the whiny guys, that doesn’t look scholarly either. It is a delicate dance of projecting ‘I am so busy with my research that I just don’t have time for this.’ For every time wasting committee (once you have one committee responsibility) it has to be ‘I’d love to do that but the analysis of the data on the frog migration is taking every minute I have right now’ and for social activity planning same thing. Alison’s advice on the emotional support seem right to me too. Charming and warm tone, but ‘me so busy’ or I’d love to talk more. Always pivot to scholarly tasks if possible and instructional tasks and always be too busy for activities that soak up time and project ‘the girls will take care of that.’ Very hard to do. She ought to get tenure just for being able to do it.

      1. Sparrow*

        I had this issue when I was in grad school (only with other grad students, fortunately, but some of them probably grew up to be these kinds of professors.) The “always pivot to professional topics” thing helped, but the other thing that helped was making myself less available. I preferred working in my office on campus, but I shut my door as much as I could and worked a bit more from home/other locations. When I was present, there was usually a legitimate work excuse for not indulging them. Like, “Oh, I actually teach in 15 minutes and am just gathering my notes – sorry, gotta run!” or, “These are my office hours, so I’m expecting a student in a few minutes.” For the most part, they eventually got out of the habit of trying to emotionally unload on me, simply because there was so rarely the opportunity for them to do it.

        1. OrigCassandra*

          This can be a very pragmatic and effective tactic; it’s one I have used as well. One thing that makes it easier is academe’s disinclination to track seat time/face time as much as other industries do. (Not a universal, but IME fairly broadly true.) You’re far less likely to get in trouble for hanging out with your laptop at a coffeeshop for the hour when it’s likeliest Dr. Monopolizer Feelingsdump will drop by.

        2. RUKiddingMe*

          Yup! That was (and is) me.

          “I don’t have time/not good at X/you really don’t want me for Y because I will just mess it up. Maybe John would be a better choice to plan parties.”

          1. Zombeyonce*

            I love this language because it’s the exact type that some groups of men have used for decades to push this kind of work onto women.

        3. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

          This is a great strategy, and I use it heavily every time my office Dementor comes by.

    3. Veryanon*

      As a *middle-aged* woman who works in HR, it’s automatically assumed that I am everyone’s mom/therapist. I’ve learned the fine art of saying “Wow, that sounds really tough and I’m sorry you’re going through that. Unfortunately, I’m not a trained mental health professional, so this is kind of outside of my scope, but I can give you information about our company’s EAP and they’ll connect you with good resources.” Lather, rinse, and repeat. Always repeat.

    4. JSPA*

      But…men do also grump about stuff with and to other men. The difference lies with the recipient, and what they feel obliged to do.

      “Life, whatcha gonna do?” or “I hear you, boy do I hear you” or “Man o man, you got the short, sticky end of that one” or [grab throat, drop head, close eyes, tongue out to mimic being hung, then shrug and say, “at least we’re still here!’.

      You can demonstrate empathy and sympathy in 15 seconds or less, if you do it emphatically, dramatically, and reliably. A lot of guys blow off steam exactly like this; it’s not something they save for women. Feel free to blow off steam the same way.

      1. MusicWithRocksInIt*

        Alright, Alison herself confirmed that this is a thing a majority of people do to woman that do not do it to men. Dozens of woman have spoken up on this thread confirming that this is a thing that happens to them in their own lived experiences. Cheeky posted an article above about how society has created this problem. It is a thing. Please don’t come here with ‘but it happens to men too, they just deal with it better, there is no sexism here’.

        1. JSPA*

          There can be sexism here! People have expounded on that at length.

          But many people have stated that men don’t “do this” to men.

          Yet it’s quite easy to observe men bellyaching to men–but the resolution of those interactions is brief commiseration. Not delving.

          OP does not want to delve. She does want to commiserate. She can therefore try doing what men do when other men come to them to vent; commiserate intensely but briefly, and without feeling obliged to bring further insight to bear.

          As for studies…I’ve been an academic myself. It basically comes down to categorization. Categories are not truly neutral. There’s a lot of art in defining what makes an interaction similar or dissimilar.

          It can be 100% true that men almost exclusively only have long, drawn-out psychologizing sessions with women, yet not prove that they bring certain problems only to women. It can be 100% true (and sexist) that most people (women included) expect women to do additional emotional labor.

          Some people not only “expect” but “demand,” “presume,” or “punish the failure to provide” that labor. That’s not only sexist, it’s irrevocably sexist.

          But if people come in with only the expectation that they may find an open ear…then (strictly speaking) the original moments of the venting process can be diverted into either gender’s stereotypical response pathway, without giving offense. The path of “doing the male commiseration thing even if you’re a female” remains open.

          If OP’s fellow academics are (as she says) a generally nice and sensitive lot, it’s worth trying this alternative strategy. But you have to acknowledge that there is an actual male-male venting-and-sympathy process, before you can suggest adapting the male-male venting-and-sympathy process as a road map.

          If we stipulate that no such thing as a male-male venting-and-sympathy process exists (or that it’s so rare as to be startling, rather than common as dirt, which it is) a whole class of ready made solutions disappears.

          1. bolistoli*

            This is such a reasonable, well-thought-out response. I understood your original comment and intent, but it wasn’t as clear to MusicWithRocksInIt (which is not unusual – we see so many different interpretations on this site). I came here to say how impressed I am that you didn’t get defensive, and continued the discussion in an intelligent, sensitive manner. Many of us – me included (probably particularly me) – could learn from your response. :)

    5. Pippa*

      Your lines for gently pushing back in contexts where that’s possible are really good. We’re all pretty much aware that it isn’t always possible to just name it and push back on it directly, but where possible, I like your straightforward language. Bonus, it’ll help people who really don’t mean to be doing this kind of low-grade gendered exploitation.

      But as an academic myself, I’ve seen a lot of evidence of the catch-22 for women faculty: if you’re not “maternal” with your students and warmly feminine with your colleagues, some of them will ding you for it, including on formal evaluations, and if you are “maternal” etc. then you seem less scholarly and get less respect. It’s like a tradeoff in which you can be “good” (by a ridiculous, sexist standard) at being a woman, or good at being a scholar, but not both. I’ve definitely been told that I needed to “soften” my tone, my vocabulary, and even my facial expression (!), and be less funny because humour is aggressive (?). And then, when a student threatened me, the senior colleague who spent years j0king about what a hardass I am told me that I could have prevented the student’s misconduct by “projecting more authority” in the classroom. [Every now and then, in my mind, I set that colleague’s hair on fire.] I’ve also been asked to do extensive service (“you could say no, but it wouldn’t look good” and then blamed in evaluations for doing too much service (“you need to learn to say no”).

      But – but! – all is not hopeless. The behaviour of senior men when I was untenured seriously sucked, but I got tenure, and I’m still me, an unmaternal hardass with a sense of humour (I hope). Like-minded peers are lifesavers, and a supportive senior colleague or two can be invaluable. Hang in there, OP. You’ll have plenty of anecdotes to swap over drinks with friends at conferences. And eventually, you can raise a glass (or a finger) to the things you successfully overcame.

  3. Fortitude Jones*

    Ha! Alison, I do the exact same thing and while some people can appreciate it, I’m in the Midwest and they’re not used to it where I am, so I can get shocked looks from people who aren’t expecting me to just completely bypass their story to get straight to the point.

    1. JobHunter*

      Yeah, or if you do lend them your shoulder one time and politely redirect them another, you are “hot and cold.”

      1. Fortitude Jones*

        Yup – or they say you don’t like them. I’m like, “You got all of that out of me wanting to talk about work…at work?” Lol.

    2. Marmaduke*

      I grew up in the Midwest and taught myself to accept a certain amount of listening and sympathy-offering before moving to the point. Then I moved to a rural town in the South, and learned that the Midwest style of reassure-and-redirect is wholly insufficient here. There seems to be some approved method of thorough reassurance + redirecting to less loaded personal topics + FINALLY returning to the subject at hand that I still can’t seem to get down after nearly eighteen months here. Cultural differences can be a real bear.

      1. Fortitude Jones*

        As an east coaster, Southern politeness is something I could never do, so I feel your pain, lol.

      2. Artemesia*

        I did my career in the south and yeah, spot on. I remember a friend telling me ‘I thought my acquaintances pretty much agreed with me on major issues and then discovered after years here that they were actually directly on the opposite side on everything.’ Nothing is dealt with directly but you can be torpedoed without even knowing it until that invitation for the coveted group just never seems to come through or the promotion or the chance to be involved in something important to your career. Being indirect but then knifing the person silently is SOP. I have seen people constantly slathered with encouragement and praise while the rug was pulled out, rolled up and put away and the person with hopes never had a clue.

      3. Southern Yankee*

        Yes, the Southern style of politeness with cultural rules and hidden meanings is something I never have decoded, and I’ve been here for more than 20 years! I hear the hidden meaning more than I used to, but thankfully in my professional life I’ve been able to get away with “I’m not from here so I don’t really get it”. Coworkers generally think I’m blunt, but it hasn’t hurt my career – I climbed the ladder pretty fast, which may have been influnced by the bluntness!

        OP didn’t mention a culture shift, but clearly the tenure issue is one that puts more pressure to come down on the polite side of the equation. Good Luck, OP! I bet you’ll be able to judge by people’s body language how sucessfully you are hitting the polite mark and can adjust accordingly. My guess is certain coworkers will get the hint better than others, and some you will have to be extra careful with.

      4. ursula*

        I actually kind of love this as a template? Like, “Ugh, I’m sorry to hear that. I’m sure it doesn’t help that [commiserate over gentler work/local topic, like a crucial administrator being on leave or traffic due to nearby construction]. I’m just trying to keep my head down and get X done. Do you think you could give me your feedback on it by Friday?”

        Easing out of deep therapy into more within-boundaries kvetching is less cold of a tone-switch, and it’s usually easy to get from there to your actual work topic, or to “I have a student coming by in a few minutes – sorry to cut you short, but I need to get ready” or whatever.

        Big sympathy, LW – my partner was an academic (until getting fed up and leaving) and oh boy is this ever A Thing.

        1. OP*

          I love this strategy, ursula! I think it may be really useful partly because it’s simply honest–it is almost always the perfect storm of things that people come to me about/come at me with, and I like the implied “I have stuff too, but let’s not talk about it” of “I’m just trying to keep my head down and get X done.” Thank you!

      5. Else*

        I’d agree with that, but I live in the Midwest now after decades in the South, and I will say that NOBODY can beat a Midwesterner for wanting to endlessly dump their personal problems on everyone. They seem to bond by sharing their health troubles, their family difficulties, their feelings about every possible problem instead of dealing with the actual matter at hand. Southerners talk around and around about all kinds of things, but I have to say, I prefer that as it doesn’t often include references to bathroom difficulties.

    3. GradStudent*

      So much of this. I moved from the East Coast to the Midwest for school and I’m never going to get used to how much people talk around issues here. I quickly got a reputation of being “blunt/terse” and, to them, on the verge of rudeness because I just want to get to the point of the conversation. I’m perfectly willing to have friendly conversations about your kids, the most recent sport thing, plans for the weekend but not when there is an actual issue or work that is time sensitive.

      1. Friyay*

        Potential culture/regional differences are what jumped out at me here. I work at a midwestern public university and whether it’s students or staff, people do tend to want to justify/explain to anyone (whether professors, fellow staff, male or female, etc.) why something did or did not happen, particularly if they’ll think they’ll be in trouble or it was something negative. Saying “I missed that, sorry” or “I didn’t get around to it” is Not. A. Thing.

    4. MillersSpring*

      I was raised in the South. For this kind of issue, I’d send two email replies: one to express all the cooing sympathy, and a separate one that’s more business oriented, e.g. “Understood. Would you be able to get back to me by Friday?”

      Or, instead of two emails, pop by their office first (or contact them on IM) to say, “I’m so sorry about X. That must be rough. I hope it comes out OK. I’ll reply to your email separately, just wanted you to know how sorry I am that you’re going through that.”

    5. OP*

      Yeah, this is so much a regional thing as well as a gender thing. I’m east coast practical/hard-nosed/cold/sincere in a place that seems to value “niceness” over real engagement. I’m used to either a) deep conversation, saved for people who are close or b) getting things done, politely but without a lot of small talk. There’s a c) of lots of chitchat that I find too personal for people not my friends that is common where I’m living now, and getting used to it takes real work.

  4. C Average*

    I am cursed with Resting Nice Face, and everyone always wants to tell me everything. Alison’s exactly right: you have to figure out how to simultaneously exude empathy and prevent people from gaining conversational traction.

    And don’t exude TOO much empathy. Keep one eye on your monitor or your day planner, keep a finger marking a place in the book you’re reading, etc. In addition to empathy, exude that you have Stuff To Do and that your time isn’t unlimited.

    1. Mel*

      I definitely have RBF, but my two besties have resting nice face and on the whole I’d say they have it worse. People think I’m mean, but they never try to take advantage of me the way they do with my friends.

      1. LavaLamp*

        I must have resting nice face myself. I hate going in hospitals, people corner me on the elevator and tell me their woes and why they’re there.

        1. texan in exile*

          …and pick the seat next to me on the airplane, even when there are other empty seats around.

          Note to self – don’t look up! No eye contact! NONE!

    2. RandomU...*

      I’m not sure if I have either. The only thing I’ve been able to figure out is that I must look trustworthy (or gullible) based on the amount of strangers who ask me to hold/watch their bags in airports. My boss didn’t believe me when I mentioned the frequency this happens. Until she saw it in action now at least 3 times.

      Getting back to the OP, the trick here is to be pleasant enough without being rewarding to the people who want to unload on you. If it’s students, I’m not sure that I’d totally be encouraging this type of thing, although concede that of the two groups this one is the most deserving of extra listening time). Really all it does is teach the next batch of adults that they can dump their life stories on unsuspecting people.

      As for your colleagues, I would try being the person who is helpful yet unhelpful. In other words don’t encourage people to tell you things, but if they do start advising them of how they need to fix things for themselves. You can do this in a pleasant and helpful manner, but let’s be honest, nobody likes being told what to do. Especially if they are venting or using you as a confessional. Most want you to pat them on the head and say don’t worry, it’s not your fault, and there there it will be ok. In other words, even while being perfectly open to these things and by extension a good part of the team, you’ll be quietly teaching them that they won’t get the emotional validation from you.

      1. IV*

        This really resonates. See, I’m a very sympathetic person and really care about my colleagues’ problems. But I’m also a PM, which means I just want to fix them. To me, sympathy is providing a prioritized list of tasks to help you deal with your issues and caring is a well crafted project plan. For some mysterious reason, this can be annoying to other people and as a result they don’t dump their problems in me very much (unless they want solutions).

    3. Else*

      I have Resting Nice-Back-of-the-Head – I can be browsing the yogurt in the grocery and have some random old lady come up and start rambling at me from behind. I am not actually that nice, y’all. I do not want to talk to random old people, but I’m polite so I do, and then they don’t go away.

    4. TardyTardis*

      I have to admit that as a writer I don’t mind confidences that much; I have come up with some wonderful horrible things to do to my characters…

  5. Middle Manager*

    “And that matters because, to twist the knife a little more, research shows that women have to be seen as likable in order to be viewed as competent and influential at work. Men just need to do well at their jobs.”

    That is a highly effective knife twist. I wish this didn’t ring SO TRUE.

    1. Database Developer Dude*

      White men just need to do well at their jobs…. I’m a black man, and two projects ago, I was highly competent, but didn’t work out because I wasn’t seen as likeable, so they didn’t believe I knew what I was doing, when it was the PMO who didn’t know what he was doing.

      1. Middle Manager*

        Totally. I’m sure lots of minority groups experience this. Sorry, it definitely sucks.

  6. A Simple Narwhal*

    This kinda reminds me of the post Allison did a few months back for the book, How to Be Successful Without Hurting Men’s Feelings.

    1. Vanny Hall*

      I bought three copies of that book on the strength of Allison’s post and will have to order more so I can keep giving them to my friends and my daughter’s friends–it is SO spot-on!

  7. fposte*

    OP, is there a tenured woman in the department or even school (like, Arts or Social Sciences, not the whole university) you can check in with? That’s a good way to get a localized read on what kind of pushback would be most effective. If it’s possible, it’s also worth connecting with other TT women to compare notes and consider approaches to the problem–if all the young women suddenly stop listening, it’d be a really bad look for the department if the women stopped getting renewal and tenure.

    1. Samwise*

      Of course, then those women are not getting renewed or tenured, which is very often the death of one’s academic career. So I’d be careful about that course of action.

      1. fposte*

        I’m not recommending it per se, but there’s a lot more power as a group; what you’d do would depend on your department/school, but in some this could be taken to dean or an associate dean as something that the group is aware is becoming a problem, and they’re going to need to take more time to focus on their own research going forward. That’s a flag that makes it a lot harder to punish for this. More to the point, though, you can share decent strategies. Some women have better effectiveness at steering the line between “insufficiently collegial” and “stuck listening to everything,” and they’re the people to learn from.

        Then there’s the irony that being emotional labor can also *hurt* how you’re perceived. In some departments that’s going to suggest that you’re more touchy-feely than scholarly. And yes, unfortunately, it’s quite possible to be insufficiently touchy-feely for some and too squishy for others at the same time. All the more reason to get information from people most in the know–women who’ve been there longer–and decide what path you can live with, rather than what path is most likely to please.

        And yes, it sucks.

        1. Artemesia*

          The same person who relies on you for emotional support will in the tenure review be ‘concerned’ that you are not sufficiently scholarly.

    2. Arctic*

      Although you want to be careful not to turn those other professors into your therapist!

      1. fposte*

        Groups like this are really common in faculty, though. That’s an established mentorship/collegial practice. That’s very different from “All the guys vent about their divorces to Jane.”

    3. Anonym*

      This is a really good idea, and not just in academia. I’m in a corporate environment, and I’ve recently gotten the dreaded “sharp elbows” feedback (with a side of “be more assertive and persistent”). I took the plunge and reached out to a very senior woman I respect but have never met on how to navigate this dynamic. She’s very successful and at the same time very direct and honest, and happily is willing to advise. Hoping to untangle this succeed-with-integrity-and-not-get-hamstrung-by-sexist-nonsense thing.

    4. OP*

      Thanks, fposte. Indeed, I believe there is a mentoring program. I’m a bit wary of the approach you suggest just because I’ve had bad experiences with women who came up a generation or two earlier than I did, but certainly talking with other tt women has helped.

      1. fposte*

        Yes, there can be generational complexity, but even people with a year or two on you may give some added perspective.

  8. Gypsy pepper*

    Oh wow, this is timely. I am also a young female academic, and I recently set (very mild, very professionally and reasonably stated) boundaries with an older male mentor figure in a very high-up position at my university.

    And…he ghosted me. Completely. Like, he stopped reaching out and responding to emails and I have not heard from him in over a year.

    Obviously this is a huge hit to my academic opportunities, one that I can’t really recover from. As a result, I’m leaving academics entirely.

      1. irene adler*

        yes – awful!

        They talk about the Glass Ceiling, but not about the Cone of Silence – as you have experienced. Another price women must pay so as to protect the ‘feelings’ of others.

        I’ll never make it in the corporate world. It’s just too much to deal with.

        1. Gypsy pepper*

          Yeah. I filed a complaint with the appropriate university office, but given that they’ve let faculty convicted of felonies stay on, I’m not expecting this to go anywhere.

          1. Pippa*

            You’re right, it won’t go anywhere, and I’m so sorry. It’s no comfort to you that it’s a common sort of experience for women, but do at least know that these things aren’t a result of some personal fault of yours.

        2. SunnyD*

          I’m in the corporate world, and this is not anything like what I’ve dealt with. Not to say it doesn’t happen, but the unique and deeply sexist / vulnerable / vindictive / exploitative characteristics of academia are shocking to my very bones. All to say, you may find the corporate world to be a delightful change.

    1. blackcat*

      Yeah, LW needs to be really careful here!

      I think the best bet is in the moment re-directing, and keeping your door shut/doing work outside of your office if at all possible (any good coffee shops?).
      “Oh, I’m so sorry to hear that! That must be really hard. [look at computer] Oh, I’m so sorry but I have to get going on this grant proposal before a meeting this afternoon! Let’s talk about it later.” And then just… never be available later. But make them think you are.

      1. Gypsy pepper*

        My favorite redirect is to advice columns, like, “That sounds like a really hard problem! I really like the advice column Carolyn Hax– maybe you could see if she’s covered something similar in her archives?” That way, it sounds like you’re offering support, but you’re making them do all the legwork.

        Unfortunately, in the case I just mentioned, redirection like this wasn’t possible and I had to state an explicit boundary.

  9. Samwise*

    With students, you can say something like, “wow, that’s really tough! Have you talked to anyone about that? Pause for answer
    — if it’s yes, I have a therapist/I’ve been to the counseling center, then say something like, that’s really a great decision, they are good at helping folks work thru things, and it’s good that you’re continuing to do that! Then gently redirect to the topic at hand.
    –if it’s no, or if it’s Yes, I’m talking to you, then say something like, Name, I’m really concerned about you, but I’m not trained as a counselor. Have you tried the counseling center? [at this point you can give the student the contact info, or, if you are genuinely worried about the student, walk them over — the counseling center will have good info for *you* on how to refer students, contact them before your next student walks in]
    I’m an academic advisor, so students already come to me for help in figuring out issues with academics and career planning, and they think I can help with personal issues too. I refer them with scripts like this all the time. If you are warm, concerned, and making it clear that you want the best for them and that’s why you’re referring them to the counseling center [or whatever is the appropriate resource: health center, social worker, food pantry, etc.], then they will not feel you are just trying to get rid of them.

    Re the tenured male colleagues: I would find tenured colleagues (in your department if possible) who you feel would make good mentors with respect to this issue. Pick people who are savvy about the politics of your dept. , who will have an interest in your success, and who seem to communicate well with different constituencies. AAM’s advice is good but I’d want to know what would work in your dept specifically.

    1. Seeking Second Childhood*

      Your script sounds like something that could be reworked for colleagues by substituting the company’s EAP program.
      I am not good at navigating these waters so take me with a grain of salt.

      1. Artemesia*

        Nope. Telling your senior male colleague he needs counseling when he is ‘just sharing a few issues’ will make you come across as condescending and someone who thinks he is emotionally disturbed. That will not be helpful to you. It isn’t easy.

      2. Samwise*

        I wouldn’t say word one about an EAP to a tenured colleague, especially if I’m untenured. It’s just not done. Let the dept chair do that. Or the dean.

    2. Sally*

      Re the tenured male colleagues: I would find tenured colleagues (in your department if possible) who you feel would make good mentors with respect to this issue. Pick people who are savvy about the politics of your dept. , who will have an interest in your success, and who seem to communicate well with different constituencies.

      This made me think about the suggestion that is sometimes made on AAM (by Alison, I think, but I’m not positive) to ask one of the perpetrators how to handle the situation – as though he wasn’t one of them. And see what he says. I don’t know how safe that is to do in this situation. It seems that higher education is so different than most other workplaces, I wouldn’t want to assume that something that’s reasonable elsewhere would work there.

      1. Samwise*

        Depends. If you are sure the male colleague in question is just kind of clueless and will react well and otherwise acts with scrupulous integrity, then yes. If you have even a whisper of a doubt about any of that, don’t go that direction. The price is very high if you are wrong.

    3. CommanderBanana*

      I was just about to suggest this – I think it works as well with colleagues, because by gently asking if they have thought about talking to someone about it, you’re also making clear that that ‘someone’ isn’t you.

    4. OP*

      Samewise, that’s exactly what I do with students, down to setting up appointments for them.

  10. NotSuperWoman*

    Oh, I can relate to this so much! As a woman in her 30s who has been in higher ed for the last 10+ years, this has happened to me more times than I like to remember. Part of my job has always included hearing students’ stories, but that doesn’t mean I want to be everyone’s confidante!

    The only pattern I can seem to find relates to my own self-care. This oversharing from others seems to decrease (or I’m able to detach from it better) when I’ve been taking care of myself. For me, this has included things like going to counseling, being intentional about margin (space to breathe in life), and becoming more comfortable with my own personal boundaries. That may just be my own personal experience & not relevant to LW, but it has seemed to make a difference in my life.

    1. Academic Addie*

      I agree with all this. I’m going to lunch in an hour with other women in my department. Both are full professors. Sometimes you just need to be heard, even with enforcing your boundaries.

  11. Mr. Bob Dobalina*

    I don’t disagree with what AAM wrote, but I see the situation with students versus co-workers differently, because of the different type of relationship and power differential. I think the OP has a lot of directional control in the interactions with students, and it’s up to the OP to set the tone and, if necessary, establish firm boundaries with students. With co-workers there can be different expectations of interpersonal interaction depending on the workplace, and there can be those professional and political landmines.

    1. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

      The point re: students is true, unless teaching evals are a significant factor in your tenure file (which is so annoying because all the research shows that evals skew by the instructor’s race, gender, and LGBT identity). That doesn’t mean OP doesn’t have any control—she does—but it changes some of the strategies. This stuff is maddening.

      1. Snark*

        Evals, as currently instituted, are complete trash. My last year teaching, I got keel-hauled by students I’d caught cheating. Written feedback, sure, but the current eval form approach is just ripe for bias and abuse.

        1. Artemesia*

          Students know it too and will organize to take out someone they don’t like or who caught them cheating. And one very florid comment may get pulled out and find its way into your written review and become an emblem for how students perceive you.

          1. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

            Yup. I’ve seen this happen to adjuncts and to pre-tenure folks. Sometimes you get lucky and the senior person on your review committee calls out that there appears to be a coordinated campaign. Other times, you have to deal with the hell that is vindictive student evals.

    2. Phoenix Programmer*

      But even there you have to be careful if student evals are part of your tenure track or evaluations.

    3. That Girl From Quinn's House*

      With regards to students, a lot of schools consider professors who are teaching undergraduate students to be part of the university’s crisis prevention plan, identifying students in mental distress and referring and reporting them to the appropriate offices before they endanger themselves or others.

      At the very least, she should know how to direct students to campus counseling resources, and how to report students to the relevant campus authorities if she feels the student is too ill to help themselves.

    4. Arctic*

      But in some ways the students hold more power than her co-workers here. Student evals are a component of deciding whether to keep someone for another year and, eventually, tenure. And it’s not like the student will write “refused to be my therapist” they will write things like “was cold and dismissive during office hours” “didn’t take my concerns seriously” or whatever.

      1. fposte*

        Maybe you’re thinking more of adjuncts here, with the “another year”? For P&T, even when student evaluations count, they count because of the weight those co-workers or a subset of them choose to put on them; mixed votes on tenure will often involve some people who say the evals are a problem and some people who say they aren’t, and they’re all seeing the same evaluations.

        That doesn’t mean the evaluations are pointless, but it means they have the power the OP’s colleagues choose to give them.

        1. Artemesia*

          There is always someone on the committee who ‘fully supports tenuring women, just not THIS particular woman or THAT particular woman’ and this guy will pull out the evals and the one hideous quote.

          I knew of a case where the woman was a very fine scholar with a great track record who got such an excoriating 3 year review that the provosts office came back with ‘look at this record, what is going on in the department that this candidate is getting this kind of negative review?’ Usually they know enough to cover their misogynist tracks better. She moved to another university where she got tenure on hire.

          1. fposte*

            Yup. There are universities that preclude evaluations for tenure consideration because they’re so subject to discriminatory wielding.

            1. Pippa*

              Sadly, not enough of them. At my own, a senior administrator defended the use of anonymous student course evaluations despite the problems shown in the research (mentioned by PCBH above) because “*our* students aren’t biased like that.”

        2. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

          It’s certainly true that evals weigh more heavily for lecturers, adjuncts, and other non-tenure-track term faculty (don’t get me started on the intellectual laziness of evaluating someone only, or primarily, by their teaching evals). Unfortunately, some schools/departments still afford evals weight during tenure considerations for ladder faculty, as well. As Artemesia notes, I’ve now seen that person on the committee who can’t find anything against a pre-tenure WOC except one line, taken way out of context, from one inappropriate teaching eval.

          The Provost just came back to us rejecting reappointment of someone because he believed our faculty “clearly did not read the evals if they believe this person is fit to teach.” (direct quote)

          1. fposte*

            Right, but that wouldn’t matter without the colleague having power–that’s why I’m saying no, the students don’t have more power than the colleagues.

  12. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

    OP, I second Alison’s suggestions to essentially make an “mmm” gesture and pivot. It’s enough to sound warm and sympathetic, but it also lets you move on, quickly.

    From my very limited experience in the academy, it seems incredibly common for people to fail to follow any basic norms about professionalism. That includes, unfortunately, tenured folks oversharing their personal issues and failing to maintain a sense of professional boundaries. You don’t want to invite them to keep doing it, but I think a change in affect can help. The “distant but accessible” vibe ensures that 75% of folks never become comfortable enough to start treating you like their mom and just dumping all their troubles on your lap. For the remaining 25%, I switch up the feedback they expect to receive. So I don’t comfort them or sympathize. I’ll just do an uncomfortably pregnant pause and then switch back to the substantive issue. For tenured male colleagues, of course it’s much harder. But I think a somewhat “distant” vibe can help with the less egregious offenders.

    1. Dr. Pepper*

      You’re correct. Professionalism and regular work etiquette often doesn’t apply in academia. In some ways it’s nice, in others…. it’s not. When I worked in academia, I used this tactic all the time. Listen, make soothing noises, trot out a few canned sympathetic phrases, change subject. If you can keep your face “open” and your tone warm, it usually does the trick. You don’t actually have to *listen* or invest emotionally. Most of the inappropriate confessors can’t tell if you’re actually doing any emotional labor for them or if you’re just making soothing noises in their direction.

      1. pamela voorhees*

        “making soothing noises in their direction” is possibly the best description for this I’ve ever heard. 10/10 cannot recommend enough.

    2. Samwise*

      I do think that if you are willing, you should refer students to resources. Many students don’t know what’s available, or they don’t think of a particular resource as applying to their situation, or they just need that tiny push to go get the help they need. Especially true for first gen and underresourced students. Doesn’t mean you have to be the therapist — I think in fact it’s better for both you and the student if you are not!

      Colleagues, especially tenured colleagues when you’re untenured? Nope nope nopity nope.

      1. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

        Oh, I agree with respect to students! I’ve certainly had students in crisis who I’ve referred to resources. But for colleagues, I agree entirely with Dr. Pepper.

        Soothing noises (and sometimes pregnant pauses, but much less so) are really the only workable response for tenured, male colleagues until you’re tenured. It’s bullshit, but it’s real.

  13. La Framboise*

    Wait until you get tenure to re-direct. I’m in the Midwest, am a Midwesterner with “resting nice face” (thanks, C Average!), and I get this from men all the time. You may have to listen to more than you want to listen to. It’s unfortunate, but true, in academia, that you are judged on personality whether a woman or a man, and yet men get more of a pass on perceived personality flaws than women. Can you go to your happy place while listening? That’s gotten me, a woman, past some of the tedium of listening to personal revelations (although cut them off if it gets too personal). And best on getting the professorship, I hope tenure comes soon!

    1. OP*

      Thanks! I often go to my happy place in meetings where the (same! shocking!) faculty have decided that “department meeting” means “two people talk to each other) and may be able to do this here, selectively. I certainly did it on a lot of dates back in the day, where I also often felt like an unpaid therapist to someone I barely knew….good time to do the shopping list.

  14. Arctic*

    I don’t think any of this is new (as your husband’s theory suggests) women have been expected to be the office mother and/or wife since as long as there have been offices (at least in the US I can’t speak for all cultures.)

    And, in my experience, other women can do this too (expect a fellow woman to be the therapist). That doesn’t negate that it’s a gendered thing though. Women are raised in the same society with the same gender expectations.

  15. Jerry*

    Curious about other people’s experiences with this. I’m a male and I’ve definitely experienced being a feelings dump. The sheer volume of information I have on my coworker’s marital struggles, sex lives, career frustrations, and family health could fill three Shonda Rhimes series. I haven’t found a way to cut if off completely, but I’m not sure if I want to, it seems like these folks are mostly scared and confused, are ashamed to be scared and confused and don’t feel safe talking to anyone else.

    1. Justin*

      I think a lot of it is that a lot of men (incl me) were just not given the emotional tools to handle expression in a healthy way. We’re conditioned to be a few base emotions and when things fall outside of that we struggle.

      HOWEVER, we need to get some help that isn’t “women who are nearby” (unless we have paid them for their expertise or they literally offered without feeling pressured).

      Just a way that toxic masculinity hurts all. I am glad I finally got some help (and could afford it, etc etc) and stopped vomiting it at “people who are nice to me.”

      1. OP*

        Yes, TOTALLY, Justin! I think if it’s gendered, it’s more that it’s men doing the dumping, less that I’m a woman. That gets enhanced by the fact that I may feel less comfortable being perceived as rude than my younger male colleagues.

    2. AKchic*

      Jerry, you are getting a small dose of what women get (and what OP is dealing with and asking for help with) on a daily basis. The emotional dump and word vomit from men who don’t know how to process their feelings, who don’t know how to turn to anyone who isn’t a woman who has been slightly nice to them, because they have been conditioned to only unburden themselves to women (usually ones they are sleeping with or ones they want to sleep with because subconsciously, feelings = intimacy).

      Now add in the catch .22 for us: If we allow them to unburden themselves, we’re too “nice” to succeed in our careers because we’re considered too warm and fuzzy and not serious about the work we’re hired to do. If we don’t allow ourselves to be used as free therapy, we’re cold, unfeeling hard-asses. Unsympathetic, uncaring, impersonal… and *that too* hinders us from advancing in our career because we are expected to exude a certain amount of warmth and friendliness to succeed. Men, on the other hand, are not expected to have any of those qualities at all in most fields. As long as they come in, put in the work and produce the desired results, they could have the personality of an empty tuna tin and nobody would care.

      1. Kat in VA*

        I’m wondering about the “too nice” part myself. I have an executive who could be considered “difficult” – he’s brash, blunt, direct, hard charging, and can appear to be unfeeling. To me, he’s more like a child in an adult’s body – it’s not that he doesn’t care if he hurts your feelings, he just doesn’t realize your feelings can be hurt?

        Or, more to the point, saying XYZ wouldn’t hurt his feelings so he doesn’t stop to think that saying XYZ to someone else might hurt *their* feelings.

        I spend a LOT of time deescalating with him when he gets wound up as well as deescalating with his directors and other people he comes in contact with. I offer advice (which is often taken), I’m the shoulder to cry on when they want to quit, and offer ways around whatever problem the directors are having with him, and all around, MANAGE EVERYONE’S EMOTIONS.

        Did I mention I’m an executive assistant? Oh, but I’m that and so so so much more!

        Some of it is on me – I genuinely care about my boss and his direct reports and I truly want everyone to be at least marginally happy and get along. I have a reputation for smoothing things over, for getting information to the boss in a way that is often anonymized, and I do get results. If I bring something to him in a way that’s “Some of the directors don’t like XYZ” versus “BOB THREATENS TO QUIT OVER XYZ”, more often than not, he’ll mull it over, sometimes change his mind or his entire direction, and everyone is happy. Until the next XYZ situation rolls around. And the next.

        Honestly, though, sometimes I wonder if (a) this is what I signed up for and (b) would they be doing this to me if I was a man?

        Being the division’s Mom-cum-therapist has its benefits – they’re all very appreciative, apparently no one has issues with me or my work even though admittedly I’m not nearly as good at the hard skills (prioritizing, etc.) as the soft skills, and I appear to be very well-liked throughout the organization.

        But sometimes I wonder how things would be going for me (and the division) if someone who was less available for emotional outbursts/crises of confidence/words of comfort was in my position. Or how things would change for me if I stopped being available for those “BOSSMAN MAKES ME CRAZY, I FEEL SO XYZ WHEN HE XZYS ME” sessions that happen on the regular (and, lately, with increasing frequency).

  16. Amethystmoon*

    It really depends. A former co-worker of mine frequently overshared on instant messenger, and some of the things he overshared were definitely were of the sort that a licensed therapist should be hearing. As in, red flag type of things. I would tell him things like I’m sorry to hear that, but I have to get back to X job duty now. Because in the place where I work, people have in fact been chastised publically for being too chatty. I also warned him about that, and also showed him the policy of not using company instant messenger for personal conversations, but it didn’t seem to deter him at all.

    1. New Jack Karyn*

      Yes, I think academia really is its own beast in a lot of ways. Not the same as most workplaces!

  17. J*

    Ah, yes. I am also an office therapist. And in higher education too, so I might have a couple of useful tips.

    In terms of the students: your university certainly offers mental health services for major issues, but they may also offer tools to alert Student Affairs officers who can deal with more day-to-day stress and time management issues. My institution recently launched a tool that allows faculty to “flag” students to Student Affairs if they have concerns about them outside the classroom. Even if your school doesn’t have a tool that fancy, there is hopefully at least one person in the Student Affairs office who is Officially Responsible for helping students through various life issues that might impact (but aren’t at all related to) their classwork. So aside from steering the conversation back to the matter at hand, you could suggest that the student reach out to that person for more help (or offer to connect them to that office).

    I agree with your concerns about deflecting faculty and think Alison’s advice is the best option there. I will say, having seen it myself, that it’s worth considering if this is a price you’re willing to pay for tenure at this institution – it’s not going to change, most likely, and often departments that lean on female faculty to perform emotional labor also give them the lion’s share of administrative/service work as well. Which, of course, cuts into your research time, which impacts your ability to publish, which impacts your tenure packet, and so on and so forth.

    Finally, one more tip: if you’re resigned to providing therapy sessions, make sure you’re able to listen without absorbing. I made peace with my office therapist role by working really hard to take my own emotional investment out of it so that it wouldn’t be an emotional drain. Often people just want a living being to talk *AT* anyway.

  18. Lora*

    Well, the upside is, you’ll know ALL the gossip and politics very quickly. Which can often come in handy – it’s definitely frustrating to realize that there was some back-story and other conversations happening without you that still affect you. So in that sense it’s useful to be seen as someone people can talk to in confidence. I’ve found out about layoffs, impending firings, division sales, and major re-orgs far ahead of time, and those are useful things to know.

    The downside is definitely that it’s a time suck and a huge emotional Thing that people are dumping on your head. And if you refuse to do it, brush it off however professionally, you get to share my nicknames at work (Ice Princess is the *nicest* one). And I’m in a very down to earth, emotionally reserved work culture – the contrast is extra-frustrating.

    I don’t know, I feel like it’s the sort of thing that doesn’t have any great solutions.

    1. OP*

      Very true, I now feel like I know all the history behind the snide comments at department meetings!

    2. Kat in VA*

      OMG so much this. Which can make for awkward interactions when you’re talking to someone who is on the chopping block and they don’t know it yet. Or someone whom the boss is very angry with and they have absolutely no idea what’s coming.

  19. Chrome*

    Chiming in from the west coast in Washington state. I’m one of only 4 women in my company (60 people), and I have a poor personality type for emotional labor. I’ve gotten myself a reputation for being very business-like–some might even say I’m cold, but it hasn’t held me back in my career so I don’t care. Funny enough, it’s mostly the women who try to engage on an emotional basis like that with me, though some of the men have tried it as well (this might just be a proximity thing, the women of the office tend to work more closely together in our roles).

    HR lady comes to me with gossip about divorcing her husband? “I’m sorry to hear that. Do you need me to take over [task] while you adjust?”
    Single-mom receptionist wants to talk about how difficult her schedule is with her daughter? “I’m sorry to hear that.”
    Technician wants to complain about how he feels like he’s not progressing in his career? “Sorry to hear that, you might talk to your manager about getting more responsibilities.”

    “Sorry to hear that” with no additional input or emotional engagement is a fantastic way to cut these things short. It’s unfailingly polite without opening any further doors. Of course, if my boss comes in sighing wistfully about how his kids are growing up too fast and feeling old, I’ll play ball. But the boss has actually complimented me several times on my avoidance of chatter.

    1. Snark*

      And tone and expression is EVERYTHING. “Aw, I’m sorry to hear that *pained sympathetic half-smile* *unforced little exhalation* Hey, I’ve got a meeting in five, but would love to get your thoughts on my grant application.”

          1. pamela voorhees*

            If the conversation keeps going despite the sorry to hear that and the redirect, also found great success with a slightly worried/concerned expression with a bit of a thousand mile stare and just saying “mmm. mhm? hmmm.” You’re technically showing the signs of continuing a conversation, but unburdening on someone and getting “mm” back is so unsatisfying that most people will awkwardly trail off.

    2. NotAnotherManager!*

      I’m kind of the same way, and this is where working in a client-focused, fast-paced field like law benefits because no one finds it odd that the focus is constantly turned back to the work that needs to be done. It’s not an emotionally open field, and I think that helps set the expectation that we’re not going to discuss your personal life in detail at work. (The obvious downside is that there is less consideration for personal circumstances when they conflict with work obligations.)

  20. Snark*

    Having spent some time in academia, my feeling is that with the students, it’s a bit less gendered than Alison is assuming. Especially with younger college students, they’re often used to closer relationships with their high school teachers, and especially if you’re a friendly and respected instructor closer to their age than a middle-aged full professor, you can get the full feelings dump. (And inappropriate romantic declarations, and eyebrow-raising admissions of personal and sexual adventures, and so on.)

    With the colleagues, I think it’s totally super gendered, in the sense that women are often perceived as more emotionally available than men. And in academia, there are also a lot of socially maladroit people with nonexistent or weird professional boundaries who’ve essentially been in school their entire lives, and they don’t realize this is not a done thing in a professional context.

    1. fposte*

      It may or may not be gendered on the student’s part, but there is often gender imbalance in expectations of how professors treat students.

      1. Snark*

        There absolutely is, and female instructors are often reviewed worse than male ones, but I was speaking more to the general fact that some students don’t know where the boundaries are with instructors in general, male or female.

    2. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Just to clarify, my answer is only about the coworkers, not the students (since I thought the OP was saying she has the students covered but was struggling with it with the coworkers). I’m going to try to make this clearer in the answer!

    3. Sleepy*

      As a former high school teacher, we were expected to play therapist for our students—we were even explicitly taught therapeutic techniques to use on them. It was one of the messed up things about teaching that led me to leave. I wasn’t interested or comfortable with being a therapist, but at the same time, with one school psychologist for 1500 students, I can see why they wanted to Spread the work around a bit.

      So yeah, students come from an environment where their teachers were explicitly expected to have these kinds of conversations with them, whether they wanted to or not. I do think it’s healthy to gently deflect them and redirect them to the appropriate services. This is a good time for students to learn more about the boundaries that will serve them in the workplace.

    4. One of the Sarahs*

      Interesting, my family/friends are academics, and both men and women have remarked on the problem that female academics get stuck teaching 1st and 2nd years only (erm freshmen and sophomores?) as women are seen as better at pastoral care, and so on, because they’re naturally more empathetic etc…. but it comes back to bite them if they’re not tenured (in the UK the equivalent is if they’re Hourly Paid Lecturers rather than full-time staff) because when they come to apply for jobs, they don’t have the experience supporting undergrads through their dissertations and so in.

      It’s a crappy Catch 22 thing, where on my second degree (an art degree) all the full time staff were men, and all the Hourly Paid Lecturers were women, and in my 3rd year I didn’t have input into my projects from any female staff, unless I could track one down in her non-teaching time and ask for advice – which as they were paid by the hour for their teaching/marking time only, meant asking them to help me out without being paid. Of course it hurts all HPLs, but it was a fact that across multiple courses, straight white men were over-represented on the full-time staff, and HPLs were much, MUCH more likely to be the women.

    5. Pippa*

      I assure you that it is quite gendered with the students. Students say things to me and my female colleagues, in person and on evaluations, that my male colleagues have never, at any stage of their career, had said to them. It’s actually a thing we compare notes about, among female faculty and among mixed-gender peer groups, and it’s pretty well-recognized. And it’s not just the age of the female professor – to borrow from George Strait, I was a young academic when I rode into this town, and I’ll be an old academic when I’m gone. Right now I’m in the middle, and this is something that is definitely tied to gender as much as age.

      1. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

        Absolutely. Does it occasionally happen to male colleagues? I suppose so, because someone always has “that one anecdote” to tell me about when it happened. But 90% of the time the comments made to female faculty would never be made to male faculty.

      2. Snark*

        Hm. I can definitely see the content being gendered, yeah, thanks for bringing that up. I still feel like the age/boundary dynamic is in play, in that it’s already a situation where they’re learning what’s appropriate and occasionally failing. But you’re right, I’m sure the content and tone of the emodumps is different, and weirder, between male and female faculty. My experience was more that students seemed to think I was their chill older bro who gave a crap how much weed they smoked before class and how much they hooked up last weekend.

  21. Bend & Snap*

    This happens to me allll the time in life (not at work). I don’t know if men consciously hold women hostage to sort out their feelings, but they definitely do it, and it’s awful.

    It really sucks that the OP can’t just say she’s not a therapist and move on with the matter at hand.

  22. Haven't had coffee yet*

    There’s an interesting article I read recently about “emotional gold diggers” that discusses why women are constantly relied on for emotional support. LW’s challenge with her male colleagues fit in amongst the stories that are shared. (Link here:

    I agree that LW should cut these kinds of personal conversations short (in as much of a sympathetic manner as possible to be “polite”), and course correct the discussion to addressing work needs. Your time and ability to emotionally support someone, if anyone, should go to yourself first! Otherwise, I think this will eventually cause some resentment (not to mention the mental exhaustion!). Good luck!

    1. Wrong Target*

      Woah! I have definitely experienced this, and not only from men. I’m a woman with an “open” face, as Gillian Flynn put it in one of her books, and I like listening more than I like talking. I am, for the most part, happy to listen to whatever’s on people’s minds. But sometimes people get far too, for lack of a better word, vulnerable and it does feel a bit like being used.

    2. Snark*

      I think that article is, somewhat ironically, a little too charitable to men about why we habitually offload on women. All of those issues are real, but connecting them all as causes doesn’t ring hugely true for me – they’re contributory, but I think a whole lotta dudes just kind of want to be mothered and attended to by someone who’s not a male peer or a paid professional but a woman who cares for them, and actively choose to seek their therapy, emotional release, and deep discussions with the primary (or even tertiary, as OP can attest!) women in their lives, not just because they default to her due to a lack of options.

      1. SunnyD*

        I think you’re right… But at the same time it struck a tone that meant that I could send it to my husband. If it were all “men suck” he wouldn’t read it, but as “rigid gender norms hurt everyone” he could be more open to the ideas.

        Which… actually sounds a lot like emotional labor by women on behalf of men, more that I wrote that out.

        1. Kat in VA*

          Yep. The fact that you considered the tone of it as affecting whether he would spend time reading it…

          The amount of time many women spend on this level of emotional labor is just…exhausting. Say it this way, say it that way, rehearse it, don’t be too aggressive/affectionate/cold/warm/bitchy/appeasing…the list goes on and on.

          Wouldn’t it be nice if we could just go and do, without having to consider all the possible ramifications and outcomes if X wasn’t met or Y was too strong or Z was too strident or or or…

  23. JenC*

    Can’t speak about the colleagues doing this, but I have been teaching college/uni for years and feel this year it has reached an all-time peak of student emotional instability and resulting oversharing. Some of my colleagues seem to relish being the recipient of these issues, and spend a lot of time bending their rules, giving endless extensions, allowing students to scream and cry at them in their office etc. I am an extremely sensitive person and in my first semester of teaching, a crying student was very likely to elicit tears in my own eyes. However, I (and many of my other colleagues) have come to realise there is a subset of students who make their way through university through manipulating the situation by giving graphic details of the troubles they face. It is always someone else’s fault that they cannot be accountable for their own work. Unfortunately, this clouds the situation for students with genuine needs. It is so hard to tell what kind of a situation yiu are dealing with. What I came to realise is that I am a teacher, not a mental health professional. That doesn’t mean I can’t empathise, but I haven’t gone through the kind of training needed to help these students and preserve my own mental balance at the same time. So when tears or anger arrive at my office, I sincerely express my concern and refer them to the trained professionals in my building, sometimes even walking the student to the counsellor’s office. This often doesn’t go well and I have had students complain I am “mean” or “cold”, but this is usually the ones who don’t get the extension they want. The ones who genuinely need help get it, and are grateful someone took them seriously and referred them to the counsellor. It is weirdly difficult but I couldn’t absorb all of this and keep doing my job. Mental health amongst young people seems to be so challenging, and I do understand this, there aren’t enough services for them either, but I can’t fix this. I can only control my own steady consistency, and concern for them, but I can’t solve their issues. I can sit with them and make a plan of how they can get through the hard time while not falling behind on work, I’m really good at that. But I am not a therapist, and since I have realised that, I cope better with my job. I totally relate LW, it is even worse for female profs for some reason, we are expected to be “motherly”. But it happens to my hubby too. It is just how things seem to be nowadays. Alison’s advice is spot on. Sorry this comment was so long!

    1. Snark*

      I think it’s kind of an unintended outgrowth of our culture becoming more understanding of and vocal about mental health. As it becomes more accepted and normal to discuss and experience anxiety, depression, trauma, learning disability, PTSD, and so on, it’s also become kind of a go-to excuse, explanation, and get out of jail free card, which is complicated by the fact that people who genuinely experience those issues and are in valid distress can ALSO come to overrely on them to justify personal failings and steamroll their way out of consequences for same. And determining the line between them is also impossible for an outsider to judge.

    2. ragazza*

      Yeah, I have heard this from my friends who teach in higher ed. They simply don’t have the capacity (or the expertise!) to take on this kind of therapist role.

    3. Anonymeece*

      I have two employees – we are in academia – and we frequently see students who are frustrated by their classes/personal lives and think of us as therapists. Students just overshare a lot. And my employees who get the brunt of it feel genuinely awful for them and so end up not setting boundaries when they should be. I finally had to sit them down and explain that while they were trying to be nice, we really don’t have the tools to cope with some things (we’ve had students who are suicidal, who just lost their mom/dad, who lost their homes in Harvey) and we could inadvertently make things worse because we are not licensed therapists.

      Some students do use it to off-load their own culpability, but some have genuine problems. And I do think that we are in a culture of oversharing. One of my employees comes from another country and thought maybe it was a Southern thing; I told her, “Nope! At least, when I was growing up, no one would dare share those private details”, but now it really is that culture. Reality TV influence maybe? More stress on students in general with rising costs of college? No idea.

  24. saby*

    Oh yikes, academia is a minefield for this. Sooooo many boundary problems.

    OP, in what kinds of situations are these conversations happening? In and around meetings, or water cooler conversations, or dropping by people’s offices to chat? (Or are you in a lab type setting? That might make it harder to avoid…) I think you can treat each one a bit differently. At my institution it would be seen as a bit rude to try to cut short a personal water cooler or coffee break type conversation, even if someone is dumping feelings at you, unless there really is somewhere you need to be. Same with conversations at the end of a meeting when everyone is slowly dispersing. Or someone dropping by your office on a slow summer Friday where you know no one is getting anything done… Basically you may need to pick your battles, or strategize different excuses for different scenarios.

    1. OP*

      This is mostly when I have something else to discuss with them (or they with me). If it were water cooler, then I could escape easily. Sometimes people drop by when my door’s open, and if there’s no business side to the conversation, I do find it pretty easy to say, “yikes, yeah, well–good luck! Gotta get back to grading!”

      What I’m more concerned with is something like the vague example I gave–I have an email exchange with a colleague about Work Issue X, and he doesn’t respond for days. And then instead of a simple “I’m sorry for the delayed response” he comes to my office or stops me in the hall to tell me all the reasons he hasn’t responded. In that case, there really is something we need to discuss/work on, and I can’t just get out of there.

  25. Bunny Girl*

    I feel this so hard, and not just at work. For some reason, I have “resting nice face” and everyone and their dog feels the need to come up to me and start talking to me about their personal stuff. I actually make my boyfriend go to the store with me 99% of the time because if not, I have literal strangers approach me to start some personal conversation with me. I don’t understand it. As for my personality – I am one of the most introverted, reserved, and reclusive people in existence. I don’t enjoy carrying anyone’s emotional baggage, let alone someone unfamiliar to me or someone that I only know on a surface level – like a coworker. I have tried 1000 ways to make myself less approachable and it never works. Good luck OP; be firm with people. You aren’t a licensed therapist and you have no reason to carry other people’s emotional weight.

    1. pamela voorhees*

      As someone who has also had this happen (I’m just trying to buy some ice cream and Bagel Bites pleas stop talking to me about how much you hate your grandkids) I can confirm that responding “Ah, nein. Sprechen Sie Deutsch?” does, for the most part, work.

      (Unfortunately this will probably not work for your work colleagues. Probably.)

    2. Poppy*

      “I am one of the most introverted, reserved, and reclusive people in existence.”

      I think this is part of the attraction. They know somehow you’re not going to start talking about (shock, horror!) yourself. So they can just blather on, drawing breath in the middle of sentences to stop you interrupting, for eons.

      Not making eye contact is a good tip. Pivoting is a good one too, if the wall of words lets up long enough for you to get a word in edgeways. Starting to get fidgety, glancing at papers, computer screen, etc, sometimes helps.

  26. I See Real People*

    All my life people have told me that I’m very easy to talk to. Maybe I missed my calling (psychiatry!). I just listen and then move on. I’ve found that most people just want to be heard. It’s usually not disrupting. Although I will say that if someone comes to me more than twice complaining about the same problem and they don’t actively do something to fix it themselves, I will tell them that I don’t have time to talk, and leave it at that. Those people!

  27. Jadelyn*

    I’m hesitant to uncritically accept the idea that millenials and later are generally better than previous generations with this stuff. In my experience as an older millennial (mid-30s), it’s more that millennial guys and later have learned the language to use to appear more sensitive and in-touch with their feelings, but even if that actually translates into being more in-touch with their feelings, they still dump them onto the women around them instead of their male friends.

    Of course, I can only speak directly for my own experiences, but…I’ve known too many Manbun McSensitive Misogynists in my time to trust that it’s entirely or even partially a generational thing.

      1. Snark*

        Then I’ll respond to you here! My criticism of the piece is largely that it kind of connects three phenomena in mens’ mental health (inability to articulate and discuss feelings, inability to form emotionally satisfying relationships with other men, and preference for using women for emotional labor) that are obviously interrelated but which I don’t think forms quite the neatly connected picture the author puts together. It’s messier and looser.

        1. Snark*

          To expand:

          While men’s lack of emotionally satisfying relationships with other men, and their social alienation and overreliance on women of social contact, and their lack of inclination to pursue therapy, are all highly contributory and related, I don’t think that’s why men demand lots of emotional labor of women. Men are definitely cut off from appropriate and diverse venues to discuss their feelings, and that drives the need, but I think it boils down more to….laziness? The path of least resistance?

          I think one quote in the article really pointed at it – “why do I need a therapist, when I have you?” I think a lot of men, especially priveleged white men, are really used to expecting women to do shit for them. It’s kind of a perpetual adolescence, maaa get the meatloaf kind of thing. It’s not that they’re necessarily emotional cripples who can only open up to their girlfriend, though some are, and it’s not that they don’t have buddies they could open up to, though many don’t. I think a lot of men offload on their female significant others because they’re in the habit of being mothered, and expect their partners to mother them, and would honestly rather be mothered than bother to have an open peer conversation with another man.

          1. Snark_*

            And that, to further expand, is how Manbunsogyny works.

            And to expand on my expansion on my expansion, I really just expanded because I was amused by portmanteuing “manbunsogyny.”

            1. Jadelyn*

              Ok, if nothing else, the portmanteau made me outright cackle at my desk. I’m gonna start using that one.

          2. ThatGirl*

            I mean, correlation does not equal causation and all that, but don’t you think that if men had more satisfying social relationships with other men, felt less alienated, and were more inclined to pursue therapy, they would rely less on women? I mean … it’s all interconnected, even if the line isn’t straight. And the experience of many, many (most?) women is that we end up as emotional dumping grounds. I honestly don’t care whether it’s society or laziness, the end result is the same.

            1. Snark*

              I mean, yes, absolutely, ultimately the end result is the same. But I think the laziness/mothering need is key, because I think satisfying social relationships with other men, fighting alienation, and pursuing therapy are all hard, and running your mouth at your SO is easy. And I think knowing the ultimate cause helps all involved address it better.

              1. ThatGirl*

                I think it’s great for dudes to interrogate amongst themselves what the causes of this might be to better address it, but like, don’t dump /that/ on women too. I want men to go figure their own stuff out, yknow? The causes are only interesting to me in a vaguely academic way; from a personal standpoint I just want the feelingsdumps to stop.

                I am only speaking for myself here but I suspect other women would feel similarly. It’s like the foot-stepping metaphor: I don’t care whether you’re from a society that values stepping on other people’s feet, or whether your mom told you it was OK, or whether it was an accident, I just want you to stop stepping on my foot.

                1. Snark*

                  Totally fair and very understandable. I intended this more as a response to the article, which did get into causes fairly deeply, not that you personally need to care about the causes more than you’re inclined to.

                2. Arts Akimbo*

                  Yes. My son is only a teen and is doing the dump-feelings-on-girls thing, and we’ve talked about it and how it’s inappropriate, and here’s a list of appropriate people to tell things like that to. I am just so floored that as close a family as we are, and as rightly as we’ve tried to raise him, his first instinct is to find a girl to handle his feelings for him! D-: What the actual heck?

          3. Jadelyn*

            I guess the only thing we actually disagree on, is that I don’t see that as being a separate issue so much? I agree that the path of least resistance factor is a heavy driver of the behavior…but I also think it’s the other factors mentioned that *makes* dumping on the women in their lives into that path of least resistance. To me, it’s all intertwined. They do this because it’s easier to demand that from a female partner than to get it elsewhere. Okay – why is it easier to expect female partners to mother them? Because toxic masculinity has made it so hard to have deep emotional connections with people outside of that pairbond.

      1. Justin*

        Exactly, Snark.

        (And Karen might say she can’t BE racist because of misogyny’s undisputable provenance. We’re all socialized into bigotry and have to do concerted work to excise ourselves.)

    1. Old Biddy*

      I’m Gen X but have run into the same thing with Gen X men. Some of the most seemingly woke guys can be absolute sexist dinosaurs. The only difference is that if you call themon it, you get gaslighting instead of direct pushback.

  28. NotAnotherManager!*

    It is a running joke in one of my teams is that they should be issued a counseling rate to accompany their client billing rate. And it’s the two least touchy-feely people (both men) tend to be used as therapists the most often. Most of their “therapy sessions” tend to stem from work-related things, like how they didn’t go to law school to do document review or a partner hates everything they write, etc., but it also delves into their personal relationships and how they’re questioning their life choices.

    It creates big boundary problems because some of the people, despite being younger and having less professional experience, are in positions to evaluate the performance of the staff to which they are venting.

  29. Kathlynn (Canada)*

    As a feeling dumper, for me it’s a bad coping method I developed in Elementary school (due to untreated mental health issues plus lots problems in my life). And I’ve been working on breaking it for years. With good years and bad months. Sadly the “talk about other things” doesn’t work well when most offline people (and honestly online too) aren’t interested in discussing the book I just finished. Or that game I played last week. Luckily most people will listen to my list of cute things my family’s kids do.
    And honestly, part of the problem is that a lack of validation about my feelings has left me searching for that validation (thus the bad coping method) And I didn’t realize this until I was in therapy for over a year. I’m not using this to say you have to listen to people doing this. Or that everyone is doing it for the same reason as me. Just putting another side of the picture out there for understanding.

    1. softcastle mccormick*

      Question for you: how would you prefer for other people to “shut it down” in the kindest way possible? I have a coworker who is very similar to how you described yourself, and I would like to preserve the relationship. What’s the kindest someone has told you that they need to focus on something else? I’d really appreciate your input!

      1. Kathlynn (Canada)*

        “I’m really sorry, I’d like to talk more, but I’ve got to get back to work”. For one off situations
        Or maybessomething like “I’m sorry (you’re an awesome person) but I don’t have time to talk about personal stuff”
        And you’d likely have to say it to me multiple times before I could break the feedback loop habit. But that would be on me not the other person.
        it also depends on if they know they chatter on too much. At my last job a coworker could just tell me that we’d been talking too long, and we needed to get back to work. Didn’t always work, as I sometimes get into a mood/mode where I have to talk unless I can distracte myself. At my current job I try to do this myself with about the same amount of success. And I use the happy family stuff to switch my brain from focusing on bad stuff to happy stuff.
        it’s easier if I can use headphones or do something farther from my coworkers or in one spot (at my last job I would kneel on a stool while washing dishes to reduce foot pain and help me focus).

    2. Little Pig*

      You might consider what the other person is looking for in the conversation. Maybe they don’t want to talk about your book, but you can display curiosity about what they’re reading/watching/listening to. Even if you don’t watch Game of Thrones, for example, you can say, “I’ve been hearing terrible things about the last season! Was it really that bad?”, and let them talk for a little bit. A harsher way to say this might be to talk about yourself less and them more.

      I have generally experienced a major change in the quality of my relationships (of all types) since I started trying to cultivate curiosity about other people.

      1. Kathlynn (Canada)*

        Over the years I’ve certainly gotten better at listening to others. Sadly in my life few people return that ‘favour’ for my interests.

  30. softcastle mccormick*

    I have a question for all the professors and folks in academia: do you ever experience this sort of “feelings dump” as more of a bid for pity for leniency with missed assignments, class, or tests? I went to a large school, and when I had a legitimate family tragedy right before final exams, two of my professors asked to see the death certificate. When in my rage I was actually able to procure a copy of it for them, they were horrified and immediately apologetic, and they told me about how they often had students come to office hours to regale them with fake stories as to why they performed poorly on something and deserve a second attempt. They told me that they had so many “dead grandmothers” to get out of exams, they immediately thought I was lying.

    Could some of the emotional dumping on OP be due to a desire for leniency? Not to be cold or dismissive, but I was shocked with my professors’ experiences.

    1. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

      Yes for some students (omg, the undergrad stories can be shocking), but I think that the dumping is not likely about leniency when it comes from colleagues.

    2. deesse877*

      I think this is partly dependent on school culture, and partly a function of how teaching labor shakes out at different institutions. At my current job, lying is unusual, and students not asking for help they’re entitled to is a far greater problem. Like they’re homeless or recovering from premature childbirth (real examples) and they don’t think to ask for a break. At a previous job, a lot of obvious manipulation, and even fads in the lies (one semester everyone included the same details about “bad Red Lobster” in begging e-mails). However, it’s also the case that people with huge classes, across institutions, likely get more challenges from students, probably because it feels anonymous or impersonal already.

      In your case, I would not have asked for documents unless your grade was already marginal, or you had a documented history of sketchiness.

    3. Academic Addie*

      I mean, not really. But I also think there are dynamics that are really different between schools. I’m at a Master’s granting institution, with predominantly commuter students who work outside school. So most of them do their work on time because they take a similar approach to school and work. Many ask for work even further in advance than I assign it, and I’ve reshaped my approach to when I post things so students can start earlier if they know they won’t have time due to work.

      Doing my PhD at a top-ten program in my field, the flagship R1 in a big state, it was histrionics o’clock every hour. Students in my office crying. Students begging, begging, for extensions. Lined up to beg for two more points on a homework I passed back three months ago after the semester ended. There are definite class differences between where I did my PhD and where I work. Most of the students where I did my PhD were straight out of high school. Because our state had a top ten rule where you were admitted to the flagship if in the top 8 percent of students in your school, and any other school in the system if you were in the top 10, many of these kids were tutored from the time they left school until they dropped. The idea that an educator might not be at their beck and call was bizarre to them.

      So I’m not suspicious, and I’m unlikely to ask for a note. I wasn’t one to do it when I was in my PhD either. But I absolutely understand how if you’re managing an intro class of 300, and you get 60 dead grandmas, that becomes a huge burden for you.

    4. HigherEd on Toast*

      Oh, yes, I used to get a LOT of this. However, I was teaching at a small institution where a lot of the students were related to people who worked there and the culture also emphasized “Closeness of family matters above everything else,” and so you were expected to give them extensions/breaks for everything from actual funerals to “I need to go buy a gift for my great-grandmother’s birthday party.” It was frustrating and draining and a large part of the reason I am no longer there.

      My current institution is a two-year college with no dorms, so a lot of students have genuine transportation difficulties. Many are older, so also have problems with childcare and elder care. I do what I can: they can turn in assignments by e-mail, I’ll ignore a certain number of absences, I grant extensions on major assignments with no questions asked as long as they ask at least the day before and haven’t blown through another extension deadline. I also offer them the information for counseling services when I think that will help. However, I also have a line in my syllabus that emphasizes if they have REGULAR difficulties as opposed to occasional ones- like a student I had a few semesters ago who basically never had a babysitter and missed six classes in a row, then wanted to miss three more to interview babysitters- then this is not the class for them and they should take another. I teach a gen ed with lots of sections, so this is doable for them. I also have a boilerplate e-mail I send in response to e-mails about family emergencies that expresses sympathy for one line and then reminds them about the syllabus language and their paths forward. Despite having more students with (I think) more serious problems than my last school, this approach seems to work well for me, and my colleagues who spend hours in their offices listening to student problems don’t actually have higher evaluations than I do.

    5. Princess prissypants*

      I have a question for all the professors and folks in academia: do you ever experience this sort of “feelings dump” as more of a bid for pity for leniency with missed assignments, class, or tests?

      YES. And because it’s usually directed at women, we get especially berated for not being “caring” when we don’t give in. That’s why this “I’m-not-your-mommy” conversation is important -and difficult- to have.

    6. Eukomos*

      Oh yeah, it definitely happens. It’s a sick guessing game, trying to figure out who really had a death in the family and who didn’t. I err on the side of taking students’ word unless they’re asking for some really large accommodations. Most of the favors they request are things I’d be happy to do even without the excuses, but they can’t know when they have a flexible instructor and when they have someone who likes rules for rules’ sake.

      1. HigherEd on Toast*

        Yeah, there are definitely some where I’m privately rolling my eyes and thinking, “SURE, your mother’s funeral got moved three times so you could never make up the exam,” but pretty much I think that, “It doesn’t matter whether I believe them, here are the things I can do.” And a large part of the time, it honestly doesn’t make a difference if they’re telling the truth or not.

        So, if, for example, they want an Incomplete, the requirements of which are needing to have 80% of the work completed and some paperwork filled out that both I and they have signed, it doesn’t matter whether I believe their stories about needing to have 16 surgeries in a week or not. I still can’t give them an Incomplete when it’s the third week of class, and I can’t give them an Incomplete if they never come in to sign the paperwork. That last one’s been a sticking point several times, where students insist they absolutely cannot come to campus, even if I leave the paperwork in a different office for them during a time I won’t be there, and absolutely cannot get access to a scanner to send back a signed copy by e-mail. Well, then there’s nothing I can do. A few of them suggested I fake their signature. Um, no, I’m not going to lie for you no matter what’s going on.

    7. Samwise*

      There are always some. My experience is that most students don’t open up at the drop of a hat — if they’re distressed in your office, it’s gotten to a genuinely difficult point for them.
      Our institution does have verification office, so that helps.

      The thing with this: “they told me about how they often had students come to office hours to regale them with fake stories as to why they performed poorly on something and deserve a second attempt. They told me that they had so many “dead grandmothers” to get out of exams, they immediately thought I was lying.” Is that college students are at the age where grandparents ARE dying (18 year old kid, grandparent could easily be early 70s or older). I just have a hard time with faculty who say this sort of thing. A better way to respond, if they don’t want to take a student’s word, is to say, “I’m so sorry to hear about your grandma! And, this is kind of awkward, but I’m required to / my strict policy is to have some corroboration.” Then direct them to the verification office or the dean. Totally ok to kick these upstairs, but be kind about it.

    8. Snark*

      I do think the language of mental health and self-care can be used tactically, for sure, and it definitely happened a lot. But I think more commonly, it was kind of a weird mix of the above; I think a lot of students did genuinely struggle with anxiety/depression/personal crises/identity/friendships/whatever, AND also positioned their day-to-day struggles with same as an unlimited blanket excuse for anything they didn’t do, did late, did badly, or did dishonestly.

    9. blackcat*

      In my experience, the students who do the big FEELINGS DUMP while asking for extensions are not infrequently lying. The ones with legitimate needs tend to send a somewhat understated and generally professional email.* Or they ghost the class, which is really the worst case scenario because I can’t always keep track of 200+ students.
      My general approach is to believe all students, but reiterate the policy outlined in the syllabus for getting approval for missing labs/exams/major assignments. There are people in the dean of students’ office who do the work of verifying the students’ excuses. Students who are lying never follow through and the ones telling the truth get the form (and our office is efficient, so it only takes a business day in general).

      *The one exception to this with a legitimate issue was a student who sent a selfie to all her professors from the ambulance saying “Just got hit by a car. Sorry for missing class. Will be in touch when I know how bad it is.” And I was all like OMG I THINK I SEE A BONE POKING OUT EWWWWWW THIS EMAIL REALLY COULD HAVE WAITED. But she was diagnosed with a concussion, so I’m sure she just wasn’t thinking straight.

      1. Kathlynn (Canada)*

        There’s also the valid people who are struggling with mental health problems, many of which make reaching out hard, and depending on the severity, prevent them from following through.
        Yes people lie, and I’m not saying that you should change your rules. Just don’t like the assumption that people are lying because they didn’t do something, when I’ve been in the same situation and struggled or failed to follow through because of my mental health issues.

        1. Liza*

          Precisely. I know a great many people, myself included, who dealt with difficult situations through a toxic combo of panic, denial, and avoidance. The problem gets ignored and you convince yourself you’ll deal with it before it gets too late, and nobody has to find out. And then you find the deadline bearing down on you and realise you have to own up and admit you messed up, by which time the emotion of the situation is sky high, and all the feelings just pour out. Looking back, I know how ridiculous it must have looked, but I was fortunate enough to have an immensely supportive pastoral staff and flexible deadlines. I couldn’t have got through my postgrad without that understanding.

    10. OrigCassandra*

      It happens, yes. I recently had to be on a grade-appeal committee where this was painfully obviously what was going on.

      One of my classes is more highly prone to this than others because of the subject matter, which causes many students anxiety. I head almost all of it off at the pass by explaining in my course intro how to come to me when something goes wrong: 1) explain your ask to me, briefly and as unemotionally as possible 2) as needed, explain the background, again keeping it as unemotional as possible 3) don’t feelingsdump because it comes across as trying to guilt-trip me 4) if you wouldn’t say it to your boss, saying it to me is probably unwise.

      It works.

    11. OP*

      I think this is the case–I’ve noted this above, but this MOSTLY seems to happen when someone’s late with a task or something. I’m not in any supervisory capability–but I think there’s still that instinct of “must explain EVERYTHING”! It’s 100% that way with students, to the extent that I have a note on my syllabus asking them not to tell me why they’re absent unless they a) will be absent a number of days and we’ll need to think of alternate assignments (one student was hit by a truck, for example) b) want some advising on the issue (student couldn’t sleep because roommate was arguing with boyfriend all night, student didn’t know how to handle).

      (I never ask for death certificates; when students lie about death generally there are so many other issues that I don’t feel like they’re really going to sneak off with an undeserved A)

  31. Sam Sepiol*

    I am currently reading Invisible Women by Caroline Criado-Perez and one of the chapters goes into detail about this kind of thing.
    OP, you might find it reassuring to know It’s Not Just You, or you might be horrified and muchos p’d off, so, be warned I guess.
    I hope you can navigate it well.

      1. irene adler*

        Thank you for this.
        Should be an interesting read.

        I’ll be sure to take my BP pills prior to reading.

  32. deesse877*

    A senior figure did this to me at my academic job, or something like it: less confession per se, but a constant assumption that I was there to entertain when I was trying to work. This person has finally retired and I am so relieved.

    Two points,which may or may not be useful to OP:

    1) in my situation, I eventually realized that the overbearing person saw themselves as drawing me out, or being friendly; they saw me as uptight and unnecessarily timid, and their own presence as a gift to me. Because they were an overbearing narcissist with disproportionate power, they literally did not realize that they were actually monopolizing my time and humiliating me. I eventually learned to end conversations somewhat as AAM advises, by making brief sympathy comments, but I’d also give a little morsel that seemed personal now and then–for example, an opinion on a hot topic in the profession–so as to give the person a reason to think “collegiality unlocked!” This strategy was medium-successful; they transitioned to less-intense conversational gambits and I eventually got a lot less angry. ( I also realized that the person likely over-invested in BS sociality because they felt frustration verging on despair over their own work/career, which didn’t make me like them any better but did make perspective and compassion possible.)

    2) I don’t want to understate the brutality of the tenure process. But I’ve noticed that people who go through it are terribly isolated, and can over-estimate the importance of specific personal interactions along the way. Remember that the goal is not to make every single conversation a plus for your file; it’s to develop good relationships, so that your file will be received well. Strategy, not just tactics. So you might consider trying to develop different interaction patterns with these people, instead of micromanaging the ones they present to you on their terms. Start conversations, for example, instead of responding all the time. Asking for opinions or institutional history always goes over real big, so that’s a way for you to take some control.

    Good luck.

    1. fposte*

      Oh, this is really good–I like the framing this as a path over with the OP has some agency.

    2. saby*

      These are some really good points! If you want to use the excuse of having a meeting coming up, needing to get started/finished on time, etc. in order to cut off these kinds of conversations, but you do it nicely, you can intentionally foster a reputation as being very punctual rather than “the one who doesn’t want to listen”. (Of course ymmv on this specific example… at my institution we have a habit of starting every meeting about 7 minutes late. You know what would go over ok in your department!)

  33. drpuma*

    At an off-site social event I was recently talking to a male coworker about a previous interaction we had had, and mid-conversation he realized he had Done A Sexism in our previous convo and pivoted to wanting to know how to do it better. Which, great impulse! But what I ended up telling him was, “That’s something for you to work on in your personal life. As your coworker it’s not my job to help you with this.”

    Now, I have a reputation for being straightforward and am respected/appreciated for it (East Coast US FWIW), so that exact script might not work for you. But OP, would you feel comfortable saying something like “Wow, you’ve got a lot going on in your personal life! It wouldn’t be professional for me to get involved. What do you think about [upcoming work thing]?” That might let you acknowledge what they’ve shared with you while also reinforcing your boundaries.

    One last thing, saying what I did to my coworker was a little uncomfortable! I felt proud of myself right when I said it and then awkward in the immediate moment afterward. I had to hold myself back from trying to fix his discomfort. Discomfort won’t kill anyone. We both survived, and we’ve remained on good terms since. Your coworkers will survive if not getting what they want (your unbridled emotional support) makes them uncomfortable.

    1. Little Pig*

      I have mixed feelings about this general approach. It’s not that hard to briefly help someone think about some alternatives to their problematic behavior. Sometimes people just don’t have all the information. If someone wants to be a better ally, I’m happy to talk to them about that. Will I devote a huge amount of my time to the effort? No. Would I try to retrain someone who is blatantly sexist and has no interest in changing? Also no. But if I were talking to a friend who realized that he’d made a mistake, it’s not that hard to say, hey this is why that interaction wasn’t okay, and here is how I wish it had gone down. Because if every woman says, it’s not my job to teach you how to not be sexist (as seems to be the trend), then this colleague only has two options: to continue as he was, or to ask men for advice. And frankly, I would rather have women defining how they would like to be treated than have men advising each other on how not to be sexist. This is just part of the hard work of combating bigotry.

      1. CatMom*

        I think the original comment and your reply illustrate two equally valid approaches to this kind of situation. However, I would also point out that those are not men’s only two options – they can use the internet to help guide them toward the writings of women and others who have dedicated their lives to talking about sexism and society specifically for the purpose of education. And being able to take that step – being *encouraged* to take that step – is really crucial in moving towards a relationship in which the man doesn’t rely on women to, you know, perform emotional labor for him.

  34. Observer*

    (My husband has an interesting theory about this. He thinks that “nice guys” have realized that they need to be in touch with their feelings, which is good … but don’t always realize that there’s another part to that, which is knowing when to share and with whom.)

    Your husband actually sounds like a perceptive fellow. Maybe he could give some lessons ;)

    1. OP*

      Extremely perceptive! I do think he could monetize it : )
      FWIW, I think some of this perceptiveness comes from therapy–being in it and also just having it weekly. It’s just USEFUL to know, “hey, I can discuss this issue at my appointment; don’t have to make this other person hear it, too!”

  35. Princess prissypants*

    OP, you need helpers here.

    For students, arm yourself with the counseling center’s (or dean of whatever office deals with student issues) info. Your students want you to “mommy” them. It’s annoying, counterproductive, and definitely not your job, but if you’re in a place that emphasizes student surveys in performance evals, it’s tougher for us there too. Listen once or briefly and then say, “I’ve referred several students for the counseling center to talk to someone about these kinds of issues. It’s free and you don’t have to go, but I know it can help to have someone qualified to talk to.” Then hand them the card and either get back to their academic issue, or cut and run.

    For male colleagues, Alison’s scripts are good, but you’re absolutely right that if these men in particular have influence over your future, you have no choice but to be “nice.” Helper: make a professional friend on T&P, preferably female and frequently talk with her about your professional accomplishments in the department. DO show up to the happy hours or other social events and put in the smiles there to make up for not being mommyish during work.

    Find yourself a Trusted Senior Colleague, again preferably female, and again someone with some seniority over/akin with these dudes. Not only can she advise more specifically, but she’ll also have your back when it comes time for letter writers or outside evals.

    Good luck.

  36. RUKiddingMe*

    Ahhh make entitlement to women’s emotional labor.

    My advice is to keep steering them back to the issue at hand, ignore whatever you can without (this is important) any comment at all…as if you didn’t even hear it. Easier in email to just not acknowledge the bullshit at all.

    Also use phrases like “sounds sounds rough you should talk to a friend/counselor about that” and then get back to the topic at hand.

    Oh and it’s not nice guys being in touch with their feelings. It’s males dumping their emotional crap on women. Full stop.

    1. Snark*

      I mean, yes, pivoting to work as quickly as feasible is a good strategy and was Alison’s advice to begin with…but I’m imagining how a Boomer academic with a giant ego would respond to “you should talk to a counselor about that.” It would be entertaining, but would be, to put it gently, diametrically opposed to OP’s stated desire not to tank their tenure chances. Scripts like this are super fun to write on the internet, but.

    2. OP*

      I do think there’s emotional dumping–but I *also* think that it’s a stage in a process of emotional maturity. I have also had colleagues (and sometimes-friends, and family members) who don’t emotionally dump because they think they’re totally fine. They tend to be aggressive, sometimes heavy drinkers, generally unpleasant to be around–but they’re not ones to really examine themselves, so I don’t get to be the receiver of “here’s all the reasons I didn’t get this to you on time” etc.

      I see it with students all the time, but with them it’s more appropriate, developmentally. Like, students who know that, for example, talking about sex shouldn’t be so taboo, but don’t seem to realize that talking about sex with ME (I’m not a sex researcher!) is not okay.

  37. CheeryO*

    I’m a late 20-something woman in an office full of 50-60-year-old men, and they definitely unload on me and expect me to help them manage their feelings and personal issues. I’m positive that they aren’t consciously aware that they’re doing it, but obviously it’s sexist and obnoxious, regardless of intent. There’s a certain conversational pause and look that they give me that just says, “Okay, now you say something nice to make me feel better” that just makes my skin craaaaawwwl.

    I will say that I probably put a little more emotional energy into this kind of thing than Alison is suggesting in her scripts, but I work in a weird environment (state government) and really, really don’t want to get a reputation as a frigid jerk since I would ideally like to work here for the rest of my career. I do cut people off if I have a meeting to get to, or if I’m totally swamped with work, but usually I’ll let people chat at me for a few minutes. I think I do a good job of staying a half-step removed, emotionally. It probably helps that I’m super task-oriented, so I’m pretty much always looking for an out so I can get back to whatever I was doing.

    The keys for me in situations like this are to avoid changing my tone or facial expressions too much (I try to be warm in general at work, but I have to fight a deep-seated urge to put on the puppy dog eyes, frowny face, and ultra-sweet voice), and to respond sympathetically, but without saying anything really substantive. That probably sounds sociopathic, but it helps me maintain my boundaries. I have a younger female colleague who will bend over backwards asking people follow-up questions, giving suggestions, and just generally killing them with kindness, then complain to me later that she couldn’t care less and wishes people would STFU already. You can’t have it both ways.

    1. Arts Akimbo*

      No way, it doesn’t sound sociopathic, it sounds like good, solid boundaries! Keep it up!!

  38. HigherEd on Toast*

    My sympathies, anon! I actually have not suffered this nearly as much because I seem to exude a “Don’t bother me” aura without really trying. (I also have fewer students trying to treat me as their personal therapist than with some of my colleagues, and yet my evaluations generally remain good- I think because I’m willing to do things like give extensions if I think it necessary, just not listen to 50 minutes of sad story first.) However, I’m also a young, female assistant professor on the tenure track, and I have worried about how to deal with older male colleagues before.

    Things that have worked for me:

    +Having cordial, friendly but not-best-friends relationships with these colleagues: nodding to them in the hall, saying hello when I see them, asking how they’re doing (briefly!), but always being on the move to the copier or the classroom or whatever, so they don’t try to slow me down for a standing chat.
    +Sometimes giving brief vents of my own, but talking about them with laughter (“Can you believe my water heater started leaking on the same day that I had a big class observation? Oh, man!”). This seems to have encouraged people who want to vent to me to do the same.
    +When I can, sparing five minutes but talking in a brisk, friendly way that moves the conversation along, and closing with, “Well, sorry, but I have to get back to work.” It’s accepted in this culture because we all teach five classes and also are expected to publish and attend meetings, so “I’m busy!” is pretty much everyone’s default. This one may not work for you depending on class load/other things, but see if there’s something similar that will.
    +Deliberately soliciting their ideas on committees we sit on together, or asking them about an idea they offered in meetings that I think is interesting but didn’t get much discussion. This builds an “I care about what you think” relationship without making everything all about personal lives.

    Honestly, I do several of these things with older female colleagues who want to vent to me as well; it’s just a vent-y place. Good luck!

    1. Snark*

      That last point is an excellent suggestion, from a tactical point of view. It probably patronizes them more than some might be comfortable having to do, but it bleeds off their need to talk about themselves and their ideas in a way that at least is professionally productive.

  39. Little Pig*

    I wonder how you can head this off in before it even starts. Are you in the habit of asking people about their personal lives as a form of small talk, or maybe sharing details about your own life? This is a lovely, personal thing to do, but it does create a feeling of intimacy. Try scaling back pretty dramatically on the small talk, and making it less personal. For example: Say hello, comment on the local sports team’s big win last night, and then get down to business. It would be great to not just discourage their current over-sharing, but also model for them how you’d like interactions to go.

  40. Eukomos*

    I’m confused as to why this letter starts off complaining about students telling the LW their problems. Students aren’t coworkers, they’re like a cross between direct reports and your own children. It’s part of our role as instructors to help teach them professional behavior, but we can’t expect them to behave in class like they would at work. They don’t know how yet, that’s why they’re in school. The LW’s response of refocusing on classwork and referring them to counseling is correct, but the third point of “clarifying [her] role” doesn’t make any sense to me, because this is her role.

    Catching serious problems in your students and directing them to the appropriate counsellors or student support offices is your job as a professor, and you shouldn’t be surprised or irritated that you have to do it. If we don’t catch the students in trouble, it’s very unlikely anyone will notice until it’s too late, no one else who knows what resources exist for them sees them day in and day out under stress the way we do. Be glad when students open up to you and create an opening for you to refer them to counseling rather than forcing you to read their minds and refusing the help you direct them to!

    1. Princess prissypants*

      I’m not letter writer, but I’ve been there. Students, and their impressions, are in many places an integral part of the job performance process in academia. Though research has shown that students tend to penalize female instructors for not being mommyish enough, or for what we wear, or for the sound of our voice, while male instructors are evaluated on things like knowledge and teaching ability (and it gets worse when you add race in the mix), they are still thought valuable in the process – so yes, this kind of thing can matter greatly. The more a prof responds kindly to this stuff in an attempt to not piss them off, the more they do it, and thus a cycle is created. Helping to define the role of a prof as solely a content expert, aka not-your-camp-counselor/best-friend/mom can help. The counseling stuff – roommate problems, boyfriend problems, parent problems, and on – is definitely *not* her role.

      Referring to counseling is a great thing to do, but prof is not qualified or required to counsel them herself, especially when it does take away from her actual job. As you say – the student’s don’t come in knowing these norms, and someone has to teach them – who else but the prof carrying the brunt of it?

      1. Eukomos*

        I entirely agree that students have imbalanced and unfair expectations based on the gender and race of their instructors, and have experienced it myself, but I don’t know that it matters why a student opens up to you if it means you have the chance to get them help. As I said in my original post, I entirely agree that it is not the professor’s job to be a counselor, but it is 100% our job to direct students to the appropriate support and counseling. Professors are not bosses, especially when it comes to the younger students, and we have broader responsibilities than mere content transmission. You don’t have to be a counselor, but you do have to keep your eyes open for problems and send students to the people who are experts in this. Suicide rates among college students are really high, as are dropout rates, and we are in the best position to notice something’s wrong and get the students the help they need. This is not a bug, it’s a feature.

        1. HigherEd on Toast*

          I have to say, I was told as a graduate student that it was solely the job of graduate students in my department to prevent student suicides (because we taught the smallest classes) and it was a nightmare. Some of my fellow graduate students were pulling in students over things on the “warnings list,” like being late to class and bloodshot eyes, that also applied to hangovers. One student who was at a completely different college made a suicide attempt and we were screamed at for not preventing it because the student had visited friends at our university and “somebody should have noticed.” One of my fellow graduate instructors got injured because she tried to talk down a student who was making suicide threats in her office and he attacked her with a knife.

          I think there’s a responsibility, but it should be a distributed responsibility, and professors are absolutely not 1:1 therapists for students.

          1. Snark*

            Jesus Christ on a cracker. What a great idea, let’s make the overworked, stressed-out grad students who are already disproportionately affected by burnout and mental health issues themselves, who we pay $19k as teaching assistants if they’re lucky, the first goddamn line of defense for mental health for our entire student body. That will DEFINITELY go perfectly.

            Good gravy, that’s the dumbest thing I’ve seen today, and I’ve been on twitter.

            1. Lance*

              But they’ve been there! They know what it’s like! They’ve lived through it, recently!

              …that’s the only thing I can imagine is going through the minds of anyone who thinks that’s a marginally good idea. Certainly, suicide prevention is a big thing… but this is not the way to go about it (as very evidenced by the grad student that was attacked with a knife. leave this to people with experience, please).

              1. HigherEd on Toast*

                If that was what it was, it was never mentioned. We just kept being told over and over that as (English) graduate students with only 25 or 50 students a semester, we were closer to them than people who taught large lecture classes.

                And that knife incident is always in the back of my mind when someone tells me that part of my job is counseling students. I am not a professional counselor! Over and above the risk of physical injury, there’s every chance that I will make things worse for them because I don’t know what to say. I had a disabilities coordinator who e-mailed me asking to write e-mails every day praising a student to “prop up his self-esteem,” and I refused, because I am not a counselor and I had no idea what to say.

            2. HigherEd on Toast*

              It was terrible. And it was presented as, “But, well, students will feel closer to you because you teach small classes than they will to the professors who teach giant lecture classes!” People who tried to push back on it got told, “It sounds like you’re putting yourselves above STUDENT NEED. And STUDENT NEED is the reason we’re here.”

              Burned-out faculty (or graduate students) do not serve students better. We were paid about 10 K and later found out that some of our department’s hiring practices, like giving Master’s candidates two weeks of orientation and throwing them in front of a class, were illegal. And guess what? All of these things do not make it easier or better to help students! Likewise, if you’re demanding of full-time faculty that they constantly do X million things to pursue tenure/make their teaching better/finish paperwork/get professional development, you have less standing to also demand that they be free student therapy.

          2. Arts Akimbo*

            I hope that grad instructor sued the crap out of the university for her attack, because “somebody should have noticed” grad students aren’t qualified, equipped, or even rudimentarily trained to deal with that level of crisis management. Or that she at least filed a workers’ comp claim.

            1. HigherEd on Toast*

              There was some kind of settlement, although I never got the details. But yeah, WTF.

          3. deesse877*

            This demand that your colleagues and you experienced is 1000% ABUSE, and in no way related to any kind of effective pedagogy.

            I would add for other readers that physical and sexual assaults against women grad students by undergrads are a real f’ing thing, and the knife attack HEOT describes is only a little more extreme than things I have directly experienced and witnessed, in much less abusive contexts.

            I’m so sorry you went through that.

    2. Snark_*

      I think it’s her role to help establish – kindly and with compassion – appropriate boundaries and to show them the way adults find help, and to help insofar as she’s willing and able, but I don’t think being the feelings dump for every freshman who thinks she’s a sympathetic face is actually her role.

    3. blackcat*

      See, I actually felt like the letter writer was trying to say that they realize that they have to suck it up with students to some extent, but they don’t know how to handle colleagues. Which I get!

    4. OP*

      A couple things–

      I couldn’t say for sure why I started the letter with the students, because the question was really about coworkers. Maybe it was the time of year I wrote it–feeling overwhelmed, a bit, by both students AND coworkers. Or maybe it was an attempt to demonstrate that I do know how to handle these interactions appropriately with students.

      About “clarifying my role”–I’m not talking about students in crisis, I’m talking about students who want me to solve interpersonal conflicts, or are fishing for compliments (male students who have just been broken up with, then put themselves down so that I will tell them they’ll find someone, they’re smart and handsome….that’s something that comes up at least once a term).

      I do know what my job is in terms of mandatory reporting and non-mandatory interventions.

  41. Amy*

    I’ve got to be honest…I think this might be the worst advice you’ve ever given. It doesn’t help actually solve the problem at all and encourages women to continue to be “on” and caring all the time. It would have been better to see you write, “I don’t have any good advice for this one because misogyny is still rampant in most workplaces, but here’s what I would do to try to save my own sanity if I were you.”

    1. Lance*

      In regards to your last point, though: they also have to save their jobs/livelihoods. Yes, the situation sucks and shouldn’t be the case, but in this, as like other similar scenarios, Alison’s taking a pragmatic/realistic approach, as I see it. Even more so because change best comes from the top, and with a lot of this behavior coming from men far above OP in the hierarchy, it wouldn’t exactly be easy to push back/deflect anything more than gently.

      Like I said, it sucks… but there aren’t a whole lot of good alternatives.

    2. Ask a Manager* Post author

      “Misogyny is still rampant in most workplaces” is pretty inherent to the message in the first three paragraphs of my response.

      My answer isn’t “be on all the time.” It’s “speak one sentence that sounds kind and then go right back to work mode.” If you have better options that will work in the OP’s specific context, please offer them up, as I invited people to do at the end of the post.

    1. Snark*

      Oh, that’s a thought. Doesn’t ring true for the students, to me, but I can see the colleague being That Guy who moans about his marriage (if that’s what he was moaning about) as a clumsy gambit.

      1. Precious Wentletrap*

        Yep. The second dude says “my wife doesn’t understand me,” game over.

    2. OrigCassandra*

      … hadn’t occurred to me, but yes, it’s possible.

      I hope it’s not the case, because wow, is it ever difficult to deal with. Best advice I have is to check quietly into whether the campus Title IX office handles confidentiality appropriately, and if so, make a report to them.

      Then never be alone with the man if you can possibly, possibly avoid it.

  42. Auntie Social*

    “Some weeks really bite, don’t they?” Say something empathetic, short, then get back on purpose.

  43. anon4this*

    ” I am a down-to-business east coaster” What is this? I’ve been an “east coaster” my entire working career life and have no clue what this is talking about.
    ” It’s the old thing about seeing women as, at some level, caretakers and fonts of sympathy and caring.” Like seeing women as more nurturing and motherly, than the only other convenient alternative…men?
    I’m not sure this is even necessarily a gendered problem though, being young may be a bigger factor.
    It sounds like the OP is extremely approachable or at least puts on an approachable face. You may want to rethink some body language or smiling too much? Acting as though you are busier than you are and maybe some of Alison’s lines could work, especially if you can sense that’s where the conversation is headed.

    1. Close Bracket*

      I’m not sure this is even necessarily a gendered problem though,

      Funny, I am sure it is. Women *are* seen as more nurturing than men, and women *do* get the disproportionate burden of listening to and empathizing with both women and men not just in the workplace, but in general. If you wish to increase your level of surety on this, the Harvard Business Review is a good place to start for articles.

      1. anon4this*

        Women are seen as more nurturing then men, because they are (generally speaking of course). That was my point, although I’m not sure that’s what’s happening with the OP. She’s very young in her career and no one appears to be outwardly hitting on her, so I assumed it could be more related to her youth.
        I’m disheartened for you to say it’s a “burden” to listen and empathize with your fellow humans. If you are a woman, I would assume you’d fall into the category of “not nurturing”.
        And finally, I don’t have the fiscal means to prescribe to the Harvard Business Review, so sorry. Perhaps I’ll try to find a business review not written by overly-educated rich kids, as that my be my only option.

        1. anon4this*

          Sorry to make my last sentence so saucy, but Harvard has more than enough money and its ridiculous they would charge anyone.

          1. Close Bracket*

            Oh gracious. Well, for those bystanders who are not devoted to their gendered opinions,

            1) You can read HBR for free. I certainly do.
            2) Other knowledgeable writers are but a google away (alas, I don’t know the status of their bank accounts, if avoiding financially successful experts is a core value of yours).

          2. Ask a Manager* Post author

            HBR isn’t written by kids. It’s written by experts in their fields. And you can read it for free online.

            Generalizations like “women are more nurturing than men” are rooted in sexist stereotypes that have been harmful to a lot of women and they aren’t cool here.

        2. DANGER: Gumption Ahead*

          We are seen that way, but many of us are not, and when we get shoved into that role and fail we get punished.

          1. Close Bracket*

            when we get shoved into that role and fail we get punished.

            Right down to saucy internet commentors *eyeroll*

    2. Arts Akimbo*

      “Be careful about the signals you’re sending out” is literally something said to me by a guy who was all set to sexually assault me before I broke down and cried when I said “no” for the sixth time! I don’t like “rethink some body language and smiling too much” as advice. Many people will read anything at all that suits them into any body language or face situation a woman is currently sporting.

      1. anon4this*

        I’m sorry that happened, but as far as I can tell that is not the situation with the OP and a completely different situation.
        But that’s really awful. I’m glad you were able to get him to stop. I hope he was reported.

        1. OP*

          It’s not the situation with me (the OP), but the point was that asking women to change their behavior/dress/facial expression to somehow _get_ men to act/stop acting a certain way…doesn’t really solve the problem of not dumping everything on women.

    3. OP*

      Believe me, I don’t smile too much, but thanks for the tip; it directly conflicts with most of the advice I get on the street.

      1. Close Bracket*

        Have you tried not being female? That would definitely make you less approachable at work, and shut down the street advice, too! /s

  44. Generalist*

    I have developed a strategy over the last several years for dealing with anyone who wants more of me (more of my time, energy, emotional investment) than I am prepared or want to give. It may not be useful for this particular OP, but I have thought about posting it on AAM before, because I think it could be helpful for others whose jobs depend on being seen as cordial and sympathetic.

    What I do is initiate a phone call X minutes before Y o’clock, where X-3 = number of minutes I am willing to give the person. Then I start the call by saying “I really shouldn’t be calling now, I have a meeting at Y o’clock, but I didn’t want to let another day go by without at least touching base with you.”

    That way, the message is that I value them *so much* that I’m fitting them into my busy schedule. But there’s a hard stop built in. This is a contrast to starting a call at Y or Y:09, and then stumbling to try to end it after ten or fifteen minutes when I don’t have a plausible pre-established appointment.

    I have found it very successful in letting other people recognize how much time I’m offering without taking the limit as an indicator that I don’t respect or like them.

  45. PersephoneUnderground*

    This whole thing reminds me how ingrained our gender based socialization can be. I’m a woman, and something like 90% of my friends are women. It shouldn’t matter but clearly it does. I have a general friend group that is mixed, but my direct friends are nearly all women. It’s kind of frustrating to see how much I’ve self-sorted potential friends based on gender. And I’m very liberal and think deeply about these things, and have managed to not give a **** about race in the same way, for instance, and have a very mixed race group of friends. But gender-based behaviors like this are still soooo ingrained and hard to see. I’m not sure I have that much more in common with my female friends than I would with a male friend, for example. I agree that if any of these professors are liberal or feminists and would be open to it, it would be a kindness (and save you time in future) to point it out as gendered behavior. Sometimes you just don’t see it until you step back a bit. Maybe you could even ask him to obliquely mention the topic (in general as an awareness thing, not mentioning you) to other male colleagues, while you stick with the keeping your head down and redirecting plan.

  46. CatMom*

    Oh OP, I FEEL YOU. My job is complicated by the fact that being nurturing, supportive, and solution-oriented are 100% requirements of the work we do with our clients, and there is a heavy emphasis on mentorship and one-on-one training between colleagues that’s very much designed with this dynamic in mind. So it probably won’t surprise you to learn that there is an expectation of emotional hand-holding, especially from more junior employees (most of whom are also pretty young). People seem to be getting upset about the suggestion that it’s mostly men who do this, but in my experience that is true. This is a known dynamic in our culture and there’s some unlearning to do, probably on both sides.

    The best way to tackle it in my experience is pretty much what Alison describes above: nothing dramatic, just a refusal to engage. I know that I found it hard to get over the hump of actually *allowing* myself to do this, because you’re right! People have implicit biases that can be very hard to interrogate, and they might just internalize the idea that “oh, she’s not very nice to me.” But so be it. I encourage you to remember that you have the power to refuse to perform that emotional labor, and you’re within your rights to exercise it. It gets so, so much easier to do once you give yourself permission to just say NO.

    And people do stop, eventually!

    Good luck!

  47. smoke tree*

    For serial offenders, this might be a good opportunity for the “How terrible! What are you going to do about that?” gambit. It kind of short-circuits the process where men default to laying their problems at the feet of the most convenient woman, if only by making it less satisfying to talk to you about it. And if you deliver it in a concerned tone, it still comes across as sympathetic.

    1. Snark*

      This kind of reminds me of my favorite reply to my 5-year-old in moments of extremis: “Oh, buddy, I understand. You really want that popsicle! But what did I say?”

        1. Snark*

          It’s so good. He just goes full frowny-face, says “YOU SAID NOOOOO POPSICLE BLOO BLOO BLOO” and wanders off to hug a stuffy. It’s magic. The argument just stops.

    2. Koala dreams*

      I was also thinking about that! If those people actually went to see a therapist they would need to do the hard work of solving their problems, which I guess is why they vent to their junior collegues instead. You need to make it a little harder for them to just vent, without going into full on therapist mode of course.

    3. Poppy*

      I’ve found that this response gets an instant wail of “I don’t know what I’m going to do about it!” followed by another 40 minutes of self-pity.

      If anyone has a solution to this I would love to hear it.

      1. Kat in VA*

        Or the “I thought you would tell ME what to do because you know so much about Boss’ moods / ideas / strategies / ways of doing The Thing.”

        Dude. I just wanna finish these expense reports and then wade into the six projects I’m currently managing. What would you do if I wasn’t here?

  48. Candid Candidate*

    OP’s husband nailed it with that explanation on men knowing it’s important to be in touch with their feelings but not being able to discern WHEN & WHERE they should express them appropriately. I (31yo female) used to work with a guy (50yo male) at a previous job who consistently misdirected conversations away from work topics down rabbit holes about current events, his personal philosophy on social issues, and then finally, Everything That Ever Happened to Him Growing Up. I started referring to him as “Problematic Paul” when I was complaining about him to my husband. It was egregious enough that all of the coworkers with offices in our hallway had a policy of interrupting him if he was chatting in someone else’s doorway, just to give their neighbor a chance to get back to work. I finally confronted him about it one day and let him know that Work Topics Only was my policy, and if he kept crossing boundaries I’d make sure our supervisor knew. It was awkward and he definitely tried to test that boundary a few times, but it did the trick.

  49. Another NTT female academic*

    I grew up on the East Coast and got my PhD on the West, and I usually act more or less as is suggested above. On the East Coast, I am generally seen as a polite woman. In my time on the West Coast, I had multiple people (all of whom had grown up on that side of the country) suggest that I was cold/abrasive for my normal East Coast behaviors. On top of that, once or twice people insisted that I was angry at them – really, really insisted, at length, despite repeated denials that I wasn’t feeling anything remotely near anger at them. If you are on the West Coast, you might need to sugar coat the advice a touch.

    1. anon4this*

      What is this East Coast vs West Coast attitudes sort of thing?
      Is it like when people talk about about good manners in the south vs the blunt directness of the north? I’ve only ever worked on the East Coast but interact plenty with folks in Washington/California and never noticed differences in the way we communicate, that couldn’t be explained away by individual quirks.

      1. OP*

        I am indeed an East Coaster in the PNW–I’ve noticed really different communication styles. My experience in the NE is more that interactions tend to be either business-like, friendly but not overly chatty and personal, or quite deep personally. What I’m finding here is that casual interactions often have a lot of personal content. My barista’s sister committed suicide, a guy I met once’s mother is in jail…I know way more about casual acquaintances than I ever did back East, but there’s no real relationship there that I think would warrant these confidences.

    1. Reliquary*

      LW, you’ve gotten some great advice above, especially about finding a mentor.

      I’m a tenured woman in academia (in the humanities) and I think you need several mentors: (1) a senior scholar in your department, (2) a senior scholar at your university, but outside of your department, (3) a senior scholar in your academic field, and (4) if you are a person of color or a queer person or both, a senior scholar who shares those characteristics with you.

      Ideally, several of these mentors will be women or non-binary folks, but not all of them have to be.
      You may think this is “mentor overkill,” but it’s not. Folks in each of these positions will have the necessary perspectives to guide you through each stage of your career.

      Places to find these mentors – not in numerical correspondence to the list above: (1) through your university’s formal mentoring program, (2) through informal networks at your university, including faculty affinity groups and cognate departments, (3) through your primary academic association and its affinity groups, and (4) through other networks, including (perhaps surprisingly) Facebook groups for academic women, first-generation academics, mothers, queer folks, folks of color, etc.

      I serve as a mentor in two groups myself, and I can tell you firsthand that it is really helpful to be able to talk things through with someone who has been in your shoes, and who is invested in your success.

      Best of luck to you, and feel free to contact me backchannel (we’ll figure something out) if you need assistance connecting with the right groups for you.


        1. Abby*

          Relatedly, Kerry Ann Roquemore says that junior academics need mentors for (1) Professional development, (2) Access to opportunities and networks, (3) Emotional support, (4) A sense of community, (5) Accountability, (6) Institutional/political sponsorship, (7) Role models, (8) Safe space; once you look at a list like that it becomes clear that it’s very unlikely that a single person can meet all of those needs. (More here: )

  50. Phil*

    If I was being treated like a therapist at work, I’d just go all out with it. Couch near my desk, “I’m afraid that’s all the time we have for this session, but let’s continue this next week” etc.

  51. KM*

    I feel you OP. I have a few coworkers (including boss) who do this to me. They are mostly women but I’m a pretty good listener so I know that’s why these people keep coming back. When I have time, I can take the time to listen, but when I’m busy, I have developed a strategy to steer steer steer the convo back to work stuff. I will express my sympathies but bring up this deadline I have that I need their help with. That seems to snap these offenders out of their whining spell and gets me the information I need. I know others will completely avoid these coworkers until the point that work will start to suffer, so that the only reason they go talk to them is to talk some work emergency.

  52. An Open Letter*

    I want to say something to the OP and to anyone else being expected to do 40hrs of emotional labor on top of their work each week.

    You can opt out.

    You could opt out today. Or tomorrow. You could let go of the expectation that your promotions, pay, and job security are contingent on you playing mommy or therapist or attainable sexual interest.

    You can opt out, if you really want to. But there’s a price and it’s not one everyone is willing to pay. But I want to share why I chose to.

    I opted out because I’m queer, female, and disabled. I opted out because I lost so many years of my life to alcoholism trying to survive the emotional burden of others. I opted out because I could not reconcile a world that only functioned because of our unpaid emotional labor but didn’t consider us human beings.

    As a result, I don’t have health insurance, own a home, or have $400 saved for an emergency. I have a big chunk of debt. I have never been promoted despite frequently being the best educated, most experienced person in my office. I make under $20K and at times have lived on less than $10K.

    I’ve faced physical aggression from men who did not like the way I looked or what I said, or just as frequently the way I said it. I’ve had men grab me by the arm hard enough to leave a handprint. I’ve been fired for not allowing men to sexually harrass or assault me. A man once spit in my face because I corrected him as part of an assigned activity.

    I opted out of the system that allowed me to be treated that way and I will never, ever, ever go back.

    I no longer have to mother men. I don’t have to be less confident or less intelligent so their feelings don’t get hurt. I don’t have to be more feminine so men will want to look at me more instead of just doing their goddamn jobs.

    I’ve never been as happy as I am now, working enough to scrape by and spending most of my day with someone who loves and respects me. We’re poor, it’s true, but I don’t care because I no longer have to spend any energy trying to adhere to arbitrary social norms that I find misogynistic, racist, homophobic, transphobic, or otherwise objectionable.

    I opted out for the chance to live my one life the way I wanted, as myself, without waiting for the world to catch up. The price is steep, I won’t pretend it’s not, but it’s worth it.

    1. Annie*

      Could you briefly explain exactly how you opted out? Did you decide to just say no to listening to/ counseling people about their personal lives beyond what your job requires? Did it entail any other actions on your part?

  53. Professor Ronny*

    I don’t know if you wrote the title or Allison did but you have to realize that students are not your coworkers. You give them assignments and grade their performance. The closest business relationship to that is manager and employee. Just like a manager, with your students, you have to maintain professional boundaries. Your campus has people whose job it is to help students with problems. When a student tells you they have non-course related problems, give them information on where to go for help on campus. If their problems are significant, walk them over there yourself.

    As for your actual coworkers, I assume you are younger and do not have tenure. If the coworkers are tenured and possibly on the P&T committee, then Allison’s suggestions are good but always keep the power imbalance in mind.

    1. OP*

      I do realize that, and that’s exactly what I do with students. See some of my responses above.

  54. Hannah*

    My male supervisor spent all of our meetings telling me about his difficult childhood. I felt sorry for him but it was exhausting and I felt certain my male peers weren’t using up this time having to act as a surrogate therapist. Addressing the situation did not go well, despite my best efforts and has had some lasting consequences for me, but happily he is no longer my supervisor and I am generally much better off now. The letter writer is in a sort of similar position and I think the mistake I made was putting up and engaging with it for so long as that raised his expectations and perhaps looked to him like I was ok with these exchanges. I think a vague sympathetic noise or general “sorry to hear that” or “that sounds difficult” is really the only way to deal with this successfully. Annoying that this is a thing!

  55. kay*

    OP, read the book ‘I don’t have to make everything all better’….

    I used to be everybody’s therapist, but not anymore…

Comments are closed.