coworker misinterprets all my facial expressions, team is complaining about a coworker’s award, and more

It’s five answers to five questions. Here we go…

1. My coworker misinterprets all my facial expressions

Do you have any advice on how to keep your facial expressions completely neutral without looking/sounding robotic? I am a woman with a low tone voice and also am fairly quiet when I speak, so many people tell me I have a calm demeanor. I sometimes use my hands when I talk (I’m working on not doing that), but even when I am sitting still, my facial expressions apparently show all of my emotions.

I have a coworker who is very sensitive to other people’s tones and facial expressions, so I have tried to make myself appear as neutral as possible when I speak to them. However, they often misinterpret what seem to be very small things — for example, they accused me of sneering when I was leaning in and squinting slightly to read a document with tiny text. I suffer from TMJ and sometimes will have facial twitches (that I cannot control). I am doing my best to keep my face neutral, but any tips you (or readers) can give me are appreciated. I want to be engaged with this person so I don’t want to be robotic — but every eye widening/smile/non-smile/facial twitch seems to provoke a negative reaction from them. I’m sure they already interpret every tone of my voice to mean something, so I’m already working on that and keeping my hands still. I just need my face to cooperate so everything is calm/neutral but natural.

If this is only an issue with this one person, it’s an issue with them, not you. You should not have to keep your face and hands unnaturally still simply because they misinterpret things in the worst possible light. You are giving them too much power! You cannot become perfectly neutral and motionless at all times and, what’s more, you should not. If you muzzle your face’s natural movement in order to please them, who’s to say you won’t encounter other people who now think you’re chilly because your face isn’t displaying any normal human emotions?

Rather than contorting your own normal responses to accommodate this person, I think you’d be better off figuring out how to respond when they accuse you of sneering or other things you’re not doing. For example: “No, I am not sneering, I am squinting to read tiny text. If you need to know what I am thinking, please ask me rather than assuming, since you are often misinterpreting me.”

Read an update to this letter

2. My team is complaining about a coworker’s award

My company gives out an award monthly to someone who exemplifies our company values and does something above and beyond. I nominated one of my staff (let’s call him Bob) after he did a wonderfully kind thing for one of our clients. I didn’t even know he had done it until we received an email from the client’s family thanking us. I nominated Bob because what he did was so touching it brought me to tears. I was so excited when I found out he was chosen to win.

Ever since we surprised Bob at a staff meeting with the news, his colleagues have been complaining because they feel they are more deserving of the award. They have complained to me, my boss, and each other. I have been left feeling guilty and almost as if I have to apologize!

Every single one of these staff are successful at their jobs. I make sure I always pass along any positive feedback that we receive, and I regularly tell them how much I appreciate and value them. I provide gift cards in small denominations in conjunction with sharing positive feedback.

When they are complaining about this award to me or my boss, we listen and then ask them what they have done that’s truly exceptional so that we can nominate them too. Not one of them has been able to give us an example beyond simply doing their jobs successfully.

What would you do in this situation? Am I wrong to be feeling miffed and a little disheartened at their reaction? I did not expect this kind of reaction from our team and don’t know how to react to their complaints.

“The award is for people who go above and beyond and do something exceptional. If that is you, wonderful! I absolutely want to hear about it and would consider you for the award too. Here’s how you can submit that sort of info to me.”

That said … it sounds like you’ve already said something similar? All you can really do is keep saying it.

I don’t think you’re wrong to be disheartened by it, but take it as a flag to look more closely at the dynamics on your team. Do people feel there’s unfairness in how recognition, financial rewards, or high-profile projects are allocated? Is there something about the structure of your team that encourages people to feel competitive or even pitted against each other? Could the issue be something with Bob himself? (For example, if he’s difficult to work with, that might be driving the reaction.) You also might ask one of the employees this has come up with — pick the person with the best judgment or sharpest insights and see what they think.

3. Using a SAD lamp at work

I recently started a new job (and successfully negotiated salary based on your column — thank you!) that requires me to be in the office. After working entirely remote since March 2020, I’m finding the transition to in-person work to be hugely challenging.

This time of year is also when my depression is at its worst. While working from home, I found that using a SAD lamp for an hour or so during my work day was a big help. I haven’t been using it this winter because I’m in the office, but I can really feel the difference from not using it.

Would it appear unprofessional to use a SAD lamp at my desk? For context, it’s about four inches by eight inches and wouldn’t be a distraction for anyone else, but I am in a cubicle close to the kitchen, so it’s a relatively high traffic zone. I’d also love to use it without making it a whole to-do in terms of accommodations, disclosing my depression, etc.

Not unprofessional at all. Use your lamp!

If anyone asks about it, you can say, “I’ve found the light really helps my energy at this time of year.”

4. Returning to work after a death in the family

My father died suddenly earlier this month. While I was away, I set up an out-of-office message with instructions about where to direct emails and other business. That message didn’t specify the reason — it just said that I was offline unexpectedly with an undetermined return date, which is line with previous guidance from my manager not to specify “family emergency” or anything similar — but it was quite detailed about alternate points of contact.

Returning to work after a two-week absence, I can see that a lot of people did not follow my instructions, and they are now annoyed at me over missed deadlines large and small. I’ve been responding to people with a pleasant tone noting that I was out and I will now get to work on things as soon as I can since it wasn’t forwarded to others in the interim.

Well. Apparently, this is a bridge too far for some people — many of whom have been quite huffy about it — and the only way to assuage them seems to be using the words “family emergency.” But that opens up another can of worms (even aside from my manager’s instructions not to use the phrase): immediately, the response I tend to get is “I hope everything’s okay!”

And, well — no, it’s not. My dad just died. But saying that will inevitably lead to a sympathy message — maybe several, depending how many people are copied on a given email chain. And, frankly, I’m exhausted of sympathy. I have at this point responded dutifully and kindly to hundreds of expressions of sympathy: Facebook comments, physical cards, multiple hours in-person at his viewing, emails from friends, phone calls, and on and on. I am tired. I want to focus the energy I do have on my work, without judgment and harsh words about delays or flowery expressions of sympathy, and not have to think about the past few weeks for the time I’m in front of my work computer.

I have several “breezy reply” templates to use — basically, “Thanks for your sympathy / condolences. I’m managing okay, and it’s good to have some work to focus on” — but even these will get old quickly. And, of course, sometimes I just can’t focus, despite wanting desperately to do so. This is all impossible to explain to people whose deadlines we have blown past because they didn’t forward to the alternate points of contact, or to other colleagues who wish me well but whose messages I just find exhausting right now. Other than seeing a therapist (which I do), what advice do you have for navigating this gracefully and professionally?

I wonder if your boss just meant not to put “family emergency” in your out-of-office while you were away (a little weird, but okay). But if she also meant not to say it when talking with people now, that’s making this harder than it needs to be — so you could say to her, “Can I ask about your request not to say I was out for a family emergency or explain that my dad died? It’s making it harder to respond to people who are upset about their work not being done while I was out and I’d like to let them know the circumstances.”

But also, when you get the “I hope everything’s okay” response, it’s okay to just … ignore that. You’re feeling like you have to respond in some way, and you don’t. They’ve said the polite thing, and you can just move forward with whatever business needs to be dealt with.

Something similar is true of sympathy/condolence messages — you can just say “thank you” and don’t need to get into “I’m managing okay, and it’s good to have some work to focus on” or anything else. Just “thank you” or “thanks, I appreciate it” on auto-play so it takes as little energy from you as possible. (In some cases you could skip even that if you can instead easily move straight into the work topic at hand).

I’m sorry about your dad.

5. Verb tense on resumes

Where did this trend of using third-person verb endings in one’s resume come from? I see so many resumes that say things like “answers questions about products” or “manages staff of seven in busy restaurant” and, while I know it’s minor in the grand system of resume sins, it drives me nuts. I’ve been telling folks to think of the bullet points as starting with an unstated “I,” in which case “I answers questions” only agrees in subject and verb if the writer is Dobby the House Elf. Where are people getting this – did I completely miss the memo announcing this change in convention, or is it as weird as I think it is?

I think people have copied it from job descriptions, a lot of which are written in the third person (“answers questions,” etc.). It looks a little unsophisticated on a resume, but it also doesn’t really matter in the scheme of things. (Although I agree that if you’re helping someone write a resume, you should have them put it in first person without the “I” — “answer questions,” etc.)

What bothers me more is when resumes use gerunds in the blurbs about each job — “answering questions,” “managing staff,” etc.

There’s no real reason for any of this, other than convention. But the conventions are what they are, and a resume will flow more smoothly if it’s written in the way that people who get stuck reading hundreds of them are used to seeing.

{ 583 comments… read them below }

  1. learnedthehardway*

    OP#1 – push back on this, rather than eliminating your facial expressions. Your coworker is not just overly sensitive, but misinformedly overly sensitive.

    I would tell them that they have misinterpreted your facial expressions multiple times, and that you need them to stop assuming they know what you are thinking, based on what they think your face is expressing. Clearly this is not working for either of you, and their assumptions are putting a strain on your ability to work together. You would appreciate it if they would not make assumptions about what you think or how you feel, but would rather they ask you for your thoughts / opinions.

    You can also tell them that if you disagree with something, you will say so, if you are someone who can be direct like that.

    1. The Prettiest Curse*

      The colleague in this letter is clearly just looking for ways to be offended. If the OP found a way to control their facial expressions to the colleague’s satisfaction (which they shouldn’t, because the colleague is being ridiculous), they would just start complaining about something else instead. Outside of the performing arts, who pays THAT much attention to the facial expressions of their colleagues, anyway?

      1. Allonge*

        who pays THAT much attention to the facial expressions of their colleagues, anyway?

        This. And even if someone does, they can usually internalise that it’s not an expression AT them or at the very least refrain from commenting on it constantly.

        1. High Score!*

          At least OP’s colleague let her know what the “problem” was. I’ve had coworkers show me pix of their families, I look squinting to see better, and then say something genuinely nice (what a beautiful baby or whatever) and they pull the phone back, look offended, and walk away and then are cold to me. I must be making a face but they don’t even give me a chance to explain.

          1. I Wrote This in the Bathroom*

            Yikes, your coworkers would be cold to me all day long! My vision’s been deteriorating over the past decade or so, I had three surgeries (and have a monofocal distance lens) in one eye and a developing cataract in the other. If someone waves their phone in my general direction, I’ll see nothing on it. What a strange take – then again, I work in a field (IT) where everyone is assumed to have bad vision until explicitly told otherwise. If my coworkers and I got angry at each other for squinting, none of us would talk to each other.

            1. High Score!*

              I’m an engineer, everyone I work with is technical, ie stares at computers all day and generally not self/people aware, so I must be making an awful face when I squint but I don’t know how to change it. Then again, maybe it’s not me, maybe it’s that the 2 minutes of personal interaction exceeds their social quota bc we’re all introverts. Who knows?

          2. Sparrow*

            I’d be glad the coworker is saying it outloud simply because it gives you an opportunity to directly correct him in the moment. I once had a coworker ask me, “Did you just roll your eyes??” What I was actually doing was trying to focus my contacts! I had just looked up at the ceiling and blinked a few times, but since they just caught it out of the corner of their eye, they thought I was rolling my eyes at whatever they said. I was glad for the opportunity to immediately set the record straight (and because they were a reasonable person, we both laughed about it and moved on.)

        2. IDIC believer*

          My supervisor told me I have a ” dead” face when speaking with her (who I really respected & liked) and others in authority (who I usually don’t). I do deliberately try to neutralize my expression in meetings because I have strong feelings about issues that I prefer not to share usually.

          Alternatively, my regular face (even when just working alone) has been called “resting b*tch face”. I do acknowledge the dead/neutralized one was created in childhood when it was the only acceptable face for controlling parents.

          Eventually I’ve decided it’s my face and everyone else can look away if they don’t like it.

          1. Phryne*

            I’ve had people describing my face as dead too. In my case the result of bullying in school and learning not to show in my face that it hit home.
            It has gotten a bit better over time, but in combination with my eyesight not being very good I do tend to get resting b-face.
            I had one coworker who kept asking me why I was angry. At some point I snapped at her ‘I’m not angry, I’m focusing and this is what my face looks like when I do’ and it stopped fortunately.

      2. Ms_Meercat*

        Plus, I am quite shocked how people have the forwardness to call someone out at work for “sneering”? I’m trying to put myself in that situation, and if I thought a colleague didn’t like me because I felt they were sneering or doing anything else non-verbal, I don’t think I’d have it in me to “call it out”. I’d probably observe and try to find a moment to see if I can get to the bottom of it / can clear the air. Calling OP1 out for non-verbal cues feels very aggressive for me, and for thus points, as Alison rightly said, to this being a them problem, not a you problem. Sorry you have to deal with this!

        1. alienor*

          Who even openly sneers at work? Was this person’s last job “henchman to a cartoon villain?” Good grief.

          1. The Prettiest Curse*

            Ha! You do have to wonder. I’m imagining that they were the assistant to Dastardly from the Wacky Races, owner of the best sneer in comics.

            1. Cohort 1*

              LOL! You hitch up one side of your mouth, which hitches up the bottom of your nose on that side, maybe squint the corresponding eye just a little. To really top it off, add a low growl. Adam Baldwin perfected the sneer for his part as John Casey in the old TV show “Chuck” currently running on Amazon. All of this drama would be truly wasted on a piece of paper at work.

            2. Pippa K*

              The late great Alan Rickman had an absolutely champion sneer. You’d probably recognise the expression from one of his roles.

              1. Rebecca1*


                And I saw him in a play once where I was in nosebleed seats, couldn’t see his facial expression at all, but I could HEAR the sneer and it was glorious. (Noel Coward’s “Private Lives” in London in December 2001.)

              2. Reluctant Mezzo*

                He would win gold at the Sneering Olympics. (the way he looked at Keith Branaugh playing Lockhart, for instance).

        2. Ellis Bell*

          Yes, that was a suspiciously bold accusation! It’s also clearly nonsense; you could possibly mistake squinting for a frown, but actual sneering would involve curling your lip because it’s a very deliberate expression; even when faced with actual sneering, you’ve got to respond to the situation/words used instead of going straight to accusing someone’s face with such a loaded word. Even if OP had really scrunched up their face to squint, and even if this crackpot thinks that counts a sneer, that still wouldn’t call for an accusation (another really important detail is that OP wasn’t even looking at him, but at some text!). If the expression is really marked you would simply say: “Oh no what’s wrong with the text?” giving OP the chance to say “Oh nothing, I’m just trying to read it”… You know, like humans who communicate.

        3. MurpMaureep*

          I’m having a hard time wrapping my head around an office culture where it’s remotely ok to critique a coworker’s facial expressions and then for the person she has to change to accommodate that. Really this should have ended with “no, I’m not ‘sneering’, what an odd thing to say!”.

      3. Sue*

        Yes, and OP is working so hard to accommodate this outlandish coworker.
        My advice, if you can’t tell them to stop then spend as much effort as you are currently on working to ignore them completely. This is not ok to police your face, ugh.

      4. JimmyJab*

        This doesn’t affect the advice given, I agree the LW should push back, but since you asked . . . my partner does this because he grew up in an abusive household with volatile family members that required constant vigilance to avoid abuse, including scrutinizing facial expressions to try and guess what he would be blamed for next. Having said that, he doesn’t then accost people about those facial expressions as he realizes it’s not a reasonable thing to do. This may not even be the reason this coworker does this, but thought I’d offer one possible explanation.

        1. Observer*

          Having said that, he doesn’t then accost people about those facial expressions as he realizes it’s not a reasonable thing to do.

          That’s the key here. Even if the coworker was not jumping to ridiculous conclusions, they are not behaving appropriately. And it really doesn’t matter IN THIS CONTEXT why he’s doing it. Either he figures out, as your partner has, that this is his problem and he needs to keep the commentary *inside his head*. Or he gets therapy. Maybe he gets a bit more sympathy than the person who would be doing this just to mess with the LW’s head, but that’s about as far as it goes.

          1. Rat*

            Yeah, I agree. I don’t understand the coworker — it sounds they’re being combative (“accused me of sneering”) which I just don’t really understand the attitude in that. It comes off as entitled and confident in your perceptions that others are giving you hostile and insulting reactions all the time. I would think most people who are vigilant to negative reactions like the coworker are usually down-to-Earth enough that they realize that it’s a personal problem and they reality-check their thoughts; they keep their hyper-vigilance a private matter to be dealt with. Or if they feel they need clarification, they ask the other person what they meant/feel/whatever rather than just assume they’re being hostile or rude. So, I don’t know why the coworker is so sure everyone’s trying to be nasty to them and why they don’t show others more respect by asking themselves or even (at least, though not necessarily good) others about what their reactions mean rather than just accusing them of having rude reactions. That’s insulting and the aggression is going to be uncomfortable, especially if you’re wondering if the coworker may try picking a fight. It sounds like the coworker is making people walk on eggshells.

            In sum, the coworker’s lack of respect for people’s egos and comfort is strange, and so is the unreasonable behavior that follows. It’s one thing to be hypervigilant, but another to drag other people into your struggle with it, especially if you’re disrepectful on top of it.

        2. Frieda*

          Yep, I was thinking this as well. It’s possible this co-worker is carrying around some baggage in the form of a practice that served them well in childhood but is now not only no longer helpful, but a problem.

          I had a boss that unfortunately reminded me in some ways of my mother (some irrational anger that got expressed inappropriately, a high level of disorganization that led to a LOT of trying to figure out WTF she wanted/was saying/was thinking, etc.) Recognizing what was happening and addressing my own responses was pretty helpful for me, as was staying out of her way as much as possible.

          You can’t suggest to your coworker in any reasonable way that they have some unresolved childhood shit going on, but the possibility might help you strategize about how to respond.

      5. Student*

        I suspect sexism, racism, or both may be at play – it might be worth investigating whether there’s a pattern to this co-worker nitpicking facial expressions with others, or any other related commentary.

        The only co-worker I’ve ever had nitpick my facial expressions like this was a very misogynistic man who eventually outright told me that he felt “women are supposed to smile!” and told me he found it very distressing whenever I was not smiling. I know racial minorities sometimes get this treatment as well, either because the racist person is picking on their natural facial feature variations or because the racist wants to keep them from expressing anything other than positive emotions.

        1. Observer*

          I suspect sexism, racism, or both may be at play – it might be worth investigating whether there’s a pattern to this co-worker nitpicking facial expressions with others, or any other related commentary.

          I was thinking about this. I think it’s really possible. Of course, it could also be that this guy just an all around jerk.

          But, OP regardless, it could be instructive to look around and see if he does this to others, and who those people are.

        2. Properlike*

          I would certainly be smiling if allowed to smack him upside the head for making such a stupid, sexist remark!

          1. MigraineMonth*

            “Smiling” is just baring your teeth while considering if they’re too scrawny to eat, right?

      6. AustenFan*

        As someone who teaches nonverbal communication, I believe Alison’s advice is best to let the person know the OP has no such intentions. While we don’t know the background of the person who gets offended, studies show that people who have experienced a lot of anger and/or abuse are more likely to see anger and other negative emotions in still/neutral faces. They see what isn’t there. I suggest the OP face this situation by being clear with the other person that their intentions are not negative. The OP is not responsible for the other person’s interpretations and could say something like, “I’ve noticed you attribute a lot of negativity to my facial expressions that I don’t intend. I hope you will give me the benefit of the doubt.”

        1. learnedthehardway*

          I love your way of expressing this – very clear and direct, but diplomatic. My approach above would be for if this more gentle approach doesn’t work.

        2. Distracted Librarian*

          Thank you for this comment. This is such a kind, empathetic approach, and you’ve also helped me understand why my husband will sometimes ask me if I’m upset when I’m just concentrating (though to be fair, I have a chronic case of RBF).

        3. OP #1*

          OP #1 here — thank you for your comment and others. The person I mentioned has also made comments about their childhood, so I suspect there was some trauma and thus the close scrutinization of facial expressions, etc. In trying to be empathetic, I started to go in the direction of my own self-doubt. Your suggestion of what to say is very good – thank you.

      7. Jules the 3rd*

        YUP. OP, you will never be small enough, or neutral enough, to satisfy this colleague. Be yourself and tell them they are wrong.

        If that’s hard for you, practice helps, either with a friend or with a therapist. A therapist may also help you understand why you’re willing to change yourself instead of setting a reasonable boundary with your coworker.

      8. Anonandonandon*

        *laughs in traumatized* I agree that OP’s co-worker needs to reign it in and stop acting on their assumptions about OP’s thoughts and moods. However, as someone living with PTSD, it is literally impossible for me to not pay attention to people’s facial expressions. That certainly doesn’t mean that I get to act on assumptions that I’m making about people, but I can’t help making the assumptions. I just do a much better job keeping those assumptions to myself and recognizing they really irrational.

        1. Anonandonandon*

          Whoops, nesting fail! Meant to make this as a reply to The Prettiest Curse’s comment about who pays close attention to people’s facial expressions.

    2. Ellis Bell*

      Reading OP1’s letter reminded me of those terrible relationships where you walk on eggshells, and have to climb into a tiny little box and make yourself so extremely small and unassuming because your very presence causes offence to a particular type of dude. Spoiler; It’s never possible to make yourself small enough. Though I really, really am trying to give their colleague the benefit of the doubt (I have experience of genuine issues with expression) but they sound like an absolute pill. They’re genuinely this bad at reading expressions? Ok, so far, so believable. With just OP’s facial expressions? Less believable, TMJ not withstanding. Their misunderstandings are such that every interpretation is a negative one? Nah… sorry. No way, not buying it.

      1. Myrin*

        “where you […] have to climb into a tiny little box and make yourself so extremely small and unassuming because your very presence causes offence”
        Right? I actually gasped (and, topically, I don’t even wanna know what my face did in that moment) when I read that OP “sometimes” uses her hands when speaking and is working on stopping that. NO! Gesticulating while talking is completely normal human behaviour! Some do it more than others, depending on culture or just how they’re personally wired, but it’s instinctive movement for most people alive!

        1. Ellis Bell*

          Unless the gesture involves one finger, she’s fine… and I honestly wouldn’t think as harshly of that one by this point!

          1. MigraineMonth*

            I had an odd reaction to having my broken middle finger in a splint. I felt like I was being unacceptably rude at all times and to everyone.

            Of course, all my coworkers could see the splint and understood that I wasn’t having a broken finger *at* them, which is something OP1’s coworker isn’t doing.

        2. Varthema*

          Came to say the same about the gesturing! Unless LW works in a culture very different from American/European ones, and I assume they would have mentioned that, gesturing is definitely seen as a normal thing.

          1. Lady_Lessa*

            Grin about gesturing. Once I was repeating directions on how to get to our new office location. My mouth said right, my hand pointed left and my hand was the correct one.

            Depending upon where I am, I am more or less active with gestures. In the lab less so, to avoid accidents.

            1. Lydia*

              Once when I was a teenager, I was gesturing with my hands in a very expansive way. Someone called my name and when I turned to them, I accidentally backhanded the person next to me in the face. ARGH! I still cringe when I think about it. But I learned about my personal bubble very quickly after that. (I did apologize, profusely.)

            2. Bluesboy*

              My ex did that once! The guy who had asked directions actually had to ask her, “But ma’am…do I follow your words or your finger?”

              To be fair though, her ability to distinguish left from right was so bad that while looking for her once I called her on her mobile, she told me to turn left. So I turned right, and found her. She told me that it’s a genetic thing from her part of the world.

          2. ferrina*

            Yep! I’m American, and I use my hands all the time. It’s ridiculously normal. And I seem to remember one study that showed that people who use their hands when talking tend to be better communicators (I don’t have the citation- I think I heard something about this when I was a teenager?)

          3. Office Lobster DJ*

            And ultimately, the whole point of hand gestures is to help the listener interpret what you’re saying. If anything, this colleague needs MORE hand gestures.

            For LW: I also have a, shall we say, expressive face. I found that I may get misread, but it’s worse when I try to have a neutral face. People get nervous when they can’t read me.

          4. MigraineMonth*

            Unless you’re giving someone the middle finger, a “two-fingered salute”, or making a lewd motion, most gesturing is not offensive.

            Though I have had to ask my roommate not to gesture with the knife while she’s chopping vegetables.

        3. nobadcats*

          I know, right? Just last summer, my boss was in town and took me out for a birthday brunch.

          Near the end of it, I was telling her a story, and clipped my mimosa glass, shattering it on the table. I quickly pulled up the pieces and put them in my coffee saucer, then informed our server, “This needs to go in the sharps bin.”

          I was a little embarassed, but my boss said, “You talk with your hands, this happens!” This is true! I can’t even count the number of times I’ve tipped a glass or water bottle, even when WFH in a meeting and had to mute as I’ve mopped up my desk.

          If I had to severely regulate my facial expressions or talking with my hands, I’d have to wear a mask and sit on my hands. The only “regulate your expressions” feedback I ever had and responded to was, “Please don’t roll your eyes every time Fergus speaks in a meeting.” That was 20 years ago, and it was good advice. I said to myself, “you’re not in HS anymore, rolling your eyes is not appropriate.”

          1. Mom2ASD*

            My oldest son – on the high functioning autism spectrum – LOVED that he and everyone else was wearing a mask during COVID. He felt it put him on a more even playing field and it felt much more comfortable to him to NOT see people’s expressions. He said it felt too personal.

            1. just some guy*

              Autistic here – I don’t notice other people’s expressions much, but it was a nice break not having to worry about how my own might be misinterpreted.

        4. LCH*

          Yes, I wondered what is wrong with using hand gestures when speaking. I felt like I missed something.

        5. Critical Rolls*

          That stood out to me, too. Who is telling you to stop talking with your hands? Stop listening to them instead! Unless you’re in danger of knocking your computer off the desk or inadvertently popping a passerby, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that.

        6. I Wrote This in the Bathroom*

          Please do not stop talking with your hands, OP! There are so many of us out there! (Mine is a combination of culture I was raised in, and wanting to make sure the other person understands – the US Midwest cannot always get through my accent.)

        7. PhyllisB*

          Sometimes hand movements need to be monitored. Years ago someone told me if they tied my hands, I couldn’t say a word. I was mortified!! Since that time I have tried to tone it down a bit, but can’t completely eliminate it.

          1. jane's nemesis*

            I don’t really understand why they would say that to you, but I hope you can let go of the mortification, because there’s nothing wrong with talking with your hands!

            1. ThatGirl*

              Yeah, as long as you’re not smacking anyone in the face, who cares? (Recalling one of my coworkers who is prone to doing finger guns at people. It’s kind of hilarious.)

              1. MarsJenkar*

                I can think of cases where people would be disturbed by the use of finger guns (e.g. prior incident involving themselves or a loved one and a gun), but that’s about the specific gesture, not the general practice of gesturing.

          2. Sympathizer*

            Please don’t try to ne MORE neutral! You will come across as cold. If you coworker is guinuinely overly-sensitive (as opposed to hostile and passive-aggressive) she will find this more threatening/disturbing/alarming and this will exacerbate the problem. Too “neutral” comes across as angry. In fact, when you describe your normal communication style, it occurs to me she may think you are striving to hold in anger or irritation and that’s what’s leading her to over-analyze and put a negative interpretation on every tiny tic.

          3. AnotherSarah*

            My aunt used to say this–that she’d tie my hands behind my back. It’s a horrible thing to say, especially considering that gesturing while speaking is considered a hallmark of the speech of various ethnic groups (Jews, Italians, generally New Yorkers, etc.)

          4. Observer*

            Years ago someone told me if they tied my hands, I couldn’t say a word. I was mortified!!

            You are not the one who needs to be mortified. As long as you’re not smacking people, they were totally out of line.

        8. Observer*

          Right? I actually gasped (and, topically, I don’t even wanna know what my face did in that moment) when I read that OP “sometimes” uses her hands when speaking and is working on stopping that. NO! Gesticulating while talking is completely normal human behaviour!

          I didn’t gasp, but overall, I had much the same reaction.

        9. unperformative worker*

          Sometimes using a lot of gestures while talking is stereotyped/racialized, i.e. black & brown people animatedly talking, often while using dialect/vernacular that bothers/baffles ignorant white people.

          I come from a mixed race family, grew up in black/brown neighborhoods, and using lots of gestures just feels natural and engaged, but once I started working in office/academic settings, I noticed a lot of snobbishness directed toward that kind of communication.

        10. Zelda*

          I am a teacher. I have occasionally been called upon to record an audio-only explanation or mini-lecture. When speaking to a microphone in an otherwise empty room, I still talk with my hands. I figure that trying to tamp that down would surely produce some unnatural cadences and possibly make the speech a little more difficult to parse, so I roll with it.

      2. ecnaseener*

        Agreed. I don’t even have any benefit of the doubt to give the coworker – whether this behavior is driven by genuine insecurity or not, it’s downright mean to watch someone’s face and jump on them for every expression.

      3. bighairnoheart*

        Yep! Gave me flashbacks to my terrible ex-boss who scrutinized everything I did. He accused me of being mad at him when I was just concentrating, rolling my eyes when trying to recall something (you know how sometimes your eyes drift up if you’re searching your memory?), etc. Policing your every tone, gesture, and expression is exhausting. OP, please don’t feel like you have to do it!

      4. Boof*

        Right? The most generous scenario; some kind of extreme mismatch between LW1’s apparent facial expressions and coworker’s reading of them; ONE conversation from coworker “hey, I might be wrong but are you [upset/whatever?? the expression in question is]” and then after a no, that’s not how to take it… coworker should take note not to read too much into LW1’s facial expressions and move on

      5. Aggretsuko*

        I live in that tiny box. I feel this.

        If this guy nitpicks everything you do, it sounds like yet another “bitch eating crackers” situation.

    3. Lilas*

      It sounds like they’re not just misinterpreting the expressions, but overly scrutinizing them too. Most people don’t react audibly to every minor change in face of the person they’re talking to, even if they were getting it right. This seems like “plausible-deniability hostile” behavior to me. It’s invasive and inappropriate.

      1. AGD*

        Yes. I had a boss who did this (tried to micromanage my facial expressions!), which was really intrusive and weird. (He once chewed me out for about 40 minutes and then looked at me with some annoyance and said, “For heaven’s sake, stop looking so worried!” It bothered me for a long time after that.)

        1. Audrey Puffins*

          I got told off by a manager for looking quizzical once, maybe about fifteen years ago, and I’m still mad about it

        2. Call Me Dr. Dork*

          Ye-e-e-es, I had a boss like that too. She liked to lecture me about things (not things I was doing wrong, but just her random thoughts), and then start analyzing my facial expressions negatively. Interestingly enough, when she started chewing me out about something so badly that I was weeping for a frigging half an hour, she didn’t say a thing.

          It’s clearly manipulative to complain to people about their (neutralish) facial expressions, even if the complainers aren’t conscious that they are being manipulative.

          1. DanniellaBee*

            I have experienced this as well! I had a “coach” in my workplace who was not my manager and did not have a place on our project team but she liked to attend the team meetings I was responsible for leading. She criticized just about everything but she also picked apart my expressions and way of speaking. She told me I needed to smile. I need to smile while detailing the TPS reports and deployment schedule? It was awful. Eventually I stopped attending these extremely unhelpful “coaching sessions.”

      2. Scarlet2*

        Exactly! Like, even if there was an actual misunderstanding on the coworker’s part (which I really doubt), why do they keep harrassing the LW about it? Can’t they just look away? Honestly, I think I would ask them to stop staring at my face like that because it makes me uncomfortable (but I’m aware that it’s probably too direct for LW to be comfortable with that approach).

        It 100% comes across as hostility. And yes, even if LW managed to look completely neutral (which nobody should have to do because it’s almost inhuman), the coworker would find something else to criticize.

      3. Grimace*

        I have a coworker who calls out facial expressions. It’s usually somewhat understandable — yes, you’re right, that text is too small for me, thanks for embiggening it; I’m making a “yuck” face because that’s a tricky area of functionality and we should be careful — but sometimes I’m just reacting to something unrelated and it gets tiring to know my facial expressions are going to be called out to everyone else on the virtual meeting.

    4. Not Australian*

      This is on a par with men telling women to smile all the time. OP doesn’t owe anyone any kind of performance to counter their misperception of OP’s emotions. It’s on the colleague to clarify if OP’s response to anything is ambiguous, and to take OP’s word for it when they do. This is the kind of nonsense that gets in the way of effective functioning in workplaces: surely OP’s colleague has better things to do with their time than try to police OP’s facial expressions!

      1. Allonge*

        Yes, this. I mean, don’t roll your eyes or anything else rude, but other than that, most people’s faces move and reflect some emotions which in turn engender other emotions in the viewer. That’s just how life works here on planet Earth. A running commentary on this is not appropriate above the age of, like, five.

      2. Chocolate lover*

        Unfortunately it’s not just men that tell women to do that. I once was told I “should smile” – by a woman who had literally screamed in my face for 5 minutes because she didn’t like my company’s policy on some thing. It’s been decades and I still wish I screamed back in her face. I mean really, who smiles in that situation?

        1. amoeba*

          Ha, yeah, and even if you somehow did, I can just imagine them screaming “Do you find this funny?!” or something…

          1. I Wrote This in the Bathroom*

            “I’m funny how, I mean funny like I’m a clown, I amuse you?”

            In all seriousness, you’re right – I once apparently smiled while being screamed at – must’ve been a nervous reaction because I was not feeling smiley at all. Got screamed at more for “laughing at” the person. That’s exactly what would’ve happened.

            1. MarsJenkar*

              The “grin of fear” is apparently a very common reflex, and often does happen when someone is shouting, yelling, or screaming in your face. So I’m not surprised it happened to you.

        2. I Wrote This in the Bathroom*

          Only time I was told to “Smile!” was by a woman at work. I walked into the breakroom at lunch, minding my own business, when suddenly, “smile!” Pretty sure I stared at her in confusion and said “Why?”

        3. DanniellaBee*

          There is something to being told to smile by another woman that burns even worse than when a man says it. I think its because I tend to see women as strong allies in the workplace and when it turns out not to be true of a particular individual it disappointing.

      3. LCH*

        I was threatened with firing once for not smiling enough. It wasn’t a client-facing role. I’m not going to sit at my desk concentrating on my face while I’m trying to edit dense legal documents. Wtf.

    5. JSPA*

      There are studies demonstrating that most people are much worse at deciphering expression than they think they are. You could print one out and have it ready to hand to the offending coworker, with the explanation that, “because expressions and interpretations of expressions are subject to misinterpretation, we will both be more at ease if you stop trying to figure out my mood and intentions on the basis of how my face muscles work.”

      If they are familiar with the concept of “RBF,” you can even use that as an example.

      And for your information only–as it would be a huge overstep to point it out or suggest that it could be in play–people who have grown up in problematic (demanding, abusive, “read my mind,” substance-abuse-affected, high stress, nurturing-role-reversal) situations are particularly susceptible to over interpreting and mis interpreting neutral expressions as negative. Make sure whatever study you grab isn’t primarily about that topic! (There may still be references to papers on that topic, which coworker can choose to follow up on, or not.)

      Or you can always just repeat, “this is my smile, but people in my family do sometimes get that response. Maybe our face muscles just attach a bit differently–who really knows!”.

      1. Salsa Verde*

        Yes, I completely agree with Alison’s advice, but this is what I first jumped to – I grew up in a problematic household and I have an acquaintance (who also grew up in a problematic household) whose facial expressions always look distressed/angry/upset to me. I have never mentioned it to her, but I do have to admit it makes me not want to be around her one-on-one because it’s very stressful to me.
        I would never say anything to her though – I am afraid she will ask me why I don’t hang out with her more often.

        I absolutely DO NOT think that OP should be trying to reduce gesticulating or even changing her facial expressions – I just want to make that clear! This is the coworker’s problem to manage, just as it is my own!

      2. Daisy*

        This reminds me of an interview with the actor that played Data on Star Trek. He said when he played Data with no/the least amount of expression he would get fan letters where people would substitute their own feelings instead of recognize the lack of expression.
        This sounds like a “her” problem, not and OP problem.

      3. lifebeforecorona*

        Resting Bitch Face which I have on autopilot along with serious side eye that developed during the pandemic when no one could see my RBF because of masking.

    6. Cat Tree*

      The coworker in #1 is so bizarre! I can’t help but wonder if they react this way to everyone or just OP. Either way, their behavior is strange.

      1. Hlao-roo*

        The OP does say “I have a coworker who is very sensitive to other people’s tones and facial expressions,” so they probably react to other people too. Which is another point for “it’s a them problem, not an OP problem.”

      2. Nonprofit writer*

        Agreed! I would say I’m fairly tuned in to people’s expressions & I often wonder (privately) to myself whether someone is upset or annoyed with me based on their expression or gesture. But I would never say anything! Because of course I could be wrong, and I know I’m highly sensitive, which is my own issue. And even if I weren’t wrong, a little flinch on someone else’s face isn’t the same thing as a direct comment from that person. This coworker is way out of line.

    7. Falling Diphthong*

      OP, I suspect you have a goodie two shoes instinct–I have one a mile wide–that is driving you to try and make sure there is no rational reason anyone would complain about you. Rather than hold your line of normal behavior and calmly respond to her irrationalness when needed.

    8. Professor RBF*

      I’ll join in to warn that if you push back, there’s no guarantee that anything will change. What’s more, they may then accuse you of defensiveness or being difficult to work with. In my experience, once someone becomes committed to ascribing the worst possible motives to you, they’re not going to be persuaded no matter what you tell them.

      I’d make it funny. “I wasn’t sneering, I was trying not to fart.”

      1. com*

        “In my experience, once someone becomes committed to ascribing the worst possible motives to you, they’re not going to be persuaded no matter what you tell them.”

        ^^ This.

    9. ferrina*

      Yes! I have a deeply expressive face- It. Shows. Everything. As one boss remarked, “I’d love to play poker with ferrina! It would be an easy game.”

      And I’ve never been expected to eliminate my expressions. Most people appreciate it- it makes it easy to talk to me. My favorite was when I was teaching and a student asked “Is Canada a state? Um, based on your face, I’m going to say no.” (the student thought it was hilarious that she figured out the answer based solely on my expression). The only time I’ve ever gotten any negative feedback was when I was showing clear frustration, and my boss told me to tone it down and take a breather (and that was the right call).

      The few people who have tried to police my expressions always had some other issues going on with them. They were manipulative in other ways- sometimes ways I wouldn’t’ see until later. If someone is regularly trying to police your face, that’s a red flag about them.

    10. Justme, The OG*

      Agree. I’m Italian (talk with my hands) and have resting bunny face. This coworker would hate me.

    11. Grumpy Elder Millennial*

      I have a friend whose voice is very neutral and face is not expressive at all. It definitely weirds out people who don’t know her well. They interpret her as cold and aloof when she’s anything but. It has definitely caused her some professional challenges; she’s in a profession where tone and facial expressions are important.

      So please, OP1, don’t try to eliminate your expressions/personality. It’s a totally unreasonable expectation from your coworker and Alison is right that it could cause you other problems.

    12. morethantired*

      I’m surprised that the OP’s reaction has been to try to look more neutral. I would have instead just tried actively smiling more to put the person at ease. All those years working retail and now dealing with clients, faking a pleasant face has sort of become my go-to work armor in uncertain situations.

    13. CommanderBanana*

      LW#1, you have my sympathies. I just turned in notice at my job (yay!) and a huge part of it was a new director who was DETERMINED to find fault with everything my face did. As in, I made eye contact with a coworker (who has also since quit) at a small meeting and she flipped out and accused us of disrespecting her by…making eye contact…? Her latest thing has been accusing me of mimicking people because if they smile at me, I smile back at them.

      No, I do not know what her actual problem is, and fortunately I no longer have to deal with it.

      1. CommanderBanana*

        Oh, AND, my entire forehead is frozen with Botox, so I’m not even sure how I can make the facial expressions she criticizes me for. I can’t even furrow my brow!

    14. Ridiculous Penguin*

      Wait, I’m not supposed to use my hands when I’m talking? Oof. I’d have to sit on them to prevent that, and I think that would be super weird.

      — A Person Raised by Italians

      1. Good Enough For Government Work*

        I’m Welsh. The best (and possibly only) way to make me silent would be to keep me from using my hands…. We’re a lot like Italians in that.

        (And, possibly not coincidentally, there’s a huge Italian population in Wales!)

    15. OP #1*

      OP# 1 here — and posting a reply up here so it can be seen —- I wish I could respond to so many people’s comments. What I can do is THANK people for pointing things out, offering suggestions, and also some reassurance that I’m not the problem here. I have been handling months of comments from this person, along with other passive-aggressive behavior, which starts to feel like gaslighting. And it really eroded my sense of self-confidence and worth. I knew Alison and the AAM community could give me some objectivity.

      While I strive to be my best self every day (and make sure my hand gestures don’t knock over my coffee), it also helps to know that sometimes, I am enough as I am and don’t need to make myself tiny, or neutral or suppress my emotions just for one person. Thanks Alison and AAM community!

    16. Over It*

      I’m having this issue with a coworker, who I apparently “glare” at. No, I just look at you. I’m avoiding all eye contact, and I’m waiting for the moment in which they complain “they don’t say hi to me, and are avoiding me.” I don’t think you can win in this situation. Be direct, and follow learnedthehardway’s recommendation

  2. Clh*

    LW4 – my dad died suddenly as well and I also did not want to talk about it at work. I only took a week but also wound up taking some random days over the subsequent weeks as I was grieving. My immediate team and my boss knew what happened which helped buffer and they were able to “defend” any work delays with similar vague answers of family emergency/death in the family and handle the condolences for me. I found it helpful to “plant” those who I was closest with to share the news and also forewarn others not to belabor and I wanted to focus on work. I’m so sorry for your loss.

    1. Joan*

      This is exactly what I was going to say. My direct coworkers spread the news for me so I didn’t have to deal with talking about it unless I wanted to. I got a lot of cards but I didn’t really digest those until later anyway. It totally sucks, I’m sorry OP.

      1. Sue*

        I think they call it the Ring Theory, where your closest friends/family deal with others to protect the ill/grieving person. This can be effective at work as well as personally.

        1. JelloStapler*

          Love this theory. That was the case for me too. When my dad died, colleagues shared the information so I got a lot of cards and emails of condolences but didn’t have to say it over and over again.

        2. Thin Mints didn't make me thin*

          Comfort IN, dump (your emotions) OUT. The person at the center should not have to deal with the feelings of others. If you’re near the center, your job is to deflect others’ worries and feelings (including your own) away from the person at the center.

          1. Random Bystander*

            Exactly–I know when I had cancer (1.5 years cancer free!), I had to be pretty direct with those who were on the next “ring”–that I needed them to run interference for me and be the one point of contact for updates with the different circles in my life because I was way too emotionally fragile to deal with multiple concerned people asking about the situation when I was still freshly dealing with the situation. And that *my* need in that situation superseded the other people’s wishes to express their concerns directly.

            There are quite a few people who are in the ‘superficial acquaintance’ category at work who still don’t even know that I had cancer at all, and much of that was due to the fact that these particular individuals have a tendency toward “main character syndrome” where it would have been all about them and how they felt about my diagnosis.

            1. MassMatt*

              And a surprising number of “outer ring” people seem to want YOU, the person dealing with loss/illness/trauma, to manage THEIR feelings about death, illness, etc. To the extent of “how dare you not think about how this affects ME, your coworker in the same building who’ve nodded to each other in the hall!”

              Someone dealing with their own trauma should not have to spend their limited amount of energy on managing YOUR feelings.

    2. Rebecca*

      The plant is such a good idea, but make sure it’s someone you trust to be thorough.

      When I got back to work after my dad died, everyone knew I had been at his bedside, and I thought everyone knew it was palliative care, but the message didn’t get through. When I got back to work, recovering not just from his death but from the harrowing process of it, the message hadn’t made it through to everyone. Someone saw me and said, “You’re back! I’m glad your dad is feeling better,” and I had to tell her I was back because the situation had been resolved the other way. At. Recess.

      1. A Simple Narwhal*

        Oof that’s awful. I’m so sorry about your dad and then having to deal with that as well.

      2. Alpaca Bag*

        First, I’m sorry about your dad. Whether it was recent or not, it’s still sad.

        After my dad was on hospice care and then we lost him, 4 of my co-workers knew what happened, but the people I build software for didn’t. The first one I had a Teams meeting with after I got back said she hoped I had a fun vacation. :( I explained what happened, and she was very kind. I asked her to let the others in her group know, so at least it only happened once.

    3. dot*

      LW4, my mom had a terrible time with this when my dad died. She got so tired of dealing with all the sympathy at work (and she’s a librarian in a small community where everyone knows everyone so she got it from just about every patron). Unfortunately it seems, like Allison said, there’s not a whole lot you can do except recognize that people are trying to be polite and caring. Probably most people have not had to go through something like this and can’t really comprehend how you feel. Obviously it sucks that it results in more energy spent on your end, but people will start to move on and you’ll hear it less and less. It’ll get easier. Just takes a while.

      1. Boof*

        Yeah; try to recruit a few people to spread the word and have a few stock phrases for when it (almost inevitably) comes up anyway from someone who didn’t get the memo – try to get through it with the least investment.

    4. Slow Gin Lizz*

      I’m surprised Alison didn’t mention anything about the coworkers being mean (for lack of a better word) to OP about missing deadlines, etc, when they didn’t follow the instructions in OP’s out of office message. Might not be a bad idea for OP to bring this up with their boss and ask how to handle that; maybe the boss can tell those coworkers to lay off.

      1. Zephy*

        I’ll +1 the suggestion to mention the rude people who didn’t follow directions to the boss. I wonder if the same mysterious rules/guidelines around messaging that led the boss to tell OP not to put “family emergency” (or any clarifying details, apparently) in her OOO also resulted in an OOO that was too vague or confusing for people emailing her to understand the situation and what they should do instead of wait around and get mad at OP for missing deadlines.

      2. froodle*

        Op is a better person than me. I would have been very tempted to tell them “my dad died, sorry that my losing a loved one and your inability to read an email has inconvenienced you in a way that is somehow my fault.”

        And by “tell them”, I mean scream at them. Illiterate buffoons.

        1. Boof*

          I don’t think going from 1 to 10 suddenly would be helpful for anyone – the coworkers sound like they have no idea what was going on with LW

          1. Insert Clever Name Here*

            True they didn’t know what was going on, but they clearly didn’t bother to follow the instructions about who to contact to keep the workflow going and are now acting like it’s OP’s fault things are behind when it’s clearly not. I’d definitely be inclined to respond with some type of comment like “oh, my OOO instructed you to reach out to Maurice for this until I returned — can you forward what you sent him and I’ll see what we can do about the timeline?”

            Yeah, they probably won’t care or apologize for missing that, but it would be helpful to *me* to have in writing that they were the ones to drop the ball.

            1. Boof*

              Sure, ” I had these instructions you should have done that” is fine. “SO SORRY MY DAD’S DEATH INCONVENIENCED YOU!!!” would be… something I’d advise against if at all able.

          2. Here for the Insurance*

            They had no need to know what was going on, other than OP wasn’t available. Why OP wasn’t available is none of their business. And they were told about the unavailability with the OOO. This is on them, not OP, and I don’t think OP has any obligation to make them feel better about it or to assuage their misplaced irritation.

            1. Boof*

              OK but flipping out on the first person to do it still wouldn’t help the situation / would be a bad idea even if justified

      3. Pink Candyfloss*

        Yes, for me this is a problem that gets managed up: my boss and the other people’s bosses (if different) can have a boss to boss conversation about “out of office best practices” and how to enforce them consistently between or within teams.

      4. Lenora Rose*

        It’s unclear if it’s coworkers, customers, etc. Not that I think it matters from the perspective that she’s not responsible for THEIR failure to follow instructions, but if customers, then the boss won’t be able to help.

    5. Lizzo*

      Agree with this approach. My sister had a miscarriage very late in her pregnancy…late enough that when she went out on leave, many colleagues assumed she’d delivered and had a baby at home. Returning to work was brutal because her manager had not initially told the rest of the people she worked with what had happened. When she sat down and told the manager, “I need to you to tell people what happened and tell them that I don’t want to talk about it,” things got much better.

      1. Not A Raccoon Keeper*

        This last part is key: “…and tell them that I don’t want to talk about it” – I would super recommend OP adds this, based on their letter.

        It’s tricky knowing how to support colleagues when they’re grieving – some people get upset that people aren’t addressing their loss, and others get upset when people do address it. I was still in college when my dad died, so let’s blame this on my underdeveloped prefrontal coretex, but I did both! The more clarity that OP can offer about their needs (via the one or two people they tell), the better their team can support them through this impossible time.

    6. 2 Cents*

      When I was out with COVID last year, my manager told people, “She had to take some unexpected time off.” Which meant, don’t bother her, talk to the people she left in her away message. When I returned, I chose to tell people why. Others, I would say, “Thank you for your patience as I was unexpectedly out of the office for {x} days.” <–They don't need further explanation. Just because people can't comprehend instructions doesn't make it your fault.

      I'm sorry about your dad.

  3. Heidi*

    Is there some sort of incredible prize with the monthly award in Letter 2? If multiple members of my work team complained about not getting a low-stakes award, I would find it rather baffling.

    If there’s no prize, the explanation I found to be most plausible out of the ones listed in Alison’s response is that there’s something the other employees don’t like about Bob that the OP is unaware of. If Bob were wonderful and everyone loved him, the group’s behavior would be even more inexplicable (bizarre even). I hope we get an update to this one.

    1. Twix*

      It’s also possible that there’s a perception (justified or not) that this award could impact advancement opportunities, particularly if upper management is involved in deciding who wins.

      1. EPLawyer*

        Well yes, people who go above and beyond often get more advancement opportunities than those who just do their jobs.

        1. Elitist Semicolon*

          In my previous job, I worked with someone who was upset that he was only getting the standard cost-of-living raise and the lowest rate of merit raise, claiming that he showed up and did his job and that he deserved a higher raise. Meanwhile, a few of us were creating instructional materials for other units within our division, mentoring new employees, contributing to a division-wide review process…lots of things that weren’t specifically mentioned in our job descriptions but fell under the header of “other tasks as required.” The director had to explain to him that doing the basic requirements of his job was not, in and of itself, noteworthy – especially by comparison. He was not pleased.

          1. MurpMaureep*

            I used to have a staff member who in every performance evaluation and career discussion said he was very happy to be solidly “meets expectations” and not “exceeds” because he valued work life balance and saw his job as “just a job”. That was fine, I appreciated his honesty and his work was generally fine. But a few years in he started complaining that his pay was lagging relative to others in his same job (this was at a state university where salaries are publicly available). I explained to him that, indeed, people who did more tended to get higher raises as part of our merit program, while he got the base cost of living increases. I also talked through how we could change his work to take on some additional projects that would push him into the “exceeds” category if he wanted to be eligible for merit. He wasn’t really happy with that answer, left soon after for a higher paying, corporate job, but then kept trying to come back because he had no work life balance there!

            1. Boof*

              In theory, amount of work + amount of skill = amount of money paid. Seems like the equation was consistent, gotta decide where your priorities are! I’m sure corporate or other place might have had a role for less money / more time if they really decided they tried it and didn’t like it.

          2. Kes*

            I don’t know that I entirely agree with this. It absolutely makes sense that people going above and beyond would get more particular recognition, like awards, but doing a good job at your job still deserves acknowledgement and recognition, at least from your manager.
            I do wonder if this is actually part of it – they may just not like Bob, but it may also feel that their work isn’t being acknowledged or receiving recognition

            1. MassMatt*

              But LW has specifically said that they praise their other reports, and give small GC’s to them in appreciation. That’s more acknowledgement than I’ve seen on an ongoing basis in most jobs, and I’ve been promoted in most jobs I’ve had.

              I think it’s more likely there’s a nasty element of jealousy running through the group and a crab climbing out of the bucket is getting pulled back by the other crabs.

              I would check over the things Alison mentioned, but also look to see what might be behind this jealousy, and what can be done about it. I’ve worked in places where recognition was celebrated and places where it was met with nasty backbiting. The latter places wind up being crappy places to work, where people are bitter at excellence and instead settle for mediocrity.

          3. Bagpuss*

            Yes, we had someone like that. They would complain that they ought to get equal pay to other because they were dong the same job, and had it explained multiple times that if they did, they would. The role was one where each person had their own core duties and there were other tasks which were supposed to be shared with everyone dealing with those – this individual only ever did their own core task (despite being less busy than some others in that regard) and generally unhelpful.
            Every year at their appraisal they would complain, every year there would be a discussion of what was expected of them, including pulling their weight with the shared tasks, and the other things which other people were doing which were relevant to individual salary increases, and every year they would ignore all of that and complain that it wasn’t fair.
            They left a year or so ago – I rather suspect that they were expecting us to beg them to stay, when they handed in their notice, and seemed very taken aback when we simply confirmed their leaving dates and wished them well in the next endeavors.

          4. Butterfly Counter*

            I think you’re onto something.

            Personally, as a teacher, when it comes to awards given to great teachers (usually nominated by students), they actually do go to those who are going above and beyond when it comes to their jobs.

            I get a little salty sometimes, because I think I’m a pretty good and effective teacher. I do my job well! Why aren’t students nominating me? But then I look at my evenings and weekends compared to those teachers getting nominated and I find that I prefer that free time vs. an award that doesn’t come with any prize other than a little recognition.

        2. Twix*

          Well yes, obviously having earned a reputation for going above and beyond is going to impact advancement opportunities. I was referring to having won the award in and of itself, not the actions for which it was awarded. For example, there might be a perception that only people who can list this award on their resume can get promoted past a certain point, or that people who’ve won it get promoted over people who are significantly more qualified otherwise, or that this is a way of recognizing employee excellence that has much higher visibility for upper management than others. Something beyond just rewarding the behavior for which the award was given.

    2. Yay! I’m a llama again!*

      The only thing I thought was that maybe the customer had recognised Bob as being the one person who went above and beyond, and the team feel that it wasn’t just him, more of them played a part? Then you might be cross that one person for the recognition that you felt you deserved too. But overall it does seem like an over reaction.

      1. Zephy*

        I feel like if that were the case, it would have come out much sooner, like “Bob was the one who spoke to the customer, but Wakeen and I were here painting those teapots all night to get them out on time,” or whatever the case may be, since the OP did specifically ask to be told about that sort of thing. People can’t know about stuff they don’t see unless you tell them!

        1. High Score!*

          As a person who is not customer facing, this is legit. The people who work directly with customers always get the credit for the team’s combined work. Maybe switch up the rewards next time to recognize teams rather than individuals.

          1. Mill Miker*

            I was originally going to agree with Zephy, but looking back, the letter doesn’t say the others didn’t come up with any reasons, just that those reasons were “part of their job.”

            And then I thought of all the times a salesperson or project manager would overcommit to a client, and then the dev team I was on had to bend over backwards and pull overtime to rush something out, miss the original deadline, and keep pushing until the thing was done. The salesperson got praise for making the sale, the PM got praise for keeping the client satisfied through the delays, the dev team got a lecture on time management and respecting deadlines.

            Or, for a while my main duty was “putting out fires and dealing with emergencies.” Saving the company’s butt 4 times a week was “meets expectations” (or “needs improvement” on the weeks with 5+ crisis).

            I’m not saying the LW is doing anything that outrageous, but it might be worth looking into whether it’s even possible for the average team member to go above and beyond, given their duties.

            1. Underrated Pear*

              I thought this too, as a similar issue was recently raised to our company’s management. The way our current incentive structure is set up, you can really only qualify for performance incentives or awards if you do something that is both (1) above and beyond, AND (2) significantly furthers the organization’s mission. Admin assistants, payroll officers, accountants, IT, etc can be absolutely fantastic at their jobs, but there’s almost nothing they could do that would qualify them for an incentive under the second criterion. Our management is not perfect, but they are genuinely responsive, and they have noted that they are going to re-think this policy so it’s more equitable.

          2. MassMatt*

            But this was an individual effort by one person, going above and beyond the job requirements, and the customer thanked that person, and the LW, who supervises the group, was not even aware what the report had done until that happened. It’s very unlikely the jealous coworkers did the work and Bob got all the credit, or they would have said so. When asked, the coworkers just say they do their jobs.

            We’ve had letters from people whose bosses demand that all rewards for individual effort go to the team (or worse, the boss) which is a sure way to demoralize exceptional contributors and promote mediocrity. It’s the same with most restaurants that pool tips.

    3. LemonLyman*

      After a VP who is a white woman in my org won an annual company wide leadership award even though she’s conniving, gossips relentlessly, and often says things that are microaggressive or simply casually racist (but that most white people wouldn’t notice as such), I’ve decided that awards are meaningless but also powerful ways of continuing to divide those with power from the rest. Also, a genuinely nice white man on a neighboring team who is well liked by everyone including clients but is barely “just okay” at his actual job also won an annual award.

      1. bamcheeks*

        Yeah, I do think this is a bit of an inevitability with this type of award. I work in a place that’s big on awards, and I kind of feel like for every person who’s motivated by it, there’s another four or five who are miffed. You need an outstandingly good working culture to be able to single out one person and have everyone think, “oh good for Bob! He deserves this!” rather than, “I guess what *I* do is never going to be recognised round here.”

        I think a lot of places introduce that kind of award thinking it’s going to improve a culture, whereas I tend to think it’s only in a really good culture that they work.

        1. cabbagepants*

          This is quite astute. When I was unhappy at my old job, I had a lot of resentments around the way awards were given. Even when I got an award myself, I was angry to see my slacker colleague given the same award as “part of the team.”

          1. Thin Mints didn't make me thin*

            I’m slightly irritated right now because we hired a new guy right out of college and gave him the same title that I (with considerably more experience) have. I am not saying that to anyone in the company, though, because really it doesn’t matter. My paychecks still cash.

          2. Happy*

            Yes! When a team is full of people working well together, they tend to be genuinely happy for each other for getting awards.

            When a few people feel like they are carrying a team, it is incredibly galling to see someone who makes their lives harder get recognized, even if that person did go above and beyond on one particular thing.

        2. ferrina*

          Agree. The award is dependent on who gets nominated, and it’s impossible to make that bias-free. I had a manager that supervised two teams, and she tended to ignore my team. A colleague and I busted our butts on a high-profile project that we had no business running (underqualified is an understatement), did a great job, and….nothing. The manager just ignored our efforts, and the nomination had to come from her (several other people remarked throughout the project that we would likely get the award for it). That experience made me lose all faith in awards.

          1. Ray Gillette*

            Even the nominations only mean so much. My workplace doesn’t do workplace awards so it’s a non-issue for me. But at my boyfriend’s workplace, awards like that are a big deal. He’s been nominated for the same award four years in a row, but every year it’s gone to someone who is either higher up the corporate ladder or has social connections with the team responsible for the award.

            Of course, this is the same company that told him he could only have a leadership position in either the LGBT+ employee group or the AAPI employee group but not both because “it wouldn’t be fair,” even though the other members of both groups wanted to choose him, so… yeah.

        3. Allonge*

          I totally agree with your point on awards in general, but I really don’t think even in well-functioning places the goal can be that nobody thinks Jane did not deserve an award. Thinking about it is going to happen anyway, going to your boss is a different level.

          But yes, there is a reason we don’t have these awardy things where I work.

          1. bamcheeks*

            yes, totally agree! The is a much bigger problem if people are grumbling about it to the extent that LW has heard about it!

        4. Emilia Bedelia*

          I think it can also lead to resentment when awards are, rightfully, given to people who succeeded at highly impactful/visible work… and those opportunities are not common or not available to everyone. At least in my world, 75% of my job is routine sustaining work where there’s not really a way to go “above and beyond”. That’s fine, but if someone else is always getting the glamour projects and getting recognized for them while I’m keeping the lights on, that is definitely a recipe for negativity.

        5. Dust Bunny*


          Bob’s coworkers might be sour grapes, but the OP/whoever manages this group might also be clueless and overlooking a lot of background work that other people are doing, either on their own or in support of Bob.

          My workplace doesn’t do a lot of awards (Employee of the Year is pretty much it) but they’re very good about recognizing people at all levels and not just the most public or highest-profile jobs, so we don’t get this kind of grousing. They also call out good work less formally throughout the year so even if you don’t get an award everyone knows you (did whatever cool thing).

      2. Katherine Boag*

        At my now-husband’s graduation, a lecturer who was pretty useless at teaching won a teaching award. It was pretty clear to anyone involved with him that he was getting awarded for other reason (he brought in loads of money/industry partnerships through his connections with industry). He had also personally harmed my own academics through his failure at scheduling. I wish I could have walked out, but didn’t want to disrespect my husband and his family.

      1. Bagpuss*

        Yes, that was my first thought. If it was one person getting annoyed I’d think it was that person, if it’s multiple people, then either they don’t like Bob, (in which case OP may want to look into why that is) or there is an issue with how the award is judged / handed out.
        OP mentioned she didn’t know about the thing Bob had done until the recipient of the favour / good service told them, so it sounds as though it could be that others are providing equally good service but it isn’t visible (also possible that if only some staff have direct interaction with clients that the award is skewed in their favour)

      2. MassMatt*

        Good possibility, it’d be worth exploring as the manager–is it because of something work related (Bob foists his work on other people, misses deadlines, lies, etc) or just personal–he dresses funny, or is a loud talker, or supports a different political party than the others).

    4. UKDancer*

      Yes I think they don’t like Bob.

      I mean we have staff awards in my company in the summer and at Christmas as a motivational tool. There is no financial benefit, just a bit of kudos. I’ve never known anyone complain that someone else got an award there and they didn’t. Most people are fairly indifferent about it to be honest. If people are this upset by it, they either have a bigger problem with the employer, or with Bob or both.

    5. A Simple Narwhal*

      I know LW2 said the award is for people who go above and beyond, but I’m curious if people in other departments are nominating people in the same way LW2 is. At a former job we had awards to recognize people who went above and beyond, and it took something truly remarkable taking place in order to be nominated – at least on my team. Other managers nominated their employees left and right for seemingly every positive thing they did, many of which I would classify as “just doing your job”, and it was incredibly disheartening to never receive the same recognition.

      This may not at all be what’s happening here, and I’m not entirely convinced it is – we were never mad at the people on my team who did manage to get nominated, all negative feelings were towards the other managers for not following the rules of the awards, the higher ups for not enforcing those rules, and/or our own manager for not seeing how the awards were actually distributed in practice and following their lead to get us the same recognition other teams got on a regular basis.

      But it can’t hurt to review or consider if other teams are getting public recognition differently than yours is.

      1. Zephy*

        I did a turn on a committee for this kind of thing at an old job – we had quarterly recognition along with annual awards, and the big point of contention during my term of service was what counted as “above and beyond” for the quarterly award – was it enough to just do your job extremely well, or did you have to do something explicitly outside your job description? I come down on the side of “doing your job extremely well counts,” because excellence should be recognized, but also if you’ve got the time/opportunity to put out fires in other departments, what’s going on with your actual work? Are you also preternaturally fast/efficient at the thing the company is actually paying you, specifically, to do, or are things falling through the cracks or being foisted on other people so you can go be a hero down the hall?

        1. Mom2ASD*

          Good point – you get what you compensate / incent. People need to think that through when developing awards programs, because the behaviours they reward might not be what they THINK they are rewarding.

          In this situation, I’m wondering if the rest of the team feels resentful that Bob gets these opportunities to do amazing work, and then gets awards for the work, but that they don’t have the same opportunity to work on amazing projects. It would be upsetting to have a role where there’s so much work or where there’s no opportunity to do process improvements, or whatever, and then to see colleagues get recognition for something that it’s not even possible for you to take on.

        2. Dust Bunny*

          “Doing your job extremely well” is the general MO at my workplace, too. Some of our employees are things like book shelvers and basically professional photocopiers, but even they are in the running for doing that well.

    6. I should really pick a name*

      It’s weird that so many people are making a big deal about this which makes me think there’s something else going on.
      Considering it’s a monthly award, I wonder if the complaining has happened with anyone else.

    7. Totally Minnie*

      I had a situation like this in a previous job. My coworker was really, really unobservant and I had to go around behind her finishing a lot of her work. She had a great interaction with a customer and got huge praise for it in a team meeting, but I just kept thinking about how her resolution of the customer’s issue had caused extra work for a lot of people, and we weren’t getting any acknowledgment of our contribution at all.

      I like Alison’s idea of checking in with a member of the team you trust to see if you can find out why they’re upset about Bob’s award. There could be a team dynamic that LW isn’t aware of.

    8. mlem*

      Frankly, sometimes the lowest stakes generate the most extreme competition. (I suspect Alison is right that there are other factors, but I’ve been amazed at how petty people can be about “winning” the most minor things.)

      1. Alton Brown's Evil Twin*

        “sometimes the lowest stakes generate the most extreme competition.”

        Well said!

        1. Rex Libris*

          Seriously. We used to have an annual homemade soup competition that caused continual resentment and griping. The prize? A three dollar plastic trophy that you got to keep at your desk for the year.

    9. Rex Libris*

      I’m thinking my response to the employees would be that complaining and resentment were not the “exceptional” behaviors we were trying to reward.

    10. theletter*

      I definitely worked a place where they had little awards like this, but it was really biased. If you coerced engineers into working over the weekend to meet a surprise client need, you were going above and beyond and deserved an award!

      But if an engineer did her job spectacularly well, and acheived something notable as a result, well, that was just her doing her job. No award.

    11. Dona Florinda*

      I think I was Bob once. Back in my retail days, I was by far the worst salesperson in the store. One day, corporate announced a hefty bonus to whoever closed the biggest sale that day and, by sheer luck, I happened to serve a customer who was looking to buy a very expensive item by the bulk, and got the bonus. My coworkers were not happy.

    12. A CAD Monkey*

      At my job, we get a nice bonus if we get one of the kudos awards. each of the “plaques” (read: heavy pressed cardstock” has an envelope attached to the back with a check in it, so there might be a larger monetary award involved than just the small gift card OP gives out during reviews.

    13. Nom*

      My sense is that the other coworkers feel that Bob doesn’t pull his weight and then are baffled that he received an award for going above and beyond when they frequently find themselves covering for him. I have been in the coworkers situation before and I empathize! I also empathize with LW, as it must look very bizarre from their perspective.

      1. Happy*

        I have the same sense – that would explain why their (perhaps not so eloquently worded) answer when asked what they’ve done worthy of an award, was “my job” – because they don’t think that Bob’s doing a good job at his.

    14. Flowers*

      My company does rewards monthly where one person’s name is chosen from a box at random and wins a gift card and is announced via email. Partners and managers are exempt from nominating anyone I believe, so that significantly reduces the pool. It’s happened that of the last 7 months I’ve been here, the same person has won 3 times I think. a lot of people don’t participate I guess. It’s become a good natured joke amongst us, because the person whos won IS a good worker and all around good coworker to have.

    15. lilyp*

      This is just a guess, but was the thing Bob did way outside typical client interactions and/or something he spent personal time or money on? It sounds like something pretty intense and unusual since it moved the LW to tears. I’d also be miffed if a coworker, say, threw a client’s sick kid a surprise party on his own dime or something and then got a company award for it. Even if it was a very kind thing for him to do, it would be frustrating to see the company rewarding that sort of flashy extra stuff (which might not be possible for people without extra time and money to spend) instead of recognizing excellence in people’s actual work or work-related accomplishments. And that would go triple if Bob was anything less than excellent at his actual job.

    16. Marthooh*

      My guess would be that there’s one person on the team stirring the pot and getting the others riled up. Could just be a Bob issue, though!

      1. OP #2*

        Interestingly, you seem to be correct that the bulk of the complaining seems to be from 2 folks and it is negatively affecting others on the team. My boss shared that with me today as one of the other staff quietly approached him and gave him a heads up.

    17. OP #2*

      OP #2 here – there is a $100 gift card at stake. And the award is company wide so it is given to only one person across our many locations. I’d ballpark between 20-30 locations with roughly 100 staff at each so only one winner out of thousands of folks. I don’t know how many submissions there were though!

  4. A Person*

    LW #1 – being less expressive might actually make this worse! I tend to be pretty reserved a lot of the time, and some people are uncomfortable with this and start reading omens and portents in every twitch of my finger and line of my face in an attempt to divine my True Inner Thoughts, because they can’t accept what I’m telling them unless I also emote it loudly.

    1. Emmy Noether*

      Completely agree! This coworker is already reading things into her expressions that aren’t there. Giving them essentially a blank canvas to project onto is likely to actually make it worse.

      1. redflagday701*

        This is what I think too, and I’m wondering if the OP has some issues with social awkwardness that have made her an easy target for the coworker. OP, it sounds like your coworker is really presumptuous, rude, and picking on you for reasons that are all about them. It would be pretty odd to accuse a colleague of sneering one time, and it’s certainly not something a normal person does on a routine basis! Please do not let yourself believe for another minute that you are at fault here in some way.

        1. Well...*

          OP explicitly said they have uncontrollable facial twitches, so I would be willing to bet that’s part of why she’s being targeted. Coworker is being a bully.

      2. Well...*

        This is a really good take. I also think letting someone control you to this extend almost never leads to them trying to control you LESS once they figure out it’s working…

    2. Dark Macadamia*

      Yes! The calm demeanor part made me think it was going to be a “resting unpleasant face” problem but then the gestures and emoting sound like the opposite? This letter made me sad for you, LW1 – you are doing a lot of work for someone who sounds like they’re just bad at reading normal situations. I wouldn’t give it another thought unless a boss, someone you trust, or a LOT of people start commenting.

    3. Pennyworth*

      My best friend has what could be called ‘resting sad face’, so sometimes she has been told to cheer up. They usually regret saying that. As for OP’s mobile face, I’d just tell the colleague that her scrutiny is intrusive and causing offense and to cut it out.

    4. The Eye of Argon*

      Even if LW1 managed to give themself a totally blank mannequin face and expressionless voice, the cow-irker is liable to misinterpret that in the worst way possible. Whatever you do, you’re not going to win with this person. As long as everyone else understands you, the problem is with the coworker, not you.

      Please don’t tie yourself in knots trying to please the unpleasable.

    5. SuprisinglyADHD*

      This is true, if someone has decided to take offense at you they will assume any sign of emotion is an insult aimed at them. Smiling when they talk? You’re smirking at them because you think they’re ridiculous. Blank expression? You’re glaring at them in contempt. Squinting at a screen? You’re glaring because you’re furious at them. TMJ pain? It must be disgust at them.
      (you have my sincere sympathy, TMJ is awful)
      All you can do is be pleasant like you are to everyone else, and if your coworker starts impeding your work (refusing to talk to you, snapping at you, interrupting frequently to demand you change your facial expressions), you might want to loop in your manager.

    6. Vio*

      Definitely! So much of our communication is non-verbal, it’s important to *not* try to prevent it. There’s some circumstances where it’s helpful to rein it in but it is not something you want to make a habit.
      Personally I have the opposite issue, I often have to make special effort to show an expression because my childhood taught me to hide my feelings. Letting your feelings influence your face and voice is a big help, especially when it’s genuine.
      There’s also apparently some research that suggests hand movements during communication can actually be a massive help to your audience, making what you’re saying more memorable.
      It certainly seems like you’re only having problems with this one person. I’d bet that you’re not the only person *they* have a problem with though.

  5. Santiago*

    @ # 5, I would be curious to hear the norms across languages. In Spanish, 1st person singular is the norm for job duties, from what I have seen (preterite for previous roles, present for current roles.)

    1. Emmy Noether*

      In German, the usual is gerunds or avoiding verbs entirely (“responsible for Q&A”, “staff management”). Third person would sound awkward. First person maybe, for some things, probably with the “I” though, but I can’t think of any good examples right now.

      I was actually kind of surprised at Alison’s aversion to gerunds, because they seem to me like an elegant solution to the grammatical awkwardness of CVs. On reflection, I have a theory: Alison always says to put individual achievements, not general job descriptions (while German CVs tend to be mostly mini job descriptions). For personal achievements, “increased sales by 5000%” is better than “increasing sales by 5000%”, because it makes it clearer that the CV writer achieved this personally, it wasn’t a standard part of the job.

      1. Oska*

        I have a theory: Alison always says to put individual achievements, not general job descriptions (while German CVs tend to be mostly mini job descriptions).

        Ooh, that makes sense. I had the same thought you did, and I’m Norwegian. In Norway, your application is where you describe yourself and your skills and achievements, while the CV is concise and dry, so job title + brief specification of tasks if needed would be on the CV (“Llama Pedigree Archivist. Main tasks: maintaining documentation on clients, ensuring conformance with pedigree format standards”). The application would go more in depth as needed and use “I” sentences.

      2. Mockingjay*

        I loathe gerunds, because most people use them improperly in lieu of existing verbs. It’s as if the “-ing” is supposed to add pizzazz.

        But in a resume, the qualifications and experience matter more than grammar, unless the position is a writing role, deals with public information, or requires documentation of data or compliance with industry standard. Ask for a writing test or samples if the role requires those skills.

        Also, let’s not forget that poor resume advice abounds. This weird subject/verb mismatch is probably the latest “trend.”

        1. bamcheeks*

          because most people use them improperly in lieu of existing verbs. It’s as if the “-ing” is supposed to add pizzazz

          Genuinely don’t know what you mean by this– can you give an example?

          1. Peanut Hamper*

            I think what Mockingjay is objecting to is when people turn a noun into a verb when there is a perfectly ordinary verb that will do the same job.

            English has a long history of this (technically, it is called anthimeria), which is why “chill” went from just being an adjective to being a verb (i.e., “chill out”). Shakespeare did this quite often.

            I’m okay with this when the usage has stood the test of time, but to see new forms of this as a way to stand out (and not always in the way you hope to) is frankly jarring and annoying.

              1. Silver Robin*

                I imagine the issue is something like seeing “spreadsheeting” when “tracking data” or “reporting” exist.

                Totally fine to use gerunds when grammatically relevant, of course. But it would strike me as odd to use them at the beginning of a bullet point, I would just use the present simple.

            1. DataSci*

              I’ve always just heard it called “verbing”. Which is self-referential and immediately comprehensible (as well as being a Calvin and Hobbes reference, for those of us over 40).

              1. bamcheeks*

                I get that, but — that’s totally different from whether to say “managed”, “manage” or “managing” on a CV!

            1. Radioactive Cyborg Llama*

              Ah, yes, sometimes when people make mistakes, I say “Humans humaning.” Me and Shakespeare :)

        2. Khatul Madame*

          Gerunds also take up space, which in a resume is at a premium. A gerund is 2-3 letters longer than its corresponding verb. Say you have 50 verbs in your resume – that’s 2 lines that convey absolutely no meaning.

          1. WheresMyPen*

            To me, using the present tense verb without ‘I’ reads as an imperative. So if I said:

            – liaise with customers
            – coordinate the production of videos
            – research new opportunities…

            it sounds weird to me, as you would ordinarily have to use the pronoun ‘I’ in normal writing. Using a gerund flows better imo. Yes, it does take up space, but I only have 5 gerunds since I only use them for my current job. I don’t think anyone should have 50 verbs for their current job, and for previous roles you’d use the past tense.

        3. Elitist Semicolon*

          I don’t disagree with you that experience matters more than grammar, but there are other reasons a reader may want/need to pay attention to grammar and/or proofreading. Attention to detail is a standard expectation of most jobs, as is clarity, and both are crucial in fields where safety depends on precision (medicine, engineering come to mind). And, frankly, if someone turns in a resume with noticeable errors as part of an application to show that their best professional self is worthy of hiring, then yeah, I’m absolutely going to wonder whether they’ll put that little time into their work once they’ve been hired. (Exceptions, such as folks writing in a second language, are often identifiable because the errors will be consistent, not random.)

          1. Emmy Noether*

            Only if they are actual errors though.

            Using common gerunds correctly is not an error, even if the hiring manager “loathes gerunds”. Using neologisms or awkward gerunds may be a questionable choice, but it’s not really an error either.

    2. Amy A*

      I was told more than once that repeating the exact language from the job description improves your chances with ATS, the automated review/filter of incoming resumes.

    3. Somebody Call a Lawyer*

      I came here to say this, except a bit more pointedly. I hope these verb tense pet peeves about resumes — which, if they’re used with internal consistency throughout a document, seem to be harmless and not reflective of a lack of anything on the applicant’s part other than ignorance of a regional/national convention — aren’t being counted against the offenders. It feels like a place where bias could creep in.

      Differing cultural norms is one of the quick explanations for what looks odd to the OP, as mentioned above. Other reasons include lack of access to job search counsel that prioritizes the first-person singular tense convention; access to only bad advice (hello, (some) college career counselors and self-appointed resume gurus with new trends to sell/push on folks); overwhelm at conflicting advice, etc.

      I know Alison works hard to combat bias, and am hoping the OP and others with this peeve do too.

      1. Lyngend (Canada)*

        Agreed. Especially since iirc I was originally taught to write my resume in 3rd person.

        But if I remember wrong it’s because I was taught to write resumes around the same time I was taught how to write a professional (for post secondary school) paper.

      2. NewJobNewGal*

        When I was younger, I was a grammar monster. I used it for judgement and as a power trip. Then I learned that my old school grammar was way out of date, and there are many styles of grammar outside of the one I learned.
        I was being a closed minded jerk. I’m proud to say that I no longer use someone’s emails or resume as the single representation of a person’s character. I got over myself and grew up.
        So if anyone is nit-picking the verb tense of your resume and using it as a judgement against you, then that says more about their character than yours.

    4. Sloanicota*

      This one bummed me out, I think I do use gerunds, and I was feeling like the most important thing was being consistent in how each bullet is phrased; I didn’t realize it was possible to look “unsophisticated” or something if you use the “wrong” word tense. Crap.

      1. Emmy Noether*

        For what it’s worth, having correct grammar and consistent phrasing probably already puts you in the “sophisticated” category.

      2. Radioactive Cyborg Llama*

        If it helps, I wouldn’t care even if I noticed and the jobs I hire for do require excellent writing skills.

        1. Reb*

          Ditto. I hire writers and all I care about is accuracy, clarity and consistency. Use gerunds if they express what you want to say best.

      3. Relentlessly Socratic*

        Right? I care more about internal consistency (when generating my resume OR reviewing others). I never think more deeply about level of sophistication of an applicant if using third person, first person, gerunds, etc. Seeing as how I have a 25 yr work history, I hope I’m not coming off as a country bumpkin on my resume. I’d have to go look now to see what “voice” the current one is in to even tell you what I use now.

        I come from a science background, and am used to referring to myself either third person (the investigators….) or if I want to spice it up I might go as far as tossing a “we found….” into a paper. Passive voice or third-person referents are hard to shake!

    5. Thin Mints didn't make me thin*

      My own boss rejects resumes where the person doesn’t use the correct tense for their present and past jobs. It’s a writing-intensive team, so there’s some reason for it, but I think it’s a trifle arbitrary.

      1. Sloanicota*

        Come to think of it, that’s probably why I started with the gerunds. I thought it looked a little clunky to switch from “writes copy” in a current job’s bullet to “wrote copy” in a previous job’s bullet. Or, I forgot to update one and didn’t want to run into that again.

  6. CoffeeSnob*

    Op1 please don’t suppress your natural way of being for a person who is going to find fault with whatever you do.
    Be yourself, express yourself naturally and understand this is their problem, nor yours!

    1. CallMeAl*

      +100. I move my hands a LOT when I speak and that has never caused problems with coworkers or impeded any career progression. I don’t even notice I’m doing it so I would find it very hard to stop. Don’t contort your body over one colleague.

      1. lilsheba*

        100 percent agree. I always use my hands a lot, it’s something I do and if others don’t like it TOO BAD. And my face is my face, don’t like it don’t look. Just be you.

    2. Ellen Ripley*

      I have a face that naturally looks grumpy at times, and am also a quiet person. I’ve found that people sometimes “fill in the blanks” with what they think I’m thinking/feeling and it’s not always right. It has helped immensely with my personal relationships to say out loud what I’m thinking more often. In OP1’s example of leaning on to look, I might say “Let me get a closer look here”. Or if someone comes to me with a question saying “thanks for bringing this to me” can head off the thought that I’m annoyed. You certainly don’t have to do something like this! But the results have been very positive for me, it hasn’t taken much additional effort, and it is actually nice to express myself more often.

    3. Beth*

      I once had a girlfriend whose buttons were easily pushed. Every time I changed my behavior so I wouldn’t accidentally push her buttons, her buttons got larger. She enjoyed a great deal of power through manipulative victimhood.

      It’s a sucker’s game. Don’t play.

  7. CoffeeSnob*

    OP4, over the last few years I’ve also experienced lots of loved ones.
    If people are so obtuse that they don’t realise am unexpected and prolonged absence from the office was something serious (a bereavement or serious medical issue are the obvious reasons for this) then there is something wrong with them!
    Tell them up front why you were out, and give them a neutral “thank you” when they respond with platitudes.
    They don’t deserve any more detail than that.

    1. Ms_Meercat*

      OP4 I’m really sorry for your loss. I lost my Mom last summer, and while I work in a small and tight-knit company where everyone knew and the condolence messages helped me at the time, your situation sounds stressful.
      Someone gave me some invaluable advice for the service/funeral which I think you may be able to adapt: She said “You don’t need to have a great response at the service, you can just say ‘Thank you for coming’ and leave it at that.” And my instinct would have been to sort of always go into the dance of responding at more length that you describe here, and realized sticking to “Thank you for coming” was perfectly fine and didn’t need anything else. It was a life-saver when I was too exhausted and numb to do anything else.
      I wholeheartedly agree with Alison’s suggestion: Any variation of “Thank you for your message” (Thank you for your kind words / Thank you for your condolences etc) is enough and can stand on its own, and you can then go back to do what you’ve been doing.
      (And also, not being able to concentrate at times is also perfectly ok. Grief came out in many expected and unexpected ways, and we don’t have to function all the time after such a major loss.)

      1. Minerva*

        My dad died last month after a brief but serious illness. I’ve had to remind myself repeatedly that “Thank you” is a complete sentence.

        1. paxfelis*

          My dad died last August, and I’m having to rein in hard on having a whole conversation every time someone offers condolences. Giving more details on what happened and how I’m reacting to it was making everyone more uncomfortable, and that was leading to me wanting (feeling obligated) to console them for feeling uncomfortable about the situation.

          End point being, sometimes not only is “Thank you.” a complete sentence, but it can be a kindness to both you and to the person offering condolences.

    2. Blackcat*

      Yeah, sudden unexpected absence is never good! It’s basically always a crisis.

      I think the “I hope everything is okay” is people trying to be understanding, but missing the mark. They may be thinking OP or a loved one was injured or sick and might be well again.

      I also find it odd OP was directed to avoid using the phrase “family emergency.” That seems so typical to me and I really don’t understand what’s wrong with colleagues and clients getting that in an auto reply. I think OPs boss really caused a problem for OP.

      1. The Prettiest Curse*

        If a colleague is out unexpectedly for a week or longer, I always assume that: 1. It’s some kind of emergency and 2. If they want people to know the nature of the emergency, they will share that information, but if not, don’t ask.

        It is weird that the OP’s boss in this case told her not to mention the reason for her absence. Either the boss is being over-protective or she wants people to think that the OP decided to go on an unscheduled holiday.

        1. Coco*

          I am wondering if boss asked LW exclude the phrase “family emergency” because they didn’t want to have to field questions about it while LW was away. Perhaps in an effort to maintain a level of privacy. I had a former coworker come back from maturity leave, only go out on an extended leave a month later after her infant passed away. It was terrible and heartbreaking. I was covering some of her work while she was gone and clients kept asking me why she had just come back, only to go out on leave again. I could only give a vague answer that protected my coworkers privacy. Some kept badgering me for more details and I let my manger handle those.

        2. Glass House, White Ferrari, Live for New Year's Eve*

          When a coworker had a message that they were “out for the foreseeable future” last week I mostly wondered if they had started a new job (though that timing wouldn’t have made sense) or were terminated, and had asked my boss and coworker about it with that in mind. Their parent had also passed and they are out of state. I think if the message was just for me/other coworkers she would have felt comfortable sharing, but she is a faculty member and it would have introduced a not-great dynamic with her students.

          1. Cait*

            Yeah, I don’t think OP’s boss was off base for asking they don’t say “I’m out for a family emergency” in their out-of-office message. This just might prompt people to come to the boss with intrusive questions about OP or even send direct messages to OP asking if they’re okay during a time when they should be focusing on themselves and their loved ones. If people start asking why OP is out, then the boss can tell them directly that OP had a family emergency and they’ll have the opportunity to send some well-wishes via a card (or whatever) soon.

            But anyone who purposely ignores an out-of-office message and any direction it gives to the point where their project suffers… that’s on them. And I hope OP’s boss backed them up on this. OP should never have felt the need to disclose their dad died just to placate people who were out of line to begin with.

        3. fhqwhgads*

          I think this is still sort of a red herring. It’s like…Hello Angry Coworker, did you receive the out of office with no return date that said to contact somebody else? Yes you did? Then why didn’t you do that? You missing your deadline is on you for ignoring that you were talking to someone who wasn’t there, not on me for not being there.

          1. Lyudie*

            Seriously, OP says they were very detailed about other people that should be contacted. Their lack of reading comprehension isn’t OP’s fault.

          2. mlem*

            Yeah, I would be asking with (faux) concern what was missing from the instructions to GO TO SOMEONE ELSE.

          3. Radioactive Cyborg Llama*

            This was what I was thinking too. She was out, so for whatever reason she was out, she should not be expected to work. AND her co-workers failure to read her OOO message is not her fault.

          4. Slow Gin Lizz*

            Yeah, I commented elsewhere that it might be worth OP bringing that up with their boss. Maybe boss can tell the other employees to knock it off and stop blaming OP for their lack of reading comprehension.

        4. tamarack etc.*

          Some bosses find it embarrassing to have to contemplate that their employees are fully formed humans with bodies, families, and personal concerns. Entertaining this fiction is probably not unrelated to the fact that the OP’s clear instructions were ignored.

          I much prefer the other type, who sets the cultural norm that *of course* bereavement, accidents and other unforeseen events are part of being a team or business partners, as are maternity leaves and elective surgeries. (And then deal with the occasional unreasonable client who goes all screechy because their normal contact is unexpectedly unavailable.)

    3. Bit o' Brit*

      It’s a bit contradictory to want people you’re not close with to know you well enough to correctly read into what you’re not telling them. It would never occur to me that the phrase “family emergency” would mean “bereavement”. All the things I would think of falling under “emergency” it wouldn’t be inappropriate to hope everything turns out ok, and I’ve had more coworkers mention bereavements than family emergencies.

      People are expressing care based on what they know. That the LW is understandably lacking the energy to deal with them doesn’t mean either party is doing anything wrong.

      1. tg33*

        An answer I’ve come across in this situation is:

        -I hope everything is OK (I hope you are OK)?
        -As well as can be expected.

        Of course things aren’t OK, but there’s nothing anyone can do about that.

        When people come to you angry about the delay, can you ask them why they didn’t follow the instructions? If things are delayed because of this, then take the attitude that if they couldn’t follow the instructions then it wasn’t that urgent anyway. Or talk to your boss and ask for a script to deal with this. You can’t make up for being out for two weeks by working double time until you’re caught up. Can the people who were supposed to be taking up the slack keep doing some of the work until the work is up to date?

        I am sorry to hear about your father.

        1. Allonge*

          Indeed these are two different issues.

          If people are angry because you did not do the thing they asked when you were out, despite having gotten an OOO with instructions on how to proceed, well, they need to chill. It would be great if others can help out indeed.

          But if someone says ‘I had a family emergency’ then a lot of people will respond ‘I hope everything is ok’ because you need to acknowledge something like that. It’s also ok to respond ‘not really, but let’s get back to [work topic]’.

          1. MCMonkeyBean*

            Right–like it is *extra* unfair that OP is being treated this way when they were away for such a sad reason, but honestly even if someone was out having the time of their life on a two week vacation these people would be ridiculous for being angry.

        2. Lily Rowan*

          But you really can get away with just “Thanks,” as in: “I hope everything is OK”/”Thanks. So about that work topic….”

      2. Ellis Bell*

        I’m actually wondering what’s wrong with the word bereavement and why there’s no mention of using it? “I was out for a family emergency” would help somewhat, but it also implies things are back to normal. I’ve never worked anywhere were the term bereavement was a forbidden thing to say and “family bereavement” is still pretty private and vague because if a colleague was out for one, you don’t know the relationship level, or the details of whether they’re grieving, or if they just needed to attend a funeral. However naming it as a bereavement you’d know to assume they might need a bit longer to readjust to work and you’d certainly not snark at them for being out (which isn’t okay in any case).

        1. MCMonkeyBean*

          I don’t think anything is wrong with it if you want to use it, I think a lot of people just don’t want to share at work for all kinds of different reasons–including what the OP is going through of just finding it exhausting to deal with all the responses. When my brother died I told my immediate boss and my grandboss both because I needed to leave work early one day and also so they would know if I was behaving oddly or like randomly crying at my desk–but I told them I didn’t want anyone else on the team to know. I didn’t want them to pass around a sympathy card and I didn’t want well-meaning well-wishes.

          1. Ellis Bell*

            Hmm, If you’re going to avoid that just don’t give specific details out about the bereavement? Sure, if people know you’ve been out for losing your partner or parent or something they may feel moved to give a card. If they don’t know any details about the bereavement then you could simply have been supporting someone else’s grief and I think it would be overkill to do anything more than a “sorry to hear that”. It’s definitely going to alter by culture though, so it’s an interesting one.

        2. Willow Pillow*

          I was at work when I learned that my mother had passed unexpectedly. I told my boss and my immediate team, but no one else in my office. It wasn’t that I didn’t want them to know… I didn’t want everyone talking to me about it and giving me constant reminders of a traumatic event. A former friend messaged me out of the blue on my birthday months later to say she’d heard about it, for instance – I’m sure she was trying to be nice, but it just put me back in that sad headspace. Even thinking about it now hurts.

          1. Zephy*

            I’m so sorry that happened, both your loss and the former friend reaching out like that. On your BIRTHDAY?? The absolute audacity.

            1. Willow Pillow*

              Thanks… It did validate my decision to move her to “former friend” status all those years ago, and I had a great day despite that blip!

      3. Nina*

        I mean, to me ‘family emergency’ means any of ‘someone is dead’, ‘someone is ill’, ‘someone is imminently being placed in jail and/or rehab involuntarily’, and none of those are things I would ask my coworkers about directly because that’s just nuts. ‘Family emergency’ means ‘bad, non-negotiable, do not ask further questions’.

    4. JSPA*

      I think you can be just a little brutal in shutting it down, as a touch of anger plus steely professionalism is Highly effective at suppressing upwellings of the weepies.

      “I prefer to focus on work now that I’m back, rather than hearing condolences, but for context, I was out due to a death in the family, and don’t have a lot of emotional reserves left for unearned guilt trips.”

        1. JSPA*

          1. delivery matters.

          2. This is only for people who are themselves aggressively throwing shade, as OP described. Not for random coworkers.

          3. any decent colleague cuts someone slack–and apologizes for laying a guilt trip on them–when they find out, “someone close to me died.”

          4….to the point that, if someone doesn’t back way the heck off of throwing shade about how it’s sucky of you to disappear on us with this project due, or “I guess some of us don’t really care about our deliverables” and apologize…they’re the ones who are taking steps to destroy the relationship.

          1. Hillia*

            I agree. Sometimes you have to break the expected patterns to get people’s attention. The people harassing OP for the consequences of their own behavior are not bothering to pick up on the euphemistic ‘family emergency’, which is pretty commonly understood to mean serious illness/death, and apparently need it spelled out for them. Very well. Now, about your apparent inability to read and follow directions…

        2. White envelope*

          Agreed. And I can’t even imagine a person literally saying those words out loud. It sounds more like something you’d say in your head as you’re fuming.

          It’s just so far over the top and not in the world of a normal reaction in a professional workspace, that I’d be super wary around that person in the future.

              1. Lilas*

                Yeah, you don’t outright reject condolences unless they came from someone who has, like, been your genuine enemy for ages, if then. Condolences don’t require some kind of individualized response! Just either ignore them or say thank you and move onto the subject at hand.

                1. JSPA*

                  This was the response to shaming (that also avoids condolences, as OP is close to tears and needs to concentrate). It’s not a response to someone offering condolences. Which isn’t happening anyway, because OP hasn’t mentioned the death.

        3. tamarack etc.*

          I think co-workers who freeze out one of theirs because they’re (god forbid) a little emotionally thin after losing a family member are somewhat on the assholish side. Sometimes you cut ppl a break.

    5. Snow Globe*

      The ridiculous thing is that no matter what the reason was for the LW’s absence (maybe they were hiking in wilderness with no cell reception), it’s still not their fault that people didn’t read the out-of-office reply and follow the instructions. What part of “I was out of the office and unable to respond to your message” don’t people understand?

      1. WellRed*

        I suspect the office in general is a bit dysfunctional. The boss telling her she can’t use family emergency in email, coworkers not reading the email and then badgering her after the fact.

        1. MCMonkeyBean*

          I read that as *advice* from the boss rather than a mandate. Especially since OP doesn’t seem to want to be telling people that anyway.

          But I agree that if this many people are angry that someone is away from work for any reason for a couple of weeks, that seems like a larger office problem. This is not a normal response! One or two rude people may be expected anywhere but if it’s a lot of people then that seems so odd to me.

      2. Becca*

        Completely agree. It’s worse for the OP to deal with because they weren’t out on holiday or for more pleasant reasons (and presumably a non-emergency leave would have allowed more planning and communication) but this is so frustrating. If a business is well run people should be able to take leave from their jobs for all sorts of reasons without things falling over and deadlines being missed and OP clearly did arrange cover and include that information in his OOO. If people didn’t follow up then it’s their own fault deadlines were missed.

        I think I’d be inclined to question this in my replies – e.g. “I’m sorry the chocolate teapot spout proposal wasn’t completed, did you not receive my OOO message requesting Jane be contacted for all teapot-related matters? Or was Jane not able to help?”

    6. Lily Rowan*

      I will say, “unexpected” is in the eye of the beholder — I work with a lot of people and most of them don’t know my leave schedule in advance, so my upcoming vacation will surely feel unexpected to a lot of people.

      That said, I had a colleague out of the office for most of one summer, because her child was having major surgery, and the number of people who said, “Hope you had a great vacation!!” made me really stop assuming I knew why people were out of the office.

  8. Your Computer Guy*

    I apparently look “mad” when I’m reading or really focusing. I used to get some comments in the office, and would occasionally someone would say something during a teams meeting once we went WFH. Pointing it out to me is usually the moment when someone learns what I actually look like when I’m mad.

    1. Mrs. Pommeroy*

      Yeah, if someone complains about my Resting B***h Face, they’ll right then get to see my Actual B***h Face ;D

      1. Miette*

        Effing same! If one more (older, entitled, male) person tells me I’d be prettier if I smile I’m going to do a murder.

        1. Once too often*

          Really? You’d seem smarter & more sophisticated if you’d stop asking women to smile for your benefit.


    2. Somebody Call a Lawyer*

      Lolll — my sibling and one of my parents and I realized well into adulthood that we all have what we call “Conversational B Face,” because the way we look when we’re focused and speaking mid-processing what another person is saying can be interpreted as rage. !

      To wit, the big boss at my old company commented after a meeting, “You were really angry in there!” He said it with a bemused smile, but I was mortified and caught off-guard, because I had just been super focused and trying to make sure when I spoke, I was being part of the solution. Haha, yikes.

      Relatedly, my husband snapped a photo of me mid-order of one of my favorite restaurants where I was so stoked on the fact that I was about to served the best buttery biscuits on the planet. I still cannot explain why I look furious and have my arm out like I’m ready to throw down.

      Btw, policing facial expression stuff — and feeling like that policing is legitimate and something for which you’re supposed to alter your natural ways of expressing yourself — is often so gendered. Maybe it’s not in this case. Either way, listen to those saying not to smallen yourself for this colleague, OP. You are allowed to take up space!

      1. Giant Kitty*

        Not just gendered, but ableist. Neurospicy people are quite often not able to mimic the facial expressions that are socially agreed to be the “correct” ones for whatever situation/emotion/level of passion etc they are in.

        My husband is a great example. His genuine smile is really great, but he can’t put on a smile for a photo without looking like a goofy first grader just learning how to smile for pictures. If he’s not actually feeling the emotion, he can’t fake it even passably.

    3. AvonLady Barksdale*

      Same here. When I’m concentrating, I look angry. In an open office this sucks, so I’ve mastered the, “nope, just focusing!” In some cases I’ve warned people beforehand. I had one manager who was really taken aback, but that was a retail gig and I think he was just way too used to my “customer service” face. He wasn’t upset, just… surprised.

      I freaking hate it when someone points it out to me. It’s my face. All the smiling I do (and I do smile a lot) is reserved for people, not whatever spreadsheet I’m tackling.

    4. Damn it, Hardison!*

      Me too! When I’m thinking through something/problem solving, my face is apparently stern and frowny. After one manager commented on it, I’ve taken pains to explain to those I work with that I’m just thinking, not mad. Believe me, if I’m truly mad, you will know it. (Also, my walking is apparently “aggressive.”)

    5. Roy G. Biv*

      Ah yes, I also have deep in thought RBF. And if a certain person keeps derailing my train of thought to point out my face, he will get to see what I look like when I am actually angry.

      1. Your Computer Guy*

        That’s what would get me, I’d be deep into reading/researching something and this one guy would stop by my desk to comment on me looking mad. Bro, I wasn’t mad before but I sure am now.

    6. Radioactive Cyborg Llama*

      My focusing/concentrating face apparently looks confused, because I have been asked that a bunch of times.

    7. Mill Miker*

      I’m normally a pretty expressive person, but that’s partially an affection, partially a directed fidget.

      When there’s a deadline looming, and problems popping up all over, and I’m trying to lead a team through it… I tend to be quieter and calmer. I don’t know how many times that lead to someone insisting we stop everything so I can explain to them why I’m suddenly so mad at them, and it’s like… I’m not mad? I’m focused and in my element. I feel like I’m on fire (in the good way). My emotional state is probably closer to zen-like than mad. But good luck convincing anyone else.

  9. A Genuine Scientician*

    OP1 — Alison is right, if you go to the opposite extreme of not having facial reactions, people will be upset by that instead.

    For a variety of reasons that aren’t necessary to go into here, I found my life much easier when I was younger by not visually reacting to just about anything. That has become an ingrained habit, to the point where it is difficult for me to visually display emotion, and I feel like I’m acting whenever I try to. While there are some perks (I have an excellent poker face, for one), there are some drawbacks as well. I teach, and a number of students interpret “perfectly neutral facial expression and tone of voice” as rude or condescending. Thankfully, my colleagues, and particularly my coinstructors, do not see it that way, but it shows up in the student evals every term.

  10. Rebecca*

    LW1, I have a very expressive face, and I have had to tell people that unless I am speaking to them, my face has nothing to do with them.

    I’ll be cooking in our open kitchen while my mother in law is in the living room with my husband, and she’ll ask my husband what she did wrong – I’m on the other side of the room! I’m not listening to your conversation! I am concentrating on cutting carrots. People will ask me if I’m ok as I walk into school – I’ve been lost in thought on the way from my car, and I’m concentrating on the lessons I’m about to go prepare. I will, apparently, have active silent conversations with the person who wrote the paper I am grading – and it’s not usually a pleasant conversation. Sometimes I’ll be listening intently to someone, and the other person will think I’m about to interject – nope, just actively listening. More than once my father caught my lips moving as he saw me walking towards him and I was lost in thought.

    I didn’t even know my face was having its own conversations with the world until I lived with a partner and he told me.

    All that to say, it is incredibly exhausting trying to always control the expression on my face, and I can do it when I need to in a meeting with strangers, or bosses. But in my general day to day, I just tell people I have an expressive face, and it’s become one of my quirks that people get used to.

    It doesn’t even sound like your face is THAT expressive, if this is the first you’ve heard of it. Tell her your face has nothing to do with her, and if she continues misinterpreting it after that, you can react like you’re a little confused by her reaction.

    1. WishIWasATimeTraveller*

      “I didn’t even know my face was having its own conversations with the world”
      I love this phrase!

    2. Kim*

      Haha! I always say that my face does not have an inside voice. I share this trait with my father and brother, so it’s a genetic ‘blessing’. XD

    3. PomPom*

      My face does this too! I am so grateful to know that there are others of us. I’ve gotten in trouble at work as well, and the second-guessing afterward is awful.

    4. ferrina*

      I have an expressive face + ADHD. It’s a constant source of amusement.

      I’ve trained up my face to it looks more pleasant when resting (trying to do a gentle smile when resting) and that seems to help, but I wish it wasn’t necessary. Like, if you don’t know what my face is doing, just ask, then trust my answer. “Hey, looks like you might be frustrated at something?” “What? Nope, just thinking.” “Okay, cool”

    5. Shirley Keeldar*

      So relieved to know that I am not the only person who walks around having silent conversations with absent people. Intense ones, too. Solidarity!

      1. Kelly L.*

        Me too, and I often realize I’m lip-syncing it, or sometimes moving my hand in the motions I’d be using to write it.

      2. Nina*

        Emails. I got given a plum corner desk with many very high monitors in an open office after my boss realized that I was actually not conscious of the conversations my face was having with the people who sent me emails, and decided that making it easier for me to hide those conversations was more productive than trying to stop them entirely (which… was not going to happen). I’m told I’m perfectly lovely over email/teams but in person if I think what you’re saying is stupid there is no power on earth that can stop my face telling you so.

    6. Samwise*

      Yeah, after a few encounters with the OP’s colleague, I’d be tempted to say, You know, Griselda, it’s not always about you. Get over yourself.

      Of course, I would not say this. But I’d be thinking it. And it would show on my face…

    7. OP #1*

      OP #1 here — thank you, yes — my face has always been expressing. Even with COVID masking, apparently my eyes and eyebrows were doing their own gesturing . . ,

  11. Sadie*

    OP1- I have a similar issue with my boss, who “reads between the lines” an awful lot, but often completely misinterprets my intended meaning. She thinks she’s a hyper-empath, but she is often wildly incorrect. Luckily my colleagues know she’s like this. We usually check with each other if my boss tells us that someone expressed an opinion on something.

    Ultimately it is not your responsibility to manage your colleague’s feelings. (Obviously we shouldn’t deliberately upset people, but that’s not what’s happening here.) I think Alison’s script is really good, because it addresses the immediate misunderstanding as well as the more general pattern. It’s clear, but in no way rude. I’m going to try something similar for my own situation.

    1. Nela*

      I got the impression too that this coworker must think they’re an “empath” and being able to “read people” is an important part of their self-image, that’s why they keep naming OPs emotions. And well… They suck at it! And should be told so, because they’re probably driving everyone in their life up the wall.

      1. UKDancer*

        I had a colleague like this n a previous company who thought she was very empathetic and could read people incredibly well (spoiler, she wasn’t and she couldn’t). She also wanted us to get in touch with our feelings and “share” all the time and she was intensely annoying. She kept interpreting peoples faces and mostly got it wrong.

        People are not always easy to read and I am of the view you should leave their facial expressions alone.

        1. Emily*

          I’ve never met someone who calls themself an “empath” who was actually empathetic. OP # 1, I do hope you take what Alison is saying to heart. This issue is clearly with your co-worker, not with you.

          OP #4, I think Alison’s advice about not responding so in depth (or at all) when people express condolences is a good one. I do think it’s oddly secretive that your manager did not want you to put “family emergency” in your out of office message. I could understand if *you* didn’t want to do that, but it seems a bit overly controlling of your manager. Maybe they didn’t want to answer questions about it, but a good manager should have some generic responses prepared anyway. Also, any unexpected prolong absence is going to make people curious, and I think when no reason is given, people tend to speculate, and what they tend to speculate is often not correct. Also, for the people who did not follow the out of office message and are now acting annoyed/put out because deadlines were missed, well that is 100% on them . I’d be tempted to respond something along the lines of “per my previous email…”. “As my out of office reply message explained…”

      2. High Score!*

        There were some popular cringe solving shows awhile back that featured characters that could read facial expressions/body language and there’s YouTube videos on the topic as well. Unfortunately people think these techniques work for everyone and that they are more accurate than they really are.

          1. Eldritch Office Worker*

            I’m getting ads that Lie to Me was added to Hulu so I bet there’s gonna be a minor resurgence of this.

      3. kiki*

        I don’t want to say that nobody is an empath– I’m sure there are some genuinely hyper-empathetic people who are excellent at reading others in a way most folks aren’t– but a lot of the people I’ve met who self-identify as an empath actually seem very ready to project their own thoughts, anxieties, and concerns onto others.

        A former coworker would tell me that since she’s an empath, she could tell I’m frustrated because I squint…. I have terrible vision! I’m genuinely just struggling to see up in here, lol. It was frustrating because then I felt like I had to monitor my squinting around her lest I get a million questions about why I’m upset today. But then I would become irritated! Because she keeps asking me why I’m upset! And I’m just trying to see!

        1. Mill Miker*

          Sounds like she got the cause/effect backwards there. I know more people who get frustrated about always having to squint than I do people who squint when they’re frustrated.

        1. Distracted Librarian*

          Bingo. Usually means lots of drama, poor emotional control, and vast overestimation of their actual empathy level.

    2. anonlet*

      Ugh, yes. I worked with someone like this who was sure she *really knew* what someone was feeling, and it was always negative. If you frowned at anything she was sure you were mad at her; if you smiled you were surely laughing at her. And anything you did was also about her–if you got bored and wandered around the shop tidying up inventory, she’d get defensive about how she just tidied there earlier and do you have a problem with it. If you said something–to another worker, to yourself–she always just knew it was about her.

      Ultimately I think she was a very unhappy person, and maybe not very well. It was stressful working with her but I had to keep reminding myself that this was entirely about her, not me. It’s impossible to go through the day policing your face at that level, and even if you do the person is likely to read something negative into it.

    3. yala*

      My boss isn’t that bad, but the two of us have an absolutely remarkable ability to completely misinterpret each other. Like, we’re running parallel wavelengths or something.

      I’m not sure I would say Alison’s script isn’t rude. I would get in so much trouble if I talked to a coworker like that.

  12. Elsa*

    OP4, I’m sorry for your loss. I think your manager should be helping you out here. After dealing with a big loss it’s unfair that you should also have to be explaining yourself to coworkers/clients complaining about deadlines. If your manager is any good, you should send her a list of people who are complaining and ask her to step in and stick up for you.

  13. Mrs. Pommeroy*

    LW3, as Alison said: use your lamp!
    It’s great that you’ve found something that works well for you. And lots of people, even if they don’t struggle with depression, feel less well during the darker months of the year. Framing it as a question of energy rather than mood should dispel any negative connotations people might have, and might also be an easier way of thinking about it for yourself. (Though I am by no means implying depression to be simply a question of motivation! It just is an aspect that people who don’t struggle with depression still can know well and thus tend to be more forgiving/understanding about – especially if you are obviously trying to do something about it.)

    1. I'd Rather Be Eating Dumplings*

      Yes! SAD lamps are increasingly common, even amongst people who don’t have clinical depression. I see them recommended on blogs a lot. We got one as an alarm clock and rave about it to everyone and I’ve only gotten positive responses.

      Pretty much everyone understands that light is energizing and that winter can be dull and weary!

    2. ecnaseener*

      Yes, and on a related note – if anyone asks about it (and you can’t / don’t want to pass it off as just a normal reading lamp) call it a sun lamp rather than a SAD lamp. People use sun lamps without having SAD or general depression, so you’re not disclosing anything.
      (I’m guessing the responses you’ll get will be a lot of “ooooh I wish I had one” – most people relate to needing more sunlight in winter even if it doesn’t rise to SAD levels.)

    3. SometimesALurker*

      I used to use one at work year-round when I worked in a basement-level office with no windows. I checked with my coworkers first because we had an open floor plan, and the only response I got besides, “sure, that’s fine” was “OMG, shine it over my way please!”

      1. Merry and bright*

        I used my SAD lamp at work before Covid sent us to WFH. Most people didn’t say anything, and the ones who commented thought it was great! Since the light is directed, using it in a cubicle didn’t affect other people, in fact it was barely visible.

    4. tw1968*

      Heartily agree, and I doubt most people would even notice. And (hope this brings you a chuckle during the gloomy time of the year) if anyone complains about it (.000000003% chance of that) you an say “Sounds like you need one of these too!”

    5. CV*

      I have described myself as “solar-powered” if anyone asks about mine. It deflects conversations about health etc, and most people in wintry climates understand the desire to have a little more light during the darkest parts of the year.

    6. Bunny Girl*

      I am 100% team SAD lamp. I use one for my seasonal depression and I feel like it makes a difference. They do have mini desk ones if you don’t want to be as obvious.

    7. Desperately seeking sunlight*

      I would love to hear any tips about SAD lamps from people with open offices. I am a manager and sit immediately with my team (no enough space for my own office) and have another pod of desks for a different team immediately behind me. I worry that a lamp would prove to creat problems for others, whether it is monitor glare or too much light in their eyes or whatever.

      I found my lampwonderful last fall when I was still at home but have been stressed off and on this year about only having access to it one weekday and on weekends. Any advice?????

      1. badger*

        if it helps, they’re meant to be used for 30-60 minutes, not all day. The type of lamp might also make a difference – some are a flat panel that aim light in only one direction and can’t really be seen much from any other angle, some are more of a bright box that can be seen no matter where you are. If you have cubicle walls or equivalent, even that isn’t likely to be too much of an issue, but if you don’t, the flat panel kind would probably be best if there are concerns.

      2. Kelsi*

        I have one of the flat panel ones (Philips goLITE BLU) and it does not really shine past my immediate area. I would not worry about it bothering people around or behind if you have this kind.

    8. Boom! Tetris for Jeff!*

      I’m typing this while my light therapy lamp is on. It’s still dark outside and I’ve been enjoying using it in the mornings. Perfectly professional!

    9. lilsheba*

      Yes! I can’t believe this is even a question, if it was me I would just bring it in and use it. And I would call it what it is, SAD lamp. No need to be anything but honest about it.

  14. spaceelf*

    For OP1, I had a coworker like that once. Nothing I did was ever right or to her satisfaction. So I gave up trying to because it was just too exhausting and I needed my energy to do my job. I would be polite but simply say “I’m reading.” or “I’m X” or whatever when she’d quiz me about it. people vary in their facial expressions and it’s a part of life and your coworker just needs to deal. She stopped eventually but it sure was a waste of effort in the meantime.

  15. spaceelf*

    One thing that’s frustrating for others about being given an award like this is that it’s based off of the actions of someone else, like a email from a client or customer. not saying everyone’s reaction was mature, just I understand that frustration.

    1. ecnaseener*

      It does sound like LW invited people to share their own above-and-beyond actions and nobody did, though. I get how it would be frustrating for anyone who had done something just as great as Bob and missed their chance for an award because the client didn’t tell their boss, but that doesn’t seem to be the case for any of these people.

    2. Emm*

      I think that’s a good observation. Just because no one else had a client write a heartfelt email about their above-and-beyond action, doesn’t mean they didn’t do a great job too. The coworkers might be resenting that they have to nominate themselves, while Bob’s client essentially did that for him. At least, that might be how they perceive it.

      That being said, they’re overreacting.

    3. Rosa Rosa Rosa Diaz Diaz Diaz*

      Surely they could simply say this, rather than complain about the award? They’ve been given examples to do so by the sound of it.

      1. spaceelf*

        Yes, they should’ve just said it. I agree the coworkers here are not in the right. Just that I get why they’d be pissed that an award was predicated on something outside of their control.

        However, they should be upset at the lack of a standard in the company’s award selection process, not be upset at their fellow worker who got it.

        1. Snell*

          “…award was predicated on something outside of their control.”

          Well, they were given some control (when LW and LW’s boss ask for exceptional things they could be nominated for) and the sour feelings remain.

          1. spaceelf*

            I suppose I mean the reason that everyone was mad that Bob got it that one time was due to an outside party.

            1. Snell*

              My broader point was this:

              So Bob’s coworkers got mad that he was awarded due to an outside party, yes? What’s the solution to this? LW’s solution was to invite Bob’s coworkers to have a direct hand in the award. This is also Alison’s solution. Bob’s coworkers are still put out over this. We know this because LW took action to solve this, but it did not resolve the situation, thus the letter to AAM.

              I’m kind of feeling like the coworkers’ reactions are symptoms of a different problem, since the reasonable (AAM-approved!) solution was rejected. Someone else in the comments said this kind of thing works in a workplace culture that is /already/ excellent, and yeah, I feel that.

  16. meowmix*

    OP4, honestly, it shouldn’t matter why you’re out, the fact of the matter is that people didn’t follow clear directions and it’s not relevant to why you were absent. you gave them all the information they needed to do their work.

    You’re under no obligation to explain why you’re out, and people that demand an explanation are jackasses, and it’s none of their business. Based on what I read, I think focusing on the restriction by management is missing the bigger issue.

    1. Still*

      This. I get that it’s probably important to smooth things over and make nice, but my initial reaction to reading about the people being huffy is: let them! You were out and they didn’t forward the email to the person responsible in your absence – too bad, they’re going to have to wait. Honestly, what if there LW had been away on vacation? They would probably also have set up a detailed OOO message and people would also have to deal with it. LW shouldn’t have to disclose personal information to justify themselves. They were out and they left clear instructions, and that really should be the end of it.

      1. The answer is (probably) 42*

        My one concern about letting them be huffy and ignoring it is that it may have splashback on LW4’s professional reputation. If LW doesn’t clarify that they did in fact leave proper instructions, these people will proceed with the incorrect impression that LW did something wrong and is responsible for causing any delays.

        That said, it’s definitely possible for LW to set the record straight without disclosing the reason for their absence, if that’s what they prefer. Perhaps something along the lines of “I left detailed forwarding information in my out-of-office message. Can you please clarify in what way the information I provided did not meet your needs? I am always open to suggestions for how to ensure appropriate coverage for the next time I am away.”

        1. ecnaseener*

          The way I usually phrase these is with the assumption that of course they would have read and followed my instructions if possible and I’m concerned that something else went wrong (not with my instructions…) so “Oh no, did you not get my out of office message? I made a point of including that these questions should go to Cecil and including her contact info. I know some other people got it, so if you didn’t can you let me know so I can ask IT to look into it?”

        2. ThursdaysGeek*

          Yes, direct it back to the business problem caused by them not following the out of office directions, or the possibility that the OOO message was inadequate.

    2. Bagpuss*

      I think OP has to b a little careful because people are not always reasonable and being perceived as unhelpful or missing deadlines could harm her reputation, but I think a response which flags up that there was an alternative option is reasonable.

      May be something like “I’ve been out of the office, you should have got my automated response explaining I was out and asking that you contact [name] or [name] – did you not get that? If not, I will speak to IT so they can look into why that was and try to make sure it doesn’t happen next time someone is out.
      If you did, can you confirm whether you did re-send your message to [name] or to [name], and when that was, and I can check in with them to see what happened”
      Because if they just ignored the message, that’s not on you, but also it does allow you to identify if there was an issue with whoever was supposed to be covering not doing so.

      1. Llama Event Planner*

        This. I would be using a concerned tone, like “oh no! didn’t my OOO go out? Didn’t you receive it? Maybe I need to check with IT” and then check to see if they forwarded anything to the person they should have. Make sure they’re looped in as you check with that person on the status if they did forward it. And if they didn’t just a totally flat “oh well, since I was out I have lots of things I’m catching back up on, but this is on my list.” And of course prioritize tasks based on your job.

        1. JonBob*

          Yes, give them an out “oh, I didn’t get the OOO”, but make it clear your bases were covered.

        2. spaceelf*

          Solid reply, although I might personally temper it with “Let me check with IT to see if my Out of Office notifications were visible to everyone.”

          It did, of course, but it gives them a chance to save face and you a chance to be firm on what did happen.

      2. Allonge*

        I was also thinking to confirm if they got the OOO. It should not have to say why exactly someone is out for people to follow the instructions!

      3. hbc*

        Yes. This is not a matter of OP justifying to everyone’s satisfaction that their reason for being out was good enough. Work didn’t get done–why? Did the OOO message not reach everyone? Did the backup get swamped and think that it could wait? Is it a place where no one is gone for more than a week and people work on vacation so “don’t know when I’ll be back” was interpreted as “for 2-8 days there’ll be a delay in response”?

        1. Leandra*

          Once when I was out for only two days’ scheduled vacation, my backup didn’t respond to repeated emails from my boss on a project. I doubt she was slammed, and even if she was she should have said so.

      4. ecnaseener*

        I should have kept reading this thread before reinventing the wheel right above you LOL. Yes, agreed.

      5. spaceelf*

        You’re right, the response to the situation depends on your office culture or vibe or whatever. But regardless the problem is on the business side, based on the information received.

    3. baseballfan*

      Agreed. The reason for the absence isn’t even relevant. If someone is out of office and gives instructions on who to contact in their absence, and those instructions aren’t followed – well, that’s on the other person who couldn’t be bothered to read the message or follow the instructions.

      Doesn’t matter if it’s bereavement, medical, or sitting on a beach.

    4. The Person from the Resume*

      I would absolutley make sure I responded with asomething like “I’m sorry you didn’t see my OOO message instructions to contact **the person responsible** while I was away. I will get to this as soon as I can but I am catching up on two weeks of being away” Absolutely put it back on them for not following instructions. The reason you were out does not matter at all. And your boss’s instructions not to say “family emergency” do seem to align what you would prefer people to know so that you not have to deal with their sympathy at work anyway.

      I’m pretty sure in Outlook, I only get 1 OOO message the first time I send the message and don’t get more which is fine because I do not need an inbox overflowing with multiple OOO messages from the same person who is only CCed on my messages anyway. (I’m on a lot of messages with large number of people or mailgroups.) However in Outlook whenever I address a message I see if that person in my organization has OOO turned on. If it’s the person I need to act, I do check the instructions and redirect as needed. This delay is the fault of the person who did not follow your detailed instructions.

      1. turquoisecow*

        The latest version of outlook that my company uses will show you that a person has an out of office on before you even hit the send button! So even if you don’t get the auto response because it’s the third time you’re emailing the person, you can still see that they’re out of the office.

  17. LiptonTea4Me*

    OP1, I too have been accused of things my face supposedly communicated, even written up once. Folks interpret things through the lens of their own lives or perspective. Their perception is none of your business as what your face does or doesn’t do is not about them!

    1. Wendy*

      This is a general question…

      What is an employee supposed to do when they are written up for their “inappropriate” facial expressions?

      1. Allonge*

        In general, I would spend some time to figure out if my facial expressions are objectively rude or otherwise problematic (other people think I am sad or not sufficiently enthusiastic is not problematic!) and try to see if I can correct any genuine issues.

        But other than that – find a different job I suppose? It’s such a weird complaint.

        1. Eldritch Office Worker*

          Yeah I think that’s a perfectly fine way to take the feedback (self reflect, look for validity) – but a job that would *write you up* over a facial expression? I don’t see a way to take that besides “management sucks and isn’t going to change”.

      2. Princess Peach*

        Yup, job search. Years ago, my boss was the overreacting face bully, and I developed a permanent poker face in response. That just masked a host of other problems, and I was deeply miserable until I managed to get out. It took years to undo all the damage, including my habit of focusing on my expression instead of my work.

  18. Lirael*

    OP4, I’m really sorry for your loss, and for having to deal with this on top of it – must feel like adding insult to injury :(

    I would go with this:

    -i hope everything is ok?
    -it’s not, but thanks. [rapid topic change]

    Also FWIW it’s bizarre to me also that your boss has some weird aversion to the “family emergency” phrase.

    1. Seashell*

      “It’s not” would make me think that LW had a serious/life-threatening medical problem. In order to avoid that, I would go with something in the “I’m ok” or “as well as could be expected” area.

      1. K*

        Yes, don’t say “it’s not”. That’s very likely to lead to more questions, awkward expressions of sympathy, etc. when it sounds like LW would prefer to avoid all that.

        “Thanks” + subject change works perfectly fine on its own, tbh.

      2. Allonge*

        But that is on the recipient of the ‘Not ok’ to manage. The subject change needs to be respected, as well as the obvious ‘I am not going to give more details’.

      1. DisgruntledPelican*

        They could, but they could also be truthful if they want. Sometimes we’re not ok. It’s not a bad thing to acknowledge that.

    2. ecnaseener*

      Idk if boss has a specific aversion to that phrase, I read it more as a general instruction not to explain the reason for an absence. Because it’s nobody’s business (and maybe also because he’s had to rein people in giving way too much detail before so he just has this blanket guideline to not get into it)

    3. The Person from the Resume*

      It’s not a weird aversion to the “family emergency” phrase. LW says “family emergency” and people pry. Even a vague response from them of “I hope it’t better now” is wrong because for the LW it’s not better.

      The LW explicitly says they do not want to deal with the sympathy that comes after saying “family emergency.”

      It’s just saying “family emergency” is the only thing that seems to distract people from complaining about the LW being gone and not getting to their work at all. That’s bad office culture to assume someone who is off should have worked anyway.

      1. MCMonkeyBean*

        Yeah, maybe I am off base but from the way OP described it I took that to mean the boss told them they don’t *have* to specify when they are out for a family emergency, not that they are *not allowed* to specify it. And I agree, it is not anyone’s business if OP doesn’t want it to share. Reasonable people don’t need to know anything other than that you are out and who to contact in your place. Unfortunately it sounds like OP works with a lot of unreasonable people.

    4. Pink Candyfloss*

      “It’s not” is somewhere between rude/off-putting, and just downright concerning. When said to the wrong person, this type of response can lead to more and damaging rumors about you – your mental/emotional state – your competency or focus at work – etc, and it is not a choice I would make. The temptation to put someone in their place with a harsh comeback like this is certainly one I understand, but it’s unprofessional, too personal, has a negative connotation *about you personally* and can blow up spectacularly in your face hours, days, or even weeks later.

      1. DisgruntledPelican*

        It’s not a harsh comeback, it’s truthful. Sometimes we’re not okay. It’s not a bad thing to acknowledge that, and needing someone who just lost a family member pretend otherwise is a form of toxic positivity I’m not here for.

        1. MCMonkeyBean*

          Yeah a lot of people in this thread are asking what I think is an unreasonable amount of emotional labor from grieving people to try to prevent their coworkers from feeling even the tiniest bit of discomfort. A bit of bluntness is fine if that’s what you feel is needed to move on to the next topic.

    5. Mill Miker*

      I find it helpful to mentally add “with the obvious exceptions” or “given the circumstances” to statements like that, especially when the other person doesn’t know the nature of the emergency.

      Like, I hope there’s nothing adding insult to injury, nothing needlessly making things more difficult, that you’re getting the support you need.

      I mean, I also try and find nicer things to say than “I hope everything’s okay”, because it usually isn’t, but trying just makes it clear how hard it actually is to come up with something appropriate for “Unknown emergency that may-or-may-not have resolved positively”

    1. londonedit*

      Yeah, I’m not sure whether this is another UK/US difference but the way my CV is laid out is like this:

      September 2015-January 2018: Senior Teapot Painter, Teapots Limited

      In my role as Senior Teapot Painter I was responsible for managing the progress of small teapots throughout the painting process, liaising with the Spout and Lid departments to ensure timely completion of all components. Duties included:

      – managing teapot painting schedule for approximately 15 teapots per month
      – painting teapots to a high standard and ensuring painting was completed on time and to budget
      – supervising junior teapot painters
      – liaising with other departments and with freelance painters where necessary
      – building relationships with paint suppliers to ensure regular paint supply was maintained

      1. Mrs. Pommeroy*

        Yep, that looks like a perfectly normal CV to me! Using gerunds is completely fine in the UK – even expected I’d wager. It’s always interesting where professional norms differ within a shared language, though.

      2. JSPA*

        I suppose past tense clearly states that the process was successfully completed or the goal achieved? The gerund can be taken as, “attempting to do this, time will tell if it worked.”

        Not so much in terms of information conveyed literally but as far as how definite and in-control it feels and sounds.

        (Could well be that level of control and directness would actually be penalized in the UK, or anyplace else where sounding certain is conflated with sounding a bit full of oneself!)

        1. londonedit*

          I don’t know – to me it feels more active and involved, like these are the things I was actively doing during my time in that job. Using the past tense seems more passive to me! So interesting how perspectives differ. I agree though that most jobseekers in the UK would avoid language that makes them appear arrogant or full of themselves! Not sure whether using the past tense qualifies as doing that, but it’s a good point.

        2. UShoe*

          I think it’s just a difference in the styles of CVs, there are a few. If you’re writing a skills-based CV “Handling difficult customer complaints” and “Delegating tasks to my team of five” seems perfectly fine to me.

          However, Alison does generally advise an achievements-based approach and that’s what I use too. For that you use the past tense “Organised a networking event for 250 llama groomers that earned rave reviews from Major Llama Groomers Association” and “Developed and launched a new social media marketing strategy which boosted sales 11%”.

          1. UShoe*

            To add, I’m also in the UK and have a pretty good applications to interviews hit-rate with that approach. You can state your successes without being braggy, and my industry at least has a lot of success metrics and KPIs I can point to.

            1. amoeba*

              I think it also depends a lot on the industry as well as the country. It would certainly come across as quite unusual in my field in Europe. Some employers might like it, sure, but for me it would be to much of a risk of seeming braggy (people here in Switzerland don’t tend to self-promote a lot…)

              1. Emmy Noether*

                Same. I’m quite content that it’s not a thing here because there are no universal metrics for what I do. My proudest achievements don’t sound like anything in a bullet point, and those things I could phrase to sound impressive… are the tiniest part of my job. Plus culturally, one does not really say positive things about oneself directly here, the threshold for “braggy” is veeeery low.

      3. bamcheeks*

        Yes, and frequently it does answer the job description requirements, especially when they are phrased as “experience of doing X”. I think it is useful to know that something is a practised skill you’ve been using over a sustained period of years or more than one role! I have specific achievements from jobs *as well*, but some stuff is “regular duties” rather than “achievement”.

      4. ecnaseener*

        My guess from a US perspective is that it’s born out of resume vs CV length conventions. I would never describe my job duties in full sentences on my resume, so there’s no “I’m responsible for” lead-in to the gerunds. But the above looks a lot like my LinkedIn where I’m not concerned about saving space and I’d rather use full sentences.

        1. Silver Robin*


          I almost never have a description like that leading into my duties. It just says something like

          Teapot Inc, city, state (or country) Date
          – designed 30 teapots on average per week
          – awarded best teapot design in 2022
          – collaborated with brand partners for limited run teapots, like Big Name and Big Name

          The only difference is if the position is current, I would use present tense for ongoing duties, like “design 30 teapots on average” and “collaborate with”

        2. turquoisecow*

          Agreed, this is a lot wordier than any US resume I’ve seen. A US resume is more likely just state the job title and then bullet points, so instead of a long description explaining what the Senior Teapot Painter role is, that sentence would be made into bullet points.

          Instead of “in my role as Senior Teapot Painter, I did x and y,” it would just say “Senior Teapot Painter,” and then bullet points listing x and y and whatever else included in there, perhaps modified based on if the roles were transferable to the new job you’re applying for, if it’s in a different role or industry. Like if you were switching from teapot painting to coffee pot painting, some skills might be the same, but you might leave off teapot-specific tasks because the coffee pot manager at the new company might not care about those.

          1. bamcheeks*

            Also UK, and my CV is similar to what you describe. But I wouldn’t see any difference between a bullet point that says, “Manage large-scale projects with budgets of between £5-12m” or “Managing large-scale projects with budgets of between £5-12m” for a current role.

            1. Forgot my name again*

              I think with both of those bullets I’d need a clarification further up of “As part of this I:” or “Responsibilities included:”. In particular the first just reads like a command – “You there! Manage large-scale projects with budgets of between £5-12m. And while you’re at it, fetch me my coffee.” ;)

        1. londonedit*

          I always thought that it was just a difference in terminology – UK ‘CV’ means US ‘resume’ whereas in the US ‘CV’ means a huge academic document. In the UK a CV is just a two-page document with your education, skills, employment history etc. But I could be wrong and/or there could also be additional differences in conventions between the two countries.

          1. bamcheeks*

            There definitely are some differences in conventions, although it’s more of degree than categorical differences. Lots of US resume advice recommends using your CV to convey a personal brand, usually using more adjectives than is typical in the UK! But there are definitely sectors in the UK that lean more that way and others that lean further away. Bell curves with a lot of overlap, I think, rather than qualitative differences.

            1. amoeba*

              I had the feeling that a resume is not supposed to be comprehensive, while here in my part of Europe you’d get at ton of questions if your CV doesn’t go back to at least your university education (and list all jobs you had in the meantime…)
              Whether it’s academic or not really depends on the field, in (my field of) research it does include stuff like a publication list, even in industry. But that’s pretty special to science, I think.

              1. turquoisecow*

                Oh yes a resume in the US would not be comprehensive like that. People are usually advised to leave off older jobs, especially if they’re not relevant to the current field. For example if I was applying for a new job as an editorial assistant I would probably not including the job I had as a cashier 20 years ago, because it’s not really relevant anymore. And even if my job 20 years ago was relevant, I have other jobs since then that are more relevant.

                It’s also commonly advised to leave off things that don’t necessarily relate to what you’re applying for, so if I left the industry to be a teapot painter for a year because I thought about changing professions, then decided against it and went back to editing, I might leave off the teapot painting job entirely.

    2. fhqwhgads*

      A CV isn’t the same thing as a resume, and the post said it was a peeve in resumes. Also most roles in the US wouldn’t expect a CV (there are some exceptions), so if you’re in a location where CVs are standard for all, the norms Alison’s working with may not apply to you.

      1. bamcheeks*

        In the US, CVs and resumes are different things. In the UK, a CV is pretty much exactly what you’d call a resume and serves the same function, with some differences in how you’d format and style it. We don’t use the word resume at all.

        It’s not that CVs are a standard thing worldwide, and some places use them and some places don’t. It’s that CV is used differently in the US and the UK.

    3. Beth*

      I’m curious also. I’m years past the last time I needed to update my resume, but I’m pretty sure it used gerunds. I’m in the US, FWIW.

    4. Lena Clare*

      Thanks for the different perspectives. I’m in the UK. I bullet point my responsibilities, similar to a US resume, but use the gerunds rather than the 1st person present tense. For me, it means “This is what I’m currently doing in my post”. I get that is different to listing your achievements for which I can see it’d make sense to use the preterite, but
      I think that’s probably standard for the convention in the UK!

  19. Kim*

    OP #1, please do not strive to become some sort of Vulcan.
    Gesticulating and having facial expressions are perfectly normal. Your colleague sounds like she has reached BEC (B**** eating crackers) levels of frustration with you for some reason.

    If they are constantly offended by your face (!) it’s a them problem. Try to have one last conversation with them to let them know that they should listen to what you say with your mouth, not your face. If that doesn’t help and they remain difficult, go to your manager.

    1. Kloe*

      Even Vulcans gesticulate. Who doesn’t remember Spock’s famous “fascinating” (*eyebrow goes up*)

    2. Amy A*

      If only this person has an issue with your face/hands/voice, it is kind of you to try to protect their possible hurt feelings. But, I can only imagine how much focus & energy it takes to be constantly monitoring yourself! Energy that could be spent in much more useful ways as you go through your work day. If you do talk to them, maybe you could ask them to give you the benefit of the doubt, assume good intentions. That they thought a squint was a sneer might be a good example. But I suspect this person is so lost in their own issue it won’t make a difference. Good luck!

  20. Coco*

    LW 4: I’m very sorry for your loss. My dad passed away unexpectedly over Memorial Day weekend 2022. I neglected to tell my boss it was ok for her to tell people. So in some sort of effort to protect my privacy, she didn’t tell anyone. That backfired. I came back after a few bereavement days, and people just assumed I was on vacation. I nearly broke down in tears when my director asked me how my holiday was.

    1. WellRed*

      I’m Sorry for your loss. I definitely appreciated my boss putting the word about and making sure my work was covered.

      1. Hlao-roo*

        From a coworker’s perspective, I appreciated when colleagues were out on bereavement leave and management told our department “Fergus is out because [family member] passed away. There’s a card in the break room if you want to sign it.” Presumably, Fergus had given permission to share the information and it was useful because we all knew why Fergus was out and could understand if the Fergus’s return date was up in the air.

  21. Ann Johansson*

    #1. As several already said. Don’t become less expressive (face AND hand gestures). You’re not a Vulcan. But I would like to add, maybe you can discretely ask around if she does this to others at the office. Maybe your colleague has a real problem reading facial expressions and social cues?

  22. The answer is (probably) 42*

    LW4: I would say this is a prime example of when to “return awkwardness to sender” (coined by Captain Awkward). These people refused or didn’t bother to read your out-of-office message, so they lash out at you. Any discomfort they feel when you clarify that you had a family emergency is entirely the result of their own actions. You wouldn’t have to say anything if they paid attention to your OOO message in the first place, or took responsibility for failing to do so rather than getting angry at you. LET them be uncomfortable. Maybe they’ll think twice before pulling this on someone else.

    And you have no obligation to engage with their condolences, just reply to the business aspects of their messages and ignore the rest, if that is less taxing for you.

    1. Miette*

      This is the best advice–seconded! I too leave detailed messages when I am OOO and if people just delete them without reading, that’s on them.

  23. Northercanadianprincess*

    Lw 3
    I also started a new job in Nov and I brought my SAD lamp in on my 2 week. I work in an office with no windows now and I find the extra light is amazing! I have had no complains and sometimes my coworkers even borrow it. Heres to more sunshine comming you way soon

  24. Marshmallow*

    LW 5: I hire temps a lot and find this language more common when a recruiter is involved because sometimes they’re writing descriptions for the candidates. I’ve had to really train myself not to read too much into the format of the resumes I get from temp candidates because more often than not, the actual candidate didn’t have any say in the final formatting that I see (I realized it years ago when the candidates would hand me a copy of their resume at the interview and it was so different – and much more polished- than what the temp agency gave me). This would probably be different if I was hiring direct vs agency, but might help you with some context depending on what your specific situation is.

    I’ve had some really fantastic temps that had poorly formatted resumes.

    1. Somebody Call a Lawyer*

      This is a fascinating peek into why these differing tenses pop up in resumes. Thanks so much for sharing your observations about recruiters getting that involved in the resume writing. Who knew? And it makes so much sense in the temp context. Also loving your discovery that excellence in the job has not correlated with adherence to a specific resume convention. Awesome.

    2. Bonnie*

      In my experience, it seems to be all about how a person is interpreting the unstated beginning of the sentence. I used gerunds for a long time because in my head it was “This job entails/entailed” and helped avoid the awkwardness of past vs. present tense in different entries. It’s been a bit since I’ve updated it, but I believe I changed it more recently to third-person. First-person just sounds really strange to me in that context.

      1. Silver Robin*

        That is so interesting. I think about it the way I would talk to someone: I would say “I did/do XYZ”. “I” is repetitive and did/do gets replaced with the relevant verb. Same approach as a cover letter, in that way.

  25. Rainy Cumbria*

    LW4 – I had a serious home emergency several years ago and, like you, when I went back to work I was exhausted from people expressing their sympathy and asking about it. I found it helpful to have stock phrases like “thank you, it’s actually nice to be back at work and doing normal things. Let’s talk about project X.”

  26. genderqueer commenter*

    OP1, there is a phenomenon where a subset of the population tends to interpret neutral facial expressions as negative. I think that this is associated with trauma/PTSD/growing up in an abusive environment, and I would guess your coworker falls into this group. In fact, you already know this – you told us they misinterpreted your neutral squinting as a sneer. With this in mind, remember that making your face more neutral will never solve the problem, because they will interpret even the most blank face as negative. This isn’t your problem to solve. It is be very difficult to move through life interpreting neutral interactions as negative or even combative, but you can’t fix it for them.

    1. Silver Robin*

      I do not think it is just history with trauma. People are just wrong about facial expressions sometimes.

      I got that from my own mother, whose neutral expression I inherited! My father once commended me on finally communicating neutrally when in reality I was nearly shaking with rage.

      There is also a cultural and gender aspect. People read as femme are expected to be happy, encouraging, and upbeat in the US. Neutral expressions are not that. Other cultures have other types of expectations of facial expressions. My host mother (European) once told me (white American) that I am so hard to read while my fellow American friends thought I had the worst poker face on the planet. I had a Mexican classmate tell me I was sighing with frustration when I took a breath before speaking (nope, just shifting into speaking mode). My Haitian male teammate is by default smiling and laughing, but anything below what I perceived as boundless enthusiasm was actually him not wanting to do X. I thought he was happy with all our ideas and was frustrated that he appeared not to have strong preferences (we were going to Haiti, I really needed him to be specific about what was feasible).

      So if people are not expressing emotions the way others expect them to, they may interpret something neutral as hostile. Or something hostile as neutral. Or anything as something else

    2. Eldritch Office Worker*

      There’s definitely a socialization aspect to it, but it’s not always trauma. It can be gendered, it can have to do with how you family communicates (generally, not just in traumatic ways), it can have to do with your general ability to pick up social cues due to different conditions, it can have to do with the culture you grew up in.

      And it’s not really a phenomenon in the “new and interesting” way – there’s a reason why staring blankly is a common interrogation/negotiation technique. It puts people on edge. We’re nonverbal communicators.

      As someone with a lot of trauma I don’t find it terribly helpful to jump to “this person may be traumatized” when it can just as easily be explained by “humans are complex”.

      1. genderqueer commenter*

        Yeah that’s honestly fair – I speculated too much and should have left it at “some people misinterpret neutral expressions as negative.” Sorry!

    3. J*

      It’s definitely associated more frequently with people with hypervigilance which is so closely related with trauma. I know a lot of people will point out other whys of people but I did see a comment from LW that this did seem to have overlap with their situation. It also might make more of an explanation as to why the behavior is so difficult to drop. I totally do this, I’ve been to therapy to improve it but I know so many others haven’t been able to do that yet. Like you said, it’s still not LW problem to solve but I do hope others recognize this might be a problem where empathy goes a long way in helping to get rid of the problem.

  27. Hot Water Bottle*

    OP#2- My org. has been providing gifts / recognition *in private* for this exact reason!
    In a group of high achievers, it’s too easy to stir things up with a high profile gift to one person, because (a) they all feel like they perform quiet unsung miracles all day (which is probably true), and (b) as Alison mentioned, you could be stepping into other dynamics that are going on behind the scenes (maybe Bob is considered a bit of a glory hound or has other issues).

    So take “Bob” aside and quietly give him his token without making a production of it – he’ll understand!

    1. OP #2*

      Hello, OP #2 here!

      I agree that there’s likely some other dynamics at play here that I’m not aware of. We have made fairly good headway with the culture in the last couple of years but that kind of change is so slow to root. I plan to talk to the two folks that I have been told are the ones at the root of the complaints to find out more about why they feel this way.

      I would consider doing this privately next time for sure but at the same time our head office puts a photo of the winner in the company wide newsletter so it will likely still ruffle feathers.

  28. DJ Abbott*

    #1, this coworker is weirdly entitled to be criticizing anything personal about you at all. What makes them think they have any right to do that? They don’t. To me, it sounds like a variation on town policing that has been used to oppress women. It’s not enough for a woman to say and mean the right things, so they criticize her tone. This person is looking for reasons to criticize your expressions.

    Do they do this to other people too? If so, that’s what they do and one day they’ll get in trouble for it.

    If They’re only doing this to you, it’s not anything you did! It means they have a need to do this and have found it convenient to make you the target. They’re still not entitled to do this, and I really can’t imagine any of my coworkers or friends treating anyone this way because it’s so unacceptable.

    Either way, I think Allison‘s advice is good. Keep saying that as often as necessary, even if it gets very tedious, and they’ll get bored and stop. If they escalate it, or if they double down and you need to escalate it, keep saying what Allison suggests.

    1. Interviewer*

      I was looking for this response. Does he do this to other people in your office? I’d ask. This isn’t a taboo topic at all – it’s a weird thing that he does, that he even mentions it, and you should absolutely flag it for others to notice.

      Who knows why he’s doing it – maybe he can’t respond to the discussion in the meeting, maybe he wasn’t prepared, or maybe things aren’t going well for him at work, so instead he’s distracting you and making you uncomfortable by criticizing your appearance and demeanor. And it’s working.

      I would let him know – once, firmly – that this type of feedback is not okay, that he cannot bring it up again, and redirect him back to the topic at hand. Hold him accountable for his work or whatever needs to be done in the meeting, and don’t be tempted to give him a pass because he’s disturbed by the facial expressions you make. More importantly, don’t start googling how to mask your expressions. You are fine.

  29. Adminnie Mouse*

    In response to OP1 – I’m in a similar situation, but the roles are reversed.
    I have ASD and my supervisor is often openly annoyed at me for no reason – she never looks at me even when I speak to her, sighs whenever I talk, and just generally gives off a ‘vibe’ that she doesn’t like me. She isn’t like this with anyone else. I do all of my work well (I get good feedback at appraisals) and everyone else is friendly with me. I’m really sensitive and as a result of my ASD I have hyper-empathy, so this upsets me on a regular basis.
    I’m not saying that this is what you’re doing to your coworker, but I would just ask if there is any way you could kindly let them know that they’re misinterpreting you? I know this would mean the world to me if my supervisor did this, and would completely change our dynamic (alas it seems she just hates me for some reason).

  30. Captain dddd-cccc-ddWdd*

    OP2 (recognition award) I wondered what was the nature of the kind act he did for the client. Is it in fact something that might be considered outside boundaries or “shouldn’t be expected” in other workplaces? Perhaps they feel like the award legitimises and encourages something that they think shouldn’t be an expectation.

    1. A Penguin!*

      I was wondering this as well. Is the kind act technically out of bounds? If so, do the employees feel supported in being able to make the call on their own to bend/break the rules in appropriate circumstances?

      I was also thinking the opposite – is this kind act something his coworkers feel they would all ‘obviously’ do in that situation, such that they think of it as an example of Bob just doing the job (well), the same as the rest of them, and he only got the award because he happened to be in the right place at the right time?

    2. Purely Allegorical*

      This is EXACTLY what I was wondering about as well. Does the award accidentally incentivize really blurred lines with clients?

    3. OP #2*

      Hello, OP #2 here! Just want to say no rules were broken, no lines crossed or blurred. Bob did something that any staff could do and would be supported in doing on company time if they choose to take the initiative.

  31. bamcheeks*

    I have at this point responded dutifully and kindly to hundreds of expressions of sympathy: Facebook comments, physical cards, multiple hours in-person at his viewing, emails from friends, phone calls, and on and on

    LW, I realise this may be too late but I would like to give you permission to not do this. Bereavements are the one place you don’t have to do thank you cards and gratitude. When I have sent a bereavement card or commented on a FB post or anything like that, I do so in the expectation and hope that it doesn’t create or require reciprocity, and I don’t expect an acknowledgment or thank you. It is really OK to just silently accept at this point. and to give back out again when you are ready.

    If those messages feel like barbs even when you don’t feel the need to respond– just trust that they will diminish very quickly. And if you cannot help your face, I promise that nine out of ten people expressing sympathy in this situation know it’s difficult and don’t expect a response, and even if you grimace a little before you redirect back to work, they’ll understand that it’s not about them and accept the re-direction gracefully.

    (the tenth is an asshole and can be safely discounted.)

    Best wishes.

    1. Hlao-roo*

      I want to second this. When I send bereavement cards, I never expect a response. The most response I’ve gotten from a bereavement card is “I got your card, thank you” and the majority of the time I hear nothing back at all–both are perfectly good responses.

    2. Gracely*

      This. People generally only want to let you know that they are sorry for your loss, and that they are thinking of you during a difficult time, in the hopes that knowing people care will be comforting–they’re not expecting you to respond (unless that’s something that’s helpful for your grieving process).

      If you truly feel the need to provide reciprocity, the best way to do that is to send a condolence in the future when someone you know has a loss. A sort of pay it forward, rather than tit-for-tat.

  32. Violet Fox*

    #3 Granted I’m pretty far north, but SAD lamps/light boxes are a pretty normal thing to see on people’s desks. I have one too, and it really does help! Some brands also make ones with “active” types of settings for longer use during the day. Highly, highly recommend it for darker/snowy/rainy days. Makes a huge difference in both my mood and my alertness.

  33. But Not the Hippopotamus*


    Unless you work with something like chainsaws, knives, or radioactive material there is no reason to try and stop using your hands while talking! Your coworker has gotten in your head and making you think normal stuff is abnormal.

    Please start setting up boundaries for yourself! You face is off limits. You body is off limits. They say you smirked/frowned/whatever and you can say “so?” Or “that’s just my face and I’d appreciate it if you stopped commenting on it” or even “you seem weirdly fixated on my expression, even when we aren’t facing each other, what’s up with that? (Pause for reply) well, please stop commenting on my body/face. If you want to know what I’m thinking about something, please ask that.”

    Honestly, this reminds me of the letter about the office pooper in that somebody was making something completely normal (using the bathroom) out to be something weird.

    You are not having expressions AT her. Unless someone else has mixed things up regularly with you or you have evidence of it, this is about her. Might be worth mentioning in passing to a coworker you trust (e.g. Jane seems to misinterpret my expressions a lot – do I have something going on there I should be aware of?) But that’s more of a CYA thing because I’m guessing this person is a drama fest and possibly has an issue with you.

  34. tusemmeu*

    OP1, you have my sympathy. I’ve never had one person make a big thing of it, but I’ve had a lot of people over the course of my life do this in smaller ways. I apparently have an expressive face that often expresses the wrong thing. I’ve felt that same impulse to just try to shut it all down and keep my face neutral, but it’s just not sustainable for me to expend that kind of effort.

    I completely agree with the advice to address the misunderstandings as they come up. I also try to find other ways to project the attitude I want to project instead. Other kinds of body language that are easier for me to be more conscious about, tone of voice and careful word choice when speaking on the topic around the misunderstanding, and anything else I can think of that may counteract it. But then it’s on the other people to pick up on all the cues and not just the one that they misinterpreted. I can only do so much and I’ve learned not to put all the pressure on myself.

  35. Pugetkayak*

    We have an out of office whenver we are out with detailed instructions becuase we have clients emailing us every day, and this is super common as well. I will get 5 email followups if Im away for vacation “following up.” I’m pretty withering when I come back. Oh, I’ve been out, I assume you contacted my OOTO about this?” Knowing full well that they did not. Oh, ok, yeah, have been out and will handle it.

    Also annoying when you are known for being responsive and then these people don’t get a clue after the 5th time that maybe they missed something….

  36. SaffyTaffy*

    OP2, I once worked in a daycare that was profoundly poorly-run. We weren’t paid properly, we didn’t have the right adult-to-child ratio, people were encouraged to snoop & tattle. Awful place. On Valentine’s Day I made all the staff valentines. Some people complained, TO THE OWNER, that I was disrespecting them by putting less glitter on their valentines than others. It’s sort of like how abused animals lash out at nothing. So, yeah, I encourage you to see what’s going on in the group.

    OP3, we all use full-spectrum lights in our spaces here! I also have full-spectrum bulbs in my living room and kitchen, and that’s a big help.

  37. Onward*

    LW 4 — I totally get the aversion to telling people the truth and needing to do the condolences song-and-dance. My dad was killed when I was a kid, and when people ask me about my parents or childhood or whatever, I tend to gloss over it in order to avoid their shock and emotion. That’s an old wound, but for you this is totally fresh.

    That said, is sorting through the “oh my god, I’m so sorry” responses worse than dealing with people’s misplaced anger at your “missing deadlines” and the (unfair!) potential effect on your reputation because people are making false and terrible assumptions? If the answer is “yes, it is worse because I’m emotionally drained”, that’s fine, but I think it’s worth weighing in your head. Personally, I would, as someone else said, “return awkwardness to sender.” They’re the ones being awful and they should be told how awful they’re being.

    That said, I’m really sorry about your dad and extra sorry that you have to deal with this on top of everything else. Take care of yourself, in whatever way feels best to you.

    1. Ellis Bell*

      It’s the implication that I missed deadlines that would have me returning awkwardness to sender. I would probably say something like “I was out for a family bereavement, which is why the instructions to contact alternate people were included in my out of office. However I realise that life happens, and perhaps those instructions couldn’t be followed for whatever reason. Since I’m back now I can help by doing x”. It’s OK if OP doesn’t want to do this, but it’s reasonable. It’s really on other people to get their head out of their bums and explain to OP why they’re hassling her after failing to follow instructions.

      1. Onward*

        Totally. This is what bugs me too. OP is already going through a hard time and the coworkers are being inconsiderate jerks on top of all of that.

      2. Eldritch Office Worker*

        Agreed, and I like this framing. OP shouldn’t have to absorb blame (and any related real or implied consequences) for having things to deal with outside of work.

  38. Falling Diphthong*

    #4: The response I tend to get is “I hope everything’s okay!”

    I urge people to rethink this response, especially if you don’t have anything helpful to follow up with if the answer is “No, it’s really horrible.”

    I recall a past letter where someone was very upset that a coworker collapsed and was carried out on a stretcher, and thought the only reasonable response now was for management to do a big announcement about how everything was FINE and coworker was just fine and it had been nothing to worry about, sorry everyone had to be distressed by witnessing that. That coworker might actually not be fine did not cross that LW’s mind.

    Sometimes, things with other people are not fine. 2020 really should have taught us all that.

    1. ecnaseener*

      Do you have a suggestion for something else to say instead of “I hope everything’s okay”? You could go straight to “I’m so sorry to hear that” (which btw I would hope people use when told something’s horrible!) but that would land really weirdly if the family emergency was actually just a minor crisis that’s now in fact okay.

      1. Emm*

        This is a good question! I suspect there’s no right answer, but I think the most polite thing might be to offer something gentle and generic, then move on. Not brushing past it, but not lingering for acknowledgement of your sympathy or prodding for more information.

        1. doreen*

          I think the problem is that there is nothing sufficiently generic if “family emergency” is going to cover everything from a sick child who had to be picked up from school to a flooded basement to a death in the family and even if you know my father died, chances are good you don’t know my specific feelings about it , so “I’m sorry for your loss” might not land well. But just as it’s not necessary to respond to ” I’m sorry for your loss” with a detailed explanation of why I am not grieving, it’s also not necessary to respond to ” I hope everything is OK” with “No, it’s really horrible.” In both cases, you can simply thank the person for their concern or something similar and you will just have to accept that those who don’t know the details won’t respond as if they did.

        2. Allonge*

          The thing is – ‘I hope everything is ok’ sounds gentle and generic to me. It’s not meant as a dictate (it’s not ‘it better be ok!’), it’s a wish.

          1. ecnaseener*

            That was my thought too :/ I’m hard-pressed to come up with something as gentle but even more generic.

            1. Mill Miker*

              I’ve sometimes gone with “I hope everything’s going as well as it can” but that still feels a little off.

          2. Loredena*

            I think it’s as general as someone can get without knowing specifics and would be happy if people stuck to it. I’ve yet to get over a coworker saying “Well it’s not like he’s going to die” while my husband was on life support. (He recovered but it was a very bad time for several weeks)

      2. Bit o' Brit*

        Right, “family emergency” could mean anything. House flooded, spouse arrested, child broke their arm, sibling lost their home, etc. It’s not purely a euphemism for a bereavement or life-threatening illness/accident.

      3. Esprit de l'escalier*

        The most neutral response I can think of is “I’m sorry you’ve been dealing with that,” and then go right into something work-related.

      4. Falling Diphthong*

        I’m good with “I’m sorry to hear that.” In some contexts it’s possible to offer specific help. (“Would you like us to set up a meal train?” “I know of a caregiver’s support group; my friend speaks highly of it.”) But often all we have to offer is our human empathy that sometimes things suck, and acknowledge that there is not going to be a miracle feel good happy ending and you shouldn’t ask suffering people to provide you with one.

        This in part comes from a place of having had cancer, and so meeting a lot of people who were not going to get better. I was really impressed that my local candy shop put in a line of cards that were like “Keeping you in our thoughts during this difficult time” rather than just “Get well soon.”

      5. J*

        “Can I do anything to help take something off your plate during this time?” (If you are closer/know the emergency, I recommend a specific offer)

        “I’m so sorry to hear that”

        “I’m available to listen if you need that” (only if you are)

        “That must be really hard”

        Don’t try to fix it, don’t try to cheer them up or to look on the bright side. That’s honestly worse than ignoring it in many cases. I have had outages at work from cancer to family deaths to illness and I think that would be welcome in all those cases.

        I did have a coworker ask if the emergency was over or just paused when I had just helped a family member into hospice and I knew it was asked both in compassion and concern for work volume so I didn’t mind at all. I welcomed it actually. Acknowledging emergencies can be ongoing was honestly such a relief.

    2. J*

      I really appreciate this comment. I fall under the “It’s OK to not be OK” philosophy and people on the outside are often very hostile to that. I’m the person who just suffered a family tragedy and they don’t like my acknowledgement that things aren’t right. I just don’t have the mental energy to deal with their hurt over their emotional immaturity on that front.

  39. Not Your Sweetheart*

    OP 2, it’s worth looking at who gets the awards. One Global Hotel Chain I worked for gave the awards to people who did one Amazing Thing, and ignored those who did their jobs and routinely went above and beyond. One coworker helped save a guests life. Amazing, and worth honoring. However, same coworker never completed her shift checklist, and often did parts of it wrong. She was fired for poor performance a week after receiving the award.

    1. Ellis Bell*

      You know I think this is why I have an inherent dislike of workplace awards. They tend to recognise “over and above” stuff while ignoring which people are actually best at doing their actual job. I swear, I am open minded about them! I’m totally willing to be told of the award benefits for particular situations, but often it’s just yet more fluff. People usually like to be rewarded for doing their job with money, perks and promotions. People also like it when their reputation is bolstered, but often a really sincere thank you, goes a lot further than an award. I don’t know, this just might be a reflection of my poor experience with special employee awards (random picks for employee of the month at one company that literally no one cared about, and at another company they used it to make up for hardships and overtime instead of improving pay and conditions). It’s a lot like giving employees gifts instead of cash or time off in my opinion; possible to do well, but more often fraught than not.

      1. bamcheeks*

        I’m the same. As I said upthread, I think you have to have an above-averagely healthy and happy workplace for everyone to go, “oh, good for Jane! She deserves this!” and in the normal average-to-OK workplace, it’s going to irritate and exacerbate resentments amongst at least some of your staff.

        I think they can work if they’re a very clear metric, very closely tied-in to the core responsibilities of the role, and they happen regularly enough that most people who are performing reasonably well have a reasonable expectation that they’ll get picked sooner or later. But otherwise, you have to really ask what kind of behaviour you’re incentivising– do you actually want every employee to be charging around trying to provide absolutely extraordinary service to clients? or would that actually be wildly disruptive to your business?

    2. fhqwhgads*

      I had a similar frustration at a place I used to work. They had all sorts of awards for going Above and Beyond in different ways. At point I mentioned something to the effect of: if management is managing well, and workloads are reasonable, and processes are functional, there should actually be not all that many opportunities to go above and beyond. I want a manager who appreciates if/when I do go above and beyond, but who comes from a starting point of hoping I never need to.
      That last sentence though, oof. I haven’t had the misfortune to encounter that.

      Warning! Sports analogy coming. Companies who do these above and beyond type awards: would you rather have someone who is hitting .225 on the year, but hit three walk-off home runs, or someone who hits .300 and 40 doubles a year? These awards too often create a culture where the former player gets more recognition than the latter, when I’d argue, the latter is far preferable.

  40. Corrigan*

    #3: In the before times, I had a co-worker with a lamp. She would acknowledge it like “oh please don’t mind my light” but that was it. No big deal! I wouldn’t think anything of someone having one.

  41. Corrigan*

    #5 This seems overly pedantic to me…If the information is there, useful, and relevant, I hope you’re not actually discounting anyone for presenting the information like this.

    1. SpecialSpecialist*

      Yeah. I’ve always had my resume written in third person and it’s been that way for well over a decade. I’ve been crafting it and reading it from somebody seeing my name at the top of the resume and reading it as “SpecialSpecialist as Director of Epicness grooms llamas, designs teapots, and wages battles against evil with a team of mice on catback.”

      I’ve been on lots of hiring committees and I’ve never been thrown off by some of them being in third person and some being in first person. Honestly, now that I think about, I’ve never noticed it at all. The only thing I do notice is when the resume is just poorly written period.

      1. Anne*

        This is why I use that third person as well! First person just feels wrong to me without the pronoun in front and a sea of “I”s also looks odd to me.

        I could see using the gerund form, but I typically don’t because a good portion of my resume happened in the past tense (previous jobs, completed accomplishments, etc) and I just like the consistency of all third person.

  42. Olivia*

    #5 – All these variations sound fine to me–third person, first person, gerund. On my resume I use the past tense. Being that bothered by one or the other comes off to me as rather nitpicky.

    But if you’re going to be pedantic about it, the problem OP has is not with verb tense, it’s with verb person. The thing I’ve noticed about language pedantry is that the people who engage in it usually get at least some of the details wrong.

    1. Sola Lingua Bona Lingua Mortua Est*

      I’ve come to realize that a lot of leadership (including hiring and management afterwards) is modern day augury, so I just ensure my résumé reads coherently and persuasively to me and let the chips fall where they may. YMMV.

      1. Olivia*

        I was delighted to realize I understood what your handle meant, as my Romance background is not always enough to decipher whole Latin sentences. See, these little gems are the types of things people should be using their language nerdiness on. Not prescriptivist snobbery.

        And I agree. You can’t worry about whether or not every word is perfect or is going to be the subject of someone’s pet peeve. You just gotta do the best you can.

        1. Sola Lingua Bona Lingua Mortua Est*

          The thing I’ve noticed about language pedantry is that the people who engage in it usually get at least some of the details wrong.

          Not prescriptivist snobbery.

          I didn’t notice it as much with others’ pedantry, but mine absolutely falls into these categories, and realizing that was a key moment in learning to control it and aspiring to retire it.

          But mute points instead of moot points still make me wince. Even when my father says it.

  43. KatEnigma*

    LW3: Just make sure that you’re allowed to bring in things that plug in. It’s not unusual for no plug in devices to be allowed, at all, in your cubicle.

    1. BatManDan*

      I’m self-employed, and always have been, so I’ve not heard of a “no plug-ins” policy. What is the reasoning behind that, do you suppose?

      1. Hlao-roo*

        I think these policies are often born out of people bringing in space heaters, coffee makers, mini fridges, etc. for their cubicles. Space heaters in particular draw a lot of electricity and can be a safety hazard. So some places have bans on particular items in cubicles (ex. safety heaters not OK, personal desk lamps are OK) and other places take a harder line of no plug-in appliances of any kind allowed.

        1. Red Reader the Adulting Fairy*

          Also a question of liability – if an office has a policy that anything that plugs in has to be approved by the facilities team (or whoever) then you don’t have Fergus over there bringing in his favorite lamp because if he leaves it at home, his puppy might chew on the cord, so he’ll bring it in here and then whoops the cord he didn’t realize Fluffy already got to sparks overnight and burns the office down.

          1. UKDancer*

            Yes. We have a policy that personal devices need to be approved by facilities to make sure they’re not going to fry the system or start a fire. So if you want something non-standard they will have a look at it, test it and put a sticker on to say it’s acceptable.

        2. Dinwar*

          We have to get our coffee pot inspected annually, and it has to meet certain requirements (shut off in a certain amount of time, not draw too much current, be on a GFCI, that sort of thing). At least twice since I’ve started working at this site someone on the client side burned a building down with a coffee maker–they made coffee Friday afternoon, then went home without remembering to turn it off, and Monday the building was a smoldering wreck. Fortunately I make good coffee, and the person who inspects comes up occasionally to get coffee, so we never have to worry about it. (The secret is to use enough.)

          Oddly enough, despite the fact that I’ve personally lit two microwaves on fire (the ASTM guidelines for soil moisture testing are not as clear as they should be….), we can have those just fine. Same with electric kettles. Company policy is that all electronics have to be on GFCI, but the client simply doesn’t care.

      2. One HR Opinion*

        We have certain things we can’t bring in – the biggest no-no is a space heater because of fire hazard. We also can’t use extension cords, has to be power strips with surge protectors. I haven’t been anywhere that a lamp or small fan would be a problem.

      3. KatEnigma*

        We had a “has to be approved by facilities” rule and a hard and fast rule for facilities to approve it, it had to be “UL Listed” You’d be amazed at how many small devices like lamps or electric kettles aren’t.

        I’ve also had an office where yes, they had a hard ban, because they didn’t want to argue with people over what they would or wouldn’t approve.

      4. Filosofickle*

        It’s always safety in one way or another. Fear of overloading circuits or faulty equipment.

        An old employer used to do trade shows and at some venues (McCormick in Chicago comes to mind) union rules prohibited anything being plugged except by a union electrician. While that’s an extreme example, it makes sense there could be rules about “plugging things in” — must be an approved device installed in a certain way by a certain person. In a different company I wanted to take down a shelf in my cube and the company insisted I was not allowed to do this on my own because I might hurt myself. Had to wait for facilities to do it.

  44. Ainsley Hayes*

    OP #4 – “Thank you for your patience. I have been out of the office for a family emergency, followed by some bereavement leave.” Even the most frustrated of clients will give you some space to respond after that. (Source: Unfortunately had to use it!) My condolences for your loss.

    1. English Rose*

      Yes, I’ve used this as well for external contacts. A good manager can help with staff reactions, which sounds like not the case here. When my brother died, I asked my manager in advance of my return to tell my colleagues but also to let them know that while I appreciated a quick expression of sympathy, I was really not up for discussing it, and that worked well.

      So sorry for your loss OP4

  45. HailRobonia*

    SAD lamps are great – I like to call them HAPPY lamps. Possible acronym:
    Help Adapt to a Particularly Poopy Year.

  46. ABCYaBYE*

    LW1 – here to second Alison’s suggestion that this is a “them” issue and not a “you” issue. Be yourself. And if there’s a question that comes up because they’re assuming intent or meaning, address it directly. You absolutely don’t need to be a neutral robot. That’s some mental gymnastics that you have to do just to make sure they can’t read intent or emotion into your natural facial reactions and that has to be exhausting. Unless you’re getting a bunch of feedback from a bunch of other people, just be yourself around this coworker and call out their reactions. I’ll bet it won’t happen too many times after you say something the first time.

    LW2 – I’d suggest being VERY direct and point out to the team that these awards are presented to those who are nominated for doing something above and beyond. So simply doing your job as expected isn’t award-worthy. And let them know that grumbling about whether someone is worthy of an award isn’t something they need to worry about because heaven forbid they win the award … you’d hope that their coworkers would be happy for them and not do what they’re doing to Bob.

  47. JelloStapler*

    Apparently #1, #2 and #4 are all dealing with People Who Like to Complain. Good Grief. Great advice as always Alison.

    1. Dinwar*

      I think there’s some good discussion on #1, but this is absolutely my take on #2. My first thought when someone complains about someone else getting an award is “It’s not about you.” It takes a special kind of self-centeredness (combined with an external self-valuation) to see someone getting an award and immediately think “What about ME?!” Understandable in young children, deplorable in adults. (If they have a legitimate complaint, that’s obviously different.)

  48. BatManDan*

    #2: there is a lot of support for the position that any sort of an award like this creates more ill-will and disfunction than positive outcomes. For example, an “employee of the month award,” if distributed fairly, will always go to the same person (or maybe, MAYBE, a small number of people), which proves it doesn’t have the effect of inspiring anyone. If it’s distributed in a manner so as not to hurt anyone’s feelings, then it quickly becomes obvious that it’s a sham, and, again, there is no upside to providing it. Just another perspective for those that want to consider both sides.

  49. Samwise*

    I’m so sorry about your dad!

    I get “tired of sympathy,” and I do not think you have to share anything at all about why you were out.

    Because it doesn’t matter why you were out! Family emergency, trip to Paris, staycation, whatever. You were OUT. And you left explicit instructions on how others could address their questions/problems/requests.

    I’d say that anyone who’s still getting snitty about it is rude and unprofessional. Time for you to stop indulging this nonsense. “I’m sorry, Bob, I was out. Did you contact NAME/ check the NAME drive for the information? I did leave that information in my away message.” Then change the subject or walk away.

  50. Purely Allegorical*

    For OP#2: One thing to consider is whether the act Bob did blurred the lines between professional and personal in some way, particularly if that way is a method that isn’t accessible to everyone on the team. If he did something out of hours for a client that was not about the work product — like, I don’t know, delivered a huge bouquet of flowers for a client’s personal event, or something like that — I could understand others on the team being annoyed by that. Awards should not incentivize people to blur the lines, and if the other team members are being subtly excluded because they want to maintain that boundary, then the coworkers have a point.

    Not saying that’s what happened here — and not saying the flowers aren’t a kind gesture — but it’s worth thinking about the circumstances of this.

    1. Ellis Bell*

      This is a great comment. Something that was done on personal time as a personal decision is due a private thank you and some type of personal recognition for sure. Public recognition is trickier. If you make it a public recognition, on some level you’re saying you encourage the repetition of whatever Bob did by other employees. Maybe OP is encouraging that! It’s just worth thinking about whether that’s an annoying expectation though or inspirational.

  51. For Question # 5*

    I can tell you exactly why 3rd person is used on resumes. I remember being told by multiple resume “professionals” (employment agencies, college career counselors, etc.) that using “I” statements on your resume projected that you are self-focused and not a team-player.

    I hope this changed because it makes riding a resume that makes coherent sense unnecessarily difficult, but that’s what I recall being promoted in the 90’s/00’s and I would be willing to bet it still is.

    1. Aspiring Chicken Lady*

      I tell people to drop the I/me/my from resumes not because it’s self-focused, but because 1) it’s the convention so it presents as more professional, and more importantly, 2) because it lets you chop a lot of wordy static out of a document designed to be scanned, not read, and gets the relevant verbs to the left, where the reader has more interest and energy to look.

      Tenses and whatnot I don’t mind much, unless they aren’t consistent, which, again, is a present-as-professional issue.

  52. PieAdmin*

    OP #4’s situation annoys me. It’s not her fault they didn’t read her out of office message, and she shouldn’t have to give any explanation other than “Sorry, I was out unexpectedly. Per my out of office message, you should have forwarded this to ____.”

  53. CLC*

    The first letter makes me feel really yucky. The coworker is policing the LW’s tone and expressions and makes me wonder if it’s some kind of intentional or subconscious power play. And it seems to be working on the LW. Really hope this really just a coworker and not someone they report to.

  54. Julie*

    For the worker with a normal face: This coworker is trying to gain control over you by keeping you on the defensive. Recognize that they have deliberately targeted you as a victim. It’s akin to gaslighting — they have convinced you that the problem is yours, when there is actually no problem. Two things have to happen — 1) You have to be aware in the moment that this is happening. You might not get it right at first, but work on it. 2) Immediately and firmly push back without defending yourself. Say, “Stop accusing me.” Again, don’t ever defend yourself. Don’t apologize. Be firm. Push back by challenging their behavior. Quietly but firmly look them in the eyes and say, “Stop this.” Or, “You are bullying me.” Or, “You being outrageous.” Never, ever defend yourself, or you give this bully the advantage.

      1. Pool Noodle Barnacle Pen0s*

        Same. Or just a straight up aggressive “What is your DEAL?” I can’t tiptoe around this kind of microaggression for more than 2 seconds.

    1. Avril Ludgateaux*

      I thought I was the only one who was reading #1’s colleague through a lens of hostility or manipulation rather than sincere misunderstanding, but I’m seeing a lot of comments here on the same note. I agree and sincerely think the colleague is indeed “bullying” or at minimum playing games with OP1. In OP’s shoes, I would not extend the benefit of the doubt, and I’d shut it down fast. Granted, I’m older and more experienced with this specific brand of bullshit now. Ask me right out of college and I probably would have frozen or balked, but it took being reprimanded one time for visibly concentrating on my work (the exact phrase was “you look too intense”) for me to decide my face was mine, and if you don’t like it, it’s on you to look away, not on me to change it to be more pleasing to you.

  55. WantonSeedStitch*

    OP#1, I think this is just a thing that some people do, and has nothing to do with you or your face! My grandboss, whom I like well enough overall, has a seriously annoying habit of attributing emotions/reactions to people either based on their facial expression or body language, or even just on the general impression she has formed of them (and once she’s formed an impression, it’s next to impossible to get her to change it). She’ll call people out during meetings to say what she assumes they’re feeling: “Tangerina is SO happy to hear this, right Tangerina?” “Wakeen looks worried! What are you worried about, Wakeen?” And she does it in a lighthearted, joking way, but it is still ANNOYING. I’ve taken a couple of approaches with it myself. For one thing, when I am OK with making my feelings known to the whole meeting, I’ll make my facial expressions very obvious to the point of being hammy, which seems to work especially well when I’m on Zoom and muted, so she can CORRECTLY interpret my feelings anf feel pleased to have an opportunity to “read” someone so well. When I am NOT trying to communicate my feelings but she ascribes the wrong ones to me, I’ll just calmly correct her. “No, I’m not unhappy. I’m just trying to think about what kinds of changes we could make to make that process work better.”

  56. Avril Ludgateaux*

    #1 maybe I am in A Mood (TM) this morning, but I can’t help but interpret the misinterpreting colleague as knowing exactly what they are doing, and doing it deliberately. I know it is more likely that they are just overly sensitive or have trouble with social cues for any number of reasons, but I’ve encountered too many people who either passive aggressively use comments about expression and apparent mood to either tell somebody how they “should” be feeling or make them self conscious about their expression in general (the latter of which the colleague seems to have succeeded in, with OP1). Like a control tactic. Like Miss Interpretation saw OP1 as an easily manipulable target in this way and is milking it.

    I was scolded once by a manager because I “looked too intense” when staring at my computer screen, even though I immediately switched to cheerful and downright *bubbly* if somebody interrupted me for any reason. I don’t know what she wanted from me, she never did clarify, but I suppose she would not have been happy unless I was grinning madly at the screen all day. Being a young woman and with the way women’s expressions and perceived “niceness” are constantly policed, I decided then and there to lean into my RBF and if people don’t like it, it’s on them to correct themselves. I am not responsible for placating your irrational anxieties (or controlling tendencies).

    /end Mood

    #3 what’s the difference between a SAD lamp and a regular lamp? I know SAD is Seasonal Affective Disorder as I am vulnerable to it, too. Early in my career I worked in one of those wide, expansive mega-buildings with a lot of interior offices that had no windows and were not adjacent to offices with windows, either. It was depressing as hell, especially in the winter when I got in before the sun was fully up and left after it was fully down. Just… never saw the sun, for months. I imagine it’s what living in/close to the Arctic Circle for the winter is like. Those were bad years. I hope your lamp helps, OP3!

    #5 wait… you’re *not* supposed to use gerund verbs on a resume??

    1. Forgot my name again*

      SAD lamps are extra bright – think sunshine-mimicking lux levels of 10,000 (rather than the 250-1000 of regular lamps) – and meant to be used for short bursts on gloomy days or in gloomy offices to boost serotonin for people with SAD. Definitely not meant for continuous use! If you can borrow one from someone it’s worth trying out to see if it helps you.

  57. Delta Delta*

    #2 – The award is not the problem. Looks like the award is given monthly, so it’s not as if it’s so rare that people hardly ever get recognized. It also looks like Bob did something above and beyond, although we don’t know what that is, or the extent of it.* We don’t know if what Bob did is akin to what other people do in ordinary client relations in this office. But the fact that people are complaining loudly about giving Bob a pat on the back for being decent speaks more about either them or the workplace. Figure out which it is and fix that problem.

    *I once had a musician client who played a show in a town near my home. It was at a bar and I think I paid a $5 cover and 2 beers (high life bottles for $3 each – it was that kind of bar), so not a fancy or pricey night out. I went a) because I liked her and wanted to support her and b) it sounded fun. For YEARS after she has spoken about how awesome it is that her lawyer showed up to support her, and she’s referred a few clients to me. This could be what Bob did; it wasn’t a lot but made a big impact on the client. You never know.

  58. Katrina*

    OP #2: At one of the preschools where I used to work, we had an “above and beyond” award for teachers who did really creative, interesting, or in-depth activities with their class. I quickly figured out that none of my activities were getting recognized because no one ever saw or noticed them. The next “big” activity I did was a multi-day, detailed craft that I prominently displayed in our classroom window. Sure enough, I got the award next time around. ^_^;;

    You said you only knew what Bob had done because the client called to say something. So is it possible others have done comparable things and clients just didn’t bring it up? You said you asked them what they have done personally, but that’s an awkward position to put someone in. It feels more like a rhetorical question in response to the complaining.

    I like the suggestions to make recognition more private, but it also might help if you had more avenues to find out when people have gone above and beyond. (Could there be an incentive for clients to give feedback more often?)

    Granted, they could also just be complainers who get annoyed by people doing well, because it makes their perfectly adequate work look bad in comparison. Those people exist, too. But if they haven’t complained a lot before, it seems like it’s worth taking their comments at face value this time around and seeing if there’s a way to improve the system.

    1. LydiaBydia*

      “So is it possible others have done comparable things and clients just didn’t bring it up? You said you asked them what they have done personally, but that’s an awkward position to put someone in.”

      I came here to say this as well!

      I worked in retail a few years back. A handful of times, a customer would compliment me to my manager about how I went “above and beyond” – though most of the time, I performed the same hard work and attention to detail that many coworkers did. It was really just the luck of the draw that these particular customers were kind enough to seek out my manager for a positive reason (as anyone who works in retail knows, it’s often the opposite!).

      Kind of unfortunately, my manger would then make a big show of complimenting me at staff meetings and usually provided a small gift card as well. It actually tended to be embarrassing because like I said, a lot of my coworkers provided the same level of excellent service. A coworker who I was very friendly with privately mentioned to me that they were resentful – not with me, but that the manager would, intentionally or not, also disparage everyone else’s work in complimenting mine (“everyone should strive to be this great!” etc.). The hard feelings really came from not feeling recognized, and again – intentionally or not – really made everything feel like a competition.

      Maybe it’s my personality, but I really would’ve preferred that my manager complimenting me privately and added a positive note to my record. It sounds like OP already does this, but it may not assuage the way the “exception” award is presented or the extra perks that come with it when other have done similar work. I always did my best to give heartfelt thanks to coworkers who really helped me out during our staff meetings, or tried to grab a manager when a customer was complimenting someone else so they could witness it. That definitely seemed to help – sometimes it just sucks to not get recognition.

  59. Temperance*

    LW #1: sounds like your coworker self-identifies as an empath. Which can be a fancy way of saying someone reacts to what they THINK you’re feeling by taking on those feelings themselves.

    I would just icily keep correcting.

  60. Eldritch Office Worker*

    #1 – early in the pandemic, the job I had at the time started holding board meetings over zoom. One board member was ALWAYS saying something like “I can tell by facial reactions SOME PEOPLE disagree with me” – and she was almost always incorrect. In hindsight, I really wish I’d felt empowered to say something to her. It was derailing, and passive aggressive, and made everyone incredibly self conscious about their facial expressions.

    Now, I really try to correct people if they say they “know” what I’m thinking by my facial expression. If a similar situation arises, I won’t change my facial expressions, but I will very clearly tell people they are wrong and ask them politely not to make assumptions without asking me/clarifying with me. (note: it doesn’t happen often enough that I’m worried about my facial expressions, though zoom has made that easier to monitor – some people just really read into minor facial ticks).

    I know nonverbal communication is important, but some people are really speaking a different language in terms of faces, especially if they don’t know you well. I think perhaps in the online environment we’ve learned to focus on faces to compensate for the lack of full body communication. That could be a whole nother letter, but please approach this as an embarassing gaffe on their part, not something you’re doing wrong. Especially if you have a medical issue. You shouldn’t be made to be self conscious about that.

  61. Chocolate eclair*

    #4 I hope there is a special Karma for people who don’t pay attention to OOO notices. Your boss likely wanted to avoid barrage of questions to them and to you when you returned, so they had you set your OOO message very generally. Its your choice now how you want to tell people and if you want to tell people. If you are ready for condolences and ready to talk about what happened in some way then by all means tell people. If your not in a place where you can do that at work say you had an unexpected absence that was noted in your email, and leave it at that. My Father died and it took a six months before I could talk about him without breaking down, and work was not somewhere I could deal with that. Do what is best for you.

    1. Frankie*

      Yeah–LW 4 does not have to explain the absence in any way–it’s not like they were gone for months. Two weeks is a longer but normal vacation. People should be able to read an OOO and follow instructions if it’s so urgent.

  62. TX_Trucker*

    OP # 3. Both SAD lamps and plant lights are fairly common in my office building. Some employees have both. I have an aerogarden on my desk and find the combination of looking at live plants and bright lights to be very soothing after a stressful meeting.

  63. Queen Ruby*

    Regarding LW #4: my then-boyfriend’s (now fiancee!) father passed away about a year ago. I was out for 5 days, helping him make arrangements and such. Because I couldn’t work from home, I did not have access to my email and didn’t have a chance to set up an OOO message. Fortunately, a generally horrible woman in another dept had enough moments of sympathy to make sure my clients all understood what happened and how to direct anything that came up in the meantime. She even took up some of my work (we overlapped enough to allow this) until I got back. I thought that was a seriously wonderful way to help me out, esp from someone I wouldn’t expect it from!
    However, at another job, I had to put my beloved 13 year old dog to sleep. My boss told me to take off as much as I needed, and put up an OOO message directing clients to him or to my back-up, whose contact info was always provided in the SOW and clients were very familiar with. One particularly obnoxious client (the type that gives big pharma a bad name) read me the riot act upon my return, then softened when I said it was a family emergency and said he hoped everything turned out ok. I said very bluntly that no, it hadn’t and there’d been a death in the family. That sucked the air out of the room, so to speak (it was actually on a call). I figured they’d learn some lesson. But I was wrong…
    Six months later, at the same job/same boss, I suffered a miscarriage on NYD. The office was closed until Jan2. I simply told my boss via email I had a medical emergency, was ok, but would need a few days off to recover. He wished me well and when I returned a couple days after the new year, I told him what had happened and he again said to take all the time I needed (he was not the best boss, but an extremely kind, empathetic person). I was happy to be back at work and distracted, though. Same obnoxious client demanded- no joke- an essay from me about why I was out and how I will address my unexpected, extended absences going forward. I replied to client, in no uncertain terms, that it was a personal matter, and that I would not be accommodating such an inappropriate request. I copied my boss, and let him handle it. They flipped out again a week later when I left early (3:30 on a Friday) to get bloodwork done. Some people never learn!

    TL;DR my point is that people sometimes handle this stuff so poorly and all it does it make things so much worse all around. Why can’t people read between the lines, and behave appropriately? Obviously something Big is going on. Follow up as directed in the OOO, or be kind and patient while the person gets up to speed upon their return. It’s not that difficult!

    And, LW4, I’m very sorry about your father.

  64. Panda*

    For #2, I had this issue at one of my previous jobs. I was the one getting awards and recognition. The others were resentful. However, I was also volunteering for projects that they had the opportunity to volunteer for and doing work far above their level. They never wanted to do extra work and had to be voluntold for any projects so they did a poor job. Their complaining got so bad that my manager stopped recognizing the awards in team meetings because she didn’t want to hear their complaints. It was frustrating to me since I worked really hard and went above and beyond. It paid off though as I received several promotions there.

    1. Dinwar*

      I’ve heard a lot of people–here, on other websites, and in real life–say they want to do the bare minimum to earn their pay. Then they complain when other people get promotions, get recognition, get interesting projects.

      It’s a balance we all need to resolve for ourselves. If you want rewards and recognition and career advancement you need to put in extra effort. If you want to put in the minimum effort, your career will stagnate and you will not be noticed. To be clear, neither is wrong–it’s just that you need to pick where you fall on that spectrum and own it.

      1. Eldritch Office Worker*

        I think a lot of it is people not knowing what they want. “I just want to show up, punch the clock, and get paid” is perfectly valid, but you’re spending a good chunk of your time at work and most people would like to spend that time interested and engaged to *some* degree, even if they’re a little apathetic about capitalism and hustle culture.

        That extra effort can happen without working insane hours or sacrificing your sanity, but we only tell the two ends of the spectrum (overworked/burnt out and apathetic/bare minimum) so I don’t think a lot of people know how to aspire to the middle, where you can be engaged and even ambitious but still go home at 5. We don’t talk about it enough.

        1. doreen*

          I agree that we don’t talk about the middle enough – but there are also people who are somewhat interested and engaged in their job but still only willing to do the bare minimum. I’ve known lots of them – some of them do their jobs well, others just meet minimum standards but what they have in common is that they do nothing they are not required to, not even if it doesn’t involve any extra hours. They don’t volunteer to sit on committees, they don’t train or mentor coworkers who are new to their role, they don’t volunteer for optional training. Which is fine – they are being paid to do their jobs and they are doing them but I have actually had people tell me that anything “extra” shouldn’t be considered when it comes to assignments and promotions. And I mean anything – if speaking a second language or being a certified trainer wasn’t an actual requirement on the job posting, then it should not play any part in who is selected for a position or given opportunities.

        2. Dinwar*

          Like I said, it’s something for every individual to decide. I agree that our culture tends to think too much in black-and-white, but that’s not really an excuse. It’s simply not possible to NOT make a choice on this, the only real question is whether you do it deliberately or let it simply happen to you. Outcomes tend to be better when deliberately chosen.

  65. Hi, I'm Troy McClure*

    Letter 5 – I am getting so, so tired of the resume goalposts constantly moving. It’s like whatever employees do, it’s never good enough. It’s exhausting to jump through all these hoops, and it’s considered a rare stroke of luck to even get treated with basic decency by a potential employer. Why on earth would anyone get upset about the tense? Do they really have nothing better to think about?

    1. Emotional support capybara (he/him)*

      This X 1000000.

      Employers: well you seem reasonably qualified but there’s a gerund in your resume. Begone.

      Also employers: nobody wants to work anymore :'(

    2. ??*

      Where do you see anyone getting upset about the tense? “This is the convention on resumes so it’s best to use it” isn’t someone being upset.

      1. Hi, I’m Tory McClure*

        I mean thinking less of an employee over it, and potentially penalizing them in the application process. You can’t imagine that the majority of people have ever had a lesson on gerunds in a resume.

  66. Three dollar bill*

    Huh, I have always used third person singular present test for my current role, and all of the resume prep advice I got from college classes and career center workshops have presented that as the standard for resumes. I think I’d be thrown by seeing first person, but perhaps next time I’m updating my resume I’ll try it out and see how it looks!

    1. Maple Bar*

      Agreed. Aside from never having seen a real resume like this, I also can’t think of a time over ever seen it in an example or template. Definitely the career prep I had in school (20 years ago, so not new!) always had it in third person. I’m trying to figure out how this can be the norm that hiring managers are used to!

    2. Avril Ludgateaux*

      I just checked my resume. I was sure it was in gerund (!) but like you, it is written in third person singular present tense for my current role, but specific past accomplishments (current title or prior) are always past tense. Nothing in first person.

    3. sam_i_am*

      Yeah, I pretty much always see resume templates that use third person singular for the present role. I’m honestly not sure what it would look like in first person.

    1. Eldritch Office Worker*

      Nothing. This person (the coworker not the OP) sounds exhausting, and I would personally write off most of these reactions as “you can’t please everyone”. I’d explain and push back, politely, because being this misunderstood is exhausting, but I wouldn’t put the effort OP is putting in to try to accommodate it.

  67. Maple Bar*

    I have never seen a resume written in the first person in my LIFE. I know I don’t do a ton of hiring but that cannot possibly be the convention.

    Aside from not being the norm I’ve seen, it’s so much more clunky to read (as I’m trying to picture it here) that I can’t really wrap my head around having a preference for it.

    1. MCMonkeyBean*

      To me the weird part is the present tense I think. If you write it in past tense it reads the same whether it were first or third person. I do tend to think of it as first person when I’m writing it but if the reader read it as third person it would still work.

  68. Daisy-dog*

    #2 – I worked at a substance abuse treatment facility as the office manager. Our facility director decided to start an Employee of the Month program. In the second month, an employee was nominated because he really exemplified our values. He was our chef that worked the weekend shift. Visitors’ Day was every Sunday, so when in-between tasks, he would pick a patient that did not have a visitor and be their visitor. He would ask them how they were doing, about their plans for later, or whatever they wanted to talk about. Besides the fact that he was also great at his job, always willing to help everyone with anything, and everyone loved him, this cemented that he would be the winner that month. He cried when we privately told him that he won (and so did I).

    In spite of the fact that he was so popular (it was literally impossible not to like this guy), I got so many passive aggressive comments about why the other nominees weren’t considered. They were considered and could still win in the future, but this guy was very deserving. I just ignored it. That industry does attract a lot of employees who are passionate about the work, so there were many people who did an amazing job. To me, it just felt like maybe doing Employee of the Month was probably not the best (my boss loved it though). But it was very worthwhile to recognize people who were so kind and thoughtful like our chef.

    1. Temperance*

      I worked at a place that had an Employee of the Month program, and the same department always won because their manager was on the Committee that chose it, and, well, due to the difficult nature of that job, I think everyone else felt bad and just let her keep doing it? It was a hotel and the department that won regularly was Housekeeping.

      1. Daisy-dog*

        After people were upset at this win, I definitely felt like Employee of the Month was not a good fit for us. Maybe a more sporadic recognition with less fanfare would have been better.

    2. Aspiring Chicken Lady*

      I love this story and really want to have the perfect passive aggressive kind of response to the complainers that shuts them down. I mean, if that’s not award worthy, I’d like them to define their criteria.

  69. Alton Brown's Evil Twin*

    #1 – I’m honestly surprised this hasn’t been an issue for lots and lots of people, what with video calls over the last 3 years.

    I will sometimes catch myself in the showback window with a weird look on my face, because I’m trying to digest something complicated that somebody said, or a conversation has triggered a vague memory that I’m trying to recall, etc.

    I think it shows another flaw in OP’s coworker’s thinking, because she hasn’t pulled somebody else aside to calibrate her emotional response – which is what I would do if I found myself annoyed at somebody else all the time. “What do you think Bob meant by that comment, was he trying to make a point about the memo I wrote to the finance department?”

    1. bamcheeks*

      because I’m trying to digest something complicated that somebody said, or a conversation has triggered a vague memory that I’m trying to recall, etc

      .. but definitely never because I’m scrolling twitter in the background and something weird has just floated past, oh no.

  70. Selina Luna*

    OP #4,
    When my sister died very unexpectedly in June, I had a lot of people keep bothering me about it. How was I holding up? Was I okay? Did I need anything?
    In the end, I send an email BCCd to the worst offenders basically saying kindly that I appreciated their looking out, but constant reminders were making my time at work very difficult.
    I’m not suggesting you do this, mind. I know what you’re going through, and only you know how to really deal with it.

  71. BellyButton*

    I have a very expressive face when I am interacting with people, but when I am focused on my work or thinking as I am walking to a meeting I have been told I look “intense” or “mad”, which always brings on the dreaded “SMILE!” comment *scowl*

  72. Catabouda*

    I know I can trend towards aggressive (possibly passive aggressive) in my responses, but for #4, if someone was complaining about missing a deadline due to me being out, I’d be replying back with “Were the directions in my away message on how to get that answered during my absence unclear?”

    1. Cat Lover*

      I’ve added a cheerful “if the OOO did not come through, please let me know so I can alert IT :)” or something like that.

      1. Grumpy Elder Millennial*

        I’m with you on this one. It’s not the LW’s fault that these people didn’t follow up with the coworkers providing coverage. I hope that the LW can get some support from their manager on this one.

  73. shannaconda*

    OP3 – in my experience of bringing a SAD lamp to my cubicle I had 2 kinds of responses:
    1) someone who walked around the corner and was like “whoa that’s bright!”
    2) people who recognized a SAD lamp and were like “oh that’s so smart why didn’t I think to bring one in, does it really help, where did you get that desktop sized one?”

    All in all, pretty low key! I wouldn’t worry about it!

  74. Grumpy Elder Millennial*

    LW4, I’m so sorry for your loss. May your dad’s memory be a blessing.

    First off, the people haranguing you are acting like jerks. You were away, provided alternate contacts, they didn’t contact those people, and are trying to make that your fault. The fact that you were away dealing with such a loss makes it worse, but everyone is entitled to be away for a time and not dealing with work. Would your boss support you in pushing back a little with those folks on how you were unavailable and not checking e-mail?

    To your point about needing to reply to a million messages of condolence, I agree with Alison that you don’t have to. If I send someone a condolence message, I don’t demand any reply at all, because it’s not about me. The last thing I want to do is to make an awful situation any harder. But I’m also a generally reasonable human being with a decent amount of compassion. If anyone gets weird with you about not responding / responding well enough to their message, that’s just them being (unintentionally?) cruel.

  75. WhoKnows*

    OP 1, one of my former bosses (who is now a very good friend) once told me as part of my official review that I had to work on my RBF lol. Some people just need to get over themselves and their seeming “ability to read people.” Don’t change anything about your face OR talking with your hands. Unless you’re actively making some kind of negative emotional face at someone on purpose, this is their problem, not yours. As Allison said, address with them that they are reading you incorrectly and to use their communication skills to talk to you, not assume your thoughts and feelings. I hope things improve!

  76. Observer*

    OP#1 – facial expressions- , I haven’t had a chance to read all of the comments yet. But I really, really want to highlight something really important.

    You write that you are looking for “advice on how to keep your facial expressions completely neutral without looking/sounding robotic” The answer is that it’s actually neither possible or desirable.

    You also say that “I want to be engaged with this person so I don’t want to be robotic.” I honestly think that this is not a goal you should be putting too much thought to. The bottom line is that his behavior is not reasonable, and it’s not realistic to never make ANY motion of your hands or faced that simply CANNOT be misinterpreted by someone who is apparently looking to get offended. Don’t waste the effort.

    And *please* do NOT try to stop yourself from using your hands or showing ANY expression. This is the definition of cold and robotic. (And to top it off, this guy is going to get offended by that, too.)

  77. DivergentStitches*

    I feel #1 so hard. I had a job where someone – I never found out who – complained about my mannerisms and facial expressions all the time. And my supervisor would bring it up at every 1:1. “You only smiled at someone in the hall, you didn’t verbally respond to their ‘good morning'” or “you rolled your eyes when training someone” (which I would never do!)

    I was undiagnosed autistic at the time, and it really hurt to have people judging my face and body movements so harshly. I thought (and I still do) that when someone perceives a facial or body movement in any way, the onus is on the perceiver to get it right, not the perceived. If someone perceives that I’m tired through my body language, they may or may not be correct.

    But I took the feedback in that there was something wrong with ME that I needed to fix. I wish I’d had Alison’s advice then!

    1. MurpMaureep*

      I’m so sorry you experienced that. For what it’s worth, your boss handled that very poorly and you did nothing wrong. If anything they should have seen the complainer as being the problem and coached them on why policing others’ expressions is generally problematic.

    2. just some guy*

      Solidarity. Not so much in my job, but I got that from people who I believed to be friends.

      It’s taken a long time to get to the point of “actually no that’s a you problem not a me problem”.

  78. Polly Hedron*

    I have a question about Alison’s answer to OP #1:

    If this is only an issue with this one person, it’s an issue with them, not you. You should not have to keep your face and hands unnaturally still simply because they misinterpret things in the worst possible light.

    Does this imply that, if this is an issue with more than one person, OP #1 should keep her face and hands unnaturally still?

    1. Grumpy Elder Millennial*

      I don’t read Alison’s response to mean that. I took it to mean that if a bunch of people were misreading the LW’s body language/tone, it would make sense to do some thinking about what was going on and make decisions about whether to change things. Like if someone is coming off as not being approachable to a bunch of people, that’s something worth thinking about. But since it’s just one person in this case, the LW doesn’t even need to take that step because it’s so clear that the issue is with the other person. I read Alison’s comment as more of a general statement rather than something about keeping unnaturally still in particular.

  79. onyxzinnia*

    A SAD lamp is a special desktop lamp that mimics sunlight. Having it shine on you for an hour or so is supposed to help you release serotonin and produce Vitamin D.

    1. Avril Ludgateaux*

      Thanks! Even though I have windows and sunlight, I might want to look for one of these. Usually by March my mood is markedly worse, baseline, even though the days are getting longer. It’s like it takes my body a couple of months to recover from winter – and I love winter. I just wish it were possible to have winter with more sun (I know, scientifically impossible, let a girl dream).

  80. YM*

    LW #3-I worked in an office where one section of the building had zero natural light. Management preemptively bought SAD lights for everyone in that section, whether they asked for it or not. Definitely a normal thing in an office :)

    1. Mrs. Pommeroy*

      Wow, that was a great initiative from your management! I hope it helped whoever had to work in that part of the building.

  81. ASD Mom*

    Inability to accurately interpret facial expressions – also known as expressive agnosia – is often seen in individuals with autism. It is a result of damage or underdevelopment of the occipital region of the brain.

    1. Riot Grrrl*

      I’m not an expert at this, but it sounds like what you’re describing is an inability to perceive facial expressions. What OP seems to be describing is an oversensitivity that leads her coworker to interpret every expression or movement as negative. Again, not an expert, but these sound like different things to me.

      1. just some guy*

        I am autistic and you are 100% correct. In my experience, my expressions are far more likely to be misread by non-autistic people (who, as a gross generalisation, over-interpret nonverbal stuff) than by other autistics (who are more likely to interpret my communication as intended).

        An autistic person might miss somebody else’s nonverbal cues but they are unlikely to over-interpret them as described here.

    2. Observer*

      And how does this help the LW?

      There is a rule here about not diagnosing people. It’s here for 2 reasons. One is that it often reads like an excuse for mis-behavior. The second issue is that it doesn’t change anything for the LW.

      It doesn’t matter why the CW is having issues with misinterpreting the LW’s expressions. They are still being inappropriate in their reaction and the OP should definitely NOT try to stop using her hands nor to make her face neutral at all times. She’s not a robot, and she shouldn’t have to act like one.

  82. Lola*

    OP3 – not only do I use a SAD light, but I’ve had several coworkers, including someone from the C-Suite, ask me where I got it, so they can get one too! I live in Chicago, and apparently this December and January were two of the cloudiest months on record. Most people I know totally get why you might use one.

    1. Grumpy Elder Millennial*

      Torontonian here and I can confirm that this winter has been SUPER cloudy compared to the norm. And warm. It’s basically like winter on the west coast. (It is currently cloudy, raining, and 3C/37F).

  83. Mark This Confidential And Leave It Laying Around*

    Re: the award–I think where OP blew it is making an award for something personal that Bob did, on his own time, out of the goodness of his heart. Yes, it was for a client, so it’s work-adjacent, but Bob himself didn’t publicize it at work. I think the award has left your team feeling that the only way they can get recognized at work is by rescuing a kitten from a tree and then you accidentally finding out about it. Work awards should be tied to work accomplishments. Bob is a great guy, good on him for stepping up for a client when he clearly didn’t have to–but that’s not what a work award is meant to highlight. You just showed your team that your metrics for performance are haphazard and arbitrary. That’s why they’re spinning out.

  84. Expressiveness is good*

    Re. OP1, as someone who often has a hard time interpreting people, I *love* my colleagues who are more expressive than most. It makes things so much easier. If you worked with me I bet I’d be thrilled.

  85. A Pound of Obscure*

    #2. Tell them that people who win awards tend to be the kind of people who are happy for other people who win awards. I had to say that once to a team I led.

    1. OP #2*

      This may be my favourite comment of the whole section!!

      In reality I think some need to be told this, but absolutely agree with the commenters that say some more digging is needed regarding dynamic. I intend to work on that this week with the ones who are making the most noise to find out why that is.

  86. yala*

    ‘For example: “No, I am not sneering, I am squinting to read tiny text. If you need to know what I am thinking, please ask me rather than assuming, since you are often misinterpreting me.”’

    I’ve tried similar responses and tend to get treated like a liar covering up for themselves.

    One of the more frustrating incidents was when I was *trying* for accommodating tone/body language, and my coworker and supervisor interpreted it as “afraid coworker is going to physically attack me with the thing she is holding” because I realize I’d interrupted her in the middle of bringing something to her desk to ask a question, and said “Oh, sorry, you can go put that down” because I meant exactly that–go finish what you’re doing, sorry I interrupted. The coworker responded to me in a tone so nasty I almost started crying, but afterwards, I was the one who got reprimanded and supervisor said she didn’t see anything wrong with the way my coworker had spoken to me.

    You really just can’t control how people are going to decide to interpret your expressions, tone, body language, etc. And some folks will be uncharitable with you.

    One more reason I miss masking being the standard.

  87. no one reads this far*

    LW 1: Your coworker sounds exhausting. You shouldn’t have to stop being yourself just because they jump to the completely wrong assumption. I wouldn’t pay them any mind.

    LW 3: FWIW, the CEO of my company uses a SAD lamp in the office.

  88. Beka Rosselin-Metadi*

    Oh, OP 4. My Dad died three years-it wasn’t sudden and he was aged but it was still painful. Everyone in my office knew and which helped-I think it’s okay to just say it and get it over with, or ask a colleague who could pass the word. People can be nice and forgiving when it’s a family emergency. But not always! Our HR director emailed me once I returned to the office and said “I heard your Dad was ill and I hope he’s recovered” and I had to laugh-my Dad would have found it funny, although I was also angry that she never bothered to ask anyone what happened. My point is, do what’s best for you. I guilt-tripped her. I cried on everyone’s shoulders (literally). You do whatever you need to do get through-I know it’s hard and people can just deal with it.

  89. PlainJane*

    OP1: Consciously or unconsciously, your colleague is power-tripping, getting you to police everything you say and do for fear of setting off a hidden emotional landmine. You can’t live like that. Don’t capitulate. If you’re worried that she will report you for this, talk to your supervisor ahead of time–“Look, Selina and I seem to have a problem with our communication, and I’m not sure how to address it…” That way, it’s already on record if there’s a complaint.

  90. Hillia*

    #4 If people continue with the complaints about dealing with the consequences of their own actions, I have found a very flat ‘my father died’ while maintaining eye contact and a completely neutral expression is startling enough that people will back off for a minute to process. Which gives you the opportunity to say, ‘Did you forward that ask to Felicia as my out of office email noted? I’m working on all of the tasks that were left for me instead of being routed to my backups, so I can’t give you a delivery date at this time.”

    Obviously this only works if you’re able to be that flat and unemotional about a very emotional topic. I was able to pull it off, but I know a lot/most people will just be too raw for this to be useful.

  91. QWERTY*

    OP#3: SAD lamps are the best! I live in the sub-arctic, we have very limited day light throughout the winter and they are LIFESAVERS. That and Vitamin D (for fun, feel free to google the Yukon’s Everyone Needs the D campaign from a few years ago… yes it’s real). If anyone does say anything about it, or you still feel weird: you can get SAD lightbulbs that will screw into regular lamps and light fixtures as well.

  92. 515e*

    OP 2 – I don’t know if this is at all reflective of your situation, but your letter made me think of my sister’s graduation.

    My sister is in “pink collar” industry. There were only two male students who graduated in her class from her program. At her graduation, one of the male students received a special award, with one of the professors reading this very heartfelt letter from the family of a client that was just so grateful to the male student going “above and beyond” in taking care of her relative. The instructor got teary reading it.

    I knew my sister knew the male student and I said something to her about him getting the award after her graduation.

    She rolled her eyes.

    It sounded like all of the female students were pretty exasperated by the male students receiving an outsized amount of the praise when their actions weren’t actually anything different than what the female students were doing – it was just that the clients and instructors expected the female students to be exhibiting that level of empathy and emotional care taking. But for the male students, that behavior was “above and beyond.”

    This may or may not be applicable for your workplace, but if their are demographic differences between Bob and the rest of your staff, well, consider it food for thought.

    1. Giant Kitty*

      It’s interesting, because I have a gay male roommate that has been one of my closest friends for decades (since middle school) who is just now getting into the caregiver industry. He was telling me how surprised he was at the interviewers positive reaction when he talked about caregiving for friends that were dying of AIDS or cancer, because it’s been so standard in the LGBTQIA community for so many years by now. I had to explain that in the wider culture it’s extremely uncommon both for people to care for people who are not actual family members, and for men to be caregivers at all, for anyone.

  93. Required*

    “Thank you” is also a good response to “I hope everything is okay.” Also, at work, it is appropriate to wait a few days for all the sympathy messages to come in and then send a group thank you to all the people who emailed you. Source 1: did this when my dad died. Source 2: when I did it, it was at the suggestion of somebody else who had done that (literally said in the first work sympathy email I got — I think it was their thing).

  94. Susannah*

    Oh, LW – I am so, so sorry about your dad. And I think people forget how utterly exhausting grief is, on top of everything else.
    But man, I would be so tempted to say to them – is there some reason you ignored the instructions to connect with X person during my absence? I mean, that take some nerve, getting annoyed with you when they refused to follow *explicit* instructions to go to someone else.

  95. OP4*

    Hi, all — OP4 here. I was away from my computer all day and thus wasn’t able to reply to your comments in-line, but I thank everyone for the sympathy and the suggestions about to respond to coworkers. Alison very smartly edited out some potentially-identifying details from my initial letter, but one thing that I think is relevant to mention is that most of my coworkers live in other countries and are not native English speakers. To those commenters who suggested that my coworkers have trouble with reading comprehension in English: yes, they do! They know this about themselves, though, and they’re usually quite good about asking for clarification when they don’t understand something, so what surprised me upon returning is that they had not reached out to anyone specified in my OOO message or my own manager with questions about how to handle things in my absence and had instead just sat on things.

    In any case, although my manager had initially mandated that I not use “family emergency” in my OOO (presumably, as people noted, to avoid a barrage of questions), I asked her about using it now, and she’s cleared me to do that as long as I’m okay with it. I’m hesitant to share too many details where they’re not necessary, but I think that Alison is right that using “family emergency” where it’s warranted would at least help assuage some frayed nerves among the people whose deadlines we have missed. I worry some about the potential blowback on my manager and the rest of our (small) department, whom others may now view as disorganized for lacking a system to deal with an unexpected absence, but I guess that’s not really my problem to solve at the moment.

    Thank you again to everyone for your kindness.

  96. Cake or Death*

    Reading the responses to LW #1 has been wonderful. I just hope that my former manager who used to constantly berate me for my facial expressions (including chewing me out because my face “ruined her morning”) is reading today.

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