When my boss stepped into the doorway of my office, my stomach dropped.
I knew he wasn't coming to reprimand me, but I still had something to fear, and that was his big-time complaining. Every morning, he would swing by just to badmouth my coworkers, even when he knew I was on deadline. His behavior was immature and a total time-sucker, but he either didn't see or care about that. I guess the ranting was his weird way of palling around with someone who also was new to the department. Since this was my first-ever "big girl" job and he was my boss, I put up with it.
Here's how the script normally went: my boss would whine about someone, and I would timidly offer a suggestion. Like if he said, "So-and-so just doesn't get it. He's so thick," I would say, "Maybe you could try talking to him X way." He would then sigh or groan after each recommendation. (I realize now he probably felt threatened by my ideas because another one of his favorite things to do was regularly tell me how "young" I was.) We would repeat the process until my boss's boss called him in for their morning meeting. Then, my boss would quickly tack something work-related onto the end of his rant and finally leave me alone.
One day, he cut the badmouthing short by sighing especially loudly after my latest suggestion and saying, "You know, I really just wanted to come in here and complain."
I was floored. How was it that I, someone 30 years his junior, saw how inappropriate this was and he didn't? We were not friends, this was not a slumber party, and most of what he had to say was mean for the sake of being mean. But I had to keep my cool.
I laughed awkwardly and said, "I don't know. I'm a very solutions-oriented person." In hindsight, he probably took this as a criticism, but I thought it would be better to shift the focus on me rather than on him; otherwise, I might've said something much worse.
"I don't mean to sound sexist," he started in that well-known prelude to something awful, "but you have a very masculine way of thinking."
Did that imply that he thought that I would be more receptive to his gossip because I was a woman — that I would even enjoy and relate to his cattiness? Was it because I said I'm "solutions-oriented"?
I wanted to say, No, I have a very ME way of thinking. I wanted to say that men's and women's brains may be wired differently, but, to quote Christian Jarrett of New York Magazine, it's a tiny difference. I wanted to tell him that someone's sex has nothing to do with their low tolerance for workplace gossip. I wanted to tell him to go away so I could do my job.
But I didn't say anything. Instead, I politely chuckled and, after a slight pause, moved on to a question about my project.
I didn't report the incident to Human Resources, either, because I convinced myself that it wasn't important. I mean, he could have said something much more offensive, right? What if HR told me that I was being overly sensitive and that my boss's comment wasn't an insult? What if HR went to my boss and my boss claimed I was lying? I figured that the time and effort it would take to report the comment wasn't worth it, not when my to-do list was miles long. Besides, if my report got back to my boss, he could make my life much more unpleasant pretty fast.
In those days, I confused being a good employee with being a goody-goody. I didn't want drama; I wanted to focus on doing my job well. Sure, I wanted to be friendly with my boss and coworkers — that's natural. I told myself that maybe, in time, I could become friends with coworkers at the same job level as me. But getting buddy-buddy with my boss and bashing the rest of our department wasn't exactly the bonding experience of my dreams, especially the first month on the job. My boss's gossip made me squeamish and took away from a job I had worked hard to get.
In the years since that first job, I've learned that office politics will always be an obstacle, even in nontoxic environments. It's not good enough to just do your job. Being cordial and concentrating on your projects simply won't cut it. At some point, someone will want to pull you into gossip and get annoyed if you don't indulge them. Someone will decide they don't like you and start sabotaging your success. Someone will overshare about their personal life and expect you to reciprocate. Someone will humiliate themselves at a company party and resent anyone who witnessed their downfall (even people who aren't judging them). Someone will create completely arbitrary new company rules and make it their mission to impose them.
It doesn't matter if you have a "masculine" or "feminine" way of thinking. If you're not careful, you will cave. You will get distracted. You will let the politics get to you. When someone tries to start drama, your best bet is to remain calm, be respectful, and remind yourself why you took this job. If there is a tactful way to speak up, do it. Your heart, brain, and bank account will thank you.