In every interaction there are statuses both defined and unspoken. We all have bosses and superiors or people in a higher position who expect to be treated with a level of trepidation and respect. I've always gotten along the best with people who have no use for these games and who like being told my honest opinion, and then tell me theirs right back.
The first time I hung out with Courtney Love in a social situation she was going on and on about some guy. "You need to shut the f--- up," I said. "You must drive men nuts."
From that moment on, we were friends.
Despite what you may think of who I am or what I do today, the reality is: I have worked so many super-mainstream, super-corporate jobs that fitting into this culture is a deeply ingrained, smart sensible pantsuit part of my being.
These are the kinds of jobs where you pass around the birthday card in the manilla folder, have chitchat at the watercooler about the weather and feign disgust about seemingly "inappropriate" behavior or actions, often in the name of fun gossip about other people in the office.
This last area is the one where I have always had the most trouble. Of course, I gossip as much as the next person but hating on someone for "daring" to wear something or dating the wrong guy or acting too big for her britches at a staff meeting is just not my jam. I tend to get more disgusted by people who are hypocrites, liars and phonies, roles that are often celebrated in our society because it is a smart version of "playing the game." So I've kept my mouth shut when side eyes are given toward the secretary wearing a skirt that people deem too short or smack-talking is easily initiated against the temp who got wasted at the party and ended up Xeroxing her boobs or whatever.
Where I find myself getting into trouble is when I am in a position where I'm supposed to be celebrated for being myself -- raw and brutal and honest (and whatever you may think, this article is actually not one long subtweet about xoJane; I'm talking about something else entirely) -- and then I'm chastised for not kissing a ring appropriately. It's a constant reminder that even when supposed authenticity is celebrated and encouraged, at the end of the day it is egos and eggshells that still run everything.
I chastised someone the other day for not being appropriately deferential for me based on "all I had done" for the person, and I kind of hated myself for doing it. It's human nature to want to act this way from time to time. My solace when I do so is at least in calling out exactly what I'm doing to the other person -- that I realize that it is an ego thing, but it is what it is, and my gut told me that I needed to make my desire for a certain level of respect clear.
I've told this to many a young person before (because I wish I would have been told this myself when I was in my 20s): I honestly believe almost all of the professional fights in the world stem from a conflict of two people differing on where they believe their status to reside, or even where it actually quite obviously resides. One person takes their defined higher status very seriously and expects a degree of decorum and deference accordingly.
When I did a profile for the New York Post of Kathy Griffin in 2009, she told me something that I have never forgotten because it laid out this dynamic so stark and clear. She said that the reason she had done so well over the years (and had staying power) was that she had always known her place in the business. She related an example of some variety show she performed on where an A-list movie star and an American Idol winner were both on the bill, and the Idol winner's friends and family were pushing the movie star out of the dressing room into the hallway. For the reality star to be so blindly in his bubble to not accord the headlining celebrity with the respect of his space illuminated his character as a whole.
Almost every conflict in the professional world arises from "not knowing your status" and the tension that comes from this. Years ago I was chided by a superior because she told me I was being "rude and disrespectful" when I defended a story idea. This was in the environment of a newspaper where people are brutal to one another and scream at each other fairly regularly. "Well you're rude and disrespectful to me all the time, and I don't take that personally," I responded. The superior who I said this to then screamed at me to get out of her office.
When I related the anecdote to a much older and wiser friend at the time, he told me, "Look, you've had your come to Jesus moment. Now it's time for you to suck it up and apologize."
I did exactly that. I enjoyed it even. Because I didn't mean a word of it.
I have plenty of actual regrets in life. But not sucking up to someone's ego does not reach the top of the list. I have no problem doing so when I feel that the person accords me a level of respect back, but if it's straight-up "48 Laws of Power" mind games being played or if the person has thus far always shown themselves to be a rough player who can dish and take -- and now they're suddenly crying foul, give me a break. Do you really just want to dress me down so you can feel secure that you are a higher status than me? Fine. Enjoy spending your life that way.
When I am real with someone (even when it is harsh), I am giving what is (perhaps in my warped and twisted mind) the ultimate sign of respect. I am being straight with you rather than Control Top Pantyhose Sensible Business Attire Shared Coffeecake in the Conference Room Soul Dead Fake.
When I kiss your ring just the way you like it, that to me, is the saddest thing possible. It means that I think you can't take it. It means that we are playing the games of propriety where no true thing is actually uttered but we all dance around on tiptoe of what we really mean and we hem and haw rather than actually saying, "I'm so unbelievably pissed at you right now, and here's why."
I do think that I am wrong quite often.
Perhaps every word that I am typing in this is totally and absolutely wrong, but at least I'm being sincere rather than painting some elaborate self-deception and strategizing how to get myself in your best possible graces for what my next "move" might be.
It's why I suck at game-playing with men. I can give advice until the cows come home about how to drive him nuts by not answering his calls and juggling all the competing dates you have in the hopper, but I find it more fun to talk about this strategy being employed by women everywhere with the man I am on a date with than actually gaming him myself.
The only way that I've ever kept sane in this world is by having one or two people close to me who I can be completely honest with where I don't have to dress up what I'm saying in some Scarlett O'Hara outfit of curtains and B.S. With what I do here at xoJane and elsewhere (and honestly the writing that I've been doing ever since I moved to New York about a decade ago), I have increasingly let my defenses down in this area. More and more, I am straight with the majority of people, even if it means people don't like it. The reality is: It's led to better writing and performing than I've previously done in my career. But part of this means that my level of watercooler weather conversation warmup skills and deferential tiptoeing has plummeted dramatically. In a lot of ways it's taken me off my guard with how it is very easy to offend people when you grow increasingly comfortable with this dynamic.
And I need to be more careful.
Because besides this just being straight-up smart, it's also more compassionate. And I try to hold basic kindness to other people as one of my core values.
I had a fight with someone who I work with in a professional capacity this weekend. It's someone who is not related in any way to xoJane, and it reminded me once again, that I am a huge dummy in thinking that I can be honest and transparent when someone's ego might get bruised because they think I disrespected them in an interaction in some way. Because when it comes down to it, I care more about being kind and careful with a trigger point for a person that pisses them off than I do about whatever long-winded justification for my behavior there might be.
If you're wondering what my dynamic is with my bosses at xoJane, I would say that it's a tricky terrain I've learned how to navigate better with time. I probably fail at times, but overall, I think Jane and Emily and Rebecca know that I'm trying my best and always seeking to improve. Overall, I feel like I am treated with respect by my superiors so it comes easily and naturally for me to treat them with the appreciation, anticipation and deference that they all deserve. (And I've said this before, but if you want to know the secret to success in any job it's not to ask, "How can I be a kiss-ass employee?" It's instead to ask, "How can I make my bosses' life easier?")
I do think that the same reason people enjoy it when I "tell it like it is" or whatever is the same reason they think I'm a jerk because I attempted (perhaps misguidedly or perhaps rudely) to "tell it like it is." It's a hard dynamic for me to navigate at times, but all I can do is try my best and attempt to be better at sussing out the "temperature of the room" as it were in how I interact. Like I said, I consider myself a fairly kind person at heart, and that's an important thing for me to offer up to the world. So perhaps I need to get off my moral high horse in thinking that I'm having to compromise some bit of authentic integrity, when in reality, it's simply me making an effort to be more of a considerate human being overall.
And part of the problem here -- not to make excuses but just to unpack the damn thing -- is that it is very easy to get steamrolled in my business. Strength and speed rather than tiptoeing and hesitation can make a crucial difference in getting results. It can make all the difference, and often does. But it doesn't mean I should let that justify me acting like a jerk.
I do know that one of the main things that brings me pleasure in life is when someone is telling me exactly what they think of me -- no games -- and I am telling them exactly what I think of them. Nothing makes me feel closer and more connected to another human being. We can argue, we can disagree, we can use all the skills of wit and brutality and incisiveness we each bring to bear in the conversation, and out of it we can have epiphanies and realizations and failures and delightful life-invigorating messiness. It's why I love people in comedy. It's why I love roasts. It's why I love speaking the unspeakable. Nothing is scary anymore. You have put into the light what you were afraid was the darkest thing possible -- and look at that, we're both still here.
But all of life is not like the back table at the Comedy Cellar. It's rife with propriety and minefields and triggers and egos (including mine) that need to be navigated. I've always been aware of the importance of treating superiors carefully throughout the professional world, and such status dynamics will never change. Not for me, not for anyone.
Someone who you want something from chastises you. If you cannot walk away, you can either kiss the ring -- or you can suffer the consequences. That is the essence of playing the game. All people have is the hard work they have done in this world, and in every interaction they are subconsciously carrying their grudges and their anger and their resentments they have incurred from accomplishing this hard work to the table. It's a pissing contest that can never be won. "I worked so hard. I've done so much for you." "I worked so hard, too. I've done so much to appreciate how much you've done for me." It's a competition that never ends well.
I think the lesson for me is to be straight with the people who I feel safe with being this way. And to not see it as some great moral compromise when I am -- gasp -- more considerate or more respectful with people who I am less intimate with and who could easily and understandably just think I'm being a straight-up rude-ass aggressive nasty bitch. It's just simple civility and politeness at the end of the day.
I can also remember that all of this hand-wringing on my part is just dumb ego on my part in the first place.
If someone thinks I'm a bitch, then there's no harm in saying sorry and being sincere about it (versus the example I gave at the top). I probably was a bitch. Or they experienced me to be that way, and their experience is absolutely valid. What I view as quick decision-making and problem-solving other people can view as rude and hostile steamrolling. I can do that as much as I want on my own time and with people who I am comfortable doing this with in an established dynamic where we get one another's style. But I hate drama for drama's sake. I don't enjoy hurting people's feelings. I'd much prefer to put my energy into exercises that produce results and create something -- rather than an argument I won't even remember the details of years from now.
What matters the most is whether I am truly being honest with myself in all of these interactions I have throughout my life -- both professional and unprofessional. And if I keep trying to do that the best I can, then that is perhaps the most meaningful status of all.
Tell me, how do you successfully navigate the working world? And what's the biggest fight you've ever had with someone where you were supposed to be on your best "professional" behavior?