Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Skin Deep

It's official: I am thick-skinned.

I have written in the past in the blog and the book about how important it is to find ways to deal with negative reviews (papers, proposals, teaching, whatever) and to develop a 'thick skin' about these things as a way to survive the constant evaluations that occur in an academic life. I feel upset and angry about negative reviews, especially if they are unfounded, mean, and stupid, but I don't let them get to me long-term.

The 'thick skin' metaphor describes a way of not being too sensitive and easily hurt. But then:

Recently I had a tetanus shot, which hurt. The nurse stuck the needle in my arm and then said "Oh no, it's not supposed to do THAT. Hmm."

WHAT? It's not supposed to do WHAT? I wondered (but didn't look).

"Oh, nothing.." the nurse replied, "It's just.. well, you must have very thick skin. You don't look like you do, but you do."

Ah ha. In fact, that's also true in a metaphoric sense. I don't look like I do, but I do.

But I've always wondered:

Is it better to appear tough (as I most definitely do not) so that people don't even try to push you around, or is it better to be tough even if you don't look like you are?


Meadow said...

Good advice about being thick-skinned. I have to keep reminding myself of it.

If you appear tough then people avoid trying to push you around in the first place. Helps when dealing with students so as to avoid a host of time-consuming petty problems.

It is essention to be tough especially when you don't look it I think.

Seems like women don't look tough by virtue of being small and short. Big and tall men look tough without even trying as I suppose big and tall women do.

FUG said...

Be tough. If you only appear tough, probability dictates that you'll encounter someone with small-man-syndrome, who will then test your toughness, which will then give way as you are not tough. Being tough, tyrants may try to push you around, but then they'll be surprised at your anti-tyrannical properties, and waddle off in untyrannical despair.

Ms.PhD said...

Better to be tough.

Everyone assumes I'm tough, but nobody is as tough as they make me out to be. Not even you.

Unknown said...

I definately prefer to be tough than only appearing tough. The question for me is how to become tough.

I recently bought and read your book- I really enjoy and appreciate your writing, which already covers so well many topics that I thought about writing.

yolio said...

Speaking as a definite tough-appearer, I think it is probably better to BE tough. There are defiinite advantages to appearing tough. In particular, I haven't had half the problems with students that I've heard about from others.

But when people have an idea of you as tough, they sort of de-humanize you a bit. You deal with being chronically mis-interpreted and occasionally people are just cruel because they don't think they can impact you.

amy said...

Funny story! I'm trying to imagine what happened when he/she tried to give you the shot: did the needle bend?

I always wished I looked tougher, but it never occurred to me that there were disadvantages. It is kind of nice sometimes when people are gentle with me. And I admit I enjoy surprising jerky people who try to take advantage of me and who assume I'm a pushover.

Anonymous said...

It's a relieve to hear that other academics do feel upset about stupid reviewer comments. Does it mean we're less likely to succumb to depression given we've been called 'dumb' soooo many times? :)

g.n.a.t. said...

I am definitely not tough. And I'm not sure that I even appear tough - well to my students I do, but not to my colleagues. Although I usually reserve my ranting about reviewer comments to my husband.
Do you have any advice on how to become thick-skinned? I haven't achieved that yet.

EliRabett said...

Be flexible, stay cool.

Kea said...

Everyone gets depressed by a constant barrage of negative comments. Only real toughness will get you through. I probably do not appear tough at all, but am unfortunately known to be tough by reputation.

Anonymous said...

what helps me keep a thick skin around negative reviewer comments is reminding myself that even the "superstar" PIs also get negative reviewer comments from time to time.

Anonymous said...

better to BE tough. When assaulted on the internet or through double-blind peer-review, appearances don't help.

Heather said...

Sounds like the consensus is to be, rather than appear, tough, but both might be nice.

I'd only add, don't ever ever try to suggest to someone you respect, but who seems too sensitive under certain circumstances, to develop a thick skin. Guaranteed offense given. Written by a thin-skinned person, both literally and metaphorically. But I suppose like on the soles of the feet, we might all be thick-skinned in a few areas. Unfortunately, these are not the same from one person to the next.

Shay said...

It's better to be tough.