Friday, October 14, 2011


The other day, I had to gather my social skills (such as they are), brush my hair, and put on my most stylish socks to attend a socioprofessional event that required me to be super-nice to everyone I met there. As I was claiming my name tag from a table near the entrance, I asked the table-attendant what the "1" on my name tag signified; the other name tags that I could see did not have any numbers.

The answer to that particular question is not important to my story. But this is relevant: when I asked my question, a 70-something man standing nearby said "It means this", and he made an obscene gesture.

I thought to myself, "This is a test."

And I was determined to pass that test. I decided to practice being super-nice to him. I figured: if I can be nice to him, then I can be nice to almost anyone.

So, I noted his name and other information on his name tag, and asked him a polite question about himself. This is not what he was expecting (score one point for me), so he said "Did you see which finger I just held up?" (minus one point for him for being so desperate for attention that he had to mention this).

I ignored his question. I saw that the lapels of his jacket sported 5-6 pins indicating various organizations to which he belonged and various awards that he had won, so I made a polite comment about his apparent interests and accomplishments. (I think I should get another point for this, but I won't beg if I don't get one.)

He said "I hate awards, but I keep getting them." [insert unconvincing explanation for why he advertises (with his lapel pins) these awards that he despises but that he also totally deserves because he is awesome although of course he is too humble to say that and only says it because he keeps getting these awards, which he despises, from these organizations, which he despises etc.] (minus another point for him?)

I asked him another question about himself and his interests (I will not give myself points for these because they were rather routine), and then he said, "All you professors only care about yourselves and other professors."

To me, that's even ruder than the obscene gesture, but I was not willing to give up. I was determined to continue to withstand the onslaught of aggressively jerkish behavior. So I said "That's not true. Many of us care about our students."

His reply: "So what? Same thing. You only care about students because you want them to be professors one day so that is just like only caring about professors."

By this point, I was pretty sure that we were not having a rational conversation in which two mature and respectful adults listen to each other and make reasoned arguments to support differing opinions, so instead of responding directly to his point, I told him about some recent outreach programs and also some applied research that seemed relevant to his background (from what I could infer from his lapel pins).

I couldn't tell if he was bored or stunned. It is likely that he was disappointed that I didn't respond in a satisfying way to his obnoxious behavior. He probably thought I was freakishly polite, and perhaps heavily medicated.

In any case, although I am sure he was hating me just as much as I was hating him, I made the first move to exit this grim conversation. I silently proclaimed victory, bade him a pleasant farewell, and moved on to chat with another group of people.

This experience reminded me of other situations in which I have felt uncomfortable by someone's speech or behavior, and my strategy has been to take the high road, ignore the offense or make a mild joke, and just get on with my work. I have found this to be much more effective in the long run than responding in-kind or even walking away.

This is not the most appropriate strategy in all cases -- sometimes we need to yell and fight back or walk away -- but when there's no point in yelling, I find it personally satisfying to be as calm and mature as possible. Thinking of it as a 'test' of some sort is one way that I can get through an unpleasant situation.

I think that it is even possible to derive a strange sort of enjoyment from what is otherwise a ghastly situation if you set yourself a challenge and feel that you succeeded with it.


Anonymous said...

FSP, this is exactly why you are my hero!!!

Anonymous said...

It's the better story.

Kea said...

Well, this politeness business is all pretty routine for me, albeit not in the Professor setting. Or at least, it once was. I was raised to be a true lady, demure and smiling at all times, back in the days when there was no such thing as sexual harrassment. But now? Fukkit.

The dude makes a lot of sense to me. Many Professors ARE incredible jerks, and how do you know who or what he is, from looking at a few lapel pins? If he was an older man, he may simply be following a seriously outdated style, whereby war veterans wore medals to formal functions, and so on.

But of course, he was trained to talk down to a smart lady, especially when she represents the evil Professor class. He probably can't help it. And your reaction sounds stock standard lady like behaviour, so I doubt he was at all surprised. Now putting him in his place, THAT would have surprised him. But then, you were playing the game, right?

David Eisenberg said...

What amazing rudeness... Unbelievable.

There's a Jewish story about Hillel the Elder, who was constantly nagged by some joker. The joker kept calling Hillel out of his house during Hillel's bathing, asking him the silliest questions: why do Babilonians have oval heads, why do Africans have large feet and so on. Not once did Hillel lose his temper, but answered him each time. Eventually the joker cried out: I hope there aren't many more people like you! I just lost 400 zuz on a bet because I failed to irritate you! - To which Hillel responded: better to lose 800 zuz, than your patience. :-)

Anonymous said...

Sympathy and solidarity to you. I had a bad experience recently myself when a perfectly friendly senior scientist told me on the topic of : "Is quality of Phds and therefore, research, deteriorating?" this following amazing answer, paraphrased from memory but keeping the intent the same:
"Well, being a white male I need to watch what I am saying to stay out of trouble. But I am senior. Trouble is, same applies to the young scientists, who need to really watch what they say, all the way from tenure-track to professor. So how do you expect them to be creative?"

Thankfully at this point, he got distracted by another white male younger scientist so myself and the female graduate student I was with, could gracefully exit the conversation. What bothers me most is despite this blatantly privileged behavior, he was otherwise very nice, supportive and interested in what I do and what I think technically about some things. Go figure.

Unknown said...

Ten points for a brilliant performance! Why do jerks get rewarded? And why do they behave so badly when they are so desperate for attention?

anne said...

I have to say I admire your self-control! It seems to me a very classy and courageous way to react to this aggressive display of craziness.

Unknown said...

Maybe it's a guy thing but a punch in the face to him would have suited me better...

Rui said...

+1 point for you for sharing that awsome story with us!

Off topic, what was the number about after all? You got me curious

Anonymous said...

So, I presume the #1 meant that you were faculty?

I think there is a time for yelling, but this probably wasn't one of them.

(i.e. I want some of the congresspeople I favor to yell at other congresspeople, but I don't want them to yell at their constituents, or other people's constituents, in general)

Dr. O said...

And to think - I've heard so many people say scientists lack social skills. What a tool.

Anonymous said...

What a jerk! I wonder if he would have pulled this with a male prof? Maybe because he seemed to disdain professors in general but sometimes I think those old crazy guys really like to go after women because it feels safer.

I disagree with the comment "you were playing the game". All he wanted was to get a rise out of you and you side stepped his game - well played.

Anonymous said...

You have a good precedent:

" Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; never be conceited.
[17] Repay no one evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all.
[18] If possible, so far as it depends upon you, live peaceably with all.
[19] Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God; for it is written, "Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord."
[20] No, "if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals upon his head."

Hope he enjoyed the hot coals....

Mark P

Anonymous said...

Miss Manners always has great replies for people like this. So you smile sweetly and say something like, "It's too bad you feel that way." It's polite but biting at the same time.

Anonymous said...

I'm with Mark P - I also thought of the same verses...well done, FSP.

Also...what was the number for, anyhow??

Anonymous said...

I hate to disagree with so many of your commenters, but I don't think you necessarily won this one; I'd call it more of a tie. You got what you wanted: to not give him the satisfaction of him "getting" to you. But he got what he wanted, too: attention. In fact, he may have been seeing how much garbage he could throw at you before you either reacted or left. A recent experiment showed that when confronted with sexual harassment in a job interview, *all* the women in the experiment stayed polite and either went along with the premise of the harassment or gently changed the subject (as you did). None walked out or confronted the interviewer. So this guy may frequently get politeness as a response.

If you're going to try to mess with people like this (rather than ignoring them, confronting them, or reporting them), I challenge you to develop your messing-with skills to a higher level.

Novice: don't let opponent get the desired reaction. (You may or may not have won this.)

Intermediate: use the opponent's weakness against them. In your case, this guy is clearly afraid of becoming obsolete. Capitalize on this by throwing in lots of oblique references to his age. To the finger gesture: "oh! wasn't that one of those secret handshakes back in the 30's when you were a kid?" (or something else stupid like that). To the awards: "oh yeah, I agree, they're not worth much anymore, but yeah, *way* back when you won them, I bet people cared about that sort of thing." "How's your youngest grandson? Applying to colleges yet?" You get what I mean. Every comment should be laced with comments about his age and how much no one cares about him anymore -- all in a very polite way, of course.

Advanced: Make the opponent think he's not only ineffective and obsolete, but that he's also losing his mind. One way to do that is to pretend to know him, to have some shared secret, and to not only be polite, but warm and friendly. "Hey! How *are* you? It's so good to see you again! It's been too long." "That dinner party, oh my, how crazy. I couldn't stop laughing for days." "How is ____ doing? Is s/he recovering well?" fill in someone you have reason to believe he knows or else if you can't come up with someone, use a common first name. He surely knows tons of Daves and Sarahs and will be trying to figure out who in the world you're talking about. You can get enough clues from his name tag and attire to carry on this sort of delusional conversation for 5-10 minutes, then make your departure. If he ever claims not to know what you're talking about, respond as if he's joking. Something like "yeah, I wish I could forget about that, too, after what happened! So, same house? Or are you thinking of selling it?"

Good luck!

Anonymous said...

Reframing the unpleasant situation as a test is brilliant. I am definitely going to try this strategy. Thanks for a great suggestion.

Anonymous said...

And you emerged victorious, if a victory can be had in an aggressive encounter, because you did none of the things recommended by Anonymous5:21.

Female Science Professor said...

I only emerged victorious because I proclaimed it to be so. As I wrote, it can be surprisingly satisfying to set your own standard for 'winning', and then succeed (because you say so).

I would never try any of the suggestions of Anon 5:21. I would rather appear sane(ish) in these situations.

Cherish said...

I have to agree with anonymous 5:21. I'm not sure people would think you insane if you told someone off because he was being a serious jerk. I'd actually think the telling someone off would be more of a normal and even appropriate response. There's no reason to take crap from people who obviously are headcases.

Anonymous said...

Rule Number 1: It's a small world.
Rule Number 2: People hold grudges. I know this because I hold grudges.

I have a very strict policy about not pissing off anyone whose help I might need some day and I expect other people to do the same. Anyone with a minimal understanding of networking should know this. If I am ever given the opportunity to screw over someone who was rude to me, I will take it. Anyone dumb enough to be rude to people at a professional event deserves it.

Anonymous said...

'So I said "That's not true. Many of us care about our students."'

That's seriously funny.

So sad he didn't get it.

Kea said...

Anon @5:21, brilliant, yes!

As an autistic person, I am constantly being discriminated against for appearing rude, which I sometimes intend to be and sometimes not. In the past, I was ALWAYS polite, because ladies are raised that way, so I don't give any points to a woman who stays polite, anymore. Every woman can do that, as someone mentioned above, and Enough is Enough.

GMP said...

FSP has a point in one important aspect: women in particular are always provoked to see if they will get "hysterical" (because we women are emotional creatures not in charge of our faculties *eyeroll*). FSP's perfect poise certainly would have given her points in many an onlooker's eyes. I say this because I see who among my colleagues is held in the highest esteem -- it's the people who never lose their temper.

That having been said, I love the comment of Anon at 08:50 PM. Indeed, people hold grudges (I am a champion grudge holder). Just because you didn't manage to get an emotional reaction out of someone you were trying to provoke, don't assume you haven't insulted them or they are not on to you. If I ever have a chance to screw over someone who was rude to me or screwed me over, I will totally take it. (Preferably, without having to lose my temper in public.)

Anonymous said...

It's interesting that women are criticized if they are too "ladylike" and if they are too "emotional". What to do?

makita said...

I wonder. Could the 70-year old have been autistic? That's sort of what it sounded like to me. Having said that, you're obviously a better woman than me. I would've stormed off.

Lab Rat said...

" I'm not sure people would think you insane if you told someone off because he was being a serious jerk. I'd actually think the telling someone off would be more of a normal and even appropriate response."

Yes, people will think you're insane. I've never been in this situation, but i've seen it. A woman talking with a guy, I don't know what he said to her, but her response was to go (in a raised voice, but still fairly polite) "I'm sorry but I think that was highly inappropriate of you."

Cue *everyone* around her looking awkward/turning away/mentally making a note not to talk to her in future. I mean maybe if he'd actively groped her and lots of people had seen maybe she would've got support, but giving a public putdown when nobody has seen the action that you're responding too does make you look odd.

Anonymous said...

I think you behaved with grace. I have friends who try to see the "divine" in everyone. Somewhat challenging to do with the rude person you described. So if you can't find it in others, find it within yourself. Kudos to you.

EliRabett said...

So, what was his name? Certainly you owe this fellow no favors and you have a well read blog.

Alexandra (Ola) J. said...

I'm still baffled as to why someone could possibly think flipping you the bird would be a good idea in any such context. Seriously?

Either way: Kudos on keeping your cool. Yeah, it would be fun to mess with him in return, but I just don't think it would be worth the effort, and it could really just make you look bad if it didn't turn out right.