Mind Over Meta

Human communication is filled with nuances. Many are difficult to control, if not entirely involuntary: pupil dilation, facial expressions, those annoying variations in pitch that I have been trying to unlearn for over a decade. Others are obvious and easily mastered: word choice, willingness to listen, overall tone. Depending on how the various elements are put together, one can make the intended audience of a statement feel respected and at ease, or attacked and extremely uncomfortable. This past Friday, I experienced the latter. Let me tell you: it wasn’t pleasant.

I had a sinking feeling before I even arrived at work on Friday. A meeting with both of my managers was scheduled on my calendar, and no one would really talk to me until then. When the time finally came, I was so uncomfortable I had to make a joke. “I’ve never had my meeting in B-‘s office before; am I in trouble?” There were no laughs, only glares. Oh yes, I am, I thought.

K- took a seat at B-‘s desk, and I took the other, and then B- spoke about some “concerns” she had about my job performance. While no one likes to be criticized, I honestly welcome it. I can’t improve on something of which I’m unaware. She then proceeded to tell me that the position within the department for which I had applied was going to be filled by an outside applicant. Honestly, it had been so long since I did apply that I pretty much assumed that was the case, and probably would have declined it had it been offered.

She cited various reasons for this decision, some of which were well-founded. I seemed not to have a complete understanding of the systems and processes: of course I don’t. The position I held was still new to me, and my training for it was borderline nonexistent. I lacked confidence in my job: see reason one. To boot, it seemed like every day I had messed up something new, and had heard nothing of what I was doing well. I would have to be downright cocky to feel confident if that was the only feedback I was receiving.

The other reasons varied from inconsistent to insulting. Apparently, more than a few of the e-mails I sent to K- were “less than respectful.” This shocked me. I have never been actively rude to anyone in years (except for one instance in which someone was physically abusive of a good friend of mine), and I would never display that sort of behavior in the workplace, regardless of the circumstances.

Now, I’m not formal, either, and I don’t kiss up to people. I don’t know what B- and K-‘s definition of “less than respectful” is, and even when asked they did not provide examples.

Nevertheless, I immediately delivered a sincere apology, which was summarily shrugged off. K- wouldn’t even make eye contact with me. The verbal onslaught continued, and I started to cry. I cried so hard, they had to cancel the meeting, but not before I was scolded for losing my composure.

In all of my working life, I have cried on the clock a handful of times: when I was having problems with my partner, that time I broke my foot, that other time I was having symptoms of stroke and had to go to the hospital. And I’ve been reprimanded at least once before, and criticized on various occasions–they’ve never brought me to tears. Not until Friday. My meeting was at one. I cried until I left at five (and well after). I took all of my things with me in case I decided not to return, which I have.

What really struck me about this whole interaction was not what was said verbally. Any part of this would have been manageable at face value. Misunderstandings–especially in written communication–happen all of the time. Work performance cannot improve without critique. Explaining the reasons behind not being considered for a job can help avoid feelings of being brushed off. The meta communication, however, conveyed that none of these things were the goal of this meeting.

B- seemed eager in her criticisms. Her eyes were bright and focused. Her tone was accusatory and uncompromising. As I expressed surprise, regret, or anxiety, she seemed increasingly excited. Her excitement turned to irritation as my crying became less controllable. She seemed to jump on the opportunity to tell me how my crying was impeding our communication, as if what was going on was a dialogue.

K- was passive. She wouldn’t look at me, not even when I apologized to her for offending her. She would only speak to B- and not to me. She slouched in her chair. She was fidgeting and seemed agitated.

The messages I was receiving were that I wasn’t showing enough deference (sorry, Your Highness), that I needed to be kept in my place (which cheek should I kiss?), and that I was generally unwanted in the department (well f- you, too!). After the meeting was over, both B- and K- seemed at least partially satisfied. Smug, even. They had finally brought me down as low as they could.

My communication style is very direct. If I have an issue, I bring it up, in a respectful but matter-of-fact way. Only in extreme circumstances do I lay accusations, and in the vast majority of cases, I also listen. I seek resolutions to conflicts. I communicate how situations make me feel without assuming intentions. I take accountability for my actions and their consequences. Now, I’m no expert in sociology, but I did stay in a Holiday Inn Express last night, and I’m pretty sure that is what adult communication is all about.

Needless to say, with my pride and dignity so badly injured, I left work with very little inclination to return. Five minutes after leaving work–as if the universe was trying to tell me something–I got a job offer. Who am I to say no to the universe? I got home and wrote out my resignation letter–bursting at the seams with meta communication–and e-mailed it to both B- and K-. Whether or not that was their intended result, that was the desire they communicated to me.

So say what you mean, and mind your meta, because people are listening.


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