She sat behind me typing. She giggled, emitting the low sounds of superiority. Whoever this email is for she is giving them the business! After a couple minutes of listening to the satisfaction coming from my boss’ cubicle, I chose to continue with my work rather than speculate who and what the email was all about.
I connected my earphones to the Bluetooth on my phone, pulled up the latest episode of my favorite podcast, and went on with my day. Twenty to thirty minutes later I noticed I received a couple of emails. I thought nothing of it. I continued reviewing the required change transactions due before lunch and took a few moments to review my inbox before I headed out.
Email from Petty Patti
The verbal assault began with, “I think it’s time you work on your communication skills”. She continued with, “Several of your coworkers informed me that while you do a great job and they have no complaints about your performance, there are issues with clear communication when they ask questions and the responses you provide,”. She covered every word in this email with cotton-candy sarcasm and arrogance.
Did I mention she sits in the cubicle behind me? Yea, that’s right 4 feet away. Wouldn’t this be more productive as a conversation rather than an email? What kind of non-combative answer can you give to a shitty email like this one? The flippant way she delivered her feedback indicated my response would not be well received, she already decided my point of view was irrelevant. This bullshit is standard procedure with Patti.
She is the person who has the answers to all life’s mysteries in her tiny alabaster hands and will share them with you for a price. The price, however, is the complete surrender of your previous experience in exchange for her knowledge. Her way is the only way.
To my credit, I did not respond to her email right away. Patti had tunnel vision, but this was the first time I was a victim. For now, I would like to keep my piece of shit job. This meant I couldn’t cuss her out like my spirit commanded but had to find a strategic way to address what I felt the real problem was.
Of course, it’s just me
I work in a homogeneous environment. In a department of 125, I am one of four Black men. I mention this because it’s at the core of this issue. Much like the diversity, processes and defined modes of communication are narrow within my department and company. There is little to no deviation in “the way someone should do things”. This has nothing to do with quality standards. It specifically relates the “communication” issue to personal style.
You may be feeling like “here we go with another of those speeches rife with righteous indignation regarding racism or discrimination in the workplace”. My response to that is, you’re damn right. If you believe these “speeches/ conversations” are too abundant in today’s culture this is likely where you should exit. Bye.
This is not my first time being ensnared in the codified feedback loop. Hell, it’s not even the second time. It is, however, the first time at this company, and with an obvious delivery. Much to Patti’s dismay, I could not give her the attention or the response she hoped for. She milled up and down our aisle all day, smiling and passing to give me the opportunity to stop her about the garbage she emailed me. I smiled and continued to work as if I hadn’t seen it. Just before I logged off for the day I sent Patti a calendar invite. I wanted to discuss and resolve this face to face as it should from the beginning.
This time, I took the advice of the experts. I wanted an entire twenty-four hours to figure out how to cuss her the fuck out in professional terms while keeping my job. Overnight I considered why the accusation insulted me. How was it possible to have two advanced degrees in communication yet still retain “communication issues”?
I wondered who told her that there was an issue, or was this confidential someone her duplicitous way of expressing her issues with me without revealing herself? I thought of just about every excuse to avoid making it about race, but there was no other explanation.
Patti and I communicated more than anyone else and there were no other instances of miscommunication between myself and other coworkers. Many White people assume that all people of color assume any type of feedback is racial bias. I like to make sure to check my bias before going there. Alas, there was no other reason.
The next morning, as scheduled, I met with Patti to understand my “communication issues”. I gave her the floor and the opportunity to tell me what this was all about. She contemplated it overnight as well and came armed with an arsenal of vague reasons and remnants of veiled examples. Things like “I often come off aggressive when I explain ideas and my formal tone in written communication exhibited an attitude of inflexibility”.
Petty Patti whipped out an example of two emails written by Perfect Peter. Peter was after all her golden boy and an exemplary employee. He was easy to work with and never kept up a fuss. She often overlooked Peters ineptitude and his relaxed approach to completing tasks timely. He smiled all the time, and that is an important trait. Who knew appearing friendly covered a multitude of missing skills? “Perhaps, if you are willing, Peter can mentor you to bridge the gap on some communications skills you are missing.
At last, it was my turn to communicate with Patti. Patti did not consider having a variety of personalities and communication styles makes a team strong. I wondered if she believed my skills are weak because I use strategic language to communicate my objectives.
I asked her if she ever proofed any of the emails she received from Peter since I had yet to receive any communication from him that did not contain at least three typographical errors. I asked Patti if she will accept that perhaps I was not the one with the problem and that if possible to meet with those teammates who had issues with my “style” so we could work towards a better understanding.
Patti determined that this was another example of being confrontational and I should consider some mentoring. Patti and I reached a permanent impasse. She failed to realized I love myself and feel compelled to stand against poor treatment. I have no desire to be like or mentored by her protégé Peter.
Different does not equal inferior
Traits perceived as confrontational in Black men are authoritative or confident in White men. Direct communication is not a positive attribute in conjunction with my color. My intellect is not an asset unless accompanied by excessive smiling or subserviently communicated. The reality is it’s just too fucking bad.
Poor Patti, I am not sure what she will do with me. I have no intention of reducing myself to make her more comfortable. There will be no fake smiles or bending and scraping. Oh no, Patti may need to measure up. She should now manage and think strategically to make sure that my performance does not impact her. Potentially, she may even need to go onto the intranet to find the appropriate HR terminology so she can write me up! What will she do?
It doesn’t matter. Petty Patti, who has a management title because she remained employed with the company for the last eighteen years, will never diminish my self-love. All I’m thinking of now is what’s for lunch.
Always be willing to fight for yourself, and defy what they expect.