Saturday, February 11, 2012

Not Nice

I am not nice. And I don't mean "I am not nice for a woman". I mean, when people describe me in real life, "nice" is usually not one of the three to five words that first come to mind. Maybe it does until they get to know me, but probably not afterwards.

I am not evil or anything like that, but I am high-strung, impulsive, (sometimes? often?) lack tact, speak my mind when many (most?) people would keep their mouth shut, and I am very VERY impatient. The lack of patience is perhaps my worst quality -- my husband often compares me to the Mantis in Kung Fu Panda "Secrets of the Furious Five." Everything and everyone moves so darn slow!!!

Why am I writing about this? Because some recent interactions have reminded me that my personality and its deficiencies are influencing my professional interactions in an adverse way. For instance, at work, if I perceive a slight, I react to it most of the time. That makes me appear volatile and scary, because, while some people do want to offend you, many don't, at least not consciously. When you call them immediately on their perhaps subconscious desire to slight you, they get very defensive, and the relationship is soured. Nice people, I find, take many slights in stride, without reacting to them. I am quite unable to take things in stride and let them go; the only way it works is if I am so unbelievably swamped with other work that I have to move on. Any idleness spells trouble. I am in danger of firing off steaming emails, which weeks later I wish I hadn't sent, then I have to apologize and I look stupid and childish. . It takes me lots of self-control to not  react to slights. I am better at controlling myself than I used to be, but I am nowhere nearly as good as the truly nice, tactful people around me are. I greatly prefer interactions via email over phone or in-person, because that at least gives me some time to compose and tone down my responses; I have a lot of trouble with people who want to do everything in person because they like to read body language; trust me, it's better for all of us if you don't read my body language, because you may think that I will have a stroke at your stupid remark or I may look like I am about to kill you if you tick me off.

I have several shining examples of people whom I and most others would consider nice. One is my husband. He's very calm, very tactful, never over-reacts; he actually drives me crazy by not reacting to so many of the things that would make me completely insane (see the  Mantis reference). For instance, my husband has a coworker who has had a problem with hub since day 1 and has been harassing hub subtly and not so subtly for years. My husband never reported or confronted said coworker. I would not have been able to endure it, but I guess hub is either not as bothered by it as I would be or is better at shutting it out. In the long run, I think my husband is better liked and has better professional relationships with most people than I do.
Another example is one of my postdocs. He's a smart, personable guy, who likes to talk and gets along well with everyone. He has a positive outlook on life and a calm, happy disposition.

Come to think of it, the nice people I know seem to come in two varieties. They are either positive in their attitude towards life  and see the best in people, so they are always in a good mood and approachable, and people like that. Alternatively, they are the people who have learned to bottle up whatever they really feel and project a well-rehearsed calm, cerebral persona to the outside world. While my short-term interactions with the latter kind of people are quite pleasant, in the long run I feel they are being fake and our superficial interactions bore and annoy me, while they probably think I am loud and boorish and intrusive. In only one case of a very long-term collaboration has the collaborator (also a very nice guy) thawed enough around me after 5+ years of working together that he now talks honestly with me (most of the time; other times he's his usual clammed up self).

I, alas, don't have an effortlessly positive outlook on life and I always envision the worst-case scenario, so I always have to consciously remind myself that all is peachy and that I am happy and that life is good. I also make jokes and speak my mind more than a respectable academic should. But, if I am to undergo a niceness makeover I can only become the second kind of nice, because at least that's a learned behavior. So that's what I am working on -- becoming much more controlled, projecting a calm, cerebral persona (think Obama ;). It's a giant undertaking.

While my personality is definitely not a desirable one to have in the academic setting, obviously there must be some benefits to it, otherwise the likes of me would be extinct. Hub says it's because I am great in a crisis and that's true -- if there is a $hitstrom, the bigger the better, I'm your person. If I were to ever become a doc, I suppose I would specialize in trauma. But I am not a doctor, just a very annoying scientist who makes incisive comments at inopportune times and generally talks too much. However, I am smart, good at what I do, efficient, and I kick ass when facing a tremendous workload and multiple deadlines, so that helps.

Dear readers, how's your personality? What do you think helps or hurts your professional interactions most?
What are the features that you are grateful for and think help you immensely? 
What are the features you don't have but you wish you did as they would help you become more successful?
How have you made your "flaws" less of an issue or learned to live with them and love them?


Comrade PhysioProf said...

I am extremely impatient at baseline, and I have even less patience for people who cannot make themselves clear while speaking. I have actually had to leave in the middle of my own lab meeting, because the alternative would have been worse.

Clarissa said...

"I am not evil or anything like that, but I am high-strung, impulsive, (sometimes? often?) lack tact, speak my mind when many (most?) people would keep their mouth shut, and I am very VERY impatient. The lack of patience is perhaps my worst quality -"

- You are totally me. :-) I'm also extremely impatient. And it has been, probably, the greatest problem in my professional life. I write an article and I just can't force myself to stay with it for a while, polish it, make it perfect. I just fire it off and choose a journal that promises the fastest response, which is a very unproductive strategy. So now I'm working to change that.

I'm also very intense and I flare up like a torch at a slightest provocation. I tried getting that under control and, as you say, learn to project a calm detached persona, but it hasn't worked for me. So I decided to embrace my passionate nature and just live with it.

So for me: impatience is out and intensity is in. :-)

nicoleandmaggie said...

I'm nice.

I assume the best of people because it's less stress for me to do that, and often if I keep acting like people are being good people eventually they start believing it too, at least in their interactions with me. And because I have a history of unintentionally slighting people, not due to any underlying whatever on my part but because I'm a bit socially clueless (and many misunderstandings are due to cultural differences across the US, only after years of study and living different places can I avoid those). I figure I ought to give people the benefit of the doubt that I wish they would give me. Middle school was over decades ago.

Becoming nicer was a conscious decision. I worked at looking for possible reasons for people's actions and picking the best one. Now it is automatic.

Of course, on the internet, it's much easier to avoid touchy people than it is IRL. IRL I have to pretend that people are behaving professionally until they actually do.

Rebecca said...

I'm actually an easy-going person, and I am surprisingly popular at work. My M.O. is that I tend to be quiet and observant, and assess what people are doing before I act. I rarely take things personally and I am able to work with people I don't like, with a few notable exceptions.

I've been criticized for being too nice, but that is by people who don't know me, because I am not a pushover. (Especially now in a supervisory role, I don't like people to mess with my people, and I do everything I can to prevent that.) But I try to engage people on a personal level because I really like people, plus I have found that by having a positive personal relationship with someone, I can get them to do anything for me, even if I have no authority over them.

Anonymous said...

You know, I used to be nice. Then I started on a tenure-track position, and realized that women in my position, on an average, cannot afford to be nice. That's a luxury only men can afford. Therefore, I am not nice anymore.

Alyssa said...

My biggest issue is being scared of confrontation. I really lack the ability to stand up for myself. Plus, I get easily frustrated with people who lack work ethic and don't do their jobs. Putting those two things together isn't a great match. I'm working on it though...mostly by just taking all questions about who does what how and when.

Yael said...

Anon 7:31: When I was adjuncting and getting trampled by students, my chair told me that "you can be nice after you get tenure".

pika said...

I think I'm generally nice, but mostly because I am a bit socially clueless and so those slight slights just pass by me unnoticed. I am however also very impatient and I don't take any b*s and speak my mind directly when I do see something wrong (something that is quite unacceptable in local culture and I've got in trouble because of it a couple of times).

On the other hand, please, don't become the latter-type nice person. The one person I know who is most "nice" like this is the one that is the most malicious evil manipulator I have ever met and the reason that my current department became toxic and fell apart to such an extent that many people left or ar leaving, myself included. So, just don't, please - in my opinion it's better to be direct and clear about what you perceive is wrong (even if you yourself are wrong, better to bring it out in the open), than to carry it all in you and stab people in their back when they least expect...

Crystal Voodoo said...

I'm generally considered to be nice bu that niceness is sort of an amalgam of the two options. I am not what you would call a chipper person. I'm pragmatic, cynical and not particularly upbeat.

However I also have a personal rule of treating everybody as though they have worth no matter who they are or whether I like them or not. I don't let my personal opinion negate their value. The reason isn't manipulative or political but rather a refusal to let my own shortcomings spill over onto other people. If people chose to think that's faking it than there isn't much I can do but know my motivations and stand by them.

GMP said...

Thanks everyone for the comments!

It's interesting that several people brought up the ability to work with people they don't like. This is a big one for me.
At my job (academia) there are plenty of work interactions that are fairly superficial (being on committees etc.) so being nice and somewhat detached is fine. But, in collaborations, I find it really hard to work with people whom I don't like, who don't like me, or who are so reserved that I have no idea what they actually think about anything. Maybe it's just my personality, but I feel that collaborations are based on trust, and to establish trust you actually have to get to know one another -- for real -- at least a little bit and yes, I think it's important not to dislike one another. I have a collaboration with a person who's the most polite and friendly person you can imagine, but I know nothing but that facade (not for the lack of trying on my part), and we've worked together for years. As a result, I don't think we work as well together as I think we could because I don't really trust this person, I don't know what motivates them, I suspect they don't like me, and I am not relaxed around them. I don't consult them or brainstorm with them as freely or as often as I do with some other closer collaborators. You kinda have to show your warts a little to really get close to people; I think it's necessary for collaborations where creativity and a free flow of ideas (great and stupid) are very important. If I cannot relax around someone because they are too guarded and I don't know the first thing about what goes on in their head, I personally don't do my best, most creative work around that person.

But again, many professional interactions don't require any level of vulcan mind melt, so maintaining a pleasant, professional demeanor (even if a facade) is desirable.

Rebecca said...

I guess I consider "working with" and "collaborating" to be different things. I can see what you mean about collaborations -- there is a level of trust that has to be there. Most of the things I do are not collaborations like you are describing. They are user-facility project goals. It's more like "we have this big task that has to be done by X date" -- that is easier, because we have identical goals, and sabotaging me is only going to lead to failure for you. But in cases where there are short-term gains to be had by stabbing you in the back, I can see how collaboration would be difficult to say the least.

pika said...

I would also distinguish "working with" and "collaborating with". The "working with" part I would say is something you can not avoid: e.g. you have to work with your director of teaching, if you like that person or not, or with people on various university committees, etc., because those are the people that were set there by your employer and you have no choice but to work with them.

But "collaborators" you can and do choose (well, at least I do) and if a collaboration doesn't work out for whatever reason, I can stop it with no consequences. E.g. if the collaborator does not produce what he/she promised, if he/she is too slow with responding, etc. - if I start disliking/not trusting someone, I'd usually follow up to finish whatever was agreed at that point (e.g. this one particular paper, but no more), but after that I pull out. I think life is too short to stress over annoying people, if you don't have to. :-)

On the other hand, I can't stop "working with" our director of teaching though or other annoying individuals at my department in the same way (although I soooo wish I could - well, I will, because now I am moving, but you get the point).

Cherish said...

I'm a mixed bag, and I think that hurts me. I apparently have the appearance of someone who is very nice, easy going, let's things go. I also am horribly shy and need time to process things...until I get comfortable with a situation. Once I'm comfortable, the gloves come off, and I don't fail to speak my mind. I try to always be tactful, but am apparently not successful.

I think if I were able to be this way from the get-go, I would have a lot less problems. People would know better than to assume that I'm just a quiet, easy-going person. I think the about-face is what bothers people, and I've really pissed off some people because they weren't expecting it...even when I've told them, point-blank, that I can be extremely sarcastic and argumentative in certain situations. I never mean it personally, but when I seem to go from passive to very assertive, people see the contrast and can only think I've become vicious. I try to argue ideas, but it seems like a lot of people take it very personally...and especially with certain men, it's obvious they don't see me as a peer and don't think I have the right to criticize their work.

I think most of the people I work with, in general, are aware of it now and respect it. And I try very hard to be more assertive from the beginning. But even as recently as last week, I had someone flip out because they felt I suddenly 'attacked' them.

Alex said...

I've become even less patient and just barely civil with some of my colleagues. We have a departmental culture that emphasizes collegiality no matter how lazy and unproductive people are. I teach more than most people in my department, I do more research than most, and I do more service than most. There are a few people who do more than me in any one of those categories, but nobody does the combined load that I do. Despite that, I'm somehow expected to put up with bullshit from people who do less than me and then try to dump work on me.

Anonymous said...

I have the mixed bag issue. I think I am nice - if nice means recognizing people for how they are and not being cruel. If nice means letting everything go and accepting all behavior as equally acceptable, then no, I am not nice. In fact that just seems stupid to me and may be unintentionally cruel because it lets people continue in their poor behavior. The problem I face is that I "look nice" (e.g. smallish, female) and again I won't yell at you and call you a dumb-ass, I will call you a dumb-ass in a soothing tone. So people are always shocked when I speak my mind and I think the shock is what can make someone think I am not nice. One of the male faculty in my dept kicks puppies - I'm sure of it. But people chuckle and say well that's who is. When I point out that the puppy crapped on the floor - that seems to be counted as "not nice". It's fascinating how different expectations are both based on gender but also on appearance.

EcoGeoFemme said...

I have long thought that my relatively even keel is one of my best strengths.

However, I think it makes me hard to get to know or get close to. It's more of a strength at work that in my personal life.

I find very emotional people difficult to work with and I tend to avoid collaborating with them in favor of nice people.

Cloud said...

I think I would generally be considered nice- see, for example, my recent post in which me losing my temper and leaving a meeting was seen as so out of character that my boss is now terrified that I am about to quit my job (I am not).

For the most part, I tend to have a pretty positive outlook, and don't take offense or get annoyed by things at work. I will, however, speak up (nicely, of course) when I think I or my group is being treated unfairly. And I speak my mind- I just try to do it diplomatically. Which reminds me of a quote, which may be from Churchill- it is something like diplomatic is being able to tell someone to go to hell in such a way that they look forward to the trip.

inBetween said...

You sound just like my husband. He's an excellent scientist and has survived well in academia in no small part b/c of your all's personality traits. I think you should embrace it -- nice gets you stomped on and wanting to walk away rather than fight. Keep kicking ass!

Anonymous said...

I'm proud of my ability to stick up for myself - I have made chauvinistic guys afraid of me. (I'm a tiny, skinny girl in a male-dominated field.) How it hurts is when it swings too far the other way, when people are afraid to ask me for anything. I'm a pretty nice person and will bend over backwards to help someone learn a new experiment, just don't ask me to clean your desk when I'm not your personal assistant. Unfortunately, those who've come across my aggressive side don't get the distinction, even if it seems obvious.

So I'm going to keep putting my foot down and not let people take advantage of me, but going to strive to find a good balance so that my nice, bubbly side can still come through.

BugDoc said...

I am pretty impatient too, but over the years have learned to be tactful (not necessarily to be equated with "nice" or "quiet"). I've found that it's easier to have meaningful conversations or discussions without giving or taking offense when comments are focused on issues, rather than people. If I feel that someone is questioning my research or my committee work, I provide the context and facts that support my position and ask them to support their position (as opposed to defending themselves).

Anonymous said...

I am also not nice person in general. Actually, I am nice, but can not tolerate not-perfect work and have less patience for people who are full of politeness and can hide their actual feeling. I have seen these people taking out their frustration behind the back instead of talking directly. So in a way, I am like you. Yes, I have hurt myself with this fast and uncontrolled reactions, but I have also gained a lot, so in the end this is me and I don't know if I should change anything (actually, I think I am a lost case, and can not be changed). So I am happy with the way I am and ready for new adventures in life. BTW: my husband is exactly like you describe yourself and I guess that's why our marriage works.

Dr. Sneetch said...

Hey GMP, you are a supportive and helpful person. That's "nice" in my books.

vulcan-mind-melt -- I'm going to be using that phrase as it is so spot on for the kind of intense collaborations needed to do research together in my field.

Anonymous said...

I am impatient to the point of impetuous. At times I have cultivated my own patience.

I am direct. This is most often a good thing, after some initialization period for new interactions, during which I often need to reassure people that what I've said isn't a couched insult; it is exactly, no more, no less, what I mean. I value this trait.

I do have trouble interacting with severely passive aggressive types, however, because I'm not malleable at all, and tend to respond to passive aggression ("Don't you think X?" when X is the desired outcome of the passive aggressor) with, eg, "No, I don't think X. I think Y, and here's why (...). I'm confused. Do _you_ think X?". Then the answer is another "But don't you think X1?". The conversational styles just don't mix.

I've been told that I'm intimidating. I know this could be a negative thing, but I think of it as a necessary barrier.

Isabel said...

You people sound scary - I am curious to know what it is that you are all so impatient about?

I am nice, easy going and very patient with new learners and poor communicators who are at least trying (and with children and old people and with life in general). However I have no patience and get very irritated with people who are aggressive or pushy or obviously manipulative or passive aggressive. Also, once someone is on my bad side, because they have been rude or obnoxious to me or betrayed me or are just manipulative and I have had it, I find it super hard to be friendly to them.

And I relate to the people who said they are nice and get negative reactions from people because they do not turn out to be pushovers. This happens to me too.

Massimo said...

I have thought about it... you know, I would have to say that I am very nice except when I am not -- and when I am not, I am a real axxxxle.
It does not happen often, and I am not sure what triggers the Dr. Jekyll/Mr Hyde transformation, I seem to have some hidden buttons which, if pressed, cause me to react badly.

Ten one thing I have become convinced of, though, in the course of the past 48 years, is that if one does not stand up to a bully, the bully does not leave us alone -- he comes back for more. As a result, each time I see behaviour that I perceive as unduly aggressive, intimidating, threatening or similar, I make a point of confronting it, even at the cost of coming across as "not nice" (see here, for instance).

Anonymous said...

I am super direct/blunt to the point of rudness, but I do attempt to moderate my responses (and have been told I have gotten better at this over time). I'm also extremely stubborn and often stick to a position to the point of absurdity only to apologize later for my foolishness. Unlike yourself though, slights towards me - whether intended or not - typically go completely over my head due to general social cluelessness. In any case if people are being genuinely malicious towards me, I'd rather not give them the satisfaction of my anger, so I'm rather glad I don't notice real slights. My natural inclination is to assume the best unless I have definite knowledge that a particular person dislikes me. Then I get really uncomfortable and tend to avoid that person...

I have met people that share these traits with me but they are so pronounced that even _I_ find it annoying. If I have a weak social filter, they have none. I have had such people tell me that they are incapable of being offended by anyone, and therefore they don't bother to avoid offending others.

I have the hardest time dealing with malicious, noncommunicative, passive types. This is in contrast to passive/shy people, who are also hard to deal with. The former however is completely impossible. If they hate you they will make your life hell forever, and these types tend to hate everyone.

I have found that cultivating a long term trust relationship with reasonable passive types makes them much easier to deal with. Once they like you, your bluntness/their passiveness becomes something you can tease each other about when it comes up, and then you can get down to business. If they don't like you though... watch out.

Anonymous said...

This is going to sound like self-righteous preaching, but maybe one person will see this comment and seriously think about who they are.

Almost everyone who doesn't describe themselves as "nice" actually comes across as viewing being nice in a very negative light. They talk about how direct they are, how they don't put up with crap from people, and how much more efficient it makes them than other people. Ha! There is certainly such a thing as being passive agressive when you speak, a pushover when you let others take advantage of you, and certainly there are lots of times when you know the most efficient way to accomplish something OR you prioritize something more than your collaborator/partner. None of these scenarios have anything to do with being nice. Nice is a general respect and politeness for other human beings (and includes yourself). When you make little cutting jokes, make faces at other people's comments and thoughts, or feel the need to call people out on their slightest mistakes you do not create an environment for creativity. As many have noticed and remarked on, this draws people away from you.

My father behaves in this way. For him it stems from an incredibly negative outlook on humanity in general and a total lack of the ability to empathize with the people around him. He can't tell he's hurting people or making them uncomfortable; so he doesn't care.

I learned from my father that this was the appropriate way to act. That I am superior to other people and that it was alright to treat everyone else as inferior. I only recently figured out on my own that there are a great many amazing things about humanity, enough to inspire me and enable me to don a positive outlook, the only way to truly attempt to be nice. Being nice means I have more colleagues to bounce ideas off of and have more influence in my environment. I think this makes me a much better scientist and much more efficient that a more alienating "not nice" person.

Becca said...

I got asked in a job interview if I was "nice" and I gave a very convoluted answer (I did not get the job). I am probably not nice. I'm impatient in some respects, and my biggest problem is probably my terrible temper. Also, I'm a terrible grudge holder.

That said, I do like most people, and am usually surprised when I realize I don't like someone (and I'm happy to put that dislike aside). Having a positive outlook doesn't come naturally to me, but I do actively enjoy thinking of the best possible interpretation of someone's motivations. I also really like to help people.

Anonymous said...

"Almost everyone who doesn't describe themselves as "nice" actually comes across as viewing being nice in a very negative light. They talk about how direct they are, how they don't put up with crap from people, and how much more efficient it makes them than other people."

As with all things in life, there needs to be a balance. It's not always easy to find - see my comment about chauvinistic guys above. I used to just tell the person taking advantage of me to (insert expletive phrase), and over time I've found more mature/professional ways of telling them that no, I will not go and grab coffee for you. It definitely helps in not pushing people away, but I don't think I'll ever please everyone.

I think I'm doing okay overall though- most people say I'm very nice and very patient, and are surprised to hear my stories of aggression :)

Pramod said...

I'm with anonymous on this, some might be creating a false dichotomy here. You don't have to put up with crap or be a pushover to be "nice". Being nice just means treating everyone with respect and always assuming good faith in the absence of evidence to the contrary.

The best way to spoil relationships is to assume that someone (or maybe everyone) is out to "get you". If one does this, one may find that it's not hard to perceive innocuous words or actions as a insults or malicious acts. The only thing this will do is increase stress levels.

Anonymous said...

Same anon that's right above Pramod here:

Totally agree that there's no dichotomy or "nice" vs. "not putting up with crap." In fact, if I see SOMEONE ELSE getting treated badly, especially if that person is a powerless intern, I get all aggressive and "not nice" the same way as if it were me, probably even more so than if it were me.

When I'm sticking up for myself, I sometimes do make the mistake of thinking something is an insult due to my own insecurities. When I'm sticking up for someone else, my own insecurities are not an issue at all. And it really is interesting to see how MUCH LESS unwarranted aggression occurs when I'm sticking up for others, because my own insecurities are not an issue.

Bacteria Girl said...

I think I am probably one of those people who is nice to everyone to keep the piece but then will go home and rage about how much people have annoyed me at work. Not ideal... Also not very productive because I think that half the time people have no idea how much they're annoying/upsetting you! I think I am probably guilty of that too though, just being unaware of how people might perceive me and then I worry about it afterwards. I would probably fall to pieces if you called me on slighting you and I wasn't expecting it! Think I need to toughen up...

Cath@VWXYNot? said...

My niceness waxes and wanes, and is in direct proportion to the time until the next grant deadline :)

I'm mostly on a pretty even keel. It takes quite a lot to make me react - but then even more to get me to calm down once I do go off! Once someone does trigger me that way, I'll tend to be quite cold to them thereafter (unless they're someone I work FOR rather than WITH), but am as nice as possible to people who haven't bugged me yet :)