So you’re a manager. Your report did something that, in your opinion, sounded too angry, and you want to bring it up with them.
You feel weird about addressing strong emotions in the workplace, so you have decided not to use the word ‘angry’ in your reprimand. Instead, you’ll say ‘abrasive’ or ‘aggressive’ because you have heard those terms used in professional settings before.
There’s a reason you have heard those words before in the professional setting. It’s because managers use these words to negatively review women and people of color. Yes, there’s data on this. Here’s some more data on this. Here’s a third helping of data on this. Would you like some data with that? If quantitative and historical data aren’t convincing you, there are also more than a few anecdotal accounts available (many of which reference Kieran Snyder’s research discussed in the first link), as well as an entire interactive exhibit devoted specifically to helping folks understand this.
Yes, I am angry. This should make you angry, too.
OK, so now maybe you’re second-guessing your decision to use the words ‘abrasive’ or ‘aggressive’ (or ‘argumentative’ or ‘adversarial’ or ‘bad attitude,’ ‘blunt,’ ‘bossy,’ ‘bitchy,’ or ‘shrill.’ Or, getting onto someone about their ‘tone.’ All of these terms deliver the exact same idea, and coming up with some different phrasing does not detoxify the idea itself.)
Or maybe you still think that, in your specific case, the words are, in fact, appropriate descriptors. But how do you know they’re appropriate here?
Luckily, there is gut-check mechanism that you can use to figure that out!
Here it is: before you describe your coworker as abrasive or aggressive, ask yourself:
(if you’re male and the colleague is female) If I had put up with 4x the amount of bullshit today/this week/this year/in my whole career as I have, would I be as angry as she was in this interaction that I want to reprimand her for?
(if you’re white and the colleague is black or brown) If I had put up with 4x the amount of bullshit today/this week/this year/in my whole career as I have, would I be as angry as they were in this interaction that I want to reprimand them for?
I’m calling this the 4x rule, and it goes like this:
- On average, people of color put up with 4x the amount of bullshit in the workplace that white people do.
- On average, women put up with 4x the amount of bullshit in the workplace that men do.
Does that sound like a lot to you? Yeah, it is. Shitty, ain’t it?
If you’re a white man and the report is a black woman, this means exactly what you’re afraid it means: If I had put up with 8x the amount of bullshit today/this week/this year/in my whole career as I have, would I be as angry as she was in this interaction that I want to reprimand her for?
This is why you think 4x is too high of a number:
You don’t think you’d be that angry at 4x. No, because at 4x you think you’d be far more angry. You’d be livid, flying off the handle. The number can’t be 4x because the appropriate amount of rage at 4x far exceeds what your colleague did. You simply would not accept 4x, so you cannot imagine that someone else would, either.
Well, good for you, because you don’t have to accept it.
Sadly, your colleague does. And the reason they are not as inconsolably angry as you think you would be in this mental exercise is that they have lived with this amount of bullshit their entire lives, and they have developed and deployed whole skill sets to deal with the bullshit that you will never have to develop or deploy, ever. Congrats. Seriously. It’s a lot of work, and you were lucky enough to avoid it. When you hear marginalized people say they’re tired, this is what they’re tired from.
But, because you have performed this exercise, you’re going to add a little bit less to the bullshit today.
Thank you. Every tiny bit helps.