Thursday, February 6, 2020

The Case of the Class Clown

It should come as no surprise, but the women who write to New York Magazine advice columnist Ask Polly are very often casualties of the lame advice that Polly doles out every week. If they do not get it from Polly, then they probably hear it from their therapists.

Today’s casualty involves a woman who has always been the class clown. She has rolled through the first thirty five years of her life making people laugh. She is apparently charming and witty. Until now it has served her well.

And yet, now she has gotten a new job at a new company and has discovered that her class clown routine is off putting, to an extreme. She simply does not fit in the company culture, culture that she describes as competitive and abrasive. This feels to me like a very manly environment, something like a military platoon or a sports team or a trading floor. 

One does not understand why she took the job, whether she knew about the corporate culture before she signed on, and whether her new employers knew that she liked clowning it up. 

Anyway, she does not fit in. She feels alienated and spurned. All her efforts at being the class clown, thus disrupting the culture, have not earned her respect. No one respects her on the job. She is, dare I say, not long for this job.

Her new colleagues are anything but kind. They mock her. They make jokes about her and pick on her. It hurts her feelings, another sign that she does not understand the culture.

Naturally, Polly does not understand it either, but if people in male dominant cultures, like military units or sports teams or trading groups often mock each other, ridicule each other, they do so for a very specific reason. They are not trying to hurt feelings, but they are trying to show people how they look to others, to tell them to get over themselves and to get with the program. Better yet, if your teammates make jokes at your expense, it shows that you belong. 

In today’s culture, shame is so poorly understood that many psycho theorists believe that shaming people is always a bad thing. Evidently, they have very little experience in male dominant groups.

Such behavior is not abusive. It is constructive. It is designed to help the person to transition into the team and to learn more cultural fit. 

The letter writer says nothing about the way she dresses, but she might very well not follow the company dress code. And her bubbly personality might lead her to make overly familiar and overly casual remarks. 

The issue involves the difference between personality and character. The woman has something like a cheerful chatty personality. She functions like a class clown, school cut-up. In some parts of the world, people obviously find this endearing. In a competitive work environment, her personality seems to disrupt and distract others. If everyone is wearing a uniform and you are not, your persona will cause others to lose focus on the task at hand. Your personality might very well threaten group cohesion, and most groups do not like to have their cohesion threatened.

Personality is not the same as character. In this context, character means observing the dress codes, the social customs and norms that define the group. It does not mean disturbing everyone’s concentration by doing a juggling act.

Clearly the letter writer will need to learn how to leave her persona at the door. And she needs to get over the notion that she is a class clown, that being a class clown defines who she is.

Here is the letter:

I know how it sounds but, seriously … everyone is mean to me.

Well, okay, not everyone. I happen to be in a great relationship, have a handful of amazing friends, and a pretty vast friend group. I love to make people laugh and I get most people to open up and feel comfortable within the first ten minutes of meeting me. Overall, I am well liked, but … it’s not lost on me that these qualities also make me a target for assholes who take it too far.

Without a doubt, the part of my life that has been most negatively affected by this “gift” has always been work. Sure, I’ve had my share of bad apples in other aspects of life: friends who take their shitty moods out on me, boyfriends’ friends who try to be funny and fail, etc. But I feel like, by now, I’ve been able to cut most of these people out of my life. I can’t cut out a colleague.

For better or for worse, I’ve always been very career-focused, but I’ve had a mix of experiences ranging from fully mentally abusive work environments to just annoying behaviors. I recently started a new job at a very intense company where people are rewarded for being combative and abrasive. It’s been an extremely intimidating experience to go into, so I’ve reverted back to the clown — I make people laugh, I’m super positive, and I try to get everyone to like me, even if it kills me. The outcome has been … mixed. I know I’m not “disliked,” but I’m definitely not respected. People make off-color jokes about me constantly. I’m usually picked on in really immature ways. (It doesn’t help that I work with a bunch of people with ZERO SENSE OF HUMOR, IT’S ACTUALLY INSANE.) I do a lot of fake laughing at my own expense. It sucks.

I’m in my mid-30s, and it just feels like I’m way too old to still be treated this way. But I don’t know how to be any other way. Do I have to change my personality to be successful, or have I just had really bad luck?

Tired of Fake Laughing

Should she change her personality when she is on the job?

Yes, she should.

And she should overcome her infantile tendency to see all her colleagues as being mean to her. She is not in high school.

As for knowing how to be any other way, she can begin by observing other people. See how they act, see how they behave, see how they dress and talk. And then, imitate their example.

As for Polly’s commentary, it contains good and bad. Polly is quite correct to see that the woman’s co-workers see her antics as desperate and pathetic. She is wrong to think that they are simply keeping their walls up. People do not wear uniforms to put up walls, but to signify their membership in a group and to manifest their loyalty to the group.

In her words:

Unfortunately, people with extremely rigid boundaries operating in a combative environment tend to encounter such efforts as desperate and pathetic. They exert a huge amount of energy to keep their walls up, so those who don’t make the same effort seem sloppy or lazy to them.

Polly suggests that she might help the woman become more authentic, but, unfortunately, she does not understand that the woman thinks that her class clown act is authentic. But, Polly is correct to recommend that the woman stop her unfortunate habit of trying to change the culture. And she is correct to recommend that it would be a good idea to step back and to observe.

So, credit to Polly:

I could take you down a slow, gentle path toward respecting and trusting yourself and embracing all of your moods, which would help you become more authentic in the company of others. But right now you need a short cut: Shift your energy from FIXING to OBSERVING. Every time you find yourself trying to alleviate the bad energy in any room or in any person, I want you to focus instead on being quiet and present and calmly observing who that person really is and what they want.

And then, there’s a larger issue. Polly asks this woman whether this competitive and abrasive culture really suits her. If she does not want to put on the uniform and to play the game according to the rules that everyone else is following, perhaps she should pick up and leave. It is sensible advice:

I mention all of this because you do have to look at the big picture and ask yourself if this competitive environment suits you. You need to understand what your values are, too. I’ve always valued creating interesting, odd things over everything else in the world — money, status, security, structure. You have to know what you value in order to make robust decisions about how you want to live.

She concludes:

So ask yourself what your destiny is. Expand your dreams to fit the vast scale of your imagination. Stop worrying about the angry little squirrels on this planet, and start building yourself a rocketship to another galaxy instead.

This is psychobabble. For some people it would be girl talk. To me it sounds like baby talk. People in this job have  adopted a code of behavior that allows them to do a good job. Polly does not understand such groups, and her efforts to diminish and demean their efforts is counterproductive.

And besides, since it will never cross anyone’s mind, we should also ask about the status of the letter writer’s relationship. As happens in today’s woke world, we do not know whether she is involved with a man, a woman, or an it. We do not know whether or not she, aged 35, wants to get married and to have children. Doesn’t this enter into her decision making process? Does she fear that if she adopts a set of cultural habits that are more masculine, she might alienate her beau… assuming that her beau is not a belle.

Consider that to be rank speculation. Not only are letters sent to advice columnists lacking in detail, but one suspects that the writers themselves are gender confused. 


Freddo said...

I do a lot of fake laughing at my own expense.

A lot of younger women affect a self-depreciating and fake laugh, as if to signal "I'm ditzy, I'm cute" (with an undertone of "help me, do my work for me"). Which would be 100% self-defeating in this environment.

Not that you cannot ask for help, but do it with "explain it to me and I will take care of it" attitude.

ASM826 said...

"I do a lot of fake laughing at my own expense."

Nothing worse. Be funny, be witty, do not provide your own laugh track. It is such an off-putting behavior.

Jim Sweeney said...

These endless rants about such lovelorn advice are truly boring and diminisg your site.

Sam L. said...

"Get with the the program!" That's what our drill instructor told us. Takes me back, it does.

sestamibi said...

She may be on the spectrum.

whitney said...

I'm female so I'm going to excuse it that way but this is news to me. Also highly Illuminating if true. And it rings true when I think back to when I have been mocked in my life

"they do so for a very specific reason. They are not trying to hurt feelings, but they are trying to show people how they look to others, to tell them to get over themselves and to get with the program"

Anonymous said...

It's interesting that "Tired Of Fake Laughing" says, "Without a doubt, the part of my life that has been most negatively affected by this “gift” has always been work." Does she put her work first when she is at work? It sounds as if she might be focused more on entertaining than on working. Do her coworkers pick up the slack when she is being the class clown? Is her humor the adolescent style of personal insults? Does she reprimand people who don't laugh at her jokes? I've run into people like this. Some people act as if they are professional comedians, and it isn't appropriate in all circumstances. The part about "boyfriends’ friends who try to be funny and fail" suggests that perhaps TOFL needs to be the center of attention.
How well did TOFL research this company before applying? Was it possible to know that the workplace is, in her word, intense? Does anything about her clothing, body language &/or speech suggest that she is interested in off-color jokes?
My advice would be to focus on working hard/well, and taking the focus off the jokes. If being a class clown has always been least appreciated at work, stop trying that approach.