If someone’s bugging you, change yourself

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Here’s a fascinating piece about an Amazon tribe that has no ability to use numbers. Even when the tribe members asked anthropologists to teach counting, the tribesmen couldn’t learn. The tribe is good at other things — fishing and making jokes, for instance — but not counting.

This immediately reminded me of couples therapy with my husband. My biggest complaint, for five or six years, was that my husband doesn’t understand tone of voice. For example, he says, “How was your day?” with the tone of voice that someone uses for “I’m going to kill you.”

It’s startling and disconcerting, to say the least. But our third couples therapist finally said to me that there’s nothing I can do. My husband’s brain just cannot learn tone of voice. I need to work around it.

So I do. I separate the meaning we typically attribute to tone of voice from what my husband is actually saying. The Amazon tribe works around the problem, too – they have a word for “a small amount” and a word for “a bigger amount”.

You need to do this at the office. The people you work with are not idiots. It is just that some people are unable to see things like you do. You need to figure out how they see things, accept it, and work around their deficits.

For example, some people are not very empathetic. Like not knowing numbers or tone of voice, these people don’t understand how some else is feeling. You have to take that into consideration when the person says something inconsiderate. Some people just cannot learn empathy.

So I’m recommending two books that are about getting along with people at work. Both are premised on the idea that you have to adjust yourself in order to get along. You Want Me to Work With Who? is very hands on and self-reflective. Working with You is Killing Me has a lot of case studies and examples. Both are good if you want to take a step in the direction of getting along with everyone at work without relying on them to change.

14 replies
  1. Mary
    Mary says:

    Ah, ha! So, you’ve stumbled upon my biggest secret of career success. People can make your life great or miserable at work– and are instrumental in making a project a success or not. My first career type job, I worked in a museum. The archivist was a miserable woman who would make it difficult to look through the archive and get needed materials. I realized that (probably like most archivists) she was amazingly anal about protecting the materials (cotton gloves, writing only with pencils, etc) and her biggest complaint was people didn’t respect her wishes. In fact, made fun of them. So, I would make a very purposeful demonstration of “suiting up” when I got to archives, accepting her suggestions of even more protective behaviour. Quickly got to the point where I would get materials quicker than anyone, plus compliments to my boss–which amazed my boss, as the archivist was known for distrusting everyone.

    Also, when I started dating my husband, I’d ask him how he was enjoying a meal at a restaurant. He’d say “It’s pretty good.” At first I thought he was kind of a snob, couldn’t be pleased by anything. Then I realized “pretty good” was his way of saying, “very good.” I pointed this out to him, and it has become a joke between us. He’ll say something is “pretty good,” and I’ll say “Ah, your highest compliment.” The nice thing is, after he became aware of it, he started varying his compliments and now they are closer to what he actually means.

  2. Rebecca
    Rebecca says:

    What a wonderful and (so true) lesson! I have a coworker that drove me up the wall when she started. I couldn’t stand anything about her. A simple “hello” would cause my whole body to tense up. But I got tired of being judgemental and the moment that I just accepted who she was, I felt better, our productivity collectively improved, and we now get along quite well. She definitely has her own way of doing things that is nothing like mine, but it works for her, and I’ve since learned from those differences.

  3. Margaret
    Margaret says:

    Hi, Penelope. I sorta agree with what you’re saying, for the most part, and with the posters above. But it only addresses annoying personality traits — anality, tardiness, etc. — versus more endemic, deep-seated impulses. One of my coworkers thinks, for instance, that she is Very Important, and that the fact of her Importance makes it OK for her to be rude, tardy, irresponsible, etc. To bend myself to her wishes would have the project grind to a halt. Sometimes, the wisest course of action is to isolate the troublemaker, or to give them enough rope to hang themselves, and hope they don’t take the entire project with them.

  4. MyNameIsMatt
    MyNameIsMatt says:

    [For example, he says, "How was your day?" with the tone of voice that someone uses for "I'm going to kill you."]

    You might not think so, but that line is comedy gold. I can’t stop smirking thinking about it. I can see how that would be offsetting, though, and there are certainly times when change is just not an option, and coping and acceptance is the best course of action.

  5. Lisa
    Lisa says:

    “Work around their deficits” I love it and can see myself using this phrase a bunch from here on out as I listen to the vents and rants. It is empowering while also respectful since we all have our own deficits to deal with. Thanks!

    * * * * * *

    The empowering point is so true. The less people can shake me up with their annoying behavior, the more steady I feel. It is very empowering to know that you can get along with almost anyone if you try.


  6. Richard
    Richard says:

    How do you know when it’s the working environment and not the people that is bugging you? I work in the fortune 100 world and find that if you want to get ahead then you must be involved with the personality types that sets me off. These are the types who get ahead by bragging about # of hours worked and will jump off the building if it is for the good of the company.

    After many years of introspecting I’m starting to look at my future options and think it’s time to look for work outside the cube farm!

    * * * * * * *

    This is a good question. It’s sort of different from the topic of the post. Becuase you can teach yourself to get along with any type of person who comes your way. But that doesn’t mean those people are good for you. Finding where you belong is separate from getting along with the people you are with.

    It sounds like you don’t feel like you belong where you are. The great thing about being able to get along with a wide range of people is that when you don’t like where you are, you don’t have to quit right away due to personality clashes. You can stay until you figure out a good transition plan for yourself.

    You could actually say that in this sense, getting along with people makes life more stable.


  7. Joshua
    Joshua says:

    Ah, another blog post that is applicable in the personal world as well as in the career world.

    It’s a lesson that I, perhaps, should have learned a long time ago. I’m so used to hearing about how ‘special’ I am and the necessity to be firm in my choices and high in my expectations, that it’s always pleasing to read about when to change yourself because of someone else’s actions.

    I’ll definately keep this in mind. Thanks again, Penelope.

  8. Sherri Leigh
    Sherri Leigh says:

    How hard it is to remember that I have to change when dealing with “difficult” people, but it is so true. It is usually not that the people are difficult, just that they do things in a way I am not used to. Changing my perspective has changed my relationships completely.

  9. Mary van de WIel
    Mary van de WIel says:

    Penelope, thanks for your insights re that four-letter word: TONE! Being the obsessive branding provocateur that I am, I never stop raving on about the importance of tone!

    and particularly, how important it is to be mindful of the tone of your business brand! Then too, of course, it’s about paying more attention to your brand’s behavior! Just like a misbehaving puppy, brands have a tendency to misbehave and it always (almost always) starts with a brand’s particular tone, attitude and personality. So who is responsible here!? it comes down to the person wearing the hat of Brand Guardian, of course. You’re the one who has to mind the tone of your brand so brava! thanks for helping to pierce the veil. I’m going to retell your story about the Amazon tribe and your couple’s therapist. Kudos!

  10. Jonha
    Jonha says:

    “The people you work with are not idiots. It is just that some people are unable to see things like you do.” Right, sometimes we need to adjust but not to the point of stepping down to their level but understanding that some people just do things differently just as we often do our own thing.

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