Q: I am a professional woman at the peak of my career. A big part of my job is solving systemic problems within our company, and I’m good at it.
The new head of our division is a terrific guy in many ways. He is trying hard to commit to diversity. He says and does many of the right things and is intolerant of bad behavior, which is great. On the other hand, he is a straight white man in his early 50s, and he still misses the mark on some matters.
The one bugging me now is that any time I express frustration, he’ll tell me to “calm down.” Mind you, I am not shouting or crying or anything dramatic, just expressing my legitimate feelings about a problem I am tasked with solving. A recent example was someone in another department holding up my biggest project, claiming a lack of information despite receiving regular updates from my team. When I expressed frustration in an email about this person’s inattention causing unnecessary delays, he replied, “Calm down.”
I’ve always had candid relationships with previous bosses (none of them straight white men), where we could share our thoughts and feelings. I feel he lacks understanding and empathy, and he wouldn’t say this to a man. How can I explain to him that telling a woman to calm down is sexist?
A: I want to answer the question you’re asking, but I don’t think it will solve the problem you have. Let’s start with the parts I think we can agree on:
Being told to “calm down” when you’re trying to communicate a legitimate problem is infuriating — and that makes it nearly impossible to respond in a way that doesn’t confirm for the other person that you are, in fact, in need of calming.
Admonitions to “calm down” are seldom distributed equally or equitably. Showing emotion at work without losing standing is one of those luxuries conferred by privilege. Seniority, rank, race, gender and other factors play heavily into who gets characterized as “passionate,” “driven” or “a perfectionist,” versus who gets tagged as “angry,” “abrasive” or “hard to work with.” (Shout-out to my younger female colleague in a prior career who was counseled to be less “shrill” after raising her voice during a weekly meeting where an older male colleague regularly turned the air blue with profanities.)
People at the lower end of the privilege scale, especially in service or care-taking jobs, are accustomed to absorbing, validating and filtering other people’s emotional spillover to identify and solve underlying problems. But someone like your boss probably lacks that experience in a professional context, so any degree of emotional context, however mild, overwhelms his ability to analyze the problem. He might characterize it as just being logic-driven — but how often have you seen Mr. Spock snap, “oh, calm down” at Dr. McCoy?
It’s tricky to call out an ally for problematic behaviors, especially unconscious habits. Even if you’re careful to make clear that it’s the behavior you’re labeling as sexist, not the person, you’ll probably trigger some defensiveness.
Having agreed to those points, I’m going to answer your question with more questions: How important is it for you to be able to vent your frustrations to your boss? Can you extract the emotional context and report just the distilled problem to him, and then vent your spleen separately with someone who can handle it?
I trust that you’re not being dramatic or unprofessional, and this is not to say feelings have no place at work. Negative emotions alert us to problems and drive us to seek solutions. And sometimes the emotion is inextricable from the business problem, as when a colleague’s disrespect damages your rapport and thus your productivity. That’s why emotional intelligence is an increasingly sought-after trait in leaders.
Which brings me neatly back to your situation. If your boss’s maddeningly dismissive responses are preventing you from working effectively with him, here are some suggested approaches — all best delivered (in person, or by phone or live video) in as neutral a tone as you can manage.
Humor: “You realize ‘calm down’ is the least calming thing you can say to anyone, right?”
Concern: “I take our team’s on-time delivery seriously, and I know you do too. But this other department is not treating our schedule as a priority. How can we remedy that?”
Straight talk: “When you tell me to calm down, it comes across as dismissing my concerns. I would like to be candid with you about problems affecting me and my team.”