Love, Life Stories

Don’t ever call me “harmless”

The first thought that came to mind was that I was the only non-white person being described.

A colleague was playing a game of summarizing each of us in one word — a summation of our personalities that he gleaned from his eight months of sitting in our row.

John was described as “focused.” Liz was “fierce.” Emma was “driven.”

Me? Apparently, I’m “harmless.”

“Excuse me?”

“You’re harmless. You know, you’re just … nice.”

Despite immediately pointing out that 1) I’m not “harmless” and 2) there is a difference between being nice and being harmless, my protests were brushed off. My unamused demeanor only further incited teasing about my “calm, soothing personality” and my “sweet disposition” from my coworkers. I was “overreacting,” and should be happy because there’s apparently nothing wrong with being harmless.

I beg to differ. While perhaps (in an idealistic setting) this colleague of mine meant to simply imply that I am a kind person, using “harmless” implies a vastly different meaning — that I am incapable of doing harm, that I am nice and only nice. The implication extends further into the belief that I am unable to be stern, to push back when necessary, or to be angry/upset when the situation calls for it.

I wondered what dynamics were actually at play here.

The first thought that came to mind was that I was the only non-white person being described. I’m also the youngest in the group, and a relatively short, quiet, brown hijabi to boot. Liz and Emma, meanwhile, are two loud, tall, blonde women.

In an office of predominantly white people, with minorities generally holding lower positions, I am not surprised that my white colleagues may eye me with their typical Asian stereotypes. They may see me as smart, someone great with data and doing work, but unable to keep up socially and unlikely to achieve a leadership position.

Considering I managed to work my way up from an intern to a manager in less than a year, I struggle to find the validity of the stereotype, but perhaps I’m merely seeing things through rose-colored glasses. (I’m not.)

When my other female colleagues are being called “fierce” and “driven,” I have to consider what could make us so different.

The most striking thought that came to mind in terms of our personalities was how we respond to stressful or annoying situations.

In a business where we are quite frequently on the phone with agencies that make our lives difficult — that don’t follow simple instructions or that disregard rules — it has become almost commonplace to find ourselves in a situation where we need to set our feet down to establish how things need to be done. Liz and Emma have a similar approach — get the agency on the phone and yell at them about what they did wrong.

Considering our office is fairly small, it isn’t rare to find everyone peeking over their desks or out of their offices to see what’s going on. My approach is different. I am not one to raise my voice or bust out my attitude or sarcasm when at work. I do, however, make my displeasure clear with my tone and a clear set of repercussions.

Yelling has never felt like a reasonable option when I can accomplish the same results by being calm but stern.

But the difference in our approaches does affect how we are seen by others; the loudness of their voices seemingly displays power and strength, whereas my ability to remain quiet when upset effectively makes me look — at least, superficially — weaker.

In some ways, I found it almost amusing — the naiveté of my colleague’s description of me. That somehow, in the short time he had known me, he was able to discern so little of my ability to get things done — or that my displeasure with the work of others, though quiet and collected, has been the difference between which agencies work with us and which don’t.

That my anger, though quiet and collected, is still (purposefully) evident to those I work with, and is every bit as loud in ferocity as vocally loud anger, without the need to draw attention.

I do my best to live in kindness to others, to respect the feelings and experiences of those around me.

But my ability to be kind, to keep my negative emotions reigned in, is far from making me “harmless.”

It is never an insult to be known for your kindness, but to be described as harmless has an implication of not having a backbone, and I refuse to be seen as a pushover.

I refuse to allow someone to look at me and assume that my quiet and kind nature prevents me from calling the shots, being stern, and knowing how to get things done the way I want them to be done.

I refuse to allow someone to look at me and assume that my ethnicity or faith dictates my ability to stand my ground, excel in my work, or be a leader.

Harmless? I don’t think so.