Welcome to The FAQs of Life, R29's new advice column. Each Tuesday, Colette will offer her sage wisdom on modern life and all its stumbling blocks. If you've got a query you'd like her to take on, send it to FAQs@refinery29.com or leave it in the comments.
THE Q: I leave work every day at 6:30 PM — because I come in at 8:30 AM, and working for 10 hours is enough for one day and one brain. I meet deadlines, and I don't leave anything undone that can't wait until the next day. But, sometimes it seems like there's an unspoken competition at work over "who stayed the latest." Every morning, other women are like, "OMG, I was here till 9!" or "I was here till 11 PM." I always respond with something like, "I can't believe you stayed so late! You're crazy!" — which I guess just encourages them. How do I keep my regular work hours without feeling like I'm in last place in the who-stayed-the-latest race? I worry that everyone around me will think I'm a slacker for wanting to head out on time. — We Aren’t Robots
THE A: In the halcyon days of my youth, WAR, I attended a fancy-schmancy Liberal Arts College — the kind with no frats and a tuition that I’m still pimping my Etsy page to pay off. (There’s a strong market for “Fuck the Patriarchy” throw pillows.) Before you roll your eyes and close this window, there’s a reason why I’m telling you this.
Each year, at finals time at said fancy school, there was a contingent of students who basically moved into the library. Now, studious and stressed-out college students wouldn’t normally draw my ire, except these Poindexters reveled in their misery. They would prominently display their piles of comically oversized tomes and Red Bull cans, shuffle around the Harry Potter-esque grandeur in slippers and clouds of anxiety, loudly bleat about how long they have gone without a shower. At first, I assumed that these students had incredibly rigorous course loads, that I was “doing college wrong.” But, as I began to recognize certain drowsy faces as people from my classes, classes I was preparing for while still showering and sleeping fairly regularly, I realized that the library was a place of performance. These students wanted to be seen: They loved to gripe about surviving on cigarettes and coffee for three days, just to see the combination of awe and pity flutter across our faces. Being busy and stressed was more than just a state of being — it was a declaration of worth.
I have a hunch something similar is going on with your coworkers. If they are routinely staying in the office that late and their responsibilities don’t differ that much from yours, either they aren’t being productive during the work day or they’re just staying late to stay late. Whether consciously or not, we use busyness as a way to show our significance and importance: I’m needed, I’m necessary, I toil selflessly for the good of the company.
And while I’m being hard on these 11-PM-ers, it’s not exactly their fault. It’s capitalism's fault. (Can’t you tell that I listened to punk rock in high school?) The economy is sluggish, the job market is tough, and everyone who’s managed to stay steadily employed feels lucky. And so we Assistant Assistants to the Junior Head Marketing Manager take on ever-growing amounts of responsibility, check our emails 24/7, and allow the boundaries between public and private and day and night to blur. But, by doing that, we’re inadvertently helping to perpetuate the problem: If everyone answers emails at 11 PM, people start to expect prompt replies to the emails they send at 11 PM. By remaining plugged in and accessible even after the after-shows have aired, your coworkers are creating a new, unattractive standard. It’s no surprise that you’re feeling the pressure.
So, what to do? Keep resisting! As long as your boss hasn’t said anything about your work schedule, don’t give in to the crazy. Opt out. Take a lesson from the woman who taught you to grab life by the rhinestones, Dolly Parton. As she sings in “9 to 5” (which is just a jangly, countrified version of The Communist Manifesto, if you ask me), “It’s enough to drive you crazy, if you let it…” And, she's just talking about an eight-hour day — imagine what Comrade Dolly would say about staying past dinnertime!
And, if you’re one of the many chronic 11-PM-ers, whispering, “I wish I could quit you” to your computer: Give yourself a break. There are other ways to show your value than staying hyperconnected. In fact, unplugging and getting a good night’s rest will undoubtedly increase your productivity and present-mindedness during normal work hours. Boost your work-life balance by giving yourself a firm curfew and turning off your phone at the same time each night. Inform your boss, colleagues, and clients of this new cutoff point and, I assure you, they’ll adapt. Train yourself: Just because you see an email notification doesn’t mean you have to take care of it right away. Unless it’s time-sensitive or you truly have a ton of work to do, fight the urge to shoot off a quick reply or burn the midnight oil. Surely, the overnight janitor won’t miss your sighs and manic stare that much.
THE Q: There's another gay, Asian male who also works in creative at my office, and he's wonderful. But, other than the most basic ethnic physicality, we look nothing alike: He is chic and thin, whereas I’m a little squat-er. He does not wear glasses, and he effortlessly pulls off a man-bun. And yet, somehow, our coworkers are forever mixing up our names!
I could certainly be confused with worse people, but every time someone stops themselves mid-sentence and realizes the facial-sensory dissonance that their highly evolved brains have fallen under, I shoot them a snaggled grin as I concurrently (and quietly) lose my shit. How do I get my coworkers to realize that their constant "lil' slip-ups" are indicative of a larger racial compartmentalization that is offensive and dehumanizing? Is being called by my own name too much to ask for? — Actually, We All Look Unique!
THE A: Human beings. We are great at lots of things — like taking Friends quizzes and posting about fake holidays on Facebook — and sometimes bad at others. Like empathizing with the lived experiences of people who don’t look like us.
So, AWALU, let me begin by apologizing for your coworkers, and for any unimaginative childhood taunting or inquiries about where you are from — but, no really, like where are you from? — that you may have had to tolerate over the years. It sucks, and I'm sorry.
As a person of color, i.e., someone who is forced to engage with race on a near-constant basis, I’m sure you know about microaggressions. But, in case you don’t: Columbia professor Derald Sue used the term to refer to “brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioral, or environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative racial slights and insults toward people of color.” So, being repeatedly asked where you are from, even after you already talked about growing up in Brooklyn, is a microaggression. Having someone laughingly refer to you as “white on the inside,” being asked to check your friend’s number-crunching since it’s assumed you’re good at math, or enduring questions about your “tiger mother”— these are microaggressions. As is your coworkers’ habit of mixing you up with the only other Asian man in your department. Without a doubt.
Of course, I’m sure most of your coworkers aren’t doing this intentionally. (On the off chance that they are, you are free to enact retribution. Try encrypting a file with a vicious virus and attaching it to a company-wide email with the subject “FREE GROUPON TO SECRET MUMFORD & SONS CONCERT.”) Messing up someone’s name doesn’t make you a racist; it doesn’t make you a bad person or guilty of a hate crime. But, that doesn’t absolve your coworkers of guilt or mean their “slip-ups” are innocuous: Just because one isn't aware that his or her actions are discriminatory doesn’t make the action any less discriminatory. Because, here’s the thing: Intention and effect don’t always align.
I asked David Zhou and Vivian Lu, graduate students and founders of The Microaggressions Project, about these passing slights’ effect. “What is most damaging about these sometimes innocent mistakes is that they strip away the recognition of an individual as an autonomous person,” they explained. When your coworkers stumble and call you Jason instead of Charles, they just hear a harmless mistake, but you hear, “Your personhood and identity are overshadowed by the superficial markers of your race.”
Okay, so great, so we’ve established that it sucks. What do you do? How do you stop microaggressions without walking your coworkers through a college seminar on race studies? I asked journalist, activist, and Racialicious founder Latoya Peterson for some input:
“Assuming you want to keep this job, a reality-TV-style call-out isn't the best tactic.” Instead, she advises the strategy of subtle shaming. Next time someone addresses you by your coworker's name, “Try heading them off at the pass by standing and saying, ‘Wait, before you ask — are you sure you're talking to the right person?'” Or, if you can, “calmly walk with them over to [your Asian coworker] man-bun's workspace and say something like, ‘Just making sure the right person is here when you make your request.’” Feel free to let man-bun in on the plan.
“And, if you feel particularly militant, add some decorative reading material to your workspace. Books like Helen Zia's Asian American Dreams, Kenji Yoshino's Covering, and M. Evelina Galang's Screaming Monkeys: Critiques of Asian American Images, or back issues of Hyphen will help reinforce the message that you know who you are and they'd better fucking recognize.”
In other words, if you don’t explicitly want to call them out, don’t. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t fight back.