Should I smile? Am I on Candid Camera?

Sometimes I feel like there must be a secret film crew following me around making a video about inappropriate workplace boundaries.

Surely somewhere in the future there are new employees sitting in a conference room giggling uncontrollably at this outdated video. “Oh my gosh, she’s so awkward; she doesn’t know how to react!” one new hire exclaims. “I know right? And what was this filmed with—an HD camera? It’s so old looking!” the other chimes in…

I am decidedly clumsy when it comes to handling unsolicited advances from other professionals while on the clock. Not that it’s a skill I am actively working to improve.

In addition to daily interaction with clients and coworkers, my job includes working directly with volunteers, school personnel and representatives of funding sources (auditors). Sometimes (for reasons only they could illuminate) these individuals cross invisible lines that I would rather they did not cross. Perhaps I am too nice, perhaps all social workers are too nice, or perhaps these people are just a little creepy.

In this entry you will have the pleasure of meeting MrCreepyDean, NoBoundariesAuditor and my VolunteerDad: three humans I would have gladly avoided my whole professional career if possible.

I am sure that most of you will not be surprised to learn that I spend a lot of time waiting when I visit my clients’ schools. Last Fall while still in the process of completing intake interviews for new clients, I did even more waiting than usual. On one such day when I was in-between meeting potential new clients, I sat for awhile at a table in a common area shared by a group of guidance offices.

After I’d been sitting for about 10 minutes, a man in a dress shirt, tie, slacks, and suspenders (!!) came in to the room—walkie-talkie in hand. Naturally I assumed he was an administrator and tried to be friendly. (After all, any school staff member could turn out to be the one who later takes the time to collect the phone numbers, report cards and attendance records I’ll undoubtedly need down the line.)

I asked him about his role at the school and it turned out he was the Dean of Students. He asked what I did at the school and I briefly explained my job and what I was doing there that day. Shortly after I started to reply, he took a seat and (from my perspective) acted far too interested in every detail of what I had to say. Because I have no idea what to do in these situations, I tried to talk over the weirdness. Luckily the bell rang a few minutes later and my next interviewee arrived. Saved by the (adorable) Girl! (A girl who by the way just got into an amazing leadership program. I haven’t shut up about it for a week. I’m so proud).

But alas, when I finished the interview and went to leave the school, MrCreepyDean was waitinghovering outside the room. He offered to “walk me out.” Really, sir? Thanks, but I think I can manage one flight of stairs and a left-hand turn all on my own. When I made it to the bottom of the stairs and started toward the door, he asked if I’d be interested in continuing our conversation over drinks some time. You mean this conversation where I tell you, as a school administrator, about how I support your students? Was that misleading somehow? I mumbled something about having a boyfriend and walked away. Not the most professional response, you say? Maybe. But then, does it really matter when he’d so clearly forgotten he was speaking to a professional?

I would have loved if my interaction with MrCreepyDean was the only example I had to share in this post. Unfortunately I was confronted by another individual of this nature, not once, but thrice… to my great great personal and professional discomfort.

Encounter #1: The first time I met NoBoundariesAuditor, he came to observe one of my groups. I hardly had to interact with him and left thinking him a regular, professional dude.

Encounter #2: NoBoundariesAuditor came to our office to audit a range of case files. I knew he was coming and when I was in the elevator coming back from lunch, I recognized him. In another effort to be friendly, I reintroduced myself and reminded him where we had met before.

NoBoundariesAuditor: “I was pretty sure recognized you, but thought if I said ‘Hey, don’t I know you from somewhere?’ you’d think I was hitting on you.”

Thankfully it was a short elevator ride.

The statement was harmless enough on its own. If we lived in the same residential building and bumped into each occasionally in the elevator, I might even think the comment was funny. But if you’re coming to my office to read through and critique my case files in order to determine whether or not our department continues to receive funding, please keep these thoughts to yourself.

Encounter #3: The last time I saw NoBoundariesAuditor, he came to observe another of my groups. I’d pushed the elevator incident to the back of my mind. But then he greeted me with some hug/kiss-on-the-cheek combination that should probably be reserved for family reunions. In front of my teens (my clients). Okay, fine. Everyone has their own feelings about appropriate greetings, right? I guess.

During the group, when the kids were working on self-directed activities, he proceeded to give me misguided career advice and tell me about his daughter who is apparently around my age. He then assured me that I should not worry when he slipped out midway through the group meeting because it simply meant he had seen enough. Despite the warning, he lingered as he was leaving just long enough to say goodbye to me with an even more awkward hug+kiss-on-the cheek-combination. Again in front of the teens?

And finally, there is VolunteerDad. This is an archetype that other young people working with volunteers may know well: the older gentleman who “dads” the younger worker. I actually have two. But this particular VolunteerDad has nicknames for me like “kiddo” and sometimes comes up to me after I’ve had to handle a difficult situation with a group to tell me that I “handled that really well.” Thanks, Dad. I did go to graduate school for this.

Honestly VolunteerDad didn’t bother me much at first. I have a soft spot for dads, and given the many tough parts of working with volunteers (SocialJerk has some good thoughts on this), I appreciated his supportive nature. That is until he started mixing in some good ol’ over-sharing… specifically about his marital dissatisfaction. Oh and it didn’t help that he sloppily kissed my cheek (is this a generational thing I am misinterpreting?! Because in professional situations, I just don’t get it) when he left early from the last event he attended with my group.

There are certainly aspects of each situation that irk me more than others, but generally I just feel uncomfortable about all of it.

This may be shocking, but when I am at work, my mind is on my clients.

So: if I’m talking to the Dean of Students, the purpose of my interaction is to establish a relationship that will benefit the students I work with should I need to advocate for/with them in the future. When with an auditor, my priority is to do my job well and positively represent my organization so that the program can be offered to my clients again next year. And if a volunteer has taken time to work with my clients, I am thinking about how he can best support them. I am not, in fact, wondering if a guy is single, hoping to be kissed on the cheek or wondering if a man is happy in his marriage.

I am sure my more knowledgeable, feminist peers (or, you know, Jessica Valenti) would have more intellectually exciting conclusions to this post. We could talk about sexism or misogyny. I don’t know where to begin. Perhaps I still feel more comfortable hiding behind my fear that I have it too good to complain. Despite what I know from my education and books I’ve read, I still can’t always shake the idea that there might be wrong times to feel harassed… uncomfortable… creeped out...whatever. But sometimes, the feeling is there even if the reason isn’t explicit.

Maybe next time I post on this topic, I’ll be ready to articulate some feminist ideas for you. I think it’s a pretty safe bet that this kind of thing will keep happening and that the more it does, the more outraged I’ll feel.

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4 thoughts on “Should I smile? Am I on Candid Camera?

  1. PR, channeling my inner “jessica valenti” (or susan douglas, or inga musicio, or I will stop now…)

    while men can be sexist/mysoginist any and every -where…. this really rubs me the wrong way because social workers are “pink collar” workers. we are overwhelmingly female!! (remember social work school? the token boy speaking for all men. except he was probably gay, damaged, or “sensitive” and wasn’t like the majority of men we encounter daily). yeah.

    being hit on at work, talked down to (which I get more frequently), patronized/spoken to like I’m their child (without the extra creepy marital problems bit you’ve experienced) all minimalize our work. by frequently making us sexual objects or treating us as inferior in our work it both serves as a way to dehumanize women and to delegtimize our work.

    by remaining confident, as unflustered as possible, and assertive we are “bitches” who need to “lighten up” – but i firmly beleive if we don’t take ourselves and our profession seriously, how can we expect others to?

    • I pretty much talked about all this with you already, but I do want to thank you for being my first blog comment ever. AND say that if being confident and assertive makes me a bitch, I’ll gladly take the label. Ish.

  2. SocialJerk says:

    I was about to say that guys don’t have to deal with it, but then I remembered a male coworker who had to eventually be taken off a case because the mother kept answering the door for home visits in a shortie bathrobe. But that’s an anomaly.

    I really think that most of them, especially when they’re treating us like children, don’t even notice that they’re doing it. I typically ask myself, when I feel offended or insulted, and am wondering if I’m overreacting, if I can imagine the person bothering me doing a similar thing to a man. Particularly when a male stranger demands that I smile (usually about once a week.) Most often, then answer is no, they would never tell a man on the street to turn that frown upside down because he’s got a cute face, or ruffle their 30 year old accountant’s hair and tell him that he’d done a great job on those tricky taxes.

    My point (and I do have one) is that I wish more men would consider this before they speak. “Would I say this to a man? If not, why am I saying it to her?” Just take a moment, and it can make all the difference. I’m always imploring the men in my life to do this. I think some of them get it…

    • I am pretty sure you just crawled inside my brain, understood exactly what stopped me from knowing what to write about this and then explained it in such a way that made my own thoughts more clear to me.

      So I thank you.

      Also I think your point helps me clarify the reason my other VolunteerDad doesn’t bother me the same way. Everything he says to me that would be interpreted as “dad-ing” me is something he would definitely say to a male in the same position, it is exclusively postiive reinforcement and he still defers to my judgment as a professional in all the right moments. Also, he understands that people are entitled to a personal space bubble, so that definitely helps.

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