Sunday, February 18, 2007

Do mean people suck?

If my previous post was about being kind and respectful (or enacting those qualities), this post is about being (or being perceived to be) mean.

I've long noticed that I'm drawn to people whom many people don't like. By "drawn to," I don't mean "attracted to" (or at least not usually), and by "don't like," I don't mean "...because they're horrible and evil and have bad breath." I just mean difficult people: people with short tempers or frosty demeanors; people who don't empathize well; people who can seem arrogant or bitchy or high-handed.

Generally, these people are not friends; I'm not talking here about people whose difficult qualities you put up with because they're also fucking hilarious or because they can be tons of fun in the right setting. No, I'm talking about people who are usually situationally inappropriate as friends: bosses, supervisors, or co-workers/colleagues somewhat more advanced than oneself.

I used to think that it was just that I got along well with difficult people--that I was tolerant, knew what not to take personally, and could appreciate their positive managerial qualities (which in the cases I'm talking about always included extreme intelligence and extreme efficiency). But as I've gotten older, and have racked up more such relationships, I've realized that there's more to it: I really do seek out difficult people. Actually, I admire them.

I don't exactly know what this is about. The majority of the people I'm thinking of are women, so maybe part of it is about finding aggressive, intelligent women appealing as role models (although I'd like to make it clear that I don't think the women I'm talking about are particularly "misunderstood"--that, because they're women, they're read as bitchy while men with the same traits would simply be seen as commanding and efficient; most of these women actually are somewhat lacking in empathy, or self-knowledge, or interpersonal skills).

What's to admire? Well, toughness. Determination. Smarts. But most of the difficult people I'm thinking of are also, in their way, self-sacrificing.

The other day I was having lunch with some of my junior colleagues when The Devil Wears Prada came up. Someone spoke admiringly of Meryl Streep's performance.

"Yeah, she's pretty great," I said. "But really, the reason I love that movie is because Miranda Priestly is my dissertation director."

One of my colleagues, who has worked with Advisor, spat out his coffee.

"Am I exaggerating?"

"No." He shook his head. "In fact, that's a remarkably accurate comparison."*

And it is, but (as I went on to say) it's not so much the boss-from-hell caricature that I'm thinking of as it is the surprising sense of duty and obligation that Streep's Priestly is revealed to have: she really believes that she's the only person who can do what she does, and she sacrifices large parts of her life--not just her marriage, but arguably some of her humanity--to that sense of duty.

Is she right? I'm not sure that it matters. What matters is that she perceives herself to be under an obligation to her profession; she knows what she owes people, and she never shirks a responsibility.

To me, that's more admirable than not. I guess that I like nobly flawed people.

But I also like intimidating, somewhat scary people. Maybe that's because I don't perceive myself to be particularly intimidating, and I want to be associated with strength. Or maybe it's because I am intimidating, at least to some people--I admit that I have a tendency toward impatience and imperiousness; I'm demanding; and when I'm angry my voice gets soft and silky and completely freaks my students out.

Or maybe, and probably more to the point, I'm motivated by fear. What academic isn't? Whether it's the fear of objective failure (not finishing the dissertation, not getting a job, not getting tenure) or the fear of relative failure (not doing as well as a colleague, friend, or ex-friend), we're all trying not to prove ourselves frauds.

But in my case--and since so many of the scary-difficult people in my life have been people I've actively chosen to work with--I wonder whether I don't prefer to set up a situation that produces fear: one in which I know I'll be nervous and intimidated, never feeling that I've done enough or that I'm good enough. I complain about not being petted and loved and appreciated, but I suppose that those things aren't really very important to me.

Why: because I already have sufficiently high self-esteem (so I don't need the validation)? Because I have excessively low self-esteem (and so wouldn't believe compliments and flattery anyway)?

I don't know, actually.


*Seriously. 90% of the time, when I get asked whom I worked with, the response is some version of, "Oh. She doesn't seem very. . . nice."


Lydia said...

Ah, I love the title of this post.

I sort of know what you mean... at least, I know I prefer being challenged than being petted... although sometimes I really do want to be petted... but I know I don't really want that.

Sisyphus said...

Mmm, yes, I do know what you mean. My advisor seems to belong to the school of "It's hard out there for a woman academic so I shall treat you so much worse than anything you will ever encounter in order to toughen you up for the real world."

There's also the point that many of us have to be driven and ambitious to make it in academia, and driven and ambitious people in the business world are not at all nice. (at least on the job.) Perhaps it's that you're drawn to drive and productivity rather than loving, bumbling, ineffectual incompetence. That's definitely the case for me.

dhawhee said...

I know what you mean about being drawn to these kinds of people too. For me it started with my b-ball coaches who were notably mean, and then it happened with various advisor figures and even colleagues (peers and not). I worked my ass off trying to impress them, but what I really lived for is to get to know them well enough so that I might on a rare occasion make them laugh. THAT was a challenge.

Oso Raro said...

Have you ever considered that maybe you're just Sally Hansen Hard as Nails? Ironically enough, I just finished re-reading TDWP, and was struck by the intense differences between Miranda in the text as opposed to the glamourama that is La Streep in the film. In the text, she is completely and utterly irredeemable: a true sociopath. The filmic version defends her position a bit, humanises it maybe, and perhaps you're living the film version of some of these folks when others are living the text? After all, the old adage still holds true for most people: There are two things I hate about Her/Him: Her/His Face!

Pamphilia said...

I share this sentiment with you, Flavia. I've always been drawn to powerful, intimidating, blunt women academics. They've motivated and influenced me to want to succeed in this field. It was probably a class with Martha Nussbaum as an undergrad that cemented my perverse desire to be a professor, case in point. But much as I admire them, I'll never fully become like these flinty divas who sacrifice so much of themselves for the profession, even though I wish I could. I'm just too guileless, too innocent. I'm a young soul. I'm too eager. I thought this might mellow with age, with experience, with distance and rough weather, but I'm fairly sure it won't.

I had a kind of Miranda Priestly as my dissertation director too, or maybe that was just her reputation, not the real person. Talk about sacrifice-- she's the best reader I have ever, EVER had. She is also She once said to me "You shouldn't enjoy writing so much. Writing HURTS, muse." She's critical to the point of wounding. But I wouldn't want it any other way, and she has become even more generous, colleagial and friendly with me since I've finished and landed a job. I suppose it's because she can breathe a sigh of relief: I'm accounted for. Or maybe I've just grown up.

Pamphilia said...

Sorry for the typos. End of the day Monday and I've already had a much needed glass of wine.

Anonymous said...

So, I'm coming to this late, because I'm catching up on blog reading I haven't been doing in the last couple of months, but I am ROFL at this just because I and fellow advisees of my advisor all agreed when we saw TDWP that in fact, Miranda Priestly was OUR advisor. (I think I have said before that we must have had the same advisor!)

But I think Oso Raro's points are excellent because while I haven't read the book, I have read reviews that talked about the differences between the book and the film, and I agree that there's a humanization of Miranda in the movie - in fact, I admired Miranda quite a bit and thought that on the movie's terms, I'd have completely followed Miranda and not the whiny wussy boyfriend.

That being said, I don't know that I'm attracted to difficult people in any way - I ended up with said advisor for field of expertise, NOT her personality, and I do feel kind of scarred by working with her! (And like you've said in another post, I never just e-mail her to let her know what I'm doing - it's always a carefully composed message to show me in the best light, because like your advisor, she respects success.)

Hmmm, I have lost my train of thought here entirely...sorry! ;-)