On Conflict

The past few weeks have been challenging; the difficulties have had to do with dealing with people. I haven’t wronged anyone, but I have been unable to keep quiet after someone has wronged me, my family, or a professional group I am affiliated with. Predictably, conflict ensued.

In this society, and especially if you are female, everyone expects you to just swallow whatever crap they dish out in the name of peace. If you don’t and confront them instead over their their stupid, insensitive, or downright manipulative behavior, people are generally shocked that there is a reaction in the first place; they are used to getting away with social transgressions big and small by relying on other people’s conflict aversion.

The thing is, when someone is an a$$ towards me, whether they meant it or not, whether they had a bad day/month/toothache or another legitimate reason, they make me do work that I don’t want to do. In order to keep the peace and avoid conflict, I have to find a way to absorb the $hit. It saps my energy; it detracts from my work; it requires me to do the emotional labor of processing their a$$holishness.

No. If you crap on me or upset me, I will make sure that you don’t have a great day either. Next time, hopefully you will tread lightly. Yes, I know you will think I am a crazy bitch/difficult/hormonal. But I actually think we will get along much better once I have shown you some teeth.

Why is keeping the peace so paramount? Because nothing good comes from conflict, or at least so say several of my (Midwestern-born, church-going) politically savvy colleagues. I beg to disagree. Me knowing that I am not a mute trash receptacle into which people get to dump their steaming piles of $hit is a good thing that comes from conflict. Why should I be concerned about the well-being and comfort of the people who so clearly hold my own well-being and comfort in very low regard?


I had a few interactions with a very intense (female) colleague. They did rub me the wrong way and I have tried to figure out why. I like the colleague socially, so these negative feelings in the professional context were something new.

The problem is the following. She and another colleague have been thinking and working on something for a while (years) and are well versed in and very passionate about the topic. They want a very specific thing implemented as part of university policy and have even drafted some verbiage to that effect. They discussed the procedure with the higher-ups, who referred them to my committee. The problem is that the colleague came to me with this essentially finished product, whose value and necessity she felt should be self-evident to me, and basically pushed that it be discussed and adopted. My reaction (without the expletives) was, “WTF is going on? Where is this coming from, what the hell is all this, why is any of this necessary or urgent, and why exactly do you expect me to push it through my committee so quickly?” She seemed to be taken aback that I didn’t immediately see the greatness of the proposal; she seemed almost offended. The moral of the story is that, just because something is near or dear to your heart, you cannot expect other people to understand or care about it, let alone drop everything to follow your agenda. And, to be honest, having done a bit too much of your homework (and waving it in the face of the uninitiated) makes you seem pushy.

The epilogue is that I slowed the ball a little and had us talk several times over several weeks, so I’d have the time to figure out for myself it this is something my committee should be dealing with and how much jurisdiction we had, looked into some precedents and past practices, and I was eventually confident to distribute needed information for consideration by my committee. This also prompted us on the committee to look into the bigger picture and we will be making certain other changes to the policy alongside the ones the colleague proposed. The vote will happen, but not until the end of the semester. At schools with faculty governance, things do move, but probably not as fast as some people would like.



  1. I recently was told that one of our admin people has been saying nasty things about me because I once politely asked her to turn her music down (her office is nowhere near mine– I should not be able to hear her music through a closed door with headphones on) and she was a jerk about it even though I was still extremely polite. And then I was less polite when she didn’t end her workshop before my class in the same room started and then walked in before her alloted time (before my class technically ended) on the same day, because obviously being polite wasn’t getting me anywhere. Anyhow, now she’s saying nasty things about me to people, but mainly about the one time I politely asked her to turn her music down. So whatever. At least she’s not eating into my class time anymore. I generally try to be polite and assume the best of people, but sometimes that doesn’t matter.

  2. What if the people who are treating you badly are higher up in university government?
    I cannot disclose details, but we have a situation where things have gone so apeshit that the powers that be have resorted to pressure bordering on threats and all of our arguments and questions and complaints just fall on deaf ears. What do you do then? Do you whistle blow (oh how I want to, but I am but a lowly mignon)? Do you tell them like it is straight to their face (they are so used to just blah blah-ing in commonalities that who knows, they might think it’s refreshing)? Do you sit still and try not to be noticed in the hope that evil will pass you by and you will somehow disappear from their radar- thus prolonging an insecure and uncertain situation that has already been dragging on for more than a year? Right now I am being torn between exploding/unloading and sitting still/staying quiet.

  3. I agree about you reasoning about not keeping the peach with a$$holes, *in principle*. But at least to me, conflict also comes with its own emotional price (including fuming beforehand, trying to build up the courage for a confrontation, and endless debates with myself afterwards about whether I was actually wrong in the first place). Does this get easier with time/practice, or are you not so confrontation averse in general? Or do you just think that it’s worth the price for not having people behave that way the next time (and does it actually work)?

  4. HS, I don’t know if it’s worth it, but I know that there are periods, like now, when I don’t have the time or energy for the self-doubts about my actions and all the obsessing (which I often do) about whether I should have been more tactful. Someone pisses me off, I let them know they did and that I don’t care for it at all.

    I don’t crave conflict, but with increasing age and busyness, I am much less likely to avoid it.

    I think being a mom has had an effect on this aspect of my life. When a kid lashes out, there are two aspects of my response. One is that I need to understand what brought about the scene. For little kids, it’s being tired or hungry; for older ones, it may be trouble with school or friends. But the second aspect is that they need to understand that they can’t treat me like $hit even if they are upset, and that I will be upset/angry with them for treating me badly (e.g., hitting, yelling) even though I understand the underlying reason. When people hurt someone, they need to feel discomfort at their action.

  5. Argggg, sounds so familiar! However IMO it is not worth your emotional effort to complain about it to people at work since nothing will be done and the process of complaining will just get more upset; I’d just go home and vent over a glass of wine to my friend/spouse/other non-work confident and then let it drop at work. It’s important to keep your expectations of people of work very low, because that’s most accurate, otherwise you will spend all your time being outraged by people’s behavior.

    I have a senior faculty (male of course) who regularly bursts into my office so he can shout at me about something that he disagrees with, even things that I have no control over. The most recent problem was he thought that I somehow could have prevented the negative tenure review for one of his favorite junior faculty (when I have zero control over the tenure review in our department). He claims I should have called up the chair and threatened him (?!) in order to get a better tenure review for the junior faculty. Yes really! I just looked at him like he was insane because honestly WTF? This is just an example – this guy finds something about once every week that he decides is somehow my fault.

    Outwardly I respond as I must to his tirades, remaining calm and openly friendly and discussing reasonably with him as if I care about his ridiculous complaint and respect his distinguished professional position. But inwardly of course I’m seething…thinking that if I acted even slightly like this, even once, I’d be blackballed forever for any kind of leadership position as being a “nasty woman” etc. I admit that I also think quietly to myself about how he will hopefully retire or die soon….

  6. Totally unrelated to this post (sorry!), but I just wanted to let you know that your past posts have inspired me to nominate colleagues for awards…and I just found out that I am now 2/2 in getting junior colleagues (both women) ‘early career’ awards from our national society. For me, this success is sweet and novel…kind of like the feeling of giving someone a gift that they really, really love. So, thanks for putting that bug in my ear. You are awesome!

  7. pyrope, that’s wonderful! Congrats to both you and your nominees! It’s really a great feeling when someone you nominate for an award wins it.

  8. Excellent post. What you are talking about in both sections is setting and enforcing appropriate boundaries. While it creates friction at first when dealing with those who haven’t had such boundaries enforced against them previously, even annoying boundary pushers learn to respect (unless they have genuine personality disorders).

  9. “In this society, and especially if you are female, everyone expects you to just swallow whatever crap they dish out in the name of peace. If you don’t and confront them instead over their their stupid, insensitive, or downright manipulative behavior, people are generally shocked that there is a reaction in the first place”

    oh my goodness PREACH. I’ve encountered this behavior in my lab where the macho males have made sexist and racist and xenophobic comments (e.g. “Iranians?! They’re all terrorists!” when we have two very kind, sweet Iranian students in our lab) and when I’ve spoken up against the crass jokes they’ve made about me, they’ve either been so shocked or ashamed that they withdraw and don’t work with me on course projects and collaborations. It does lead to the self-doubt/obsessions/should-i-have-been-more-tactful that you mentioned in your above comment… that’s been a work in progress on holding my tongue and choosing my battles, which I’m sure you have thoughts about as well

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