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When Coworkers Treat You Differently Because of Your Relationship Status

Dear Emily,

I am a single adult woman who wants to do her work and work well with others. However, because of my single status, my workplace culture, and local culture, my sense of self-worth is getting bruised. For example, a number of male colleagues have explicitly told me that they are “just being nice” to me as a colleague. When I heard it the first time, I didn’t think much of it. By the fourth time, I started feeling very annoyed because, while I don’t like any of my male colleagues romantically, I do feel like I’ve been thrown into the dumpster four times. Is there any way to stop their unnecessary reminders that they aren’t interested in me romantically? I am happy being a single lady and have no intention of dating them. Thank you.

Stigmatized Single

Dear Stigmatized Single,

Isn’t it interesting how we allow others’ perceptions to hold power over us? I consider myself a strong, capable, confident woman. And yet a stray comment here or there can occasionally take hold and cause me to question my worth. I have to consciously, willfully remind myself that no other person gets to determine my worth. So, when I read about your bruised self-worth, I saw myself.

You ask how you can stop male colleagues from reminding you that you are single. I’d like to suggest a different question for your consideration. How can I stop feeling hurt when someone makes a comment about only wanting to work with me professionally?

If you would indulge me for just a moment. When I read your question, it reminded me of a conversation I had with a male colleague two years ago as the #metoo movement was gaining traction in the United States. This man came to me, in sincerity and humility, and expressed how he was struggling. He believed he had always worked well with his female colleagues, creating strong working relationships that also included genuine human caring and friendship. He praised their work. And now he was worried. Was there a chance that these women perceived his praise as a compliment? Did they feel like that compliment was inappropriate? Did they know and trust that he viewed them professionally? Should he say something to clarify this?

This man felt like the ground was shifting beneath is feet, causing him to call into question previous norms that he had taken for granted. And, you know what? It was. The ground was shifting and norms were changing and thank goodness for that! It’s about time. And it left this well-intentioned man uncertain.

I encouraged him to talk about it directly with his colleagues. He could start by acknowledging and affirming the shifting norms, sharing his intention to always act respectfully and professionally, and then ask for feedback. What should he do differently?

As it turns out, this man’s behavior had always been respectful and professional and none of his colleagues expressed any concerns. That he was worried about it suggested sensitivity, not guilt.

So, how does this connect with your experience? As I read your words about being told four times that your male colleagues are “just being nice to [you] as a colleague,” I realized that there could be multiple different explanations for these comments.

One explanation could be (and I think you may be hinting at this when you speak of “being thrown into the dumpster”) that men don’t find you desirable. If that is the story you tell yourself about their comments, I can absolutely see why that hurts. I, too, don’t want my male work colleagues thinking about me in those terms. And yet, if they repeatedly and explicitly expressed that, it could trigger feelings of insecurity. For many years, I was a happy single lady, yet I can still remember feeling somewhat hurt by rejection from people I wasn’t interested in. If that is how you are feeling, I’d encourage you to take a step back and reconnect with your sense of self-worth. Remember that your worth is not defined by others or their words.

Another explanation could be that these men, like my colleague, are navigating new norms in the workplace. Perhaps they aren’t yet confident of how to approach the situation. Perhaps they are trying to make it clear that they value you as a work colleague. Yes, maybe they aren’t doing it well, but good for them for trying.

My suggestion is to interpret their actions in the best possible light and tell yourself a different story about their intent. Their words are more a commentary on themselves—where they are right now and what they are trying to navigate—than they are a commentary on you. Then, decide how you will respond the next time a male colleague makes it clear that he wants to keep your relationship totally professional. You could say something like, “Thanks. That is good to hear. I value you as a colleague as well, and it is good to know that you see and judge me on the merits of the work I do. I feel the same way toward you.”

I can hear the hurt in your question. These “unnecessary reminders” that you are single are bruising your self-worth. I understand that. And, I am suggesting that it is not the statements themselves that are hurtful, but the story you tell yourself about why these men are saying these things. When we tell ourselves a different story, we often feel differently.

All the best,

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4 thoughts on “When Coworkers Treat You Differently Because of Your Relationship Status”

  1. Patty

    Good question and good answer, but I would just flat out say to these guys, “I’d like to ask you something. I wonder if you’re telling me that because you’re concerned about your interactions with a female coworker being interpreted as less than professional.”

    I would not hesitate to let my coworker know that telling me they are just being nice as a colleague is not the same as just being nice as a colleague. That their words are not only unnecessary, but they do not take the place of a professional relationship and will not provide cover if the relationship is anything less. “Actions speak louder than words, and I’m sure we can show each other mutual respect.”

    I know, that sounds angry, accusing. But I have no empathy for a man who feels the need to state that he is treating me as a colleague. I know this is a stretch, but without speaking up, it’s just getting too close to accepting flowers from a man who treats you poorly otherwise.

    He is a grown up and a professional. Behave and communicate like a grown up and a professional.

  2. Bryan

    Is she is flirting, coming on to the men, or otherwise opening acting interested in them? If so, then maybe the men feel they need to clarify that they are not interested for both personal and professional reasons.

  3. Erika

    Love the post and suggestions too!

  4. Still facing a bias at work because of your marital status? Ask Yogesh Sood

    […] This blog is an adaptation of a blog written by Emily Gregory on November 18th, 2020    –…  […]

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