Professional Courtesies, Sexism, and Friendship

Two in one day! Business is booming!

Dear Yours Truly,

This is a very Ann Landers-y question, because, in a way, it has to do with manners and stuff. Here’s the situation:

I work in the arts, in a very competitive field. Recently (like a couple days ago), I won a local audition for a job that I really wanted. That’s wonderful. My problem is that a good friend and colleague of mine, who I’ve known and worked with since I was basically in high school, had been holding the position temporarily for the past two or three years. I know she depends on the money from the job and really wanted to win it. She was the runner-up for the job and is upset. My friend is not a stupid or unreasonable person. She knows that the committee has to pick someone and I think she’s primarily down on herself for not performing better at the audition. However, there are also a couple of things that squicked me out about the audition and probably did not escape her attention either.
1) The committee was all dudes. I am a dude (or nearly so– I am an FTM transsexual which I think is relevant to this question. Being socialized female i think is contributing to my angst here). So often in my field, sexism rears its head in the final round of an audition, when the screen does down and the audition committee can see you. More guys win when an audition is not totally blind. It sucks but is totally true.

2). We knew all the people on the committee and they knew us! One of them was her ex-boyfriend! There may have been a great deal of personal bias going on not to mention that a committee like that could make my friend extra nervous.

All that said, I really do think I earned the job. I played a smart and solid audition. My question is, how do I salvage things with my friend? Should I call her? I’m desperately afraid of saying the wrong thing! Should I keep my concerns about the committee to myself? I feel like any way I approach her will smack of smugness. Can I ask her what she wants from me somehow? How do I not be jerk in this situation? Or am I completely overreacting and she just needs to get over it?

Thanks for your advice.

Wow. This is a gnarly situation and I can well understand your feelings of grossness. It is personally awkward and politically awkward and just YUCK. Your poor friend! Holding the job and then not getting it: ugh. On the other hand, this is a brutal world and you have to make a living too. We are going to be friends with other people in our field, you know, and thus this will be an issue for us, always. You either cultivate hateful, alienated relationships with everyone in your field, or you get used to making classy phone calls in situations like this.

But first of all, congratulations! This is a big deal and is great. I am so happy for you! This is a tough field and you nailed an audition. Even if some small part of getting the job is based on male privilege–which sucks and is wrong (but also may not be the case, in this case)–it can’t be all of it. You nailed it, you’ve got the goods, and that is very validating! Even male people deserve to get jobs they are qualified for! Ha ha

Second of all, I commend you for even being aware of all this and feeling gross about it. Many many dudes would be absolutely blind to all these issues and would just be like “I’m obviously great, of course I won.” Whether your sensitivity to stuff like this comes from being socialized as a woman or whether you are just a nice thoughtful person (or both), I just want to say thank you for not being a huge dick about denying the complex web of privilege we all live within.

So, on to your problem, which is kind of a sensitive etiquette issue. I definitely think you should talk to your friend about some of these feelings, but not all of them. My tactic with stuff like this (weird apologies; stuff I feel guilty about) is just to try to be super honest and raw. Sometimes the person appreciates it and sometimes they don’t and are creeped out, but if you DON’T get it out there they might be just as creeped out by your silence, so err on the side of greater openness. Just call her up. I mean, it doesn’t have to be a HUGE DEAL, like you are informing her she has cancer or that you secretly had her baby 14 years ago and here is her son and she needs to take him and raise him now because you have to go to jail, or something. It’s tricky and sensitive but it’s not the world’s most appalling travesty. So you say, hey. Can we talk about this awkward situation? I’m glad I got the job but I also know that you also deserved it and would have been great for it. I think you’re brilliant and I like you a lot and I just don’t want this dumb thing to make things strained between us. I know it’s easy for me to say, since I’m the one who got the job, but I guess I’d hope you’d feel the same way if our roles were reversed, as they so easily could have been. I’d love to talk about it with you if you want, and if you don’t want to, then I just hope you know how much I value your friendship and how much I disliked directly competing against you.

It’s tricky because any number of those suggested talking points could come off as condescending, especially if she’s feeling super raw (“oh, it’s sad how I crushed you in that competition”), but on the other hand, I kind of just think you CAN’T just “not talk about it.” Right? That seems so artificial and weird. In these situations you have to be like “God, that was terrible, I’m so sorry, I think you are amazing and I’m sorry you didn’t get it / proud of you for getting it.” Much like the previous letter, not talking about it seems like it will just make it worse.

We must also accept that there are elements of randomness in the selection process that we have no control over. Like, if my amazing male friend gets a job I also applied to, there is a huge list of possible reasons he could have been chosen over me, and only one of them is his maleness, right? They could have liked his jokes better. They could have thought his work was a better fit for their department. They could have a better profile of him because he’s better at networking than I am. Maybe I flubbed my teaching demonstration! Maybe he nailed his! Maybe I had something stuck in my teeth the whole time. Maybe he’s black and I’m white and they wanted a person of color, so then the privilege dynamic is flipped! How can we know? Also the ex-boyfriend is a whole other can of worms that probably has nothing to do with you, with sexism, or anything else. I can’t imagine applying for a job that an ex boyfriend was judging me for. WTF!

So, while sexism is highly likely to have played a part, it’s not really something you can know for sure, or that you can do anything about. Are our nation’s men supposed to all quit their jobs in protest of women not being given those jobs? Are you supposed to cede your audition to her? “I just don’t think it’s right for me to compete against a woman. You should give her the job.” That would be crazy (and actually super offensive). I don’t know. I want my male friends to get jobs even though they are oppressing patriarchs, you know? Culture changes slowly, when people like you slowly replace the old dying sexist people of yore. I kind of think you shouldn’t bring this element up. If she brings it up (“I felt weird that they were all dudes”) you agree with her and discuss it and say you also felt weird about it, but why plant that seed, which can only make her feel worse/more furious/more helpless/who knows if it’s even true anyway. Also, like I said, the whole ex boyfriend thing is probably its own dynamic that she probably has tons of thoughts about.

So yeah, in short: Call her up and basically be like “I’m really sorry that was so awkward. I hated it and while I’m glad I got the job I also thought you deserved it too. I hope you don’t feel gross about me now, because I really think you are a genius and I value our friendship.” What else can you say? That is so real, I would be touched if someone said this to me, even if part of me was mad at them unreasonably for succeeding where I had failed. I would think, “he is pulling a classy move in an awkward situation and I respect that.”

I’m interested to see if any commenters disagree with this advice, because frankly it’s a tough one and I’m not sure I nailed it. This is just what I would do, and since I am often incredibly socially awkward I wouldn’t say that’s necessarily a selling point.

Obvious Don’ts:

– don’t offer her any advice whatsoever unless she specifically asks for some (“I’m happy to show you how to do a better job in the future” = not a good way to pitch this)
– don’t buy her flowers, it’s not a funeral or a date, she’s not in the hospital
– don’t be too abject–you earned the job and you don’t have anything to apologize for / be forgiven for. You’re just acknowledging that it sucks.
– don’t make it all about her–instead of saying “that must have been so awkward for you, that the whole committee was people you knew,” say, “wasn’t that awkward how we knew the whole committee???”
– don’t talk about how excited you are that you got the job, obviously
– don’t ask HER for advice about the job!!!!!! This has happened to people I know! No! You don’t say, oh, sorry, I took your job, now can you give me some tips on doing it? I know you would not do this, I’m just saying.

?? What do you guys think, anyone? What would Miss Manners say? I don’t think women even have jobs in Miss Manners’s world, though, so we’re on our own.

EXTRA ADVICE!!! Kind of prepare what you’ll say if her voicemail picks up instead of her human person!! Be prepared to concisely and elegantly explain why you’re calling.

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3 Responses to Professional Courtesies, Sexism, and Friendship

  1. matt says:

    I think an important thing that needs to be considered is that the writer of this letter chose to apply for a job that he knew his friend had been doing and wanted to continue to do. While the arts are very cutthroat, that was a bold and competitive move. Not necessarily an ass-hole move, and perhaps the right move to make for one’s career, but one that signifies that the writer placed art and career over friendship. And that decision is the real ‘friendship hurdle’ in this situation. If it was an open position, that neither of them had previously held, then no big deal- let the best person win. But that was not the case here, and I think the writer may be deflecting some personal responsibility by focusing on the weirdness of the audition and male privilege stuff.

    As an artist, you know that it is very difficult to separate your work from your personal being, and nothing is worse than feeling that your peers don’t respect your work. The woman who did not get the job is probably hurt and humiliated, and having personal connections with so many of the people involved only makes it worse. If the writer wants to make amends with this woman, then he should prove to her that he takes her ART WORK very seriously. He should initiate a collaborative project, rave about her work to his peers, become her biggest fan and prove to her that he respects and admires her talent. Re-establish and bolster a mutual artistic respect, and hopefully the friendship will be saved.

    Also, it is important to note, that most successful artists have ultimately ruined many friendships due to situations like this. In some sense it is just plain unavoidable- friendship and ambition don’t always mix well.

  2. Thanks for your advice says:

    I just wanted to give a quick update, as the person who asked for the advice…

    First of all, thank you so much for your thoughts and insights. Matt, thank you as well. I thought about all of this a lot before I called my friend and also since then.

    When I finally did call my friend, I had procrastinated a bit– I was still very nervous! It was really that we were about to do a big gig together that made me make my move. I knew the first time I was to talk to her shouldn’t be in person and in public. We had a long-ish conversation. I was pacing the entire time. She kept saying things like she had gotten over it or was not nearly as angry/upset as she had been but then would make these gnarly comments out of anger. Here’s what worked:

    Saying, “hey, even if you feel like logically, you are over it, I still understand why you might be upset at loosing your job and maybe not feel like seeing/being friends with me right now.” That actually got us on the same page more than anything, I think.

    Letting her know that I really wanted the job and I had put my all into winning the job. I think that made the situation better because it made her feel less stupid for not getting it and also I think she could see my point of view a little more, knowing that I cared so much about it. (Matt’s advice helped with this one.)

    I didn’t bring up any of my concerns about the audition conditions and I think that was for the best. Lastly, I think when we DID meet up at our gig, after some lighthearted digs at me, we just fell back into the regular rapport of our friendship and we both just relaxed. So things are looking fine, now.

    Thanks again for your fantastic advice!

  3. Yours Truly says:

    Hooray! I’m so glad it worked out for you. It sounds like you handled it really well, and did a good job reading her cues and just generally taking the whole thing seriously. But also “owning it” in terms of, like, not apologizing for wanting to get a good job, which you shouldn’t have to do! Everyone wants a good job!

    Congratulations, dude, and many happy returns!

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