Nikki Stevens is one of the 10 finalists in The Washington Post Magazine’s @Work Advice Contest.
About me: I’ve picked strawberries and scraped heifer stalls. I’ve been a retail clerk and a waitress. I’ve been both a manager and a grunt, often at the same time. I dream of starting my own business and several years ago, I actually took two months off to change careers from consulting to legal marketing. Originally from Vermont, I attended college in San Antonio and moved to Washington 12 years ago. Currently I watch the world go by from the orange interior of my tiny apartment in Adams Morgan. For fun I travel, bake pies and play blackjack.
A bit of a road warrior, I used to live by a mantra borrowed from a colleague, “no plants, no pets, no kids” — that is, until I adopted Vivian, a devious and gorgeous calico. Strangers constantly tell me their stories in airports, bars and grocery stores. As a result, I’ve become a practiced (yet indiscriminate) advice-giver.
Why I should win: It is for the good of us all that I focus my life-coaching energies and stop giving bad directions, touting unproven recipes and offering questionable romantic suggestions. Work is the thing I know. I’ll do my best to read and respond to comments, should any of you good readers care to share them.
Work mantra: “You can love your work, but don’t confuse it with the company. It won’t love you back.”
My workplace anecdote: I was managing a team of young staff in the UK and we were headed to the US on business. I was explaining that you need ID to get into many bars and they should plan to carry passports. One challenging employee started shouting about crime in the U.S. and how could I expect them to bring important documents out at night. I lost my temper and shouted, “Oh Miles, just put it in your fanny pack!” intended to mock him for wearing one, forgetting that in the UK, fanny is slang for vagina.
On the contest entry form, we offered five sample questions (submitted by real readers) and asked applicants to answer the two of their choice.
Q: Blood donation crusader: Due to a medical condition, I’m not eligible to donate in our company’s blood drive. Now my officemate is badgering me about participating. I’d have no problem telling him why I can’t, except he has an Impossible Personality, and I generally try to limit personal information I share with him. This is just one of the many times he’s crossed the line. How do I shut him up without giving specifics?
Stevens: Few people are really badgerers of the first order, particularly about something medically sensitive in the workplace. Are you really asked directly, and often? Or, does it feel like you are? I once blurted “I hate the homeless” to an eager walk-a-thon coordinator who was squatting in my cubicle and not taking no for an answer. It shut him up but of course, it wasn’t what I meant. I resented the expectation that I give up personal time for a charity I wouldn’t choose to put first. I didn’t want to participate and I wasn’t that good at saying so.
Many of us feel that others are “Impossible” because we have not set or maintained our own limits. If you are not sure where to begin, start here; only you can decide how to spend your leisure time, charity dollars and bodily fluids.
If asked directly, say “No, thank you.” If your goal is to have personal boundaries respected, define them. Don’t invent an answer to get rid of the questioner or be rude, as I was. If you feel the inquiry is inappropriate, say so.
Just as you don’t have to explain to the telemarketer that that you are in the middle of dinner, or even pick up an unfamiliar number. You don’t need to explain your choices. The real challenge is feeling okay with making them.
Q: Correcting my boss: In conversations with customers, he regularly misuses a relatively common word. It hangs in the air of the conference rooms we visit and I squirm when I see the audience make the “Huh? What did he say?” face, then the “Oh THAT’s what he meant” look of embarrassment. Is there an appropriate way to correct him?
Stevens: I cook a lot and I usually grab things out of the oven, with my fingers, bragging to friends while doing so that I have “Teflon Hands.” I was thinking of frying pans and had likely heard the phrase in its more common meaning and conflated the two ideas. One day, my roommate said, “I don’t think you are using that word the way you think you are, it means non-stick, a slippery surface.” It was funny, as my technique often resulted in the flinging across the kitchen whatever I was grabbing from the oven. Even so, I was embarrassed but I never misused it again.
So yes, tell him in private and as soon as possible. Stick to the facts, don’t point out that everyone notices and if he disagrees with you, let him. He may be red-faced or even defensive but will certainly be grateful to avoid continuing to make the error.
Carolyn Hax: Solid advice and funny, but there’s danger in the personal-anecdote method: use it once and it’s all about the topic; use it twice in two answers and it’s all about you.
Eric Peterson: I loved the last paragraph of her first answer; it was perfectly and succinctly stated. She could benefit from making her answers less about her and more about the issues at hand.
Douglas LaBier: Tighten up a bit in your responses and focus on the question. Be judicious with inserting yourself so it doesn’t overshadow your answer.
Sydney Trent: Very good advice but I think she should avoid first-person anecdotes except on rare occasions. Two here is too many.
Lynn Medford: I love that Nikki addresses several larger issues behind the specific. She’s intuitive and brings in useful examples to illustrate her points.
Meet the @Work Advice Contest’s 10 finalists