From The “Bias Makes You Stupid Files”: The “Work Friend” Misses The Point

Roxane Gay is an impressive character. She’s a prolific writer of prose and fiction (including science fiction and comic books), a visiting professor at Yale as well as a professional feminist and LGBTQ advocate. She also contributes opinion essays to the New York Times, and as if she isn’t busy enough, is one of their advice columnists, writing the “Work Friend” Sunday column, which is almost always astute and wise in its advice regarding workplace politics and ethical dilemmas.

Not in this case, however. A female inquirer took offense when two male colleagues offered her unsolicited advice about improving her Zooming technique. She framed them as sexist attacks on a woman’s “appearance,” and Gay took the bait.

“The proliferation of Zoom since the start of the pandemic seems to have also ushered in unwelcome comments about my appearance,” the questioner began. A male colleague had suggested that she project more energy on video calls.  Another told her she looked too serious. She explained to Gay that she wrote “a follow-up email to the first man to explain that I felt like his comments were unwarranted and unfair given the state of the world at the time.” She told Gay that his observation about her not showing sufficient energy on Zoom calls was offensive in the middle of a global pandemic while she was “trying my best to remain sane while I attempt to help my school-age kids tackle the challenges of remote learning.”

“In the unfortunate event that this happens again,” the anonymous women concluded, “what should I say to indicate that these types of comments are not OK?”

Rather than examine whether the correspondent’s framing of the issue was accurate, Gay shifted into feminist defender mode: Men Wrong, Woman Victim. She wrote,

The polite response:

I invite you to stop commenting on my appearance immediately. It’s none of your concern and has nothing to do with our work together.”

Wrong! And then..

The less polite response is to repeat what they said right back to them but turned up a notch. For example, if they remark that you look tired, tell them they look haggard. They’ll get the message, eventually.

Incredibly wrong!

For someone else, I might be tempted to call this an example of the old proverb, “To someone whose only tool is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.” But Gay obviously has a lot of tools and knows how to use them. Apparently her feminist bias and perhaps an understandable knee-jerk negative reaction to men commenting on a women’s appearance (Gay is 6’3″ tall) caused her to miss what was going on here by a metaphorical mile.

First of all, a remote meeting is still a meeting, and handling it competently is a professional obligation. Learning how to project one’s personality and demeanor as positively as possible is very important. I spend a portion of every legal ethics seminar reminding lawyers that when technology becomes intrinsically involved in their work, the must learn how to use it to their advantage and that of their clients. The pandemic and the complaining woman’s family issues are completely irrelevant to her job performance, and the woman using them as an excuse for a mopey, enervated presence on camera is a foolish rationalization. Gay should have told her so. Both colleagues were giving her important feedback that had great value, if she was capable of hearing them.

A couple of years ago, I had an unexpected call from local TV station to do a Skype interview within the hour. I never used Skype, and when I saw the video of my interview, I noticed in horror that my eyes were looking down the whole time, focusing on my notes rather than looking into the camera. If a woman, before we went on the air, had warned me, “You know, it doesn’t look good for your eyes to be focused down,” should I have said, “I invite you to stop commenting on my appearance immediately. It’s none of your concern and has nothing to do with our work together” ? No, because it had a great deal to do with the work. Gay’s questioner assumed these were e more instances of pig-men showing their curly tails by judging a woman by her attractiveness.  Showing energy and being upbeat isn’t about “appearance,” they are matters of professional competence.

In the workplace, presence matters. Confidence matters. Deportment matters. Style matters, and projecting energy is an important part of it. Everyone has personal challenges. Everyone is dealing with the Wuhan virus, its pals and the endless government botches dealing with it. That the two colleagues were make male shouldn’t have mattered, but they triggered the woman’s biases and then Gay’s. They were trying to do the woman a favor. Coming across on a Zoom call as if one is exhausted or reacting to impending doom is a mistake, and unprofessional. When I read that woman had received “unwelcome comments” about her “appearance,” I thought we were going to be told that they were about her weight or hair style. No, she had experienced thoughtful and helpful advice consistent with the Golden Rule.

Gay’s second piece of advice shows just how far her bias led her astray. “Oh yeah? I look too serious? Well, you’re fat! How do you like that?” is not a mature, ethical, rational response; it’s the retort of a 14-year-old. Roxane Gay is better than that. Unfortunately, here her feminist bias made her stupid.

7 thoughts on “From The “Bias Makes You Stupid Files”: The “Work Friend” Misses The Point

  1. I’ve worked from home for years. My entire team was virtual long before the pandemic drove everyone out of the office. While we don’t use Zoom, we’ve used various other virtual meeting tools. Feedback is not only encouraged and accepted, it’s part of our job. We practice meeting. We practice speaking, where to look, what looks ok on camera and what does not. We double check that everything the viewer can see in the background is work appropriate.

    I will never understand why so many women (and some men) make everything personal. It’s work. Leave your feelings at home, accept feedback, and move on. Constantly looking for reasons to be offended is not only a waste of company resources, but it’s also a very poor business strategy. Long term, bosses don’t want to deal with difficult people. Especially when those difficulties are manufactured for whatever the current cause happens to be.

  2. I practice law in Texas (though I am a Rush fan from Cleveland, OH). Since April 2020, we have had the use of technology to attend hearings remotely. It took a few times to get the technology quirks worked out but has been fairly easy.

    I am horrified, however, on my appearance on Zoom hearings. Why, you ask? Because I always thought I looked like a combination of Cary Grant and Brad Pitt, with sonorous voice of James Earl Jones. In reality, I look like Dom De Luise/Drew Carey and sound like Jerry Lewis. Very depressing, indeed. No wonder I can’t even get a date with my wife on a Friday night! I am not sure any amount of coaching will change that simple fact, the Harris County Court at Law No 3 Judge seems to like me.


  3. But, on a serious note, the zoom hearings are wonderful to handle long dockets that kind of double as status conferences more than evidentiary hearings. The courts can plow through dozens of cases in an hour which might have taken much, much longer than that in-person. Evidentiary hearings, though, tend to be clunky and inefficient, especially when witnesses are reviewing or discussing lengthy documents. For instance, right after we started zoom hearings in federal court, I have a very contentious matter involving pages and pages of documents, credit agreements, shipping/delivery invoices, and legal pleading. It took forever to get through it. Also, witnesses don’t have the same immediacy of sitting in front of a judge or jury, and may not act with the same level of reservation or seriousness to questions.


  4. Re: Johnburger 2013: Evidentiary hearings

    Sorry, this is off topic, but it may be helpful.

    I am a representative at the state, and occasionally federal, meetings of my denomination, where there are always multiple documents, motions, reports, updated agendas, etc. associated with every item of business. Shuffling and sorting them to have the correct info at hand has always been a nightmare. With the arrival of Covid and the move to predominately zoom meetings things improved by about two orders of magnitude!

    All participants, in-house or zoom, have access to a custom written piece of excellent software that collates EVERYTHING and makes it available at the click of a link. We have all had to deal with lousy software, but this app is brilliant! We will never run a meeting again without it or a successor!

    Similarly, my local Police Prosecutors have an app that runs on iPads and collates everything they need every time they go to court. They are wrapt, and say it has revolutionised their efficiency.

    Help is out there jvb!

  5. The subject of the “unwanted comments” is really missing an important developmental opportunity. As a trainer and “trainer of trainers” for many years, I welcomed critique from students as well as from training colleagues who monitored my classes specifically to help me maintain my proficiency. Our “instructors in training” often told me that one of the most valuable assessment exercises of our Instructor Development program was watching the video of their own practice teaching, with accompanying constructive critique from the training staff about unhelpful verbal tics, distracting physical mannerisms and other bad habits. The police academy where I taught had senior training staff regularly sit in on classes and give instructors feedback about these same issues. I never heard of any of our instructors who felt that these critiques were unhelpful or unwarranted.
    All the factors that Jack mentioned, like presence, confidence, deportment, style and projecting energy, seem to come across on video magnified, whether positively or negatively. Unfortunately, those who look for offense seem to find it everywhere.

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