Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Stockholm syndrome

After some days when I've encountered the same question at least five times, I had to stop and think yesterday why it bothered me so much.

The question? "I've heard that Sweden is such a great country, why did you leave and aren't you going back there". It's also been "do you think you are moving back to Sweden since it's such a great place".

From some of the people who has asked, I understand. They come from countries where they can't go back. There is war, there's less heath care, fresh water, clean air, democracy and so on. The didn't want to leave but took a chance to get a decent life. A couple of them do comment that they stay in the USA because of their kids, they want to give them a good start in life. Then they ask, why don't you go back? You don't have kids and your family like mom and dad, siblings, cousins are there.

Yes indeed, why don't I?

My initial thought process - this is a _very_ private question and I really don't have an interest in sharing my life choices with every Tom, Dick and Harry - aside, why don't I? I guess it's because a lot of things in life, I'm a little vain and insecure at the same time. I've also lived abroad before I moved away for my post doc and the return to Sweden was.... interesting. Maybe something other people recognize in other countries, I know that lots of Swedes who has lived abroad know what I mean since we've shared the feelings and thoughts about this. A lot of them have moved back to Sweden, just to move out again and find another country to live in for awhile.

It's a complicated feeling, this love for a lagom land where people walk around thinking it's the best place in the world. (And it might very well be, since it is pretty awesome.) The issue? My issue? The people complain so bloody much about all the things that aren't great, yet fail to actually do something about it. The consensus attitude and fear of stepping out of the group is very very large. That not being part of the group is something that most people fear. You want to fit in, you want to be like everyone else. You don't want people to say that you are "wrong" or "not part of the group". Most of the times this is a good thing. I grew up with it and I can't say that I didn't like it then. It's a community feeling and in order to obtain it, you have to be a team person. However, there are some obvious drawbacks with it and once you've seen them, they're pretty hard to ignore.

Anyway, the simple answer to "why aren't you going back" is - I haven't managed to get a job back home yet. After 2 years as a post doc and being away from my country I applied for about 40 jobs. The general gist, at that time (only 2! years away from home) was "well, do you think you will be able to move back here after being so successful in the USA" and "do you think you can manage to speak Swedish everyday*" [say hello to the little complex of being one in the group and moving away to big country and not failing is not "being part of the group"]. The overall summary comment of my job seeking experiment at that time was "we might be able to find something for you, if you reapply once you are back on Swedish soil so we know that you are actually here". And therein lies the rub. I am a little bit proud you see, and not as desperate to move right this very minute, that I would quit my job and move back and then look for jobs. I understand that it might have to be that way, but really - it's not a viable idea for me right now. Of course, the higher I go in my present career, the more experience and well rounded I become, maybe the likelihood of "taking a chance with me" will increase? Time will tell.

The idea of this blog post however was a little more somber, hence the title. During my time as a post-doc, and my current interactions with people working in lab environments, I've come to realise that there are quite a few "less than ideal working environments" going around and how that has affected some of my friends. While I'm quite ok with working in a lab where people aren't super friendly and doesn't need to hang out outside of work, as long as they are not hostile out right, I'm quite happy. However, I've had the good fortune to have close bosses/supervisors who has respected me and supported me most of the time. Maybe because I was lucky (very dubious word here) to encounter less supportive and not so great boss behaviour early on, I have actively chosen places where I feel that the boss and I can have an open, honest and clear line of communication.

Some of my friends have not been so lucky. And it's very complicated (at least for me) to stand by idly when they start making these really weird decisions after a few years and you can clearly see that it is because they've adapted their behaviour to their boss. It's maybe more obvious looking at graduate students or post-docs since while you are a "trainee", you know that you are very dependent on your boss' opinion and network for future success. You also tie your success to their success, if they fail your chances of success are slim so you are going to look out for them, even if they might not look out for you. Talk about a dependence situation if there every was one. If your boss is a regular normal person, this is not an issue. If they are not, well - then it's a whole different ball of wax.

One of my friends is in a bad situation at the moment, and I can see how they ended up in this very big hole one step at a time. It's like a parallel situation of domestic abuse. Don't think that the bad abusive husband started out that way, there was some really great times in the beginning when the lure went out. Similar thing with the friend and their job. In the beginning in the lab their boss showered them with praise and let them know they were so good. After a few months though, small things started to appear that made me a little wary. I told my friend to set down their foot and say "not acceptable behaviour" before it went out of hand. My experience would say that this type of behaviour is a test balloon and if you accept the small first things, the boss will move on to bigger things and very soon you'll be stuck with accepting really strange things since 'you've already accepted some stuff'. Of course, it's hard to be the "grown up and say stop", especially when the emotional hooks sink in and the berating starts.

To make a long story very short, after a few years this is what has happened. I've heard some stories I don't understand how they can occur, but I realize it's all normalized in the very strange environment my friend works in. The only thing left now is for them to quit, and then hopefully find a good place where they can slowly build themselves up again. It's very hard to do this though, especially finding a new place to work considering that you not only have to sell your talents (when you are doubting yourself) and when you 'know' there will be no good references from the boss.

For everyone else, I would like to point out that there is a need to remember that at times people's actions will seem strange to the naked eye but after looking at their environment, it might be more obvious that they are driven by some underlying need for safety since they are indeed working for a ruthless person who has, lack of better terms, slowly acclimated them to something they never thought they'd agree to in the first place. And if you run into these "test balloons of behaviour", either to you or to a friend, you have to assess and not let the slippery slope become your friend. It will most likely end up way worse later on and much much messier to change course once it's started.

*I lived in Sweden for about years before moving away for 2 years. I think it's safe to say that I wouldn't lose my native tongue that quick. And still, after being away for a decade, I speak and write Swedish on a regular basis. Thanks to internet, this lovely thing.

Thursday, May 04, 2017

smile! You're in a meeting

The last couple of months have been a little..... taxing. When pressure mounts on both sides of "inside work" and "outside work", it's not an ideal situation. The outside of work pressure, well it's something I'll have to deal with in my spare time and shouldn't affect work,. I don't share that with my coworkers, it's for my friends. However, work has been increasingly about emotions, managing not only expectations, managing up but also being the emotional support for a couple of peers, well - it's good to relearn one's limitations, right? Joke aside, it's not.

However, I can't but help think that part of what really has annoyed me is a little nagging feeling inside that a certain situation is in play because of the fact that I'm a woman. You see, I've been told repeatedly over the last couple of months that I need to manage my face in meetings. My regular face is not what one would say a "smiling complacent woman face eager to please". My regular face is neutral. Nothing wrong with that, and if it stayed as such, there wouldn't be a as much of a problem. However, I have a tendency to have a different face when trying to follow a thought process when someone is talking, or when I'm working out a problem, or when I'm mentally writing out a time line and making notes of all the potential issues that will come up when planning new projects.

This different face, let's call it "my thinking face", is the issue (like "resting bitch face"). It looks angry. Or maybe not exactly angry, "it's rather like you are malcontent or just scrunching up your eyes and it's a little unsettling". Or, as one person said "well, your face is not looking happy right now". [you bet it doesn't, your proposal has a lot of issues and I'm going to have to fix them all dude] In short terms, I have forgotten, due to trying to fix all these new tasks and extra stuff at work while navigating my outside life so it doesn't affect my job, that the most important part of my job is to smile and be a happy woman in every meeting I attend.

Well, to be clear - I'm pretty good at the smiling face in project meetings with "the non-special people". The crux is that these comments are coming from the closer people at work. The ones I've worked with a long time and know me. My close work groups. The ones who have been talking about "we should all be close and so good friends" groups. The irony isn't lost on me. This whole time when we have "gotten to know each other" and it's been about "you need to learn how to trust close coworkers, drop your guard" I've been a smiling woman. Now when I'm relaxing in my interactions with them, the critique and disappointment has reared its head since my face isn't as nice [fake] as before and that bothers them.

I wish I could tell them this, but I won't. It's not going to be what they want to hear. It might be what they THINK they want to hear "let's be honest, everyone likes honesty". No, actually most people don't want 'honesty' and 'real' - they want 'convenient & affirmative'. And most of all the want "non threatening". And a non smiling woman [me] in a meeting not giving them constant affirmation is quite clearly not what they want. And especially not when part of the deal is that I'm there to help them figure out all the snags and issues that will come along in their projects.

So, back to neutral face with a slight smaller smile I go. Of course, it's interesting that I don't see this need of having a smile or being affirmative reflected in my male peers and their interactions with people. Nor have I heard any male peer being critiqued in a large group "you really need to smile more" as I've been admonished. It's quite alright for the male peers to sit with scowling faces in meeting after meeting, interrupting and throwing in "helpful critique" whenever suits their fancy.

Alas, I'll label this under "things I knew before, got persuaded for a while I was wrong and paranoid as a feminist, but it turned out I had the right idea all along so it would've saved a lot of energy just listening to my own perception". And then I'll move on.

Welcome to the world "Ms neutral face with a small smile". Adios real face where I actually use my time thinking about what you're saying instead of rearranging my face so you feel comfortable. I wonder if they ever realise how disappointed in them this made me? Most likely not. C'est la vie d'une femme, souriante tout le temps.