Breaking a habit is hard. Especially when you might not realize you have a bad habit to break.
I had just started my first office job at a super cool and super secretive branding consultancy in New York. Truth be told I was not entirely sure what co: collective did, but I did know when you exited the elevator it felt like you were walking into a nightclub. Walls painted black with small neon signs and a taxidermied honey badger enclosed in a glass box greeted you just before walking into an all-white office with bright lights and polished concrete floors. I had arrived. I'd made sure to memorize the mission the of the company ahead of starting so that if anyone were to ask me about my new job, I could answer, " I work at co: collective. It's a story-doing collective." Whatever the hell that meant.
As an eager new employee, desperate to earn my keep and assure my three bosses they had made the right choice by hiring me, I ran myself ragged.
I took a small cold to a full-blown illness in a matter of days. I also knew I needed to see a doctor if I was ever going to join the living again. I immediately felt guilty at the prospect of taking time from the workday for a visit to my internist's office. It was as if the three executives I supported would fail to carry on if they did not have me, their congested and feverish assistant, by their side.
I worked up the courage and walked over to the executive I felt closest to and proceeded to inundate him with graphic details of my body's current state before finally asking if it would it be okay if I left at 3 p.m. to make my appointment. He looked at me and said, quite simply, "You do you," and sent me on my way. My first inclination was to think it was some passive-aggressive response, but I channeled the words of my Upper East Side therapist who in the weeks prior suggested I had a bit of a martyr complex about work, so I chose instead to sit with the phrase “You do you” for a moment.
I was suddenly free. There was no need to explain myself.
While this took practice, I came to realize my responsibility was first and foremost to myself.
Today, I am the founder of the constellations, a female-first recruitment agency. My mission is to provide a holistic approach to equality in the workplace and to place the women I work with in future-forward companies where they can not only make as much or more than their male counterparts, but also thrive. For me, that means I encourage my candidates to make changes as often as I help my clients to. I find that explaining oneself takes on different manifestations, but ultimately is rooted in the same hardwired notion: that our mere existence is some imposition, and so we as women must do whatever necessary to avoid rocking the boat or being perceived as rude, or demanding or heaven forbid, bossy.
Here I will explain some simple techniques to avoid unnecessary explanations. As with forming any new habit, it will take practice before it becomes second nature, but I assure you, doing this can assist in anything from negotiating pay to arriving at your child's soccer game on time.
The easiest way to stop explaining yourself is to use statements rather than questions.
That goes for both written and spoken correspondence. For example, let's say you need to leave early for a doctor's appointment. Instead of emailing team members and superiors to make sure it works with their schedules and reassuring them you are available by cell, and of course will be back online the minute you are home, I would say something like this: “Hi team, I will be leaving Thursday at 3 p.m., back in the office Friday. Thanks.”
You are also under no obligation to inform co-workers of what takes you out of office, only that you will be out. If it is a matter that will require the use of paid time off, request as company protocol dictates, but do not feel it’s necessary to share why you need to use the PTO you earned and are owed.
Another way to stop explaining yourself is to trim down the superfluous words you think assist with the reception of your message.
If the content of your message needs to be sugar-coated in niceties for the receiving party to find it palatable, it is their issue, not yours. A simple “how are you” at the start of a call, or “hope you are well” at the beginning of an email will suffice. Focus your energy on actual work, not on rewriting or rephrasing and rehearsing your message over and over to avoid being perceived as "too direct."
Perhaps you are interviewing for a new job and have arrived at the ever-uncomfortable topic of salary. Rather than offering your salary history and all of the reasons why you are looking for an increase in pay, I would suggest asking, “What is the salary range for the role?” As an aside, I never share my candidate's salary history with clients, because women are historically underpaid, and I believe it is an antiquated practice that perpetuates pay inequity. I assure you, your prospective employer has predetermined the salary cap. From there, you can determine what figure feels right based on the scope of work and your unique experience and talent.
For the freelancers afraid of underbidding, I would suggest asking a few men with work experience similar to yours their day rate to see if it's tracking with what you are charging. I always like to remind the women I work with that their rate is not a question, but a statement. Do not contradict yourself by immediately following your requirements with, "but I am willing to negotiate." By saying that you are inadvertently telling the hiring manager (and yourself) that you do not deserve the rate you command. If you are the freelancer of choice but are coming in higher than budgets allow for, let them come to you and ask if you'd be willing to discuss coming down.
I believe the important thing to keep in mind when making a shift or creating a new practice is it will feel uncomfortable at first, and that is okay.
You might notice spending a little more time re-reading what you have written or recounting what you said in a meeting, but in the long term it will save you time and energy and assist in defining boundaries. The notion that we as women need to package our thoughts and ideas in passive boxes with cute wrapping paper and polite bows is a product of conditioning. You need not dilute your power, or ask permission. However, you do need to do you. Always.
Jennifer Lambertson is the founder and CEO of the constellations, a female-first procurement service. She's passionate about bringing diversity to future-thinking companies while simultaneously doing her part to close the wage gap. Jennifer splits her time between Los Angeles and New York and when not working, she enjoys spending time at her home in Beachwood Canyon.