Earlier this year, my colleague Leah Fessler published a piece on Quartz about writing her own “user manual”—a document outlining her values, quirks, and preferred working style—to share with her supervisor, who then reciprocated.
Leah and her manager went deep, sharing the insecurities and anxieties that affect them at work. The exercise made them closer as people and more effective as teammates. I finished Leah’s thoughtful, eloquent article about the experience and said to myself “Hoo! That is not for me,” in the same way your grandmother did when you told her about the time you went bungee jumping.
My reaction to Leah’s story was visceral: sweaty palms, faster heartbeat, shoulders that with every paragraph crept higher toward my ears. Of course I like the idea of being friendly and open with colleagues. Of course I think we should have frank discussions with one another about all sorts of topics. Absolutely we should all bring our whole selves to work, as long as by “whole self” we mean a single, carefully selected shard of our personalities scrubbed of embarrassing graffiti.
Insecurities and emotional needs, though, are not for sharing at work. Those you crush and throw away, like beer cans on the beach. Those you do not enumerate in list form for your supervisor or colleagues or anyone, ideally, if you can help it. (Does this philosophy cause problems in my personal life? Most definitely! Problems that—and this is the beautiful symmetry of this system—I don’t talk about at work.)
Three months later I miss a team meeting (pro tip: never miss a team meeting) and afterward find in my inbox a note with instructions to write my own user manual to share with the team by next Thursday.
Damn these millennials with their Snapchat and their openness and their insistence that the uncomfortable social norms we’ve all just swallowed for decades can, in fact, be changed. I spend about two-thirds of my time in awe of them and the rest feeling like the dad in Footloose, which none of them have seen.
Leah sends around the template of her user manual. It has six subheads:
What I value
What I don’t have patience for
How best to communicate with me
How to help me
What people misunderstand about me
I work from a remote office in California. The rest of my team is in New York. We’ve all met in person, but logistics mean that our interactions are largely limited to Slack and the occasional phone call or video chat.
My colleagues are friendly, talented people. I would like very much to know them better. But why should they trouble themselves with the details of my personal preferences? Does it really matter how I communicate? Since when did it become necessary to participate in the written equivalent of a trust fall just to get your work done?
That last section of the template especially bugs me. Who needs to know what people misunderstand about me?
That night I trudge into the kitchen, where my husband is working at the table on his laptop. I explain what’s going on and he looks up alarmed, like a meerkat.
“Why do they need to know what people misunderstand about you?” he asks. He agrees this is nonsense. I feel reassured. We often choose to love the people who fear the same things we do.
Deadline day arrives. The user manual cannot be put off any longer.
Doing the values part is all right. I write that I appreciate honesty. Clarity. Kindness. Saying what bothers me is ok, too. I don’t like arrogance or dissembling, malice, or cowardice. I strongly dislike the administrative busywork that tends to fall on women in a workplace, stuff like deciding who brings snacks to the meeting and planning Secret Santa. I express that I would rather not have Secret Santa than waste time talking about Secret Santa.
This is a red herring. No one on the team has ever suggested we do Secret Santa. I am using Secret Santa to stall for time because I don’t want to get to the last part: What people misunderstand about me.
I don’t want to answer this. To a deep and profoundly personal degree, I do not want to answer this question. It feels intrusive, and stupid, and I could just jot down some insincere response—but that feels wrong, too.
What do I care what colleagues misunderstand about me? What do I care about what they think of me at all? I’m banging angrily around the sad little kitchen in my coworking space. It’s not one of these sleek coworking spaces where people flirt and play ping-pong. It’s a dingy storefront in a suburban strip mall that I share with a rotating cast of angry-looking men on laptops and a very sweet IT specialist named Lloyd.
I didn’t end up here by accident. All the reasons I tell people when they ask why I work remotely are true: There’s more time for the kids and no commute and the chance to live where I like. But working remotely also makes it easier to hide behind cheerful Slack pleasantries when I’m anxious, or sad, or overwhelmed by inadequacies I’m certain everyone would notice if we only spoke more often. Maybe it is not a coincidence that my last two jobs have been from remote offices, where it’s easier to keep people at arm’s length. Maybe instead of just tolerating the isolation, I prefer it, and the assurance it gives that when I fail, which I’m so often certain I will, there will be no one around to watch.
That question—what do people misunderstand about you?—is not really about other people. It is about how you see yourself. And when I realize what I’m really being asked to share, I stop slamming cabinets and rattling the canisters of cheap coffee and powdered creamer and burst into hot, embarrassed tears. Tears made exponentially more embarrassing by the fact that Lloyd walks in at exactly that moment and there’s nowhere else to go.
I wipe my face, grab a cup in the sink, and pretend to wash it.
“Lloyd,” I say, still staring into the sink. “We’re out of coffee.”
“Thank you for telling me,” he says, with incredible kindness and tact.
A small break is taken in the bathroom to pull self together. Face is wiped. Back at the desk I open Google Docs and do the thing I said I believed in doing. I tell my teammates the truth.
I write in my user manual that I find this question very uncomfortable to consider. I don’t know what people think of me. I’m not sure I really want to. Somewhere along the way I picked up the idea that it’s embarrassing to bring to work anything other the precise amount of self-esteem it takes to operate quietly, indefinitely, without need for external praise or self-congratulation, and it’s hard to admit how low my personal reserves of confidence can run. I don’t know if I’ve actually answered the question, but it feels like I’ve said enough.
The next day I wake up certain that I have overshared to a wildly inappropriate degree. I open the document in a mild panic and re-read what I wrote. To my surprise, it does not sound like the ranting of an emotional exhibitionist. It doesn’t sound shameful. It just sounds human.
Miserable as writing my user manual was, reading my teammates’ manuals is a joy. We learn more about each other than we would in months of Slack chats and stuttering video conference calls. I learn so many small details that help me understand how best to work together, from Khe’s preference for in-person meetings over phone calls to Lila’s polite and completely reasonable request for a sign-off of some sort to indicate when a Slack chat has ended. (Why don’t we do this already? Are we animals?)
When we meet in person to discuss the manuals—well, when they meet in person and I call into the meeting—we have a genuinely enjoyable discussion about our own quirks and preferences. I share with them how difficult I found this exercise and we laugh over how the disproportionate amount of angst this simple team-building exercise generated. (I am then assigned to write about this private agony for the internet, so, again: never miss a team meeting.)
There’s a famous psychological study where researchers, in the mid-1990s, asked their college-age subjects to walk into a room full of new people while donning a t-shirt featuring the most embarrassingly unhip pop star the research team could imagine. (They picked Barry Manilow, by the way, which is bullshit, because “Mandy” is a great song.) They asked the students to estimate the number of people who would notice their allegedly mortifying t-shirt. The students predicted that twice as many people would notice their clothes as actually did.
The point is, the things we find so shameful and embarrassing about ourselves are very rarely as embarrassing or shameful as we believe them to be. Everybody has their quirks. The ability to share those bugs, and to give others the space to share theirs, can actually be a really nice feature.