Dear Nicole: How do you deal with office aggression?

Dear Nicole,

How do you address issues (often thoughtless versus malicious) micro-aggression in a professional setting without alienating yourself from your co-workers/boss?

— (Slightly) Hostile Work Environment

I am so curious about examples of this. I’m guessing things you would see on or slightly digging comments in a staff meeting. They aren’t insulting enough for you to get to yell at them, but they are annoying enough to be noticed. But, my friend, you have options.

One way you can deal is being completely clueless. Just moving through it like you don’t notice will annoy someone malicious and be unnoticeable to someone socially awkward.

If that isn’t enough (and let’s say it isn’t), a little correction will let the person know what they said may not be in the best taste. A “Thanks, Jake, I’ll put that on my list of things to consider when I get dressed in the morning!” Add a slight laugh if appropriate. That says to the aggressor you are not going to be unresponsive about the comment about your outfit. The key here: direct, not mean, humor if possible. This has worked for me.

If this doesn’t help (or you don’t feel you can pull off being direct enough), it’s time to identify the kind of behavior (versus the person perpetuating it) and get it out of the workplace. Talking to your boss or human resources person, express your concerns and give an idea for a solution: “I get that people are really passionate about the upcoming election but I find it hard to get my work down when these discussions are happening near my cubicle. Maybe we could institute a politics in the break room only policy from now on?”

This way, you aren’t just complaining about someone but proposing a company culture improvement. Because let’s face it, if it’s bugging you, it’s probably at least subconsciously bugging your higher-ups too.

As extra insurance, you also can institute the help of a few work friends to back you up in group situations. When the problem child dismisses your idea in a meeting, a friend can point out, “I see your point, but I think Gertrude had a great idea there.” Eventually, when the aggressors realize you are confronting (or deflecting), getting rid of ways for them to behave badly, and have friends to back you up, their attitude won’t stand much of a chance.


Dear Nicole,

I am a professional photographer and I am constantly approached to do free work to “build my portfolio” or “get exposure.” It’s kind of annoying, as it takes me time, effort, equipment, etc. to make the images I create. How do I say “no thanks” without adding “jerkface” at the end?

— Fee, Not Free, Photos

As someone also expected to do free work (“Isn’t the Internet free?”), I am similarly annoyed by this situation. You would never ask a plumber to come over to fix your faucet and in return offer to tell all your friends as payment. And yet in the arts in particular, people are expected to do just that. I have yet to meet a financial analyst, a builder or a lawyer who was asked to do free work to build his or her portfolio.

My advice is to be up front with your rates. No need to go over every package but give people a minimum. “I’d love to photograph your family, and just so you know, my packages start at $500.” What your price starts at gives people a minimum they can mull over in their minds. If they seem puzzled, letting them know what the costs cover can help educate them that photography is a lot more than posing people in the frame of a smartphone and telling them to say cheese. “My rates help cover, travel, equipment and editing time.” You get the picture. Ha, picture! Get it?

Now you may think this is scaring people away, but you want to scare away people who can’t pay! I also have a personal policy that I don’t do any volunteer web work. (I volunteer in my community but not doing what I do all day.) This way, no one can feel slighted when I turn down their volunteer project because I turn down everyone’s volunteer project.


Update: Have gotten some great feedback about a few columns. One was about giving gifts without breaking the bank.

A reader had this suggestion: “A friend and I have hit on a good solution. We used to give each other Christmas gifts that ended up being a burden since neither of us really need anything. One year my friend said, “How about we give a donation to the food bank and no need to tell the other the amount or when the donation was made?” It was a great idea and I have not missed making a donation since.” Great idea!

I also got some feedback about people identifying with the wedding dress column (about how I felt I looked fat in my dress but I came to accept it). I think we all spend so much time, effort, money, etc. planning a wedding day that when we see something not so perfect, it’s easy to feel it magnified 10,000 times. In the end, it is a day. A special day, but one of many special days we all will hopefully have in our lives. Glad that resonated so well!

I am happy to keep making up questions but also would love it if you guys sent me more! So please do: is an anonymous submission form. Please use it or the email address and send me more questions, I need them!


Nicole Ouellette

Nicole Ouellette

When Nicole isn't giving advice she's completely unqualified to give, she runs an Internet marketing company in Bar Harbor, where she lives with her husband Derrick and their short dog Gidget. She loves young adult novels, cooking and talking French to anyone who'll talk back. [email protected]
Nicole Ouellette

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