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Urban Etiquette

Ellen Vanstone answers your questions about the annoying behaviours, poor manners and impatient encounters that dot the days of a city dweller.

How do I avoid getting saddled with emotional labour at work?

Here’s how you politely tell him, 'I'm not your secretary,' and you’d prefer not to be treated like one: You open your mouth and politely say those exact words.

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Ani Castillo

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Dear Ellen,

A male colleague is always telling me to “send out an email” to organize people and events in our department. I have sometimes suggested that he should do it, since it was his great idea. But he just tells me I'm “better at that stuff” and waits for me to do it. How do I politely tell him that I'm not his secretary, and I don’t want to be treated like one?


Dear Rosie,

Here’s how you politely tell him you’re not your secretary, and you’d prefer not to be treated like one: You open your mouth and politely say those exact words. Yes, it might feel awkward if you’re not used to saying what you think, or acting as entitled as he acts. But if you want things to change, awkwardness is a small price to pay.

I could write a whole essay here about emotional labour and how women end up doing a lot of emailing, and organizing, and smoothing and facilitating, while men use their supposedly Neanderthal-ish EQ levels as an excuse to shirk all that Scheiße. But I’m currently on an emotional-labour strike myself, and I don’t feel like expending any emotional energy explaining the obvious.

Also, when it comes to our present-day Email Wars, it’s not just men who offend. So I'll just indulge in a self-entitled rant of my own. I share your resentment at people who email: “Hey, we should all get together!” and then wait for me to do all the work. After a spurt of (politely withheld) rage, my response is: “Great idea! Wanna send out some dates to the group and organize a time and location?”

I also can't stand people who — after I've done all the work of sending out possible meeting dates to a group — actually think it’s acceptable to respond: “None of those dates work for me.” At this point, I often while away a pleasant moment imagining sarcastic replies (e.g., “Oh geez! Sorry! Don’t worry! I’m thrilled to keep sending out a million more dates and times because playing this awesome guessing game with you is such a huge frickin’ privilege for me! :)”). Then I send my actual response: “No prob. Send some dates to the group that work for you.”

The trick is to be clear, stay classy, and never, ever confuse “good manners” with submitting to passive-aggressive abuse out there on the email trails.

Need advice? Email Ellen:

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