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I've been at my current company for several months. I have a boss with whom I really need to walk on eggshells.

He reads a lot into the tone with which I say things. Of course, most people attach some importance to the tone... But in his case that's stronger than in the case of my previous bosses. He frequently reads something into the tone of my voice which absolutely wasn't my intention. Then he tells it to me and I find it difficult not to act defensively.

The fact I'm not a native speaker doesn't make things easier. I do speak the language I use with him very well, but I can't know whether I don't commit tiny mistakes. Realistically speaking, I probably do and I will always do. (We can't speak a different language).

I've got really self-conscious since starting to work with him since I've already said something several times, which he interpreted as impolite or pushy, which absolutely wasn't my intention.

One example: he asks me how I am. I say "I'm fine, thank you". He tells me he sensed hesitation in my voice and asks what problem I have. This wouldn't be a big deal if it didn't happen so often.

Or: When I ask for something I need to phrase it extremely carefully: "Could you please send me X when you have a second if you don't mind?" (etc. etc.) to minimise the risk he will understand it as pushy. If I just write "Could you please send me X? Thanks a lot", he sees it as impolite.

I live in a Western society and don't think it's about the culture.

What is the best way to deal with that? My goal is to have a normal job, which is demanding but doesn't make me stressed all the time.

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    Can you provide an example of something you told him and how he wrongly read it? – sf02 Jun 6 at 18:43
  • @sf02 Agreed, hard to answer without a specific case and are you sure he isn't joking around? – Dan Jun 6 at 18:49
  • Posted an answer with some suggested courses of action, but yes, a specific example could help to give better answers. @the_miserable – DarkCygnus Jun 6 at 18:52
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He frequently reads something into the tone of my voice which absolutely wasn't my intention. Then he tells it to me and I find it difficult not to act defensively.

First, I suggest you try your best to not act defensively. Excuse yourself briefly ("sorry, didn't mean that...") and then proceed with the topic you were talking ("...what I was saying is that..."). Try not to escalate the argument.

Try to not focus on the apology, or arguing if you said it with those intentions/tone or not. Steer the conversation as politely as possible towards the topic, so you both don't get caught in a blame loop.

Now, if this person has difficulties reading people's tone (or is prone to get distracted by those things), you could try writing to him instead. This could be in an email, company's IM, Slack, etc.. This way you are taking out the "tone" from the equation and allowing this person to read and understand the text by its content.


Update per examples: Based on those examples you portrayed, seems that your manager is acting unreasonably.

If a simple "How are you?" - "I'm fine, thank you" triggers such attitude from him then I would say that this person is being unreasonably harsh and annoying (perhaps even picking on you or trying to make you feel bad).

Not saying that this person definitely has hidden intentions towards you, but even assuming the best intentions this attitude seems quite annoying, unprofessional, and not positive for the work-environment.

I suggest you keep behaving professionally and phrasing your requests in a polite way, but don't break your head trying to make it sound perfect for this person only... chances are he is a bit of a douche. Now, it is up to you to decide if this is something you are willing to tolerate, or if it's time to take other actions (escalate, HR maybe, or worst case find a new job and then quit).

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There aren't many situation where I recommend involving HR but I think this is one of them. I would stick to examples of where you received negative feedback on the tone of your written communications.

I would approach them on the angle of:

I received negative feedback on the attached communications as coming off as {demanding, negative, impolite, etc}. I've read and re-read them and am struggling to figure out where I am going wrong. I really don't want this to become a performance issue. Can you please review and offer input?

I'd do it this way as a means to document the issue and engage HR in trying to improve the situation before a PIP comes up. If they do offer feedback on improvement, follow it exactly.

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The best attitude is one that acknowledges that there will be some miscommunication, in both directions.

One of the most important aspects of your situation is one that you've already identified and described: you can't always know exactly how your use of the language matches up with others' use. This is not related to the language not being your native one (though that might exacerbate matters). Many people use language in subtly different ways, and those differences can range from totally irrelevant to very significant.

As an example, when speaking with my parents, I adjust my language to account for how I know they will interpret things that I say, even if that's not how I would typically communicate. That won't work as well for you in this situation until you know this manager better, and perhaps not even then.

So it will be a constant feature of your communications with this manager that things you express may not be understood as you intended. Unless and until you get a good sense of intuition about how to express things in a way your manager will interpret correctly, there is little point to getting stressed out about miscommunications. There isn't a whole lot you can do about that directly, because anything you want to express will be subject to that same uncertainty. The best you can do is to correct any misconceptions directly, gently, and patiently:

Manager: You paused before saying that. What's wrong?

You: I wasn't aware that I paused, and if I hesitated I didn't mean anything by it. But thank you for asking!

Importantly, it doesn't matter if the "fault" is on your end, your manager's or both. Miscommunications are likely to arise in any combination of those, and since you can't reliably prevent all such problems correction is all that remains.

Additionally, it may be worth bearing in mind that expectations on etiquette and tone can vary a lot, even by person within a region. The listed examples seem a bit different from one another: the second ("Could you please send me X? Thanks a lot") is one that I would interpret as modestly impolite, particularly if I were your boss.

This seems like a case you've already learned how to work around, so now you can avoid that particular miscommunication in the future and don't need to stress about how to phrase such an idea.

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