The company I work at just got acquired by a bigger company earlier this month.  As a result, we had a big celebration party at a restaurant nearby.  I was chatting with some new people at the company, asking them what attracted them to work here.  Most of the answers were the same generally — people wanted to work at a place that cared a lot about the quality of their software.  One guy started naming off all the company culture buzz words like “TDD”, “agile”, “continuous integration”, etc.  After he finished listing it off though, he said apologized to me for using all the big words and big concepts that I wouldn’t understand.  (Assumption #1: I wouldn’t understand technical jargon.) Usually, I feel compelled to tell someone that I’m a software developer, and I get what they’re saying, especially since I’ve been around the company for over two years.  This time, I decided to take a different approach and see how far this would go.  It was equally hilarious and horrific.

I didn’t particularly make it obvious that I understood what he was talking about, but I didn’t play into not knowing any of it either: “The company is a big agile shop, and everyone really does care about good software.”  For some whatever reason, he responded by telling me that it was “nice that even the secretaries knew the lingo.”  (Assumption #2: I was a secretary.)  I had a noncommittal response saying that they hired a lot of smart people.

We talked about college a little bit, and I told him how I went to school at MSU and U of Washington.  He “nicely” told me that he heard that they promoted secretaries to quality assurance roles, and that one day, in a couple of years, I could work hard and take extra classes to finish my degree and get to that position myself.  (Assumption #3: I was unhappy in my current role.  Assumption #4: I didn’t finish college.) I told him that I had finished college because I’m so gosh darned proud of it that I forgot that I was trying to see how far he’d take the assumptions.  He added that he bet that I regretted my humanities degree because he was making a lot of money with his engineering degree.  (Assumption #5: I had a humanities degree)

After a little bit, another friend of mine joined the conversation, and we chatted about my team.  Somewhere in that, his face fell when he realized that I was a software developer.  He interrupted our conversation and asked why I let him embarrass himself for so long.  Note — he never apologized.  However, he was so uncomfortable with being wrong that I hope he’ll remember that next time when he starts talking to a female coworker.

My hope is that the shame from being wrong will stay with him.  It doesn’t seem to phase people when you instantly correct them on their assumptions.  I’m not entirely sure if this was the best approach for this, but I get so many similar conversations all the time, I think I’ll have plenty of opportunities to try new approaches.

5 thoughts on “Assumptions”

  1. This hurts my soul. I could just feel the mix of amusement and horror along with you as you hear the assumptions spill out of this person.

    The part that made the horror crush the amusement was the implication that you were in the wrong for not fulfilling your “obligation” to correct the jerk.

  2. Appalling…but also disheartening is the assumption that being a secretary isn’t a worthwhile, valuable job. What if you actually were a secretary? Could he (and all of us) learn see a person as valuable regardless of his or her job title and salary?

    1. Agreed! I dislike how people feel like secretaries need to be “promoted” to “technical” jobs. I also dislike the assumption that they’re not as smart or not as valuable as others.

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