A few years ago, I had the unfortunate experience of being in a courtroom with two lawyers. As soon as the judge said that court was in session, both lawyers stood up and began talking simultaneously for several seconds. Eventually, one of them ran out of steam, and I was left with the feeling that the other had ‘won’. I’m not sure what they were going for other than some sort of weird attempt at dominance, and it was a very jarring display. I thought, at the time, that I would never want to be a lawyer.
Since then, I’ve been witness to similar things over and over. However, instead of in a courtroom, these arguments involving a lot of confrontation and rude behavior, have taken place in front of white boards, on Skype sessions, on telephone calls, and even at bars. And they always seem to involve engineers…sometimes even this one.
I am amused that engineers seem to follow a social code where criticism is a sign of genuine respect, even if it’s loud and rude. (I have to confess that I wish it weren’t as loud and rude as some people feel free to make it.) As long as you don’t call someone an idiot, they are usually okay with going to have drinks with you later. Insulting one’s intelligence directly is crossing the line…but implying it through other statements doesn’t usually seem to have the same effect.
I usually participate in these sorts of activities, but I try to tone down my behavior. Being confrontational, even in the engineering realm, is frowned upon if a woman is being critical. Aside from that, it just simply makes me uncomfortable. That being said, I have gotten feedback more than once that I am far too rude and confrontational when interacting with non-engineers. Therefore I feel like I can’t win: I’m too timid when I’m with engineers, and too aggressive among non-engineers.
I also know a lot of people who are far better than I at ‘switching’ their attitude depending on the crowd. I’ve seen one person nearly start swearing during a design review turn around and be sweetness and light when interacting with other people.
Question for readers: do you feel you get aggressive or confrontational when tackling engineering problems? Is this different from how you deal with the rest of your life? Or are you able to just go with the flow all the time?