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Although I have added the India tag for cultural context, I consider this to be a question on a universal theme, and therefore welcome responses from members all over the world.


Since mid-September I have been volunteering one day a week at a social work non-profit (typically called NGO here in India) that provides non-clinical counselling services for the general public. I am not involved in the interpersonal aspects of their activities and do not interact with the people utilising these services. I am a qualified sociologist and I have been helping the social workers to technically prepare some upcoming research projects.

One of my co-workers there (code name Alice) is a full-time social work counsellor. We are not doing the same type of work but we do interact a bit in the office. She recently called me on the phone in the morning of my volunteering day and said

I need to take my mother-in-law for a medical checkup so I will be an hour late getting to work. Would you give the counselling for the first few clients?

Now I have no qualification or training in counselling and said that I couldn't possibly counsel the clients. She did come late and the clients were kept waiting. Later she accused me of not seeing her as a "real person."

You could easily have given the clients that counselling... I am so rarely in need of your help and my mother-in-law had to see this doctor. We will all have such unavoidable situations. I don't think you even see me as a real person with real problems!

I was quite surprised and asked her what she meant. She said that I was politely formal and aloof with her and never seemed to recognize her personal identity; I was not particularly warm in interaction nor interested in her family matters; nor even considerate of her occasional need for help such as when she had to take a family member to the doctor. Also, my behavior suggested that I had a one-dimensional and uninvolved view of women in general, she said. Note that she is a trained counsellor and has considerably more insight into such matters than the average person.

First of all this question is not about the clash of ideas regarding whether I as an unqualified person should or should not counsel the clients. And Alice is essentially right that I do not exactly see her as what she calls a "real person", which is the interpersonal focus of this question.

A bit of background might be useful in context. The social and cultural atmosphere in the part of South India where we live does not encourage 'friendship' between men and women, and conservative society still views it with some disapproval and suspicion. I am unmarried and have tended to be very formal, reserved and very proper in interacting with women who are not my family members, and especially keep my distance from married women.

That is part of the cultural expectations here, which can also tend to create one-dimensional and remote mental attitudes to women, unless a man has a genuine passion for cultivating friendships with female colleagues/ acquaintances, even at risk of facing a bit of social and personal backlash. (The same applies to women who would like to form friendships with men.) I don't want to be close friends with women in general. I am also very introverted and get quickly tired by interacting with other people. And I am certainly not interested in the details of their family matters.

What complicates the Alice situation a bit is that I find her physically attractive but I don't feel like expressing that in my behavior, and she is off limits because of being married. I am not particularly interested romantically in Alice but I didn't want to be "just friends" with her and certainly didn't want to meet her husband or talk about him. I also never imagined that any of that was relevant to the part-time work I am doing there. So I have taken no interest in her personality or family matters, and that contributes to her perception that I don't see her as a real person. However, the expression of her feedback is something I am willing to take seriously, especially after participating intensively for the past few months and learning a lot here on Interpersonal.StackExchange.

I was also saddened and affected significantly by reading about the very recent death of an adult movie star, the news article regarding whose tragic end was e-mailed to me by a sociologist friend with his own observation that

the world fails to see so many women as their unique selves. We men look at women and often cannot see beyond the physical exterior. It is very sad that the only way for at least some women to express themselves, stand out from the crowd and be taken seriously as real individual people is by that ultimate act of self-destruction. That is why this shocking incident is relevant sociologically to us and also an eye-opener to everyone that more exposure to social media does not guarantee better (inter)personal insight in the digital age.

So I feel that I might try to to address Alice's valid criticism here. My goal is to be more amenable to seeing her as a multi-dimensional individual. That doesn't come naturally to me and that is why I need the help of the interpersonally talented members of IPS.SE: how can I eventually convince her that I was positively influenced by what she said, and am now trying to 'see her as a real person'?

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    You have conflicting goals/norms. What are you willing to change/shed in order to appear/be more open to women as real people? (also, that link is broken...) – anongoodnurse Dec 14 '17 at 18:32
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    Did you explain that to her? In my very humble opinion, it seems that you were correct in refusing to do that work. – Anne Daunted Dec 14 '17 at 18:34
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    I suspect it's pretty easy to view people one-dimensionally if you don't know them. I have a couple of coworkers I probably view in the same way, purely because I just don't talk to them about anything but work. To think about her more complexly, you may need to get to know her better, and that is something you may not be comfortable with (re @anongoodnurse's comment). You may just be taking this out of proportion. People view eachother one-dimensionally all the time. – user6818 Dec 14 '17 at 18:56
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    I honestly think you are being coerced or even bullied for accepting this situation next time it happens. It is not your responsibility, do not let it happen. Stand for yourself. – Rui F Ribeiro Dec 15 '17 at 10:13
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    The expectation of Alice was wrong and took the clients for granted while she was more focused on her personal problem @Curt J. Sampson. I do think she believed they wouldn't be able to spot the difference between a sociologist and a social worker. Well, I didn't want to be any part of that, for sure. – English Student Mar 17 '18 at 13:54
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+500

After reading your comments and the other post I can say this:

  • I agree with Stacey you are being hard on yourself.
  • I agree with Dan, Alice is projecting on to you.

I also can say that if you are here is because you know something is not quite right. You said:

And Alice is essentially right that I do not exactly see her as what she calls a "real person", which is the interpersonal focus of this question.

I think what she said somehow resonated true within you. What you need to know is, if this is an "Alice" thing? or is it a "Women" thing? From what you said:

I don't want to be close friends with women in general.

Is a "Women" thing, made worse in the case of Alice because you find her attractive but out of reach, she being married.

Are you interested in being friends with Men? I assume so, if not you wouldn't have these doubts.

Why don't you want to be friends with women? Is just that is too much of a hassle to deal with the social backlash? Or is that because you don't see them as real people?

What does it mean that you don't see them as "real people"? In general even if we don't know anything about someone, we don't go around questioning whether or not we see them as real. I mean you are not close with the chair you are sitting on but you do consider it real.

Now if the chair was, I don't know, a bench you could say "is this a real chair?" So what you are asking is whether or not women are people, and by people, I mean human beings.

Do you see women as actual human beings? Same rights an attributes? I think you know the answer is "NO". And you don't like it.

No one is perfect, but you realize it and you want to be better. For that I applaud you.

When you described Alice, you said she is attractive, she is married. If you were to describe a male coworker you were having issues with, would you use the same terms? Or would you say something else? You would probably say he is smart, or stubborn, etc.

Honestly if you think of this, before worrying whether someone is married or attractive, try to know them. Or could you be married to a very attractive woman that you truly hated her personality?

You shouldn't be interested in being friends with men, or with women, you "should" be interested in being friends with interesting (for you) people, both men and women. If you don't talk with them, or interact with them you won't find them.

I know how hard it can be to break these cultural barriers, so if you want to improve. Take a moment before talking with any woman, and think of them as men, what would you be saying to them if they were men, and then proceed. This will get easier and more automatic with time.

Finally, you said you want to let her know you took her criticism seriously. For that, you just need to tell her that you brought the issue up with some "friends" or on a website, whatever makes you feel more comfortable and share some insights.

And regarding the actual conflict that unleashed everything, tell her that you don't feel comfortable being imposed to counsel because it is not your specialization and you could gladly help her with other things (maybe paper work?), but not with that, and for that matter you wouldn't help anyone else with counseling, not just her. Also make her see that if you don't know her much is because you don't spend much time there as you only volunteer 1 or 2 times a week. And tell her that you are sorry if you made her feel bad, since it wasn't your intention and in future times if she needs help she could ask but maybe offering other possibilities. I don't know, she could ask you to get someone else to do it, or whatever.

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    Thanks a lot @Dzyann for a very detailed and helpful answer! The only clarification I would make is that I am absolutely not interested in being friends with men, nor consider men any more 'real' than women, but it doesn't bother me the way Alice's accusation did. That therefore seems to me to be a reaction in my mind against an innate social tendency to objectify women and consider them the 'unknown other.' In view of modern women's expectations I want to do better, even contrary to my own personality. Your answer helped me to work out my motivations which is a step in the right direction! – English Student Dec 14 '17 at 23:47
  • @EnglishStudent, so are you interested in making friends at all? – Mykazuki Dec 15 '17 at 3:55
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    "so are you interested in making friends at all?" __ Not particularly, @Dzyann. As I said, I am very introverted and satisfied with the few good friends I have. In that sense this question is not even about making friends. However, I was made to see how a woman like Alice perceived this as a stereotypical lack of interest in herself and women in general as "real people." What's challenging here is for me to develop a more balanced attitude and convince Alice that I am trying to see her as a real person. – English Student Dec 15 '17 at 6:34
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    @EnglishStudent, well but you do have friends, so all in all you are just not eager to make new ones. I think the solution is "simple" try to be polite with everyone, and since in your culture women are treated different, and can lead to a behavior you are not satisfied with, think of them as men before interacting so you can revise how you would act towards them. If enough men change the way they treat women, the culture will eventually shift. This doesn't you have to do something inappropriate for your culture, but engaging in conversation keeping your distance should be fine, right? – Mykazuki Dec 15 '17 at 13:08
  • Yes, that should be OK @Dzyann. – English Student Dec 15 '17 at 14:37
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I suspect that Alice is projecting her frustrations with her culture on to you personally. Which I don't find to be very fair. That said it's understandable that she would be frustrated. I think the best response you could give would be to say to her :

I just wanted to let you know that I do know you are a real person with real problems, If I were qualified to help you I would have but I do not have the skills and training that you have, and am unqualified to offer counseling. I am sorry that I could not help. If you ever need help with {insert something you are capable of} I will gladly help.

Naturally you need to clarify that the real reason you could not help was that you are not qualified to offer counseling.

By offering to help her with something else in the future you are showing that you are indeed willing to help, when qualified.

Simply acknowledging that she has professional skills that you don't have should go a long way towards proving that you already see her as a unique individual capable of contributing to society outside of traditional family roles.

more generally you can help yourself (and others) to recognize that women are unique individuals by being sure to recognize verbally the achievements, and good work done by women around you whether that work is done professionally or in the home.

7

Ignoring the fact Alice is a woman: what you have here is a full-time and specialist paid worker abusing its position and the presence of a volunteer to try to hand down the work the salaried worker was specifically hired and paid to perform.

You took a more professional and laudable stance refusing to do work for which you have no experience and qualifications; in fact this could also have backfired to you if you have handled patients on the wrong,or there was a surprise inspection - thing you did not let happen fortunately, and better yet did not set a precedent. There might also would be serious confidentially issues with patients you are not handling usually.

IMO, the "co-worker" also has no business asking either work or justifications from you, and it would be up to your chain of command to do that. You also have not much to lose being a volunteer, and in fact the best answer to kill the subject for good can be "I only volunteered for x" (e.g. I did not volunteer to do your work).

It might be that she is just exploiting a sensitive theme and mixing work and personal feelings to coerce you into picking up her slack next time. The "co-worker" is also doubly in the wrong of trying to pressure you into doing their work being absent from work without coordinating it beforehand with you, and also not even giving you a call to warn the patients waiting.

It is not your responsability a "co-worker" is not being having a professional stance at their job, and I would direct someone to upper management next time they try to pass the buck instead of unsuccessfully trying to reason with them - furthermore if they are not able to make it on time due to personal problems, it is up to them to reschedule their patients.

You were the one acting professionally here, and it seems totally unjustified you beating yourself for it, no matter what the excuses. You are letting yourself being manipulated.

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    I didn't want to complicate matters by discussing the issue with a supervisor but shall be very vigilant if such situation recurs, thanks a lot @Rui F Ribeiro! – English Student Dec 15 '17 at 14:40
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    I absolutely agree. This is about a work situation, and should be handled as such, and I think OP did well in this regard. – michi Dec 15 '17 at 22:15
  • I also used purposely "co-worker" to make the distinction you are a volunteer there, instead of being a paid full-time worker with full obligations. Somewhat, it appears you should be the one complaining here, and not the other way around. – Rui F Ribeiro Dec 15 '17 at 22:17
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    I further think that Alice’s remark “real person” is like throwing a poisoned bone in front of a dog, for reasons of revenge- she felt hurt by him not covering up her mistake, so she knows his weak spot and attacks him there. I wish the guy won’t fall for this cheap and mean trick. – michi Dec 17 '17 at 7:32
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I think you're being hard on yourself.

There is a very big difference between viewing an entire gender in a disrespectful way (for example, your quote " We men look at women and often cannot see beyond the physical exterior.") and seeing a coworker only in their work capacity because you don't know them very well.

In fact, your view of her (from my limited point of view) seems pretty normal. You see her as a coworker, which makes perfect sense because that is how you interact with her every day. I have coworkers that I only know through work. We don't talk about family stuff or hobbies or anything, I just work with them. It's natural to see them mainly in their work capacity because that's the level of interaction we have. That doesn't mean that I'm disrespectful to their entire gender.

Since you've grown up in a culture that distances men from women, it's easy to see them as a sort of mystery. That's totally understandable. I think the article is talking about viewing about women in a disrespectful way. Thinking only about their appearance and perhaps thinking they aren't clever or capable.

This is really about thinking about women respectfully and treating them as such. While you may not feel comfortable getting to know your coworker better, are there other women who are more socially acceptable to get to know? Perhaps family members like sisters and cousins? If you can have multi-dimensional relationships with them and view them in a respectful way, then that will help you to have a healthier view of women in general.

I highly agree with @Dan's answer that your coworker is being a bit sensitive because she is frustrated about her situation. People are very sensitive these days about treating women well. I'd go further to say that it's important to treat every person well, no matter what their gender.

  • Thanks for expanding your comments into a really nice and well balanced answer that addresses my main concerns @Stacey. I was less anxious about 'disrespect' than the culturally mediated tendency to view women as an unknown quantity. It is a fact that there are not many opportunities here for less adventurous men to interact with unrelated women on a significantly friendly basis. Your points and suggestions are highly appreciated. – English Student Dec 14 '17 at 19:51
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You didn't do her bidding, and now she's finding personal faults in you because you were unhelpful.

People who are self-entitled think that tasks others do for them are easy. I have no idea how to counsel someone, but I would believe that this "Alice" would have found the same task easy for me.

The only real reason she's upset is because she didn't handle the problem appropriately, and she asked you to rescue her. She's deciding that you chose to not rescue her, and is now upset with you because of her (Mother, brother, father, supervisor, etc.) You don't have enough life to spend it with a friend who sees you as a problem.

If you feel that you are happier interacting with women in a way that is traditionally not supported, then work on that. Set up clear boundaries, voice those boundaries, and present yourself in a manner that tries to avoid misinterpretation of your efforts. But such an effort is your decision, not Alice's; and you are master of your own actions.

Personally, I would avoid getting to know Alice better because you already started off badly. In my opinion, she's leveraged her beauty and attraction to get others to work for her. If you "help her out" you won't be unique, and you won't get a fair chance to develop a female friendship.

You are commendable in considering situations where women might suffer due to lack of a more open and supportive network of women and men; but, this person is probably not the right person to work with in this effort. She's become accustomed to using the system you are trying to avoid. She's asked you to do things that would put you in jail outside of India, and now it is your fault you didn't do it!

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    "You don't see me as a real person" probably should be answered with "I don't see you as an imaginary person". – Edwin Buck Dec 17 '17 at 0:24
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    From the OP thread, it appears that she was just taking for granted the "help", planned her weekly schedule taking on account his presence, and did not even ask or confirm if he would be present. – Rui F Ribeiro Dec 18 '17 at 11:40
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What really stands out is this:

She recently called me on the phone in the morning of my volunteering day and said:

  • "I need to take my mother-in-law for a medical checkup so I will be an hour late getting to work. Would you give the counselling for the first few clients?"

Now I have no qualification or training in counselling and said that I couldn't possibly counsel the clients. She did come late and the clients were kept waiting. Later she accused me of not seeing her as a "real person."

  • "You could easily have given the clients that counselling... I am so rarely in need of your help and my mother-in-law had to see this doctor. We will all have such unavoidable situations. I don't think you even see me as a real person with real problems!"

I was quite surprised and asked her what she meant. She said that I was politely formal and aloof with her and never seemed to recognize her personal identity; I was not particularly warm in interaction nor interested in her family matters; nor even considerate of her occasional need for help such as when she had to take a family member to the doctor.

She calls you to ask 'Would you like to do work you are unqualified for, to offer poor service to our clients, to do my job and your own on short notice because I plan poorly and can't manage my schedule?".

You replied that you do not wish to do that, but neglect to thank her for interrupting what you were doing, at least you had a good reason for denying her demand (because if you can only answer yes then it's not "Would you?", but "You will.", a demand and not a question at all).

  • It's a medical checkup, she knew about it in advance.

  • She probably knows your role and qualifications.

  • She ought not to have made conflicting appointments.

  • It's not your fault, as you've mentioned you don't interrogate her nor are you all knowing.

  • What if you called in sick or were away from the phone, whatever would she do?

Why didn't she simply call some random number and ask that person to do the work for free, how is that any different. Why doesn't her husband do the work or either of them hire someone?

You shouldn't feel guilt, and she does seem unreal.

Still this is something you wish to address and not dismiss.

Your explanation to us (at StackExchance) seems adequate, can't she accept such an explanation.

Involving the office manager in your discussion will:

  • Communicate the importance of your interaction to her.

  • Ensure that she doesn't later suggest that you tried to have a "one-dimensional and uninvolved view of" her - assuming we know what that means.

  • Show respect for the "social and cultural atmosphere", and her husband.

  • Ensure that the manager is onboard and aware of conflict.

In order to see her as some dynamic and multi-dimensional individual, the master of her destiny, the mentor to Mother Teresa, a Deity, someone you want to befriend, she needs to do her part.

Maybe her own friends and family need to support her better or she needs to council herself and obtain better coping skills than to lash out at an unpaid volunteer, someone already spending all day helping her and others.

How can I eventually convince her that I was positively influenced by what she said, and am now trying to 'see her as a real person'?

Simply tell her that what she said has positively influenced you, that you will go to lunch and discuss plans to spend more time with her after work, that you want to get to know the real Alice - everything.

How will that be received?

I think her negativity has influenced you to make a poor choice, to blame yourself after being manipulated. To both refuse to accept that you were duped by a woman and to feel a manly need to be protective of her.

Tell her husband she asks you to replace him and she must not again - then perhaps she will not. Otherwise, as I mentioned, go against everything and explore her, the real Alice. I advise against that.

  • "Simply tell her that what she said has positively influenced you, that you will go to lunch and discuss plans to spend more time with her after work, that you want to get to know the real Alice - everything. How will that be received?" __ that is the key: it wouldn't be received well! Your points are very well made and well taken. Thanks a lot for a thorough and most illuminating answer @Rob. – English Student Feb 4 '18 at 12:53
  • @EnglishStudent - Perhaps you can contact her husband. Does the man answer the phone, you can call in the evening and ask that he deal with her, say she need not return to see you. Of course that does nothing for a polite resolution and little for your job; unless you get her's. -- That's why I say her complaint is ill conceived and misdirected, she picks on a volunteer. Telling the office manager is also good. Neither is interpersonal skills, more like workplace.stackexchange.com . – Rob Feb 4 '18 at 14:03
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    Thanks for the suggestion. The interpersonal solutions offered by all of you have been very helpful. I should prefer to contact her husband or the manager only if there is any further disagreement on her part @Rob. – English Student Feb 4 '18 at 15:37
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There have been a lot of great answers already to this and since it's also quite far in the past, see this more like an addendum.

I want to offer an additional perspective on the matter at hand which might remove some weight from your shoulders. What you described so far is a professional relationship with your coworkers. As far as I can tell, you do not behave differently towards the male people you work with.

And there is nothing inherently bad about this.

You dont show up there to meet with friends, you do this because it is your job. Private matters are exactly that: private. While it can be beneficial to have more personal relationships at your workplace, nobody can demand that from you especially if you are not working there full time. Being friends with your coworkers - partaking in their personal lives - can also backfire and lead to conflicts. You choose not to get involved and you should not feel guilty about that. Most importantly, this does not mean that you don't see them as "real people". That is a baseless allegation. In fact, your question already proves the opposite:

  • You respect both the work and the qualification of Alice
  • You show understanding for her situation
  • You took her seriously and actually thought about what she said

You would certainly have done none of those things if you did not see her as an individual and "real person".

Alice demanded a personal favour and a pretty big one at that. Asking someone to do my job of which I know that the person in question is not qualified to do - and the job being quite delicate in addition with other people depending on it - is something I would hesitate to do even with my close friends. It's way out of line for a purely professional relationship.

Now regarding your attitude towards women, aks yourself this: Would you have done anything different if that request came from a male coworker? As long as the answer to that is "no", you are doing everything right. Your explanation makes me believe you would have denied it regardless, as none of the reasons you stated had anything to do with her gender. Alice was the one that brought it up. Some might even argue she tried to play the "woman card" to get something she normally would not have gotten. Of course I can't possibly speak to that, although to me it sounds manipulative.

By not giving her a special treatment you showed respect to her as an individual.

If you let gender interfere with that in the future, by seeing her as "a woman" instead of seeing her as "Alice", you will do exactly the opposite of what equality is about.

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