I Want to Work Alone

October 10, 2006

Question: I have a personality that irritates people. I like to keep to myself on the job, without constant interruptions. I have a strong work ethic and have held many jobs but hate playing office footsie with people I would rather not be bothered with. I have about a decade left of work life and would like a meaningful position before it's too late.

Answer: Ms. Mentor is not much given to sighing for what is not, but she wishes you had been born in the 18th century, when you might have gotten on as an ornamental hermit.

Every English grotto back then had to have one: a robed, bearded figure who now and then emerged from his hutch to amaze guests with his visionary mumblings. Of course, ornamental hermits in effect had tenure: health care, room and board, free robes. They merely had to have theatrical sense and impeccable wisdom -- which, as Ms. Mentor knows, was as rare then as it is now. But if you had it, you could make a career of flaunting it.

Jobs for smart misanthropes are harder to come by nowadays. Colleges do need all kinds of reliable staffers: career and financial aid counselors, math and writing tutors, physical plant and clerical workers. But all of them have to be calm and friendly despite others' ignorance, rudeness, or sloppiness. Those are not good jobs for angry, impatient people ("How many times today have I told someone to just read the parking rules?")

Most staff jobs are for the sweet and saintly -- not for you.

What about faculty positions? Misanthropes have often prospered in academe. Law-school professors, for instance, are famous for bullying their underlings. But academe is also the perfect citadel for even-tempered loners -- self-motivated scholars who prefer their own quiet thoughts. As Anneli Rufus notes in Party of One: The Loners' Manifesto, true loners (who are not necessarily misanthropes) feel drained, not enhanced, by hordes of people. At parties, they are the ones skulking in back rooms, noses buried in quaint and curious volumes of forgotten lore.

Can you be that bookworm, that lab rat, and still be a professor? Yes, you can teach without being a warm, fuzzy person. You can present well-prepared lectures with aplomb and wit, and be known for intellect rather than charm. (But you know your students' cellphones will go off, and they'll ask you strange questions, and you'll fume.)

As for research: The lone mad scientist in the castle, creating monsters from bubbling vats, is now extinct (along with ornamental hermits). But scholars in such fields as mathematics, literature, and philosophy can still hunker down in solitary splendor -- as did "Casimir," a philologist whose life's work was an ancient-language glossary. His office at Great Plains U. was paid for by a mysterious donor, and he was not required to teach or interact with anyone. Once Ms. Mentor, then a young duchess and unschooled in the ways of misanthropes, asked a colleague why Casimir never said hello to her.

"He never will," she was told, "because you don't know Hittite."

If you can find that kind of unique niche, you need never speak to anyone.

There is also online teaching, which, in theory, does not require much people contact -- so long as the technology all works perfectly, everyone is dedicated, and everyone reads and follows all the rules and protocols.

Sigh. Ms. Mentor is running out of options for you.

She knows some of her faithful readers are thinking, "Get counseling already!" or "Get a personality transplant!" But Ms. Mentor will merely propose a few gimmicks you can use to protect yourself from chronic rage about the errors and inadequacies of others.

First, you must put on your cordial persona. Force yourself to smile and say, "Hi, how are you?" to everyone, including janitors and students. (Ms. Mentor is appalled by university people who treat cleaning employees as serfs and students as vermin.)

Greeting everyone cheerfully makes you "collegial," which is essential to academic survival. "Frowner," for instance, was denied tenure at Left Coast U., because, although he published a great deal, "You never talk to anyone in the halls. People think you're a snob." If you cannot remember names or faces, all the more reason to greet everyone enthusiastically. Pretend you're running for mayor.

You can also practice -- all by your lonesome -- simple answers to the small-talk questions that Ms. Mentor knows have made you cringe with boredom. Begin by practicing your upbeat response to "And how are you?"

"Brilliant and beautiful" is one good answer. Another is "Life's treating me well" (even if it isn't, you'll feel less morbid). You can follow up with a complaint about the traffic, or a mildly inane comment about the weather ("Moist enough for you?") or sports ("How 'bout those Fighting Ferrets!")

Ms. Mentor warns you never to interpret "How are you?" as a medical question. Do not go into detail about secretions or itches.

There are better ways to seem adept at small talk. Learn to take compliments graciously ("Thank you! It's one of my favorite cudgels, too"). Inquire after family members ("I hope Beauregard's feeling perkier") and praise others' successes ("Hittite of the Year! That's awesome!").

Be careful about complimenting someone's appearance too aggressively because that can come across as sexual harassment. And never say, "You've lost weight!" That suggests you thought your victim was oversized before -- and it may also call attention to a deep private sorrow: anorexia, miscarriage, depression, cancer.

"But all that's outside-the-office chitchat," you complain. "I still hate everybody."

Indeed you do, and some of your colleagues deserve it. Longtime bosses know that every group will include four or five belligerents who demand special treatment, wail about being underappreciated, and want their enemies crushed this afternoon. You must smile, nod, and move on.

In truth, only one set of university employees routinely escapes human contact. At veterinary schools, the animal tenders do have to clean out the cages and stalls, but they also get to cuddle kittens and watch piglets being born. No one minds if they sometimes moo.

Many Americans, Ms. Mentor knows, would advise you to take whatever job you can tolerate, and then get on the right drugs. Ms. Mentor prefers to recommend meditation and swimming (but not yoga: The classes are with other people). She warns you against reading Jean-Paul Sartre's No Exit, with its chilling line, "Hell is other people." Try to smile, do your job, and purport to be contented -- for doing so will get you a regular salary, health insurance, and a certain peace.

Cultivate an image of serenity, like the ornamental hermits of old. Never let anyone see you kvetch.

Question: I know that pranksters sometimes put chili peppers (for "hotness") at random in teacher rankings on But since I have four (4!) chili peppers, may I assume that I am truly hot, even though it won't get me tenure?

Answer: Yes.

Sage Readers: Ms. Mentor's flock has now settled into fall term, gotten to know students, colleagues, and staffers, and formed some decided opinions. While she rarely answers letters personally, Ms. Mentor invites queries, suggestions and ventings: What would you do differently?

As always, confidentiality is guaranteed, and Ms. Mentor will disguise all identifying details of your rant, and someone else will think he or she is the target and may feel guilty.

Ms. Mentor directs eager readers to her archive, to her tome, Ms. Mentor's Impeccable Advice for Women in Academia, and to The Chronicle's forums and other columns on this site.

Ms. Mentor, who never leaves her ivory tower, channels her mail via Emily Toth in the English department of Louisiana State University at Baton Rouge. Her Chronicle address is

Her views do not necessarily represent those of The Chronicle.