Should They Promote the Face of Gloom?

My colleague makes people miserable, and it’s holding her career back

February 01, 2016

Question (from "Gwendolyn"): I have this friend who has this problem — no, really. "Mary" has a naturally sad face, the unfortunate kind that young people call "resting bitch face." But that’s not really the problem.

It’s that Mary is unfailingly doleful. When asked, "How are you?" she’ll tell you: the headache, the dying relatives, the inept students. The rain, the politics, the awful state of the world as she knows it. She writes nihilistic pieces that do get published in well-known journals. Based on her publications, she’d like to get out of the adjunct ghetto and be hired on the tenure track in our department.

She’s asked me for advice, since I (tenured) was on a committee that recently elevated a couple of adjuncts to tenure-track status. She tells me that she’s entitled to be an assistant prof, that she’s better than the newly anointed, and that it’s unconscionable — maybe grievance-worthy — that she’s not on the road to permanent faculty status.

I know why, though. Most people can’t stand to be around her. She lowers the temperature of a warm room by being there, and being so morbid. She rarely speaks except to object and correct.

How do I tell her that’s why she’s not being "elevated" (the local word we use for promotion from adjunct to tenure-track)?

Answer: Ms. Mentor, maven in a heartless world, has known many Morose Marys. They seem to have black clouds hovering over their heads like drones. Their name tags read "Weltschmerz Forever." Ms. Mentor has known many more Morose Marvins — but the social consequences of seeming unpleasant are worse for women.

Ms. Mentor’s files include the stories of "Charles" and "Katherine," hired at the same time in a humanities department at an East Coast university. Both were reputedly brilliant — and Charles immediately established his brilliance by racing around the campus, rarely speaking to anyone, claiming that he was so busy chasing down a rare manuscript that he couldn’t stop to talk.

He would wave, abstractedly, as he flung himself from library to office to car. Grad students called him "The Mad Hatter," but bragged about being in his graduate seminar because "he’s so incredibly smart." Charles said he liked being called "Charlie" or "Chuck," since it made him "one of the guys." The guys liked that.

"Katherine," meanwhile, wore her brilliance quietly. She was in her campus office all day, every day, totally immersed in finishing her first book. She looked dazed when she emerged into the hallway. She rarely said hello to anyone. More than once, senior male colleagues would call out to Katherine in the halls, "Smile!" She would look up, force a little smile, and move on. If anyone tried to call her "Kathy" or "Kate" or "Kitty," she would say, with an icy look, "I hate nicknames. My name is Katherine."

At third-year review, when their contracts were up for renewal, guess which one was not renewed? Which one got course evaluations praising the professor’s deep erudition, and which one, according to student write-ups, was abrupt? Which one was praised for being "so busy with important work," and which one was damned for "sometimes not answering emails on weekends"?

Katherine was the one punished, of course. She had done her duty as an academic professional. She had directed theses, served on committees, done guest lectures when asked. She’d given papers at national conferences and gotten a book contract.

But she hadn’t had any colleagues over for dinner. She rarely had lunch with anyone. She didn’t smile, and she was considered to be frosty, if not a "total bitch."

In short, Katherine had failed the unspoken Feminine Proficiency Quiz. ("Are you pleasant?" "Are you sociable?") Katherine hadn’t worked at being charming — hadn’t tried at all, in fact. She was sober and responsible but not warm, fuzzy, or likable. She wanted to be judged solely on her academic merits.

Ms. Mentor trusts her readers to see that much more was expected of Katherine — unfairly, in Ms. Mentor’s view. Ms. Mentor believes that women should have the right to be brusque when they wish, and even to be morose. But the world does not work that way.

Perhaps it never has. Jean-Jacques Rousseau in Emile (1762) declared that women’s whole purpose in life is "to be pleasing to men." Mary Wollstonecraft in A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792) eviscerated his argument, as did Margaret Fuller in Woman in the Nineteenth Century (1843). A woman, Fuller wrote, does not need "as a woman to act or rule, but as a nature to grow, as an intellect to discern, as a soul to live freely."

But still manage to cheer everyone up, as Marianne LaFrance shows in Why Smile: the Science Behind Facial Expressions (2011). It falls to women to do the smile work, she writes, "because we want to make sure women are doing what we expect them to do, which is to care for others." A woman who is thinking her own beautiful thoughts is not devoting herself to being pleasant and sociable. If she is frowning, she is not being charming and there are social and professional punishments for that.

And so, until patriarchy is overthrown, what should Gwendolyn tell her colleague Morose Mary?

Should Gwendolyn evade any tough question, as women are often told to do, out of politeness? ("I don’t know why they wouldn’t elevate you.") Should Gwendolyn accentuate the positive and just omit the negative? ("Your writing is very good.") Or should Gwendolyn decide that there’s no friendship to preserve by being tactful, and that she might as well tell the truth? ("You come across as moody and angry, and I think people are put off by that.")

Gwendolyn would not be charming by telling the truth, and Morose Mary might hate her for that. Or Mary might recognize the value of having an honest colleague. Maybe Mary would rethink her career path. Is teaching suited to her temperament? Will she enjoy years of interaction with impressionable, rowdy, and irreverent young minds?

But if Mary wants to stay and be "elevated," she can decide to go on a charm offensive. She can work on cheerfully greeting colleagues in the halls. ("How are you, George? Isn’t this a great day?") She can ask about innocuous current events. ("What do you think about the anti-littering ordinance?") She can try to be wry. ("It made me want to throw a pencil on the ground.")

She can invite colleagues to have lunch or coffee with her. If asking face to face is too scary, she can email them. (Ms. Mentor remembers when you had to call people, quavering, on your office phone. That was terrifying.) Mary can suggest a topic, with enthusiasm. ("Would you be willing to tell me about Etruscan Romanticism, so I can share the key points with my class?") She can suggest a less formal name for herself. "My good friends call me Mair."

Yes, it’s flattery. Yes, it can feel hokey and artificial. And if Mary can’t or won’t do those things, she’s made the right decision to Be Herself — and to live with however that self comes across to others.

Question: As far as anyone has ever been able to determine, Miss Manners does not have a nickname. It seems unseemly even to think of calling her "Miss," although that seems to be her first name. Does Ms. Mentor follow that example and eschew all nicknames for Ms. Mentor?

Answer: Yes.

Sage readers: Winter is a time of discontent. Ms. Mentor wishes luck and joy to all job seekers, but also urges those on the hamster wheel of adjunctdom to go in other directions. Life is too short to be underappreciated.

This is also a time of silliness, and so Ms. Mentor wonders if many academics permit themselves to have nicknames. She has never met anyone named "Bubbles" or "Vlad the Impaler," but perhaps those professor-types do exist.

She invites readers to send her examples of nicknames they’ve encountered in academe — whether to one’s face or otherwise (as in "The Mad Hatter," above). Maybe someone has done a theoretical analysis. Maybe there is jargon.

As always, Ms. Mentor welcomes rants, gossip, queries, and whatever other tidbits her flock wishes to vouchsafe her. She regrets that she can rarely answer letters personally, and never speedily, and she recommends regular perusal of The Chronicle’s forums. She cannot give legal or psychiatric advice. All communications are confidential, identifying details are smithereened, and anonymity is guaranteed. Please feel free to use sparkling nicknames in your communiqués.

C Emily Toth

Ms. Mentor, who never leaves her ivory tower, channels her mail via Emily Toth at Louisiana State University at Baton Rouge. Her most recent book is Ms. Mentor’s New and Ever More Impeccable Advice for Women and Men in Academia (University of Pennsylvania Press). Her email address is