Newport Manners + Étiquette: Overcoming Mean Girls at Work

Wednesday, August 14, 2013


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Mean co-workers can sometimes make you feel like you're back in high school. Didi explains how to get them to play nice.

Étiquette questions to Didi Lorillard about summer evening white pantsuit dress code for business events, changing your name wedding étiquette when you remarry, whether to send a mass card, and how to fit in at a new job, were all topics of interest this week at
Dear Didi,
I work in the client services department of a company, but I am not a client services representative, I am an admin person. I work with five other girls in this department and they think I am inferior to them and totally ignore me. They don't include me in their conversation etc, I don't exist. And some other people in the company do that too.
It makes me feel like I am good for nothing and I feel so inferior...don't know what to do...or if I should worry about this or not?
Or should I say it is not a big deal? I have a different accent and when I speak they laugh at me and say we don't understand you, what are you talking about? ....please help. A.S., Providence
Dear A.S.,
Firstly, you should consider whether or not this job is a good fit for you. You might be more comfortable in a different workplace. You might also consider that, for whatever reasons, you may be replacing someone who was dearly loved by her coworkers and they miss her. But since the job market is tight, let's assume you want to keep this job and assimilate.  
To fit in, at the start you want to follow the dress code of your coworkers. You also have to be well-groomed, so they cannot find fault in your appearance and hygiene. I'm not saying you should kowtow to them, but until they know you better and appreciate you for who you are, you're going to have to watch what you do, what you wear, what you say. (For instance, don't overuse the annoying word 'like,' which you overused in your question.) Once they've accepted you, you can be yourself more.
You might start by following simple styles within the work culture. For instance, they may not refer to themselves as 'girls,' but rather as 'women.' There are many nuances to an office culture and your ability to pick up on them and adapt to them will help you to fit in. For instance, you say you're an administrative person, but you don't appear to use proper punctuation. (I had to heavily copyedit your question.) Perhaps you should take an evening class at a community college or hire a tutor in order to improve your verbal and writing skills.
Making fun of you is rude and humiliating. If you could inject some humor into your response, it could ease the tension. You also might want to go up the ladder and take the high road. Start by once a week bringing in fresh baked goods, such as pastries, cookies, cupcakes or scones and pass them around at the coffee break. Nice chocolates are also a hit. Another thing to do is to gently compliment a different person every day about something. Whether it is praising them on the way they handled a problem or how they resolved an issue. Acknowledging that you admire their soft skills will show them that you value their support because you're looking for mentors. 
On a more superficial level, you could start by simply saying, "I like the color of your blouse," or "That's such a pretty necklace." People like to be praised and complimented. If you praise them for their skills and compliment them from time to time they will do the same to you. In a work culture you have to earn respect. You cannot assume it will be given to you without hard effort on your part. Work on your own soft skills. Go out of your way to be pleasant. In other words, you have to win a place to be part of "the girls." You should be fine.
One last thing about soft skills. You say you work in client services and you're not communicating clearly, which means you need to practice speaking slower and being more articulate by saying your words more clearly. Work on improving your grammar and punctuation. Speak and write in complete sentences. Listen carefully to all criticism and self-correct.  ~Didi

Taking your fiancée to your ex-wife's brother's funeral  

Dear Didi,
My ex-brother-in-law died and I am engaged to be married to a new partner. My children, who are all adults, do not want me to attend with my new partner as they say it will upset their mother. My new partner would like to go as she hasdmet my ex-brother-in-law and his wife. My 2 sons and daughter have threatened never to see me again if I go with my new partner. Although I had a good relationship with my ex-brother-in-law, I feel staying away is the best solution. What do you think. L.S.
Dear L.S.,
I think you should listen to what your family and former family are trying to tell you. If you attend, don't bring your fiancée. His funeral is not about socializing. Relatives of your former brother-in-law are in deep mourning and you don't want to trivialize their emotions by disregarding their requests. This is not the time for your fiancée to schmooze with your former family. A happier occasion, such as a wedding, bridal shower or birthday party, would be a more appropriate setting in which she could get to know your children and former family. This is not that window of opportunity. It would be in bad taste to show up, at this point in time, with your fiancée when you know she wouldn't be welcomed. ~Didi

Wedding étiquette for second wives

Dear Didi,

I am a divorcée marrying a widower. When I divorced I legally changed my name back to my maiden name. My fiancé has a 23-year-old daughter who is not pleased about her dad remarrying. Her mother died tragically and suddenly five years ago. I have decided not to take my fiancé's name when we marry, as his daughter is used to having her mother addressed as Mrs. Atwood, and I do not want to compound her misery. However, I want people to know and recognize that I am married. What form of address could accomplish this? Could I use Mrs. with my first name and maiden name? Or should I use Ms. with my maiden name but sign formal things as Mrs. groom's first name, groom's last name?  What is the étiquette when marrying a widower in terms of the second wife's title and form of address?  S.G.

Dear S.G.,

Be yourself. Be who you are. If you want to call yourself Mrs. John Jacob Atwood, then do so. Forget the daughter. She will move on. It is more awkward having you kowtow to her. You can be kind to her in other ways. You'll soon be married to her father and she's got to deal with that fact for the rest of her life, so don't pussy foot around the issue. You are marrying her father. She will get used to the idea when she discovers how truly wonderful you are.  ~Didi

Dress code white pantsuits in late summer  

Dear Didi,
Is it appropriate to wear a white pantsuit to an evening business affair in late summer? Christina, Manhattan
Dear Christina,
If the pantsuit is well-made and still looking fresh, you can wear it until Labor Day and you'll be tres chic and tres fabulous. ~Didi

Mass card for former lover

Dear Didi,
I was with a fella who died a few weeks ago and I went to the funeral but I don't know if it would be weird to send a mass card to his family. I only met his brother officially a couple of times. Its something we do in my family when someone dies, but I don't know if I should send one to his family. What do you think?  E.C., South Dartmouth, MA
Dear E.C.,
If he was a Catholic, then go with your gut feeling and send a mass card. If they are not Catholic, then send a condolence card to the family member you know, his brother. ~Didi
Do you have a question? Email it to [email protected] or visit her at If we use your question, we can withhold your name and address. Didi researches étiquette and all matters of manners for her book,"Newport Étiquette." Prior weekly GoLocalProv columns are listed below. More topics can be accessed through a search.

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