Peggy from Mad Men
Peggy Olsen in Mad Men (Photo: AMC)

“Stop Being So Defensive!” and Other Awful Things That Have Been Said to Me at Work

“Toughen up, it’s advertising.”

My first boss said this to me abruptly and without apology. We sat in his office, which smelled of days-old stale cigarette smoke. It was my first week on the job.

This was going way back — back to the days in the professional world when you could smoke in the office (we’re not talking Mad Men, just the mid-90s), and the human resource department got a good night’s sleep (i.e. employees handled their own issues; seldom did they go to HR). Being green and accepting all advice, my cynicism toward the industry had not yet reared its ugly head.

As the newbie right out of college, I was expected to deal with the more mundane — yet still dangerous — tasks: ordering lunch for people who changed their minds a hundred times (“Should I get the wheat bread because it’s healthier? Nah, I’ll have white. No wait, just get me the wheat.”), along with driving to Newark Airport on a Friday night at 10pm to make the FedEx delivery in time.

Over the years, I was accused (and guilty of ) the mortal sin of those who work in high-profile office: Being too sensitive. I’m proud of this trait now, but back then, it served me absolutely no good.

At work, the words “defensive” and “sensitive” are sometimes intertwined. But both are not welcomed when you’re trying to advance your career. And sometimes, being a ballsy woman and strongly making your case can label you as both. Let me give you an example that just might make you cringe.

In advertising, there are two types of people to deal with each day: the internals and the clients, both of whom have accused me of being too sensitive.

I had a pseudo-intellectual boss that would always run out the door at 5pm because he had to pick up his child from after-school activities. I was constantly burning the midnight oil since I was conscientious and didn’t have a high-ranking title yet; this was just how it went and was the way you paid your dues. This was also the same boss who let his incompetent “favorites” leave work in the middle of the day for suspicious-sounding doctors’ appointments, when in reality they were probably buying candles at Whole Foods. You know the type.

I had been working crazy hours and on weekends because I was cleaning up a colleague’s messy project that never got off the ground. I was exhausted and looked like absolute hell. And then it happened: during a status meeting to discuss this mess of a project, my boss noticed the overwhelmed, upset look on my face and yelled at me in front of a room full of colleagues: “You WILL stay here until 2AM to get THIS PROJECT DONE!” He then stormed out of the room.

I was stunned, angry, and of course, upset. It took every bone in my body not to walk after him and scream back, asking him what gives him the right to treat someone that way.

But alas, I did not, and when he reappeared, a little more calm and collected, he still called me “too sensitive” for being upset about the state of the project. Acting like a human being is apparently never the right way to go in this industry.

Then there was the one client who I nicknamed “The Devil.” She would always make snide remarks about the timing of the work she received from my team, even though we had met each and every deadline. After months and months of these exchanges, I was pushed to the limit. I calmly called the client out on her remarks, and she responded with, “Well, you’re just too defensive.”

Needless to say, the same boss I described above decided to save his own ass and instead of being loyal to his employee (i.e. me), he sided with the client. My tenure with the ad agency ended soon after and I resolved never to work for or with people who treated me, or anyone else, that way again. And I haven’t done so since that moment.

Now, I feel truly, unbelievably free. My professional life as a copywriter and editor is completely different. I took the opportunity to go back and focus on being creative (my true love) — then continued along that path, and haven’t looked back or regretted a second of it.

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