It’s easy for us to be outraged these days.

I mean, true, there’s a lot to be outraged by. But it’s also easy to express our outrage in Facebook comments and anonymous replies to angry strangers where we can say, ‘NO, YOU’RE THE JERK” and feel satisfied that we didn’t use the word asswipe instead. Demonstrates some modicum of civility, yes? We have the pleasure of hindsight when we respond online and say things like, “You know what I would have said?” or respond from a compassionate distance to say, “I feel for this person.”

It’s so much easier to comment from far away.

But do you confront the outside world’s daily outrages? Could you do it with compassion and firmness? Not betraying your values but also not descending into asswipe territory?

I don’t think it’s that easy.

Especially when it’s someone you like, or liked up until that second they said something racist. Someone you trust. Someone who you don’t think is a total asshole . In circumstances that are challenging, would you confront an outrage if witnessed?

Michelle did.

She is a coworker of mine.

We’ve worked together for many years, but we don’t work in the same state, so it can be a year or three between our sightings. She’s in our company’s QA (Quality Assurance) department, which means she and her team review the software our team and other teams are building, try to break it, clean up our sloppy words, and sometimes have the dreaded task of saying, “I don’t really get this piece.” It’s their job to raise the flag on anything that’s not functional, inappropriate, or questionable.

I got an email from Michelle last week.

The contents shocked me.

With a professional tone and language, Michelle very courteously told me that she and a coworker had come upon a QA comment I had made some months ago. They discussed it. Michelle decided to address it, because it was so very inappropriate. “It’s not the swearing that offends me,” she said in her email.

I hadn’t actually remember the offending QA comment I made, so my eyebrows were pretty high over my head in disbelief.

What had I said?

She provided a link to the offending comment but due to the space-time continuum (that’s the short version), the link didn’t work. I had checked work email from home, so I couldn’t see the actual QA comment until I got to my work computer, later that day.

I continued to read.

Michelle explained how it was very unprofessional to call out a colleague with such disrespect as I had done in the comment. She urged me to remember that whoever’s words I had criticized with my comment, that person was a coworker, someone we value, someone on our team. They deserved our respect and if that person had made a mistake, then certainly our compassion.

What the hell had I said?

With great heart, Michelle pointed out that she had always thought of me as a very compassionate person and she couldn’t believe I would treat someone this way.

We’re Facebook friends (one of the few coworkers I friended outside the office) and she has read my fiction. She’s an author, too. She first introduced me to National Novel Writing Month. Politically, we both lean left, so we can bitch together. We think Obama got the shaft and we’re angry about it.

She’s political outside Facebook. She’s knows every senator and most house of representatives, in her state and nationally. She writes thoughtful opinion pieces. She advocates for social justice causes in the real world. It was years before I realized her two sons were adopted because they are not really adopted to Michelle and her husband. It’s simple. They are family.

And now she was standing up to me.

Michelle urged me to think of other strategies for communication and gave me a few ways I could have explained my frustration (minus the f-word) with how the original writer crafted the instructions.

It was a longish email, carefully considered, and I was mystified how and why I could say something so horrible to cause her such upset.

I can be harsh sometimes. I know that. But what the fuck did I say?

Was my account hacked and another coworker was playing a joke on me? We tend to joke around.

Had I experienced the worst day of my life and blocked it out of memory?

Michelle is patient and fair. She has to be. People are constantly telling her she was wrong to point out their software bugs and her job is to smile and nod and say, “I’ll do better next time. Thank you.” Even when she is right, she is the dreaded QA expert who finds flaws. It’s not an easy job.

I drove a little quickly to work.

After logging on, first thing I did was to click the link and see my exact words.

There they were, staring at me: “Existing instructions are just terrible. Seriously. Who the fuck wrote that nonsensical bullshit? Use these instead: Click…”

Wow. That was pretty mean.

But would I write something like that? Did I? Something that mean to a coworker? Could I–

I remembered to look at the date the comment was made. Light bulb. From Michelle’s email, I got the impression the comment I made was from many months ago. Many months ago, I had been on a half-dozen different projects. I couldn’t remember which might have driven me to be such an, well, asswipe. But the date of this comment was only January 2015. I had misunderstood – this comment was recent.

And then. Light bulb.

Because I remembered which coworker this comment was directed at: me.

I wrote the original instructions for a computer interaction we built. Two week later, when I reviewed the software, performing my own QA, I reread my own instructions and they seemed like gibberish to me. So I made a QA comment and insisted they be rewritten. I provided the rewrite, but first I chastized myself:  Who the fuck wrote that nonsensical bullshit?

I was bad-mouthing my own words.

Michelle both stood up to me and also protected me, though neither of us realized I was the victim as well as the bully. Maybe she’s skilled at addressing conflict as a result of parenting two sons. Maybe her unapologetic respect and compassion is grown from years debating politics with friends. I don’t know.

I wrote her, greatly relieved, and explained that the original writer was me and I thought my developer pals would laugh at my comment when they got into the software to update the instructions. We live for small funnies like that.

Michelle was then flooded with relief because she couldn’t believe she had to call me out the way she did, and the whole situation upset her. We laughed the way you’re permitted via email, exchanging LOLs at the end of sentences.

After a few emails updating each other on politics and writing, we went back to work.

But I was touched, very touched, by her actions that day. She stood up for me. She said, “Nobody can treat Edmond this way. Nobody. Not even someone I like and respect.” (She actually said in her original email that it was hard to confront me because “she liked and respected me.”) She was kind to the bully and unapologetic in representing the aggrieved.

But what if she never confronted me and just lived with the knowledge that I was an asswipe?

What if a client saw it, somehow?

Michelle and I agreed that I shouldn’t joke around like that in the QA software anymore, because of the rich potential for misunderstanding. Now that I think about it, I probably shouldn’t have done that.

But I learned another lesson from this experience, too.

Michelle will not tolerate meanness.

She will stand up to outrages and abuse. She will defend those who need defending.

And not just when it’s easy.



11 Responses to “Michelle”

  1. Helena Stone Says:

    What a great post. Food for thought indeed. And how lucky are you to have a colleague and friend like Michelle. 99% of the colleagues and managers I’ve ever worked with could do with taking a leaf out of her book. Thank you so much for sharing.

  2. Edmond Says:

    Thanks, Helena! Michelle and I are not best friends, (though I suspect if we lived in the same state and saw each other more often, we’d be closer). But I take great comfort in knowing she’s out in the world, trying to make it better.

  3. Julie Dirksen Says:

    Love everything about that story :)

  4. Jaycee Edward Says:

    Great story! Brings to mind several times when I’ve been in the awkward position of doing what’s right vs. calling out a friend. I’m sure Michelle agonized over that email.

  5. Beth Bellanca Says:

    Go Michelle!!! Excellent example of someone doing their job well! Taking ownership and taking action! She is certainly an asset to your company. I hope her superiors know that. Thanks for sharing.

  6. Fredi Says:

    Great and thought provoking story. As a QA manager myself, I often have to remind others to be tolerant of cultural and social differences of their co-workers. I hope I would stand up like Michelle did. A great lesson for us all – on both sizes of this equation!!

  7. Edmond Says:

    I would consider sharing this with them…but I don’t come across super-great in this story. Not the most professional thing in the world to admit to your boss, that you’re swearing up the work software. Heh.

  8. Edmond Says:

    Thanks, Julie! Wish you were around the office more for reminiscing.

  9. Edmond Says:

    You know, Jaycee, I bet she did. I would have.

  10. Sue Brown Says:

    I love two things about this. Michelle – you’re an awesome woman. Edmond, you took the time to check this out and feel bad about it. You’re awesome (although I knew that already).

  11. Edmond Says:

    Awww…Sue, thank you! And thanks for coming to read Michelle’s story. Well…one day of Michelle’s story.

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