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Monday, May 4, 2009

male team won't talk to me

A reader writes:

I am a female (in my thirties) working within a team of men (IT developers). I am a new role for me as a business analyst. I have been working in the team for approximately 6 months, and if they didn't say hello to me in the morning, they wouldn't speak to me at all. They speak fine to each other, often joking around, but spend the rest of the time with headphones on while they do their work.

I've tried initiating conversation with them. They respond well, but they don't initiate conversation with me. For example: I need to ask them how their weekends were, they won't ask me the same question. It is like pulling teeth. I am not sure what I am doing wrong.

I am frustrated that I cannot get to know these guys. They go to lunch with each other at least once a week and I am not invited. I am really not sure how to break the ice and get these guys talking and communicating with me. I have mentioned this to my manager (who I used to work with in another position) but he cut from a very similar cloth as the guys I am trying to get to know.

Warning: I'm about to make a wild generalization. Many men who work in IT don't have great social skills around people who aren't like them and/or aren't comfortable with the kind of small talk and chit chat that can be normal social currency in other groups.

Many men in IT don't fit this profile -- in fact, I've somehow ended up with an IT team who don't fit this stereotype at all (and if they're reading this, I don't want them to think I'm talking about them because I'm not). But for whatever reason, the field certainly attracts a decent share of guys who get along really well with guys who are like them, but not so easily with others. (Here are a couple of interesting takes on this.)

So I'd caution you against thinking that this is deliberate or about you. I think it's more likely that this is just how these guys are with everyone except other developers and they don't even know they're making you feel shut out.

What can you do to build relationships with them? Pay attention to what interests them (probably not small talk about their weekends, but try technical topics); ask them intelligent questions about complex subjects they know well, and listen to their answers; and don't take it personally if it takes a while.

Also, read The Nerd Handbook (his term, not mine) over at Rands in Repose, written by an engineering manager.

What do others think?

24 comments:

Henning Makholm said...

For example: I need to ask them how their weekends were,Spoken as an IT developer: Why on earth do you need to ask that question? Are you somehow responsible for collecting information about the weekendly doings of your colleagues?

they won't ask me the same question. It is like pulling teeth.That sounds uncomfortable, for the teeth-pullee in particular. Are they responsible for collecting information about your weekendly doings? Or, if there is something about your weekend that you think would interest them, why not just say it instead of waiting to be asked? Do you expect them to know, telepathically, that you have something you want to tell about your weekend?

They go to lunch with each other at least once a week and I am not invited.Did they explicitly tell you to stay away when you asked if you could join them, or are you passively waiting for them to invite you? In hacker culture, it would be impolite of them to invite you, unless they are reasonably certain that their lunch conversations won't bore you out of your skin. Conversely, if you take the initiative, that's fine, because then you own the risk of being bored yourself.

Anonymous said...

Those are great resources, and very entertaining reads.

I just wanted to add again that, as AAM pointed out, these are all very broad generalizations. As a young software developer myself, I have noticed that there are a wide variety of teams and personalities within those teams (just like in any profession).

This being said, I think Henning has a good point in that maybe you should take the initiative and ask to come. I'd jump at the chance to get to know the business analyst I'll be working with. I'd bet you anything there's at least a couple developers on the team with the same opinion.

Anonymous said...

You can generalize that statement for either gender that works with IT.

As a female in IT I never experienced more drama than when an non-IT female started working in the cube next to me. One minute I'm listening to music and coding - the next minute I'm in an office because I've hurt her feelings because she expected me to chit-chat, giggle and be some sort of touchy feely cube-mate. It wasn't enough I looked up from the screen and acknowledged her the way I do everyone, with a big smile and nod.

About 75% of the time your IT folks are there because even though we can interact well with people (in a pinch) we really prefer not to. You need to know the culture of the department you are entering before pushing your preconceived "norm" on them.

Instead - buy some cool action figures or cube toys from thinkgeek.com and place them on a shelf in your cube -- and the IT nerds will come to you. And there's won't be that awkward superficial chitchat (which wastes coding time).

Beth Robinson said...

My first thought was Henning's third comment. Don't wait for them to invite you. Many people, male and female, just don't think about it. It takes extra effort for them to do the "make the new person feel welcome" thing. I know I learned it as a skill!

Ask them if you can join them for lunch. Don't over explain. Don't just gush. Just ask if they'd mind and then go with them and participate a little bit. After the first time, just go. Assume the yes answer is blanket unless they indicate otherwise.

Also, sometimes men are uncomfortable asking a female colleague to a meal, not because they don't want them there, but because visions of sexual harassment dance in their heads...

I also completely agree with Ask a Manager's advice.

Just Another HR Lady said...

How do they interact with you on a professional level when you are working? I'm guessing that they include you in work discussions in the same manner as they do everyone else?

Our developer team is a bunch of really great people, but for the most part they just aren't interested in personal "chit chat" conversation, and we don't force them to do so. As with anyone that you're working with, it's just about understanding the personalities that you are working with and going with the flow. If I could sit down and have a lively chat about C++ or agile vs waterfall (I can't), I'm sure that they would be happy to talk for hours with me.

If you really feel the need for chit-chat, try to engage them on a techie level. In terms of the lunches, I would agree with Henning, your team may not even be thinking that you would be interested, you're probably going to have to invite yourself if you're really feeling the need to join them.

I read a great book a few years ago called "Leading Geeks", I would recommend it for any managers in a tech industry.

Anonymous said...

+1 on the thinkgeek.com suggestion!
(i.e. I second that motion)

Also, totally agree w/ Henning. As an ex-coder, I have to put a tremendous effort into caring about other people's weekends, even when they ask me first.

I'd really just rather be working...

Rebecca said...

So male IT guys don't communicate like female business managers. It doesn't mean they hate you or something's wrong with them. You probably think you're just being friendly and personable, and that they have no reason to shut you out when you're just trying to be nice. They probably think you're being nosy for no reason, and are wondering why you keep interrupting them when they're trying to mind your own business. Small talk just isn't how IT people socialize. It's cultural, not personal, so instead of taking it personally, try a different tack. Bring up something you read in tech news and ask what they think. Ask how the restaurant around the corner from the office is. And wait until it looks like they're taking a break to ask these things.

Charles said...

And all of this is impacting work how?

Sorry to be so blunt. But this sounds like "Mom, the older kids won't play with me."

So, I will say it again - And all of this is impacting work how?

IT staff are often stereo-typed as geeks because in the work world they are often seen as the Other. What they do is so mysterious that they clearly are different. So we can make any generalizations that we want to make about them.Although I think the same can be said about HR staff I won't hold my breath to see any "wild generalizations" about female HR staff.

I think it also helps that many IT professionals are white males and so they are fair game for making fun of in the US. Most people wouldn't think of stereo-typing other groups.

Henning Makholm said...

I would caution against rushing out to buy something random from thinkgeek.com to provoke coworker attention. If you find something that resonates with you and that you think is cool, go right ahead. But if it's just because the coworkers will probably like it, forget it.

First, it is insultingly stereotyping to assume that just because someone is a tech types, a random thinkgeek item will rate more than "feh" on their personal scale.

Second, it would amount to pretending to be something you're not. That pretense will show, and such pretense, in itself, is a major dealbreaker for many hackers.

Anonymous said...

There *is* one more possibility... if the socializing that these guys enjoy at lunch involves a little bit of off color humor (something that they may see as harmless) they may be worried about a female "narcing" on them to HR -- we're always told we will never know who is offended by what... so in the extreme, why risk it? Especially when guys are guilty until proven innocent when it comes to that kind of thing?

BTW, if a person I didn't know very well or wasn't very social asked me how my weekend was, I'd give them a very vague answer like "fine." And if I were pressed for details, I would really like to know what business it is of the asker. That would make *me* uncomfortable.

Ask a Manager said...

While it's true that it may not be impacting anyone's work, I think it's still a legitimate thing to want to figure out. It goes to quality of life at work, and that can matter hugely.

George Guajardo said...

This is a legitimate question: some of us want to be reasonably liked by the people we work with. That involves the occasional chit-chat and lunch invite.

I agree with Ask a Manager, this is not likely about you. It really is most likely a function of groupiness... they have a group, you are not in it and it probably never occurs to anyone to change that.

It sounds like the person submitting the question wants to change that, at least a little bit. Again, there is nothing wrong with this. But you aren't going to do it by appealing to the things you like. You must appeal to the things they like. Read a computer magazine and ask them something intelligent about one of the articles. Odds are high they have an opinion about it. Once you get them talking, listen to what they have to say and contribute accordingly. Over time, you will find yourself slipping into the group.

And by the way, the thinkgeek thing doesn't always work. I bought some office chimps for a coworker's Secret Santa present. I have never seen a more polite "huh?"

Anonymous said...

I work for a tech company and I don't find it strange that the IT guys aren't really interested in talking feelings/weekend plans with the newb. If you push them hard enough, an even more uncomfortable situation will arise.

Get to know your team before you start assuming that they don't like you or that there's something "wrong." Their behavior is the cultural norm for them (and pretty much, industry wide). If you want to invite yourself to lunch, I doubt they'll say no, but it'll just be uncomfortable for everyone. You push with more questions, they answer with vague responses. How about just cooling it for a bit and focusing on work? I know the importance of wanting to feel like part of the team, but take it slow and maybe accept that these aren't going to be your pals that you go out for drinks with?

jadoescher said...

This is something that has to be gotten used to. I am a young male in IT that came from outside IT (education) and at first I noticed exactly what this Business Analyst noticed. At first I thought it was strange, and maybe even that I had somehow caused this seemingly unwelcoming behavior, but in time I came to understand and embrace it. It's not personal at all. Most of these guys are actually very nice and just want to live their lives and work without being bothered. They are used to being the subject of ridicule for their geeky interests and hobbies by people who aren't like them. If they someone outside their world what they did over the weekend (most likely techie activities) the other person might scoff or laugh. Just show up everyday and get good at whatever technology you are working with and they will eventually treat you with respect. If you want to keep trying to socialize, just engage them in brief, non intrusive, friendly small talk or ask them techie questions. Goes over great.

jadoescher said...

Forgot to add in the last post that plenty of the dudes at my company are not so reclusive and can be pretty awesome to talk to about techie topics or anything else.

Anonymous said...

"If they someone outside their world what they did over the weekend (most likely techie activities) the other person might scoff or laugh."

Yeah. Sometimes I do nothing veg on a Saturday. I need it. I just like to relax without any outside intrusions.

But, I don't want to tell you about it, because I don't need forlorn "I'm sorry" looks. Why? I'm not sorry. I don't need sympathy or pity, because I'm doing what I like to do.

Anonymous said...

I am a female IT Director (12 years in IT management) and I agree with Alison. Men in IT don't always have the greatest social skills and tend to be introverts.

When I hire I like to have a nice mix of different types of people, I notice if I end up with all introverts it makes it very difficult to work effectively as a team. Hiring women and more extroverted/customer service oriented resources along with the introverts helps balance things out on a team dynamics level.

When it comes to fitting in you need to find some common interests - they love it when you 'nerd out' with them. I like to come in with some new techno-geek gadget and let them show me how to use it. Send them articles you find on the web, a great conversation starter, they love to give their expert opinions.

The headphones are normal; they usually don't like to be bothered when they're focused on something, especially not for idle chit-chat. As for lunch ask if you can join them; don't wait to be invited. Good luck!

jadoescher said...

"I am a female IT Director (12 years in IT management) and I agree with Alison. Men in IT don't always have the greatest social skills and tend to be introverts."

This is an unfair generalization along the lines of saying that women don't always have good management or technical skills (in relation to men).

Neither generalization is true. I know just as many guys at my IT company who have good social skills as I do IT women with poor social skills, or men or women with poor skills of other types. Not a fair statement in the least.

Additionally, In some workplaces, the more social types can be irritating, distracting, distracted, and sometimes downright rude if you don't want to be BFFs with them right away.

Anonymous said...

I am the only female who works on a team of all male Techs in an escalated support group. I came from a Customer Service environment where everyone was really open and chatty and extroverted, and growing accustomed to working with people who are just less outwardly social in situations where they don't know you at all actually took some getting used to for me, but it can be done by simply interacting with people professionally at first.

My experience in my current environment is that generally (and it has taken a lot longer than in other positions) people will come around and become interested in talking to your personally. The weekend thing? It's just a really generic question to hear over and over again.

On another note, nobody seems to have pointed out that these guys do wear HEADPHONES all day, which from my perspective would decrease their inclination towards chit-chattiness in general since, you know, they can't hear anything...just a thought....

GeekChic said...

I'm a female that's worked in IT for eons and I would react to the poster just like her male colleagues. I'm here to work - not to engage in idle chatter. I also don't know you very well so why should I discuss my weekend with you?

My current co-workers (all male) will discuss current hobbies and projects - but that's because we all have our odd quirks and we're all comfortable harassing each other. Other women at my place of work say IT is a bit too rough for them... ;)

class-factotum said...

My husband is an engineer (in chip design software) who works from home. When he is working, he is working. He does not want to be bothered, even by me. It is not personal. It's just that he is at work and work is about work and not socializing. He goes upstairs and closes the door and I don't see him again until he comes down for lunch. There is no chit chat when we pass each other in the hall.

When he is not working, he does not want to talk about work. I ask him questions about his job (or, more specifically, about the client who is going through the sex change operation) and he doesn't want to discuss it. "That's work. I don't want to talk about it," he tells me.

I don't know if it's the personality type that is drawn to tech fields or what, but the stereotype certainly holds true in this case. He is intensely focused on his job and hates to be distracted.

Anonymous said...

"When it comes to fitting in you need to find some common interests - they love it when you 'nerd out' with them. I like to come in with some new techno-geek gadget and let them show me how to use it. Send them articles you find on the web, a great conversation starter, they love to give their expert opinions."

Wow, that sounds incredibly condescending to me.

You're wasting their time asking them about things it sounds like you don't have a real interest in, and they're wasting their time placating you.

If you want to stroke someone's ego, give them something meaningful to accomplish.

Susan said...

I don't get the impression from your description that these men are deliberately leaving you out. I'm female, work in science, and have been accused of doing these same things by those who work around me in other lines of work. I'm just not as social as they are. In fact, I wasn't even aware that I was "ignoring" other people for the longest time. I really wasn't ignoring them on purpose because I didn't like them. It is just how I am.

I think you should try to be more forward with these guys if you are feeling left out. When they are going to lunch, ask if you can go along too. They might just expect you to come along without an invitation.

I've been the only female at most of the jobs I've held, and this was the way things worked there. I now work with mostly women, and they have found my social skills a bit suspect in the past. Now that they know that I'm just the way that I am and I'm not trying to be rude, they're alright with it. I have stepped up my efforts to go out of my way and include my coworkers more, but it really does take effort on my part.

Maybe these guys aren't providing you with information about their weekends and family life because they don't think it is something you would be interested in. I don't really talk about what I did over the weekend or what happened to my children. I just don't think it makes stimulating conversation that another person would like to sit through. That doesn't mean that I mind hearing about others' family lives and weekend activities. I tend to talk mostly about scientific topics that I'm working on or have side interests in. I can see how other people would find that extremely boring too. Most people wouldn't like to hear me talking about metallurgy and what I read about metallurgy over the weekend.

I think what you're experiencing is simply due to the social norms of those you work with. If you're really uncomfortable, maybe you should think about working for a company with a culture that is known as outward and social.

You can't and shouldn't feel like people at work should socialize with you. When I'm at work, I'm there to focus and work. Despite liking others in my place of employment, chit-chat distracts from my ability to come up with new ideas and problem solve.

UnhappyEmployee said...

People in IT, from my experience, are intense about the work. They work long hours with little time to socialize. Most took a little time to get to know, but it was nothing personal.

My current group, IT-related, is the most odd group I have ever worked in, but I think it is due to some very bad managers, long work hours and the performance management system. It has taken me 4 years to break the "ice" barrier. It didn't much matter until recently as I was reporting to the one decent manager. Two of the horrible managers were demoted due to many complaints over the last couple of years from almost everyone in their groups. Unfortunately a third manager was missed, because people in her group did not take their concerns to upper management. There was a reorg to adjust for the loss of the two managers, and I was moved into her group. With the removal of the awful managers, the people are more friendly. There is common recognition that the current manager may not be the best, but the others are greatly relieved because the worst ones are gone.