Grumpy Secretaries

Why are secretaries so grumpy? As a former secretary, I know the job isn’t glamorous or ultra rewarding, but part of the job is to be welcoming and perky, so why are so many secretaries failing at this?  I know why my previous secretary job inspired grumpiness (his name was BOSS), but I didn’t let that get in the way of helping people who came to my desk.

Photo by Evan Bench, Nice Reception people at DICE in Stockholm, from Wikimedia Commons

Okay, that’s a lie.  I was grumpy, too, but only to certain people.  There was the older guy with wild blue eyes and a drooling smile.  He delivered the big packages from the mail room.  He’d use this as an excuse to come around my desk and get close.  I was grumpy to him.  After I complained about his invasion of my personal space, he eventually stopped coming.  No, he wasn’t fired, but should have been, in my opinion.  The mail room started sending somebody else to deliver the packages.

There was also the guy who did get fired for this sort of behavior.  I worked one summer as a temporary receptionist while my husband had an internship in San Francisco.  I loved the people I worked with.  They were upbeat, kind, and welcoming, and the men were fatherly.  However, this guy, a young jerk, began coming around my desk and touching me!  Yes, touching me.  Once, I was hunched over some project on my desk, and he leaned over the high counter in front and stroked my hair.  Yuck!  This all happened AFTER he had asked me out and I had made it clear that I was not interested and that I was unavailable.  I had just gotten married, for Pete’s sake.

I also frequently had to deal with copy machine problems.  Usually, the paper would get jammed or the staples would run out.  Occasionally, I had to change the toner cartridge.  Once, said cartridge exploded.  On me.  On my beautiful clothing.  On the machine.  On the carpet.  It was quite the mess.  I was grumpy that day.

I also lost interest in being bright and happy on days when my boss would yell at me.  I don’t like to be yelled at, and my reaction to it is to cry.  I usually did this in the bathroom.  I had to, for he had made it clear that crying was unprofessional.  I agree.  But it’s hard not to when you do your very best and still get reprimanded.  I felt that I worked hard, performed efficiently, and rarely made mistakes.  Yet those few times I did mess up, I got the authoritative talk.  That made me grumpy.

There’s also the situations in which a receptionist gets torn between two tasks.  I had been warned to never leave the phones, yet another employee, a senior employee, asked me to copy some blueprints for him.  I knew that I couldn’t leave the phone, but was I supposed to say “no” to this urgent request?  I got reprimanded for choosing to help somebody.  I felt helpless that day, and grumpy.

Those are the reasons I got grumpy as a secretary.  However, I am unsure why the next two secretaries I will tell you about are grumpy.

I encountered the first one when I entered her reception office smiling and in need of assistance.  I can’t remember what I needed, but I am pretty sure it had to do with my school-aged daughter.  I stood at the desk, patiently waiting, while this secretary just ignored me.  He eyes were glued to the computer, and perhaps what was happening there was important, but surely she could have acknowledged me and said something like, “I’ll be with you in just a moment.”  No.  Then, when she did speak to me, she did not look at me, smile, or make any sort of effort to pretend that I was a human being.  At the end of our exchange, I brightly thanked her.  She grunted and ignored me again.  Hmmph!

Public domain photo from Wikimedia Commons

My frustration over grumpy secretaries recently came to a head.  I spent each morning last semester entering a low-traffic area to make copies for my classes.  The machine stood behind the secretary’s desk, and she was always helpful, but not talkative or open.  She never smiled, and would not acknowledge me unless I spoke to her first.  I began to feel invisible as I walked by each morning, and I stopped saying hello to her.  I had given up.  If she wanted to be grumpy, let her!

Well, a few weeks ago, I went to make some copies for my upcoming summer class.  I took my two-year-old with me and worried that we would annoy this secretary.  To my surprise, as soon as we walked in, she smiled.  I explained to her that I had a lot of copies to make and apologized for the presence of my little rascal.  She assured me it was no problem and began playing with my daughter!  She gave her candy, played peek-a-boo, and kept reassuring me that her presence was no bother.  I was flabbergasted.

As we left, I made a remark about how I had hopefully made all of my copies for the semester.  I told her how I was teaching a night class and that I wouldn’t have time to come in beforehand to make copies.  It was then that she offered her email address and told me to email anything to her that I had forgotten.  She would make the copies and put them in my box.

I realized that I had been misjudged, something I am guilty of all the time.  And perhaps I had misjudged her, too.  I think she had assumed I was a young, annoying, brisk, uppity woman who taught classes and felt myself better than her, although I clearly had less experience.  I am mistaken for being very young all the time.  It is a curse that will hopefully be a blessing someday.  When I am with the teenage girls in my neighborhood for church activities, I am constantly mistaken for one of them, even by people who are younger than me.

However, I think that by bringing in my toddler with me, this secretary realized that I was older than she thought and that we had some common ground.  She told me of her granddaughter who is the same age.  Being a mother gave me some clout with her, and I am glad for that.  I am ecstatic to have found that there is a person past the grumpiness.

And maybe that’s my mistake:  not seeing the person behind the frown.  We all have bad days, and we should all try harder to make other people’s days better.  The next time I encounter a grumpy secretary, I will remember how I feel when I’m misjudged and try a little harder to swallow my pride, to forget about taking offense, and to try to make someone’s day brighter.  I need to stop misjudging these grumpy secretaries and start seeing them as people to be loved.  After all, I know exactly what it’s like to be sitting in that chair.

34 thoughts on “Grumpy Secretaries

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  1. A good comortable chair, only one (has to be reasonable) boss, clear non conflicting tasks, decent office facilities – apart from allowing a person to keep their good humour, it gets the work done best. Not everyone gets all of these though. In the absence of decency, human nature dictates that priase goes upwards, poo goes downwards.

  2. This is a great post. I’m sorry that you got harassed as a secretary. Yikes! I have to remind myself often not to judge servers, secretaries, sales people, etc. who are grumpy because I am often quite grumpy as a barista. And I know what it is like to be misjudged. I am talked down to (and sometimes harassed) at Starbucks because many customers are simply self-centered and others exhibit ageism against young adults. Many think that because they have “real” jobs and I’m “just” a barista, they can be disrespectful. They don’t recognize that I’m a married woman trying to start my own business, but even if I wanted my career to be in coffee, they need to be respectful. Very sad. But I’m guilty of it as well and this is a great reminder to practice more empathy.

    1. Yes! Empathy. We do tend to judge people based on perceived station, yet we really shouldn’t. Everybody has dignity, no matter what job they do, and we should afford them that.

  3. I agree with you. I started my professional career in education as a secretary. I tried to be as good-natured as possible, but it was sometimes very tough. I think what irritated me the most was when people thought that because I was “just a secretary” that meant I was a completely incompetent human being. I still had an education and a brain, but people seemed to think I must have only finished the 3rd grade. I now have moved up the corporate ladder and always try to be as nice as possible to our secretaries and hope that my kindness will be contagious.

    1. I hate the talking down and looking down that people do. I had a college degree, was more educated than some of my superiors, but I still had to work my way up. Experience is important too, but we can be nice to people while they are paying their dues! Thanks for sharing your experience!

      1. Ok. You got me thinking. Bus drivers are near top of list. Taxi drivers. Screenwriters…. Well, this is a subject that requires more work. Maybe, when I’m in a better mood……

    1. And I wasn’t arguing that secretaries are grumpier than others. I was arguing that we should be more kind to people even when they aren’t kind back, and in my experience, that happens to be secretaries, but it could be anybody.

      1. That’s a very radical position: being kind to everybody. I’ll have to think about it. Maybe when I’m in a better mood….(just kidding here)

  4. Having worked as a secretary and a cashier in the past has made me thin twice about getting frustrated with them, even if they are being grumpy. I try to make eye contact, use their name, smile, etc. But sometimes, especially if it is the same grumpy person over and over, it is really hard not to get irritated. Be grumpy with me once and fine, I try to make you seem like a real person to me and possibly make you smile too. Be grumpy with me 50 times and I may go out of my way to lodge a complaint. 🙂

  5. Dear Emily,
    This was a great post.
    I, too am guilty of misjudging people.
    This is a great reminder.
    P>S> I was just shuddering when you talked about the two creepy men. I just had one of those ON MY BLOG. He didn’t touch me..but it was just as creepy. I wrote a poem about him. ANd made it my blog post.
    I think he got the message.
    Yes I judged him.
    it was a good judgement call.

  6. I love this! I work as a PA and definitely find it hard some days to smile. I do my best to be helpful and support where I can but some days if feels like a never-ending battle to keep of top of everything. I remember telling some people in the office that I had a degree, and they seemed shocked. I assumes the though PAs do not have brains, and best at filing way paper and fixing the printer!! I love the fact also, that when your boss is having a bad day, its all your fault! Taking it out on me won’t solve your problems!

    1. I can’t believe people assume that you don’t have a brain. Everybody has to start somewhere, even with a degree. Keep your chin up! Someday, you’ll be the angry boss. 🙂

  7. Hmmm…a few thoughts on this. Firstly, crying may be unprofessional, but so is yelling at your employees. What an appalling boss. And your sexual harassment stories make me cringe – the hair-touching is so disgusting. I once had to put up with the owner of the cafe where I got my first job standing behind me and bringing his arms round to ‘show me how to make the paninis’. I was too young to realise I didn’t have to put up with it.

    Regarding the grumpiness, everyone should be made aware of the studies which prove that behaviour is contagious – so grumpiness breeds grumpiness, but courtesy really does generally breed courtesy.

    And finally, in partiular ref to the final secretary, her suddenly being nice does *not* excuse her earlier behaviour to you. In a way I think it makes it worse, because by your account you had done nothing to deserve it. Small-mindlessness is small-mindedness, even if you are a grandmother.

    Sorry for another novel! But this made me cross – esp as even online you come across as so lovely.

    1. Putting his arms around you to teach you how to make paninis? That is so yucky. Ewww. Yes, you’re right that the last woman still isn’t excused. I am trying with her, and have been for a while. I am just glad to have made some progress, but it is unfair the way she ignored me for so long. Maybe my courtesy has been rubbing off on her! I can only hope. Thanks for saying that I seem lovely. I do try. That made my day!

  8. Sitting in front of clients, patients or any kind of service user, with no real privacy, subject to their frustration, impatience or glaring eyes, days on end, week after week is hard. Being stuck in the cross-fire no matter who started the problem, your boss or the client, is also hard. I’ve had a few secretaries and never had any problems. I followed the one rule that should never be broken with people who work for you: “Never ask someone to do something that you are not willing to do yourself”. Be it extra hours to meet deadlines, making fresh coffee for everyone, putting a new roll of toilet paper in the patients waiting room, coming up with “excuses” to defer payments, or dealing with complicated people over the phone, you have to do it all yourself first. All the secretaries I’ve worked with have seen me take the flak head on, and the more they got to know me the more willing they were to spare me difficult or tedious chores. And of course, “please” and “thank you” are never out of place.
    I have also met some very grumpy secretaries, especially in public offices, but I never felt responsible towards them in any way beyond civilized interaction. Except, now that I remember, for that one time when I was younger and a secretary really annoyed me but I could not risk annoying her. I was ordered to take a seat and wait with the other people there who looked like they had been waiting for ages. I took a seat and what I did next was dial her desk phone from my mobile and as soon as she would pick up the handset I’d hang up. I started doing this while holding the mobile in my trouser pocket, pressing redial at will, being particularly persistent when she had to go out for one thing or another, wanting her to come back in a hurry. I waited for nearly three hours in that foyer, reading and rereading and old newspaper and going unnecessarily over the papers I had to present to her boss. It was a very long and frustrating afternoon for both of us; I must have called and hanged up on her more than thirty times. Now, I just try and remember to have a good book with me in case I have a long wait ahead.

    1. Oh my goodness! You are so funny and so very very mean. I am sitting in a place right now where I can’t make any noise, and I am having trouble holding in my laughter! I will have to try calling over and over the next time I get frustrated with a receptionist.

      But more seriously, I like what you say about never asking them to do anything you wouldn’t do yourself. I bet you are a wonderful boss. I wish I had worked for you.

      1. Thanks, I smiled too; and trying to be a decent boss comes from having had a couple of very great ones. Cheers.

  9. Ooooo such a pet peeve of mine… and such grumpiness seems to always be allowed to run rampant in every office. I suspect most administrative assistants (who ideally are focused, organized, orderly, and precise) become grumpy when forced to also provide customer service and serve as a receptionist (who ideally are friendly, warm, helpful, and adaptable) and vice versa. These are two impossibly different personality types and functions.

  10. I once got fired from a job for not smiling enough (I was 16 and full of teenage angst and insecurities). It was in a shop, not as a receptionist or secretary, but I have never been good at customer service. That’s why I like working with children they don’t judge you 🙂

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