Advice for How to Handle Comments about Your Age at Work
I recently ran a training workshop about gender-related communication issues, but the conversation turned to age—not gender—after the workshop was over. Three young women standing near me expressed their aggravation.
“People comment on my age, all the time. It’s like, all right already, so I’m young. Plus I’m short, so that only emphasizes my age too. It’s not even an option for me not to wear heels—I’m going to be wearing heels the rest of my life.”
“I know, and then they’re amazed if I know something that was part of their history. Like, yeah, I know that song.”
“It’s like they think we’re clueless just because we’re young.”
It made me pause. I counsel professional women to listen for “guy speak” that can be used to push women out of the group and make them feel unwelcome. Sometimes guys will use bad language and then apologize to the woman, implying that he has to change the way he talks because she is there and she is different. Could old people be capable of this kind of antagonism toward young people? Being an old person, I suspect so.
“I’ve been thinking about this, and I think you’re right,” I write to one of the women. “The dark side could be that someone is trying to dismiss you or trivialize you, particularly if they choose to make these comments in front of others, indicating they are threatened by your youth.”
Okay, now that you’ve identified a bad actor—what can you do about it?
I often turn to humor in situations like this when you need to make a point, but you want to do it in a nice way. Perhaps you could develop a couple of light-hearted comments, so that you can stay in the discussion and not be made to feel self-conscious about your age. Here are a few suggestions:
“Oh, I just look young.” This turns the antagonism on its head by gently reminding everyone that youth is generally considered a positive attribute.
“Ha, I’ve got you fooled, don’t I?” This implies that the old person has under-estimated whom they’re up against and should reconsider before trying that tactic again.
“I’ve just been reincarnated as a young person. In my former life, I was actually quite old.” This comment is an indirect way to tell people that talking about age is irrelevant anyway. It’s experience and knowledge that counts.
And finally, for a repeat offender: “Well, Thomas Edison said maturity is often more absurd than youth.” I suspect someone listening will say, “Well, that’s true!” And you will have made your point. Even if someone is remarking on your age mindlessly, it’s worth communicating that it’s inappropriate—just as you don’t point out how old they are.
Copyright © 2012 Jennifer K. Crittenden
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