Workplace Silence

“You don’t say no to me,” my colleague said in a thick drawl. “This isn’t over.”

The phone line went dead after the threat—his revenge to my rejection of his business proposal. I didn’t own or want a weapon, but that day I feared for my safety at work.

The muscles in my jaw tensed when I heard his footsteps in the hallway moments later. He used a roaring voice to announce his arrival outside my door. I remained seated at my desk and waited—for what, I wasn’t sure. A brawl in my sunny office? He barged in and slammed the door behind him.

“Who do you think you are?” he said. He was trembling with anger. “I need this deal to go through. I have a family.”

Unsure what to say, I held his gaze, silently pleading with him to understand my predicament. A chunk of his income was at stake, but his proposal was a serious money-loser for the company.

I leapt to my feet, meeting him eye to eye. “Why don’t you take a seat and let’s revise your proposal?” I said.

He rushed over and pushed me off balance. “I’m not changing anything, you black bitch!”

I flinched. The insult cut. It felt as if a thousand razorblades punctured my skin. But I didn’t have time to reel in shock or disappointment. I eyed my stapler, in case he charged at me again.

The tension between us had been building for weeks. Ever since I’d started my new job a few months before, he’d struggled to contain his resentment toward me. I had ignored his grumbling, snickering, and eye rolling—hoping the friction would pass—but this time he scared me. He was acting like Rambo.

“Get out.” I spoke through my teeth.

He looked stunned, as if I had whacked him on the head with a full sales binder. “You’d better watch yourself.” He jabbed his finger in the air, stressing his words. “I know where you park your car.”

I stood stone-faced, but I was terrified. I was an outsider in a new city, thirteen hundred miles away from family and friends. Since the ruckus on the floor didn’t attract curious or concerned onlookers, I knew I was on my own.

*     *     *

For the rest of the day, I kept imagining my colleague vandalizing my Honda. Different scenarios played through my mind. When I rose to leave, I panicked. Sundown came early in the fall, and the parking garage was a lengthy walk. I put my father on the speaker of my cellphone, unlocked my office door, and peeked out. Nothing. I sprinted in my heels toward the elevators. As if on cue, the doors whooshed open, and I hopped in, out of breath.

I was an outsider in a new city, thirteen hundred miles away from family and friends. Since the ruckus on the floor didn’t attract curious or concerned onlookers, I knew I was on my own.

My father’s voice boomed. “Are you okay? Who is this man?” He wasn’t happy about my recent move, believing single women shouldn’t live far away from their home base.

Please stop talking, I thought, hoping he would get the message and skip the lecture.

The elevator opened and I raced through the lobby, a corridor, the dimly lit garage. The blood drained from my face and thundered in my ears. I listened for footsteps and glanced behind me, to my right, to my left. No one. I approached my gold Honda. It was unharmed. I jumped in, locked the doors, and sped away in tears.

*     *     *

The next morning, I bumped into my colleague in an office breakroom. It was too soon. I was alone, stirring cream and sugar into my tea, when he walked in. My emotions were raw. Still, I refused to fall apart in his presence. Neither one of us spoke.

He stayed quiet but was visibly displeased. He leaned against a counter and glowered at me, showing zero remorse for nudging me or calling me out my name.

I’d do it again, his eyes said. This isn’t over.

I tried to turn away, but his withering glare drew me in. Why was he so bitter? Was it because I was a woman? A sister?

Regardless, I was the enemy, and we were at war. A war I didn’t know how to end.

*     *     *

“Ease up on the guy,” my manager said over the phone. It sounded like a warning.

I’d do it again, his eyes said. This isn’t over.

This manager wasn’t my biggest champion—he had wanted a different second-in-command—so I was surprised when he backed my decision to reject the proposal.

I clutched my receiver in annoyance. Why was I on the defensive?

“Did you try to work with him?” he asked.

“Yes.” I hesitated. A voice in my head told me to speak up and expose the incident. My manager deserved to hear the truth. I opened my mouth and nothing came out, not a squeak. The words dried up on my tongue.

“The guys are stressed,” he said. “Please be more supportive.”

*     *     *

In 2017, Telegraph Women created a list of twenty-five words used to describe working women in the UK. The references—all with negative connotations—also apply in the US. Seven of the adjectives jumped out at me: abrasive, bossy, shrill, ambitious, emotional, illogical, and bitchy (not to be confused with bitch). And, as a black woman, I must add the word “angry” because the world is full of us, right? The seven adjectives conveniently roll up under this larger term—angry—making it easy to paint black women as the bogeyman on every occasion.

A myth exists that the corporate world is full of human robots devoid of emotion. This isn’t true. Money, ego, and status are on the line. I’ve seen a male colleague hurl a binder against a wall and another punch a metal bookcase when sales opportunities didn’t go their way.

Yet women live with the negative labels.

The day of the run-in, I felt more frustrated than angry. I was doing my job: protecting the company’s financial assets. A duty I performed well. Even so, I stayed silent about the altercation because I feared physical, financial, and professional retaliation. But I missed the courageous me. I sacrificed one part of me for another.

If there was any good news, it’s that the company let my colleague go for unrelated reasons. I was relieved to have outlasted this bully. To celebrate his departure, I bought myself a wine-red lipstick. I ate a pepperoni pizza and a pint of French vanilla ice cream. I danced furiously to Whitney Houston’s “I’m Every Woman” in my apartment’s living room. The music pulsed. I spun around and around, making myself nauseous. Sweat soaked through my blouse. My heart raced.

I waited for a euphoric moment to hit me. It never came. The winning side of me was not at peace.

 

Nicole Cyrus is a career coach, a job far removed from her former life as a finance manager. Her transition has inspired her to help people understand their personal stories.

Photo by Roy Cox Photography