Should I Avoid Sounding Pedantic?

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

One of the questions I fear the most in the workplace is the seemingly innocuous "How are you?" I never know how to answer this question without sounding either pedantic or stupid.

When I first started learning English at 7 1/2 years old, the first grammatical rule that got drilled into me was the distinction between "good" and "well." By the time I moved to the United States, I cringed at hearing anyone say "I'm good" or answer the dreaded question with "good." However, during the cruel years of middle school and high school, I did everything I could to fit in. Which meant inserting at least two "likes" into every sentence and adopting "I'm good" into my lexicon. This continued to work for me throughout college and I stopped experiencing knots in my stomach every time I heard a grammatically incorrect use of "good."

However, this problem is now recurring in the workplace. A typical scenario goes something like this:
  1. A coworker asks "How are you?"
  2. Mini anxiety attack. Think, Irina, think.
  3. Option 1: respond with "I'm good." How painful. That is so grammatically incorrect. I cannot do this. What if the coworker thinks that I believe this to be the grammatically correct way to respond? Then he will judge me for getting such a basic rule wrong.
  4. Option 2: respond with "I'm well." That sounds way too pedantic. What if the coworker thinks that I consider myself than everyone else in my quest to use correct grammar at all times? Especially since he himsef probably have used "I'm good" many times before.
  5. Option 3: respond with "I'm doing well." That sounds a little bit less pedantic than option 2, but it is slightly long-winded. What if the coworker has to run? What if I have to run? Will he think I am dragging out this insignificant exchange? What if I stop over analyzing everything? I really should answer now. This 2-second pause is becoming really awkward.
  6. Final answer: "I'm good. How are you? Does it look like you will be having a busy day?" Oh good, I said a few things after the "good" to distract him and divert his attention to his own thoughts. This way, he will not have time to evaluate I answer.
Maybe I am over analyzing, but I go through this thought process (in lightning form, obviously) whenever I am asked that question. What do people think? Does it matter at all? Should I just suck it up and answer with "well"?


As readers on Brazen Careerist have pointed out to me, supported by Grammar Girl, saying "I'm good" is a perfectly grammatically correct response. In this instance, "am" serves as a linking verb and it is grammatically correct to use adjectives after linking verbs. Therefore, "good" is an adjective modifying the noun "I." The reason I was confused before is that I was perceiving "good" to be the adverb modifying the verb "am." But it is not. It is an adjective. I hope this makes sense.

Also note that, per Grammar Girl, it is actually not entirely correct to respond with "I'm well" when asked how you are doing. "I'm well" refers to the state of your health, not to the state of your happiness. So you can use "I'm well" to mean that you are now feeling better (than you were before...presumably you were sick), but not to mean that you are in a good mood, etc.

The Importance of Being Precise

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

In the last month of constant communication with managers, associates and fellow analysts, I have come to realize that it is definitely worth it to make the effort to be as precise as humanly possible during daily communication. Especially in a field that is so focused on collaboration and team work, one of the things that makes it truly enjoyable to work with someone is that person's effort to spend little time on explanations and directions. It is impossible to escape them completely, but it is nice to cut them down to the bare minimum.

A good portion of my work consists of creating complicated spreadsheet models with 20 tabs that all link to each other in some way. This means that, when I pass off my work to someone else, it becomes a maze of VLookup(), Match() and Index() formulas that can generate an anxiety attack in even the most experienced analysts. In order to prevent unnecessary trips to the doctor, it is imperative to be able to explain the reasoning behind your spreadsheet models, behind their "architecture" and your reasoning in general. This is where preciseness comes in.

Before I send that email or make that phone call, I usually take about five minutes to go over what I did in my head and remember the big picture. When I gather my thoughts, "column L" becomes "monthly interest payment" and "I multiply columns B and C to get the index" become "I multiply the daily stock price returns of the companies in the index by their corresponding daily market caps and sum them to get the value-weighted industry index." This is a simple example, but if I apply this effort in reasoning and explanations to all my work, I simplify life for many people. It is much easier to understand the latter sentences in each pair and it saves the other person a lot of time by laying out all information to them upfront. And as an analyst, it is my job to simplify my managers' lives.

It definitely takes a greater expenditure of brainpower to do this (...than to not even make this effort...), but it is good practice to develop this skill early on. I cannot imagine a situation when precise language will not come in handy (e.g. even if you need to conceal something, it will be easier to do if you can clearly formulate your thoughts). And even at this level, your managers will notice, your brain will develop more connections among its neurons and people will like to work with you. I know I am always excited when I get a call from such people.

Every Girl Has Thought About Marrying Rich at Some Point

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

When I was in Moscow several months ago, I met up with a male friend of mine for a cup of coffee. In this case, the word "friend" is a bit of a stretch. He messaged me on Facebook a year and a half ago, flew halfway across the United States to meet me and propositioned a long-distance relationship. I was immediately freaked out by his direct actions and slowly let him down after spending a whole day showing him around San Francisco. However, when his Facebook status informed me earlier this summer that he got a job in Moscow working in a private equity fund organized by a very powerful Russian bank, I was impressed and intrigued. Which is why we met up for that cup of coffee.

The friend, whom I shall refer to as Dmitry, turned out to be quite an impressive guy. We talked about a lot of things: getting a job in Moscow when you have work experience in America (fairly easy), convincing your interviewer to hire you even though he can hire three Russian guys for the same cost who will work just as hard (really hard), cultural differences between America and Russia (too many) and things that are culturally unique to Russia's capital (e.g. if you take the metro, you are considered a lower-class person). It was a great experience for me - I learned a lot from him that would be helpful when I try to get a job in Moscow within the next several years. I also now really liked him (of course, Murphy's law...) and could not believe I was stupid enough to reject him back when he was interested. Timing is everything. We did not work out, but that is a story for another post.

One of the things that he said that really stuck with me was when we talked about what each of us wants out of this life. He said that, for a woman, a career as a high-powered executive and a good family life is much harder than for a man (don't I know...thank you, Cecilia Ridgeway). I agreed, but said that I need to make something of myself in this life and am willing to work hard at it. This, by the way, is being tested right now. Dmitry replied that a woman has a much higher chance of meeting and marrying a rich man when working for a non-profit or some kind of charity because men with real wealth often deal with organizations that are of philanthropic nature. This was in contrast to really hard working females in law, banking, consulting, and other upper middle class professions, who meet men at work and marry them. They then have combined incomes of approximately half a million dollars, which is really great, but not as high as others "out there."

To be completely honest, the statement haunts me to this day. A small part of me wants to just marry a rich guy, live the high society lifestyle and enjoy a financially-worry-free life. And then the majority of me hates the trophy-wife small part of me for even suggesting that to myself. Because it is not honorable and in the end I do want to make something of myself. So I'll just keep on working for now...and maybe watch out for some of those non-profit volunteering opportunities.

Disclaimer: I am by no means a gold digger. I think at some point every girl has felt like this...deep deep deep down inside. Even if she is not willing to admit it.

Also, this guy came off like a snob in this post, but he really is not. He is a great guy. I just best remember the most scandalous things that he said during our conversation.

Dealing with Long Work Hours

Monday, September 1, 2008

Ever since I actually started my job two weeks ago, I have been working kind of late. I say kind of, because I get off around 8 p.m., sometimes 9 p.m. and have gotten off at midnight a couple of nights. I have also worked at least one day during the weekend. Since we have a final product that needs to roll out to a client in two weeks, I am expected to work late and on weekends the next two weeks. I also worked two days out of the Labor Day Weekend.

Now, this kind of shift in schedule from doing everything and anything I wanted in college and doing one thing for 12 hours a day is pretty daunting. By no means is it easy for me. I like my personal time and I need about four hours of it a day. Which is proving pretty hard with these kinds of work hours.

Last week I talked to my mentor, who has been in my life for four years now. He has always helped me out with any types of questions I have, both personal and professional. He said something very interesting to me. He told me that my parents never really lay any strict rules on me about work. I always got summers off and if I did work, it would only be a part-time job of under 10 hours a week. During most of my summers since I turned 16, I went to Russia and Ukraine to party 24/7. This is the first time that I am operating under such structured time constraints. And the most important thing he told me is that everyone goes through it, that this transition from college to your first job is completely natural and that it will get better (at least in my mind).

So why do the long work hours bother me? It is mostly because I consider this time in my life a time of not only professional, but also personal growth. I want to learn how to live by myself, how to cook for myself, how to be a young adult. I want to have a personal life and be able to spend time with my friends during the week. I want to fall in love. But my current work hours do not allow for more than going for a jog and perusing through the entries in my Google Reader.

So how do I deal with working long hours consistently? Here are a few things I think about:

1. This is a time of transition and I am just learning how to live with such structured constraints on my life. Even if the work hours remain the same, I will get used to them.

2. This is a time in my career where I need to prove myself and is the best time to do it. I am young and not tied down by any family responsibilities. My time belongs only to me, so I am free to spend it all on work if that is what it takes. No other time in my life will it be this easy to work long hours. So I should take advantage of this opportunity, prove myself to my employer (and my managers), solidify a good professional reputation and then go from there. If worse comes to worst, I can opt for a less time-consuming job. The challenge of adapting to such work is a great experience.

3. Although it is an external motivation, I focus on my team. Working on a good team is crucial. I was fortunate enough to be assigned on a team where I knew the people from my last summer and whom I really like. When I am stuck in the office with them at midnight creating some exhibit, I am excited to be there. I take comfort in the fact that they are also working hard and that they really need me to help them out. They could do it without me, but why would I want to leave them when I can help and cut down the work for them? A sense of camaraderie develops and makes it actually fun to stay in the office and work on something fairly late!

4. These long work hours make me think hard about the activities I really value in my life and keep them. Everything else I need to cut out. I care about my friends and I will carve out time to keep up with them. On the other hand, shopping (which used to consume a lot of my time) has to be cut out. If I am to be successful, I am to be busy. And if I am to be busy, I cannot afford to participate in activities that I do not care about.

5. And of course, a sincere thank you from your managers is an extremely powerful example. But more on that later.