Editor's note: If you have a pressing business-etiquette question for Miss Conduct, please send her an email.
No fewer than three major studio films this fall focus on revenge --
The Brave One
-- but in post-9/11 America, we don't have to look to fiction to see how easily a sense of powerlessness can become pathological.
Now, vendetta is an Italian word, and as the Corleone clan knows, revenge is a dish best served cold.
That chilling wisdom might seem counterintuitive, because revenge even at work is such a hot pursuit. Unfortunately, this heat means that when we channel Clint Eastwood, we shoot first, usually from the hip, and ask questions later. This rarely works, though, because a sloppy response rebounds far worse upon the vengeful than upon the target. (Plus, you sound stupid saying "make my day" constantly in an office setting.)
Nevertheless, even if you take the Italian approach and serve up your revenge as cold as carpaccio, it can still be a hot pursuit. It takes work to craft the perfect snare: to bait, hook and land your fish. All that energy has to come from somewhere, and it glows from the heat of humiliation.
The Danger of the Game
Seeking vengeance at work, however monumental (say, taking down your rival firm) or minor (slighting a rival colleague), appeals to our wounded pride.
It restores the ego, or seems to, casting you as the star of your own movie -- or at least an HBO series. With each client you as Ari Gold poach from your competitors, or with each clap of thunder you as Tony Soprano steal from a subordinate, it can feel as though you're getting back some of the self-esteem that was taken away when they one-upped you.
Etiquette can even be used thus, as a blunt instrument to crush someone else under the boot of your superiority.
Sneering "pardon me" to a boor who just cut you off may briefly assuage your feeling of powerlessness. But whether you're the Dirty Harry of the boardroom or the break room, don't confuse behavior like this with being polite. Delegitimizing, dehumanizing or mocking the other guy -- no matter how abhorrent his business practices may be -- turns you into the villain.
Instead, Up the Ante
So rather than beating them at their own game, Miss Conduct modestly suggests that we all beat business enemies at a better game. (This is true even -- perhaps especially -- if "they" are internal antagonists, the darker parts of your personality that you use to torture yourself. )
Life, even in the office, is not zero-sum: no one necessarily has to lose in order for you to win. In business, there's always more money to be made, or new markets to tap.
: all of these competitors successfully coexist, albeit not always peacefully.
So you lost this round. So what?
To be humiliated means accepting that your competitor or co-worker is right, that you are wrong in some way. To deal with this without resorting to revenge, you either accept that we're all inadequate losers sometimes, or that both you and your enemy are already perfect just the way you are.
Either way, if your ego remains independent of your tormentor, you don't need the false validation of revenge.
Now, all that energy and all that labor you might have wasted is yours. Instead of living in the past like Jodie Foster in a new-millennium
, you can rise above and focus on your own career goals.
The darker months of fall bring darker thoughts. It's not a coincidence that holidays exist across all religions to battle against the dying of the summer light. Rosh Hashanah, Ramadan, Diwali and even Labor Day picnics remind us that the light will return, and bring us together with gifts, forgiveness and appreciation as we watch it go. So instead of sneering "excuse me," when a colleague rips apart your latest plan at a meeting, really mean it.
Letting go your wrath against those who seem to have harmed you is good business. Enemies are beneath your notice, which is why traditional etiquette says little of them. (Miss Conduct herself simply fails to invite them to dinner.)
So when the turkeys get you down, don't trash them to your co-workers or trash their
lunch. Instead, forgive them and outperform them -- living well is the best revenge.
Read more of Miss Conduct's best advice at
AskMissConduct.com. Her amanuensis, Lisa Moricoli Latham, is a freelance writer in Los Angeles, and has contibuted to The Los Angeles Times, The New York Times and Salon.com.