Ever since I read Irina Dumitrescu’s “Ten rules for succeeding in academia through upward toxicity” I’ve thought idly about adding my own instalment – a prequel, if you will, that’s about spotting toxic academics before they have permanently squatted like a poison toad on a particular department, their high-ranking place firmly established. But it was reading Una McCormack’s recent tinyletter (if you’re interested in the art of writing, or in science fiction, you should subscribe – it’s excellent) that made me return to think about this. In it Una recounts an anecdote that made my heart thump with recognition:
A long time ago, I joined a writing group. They were a lovely set of people – kind, generous with their time and critique, supportive. They had been established for quite some time, but I didn’t have any sense of there being a clique. I felt immediately welcome. I didn’t go out much, even before the plague, and I had published only a very little at the time, so their input and support was very gratefully received.
I had been going along to meetings for, I think, almost a year, when another new member arrived. He was outwardly pleasant, self-deprecating, almost diffident, and I knew within two or three meetings that we were in trouble. Emails sent privately away from the main mailing list, subtly suggesting that you might well hold a grievance against a third party (“Just wanted to send you my support about what X said last night!!! I thought it was a bit much!!! Let me know if you’d like to meet for a coffee and chat!!”). Realising that gentler, more trusting members of the group were being taken off for coffee and, presumably, “chats”. I think it took about two months before there was a major blow-up. It was awful to watch, particularly – as a relatively new person – I didn’t feel like I had the credibility to say, “This guy is a noxious prick, and we should chuck him out immediately.” I moved on, and I don’t know the end of this story. I think the group is still going. I hope so.
I have met a number of such bad actors in my time, and quite a few of them have been in academia. Very often they have been peers, who have presented themselves as all in it together with me or my friends, when ultimately it is clear that the only person they really want to help is themselves. But they usually act quite subtly, and you know that if you try to call them out you will sound hysterical or paranoid. Very occasionally you might privately confess some doubts to a friend, and be relieved to hear them agree. But neither of you tend to say anything beyond the two of you, because you see this person is very widely liked. Often they will be engaged in works of service in your shared community. They will have a reputation for championing underdogs, for cheerleading their fellows, and often for being delightful company in various ways. They will also work carefully and quietly to undermine you or your friends.
Social media has made it easier for people like this to form the networks they need to establish themselves on the lower rungs of the ladder that will ultimately get them up to the places of responsibility Irina talks about in her piece – where they can more effectively bully and control people, because there are a lot more people beneath them than there were five or ten years before. But hearteningly it has also made it easier to spot them, and perhaps avoid their tricks. Here are a few things I have noticed that you can look out for. Note: one or two of the below can be nothing sinister at all. Someone who DMs too quickly, or who wants introductions to your colleagues, may just be a keen networker who has different standards about social media use. But if you think about a relationship you have with someone and you recognise most or all of these, it might be time to create a little more distance between the two of you. Certainly don’t share confidential information with them until you are sure you can trust them not to use it.
- Lovebombing: they have identified you as someone potentially useful to them, and try to form an intense social connection over a short space of time.
- If you’ve met on social media, they move very quickly from public messages to private communication, e.g. from twitter @s on your timeline to DMs, even if their messages don’t seem to need to be private.
- They start sharing very private information about themselves, which will seem like they are being open and honest but is usually carefully curated to encourage you to share similar information.
- They use you as an entrypoint to gain access to your friends and colleagues who hold positions of some use to them, e.g. within learned societies.
- When they have information they see as valuable – e.g. who has been shortlisted for a certain job – they will offer crumbs of it as a mark of their usefulness, while withholding other elements of it as a bargaining chip (though they won’t present it so crudely, of course).
- They are incredibly sympathetic to any rejections or failures you have, encouraging you to speak privately at length about your disappointment in a failed research bid or job rejection, for example. They will try to draw out lots of details about how the interview went or what you think you could have done better.
- When you have successes, however, they will very rarely congratulate you privately. If they congratulate you, it will be in a very public way that explicitly connects you to them. A relatively benign example: a quote tweet of you announcing your new job saying “I am so lucky to have a clever friend like __”. (Note: this is only strange, I think, if they have not also congratulated you directly. Sometimes friends just like to boast about their friends and that is very nice!!)
- They will attempt, in subtle ways, to make you feel guilty for those successes, for instance by immediately reminding you of how bad the current situation is for ECRs rather than letting you have five minutes of happiness. (“I’m so glad you got this job – things are so bad for so many people right now and did you see that X got rejected for Y?”)
- They will be very vocal about X or Y issue, but a little digging will reveal that they are quietly forging private connections with more senior people who have been critiqued on X or Y. They will drop you as soon as you ask about this.
I’m sure there are other things, but this is what I have noticed over the past few years! This is not meant to be a subtweet; right now my life feels blissfully free of toxic people. But that is partly because I have been careful to draw away from those who have started flashing big warning lights at me. It took me a long time to learn to do that – I wish I had known how in my early twenties. So perhaps this will be of use to some of you. I hope so!