Ways to End Grateful Guest Syndrome

by | Mar 8, 2022

There’s an old Korean saying that goes along the lines of, “A guest in your house, like a fish, starts to smell after three or four days.” This saying pungently captures how quickly a once welcomed visitor can become an unwanted nuisance.

Once the newness of a visitor starts to wear off, the things that made them an interesting novelty—the different things they like to eat, the new ideas they bring to conversation, simply the way they break up your daily routine—become annoyances.

If we are truthful with ourselves, we can recognize that we’re usually glad when we see houseguests waving goodbye as they head back home. This is especially true of guests who take our hospitality for granted: the ones who never offer to help load the dishwasher, who eat our ice cream without asking, who don’t even say thank you when they leave.

The very least we can expect of a houseguest is their gratitude, right?

Diversity and grateful guest syndrome

Unfortunately, many approach diversity hiring the same way we approach having houseguests. We get excited about having a new person around and do everything we can to make them feel welcome. We celebrate their arrival with a reception and meet-and-greets.

We ask them to give a lecture or provide seed funding or research time for their work. But soon, the sparkle of newness wears off. They start asking inconvenient, maybe impertinent questions at department meetings. They point out that a long-held holiday tradition on campus excludes them. They express frustration about service demands that are expected of every early-career faculty member. They smile less and just seem less friendly.

Shouldn’t they be, well, more grateful for the opportunity they’ve been provided?

This last question hardly ever gets asked outright. But it’s the expectation that informs the way many early-career faculty, especially those from underrepresented populations, report being treated by their departments, as the contributors to volume I and volume II of Presumed Incompetent attest.

They are told their questions are inappropriate or even irrelevant. They are told that their suggestions to improve departmental or campus culture are disrespectful. They are described as aggressive, arrogant, rude, and out of line—as ungrateful.

Grateful guest syndrome as know-your-place aggression

It’s one of the grand ironies of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) efforts that new/not-so-new faculty members’ “inappropriate” questions and “disrespectful” critiques of campus culture are, in fact, evidence of the critical faculties that made them desirable in the first place.

In short, what initially seems most exciting about these candidates—their intelligence, their critical acumen—often become irritations or even sources of profound resentment and hostility once they becomes colleagues. They become guests who overstay their welcome. They stop being grateful.

Grateful guest syndrome is a form of what Koritha Mitchell describes as “know-your-place aggression,” a “flexible, dynamic array of forces that answer the achievements of marginalized groups such that their success brings aggression as often as praise.” (For more on this, see Mitchell’s book From Slave Cabins to the White House: Homemade Citizenship in African American Culture.)

While departments may initially welcome the diverse accomplishments of a new Black, trans, and/or disabled faculty member, the very fact of their accomplishments becomes an implicit challenge to the status quo and, in response, they are told that they need to “know their place.”

The new faculty member experiences this as a bait and switch, where the very gifts they have been asked to bring to the department are now being refused, and the only behavior they are allowed to offer is smiling gratitude for being granted admittance.

Mitchell calls on members of marginalized groups to recognize know-your-place aggression for what it is; naming it as an act of aggression against one’s actual accomplishments and success is a potent form of “self-care,” she writes. Here, I’d like to address the other side of the equation—those responsible for grateful guest syndrome.

Fixing hiring and retention

Aggressors must acknowledge their own role in grateful guest syndrome. For one thing, there are certainly many more aggressors than victims. But it’s also important to call attention to the fact that many who practice this form of aggression see themselves as victims—as welcoming hosts whose generosity has been taken advantage of or spurned outright.

Grateful guest syndrome is especially pernicious because it uses the language of hospitality and etiquette to turn aggressors into victims and vice versa.

As Pamela Newkirk details in Diversity, Inc: The Failure of a Billion-Dollar Business, many departments (not to mention companies and organizations of all kinds) have found it much easier to attract diverse talent than to keep it. Retention frequently falls by the wayside because departments see themselves as the victims of insufficiently grateful (or worse, opportunistic or self-promoting) colleagues who are perceived as taking advantage of department hospitality for their personal gain.

If this describes your department’s DEI efforts, consider the following question: Could it be that what you are seeing as disrespect or a lack of gratitude from recent DEI hires actually be evidence that they no longer see themselves as “grateful guests” but as full members of your department? The answer to this question leads to some possible ways to prevent grateful guest syndrome.

Preventing grateful guest syndrome

Guests, by their very nature, are not permanent. They are visitors, welcome to receive hospitality for a brief period only before they return from whence they came. Those who actually belong feel a sense of permanence—of place and ownership.

Academic departments must think beyond recruitment and retention. Both of these are targeted at and rooted in difference and, specifically, treating some employees differently from everyone else.

What organizational practices and structures can be put into place that will create a supportive and productive environment for all employees?

On the flip side, what organizational structures and practices might be preventing the realization of that environment? For example, if your department regularly schedules happy hours or other social events involving alcohol, that can be alienating to non-drinkers (Muslims, recovering alcoholics, pregnant people, or just people who don’t drink for whatever reason), especially if attendance is expected or even required, as Jason Dormady has noted. Are there ways that these practices can be reconceived to be more inclusive?

A more structural example might be work assignments that assume whiteness, marital status, physical mobility, maleness, seniority, and so on. For example, evening or weekend departmental events or meetings may be difficult or impossible for colleagues who are single parents, and requiring in-person instruction imposes inordinate difficulties for faculty with disabilities.

Permanent employees are expected to contribute ideas and shoulder essential responsibilities. If your DEI hires do not perform work that is essential to the department, you’re treating them as guests.

How can you make their teaching, subject areas, and research fundamental to the department’s curriculum, learning aims, and mission? How can you ensure that DEI hires have real power and authority in departmental decision-making, especially in the realms of curriculum, admissions, and governance?

Thinking long term

It’s important to think beyond hiring as well. Do you have a transparent pipeline or process for department members to attain leadership positions? What is your post-tenure plan for the people you are hiring through diversity initiatives? What leadership roles do you perceive for them? How often do you ask them what their professional goals are—beyond just tenure or even your department? What is your mentorship plan for helping them achieve those goals?

Faculty of color frequently note that they have to prove they are twice as good and twice as accomplished as white peers to be promoted. Is this happening at your department? (Be honest.) If so, what structures can be put in place to keep this from happening? This may require implementing more formal assessment practices, but they should not become burdensome or dehumanizing to implement.

Departments that value diversity frequently highlight their desire for their employees to feel a sense of belonging. It’s easy to see why: In the Harvard Business Review, Evan W. Carr, Andrew Reece, Gabriella Rosen Kellerman, and Alexi Robichaux report that a high sense of belonging is correlated to a 56 percent increase in job performance and a 50 percent drop in turnover.

To belong, people need to feel seen and heard. They need to feel not only that they have a permanent seat at the table but that they have an equal hand in creating and enjoying the meal.

Bringing diversity hires on as full members of the department will prevent them from feeling like grateful guests and the rest of the department from feeling like harried hosts.

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Jean Lee Cole is a developmental editor at Ideas on Fire, a professor of English at Loyola University Maryland, and the former editor of American Periodicals: A Journal of History, Criticism, and Bibliography.

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