Q: I read your recent column about political correctness (Dec. 5) with interest. A female co-worker recently attacked me about using the term "rule of thumb. " She says it comes...

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I read your recent column about political correctness (Dec. 5) with interest. A female co-worker recently attacked me about using the term “rule of thumb.”

She says it comes from an old English law saying a man could beat his wife with a stick no bigger than his thumb. I’ve never heard of this and didn’t intend offense. How do I respond?


People at work do not need reason nor logic to be offended. People respond in the workplace because of what they believe we intend, not what we actually intend.

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Unfortunately, most folks don’t slow down long enough to discover whether we meant offense. Many workplace conflicts would be avoided if people were more curious and less touchy.

Your co-worker is mad because she believes her information about the phrase is true and believes you are insensitive for not seeing the world through her eyes.

Many people lie in wait for evidence that they are being disrespected. At the slightest clue, they explode. Exploding, of course, just scares people.

If you care about a cause, decide if you want to vent or be effective. You cannot have both. It is ironic that in promoting self-respect so many people feel justified in disrespecting others.

I asked Fritz Newmeyer, acting chairman of the linguistics department at the University of Washington, about the phrase. “The story that ‘Rule of thumb’ has its origins in licensing of wife-beating is a myth,” Newmeyer said. “Its origins are in using your thumb, hands, arms, etc., as rough units of measurement instead of a tool.”

The critical point with your co-worker is to convey that you do respect her. Ask her if there’s something about your behavior that’s been sexist before your use of this phrase. If there is, discuss the situation.

Let her know you took her concerns seriously and researched the phrase. You can share the information and ask if your colleague has other information about the phrase.

Sometimes revealing the facts just enrages a co-worker looking for reasons to be disrespected. Such people prefer to fight with others rather than hang out with the person they least respect: themselves.

In this case, acknowledge your “insensitivity,” avoid the phrase and steer clear of this co-worker. You won’t resolve an issue where the real battle is within your co-worker.

The last word(s)


Do New Year’s resolutions ever stick?


Yes, about as long as it takes to write them down.

Daneen Skube, Ph.D., can be reached at 1420 N.W. Gilman Blvd., No. 2845, Issaquah, WA 98027-7001; by e-mail at interpersonaledge@comcast.net; or at www.interpersonaledge.com. Sorry no personal replies. To read other Daneen Skube columns, go to: www.seattletimes.com/daneenskube