Q: My name is spelled Christine. I don’t correct people when they type my name as Christina or Kristin, but today I was addressed as Charlene by a man named Rick. When I replied, I called him Ralph. How should I respond when someone blatantly misspells my name? — Christine
A: Purposely calling someone the wrong name doesn’t teach them your name. It is a counterattack against an attack that never happened, and assaulting a civilian can land you on trial for war crimes. My days are chock-a-block with split-second decisions about whether it’s worth it to correct a wrong reading of my name. The answer is almost always no. No for an email I plan to delete, no at hotel check-in, no at the pharmacy. Occasionally I miscalculate, so now my dentist thinks I’m Caitlin forever. Caitlin has to live with that.
Yes, of course, some people must know your true name, Rumpelstiltskin, to minimize awkwardness and confusion in recurring encounters. If a co-worker (or romantic partner) gets your name wrong in person, correct them, gently, before they leave the scene. If it happens over email, sign your name in increasingly large fonts. If the incorrect naming persists in writing, clarify it in person. If you never interact face to face — and it really, truly matters — add a P.S. explaining you want to be sure there’s no mix-up. Unless these people are total freaks, they will be embarrassed by their mistake.
Most important: Lead by example by never getting anyone’s name wrong, ever.
How not to teach a lesson
It has been my pleasure, these past few months, to answer questions as your designated Work Friend. For my final column before a new Work Friend takes over, I would like to discuss one.
Last fall, I received a long email detailing what sounded like a monthslong emotional affair between the letter’s author, who described herself as a young woman, and her decades-older married boss. Although she never used the word “affair,” over the course of nearly 900 words the writer described an extraordinarily intimate relationship.
It bloomed, she wrote, as she and her boss collaborated on a “large project” for the national company that employed them both — a task that necessitated his taking many business trips from his home state to work alongside her. The letter recounted how the two of them decided to operate out of her house because it was quieter than the office; how they discovered a mutual fondness for marijuana, which they smoked after work; and $300 steak dinners, for which he picked up the tab; how her boss paid for them to spend an entire weekend at a ski resort (“in separate hotel rooms”); how the pair had begun taking yoga classes.
The writer insisted this was nothing more than innocent friendship — which is why she was shocked and upset to learn her boss had been keeping it all secret. His wife had not known about the home office, the pot or “that he was spending marital assets to take me to fancy dinners,” the letter said. After the boss’ wife found out, she demanded the two stop working together.
“He has begged me not to tell anyone else in our company that he lied to his wife about our time together,” the author wrote. Furthermore, she said, her boss did not want her to plead her case to his wife because he feared his wife might say “mean things” to her. She wondered if she could sue over being removed from the project. She was certain that if she had been a man, his wife wouldn’t have objected to the ski trip. “Help,” the letter concluded. “What should I do?”
I was thrilled to have such a juicy letter for the column. It was, I felt, the perfect opportunity to loose the fateful lightning from my terrible swift sword (of pithy advice). If she had been male, I planned to venture, she would not have been invited on the private ski weekend in the first place. I would explain that the author’s boss was terrified at having been caught acting inappropriately and insist that she not rely on him to tell the truth, let alone to protect her job.
In fact — wait. I scoured the letter for an indication the writer had gotten information about her boss’ home life from a source other than him. There was none. Was it possible the story about the wife’s discovery was a convenient lie designed to end the affair?
Other aspects of the email were tough to pin down, too. Could someone entrusted to execute a large, involved project for a national company truly possess such Pollyanna-esque ignorance about the reasonable boundaries of office friendships? The lightly tossed-off legal phrase “spending marital assets” was out of harmony with the juvenile tone of the rest of the letter — as when, for instance, the writer described her boss with the observation, “He is a rich boss.”
The author’s own identity was summed up multiple times with the oddly impersonal declaration: “I am a young employee.” Yet she did not appear particularly young in the avatar that appeared alongside her email address.
I now impart my final advice as your Work Friend: Do not spend an intimate weekend at a ski resort with your boss or your employee. Do not assume that what you do at work is undiscoverable. Do not rely on a co-worker to keep your secrets or to protect your job.
Do not impersonate someone over email.
I spent hours attempting to authenticate the letter. When a social media breakthrough left me reasonably certain I had determined the true identity of its author, I replied. Ten days later, I received her confession.
“You are correct that I am the wife in this miserable situation,” the sender replied. “My personal drama aside, as a professional woman, the situation is interesting to me and I thought it would be a good subject for your column.”
Do not take an unreliable narrator at their word.
And stop taking your shoes off at work! I hate that.