The Workologist | Many workplace disagreements can be sorted out, and sometimes the resulting relationship is stronger and better than ever. But someone has to take the high road.
Q: A member of my department has been giving me the silent treatment for a month. She doesn’t even respond to “Good morning.”
I know why she’s mad. I got upset about something she did that I felt ignored my contributions to our department. When she refused to talk to me about it, I sent her an email explaining.
I don’t need to be her best friend; I just want to be able to relate to her in a normal way. The original slight still sticks in my craw, so it’s hard for me to mend the fence, but the current scenario is completely dysfunctional. She is an older lady, quite beloved in our workplace because she works hard. But she is passive-aggressive and prone to tizzies.
Do I apologize even though I don’t feel as if I did anything wrong? Do I confront her? Buy her flowers and chocolate? Please give me a strategy for going forward.
A: An important side note: Sending an email to “explain” grievances is often a bad idea. Electronic communication has many advantages, but emotional nuance isn’t among them. Even the most carefully worded critique can easily be interpreted more harshly than intended.
Factor that in as you consider your next move. It matters, because chances are good that you’re not going to get anywhere if you refuse to accept some responsibility for whatever has gone haywire here. You may feel you haven’t done anything wrong, but clearly this other person sees things differently — and you can’t simply dismiss her point of view if you want to improve the situation.
So, yes, you should apologize, but only for what you genuinely regret. In this case, that may mean a conversation that starts with some variation of: “I’m sorry I said things in that email that probably came across in upsetting ways, and I wish I hadn’t. But I respect you, and it’s important to me that we have a positive working relationship, so I really want to clear the air.” If you must rehash your own grievances, do so in neutral terms: “I know you wouldn’t intentionally slight me, but because of X, I felt Y.”
Many workplace disagreements can be sorted out, and sometimes the resulting relationship is stronger and better than ever. But someone has to step back, take a longer view and recognize that such disagreements are not worth a never-ending Cold War that makes everyone unhappy. Someone, in other words, has to take the high road. Could it be you?
Q: Regarding your response to the reader whose supervisor used the phrase “Jew the price down”: Contrary to what you wrote, the most obvious — and least inflammatory — advice would be to let it slide.
I’ve heard the phrase used throughout the country (though much less on the East Coast), and there is almost never any intended bigotry involved. It’s like a New Yorker saying someone “gypped” them, without stopping to think about the word’s origin.
The second time it’s heard might be the moment to say, “Do you realize that’s an offensive term? I’m Jewish, and it does not sit well with me.” This will be followed by embarrassed apologies on the part of the speaker, 99 times out of 100.
For the record, I’m Jewish, too. Calm down, everybody.
A: The Workologist received dozens of varied responses to that item, but this one articulates a recurring theme: Both the offended employee and the Workologist are overreacting to a simple misunderstanding.
It is plausible that the manager was ignorant of the offensiveness of the phrase, and the employee who felt uncomfortable should consider that possibility. Several readers offered suggestions for broaching the subject in a manner that avoids an implied accusation of bigotry. “A lot of people don’t realize it, but that term can be offensive to many.” “I’m sure you didn’t mean to offend me, but. …” One reader said that responding with “My mother is Jewish” has “never failed me.”
The best comment along these lines came from a reader who recalls having used the term in ignorance, and having its offensiveness explained “politely, almost sweetly” by a Jewish friend.
“I was shocked, embarrassed and contrite, but most importantly, informed!” this person recalls. “So instead of assuming the worst, give the guy the benefit of the doubt and just tell him why the term is offensive.”
Fair enough. But I don’t think saying nothing is a good idea. After all, the original advice seeker walked away from the incident feeling that the manager might indeed be a bigot. And readers, let us agree on something: We weren’t there. The only person who knows how it felt to hear this supervisor say that phrase is the person who experienced it.
There are two reasons a person — or, for that matter, someone who is genuinely offended by the word “gypped,” or any such term — should not simply pretend it never happened. The first is professional: It could happen again in ways that might embarrass not just that person, but also the whole organization.
The second is personal: Saying nothing ultimately leaves the offended party permanently suspicious of the person who made the remark, and probably nagged by self-doubt for failing to speak up.
Submit questions to Rob Walker at email@example.com.