dealing with ignorant coworkers

A reader writes:

I grew up in a very poor neighborhood. Every time people at my office start talking about their background and where they grew up, I tend to avoid the question by changing the topic. I can’t relate to everyone in the office. I still have a lot of family members who live in the same area as well. Coworkers make jokes and comments about poor people all of the time and I find the remarks very offensive.

I revealed it at a previous job and the barrage of questions were upsetting. I’ve heard everything from “Did they rob people there?” to “Did you hear any gunshots?” One person gasped and gave a look of astonishment.

I tried to stay positive and say don’t judge everyone by their background. There are smart people in poor neighborhoods trying to do well with their lives and I’m an example of that. I have struggled with this for quite some time and am not sure how I should handle this. Maybe I’m being too sensitive about this. What is the best way to approach this subject when people ask in the workplace?

What the hell is wrong with these people? Please don’t let this make you feel self-conscious. These people are sheltered and clueless. Do they not travel? Do they not see that the majority of the world is poor?

Part of me wants to say that you should educate them by explaining that most poor people are just like them, just with less money, and part of me wants to say that you should educate them by giving them a withering look and the finger. (The first option will be more effective.)

Or you could handle this is the same way I’d advise handling a racist comment: Look genuinely puzzled and say, “Wow. What would make you say that?”

Thoughts from others?

{ 24 comments… read them below }

  1. Melissa*

    Oooh, this is a hot button issue for me! Being poor is sometimes a matter of circumstance, not a character flaw.

    I really like your last suggestion of asking "Why would you say that?" Makes the offender squirm a bit and realize what an ignorant comment has been made.

    Another approach to educating the office is organizing some group volunteer work for the company. Could be at a food bank, a battered women's shelter, a soup kitchen, a local Dress for Success affiliate, an adult literacy council. The staff working at these great organizations could really open their eyes to the realities of life.

  2. Sophie*

    I spent much of my youth moving betwen trailer parks and apartments. My parents were (and are) good people doing what they could to keep their feet under them. I've had a similar experience at work with judgemental people making comments about "tailer park trash" and I've simply said that most people are one paycheck away from being in that very same predicament and that you never know where someone grew up. Maybe they read between the lines and maybe they didn't, but either way it shut them up on the subject.

  3. Mike*

    The OP asking the question is the one with the issue. He/She has the problem with how they remember their childhood. I grew up in Siebria where we had to live off of a sack of potatoes for a month, I haven't seen a color TV till I was 10 (in 1990), and we did have murders in our neighborhood. BUT, that's not all that I remember and something I don't tell people in regular conversations. If OP has family still living in the neighborhood and they are good people, then what does it matter what some coworker thinks of the location. Stop been ashamed!

  4. ~Kristina*

    "wow, why would you say that" is one of my favorite universal lines to use. it is definitely a phrase to learn to use.

  5. Anonymous*

    "Coworkers make jokes and comments about poor people all of the time"

    Why are your coworkers talking about poor people all the time? I can't remember a time that this was a topic of discussion in my office.

    I think a serious faced "Wow. Why would you say that?" will work. Of course, they will be talking about you behind your back afterwards, but at least you won't hear it.

  6. Anonymous*

    I sort of have the same but opposite problem from the question asker. I grew up in a city with a really bad reputation, but anyone who has actually spent time there would know that like most other cities it has some really nice areas, and some really bad areas. I actually grew up more privileged than most of my coworkers, but many assume that because I grew up in X city, I must have been exposed to all types of terrible things, and that I'm "lucky" to have made my way out.

    I like using, "Wow, what would make you say that." Along with, "What an intersting assumption", "Now, what would make you think that" and "How did you come to that conclusion."

  7. Mary Sue*

    My favorite question is "How do you know that?"

    @ Melissa, I'm not sure just a one-day volunteering shindig would help much. Some, yes, most assuredly. I spend a couple days a month at our local food bank, because I was once a food bank client. There are all sorts of volunteers I work with, but there's a type of volunteer who makes me cringe, the kind who have never needed services and just open their mouths and all sorts of foolish things about the 'kind of people' who use the food bank's services.

    As part of the mission of the food bank is education about what causes hunger, I often find myself telling my story to these folks– I have a master's degree, I moved in search of a job in my field, it didn't turn up. I was on Unemployment and had medical bills that, after rent and student loans, left me $15 a month to live on. I was on emergency food assistance for three months.

    A lot of times, the look in the eyes of these people is "Well, she was dumb, that'd never happen to me."

    I pray that they're right.

  8. Anonymous*

    My family moved all over the country, moving about once per year. So I have to deal with answering the 'where did you grow up' question all the time, although for different reasons than this person. Explaining that I had a nomadic childhood, listing all the towns and cities, and no, my parents weren't in the military–it's just too complicated.

    So instead of saying where I grew up, I respond, "I'm from here", naming the city in which I currently reside, and close down the subject.

    But I do agree with another commentator that asked, how are the subjects of poor people and hometowns coming up all the time? If this is the case the letter-writer would be wise to decline to participate in the conversation. I did this in a workplace once, and to my surprise, most of the office followed my lead. Turned out there was really only one person who liked to talk about these things and everyone else just didn't know how to shut him down. With everyone refusing to discuss political or social issues with him, the office was a lot more pleasant and friendly.

  9. jmkenrick*

    If you're going to respond, I think the "what would make you say that" is a great suggestion.

    However, more to the point is the fact that I think it sucks the OP works in an office where he has to represent/explain a very large group of people to an ignorant minority. While educating others is good, it can be tiring to feel like you always have to be a teacher.

    I think AAM's advice is great in the short term, but in the long term….there's got to be an office where this sort of thing is not an acceptable topic of discussion.

    Also @Mike – I don't think the OP was saying he emphasized the negative parts of his neighborhood, I think he's frustrated because that's what other people emphasize even though he tries to portray something different. Maybe I misunderstood?

  10. YoungFemaleAssistant*

    Chances are you aren't the only one the office that feels as you do. There may even be someone joining in the joking who doesn't have your common sense or courage. I've been fortunate enough to work at places where a few of my co-workers grew up poor, including me, and I still have a bigger fear of going back to that than a lot of people. Most of these co-workers are no longer in that situation or those neighborhoods.

    I have been asked those questions. Of course, I'm such a smart a– that I usually tell people to go find out for themselves. Really. AAM's suggestion is probably better, and by you having lived there and now being where you are, trust me, you are educating them. Don't let it get to you, because you are a person of better character than any of those people who would let this shape their opinion of you.

  11. Anonymous*

    I think the letter writer is being a bit thin-skinned — so I'm going to agree with Mike on this one.

    For example, I went to college in Washington, DC. (And it just so happens that AAM's day job is in that town too.) The Washington Post makes Southeast Washington (south of the Anacostia River, not Capitol Hill) look like a war zone — at least that's the impression that folks who don't travel in that area may get from media.

    So yeah, as a "privileged" person who never has to travel to that side of town, if I were to meet someone from there, I may very well ask if they've ever heard gunshots — and if I were asked what made me say that, I sure wouldn't squirm with ignorance.

    (And then there was the time my college roommate's friend was coming to town from Philadelphia. He got lost in a bad neighborhood, stopped at a corner store for directions, and was told immediately upon entering "son, I hope you're lost, 'cause you don't belong down here.")

  12. Anonymous*

    Wow. I wish I had thought of that in my last job (ask "Why would you say that?"). How did I not think of that response before to inappropriate/racist/sexist remarks? It's simple and true. I think that is the best way to respond to something like that. It just puts the person in check in a genuine way.

  13. Anonymous*

    At the end of the day, you can't fix stupid, you can only change how you react to it. I grew up in the inner city taking care of my little brother. My parents died when we were kids and we did not have a dime to our names. I am now a Senior VP in a Fortune 100 company. I used to turn the questions back to the individuals by asking me to tell me more about where they grew up, etc. What you will see is people prefer to talk about themselves anyway and you can keep your business our of it. Good luck and keep your head. You have just as much right to be here and no doubt – your destiny will unfold as it should.

  14. Alexander*

    I find this to be an issue at work but I talked to them and it took a while but its kind of worked out ok.

  15. Melissa*

    @Mary Sue Thank you for sharing your story! I hope the impact of it reaches far and wide :)

    I worked in nonprofit management for 15 years (over half of that with adult literacy programs), so I agree that just one day of volunteering would not necessarily be enough. For some it would, but not for others.

    I was actually thinking the person posing the question could organize an ongoing volunteer program if it was not already in place (something I really believe in and know that organizations value) or suggest targeted programs for volunteer opportunities. I probably should have explained that better in my previous comments.

  16. Anonymous*

    I'm going to say that this problem is partially with the office atmosphere and partially with the OP.

    I grew up right outside of an extremely wealthy conclave. I went to a private school with those wealthy kids (silver spoon if you will) but I came from a single parent household. I went to school entirely on scholarship (before there really were scholarships) but no one knew it. We made due with what we had and my family taught me that class and money are not two in the same and it's possible to have those things independently of one another.

    I now wear that upbringing as a badge of pride. I put myself through college. I graduated. I have a career I love. I'm not embarrassed of where I came from or how I got to where I currently am. I think the OP has a very different take and a feeling of victimization or shame and that's something that only the OP can get over.

    I agree with most of the other posters on here that the office may be a bit insensitive, but a simple "wow, really? Where'd that assumption come from?" would probably shut down the topic. My gut, however is that the OP is just very sensitive to what's going on because of his/her own views on how where he/she grew up will reflect on them.

  17. Rebecca*

    I don't think the OP is being too sensitive. People tend to be loudly, gleefully stupid about things they've never been exposed to. Mary Sue is more generous than I am, as I usually find myself hoping these judgmental jerks land themselves in the gutter, and soon.

    OP, I say you just hold your head high. If they ask where you're from, say where with pride. If they ask stupid questions, answer them truthfully and cheerfully. If they gasp, politely ask if they're OK or if they're upset about something. This will make it abundantly clear that any problem is theirs, not yours.

  18. Anonymous*

    I disagree with the advice. Saying "Wow, why would you say that?" would make the person come off as a stick in the mud. Every office I've worked in has plenty of coworkers making jokes about a variety of things – many of them not HR appropriate – it doesn't mean the people are rude or mean or not culturally experienced, but jokes about class, race, etc. are going to be said. It may not be the ideal culturally sensitive workplace HR envisions, but it's the real world.

    That being said, if you're offended, that's not good. But instead of saying "why would you say that" just say "Dude, I grew up really poor and look at me now. I don't appreciate you guys talking about poor people that way." It gives reasoning to your protest, and people will feel bad and go about their business. If you don't give a reason, people are going to be, "What the hell is her/his problem?"

  19. Cassie*

    I think the OP is a bit too sensitive to the topic. I grew up in a poor neighborhood with lots of illegal activity around and I don't really care if people talk about it. It's not a reflection of me that the neighborhood is bad.

    People talk about anything and everything and they think that their comments/opinions matter. It doesn't matter if you grew up in a poor neighborhood or in a rich neighborhood – people will still find something to say about it. I remember being in elementary school and telling a lie once that my dad was a firefighter because I didn't feel like explaining that my parents owned and managed a motel.

    If you say you grew up in California, people will tease you about earthquakes. If you grew up on the Atlantic coast, people will tease you about hurricanes. Well, maybe not quite – but you get what I mean. The only people that don't get bothered by stupid comments like that are the ones making those comments! They're always on the offensive, so they never get offended… (maybe that's the trick!).

    I think people just don't know what to say (how many people are great conversationalists?) and they'll talk without thinking.

  20. Anonymous*

    I like the comments about turning the question around and directing it to the asker, and the comment that ppl make jokes about all sorts of traits, whether it be poor or rich, racial, religious.

    Personally, I could find myself asking a question out of genuine interest. Since I might not know anything about growing up in that region, me asking a question such as "What was it like there?", I could be asking that to someone from a poor area or rich area, or someone who was homeschooled, or really anyone that has had a different experience from what I know. It is completely due to wanting to learn about that person, and not meant to belittle or make myself feel superior. So I hope OP would give ppl the benefit of the doubt.

    I have been teased endlessly in college about being short, that now I can take those jokes in stride and laugh about it. At the end of the day, it's my accomplishments that define me, not some petty offhand comment. I recently changed my dietary preference due to ethical reasons, and I feel like being resilient to others' ignorant comments have helped me stick with it much better than other people I've known that tried.

  21. Thebe*

    It sounds like you are handling this just fine: staying positive and telling people not to judge others by their background. It does sound really irritating.

    I grew up in Detroit and now live on the West Coast. Whenever my home town comes up, people are all shocked and amazed. There's nothing I can do about it; people start babbling nonsense until I finally look irritated enough so they stop. Then they probably whisper "Wow, she's so sensitive about where she grew up." See … no win.

    Having said that, it's good to shake up other people's narrow worldview. If someone wants to talk about Detroit with me, I'm generally OK with that. There's certainly enough to talk about.

  22. Lauren*

    "Oooh, this is a hot button issue for me! Being poor is sometimes a matter of circumstance, not a character flaw."

    Sometimes? How about almost all of the time!

  23. SeeSide*

    If you accept where you come from, the good, the bad and the ugly of it, then dealing with misconceptions about it aren't injurious. Answer honestly. They're astonished because they just met a really great person and you are an ambassador, not a "survivor". Smile, it's a opportunity to educate your coworkers.

Comments are closed.