you don’t need to wear a bra to answer the office phone

A reader writes:

You are always so great at getting to the heart of matters, so I’m hoping you can help me figure out a few witty retorts to the following problem. I’m writing you today about a situation I’m sure most women have been in. I am a female in an office with 15 men and 3 women. I am not an assistant of any sort, nor am I a manager. I am not on the front lines; it is not in my role to answer phones, order lunch, order office supplies, etc. However, I find myself responding to frequent requests for things such as:

Where are the cleaning supplies stored?
Were you aware that the men’s room is out of toilet paper?
Where is the nearest seamstress / tailor where “insert client name” can get a zipper replaced?

Not to mention that when the receptionist is away from her desk, the phone will ring and ring and ring and ring…unless I answer it. (We ALL have phones capable of picking up incoming calls).

What gives here? I am super tempted to remind my coworkers that I am not their wife, mother, or personal assistant. And just because I wear a bra does not mean that I inherently know where the Mr. Clean wipes are kept, am better equipped to answer the phones, or change the toilet paper roll when it’s empty. I just need a response that is going to make the point and have a long-lasting effect, that I won’t lose my job over.

“Why are you asking me?”

Delivered totally neutrally, even pleasantly.

It’s a question that should force them to pause and think about why they really are asking you.

I’d go with that versus a witty, snappy retort, because it keeps it simple and straightforward. And really, it belongs in the “huh?” realm rather than the humor realm anyway.

Regarding the phones, if everyone else is getting away with not answering them when they ring, then you might consider doing the same. Yes, you want to be responsible and not shirk a shared responsibility just because everyone else is, but if you take that stance, you’ll essentially be agreeing to be the sole sub for the receptionist when she’s away. If you  join your coworkers in not picking it up and it becomes a problem, the office will address it, and everyone can be told to answer it, rather than you picking up all the slack. (And yes, I am slightly uncomfortable with that solution, but I’m far more comfortable with it than you doing the work for everyone or with you having to nag your coworkers.)

Speaking of nagging, I’m not a big fan of reminding coworkers that you’re not their wife or mother. First, it implies that other women in their lives are responsible for doing things that capable adults handle on their own, and second, it puts you in the role of … well, mother, by admonishing them to do something differently.

Instead, pretend that gender isn’t involved here at all, and just don’t play along.

Read an update to this letter here.

{ 171 comments… read them below }

  1. Tiff*

    I’d just say, “I don’t know.” Repeatedly. It’s happened to me before, and I found that they stopped coming when they realized the well was dry.

    Downside was I had to be almost ninja-like when I needed to pull from my own personal stash of cleaning wipes.

    1. moe*

      Yeah, but why should you feign a lack of knowledge just to avoid requests that shouldn’t be made in the first place?

      1. A Bug!*

        Because it’s less confrontational. These requests shouldn’t be made in the first place, but that doesn’t mean OP won’t see consequences in her workplace for pointing that out directly. And I’m not suggesting it’s right that she should see consequences for asserting herself, but when has “it’s not right” equated to “it won’t happen”?

        “Hey Shuvon, where are the Clorox wipes?”

        “I know the answer, but you shouldn’t be assuming that I know where the cleaning supplies are just because I’m a woman, Wakeen!”

        “Woof, sor-REE, I was just ASKING. I thought you might know.”

        And later…

        “Yo, Hayzoos, steer clear of Shuvon today, I think it’s ~*that time of the month.*~”

        1. Lisa*

          It turns into a thing where we have a boss now seeing her as ‘not a team player’ with any flippant response she gives. I agree with Alison on the generic answer or go with ‘mmm, I don’t know ask Bob (VP, owner)’

          1. Cathy*

            I’d say this absolutely! I want to be a team player, even going above & beyond to help out the office. But I don’t want to have to clear the men’s dishes from the table just because I am a woman. Even less do I want that to become expected of me (and no longer considered above & beyond) just because I did it once or twice.

        2. KellyK*

          I just want to say that I love the addition of Shuvon and Hayzoos to the fictional employees directory with Jane and Wakeen.

          1. A Bug!*

            “Hayzoos, take a look at the company contacts list, someone in IT must have been messing around because they put in a listing for Jesus. Haha, and they gave him your last name! Hayzoos, how’s your brother Christ the Lord doing?”

          2. Vicki*

            Me too.
            I loved it when we added Wakeen!
            (Although I’m waiting for the day we get a new reader who says “Um… Wakeen???”)

            Alison: Is there an AskAManager FAQ? Maybe we need a FAQ. :-)

      2. Tiff*

        Well, I do sort of agree with Bug’s comment about not being confrontational….

        But really, I used to get a kick out of it. Sort of a “how long is this idiot going to turn in circles looking bewildered before he looks for cleaning supplies in the supply closet or underneath the kitchen sink?” game. Tee hee.

    1. KarenT*

      I confess, my first thought when I read this was, actually you do need to wear a bra to answer the phone. Then I realized you meant bra=women. I thought this because I once had to have an unpleasant conversation with an intern, where I told her that a) she needs to wear a bra (or some kind of garment that covers stuff up) and, b) she needs to stop telling people she is not wearing a bra.

      1. Elizabeth*

        Yipes! There are some women who can get along fine without a bra (assuming their shirt is made of thick enough fabric), but I can’t see when it would be appropriate office conversation to bring it up. (I think this was a question Alison fielded a year or two ago, actually…)

        On the other hand, if you were doing all your business by phone (working from home, for example) and it’s not video chat, then IMO your undergarments are entirely up to you!

        (I have a bit of an addiction to parentheses; sorry!)

          1. SJ*

            Okay, serious question I’ve been thinking about ever since I read that post…why is it offensive if a woman doesn’t wear a bra? What’s so unprofessional about an already visible body part (I mean, versus, say, a man’s genitals in his pants, you don’t see its form outlined [usually]) being unencumbered? Why is it ‘unprofessional’ to go braless? Because it makes other people uncomfortable? And if so, why should it? I ask this as a woman with still big boobs despite a breast reduction who will never, ever go without a bra because it sounds like total hell.

              1. SJ*

                Thanks for the link, that was convenient! Of course, the only reason it’s distracting is *because* some cultures have indeed deemed that certain body parts are to be kept behind the scenes. Imagine if more women than not went about their business without a bra. In no time at all, I bet most people wouldn’t give it a second glance. Okay, maybe it would take a little time. Anyway, this whole conversation reminds me of this – I assume this is what happens when women go braless:

                1. fposte*

                  Sure, but the only reason for *any* job-hunting and employment convention is because some cultures have deemed that to be the way things should be.

                2. SJ*

                  That’s true, but that doesn’t mean they should all be accepted without examination. I mean, at one point, most workplaces required women to wear skirts or dresses, no pants allowed. Just because a cultural norm is in fact the norm doesn’t make it acceptable. I mean, what’s more offensive – free boobs, or the idea that free boobs are offensive?

                3. fposte*

                  I just don’t see visible nipplage as the place to start the battle against workplace convention. Let’s get that objective off the resume first.

                4. SJ*

                  Visible nipplage? Everybody has nipples, for heaven’s sake. Some people even have more than two! It’s not like everybody doesn’t already know what they look like. This reminds me of the uproar over Anne Hathaway’s Oscar dress this year. As though it was such a shock that she had nipples? This isn’t an issue I’m super-impassioned and angry about, I just think it’s completely ludicrous to object to women going braless because the Puritanical stain left on American culture (insert appropriate likely cause and country as necessary) still makes nipples a scandal.

                5. Ask a Manager* Post author

                  Everybody has a butt too, but it’s not appropriate to reveal it at the office.

                  That said, I think we’ve gotten way off topic here :)

                6. SJ*

                  Dan – yes, really. Exploring an issue and its sides’ legitimacy does not equal super-impassioned and/or angry. Just analytical thinking.

                7. SJ*

                  “Everybody has a butt too, but it’s not appropriate to reveal it at the office.”

                  Sure, if you take the argument to absurdity, I’d soon be allowing everyone into the office naked, masturbating as they see fit, since everyone does it (or, like, 99.99% of people). But a reductio ad absurdum argument only works in absolutes, as though one truth is applicable to an entire idea. Saying women going braless *underneath shirts*! is not the same as proposing people go around exposing parts of their genital region.

              2. Andrew*

                During the 1970s a great many, if not the majority, of women went braless most of the time, including at work. It’s just part of the cyclical swings of fashion.

            1. The IT Manager*

              Why is it ‘unprofessional’ to go braless?
              Because society has determined that it is.

              It’s all social convention and acceptable societal norms. Case in point – “The Biggest Loser.” The male contestants whip off their shirts for the weigh-in happily displaying lots and lots of male breast tissue. American society (and western society mostly) and the FCC has deemed male breasts acceptable to be exposed to the public. The female contestants all wear sports bras because society and FCC following suit has deemed the exposure of the female breast inappropriate.

              In reality if someone wants to change things, they need to start on the societal norms and not the rules, because it’s those norms that drive the rules not vice versa.

              1. SJ*

                Yes, this is what I’m getting at. But how does one pare away at ludicrous societal norms if not within major parts of their every-day life?

        1. PJ*

          “There are some women who can get along fine without a bra ”

          My best friend is like this. I swear, she’s 60, and as perky as a 20-something. I hate her. If I was built like her I’d be wearing band-aids.

          And yeah, I thought this was a dress-code post too. This is way more interesting.

  2. LMQ*

    Due to the slug line I thought this was going to be about women who don’t/won’t wear a bra. My boss being one of them.

    1. Sascha*

      Lol so did I. I, too, have encountered that person in the office (various coworkers, not bosses).

      1. Cruella DaBoss*

        We also have some male coworkers around here who could benefit from a “manzier.”

  3. Sascha*

    Regarding the phone thing…I don’t think it’s because you’re female. It’s because no one else wants to answer the phones. I hate answering my phone, and when I worked in an office where we were all responsible for answering phones if the receptionist was out, I would pull that crap. I would wait and wait, and so would others, and finally this one guy would get frustrated and he would pick up the phone. So we all learned to just let it ring and Phone Dude would answer. Responsibility avoided! Yes, it was a stupid thing to do and we should not have done it, but that may be the explanation for that part, at least.

    1. LA*

      Fair enough. Thank you for that perspective, I can totally see that happening. In fact, now that I think about it I have relied on other “phone dudes” too. I turned myself into a “phone dude”!!!! (women can be dudes too right? haha!)

      1. A Bug!*

        I use “dude” indiscriminately. But it does result in some confusion from people who aren’t used to it. (I am changing that perception one person at a time!)

        1. Jessa*

          About the phone thing, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to say “Hey people, I can’t be the only one to answer the phone, so let’s take a rota, Monday it’s me, Tuesday Jane, Wed. Wakeen, etc. Or I’ll get mornings til 10 you get from 11-2 etc.”

          It’s annoying to everyone including the person calling, and they will probably take it out on the receptionist next time they call, about how long they waited and talk to management and be very much “isn’t Sam incompetent.” (I use Sam because it’s unisex.)

          But that one really is a shared duty thing and really lousy customer service, and there’s no reason why you can’t bring that one up without getting into the potential sexism of the other stuff.

          The other option if it’s possible would be to have the receptionist forward to voicemail when away from the desk. If that’s acceptable in the company. But some kind of agreement for coverage that doesn’t make anyone have to work too hard at it should be reached.

          And also, the best way to derail the thing about the questions is not to worry about whether they’re asking you because you’re a woman and just presume they’re asking because you seem to KNOW the answers. It really could be that you just are the one they think knows this stuff. And if people are always asking the same thing, since you do know the answers, maybe you can put out a notice with all the repeat answers on it.

          I admit to having ingratiated myself at numerous jobs simply by sharing my own organised notes on things. I was very good at distilling things to one page hand out type things that I used to keep MYSELF organised til people saw them and said “hey can I copy that.” And suddenly stuff I’d done for my own benefit was part of the training packages.

          It would be neutral for instance to send out a note going “you know everyone keeps asking where this stuff is: here’s a list for you so you can find things.” That doesn’t even remotely put you up against “why did you ask me?” Since you’ve let them ask you. It just says neutrally “okay I’ve been asked this stuff SO often…here you go. List.”

    2. A Bug!*

      Yeah, it’s kind of like how chores get done in my household. The person with the lowest mess tolerance is always the person who ends up doing any chores that aren’t specifically assigned.

      The “men’s room” question is pretty blatant, though, and I’d meet it with a confused “No; should I be?” Because then the guy’s forced to either get the hint and drop it, or reveal that he’s under a mistaken impression of what her responsibilities are, and she’ll be able to correct them directly.

      With the more general questions about stuff that’s not in her job description, it should hopefully be simple enough to say “I don’t know” or “I can’t help with that, sorry” and go back to her work.

      1. Chinook*

        The men’s room question would have made me say something I would later regret like, “there was plenty the last time I was in there” and hoped they would turn red when they realized I, a female, should never be there.

        1. Jessa*

          I would have answered that one with “OH dear, well you can find the paper at x place.” And walked away.

        2. Stacie*

          I’d probably say something like “Well I guess you should change it then…” with a confused look.

      2. EM*

        Yeah, I would have said something slightly snarky like, “Why on earth would I possibly know about the status of the toilet paper in the men’s room? I only use the ladies’ room.”

    3. M-C*

      I think there’s a big difference here between picking up the phone during normal business hours and doing it afterwards. During hours when a client may be trying to reach you, the phone should be picked up. And that means either the receptionist designates someone formally “today it’s you Wakeen”, or their manager does. Preferably in some sort of fair rotation.

      However, after hours is something else. At several companies I’ve worked at, after hours whoever is expecting a call from their SO picks up the phone (and often redirects to the right coworker :-)). Otherwise nobody picks up. That’s the breaks, just because a phone is ringing doesn’t mean people must pick up. Do you have voice mail on that so clients could leave a message? You should..

      And don’t pick up the phone if you don’t want to be pegged as alternate receptionist, that’s essential.

  4. businesslady*

    haha, when I saw the headline, I thought this was going to be a very strange take on a dress-code issue…& was pleasantly surprised. :)

    this kind of subtle (even potentially inadvertent) workplace sexism is one of my major pet peeves, but I think this is a great way to handle it.

    1. Long Time Admin*

      Ha! Our dress code specifically states: No underwear worn as outerwear.

      Sad that it’s necessary to actually say that.

  5. KellyK*

    I like Alison’s idea of refusing to play the game and asking straight out why they’re asking you.

    For the phone issue, would it be worth recommending to your boss that someone be specifically assigned to cover the receptionist’s scheduled breaks?

    I’ve dealt with the situation where both the phone and the door buzzer go to all-call and being the only person to answer it, and it’s not fun. People tend to ignore it because “someone else” will get it.

    I really think there should either be someone who specifically has that as part of their duties or a rotating schedule among several people. It’s way to easy to blow off if it’s everyone’s job.

    1. Andrea P.*

      Yes! We did this in my office- assigned vague, shared responsibilities to certain people on certain days- and it totally took care of the “everyone’s job becomes no one’s job” problem. It’s such a common issue that this solution should be way more widely implemented.

  6. LA*

    Thanks Alison, I like the simplicity of that and I like how it’s gender neutral. You are right about how easily my own witty retort could actually be more sexist than someone asking me to change the TP.

  7. Dana*

    ‘Were you aware that the men’s room is out of toilet paper?’

    I’d be tempted to respond; ‘What a coincidence, I was just coming to tell you the ladies room is out of tampons’

    1. twentymilehike*

      I’d be tempted to respond; ‘What a coincidence, I was just coming to tell you the ladies room is out of tampons’

      Yes. Please.

    2. Natalie*


      My immediate brain response to that statement would probably be “Huh. Sucks to be you!”

    3. Julie*


      I might also answer something along the lines of, “That too bad, but I’m still not giving you the key to the ladies’ room.”

  8. BCW*

    Aside from the men’s room thing, I don’t think any of them are really that bad. Asking where a cleaners or tailor is? What makes that question so bad? Maybe they think there is a logical reason you would know, like you have brought in dry cleaning or something. Same with asking about cleaning supplies. I will ask anyone those questions if I don’t know. I’m not being sexist because I ask a woman about it. And I agree with the phone answering. Maybe everyone is lazy and you are just the one it bothers the most.

    1. A Bug!*

      It’s true, most of the questions are gender-neutral on their own. But if the men in the office go to the OP first for these questions on a consistent basis, and there’s no apparent reason for it, then yeah, it’s reasonable to infer a gender-related cause.

      And maybe it’s a pretty minor thing, but it’s demoralizing to know that your coworkers are making assumptions about you based only on your gender.

      1. LA*

        It’s true that it’s really not that big of a deal…more just a pet-peeve. Yes there is a chance I am turning it into sexism but it’s also true that my office is out of the way and you have to walk past no less than 8 men to get to my desk.

        1. BCW*

          I can understand that, and its fair I can’t exactly put myself in your situation. However, is it possible that for some of these questions you may be more logical of a person to answer the questions than the 8 men? Are you someone who is constantly using cleaning supplies to clean your desk? Do you know the area better than others?

          I’m always one to assume that people aren’t doing things intentionally to be disrespectful, just not really seeing how you may take it. Again, aside from the men’s room comment.

          1. K*

            I don’t think she suggested they were doing it intentionally; her question and AAM’s suggestions are every bit as reasonable if they’re doing it subconsciously.

            1. BCW*

              Actually I disagree. She very much framed it as an issue of gender. If its more of an issue thats based on her prior actions and not her gender, then its not quite the same.

              1. KellyK*

                The two things aren’t mutually exclusive. It can be subconscious and still be gender-based.

              2. Nicole*

                It is a subconscious gender issue, which is what I think the AAM response was getting at. Asking someone why they are asking is a non-confrontational way to get them to think consciously about it.

                1. BCW*

                  What I’m saying though, it may not even be a subconscious gender issue. Everything that happens isn’t always about gender, despite what some people like to think. Is she the only woman they are asking these things to? If so, maybe she just seems like the most helpful person in the office. Trust me, there are women in my office I would ask things because they are helpful. There are other women I’d never ask things if I don’t have to because they are bitchy.

        2. Samantha Jane Bolin*

          I once worked in the history department of a university and our individual offices were each off the main hallway. However, there were two entrances to the department and the secretaries were only at one of them. It never failed that if people used the other door, they would walk past the offices of 5 men, until they found me (a woman) to ask any number of questions. If I wasn’t in my office, they moved past several more men to the next woman. It was so annoying. My standard answer was, “I don’t know, but if you go to the end of the hallway, the secretaries will be happy to help you.” Sexist, uh yeah.

          1. Sunshine DC*

            I’m glad you said this. In my case, as a woman I usually will walk past all the men looking for a woman to ask because I presume the woman will be friendlier and also I am happy to see and meet any other women in my male dominated field. I didn’t that could be interpreted another way, but now understand that it might. (Admittedly, if one of the men I pass is unusually handsome, I’ve been known to break the pattern.)

            1. A Bug!*

              I’m sure you realize though, that what you describe is sexism as well, even when it’s accurately interpreted. Singling out the woman because you think she’ll be nicer (and by implication, that the men will be unfriendly), rather than because you think her time is less valuable, may be well-intentioned, but it’s still you acting on gender-based assumptions.

          2. Anonymous*

            People do this because they are looking for someone that they are not intimidated by. I am a small woman, and I get the most ridiculous questions because I am not physically intimidating. I can tell by the type of questions that many of them don’t have squat to do inherently with sexism, just with people being more “comfortable” around me.

            Some of them are very technical professional questions that should’ve been sorted out with one of my colleagues instead, some of them are bizarre questions from random strangers, some of them are the suspected-sexist queries about cleaning supplies.

            My favorite example: A visitor to my workplace once walked past about 10 different offices with about 15 people (all men) in them, twice, before deciding to approach me in my office with a question. This visitor was a complete stranger to me. The question was, “Where is the bathroom?” The punchline is that the visitor was a male. One of my male office-mates was actually upset that someone would chose to ask me that instead of him, as if he were some sort of scary monster or wild animal.

            1. Zahra*

              But even the fact that men are inherently perceived as more intimidating is a social construct. And, probably, the person is assuming that a man being interrupted is more likely to react with hostility than a woman.

    2. Anon*

      Agreed – individually, most of these aren’t terrible. Although I’m assuming from the tone of OPs question that she doesn’t feel like they are asking “anyone” but instead targeting her/the ladies for all of these questions, all the time. So it’s a problem.

      I always read these and try to come up with what I would do in these situations before I read Alison’s answer. And I’m always blown away with just how much better her suggestions are. Thanks Alison!!

  9. Lisa*

    I would love to get an update on this… I wonder if when OP uses “Why are you asking me?” one of them will be startled enough to blurt out the honest answer, “Because you’re a woman and women know these things.”

    I like Alison’s approach. I’d be tempted to be more confrontational, but that probably wouldn’t be more effective, except possibly in the case of the tailor/cleaners question which I do get (not tailor/cleaners, but I get asked for things like bar recommendations when I don’t drink…) I tend to answer by saying, “I don’t know, but if you’ll unlock your phone and hand it to me I can install Yelp.”

  10. Jeff*

    As a male who suffers from male pattern blindness, I don’t think it’s all an expectation that a woman is going to do these things. Men don’t see things directly in front of them. If it’s not on their radar, be it a phone or toilet paper or whatever, not a concern, and even if it is they can’t find it half the time.

    1. Laundress*

      I disagree with your generalization. It’s unfair to men, because there are lots of men who do see things directly in front of them.
      More importantly, however, it’s a lazy excuse to continue expecting women to do things for you. Most people, barring a genuine disorder of some sort–and, needless to say, I do not include “male pattern blindness in that category–can learn to put things “on their radar” and find what they’re looking for. This means, of course, that they have to stop (1) thinking their time is more valuable than everyone else’s and (2) making assumptions about other people based on irrelevant demographic information like, you know, gender.

      1. LA*

        Exactly. And might I add another generalization to the mix. Most people (yep, that’s BOTH genders) might guess that a safe place to start looking for cleaning supplies might just be under the kitchen sink.

        1. Laura L*

          YES. Seriously. Why would you NOT look under the sink for cleaning supplies?

          Even when I was a 12-year-old babysitting at other people’s houses I knew this.

          1. Jamie*

            From when I first babyproofed my house way back then I never kept them under the sink…and bemoaned my lack of space. I finally realized not that long ago that since my youngest is old enough to shave I can probably stop worrying about him getting into the bleach.

            It took me a while. :)

            1. Laura L*

              Haha. I actually did this when I first moved into my current apartment. Stored them elsewhere, then remembered that under the sink is the perfect place for them.

            2. Jessica (the celt)*

              This reminds me of that story of the woman whose husband asked her why she cuts a roast in half every time she cooked one, putting one half in one pan and the other half in another. She shrugged and said her mom did it. They asked her mom when they saw her next, and she shrugged and said her mom had done it. Well the next time they saw granny, they asked her why she did it and she responded, “My oven wasn’t big enough to fit a larger pan, so I needed two smaller ones.”

              I wouldn’t be surprised if your kids end up putting supplies near wherever you kept them instead of under the sink. ;~) There’s usually a logical reason for it, but future generations have no clue why…it just always was that way. :-p

              (I think there was another story about pieces of cotton stuck in a screen door that went all the way to great-granny, who said it was to keep the flies out of the holes in the screen door…and none of the subsequent generations actually had holes in the screen door or some such.)

      2. KellyK*

        I totally agree with this, both that if men don’t notice things, it’s because they’ve never had to and that it’s a poor excuse.

    2. Zahra*

      In general, men don’t see things directly in front of them because they’re socialized to not *need* to do so. If they don’t find/need something, someone else will take care of it. The only thing that worked in my household was not doing it for my husband. Saying “I don’t know, you used it last”, “I don’t know, did you look everywhere?”, etc., *while not getting up to do it for him*, curbed the whole “Honey, where’s [thing]?”.

      Did you know, there was a study where they put people in a cocktail-like setting (everyone standing up, talking to each other). Women usually moved to let someone pass, without stopping their conversation or needing to be asked to do so. They were aware of their surroundings and of other people around them. Men? You had to ask them to move or go around them.

      1. jennie*

        Very interesting. My pet peeve is when a group is walking three-abreast on the sidewalk and won’t break their line to let an oncoming person pass. But I’ve seen this behaviour in both men and women.

        1. fposte*

          Yup. (And the way to beat that is just to stop and stand still. For some reason that makes you an obstacle rather than someone who can step off the sidewalk for them.)

          1. Anonymous*

            I can tolerate the three-abreast walkers on the sidewalk, but in my neighborhood –which has excellent sidewalks — they walk three abreast down the street and expect drivers to get out of the way even when it is twilight and they’re wearing dark colors. Grrr.

            Sorry. End OT rant/

            Back on topic — my last office had a male cleaner who owned his own business and did the cleaning, and even though he always put a spare roll on the back of the toilet, the roll would sit there when the holder was empty. Some of us got so exasperated that women weren’t replacing the toilet paper rolls when they were used up that one editor put up illustrated signs in the stalls. The wording began: “There is no toilet paper fairy…”

          2. The gold digger*

            I had to do this all the time – just stop – when I lived in South America. I think it’s a cultural thing. Or maybe I just looked like someone who would yield. But I got tired of having to step into the street or grass so I just stopped doing it.

            (I also finally told someone in the ticket line for the metro, “Excuse me, but I was next. It’s my turn.” Which shocked the heck out of him, I can tell you.)

          3. Jessica (the celt)*

            Oh geez. I should have read further before I posted. But YAY that someone else has realized this as well (see below a bit). My husband didn’t think this really worked until I proved it to him multiple times.

        2. Rana*

          Or when someone is aimed right at you and it becomes a game of sidewalk chicken.

          (I have to admit I sometimes use this as an opportunity to practice my “I’m crossing the street now so you’d better let me” Death Glare.)

        3. Jessica (the celt)*

          Here’s the trick for that: if you are walking toward the non-movers, simply stop in your tracks and look away from them. I’ve learned that if you are moving toward a group who is taking up the whole path, they expect you to step aside (hey, you’re moving anyway, right?) However, if you just stop right in front of them (several steps to allow them time to react, of course), they move around you and quit taking up the whole sidewalk. (As a short person, this is the ONLY thing that works for me to get people to quit trying to run me over. If I’m walking down the right side of the sidewalk or path and four people are coming toward me, four abreast, I just stop and look to the side as though I’m looking at something. Then they tend to go single-file or two-abreast instead, whichever allows them to pass me without knocking me over.)

          This is a huge pet peeve of mine. When my husband and I are walking together and another couple or group are coming toward us and taking up the whole sidewalk, one of us always steps behind the other to make more room, but when none of the huge group in front of us do the same and assume we’ll step off the path (sometimes into mud or huge snowdrifts), I am greatly irked.

            1. Jessica (the celt)*

              Luckily, it’s always worked for me for anyone coming toward me: walking, riding in a motorized cart/scooter of some sort, or even pushing a stroller. The trick has always been to not make eye contact, so they don’t know for sure that you even know they are there. I’ve never even been dinged by a stroller or those tourist bicycle or covered cart things that we have on our boardwalk. And there are a LOT of stroller brigades on our boardwalk.

              I just used it tonight on some teenager walking around in the mall and swinging a bag all over the place. He stopped short in front of me, quit swinging the bag, and went around me behind his buddies. (There were three guys walking down the aisle side-by-side.)

    3. Kathryn T.*

      ” Men don’t see things directly in front of them.”

      Yeah, not so much. My husband will blow his stack about messes that I don’t even notice. Besides, men, like all humans, have the capacity to change — if you can learn how to tie a tie or program a computer or use pivot tables in Excel, you can learn how to detect a sink full of dishes.

        1. Slave*

          Honestly, the best way to learn is to google “how to make a pivot table.” There are tons of online resources, and you will be pivot tabling like a pro in no time.

        2. Jubilance*

          Ditto on the Googling “How to make a pivot table”. I did this & found some great tutorials, which also included sample data that I could play around with.

      1. Jen in RO*

        I have the same problem. I’m messy and my boyfriend always hates it! I wish he’d develop some of that blindness.

    4. fposte*

      But somehow they can see enough to find a woman to ask about these things? That’s a pretty sexist blindness pattern, if so, and it doesn’t get them off the hook.

    5. Xay*

      “Men don’t see things directly in front of them.”

      Tell that to all the male neat freaks and organization junkies that I know. Then ask one of them to find my keys.

  11. Anonymous*

    Not to mention that when the receptionist is away from her desk, the phone will ring and ring and ring and ring…unless I answer it.

    If you are the only person who answers the ringing phone, then you have your answer as to why people expect you to do so. Stop doing it and eventually the expectation will go away.

    It sounds like you are seeing the unintended consequences of being helpful. If I ask Bob 5 times for various things and he never helps me, and I ask Sally 5 times for various things and she always helps me….if I’m smart, I’m going to go right to Sally when I want something. Is that because she’s a female or because I know she’ll give me the info/assistance I want?

    We could have a long discussion about women being more prone to be helpful and gender role conditioning but ultimately, if you are more often than not helping people when they ask you these things, you can put the brakes on this by not doing them anymore.

    1. iseeshiny*


      Some of the people in my office got the idea that I was the designated googler. They would actually get up out of their desks and walk over to mine to ask me to look up something. It kept happening until I started saying, “I don’t know, have you tried the internet?” And it started because I was being a helpful new person and before I knew it there was a pattern.

      1. anon o*

        My boss has no shame about asking me to google stuff for him. It’s astonishing to me that he thinks it’s easier to find me to google something than to do it himself. But whatever. If he wants to pay me to google things then I’m all for it.

        With the ringing phone thing I’m not sure I agree with Alison’s advice. I don’t agree that acting like the lowest common denominator is the best way to be a valuable employee. If this wasn’t the OP’s responsibility at all I’d agree, but it sounds like it’s everyone’s responsibility so therefore hers to answer ringing phones. So if she doesn’t do it, whatever the reason, she’s not doing her job. If answering the phone frequently is affecting her ability to do the rest of her responsibilities then she should speak to her manager. Otherwise, she should do her job – which includes answering phones and questions. And I say this as someone who works in an office with no receptionist and is the only one who does a lot of things that are a shared responsibility. But I don’t see why she can’t also go to her manager and ask if there’s something that can be done to make shared responsibilities more equitable.

        1. Ask a Manager* Post author

          Ah, but answering the phone every time it rings when the receptionist is away is not her responsibility. Only a fraction of those times.

          1. AG*

            This won’t solve all the problems, but maybe they need to change office policies if the receptionist is away from her desk a lot. At my last job, there was a rotating list of people trained to cover the front desk when the receptionist was at lunch or out of the office (I was one of them), and we had a schedule. Also when we walked by her desk we would always try to check to see if she needed the desk covered for a minute for her to use the bathroom or take a break.

            If that’s not feasible at this company, maybe even having rotating days of who is in charge of answering the phone when the receptionist is unavailable will force everyone to do their fair share.

          2. anon o*

            I’m just imagining this scenario. I’m the big boss. I’m walking through the office and the phone is ringing off the hook and OP is sitting at her desk not answering. How does that make her look? Even if she has a chance to address it I’m not sure there’s a defense that really works. “I’ve already answered it the 10 times this week and that’s my share.” “Everyone else isn’t doing it so I’m not.” “It’s not my responsibility every time.” It really makes her look petty and not a team player.

            1. Ask a Manager* Post author

              If that’s an issue, then she needs to talk to her boss about it and say, “I’m don’t want to let the phone ring unanswered, but I’m not willing to do it every time because none of the guys will. Please handle this.”

              1. anon o*

                Right, that’s what I’m saying. I think it’s a better solution than just not answering.

                1. Dan*

                  Thank you! I agree with everything you’ve said here.

                  I kept shaking my head as I read down this thread thinking I had to be the crazy one because it was impossible for no one else to see the madness… :-)

              1. fposte*

                Exactly. If the boss looks just at her, then the sexism starts higher than her co-workers.

          3. Sara*

            Eh this may sound very PA but is there a way to actively avoid the phones by being busy with work when the receptionist is away from her desk? Or even something like taking a bathroom break?

      2. AdAgencyChick*

        Or tell them, “Oh, you should try lmgtfy dot com — I know I saw that question answered there once.”

        I LOVE using that site on people who think I’m Google!

      3. Jessa*

        The funny thing about this is it may be a different bias. I get asked to do that all the time by friends, not because they’re incompetent, but because I have a knack for distilling down the search terms in a more successful way.

        So when I started getting annoyed at it, what I would do instead of actually Googling for them, I’d throw back the search terms I’d use, and after awhile a bunch of them got better trained in how to phrase things to get what they wanted. Now they only bug me if they tried a couple of times and failed. Then I haul out my expertise for them.

  12. Anonymous*

    Q “Where are the cleaning supplies stored?”
    A “Ask [office manager]”

    Q “Were you aware that the men’s room is out of toilet paper?”
    A “No. And I don’t understand why you are asking me that”

    1. Jean*

      Q “Do you know that the men’s room is out of toilet paper?”
      A “No, but hum a few bars and I’ll fake it.”

  13. Anonymous*

    I’m sure it’s not a gender thing at all. This is a case where the asker has correctly identified a person Who Knows Stuff And Looks Like Will Take Charge Of Things. I get this all the time, about everything, because I’m one of the few who won’t say, “Sorry, not my table,” and walk on.

    But it doesn’t change my suggestions for answers:

    Where are the cleaning supplies stored? “I don’t know; please let me know when you find out, then we’ll ALL know.”

    Were you aware that the men’s room is out of toilet paper? “No. Hope you find some!” (And if I liked the guy who told me, I’d offer to go steal him a roll from the ladies’.) (But I seriously loved the tampon comment.)

    Where is the nearest seamstress / tailor where “insert client name” can get a zipper replaced? If I know, I’ll tell them; if I don’t, I’ll suggest Google.

    Normally I love AAM’s answers, but the suggested reply is too confrontational.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      “Why are you asking me?” said in a pleasant tone doesn’t seem confrontational to me. You’d have to truly use the pleasant tone though.

      1. Lee*

        It seems to me, that if the OP is actually just the most helpful person in the office, as has been suggested, the response will be ‘Because you always know the answer to this stuff’.

      2. AG*

        I wish I could hear this tone in my head, I can’t figure out how you would say this without sounding snarky.

        1. Esra*

          Say it with a smile, like you’d love to help, but you’re genuinely confused as to why they are asking you. As I would be if someone asked me questions about tailors or the state of the men’s bathroom.

          1. fposte*

            Yes, with slight bafflement and curiosity, like maybe you missed the relevant memo and wanted to check.

      3. Anonymous*

        I prefer “I don’t understand why you’re asking me” as even less accusatory – it’s not even asking for a response.

      4. Anonymous*

        I’m not sure everyone can pull off the pleasant-enough tone, though. And a person who suspects the questions are all happening because she’s a woman may have even more trouble with that, as she is coming from a suspicious place to start with.

  14. Guera*

    Depending on the guy who’s asking I might say: “No, I don’t use the men’s bathroom so I don’t have a vested interest in knowing that information.”
    “Did you try asking the guy in the stall next to you?”
    “Well, you might want to bring some from home then!”

    1. The gold digger*

      “Well, you might want to bring some from home then!”

      Which is what I had to do when I was a Peace Corps volunteer. The women in our co-op would steal the toilet paper from the office bathroom. I brought my own and kept it locked in my desk.

  15. Eric*

    “I am not on the front lines; it is not in my role to answer phones, order lunch, order office supplies, etc. ”
    I’d make sure you know who is, and than point them to that person.
    “The men’s room is out of toilet paper”
    “Ok. You should tell OfficeManager”

  16. Lanya*

    OP, are the men at your company asking the other two females these same questions?

    I get what you’re saying, but at the same time I am curious if you have been “too helpful” in the past and that is why you are getting these kinds of questions or feeling like you are the only person taking care of certain responsibilities. It may not have anything to do with gender at all, but rather, you may have created your own monster. I have done this myself without realizing it, and then had to train my coworkers out of the bad habits I allowed them to form.

  17. Ann O'Nemity*

    Q Were you aware that the men’s room is out of toilet paper?
    A No, and I don’t have a square to spare.

  18. Frieda*

    Alison, would you give the same answer if the person asking for help was an executive? I think “why are you asking me” is a great response to a peer or even your direct manager, but if my boss’s boss’s boss (the COO) walked by and asked me for anything I’d be hard-pressed to not do what he asked.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Nope! In that case, you do what you’re being asked for … but if it becomes a pattern that you think is a problem, then you have a conversation with that person (separately, not in response to one of the requests) about your concern. (Although if it’s not your manager and instead is someone above them, you’d go through your manager, at least to start.)

      1. AG*

        I had to have that conversation with my manager once. I unfortunately sat near the fax machine, although I was not an admin and never used the thing. It was bad enough that people would constantly ask me if their fax came through. Then the CFO whose office was next to mine asked me to fax something for him once (it wasn’t an emergency). I did it with a smile of course, but then I went to my boss to clarify that I was not, in fact, anyone’s assitant!

  19. LA*

    It’s worth mentioning that our philosophy here is all about accountability and empathy. If you need to wipe your bum, you need to be responsible for it too. That means having your proverbial “ducks in a row” and executing your strategy autonomously, or with a team, or by delegation if that is in your power. And because you are aware of your own need to wipe your bum, you are also aware that others might have this same need. So, when you use the last square it is up to you to replace the TP for the next guy instead of walking away and letting someone else handle it. When you think about it, it’s sort of the answer to all the world’s problems.

  20. AG*

    By the way, I love the title of this post. Not where I thought it was going, I was expecting something along the lines this:

    Liz Lemon: “Cerie, you need to wear a bra.”
    Cerie: “No, actually, they just kinda stay up on their own.”

  21. Jesicka309*

    I’d try a variation of Alison’s response:
    Bob: where are the cleaning supplies?
    Jane: hmmm, I really don’t know. I’m just the comms coordinator, but I think Paul the office manager might.

    It reminds him that actually, it isn’t your job, and it’s someone else’s. said with the right tone, it could come off well (like “I’m just the LOWLY COORDINATOR I don’t get to know super important stuff like where you guys keep the toilet paper in the men’s room!!)

  22. Wilton Businessman*

    With all the Yahoo! stuff going on, I thought this was going to be a “work at home” question. Carry on…

  23. Anonymous*

    “Were you aware that the men’s room is out of toilet paper?”
    “Uhh, I hope you dont think I would go to the wrooong restroom?” *blush*

    1. fposte*

      I was thinking just put your feet up on the desk and hands behind your head and just say “Yeah, that was me. My bad.” And then don’t move.

  24. Anonymous*

    I am a woman who used to work at a male-dominated financial services firm (as a mid-level project manager) and this happened to me all the time. I was informed of unclean areas in the office and asked to call housekeeping. I was asked to order meals for meetings, asked to update executives’ calendars, asked to run errands, and asked to fix the copy machine. None of these tasks were even remotely in my job description. The men at my level were never asked to do these things. Even more incredibly, there was a male administrative assistant in the office, and many people apparently preferred to ask me to do these things rather than ask him.

  25. Jessica (the celt)*

    Honestly, for the toilet paper one, I’d be tempted to respond, “Is that a trick question?” or “Why on earth would I need to be aware of that?” Why would she ever remotely be aware that the men’s room is out of toilet paper? Do they think she goes in there herself?

  26. Not So NewReader*

    The comments are really funny here. I am enjoying.

    BUT to OPs problem. Who IS in charge of this stuff? Start redirecting people to the correct person. “Susie is in charge of supplies.”
    Does the boss realize how many times a day you are interrupted by trivial questions?

    I can understand wanting a good reference for a tailor. But in my case I would have to respond: “I don’t use a tailor, so I can’t recommend anyone.”
    TP in the men’s room? REALLY? “I don’t know. You will have to check with the janitor.”
    I think that redirecting people to the correct person is the route to go. And also let the boss in on what you are doing and why you are doing it. That way if anyone complains to him/her, you got to the boss first and the boss realizes the rest of the story.

    It will take some time to retrain people, but stick to your guns on this one, OP.
    And btw. Yes, it could be a woman issue. But that does not really solve your problem today. So don’t let on that you think it is because they need to ask a woman. Better off to cut to the punchline and send them to the correct person. This will solve your problem quicker than years of analysis (for the questioner).

    1. Wilton Businessman*

      Why are you assuming the person “in charge of these things” is going to be a woman?

  27. mel*

    Yes the toilet paper thing is really bizarre… I am very curious to know why they would choose a random female coworker to change the toilet paper. Not even just ask, but scold her for not checking on it regularly.


    I mean… I am a kitchen assistant responsible mostly for washing up and even I get annoyed when people cant change the paper towel rolls. I mean, how useless can a person be? I wonder if she didn’t do any of these things that all of her coworkers just walk around in circles and banging their heads against walls in confusion???

  28. Anonymous*

    I would’ve been tempted to reply to the men’s room toilet paper question with: “Well, this is awkward. Bob, I’m a woman.”

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