my HR rep used offensive language, should teachers go to nightclubs, and more

It’s five answers to five questions. Here we go…

1. How should I tell an employee that she’s talking too much and needs to get back to work?

One of my employees talks too much and it affects her productivity. Her coworkers are able to talk a little bit, but are still able to meet their goals. However, she joins in their she winds up talking more then them. How do I explain to her that their talking is not an issue because they are able to meet their goals?

Why not keep the focus on her need to meet her goals? If she seems stumped on how to do that, you can point out that she shouldn’t be spending time talking to coworkers rather than working. Alternately, though, it’s certainly legitimate to just say directly, “Jane, I’m noticing you socializing with others a lot, while your productivity isn’t where it needs to be. I need you to do less talking to coworkers and stay focused on your work.”

2. My HR rep used offensive language

I work at a small-ish company with a friendly culture, and we just have one HR person. She’s at the senior manager level and has been with the company for just under a year. I never really get the chance to interact with her much, but she has always seemed like a nice person.

Today during regular business hours, she was talking to a coworker who sits near me. They are not close friends and it wasn’t a “friendly chat” sort of conversation. Basically it was the HR manager expressing frustration about a program on her computer. She sounded very angry and called the situation “retarded” at least 3 times and didn’t bother to keep her voice down.

I was honestly quite shocked to hear this. First, because I just find this word to be very offensive and I think it needs to fall out of popular use. Second, I was disappointed to hear that an HR manager out of all people would be throwing around this word repeatedly in an office setting.

I had been considering going to her with a small HR issue, but now I’m hesitant to reach out to her. I don’t know if she would be able to help me solve my issue in a professional and judgment-free way, to be honest, and I don’t know if I would ever be comfortable going to her. Am I being too sensitive here?

I don’t think you’re being overly sensitive in being bothered by what she said, but you’re probably being overly sensitive in not feeling comfortable talking to her about professional issues now. The word “retarded” is still in something of a transition in phase in our culture: Many people recognize that using it in a pejorative way is offensive, but plenty still don’t; there are many people who truly haven’t thought about why that usage isn’t okay, who hear it said by others around them and think it’s fine, and who haven’t been clued in yet that it’s not. Why not clue her in and see how she responds?

3. Should I mention to my interviewer that I’m interviewing for another position in the same company?

Yesterday, I applied to two jobs at the same company. I used your advice and made sure each cover letter was different, mentioned why I was qualified, and that I did apply for the other one. Well, I now got a call for a phone interview for one and an in person for the other. Do I assume that they each know they have contacted me, do I say something in case they don’t, or just leave it alone and act as if it is two different companies?

It obviously is a good predicament to have, but I am wondering about the protocol.

If it’s a small or small-ish company, I’d acknowledge it; it’s weird if you don’t. When you next speak to each, I’d say something like, “By the way, I want to make sure you know that I’m also talking with Jane about the XYZ position.”

4. Should teachers be allowed to go clubbing?

My friends and I are having a debate about whether it is ok for a preschool or teacher’s aide to go to a bar or nightclubbing. We have mostly the cons over the pro, but I would like to hear it your side.

What?! Yes, of course it’s okay. Preschool and teacher’s aides are allowed to have adult lives outside of school, and nightclubs are not bordellos.

5. Should the body of your email be the same as your cover letter?

Should the body of your email (when you submit a job application) be the same as your cover letter? In the past, I’ve sent a very short email with my resume and cover letter attached as PDFs, but now I’m wondering if I should have pasted the text of my cover letter into the initial email.

Pick one or the other — don’t do both. It’s annoying to have it in both places, since then I need to wonder if the letters are the same or different and spend time finding out. If you put it in the email body, there’s no need to also attach it, and vice versa.

{ 562 comments… read them below }

    1. en pointe*

      Out of curiosity, do people think Facebook photos are okay if you have maximum privacy settings? Or just not a good idea at all?

      1. MentalEngineer*

        How far do you trust your friends? Do you trust them to know the right privacy settings, and to respect your wish for some things to stay private? Really? Every single one? Every single time? Between incompetence and malice, the risk that somebody will spread something you wanted kept quiet is rarely acceptable.

        1. en pointe*

          Sure, but I don’t see how your average nightclub photo would even be worth someone spreading around, unless it’s something really scandalous. Plenty of adults go to bars and clubs – not a big deal.

          If the OP is willing to share, I’d love to know what cons her and her friends came up with. Is it out of concern that student’s parents might find out and judge the school?

          I’m not a teacher, nor am I job-searching, but I do have photos up that would probably make me look like a “party girl” to some more conservative employers. That said, I’ve certainly never let my Friday or Saturday nights impact my ability to do my job, and I find it hard to believe that potential employers would actually bother to seek out which of my friends have low privacy settings, just so they can determine how well I hold my liquor.

          Also, if you’re like me and have a weirdly technologically savvy grandma, you can use the custom settings to control which friends see posts. Just wish Facebook would stop changing them around without telling anyone.

          1. iseeshiny*

            There have been cases with the teaching industry in particular where people have been fired over something as small as holding a glass of wine in a photo on a locked down facebook. It’s ridiculous but also the reality.

              1. Emily K*

                Most teachers still have a morality clause in their contract–they can be fired for not upholding decent morals for the children.

                This is a big reason why so many K-12 teachers don’t live and teach in the same district. If a student spots you in public doing something “immoral” you can be fired. But if you live 15 miles away, less chance that a student will spot you in public.

                1. manybellsdown*

                  I know I’m way late to this conversation, but yes it can happen. I used to perform in a cast of the Rocky Horror Picture Show on weekends. We lost our theater venue, and the organizer got a new venue that was 2 blocks from the school I taught at.

                  I had to quit my hobby to keep my job. One parent seeing me there would have been all it took. They hold the teachers to different standards than they hold themselves.

            1. Meg*

              A teacher friend of mine got fired over a photo on her Facebook account that wasn’t locked down properly. It was from over 5 years ago, when she wasn’t even teaching. A parent of one of her students looked her up, found the photo, and complained to the principal. Stuff like this does happen, and it’s awful.

        2. Liane*

          Even if you trust your friends that much, do you trust their (FB) friends? Really? Even the ones where your only connection to them is that your friend shares pics of their pet iguana?
          Plus, FB often changes how its privacy settings work (usually making the defaults more, not less, public, I believe) so you have to keep on top of them.
          Finally, as another poster mentioned there are screenshots that can then be spread around, even long after you take down that questionable selfie or status. Ever read an online article about some star’s or politician’s offensive Tweet or FB comment that was soon deleted? The article had a screenshot of the deleted Tweet/post, didn’t it?
          So one moral of the story is, “If you have to ask whether you should post something, don’t post it.”

          1. Natalie*

            This seems a little paranoid to me. Leaving aside whether or not a photo of someone in a bar is remotely scandalous, there’s nothing preventing you from adjusting your settings however you want them. I have certain things hidden from Facebook friends (primarily relatives who I don’t care to scandalize with my atheism and swearing).

            People take screenshots of famous people’s tweets because they are famous. Unless we’re talking idiot racism levels of offensiveness, nobody cares about the average reader of this blog being in a bar.

            1. Zillah*

              But they do sometimes care about teachers. Parents (or students, for middle/high schoolers) have certainly been known to google a teacher or search for them on facebook, and teachers have gotten fired for pictures showing them doing things that aren’t even illegal.

              1. Ambe Lu*

                I’m a teacher. I will do whatever I want outside of school hours. I won’t post on Facebook, but I have every right to drink, smoke, swear, dance, party, whatever. It’s not like I share that information with my students, or do any of those things around them. I don’t imagine I will run into a Grade 5 student at the club. If I run into their parents, then I’m not sure they can really talk. I’m not the one with children. It is a violation of a persons rights to forbid them the same freedoms as anyone else. In my opinion, people can mind their own business. Self righteous idiots.

                By the way, I like this site. :)

      2. Rayner*

        Generally speaking, on facebook you should not put anything on there that would not be comfortable showing at a family dinner with grandma and aunts and uncles around.

        Although you may lock your photos down, and not tag people, others may not, and that’s how future employers might find you. Or, they may do a search of you on google and see what shows up – if you previously had photos unlocked and have only recently locked them, they can still show up in other places.

        Facebook is /not/ secure. Anyone can screen shot or save an incriminating/embarrassing/ you doing incredibly stupid things picture and repost it on twitter or another social networking site, and before you know it, it’s gone viral.

        If it’s a family photo of you on a holiday, I don’t know that such a picture if it came up first would be that objectionable (from a POV of an employer), but if there’s a picture of you doing shots while splayed over the bar, or widdling up a doorway in front of a church, then I’d certainly be questioning your judgement.

        The internet is forever. Remember that, and act accordingly, and you should be fine :D

        1. Jessa*

          Exactly. People have been fired over after work behaviour (whether or not you think that’s right.) Teachers used to have very strict morals clauses in their contracts. They don’t anymore but they are still held to those kind of standards.

          1. A Teacher*

            Wait, what? I’m not held to any more of a moral standard than someone in any other professional setting. I’ve worked in the school system for 10 years and have yet to see a teacher fired or removed for having a social life. Of course, I’m a public school teacher but really I’m incapable of thinking of one teacher I know fired for something like having a social life. I’m not talking going all crazy that would get you fired from my job but in general I ont think I’m held to a higher moral standard than the next person.

            1. Elysian*

              I don’t know anyone personally, but I’ve heard stories in the news or read court cases about:
              – teachers being fired for having pictures from college where they were underage drinking
              – teacher being fired for having previously been an exotic dancer
              – teacher being fired for having nude photographs taken by a professional photographer for her partner
              – teacher being fired for having a photo online of her drinking on her summer vacation
              – teacher fired for being a swimsuit model

              Most other professions wouldn’t fire people for these things if they found out about them after you were hired. I think we do hold teachers to special morality standards.

              1. Rayner*

                I think people often do hold teachers to that higher moral standard for many different reasons, but we shouldn’t.

                Teachers are educators, but they are also people, and should be allowed to have holidays, drink, have fun, and make merry as they please.

                1. Chinook*

                  I agree that teachers are often unofficially held to a higher moral standard. Even if it doesn’t get you fired, if you are dealing with older students, it can lead to awkward situations, especially if you are in a smaller community. In one town where I worked, there were only 3 bars. When I overheard some students talk about sneaking in with fake ids, I had to speak up and point out that, if I saw them there, I would be legally obligated to tell the bouncer they were underage. Another time I saw a student on the dance floor with a guy I had dated the weekend before (I was only 25 and there was a base nearby, so this wasn’t so odd) and had to approach her to confirm she was 18.

                  I miss teaching but acknowledge that I have more freedom in my personal life now.

                2. gd*

                  Some contracontracts did (don’t know if they still do) have morals clauses. I have a friend who lost his teaching job after being busted in a prostitution sting. His contact said they could fire him for something like that.

                3. the gold digger*

                  Prostitution sting is way bigger than having drinks at a bar.

                  Yes, I know. Prostitution is also illegal, at least in the state where my friend worked, whereas drinking at a bar is not. My point was about morals clauses and that some contracts have them.

              2. Whippers*

                “teacher being fired for having a photo online of her drinking on her summer vacation”

                Ok I find that one very hard to believe unless it was “photo of teacher participating in lewd behaviour whilst drinking on her summer vacation”

                1. fposte*

                  Nope. They were pictures of her at a restaurant somewhere on her European vacation from a few years previously, holding a glass of wine and a glass of beer (and not looking drunk or wild, just sitting at the table). Somebody anonymously complained and the school gave her the choice of resignation or suspension.

                2. Whippers*

                  Ok……I’m convinced.
                  But this is completely crazy. Why are teachers expected to infantilise themselves just because they teach children? What possible benefit is there in expecting them to hide the fact that they’re adults and do perfectly acceptable adult things.
                  Surely it’s beneficial for children to be taught by well rounded adults rather than someone who lives in a superficial bubble.

                3. kelly*

                  The case that’s being linked to sounds like it was a rival teacher who faked the complaint because of some grudge against her. The language used in the email wasn’t wording that a parent would use. It’s phrasing like pupil when a parent would use student that give it away that it’s one of her now former colleagues.

              3. Allison*

                Two thoughts:

                – Where were these teachers working? conservative areas? private schools? public schools in liberal areas with conservative principals? Not that you’d know off the top of my head, I’m just curious if those were factors in those teachers being fired.

                – Did those photos ever go public? Did kids or parents see them? Were they in the news as “scandals”? If so, they may have been fired for image reasons or due to pressure from the community.

            2. AB*

              A fellow teacher who worked at the school (high school) where my very dear friend worked was fired because she was at a bar and some students saw her and took pictures. The bar was 21 and up and the students were there with fake ID’s, and the teacher wasn’t doing anything other than meeting friends for a drink. She wasn’t drunk, she wasn’t behaving irresponsibly, she was just there…
              I personally know a teacher who was fired for using the colloquial phrase “both barrels blazing” (not in reference to a student, but when discussing a book). I would say that if you are an un-tenured teacher working in a right to work state, that you should avoid going to clubs.

              1. Lillie Lane*

                Fired for using “both barrels blazing”?!?!? Outrageous and ridiculous. Though it reminds me of the time in first grade where I used the expression “toe jam” and got a time out. It was the only time I ever got in trouble in 23 years of school.

                1. AB*

                  I went to college with the idea of becoming a teacher, but backed out long before graduating because of the ridiculousness of the system. Now we have people complaining that so many of the teachers in the system, both new and experienced, are not up to snuff. This is a part of the problem. We take teachers to task for completely legal and non-offensive behavior. We legislate the classroom to death, and tie teacher reviews to things ultimately beyond their control. Teacher pay and sometimes working conditions are deplorable. You want to know why there are cheating scandals and a dearth of really good teachers staying in or entering the public school system? Take your pick of any and all of the above answers.

          2. Gwen Soul*

            And some private schools are even more strict where if you live with a SO unwed or violate other tenants of faith, so I could easily see drinking getting someone fired in that situation.

            1. De Minimis*

              This really depends on the school and on the community. Something that wouldn’t be a big deal in a large city might be considered unacceptable in a smaller town, or even a more conservative bigger city.
              I know where I grew up, a lot of people are still very uptight about drinking.

              1. Gwen Soul*

                I am specifically talking about private schools that tend to hold their employees to more strict standards. You can have that in any area.

                1. the gold digger*

                  Aren’t those sorts of things usually spelled out in the contract? As in, it wouldn’t be a surprise to a teacher in a Catholic or a WELS school that it was not acceptable to be living with someone outside of marriage.

                  I don’t have a problem with a school firing someone who violates a known clause of a contract. Everyone knew the deal going in. But I do have a problem with a school that would fire a teacher for indulging in a legal activity that is not prohibited in a contract.

            2. Chris80*

              The conservative religious school I went to for K-12 and where my mother taught had it in the teachers’ contracts that they and their families could not go swimming in public pools for modesty reasons. That is just one example of many, but it definitely happens.

          3. kelly*

            I’ve heard of cases where teachers have gotten fired for immoral behavior. The couple that come to mind are a male teacher in Washington State who taught in a Catholic school getting fired after marrying his male partner and another teacher in a Catholic school getting fired for getting pregnant while not married. For them it was probably in their contract, but they never in a million years thought it would be enforced. I’m also not sure but I don’t think that teacher’s unions have a strong presence in Catholic and other religiously-affiliated schools. Most schools that have teachers unions probably don’t have the morality clauses in their contracts.

            1. Katie*

              Wouldn’t that be outright illegal, and the contract clause ineffective because of government regulations/protected status?

          1. JAM*


            My friend’s husband is a teacher, and he uses their dog’s name for his FB account. :) It was for this very reason – so that his students couldn’t look him up on FB and he could be more free to post what he wanted. My friend also only uses her first and middle names, even though she’s not a teacher herself.

  1. Ruffingit*

    #4: Preschool teacher moonlighting on the premises of said preschool as a prostitute servicing the fathers of the kids = not OK. Going to bar or night club? Totally OK. Really, I can’t understand what the cons are that the OP mentions in the letter. If the teacher is getting rip roaring drunk and then calling the parents of students to tell them she hates their kids, then yeah you’ve got a problem, but that is not because she’s a teacher, it’s because she’s unable to drink appropriately as it were.

    1. amaranth16*

      Unfortunately school districts can be less sane than you’d like to think. In some places teachers have been fired for having pictures on the Internet of them holding a drink. I kid you not.

        1. LisaLyn*

          I think that’s the thing — extreme cases make the news and then it seems more common than it is. Still, I agree with everyone who says you do need to be aware of just how public Facebook can be, no matter what your privacy settings.

          1. Zillah*

            That’s definitely true. Still, for every case that doesn’t make the news, I imagine there are still many, many instances of things either being handled quietly or teachers just ending up in awkward situations because of what their students find.

            My boyfriend is a teacher, and he doesn’t have a facebook in part because he knows that if his students knew that he’d gone to a few music festivals awhile ago that are known for drug use or if they saw pictures of him drinking or whatever, it would encourage them to start really inappropriate conversations he doesn’t want to navigate.

      1. JM*

        I’m curious as to where these things have happened. I taught Pre-K and Kindergarten for a long time and have lots of friends who are teachers. It’s so hard to fire tenure teachers that I can’t imagine a district would waste their time getting them fired for having a picture with a drink in their hand.

        But I used to go out with other teachers from my school and others. Most of the time we saw parents there and they would comment how it was nice to see us in a different setting. If you see a parent or your boss there, they’re at a bar/club too so there should be no room for judgement.

        1. Liz in a library*

          Non-union states. It’s fantastically easy to fire teachers for little reason where I am, because we have a glut of graduate education programs and no unions. :(

          1. KellyK*

            Also, even in union states, you have to *get* tenure before that even comes into play. Of the teachers who are going to bars and nightclubs, a lot of them are probably young and fairly early in their careers.

      2. Ruffingit*

        I’m aware of those cases, followed them with interest myself. However, the OP appears to be talking about simply going to the nightclub or bar, not posting photos holding drinks or what have you. Personally, I think it’s insane that a teacher is fired for posting a photo of herself on vacation with a wine glass (which was the Georgia case as I recall), but in this case, again, it appears the OP is simply talking about going to an establishment.

  2. Steve G*

    As per #2…………… Maybe the OP is sheltered from items that really should offend someone.

    OP, I live in NYC, I do not have the luxury to shield myself from offensive items. On the way to work today, someone threw up at the subway door, actually on the side of the train, then proceeded to stand right next to me! On the ride home, a couple of guys got in a fight yelling at someone that called a beggar a loser. Throw in a few mental cases making off hand remarks to me, people cutting in line at every place I went today, etc……and I find it quite prima donna for someone to get offended over a person venting at their computer using the word “retarded.” Please put that part of you that gets offended easily on the back burner so you can get along with this person.

    I think that that sort of getting offended at something small creates so many more communication and workplace problems than letting the small things slide.

    For example, I have a small pot belly I hadn’t had in recent years. I went out to lunch with a coworker who is…corpulent. Not thinking about them, but about myself, I lamented that I had taken too much food from the buffet yet again and didn’t want to eat it all because of my belly. Not thinking about them because the comment was totally about me. Their reaction? They took it as a personal attack that I had called THEM fat and gossiped about it around the office. Do you think their sensitivity was warranted? No. The comment was about ME and my issues- just a little comment during a 1/2 hour lunch time conversation….so it got to a point where I can’t really have a conversation with this coworker, because if they can/want to get offended at every little thing, I don’t have the time and energy to predict every little thing they are going to grab and get offended by…

    1. TL*

      Actually, using retarded as a pejorative term is actually a pretty big deal. And if the coworker handles it reasonably, like “I’m not sure you know, but that word’s actually considered really offensive and it really shouldn’t be used, especially in the workplace.” there shouldn’t be any drama.

      And I don’t think this needs to turn into a what’s-more-offensive battle. Asking people, especially people in HR, to use respectful language and to be mindful of how their words affect others will help prevent other, more offensive/dangerous things from happening. Words matter.

      1. en pointe*

        Totally agree about the use of that word.

        However, I take Steve’s point, in that it’s probably a bit oversensitive of the OP to let this incident colour their whole view of, and relationship with, the HR person – especially considering the OP states she has “always seemed like a nice person” before this.

        I would be inclined to think that the HR person was just thoughtless and a little ignorant in her word choice, as opposed to this being a general reflection of her awful character – until and unless she proves otherwise. The OP should just raise it with her in a reasonable manner and, hopefully, that can be the end of it.

      2. Wakeen's Teapots Ltd.*

        My oldest son is special needs and the use of the word “retarded” in that fashion offends me. Individuals have more or less awareness of how offensive this is. I believe that needs to be taken into account. Should a situation arise, I politely ask the person not to do so again, and I haven’t had any further issues.

        I did something pretty horrible the other week myself. I, unfiltered and loudly, “used the Lord’s name in vain” (the bad one, the one with the “H” in the middle) in a conversation with someone I respect immensely whom I know to be highly religious. At work! Fortunately behind closed doors.

        I was mortified and apologized profusely.

        It is any other curse word to me but to another person it is offensive. It is basic manners to monitor yourself to not offend the person you are talking to.

        Slip ups happen, you apologize and move on. Feeling differently about the HR rep for an unfiltered use of “retarded” seems a large overreaction to me (especially when the rep wasn’t given a chance to apologize).

        1. Ella*

          I am an HR (Exec Comp).
          To me professionalism means being knowledgeable and displaying in (and outside) the office proper manners and an irreproachable behavior. That is an immaculate language above all.

          In my opinion this should apply to all, not to HR only.

          1. Wakeen's Teapots Ltd.*

            That is an immaculate language above all.

            While I do not have that same belief or value system, this is an example of how manners come into play.

            If we worked together and I offended you, I would apologize and endeavor to not offend you again.

            I’m not going to change my speech, generally, to conform to a standard that I don’t agree with, but it doesn’t cost me anything to apologize and remember to adjust myself to the company that I’m in.

            1. Anne 3*

              IMO, and like Wakeen has touched on, being professional means acknowleding your slip-ups and apologizing when necessary.

              1. Anonymous*

                BUT THE HR REP DOESNT EVEN KNOW! Because the OP was overhearing something and never confronted her.

            2. Ella*

              I make sure they do not happen. Ever. It is not easy, but it definitely pays off.
              “Perception is everything”, wasn’t it?

      3. Eric*

        I agree. Continuing to use language that someone has told you they find offensive? Okay, whatever, that’s your right and no reasonable person is going to make a huge stink about it.

        But it tells me a lot about the kind of person you are.

        1. Kimberlee, Esq.*

          This. I’m not a religious person and I don’t generally care if my swearing or taking anyone’s name in vain offends people. Generally.

          At work, though? No, it’s not appropriate to take the stand against political correctness at the expense of your co-worker feeling attacked or harassed at their job.

          And I certainly don’t want to be known as a person who is willing to make other people at my workplace feel bad so I can use a word that has many easily substituted and non-offensive synonyms.

      4. Genuinely Curious*

        I’m probably going to get totally flamed for this, but the controversy over the word “retarded” has always puzzled me because the clinical term for someone with intellectual disabilities is “mental retardation.” i.e. someone who suffers from mental retardation is “mentally retarded.”

        I’ve always referred to it this way because I try to use clinical terms so as not to offend. Clearly I’ve missed the boat somewhere along the way.

        Is the correct term “special needs” now?

        1. fposte*

          “Special needs” is a general term for kids with various kinds of disabilities, including intellectual.

          “Mental retardation” was a clinical term, but it’s not really in use anymore–the sources Psychology Today cite don’t use it as a contemporary term, preferring “intellectual disability.” So it’s not quite like using the outdated clinical terms “idiot” or “moron,” but it’s definitely past its sell-by.

          1. Wakeen's Teapots Ltd.*

            I’m probably going to get totally flamed for this, but the controversy over the word “retarded” has always puzzled me because the clinical term for someone with intellectual disabilities is “mental retardation.” i.e. someone who suffers from mental retardation is “mentally retarded.”

            No flames, silly, great question. Times have changed a lot.

            My son, for example, is high functioning autistic with average to slightly above average IQ and some significant disabilities – dyspraxia, auditory processing disorder & dyslexia.

            With an average IQ, he would have never met the clinical definition of “mentally retarded” back in the day except for the part where, with his autism & his other disabilities, he never would have tested with an average IQ back in the day, because there was no awareness of or mechanism to test properly.

            So, he would have been retarded and treated thusly, riding on that famous short bus to wherever they took the short bus kids.

            Instead, my special needs child’s special needs were addressed throughout all of his schooling, and my 22 year old son holds down a job he got on his own while continuing college part time.

            (“B” in accounting last semester, baby!)

            “Retarded” was an awful lump word, a label under which to dump children and adults, and people don’t want to go back there again.

            1. Jamie*

              My eldest also has autism – as well as CAPD, severe dyslexia, as well as severe learning disabilities so I’m very familiar with what you’re describing.

              And just to make a point about how individual this is your comment

              So, he would have been retarded and treated thusly, riding on that famous short bus to wherever they took the short bus kids.

              Made me physically clench. My son, very similar to yours, took that short bus and “where they took the short bus kids” was school…in the town we moved to specifically because they had the best special ed program for his needs.

              I’d bet money you didn’t mean for that to be offensive – but it bothered me and read to me as a slight on kids who did take that bus. Most likely not how you intended it.

              But this is the point. You have a special needs kid who is now in college, I have a special needs kid who is now in college…you didn’t have a problem making that comment I had a physical reaction to what read to me as dismissive and insulting to a group of kids. It’s all individual and except for the words/phrases in common agreement we can’t avoid offending somebody at some point.

              The fact that I was bothered by that is my problem, not yours, because this is an online forum and we’re here by our own volition. So if I was offended on a regular basis I’d leave.

              I just think this is a text book example of the slippery slope when we police each others words – because we all have different ideas of what is and isn’t okay to say.

              1. Wakeen's Teapots Ltd.*

                You know, Jamie, I thought about that before I wrote it and I wrote it on purpose….not to make somebody clench, and I truly apologize for that, but to use blunt language. I would never make a short bus joke but I was co-opting that language for emphasis.

                What have I learned here? Instead of thinking twice, think three times.

                Thanks for being so kind in the way that you pointed that out.

                1. Jamie*

                  No need to apologize – and that was my point. We can all think 3 times or 3 hundred times and we’ll still inadvertently make someone squinky on occasion.

                  Because we’re human and language isn’t a sterile imperfect science – it’s fluid and colorful and evocative I’d be so saddened if we were all reduced to only the most clinically non-offensive words. It would take a lot of the nuance and almost all of the humor out of communication.

                  This is why I’m confused when people say intent doesn’t matter. Sure, we can’t parse out the intent of everyone…but in this exchange for example – it’s blindingly clear you have no ill intent and wanted to disparage no one. You aren’t responsible for my visceral reactions based on personal experience of knowing my son was teased over a decade ago.

                  We can’t strive for a world which is so black and white where there are good words and bad words and a utopia where no one says anything in the bad column. We’d lose too much because most of life isn’t black and white – real life is all about shades of (any other color except gray – because the book just ruined that analogy for a while).

                  In the real world if someone says something that makes you wince, maybe you correct them if it’s something that the average person would find offensive…or maybe sometimes we evaluate if it’s offensive or if our reaction is personal and if they didn’t mean anything by it maybe we don’t become the vocabulary police over everything.

                  And off topic but I’ve been trying to get my kids to take an accounting class for years – 3 kids in college, no takers – it’s the language of business for crying out loud – who doesn’t want to learn that! So I’m super happy for your son because that’s a class that means something!

                  (Oh, and mine who 21 years ago they told me would never speak or understand beyond the level of a young child brought home an A in Asian history and read Dostoyevsky Notes from the Underground for fun, so suck on that neurologist who was NOT prescient! If we can just get around that freaking math requirement!)

                2. Wakeen's Teapots Ltd.*

                  Jamie! Out of reply space!

                  1) I beggggggggged him to take accounting. I mean begged. At first I asked, and then another semester I asked, and then I nagged and finally, I just begged. Mother *begging* finally worked. I was so sure he’d take to it (I love accounting), and he did. I got a very grudging “you were right” out of him, and now he is going to pursue accounting.

                  2) My son didn’t have a conversation that wasn’t rote speech until he was 10, and struggled with very basic things. I wish he could read the things that your son does! We’re a bookish family and he’s always been left out that way because of his dyslexia but man, is he a film expert. Aspergers + interest in film, I live with IMDB.

                3. Rana*

                  Jamie, my sense of “intent doesn’t matter” is more about intent not being a “get out of jail free” card. In the classic example (usually used about racism) if someone steps on your foot, even if it was an accident, it hurts, and an apology is warranted.

                  Intent only comes into it afterward, when you decide what to think about the person who stepped on your foot. If it was accidental, and they apologized, you both move on. If it wasn’t, or if they refused to admit they caused hurt, then there’s a problem.

                  In other words, intent should only be offered as an explanation for why you messed up, not as an excuse to avoid admitting what you said or did was hurtful.

              2. Sheogorath*

                Jamie: Not at all to devalue your opinion or delegitimise your feelings, but when I read Wakeen’s post about the short bus, I didn’t get the sense it was written as a slight against the kids who rode it, but more of a slight against the system it represented; the system that ensured that kids were educated according to their diagnosis, not their capabilities. A system that still seems to be in place for many Autistic people and people with intellectual disabilities today, unfortunately.

          2. Whippers*

            Although, I wouldn’t consider using “idiot” or “moron” as an insult to be as bad as using “retarded

            Possibly because no-one would dream of calling someone with learning disabilities “idiot” or “moron” these days but they might conceivably call them “retarded”, if they weren’t au fait with the correct terminology.

        2. ella*

          Not an offensive question. Retarded was originally a clinical term, and was meant to replace words like moron, imbecile, idiot, etc that had previously been used as clinical terms but then co-opted by general society to use as insults. As the wheel of society turned, retarded got co-opted as well, and is now primarily used as insulting slang, rather than in its clinical way. Another commenter, Jess, called it a “euphemism treadmill,” which seems fairly accurate. It’s sort of like how the definition of “gay has homosexual” has more or less completely eclipsed the definition of “gay as happy,” though “gay”‘s status as a slur is much more dependent on context than “retarded” is.

          As for the current acceptable term, that depends. There’s a sizable chunk of people who aren’t a fan of “special needs,” because it’s a term that educators and parents made up–not out of malice, but because when mainstreaming disabled kids into public schools became a thing, a term had to be created to describe the system that these kids would exist in, and “special education” became it. But, for disabled folks to whom choosing the words with which they are described is important, they don’t like the term because they didn’t get to choose it. (I’m not crazy about it because I think it unconsciously supports the stereotype that all disabled people are children/in school, but I don’t think it’s a slur.)

          Other possibilities:
          Learning disabled
          Intellectually disabled/delayed
          Developmentally disabled/delayed

          Or if you know what a person’s diagnosis is, you can refer to them as that. As having Down syndrome or autism or traumatic brain injury or whatever. The disability community is incredibly wide and diverse–there will probably never be a perfect set of terms or perfect consensus on the right language to use.

          If you ask my sister, who has Down syndrome, what she would like to be called, she will look at you as if this is the silliest question she’s ever heard and say, “You could call me Meg.”

          1. Jamie*

            I understand the logic behind saying person with autism rather than so and so is autistic, because it stresses the person first and that is what I use because I don’t want to offend those for whom the adjective “autistic” alone is offensive.

            But if it’s relevant and you ask my son he’d say he was autistic. That doesn’t bother me because it’s like saying my daughter is blonde, or my sons are all…it’s the thing you’re talking about, but that doesn’t mean it’s all one is.

            But it’s a common enough issue with people that I’m happy to use the words that won’t hurt anyone as opposed to those that don’t hurt us in our family, but might hurt others.

            1. Wakeen's Teapots Ltd.*

              Yes, it’s best to ask an adult (with autism or who is an autistic) which he or she prefers.

              My son identifies as either Autistic or Aspergers but doesn’t like the “has autism” because it implies a condition that is wrong with him rather than his identity which he’s embraced. This isn’t uncommon.

            2. ella*

              Very true–I should’ve given voice to my own lukewarm feelings about people-first language but was going for brevity.

              I read a blog entry once by an autistic woman who took umbrage at the idea that her autism was a separate aspect of her–that she was Julia, and that she had autism. She felt that saying she “had autism” implied that it was something that could be excised if she just went through the right therapy. Autism is woven through every fiber of her brain, it’s who she is. She’s adamant about calling herself autistic. But that is one of those things that depends heavily on the individual–I’m sure there’s folks out there who feel just as adamantly that they have autism (or parents who are adamant that their child has autism, not that they’re autistic, but that’s a whole ‘nother conversation).

              That’s why it’s important to ask people what they prefer, and take them at their word when they tell you.

            3. ella*

              And for some reason, referring to people as autistic doesn’t bother me (depending on context of course), but a coworker once referred to a person as “an autistic” and that made my stomach clench. I’m not sure why.

              1. RG*

                Because it is an adjective and not a noun? It’s one thing to have the adjective describe you, and another to have it be a noun and define you.

                Plus, it’s just bad English.

              2. Wakeen's Teapots Ltd.*

                I say “an autistic” the same way I’d say “an Armenian” because it’s in line with the way my son identifies….but I say it rarely. 99.999% of the time, it’s “My son [name]” after all. :) (Most important identity!;) )

          2. Woodward*

            Ella, thank you for your post and referencing the “co-opting” of terms by the public. I just made a mental connection and realized something that will forever change my behavior. Thank you.

            I’m 24 and yesterday was on the phone at work explaining to someone how my computer was being slow and used the phrase, “sometimes it’s just special, you know?”

            The woman on the other line paused. For a long moment.

            And then the conversation continued. I could tell she was uncomfortable but I wasn’t sure why. Reading your post made my brain click the pieces together – “special” is short for “special ed”! I apologize that I didn’t know that before; it’s just a phrase that was used by everyone in my high school. It’s a substitute for “slow & annoying” said in a humorous way and has stayed in my vocabulary until today.

            I guess “special” has started to replace “retarded” which replaced “imbecile.”

          3. S.A.*

            Actually, you can’t label someone with a cognitive birth defect as “Intellectually disabled/delayed” or as
            “Developmentally disabled/delayed” . It’s either one or the other period. My sister had no issue with the mental retardation label because she worked in a medical clinic that specialized in diagnosing genetic birth defects, many of which diagnosed children with severe cognitive birth defects accompanied by physical defects. Now, as time went by she thought referring to the actual problem would be more helpful to the patient and the caregiver though.

            Many of the parents were of lower income and had limited vocabularies so doctors did actually say, “Your child has Fragile X which unfortunately means your son is permanently at the cognitive level of a two-year-old.” If you were foolish enough to claim a ten-year-old in diapers was “developmentally delayed” you would get ripped a new one. By claiming a person’s child was “delayed” you gave them false hope and yes, some doctors do have to resort to using retarded to get the point across because as a adjective it’s correct which is why I fail to see it as offensive all the time. My sister was much more bothered by the reactions of the parents who thought their child could be “cured” and wanted to know when clinical trials would be open. You had some who abandoned their children, and others who looked to place them in facilities where they would be better taken care of. It was a heartbreaking job, but she would get so mad when people would lie to parents claiming that the child beyond the age of 3 would somehow “catch up” to their peers by using the “developmentally/intellectually delayed” false diagnosis.

            A child’s developing brain meets milestones on a timeline and after a certain age (3 by most standards depending upon the genetic defect) they can no longer be considered delayed in any way. It’s sad that parents get offended by doctors but now they’re (doctors and med students) being told to tell patients/parents about the actual birth defect and to refer to their problem by the name of the defect, not a blanket adjective. This is to educate the family and to better explain to them as to what to expect. Unfortunately it means that “autism” is now being used to describe some children who are stuck at the cognitive level of a toddler, leading parents to believe that some children with Fragile X can somehow still “fit in” if given enough time since some have been describes as fitting the “autistic spectrum”. See the mess?

            I believe the woman the OP was complaining about was angry that her system wasn’t working and used the adjective in the correct context. Automatically claiming that the use of retard is someone linked to a cognitive defect is wrong.

            I’ve had to use variations of the word in my demonstrations with chemicals and substances for mold making and casting. Am I wrong to use it even in the correct situation/context? I.E. “This thermal curing reaction can be retarded by using cold water in order to give you more time to work with your mold. ” How is that offensive? What am I supposed to say? The jargon of the area I work in has had it’s fair share of ignorant people and when there are those who complain nonstop about a word even when used in it’s correct context I have to wonder why they are really upset.

            My sister thought it was correct, especially when the parents just want a short answer and it could be used as a way to go into further depth of their child’s specific defect. However, it was not to be used repeatedly nor seen as an actual diagnosis. Not to be cruel/rude but when people throw the word “autistic” around many people I know believe it to be some form of mental retardation and don’t see why they have changed the adjective. While my sister is in medical school she still wants to communicate with patients using the actual name of the defect instead of a blanket adjective and yet she and other students now see autism being thrown around in it’s stead. She sees it as one step forward, two steps back because it’s still misleading and can be easily misinterpreted.

            “Special” or “special ed” is used to mock those of “special needs” and in the southern state where I live funding was slashed so all kinds of kids are now in the classroom. Special needs children are disrupting class, screaming, cursing, throwing supplies, etc. I don’t think people will ever stop the “euphemism treadmill” and few bother to really accept the actual problem. This blending of classes in order to avoid upsetting the parents of “special needs” children had started a large group to pull their children from public schools to transfer them to private schools. Others just home school them. Why pay $4,000 in property taxes a year just so your child can come home and complain about the “special kid” in class screaming for thirty minutes in a class room of 30 children? The aides are laid off and teachers are leaving so now we have blended classrooms due to budget cuts and the needs of “special” children being placed above average students, hurting everyone in the process.

            For example, I was in denial that a health problem would one day handicap me. I’m fortunate that it’s not as obvious as being in a wheelchair but I’m not trying to sugarcoat it by trying to make myself sound more special or privileged than others. My handicap is NOT a superpower, a title of pride or unique ability either so why do some parents run around bragging about their child’s plethora of health problems? Do I sympathize for others in the same boat as me? Sure! But I’m not saying I’m “special needs”, nor am I denying what happened to me. I’m flat out handicapped and that’s it. I can’t be offended by it because I am handicapped and that’s why it annoys me when someone doesn’t like the word “retarded” but has no issue with “autistic”. I have a physical limitation I can’t ignore and I would say that to some degree we all have limitations. Some you can overcome and some you can’t. I’ve been called cripple and gimp but guess what? My handicap does not define me and nor should any birth defect or health problem be used solely as a way to define a person period.

            I think people need to accept others for who they are, understand what makes them different and move on. It’s ridiculous how many people shy away from those they view as odd largely from comments or assumptions made of ignorance. Meg sounds like a cool character by the way. People should know her by her character and that’s it in my opinion.

            Flame me if you must! :-P

            This handicapped person can take what she dishes out! I just wish people would stop focusing on limitations like they’re something to be proud of or some kind of weird title which puts their needs above others.

    2. Rayner*

      I am disabled. I have learning disabilities. I am what would have once been referred to as ‘retarded’. When people use the word retarded, they are not using it in an abstract concept. It’s not like saying “that’s so [apple]” or “that’s so [blahblahblah]”. They mean ‘like me’. They are saying, “This is bad because it is like ”a disabled person’.” They are therefore saying, “disabled people are bad.”

      Do you see why that’s suddenly beyond uncool? Why it’s demeaning, insulting, and hurtful to hear? Not such a small thing anymore, right?

      You may not find that offensive. I do. I find it incredibly offensive that someone thinks that using disability or mental illness as an insult is a good idea.

      1. IronMaiden*

        Here’s a definition for you re·tard 1 (rĭ-tärd′)
        v. re·tard·ed, re·tard·ing, re·tards
        To cause to move or proceed slowly; delay or impede.
        To be delayed.
        1. A slowing down or hindering of progress; a delay.
        2. Music A slackening of tempo

        Could very well be an appropriate word for a slow computer program.

          1. Ethyl*

            When people start breaking out the dictionary as their argument, you know they have nothing else to go on.

            And why is it so important to these people to continue to use a word that is hurtful to so many people? Gross.

            1. Heather*

              Well, not necessarily, if the other person really is using a word wrong – but in this case, yeah, that’s a stretch.

        1. Rayner*

          Either you’re a troll, or you’re insensitive and hurtful.

          Don’t you dare pull out dictionary definitions and defenses of a term that is pejorative, hurtful, ableist, and highly charged – that is blatantly the intention behind the insult.

          Protip: Using dictionary definitions to argue a point in social issues (and ‘-isms’) is a bad idea. We’re dealing with people, connotations rather than denotation, and the dictionary is a really god awful way to argue a point.

          If you want to talk about this, fine. Put the dictionary down first.

          1. JM*

            I still haven’t been able to wrap my head around this comment, maybe it’s the lack of coffee. You blatantly offended IronMaiden by calling them a troll, insensitive, and hurtful because they were trying to play devil’s advocate by simply posting a definition. They never said the OP or you were wrong or right for being offended; they simply posted a statement that could allow others to draw their own conclusions. We don’t even know what their opinion is which could be that the HR rep was being inappropriate. Honestly, I find this more offensive that your first thought was a personal attack.

            1. Rayner*

              Posting a dictionary definition in response to ableism is quite frankly offensive, and hurtful. Particularly one that also avoids the issue at hand, as De pointed out; ‘Retarded’ is in the dictionary as an insult, as well.

              Yes, the dictionary says that retarded could be used in that way. But that is denotation, not connotation and in this case, clearly the intention was the latter.. There is no room for such a cheap, cherry picked definition at ‘playing devil’s advocate’ when it comes to something like this.

              (Also, I said, either they are a troll or insensitive. Not for sure a troll. Using dictionary definitions are favorite fall backs for trolls when dealing with issues like isms such as using the to outline gender, sex, or pronouns when the reality is much more than the brief note provided.)

              1. Rayner*

                in response to pointing out* ableism.

                Urgh, my ability to word today has gone right out the window.

                1. BCW*

                  Joey is right, if there is an unpopular opinion on here, as I know from experience, people are often called trolls as a way to invalidate their opinion.

                2. Rayner*

                  Not saying they are a troll – I said either troll or hurtful and insensitive.

                  Using dictionary definitions as a way to ‘prove’ their argument is a classic troll move because it’s a straw argument which is just aggravating and doesn’t actually make any real points.

                  That’s what I said. EITHER or.

                3. fposte*

                  I still think it’s not a great move for the discussion either way–I’d just as soon people didn’t dismiss views as being trolls for sure or possibly.

                4. Ask a Manager* Post author

                  I want to echo what fposte said about calling people trolls — I’d really prefer the term not be used to dismiss other people’s views here.

          2. BCW*

            I’m going to disagree there. People pull out dictionary definitions for things like racism, bigotry, sexism, feminism etc to prove their points all the time on this board. So just because this one didn’t fit your narrative, you can’t really say that they are wrong to do it in this case

            1. Ask a Manager* Post author

              Yeah, I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with talking about what the dictionary says. It’s a starting point for words, after all. It’s not the whole story on language, obviously, but it would be silly to say that it doesn’t play a huge part. It’s the dictionary; it’s inherently part of the conversation.

            2. KellyK*

              But pulling out *half* a dictionary definition and ignoring a *very* well-known connotation is a little disingenuous, regardless of the point you’re trying to prove.

              1. Ask a Manager* Post author

                But I don’t think IronMaiden was intentionally doing that; her point seemed to be that there’s another acceptable usage for the word. (One that’s irrelevant in the OP’s context, I think — but it’s worth pointing out that the word is not inherently vile in all circumstances, because it’s not.)

                1. Lindsay the Temp*

                  I’ve discontinued using the word because it causes offense to some people, and I don’t wish to be the cause of anyone’s discomfort. But I still don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with using it in the context of its original definition. If I heard someone say “this computer is acting like a retarded person”, I would find it pretty blatantly offensive, but its common use as what is perceived in a derogatory manner (but is actually being used in the way its defined) seems a little different to me than something like the word “gay” which became a word used for things completely opposite of it’s original definition.

                2. Anon For This*

                  I’m normally very impressed with the way sensitive discussions are handled here, so I hate to push back, but I feel like I have to. Whether or not it was anyone’s intent, bringing up the dictionary definition of a word in a discourse about it being offensive, hurtful or bigoted is absolutely dismissive and belittling to those sharing their personal experience with the word. Does it matter what the word originally meant? Does anyone out there actually believe that words have inherent evilness to them, and need to be reminded otherwise? What does mentioning the dictionary definition of a now-offensive word add to the discourse?

                  I guarantee the OP’s coworker did not consult a dictionary before using the word. She picked it up as a euphemism for “stupid,” and used it thoughtlessly. This doesn’t mean she’s a bad or untrustworthy person, but it’s also not wrong of the OP to be taken aback.

                  More to the point, I don’t think productive discussions are at all encouraged by “well here’s what the dictionary says!” followed by an archaic meaning of a word that now carries decades of cultural baggage. Doesn’t require jumping down anyone’s throat, but I think the reality of the situation needs to be acknowledged. The “dictionary definition” thing is well-worn and well known by anyone who’s tried to speak out about these kinds of issues. It’s maddening and intensely unhelpful. It’s quite possible most people doing it are just playing devil’s advocate, and not intending to be harmful, but they’re contributing to a discourse that silences people who have already been silenced enough.

                  All offensive words have innocuous beginnings, and pretty much everyone knows that, but almost no one is divorced from the cultural context of these words as they exist today. You can’t explain away the use of a slur by pointing out that it was once a legitimate way to refer to a group of people. They all were. That’s the point.

                3. Melissa*

                  But if it’s obviously irrelevant to the OP’s context, it seems a bit disingenuous to pull it out.

              2. BCW*

                People do that ALL THE TIME though. I’ve seen dictionary definitions on here where I am sure its not the only definition thats there. Its used to prove a point. You just don’t like the point thats being made in this instance.

        2. De*

          merriam-webste and thefreedictionary give something very different and even the one you are citing, thefreedictionary actually only has that as the definition of one of two common usages. hence the “1” behind the word “retard”. The corresponding “2” is

          re·tard 2 (rē′tärd′)
          n. Offensive Slang
          1. Used as a disparaging term for a mentally retarded person.
          2. A person considered to be foolish or socially inept.
          [Short for retarded.]

        3. LisaLyn*

          Don’t be ridiculous. I see very little way that you do not know how that word has and is used.

        4. Wakeen's Teapots Ltd.*

          Sure, when you are saying, “The Ortho application retarded the growth of the dandelions.” I use “retarded” that way whenever appropriate.

          Which, has zero to do with calling someone a retard or calling something retarded as a pejorative.

          In other news, you can’t call someone a faggot and then say that’s perfectly okay because the alternate definition is a cigarette in the UK.

          1. Sue*

            Especially not when it isn’t; cigarettes are fags, and a faggot is a bundle of wood. But we’re aware of the American definitions, and neither of those is an OK thing to call someone.

            1. Wakeen's Teapots Ltd.*

              I googled before I wrote that, too, to double check myself. I must not have read closely enough.

                1. Sue*

                  I knew there was something else! I kept thinking of those weird sausages in chip shops, but those are saveloys.

                  There is one occasion when ‘fag’ is an OK word to call someone, and it’s for a younger boy at a public (that’s private to Americans) school who’s acting as a servant to an older boy. Fagging has pretty much died out now, but it shows up in a lot of British literature.

              1. Rayner*

                Yep, if you ask for a cigarette by saying “Can I have a faggot?” in the UK, you’re going to get some /very/ odd looks, and several raised eyebrows. Ask for a fag, and you’ll probably make yourself understood – I don’t recommend it though.

        5. Graciosa*

          Let’s not jump on IronMaiden quite so hard for talking about literal meanings of words. It is even possible that the origin of having the word applied to developmentally disabled individuals had its origins in describing development as retarded (meaning slow to develop).

          I do understand that the meaning of words evolves as society attaches additional contexts, but it can be frustrating to those of us who find the meaning so changed in popular culture that we are no longer able to use the literal word without implying something else entirely.

          A couple examples –

          “Gay” used to mean – well, happy, cheerful, in a festive good mood. The meaning has evolved to the point where I find myself explaining that a book titled “Our Hearts were Young and Gay” was written decades ago and doesn’t have anything to do with what you think it does.

          “Abortion” used to cover the termination of pregnancy whether it was a spontaneous abortion (miscarriage) or a voluntary abortion. Again, the meaning has evolved in popular culture so that saying “I was so sorry to hear about the loss of your baby – we both cried when we heard about the abortion” would be deeply hurtful to someone who had a miscarriage.

          I don’t think that the HR professional in the original post was using retarded quite so literally, and I support Alison’s advice on this one. The word is in transition, and some people may not realize what meaning they inadvertently convey by using it. The appropriate reaction would be to politely call it to their attention and ask them to stop.

          1. JenTheNiceHRGirl*

            I agree, I think Alison is right, some people just don’t realize that it is offensive or just say it without thinking. However, being that this lady is a Senior HR rep, she should definitely know better. Still, maybe she doesn’t so I think that it would actually be the kind thing to do to help her out. If you feel comfortable, let her know that many (including yourself) find that word to be very hurtful and that although you know that she didn’t intend to use the word to insult someone who may have a disability, but that’s how that word sounds to many people. If she is a decent human being, she will feel bad that she used language that offended you, apologize and be mindful of her word choices around her co-workers in the future.

          2. fposte*

            “Abortion” is an interesting example, because some medical personnel still use it that way, and patients only familiar with the popular use can get pretty upset.

            1. Jamie*

              I will admit that I was unaware this was the medical term, so when I had a miscarriage in my 5th month I freaked out at seeing the words “spontaneous abortion” on the insurance statement.

              I called and they explained it to me – which I could have figured out for myself if I hadn’t been so fragile at the time.

              If you’re not expecting that word in that context it can be acutely upsetting.

        6. Calla*

          Come on. “Happy” is still technically a definition of gay, but we know someone doesn’t mean that when they say “That’s so gay.”

          1. Graciosa*

            That was pretty much what I meant when I said “we are no longer able to use the literal word without implying something else entirely.”

            1. Melissa*

              As “frustrating” as it may be for you to be misunderstood or unable to use that word the way you want, imagine how much more frustrating it is for gay people or people with disabilities to face prejudice against them, often overheard in everyday unintended insults that are woven into the fabric of our society (e.g. “that’s so gay” or “that’s so retarded”.).

        7. Elizabeth West*

          The way people use it in the vernacular, it means “stupid.” I’ve seen people then make a face that is supposed to imply a developmentally disabled person along with the word (not everyone, but some people).

          It’s like the word “gay.” The original meaning was happy, carefree and cheerful, but it now has a different meaning. So you have to be more careful how you use it. FYI it really bugs me when people say “That’s so gay,” implying the same thing as retarded, and I call them on it every time.

          1. Ask a Manager* Post author

            I think IronMaiden was pointing out that there are other, non-slur uses for the word. (Those usages aren’t really rrelevant in the OP’s context, but I think the point was to note that the word is not inherently unacceptable in all circumstances.)

        8. S.A.*

          That’s what I was thinking when the woman was complaining about the program. If it’s not working or being incredibly slow then yes, I can see it being used.

      2. Dan*

        The thing is, as someone separating from a spouse with mental illness, I know all about the realities of what it really means. But unless someone is directly insulting *me* I’m just going to let the pejorative comments roll off my back. There’s no sense in getting my panties in a bunch and getting all offended and trying to re-educate people.

      3. John*

        I can relate because colleagues have used the term “that’s so gay” meaning so wrong or stupid.

        I try to bear in mind their intent. When they were growing up, they used that term and they’ve lost sight of what it literally means. So I shrug it off. If the setting is appropriate, I call them on it jokingly and they, of course, apologize.

        That said, since use of “retarded” seems to have really bothered OP, I think it’s fine to mention it to the HR manager. I would do it in the spirit of, “I understood what you meant but there are people whose personal experiences make it a pretty loaded word and I know you wouldn’t want to offend them…”

    3. Jen in RO*

      I agree and I think the OP is overreacting. Yes, the HR rep shouldn’t use the word, but not wanting to talk to her because of that, seriously?

      1. Anne 3*

        I disagree. She’s not overreacting, this is unacceptable behaviour that has no place at work.

        Would your opinion change if the HR manager had used a racist or sexist slur?

        1. Lindsay J*

          But at this point in society, “retarded” is not considered to be on par with a racial slur. It’s not a nice word, she probably shouldn’t be saying it – don’t get me wrong there. However, society in general doesn’t view it with the same disdain that they view racial slurs, etc, and I feel this has tobe taken into account because it means that HR lady is not showing the same egregious lack of social and professional awareness she would be showing if she were dropping the N – word or c-word. She may just be unaware.

          Or maybe she’s just not a nice person.

          Her not being a nice or good person also has nothing to do Wyeth her ability to do her job well, and for the OP to cast aspersions on her ability to handle her job professionally based on this one incident makes me question the OP’s judgement more than the HR rep’s. I guarantee that at least one of your coworkers, or doctor, or personal accountant, or similar holds some kind of personal or political viewpoint you would find abhorrent if you knew about it. However, this doesn’t stop them from being able to do their jobs, just like the HR rep is most likely still able to handle the OP’s problem in an appropriate and sensitive way despite her usage of “retarded”. (And if she can’t, then her lack of ability to do her job professionally is the problem, not her word choice or personal views).

          And not talking to

          1. Lindsay J*

            Please excuse my typos and the sentence fragment at the bottom – I’m posting from my phone.

          2. ella*

            I think part of the difference in weight between racial slurs and ableist slurs is in part due to the fact that we’ve been talking about racism for 150+ years in this country, and ableism for *maybe* fifty. We’ve had more time to come to societal consensus about how racism kills people, body and soul. We haven’t really had that same conversation about ableism. I really don’t want to play Oppression Olympics, and I’m not trying to conflate or to rank ableism and racism in any way, but I think part of the difference in how we treat the two has more to do with the history of the conversations we’ve had (or not had), and less to do with whether ableism is less harmful than racism.

            1. Jess*

              Actually that’s not true- there’s a much longer history of different terms used to describe intellectually disabled persons. If I remember correctly, the term “mental retardation” began to be used around the turn of the last century to replace the previously used terms, which included such gems as “idiot” and “moron,” because they were beginning to be perceived as insults. Even Wikipedia describes it as being subject to a “euphemism treadmill.”


              (My point is not to defend the use of the term. I’m just pointing out that language evolves, meanings and connotations change, and humans didn’t only start caring about offending others in the modern age.)

              1. ella*

                Oh, yes–terms used to describe disabled people go back millenia. When I said we’ve been talking about ableism for maybe fifty years, what I meant was the turning of the conversation that happened in the early 1970s, with the passage of the Rehabilitation Act (a sort of precursor to the ADA), the independent living movement, and the shift to place disabled children in public schools, and keep them at home, rather than placing them in institutions. That’s the point at which we start approaching the idea that disabled people are people who can voice their own needs, rather than warehousing them in nightmarish situations because we felt they were less than human. I’m oversimplifying, of course, but generally speaking, we came to that conclusion about african-americans long before we did about people with Down syndrome etc. (And I’m comparing nothing but the timelines, not saying we’ve solved racism by any means, or that one is more harmful than the other.)

              2. RJ*

                I’m just curious, is it considered offensive in the same way as “retarded” to refer to things as idiotic or moronic? I’m sensitive to the offense caused by “retarded”, but I say things are idiotic all the time. Eep.

                1. fposte*

                  I think this is an example of culture and stigma not being particularly logical, because I think that, currently at least, people who are offended by “retarded” aren’t offended by “idiotic” or “moronic.” It’s kind of like the way some anatomical swears are stronger than others, even though they’re terms for the same body parts–offensiveness comes from more than merely meaning.

                  And I think this is also an example of the way linguistic use is often about defining ourselves as much as it is communicating anything (linguist Geoffrey Nunberg has some good writing on that, especially when it comes to the English pronunciation of foreign countries like Iraq). Which I don’t think is a bad thing–that’s culture in general, and we wear shoes and shirts in the office to show we’re the kind of person who understand that one wears shoes and shirts in the office. But the actual symbols we fix on are often more symbolic than logical or impactful, so there’s often a linguistic practice that gets spotlighted when other similar ones don’t symbolize the same way.

                2. Del*

                  I think “idiot” and “moron” have fallen so far off the euphemism treadmill by now that they’ve lost their association with actual intellectual handicaps.

        2. S.A.*

          Since when would a racial slur ever be used to describe a slow program? Your argument is comparing apples to bananas.

        1. VintageLydia*

          Context matters. I have a friend who used to breed dogs. Using “bitch” in regards to breeding animals is totally acceptable. Calling someone a bitch is not. And just because she breeds dogs doesn’t mean she can say bitch in other contexts without consequence.

        2. Lora*

          In molecular bio, we do a particular analysis of how proteins migrate through a matrix with stuff attached to them–they are occasionally called “electrophoretic mobility shifts” (say that three times fast) but more frequently “gel retardations”. And of course, for short, they are “retards”. It’s not unusual to hear a couple of grad students or postdocs chatting, “so how are your retards going?” “the retards are doing pretty well,” etc. When in the university cafeteria or student union, surrounded by people who aren’t biologists or chemists, it often doesn’t look too good.

          1. IronMaiden*

            Thanks you for this Lora (and thank you Alison for defending me). There is another meaning for the word “retard” and it is not offensive. In the OP the story was the HR rep used the word in relation to a poorly functioning computer – not a person, a computer. This to me is an appropriate use of the word, as is Lora’s above example.

      2. BB*

        I don’t think the HR manager has any idea she’s offended OP. I’ve also worked in many restaurants where ‘offensive’ and ‘politically correct’ don’t exist.

        I also work in a small, friendly office. I don’t use the word ‘retarded’ but I’ve had a few small outbursts and its slipped out. I’ve also heard other people in my office drop it. I’ve never apologized, nor do they. It is still a term that is somewhat accepted in our society even though I do think we are trying to ween ourselves off of it.

        Maybe it’s because when people use the term ‘retarded’ they are often talking about objects and processes whereas when people use the n-word or c-word they are usually talking about other people. Maybe it’s strange but I’m a lot more offended by the word ‘retard’ than ‘retarded’ even though they are forms of the same word.

        1. De Minimis*

          I tend to agree about the HR manager.

          Also agree with Alison….it is a word that is in transition. I don’t feel it’s okay to use [honestly, even if you don’t consider it offensive it seems juvenile and unprofessional] but you still have a significant number of people who just aren’t aware of why it’s offensive.

          1. ella*

            ^This. I feel like you can get away with saying gay or retarded when you’re in high school. Maybe college. By the time you enter the professional workplace, you should talk like an adult, and that includes finding words to describe your problems with a more expansive vocabulary than “fucking retarded” (or whatever). If I’d heard the HR rep talking like that, I don’t know if it would make me reluctant to talk to her at all, but it would certainly color my opinion of her professionalism and discretion.

          2. Jamie*

            I agree with Alison, too. I don’t use the word, and if I heard someone using it at work I’d say something…but it is in transition and while some words clearly tell you something about someone’s character – I don’t think retarded falls into that category yet because it’s still used by decent people who just aren’t thinking of it as offensive.

            I have a child with special needs and I’ve seen feelings really hurt over kids in grade school slinging that word like weapon…so I hate it. But if I overhear someone calling the toaster retarded I don’t assume they are a hateful person. I assume they don’t know how ugly that word is to some people.

    4. Anne 3*

      So… we shouldn’t get offended by some stuff because some other stuff is more offensive?

      Sorry, but no. With that line of reasoning, you can excuse pretty much anything.

      1. LisaLyn*

        I’ve seen that sort of logic used to excuse just about everything at one time or another, too.

      2. Ask a Manager* Post author

        No, it’s a matter of recognizing when a word is in transition in the culture. At one point, “orientals” was considered a perfectly appropriate word to use to refer to people of Asian descent. I’m pretty sure that my grandparents, who were not racists, would have been puzzled to be told not to use it. Word go through transitions. This one is in that process.

        1. fposte*

          And there’s not agreement behind the offensive potential of all such words. I believe there’s been disagreement here about “lame” before, and it comes up sometimes about “crazy,” too.

          1. Jamie*

            Yes – and that’s exactly why we need to look at words without universal agreement differently than ones clearly and absolutely offensive no matter the context.

        2. Anne 3*

          How long does it stay in transition, though? Is there a date set in the near future where we’ll stop going “I’m gonna give you a pass for using that word because you’re just a little behind the times” and start going “that’s not acceptable anymore, cut it out”?

          I think the discussion about the word “retarded” had been around long enough that people, especially professional adults speaking aloud in the workplace, should know that it’s not okay to use. Of course, that’s purely my take on it.

          1. KarenT*

            I think the discussion about the word “retarded” had been around long enough that people, especially professional adults speaking aloud in the workplace, should know that it’s not okay to use. Of course, that’s purely my take on it.

            I completely agree.

        3. Dan*

          Yeah… webster still defines “gay” as being happy and excited, and while it’s the third entry in the list, I don’t think anybody uses it in that context anymore.

          1. Saturn9*

            The word “Oriental” can still be used in the States as a descriptor for cuisine and decor, but not people.

    5. Wakeen's Teapots Ltd.*

      I don’t have the time and energy to predict every little thing they are going to grab and get offended by…

      You don’t.

      But, if you offend someone, you do have the time and energy to apologize for having offended them. It takes less time and energy to do that than to rant about how silly it was the other person was offended.

      Plus, one is good manners and the other isn’t.

      1. Anne*


        You summed this up perfectly.

        Also, Steve – I’m from NYC originally and I still don’t think it’s okay to call someone “retarded”. Yes, crap happens in cities. Uh? Okay? That doesn’t mean that people should just stop being offended at smaller things.

      2. Chinook*

        But if you offended someone by using a word that you didn’t realize was offensive, you can’t apologize until someone points it out. In this situation, the OP could have mentioned in a no nonsense way and a polite person would apologize. But because she didn’t point it out, the HR person has no way to know it was offensive. It is a word that is going through a cultural transition (and is near the end of it) so it is perfectly understandable that it could be said innocently.

        1. BB*

          This EXACTLY! Everyone is saying this woman must apologize but I don’t think she knows she’s offended OP!!!!

        2. Laura*

          If the OP politely explained why the use of retarded is an offensive slur and shouldn’t be used, and the HR person didn’t politely apologize and say they’d stop using the word, then that would be a problem. But since the OP didn’t point it out, then who knows. I certainly wouldn’t let someone using the word retarded, or someone saying “that’s so gay” to mean “that’s bad” or “that’s stupid” (which is also offensive), colour my entire view of them. If I had politely pointed out that it was offensive and they said they didn’t care and would keep saying it, or they pretended to care and kept saying it frequently without apologizing for slip ups, then it would affect my long term view of them.

          It’s kind of like the word gypped. A lot of people, even people who comment here, don’t realize it’s an offensive slur. When you point it out, reasonable polite people apologize and do their best to not use the word any more. But a lot of people don’t know so you can’t expect an apology without pointing it out.

      3. Jen in RO*

        I don’t agree that you should always apologize for offending someone. Would you apologize to a relative who was offended that you support gay rights?

        1. VintageLydia*

          I think it’s perfectly reasonable to apologize for using a slur. Supporting a cause is not the same thing as using slurs.

        2. Wakeen's Teapots Ltd.*

          Certainly not . But if I said “everyone who doesn’t support marriage equality is a mouth breathing idiot red neck” in front of someone whom the pejorative offended by association, I would apologize.

          I wouldn’t expect someone to apologize to me for their opinion against marriage equality. Throw a slur in there and there’s either an apology with no repetition or I walk out the door.

      4. BCW*

        However, HR person doesn’t even realize that she offended this person. She “overheard” (or was eavesdropping on) a conversation. I’m not defending it, however she wasn’t even given the chance to apologize.

    6. Katie the Fed*

      Wow. Way to de-legitimize her complaint by attacking her as overly sensitive.

      If people weren’t “overly sensitive” we’d probably still have racial slurs in popular usage. Things change by people calling them out as wrong and offensive.

    7. KellyK*

      Or, you could take the lesson that when you’re the skinnier of two people, commenting negatively about *your* body does insult them by implication. No, you weren’t thinking about them but about yourself, but if your little pot belly is icky and gross and horrible, it’s no stretch for them to conclude that you think the same thing about their larger body.

      1. Rayner*

        This is pretty much what I was going to say.

        It can unintentional, but by talking negatively about weight and health in front of other people, it can be body or weight shaming against others – because if you’re bad for being fat at /your/* weight, what is the other person’s body? Is it even worse for being even bigger?

        Fat people are body shamed and policed at every turn in society. Sometimes, small things can be the straw that breaks the camel’s back.

        1. BCW*

          Oh come on. Now we are in a society where I can’t even be self deprecating because not liking something about myself may hurt someone else’s feelings? Thats just ridiculous. If I say “I don’t like my big nose” and someone has a bigger nose, thats on them whether they share that insecurity. I refuse to filter my thoughts about myself because I may unintentionally offend someone else.

          1. Dan*

            We’re actually in that society because we have a society where it’s impolite to be direct with people. So we’re so used to people being subtle about what they actually mean and we have to read between the lines. Drives me nuts, because I’m a literal person.

            I try not let much get to me. I sleep better at night and am generally less stressed as a result.

            Although, weight very much is a sensitive subject in this society. I’m a 270 lb male who can afford to lose several lbs. When I hear a skinny person say they they’re fat and really need to lose five lbs, I just raise my eye brows and chuckle.

            1. BCW*

              Thats still too much though. Can I not say “i’m broke” because someone may have less money? Can I not say I need a haircut because someone may think their hair is a mess? I tell people all the time that I need to work out more. If they are taking that as me telling them that they are fat, well thats on them, not me.

              1. ella*

                You have the freedom to say whatever you want, just expect people to call you out on it from time to time. And then you have the freedom to decide if you want to adjust your spoken vocabulary in consideration of others, or if you want to try and force them to adjust their inner barometer of acceptable language when it comes to speaking with you.

              2. KellyK*

                Remember, we’re talking about a specific situation where the person speaking *knew* that the person they were talking *to* had the “bad thing” worse than they did. This is not about generic comments that might possibly be viewed as critical of some random overhearer.

                Like, for example, it wouldn’t be rude of me to complain to a random friend that infertility treatments are expensive, and I’m not sure if I can afford the vacation I want to take *and* get pregnant. If, however, I made that very same comment to the unemployed friend whose husband just got laid off, it would be horribly rude.

                1. fposte*

                  But if you made that same comment in a group that happened to include her, I don’t think that would be particularly rude. You don’t taunt people who may be struggling more with your smaller problems, but you don’t actually have to keep quiet about your struggles in their presence, either.

              3. Jamie*

                I agree with BCW that it can be taken too far regarding what people apply to themselves.

                If you want to offend me you can, but it has to be directed at me, Jamie, and you mostly likely have to have done it deliberately.

                If I worked with BCW and he said he needed to work out more or get a haircut why would I think that had anything to do with me? Now if he told me I needed to work out more or needed to do something about my hair I’d suggest he spend less time finding ways to improve me.

                It’s strikes me as kind of narcissistic to assume that everything someone else says or does is because they are making a point about me.

                There are broad rules. Someone who is financially comfortable shouldn’t complain about money problems to someone who is unemployed or low income. People who are worried about keeping the rent paid don’t care that your contractor is jacking you around on the price of granite in your remodel. But should you not mention celebrating your anniversary because someone in ear shot might wish they were married, but aren’t?

                Maybe I’m oblivious, but I just assume nothing is about me unless it’s directed to or at me personally. It’s possible there are loads of people making veiled insults about me by talking about themselves all the time – but lucky for me I would never pick up on that in a million years.

      2. Joey*

        That’s a little hypersensitive though. Following that view you’d never be able to talk about your insecurities out of fear that someone might overhear it and be offended. That’s pretty unreasonable don’t you think?

        1. Ask a Manager* Post author

          Yeah, and I’d be really annoyed if my friends were eyeballing my waistline before deciding whether they could talk to me about something concerning them about their own body.

          1. anon*

            I think it can depend on the degree.

            A friend of mine bemoaned her size 12 body as “disgustingly huge” at some length directly to my size 24 self. That was offensive and hurtful. If someone happened to mention “Yeah, I’m concerned that I’ve been gaining some weight” while they were still significantly smaller than me? Meh, it wouldn’t bother me.

        2. KellyK*

          There’s a difference between expressing consideration to the person you’re directly speaking to and imagining hypothetical potential offenses for anybody who might be in earshot.

          There’s also a difference between mentioning a random insecurity that someone else might or might not share and expressing the opinion that highly visible physical traits of the person you’re talking to are generally a bad thing. It’s not as though Steve G was unaware of the body size of the person he described as “…corpulent.”

          1. RJ*

            So as a corpulent person myself, I’m not offended if someone talks about their own weight /food issues or whatever. But I’ve been offended / had my feelings hurt by a boss who talked about a customer’s weight in a negative way in front of me. It was a long time ago, so I don’t remember the exact words, but he said something about how fat she was or how she must have weighed 200 pounds in a tone of voice that sounded disgusted. And I still remember the hurt I felt when I wondered how he thought about me in his own head or how he described me to other people. I never said anything because I felt like it was my own issue, but it was really hurtful.

            1. KellyK*

              I don’t think it’s your issue. I think your boss was being a jerk. Honestly, I think this is a lot worse than Steve G’s comment because your boss was being *deliberately insulting* to someone else, and it also applied to the person they were talking to. At least Steve G’s comment was self-directed.

    8. Office Mgr*

      I don’t think the word retarded is appropriate in the office, or anywhere really but especially in the office. I have senior management coworkers who use it and I just chalk it up to ignorance. It doesn’t change the way I see them because they have other redeeming qualities that outweigh their choice of words/ignorance that someone could be uncomfortable/offended by it. Usually it is said in a joke or to be funny or exaggerate something and I just smile politely.

      1. TL*

        Please don’t smile politely! Either do a dead-pan face or ask them politely not to use that word in front of you.
        Smiling, however politely, is just letting them know that you think it’s okay to use that word.

        1. Joey*

          Well taking a stand isn’t always the safest thing to do in every office. Just as people don’t speak up for other wrongs in the workplace when there is real fear of retribution. Its a personal choice.

          1. TL*

            I know that – you can just not respond to their word usage by .. not responding.

            Which isn’t taking a stand. If someone retaliates against you for not laughing at a joke or politely smiling when they say something offensive (but otherwise following social norms in conversation), I really don’t think they have any right to get offended.

    9. Anon*

      No, just no. Certain words are in a league all their own and just shouldn’t be used. EVER. Specifically, words used by one group to put down or abuse another. You wouldn’t (hopefully) use the F (anti-gay word) in the office. This is pretty much on the same level, although some try to argue that it’s not (sorry, it is). Use this word in front of someone who has a family member/friend with a disability and see what happens.

      1. fposte*

        Relatives of disabled people are, like other people, varied, though. Some, like a colleague of mine, don’t really care; her view is that it’s a cosmetic issue that doesn’t really have anything to do with the problems her child faces.

        That doesn’t mean that it becomes an inoffensive word, but I don’t think we can really rope in a whole group as backing a point as if they all thought alike. They never really do.

      2. Ask a Manager* Post author

        Agreeing with fposte here. I’ve known educated, informed, sensitive people who still use the word; it just hasn’t finished its cultural transition yet. Eventually it will, but now it’s in the process. You can help it along by pointing it out to people who use it (as no doubt someone did for most of us at some point; I remember it being widely used when I was a kid).

        1. Anon*

          True, I can see that point of view, but at the same time this can be said about a lot of derogatory terms. Some of my gay friends really aren’t offended by the F word, whereas I really lose it if it’s used (especially if it’s said in the workplace). I’m glad that there’s a movement to move this word into the same realm of inappropriateness as others, but at the same time an HR person should really be on the cutting edge of what words are offensive (of course there’s a really good chance that this person just has no idea how offensive the word is to some, which hopefully someone will gently bring it up to them).

            1. Annonnyy*

              I would definitely expect them to know this (at least where I live). Using this word in the workplace here could be ground for a human rights compaint/lawsuit. So, yes, HR (and everyone) should be aware of all protected ground in their jurisdiction. Obviously this is going to vary by country

              1. Joey*

                Expecting them to know isn’t the same as expecting them to never mess up.

                And to your point just about anything can be used as grounds for a lawsuit. Sure this is worse, but if pointed out and corrected it would be nearly impossible to conclude that it has any chance of surviving a legal test.

                1. Anon*

                  I get that some people might not know that it’s offensive, but if they have been made aware, and they drop the word anyway, that’s pretty epic mess up.

                  I have to disagree that there’s no chance of surving the legal test (at least where I live). If the country has strong employment/human rights laws, they have a good chance of winning a large sum of money. I’ve seen people win cases from the most ridciulous things. We have specific workplace violence/harassment laws in place, and if someone uses that word (or any derogatory terms), the employee can deem that it’s a hostile workplace, and probably win a hefty sum.

                2. Ask a Manager* Post author

                  Anon, maybe you’re outside the U.S., but it’s not the case here. The legal litmus test here is that the behavior or language must be severe or pervasive. This doesn’t meet that bar.

          1. Nichole*

            Agreed-those transitioning words are tricky. I absolutely cringe at the use of marginalization slurs of all types because, as a mixed race person, I associate their use with the way I feel when confronted with the N word or being called “mixed-colored” (I was shocked to find out how common that one still is) or “Oreo.” I hate words associated with half the alphabet- F, C, R, N, B…there’s a pretty extensive list. When I hear a word used commonly and thoughtlessly that I consider on par with accepted slurs, I feel conflicted-I’m strongly offended, but these are commonly people that I know just haven’t thought about it that way before. My poor husband constantly has to keep up with a list of no-no words, including many slurs for white people that his friends use frequently (he is white). Words are powerful, but expecting everyone to know your triggers is a losing battle. I hope the OP speaks up-I’d be mortified to realize I was using a marginalization word as part of my everyday language and very appreciative to know better.

        2. Aimless*

          Do you have any suggestions as to the wording one might use to point this out to coworkers? I have worked at the same company for quite a while, long enough that many of my colleagues were around during my first pregnancy, birth, and my son’s subsequent diagnosis of Down Syndrome. They have, to a person, been incredibly supportive, encouraging and positive – yet the “R” word is still in frequent use in the office. I have done a very poor job of addressing and educating them on this issue, for all the reasons you might expect – I don’t want to be tagged as “oversensitive and PC”, I know they’d be mortified if I I implied they are directly insulting my son with their words, etc.

          I totally understand how hard it is to negotiate the minefield of language and word usage, and no one wants to feel that they insulted someone just by using a common term – it is natural to feel defensive in such a situation. I would also point out that it is much harder to suck it up and say nothing when someone uses a term, however innocently, that is a direct slur against your child.

          I wish I could have done more over the years to make this usage go away.

          1. Kerry*

            “Excuse me, Apollo — I know you didn’t intend it that way, but the word “retarded” is offensive to me. Can you please not use it around me in the future?” No need to give a big speech on why. If they’re not a total idiot/jerk, they’ll figure it out.

            1. Jamie*

              I do say something when I use it, but I’m not formal about it.

              Someone called the toaster retarded and I make a yikes face, smiled and said, “different word please.” They apologized – which wasn’t even necessary.

              Depending on the relationship and how comfortable you are correcting other people (which is my comfort zone) you can do it in a casual way that lets them know you don’t like it, but you don’t think they are a bad person because they said it.

              1. Emma*

                Folks like the use the word “rape” to mean exploit, overcome, etc. “Our servers got raped,” for example. When my friend does that, I pretty much do what Jamie does. “Can you use a different word, please?” And because my friend likes me and doesn’t want to hurt me, he tries his best to remember and not use the word at least around me. No big speech required.

                1. Jamie*

                  Another icky word – that’s how I’d handle that, too.

                  Sometimes you make more headway not making a big deal, just pointing it out. When people feel judged they tend to get defensive and defend their right to use whatever word…but what they’re really defending is themselves. Proving that they aren’t a bad person. If you keep it light without judgement it’s easier to get cooperative change.

          2. TL*

            You: “Please don’t use that word around me.”
            Them: “Oh, I’m sorry.” or “Why?”
            You: “Because I find it an ugly/hurtful word. Please don’t use it around me.”

            End of discussion.

            1. totochi*

              If I’m speaking directly to you and some word/issue comes up, this may be fine. But the OP said she overheard the conversation. Are we supposed to remember what words offends each person in our office and to look around to see if they’re within earshot every time we speak? The “don’t… around me” requirement seems a bit much.

              1. TL*

                If I’m involved in the conversation, yes I say something. If I just overhear it, then I don’t butt into a conversation (unless I’m related to you). But if I, say, heard someone use it over and over while working, I would probably say something.

                I mean, the list of offensive words is pretty short (in the office situation, at least). In a professional situation, it shouldn’t be terribly hard to keep your language mostly clean.

        3. GL*

          After working with the disabled several years ago and had gotten used to terms such as “developmentally disabled” and “developmentally delayed”, it’s a bit weird to be now working in healthcare in another part of the country where it’s quite common to use “MR” (for mentally retarded) to refer to patients with cognitive disabilities.
          I’m trying to think of a way to address this, but it’s kind of hard when it’s so integrated in the medical culture here.

      3. BCW*

        Well, my uncle (mom’s brother) is mentally retarded. Our family, especially my mother, love him dearly. However, she has still said retarded before. I don’t think that means she has something against mentally disabled people, its just poor word choice. But its like assuming someone is homophobic for using the f word. One of my good friends has a gay brother. He would beat up anyone who did anything wrong for him. He hangs out with his gay friends and likes them all. He has his own gay friends. Does he use the f word though? Yep.

        1. ella*

          My sister has a learning disability, and I myself used retarded–not as slang, but to describe her–until my mid-20s, in part because I didn’t grow up in the most linguistically sensitive family, and in part because “mental retardation” is on many of my sister’s official documents (IEPs, medical records, social security paperwork, etc) and was, at the time, still in the DSM-IV and in plenty of state and federal laws that cover the disabled, and I felt that it was important to point out to people that this was how the word was supposed to be used.

          What changed my mind was reading several testimonials from various disabled adults (mostly ones with Down Syndrome or autism) saying how the use of the word had hurt them and how it made their lives harder. Those are experiences that I really care about. Is every disabled adult harmed by that word? No. But they’re equally not harmed if I don’t use the word. But if someone tells me that their life is made easier if I stop using that word, and educate other people about not saying it, then why on earth wouldn’t I do that?

            1. BCW*

              Wow, that seemed unnecessary. I wasn’t even talking about myself really, I was mentioning my mom and a friend. But ok, if thats how you want to look at me, go ahead.

            2. Ask a Manager* Post author

              Could we please not make these sorts of attacks on other commenters here? I think this is the third time I’ve had to request this in two weeks, and I’d really like not to have to do it again. As far as I’m concerned, you guys are attacking other guests in my house, and I’m not okay with it. In fact, if it happens again, I’m going to start putting people on moderation, which I’d like to avoid.

        2. Andrew*

          I’m prefacing this comment by saying this is my opinion, and other gay/nongay people will disagree with me (and that’s okay!).

          He shouldn’t use the F word, especially if he has a gay brother. ever. There is seriously no situation where this would be okay, even in a joking way. I’d be super pissed if I knew my bro was using this word with his friends. I know that some people are bothered by it, and others are not, and I’m sure that this guy’s bro falls into the not caring department. At the very least, using this word, even jokingly, signals to others that it’s okay to use this word. It’s just not okay.

          It’s the word a lot of gay people hear right before getting punched out (or worse), or it’s the word you get etched into your locker. When I hear this word, I think “oh god, what’s coming next”.

          Anywhoo, I know this guy is probably using it behind closed doors with his friends, but it really (to quote Peter Griffin) “grinds my gears”.

          1. BCW*

            I get your point. I don’t say the word, but I’d be lying if I said I have NEVER said it either (although when I have it wasn’t hurled at someone in a homophobic way if that makes sense). I’m just saying that word choice for some people is a big deal, and for others its not.

            Its like this, I’m black and my best friend is a white guy. He has said the n word on occasion whether its joking, rap lyrics, whatever. He’s never said it in a malicious way though. I know him and his intent, so its not a big deal to me. But I know there are other black people who think a white person should NEVER use that word, and thats fair too.

            Even with that stuff though, I don’t think the f word or n word are in the same space in our society as retarded.

            1. Anon*

              I totally agree. I think there is a big difference between letting it slip out with your friends once in a blue moon, and it being a part of your common venacular (I got the impression from the first comment that it was more of regular everyday use of the word).

          2. Feeling Blue*

            I agree — there is never an appropriate time/place to use that word. But the world is full of clueless but well-meaning people.

            Just yesterday I saw a story on the local news here about a school somewhere (maybe California?) that wanted to honor Black History Month, and so decided to have lunch of fried chicken, cornbread, and watermelon. ARGH!!!

            I was so horrified when I heard this — and for the record I’m just about the whitest person on the planet. Even my husband, who usually bristles at overly-PC type stuff had his jaw on the floor when he heard that.

            Now do I think the people at that school were racist, and had malicious intentions by doing that? No. But do I think they were clueless and ignorant? Yup, I do.

            1. BCW*

              I posted about it on Facebook, with with a different slant. In college, our school had different “specialty restaurants” . One was asian, one was mexican, and one was soul food (it was also in the dorm that traditionally had the most black students). They served that exact tye of food – fried chicken, watermelon, cornbread, grape kool aid. But NO ONE had a problem with it. I was just wondering why to do that on a college campus is ok, but its supposedly racist to do on a high school campus.

  3. Tinker*

    #4: This is why we can’t have nice things.

    Most of my older female relatives have been teachers at some point. None of the female relatives of my generation have touched the thing. Reason: when you get to choose between being paid large piles of money and drinking beer at work, and being paid small piles of money and having it seriously debated whether you can drink beer while not at work, for many people the choice is obvious.

    Teachers do a valuable job. They deserve to be treated like the adult professionals that they are.

    1. Nelle*

      Thank you for writing this. I am not a teacher but I am close to some, and they work incredibly hard. They are teachers, but they are also people who in the off hours enjoy things like having a drink with friends. As long as they’re not drinking on school grounds or in front of their students, they should relax and recharge in the way they see fit. (And I only mention that because it happened at my high school long ago.)

    2. Dan*

      I’m good at math and considered being a math teacher. But after thinking about it ever so briefly, I had to ask myself, WTF for? Pay sucks compared to private industry, you have to pander to parents, and then you never know what aspects of your social life will cost you a job.

  4. Ann Furthermore*

    #4: No, teachers should not be allowed to go clubbing. At the end of the school day they should return to their hermetically sealed pods and remain there, in suspended animation, until the next school day.

    1. TL*

      One time I ran into my kindergarten teacher at Wal-Mart, and honestly, I’m still not over the trauma. I just don’t understand what purpose she could’ve had to go grocery shopping at a Wal-Mart. They sell beer there!

      1. en pointe*

        Between the two of you, there really needs to be a warning about reading AAM while drinking your afternoon coffee :) Thanks a bunch.

      2. LisaLyn*

        Seriously, though, as a child, seeing your teacher in a non-school setting is one of those landmark, “force you to grow up” moments. OMG, they are PEOPLE? Who DO THINGS like everybody else? :)

        1. Kelly L.*

          Ha, yes! They don’t just sleep in the coat room at night! I remember a moment like this in a grocery store.

        2. Hous*

          I remember encountering my piano teacher at the store when I was eleven or twelve and being HORRIFIED because I saw she had tampons in her cart. I was not excited about the realities of puberty :)

          1. Kelly L.*

            Which reminds me that i was horrified to realize that periods recur for decades. My mom had explained it to me as “a thing that happens when you’re about 12” (as it happened, I was indeed 12) and I initially thought you just had it once and then you were done.

        3. Ann Furthermore*

          I think it applies to kids of all ages. A few years ago we wanted to do a less expensive vacation, so we rented a house up in the mountains that was just a 2-hour drive away. And in a very odd coincidence, it turned out that the house we rented was owned by my stepdaughter’s math teacher and her husband. My stepdaughter was in 7th grade, I think.

          We told her she could bring a friend along, which she did. And at the rental house, there was a guest book for people to sign, which is a pretty common. They went through it, and found that many of their teachers had stayed at this place, and they were just dumbfounded. It was hilarious. They were updating Facebook and texting all their friends about the fact that not only were they staying at their math teacher’s house, but that OTHER teachers had stayed there too! Like they were real, actual people or something! OMG!

        4. Lindsay the Temp*

          I used to work at a private preschool and the principal/owner came in one day talking about how she had walked out of the shower at the gym and one of the little boys in the class was in the locker room with his mom…AWKWARD!!!

      3. Calla*

        True story: Once in high school I saw a teacher of mine at Victoria’s Secret. Did I find it a little weird? Yeah, I was a teenager. Seeing my teacher buy lingerie was funny! (What did they need it for!?) But I cannot imagine complaining about it and I would have been, and still would be, horrified if t hey had gotten punished for it.

        1. Erin*

          As a high school teacher, I am always afraid to go to places like Victoria’s Secret. What if I am seen rooting through the 5 for $20 drawer??

      4. AB*

        I went to Catholic school until high school and several of the teachers were nuns, so they did practically sleep in the coat room (or in the building just next door to the school…) So the first time I saw one of them at the craft store I was utterly shocked. I thought she was going to get in trouble for escaping.

        1. lifes a beach*

          I also attended catholic school. One time I forgot my lunch and my teacher took me over to the nunnery (?) and made me a sandwich. I was astounded by the fact that it was a normal looking kitchen and there was a livingroom with a TV!!!!! Who knew???? Also, this was back in the olden times when they wore the full habits, heck we weren’t even sure they had legs!!

    2. Cath@VWXYNot?*

      LOL! My parents are both teachers, and I saw the looks of astonishment when they ran into their students around town over and over again. My Mum would always say “they usually keep me locked in the stationery cupboard at weekends, but I’m allowed out every seventh Saturday”.

      And the kids would always scrutinise my sister and me veeeeeery closely indeed, especially when we were around the same age as them!

  5. Elsa P*

    Good God OP of #4, you need some new friends! What kind of awful, backward people would expect a professional with a Masters degree to not be able to do normal grownup activities? And presumably these are *female* teachers we’re even talking about (because its even harder to imagine someone having such absolutely absurd expectations of a man.) It’s people like your friends I’d want kept away from my kids – not a teacher who enjoys a lovely evening listening to live jazz at a wine bar.

    1. amaranth16*

      The kind of “awful, backward people” who are very reasonably concerned about her job security (not that it’s reasonable that they HAVE to be concerned – just that, given the finicky nature of many schoolboards, it is indeed reasonable that they ARE).

      1. Elsa P*

        Awful and backward to have the audacity—in the 21st Century—to tell a female professional what they can do outside of their working hours. She’s not an indentured servant in 1600 or even a ladies maid on Downton Abbey (where one is expected to ask permission to leave the house and justify the planned activity on one’s day off.) It is one thing to expect a teacher, as a role model, not to engage in (what another commenter here mentioned) drunken brawls or to use illegal drugs. But enjoying normal American leisure activities like enjoying an evening at a pub, going to see one’s favorite band perform or a great DJ set at a club… that’s from the pre-Women’s Movement dark ages, not 2014.

        1. Jen in RO*

          I think you’re missing amaranth’s point. The OP’s friends have heard about all the cases linked above in the comments (teachers getting fired for having a drink, etc) and now they are worried. The friends aren’t backward – society is. The friends are not at fault for pointing this out.

          1. Elsa P*

            Jen in RO, I concur with Anonymous, Colette and Elsajeni here. OPs letter is expressing that her/his friends are mostly agreeing it’s NOT okay for a teacher or aide to do these things. THEY are the judgemental ones. I don’t even think one can say “society” doesn’t want teachers to have a normal life doing normal things.

            It IS true that society would prefer those working w/children not to engage in reckless or extreme behaviors, to show good judgement overall – and where it’s limited to not engaging in “illegal activities” seems totally reasonable. To me, it’s “borderline” when it extends to things which are completely lawful, although may be distasteful to much of society (getting sh*t-faced drunk in public, starring in online porn, etc.) I would personally prefer my children’s teachers not to do such things ever. But if such a teacher did not, in any way, bring that stuff into the classroom and provided great care and education to the kids… I don’t actually think my personal views of their private life should prevent them from doing their job, if they do it well. ESPECIALLY if they are things they did in the past.

            OP’s letter is not even pertaining to illegal or extreme activities, however. S/he is referring to a whether or not an adult professional should be “allowed” to do activities that are not only lawful but part of the normal, typical social behavior of Americans: enjoying an evening out at a bar or nightclub. Not having sex with students or being a meth addict.

      2. Anonymous*

        It doesn’t at all sound like that in the letter. The letter sounds like a group of people making a judgement call, not suggesting practical advice about job security.

        Not teachers should be careful about posting pictures. But teachers shouldn’t go. And no where in the letter does it even suggest that the OP is a teacher. This sounds like an entirely abstract debate about imposition of morals on other professional adults.

        1. Colette*

          Agreed. In fact, it reads like they want to get the teacher in question in trouble (or, if there is no specific teacher in mind, any other teacher who may venture out to a club).

      3. Elsajeni*

        If the letter had said “Is it wise for teachers to go clubbing?”, that could be taken as concern about someone’s job security, I suppose. But they OP didn’t ask that; they asked if it was okay.

  6. Laurie*

    #4 – The kids you teach will be sound asleep while you’re out at a club! and they are too young to know how to use facebook (i think?!). Of course you can go out! …But as others have mentioned, be careful of what’ on FB. Double, triple check that profile to make sure your settings are on lock down. I also highly suggest NOT listing your employer on FB either. It’s no ones business where you work.

    1. Rayner*

      Often it’s not the kids to worry about – it’s the overzealous parents or the overly strict management/rules that make pictures of being a bit tiddly into something far far worse.

    2. en pointe*

      Really valid tip about not listing your employer, regardless of industry. I’m going to remove mine from my profile right now.

    3. majigail*

      Many of the teachers I know list their nicknames/ maiden names/ straight up fake names on Facebook so their kids have a harder time finding them.

      1. Tasha (Grad Student)*

        My parents are teachers and they don’t have accounts on Facebook or other social media sites for exactly this reason, even though I’m 99% certain that neither of them have so much as thought anything controversial since college :)

        It’s a bit easy, in my opinion, for someone connected to the school to find their account (even if using a pseudonym) through a similar friend network. From there, location and other correlating factors can confirm their identity. Sadly, there really are people who go through that much trouble to unmask pseudonymous writers. I wish that things people wrote or did on their own time reflected much less on their employer than they do now, but the rent must be paid, so we conform to those high standards.

  7. Puffle*

    #4: uhhh, teachers are still human beings. I teach pre-school and elementary school kids, but I think I still have the right to go to a bar like just about every other adult. Sure, some things would be inappropriate (taking drugs or starting drunken brawls or whatever), but I fail to see how going out and having a few drinks should be verboten. Why should my entire life have to be defined by my job?

    This letter seems symptomatic of a wider trend in which parents and other members of the public seem to feel that they “own” teachers’ time, even when we’re not at work. Here’s a hint: it’s none of your business what I do in my own time. I already spend 40+

    1. Puffle*

      (argh, accidentally hit “submit”)

      hours a week teaching my students, and yeah, I like it, but I don’t want to spend my every waking hour being a paragon of virtue according to someone else’s values.

      1. Dan*

        It’s worse than that… it’s not “someone” else’s , it’s “everybody” else’s. And then you don’t always know what those values are.

    2. Joey*

      Well not true. Didn’t you just say taking drugs or starting brawls would be unacceptable during off hours?

      Its sort of like cops or politicians breaking the law. It’s pretty reasonable for people to not want someone in such an important and influential position preaching do as I say not as I do, don’t you think?

      1. Anonicorn*

        But Puffle isn’t talking about teachers breaking the law. Teachers going to a bar on their own time isn’t illegal.

        Besides, teachers serve mainly to teach students academic subjects. If people want their children to learn specific moral lessons, such as alcohol is bad for you even as an adult, then the best place to do that is still in the home. As I certainly hope public school teachers aren’t “preaching” anything.

        1. Joey*

          That wasn’t my point. The point is many people consider teachers whether they want to be or not role models for kids. And considering they spend a lot of time influencing kids its understandable that lots of parents don’t want their kids being influenced by a teacher that at least on the surface doesn’t appear to be the best role model. Sometimes it gets too extreme for me, but there would certainly be a point where I’d be concerned about a teachers off hours behavior if it became known.

  8. Kate*

    RE #4: Hold up – am I the only one wondering if there’s any possible way for a teacher’s aide to be underage? (Apologies if this is a ridiculous question… I am woefully uninformed about how teachers are trained/certified/what have you)

    That’s the only reason I’d say it isn’t okay to go to a bar/go out for drinks.

    IF you choose to drink, please do. not. drive. I also second the comments about judicious posting of photos anywhere on the internet.

    1. Tasha (Grad Student)*

      The education majors I know have worked as aides for a semester in one of their last two years of college, usually the senior year. It’s called a “practicum” and is generally a requirement for graduation at any 4-year education program. So it’s possible, but not likely, that they could be 20 years old. (There are also career teachers’ aides, but they’re generally older.)

      1. Liane*

        Also, depending on your state, it is very possible for an aide (or substitute teacher) to be under the legal drinking age. The minimum requirements may only be a high school diploma and completion of of some sort of short term training.

    2. JM*

      Many teacher’s aides or paraprofessionals are considerably over 21. I know some with children over 21. In a childcare, you only need a high school diploma usually but in public school districts, they generally want a bachelors or at least an associates.

      1. Payroll Lady*

        My daughter is a teacher’s aide in the public school system and she is under 21 (for a little while longer). And the school system can move an aide for any reason,. She was moved in the beginning of the year because a student smelled smoke on her. Mind you, I’m the smoker, but she was still moved because a parent (who did not even meet my daughter) complained.

    3. Elsajeni*

      Well, sure, but that’s unrelated to whether they’re a teacher’s aide. An underage receptionist, cashier, or intern in the marketing department shouldn’t go to a bar, either.

  9. Wakeen's Teapots Ltd.*


    Now that I am old, I am very direct. I used to never mention socializing until it got so completely out of control my temper boiled over and then nothing good happened next. By the time I said something, the person was so thoroughly blackmarked in my brain that I didn’t even want to help them anymore and the conversations weren’t productive, more a lead up to termination.

    Now, when I see somebody hurting themselves this way, I’m direct. “Your work isn’t up to the quality/volume that I know you are capable of and here is one of the ways that I think you are hurting yourself.” I have no problem explaining, in a way that is understood, that some people are able to socialize more in the work place, and still turn out stellar work, and some people aren’t.

    Trickier is when someone is hurting their career with appearances because of over socialization. I have a clerical direct report who does high quality/volume work, who unfortunately also social butterflies about to multiple departments for several hours a day…spilling the details of her dramatic personal life as she goes.

    I haven’t solved this. I have no complaints about her work. I’m doing her no career favors by not addressing the company wide reputation she’s gotten, but I’m not comfortable being the socialization police when I don’t have work quality issues to address as the primary.

    Hey, that’s an AAM letter, isn’t it?

    1. Jessa*

      How about parsing it as interfering with their work in the other department. It’s highly possible that they feel it difficult to shut her down (a lot of people are reluctant to tell someone to go away.) Or even some version of you need her at her desk, and all that time away is an issue.

      Honestly though, she needs to be told that it’s very visible how much chatting, etc. she’s doing.

      1. Wakeen's Teapots Ltd.*


        I’m really procrastinating this, aren’t I?

        She’s really sensitive. She nearly bursts into tears when I correct an (infrequent) minor mistake gently.

        1. en pointe*

          Wow. Obviously not relevant to this particular employee but, in general, consider that many people may actually be more appreciative of your being direct in the first place.

          Different type of situation but last year, I had a coworker who stewed for literally months over being bothered by my perfume, to which I was completely oblivious. When she finally said something, she was really annoyed but, frankly, so was I (though I tried not to let it show). Mainly because it was such an easy thing to change and if she’d told me earlier, I could have fixed it earlier. Now, I just skip the perfume.

          1. LisaLyn*

            I think that can be very true. I think especially the stewing part. I mean, I don’t like to think that I may be doing something that is driving someone else nuts. If it’s something work related, I would totally want to be told. I have trouble being direct, too, so I try to keep in mind that actually, it can be the kinder approach.

    2. Us, Too*

      I have had this issue. He was a high performer who spent 2-3 hours a day socializing. What the folks he was talking with didn’t see was that he was the first person in the office in the morning and the last to leave every night. He got his stuff done and typically very well. I said something like this to him:

      I am concerned with a habit you are developing that you may not be aware of and which will hinder your promotability here. You spend a lot of time socializing with colleagues and this gives the impression that you’re a slacker. It would be best to nip that in the bud now before it gets out of hand.

      The tone of all this was friendly, positive, and one of honest concern for his future. We talked about some techniques he could use to be more aware of this without looking like a corporate robot that hates people. And, he changed overnight.

      I was so worried this would be a hard conversation, but it really wasn’t. :)

      1. Wakeen's Teapots Ltd.*

        You give me hope!

        It’s usually “easy” because there’s always a performance issue to go with the excess. You give me hope.

        1. Us, Too*

          I spent quite a bit of time thinking about what the problem with his talking a lot was and how to frame it in my own mind. Once I had the “lightbulb” moment that the real issue wasn’t the talking, but the damage to his credibility and reputation (and that reputation is a critical factor for success – at much or more than whether he submitted his deliverables on time), it all came together for me.

          By the way, I considered framing this conversation as “you’re wasting your colleagues time and they can’t get their work done.” In fact, I had received several complaints from his colleagues. They implied that I needed to tell him to leave them alone to do their work. I decided these folks were actually having an issue themselves that they needed some coaching with. I (tactfully) told them they needed to assert their own boundaries. If they didn’t have time to chat, they needed to (nicely) tell him that and go on about their work, not sit there nodding politely while internally rolling their eyes or getting pissed off that he was wasting their time.

          If the reputation approach hadn’t worked, I may have tried the “wasting colleagues time” approach. But I really didn’t want to go that route if I didn’t have to because I don’t want to enable crappy boundary setting if I can avoid it.

          1. Wakeen's Teapots Ltd.*

            Yeah, I don’t believe in that, wasting colleagues time part. I would only do that if there were a power imbalance where the other person wasn’t in a power position to tell the yacky party to go away.

            Firmly believe in not being the playground monitor. Usually works out well. I see, completely, how this is a different situation.

    3. Chriama*

      I assume that since she flits around to multiple departments
      a) the first impression many people get of her is determined by the tidbits of gossip they have overheard, and
      b) people are going to assume she isn’t working if whenever they pass by her desk she’s away from it

      I think you should frame it as an issue with her professional reputation. “This is the way people perceive you. It’s not accurate and it may not be fair, but that’s the way it is.”

      1. KellyK*

        Yeah, I think talking about reputation is the way to go. I would make sure to tell them that *you* know how hard they work and how well they produce, but to someone who doesn’t work with them, they look like they’re slacking.

        At the same time, if people are saying negative things about the social butterfly, I would redirect them to things that actually matter and point out the awesome things she’s done.

        Another side of this is that if she’s having conversations that are *inappropriate*–oversharing in ways that make people uncomfortable or make her look flaky or drama-prone—that’s a conversation you can have in and of itself, because it’s not related at all to *how much* time she spends socializing.

        1. Wakeen's Teapots Ltd.*


          And now also planning a wedding. Drama with now moar drama because no drama like dramatic bride drama.

          I really need to deal with this…………..

          1. Rayner*

            Unfortunately, if you don’t deal with it, AAM is going to wag her finger at you because it’s not being a manager if you avoid difficult conversations :P

            I’m sure she has plenty of articles in the archive that you can read for advice but biting the bullet and doing it is the only way to actually fix the problem.

            1. Ask a Manager* Post author

              Yeah, you are doing her no favors, Wakeen! If your manager has a concern about you, wouldn’t you hate it if she didn’t tell you because she was afraid of how you’d react? Especially if it was one that was affecting your reputation?

      2. Windchime*

        Yes, this. Not to mention the fact that the social butterfly is quite likely causing a distraction to others who are trying to get their work done. I have a couple of social butterflies whose cubicles are in close proximity to mine. They spend hours (literally hours) of their day in each other’s cubes, whispering and giggling and visiting. Are they getting all their work done? I don’t know; I’m not on their team. But I do know that it is terribly distracting to the rest of us, and for that reason alone I wish their supervisor would tell them to stop or to go to a conference room or something.

        1. Windchime*

          Oh, and I meant to say: The impression is that they are flirting and that’s not a good impression to give at work, especially since one of the parties is married. Rest assured that your other employees are wishing that you would deal with The Wedding Chatter.

        2. Us, Too*

          You have a voice and should speak up – you shouldn’t wait for their supervisor since it’s impacting your performance now:

          “Hi Susan and Betty. I don’t want to be “that guy” but… the cube walls just do nothing to dampen sound, unfortunately, so even when you’re whispering and doing your best to be quiet, I can still hear you pretty distinctly. I’m having a hard time concentrating on my work. Would you mind moving to a conference room for your chat? I have a deadline that’s fast approaching and I really need to focus.”

          I was SHOCKED at how many really minor things I had team members come to me to resolve. These are things that you can solve in literally 15 seconds on your own, typically. Yet they’d let them fester for months before they’d blow a gasket and come storming into my office to get me to fix it. Of course, if you try to resolve it yourself and the other person doesn’t respond, you should escalate but in general I found that 90%+ of the time, absolutely NO effort had been made by the reporting party to fix it on their own. They usually were afraid of hurting someone’s feelings, or hated confrontation or thought it was my job, etc.

          1. Us, Too*

            I should add – I work in an “open” environment that has half cube walls and these motorized sit/stand desks. Distractions are really common. We’ve all mastered a combination of facial and arm/hand gestures that essentially mean “dude, I’m on the phone, keep it down a bit!”. I have had to actually pause a call and do a kind of mini-shout down the aisle, “On the phone here – having trouble hearing – please keep it down a little!” And I’ve been called out when I didn’t realize I was talking loudly or clicking my pen in an annoying way or whatever. No harm, no foul. We’re all in this together. :)

          2. Windchime*

            I have said something a couple of times and it gets better for that day, and then they start back up. I’ve just accepted that I need to always remember to bring my headphones to work. It still annoys me to see them getting paid to flirt, though.

    4. Lora*

      This drives me nuts too! Mostly because I personally do not care about what it LOOKS like someone is doing–I know for a fact that plenty of not-very-social, modest, shy, etc. people do fantastic work that should get them promotions, but they don’t get anything because someone who is much more well-known as the Happy Hour Organizer gets the promotion even though their work isn’t half as good. And I’ve seen more than enough C-level executives who have long track records of incompetence but nevertheless are still employed elsewhere, even when their screw-ups make the NY Times headlines. So when someone gets promoted I send out a department-wide (sometimes company-wide, if it’s a small company) email congratulating the person and spelling out “Jane Smith is being promoted to head of the Cups division. Jane has done fantastic work on the Marshmallow Teacup project, the Peppermint Coffee Cup project and the Butterscotch Sugar Bowl project. She has demonstrated her ability to produce high-quality chocolates under the pressure of tight deadlines. Congratulations, Jane!” Sometimes with a couple lines in there about Jane graduating from Lipton University and having two centuries of experience if the email recipients might not know her personally.

      I have to make all the justifications to HR anyway. Might as well cut and paste for transparency’s sake.

      1. Us, Too*

        Whether I care or not what it looks like someone is doing (vs. what they are actually doing) depends on the job function. Some jobs and career paths tend to lend themselves more to “sit quietly and work” than others. My job requires a strong ability to influence without authority and that can’t happen if I’m not “out there” establishing strong relationships with the people I need to help me accomplish my objectives. I also tend to think that it’s very difficult to be promoted to Director or above if you’re battling a perception/marketability issue. The one thing that most of the execs I know share is a huge professional network. It’s hard to get to that point if you’re OK with being a drone in sector 7 G whose name nobody knows.

  10. James M*

    #2: It could be that, in her moments of frustration, the HR rep substituted an offensive word for the litany of ear-curling profanity that she wanted to say instead.

    1. Anne 3*

      What difference does it make? A professional person shouldn’t be having outbursts of profanity or using offensive language.

      1. Judy*

        Do you have to use computers or computer programs in your work? It sounds like you don’t. ;)

        And I’m speaking as a person who writes computer programs. I doubt that there’s anyone who hasn’t muttered lots of profanity (at least as profane as that person’s language is) under their breath while sitting at a keyboard.

        I don’t swear in my language at all. But I sure startled a co-worker who was at my desk once when some language they hadn’t heard from my mouth came out that they wouldn’t have heard if they were a foot further away from me.

        This is different than a conversation, though.

        1. Anne 3*

          A large portion of my job is QA testing new developments in our software – trust me, I’ve had my share of computer-related frustration. I still don’t see the need for outbursts of profanity and/or offensive language.

          1. danr*

            Well, it’s your job to find the frustrating stuff and document it. It’s FUN. (grin). I did that for awhile. For stuff that would produce muttering in others, I would respond with a YES!! and write down the problem and move on to the next item.

            1. Judy*

              I guess I’m not saying it about my code, I’m saying it about my tools and the rest of the computer world.

              I think the only time I do things that are swearing are at my computer. If I were venting to someone else I wouldn’t say those words.

        2. Rayner*

          Saying “come on, you piece of shit!” is different from saying, “Urgh, this thing is so retarded” though.

          Profanity is fine. Pejoratives and insults based around minority groups is pretty gross.

          1. fposte*

            But that’s your lens. It happens to be mine as well, but there are plenty of people who find “shit” to be considerably more offensive. They don’t matter less for that.

            1. TL*

              The thing is, “shit” isn’t aimed at anyone when you’re cussing out your experiment for failing for the 3rd time in a row.

              No matter where you use retarded, it’s aimed at someone. So even if someone is more offended by run of the mill cuss words muttered under my breath, it’s not aimed at them or anyone else. So – I would rather someone be offended by a word that I can aim specifically at my reactions without hurting anyone else than a word I can’t use without perpetrating a hurtful attitude about an entire swath of the population.

              1. fposte*

                But that’s demeaning–it’s suggesting that other people have to justify being offended by something that doesn’t offend you.

                1. fposte*

                  Sorry, that was terse–I just think it’s falling into the bad practice of suggesting that one side’s offense is logical and the other side’s isn’t. Neither side’s offense is logical, because that’s not how offense works.

                2. TL*

                  I agree that if cursing offends someone around you, you should try to avoid using foul language around them. But if I’m going to let something slip or if I’m going to be using words I don’t intend for others to hear I’d rather they be foul than prejudiced. (Neither set of words are appropriate for the office, but sometimes things are going to slip.)

                  I’m saying that there’s a difference between a curse word, which offends people because of the vulgarity and often imagery – fair enough – and using a pejorative term, which actively works to discriminate against people .

                3. fposte*

                  But it’s not a term that “works actively” to discriminate against people more than other terms that are more acceptable. That’s why there’s no logic in insisting that it’s preferable–if you’re calling stuff idiotic or crazy, you’re drawing on the same linguistic tendency, it’s just not something that’s been marked out as vividly as “retarded” has. And you’re still articulating a difference that’s important to you as if it had to be equally important to other people, and it doesn’t.

                4. TL*

                  I’m going to disagree with you there – idiotic is not used to define a class of people. A class of behavior, maybe, or someone you don’t find all that bright, but if you called someone an idiot, using any inflection, I would never assume that they were disabled in any way. (And I have issues with the term crazy, and generally don’t let my friends get away with using it.)

                  Terms like “retarded” or “that’s so gay” are deliberately singling out an entire class of people, telling them they’re different and that’s bad. When people use them to describe bad things, they’re signalling tacit agreement with assumption that being different is less than being “normal.” (which is often straight, white, neurotypical, able-bodied, and male.) They’re worse than other, similar terms because they have an instant association with that specific class of people in our culture.

                  (And I agree with others’ assessment that retarded is still a transitioning word in our society.)

                  Using them may not offend some people as much as dropping the f-bomb, but it does do more harm.

                  Their wishes should be respected- there are certainly people I don’t curse or use the lord’s name in vain around – but there’s a world of difference between profanity and prejudiced language, regardless of which offends you most.

                5. Jamie*

                  Idiot was a medical term, though – it was even in legal documents in the late 1800’s outlining the criteria of who could and couldn’t vote.

                  “No idiot or insane person shall be entitled to the privileges of an elector.”

                  Arkansas constitution drafted in 1874 and they are now looking into altering the phrasing. Still on the books.

                  The point is at one point idiot was a medical term used to describe a class of people. It fell out of use because it was used as a pejorative so much that it overrode the medical usage. The exact same way other words have done since then.

                  There was a time when idiot was a word in transition – as retarded is now.

                  You mention the word crazy, and that such words cause harm. I would argue that crazy also has other meanings that as just as valid and positive – and in as much common usage as any disparaging term, so while I agree that it’s common courtesy not to use language that offends others – at a certain point you can’t police other people’s vocabularies.

                  There are people who find crazy abelist, most people do not…and some who take it to the extreme where anything that was ever used to disparage is offensive. Some people feel the word stupid is abelist. Some feel the same for dumb.

                  Taken to the extreme I feel it dilutes the message. Yes, words are powerful but if people will be called out for calling the copier stupid, or saying they had the “best time at a party – it was crazy!” then it’s going to lessen the impact when called out for something more commonly seen as substantial.

                  I would like to see the word retarded retired in all but the scientific contexts, but people need to have something to call malfunctioning equipment. And if we all have a list of words we find personally offensive that Venn diagram of what we can and can’t say will be impossible to parse out.

                6. fposte*

                  @TL–there’s some difference, sure, but it’s not a difference that translates to one being more of a problem for everybody.

                  I understand your POV and largely follow the same practices you do. But they’re not logic based practices, and they have no inherent right to be honored more than somebody’s discomfort at, say, having the central experience of their life cheapened by blasphemy.

                7. fposte*

                  @Jamie–several states still have laws stating that “idiots” are prevented from voting, and it was a formal clinical term even as late as the mid-century.

                8. TL*

                  @Jaime: I actually have more feminist issues with crazy than ableist issues but most of the time when I hear it, it’s directed at women. So “a crazy party!” I don’t have a problem with but when it’s “she’s crazy!” in response to a normal, rational behavior that someone just happens not to like – but I digress.

                  @fposte – not a difference on a personal level, no. And like I said, I do think people’s (reasonable) requests to not use profanity should be honored. I think what I’m saying here is pejorative words are objectively worse than curse words, not that people have less of a right to be offended by profanity.

          2. Anonymous*

            If we’re talking about a slow computer, calling it “retarded” is etymologically accurate.
            Referring to it as a “piece of shit” is not, unless it is substantially composed of fecal matter. I’m all for composting but that seems a little extreme.

            1. fposte*

              But I think people are right to note that she’s almost certainly not calling it “retarded” because of the etymology. (And it wouldn’t be semantically correct there anyway–the printing is retarded, not the printer itself.)

          3. ThursdaysGeek*

            Actually, “shit” is a vulgarity, not a profanity.

            I’d prefer no insults, profanity, or vulgarity in the the workplace, but I don’t work alone. People aren’t using the language to offend me, and if I am offended, I need to speak up. I’ll speak up about putting people down, but I know it’s better to just ignore the vulgarities and profanities.

            1. TL*

              If I let one drop at work – and boy howdy, have I ever – I immediately apologize if someone hears me. Just in case.

        3. Jamie*

          Do you have to use computers or computer programs in your work? It sounds like you don’t. ;)

          You typed it before I could! Seriously, if anyone ever had audio of what I mutter under my breath while working it couldn’t be aired on any broadcast medium as it would be series of censoring beeps.

          I have my own office so I’m not offending anyone, but for some people swearing at inanimate things is a little stress relief. I’m far more likely to be offended that someone doesn’t like The Big Bang Theory or the Waltons than I am hearing salty language uttered in frustration.

    2. Rayner*

      So? Using a insult that’s abelist is somehow better than using standard profanity? How is that a) an improvement or b) or acceptable?

      1. Lindsay J*

        Many people (especially those not into social justice) etc have never even heard the word ableist before, and may never have thought about how the word “retarded” as we use it now is actually hurtful to people.

        It’s more acceptable right now because, at this point, more of society views “retarded” as more acceptable in the workplace than “fucking bullshit”. I don’t necessarily agree. I don’t use the word “retarded” in my vocabulary, while I do use a lot of general profanity. However, we have to interact in the world as it is now, rather than the world as we want it to be. To me that would mean going up to her and explaining that a lot of people find that word offensive and that I (and many others) would prefer not to hear it at work – and maybe explaining why a little bit if I though it was worth it – rather than passing judgement on her and her ability to do her job based off of this one incident.

        1. Ask a Manager* Post author

          That’s exactly my viewpoint as well. We do our own causes no favors if we assume that everyone is as far along in their awareness as we are and judge them for it, rather than helping move them along.

          1. Anne 3*

            I appreciate that viewpoint, but “helping to move them along” gets exhausting at some point. I’ve seen this pop up in arguments about offensive language/behaviour regarding race – the burden of ‘educating’ is often placed on the discriminated group, and it gets old quick.

            1. VintageLydia*


              The worst are the repeat offenders. You explain and cajole and teach and explain some more why something is offensive, and every. single. time. they use that word or phrase they claim they “never taught” and should be give a pass for infinity. I know people who’ve used the N-word and try to justify it to mean “Well, THOSE black people, not the nice black people.”

              No. Does not work that way. /rant

              1. Dan*

                I used to work on an airline ramp. I heard a 6’4 260 lb black guy tell another another black guy: “You go tell that n to go…”

                I’m white. I looked at the huge black guy who could kick my ass if he so much as wanted to, spoke up and said, “Excuse me, tell who to do what?”

                The second guy looks at me and says, “Thank you.”

                I’m not much of a PC guy, but I hate double standards. If it’s offensive for me to utter a word simply because of my race, it doesn’t make it any better for someone of that race to describe their people in the same context.

              2. TL*

                Repeat offenders don’t get an explanation, they get a flat out, no argument “request” – use it with the right tone and all but the biggest jerks will comply – not to use that word around you.

                You can’t stop people from using words, but you generally can stop them from using words around you and that is better than nothing.

            2. fposte*

              I think that can certainly be true, but I don’t know that it applies in this situation. For one thing, few people in the discourse are genuinely within the minority group (I think having been the recipient of it as a slur is not the same thing); for another, a good faith alert is not the same thing as being responsible for educating somebody. Taking up Ann Furthermore’s example from below, I don’t think it’s an irrational burden for somebody to say “My father died in Guyana. Could we shelve the casual use of ‘drinking the Koolaid’?”

    3. TL*

      I would rather hear a “mother frito son of a bean dip!” than an offensive term like the one she used. One says you’re angry; the other says you’re both angry and either thoughtless or prejudiced.

      1. Laura*

        Creative ‘swearing’ is an awesome art, actually. It can be quite fun to think up something to say that sounds terrible but is unlikely to offend anyone.

        In that vein, I love “mother frito son of a bean dip” even if it was intended to stand in for something else. :)

      2. Mints*

        I actually really like this, because if you make another person laugh, it might make you feel less angry. Plus it’s funny to brainstorm them
        Holy Christian Mingle!
        Sweet knights of Columbus!
        Turkey jerky!
        I need more examples

        1. S.A.*

          Here you go:
          Shut the front door!
          Son of a biscuit eater!
          Sweet molasses!
          Brain nugget!

          Hope they amuse. ;-)

    4. James M*

      @ Anne & Rayner: I was only offering a different lens through which to see the situation. Discerning the intent behind the deed can only benefit OP2.

  11. Elysian*

    #4 – I read in a book once that a lot of the bizarre expectations we have about teachers can be explained by the fact that teaching is a predominantly female profession, doing something that society used to consider “women’s work.” The kinds of things we ask teachers to do, we would never ask people in a male-dominated profession to do. It would be unthinkable to suggest that police officers should avoid going out to watch the big game at a sports bar (just to indulge another stereotype for a minute).

    I don’t know how true that logic is, but I think there’s something to it. Teaching is a job – its a job that a lot of people are called to, but its still a job at the end of the day. You don’t join a nunnery, you just teach little kids. Being a teacher should mean that you’re expected to give up all your free time for your students, all the time. You meet your professional obligations, you live your life the rest of the time.

    1. Del*

      “Used to” consider?

      I’d argue that teaching, especially pre-K through elementary, is still broadly considered “women’s work.” How many men do you see aspiring to that kind of position?

      But yes, overall, I absolutely agree with you. There’s an expectation that a woman who works with small children needs to be “virtuous” (GAG) in all areas of her life and at all times, or else she might be corrupting those children by spreading her wicked ways. It’s heavily couched in sexism and the Madonna-wh*re dichotomy.

      1. Yup*

        It’s an interesting point to consider, how we manufacture unreasonable expectations about various professions based on our prejudices about the people in them. I work in a field that was historically dominated by clergy, and there’s definitely a holdover expectation that low pay and subpar tools are fine because we’re supposed to be outside that greedy sort of worldliness.

        1. Elysian*

          Right! I find this really interesting. I used to teach, and one of the things I hated most was that I wasn’t “allowed” to be self-interested at all. I felt like there was a lot of pressure to spend all my off-time improving less plans, grading, etc. Whenever I would complain about how there wasn’t enough time in the day to do all the things expected of me, I was told to “Find time, because otherwise you’re letting down the kids!!!”

          I left teaching in part because of this perception that I couldn’t be a whole person – I had to just be a teacher. I just couldn’t keep doing that. People expect teachers to make incredible sacrifices – money, time, home life, personal goals, their health – because its all for the benefit of students. I know that lots of salaried (exempt) positions ask employees to bring work home with them, but I felt like I was never allowed to have time for myself when I was teaching. And according to my fellow teachers, that was ok – as a teacher you’re supposed to do it “for the kids.” No matter what.

          There are some professions that ask this kind of sacrifice of people, and I don’t think its appropriate at all. Teachers, social service workers, things like that, are supposed to accept low pay and low respect because there’s a ‘higher calling.’ I think that’s BS. I’m a lawyer now, and I make (somewhat) more, have more respect, and work less than I did when I was teaching. I’m still in a public-service type field of law. But law is a male dominated profession. I think the part of the difference is that men would never stand for that kind of “do it for the higher calling!!” attitude toward a business, and so even public interest areas of law never developed to expect the same kinds of sacrifices that I felt I needed to endure as a teacher. Because, you know, men are allowed to be self-interested. Women aren’t.

          That was a long rant. Point is, I agree. Our manufactured, unreasonable expectations of certain careers are weird.

          1. TL*

            I hate, hate, hate that attitude – that teaching is its own reward and you should just be grateful you can help the kids and that should be enough. You don’t need a decent salary or time for yourself – the look on your inspired children’s face as they open their acceptance letters to Harvard should be enough reward.

            Ug. What infantilizing bull.

          2. S.A.*

            Ignore TL. It seems that you weren’t informed that teaching was indeed all MALE and they were paid quite a bit more. What happened? They started allowing women to do the job albeit for a lot less pay and promptly dumped more responsibilities on them. If TL doesn’t believe me then I encourage them to research this. Teachers are above all human and in this country treated little better than dirt. In other countries they have nothing less than a Master’s degree and are respected by both students and their parents.

            I’ve seen a lot of lazy people (parents and members of churches) actually complain that a teacher did not teach their child manners, hygiene, etc. Apparently these teachers are now supposed to take over the parent’s job too! My mother was a teacher and it doesn’t matter how hard you work there’s always some nasty individuals who are willing to criticize but not willing to do the actual job before making such an ill-informed snap judgement.

            My mother left the teaching profession to be a librarian and she still works with children to a different end. It’s mortifying to hear about the conditions the kids are raised in. How do you respond to a kid who asks you how to keep roaches out of their clothes? Teachers, Librarians and support staff really do all they can but if you’re working in a broken system no one but the staff wants to fix you have to give up eventually.

            Learning is considered to be “elitist” now and treating those working hard to make something of themselves is still considered socially acceptable. Good for you for finding something better for you Elysian.

            School districts where I lived threw away a several $10,000 raises to administrators who make arbitrary rules in my home state while completely ignoring the fact that their best teachers were leaving the district to work in areas that paid $12,000 more per school year. Teachers were denied pay raises in my mother’s district for SIX straight years and then had expensive new “certifications” thrust on them so that sleaze ball administrators could claim they were making progress.

            If it’s not obvious by now, no one is going to continue working in an area where you really can’t make a difference. Right now we’re all looking at moving because of horrible weather conditions (droughts) not to mention a limping economy where I live. It’s sad yet typical for people to give up and move when they know they’re fighting a losing battle. What’s more infuriating is that the administrators are whining claiming they don’t know how to get or retain excellent teachers. Of course they don’t have the budget for raises yet again and there are vacancies that haven’t been filled in years now. Anyone want a job working as a Teacher’s Aide for minimum wage? You must have a Bachelor’s degree and be certified to deal with “special ed” children too. Yep, no takers for that when you can make three times minimum wage just north of the border!

    2. Kelly L.*

      That and they were expected to be unmarried women, and thus in need of having their virtue protected. :D

      1. A teacher*

        Nearly all the women in my family are teachers going back to the late 1800s. My great-great aunt had to elope half-way across our state to be married in secret so she could keep teaching for another year. My grandmother interviewed her and most of the others in the 60s and typed it up for all of us to read and enjoy years later. It’s a hell of a story. We think we have workplace issues now…

    3. Calla*

      This is a really good point. And actually, I think there was a time when teaching was male-dominated (and thus better paid, of course!) and I wonder what the behavior expectations were during that time vs. now.

      1. TL*

        In one of Laura Wilder’s books, a male teacher brought a bull whip to school to teach the older boys how to behave.

        1. De Minimis*

          My mom’s experience was that often male teachers were the ones that moved into administration, there definitely seemed to be unfair treatment in a lot of school districts.

          1. Calla*

            Oh yeah, I think that’s true of almost any professional/skill we usually think of as female-dominated – the more prestigious positions are still going to men. Women cook, but men become the famous chefs. Women like fashion, but men become the biggest designers. Women nurse, but men become the doctors (though that one’s definitely changing).

          2. fposte*

            I once took a big long career suitability test (in around 1978), and they gave different scores for males and females in each profession–males were considered to be doing more administration.

            1. Elysian*

              This makes me want to invent a time machine, go back to the 1970s, and smack some people around.

              Men and women answered the same questions about (presumably) interests and work habits, and got different results? Bahhhh so angry. I know it shouldn’t surprise me, but I don’t think I’ll ever stop being angry about things like this.

              1. fposte*

                It was better than that! I, a teenage girl, got scored on my aptitude for being a male teacher or a female teacher, male travel agent or female travel agent, etc.
                (I always mapped better onto the male.)

                To be slightly fairer, it was based on similarities of your tastes and skills to the people in the field, so it was reflective of the common genuine divisions of the time. But still–seriously?

        2. BadPlanning*

          Farmer Boy! The one about Almanzo. To be fair, the Big Boys at school had beaten a previous teacher to death and were planning a similar fate for the new teacher. Oh, Spoilers!

      2. CC*

        In one of the later Anne of Green Gables books, some of the kids thought women were too weak to be good teachers, and it was a man’s job and only a man could be a proper disciplinarian. And also know enough material to teach at all, since generally only men were educated, but I remember mostly they referred to the strength/disciplinarian issue. That was set about a century ago. I don’t recall what other issues they had around women teachers, I haven’t read those books since I was a kid.

    4. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Teachers used to not be allowed to be pregnant in some areas of the country (even when married). My grandmother was a teacher, and she hid her pregnancy for a while because of that.

    5. ThursdaysGeek*

      Mmm, I don’t know if I completely agree. Clergy are traditionally men, and they too are looked at sideways if they’re found in a bar (although that is changing). I think it has more to do with the ‘morality’ of the profession. Teachers are leading our children, preachers are leading us spiritually, and neither should be involved with the evils of drink. So it’s at least partly our historical putting a morality on certain social behaviours more than simply gender.

      1. Emma*

        I’m curious why the archaic expectations around teachers don’t map onto other female-dominated, child-serving professions – like pediatric nursing, child social work, etc.?

  12. Diamond Lil*

    I corrected a co-worker about the use of the word ‘retard’ as a pejorative the other day, but it made me think: ‘dumb’ refers to people who cannot speak; ‘idiot’ is an older term for someone who is mentally disabled; ‘stupid’, same thing; etc.etc. When I was very young, I remember kids being called retarded not as an insult, but as a description of their mental abilities. Now we use different words for that. Some within the community are are deeply offended by being called ‘disabled’, and want everyone to use different terminology that doesn’t imply they are lesser or different/abnormal, but rather a different spot on the spectrum of normality. Now I’m surrounded by people who think a sports team called the Redskins is okay, whereas I find that profoundly insulting and offensive.

    It requires a lot of talking. A lot of “I know you didn’t mean this maliciously, but…” conversations. And knowing that even as you are trying to be aware and considerate of all people, you are inadvertently putting your foot in your mouth in some way. So it requires humility and openness to learning and inclusion.

    But all of this goes to say – don’t let this impede talking to your HR rep about work stuff!

    1. LisaLyn*

      Well, many words that we consider offensive today actually came into the language as the polite way to refer to the things to which they refer (ugh, that sentence — sorry, English!). It’s just something that happens. So, yes, at one time “idiot” was sort of a clinical term, then became an insult. Living languages are dynamic. Words are also powerful, so we do need to always be aware of the context.

      1. bearing*

        And it is all rooted in an underlying problem that some humans are widely considered to be Not Really People, subhuman, and so whatever word is used to describe individuals politely today will be used as an insult tomorrow, forever and ever amen. And that’s why the turnover is so fast, as each generation seeks a neutral descriptor untainted by the last generation’s insults.

        1. fposte*

          Exactly–and this happens with all kinds of terminology. Sometimes changing times mean that you really can outrun connotation with nomenclature changes (I think “African American” works very differently in culture than “colored” ever did), but when it comes to terms relating to actual physical limitations that are still an obstacle to thriving in our society, we’re going to be running for a while.

    2. Anonymous*

      This is why my video game speak has not only leaked into my vocabulary but that of my extended family.

      You mess up? FAIL! Giant epic fail.
      (It confuses people occasionally but the word itself has never upset anyone. My frequent and unrepentant use of it has but not the word.)

        1. Vancouver Reader*

          Sorry for the total random off the rails comment, but I never thought I’d see anyone on a site that I actually know! You won’t remember me Natalie, but we went to high school together.

          1. Natalie Anne Lanoville*

            Well I certainly don’t remember going to school with a “Vancouver Reader” ;-) but I might remember you! I actually recently re-connected with several HS acquaintances & friends; hit me up on FB or Twitter! (I’m the only person with my name on the internet).

    3. fposte*

      I think this is really perceptive–that we’re all of us on a continuum here and we’re all both changing what we consider appropriate speech and learning new things about what other people view as appropriate. What can shut down a conversation like the one that could happen with this colleague is a background message of “Join the rest of us who know better than you.” I guarantee that even the most sensitive of us here is currently employing terms or phrases that will in future be deemed inappropriate, and that we will change it after we find out some people are finding its use inappropriate and not before. Why not start by assuming that that’s where this colleague is right now?

    4. Ann O'Nemity*

      “I know you didn’t mean this maliciously, but…”

      Yes to this. This can really be a teachable moment. I’ll never forget how mortified I was when someone called me out years ago for using the word “gyp.”

      1. Emma*

        My first internship supervisor called out my use of the word “retarded.” Very likely in a similar context to this letter.

        I was absolutely mortified, a little defensive sure, but mostly upset that I made her think badly of me. To quote The Giver, “precision of language” is very important. When we use “retarded,” “gay,” etc. it’s honestly just…lazy. There is a rich cornucopia of words to describe the situation and they are arguably way more informative than those slurs.

      2. CC*

        Yeah, I was also pretty mortified when I found out “gyp” was a racial slur. I’d been using it my entire life up to that point with no clue what it referred to. I wasn’t even personally called on it, I ran across it while reading something else on the internet.

    5. Anonymous*

      A while back, a coworker and I had a discussion around the definitions of idiot, imbecile and moron. Turns out, they used to be actual designations for different levels of low IQ (70 and below). Thus a moron would be considered more intelligent than an imbecile, who in turn would be more intelligent than an idiot.

      Gotta love Wikipedia!

    6. ella*

      It is really, really discouraging when you think about the number of times we’ve had to change the clinical language that we use to describe disabled people because the “official” words have become pejorative.

      1. fposte*

        But I think as long as anything is culturally viewed as a disability or even a limitation or an irregularity that’s going to be the case. Language is just a follower there.

        1. ella*

          Right–as long as disabled people have less value than “normal” people in society, whatever word we use to describe them will eventually be co-opted and turned insulting. It’s discouraging because that process hasn’t changed yet, and doesn’t seem to be changing (says cynical me).

          If anyone wants to see me turn really livid, they will use the phrase “soandso seems a little bit Downsy” within earshot of me.

  13. Meredith*

    When I was in middle and high school, “retarded” was a word that was used liberally by my peers. When I discovered how offensive it was (I think my awesome mom educated me on that point), I trained myself not to use it. On the very rare occasions I do slip up and start to say it, I get as far as the “re-” part before my brain triggers and change the last bit to “-diculous.” Because I always mean “ridiculous,” anyway. So, that’s my tip for eliminating the offensive word.

    1. Del*

      A friend of mine substituted “reject” for “retard” – it has the same intonation and the same harsh consonants, so it’s works very well as an expression of disdain that doesn’t single out any group of people.

    2. FiveNine*

      “That’s so gay” is still frequently used by high schoolers, and young people in their 20s who are otherwise politically astute will be adamant that it’s not a slur, it has nothing to do with gays and lesbians, it’s just an insult and they’re going to keep using it. But of course the only reason that it came to be a stinging insult is because it is and was and continues to be used as a pejorative to describe usually someone weaker, or effeminate, or uncomfortably different who the person is attacking for that difference.

      Just because a person is ignorant of how a word came to be an insult or offensive doesn’t magically make it not an insult. And to be honest, it really seems to me part of an H.R. person’s job to know that using “retard” or “retarded” or “that’s so gay” in the workplace is at the very least unprofessional.

      1. Meredith*

        Yes, that’s also a troubling phrase that should be eliminated.

        No argument here that both terms are inappropriate, in and out of the workplace.

      2. Anonicorn*

        young people in their 20s who are otherwise politically astute will be adamant that it’s not a slur

        I don’t know about that. Both “gay” and “retarded” were widely used among my peers growing up in the 90s/early 2000’s. Plenty of us have since recognized them as hurtful slurs, but it takes a good bit of work to eliminate that kind of thing from your speech.

        1. TL*

          Yeah, it still slips out every now and then for me, even though I try really hard not to use it!
          (My friends get amused because I instantly stop, apologize, say I shouldn’t use that term and correct myself. But it’s also encourage a few of them not to use it without me ever having to say anything about anyone else’s use of it.)

      3. Laura*

        I think another similarity between saying “that’s so gay” and “retarded”, other than they’re horrible to say as slurs is that not everyone realizes what they’re saying. Once you point it out people should apologize and train themselves to stop saying that, and if they slip up, then apologize. Being adamant that it’s not a slur and continuing to say it is not ok, and if once pointed out to them, the HR person is like that, then it would affect my general opinion of them

  14. Del*

    #4- Okay, Alison’s header for this one interprets the question one way, but your own phrasing is more vague. Do you mean…

    A) Should society accept that teachers and caretakers of small children occasionally indulge in leisure activities that are not appropriate for their charges, such as drinking, clubbing, etc?


    B) In the current social climate as it stands right now, is it a good idea for a teacher and/or caretaker of small children to indulge in those leisure activities?

    If it’s A, I kind of hope you’re trolling, because this is a really absurd question. Teachers are absolutely entitled to engage in whatever sort of (legal!) behavior that any other adult is. In the classroom, they have to abide by standards of professionalism appropriate for working with small children, but out of the classroom, much like out of the office, who cares?! Why should someone care more that a teacher drinks than they do if say, their banker drinks? They certainly don’t want them to be on the job drunk or hungover, but as long as the drinking doesn’t impinge on that person’s professional behavior during work hours then who gives a rat’s patoot?

    If it’s B, then maybe you have a reasonable question. Unfortunately, some people do feel entitled to pass that kind of judgment, for reasons that really escape me (other than the default “They are very judgmental and probably sexist people”) and a teacher may wish to be cautious given that. Sad, but true.

    1. KayDay*

      Even in the case of B, I think it very few people would have a problem with a teacher being at a bar or club…however, (again, the how things are not how they should be) to be cautious that they are only drinking in strict moderation (e.g. a beer or a glass of wine) and not dancing too…ummm…sexily? But I don’t think there are many places (maybe there are a few, but you probably know if you are in one of those places) where an adult having a single non-liquor drink while not in the company of children would be a problem, unless it was a religious school with a strict morality clause (which the teachers would then know about).

  15. Sunflower*

    #4 I think it’s completely fine. A lot of my teacher friends have alias facebook names so their students can’t find them. Now with so many different social media’s going around (twitter, instagram) you do have to be more careful. Also Facebook is changing faster than ever the the privacy settings are getting really tricky. The majority of my friends are teachers and are always getting instagram/friend requests from their students even with alias names- of course they don’t accept them.

    Regardless of what industry you work in, you should probably be making everything private and Google yourself. I don’t want random people looking at pictures of me anyway. The intern in my office, who is 23, fb friended me and asked to follow me on instagram and even that freaked me out a little.

    Google yourself because there are still lots of social media site that have died down but the stuff is still out there. Anyone remember Webshots the online photo album site? Yup that became super popular my freshman year of college and before I graduated, I googled myself and found the account was still active.

    BTW lots of my teacher friends also have work parties outside of the school with alcohol at them

    1. Elizabeth West*

      I do not friend coworkers on Facebook ever, unless they are ex-coworkers. If they want to follow my (public) blogs or on Twitter, that’s fine because those are my writing accounts and under a different name anyway. And my blog posts do appear automatically on Facebook, but that’s only so my friends can see them. I don’t want work to have anything to do with my personal account.

  16. Us, Too*

    #4: I can imagine some circumstances in which this wouldn’t be acceptable in the context of the specific situation. Namely, some religious preschools and schools have “morality” clauses in place that prohibit behaviors that are fairly common and generally acceptable in most areas. But, in general, I can’t imagine anyone caring about this.

  17. Brett*

    #4 I feel like there is some east coast bias going on here? In some midwest and most southern states (in particular, the ones that ban teachers unions), it is common practice to write a restriction into teacher contracts that forbid teachers from going into bars inside the district.

    My wife’s former district had a clause in their contract that forbade teachers from going into _any_ establishment with a serving liquor license inside the district (so restaurants as well as bars). They were pushing for a clause that would bar teachers from all bars regardless of location (because teachers were having gettogethers at bars outside the district) and all establishments with any type of liquor license inside the district (so, grocery stores, convenience stores, etc).

    For private school teachers here, this is not even really needed as a contract clause. They, and all of the school parents, just know that if they should never be seen in public in any bar anywhere near the school.

    If you view question #4 from that perspective, someone from a state where it is common and assumed practice to ban K-12 teachers from bars and nightclubs, then the question makes a lot more sense.

    1. Anonymous*

      My midwestern state does not think that it has the right to police what adults do on their own time because of their profession. It isn’t an acceptable question, it might be acceptable to say, “This is a thing how do I push back.” or “My local school district is doing this thing and how do I as a citizen help show that teachers are like any other professionals and should be treated like adults not wards.”

      1. De Minimis*

        The unions are no guarantee either, I know the area where my mother taught had a union, but a teacher who was seen in a bar there would have certainly lost their job. Unfortunately it’s just the culture in a lot of those areas—there’s still a big stigma about drinking, bars, etc.

        Guess it is similar to the driving in snow question yesterday, it’s part of life in those places and if it’s a big problem people should work elsewhere.

    2. Dulcinea*

      Wow, really? Is it common in your town for a decent sit down restaurant to NOT have a liquor license? So if they put this clause in your wife’s contract, would she even be able to go out to dinner with you?

        1. De Minimis*

          A lot of the time areas that are really uptight about this are in states where alcohol is very restricted to where that wouldn’t be an issue. My state has extra-weak beer and that is the only type of alcohol you can get in a grocery store, for example

          1. Judy*

            It was very surprising to me to discover (at least in the early 90s) that Texas is a dry state. Each county/municipality has to vote to allow alcohol. The area I lived in was dry, we had to drive to the next county to buy alcohol. Most clubs were defined as “private clubs”, where you had to pay $5 for a year’s membership (and get a $5 coupon for drinks most of the time). In Dallas, they had an organization that was one big club that most of the restaurants were members of, so you paid once, and you were good for a year in most of the larger restaurants.

            At that time you couldn’t get any alcohol at any form of grocery store, it was only liquor stores at least in that area of Texas.

            1. Windchime*

              Washington state only started selling liquor in the grocery stores about a year ago. Prior to that, you had to go to a State-run liquor store for anything harder than beer or wine, and most of those were closed on Sunday.

              1. De Minimis*

                In my state, anything above 3.2 beer has to be sold in a liquor store, and there are big restrictions on when those can be open [must close on Sundays and almost all holidays] and what they can sell. For example, they can’t sell anything cold, I guess for fear that people will get drunk in the parking lot.

            2. Joey*

              You must have lived like out in the sticks or something like Lubbock? Beer and wine have always been available in nearly every grocery store in every part of Texas since as far back as I can remember (early 80s).

              1. De Minimis*

                I went to school in Williamson county during the early 90s and it was explained that our county was considered “damp.” I can’t remember what it meant for certain–you could get beer in grocery and convenience stores, I don’t remember if I saw any wine there or not–that generally wasn’t of much interest to the college demographic.

                I think the main effect was that the area lacked bars, and students had to go out of town, but most people were always heading to Austin anyway.

              2. Judy*

                I was about 25 miles outside the LBJ in the Dallas area. I don’t remember if I noticed in Dallas about the grocery stores, but I do know the “membership cards” were in full effect there.

            3. De Minimis*

              This was the case in my state as well, that was the only way you could legally buy liquor by the drink until the mid-80s.

              I know one other neighboring state had a similar deal well into the 90s [and still might for all I know.] I remember you used to have to get a membership to eat at Chili’s, Red Lobster, etc.

            4. the gold digger*

              Texas is not a dry state. It has dry areas, Dallas being one of them. But I can assure you that alcohol was readily available in Houston and in Austin when I was in college and grad school in the 80s.

      1. Brett*

        We do have a lot of restaurants without liquor licenses, but also it is a major metro area, so the expectation is that teachers would only eat at restaurants outside the district boundaries. The clause was clearly meant to prevent teachers from going out for a drink together after work anywhere where they might be seen by children or parents.

        The all licensed establishment clause died partly because some teachers do live inside the district, and they would have been required to shop for groceries outside the district. Realistically, that would have only added 5-10 miles to their drive, but that adds up, and it would be impossible for any teacher to not have a car. (They would either live outside the district, or live inside but need to drive to the grocery store.)

    3. Cat*

      Wow, that’s unbelievable to me. It hasn’t occurred to these people that possibly the solution they’re looking for is not taking their children to bars?

      1. ExceptionToTheRule*

        Exactly – what’s your underage kid doing in a bar to see the teacher? And if you, the parent, are there and see the teacher, then complain about it, the word you’re looking for is hypocrite.

    4. glg*

      I have a fair number of friends who are teachers in WI and MN (both midwest states) as well as a fair number in NY and I have definitely been out to bars or gone dancing with all of them in all three states! They all exercise caution and they keep boundaries between their professional and personal lives, but they don’t live in fear that omg someone is going to fire them for going out dancing or drinking. Teachers can get into trouble for a ridiculous number of things, but those are typically the exceptions not the rule, at least in the places I am familiar with.

      Honestly I think that some (not all, but some) parents in my hometown in WI would be weirded out if their children’s teachers didn’t have a beer during football games.

      1. the gold digger*

        Agreed. Anyone who doesn’t drink in Wisconsin is probably looked at suspiciously. This is a state where nobody knows what “dry” or “blue laws” mean. In Indian, however, they don’t sell beer at their state fair. What’s wrong with them?

  18. Anonymous*

    #2. She wasn’t talking to you or about you (or about anyone at all)…
    I’m totally not trying to be rude or offensive here myself when I say this but being offended at the word retarded is a new thing. Sorry. It is. When I was a kid & young adult I used to say gay all the time. I don’t hate gay people.

    I’ve stopped using, but I’m sure out of sheer frustration at some point I’ve said something (not someone) was “f-ing gay!” I would hate for someone to think that I was a huge bigot and supported prop 8 and DADT because of this *one* incident they OVERHEARD.

    My advice is ignore it. If she’s a generally good person, it’s probably because she was upset and that word came to her. Remember, it’s a new* thing that retarded is not a good word to use. You don’t have to go all social justice warrior on her. I also thought your tone was kind of snooty, to be honest. Like you would *NEVER* use that word.

    * and I don’t mean saying the word is still OK because it’s new, I’m saying that it’s probably a bad habit in the process of breaking. As an anecdote, My white great grandmother (who died when I was 16) still used the word negro sometimes. And I’m half black!

    Ok this got a little long, but all I’m trying to say is cut the lady some slack. If you think she is a mean person in her heart then don’t talk to her anymore. If you think it was just a slip up ignore it. If she says retard in front of you again (like in front of your face not with you evesdropping) just say “Jane, that language is pretty rude. And you’re SUCH a nice lady, I don’t want people thinking the wrong things about you.”

    1. Calla*

      It’s not really a “new” thing. I just think it’s very, very slow on catching on. And it not being directed at you doesn’t make it magically not offensive?

      That said, I agree using it doesn’t make someone automatically a huge bigot. But especially from an HR professional, I think OP is justified in feeling surprised or disappointed. It’s like when you hear offensive stuff from people in social work or sociological fields (which is not uncommon!!).

      1. fposte*

        I think it’s fair to call it “new,” though, in that the degree of offensive it’s currently considered isn’t the same as it was ten years ago, and that’s a fast move for language. The other complication is that it is formerly considered a technical term–like “idiot” and “moron,” it was once clinically appropriate, but those have slipped into colloquial use without becoming offensive in the same way.

        I would therefore agree with those saying that the HR person shouldn’t use it, but that it’s not (yet?) a term of such universal offensiveness that she should be completely written off for it, either.

        1. Fiona*

          And this is interesting to me. How DID idiot and moron somehow manage to avoid becoming slurs, and what colloquialism(s) did they replace? (This is mostly a rhetorical question, unless someone knows the answer.)

          You could add “hysterical” to this list as well. The clinical origins (and decline) of THAT word are fascinating.

          1. fposte*

            Oh, that’s a really great example, too. And I bet I’m not the only one here who is very careful about how I use that one.

            My hand-waving guess is that “idiot” and “moron” fell out of clinical use during a period when it wasn’t considered problematic to insult people for diagnosed mental limitation, so the appropriation didn’t widely offend. They then became so entrenched as a general pejorative that people stopped associating them with their original category.

            But I also think this points to the underlying complexity. I don’t think we can ever have a language or a culture where limitations are free of pejorative connotation while those limitations remain genuinely limiting. Mental handicaps make life difficult whether “retarded” is offensive or not–that’s why referring to them is a source of insult. That doesn’t mean it’s okay to do it, of course, or that it encapsulates everybody’s experience, but there’s a reason why popular language leaps on these things and keeps doing so.

          2. Calla*

            While “hysterical” isn’t a slur really, I think a decent number of people, who are aware of the origins and how it’s used, are pretty critical of when it’s used to talk about women. Whereas that same level of criticism doesn’t really exist for idiot and moron, imo.

            I don’t know the answer, though!

          3. JMegan*

            “Cretin” is another interesting one. Apparently it derived from “Christian,” and was origingally intended as a compliment – so it has taken the opposite route from idiot, moron, etc.

      2. Anonymous*

        I’m not saying the word is NOT offensive. I was saying that it wasn’t used with her or towards her or any person at all so the implication in that context is that PROBABLY the HR rep isn’t a huge bigot who hates all disabled people. So take it with a grain of salt that it slipped out during a frustrated moment because it’s a pretty new thing (slow to catch on) that it’s a rude/offensive term.

        Not everyone is up on what’s PC and what’s not.I’m not saying it’s OK that people use the word retarded. I’m saying it’s OK to realize that this person was probably saying this word (not as hate speak) without issue just a few years ago after decades of it being OK. People aren’t perfect and others are just too overzealous to point that out (and lifting themselves up while they’re at it).

        1. Colette*

          I agree it doesn’t sound like the HR rep was using the term with the intent to offend.

          That doesn’t mean it wasn’t offensive, but intent matters – particularly with respect to how receptive she’d be to someone pointing out that it is offensive, and asking her not to use it. Which, as far as I know, no one has done.

        2. Gilby*

          ” I’m not saying the word is NOT offensive. I was saying that it wasn’t used with her or towards her or any person at all so the implication in that context is that PROBABLY the HR rep isn’t a huge bigot who hates all disabled people. …….”

          I agree. She was frustrated and vented. Obviously not wisely.

          YES the HR person shouldn’t have said it. I think we all agree on that point.

          I choose to deal with things like that differently. I choose to look at the situation and ask myself if this person is normally like that? Says stuff that is iffy all the time? In what context was something said. Is it all worth an ulcer to get mad at.

          I have learned as I get older ( 51) to pick and choose my “anger” on things. A remark directed at ME, my family, my culture, religion… ” YOU ARE THIS….. ” toward me, yes I will have an issue with… a big one.

          Overhearing and getting offened by a comment made in frustration to an computer failure, car failure…. and so on… not my idea of getting ticked over.

          Again, that is just me…everyone has to go with their own feelings.

        3. aebhel*

          Not everyone is up on what’s PC and what’s not.

          No, but someone in HR should make at least a passing effort to be up on what’s PC, seeing as how it’s part of their job.

            1. aebhel*

              What Kelly said. If part of your job is assessing harrassment or discrimination claims, it’s kind of important to have a working knowledge of what kind of language could be considered harrassment or discrimination.

      3. annie*

        Even when I was a child (80s) I was not allowed to use the words retarded or gay as insults, either by my parents or the nuns at school – there was clear explanations on why that was hurtful and punishments. Perhaps I’m living in a liberal urban bubble, but I do agree it is reasonable for people to be offended, disappointed or surprised to hear those words in a professional context in 2014, and especially someone in HR should know better. I wouldn’t write her off totally, but I would say something.

    2. some1*

      “I’ve stopped using, but I’m sure out of sheer frustration at some point I’ve said something (not someone) was “f-ing gay!” I would hate for someone to think that I was a huge bigot and supported prop 8 and DADT because of this *one* incident they OVERHEARD”

      Well, part of being an adult is learning how to handle frustrations at work without verbally lashing out in the moment and saying something that offends people.

      1. Jen in RO*

        I don’t know if you meant it this way or not, but part of being an adult is having the freedom to lash out whenever I feel like it. If you were saying that we need to accept that we might offend people, I agree. If you were saying that we should never lash out (swearing is wrong and childish, etc), I don’t agree.

        1. some1*

          Of course you have the right to say whatever you want. But if you are at work and you swear or use a slur or other word that has the potential to offend people, you don’t get a pass on getting called on it or having your co-workers think less of you because you were frustrated in the moment.

        2. VintageLydia*

          You have a right to, but other people also have a right to call you out on it or decide to not associate with you because of it.

        3. aebhel*

          I don’t think swearing is wrong and childish, but I don’t do it at work because some people find it offensive–and because I’m an adult, and I have the ability to control my temper in a professional environment. And yeah, I would think less of someone who started using offensive language and “lashing out” every time they were frustrated or angry, because it would indicate that they lack self-control.

        4. Anonymous*

          Depends on what you mean by lashing out. If you mean that you have the right to use swear words to occasionally express frustration, sure. If you mean that you have the right to yell and scream at people or inanimate objects in the workplace amongst other scene-causing actions, then I have to pretty vehemently disagree and would say that it’s not even about being an adult, but common decency and contributing to a functional work environment.

          1. Anonymous*

            And frankly, that doesn’t even go into the use of slurs, which is another can of worms (clearly)

    3. Graciosa*

      I just wanted to compliment you on coming up with a lovely way to address the issue – the language you proposed at the end of the post is beautifully chosen.

    4. BB*

      Honestly this is the most intelligent post I’ve seen on this topic yet. I think everyone has different ‘tipping’ words. What doesn’t offend one person can cause the other to blow a gasket. Upthread a woman used JC(Jesus C-) once at word- Apparently that can be a offensive term? I use it on the daily and no one has ever said a word to be about it. I really don’t think the woman was meaning to be offensive. It’s not like she’s been running around the office since she got there calling everything and everyone retarded. She said it in one instance that you overheard. I think what you put at the end is perfect a well.

      And we ALL slip up and say things sometimes. Unless you’re perfect of course because so many of us are.

      1. TL*

        My super-religious (at the time) cousins used to get on me for taking the Lord’s name in vain.

        It’s still something I avoid in my more devout friends’ presences.

      2. HR lady*

        As an HR Pro, I’ve gotten complaints before about people using JC in the workplace. And I’m in a major east coast city. It is considered offensive to some (?many) Christians.

        My parents wouldn’t let me use JC as an expletive when I was a kid. (Nor would they let me use Hell as an expletive, as in “oh, Hell, now what is going on?” or “what the Hell?”) So although these terms don’t bother me now, I still know that they are offensive to many people.

        1. Anonymous*

          What do you do in response to those complaints? I’d be put out if my workplace told me I couldn’t say JC because of someone else’s religion. Do you actually tell the offenders to stop?

          1. HR lady*

            I typically encourage the person who was offended to discreetly (i.e., not in public) ask the person to stop using that term around them. Note that I didn’t say stop using that term overall, just stop using it around them.

            Most people are very considerate and do not want to use a term that offends you when they are around you. However, in a case like this, they need to be told that it offends you, because (as we’ve seen in this section of the thread) not everyone is offended by saying JC.

      3. ThursdaysGeek*

        Guess I’m super religious, because it’s offensive to me. But, I know you’re not trying to offend me when you say it, so I won’t say anything to you, nor will I hold it against you.

        1. Jamie*

          I’m not super religious – but in my house growing up that was the worst thing you could say. You’d get in way more trouble than any curse word.

          I don’t say it often, and I do feel guilty when I do, but for me that’s the one that means business. If I’m dropping the JC I’m so far past angry I really don’t know what to do with myself.

          I think it’s because I’m ridiculously comfortable with such a wide variety of swear words I needed something for anger emergencies.

          I am, however, never offended when other people use it or a variation. It’s a couple of words, they don’t mean the same thing to everyone – other people using it has an expletive has zero impact on me.

          I’ve known people who are okay with “oh my God” but not “Jesus Christ.” And I’ve known people not okay with “oh my God” and also not okay with “gosh” or “gosh darnnit” because they are stand ins for the bad word and just as bad.

          I can barely police my own mouth, I sure don’t have the interest or energy to worry about other people taking names in vain.

          And if you want to get literal – “holy sh*t” should be pretty offensive too, and no one gets up in arms about that one from a religious POV.

          1. Wakeen's Teapots Ltd.*

            I don’t say it often, and I do feel guilty when I do, but for me that’s the one that means business. If I’m dropping the JC I’m so far past angry I really don’t know what to do with myself.

            Um, yeah, me too. Throwing the H in is the ultimate.

            Which is why, all the way upthread since I’m the one who started this, I was horrifically mortified to have done it in the presence of someone I respected and knew to be highly religious.

            Definitely a moment for the earth to swallow me.

            The context was, it was just the two of us, we are peer level, and she had told me something utterly shocking and upsetting.

            The person I was speaking with so gracious, likely helped by the look of horror on my face when I realized what I had done.

            1. TL*

              Why is the H bad? My mom says “Jesus F–g H Christ on a crutch!” for the ultimate expression of frustration.
              Is the H standing in for something? She pronounces it H, like the letter.
              (I would google but I’m at work.)

              1. Wakeen's Teapots Ltd.*

                mmmmmm, I don’t know why it’s the worst, but it’s my strongest curse, my highest def com level. I might say it once or twice a year, although after the mortifying event, maybe never again.

                It’s way elevated from anything with the F bomb, which is lighter toned and more recreational/for emphasis/conversational when I’m in the right company.

          2. HR lady*

            Yes, Jamie, you reminded me that when I was a kid I wasn’t allowed to say God in a “bad” way either — I couldn’t say things like “oh my God” or “God, no, that’s crazy.”

            My, how my speech patterns have changed since I became an adult!!

          3. Windchime*

            My mother doesn’t swear as a rule, but she will spell out s-h-i-t when she is upset. I think it’s funny.

    5. the gold digger*

      It’s not new to me. I was a sophomore in college in 1982 the last time I used the word. I said it in front of a friend, who quietly asked me not to use it in front of him because his brother was retarded and he found its use as a pejorative hurtful. I had never thought about it, but as soon as Ross spoke, I realized how insulting it really was. I have not used it since.

  19. Anon*

    #2 Ugh. Gross! I hear people use it sometimes and I cringe. I’ve gotten into arguments with people who try and say it’s okay to use (ITS NOT OKAY!). As a gay person, I find it just as offensive and inappropriate as the f word (not the swear word, the anti-gay word).

  20. Katrina*

    #4 – LOL! I’m wondering what you’d think if your preschooler’s teacher was (GASP) smoking the wacky weed in her legalized state?

    My advice – go get drunk on cheap beer in a dive bar, see if you can shoot pool, try eating at Waffle House when you’re done (’cause it’s actually delicious, promise), and lighten up.

    It’s life – live it – and let allow those around you to do the same.

  21. some1*

    Interestingly enough, before it was federally mandated thing, one of the arguments for raising the drinking from 18 to 21 in some states was so high school teachers wouldn’t have to see their students at the bar.

    1. Ash*

      FYI — it’s not federally “mandated” to have drinking laws at 21. Federal government can’t do that. What they can do is tie funding to having those laws in place (i.e. highway funds are tied to the 21 drinking age, it was actually a really interesting precedent setting case). States could actually change their drinking age, but they’d lose their federal highway dollars, which none of them want to do.

        1. De Minimis*

          My state actually had separate drinking ages for men and women at one point–women had a lower drinking age because they were considered more mature.

            1. De Minimis*

              Yeah, for women it was 18, for men it was 21.

              I’m too young to remember it, but used to hear about it. A guy sued and it went to the Supreme Court and wound up being a semi-important case regarding equal protection.

              1. Tasha (Grad Student)*

                I think you’re referring to Craig v. Boren (1976). In Oklahoma, women could buy 3.2% “near beer” at 18 and men had to wait until 21. And yes, you’re right about the importance: this case heightened the level of scrutiny applied to these cases. Before, the government just had to have a “rational basis” for discriminating on the basis of gender.

      1. some1*

        Yup, my mistake, it’s tied to receiving the federal money. My state was actually one of the last to lower the minimum alcohol content (it was .10 until several years ago) for being considered legally impaired, and they lowered it for that reason.

  22. Ash*

    Oops, re: OP5…definitely been doing that wrong I guess. I screen applications for interns and assistants and it drives me nuts when the email body is like “Resume and cover letter attached” — I’d much rather have the coverletter there. But I also think its handy to have a word or pdf version to print. I guess I’m wrong, but that’s always been my philosophy on it…

  23. Katrina*

    #2 – Once upon a time, we had a work outing for a charitable event held at a bar. It was a public event, and a gentleman there happened to be friends with a few of my coworkers and also happened to be gay. Literally, people couldn’t say his name without including this little factoid, all night and into the next day at the office. “Well, James – he’s gay – he’s having his birthday party next weekend.” I finally lost it and very rudely asked why everyone had to keep bringing it up, ’cause it was annoying the CRAP out of me.

    Point being – pipe up before something really gets under your skin, and you end up being the rude one, too.

  24. Anon Accountant*

    In my area, a local teacher was fired because someone posted a Facebook photo of her with friends in a local bar drinking alcohol. They weren’t acting wildly in the photo, just a posed photo of a few friends holding their drinks up in a toast. A parent of a student saw the photo from the teacher’s friend’s FB page, recognized her son’s teacher in the photo, and contacted the school’s superintendent. The parent was offended that a teacher would be in a bar drinking.

    The teacher successfully sued the district and was reinstated to her position with back pay.

    1. BB*

      Honestly stuff like this really grinds my gears. I tease my teacher friends a lot about their long vacations and ‘easy’ schedules but they care about their students like they were their own kids. Last week, I watched my roommate file her taxes and go through a pile of receipts for $3,000 worth of school stuff that she spent on students that she does not get reimbursed for. To try to ruin a person’s life, who does so much more than these parents realize for their children, is so incredibly backwards. And just what exactly were these parents gaining from this? Wow people these days.

      1. Elizabeth West*

        One reason I decided not to be a teacher was from listening to working teachers in grad school complain about dealing with parents (and school bureaucracy). I promised myself (when) I have a kid I will try like hell not to be one of THOSE parents.

  25. A Jane*

    #4 – I just giggled at the thought of my older (65+) Kindergarten teacher dancing at the club. Heck yeah, I’d go clubbing with her and her classic teacher sweaters!

  26. Wapunga*

    Regarding #4 (and keep in mind this is just my own experience) whenever there is a national librarian’s conference the children/youth/teen librarians are always the most “wild” of the bunch.
    I do mean wild as relative term; most people probably would not think of anything these particular librarians were doing as being especially wild. The librarians would be the first to sign up/join up to go out for drinks, or dancing, and a few of them *gasp* went to a burlesque show. They weren’t doing anything that would land them in jail.

    The reason many of them gave for doing these activities at the conference was that they felt that these were things they could not do in their own communities and here was a chance to let off some steam. In some sense, it was self- imposed, but they understood that there were several unwritten rules that if they didn’t follow they could find themselves in some trouble.

    If it is that bad for librarians, I can’t imagine how bad it would be for teachers.

  27. ChristineSW*

    #2 – I’ve had such mixed feelings about the whole trend of becoming a PC society, particularly when it comes to describing people with disabilities. As many here know, I am very passionate in this area and am absolutely in favor of using respectful language. Yes, this goes especially for those in HR, given that they’re on the front lines of hiring and need to be aware of how their use of certain words can be hurtful to potential employees.

    That said, I’m not so sure this person meant anything malicious. This is where I sometimes have trouble with the push to eliminate certain words from our language. Yes, it is important to watch what you say around others as you don’t know if they or a family member has a disability. I’m not *personally* offended by the word “retard” (though I was called that when I was younger…Rayner, I completely understand how that feels), I absolutely get that others find it very offensive. Again, I don’t think people are being intentionally mean about it–they’re just not thinking or perhaps even unaware. As Alison said, the word is in transition.

    Getting off track here…sorry…long story short, it’s totally understandable to feel offended by the HR person’s use of the word. However, if she is otherwise a nice person, I would try not to let that stop you from approaching her with the HR issue. However, if she does use the word in a direct conversation with you, then I think you could kindly point out that it is offensive to you and others. I’m sure she would be responsive to your concerns.

  28. Ann Furthermore*

    #2: The shift from the word “retarded” into being “the R word” is a relatively recent trend. And by recent, I mean in relation to things like the N word being known as “the N word” and not the actual word itself.

    Somebody in another post referred to something like this as “a teachable moment,” which is a great way to look at incidents like this. And I really liked the person who suggested talking to the HR person by saying, “You know, you may not be aware that using the word “retarded” the way you just did is something many people find offensive and inappropriate. You’re such a nice person that I’d hate to see you get into hot water for using it when I’m sure you aren’t meaning it in an offensive or hurtful way.”

    I think though, that for this particular incident, the moment has passed. It’s best to address it when it happens, because if you go back to someone days or weeks later, it won’t have the same impact. And even though the *right* thing to to is to address it right when it happens, be prepared for that person to perhaps roll their eyes after you walk away, and start thinking of you as the dour, humorless, uptight PC police.

    That’s not to discourage you from speaking up though, because it’s by educating people about *why* certain words or expressions are hurtful and offensive that we eventually see the shift from those things being common everyday incidents to being something newsworthy. As far as the word “retarded” goes, just recently there actually was a story on the local news where I live about an educator being disciplined/reprimanded for using the word “retarded” in a derogatory way on a school’s PA system. So it is, slowly but surely, being kind of weeded out.

    I think the reason that these things take so long to happen is because a person won’t truly realize how hurtful or offensive something is until they have an “a-ha” moment where the light bulb goes on and they really get it. And when that moment happens, and what triggers it, is different for every person.

    My husband used to jokingly refer to me as “the toy Nazi” a few years ago, because I’m pretty ruthless about making my little one pick up all her toys every night before bedtime. We laughed about it quite often, and then I realized that because my company has an office in Germany, I have many German colleagues. I told him we had to stop using that word, because I was so afraid that if I was accustomed to using it casually, I would let it slip during a conference call or something. I’m not sure what would happen if I did that, but I’m pretty sure it would involve HR. So I don’t use that word at all anymore.

    I also used to use the expression “drink the Kool-Aid” quite frequently, because I thought it was kind of funny. Well, then a few years ago (in 2008 I believe) I watched a documentary on the 30th anniversary of the Jonestown Massacre. And I was reminded of how absolutely horrible it was, and that I was about 9 when that story broke, and it’s the first major news story that I remember where everyone just stopped in their tracks, unable to comprehend what had happened. And all of a sudden I realized that expression really is pretty awful, and originated from an unspeakable tragedy. And I have never used that expression again.

    1. Elizabeth West*

      Excellently put. The Nazi and Kool-Aid things have been retired from my vocabulary for similar reasons; the first, because I thoughtlessly offended a German friend (she forgave me), and the second because my morbid writer’s curiosity led me to listen to a forty-minute sound recording of the actual incident. Nope nope nope nope. Never again.

      1. Ann Furthermore*

        I heard quite a bit of that recording too, when I watched that documentary. It was chilling and very disturbing. And the interviews with people who had left the colony, or were just not there when it happened, was heartbreaking. Even 30 years later, most of them broke down in tears when talking about it.

        1. Elizabeth West*

          Yeah, I remember when that happened, and they had a very gruesome picture on the cover of TIME magazine and they had it at school (that would never happen now). It freaked me out that everyone just drank it without even questioning (although some people did). But after listening to the recording and hearing Jones talk to them, I can understand better now why they thought it was something they had to do. He was very persuasive and played on the paranoia.

          1. the gold digger*

            I remember Jonestown. My best friend’s dad was the wing commander on our base in Panama. (My dad was in the air force.) He found out about it before everyone else because I think the base had to support with the logistics for getting the bodies out and of course he would have been in charge.

            Similar thing when Archbishop Romero was assassinated – the base went on high alert because of the possible impact the assassination would have on political activity in Central America.

            Course, I didn’t care. I was just worried about the swim meet and whether Scott K liked me. (He didn’t. I saw him at my 20 year reunion and he still didn’t like me.)

    2. fposte*

      It makes me think of the “comedy = tragedy + time” formula. Since most of us aren’t standup comedians, there’s not a lot to be gained for us from comic edge.

  29. Nonprofit Office Manager*

    #4 reminds me of a poster my husband (who’s a teacher) and I have hanging on our fridge. It’s titled “1872 Rules for Teachers” and is from a schoolhouse in St. Augustine, Florida. Gems include:

    *After ten hours in the school, teachers may spend the rest of the time reading the Bible or other good books
    * Women teachers who marry or engage in unseemly conduct will be dismissed
    * Men teachers may take one evening each week for courting purposing, or two evenings a week if they go to church regularly
    *A teacher who smokes, uses liquor in any form, frequents pool or public halls, or gets shaved in a barber shop will give good reason to suspect his worth, intention, integrity, and honesty

    Below is the complete list. Which reminds me, I think my husband once again forgot to bring a bucket of water and a scuttle of coal to school today. Whoops.

    1. IronMaiden*

      Sounds very like the list of rules for nurses from the period.

      1887 Nursing Job Description

      In addition to caring for your 50 patients, each bedside nurse will follow these regulations:

      1. Daily sweep and mop the floors of your ward, dust the patient’s furniture and window sills.

      2. Maintain an even temperature in your ward by bringing in a scuttle of coal for the day’s business.

      3. Light is important to observe the patient’s condition. Therefore, each day fill kerosene lamps, clean chimneys and trim wicks.

      4. The nurse’s notes are important in aiding your physician’s work. Make your pens carefully; you may whittle nibs to your individual taste.

      5. Each nurse on day duty will report every day at 7 a.m. and leave at 8 p.m., except on the Sabbath, on which day she will be off from 12 noon to 2 p.m.

      6. Graduate nurses in good standing with the director of nurses will be given an evening off each week for courting purposes, or two evenings a week if you go regularly to church.

      7. Each nurse should lay aside from each payday a goodly sum of her earnings for her benefits during her declining years, so that she will not become a burden. For example, if you earn $30 a month, you should set aside $15.

      8. Any nurse who smokes, uses liquor in any form, gets her hair done at a beauty shop or frequents dance halls will give the director of nurses good reason to suspect her worth, intentions and integrity.

      9. The nurse who performs her labors [and] serves her patients and doctors faithfully and without fault for a period of five years will be given an increase by the hospital administration of five cents per day.

  30. BCW*

    #1 I agree, focus on her not meeting her goals. “Talking too much” is a very subjective term, because one can be very social and talk a lot, yet still achieve their goals, whereas someone else could be super quiet and not.

    #2 I’ve commented a bit on this already, but I think the OP is being a bit over sensitive. As Alison said, the word is in transition, and its not like she called a person a retard, she said something is acting retarded. Now I get that the word is offensive, but she didn’t even say it to you. If you really want to, bring it up to her that you overheard it and was offended, and give her the chance to apologize. However to assume she can’t do her job because of that is a bit ridiculous. I’m sure if people heard some of the stuff I said on breaks as a teacher, they would be shocked, but I was a very good teacher. One has nothing to do with the other.

    #4 I know people have gotten fired for those things, but its pretty rare. As long as the teacher isn’t showing pictures of her drunken shenanigans to the students its fine. I’ve gotten drunk with my student’s parents before. Some school districts do have stipulations about social media and what can go on there, so you may want to look into that. But you can do just about whatever you like that is legal in your personal time.

  31. Anon*

    I’m always amused by HOW HARD it is to not offend someone. I think #2 is a different case because the OP didn’t make her aware that her language was offensive, but based on some of the comments, being asked not to use non offensive language is more offensive than the language in question.

    I’ve used offensive language in the past, I’m sure I will use it unknowingly in the future. It has never been a hardship to stop using that language when I am made aware it is offensive – turns out there are millions of words in the dictionary. Much easier to pick a better one than look someone in the face and explain to them that their life experience doesn’t matter because I lack the vocabulary to express myself any other way.

    1. VintageLydia*

      Exactly. I still slip and use “retard” occasionally, but I’ve mostly replaced it with ridiculous or absurd (which I think are better descriptors anyway.) I’m trying to phase out “lame” and “crazy” too. We’re not born knowing every word that can offend, especially when most of us were raised using certain words. But knowing those words are offensive now I certainly don’t think it’s an undue burden on me to try to find different ones.

  32. Bluefish*

    #2 could be about my husband’s aunt (She is an HR professional). I have only met her a few times, but every time she has peppered our entire conversation with the word, “retarded”. Needless to say I was very take aback. She seems like a really nice woman though. I suspect that she picked up that word from raising teenage mchildren in the 90’s. I grew up in the 90s and it was very common to use. You can tell she uses it to try and relate when talking to people her kids ages (like me). I’m shocked her kids haven’t clued her in yet. I don’t know her well at all, so am hesitant to bring it up. My point is to echo what AAM. The word is in transition. It used to be commonly used when describing something annoying. OP shouldn’t let this color her entire opinion on the person. This person probably has no idea using that word is offensive.

    1. Bluefish*

      She also likes to use the term “that’s so gay”. I think it’s pretty clear her use of language has not changed since 1995.

  33. Parfait*

    I’d rather have the teachers drinking sociably at a bar than clutching a vodka bottle at home alone.

  34. Dan*

    Since the tone of the conversation surrounding offensive words has turned a bit more general, I’ll throw this out:

    On another thread, I was “called out” for referring to “undocumented Hispanic immigrants” as “illegals.” I was told the term was “offensive to those in the community.”

    I’m not one for being on the cutting edge of PC-ness, but I have to ask: Why is the truth offensive? To the best of my knowledge, people using this term aren’t using it as a slur. It’s an adjective to describe a set of people breaking the law in this country — immigration law. And now we have a group of people who seem to think that calling someone who is in this country illegally, an illegal immigrant is “offensive.”

    Where does the PC-ness stop?

    1. ella*

      Because “being in the country illegally” and “being an illegal person” are not synonymous phrases. In no other context to we refer to people who break laws as illegals. Are rapists called illegals? Are burglars? Is Bernie Madoff? No. They are people who have committed illegal acts but are not, in themselves, illegal people. And when you’re calling someone “an illegal,” you’re no longer using the word as an adjective, but as a noun, which is both grammatically incorrect and pejorative. You can be honest without being pejorative.

      We can hold people responsible for their actions without demeaning them as people.

      1. iseeshiny*

        Perfect explanation.

        And if you think about it not as being PC but as being POLITE instead hopefully it won’t be so difficult for you.

        1. Kelly L.*

          This. I think the term PC has become a target of mockery and a lot of people have a negative reaction to it even being mentioned–but it’s really just good manners.

          1. iseeshiny*

            I don’t get why pointing is rude. I just… don’t. But I was told it was at some point and so I don’t do it. It’s not some huge chore; it’s not like my life would be significantly enriched by pointing all the time. And it’s not like I’d go to jail if I one day decided that I absolutely had to go around pointing at people and things – I choose not to do it because I don’t want to be rude, even if I don’t really get why it’s rude. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not like I’m not curious – the most explanation I’ve gotten is that it’s hostile and accusatory, which, what? Really? Always? But it’s enough for me to know that it’s considered offensive. If I’m going to offend people it’s going to be because I want to offend them, not because I think everyone else needs to change their feelings around pointing because I’ve decided my feelings on the matter are the most important.

            1. the gold digger*

              I didn’t really know pointing was rude, but when I moved to Chile, I noticed the Chilean Chin Point and asked about it. The Chilean Chin Point is a chin lifted in the direction of the person or thing the Pointer is indicating. It is often accompanied by pursed lips that also (obviously) go in the direction of the Point. So you see these people with lifted chins and pursed lips and you follow the pointers as if they were the outside of the Big Dipper to find the North Star target.

          2. Dan*

            I think part of the negative reaction stems from evolving language. You do something, you get used to it, it’s accepted in the community in which you live, and then out of the blue, people decide there’s a specific connotation that hurts their feelings, and then all of a sudden you have to change the way you speak about things to keep *someone else* happy. For no real reason.

            Then if you don’t feel like changing, you get labeled as “out of touch”, someone who needs to “get with the times”, or otherwise finds themselves in what others politely describe as “teaching moments.”

            1. iseeshiny*

              Right, but it’s not actually out of the blue, is it? To you it seems that way because you’re not part of the group that’s being affected, but it’s not like the majority of a community woke up one day and said, that word was okay yesterday but now it sucks! Let’s make everyone use a different one!

              1. Dan*

                Majorities don’t, but minorities seem to. The thing with a small group getting pissy is that I’m not going to change my behavior because they said they don’t like it.

                1. Parfait*

                  Wow indeed. How populous does a group have to be before it’s worth your while to be polite to them?

                  I didn’t meet any out gay people until I went to college, and I put my foot in my mouth several times. Guess what? I learned, I adapted. Did I inwardly roll my eyes about “whininess” at first? Sure. But I got over it.

                  I thought the use of the word “retarded” in this way was just fine. Then my friend gave birth to a child with Downs Syndrome. Why would I want to speak in a way that hurts that little girls feelings? I stopped doing it and I call others on it.

                  Language evolves as society evolves. Keep up or risk sounding like a boor.

                2. Dan*


                  Large enough where popular culture accepts the common use of a word as a slur or derogatory, or otherwise not in line with its commonly used dictionary definition.

                  To use your example, while the term “gay” is not derogatory, it’s common use certainly isn’t used as a synonym for “happy.”

                  And sticking to the topic at hand, the DSM V no longer uses “retardation” as a medical term. So I guess there’s that.

      2. Dan*

        Actually, I think the term as used comes from a shorthand form of “illegal alien.” That’s a term I’ve heard for years, and *is* grammatically correct, as far as I can tell.

        There are plenty of phrases in the English language where certain words are left out, and the implied usage is correct. The phrase “he is an illegal” implies the word alien. Whereas I get your point that “he is illegal” seems to imply that the adjective describes the person. It gets grayer if one uses a generalized statement like “the illegals” although “alien” may still be implied in that context.

        While the English language may get butchered with continuing short hand, I don’t believe that the short hand in and of itself creates a disparaging term.

      3. Dan*

        We do call people who have been convicted of a crime a “criminal.” We all call them “convicts.” So we do have terms in society that describe *people* and not the act.

        Let’s have some more fun with literalness here:

        Most criminal acts are singular in nature: A single burglary, a single murder, a single bank robbery, simple enough…

        But the line gets really, really, really fine when someone’s mere existence in a geographic region is a continuing and constant violation of the law. What is the actual act they have committed that is illegal? It’s easy enough to say “crossing the border” but we know that’s not true. If it were, then at the very least we’d have to prove where they crossed the border, and that’s near impossible.

        1. fposte*

          An illegal act isn’t the same thing as a criminal act. Most illegal acts, in fact, aren’t criminal.

          1. Dan*

            By what definition, and in what context? I’m familiar with civil and criminal law.

            But I suspect in your definitions, you’re walking fine lines between dictionary definition, colloquial usage, and as used in the legal profession.

            illegal = prohibited by law.
            crime = unlawful activity

            source: Free online dictionary

        2. ella*

          Here’s the thing about “convicts”: They’ve been arrested and convicted of a crime. And the word tends to only be used to describe people for whom we know that to be true. We have knowledge of the either the crime they committed or the time they served in jail. In my experience, people who talk about “illegals” tend to also be operating under a lot of assumptions–about who is illegal, where they’re from, what language they’re likely to speak, why they came here, etc. As you said upthread, it’s linguistic shorthand, but it also becomes cultural shorthand too, for a specific type of person. I don’t imagine you go around asking people if you can see their right-to-work papers, so I have a hard time seeing how you can talk about illegals without making assumptions as to who they are.

          And legally, how long they’ve been in the country doesn’t matter, at least not currently. Not as an excuse (ie, people who were brought here as children) and not as a reason. And crossing the border isn’t the illegal act, either. The illegal act is failing to be able to produce documentative proof of your citizenship or immigration status. And the punishment is the same, regardless of timespan: you get deported. It doesn’t matter if you’ve been here ten days or ten years, off you go. The crime doesn’t get more severe the longer you commit it.

          If you’re curious, here’s the Associated Press’ blog post from last year about why they stopped using the term “illegal immigrant,” with links to the style entry in question:

    2. BCW*

      I get what you are saying. My guess is that its because when that term is used by SOME people, they are kind of casting a very wide net and may be using it to refer to all Mexican’s that they assume aren’t here legally, as opposed to specifically the illegal ones. The problem is, while there are plenty of Mexican immigrants who came here legally, there doesn’t seem to be a nice way of distinguishing them from the ones who came illegally. Plus, it just sounds harsh to many people, but again, I don’t know what the correct alternative is. Maybe undocumented immigrants?

      1. De Minimis*

        I find it offensive for that reason. I’ve heard people called that just for speaking Spanish in public, for example. Depending on where you live, a lot of these people have been in this country for generations, yet they are slurred for wanting to respect their history. It seems like it is mostly used as a slur against Hispanic people.

        1. ella*

          I think it’s also troublesome for this reason–not only are all Spanish-speaking people assumed to be immigrants, or even undocumented immigrants, but people tend to also assume that a) all Spanish-speaking people are Mexicans; and b) all undocumented immigrants are from Mexico/Spanish-speaking countries.

          I just looked up some figures on Wikipedia, and while 5 of the top 10 countries of origin for undocumented immigrants are Spanish-speaking countries, and 60%+ are from Mexico (a figure that I question because ICE deports you to your country of origin, and if you’re from Honduras, but you’re planning on crossing the border into the US again, you’re going to tell the border agent you’re from Mexico, not Honduras, so that you have a shorter return trip), but we also get substantial numbers of undocumented immigrants from India, China, Korea, the Phillipines, and Brazil. And Canada. But no one would ever call a Canadian “an illegal.” That term is reserved for people who speak Spanish.

          1. Dan*

            Well… I think it’s fair to say that *all* non-English speaking people in the US are assumed to be immigrants.

            According to wiki, 75% of illegal immigrants are of Hispanic origin. I don’t know how you define “substantial” but the other countries you list each make up no more than 2% of the country’s illegal immigrant population. And your argument about hispanics lying about their country of origin almost encourages people to lump them all together for the purposes of the general illegal immigration conversation.

            The term is certainly reserved for people who speak Spanish, at least when used in the pejorative. Why? Because they are the vast majority of the problem — 75% of it. (And yes, I’m comfortable calling law breakers a problem.)

      2. ella*

        Undocumented immigrants, or people without papers/personas sin papeles.

        *Actions* are illegal. *People* are not.

          1. Heather*

            Yeah, I like that too. Of course, the next time I’m in a situation where it would be useful, I’ll completely forget about it, because that’s what I do.

        1. Dan*

          Well sure, but people can be criminals, at least according to the free online dictionary. I somehow doubt that inter changing the word “criminal” for “illegal” in this context is going to keep that group happy.

          1. fposte*

            It would be also be wrong, because illegal immigration isn’t itself a crime–it’s a civil offense.

                1. Dan*

                  The answers I get are not in the context with which fposte is discussing.

                  Civil law = I sue you.
                  Criminal law = “The state” charges you.

                  Immigration violations are very much offenses against the state.

                2. iseeshiny*


                  Let Christie sum it up for you. (Or I will: to be here without papers is not a criminal infraction, although crossing the border illegally is.)

                  Regardless of the semantics, however, you asked why people find it offensive to use the term “illegals” and you’ve had it explained to you. Studying a dictionary is not going to make it magically unoffensive, and unless you “get with the times” you’ll be labelled as “out of touch” and probably end up in some embarrassing “teachable moments.”

                  No one is saying you can’t use the term illegals – that’s allowed! Free speech! Yay! But that doesn’t mean that the words you choose won’t affect others’ perceptions of you. Some of those people will even be part of the majority, not just those pesky, uppity minorities and you might even value their opinion.

                3. Dan*


                  I got answers, but they’re aren’t enough to change my way of thinking. I just don’t worry about offending people who break the law. They sure aren’t worried about what I think, are they?

                  And in the circles I run in, I’m not terribly worried about getting a teachable moment for referring to a particular group of lawbreakers as “illegals.”

                  That said, don’t spin these comments to mean I’m against immigration reform. I’m actually for it.

    3. Tasha (Grad Student)*

      Because (as ella said quite well) you’re referring to the people as being illegal, not the act.

      It’s also useful to consider the surrounding circumstances. If someone was brought to the country as a child, for example, they would be undocumented, but they’re not responsible for their family’s decision to move, and plenty of people (including me) would not consider them morally culpable. If someone was fleeing an oppressive government, they might be skeptical of the US government and/or unable to afford to go through the naturalization process immediately. Even people who arrive with the best of intentions and complete documents can be caught out by an expiring work visa or delayed document processing on the government’s end. (This has happened to an international student I know.)

      So there are people who, if represented by a decent immigration lawyer, could prove that they are in the country legally and obtain the papers necessary to stay in America, but aren’t currently.

      1. Bluefish*

        I don’t think I’ve ever once used the term “illegals”, but seriously? People are offended by this? Why do so many people think its there job to monitor another person’s behavior. I get in the workplace everyone needs to be respectful and professional, but outside work…. If I hear someone say something that I would never say, I walk away. I don’t get all up in arms offended. It’s not our place to police other people. They have the freedom to act how they want to act (if all legal), I have no right to tell someone what to do, what to say, how to act. I know I kind of veered off topic but having a problem with the term illegals just seems…. A little whiney.

        1. Kelly L.*

          I think there’s a big difference between saying you find something offensive and trying to literally stop people from speaking, yet they get conflated all the time. No one is planning to arrest anyone for saying “illegals.” They are just using their own speech to disagree with someone. And it’s not “whiny,” it’s how social norms change.

          1. Anonymous*

            I don’t think using the term “illegal” is illegal. I wrote that poorly if it came across that way (not surprising as I’m not a great writer). And I’m perfectly aware that people are disagreeing here. But, yeah, I do think its a little whiny to be offended by a term like “illegals”. As Dan elluded to above, “illegals” comes across to me as short hand for illegal immigrants/aliens. When people say illegals, its clear to me that they mean illegal immigrants not that they think the persons existence is illegal.

      2. De Minimis*

        People are way less forgiving about that in the places I’ve lived recently…the student body president of the local college was in that situation, his parents had brought him here as a baby and he did not learn he was not here legally until he enrolled in college. I think he has since graduated [or otherwise left school] but at the time it was in the news I saw people say he should be expelled, deported, jailed, etc…

    4. Laura*

      I will ad to the other comments, “An illegal immigrant” is a way of saying “a person who immigrated illegally” – that is, their action (immigration) is illegal. Referring to them as “illegals” takes away the action and makes their existence – rather than their immigration – illegal. It’s inaccurate. “Illegal immigrant” is borderline, because it’s ambiguous whether the action or the person is being given illegal status, but at least it keeps the action in the sentence somewhat.

  35. ThursdaysGeek*

    After reading all the comments on #4, I find it very amusing that our church youth pastor, who has facebook friended a ton of teenagers, has also posted pictures of himself (and other youth staff) with wine. Apparently, teachers are held to a higher standard than the clergy now!

    1. Laufey*

      (Disclaimer: I believe teachers should be able to have lives too)

      Clergy always have the best excuse though – what was Jesus’ first miracle again? Yeah, that’s right, he turned water into wine. They’re just being holy.

      1. Mints*

        Haha I’ve said this before too! My mom was saying something about how rumors were getting around that someone from church drank alot of wine at a birthday or something, and I said “Well Jesus drank wine too” End rumors!

  36. HR “Gumption”*

    “Transition” is a great definition for usage of some words. When I was younger “retarded” and “gay” were commonly used amongst my youthful peers, I haven’t used either in many years and don’t recall there being a light bulb moment where I decided it was now inappropriate. It was simply an innate progression. It is similar to my standard holiday greeting, “Merry Christmas” was the norm for years, now it’s “Happy Holidays” for me.

    That said, I’m not offended by a Merry Christmas greeting nor would a co-worker calling a troublesome computer program “retarded” bother me personally.

  37. holly*

    #5: thanks for that advice. i always write my cover letter in Word, then paste into my email (unless otherwise instructed.) then at the end of the email i tell them i’m attaching a copy of the cover letter along with my resume. it seemed redundant, but i never knew if i would get dinked for only having an email letter.

    plus it felt weird to send a email that just said, hey, attached are my resume and cover letter…

  38. Sheogorath*

    Personally, I believe its good to call things or situations ‘retarded’ because it takes it further from its original meaning. It’s for that reason I don’t use it about people, and if I use ‘stupid’, ‘moron’, imbecile’, or ‘idiot’, I always make sure it’s related to a person’s actions, not their apparent intellect; “You’re an idiot to vote for UKIP. They’re the polite face of the BNP!”

  39. Sheogorath*

    Jamie: Not at all to devalue your opinion or delegitimise your feelings, but when I read Wakeen’s post about the short bus, I didn’t get the sense it was written as a slight against the kids who rode it, but more of a slight against the system it represented; the system that ensured that kids were educated according to their diagnosis, not their capabilities. A system that still seems to be in place for many Autistic people and people with intellectual disabilities today, unfortunately.

Comments are closed.