I have to fire a highly inept summer intern

A reader writes:

Every year the company I work for hires some college students for a three-month internship over the summer. It’s been one month and one of the interns is just not working out. He is not a jerky or malicious person, but he is an annoyance and is a complete hindrance to anyone who tries to work with him.

For example, every time anyone on our floor prints something he jumps up to retrieve it and then runs around trying to find the person who printed it. He has been asked not to do this because sometimes people are printing more than one document, or they are printing things in a certain order, or they need to drop off whatever they printed at someone else’s desk. He was thanked for trying to be helpful but asked not to do this several times, but he still does it. Another time he was asked to double check a newly typed copy of our updated price list against the handwritten copy. The list was long and we needed a second set of eyes. He made a few minor corrections with a pen and then was asked to check that the corrections had been typed up correctly. He gave the list back to the person in charge with different corrections than the first time. No matter how is was explained to him, he didn’t understand why he had to catch all the errors the first time and eventually the task had to be given to someone else.

He has no concept of basic current news and events. He didn’t know about: any of the issues with the current president, that there is conflict in the middle east or Somalia, or even that America fought in World War 2. He had no idea who Abraham Lincoln is, didn’t know about the existence of software that reads things to visually impaired, or that electric cars exist or that it is illegal to drive without a license. He was surprised to find out Starbucks served more than one beverage. He didn’t know ham comes from pigs or that you can make reservations for a hotel beforehand. These are just some examples but there are more. His knowledge of things is so lacking that he completely alienates everyone he has a conversation with because he doesn’t understand what is happening and interrupts because he needs basic things explained to him. He has a chortling laugh after he says something, whether it is funny or not. He is bright enough to have done well at school with a tough major and made the dean’s list all three years he has attended college, but his lacking of basic knowledge, current events, and common sense things is a constant frustration.

I don’t mean to be unkind. Everyone has faults, and interns are meant to learn and figure out how things work in the professional world. But he has not done a single assigned task correctly, and no one wants to work with him because his lack of knowledge and common sense makes even the smallest things difficult. I asked him to assist me with some things after a few of my reports complained about him and I wanted to give him a chance, but it was a disaster. He doesn’t change when asked to do or not do something and it has become clear there is no salvaging things. My manager agrees and has authorized me to fire him. But I’m finding it difficult.

As a manager I have fired people before, but it was always for things like misconduct, extreme absenteeism, etc. As I said, he is not a jerk and he hasn’t done anything which rises to the level of misconduct. This is the first job or internship he has held and he only has one year of college left before he graduates. I really wanted to help him, but as I said there is no way to make it happen here. I feel guilty about having to fire him even though it has to be done. How do I get over the guilt and do what needs to be done?

I think it would help to separate this out into two different buckets of problems: (1) his unusual lack of knowledge about basic life stuff, and weird social skills and (2) the fact that he hasn’t done any of his assigned work correctly, and his inability so far to take direction about that. (For example, continuing to distribute things off the printer after he’s been told not to do it several times is alarming — or at least it’s alarming if those requests were direct ones, not hints.)

If #2 weren’t present — if he were following instructions and doing his work more or less correctly — I bet that #1 wouldn’t bother you as much. I mean, that level of missing knowledge would still be a very notable thing, but I suspect it would read more like a weird quirk. A really weird quirk, yes, but not as much “complete mess” as he’s coming across as now.

But regularly not doing his work correctly is good cause to let him go all on its own, and I think it would be easier if you focus just on that piece of it.

That said, have you handled the situation the same way you would handle poor performance from someone who you were more comfortable with? Specifically, have you given him clear feedback on his work, explained where he’s falling short, and made it clear that these are serious issues that, if not fixed, will prevent him from finishing the internship? Sometimes managers aren’t as clear about this stuff as they should be because it feels unkind to deliver such a blunt message. But it’s actually a real kindness to give direct, unvarnished feedback to someone who’s struggling as much as this guy is.

If you haven’t done that yet, I think it’s worth a short investment of time (I’m talking about one to two weeks, not months) to give him some really clear, blunt coaching and see if it makes a difference. If you don’t see a significant improvement after that, then yeah, it’s time to let him go — and do him the favor of explaining that it’s because he’s not following directions, so that he’s clear on how big of a deal that is in the future.

If you’ve already done that, then skip to the end of that process and have the wrapping-up conversation.

As for feeling guilty about it … keep in mind that if you don’t fire him and you let him finish the internship, you’re just pushing the problem further down the road. He’s going to run into this at his next internship or job, and his next employer is going to have to deal with what you’re dealing with now. And if it’s a post-graduation job, the stakes may be a lot higher and the consequences more serious for him. That may happen no matter what you do now, of course — but you can at least try to deliver the message in a way that he might hear.

{ 765 comments… read them below }

  1. Ask a Manager* Post author

    Per the site rules, please don’t armchair-diagnose others (“it sounds like your coworker is autistic/has borderline personality disorder/etc.”). We can’t diagnose based on anecdotes on the internet, these statements often stigmatize people with those diagnoses, and it’s generally not useful to focus on disorders rather than practical advice for dealing with the person in question.

    I’ve removed a few comments in violation of this. Thanks.

    1. VermontProfessional*

      I agree that armchair-diagnose is not helpful; having autism I know too well of the stigma. That being said- I do have a knee-jerk reaction of “if this is possibly the case…” I realize that this is not the thread to start giving advice out to those with disabilities just either starting out in the work world or have been in it a while. It may be something that would be beneficial to some of your readers! There are resources out there. In this case I am wondering if a possible solution is her talking to HR (if there is HR) and if there was an application process being aware if accommodations are needed before assuming the incompetence of an intern. The ability to learn work place social norms at a place in his life which it is okay to “make mistakes” is possibly more beneficial than to cast of the person as “not my issue”.

      1. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

        I don’t think this is the right approach. Generally speaking, employers should not approach their employees to ask if they are disabled and require accommodation. At a minimum, because the ADA prohibits discrimination on the basis of a real or perceived disability, and approaching someone as if they have a disability falls into the discrimination on the basis of perception category. Even a referral to the university’s disabled students’ support program would be inappropriate, here.

        Disability law places the responsibility of requesting accommodation on the employee, and for good reason—we don’t want employers prying into people’s medical lives without their consent.

        And regardless of disability, a person has to demonstrate that they are capable of performing the essential functions of the job, which does not appear to be the case, here. At this point, the intern’s incompetence is so profound that I don’t think we’re in the “make mistakes” category any longer.

        1. VermontProfessional*

          Any application I have ever filled out has a place requesting, voluntairly, a disclosure of disability. No where in my comment stated to ask the intern or demand disclosure. I gave a suggestion that resources be provided on this site for those who have a disability to know where they can go, what they can do, if they need an accommodation. Information that those with disabilities are not always aware of.

          You see incompetence. I see lack of awareness of learning styles and an internship expierence going poorly because of possible bias.

          1. Observer*

            I think you are missing the point. Yes, it would be nice to have resources about accommodation. But that’s not really relevant here. At this point, the intern apparently has NOT disclosed a disability for which there might be accommodations available, unless they are monumentally incompetent and inept.

            I’m very well aware of learning differences and learning disabilities. However, neither reason nor the law require accommodations that basically mean “not doing the job”. If the intern is unable to follow basic directions that are a basic part of the job, then it is not reasonable to accommodate that. It doesn’t make a difference *why* it’s happening. And, if there are issues that could be accommodated to make the situation workable it is the intern’s responsibility to bring it up. As long as he hasn’t there simply is no place for the OP to look for resources. In fact, it would worse that useless as the OP would have no way to know where to even start. Is she looking for ASD in general, maybe aspergers in specific, may something else totally?

            As for bias, I’m going to say that throwing accusations of bias when there is no shred of evidence does nothing to reduce bias and stigma. Quite the reverse. Clearly that OP is not biased against the intern because of a disability or perception of one. In fact the issue – the OP never mentioned the idea of a disability or possible disability. Calling “possible bias’ against disability because someone is not looking for resources about disabilities that they have no way to know even exist seems to be rather over the top, to me.

            1. Katie the Fed*

              So here is how we do this where I work:

              If i give someone a disciplinary action like a formal written warning, I will be very specific about the job-related deficiencies. Then we have some standard language that’s something like “The employee assistance program is available to help with a number of personal or financial issues you may be experiencing” or something like that. That’s all. We still expect you to address the deficiency, but there are resources available if you need help.

        2. VermontProfessional*

          and if the individual is a college student I can surely tell you from first hand experience : they don’t teach asking for accommodations 101 in college.

          1. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

            You suggested OP should speak to HR about an “application process” for accommodation. That’s functionally equivalent to asking the intern, directly, if they have a disability. I don’t want to go way off topic, which I worry we’re beginning to do, but I think there’s an important balance to strike when it comes to issues regarding accommodations.

            This doesn’t seem like a lack of awareness of learning styles due to potential bias. And even if it were, we have no idea if there’s an underlying disability, neither does OP, and it’s unlawful for OP to try to find one.

            I understand that asking for accommodation is not taught in college and that it can be really difficult for students to (1) recognize that they may have a disability, and (2) request accommodation. I’m a student who had a disability diagnosed for the first time in college, and I have several friends with learning disabilities who received their first diagnosis in college. I get it.

            Your suggestion is extremely sympathetic and very generous to the intern. But it also invites OP to engage in problematic behavior.

            1. The OG Anonsie*

              I don’t think VP is suggesting that the OP try to dig around to find out if the intern needs accommodation. S/he’s suggesting that the OP’s company make it really clear and up front where interns can go to ask for accommodation, creating a process if there is not one already, so that they can pursue it themselves if they need it.

              That’s something every company should have, but often overlook– especially with sort of auxiliary staff like interns. Whether this intern needs it or not isn’t really the issue.

          2. Red Reader*

            I have been an ongoing college student for the better part of the last ten years, at multiple schools at multiple levels (associates, bachelor, grad school), and every single syllabus I have ever received included information on asking for accommodations when necessary.

            1. Recovering Adjunct*

              Accreditation requires very specific language about accommodations be included in syllabi, catalogs and various and sundry other locations.

          3. Indoor Cat*

            Sure, but how do you get to age 18, having a disability, and not know how to request accommodation?

            I mean, I have a disability that required accommodation. I use a mobility scooter, and sometimes a walker, and I get sick more often than most college absence policies allowed. So, like, there was a bit of a learning curve first semester of my Freshman year about which specific office to contact, what to write in the email to my professors, and so forth. But I figured it out. I failed two classes due to my own mismanagement, and guess what? Having consequences for my actions made me learn something. Now, in the working world, I’m clearer when it comes to communicating my own needs and offering possible solutions up front (for ex. “can I do this from home and teleconference?” when I’m going to need to be on oxygen all day and can’t be around people, but can still write or fix a spreadsheet).

            I’m a little worried that this guy is the victim of the childization of people with disabilities. Even though he’s an adult, maybe people have always treated him like a kid–unable to learn from consequences, unable to ask for what he needs without his parents’ help, unable to do a job well. The thing is, that’s discriminatory too, even though people don’t think of it that way. People think they’re helping. But, ultimately, it’s dis-empowering.

            1. HFA*

              I’m autistic, with a diagnosis of HFA. I managed to get to the age of 23 without realising anything was amiss because to me, it was just what I had come to understand as normal and I was fairly high-functioning and able to do cognitively what most do instinctively. Sure, I struggled with social skills and making/keeping friends, but always blamed it on being shy/introverted. It was only later that my parents finally told me that I’d been dxed as autistic in nursery school (age 3) and they’d hidden it from both me and my schools all those years. That led to a huge amount of problems in school, but for various reasons, it was important to my parents that I be considered neurotypical despite my needs.
              So yeah, it is understandable that someone could get to their late teens or early 20s without knowing they have a neurological difference. Especially if their parents did what mine did, constantly giving me assurances that my struggles were typical for shy/introverted types and not a sign of any sort of difference beyond that.

              Whether or not it is appropriate for a boss/supervisor to suggest to an employee that he has a disability is another matter entirely… but I’d have been incredibly grateful had someone come to me when I was younger and said ‘Hey, you have some traits that make me wonder if you have something that you could get some help with. Maybe look in to getting an assessment done.’ That way, maybe I’d have gotten some help while still in school, instead of finding out so late.

        3. Ruthie*

          I do think there is a place for the employer to begin the conversation about accommodation. Having a frank conversation about someone’s obvious (and “obvious” is the key word there) disability isn’t discrimination. Separate and apart from OP’s situation, I want to weigh in on this conversation on identifying (or not) as an individual with a disability and accommodation. I used to work in the disability community, have worked with many individuals with disabilities, and continue to recruit interns with disabilities and coordinate their accommodations.

          I find that some individuals with what could legally be considered a disability under ADA do not identify as someone with a disability. At the same time, some disabilities are obvious and considered “known” to the employer even if they are not disclosed by the employee. For example, I had an intern who did not identify as an individual with a disability, but had elementary school level language skills. We provided him accommodations including providing a workspace large enough to seat him and his personal care attendant.

          And “obvious” disability does not mean that your cousin behaves or appears similarly and has been diagnosed with X or Y.

          I’ve also worked with individuals with disabilities who do not proactively request accommodation until they are given the opportunity to do so. I usually provide the opportunity in a neutral way and to all of my interns, regardless of whether they’ve disclosed a disability. For example, at the end of the conversation where they accept the job offer, I tell all of our interns the process for requesting an accomodation.

          But I also find that some individuals aren’t aware they’ll need an accommodation until they’ve been working for a while, so I provide opportunities and reminders that individuals with disabilities are entitled to accommodations throughout the internship term.

          If someone has disclosed their disability to me or their disability is obvious and I suspect it may be impacting their work and an accommodation would be helpful, I will deliberately, but delicately, have that conversation with them. For example, if an intern was frequently late for work, I would sit down and ask her what is going on. I might hear that she is having trouble finding an accessible route to the office because she uses a wheelchair to commute and the elevators in the subway are frequently breaking down, requiring her to go out of her way. I would suggest an accomodation of a flexible start time, or ask if she has a different idea. But, and this is really important, I couldn’t require her to accept an accommodation that she either doesn’t request or doesn’t need. However, if a necessary accommodation is refused, it impacts her rights as a “qualified individual” under the ADA.

          As far as I know and how I’ve seen the ADA implemented, it is not illegal or discrimination for an employer to suggest a particular accommodation once an employee discloses their disability or it becomes obvious.

          And finally, not all employees with disabilities need an accommodation. Every individual with a disability is different and people with the same disability will require (or not) different accommodations.

      2. Frozen Ginger*

        Unfortunately at this point, saying “Hey, here are some resources if you need accommodations” is going to come across as “HEY DO YOU NEED ACCOMMODATIONS?” which will be taken as nosey. So while I definitely think they should be making sure that the process for new hires explains how to get accommodations, I think that ship has sailed with this intern unless the intern brings it up themselves.

    2. Sara Jen*

      I really appreciate how you create a constructive community here, thank you for that on top of all the great advice. I often am inspired by your wording on reminders like these, and it helps me to guide my staff and volunteers effectively

    3. JennyFair*

      While we’re at it, could folks stop assuming that ignorance is generally a result of homeschooling? I don’t think my homeschooled kid who speaks five languages and can converse about current events from the perspective of someone who reads not just US but European papers–often in their original languages–for fun would appreciate the attitude that homeschooling is somehow a sub-par education, and I’m seeing that given as a likely ’cause’ for this employee’s issues multiple times below.

      1. Jaguar*

        Speculating that someone is naive as a result of homeschooling doesn’t mean that homeschooling results in naivete. I agree that people should probably be more careful about speculating, but you’re making a classic inversion fallacy.

          1. Dave1*

            If I say that I have body issues from playing high school tennis, would you infer that everyone who plays high school tennis therefore must have body issues? Perhaps this is an issue close to you and you’re touchy about it for that reason.

            1. Pyrodice*

              “Speculating that someone is naive as a result of homeschooling doesn’t mean that homeschooling results in naivete.”

              In this example, what was the cause of the naïveté in question? Homeschooling.
              What was the effect of the homeschooling?

              Speculating on my personal life is fallacious, wrong, and trolling.

              1. Jaguar*

                An office of ten people are exposed to a loud noise, let’s say construction. One of them gets a headache from it and has to go home.

                In this example, what is the cause of the headache in question? The noise.
                What was the effect of the noise? The headache.

                But despite breaking the situation down in this way, it’s quite clearly false to say that exposure to the noise will cause a headache. Nine out of the ten people did not develop a headache.

                Homeschooling is a perfectly valid choice and students can get a complete and often better education than they would otherwise receive through public or private school, and presumably that’s the case in JennyFair’s example. However, if we take individual examples as proof of the outcome, we’re failing to discuss the situation honestly. It’s perfectly valid, when someone has a crippling headache, to speculate if it might be the loud noise. It’s wildly confusing the issue to object that, actually, someone else was exposed to the loud noise and they don’t have a headache at all, and therefore the loud noise doesn’t cause headaches.

                1. pyrodice*

                  But we’re not DISCUSSING other causes of headaches, within your analogy, we’re saying that people who were exposed to noise did get headaches, and THESE people with headaches can attribute them to the noise. We’re not using a superset.
                  “Speculating that someone is naive as a result of homeschooling doesn’t mean that homeschooling results in naivete.” It literally does.
                  Stated in REVERSE your objection holds water. The claim IS that homeschooling results in naivete, but that does not imply all naivete is a result of homeschooling.

                2. Jaguar*

                  I think we’re getting lost in what I was saying and don’t actually disagree – specifically, “homeschooling [doesn’t result] in naivete.” I probably should have added the qualifier “necessarily.” I left it out since I thought it was clear given the context of replying to JennyFair, who was objecting to speculation that the person might be homeschooled on the basis that her child is homeschooled and doesn’t have the problem. My noise/headache example kind of breaks down on this point, but the analogous situation (if we assume that incomplete homeschooling can create this sort of naivete) would be that the person who got a headache has a strong sensitivity to noises. It would be accurate to say that the noise doesn’t cause headaches, sort-of: the noise and the sensitivity combine to cause the headache. Similarly, it’s accurate to say that homeschooling doesn’t cause naivete, sort-of: additional factors are required (parents that are homeschooling kids and refuse to allow them to socialize, or deliberately omit information, or do a poor job, of whatever). You could still say, in that case, homeschooling causes naivete, but that’s very misleading and incomplete (and I would say a lie of omission). Similarly, you could say that loud noise causes headaches, but all ten people in my example would expect to get headaches after hearing that.

      2. TL -*

        I don’t think anyone is suggesting that homeschooling is inferior, only that homeschooling done badly is the easiest and probably most common way to produce this kind of compete sheltering from common knowledge.
        Your kid would have to be really oblivious to go through a US school and miss Abe Lincoln, but a parent homeschooling could easily cut out all references to him.

        1. JennyFair*

          I have to disagree. My dad and I had the same 6th grade teacher, 21 years apart. Both years, this teacher was completely incapable of performing, much less teaching, long division. I was never taught long division in public school, because my 5th grade year I was moved to a gifted class, where it was assumed the students already knew. Then I moved back (of my own accord, I disliked the way we were treated in the gifted class…as showpieces, and segregated from “normal” students) and it was assumed that everyone had learned it the previous year, plus the teacher wouldn’t know anyway as he didn’t know how to perform those calculations (and he was too busy laughing about “Dolly Parton fractions”). Now, at 30 kids per year, and over 20 years of teaching, how many kids do you suppose got to jr high/middle school without knowing how to do long division, just because of one incompetent teacher? And my sister, who is the same age as my youngest child, was taught to, rather than do long division the way one normally would, simply subtract the divisor over and over until the answer was less than the divisor, at which point you add up how many times you subtracted it to see what your real answer was. She was taught this in the public school, and the practice persisted long after an understanding of the concept of division had been obtained, and the actual process, which takes far less time, should have been adopted. I also had a World Geography teacher who didn’t teach us geography because he was too busy pontificating on a) teen sex in Mexico and b) the aliens who were hovering outside our window watching us, who were going to take a bad report of American teenagers back to their mother ship. I am not exaggerating when I say 15 of the 30 students in our class failed, and I have a friend who is 16 years older than I am who had the same teacher, with the same issues. That was the only geography class required–how many students do you suppose graduated my high school who can’t navigate a map, and who are unaware of the existence of countless countries?

          People like to blame backwards homeschool parents, but a bad public school teacher–and there are a ton of them*–affects considerably more students, and homeschoolers account for a very small percentage of the population, and in general have better standardized test scores (yes, we use those). There are, of course, lousy homeschooling parents out there, but the problem is that people jump to homeschooling as an explanation with no reason for doing so, when inept public schooling is far, far more likely.

          *My own grandmother was a public school teacher, and she was wonderful. I am not knocking the profession as a whole.

          1. TL -*

            Yes but you knew what long division was, even if you weren’t taught how to do it properly. That’s the difference – you were exposed, if not taught. It’s hard, if not impossible, to limit exposure in a public school; it’s doable (and done) in homeschooling. There’s a huge difference between “I don’t understand how to do long division” and “I don’t know what long division is because I’ve never seen it before.”

          2. TL -*

            Also, lots of homeschoolers don’t take standardised tests, so that’s not a great way to look at outcomes nationwide. State by state, it might be different.

          3. StarlingSparrow*

            My boyfriend and his siblings were all homeschooled by his mother who has no teaching experience. Thankfully, my boyfriend loves learning and researched all kinds of topics on his own. He keeps on top of politics and current events now and loves to have deep conversations about them. His sister, on the other hand, asked what Auschwitz was a few years back and she was 17 or so at the time she asked the question.
            While I do agree that inept teachers can cause ignorance, in my experience, I’ve known a lot more people that were home-schooled who are ignorant about things that should be common knowledge than I have with people who went to public school. I don’t think people who were home-schooled are not smart or unable to learn about these things, but it’s always appeared to me that common knowledge topics and current events and such were just made out to be less important than school subjects and that style of thinking followed them into adulthood.

            1. HomeschoolAunty*

              I’ve had the opposite existed and I’m fairly certain is more common and not only teacher’s fault but also just students not wanting to learn. My homeschool friends are on the same level as me with current events and general history knowledge. However several kids I went to school with can’t tell you the first thing about geography or historical events because they did their own thing in class and simply dropped out once they could. I know so many people who grew up in the public school system who can barely read and write and certainly can’t spell or talk eloquently let alone being aware of historical figures, places, and events.
              Homeschool doesn’t cause ignorance, uninterested children do.

  2. MuseumChick*

    Sometimes, getting fired is the wake-up call a person needs. Better it be done now, at an internship, then after he is out of school.

    Focus on the work performance, not the personality quirks. He 1)Has failed to follow clear direction. 2) Has shown no improvement in his work quality.

    1. Stop That Goat*

      Yea, the personality quirks are unusual but they aren’t really pertinent to the situation either. I wouldn’t think most people need to have knowledge of World War 2 for their jobs.

      1. all aboard the anon train*

        Right. It might seem a little unusual not to know those aspects of history or current news, but if they’re not relevant to the job, I don’t really see why it would be a problem.

        Not knowing about all of those aspects of history of current news is a bit strange, but I’ve known people who didn’t know about at least one of those things. Some people are truly removed from the world.

        1. Karen*

          I think it could point to background… if he immigrated with his family and/or was homeschooled, it could explain why he doesn’t grasp what we consider to be basic knowledge.

          1. Salyan*

            Please don’t connect this to home education. Homeschoolers, like public schoolers, run the gamut from undereducated to extremely well educated; the vast majority are receiving an equal or better education than their peers. To automatically assume someone with limited knowledge is home educated perpetrates a incorrect myth that is actively harmful to the majority of home schooled students.

            1. PM Jesper Berg*

              “the vast majority [of homeschoolers] are receiving an equal or better education than their peers.”
              Source , please?

              1. TL -*

                I can’t remember the source, but I did read an analysis where home schooled kids did as well or better on the ACT/SAT as public school kids.
                However, it didn’t at all touch on percentage of kids testing from either group or look at standardised testing with required participation from homeschool (is that a thing?) so it’s an incredibly biased analysis.

                1. Patricia*

                  You have to be careful with those statistics. Home schooled kids who actually take the ACT/SAT do well. But most home schooled kids do not take the ACT/SAT, so they ‘select out’ of that statistic. I think that home schooling quality runs the gamut from exceptional to pathetic.

                2. Mookie*

                  Also, standardized testing in the US measures acumen for completing standardized tests in the US, not general or specific knowledge, ability, or mathematic, verbal, reading, and writing skills.

            2. JokeyJules*

              Thank you!!!
              I was homeschooled through elementary and middle school and when I went to high school, I flew through the honors and AP classes. The teachers all expected me to struggle and couldn’t understand why I was so proficient.

            3. Wintermute*

              I think, at the very least people should acknowledge there are many reasons for homeschooling, and that “homeschooling because the world is wicked and all you should ever be taught is contained in the bible” is VERY different from a student-focused reason like “homeschooling because your child is an extreme bell curve outlier in terms of learning capability (either high or low) and would be best served by individual attention” which are both very different from school-related reasons like “homeschooling because the schools in this district are dangerous and have regular assaults and a lot of social pressure to join street gangs” or “Homeschooling because there’s only one teacher for 4th and 5th grade in this district and he was emotionally abusive towards my first child.”

              I’ve known people homeschooled for all of the above reasons. #1 was the only one that ended up tragically underserved by her education, the other kids grew up very well adjusted. In #2 they were way above grade level because they studied as fast as they wanted (and got lots of tutoring from professionals in areas they struggled), #3 was homeschooled until they moved to a different neighborhood and rejoined school without having ever been stabbed or involved in crime at their grade level fitting in just fine, and #4 was homeschooled for two years and then went back to school actually skipping a grade (ended up coming back in as a middle schooler after being homeschooled for 4th and 5th grade).

        2. Wendy Darling*

          This might be a little condescending but I just sort of pretend to myself that people who are totally clueless about normal things adults know (you can’t drive without a license, the US fought in WW2) are actually robots or aliens or time travelers or from an alternate universe or grew up in a cult or something and are doing their best but legitimately do not know things. It generally shifts the behavior from quirky-annoying to quirky-charming.

          And really I’m sure they’re not ignorant on purpose. Much like the kid I stood behind in the post office who did not know how to mail a letter, sometimes circumstances conspire so that people just Don’t Know Stuff.

          1. gmg*

            It made me think of Sherlock Holmes (at least, the Moffat/Cumberbatch TV version — I humbly submit that I am not a Conan Doyle reader and don’t know for sure if this trait is in the books too, though my impression is yes) and how he doesn’t know stuff like the prime minister’s name, the fact that the earth goes around the sun, etc. There are people who only know exactly what they need to know to function in life, and simply don’t make room in their brains for anything else.

            1. Geoffrey B*

              Sadly, in real life, we never know in advance just what it is that we’re going to need to know in life!

          2. Pixel*

            To me, this is a red flag – not the lack of information per se, but the inability to soak up information and general unawareness/blocking out of bits and pieces of info that are floating out there, making connections, and eventually making important connections.
            If this intern is doing great at his coursework and is excellent at retaining what he is officially included in the subject matter, great; but this alone is not sufficient to do well at work, as not all information is relayed in an official, textbook-y manner – it’s mostly intercepted out of thin air. “No one is expected to teach you, but you are fully expected to learn” was one of the first sentences in a handbook given to me by a fellow grad student, and it holds true for most jobs.

            1. Momonga*

              “To me, this is a red flag – not the lack of information per se, but the inability to soak up information and general unawareness/blocking out of bits and pieces of info that are floating out there, making connections, and eventually making important connections.”

              Agreed. Case in point – I’m a graphic designer. I work with another designer who’s about 50 years old; I’m in my late 30’s. She was working on a Black History Month event poster and chose a visual of the Washington Monument as the main visual. Immediately I thought “hmm, that’s odd”, did some quick Googling to make sure there wasn’t some connection I was forgetting (there wasn’t) and had to tell her that a monument dedicated to a man who, among other things, owned slaves was probably not a great visual for Black History Month.

              My point – for most professions, sensitivity to important historical events and people may not be critical but it can prevent some sticky situations.

              1. MuseumChick*

                This was discussed somewhat down thread. The ability to retain information is a huge, albeit, unspoken part of the vast majority of jobs.

                I see a lot of people saying/suggesting that knowing world history/event is irrelevant to many job but I don’t think that’s true. It may not be a major part but Momonga’s story shows why it can be critical. I forget what clothing company did this, but a few years ago this company released a shirt that was a bit too much like those worn in death camps during WWII.

                1. SignalLost*

                  Or when American Apparel posted a photo they tagged “clouds” that was actually the Challenger explosion … then blamed an intern. I mean, I wouldn’t recognize the explosion either, and I watched it happen on tv. But I have questions about their internal processes if something that should have been identified as the explosion never was. Questions about their copyright approval process, for example, that potentially could have caught what the photo was of before it was posted.

            2. Epsilon Delta*

              “No one is expected to teach you, but you are fully expected to learn”

              You have… just described the training I received when I started my current job.

          3. Whimsy and Forest Fires*

            Relevant: https://imgs.xkcd.com/comics/ten_thousand.png

            It is definitely extremely weird that this intern is unaware of everything from ham to Abraham Lincoln, but as that comic points out, everyone was once unaware of those things. He just happens to have a much longer list of things “everyone knows” that he somehow hasn’t learned yet. I think the big problem social-skills-wise isn’t that he doesn’t know basic facts, but that he derails conversations to ask people to explain those basic facts. If he can be told, “Hey, Fergus, when you don’t know what someone is talking about and everyone else in the conversation seems to understand it, and the thing you don’t know is not something that you need to know in order to do your job, it’s better to let other people talk and just look things up on the internet by yourself later if you want to know more” and that message gets through to him (which unfortunately seems to be a big “if,” considering that “seriously, please stop grabbing things as soon as they come out of the printer” hasn’t managed to get through to him), his not knowing what ham is is probably not a big deal. It’s “STOP WHAT YOU’RE DOING AND EXPLAIN HAM TO ME” that’s the problem.

        3. Wwr*

          I think the biggest issue is that it’s probably going to continue alienating him from future co-workers and managers IF he keeps broadcasting it the way OP describes. It’s very possible to nod and smile your way through a conversation you don’t fully understand and hit up Google later if you’re really confused about the substance of it – but it sounds like he truly doesn’t realize how common the knowledge he’s lacking is, so he’s constantly interrupting conversations asking for basic concepts to be explained to him. That’s the real issue here, not the ignorance itself. Learning how to internalize the learning process and keep his cards a little closer to the vest in that regard would probably be a HUGE asset to him in the future, so I’d find a way to mention it gracefully.

            1. Jessica*

              If he doesn’t know about Lincoln and WWII, it’s not unreasonable to think that he doesn’t know about Google.

              What I’d like to know is, what college accepted this guy? Surely his lack of basic knowledge has also made itself apparent in his classwork. This guy has the knowledge base of a third-grader.

        4. Preppy6917*

          I had a coworker like this. He grew up in a rural area and had never left his home state until relocating to work at my company’s headquarters at a major city in the northeast. He was clueless about everything–from basic interactions with clients, from how to check-in to his hotel room, to how to ride mass transit, and everything in between. While at first some of this was considered a little charming, his attitude that everything that wasn’t within his norms was exotic and worthy of incredulity or gawking quickly alienated him from the rest of his coworkers. Not only that, but he had no problem trying to make it a coworker’s responsibility to hold his hand through the process of learning or becoming comfortable with each new exposure.

          Now this isn’t in the op’s letter, but I can see how this feeds into irritation with the rest of the staff.

          1. halfmanhalfshark*

            This x 100000. My family of origin all live in very, very rural parts of the country and I live in a Major US Metropolitan Area. I don’t expect them to know how to take public transit or walk down a city sidewalk (it’s an art!) or use a revolving door but the “My lands!” and the shock and confusion at finding out the world is actually not exactly like the < 1500 people towns where they live is exhausting. (My favorite recent example is a family member getting angry at me because I called a 15-story apartment building a "midrise" when "That's a high rise where I come from!")

          2. Sally Forth*

            One of my nephews works with kids aging out of the foster care system. Many of them are totally streetwise, but naive on basic job etiquette because they’ve never had anyone as a model. He doesn’t just find them jobs, as is his job description. He also teaches them norms for the kinds of jobs they will get so they can succeed. So, for the student who got a job in downtown Vancouver, he took the kid out for sushi and showed him how to order, because you can expect that your coworkers will do that for lunch from time to time. Ditto for fancy coffees.
            Most of them have a mentor in place for the job they get, but he shows them how to find unofficial allies in their workplace when they are in a jam. It’s quite fascinating to think of the things most of us have picked up by osmosis, but that might be alien to even very smart people.

        5. Stranger than fiction*

          I’m thinking he or she grew up without TV and newspapers for whatever reasons.

          1. Pyrodice*

            It just occurred to me this very moment they could actually be a foreign spy. That’s actually my favorite option now.

            1. Nanani*

              Nah, a foreign spy would have training on how NOT to stand out like this guy.

              Rural/cultish upbringing is my guess.

      2. Malibu Stacey*

        I got the impression from the letter that it’s not the fact that he is ignorant of facts that are common knowledge to many, it’s that because he doesn’t know he is asking questions that are derailing conversations.

        “For Memorial Day my family and I brought a flag to put on my grandpa’s grave because he fought in World War II”

        “Is your grandpa German?”

        “Um, no, Fergus? My grandpa fought for the Allies.”

        1. Annonymouse*

          I also got the impression that the conversation has to stop to explain stuff in the middle instead of reaching the end like your example.

          Which can be problematic when trying to explain a task to him.

          “I need you to put these papers in chronological order…”

          “What’s that mean?”

          “What part?”


          “Date order. I need this done by..”

          “How would I do that?”

          “Sort them by year. Then by month then day. So the top of the pile would be January last year and bottom of the pile would be June this year.”

          “What about December this year? Isn’t that later than June?”

          “I’ll get someone else to do this.”

      3. EmilyAnn*

        I have to question what kind of college education he’s received to be this close to earning a degree and not know the principal participants in WWII. That’s very basic.

        1. Justme*

          Someone not a History or Political Science major? Most majors have to fill gen ed requirements, but WW@ history is generally not a required class.

          1. the gold digger*

            American history is required in most high schools in the US. It may not be taught in depth – I did not learn about the internment camps in the US until I was an adult, but most teachers do manage to get to the “Germans vs Allies and weirdly, Russia was an Ally because enemy of my enemy, etc.”

            1. Elizabeth H.*

              I hope high school isn’t teaching kids that it’s “weird” that Russia was an Allied power during WWII

              1. Lili*

                I mean, it is kind of funny in an odd way considering how ideologically opposed America and the USSR were to one another, and that we went from allies to conflict almost immediately with the start of the Cold War.

                1. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

                  Yeah; my U.S. history course taught WWII the same way as goldie’s (no mention of U.S. internment camps, Russia was a “weird” ally, some coverage of the Holocaust, but not nuanced/thoughtful). I don’t think it’s unusual to have substandard coverage of it.

              2. Chopin*

                Not to get on a tangent, but it certainly is “weird” in the sense that had the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact gone as planned, Russia would not have been an allied power. As things played out, Poland might still find it weird that Russia is an allied power.

                1. Renna*

                  They do. And to some extent that the US and the UK are their “allies” all things considered.

              3. Cristina in England*

                Yep, I was definitely taught that it was “weird” not because of current events (this was the late 90s ‘yay Russia is free now hooray’ time) but because it WAS weird, at the time.

            2. Karen*

              I wonder if homeschooling could have anything to do with it or if he immigrated at an age where he wouldn’t be taking an american history class in high school. Even if he took the class, he could’ve barely passed by the skin of his teeth and retained nothing.

              1. Monique*

                If you transfer school districts, you can also miss a typical history lesson because they’re taught in different grades. This happened to me moving from a military base in Germany to a school in Virginia.

                I have to say this intern’s ignorance (a term I am attempting to use without connotation) seems to go way beyond this.

          2. Dani X*

            I learned about WWII in grade school and high school. I am wondering how he couldn’t have encountered that anywhere before now. Movies, books, tv mentions it.

            1. Wendy Darling*

              My high school basically noped out of history right before WWII. :/ And then all the history classes I took in college covered pre-1800s stuff. 90% of what I know about WWII I learned as an adult from films, books, and wikipedia.

              We also had a WWII unit in my 6th grade English class where we read novels about the holocaust but I was 11 and the subject matter was so horrifying that my brain basically shut down for the duration. (They made 11 year olds read Night by Elie Wisel. Just because it’s short doesn’t mean it’s appropriate for 11 year olds!) My English teacher couldn’t figure out why we all did horribly on our tests about the book.

              1. ancolie*

                Oh my god. Night is one of the best pieces of writing but it was too* intense for me as a 20 year old college student. 11 year olds?

                * well, meaning that I literally couldn’t stop sobbing and had to muffle the noise with a towel (I was reading at home).

                1. Wendy Darling*

                  I didn’t get upset because my prepubescent mind was completely incapable of actually processing what I was reading. I have a really great memory and normally remember a lot about books I’ve read, but I remember literally nothing about that one except what the cover looks like and that my English teacher was furious that I got a C- on the quiz.

              2. Office Mercenary*

                It’s really interesting to see everyone’s different reactions. I grew up in Austria, where we studied the Holocaust every year. Among others, I read Maus in the 5th grade and Night in 6th or 7th. I assumed that was normal.

            2. LeRainDrop*

              World War II aside, how can an American have “no idea who Abraham Lincoln is”? Don’t students learn about him in pretty much every single grade starting in kindergarten? I don’t know how it is possible to get all the way to junior year in college in the US without knowing at least one sentence about him.

              1. NutellaNutterson*

                The strange thing here is the sudden uptick in curiosity coupled with previous ignorance. It’s not as if Lincoln *as a cultural artifact* is obscure. So how did he go from literally never noticing what’s on a penny to deciding work is the appropriate time and place to ask ALL the questions?

          3. Liet-Kynes*

            I’m an ecologist, and I’m perfectly aware of the major actors and events of WW2 and other major events of the past century or so. This is part of being a citizen and an educated human being.

            1. Anansi*

              Love your user name! And I agree, basic world and U.S. history should be pretty much expected for adult citizens.

              This scenario is making me think of Sherlock Holmes, when Watson is shocked that Holmes has no idea the earth rotates around the sun. Holmes responds that it makes no difference to his work and therefore, he does not want to waste valuable brain space on it. The difference here is that the intern doesn’t seem to be good at basic work requirements either, and up to now doesn’t seem particularly teachable. I would say though, that being extremely direct is something people need. I’ve always been a bit sensitive and respond to feedback, however vague, pretty easily. But I’ve had coworkers who really need things explicitly said.

              1. Mike C.*

                Heck, I tell new managers to be explicit and early with their feedback for me. I can’t stand it when folks dance around issues that I could have fixed had I understood they needed to be fixed.

          4. Peter the Bubblehead*

            I cannot help but wonder if – with a lack of knowledge that driving requires a license and that the US fought in WWII – that perhaps this intern is a foreign national studying in the US?

            1. Miso*

              Out of the jungle…?
              I mean, seriously, is there any country where driving does not require a licence? I also can’t really think of a country where WWII wouldn’t be part of the curriculum at some point.

              1. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

                There’s a lot of countries where you don’t need a license to drive (and where there’s little to no coverage of WWII). I can think of 20 off the top of my head.

                But if the intern is from the U.S., I suspect his parents were extraordinarily controlling/limiting about what information he was able to access. Or, maybe he was homeschooled. I’m not saying all homeschool produces this kind of skew, but there are states that do not really regulate homeschooling or create loopholes that can make it easy for parents to avoid teaching topics they don’t want to include.

              2. The OG Anonsie*

                I imagine very large swaths of the world could fit into both of the above categories. And maybe not that driver’s licenses don’t exist, but rather in many places no one’s going to check to see if you’ve got one.

              3. JessaB*

                If he was raised on a rural farm, even in the US there are municipalities that do not care if you have a licence IF you are only driving on private property or driving a tractor type vehicle to farm with. A lot of kids I knew learnt to drive waaaay earlier than the age to get a permit, because they lived on acres worth of farmland and got to drive the truck to deliver hay to the animals or the tractor to till something up.

                1. Sam*

                  ^ My dad learned to drive a truck and a tractor at the age of 13 or 14, without a license, and did so frequently on his family’s orchard because it was all private roads (plus the 100-yard stretch of public road he had to drive on to get the truck from the house’s driveway to the orchard road, which didn’t matter much). This was in California. I imagine he knew driver’s licenses were required, since he went on to get one a few years later, but if he’d been homeschooled and if this had been a truly rural area rather than a rural/suburban mix? It’s plausible.

                  (And I’d also like to know the context of that particular one – did he not know that a person had to be licensed-as-a-fact-of-law to drive? Or did he not know that the license-as-a-physical-plastic-object had to be in the vehicle while the driving takes place? Because I didn’t know the second one for a couple years after I got my license – I had it on me anyway, because it was in my wallet and I had my wallet, but somehow during driver’s ed nobody ever told me that it’s not enough to be legal, you have to have the proof on your person. I just assumed that if the police pulled you over, they could look it up. Don’t worry, I’m better informed now. But some of these things just are not obvious if no one ever actually stops to tell you, and you wouldn’t think to look them up if you don’t know they exist in the first place.)

                2. IT Squirrel*

                  Fun fact for you Sam – in the UK we don’t have to carry all our documents with us. In fact it is generally recommend NOT to keep your registration and other documents in the car in case it is stolen. Instead, if stopped by police they can indeed look it up on a database and if the originals are required we get 7 days to take our documents to the nearest police station to be checked.


                  @Sam I’m in Montana and they can look it up here.

          5. Nacho*

            This is the kind of thing most people learn in early middle school, at least the basic “US, UK, China, Russia vs Germany, Italy, Japan” sides. Nobody expects a non-history major to know if Mexico sent troops or not, but not knowing the big players is going to come off as weird.

            1. NoMoreFirstTimeCommenter*

              Yes, I’d expect any grown up who has gone to some kind of school to be aware of the big players of WW2, and also have some kind of idea about when it happened and recognize names like Hitler and Stalin. In addition I think you should know if your own country was involved and how.

              I also would have believe that driving licences are a universal thing but thanks to comments above I now know better.

              1. many bells down*

                My former sister-in-law once said, apropos of nothing, “That Hitler guy was kind of … weird.” In a tone of voice that suggested that this was a novel idea. So, maybe this guy isn’t that rare.

            2. Sam*

              Even this is highly variable depending on what sort quality of education you got from your school. Unlike some commenters farther up, I knew about U.S. internment camps as early as middle school and that we were fighting Japan in the Pacific theater, but I didn’t find out Japan invaded China or that China was on the Allies’ side until… college, probably. We were just told Japan and the Nazis were buddies and Japan attacked us because of that, and that all the fighting was done by boat/plane in the Pacific. No information about the land war in Asia.

          6. nonegiven*

            I was required to choose one American history class, they offered one that covered everything up to the Civil War and one that started with the Civil War. I chose the first one, so no world wars at all. Of course, I remembered the major participants from grade school.

        2. Hibiscus*

          If he’s not doing a liberal arts degree, or if he’s someone whose academic excellence has been built on multiple choice tests and memorization or didn’t include a lot of reflective, analytical coursework, and isn’t curious–yeah, I can see how a “smart” person could have no grasp of many basic things or core knowledge.

          I did recently have to explain WWII to a woman in her early 20s recently–but my state has lousy education, she immigrated when young, and she was on painkillers. It was to contextualize and sell her on taking that Guernsey Potato Society book.

        3. Katie the Fed*

          I’m actually wondering if he really doesn’t know, or if it’s a weird social thing that he’s pretending he doesn’t. I don’t know how anyone with such a lack of curiosity about the world or ability to retain anything taught in high school would be on the Deans List at anywhere other than a crappy for-profit school.

          1. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

            We don’t really know if he lacks curiosity or learned the material in high school. I know he sounds a bit like an alien, but I don’t think he’s as rare as folks think he is.

            1. Katie Sewell*

              Yeah, I was pretty sheltered, and I was just this kind of exuberantly naive dweeb when I went off to college. I have some friends who were homeschooled for the purpose of being raised even more conservatively, so this seems reasonable to me even without some kind of disorder or TBI. I have even heard of someone who managed to get a law degree before discovering that dinosaurs were real.
              If he won’t follow directions and/or OP’s office doesn’t have time to deal with an intern who is socially about ten years old, so be it, but giving very very clear feedback would be a kindness even if he doesn’t know it now.

            2. Geoffrey B*

              One of my neighbours, a nurse, worked with another nurse who had had two kids and still didn’t know how pregnancy happened. This was a few decades back, but still, it’s amazing what people manage to not know.

          2. Artemesia*

            I knew a straight A student at a college who had severe brain damage from a childhood car accident that killed his father. He could memorize perfectly and was able to excel on multiple choice memorization type coursework — and yes, it was not a very good college. But he could get excellent grades and still have no capacity to reason and problem solve at all; it was quite bizarre if you are not aware of his particular situation.

            There are many things that could lead to this level of cluelessness, some of them disabilities of various sorts and some of them issues in his childrearing and early life. The key here is that you have to be able to expect a reasonable level of performance and the ability to improve with feedback. That is the focus for dismissal.

            1. JessaB*

              Even without an injury there are schools that heavily stress certain curricula, for instance my HS we did 4 years of maths and science but we could get out of history after freshman year. So if he went to a specialty school, he may have just decided to let stuff that didn’t matter toward his major to roll off his back five minutes after the test.

              Although given that the current political climate has drawn parallels to the second world war, you’d think he’d have the very base knowledge of who was on which side.

          3. AMT*

            If you went to a competitive college, it can be a shock to see how little you have to do to stay above a 3.5 at a middling school. When I was in grad school, I peer-tutored at my program’s writing center and found out that several of my master’s-level tutoring students had virtually no training in writing, research, or even basic reasoning. Many of them didn’t know how to structure a paper at a level you’d expect from a high school student, much less a grad student. I tried, and probably failed, to help them salvage papers that were completely incoherent. I imagine that if you’re a tired adjunct teaching unmotivated undergrads (I’ve been one, though in remediation rather than regular courses), you’re tempted to give a student who shows up on time and turns in semi-coherent work at least a B+.

            1. Katie the Fed*

              Oh this is very true. I have a side responsibility of grading writing samples for applicants, and some of what college seniors write is just dreadful.

              1. AMT*

                One of my fellow tutors told me that, according to one of his students, she hadn’t been required to do any essay-length writing as an undergrad, just short answers. My mind was blown.

            2. JessaB*

              I was asked by an employee of mine who was a high school work placement client, to read over a paper she wrote. I found what she gave me to be unbelievably bad, and the teacher had ALREADY red lined it. For some reason her school does not require writing ability in any class that wasn’t a language one. The social science teacher didn’t say a word about the awful grammar and formating, and for that matter, they completely missed explaining to the student that she had no idea how to present a thesis and put the information in.

              TL:dr red lined paper already seen by the teacher, in which to edit it I’d have had to rewrite every word after the title and the BY: student name.

          4. The OG Anonsie*

            I’ve known plenty of people who excel very strongly in exactly one arena, who get good grades and are lauded for their work in their target area and just brute force study and tutor their way through everything else to keep their overall GPA up.

            This post actually has me thinking of a lot of people I’ve known over the years who are very much like this. A few would just not retain any information about history or civics or pop culture– like you could tell them and they’d forget it right away, it just didn’t stick. It wasn’t that they’d never heard it before. They just didn’t retain it, they all always seemed like they really really super just did not care. Some of them could be really hard to deal with or talk to, but for others you’d just assume they were a genius at everything until you saw them try to figure out how to mail a letter*. There are all kinds of people out there fitting into the world in different ways.

            *This example based on actual events.

            1. Techie*

              How many people complaining about this guy’s lack of WWII knowledge have sported T-shirts that say “another day I didn’t use algebra”?

        4. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

          I went to school with several people who sound exactly like this intern. Their parents had been insanely restrictive and controlling, focusing only on high performance in areas of study that they thought were valuable (STEM). Their children were not allowed access to contemporary/pop culture, television, liberal arts and social studies, etc. Several of these kids were homeschooled, as well (not saying home school makes you skewed, but it’s easier to completely omit areas of study if you are in a state that does not really regulate home study). At college, they could craft programs that omitted things like basic U.S. history and opt for “breadth” classes that were still rooted primarily in their science/engineering area of study.

          As a result, we had these kids who were really great at studying a handful of specific things, but they had little to no: critical thinking capability; ability to undertake basic life skills; capacity to integrate feedback and knowledge in a dynamic, non-exam-based context; social skills; and common sense. Frankly, I think controlling your child this way is abusive, but I saw it frequently enough to think that a not-insignificant minority of people are like this intern.

          1. Fiennes*

            This was my assumption too. I wondered if such parents homeschooled him,* and he’s continuing to live at home during university.

            * I’ve had many homeschooled friends and know that, done properly, homeschooling can provide a strong education, and various clubs/teams/camps/get together offer plenty of socialization. But they’re the ones who explained to me that when homeschooling goes wrong – as it can, with parents more interested in control than education and not themselves intellectually curious – it can go really, REALLY wrong.

          2. Mike C.*

            I always wonder about these cases because Science and Mathematics are liberal arts and you need to be a high achiever in a wide variety of areas including history, english and the arts to make it into the high end STEM schools.

            1. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

              I agree that most high end STEM schools require comprehensive achievement, but whether you can specialize and how your program is classified really depends on your university.

              Mine bizarrely divided related (or nearly identical) majors across different colleges. So Math, Physics, Astro, Chem, Bio, etc., were all in the lib arts college. However, there were also degrees in Math in the College of Engineering, as well as Bio degrees in two other science-heavy colleges, as well as duplicate Chemistry and Physics programs. The general ed requirements for each of those colleges was wildly different, with the Colleges of Chemistry, Engineering, and Resources allowing students to take a narrower range of general ed requirements when compared to the lib arts college.

          1. LabTech*

            This was my thought, too. And if so, some of these performance issues could stem from language/cultural barriers.

        5. Czhorat*

          Remember that there is a literal brain-surgeon who thinks that the ancient Egyptians built the pyramids to store grain.

          It’s possible to be very narrowly educated in a given field and shockingly ignorant outside of it.

          1. Statler von Waldorf*

            Funnily enough, I used to think that too. I’m blaming the computer game Civilization, as building the pyramids puts a granary in each of my cities. (In the second and third games at least.)

              1. Czhorat*

                I remember the pyramids letting you change government without going through anarchy.

                That’s a long time ago.

        6. Pup Seal*

          My siblings have learning disabilities. My mom did almost all of their homeworker, so they didn’t learn much from school. I’ve heard horror stories of parents who did everything for their children, and these children grew up into adults who lack basic skills and knowledge.

          1. Gazebo Slayer*

            I once knew someone whose (abusive) parents forced him to do all his delinquent brother’s homework, which the brother refused to do. Awful for both kids, and they both grew up to be incredibly messed up people. There are a lot of horrible families out there. :-(

      4. Mazzy*

        I think the ww2 and other examples are just used as easy to understand examples for readers to understand, im sure the OP doesn’t want to go into too much company specific details just to prove that the OP lacks common sense.

        1. Falling Diphthong*

          Yes, I thought the first half of the third paragraph was odd. But the second half put it in perspective–it’s very hard to give direction to someone when you keep tripping into vast canyons of missing knowledge that you assumed were there because the adults you have encountered to date know these things.

          For framing: I have lived overseas, so really appreciate that what people take for granted as “everyone knows/does this” is very culture, and subculture, dependent. (For example, if everyone uses the right hand for clean things and the left for unclean things–which makes sense if you think about the germ theory of disease somewhere without running water for hand washing–it is bizarre to encounter an adult who claims that’s not the way they do things.)

          1. Rookie Manager*

            When I moved to Scotland half way through high school my music teacher was horrified I had never heard of the Jacobites. It may be taught in all Scottish primary schools but that doesn’t mean all kids accross the world learn the intricacies of Scottish history. Saying that, this intern seems to lack very common knowledge that wouldn’t usually be considered culturally specific.

            1. Blue Anne*

              When I moved to Scotland for college no one told me that passing grades started at 40. I got a 65 on my first paper and freaked out.

              1. mrs__peel*

                Ha, I spent a year studying abroad at a Scottish university, and had some trouble convincing my home university in the US about that afterwards (“No, 60% to 70% is GOOD, actually!”)

                The registrar was highly skeptical until I printed something out from the interwebs.

              2. Violet Rose*

                I did a graduate degree in England and had a similar culture shock. My new university was also a lot more competitive than my old one, so I was mostly a 50-60 student, and my advisor emailed me her congratulations when I got a 79!

          2. Turtle Candle*

            Yes: I think the problem is less that any given thing is unforgivably weird, and more that when someone’s ignorance is so broad and encompasses so many things it genuinely can make working with them difficult, just because you never know when you’re going to put your foot in another gopher-hole of missing knowledge and have to back up and explain something you take for granted. It becomes disorienting, especially when you can’t predict where the next gopher hole will be. (Like, I know that visitors from our overseas office will have a different background of cultural knowledge, or that a new employee won’t know our proprietary software, but when the knowledge gaps are both huge and unpredictably varied it’s harder.)

          3. Parenthetically*

            This was my perception as well, that it’s less about the specifics of what’s missing than the fact that SO MUCH seems to be missing as to cause ordinary, daily communication in the office context to come juddering to a halt on a regular basis.

      5. Winger*

        We don’t exactly know what kind of organization this is. It’s possible that having a rudimentary knowledge of American history – or at least current events – is a relevant piece of the job and they never thought to ensure that interns they hire would actually have this baseline of knowledge.

    2. Gabriela*

      Yes, agreed. Fire him now, when the stakes are low. I work with students who have been fired from their jobs and internships and I’m always grateful for the opportunity for it to be a learning experience for them now when they still have so many resources and systems in place to turn it around.

      1. Artemesia*

        Great point. A point for parents too. Better young people fail their college internship or their junior English class or whatever where the stakes are low and recovery and learning is possible than to have them do the kind of thing that gets them fired from an internship or on the real job — where getting fired has consequences and getting disbarred is a catastrophe.

        1. mrs__peel*

          I agree, it’s much kinder to do that now. It’s considerably harder to recover and address that kind of gap in your resume post-college.

      2. Marisol*

        Honestly I wish I’d had more failures as a teenager and young adult. The later the hard knocks come, the more they hurt.

        1. Anxa*

          I was about to say, I’m not so sure an internship is low-stakes; you may only get one opportunity for one. It seems pretty make-or-break to me. But still better than even further down the line.

          But boy do I wish I failed/struggled more in high school. Those grades don’t follow you for the rest of your life like college ones do. C’s get degrees. And cut off from most graduate programs.

    3. paul*

      Yep. As mindblowing as it is to me to not know we were in WWII, it’s not really germane to most work settings.

      Messing up other people’s print jobs is (pet peeve of mine).

    4. Blue*

      Yes, OP, please fire him if he needs to be fired! If you haven’t already had the hard coaching talk Alison suggests, be very, very explicit about the potential consequences. Same if you do end up letting him go – you can be direct and point out specific problems while still being kind. In the long run, it really will be a kindness. Being forced to deal with consequences is far and away the most effective wake-up call. I work with college students, and this is why I’m always a bit relieved when a prof puts their foot down and refuses to pass someone who has a pattern of talking their way out of failing grades.

      If he was hired through some sort of partnership with his university, it might also be worth giving feedback on his job performance to the staff member who runs the program. There may be someone who can follow up with the student on these issues when he returns to campus.

    5. TheBeetsMotel*

      Agreed; this is an ideal time to be fired, if ever there was one! When he’s still learning and isn’t out in the big bad world yet.

      No one enjoys firing people, but as Allison said, it is really a kindness to be direct and thorough in letting him know NOW where his flaws lie, rather than him finding these things out when the real-world stakes are a lot higher.

      1. JessaB*

        Absolutely, but I’d look back and make sure the “don’t do this thing, do this other thing,” was very clearly and firmly delivered before giving up on this guy

    6. Marcy Marketer*

      I used to work with a woman like this. We would sit through meetings together, and the follow up questions she asked me afterwards we’re so off base (like alternate universe off base) that I felt like we must have been in two different meetings. In addition, her in the moment follow up questions often revealed that she was on a totally different topic than the rest of the room, every time. Like, we’d be talking about a filming project on July 3 and she’d ask if I would be filing a report. “What report?” “The report for the email.” What email?” Well, the email project… on July 3, that we were just talking about.” NO. NO WE WERE NOT.

      She was a reporter and to this day I have no idea how she ever reported on anything with any accuracy, unless it was all an act.

    7. Statler von Waldorf*

      Seconding this. This sounds like a pretty clear case where a tough love firing will probably get better results than coaching will. Failure to follow directions is a major problem. I have personally witnessed a couple people fired for that reason who suddenly realized that maybe they need to adjust their stance on what is or isn’t appropriate workplace behavior.

    8. mugsy83*

      Firing the intern isn’t going to wreck their life – more than likely, they’re not supporting a family, this income probably isn’t their livelihood. Worst case, they fail to get college credit for this session. Internships are learning experiences and this is how it goes sometimes. It will teach an important lesson about working in the real world – you have to follow directions, ask for clarifications if you’re unsure, and try not to make the same mistakes over and over. Not everyone gets an “A” or a participation award. If you meet expectations, your reward is getting to come back week after week to keep collecting a paycheck.

      The personality issues and lack of historical / current event knowledge are secondary to the fact that this person isn’t able to follow directions. Cut them loose, do the intern and their future employer a favor!

  3. Anon Anon*

    The example of having the intern read something and catch all the errors the first time around really is part of the learning process. And, not everyone is going to notice the issues on the first review of a document. To me that seems like a relatively common issue I’d expect to experience with an intern.

    So I guess the question I would have is if the intern had more current event knowledge and better social skills (and you liked him) would the performance related things be fireable? Because to me unless the intern needs to know about current events to do their job, I’m not sure how that is relevant to his job performance. Because I do have to wonder if the personality related issues didn’t irritate you so much, would the work performance issues?

    Granted, I tend to give interns more latitude, because they are still learning, and it’s part of my and my colleagues job to help teach them.

    1. Bolt*

      What the intern did was almost commendable… some would have ignored the newly discovered mistakes rather than go back to have them fixed. Overreacting to that could result in the intern learning to hide his mistakes in the future to avoid getting in trouble for missing them.

      1. Anon Anon*

        I kind of agree. And to me that is a teaching moment about how finding new mistakes leads to additional work for everyone else.

        But, I guess I also focused on that part of the letter (probably overly so), because it’s not infrequent for me to find issues during a second or third pass at a document.

    2. apostrophina*

      I also wondered about that example. I’ve been doing proofreading(ish) stuff off and on for years now, and I will still occasionally find errors on a second pass I didn’t find on the first. Do I hate marking those things (because I’d rather appear awesome and smart all the time)? You bet. I’d rather the work came out right in the end, though, so I do mark them.

      1. Blue Anne*

        Yeah. A friend had a proofreading side gig in university and she actually recommended to most of her clients that they pay her for TWO readings, because that was the only way all errors would be found. Many did.

        1. Elizabeth West*

          I just did edit number 13 on my novel to reduce word count after a revision, and I STILL found a couple of things I missed. And not in the revised sections, either!

        2. Geoffrey B*

          I disagree. Re-reading helps, but the only way to find all errors is to publish it (preferably in hardcover) and then randomly open it at any page.

          1. Quickstepping Matilda*

            My mother found a typo in the effing ABSTRACT of my printed, bound thesis when she picked it up.

    3. Alton*

      Yeah, not every single thing mentioned sounds egregious on its own–proofreading is a skill that needs to be developed, so taken in isolation, I don’t see that as a huge deal. But I can see how if there’s a bigger picture of him not seeming to understand feedback at all and doing things he’s been told not to do, all of these things might be contributing to a bigger problem, and it’s harder to overlook stuff.

      1. Anon Anon*

        I do think that if he’s not understanding feedback that is an issue and that should be formally addressed, so that the intern has an opportunity to address the issues and he knows how serious this is. Because it’s easy to ignore some feedback if you aren’t worried about it costing your job.

    4. RabbitRabbit*

      I guess it depends on how egregious it was. Did it seem like he found a couple errors next to each other and then stopped reading the document entirely?

      1. Liet-Kynes*

        Was gonna say. There’s a difference between “oh, I caught a few more discrepancies” and “oh, there’s a back side?”

        1. msmorlowe*

          Or even between handing back a document as “I have finished proofreading this,” then when someone later asks for another copy saying, “Oh yeah, and I found all these other mistakes after I handed them back but never passed them on.”

    5. Sue Wilson*

      Eh, I think there’s a difference between proofreading something, and comparing two documents with each other. I would expect an intern to catch fewer errors proofreading than someone with experience; I would not expect an intern to be oblivious to when one word or number is different from document to document when noticing is the whole point of the exercise.

      1. Anon Anon*

        That is proof reading though. I miss stuff like that pretty regularly, and I’ve been in the working world for 20 years. However, some of this depends on the type of documents being reviewed and/or type of job. And I know that early on in my career when someone would ask me to be a second set of eyes for a document I’d often just scan the document and not look at it carefully, because I didn’t understand the stakes involved.

      2. Alton*

        To be fair, I think that type of task can be tricky because it may not be immediately obvious if you’re just supposed to point out actual errors or if the two documents are supposed to be literally identical. Sometimes there will be small formatting changes that look intentional.

    6. Murphy*

      It sounds to me like the issue with the proofreading example was that he didn’t understand why he needed to find all the corrections the first time. (Also, it’s not clear to me whether he actually attempted to find them all the first time or just stopped halfway through, as others have mentioned.) I think we all understand how you could miss something the first time, but we understand why that’s not ideal.

      1. JB (not in Houston)*

        That was my impression–the OP didn’t seem concerned that he missed some things the first time around but that he didn’t understand he was supposed to be *trying* to catch everything the first time around. That he didn’t understand he was supposed to look for all the errors.

      2. Turtle Candle*

        Yep, that’s how I read it, too. If I had to tell someone, “Hey, I noticed that you caught a bunch more issues on the second pass. It’s okay if you sometimes find one or two more things, but for the most part you should be catching them all on the first round so that we can verify on the second round–take more time with it if you need,” and they said “Oh, okay,” no problem. Even if they still needed some practice at it, as long as they were clearly making an effort to get everything on the first pass, it’d be fine.

        But if they didn’t understand what I was saying or why it might be important to catch things on the first pass, that would be a much bigger deal. (Especially if they argued, or just kept blithely doing things their way….)

    7. NeverNicky*

      But wouldn’t an intern with that much education would have proof reading experience, even if its only their own work?
      Even if the actual style of the documents is new, the concept surely can’t be?

    8. Anonymous Poster*

      I got the impression is was one of a much larger pattern of not paying attention or following through.

    9. Winger*

      I understand the OP’s frustration. When you ask someone to proof a document, you have to depend on them to actually do it. This intern is not a nine year old. A college junior should be able to proofread a document without a lot of trouble. I also get the impression that when OP talks to the intern about this, he doesn’t seem to understand the concept of proofreading. It sounds like a bigger issue than “my intern missed a couple of errors when he proofread my document.”

      1. Confused Teapot Maker*

        This. I didn’t read the problem as being ‘the intern isn’t the hottest proofreader in the world’ but rather ‘the intern doesn’t understand what proofreading is and why it’s important’. The former is irritating but kind of what you might expect from an intern and, importantly, teachable. The latter, well, I’m not sure where the begin with that.

  4. Countess Boochie Flagrante*

    … I hate to say it, but there’s a part of me that questions if he’s really that ignorant, or if this is just him being… I don’t know, weirdly credulous as some kind of social performance thing? I know there’s some advice out there that says that people will like you better if you let them explain things to you. Otherwise… I can’t imagine how this guy reached adulthood, went to college, without learning such incredibly basic things.

    1. Paige Turner*

      Right?? I knew a guy who didn’t know that raisins were grapes but I’m sure even that guy knew that ham came from pigs.

      1. seejay*

        Well there *was* an article that came out recently that a lot of adult Americans think chocolate milk comes from brown cows, and I don’t think it was a joke article either. :|

        Some people really are that dense.

        1. Mike*

          The random saying of “Think of the least intelligent person you know, and realize half the world’s population is less intelligent than that person” comes to mind.

          A lot of people are REALLY stupid.

          1. consultant*

            Why would that be true? I mean why would anybody assume that the least intelligent person they know has to represent the average of world stupidity?

            1. Sam*

              I think the idea is that it’s statistically unlikely for you, personally, to know anyone whose intelligence is far outside the middle of the bell curve; “half the population” is an inaccurate way of expressing that, though.

          2. Bookworm*

            I think you’re paraphrasing a George Carlin quote here:
            “Think of how stupid the average person is, and realize half of them are stupider than that.”

        2. mrs__peel*

          I remember reading that 25% of Americans couldn’t identify the US on a world map, so…

          1. Charlotte Collins*

            My sister has a friend who went to a religious school until she went to the public high school. She did not learn basic geography (my sister helped her with that), but she could recite the names of all 72 disciples in addition to the 12 apostles. (My sister always wondered why they didn’t throw in some countries while doing all this memorization.)

        3. Mike C.*

          Well technically some amount of milk that becomes chocolate milk comes from some number of cows that are brown, but it doesn’t come out of the cow that way. :p

          1. The OG Anonsie*

            I wonder if a significant portion of people taking the poll thought it was a trick question that they were outsmarting… “Yeah yeah, most cows are brown.”

            1. LNZ*

              This happened in my US history class. The teacher asked us when the war of 1812 was and we all were afraid to answer cause it seemed like it was too obvious and had to be a trick questions.

              1. nonegiven*

                There was a middle school history teacher that always put one question like that on every test.

        4. Falling Diphthong*

          538 tackled that, informally in a podcast, and their thoughts were:
          • 7% of people will say anything. (Which is not actually all that surprising a finding.)
          • Chocolate milk does come from brown cows–and from white and black cows–and the results show that only 7% of people thought about the question carefully.

          1. Charlotte Collins*

            No, chocolate ice cream comes from brown cows. (Where I’m from, that’s what you call a root beer float made with chocolate ice cream. And sometimes Coke.)

      2. BeautifulVoid*

        I met my husband when we were both in grad school. A few years later, I was there to witness the moment he learned that pickles were cucumbers.

        1. Lissa*

          Haha, yes! I think we all have blind spots – I know I was embarrassingly old when I realized certainly things. In this case though the *amount* of basic things he doesn’t know is…pretty amazing!

        2. Grapey*

          And my very smart grad school friend not knowing that South Africa has a very sizable white population.

      3. Lee*

        Did he know? Where do “hamburgers” come from, if ham comes from pigs?
        Sometimes its harder to see outside, when you’re so deeply entrenched inside.

    2. Maya Elena*

      If he’s doing it as a joke, it would be a kindness to tell him he’s taken it too far.

    3. MechanicalPencil*

      I’m also wondering what happened to all those history classes in elementary, middle, and high school. Plus the required history courses he should have taken in college. How do you not know Abraham Lincoln and WWII? Electric cars I can almost excuse. Maybe his family didn’t eat ham or something. I’m baffled. A social experiment is really the only plausible explanation I could hope for.

      1. Bow Ties Are Cool*

        I have to wonder if this guy is a victim of some bad homeschooling. Perhaps a (lazy?) teacher-parent who decided to only focus on things like math and science that might “help him get a job” and more or less ignored “soft” subjects.

        1. Government Worker*

          Or he was a kid with very narrow interests and a parent who didn’t see any value in ensuring that he got a well-rounded education. It sounds like he may be pretty smart in an academic sense on some subjects (his major), but it’s not hard to picture a homeschooling parent who’s proud of how advanced their kid is on math or other technical subjects and doesn’t force them to do much on the humanities or social science side.

          1. The Other Dawn*

            I also wonder if maybe he was part of the foster care system. If he moved frequently from home to home, I think it’s possible that his earlier schooling suffered. Obviously some of those things are more to do with current events and not schooling, which may mean he just doesn’t watch/read the news.

            I really don’t feel like anything in the third paragraph should be addressed, other than asking him to hold his questions until the end, or maybe take note of things he might want to Google later. Yes, it’s really annoying, but there could be some good explanations for why some basic knowledge is lacking. (And honestly, there are a couple things there I’m guilty of, too…)

          2. Observer*

            This is not unique to homeschoolers. And remember, this intern is in college and most colleges have required subject like history, so even if he totally didn’t get anything as a kid and teen, something should have sunk in during college. So, I hesitate to pin the blame on parents being too narrow, much less homeschooling.

            1. blackcat*

              I don’t know, I didn’t need to take general history courses–I took something specific that did not touch on WW2 at all (pre-colonial central African history). As a STEM major, I only needed 1 history class, so I took the one with the best professor that was on a part of history I knew nothing about (I knew NOTHING about African history pre-slave trade).

              I have a pretty good general background in history from high school, but college didn’t help me with it. I went to a very good liberal arts school.

              I can definitely see someone who didn’t enter college with that sort of baseline knowledge not getting it in college.

              1. Observer*

                Everyone seems hung up on WWII. But, that’s not the only thing he doesn’t know. Don’t tell me that there are colleges in which you can get away without ANY “Gen Ed” type requirements.

                1. mrs__peel*

                  At my university, the descriptions of required classes were *SO* vague that you didn’t really have to take much outside of your major.

                  For instance, instead of taking math specifically, you just had to take a class involving “quantitative” subject matter.

                  (I was a linguistics major, and I weaseled out of math by taking Semantics instead to fulfill that requirement. Rather shamefully, I haven’t taken any actual math class since 10th grade!)

                2. blackcat*

                  I was trying to make the point that there are! My distribution classes were that African history course, a 15th century french lit class (super specific), a spanish poetry class, and a course on north american aboriginal faiths. Everything else was STEM or what I needed for my education minor (I came out with a teaching license in two STEM fields). So that was 4 “distribution” courses. We had “distribution” requirements, not “gen-ed” requirements. That meant a certain number of credits in different fields, not particular courses.

                  I went to a highly regarded liberal arts college in the US. If someone managed to show up at my undergrad institution knowing nothing about US history, it would be entirely possible to leave that way, too.

                3. Liz T*

                  I went to a “top ten” college and there were extremely broad gen ed “expectations” that you could get out of with your advisor’s signature. 2 Arts/Humanities courses, 2 Natural Science/Mathematics, 2 Social Sciences. That was it, and I didn’t even meet them (because of a technicality).

                4. Liz T*

                  Now I’m trying to remember if I learned much about WW2 in actual school at all, or if it all came from Hebrew school. (Plus movies and TV, for that matter.)

                5. The OG Anonsie*

                  At my university, the nursing and engineering schools (and I think some others, those are just the ones I’m familiar with) had a special tiny gen ed requirement track and even special “__ for nursing students” versions of gen eds. I think my EE friend got through there with like one writing class and one intro to anthropology class.

                  That said, I was in the regular program and it’s pretty easy to not take classes on stuff you don’t care about. I don’t think I encountered anything from the OP’s list in coursework the whole time I was in college, except that WWII was noted as existing in a lot of Pacific anthropology work that I did. The context for that was such that, if you had no idea what happened in WWII, it wouldn’t really make a difference to your understanding of what was happening in the Marianas as taught in the class.

                6. Schnapps*

                  I went to a pretty decent university and to fulfill a Liberal Arts Certificate, I had to take a science course. It was basically a freebie with all the other courses I took, and I just needed this one to fulfill it.

                  I enrolled in beekeeping, which was really, really hard for someone with a faculty of arts background (polisci/history – this story of this intern is really painful for me :) ). So I dropped apiculture, and I was perusing the list of approved courses for this requirement.

                  And then I found my course: The History of Science. And it was all about the start of science from way back when it was illegal to dissect bodies.

                  So there’s that :)

                7. JessaB*

                  Heck I started in a Community College and read the syllabus for the University I would be going to after. They required supposedly a bunch of classes like logic, and public speaking, but when I got there, they didn’t care one bit. Handwaved the whole thing, and had I known I could have taken a bunch of courses I wanted, instead of stuff I was told I needed.

                  Also because my records were weird (I started in NY, then moved to Florida,) despite my grades, and having gone to a STEM type school (before STEM was a thing, years before,) they couldn’t figure out my maths ability so they sat me in a “Here we’re gonna teach you basic maths,” I dozed my way through and helped out the other students because dammit, I knew that stuff.

                8. Jess*

                  Yep! This letter is obviously in an American context, but when I went to university in New Zealand there is no such thing as an equivalent “Gen Ed” requirement. Maybe because our schooling system is structured differently, but I did my degree doing JUST papers relevant to that major.

                9. Observer*

                  OK I stand corrected. It’s pretty stunning that you can get through a non-niche college without ever encountering basic subjects. Talk about failing to provide a reasonably broad education!

                  I still stand by my basic point. There is simply no reason to assume that someone who is uneducated in *anything* but their college major is the product of homeschooling or even overly narrow parents. There is enough research out there on the actual education attainments of homeschoolers to know that this is just NOT more likely to happen with homeschoolers than kids who go to a “regular” school.

            2. Mischa*

              Yes, agreed. I have been homeschooled, gone to private religious school, a large suburban public high school and finally the state flagship university. Ignorance abounded in all four places, not just with homeschooled kids.

            3. JM60*

              Most colleges that aren’t liberal arts colleges don’t require you to study history at all, unless it’s related to your major. So if you’re a biology major, most colleges won’t require you to take any history courses.

            4. aebhel*

              Eh, I had to take a history credit, but it didn’t have to be a general history course; I think I took mine on early Japanese history, just because it sounded interesting.

              This *much* ignorance on this many subjects smacks to me of bad homeschooling (as someone who was homeschooled). Ultimately, though, it doesn’t really matter; weird knowledge gaps are not the issue, poor performance and failure to take direction are.

              1. Observer*

                To me it smacks of really bad elementary schooling in a system that was heavy on “social promotion” with no real attempt to bring a kid up to speed.

          3. Jaydee*

            It’s not like parents and teachers can guarantee what information will stick in someone’s brain. I have a friend who had very narrow interests growing up (and still does to a large extent). His parents are lovely people, he went to good schools, but there are still huge gaps in his knowledge about history, current events, etc. because that just didn’t interest him.

            I also know someone who has a professional degree but was clueless about a lot of things that are covered in basic biology (similar to the ‘ham comes from pigs’ example). Again, a mix of not being a great student, not having an interest in that stuff, and not having it be relevant to his daily life.

            Now, the breadth and depth of this intern’s cluelessness are both exceptional. But I’m willing to accept it as plausible.

      2. all aboard the anon train*

        He could have been home schooled by parents who only taught what they thought he needed to know. He could have been educated abroad (a friend from Britain had no idea there was fighting in the Pacific during WWII because they only learned history about the European Theater in school).

        When I worked in academic publishing, there were some states who requested completely rewritten history books that left out pretty significant people and events in U.S. history, so it’s not out of the realm of possibility for someone not to know this.

        Whether this is the case or not, it doesn’t really surprise me if someone legitimately didn’t know some of those facts.

        1. KHB*

          Educated abroad was my first thought too, although if that had been the case I’d think OP would have taken it into account.

          It sounds like the weird thing is not so much his lack of knowledge but that he keeps calling attention to it. There’s a lot of basic stuff (mostly related to sports and popular culture) that I don’t know too, but when (for example) a movie I’ve never heard of comes up in conversation, I stay quiet and listen and try to glean as much information as I can from context, then look it up online if I want to know more. It sounds like that’s a skill this guy doesn’t have – I imagine him derailing every conversation he’s a part of by asking for everything to be explained to him, and he really should probably learn not to do that.

          1. Emi.*

            Ehh, the OP might not know if he were educated abroad, so that sounds like a good theory to me.

            1. KHB*

              True. I was thinking “educated abroad = clearly and obviously a native of some country other than the US” but of course that’s not necessarily the case.

              1. Anonygoose*

                I mean, speaking as a Canadian, most American history did not make our textbooks unless it directly affected Canada – so pretty much nothing after the War of 1812. I have a decent grasp on American history due to movies, books, and TV (and my curiosity making me google things that I don’t understand the reference to), but I can imagine quite a lot of people all over the world not knowing a lot of things that are pretty basic to Americans. And a Canadian accent is often indistinguishable from an American one.

                Which is why it’s the ‘not knowing ham comes from pigs’ thing that had me balking…

              1. ZSD*

                Honestly, I believe our dropping the nuclear bombs got exactly one paragraph in my high school US history textbook. (This is horrendous, of course.)

        2. the_scientist*

          When I worked in academic publishing, there were some states who requested completely rewritten history books that left out pretty significant people and events in U.S. history, so it’s not out of the realm of possibility for someone not to know this.

          …….I need to lie down. I mean, I knew this was a thing, especially for science textbooks, but still.

          1. Kelly L.*

            It’s becoming more of a thing with history too. Sanitizing bad things that the US did to people during the course of its history, in various ways.

            1. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

              Yup. You can find great examples of sanitized history textbooks in Arizona and Texas right now. It goes well beyond the sciences.

              1. all aboard the anon train*

                Those two are the worst offenders, but we had some pretty liberal states asking for rewritten textbooks for certain districts. I think some people would be surprised by the geographic areas where people ask for changed literature/history/science/etc. books.

                1. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

                  OMG, ask me about how I read Les Miserables and had no idea that (1) Fantine was a character, or that (2) she became a whore. Yup, I read 800 bowdlerized pages in high school. In California. In the East Bay Area. In 1999.

                2. The OG Anonsie*

                  People are really weird about this. I lived in Seattle when they changed Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples Day, which sounds like an ok idea on its face. But apparently a lot of parents and schools were into it because it allowed them to not actually have to teach kids about colonialism and genocide which they found, as a lot of the people I spoke with put it, that was “inappropriate” for grade school aged children to study because it’s too adult for them. They wanted it put off to high school or college.

                  This is weird to me as someone who grew up in Texas, where the prevailing attitude for teaching American history in elementary school is “buckle in, kiddos, you’re about to hear some serious shit.” Our textbooks might be revisionist garbage but we still have teachers who know what’s what and a lot of separate fiction reading requirements every year with the purpose of giving you a front row seat.

                3. Geoffrey B*

                  My mother’s school taught from a bowdlerised version of Hamlet that removed the Ghost, and all references to incest.

                  This was less than helpful when it came to sitting an external exam based on the Extended Edition.

              2. Lissa*

                This is so interesting to me, as a Canadian, because I feel like we’re going in the opposite direction here – i.e. when I was in elementary and high school I learned almost *nothing* about colonialism, treatment of First Nations, or residential schools, but there’s now a really big push to include more of that in the curriculum, starting quite young (which is great!). But from this thread it sounds like it used to be better in the States and now they’re taking that stuff out! I think Canada has fewer differences between provinces or at least less ability for provinces to treat it differently, though.

              3. Sarah W*

                I had heard that about Texas, but didn’t realize Arizona was guilty of this as well. What an example of this that you noticed?

                1. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

                  Arizona has been having several high-profile textbook fights in Biology and Mexican American Studies. They’ve of course had prior fights about content, and oftentimes the real issue is over whether to ban a book (instead of altering it), but those problems are not unique to AZ. Their biology fight is strangely not about Creationism, but rather, whether to remove several pages related to reproduction because that section apparently fails to “promote” the State’s “strong interest” in preferring adoption/childbirth to abortion. I kid you not.

            2. paul*

              like referring to African “workers” brought over in the 1700 and 1800s…at least that blew up in their face.

          2. all aboard the anon train*

            Pretty much the only subject you’re never going to have people ask to remove content because it “offends” them is math.

            One of the few times I saw my former company say no to a request was a college (in a liberal state, no less) that asked for all images of minorities and women to be removed and all instances of non-Christian religions and non-heterosexual relationships to be removed from a world history book.

              1. all aboard the anon train*

                Colleges are actually worse than K-12, in my experience. A lot more of our troubling customization requests came from colleges than K-12 districts.

              2. Mela*

                During my human sexuality class in college, the professor told us that there is not a single human sexuality textbook for sale in the US with photographic images of the nude human body. This is because the public university system in Texas does not permit it, that market is too big to ignore, so all the publishers sell their texts without the nude images.

                1. nonegiven*

                  I read that in a scifi book, their legislature wanted to define pi as 3. I never thought the author got the idea from real life.

              1. Emi.*

                That’s misleading–the point of the bill wasn’t to redefine pi; it was to present a method for squaring the circle and basically license it to Indiana schools free of charge (because you have to pay royalties to mathematicians when you teach their work, I guess? except, you don’t). As a consequence of this method, pi=4 or 3.2, depending on which part of the “proof” you’ve gotten to.

        3. Drew*

          When I worked in academic publishing, there were some states who requested completely rewritten history books that left out pretty significant people and events in U.S. history,

          And this is why I do not miss my time in that particular industry. It was educational (pun intended) but I’m not sorry to have moved on.

      3. apostrophina*

        When I was in high school in the ’90s, I knew an AP American History student who had to be told who won the Civil War. That would be 11th grade.

        They’re out there, although OP’s intern seems to be an unusually…whatever the opposite of well-rounded is… example of the type.

        1. Parenthetically*

          I mean, I have so many hilarious stories of my 10th, 11th, 12th graders not knowing _____ Basic General Knowledge, me rolling my eyes, and pleading with them not to tell anyone where they went to school. Every kid’s education is going to have gaps. I think you’re right, though, that this is an unusual level of “how tf does an adult not know this?!?”

          1. Emrin*

            When I was a TA I marked an exam where a kid (freshman at a big California University) guessed that Chaucer was one of the “later Apostles.”

      4. Pippin's Mom*

        My husband has a very poor knowledge of general history and very many of the “basics” that we all seem incredulous that you could get to adulthood without knowing.

        He’s in his sixties now and had to quit high school a month into the 9th grade to help support his family. He has since gotten his GED and a college degree (very specific technical field) but much of his general knowledge is lacking. He’s very aware of it and continues to work to educate himself but there are still gaps.

        1. Breda*

          But that’s clearly not what’s happening with a college student doing an internship. Of course, if you miss years of school you’ll have gaps in what we consider “common knowledge!” But it’s reasonable to expect an American college student to know who Abraham Lincoln is.

    4. Temperance*

      Right? I can’t see someone succeeding in a hard major and making Dean’s List every semester while also not knowing who Abe Lincoln is. I mean, FFS, my 4- and 5-year old nieces sort of know who President Lincoln is, and they are little kids.

      It seems like he’s invested in being a weirdo.

      1. JulieBulie*

        Abe Lincoln is on the penny and the $5 bill, right? So… who does he think that guy is on his money?

        1. Liet-Kynes*

          That’s the thing: he doesn’t. There’s a guy on his money. He hasn’t thought about it enough to care. Which is why he also sucks at his job.

            1. Tiffany*

              Yes, this. My 2nd-grader thought Ben Franklin had been a president because he’s on money. I corrected her, of course, but even at 7 years old, I’m sure she’s not the only one who assumes that because the majority of people on money are presidents, they must all be.

          1. Emi.*

            I think those are separate. Who the guy is on your money doesn’t actually affect your life in the way that how to do your job does, so there’s much less point to finding out.

            1. Liet-Kynes*

              In general, speaking to Alison’s post above yours as well…. I think being a trainable and educable person depends on a certain level of curiosity about and engagement with the world, and if you’re ignorant of who Lincoln is, that bespeaks thoroughgoing disengagement and incuriosity that likely also colors your approach to more salient topics like work.

                1. seejay*

                  Curiosity can also be very nuanced. I’ll fall down the rabbit hole of Wikipedia and spend hours reading it but I stick to very specific topics: science, geology, weather patterns, geography, serial killers, biology, myths and legends, astronomy, a few other areas. Areas I don’t delve into very much? History (that doesn’t touch upon any of the topics I’m already interested in), wars, politics, government, finance, economics. I have huge gaps in my knowledge because my curiosity doesn’t wander into that direction, or if it does at first, I grow bored and don’t finish reading. I’ll spend hours reading about volcanoes around the world but wouldn’t last more than 2 minutes on the Civil War.

              1. KHB*

                I totally agree with this sentiment in general, but I also think that “curiosity about and engagement with the world” is completely compatible with ignorance about who the people are on your money. I lived in the UK for two years without ever having more than a cursory understanding of who Elizabeth Fry was, for example.

                1. Turtle Candle*

                  I mean, until quite recently I’m guessing the vast majority of people, even educated people, had only the dimmest possible idea of who Alexander Hamilton might have been, and of those that did it probably hinged on a “Got Milk?” ad rather than anything in history class. And even e.g. Andrew Jackson a lot of people know pretty much nothing beyond “a president I think?”

                2. Koko*

                  Yes, I don’t think we can extrapolate that lack of curiosity about people on money = abject lack of curiosity, period.

              2. Parenthetically*

                “being a trainable and educable person depends on a certain level of curiosity about and engagement with the world”

                Absolutely. That’ll come out in different ways, but in my years of experience teaching, I’ve found there’s no worse sign for a student’s success than incuriousness.

              3. SignalLost*

                Yeah. I don’t think the problem is hos knowledge gaps per se, but that he sounds reliant on others to do the labour of making him understand a task or filling in a gap because he isn’t curious.

              4. kitryan*

                I agree completely. I have a much less severe version of this problem with a coworker, where many of the questions I’m asked get the reply ‘Did you check the documentation?’ or ‘Please reread the email in question.’
                “Curiosity about and engagement with the world” indeed. I feel like more of that all around in the world would be a great help.

        2. Falling Diphthong*

          I think Washington is on the $1 and quarter; Lincoln on the $5 and penny. After that I’m lost. Dimes, nickels, I know there’s a guy, and he was probably president. Same with the higher denomination bills. I don’t think I’ve ever had a situation come up where it mattered that I know who that guy is on the nickel. Or the symbolism of the stuff on the other side.

          1. Hibiscus*

            And who cared about Alexander Hamilton until the musical except early American history buffs?

              1. Hibiscus*

                In other words, not many. I mean, I’m well-educated, but I had forgotten what the Federalist papers were and that Hamilton had been an author of them until I heard the cast album. Could I tell you the logic behind the arguments and political alignments that the Constitution is a living document versus a static representation of the perfect views of the founding fathers, and who on our current Supreme Court leans what way? Sure.

              2. all aboard the anon train*

                But people generally think of Madison when it comes to the Constitution and Jefferson for the Declaration. Even I remember being taught in elementary school that Madison wrote the Constitution (and everyone else was left out).

                The only way we learned about Hamilton was via the Federalist papers and that was only in AP U.S. History. I was always pretty into Revolutionary War history so I found out a lot on my own, but before the musical his name was never going to be one of the top five someone could list if asked about important constitutional founding fathers.

                1. nonegiven*

                  My husband told a story. A guy at work wondered when WW1, ended. DH said “November 11, 1918 at 11 am GMT.” Their intern stared at him with her mouth open. I couldn’t have told you without Google and I’ve never cared enough to look it up. DH got WW1 mustard gas stories from his grandad when he was little and heard that date over and over.

                1. mrs__peel*

                  I think maybe Lincoln is more on trend these days, with the hipster beard and all…

              1. kitryan*

                I thought he was cool when I was in middle school. The Federalist papers, the banking system, dying in a duel! He and Franklin were my favorites.

          2. Elizabeth West*

            Testing my knowledge. *not googling*

            Lincoln on the penny/$5 bill.
            James Madison on the nickel (I hate nickels. I don’t know why; I just do.).
            Franklin Delano Roosevelt on the dime.
            Washington on the quarter/$1 bill.
            Hamilton on the $10.
            Andrew Jackson on the $20.
            Ulysses Grant on the $50.
            Ben Franklin on the $100.

            After that, I haven’t a clue. This is only money I’ve actually seen. I’m sure I missed some. I honestly don’t remember where I learned this; it MUST have been in school. I can’t imagine not knowing it.

            1. MoodyMoody*

              Jefferson is also on the $2 bill. I don’t think half-dollars are currently minted, but the latest I know is JFK. Silver/golden dollars have had so many different people on them since I was a child, but I personally remember Eisenhower, Susan B. Anthony, Sacajawea and her son, and then a line of all the US presidents.

              $100 bills are the largest currently in circulation. Larger denominations were used largely in bank-to-bank transfers before electronic banking became standard, so they are no longer needed for legitimate purposes. (Drug dealers, smugglers, and money launderers would still appreciate them, though.)

            2. Emi.*

              I thought it was JFK on the dime? But who knows, I might just be mixing up skeezy three-letter presidents.

      2. kb*

        I actually knew more than a few people like this. I was a double major in college, anthro and cell & molec biology, so I encountered people on both sides who knew little to nothing about the other. People who were of the science-only mindset tended to be more noticeable in day-to-day life because history, social sciences, and culture tend to be what most people make conversation about. The social sciences-only people tend to be “caught” less, but I encountered a few people who didn’t know what an element is or the general ideas of mitosis and meiosis and they were very susceptible to junk science .

        1. kb*

          And I don’t want to make myself sound superior– I have huge gaps in my knowledge in an assortment of areas. I was raised in a homogenous, white, midwestern town, so I have to actively work to improve my cultural knowledge and non-western history.

          Also, just last year I realized why the song milkshake is called milkshake and what milkshake is referring to. How did I not get that???

          1. Merula*

            I *just* got that. Thank you for your PSA.

            In response to your first post, no one can be an expert in everything, but very smart people often seem to think that their expertise can be applied more widely than it actually can be. For example, an anthropology professor and advisor once told me that anthropology majors made better HR employees than HR majors because they “understand people better”.

            There is definitely a place for knowledge of australopithecines or ethnography studies in the world, but I’ve never heard of an anthropology class teaching employment law or management topics.

            1. kb*

              Haha, sometimes I think anthropology professors go a little too far out of their way to prove it’s a useful major (it is! Everyone consider it!). There have been a bunch of articles about anthropologists being in demand in the corporate world, but I assume most of the in-demand ones have taken some additional courses/training in business/hr/ field-specific subjects. Otherwise you’d have me in a meeting about an employee’s unprofessional footwear, explaining the role of footwear in ancient civilizations and how unshod societies appear to have had healthier feet (structurally– shoes help avoid cuts, bruises, and the like) and avoided some of the negative impacts associated with running in shoes.

              1. The OG Anonsie*

                A pro tip is that whenever they say this, they specifically mean forms of applied anthropology, especially research. If you spent all four years writing papers off secondary sources and doing textual analyses and nothing else, not so much.

                People always chuckle when I say my anthropology research & field schools have scored me every job I’ve ever had, but it’s absolutely true!

                1. kb*

                  Good point! I do think my anthro research project is what set me apart from other applicants for my current non-anthro job, but there are definitely many jobs it does not qualify me for. I had an anthro prof who was wonderful but they had this tendency to exalt the value of an anthro degree so highly that they would inadvertently belittle other departments, which is where my reply to Merula was coming from.

            2. kitryan*

              My social psychology class in college would be the single most useful class I’ve taken, in that it illustrated that people do usually have reasons for their actions but the reason and the action aren’t always what you’d guess they are.
              However, my most generally and widely useful experience was my 10 months working at Mailboxes Etc.
              Knowing how mail and shipping works has been handy in every job I’ve had since and in my personal life as well.

        2. aebhel*

          I have no idea what mitosis or meiosis are, other than the fact that they sound vaguely like something I learned about in high school biology. I don’t think that necessarily means being susceptible to junk science; I don’t understand the science, but I can tell the difference between good sources and bad ones.

          1. kb*

            I apologize– I wasn’t trying to convey that all people who are unfamiliar with certain things in science are believers in junk science. I was referring to specific individuals I knew in college who were unfamiliar with science and had acquired some wacky ideas about geology or how their own bodies worked. The main point was that I’m not surprised this intern didn’t know WWII basic facts because so many people have gaps in knowledge (including me).

    5. Brogrammer*

      I have to admit, I’m baffled by the juxtaposition of “doing well in college” with “doesn’t know the US was involved in WW2.” College admissions these days are brutal, and yet somehow this guy just… never took a history class, ever?

      I’m actually more sympathetic about the lack of knowledge on current events – when you’re working the hardest you’ve ever worked in your life and don’t make a point of watching the news, it’s easy to miss out (especially if your Facebook friends don’t use the platform to talk non-stop about politics). My sister-in-law was an undergrad when the ACA was passed, and she was only vaguely aware of that. She’s not stupid or uninterested in what’s going on around her, it’s just that at the time she found studying for finals more pressing.

      1. Not Karen*

        I don’t remember studying WW2 in any of my history classes. In terms of college specifically, my university didn’t require any history courses.

        1. Government Worker*

          Now that you mention it, we spent very little time on WWII in my AP US History class. We just kept getting farther behind schedule through the school year, so I got a lot of detail on the Revolutionary War and the Civil War but I think we spent a day or two on everything post-WWII (in the late 90’s). I don’t think that’s all that unusual, unfortunately.

          1. Kelly L.*

            Suddenly running out of time exactly as WWII comes up is incredibly common. There’s speculation that stopping right after WWII is partially to prevent current political debates from cropping up in class.

            I had one brilliant class in late high school that did cover the time period between WWII and the then-present (which was the 90s) and it was eye-opening! It was all this stuff I’d never even known the US had been involved with, all of which had happened in the couple of decades prior to my birth and then during my childhood.

            1. Countess Boochie Flagrante*

              Yeah, my AP US History did the same thing — but the teacher was very good at classroom control and had a personality like a speeding semi, so the in-class shenanigans or fiery political debates didn’t have much time to get going.

            2. Emi.*

              The first time I studied US history, we made it to right before the Cold War before summer arrived. I knew that it involved spies and lots of backroom shenanigans, which sounded exciting, so I read ahead and the book hardly gave any details in its one chapter on the subject.

              I developed a vague sense that it was all hush-hush, We Don’t Talk About The Cold War, and that I might get in trouble if my parents found out that I had read ahead.

            3. Brogrammer*

              Hah! My class “ran out of time” just as we were getting to the Vietnam War. We did cover it, but only briefly. I always suspected this was intentional.

            4. The IT Manager*

              Did you go to my high school? There was one of our US History teachers that started teaching somewhere in 1900s or maybe after the civil war and I remember watching the class work their way through the decades of the 20th century from hearing about it. Whereas I had the traditional teacher who started at the beginning. I remember this because I was jealous that they learned the modern US history.

              That said, the LW described some very basic missing knowledge and the fact that she knows of this means the intern is sharing his lack of knowledge far and wide at work. Unless it’s a strange workplace this knowledge is not necessary for day to day work, but it sure sounds like he’s derailing things at work.

              Like many others have noted, the problems with his work alone is enough to justify firing him so there’s not a need to bring this up. it would muddy the waters with the firing.

            5. paperfiend*

              My high school history class (AP level, no less) covered everything after WWII by way of going through the Billy Joel song “We didn’t start the fire”. We had about a week and a half in which to finish “history until now” and the song at least got a lot of the major single events…

            6. Nan*

              Yup. I graduated in 1996. Did AP World and American History. Never got past WWII and that was usually 3 pages at the end of book in the last week of May. I don’t think the books even had Vietnam, Korea, or the Cold War in them.

              We spent roughly 9000 years on the colonization of America and the founding fathers. And a good deal of time on Lincoln and slavery. Very little on WWI. We also spent a boatload of time on Mesopotamia.

              I still feel deficient in those subjects, but if I want to know, I’ll go look it up.

            7. Cath in Canada*

              We studied the Cold War in late high school (UK, early 90s) and it was absolutely fascinating – my favourite part of one of my favourite subjects. Seeing how all those threads connected from the end of WWII (which we’d already studied) through to the fall of the Berlin wall (which had recently been on the news) completely changed the way I thought about ongoing current events at the time. Made a lot more sense of Vietnam movies, too :)

              1. Cath in Canada*

                Oh, and I remember our teacher saying how you know you’re old when you’re teaching history lessons about things you saw on the news as they were actually happening!

                1. JessaB*

                  Yes, that’s why I love the mindset lists (google them, they’re amazing,) they come out every year and list all the pop culture things that happened before the current class was born. You start to realise a lot of things you talk about, media, people, they probably have no reference. I have seen articles about people who have repurposed ancient (sarcasm) floppy discs as coasters, and someone asks why they have a save button for a coaster. And they have no idea that cc originally meant carbon copy.

            8. Moose and Squirrel*

              If that’s done intentionally it’s piss-poor teaching and the teachers who do it should be ashamed.

            9. kitryan*

              I also had a great class that covered this time period. We had a very engaged teacher and the whole year for it. I think it was 8th grade. We covered post WWII stuff and went all the way through to nearly the present day (at the time, which would be the ’80s).

          2. Brogrammer*

            This puts this into much better context. I read Not Karen’s comment and wondered, “How can you talk about the 1940’s without mentioning WW2?” But if your class falls behind and you can’t spend much time on that decade, I guess that’s just what’s going to happen.

          3. Xarcady*

            Sounds like things haven’t changed much for history classes. I remember, back in the 1970s, spending maybe a week on everything past WWI. So maybe one class period on WWII, and nothing after that except for a brief mention of the UN and the Marshall plan.

            Nothing about the Civil Rights movement, women’s rights, the Cold War or anything like that. Nothing about the Korean war. Nothing about the Vietnam war, which had ended only a few years previously. But, boy, do I know a lot about the Civil War.

            1. Jaydee*

              So. Much. Civil. War.

              Not the interesting stuff, like causes and consequences and social and political stuff, mind you. Battles. Memorize names and dates. Military strategy. Types of artillery.

              All through school we alternated between world history and US history. World history was Ancient Times to Exploring the “New World.” US history was Colonization to WWII.

              We would learn little bits of more recent history but always very out of context. We knew who JFK was and that he was assassinated, but nothing about the actually policies or international affairs of his administration. We knew about the Civil Rights era and Martin Luther King Jr. but in a very sanitized “the country had a hard time moving past slavery and discrimination was still rampant” sort of way. Not as much focus on other important players or on the level of systemic racism that was endemic.

          4. LadyKelvin*

            Yeah I had to take US History 2-3 times in middle/high school and I never learned anything past the civil war. The knowledge I have about it is because the last few years I’ve been listening to history podcasts. I have PhD in science, am an avid reader, and took Chinese History in college to satisfy my history requirement but the opportunity to learn about what happened in the US after 1866 just never existed for me. I’m working to remedy it because the benefit of getting your PhD is learning just how much you don’t know about just about everything. In fact, I still have no idea why the US joined WWI. As far as I can remember there weren’t any attacks on US soil (unlike Pearl Harbor, which was our catalyst for WW2).

        2. all aboard the anon train*

          I sometimes think schools teach to the majority. We spent a lot of time in high school on the Armenian Genocide, WWII, and the Cold War because my town was predominantly made up of Armenian immigrants or people whose grandparents had fled WWII or families who immigrated after the war (a lot of Eastern Europeans who were displaced to exiled by the Soviets).

          But we “didn’t have much time” for Vietnam and the Gulf War was nothing more than a handout of dates.

        3. Falling Diphthong*

          My son was writing a paper on Ford for his AP History class, which impressed me because I had never gotten out of the Great Depression in any of my classes.

          So most students would have gotten to WW2 at some point–I think the educated outside the US guess makes the most sense.

        4. seejay*

          To be honest, I learned more about WW2 playing Axis and Allies with my friends than I ever did in school. Granted, I’m Canadian, so our history classes in highschool were geared a little differently, but still.

      2. Kelly L.*

        I think if someone went to a really niche high school (i.e. laser-focused on one subject or one worldview), they could get fantastic grades in the things they were taught, get into college, and then take mostly classes in their own area of interest until they graduate. There’s gen ed, but it doesn’t necessarily go deeply into any one thing, and you often have some degree of choice about what gen ed to take. So a student might be required to take one History class, but whether they take American History or Ancient Greek History (for example) is up to them.

      3. Countess Boochie Flagrante*

        Yeah, that much I can agree on. When I was studying for my investment licensing exams (on which I worked way harder than I ever did in college, oy), I pretty much dropped off the face of the rest of the world in the meantime. I studied, took tests, ate (sometimes), and slept, and that was about it.

        But things like Abraham Lincoln, needing a license to drive, things like that seem like you wouldn’t make it to college age without at least knowing they exist, even if you don’t know a lot of detail.

      4. De Minimis*

        I don’t know if we ever got to WWII in high school history. We usually stalled out in the very early 20th century at best. Teachers always seemed to make the mistake of starting at the beginning and not skipping anything, and the wheels usually started coming off during Reconstruction and the various financial crises in the late 19th century.

        1. De Minimis*

          Even sadder, I remember freshman year we had to take a semester of state history. My home state, Oklahoma, is a fairly young one; at the time I was in high school we only had several decades of history as an actual state, and at the time there were still numerous people around who grew up prior to statehood. Still, even in one semester we never made it to 1907, the year we became a state. We spent most of the semester in state pre-history, though honestly I preferred that because Oklahoma’s history as Indian Territory was more interesting than anything that happened afterward. I just found it funny that our state history class never actually got to the historical point where we became a state.

          1. nonegiven*

            My Oklahoma history teacher wrote our textbook. Not as much fun as it sounds like it should.

          2. Sarah W*

            Hmm I wonder if that was also done intentionally? I don’t know much about Oklahoma history, but I do know a bit about the Tulsa race riots of the 1920s… which were horrible. Were those covered in any of your classes?

            1. De Minimis*

              We never got that far, but I doubt if it was in the book. I used to live in Tulsa and there are still many there who don’t want to talk about what happened/face up to the past.

              What I do think may have been intentional was focusing so much on American Indian history in Oklahoma–our school and community was over 70% Native, and I suspect the teacher [who was also Native] may have wanted to spend most of the semester on that part of the state’s history.

              When I moved to a different part of the state as an adult I really saw how different the attitudes were, in the western part of the state people made a huge deal about the “land run” and there was sometimes controversy with Indian families on what exactly was being celebrated.

              1. Sarah W*

                That’s really interesting. I grew up in Arizona, and now that I think of it I only learned about the state’s history in elementary school. Most of it was focused on Native American history as well, though our student body was very diverse. Nothing from the past century.

      5. Alton*

        Though I think this guy’s lack of knowledge sounds pretty extreme, I think it can actually be pretty easy to avoid your weak areas in college since you usually have a wide array of classes to choose from. For example, if there’s a history requirement that can be fulfilled multiple ways, someone could take European history and never learn about the US Civil War. And if someone is in a program like engineering, they may not have to take the same general education requirements that other students need.

        I didn’t have the best math education prior to going to college. I was able to quickly excel at most of it to the point where I strongly considered majoring in math, but to this day, even basic high school geometry is a weakness of mine because the classes I took in college weren’t very focused on pre-calculus level geometry. I just sort of figured it out enough to do the material I was learning.

        1. Elizabeth West*

          This is a good point. I just looked at my transcripts and as a music major (first time in college), I didn’t take any history at all. I had English comp, Chemistry, Biology, psychology, speech, and a couple of literature classes. I took French because we had to have a language. I never took the math class because I couldn’t pass the pre-test, and I left school before reaching the point at which it was necessary.

          Second round, I was a criminal justice major and then changed to English (different school). We had general science, math (in which I somehow got a C minus, probably a pity grade), social science (I took archaeology, anthropology, and the sex ed class with a famously entertaining professor), a political science class, a computer class, and a psych class.

          No history, other than whatever we touched on in the poly-sci and archaeology classes (pre-history) and one American Literature class where we read Ben Franklin.

          I suppose they figured we would have already studied American and world history in high school, and indeed we did. So this was somewhat well-rounded, but what if you didn’t have it?

        2. Jiya*

          My high school thought spending a year on geometry was a waste of time and skipped us right to analysis and then calculus. It did come back to bite me come SAT time, hilariously, when I was in my second year of calculus but couldn’t do the basic geometry problems fast enough.

      6. Artemesia*

        College admissions are not brutal; many places will admit anything that pays tuition and most places are not particularly selective.

      7. Umvue*

        This surprises me too. And yet: an old buddy of mine once dated a college graduate who’d never heard of the Holocaust.

    6. Murphy*

      Haha, I literally had the same thought about some kind of performance art! But I figured that wasn’t actually the case.

      The ham/pig thing is the one I find the most bizarre…

    7. KTZee*

      “I know there’s some advice out there that says that people will like you better if you let them explain things to you.”

      This seems like a moderately plausible explanation to me. I once interviewed someone who was clearly executing on “how to win interviews” type advice and took it waaaaay too far, resulting in an extremely off-putting experience. He used my name about three times per sentence, and kept awkwardly dropping in certain keywords related to the job posting. I’m sure someone had told him that “Using an interviewer’s name makes them feel more personally connected to you” and “Echoing language from the job posting can make your experience seem more relevant” and he was just executing it to the utmost extreme.

      I felt badly for the guy, and it’s made me an advocate for people to practice their interview approaches with a candid friend to get honest feedback.

      1. Artemesia*

        Nothing turns me off on someone faster than them using my name in the conversation more than, say, once. Norman people just don’t do that in normal conversations; it is always some salesy gimmick.

        1. Mike C.*

          Yes, seriously. I hate that sales crap so much. You can spot it a mile away and you know the person you’re dealing with can’t be trusted.

          Just speak like a human being.

        2. De Minimis*

          I vaguely recall some kind of advice about using the person’s name a lot with How to Win Friends and Influence People. Something like “Everyone loves to hear the sound of their own name…”

          1. ancolie*

            Which is bizarre to me, because someone using my name gratuitously feels very much like an aggressive power play. Is it just me?

        3. Beckie*

          My first time meeting someone I will try to repeat their name a few times, which helps me remember it long-term. But hopefully beyond that interaction I am not coming off as salesy.

    8. Close Bracket*

      > I can’t imagine how this guy reached adulthood, went to college, without learning such incredibly basic things.

      Some people don’t learn things that are not of interest to them, regardless of how basic that knowledge is. I know a lot of people will point to that trait and suggest that the person who exhibits it is on the spectrum, but there are people of all neuro and development status who exhibit this trait. It might be annoying to have a conversation with people who have this trait, but I wouldn’t make any assumptions, whether developmental or about social performance, about what’s going on there. Just accept that they have an unusual trait.

  5. asfjkl*

    I think these quirks could almost be charming or at minimum amusing if he weren’t an incompetent employee. But, alas.

    1. Grits McGee*

      I went to grad school with someone like this, it gets old very quickly. It becomes impossible to have a meaningful conversation when you’re derailed into explaining basic knowledge ad nauseum. (And of course, no one ever bothers to make a Captain America list of things to look up on Wikipedia, they want the info now.

      1. Gabriela*

        Yeah, I get really frustrated with people like that. It’s amusing to read or hear about, but in practice I get resentful, because it always seems to me like they just never bothered to pay attention to ANYTHING. It comes across as lazy and immature to me, whether that is fair or not.

          1. Countess Boochie Flagrante*

            My collection of AaM commentariat quotes that I need to make into needlepoints keeps growing.

      2. SL #2*

        This is officially my favorite reference on this site, ever.

        But to make sure that this comment isn’t derailing the conversation: OP, you have infinite times more patience than I do (which is why I would probably make an awful manager of people). I would’ve long ago written off this intern without giving him even the month to get his bearings. Which is not something good managers do!

        So I think Alison’s point about sitting him down, giving him very, very clear feedback (you have to follow directions/complete your assignments fully/whatever it is), and then giving him a week at the most to improve, is really good advice. I know that I, as an intern, would’ve been mortified if I knew that my manager had been tracking my progress but also didn’t let me know when I was straying too far or doing something wrong.

      3. AP*

        Yes! I knew a woman who was like this, and it was insanely annoying and distracting. You’d be trying to have a conversation as a group and she’d derail the whole thing with these weird knowledge blanks. For instance, I remember someone was explaining something and said in passing “After we paid taxes it was $X, so…” and she jumped in and wanted to know why things are taxed and why that made it cost more. We were in our 20s! She was a smart woman! And somehow never noticed that sales taxes exist! And she wasn’t from Delaware! That sort of thing would happen constantly and it made conversations with her absolutely exhausting.

    2. Lily in NYC*

      Nope! My former best friend was like this. She went to one of the top medical schools in the US and had this “I grew up in a cave” side to her that made me batty. If it wasn’t something that interested her (boys, math or science), then she just did.not.care. She had never heard of gnomes and did not know what bamboo was. She was not remotely socially awkward and was the most popular kid in her HS; I think part of it was “learned helplessness” because she was boy-crazy to the extreme and college-aged guys really ate this crap up. I ended up friendship-divorcing her (over something else).

      1. They're like dwarves?*

        “She had never heard of gnomes and did not know what bamboo was.”
        The horror of education these days

      2. Elizabeth West*

        learned helplessness

        I think you nailed it right here. Intern never learned it because he didn’t have to; someone else always told him, looked it up for him, did it for him.

        Of course that’s only a theory.

      3. Indoor Cat*

        “She had never heard of gnomes and did not know what bamboo was.”

        This made me crack up. Because, yes! It’s like, how did I learn what gnomes and bamboo are? I dunno! From a cartoon as a kid? From a hippie blog? Saw a garden gnome once and asked my grandma? I don’t remember. But it’s a weird thing not to know, right, so it’s sort-of, like…you’re not curious at all? That’s so weird to me.

    3. E*

      I agree, the work skills (or lack thereof) are the bigger issue here. The intern’s odd behavior is only applicable when it interferes with work, like picking up things from the copier after explicitly being told not to. I’d have told him to put it back on the printer, to reinforce the idea that if you didn’t print it, leave it on the printer.

  6. Bolt*

    This remind me of one of my friends that was homeschooled. He was so sheltered from life that it was only when he hit the working world (after a 4 year degree) that it became clear his pre-university education was severely lacking. With some support his brilliance shined and he excelled. If that is the case here, allowing him to shadow employees (if he can restrain himself) could do the world of difference if he is fine not being paid.

    It also reminds me of a classmate I had that was autistic that graduated college through a special program but the same diploma as everyone else. He was hit hard and fast by the real world without constant support of his parents and workers. He got fired from 2 internships and then no one would hire him, he ended up getting a job through an organization that matches those with mental disabilities with employers that have appropriate level positions. I’m not saying that this is the case here but it may be worth asking questions about schooling/life that could give a deeper understanding and potentially result in the intern revealing how they could make it work.

    1. Juniper Green*

      The OP didn’t ask how they could make it work, they asked about dealing with the guilt of firing the intern.

    2. AD*

      Why is this comment not being deleted, per Alison’s remark above and the site commenting rules? I’m just curious.

      1. Ask a Manager* Post author

        Because Bolt didn’t armchair diagnose anyone, just shared an experience.

        But in general, the explanation could always be “because Alison does things other than manage the site 24/7” :)

  7. Snarkus Aurelius*

    I have an explanation for him not knowing basic history and current events based on what I’ve learned from people like this.

    A friend of mine in high school was always a straight A student, and she got a BS in engineering from a very difficult university. She is also a dingbat who put raw pasta in the microwave with no water. My friend figured out early on that our high school was about memorization. She could ace any class without opening up a book even her engineering and math classes in college. She knew instinctively how to memorize things she knew teachers would test on, but it was in one ear and out the other. Zero retention. Now my friend works at Research Triangle in NC, but I’d never use something she designed, not even a fork.

    At my first internship, we had a girl who graduated NYU and was headed to Columbia for law school. Those are two pretty good schools! Despite having a BA in political science, she had no idea that lobbyists had to comply with lobbying disclosure requirements to the point she botched our organization’s forms because she didn’t know how to do it or that it had to be done. Nice girl, but on her last day, we all wagered she’d be disbarred within five years of getting her law license.

    But those are the only two people I’ve ever encountered in my whole life like this. I imagine they’re not that common.

    To AAM’s point, this isn’t something you should focus on. It’s not your job to educate him about WWII or the current administration. Being annoying by itself isn’t a fireable offense.

    1. Countess Boochie Flagrante*

      It isn’t a fireable offense, but I do think it’s a good teachable topic — after all, that is part of what he’s there for as an intern. Separate from anything disciplinary, a gentle discussion about knowing when to hold questions for later or keep a Steve Rogers ‘look it up’ list would probably do him a lot of good.

      1. paul*

        I initially thought the OP might be harping on it out of frustration with the work task, but the more I think about it the more I think I can see how this can impact work functions too. If someone’s that lacking in basic knowledge and cultural touchstones it can make explaining things, drawing analogies, or having those basic polite conversations that act as social grease a lot more difficult. I can see extreme general lack of knowledge impacting work even if it isn’t specific to your work.

        1. Countess Boochie Flagrante*

          Yeah, I’m thinking that it could be a much bigger problem, in a low-key way, than people think. It’s not so much about “having specific facts on hand” but more like being able to interact with other people in a way that allows for any level of rapport.

        2. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

          I have a feeling that the problem is a little closer to what Snarkus is describing—someone who was taught to excel on tests, etc., through memorization and whatnot, but not someone who has ever been taught how to think critically or creatively.

          I do find it strange that he isn’t able to incorporate specific directions into his response. Which makes me wonder if folks are softening their feedback instead of being extremely straightforward. I’m really curious about how direct OP and others have been with him.

          1. paul*

            Except that knowing you need a license to drive or that the Americans were part of the Allies rather than the Axis during WWII doesn’t involve critical thinking; that’s essentially rote memorization. I can actually see that impacting critical thinking (since effective critical thinking requires knowing something about whatever it is you’re working through), but this seems like a possibly related but not the same issue.

        3. VermiciousKnit*

          Especially if he’s asked to do things like make travel arrangements for a co-worker but doesn’t realize hotel rooms can be reserved in advance, or is asked to pick up coffee for the office but blunders it because he doesn’t know Starbucks serves more than one beverage.

    2. Dust Bunny*

      I once worked with a girl who could burn water. Not joking: She burned a pot dry because she couldn’t understand how long you had to cook water before it was boiled. We tried to explain that, unless you’re trying to sterilize something you’ve placed *in* the water or kill some organisms so you can drink said water, water is as boiled as it’s going to get once it reaches the boiling point. She couldn’t grasp it.

      1. Countess Boochie Flagrante*

        Listen, I set off a smoke detector by boiling water once. Twenty years later, I still haven’t lived it down.

        1. Agile Phalanges*

          Eh, I’ve done that multiple times. And by just taking a shower. I had an apartment with REALLY sensitive smoke detectors once. Seriously, the actual detector was in the bedroom, in the vicinity of, but not JUST outside the bathroom, and it would go off when I’d open the door after my shower. Especially if I forgot to turn the fan on, but even a few times when the fan had been running but just couldn’t keep up with the steam. Also set it off by cooking quite a few times, including just boiling water. Worst time was when my boyfriend opened the door to ventilate it so it would stop screaming right as my cat was near the front door, and she ran out the door in a panic. Took 48 hours to find her, and I was devastated until we did find her save and sound.

          1. Adlib*

            I’m so glad your cat was safe! My cats HATE the smoke detector which I manage to set off (“test”) weekly whenever I use the oven. They always scatter when it goes off.

            1. JessaB*

              Ours goes off once in a blue moon when we turn the heat on for the first time in winter (most years we don’t turn it on, we’re cooked enough already, so it’s always got dust bunnies multiplying everywhere that makes the alert go off

              1. Elizabeth West*

                I remember when I first moved into my house and I turned on the floor furnace for the first time; it burned so much dust I got scared and called the fire department. The firefighters explained about the dust, and I felt so stupid, but they were really nice about it. They said they would rather I called than just left it and ended up burning to death if there really was a problem.

                In my defense, I had never lived in a house with a floor furnace before!

                1. nonegiven*

                  The first time we turn on the central heat in the fall, we call it “burning the cat hair.”

      2. Amber T*

        I wonder if we know the same girl lol. She’s an absolutely brilliant computer scientist and programmer, but dear lord I lived with her and she was not allowed to step foot in the kitchen just for sheer lack of common knowledge and a healthy dose of clumsiness. She once put a small pot (like a sauce pan) of water on the boiler, then walked away for a few hours. She threw the pot out into the snow afterwards.

      3. Katelyn*

        I knew someone who set a boiling pot on fire! She heard pasta comes out better if you put a little oil in the water before you add the pasta, but she must have gone pretty overboard with the oil and then she walked away and the pot boiled over, onto the electric burner… the flames marked the cabinetry above the stove!

        Her parent’s first present to her when she moved out was a fire extinguisher.

      4. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

        We actually had to buy a good friend a book on how to boil water (for cooking purposes). She’s lovely, socially adept, an amazing activities planner, and generally bright. To this day she cannot toast bread using a toaster. She has almost burned her house down, twice, by burning water.

        1. Kate 2*

          Okay, I’ve gotta know, how does she do that? I mean, how can someone be generally bright and not know how to operate a toaster or boil water? Does she put the entire loaf of bread in the plastic wrapper in the toaster? Does she butter it and then put it in?

          1. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

            I honestly have not been able to figure it out. I think she stops paying attention/gets distracted, and then she doesn’t notice something has gone wrong until it goes really wrong. Although in the case of toast, she kept trying to “test” the toast using a fork while it was still on (!!!!). She did once try to make “grilled cheese” in the toaster and forgot to remove the plastic from the cheese slices she used.

            But I’ve also seen her toast a bagel using a cafe’s “pre-timed” bagel toaster, and she had no problems. It’s almost like watching a brilliant scientist who can’t figure out basic adult life skills, except she has some adulting skills, so I find it especially bizarre. Maybe she needs the settings pre-configured, or fewer decision/attention points?

      5. Jiya*

        My first roommate after college had never cooked anything in her life outside a microwave. In fairness, though, upon moving into an apartment with a kitchen she did take it upon herself to learn. She made a mean fish taco.

    3. Emi.*

      Hell, my district routinely graduates high school students who are illiterate. The idea that someone could go through college without knowing about Abraham Lincoln does not surprise me at all.

    4. Mints*

      I’ve known a couple people like this too. They work really hard to pass classes but don’t retain anything. If his tough major is something like math that doesn’t require a lot of cross pollination, I can see how he’s smart without knowing anything outside of his laser focus.

    5. BPT*

      To be fair, I have a master’s in political science and am a lobbyist and they don’t teach you about lobbying disclosure anywhere in college. It’s very much on-the-job training. There are a lot of practical, non-theoretical or non-academic things that political science programs don’t get into with how politics and working in politics actually works.

    6. alexa, set timer for ten minutes*

      To be fair, I knew nothing about lobbying disclosure until I went to work for a lobbying firm. Several people drafted batches of the forms, then one person reviewed them for mistakes, then a top-level person in our firm reviewed every one before they were allowed to be submitted.

      The forms were highly technical and we had at least two trainings on them that I can recall over a few-year period. They were not intuitive and if I had seen one at my first job out of college, I would not have understood what to do, either.

      Given the penalties involved for violations, I don’t understand why an organization would let an intern anywhere near those forms.

    7. PM Jesper Berg*

      Lobbying disclosure requirements aren’t generally something that would be on the typical undergraduate political science curriculum (and unless your research interest involves lobbying, probably wouldn’t make it onto the graduate curriculum, either).

    8. Serendipity*

      I am that person. Or, I used to be. I was schooled remotely in tiny poor towns in outback Australia where my only hope of university was by enrolling in distance education subjects at my school. I was the only student learning a foreign language, advanced maths, advanced English etc and I studied on my own. We also didn’t have a TV, so contemporary pop-culture was right over my head.
      I did well enough right out of school to get accepted into a bachelor of medicine + bachelor of surgery at a major university in Sydney, but I didn’t know how to use public transport, do grocery shopping (we grew our own food in the farms!), socialise, navigate traffic. On the other hand I could make all sorts of preserves, ride a horse, play five musical instruments and would read Tacitus and Dumas for light entertainment.
      A natural tendency towards absent-mindedness and forgetfulness meant that I’d introduce myself as the dumbest smart-person, or the smartest dumb-person (take your pick). I found that acknowledging my quirks upfront helped people to forgive my sometimes gaping ignorance (who IS Darth Vader and why is it funny that he’s someone’s dad?).
      I’m not ignorant anymore and make an effort to stay informed, though I’ll always have a bit of nutty professor about me

  8. Laura*

    An opinion from an Italian:
    1 ) could it be possible he’s behaving like this exactly to be fired ? I mean is it possible he is faking ?
    2 ) how he could go through school and college and have positive results , not knowing anything about BASIC history, geography, current political position of its own country ?
    it’s sounds to me suspicious ….

    1. Sue*

      My first thought was punking/writing an article for school paper on “how wacky I could be at my summer internship”. If it’s legitimate behavior, pretty sad for him.

    2. Charlotte Collins*

      I thought this, too. That, or he’s paying people to “help” him with his coursework.

      Or, he’s an alien or time traveler from the distant past. Maybe the LW is stuck in movie.

        1. Countess Boochie Flagrante*

          That’s just from the constant coffee. Screws with your pH big time

    1. Murphy*

      Slightly off-topic, but that one made me cringe internally. My parents love to tell a story about me in high school. My mother asked me to get her a coffee at Starbucks. I kept asking her what kind she wanted and she just kept saying “plain coffee” which I insisted wasn’t a thing there. My parents think this is the funniest thing ever.

      I only found out years later that they thought I didn’t know they sold coffee at all (as in, they only sold frappuccinos, lattes, insert-vaguely-coffee-flavored-beverage-here). What I thought was going to happen, in my non-coffee-drinker mind is that they would want me to order a specific blend of coffee (i.e. Cafe Verona, Sumatra, etc.) and that I would have no idea which one my mom wanted. I guess it was maybe still dumb? But not as dumb as they liked to think.

      1. VB*

        That’s not a bad question. I don’t drink coffee. When making it for the people in my life who do, I know my husband likes his black, my dad likes his with skim milk, my grandmother prefers less milk. But I also wouldn’t order any of them a thing from Starbucks without knowing what specific roast they wanted!

        1. Murphy*

          I knew she took it black! That much I could have handled, but if they’d asked me what roast, I would have had (and still have) no clue.

            1. Sparkly Librarian*

              I went to the bar to order a drink for the first time at age 21 and a half. I don’t drink alcohol, but I’d occasionally hung out with friends at drink-serving establishments since my birthday, and they’d get me a soda or Shirley Temple or something. I figured it was time to return the favor, so when I went to order a cranberry juice, I asked the woman I was with if I could get anything for her. I forget what she wanted, but it was something pretty simple — say, Scotch, neat. I told this to the bartender, who then asked me something I didn’t understand. “Well or call”? Huh? I guess I finally just told her to choose for me, and the sideeye I got was massive as she poured. Probably wondering whether I’d faked my ID to get in. (I look younger, and was last carded as UNDER 18 in my early 30s.)

              Oh, and when I started working at a bookstore that had a cafe, I had to learn what a cappuccino, latte, etc. were. And wtf customers meant when they ordered “in Starbucks” (the cafe was not a Starbucks). Don’t drink coffee either.

              1. JulieBulie*

                I’ve never heard of “well or call.” I just Googled it and I am confused. This has never come up for me before. Maybe because I don’t drink Scotch?

                1. kitryan*

                  I had a vague idea that got me to the relevant wikipedia page to confirm. Well drink is basically cheap, house brand, ‘call’ would be a specific brand that the customer requests. Like just saying ‘vodka martini’ would be a well drink but saying Ketel One vodka martini would be ‘call’.
                  And this is the sort of thing that it sounds like the intern in question would not go off and check on for themselves, (to tie the off topic back to the topic) whereas it was going to eat at me until I figured it out.

                2. CMart*

                  It’s a stupid question from a bartender, because “call” could be anything. I say this as a bartender with over a decade under my belt.

                  “Do you have a preference, or is well fine?” is what I would ask people who just ordered something basic like a “rum and coke”, or “vodka soda” or “Scotch, neat”. “Well” is code for “whatever your cheapest swill is” but “call” is any number of mid-range brands that they probably have several of. Asking it like Sparkly Librarian’s bartender just sets you up for a game of 20 Questions.

                  “Well or Call?” Uh, call? “Okay, what do you want?’ I don’t know, what do you have? Etc… Just cut to the chase, people!

                3. JulieBulie*

                  Ah, thanks to both of you. As far as I can tell, most bartenders (at least when dealing with stuff that isn’t scotch) just ask what kind of bourbon/gin/vodka/whatever you want in your drink. Or some will give you the house brand if you don’t specify. (I’m not very picky, but I have learned not to take any chances with house brand vodka.)

          1. Blue*

            Ha, this totally happened to me in college! I didn’t/don’t drink coffee but my friend asked me to get some for him when I went to get lunch, and I had absolutely no idea what response to give to the poor deli worker. And this was before texting was commonplace, so I just had to guess. It totally stressed me out!

      2. RabbitRabbit*

        They might have asked that! If you order a drip coffee, there can sometimes be 2-3 varieties available, though you might be able to get away just by specifying the roast level.

        1. Murphy*

          Thank you, that makes me feel better! (As I recall, I did just say “coffee” and they did just give me one without asking.)

        2. LabTech*

          There’s typically a house blend that’s for default coffee orders, but they’ll sometimes ask to specify which blend.

      3. Adlib*

        Reminds me of the time my mom sent me to the grocery as a teenager and said she needed about 7 bananas or so. I came back with 7 bunches.

      4. kitryan*

        This makes total sense to me, a fellow non coffee drinker! I basically internalized from media that there were a lot of personal preferences surrounding coffee (type of bean, type of roast, type of grind, milk type, sugar, foam….) and that I would need to know all of the variables to place an order, so I was always massively intimidated when asked to do anything coffee related.

  9. Aietra*

    I wonder if he was raised in some sort of commune or cult/sect type thing. I knew someone once who lived in an isolated, homeschooled, big-family religious group out in the sticks with no internet or TV or anything, until he apparently received a message from God telling him to go to university – which was where I met him, when he was new to the big, wide world. Interesting chap. Lots of things that I took for granted as being common knowledge, that were completely new to him (like, what is “science fiction”? People have suggested legalizing euthanasia for humans? What does “rock music” sound like? People protest when they don’t like a rule? What is “pirating” movies/music/TV shows? Is “downloading” anything illegal? If so, why does my computer want me to “download” an update?)

    1. nnn*

      Reminds me of a girl I knew in university who was also raised in a very religious context where secular media wasn’t allowed, and she didn’t know who the prime minister was.

    2. Howdy Do*

      It really sounds like the intern was from this kind of situation. Because some of that history stuff, well, people have pointed out that schools can fail to really teach them and if you’re focused on STEM it’s possible not to retain what you are taught if it seem irrelevant but stuff like “who is Abraham Lincoln” or having some knowledge of coffee shop offerings, that sounds like extreme cultural isolation like the person you knew.

      1. Charlotte Collins*

        If the LW is in Illinois, he has no excuse to not know who Lincoln is. He’s mentioned on the license plates! As well as other places.

    3. Jess*

      My college roommate has never had tea before. I made her a cup, she took a sip, and then said all shocked, “But this is just flavored hot water!”

      What did she think tea was? I never got a good answer.

  10. Not Karen*

    I really don’t understand what anything in the paragraph “He has no concept of basic current news and events…” has to do with anything. Unless he’s a reporter or something, it’s not relevant to his ability to do his job.

    1. Snarkus Aurelius*

      I knew an endocrinologist who had no idea that a) there was a presidential election and b) a black man won. She spent all her time in a lab coming up with a cure to…something. I figured whatever her amazing brain created was well worth the ignorance of US politics.

      1. Kelly L.*

        It reminds me a little of Watson’s description of Sherlock Holmes. It’s all about how he didn’t even know the earth went around the sun and that sort of thing.

      2. TL -*

        Unless she was literally the only person in her lab, that’s weird. Labs talk a lot, especially ones that encourage 12 hour days. I’ve never been in one where big political events aren’t discussed.

    2. RabbitRabbit*

      Probably the fact that it seems to derail everyone’s work processes because he has to be constantly educated when side topics come up.

    3. Elizabeth H.*

      See the comment from Malibu Stacey above – she suggests that it’s that he is derailing conversations (some of which may in fact be work related) with confusion or questions about common things, which is the impression I had too. (like, someone is running to starbucks and asks if anyone wants anything, he starts asking questions about starbucks and creates confusion; someone asks him to make hotel reservations for a conference and he doesn’t know what that means and starts asking questions; someone asks him to cross-check whether any of the countries they have customers in are on a travel ban list and he doesn’t understand why Somalia is on a travel ban list, etc.) I can see how this would be disruptive but I agree with Alison and others that it’s the secondary issue and outside the scope of this internship situation.

    4. Liet-Kynes*

      Disagree. If it’s so profound as to be annoying and require constant digressions, it’s affecting his relationships with the people he’s working for an ostensibly assisting.

    5. gingerblue*

      It sounds like it is affecting his ability to do his job, though. The OP was pretty clear that:

      “…his lacking of basic knowledge, current events, and common sense things is a constant frustration.”

      “But he has not done a single assigned task correctly, and no one wants to work with him because his lack of knowledge and common sense makes even the smallest things difficult.”

      This isn’t about acing pub trivia nights; it’s about having adequate context and life skills to complete routine office work without needing every single thing explained. At the very least, it sounds like the intern doesn’t understand things like following instructions, doing work completely the first time, how to find out answers to basic questions on their own, and how to make a note to look something up later without bothering coworkers. He sounds exhausting.

      1. Emi.*

        That’s separate from knowing about Abe Lincoln and WWII, though. Do all his tasks require so much historical context that you have to explain military history before he can start proofreading? It sounds more like the non-job common knowledge stuff (I guess they talk about this at lunch, or something?) is just so annoying that no one likes him, so they don’t want to coach him on performance-related things.

        1. Howdy Do*

          Eh, it seems more like the fact the repeated failed attempts to give direction on work related tasks (not taking the printouts off the printer, proofreading the whole document, etc.) have frustrated people out of wanting to coach him with the complete lack of common knowledge adds a layer of frustration.

        2. Toph*

          I think the WWII and Abe Lincoln examples weren’t intended to imply that he requires those to do his tasks, but rather an attempt by the OP to use illustrative examples of just how common the common knowledge things he seemed not to know were, without using examples that could be too identifying about the company. So while those two examples are not the most work-related of the things he had gaps about, they were used here because using an example of something just as commonly known (but unknown by the intern), but more specific to their work might give away who they really are.

    6. Doodle*

      I agree this shouldn’t be the focus of the performance conversation, but if he’s constantly derailing work conversations to ask about things he doesn’t know, I could see it becoming an issue. It would be the same issue as any other regular interruption — to talk about ones children, or a political issue, or the weather. It could have a performance impact.

      If it’s just “he’s a little clueless about current events” and he’s not bringing it up all the time, then I agree.

      1. Falling Diphthong*

        There’s a reason people don’t like to have conversations with preschoolers who keep responding “Why?” It’s not fun… and even though he’s asking question, it becomes not really a conversation so much as an exhaustive debriefing…. which must be performed in order to obtain coffee, or a printout, or the answer to where Karen is.

        1. JB (not in Houston)*

          Yep, this was exactly what I was getting from the letter–that every conversation with him took far, far too long because it was like talking with a preschooler, and every single statement needs an additional explanation, which then itself needs an explanation.

    7. Breda*

      It also suggests an inability to absorb and retain information – which is reinforced by the fact that he continues to “help” with the printer after being asked not to. It suggests he’s not trainable.

      1. Liet-Kynes*

        Exactly. This is why I’m honestly a little befuddled at everyone insisting that his general ignorance has nothing to do with his job duties – they’re one and the same problem. If he’s not educable and trainable, it’s going to manifest itself in a variety of ways.

          1. Jessie the First (or second)*

            Yup, OP did. Intern appears to be not trainable. Does not retain knowledge and direction. Lacks common sense. That has manifested itself in weird ways – like ignorance that the US fought in WWII – and in daily work ways – like not retaining info as simple as “do not pick up other people’s print jobs.” The information about intern’s lack of general life skills is important because it does affect work (interns are going to be asked to make hotel reservations so they need to understand that hotel reservations are a thing) and because it helps us see that the intern’s problems are far bigger than just, say, not being good at proofreading.

            OP was giving us the big picture probably so that we don’t focus on one detail and say “but you can teach him how to proofread!”
            People have done that anyway, though (above the thread about how it’s NBD, proofreading is hard, cut him slack) and then insisting that not having life skills/basic knowledge is NBD at a job.

            There are limits to what an employer can teach an intern. This intern needs to go, and OP should not feel bad for one second longer about firing him.

          2. Colette*

            Having your coworkers actively avoid you because your constant questions about basic knowledge are frustrating is a job problem, even if he could do the job (which is not the case). A big part of working is being able to build relationships with your coworkers.

            If this intern had weird knowledge gaps but solved them himself (by looking things up), it wouldn’t be a problem.

            1. Sarah*

              Exactly. It’s possible to have some gaps in knowledge but recognize that and proactively take action to correct it. It’s another thing to act like your coworkers’ job is to constantly answer basic questions about the world on a regular basis. I feel like so many answers here are about one specific example (WWII or proofreading) but no one would be complaining if there was one random thing this intern did not happen to know or one task he took a while to figure out. That is normal, and I’m sure everyone has some of those things they don’t even realize (a friend of mine thought fireflies were imaginary, like fairies and unicorns, for years!) It’s all the thing, added together, that is making this intern bad at his job.

        1. Stop That Goat*

          I don’t see anything here that says he isn’t educable though. The OP herself mentioned that he’s on the Dean’s list with a rather difficult major. He obviously has the ability to learn.

          1. RabbitRabbit*

            You’d think so, but then he keeps taking everyone’s printouts and trying to hand them out after being told not to. (At least, assuming that he has indeed been bluntly told not to do that rather than being indirectly told that it’s “not necessary” or similar wording.)

      2. MuseumChick*

        This is a really good point. Retaining information is a pretty big, unspoken, part of most jobs.

        1. Squeeble*

          Yes. It’s not about the specifics of US history or common knowledge about modern life, but what that suggests about his ability to observe the world around him or retain information.

      3. Alton*

        I agree. In theory, no, his grasp of non-work-related general knowledge shouldn’t matter much, and I always think it’s good to cut people some slack since people can have very different perspectives on what constitutes basic knowledge (I can completely understand how someone who hadn’t traveled much wouldn’t know about hotel reservations, for example. I’m sure I had some stupid-sounding gaps in my knowledge when I had to help one of my bosses book travel, because I haven’t flown in ages).

        But I think when someone is frequently having a hard time following instructions at work *and* they routinely express ignorance about multiple topics like this, it’s kind of hard not to see it as all being part of a bigger picture. It looks like a pattern.

        1. paul*


          Not knowing about the occasional random but basic XYZ topic shouldn’t be a big deal.

          Not knowing about tons of random but basic things, AND struggling with basic coaching and feedback? I think people are being a bit uncharitable if they don’t understand why that might start setting off even more alarm bells for a manager.

  11. Mazzy*

    People not knowing anything about the news is much more common than we realize, if you did deep you’ll find a lot of folks are just nodding their heads politely or picking generic safe opinions without any news or current events knowledge.

    I sympathize on the other points though. I worked with someone like this once. When asked what she did at night she said she sits and stares at the wall and waits for hubby to come hope, and she was serious. Or she said she had no friends, and was serious. Or would grill me about the tiniest minutia such as how much every single thing i brought into th office cost. She was let go because her mindset made her abysmal at work

    1. Kate 2*

      I actively try to avoid the news as much as possible. Because I suffer from anxiety and depression (under control, but easy to relapse), being exposed to the news hurtles me back there and on really bad (thankfully rare) days makes me suicidal.

      I still manage to have a vague idea of what is going on, from listening to coworkers talk about it, overhearing conversations on the bus, etc. That tells me the major stuff that is going on, and that is all I really need to know.

      Unless I can change it, i.e. vote on it or protest it, there’s no point to knowing what terrible law might be passed, how many people died in Syria today, or that someone on the opposite side of the country was randomly and horribly ax murdered. All that does is make me miserable.

      1. Howdy Do*

        I think this is perfectly normal (I, too, choose not to keep up with every terrible news item.) But that’s not what the LW is describing- they are describing someone who is so willfully ignorant of what’s going on that it’s a hindrance to normal conversation, they don’t even know the major stuff. But really, even if someone chooses to literally absorb no current events, that would be odd but tolerable. But since he seems to also lack historical knowledge, social knowledge, and common sense, that really adds up to be one difficult person to work with.

  12. Amber Rose*

    Do explain to him that his inability to follow instructions is the problem here (ie, the printer thing).
    Don’t bug him about WW2.

    I knew a girl who was that clueless once, because she never focused on anything. When it started to matter (when she needed to pay bills), she started to actually listen and pay attention. People like that usually need to learn the hard way, and if getting fired is the kick in the pants that is needed here, you can view it as doing him a favor.

  13. Green Goose*

    We have yearly interns at my company and in the past we had one who went to a top school and had completed a very competitive major. Similar to the OP’s intern, ours had never had a job or internship previously and it was really surprising to me the type of things I had to spell out for them about things that felt like 1) basic knowledge and 2) common sense.

    If it has not already happened, I would recommend having a private conversation with him and very clearly tell him that the internship is not guaranteed unless if he does his work well, and that currently he is not completing his end of the bargain. He might not even “get” that he could be fired from being an intern. I would recommend having specific examples of the problems and explain why they are problems to you and the company and do a repeat back so he’s not just saying “yeah, yeah” and not retaining the information. When I had my talk with our clueless intern it was clear to me that he was also not being malicious but just had a weird and very wrong understanding of how the world worked because he had never worked previously.

    1. Tuckerman*

      I like your recommendation. It’s possible the employee is viewing the feedback as suggestions and not requirements to keep his job.

    2. Blue*

      This! I work with college students as part of my job, and I’m often taken aback by how many seemingly-obvious things some of them don’t realize just because they’ve literally never had to think about it before. I got into the habit of being very explicit about expectations (like, “in order to be eligible for Z, you must do X by Y deadline”) but it’s up to them to actually follow through and I enforce consequences if they don’t.

      I also got comfortable explicitly addressing things I never imagined needed to be said, like how it’s rude to no-show on meetings they requested, or even that proper procedure after knocking on a door and getting no response is to leave or wait, not to try the door knob (that one really baffles me). I actually consider it to be part of my job to train them on these things. And to their credit, they almost always correct the behavior once it’s pointed out to them.

      1. Green Goose*

        We had to change aspects of our orientation to cover things I also never thought would be necessary like don’t invite people to come hangout at the office without permission and don’t go for a 40 minute break right before you leave for the day.

      2. Liane*

        You can miss a lot of Obvious Things. I have some hours toward a Masters in Public Health, including classes in Law & Regulation for several public health areas. These classes were taught by an actual attorney and the first 2 (3 hour) classes of each course were how government and the law worked in the US. He would start with, “We have 3 branches of government–legislative, executive, and judicial–and this is what they do…” I was a little scornful that Prof thought he needed to cover basic high school civics with people who had Bachelors degrees–until half way through lecture one. He was talking about the Appeals Courts, and that was when I learned that you couldn’t appeal a verdict just because it went against you; there had to be a Reason based in the law, like a procedural error.
        (AAM attorneys, you’re welcome for the amusement I have provided.)

        1. JB (not in Houston)*

          As an appellate attorney, I assure you that you are *far* from the only person outside the law who doesn’t know that. (See also: people who don’t know that an appeal is just attorneys arguing with each other and is not essentially a new trial with witnesses/evidence presented to the judges).

        2. Elizabeth H.*

          This is true. I am (I think) a curious person to an unusually extreme extent (example: one year doing my taxes, I read the entire tax manual and became really interested in tax law, I know all the world countries and capitals, I subscribe to the NYT in paper and try to read it cover to cover every day, I’ll go to the library and pick out random new nonfiction that looks interesting) but I have very fuzzy knowledge of the three branches of our gov’t. It wasn’t until last year that I found out that senators can both be from the same political party – I always thought that each state had to elect one democratic and one republican senator. I’m 29 btw. I also didn’t know that there are different circuits of district courts, what a US attorney is, etc. until the past year or two (the New Yorker has done a lot of reporting on the judiciary recently for whatever reason, so now I know more). I was never really sure what/if “judicial branch” referred to beyond the Supreme Court.

          1. Charlotte Collins*

            This is why I am so glad that when I went to high school Civics and Econ were required classes to graduate. We also had to take a Constitution test and pass that in order to graduate. Much more useful than the required 4 years of PE. (No matter how many times you make me play volleyball, I will never learn to enjoy it. I will just hate it more.)

        3. JAM*

          Based on the recent online discussions I’ve read from Making a Murderer and Serial, it’s clear many people don’t understand the Appellate process and what’s worst, if you explain it to them they argue why you’re wrong (such is the way of many online commenting sites!). Many attorneys I work with tend to only know the process in their specific field. I don’t view it as a bad thing since that is why we typically hire lawyers but I do wish more people understood that just because you lose on appeal doesn’t mean they’ve affirmed your guilt.

          1. JB (not in Houston)*

            So true. They will argue with you even if you are an appellate attorney and they are very much not. No matter what subject you are a real expert in, there will be people with very limited knowledge of the subject who will insist on arguing with you about it.

  14. Temperance*

    LW, your intern reminds me of some of the kids I grew up with. They were homeschooled, badly, so they would be really great at some things but were so sheltered from the world that they lacked basic knowledge that most of us take for granted. They were only allowed to partake of certain forms of church-approved media, they didn’t have unrestricted internet access, and their study materials were limited.

    This is not to insult homeschooled kids or what have you, but to provide an explanation for how someone could do well at certain things but be amazingly, wholly ignorant of things that would be considered general knowledge.

    1. Countess Boochie Flagrante*

      A very good friend of mine was homeschooled for a few years. She went from being the fun kind of weird to just the deeply bizarre kind. One thing that sticks out in my memory is that she would know the (often apocryphal) meanings of “lesser” insulting words, and would make up her own…. which often turned out to be existing words that were significantly saltier. I remember frantically assuring her that it was much better to simply call someone a twit rather than try to sub in a different vowel there!

  15. NicoleK*

    He’s likely driving people crazy and reducing morale. The sooner you let him go, the better. Worked with someone like that once. She was smart and initially personable, but also clueless, arrogant, quirky, had a loud cackling laugh, and tended to operate outside standard typical business norms. Her employment history was spotty and her length of stay at any given employer typically around 2 years

    1. consultant*

      “and her length of stay at any given employer typically around 2 years”

      That’s about the average young people stay with their employers today. Not really much shorter than that.

      1. NicoleK*

        On it’s own, that doesn’t appear to be out of the norm. But she had 2-3 gaps in her employment history, and only 1-2 jobs where she was there for 2 years.

  16. Liet-Kynes*

    Something I wonder is whether he’s being given clear and unambiguous direction. He sounds like certain people I have known who are uniquely insulated from hints, oblique requests, and polite, equivocation-laden requests. This type of person, in my experience, really don’t grok “Oh, Dweezil, thanks so much for being helpful, but people often print off multiple documents and don’t really need you to bring you their print jobs! Thanks!” They really only respond to “Dweezil: do not grab things off the printer and take them to people. You’re not allowed to do that anymore. Stop.”

    Now, I’m not sure any of that excuses how he’s performing tasks, and I’d probably still fire him, but that might provide some context. And if you’re being reasonably unambiguous to start with, then he’s either not listening, being insubordinate, or both.

    1. Grits McGee*

      I don’t know, it seems like “Please don’t get other people’s materials from the printer” (repeated several times!) is pretty clear.

    2. Ask a Manager* Post author

      I totally agree with this. Very often managers tell me they’ve given feedback about something but when I dig into the details of exactly what was said, it turns out that it was phrased as a suggestion or a hint or a “you could do it like this…” It’s surprisingly rare for managers to as direct and unambiguous as they should be when they’re reaching the point of frustration.

      1. J.B.*

        Yes and no. I highly recommend Deborah Tannen’s book about communicating at work. She talks about direct and indirect communication, and that indirect communication *is every bit as clear as direct communication*. A lot of people blow off indirect communication because they don’t think that person has authority. Not everyone has learned the value, and it is good to have direct clear communication about the specific instance. For an intern it is especially worthwhile to have a conversation that you should clearly follow it from a superior.

        1. Ask a Manager* Post author

          Indirect communication really isn’t as clear as direct communication to everyone. Some people are very literal. Regardless, good management relies on being clear and direct and not assuming people will pick up on anything less than that. As a manager, you have a professional obligation to make sure you’re being clear. But that doesn’t mean you have to pull in your own boss (that can even undermine your authority). The OP can make it clear through her words and actions that she has authority.

        2. Liet-Kynes*

          “She talks about direct and indirect communication, and that indirect communication *is every bit as clear as direct communication*.”

          But….it’s not. I mean, yes, it is for lots of people, but there are certain folks for whom it is not at all clear, and is not a substitute for direct communication.

          1. Penelope Pitstop*

            Not only can indirect communication be subject to interpretation, but sometimes people with a more indirect style of communication truly believe themselves to be speaking very directly. (They know their intent, even if it’s missed or misinterpreted by the person receiving the message.) Indirect vs. direct isn’t always a conscious either/or and can be independent of authority/title. I’ve known some people with unmistakeable authority who are very indirect communicators and vice versa. It may not be enough to just tell the manager to be ‘more direct.’ Maybe rethinking format could help here. For example, the manager records written feedback for the intern and uses that to have a conversation about what the intern’s understanding of the situation is and what’s expected of him/her to be successful. Then, the intern signs his/her understanding. When something is written out versus just verbally communicated, it tends to be more direct and reinforces the message.

          2. Lora*

            Add in the folks who reckon that if you really MEAN it, you’ll be direct and blunt, but if you are being indirect it’s ok for them to plow ahead and you will just have to deal with it.

            Have a grandboss like this. He’s quite good at polite and indirect himself, but hearing it from other people, not so much, including other people at his level. We have some nice talks about the importance of office politics as you get higher up in management…

            But yeah, if you’ve been super blunt about “do not touch other people’s papers” just tell the intern it’s not working out because he can’t take directions, best of luck etc.

          3. SusanIvanova*

            Yeah. Every single article I’ve ever seen about dealing with creepy “Nice Guys” has emphasized that they see a soft brushoff as encouragement because it’s not an absolute “no”. “I’m seeing someone else” or “I’m not dating right now” are heard as “but when that changes you’ll be first on my list” even if they’re meant as “not even when hell freezes over”. Direct communication is the only way to go with them.

            1. kitryan*

              The problem with this interpretation is that first, when these same “Nice Guys” *are* communicated with directly, they curse at you and call you stuck up and perhaps threaten physical violence, and second, they’re generally capable of taking a soft ‘no’ as the No that it is in other context, as in the workplace.
              I would leave the “Nice Guys” out of it and say that in the workplace, it’s best to be clear and unambiguous, as this (generally) does not incur a risk of violent retaliation or cursing at you and if you’re going to (eventually) fire someone for not taking instructions, it’s best if those instructions are as clear and unambiguous as possible and include an explanation of what the consequences could be, since someone’s job is ultimately on the line.

              1. SusanIvanova*

                I think some of them legitimately don’t get indirect communication, which is why they were my first thought at the idea that indirect and direct are equally effective.

                Second thought is the recruiter for a company that quite a lot of people want to work at. That number does not include me, but I don’t want to torch any recruiter bridges. He has not figured out that “I’m looking at other places” means “I am never ever going to be looking at that place.”

                1. kitryan*

                  Are there people in the world who need more direct communication? Sure! Is this the source of the ‘Nice Guy’ problem? No, I don’t think so. Mostly they’re just choosing to blow past commonly understood boundaries.
                  The theory there would be that if you keep pushing, eventually someone will give in (just look at some of the ‘pick up artist’ techniques). This is also an explanation for your persistent recruiter. The investment they make in an individual case is small and the return on investment can be large. Realtors can operate like this too. They’re aware they’re being pushy and ‘not taking no for an answer’ but it gets them what they want enough of the time to make it worth it for them.
                  This has little to do with this intern though! No one’s trying to get a date and the only link is that Intern won’t stop taking copies off of he copier. While it is almost definitely best to communicate directly in the workplace, not everyone does and if Intern wants to survive in the work world, he’d better learn to take a hint.

          4. SignalLost*

            *raises hand*

            I have a lot of emotional intelligence outside of work and can get frighteningly far (according to my bf) with indirect communication. At work I need you to be extremely direct if I am doing something wrong. I don’t know why my extravocational skill doesn’t translate to work communication, but at this point it does not, and it is the direct reason I was laid off in 2008. Or at least as direct as a ranking system that needed to justify losing two people in my department could get.

        3. aebhel*

          Without shared context, it really, really isn’t. People who don’t like to be direct often assume that they’re being much clearer than they actually are; I’ve ended up on the receiving end of ‘helpful hints’ that I had no clue were actually indirect orders more times than I can count, and if you’re going to fire someone over their failure to take direction, it would behoove you to actually make those directions clear.

          1. Tuckerman*

            Yup. It’s that shared context that’s essential, and sometimes missing if someone is new to the workforce. What is shared context to one culture is not always shared context in another one. The BBC did an article awhile back on how Thai people are very uncomfortable saying “no.” That might be misinterpreted easily.

          2. Sylvia*

            Yes! I’ve been there, too.

            Taking a hint requires:

            – The ability to pick up indirect communication
            – The knowledge that the person you’re speaking with is using indirect communication
            – Enough context to understand the hint

            This guy doesn’t sound like he has all three pieces in place at the moment. If you want to discuss something with him before you go through with firing him, try being as explicit as you can. It might be worth a shot.

        4. Jennifer Thneed*

          Either she’s wrong, or you’re mis-remembering it.

          I still have vivid memories of the time I was working as a trainer, and I was based out of a certain retail office, but I was pretty much only there once a week to pick up my corporate mail. I was chatting with the manager once and she told me that she’d had to ask her people to only come to work in business clothes, and not to wear jeans or overalls. I agreed that that was important! While wearing my trendy-that-year black corderoy overalls.

          Months later, I learned from my own boss that I was supposed to take direction from that. I never thought it applied to me. I didn’t actually work there! I was truly shocked. (And then I was horrified to realize that she probably thought I was blowing her off.)

          I’ve learned to pay better attention, but I still mess up. Oh, thank you! Now I know what I can use as a “weakness” in interviews: I tend to take people at their word and need to be told bluntly if something is a problem. I’ll figure out a better way to express that. (And it goes along with being abysmal at office politics.)

        5. HannaS*

          It’s so, SO not. Never mind ignoring individual differences, it completely ignores cultural differences! Does Deborah Tannen imagine that someone from a direct culture is going to intuitively understand someone from an indirect one? Among my [culture A] friends, “I’ll think about it” means “I’ll think about it” and “No, that’s a bad idea” means “No, that’s a bad idea.” Among my [culture B] friends, “I’ll think about it” means “No, that’s a bad idea” and “No, that’s a bad idea” is so rude that it wouldn’t be said in a professional situation. Miscommunication is a thing that exists! Just because all parties in question are speaking English doesn’t mean they’re speaking the same language.

          It seems like you’re suggesting that direct communication be used to tell the employee that they need to understand indirect communication. So…why not just use direct communication all the time? It’s work, not a personal relationship where subtleties in indirect communication can be appreciated and important. If you’re issuing instructions, issue instructions. If it’s optional, phrase it as a suggestion.

      2. Close Bracket*

        LOL, I am very literal, and every time someone tells me, “you could do it like this…”, or “you should think about …”, I take it at face value and come back with, “Yeah, I thought of that already, but it’s not a good idea bc x, y, and z, that’s why I went with this method.”

        I have finally figured out that telling my boss that their ideas are bad is a career-limiting trait, but I can still only spot indirect communication in hind sight, not in the moment.

        I can’t spot soft noes, either, and it’s not bc I hear them and ignore them. It’s because when you say something like, “let me find out”, I will take it at face value and come back and say, “do you know about x yet?”

    3. Amber T*

      Agreed! Was looking for a comment like this.

      If you say to me, “Amber, collecting things off the printer and distributing them is not helpful” – are you telling me to stop? Or are you telling me I should do it in a different way to be more helpful? I genuinely wouldn’t be able to tell, and as an eager intern who just wants to help, I would have assumed you meant the latter. Society tends to beat around the bush because being direct = mean, but really, it’s so much more useful. I don’t pick up on smaller cues a lot of the times, so if I were to receive an ambiguous comment like that, it would confuse me. “Amber, please do not collect and distribute things from the printer unless you are specifically asked to” – now I get it.

    4. cataloger*

      I can see this. If there are enough “thank you”s surrounding the “don’t do this”, he might interpret it as “thanks, it’s helpful, but you really don’t have to”, and think “but I really don’t mind, and I like to help” and keep doing it.

      1. Liet-Kynes*

        Exactly. Particularly if he’s feeling insecure about his dealings with coworkers in other spheres.

    5. Solidus Pilcrow*

      Going along with being direct: Don’t bury the lead. State exactly what you want change / the way you want it done / whatever right away. Don’t bury it below 1o reasons. You may want to construct a “demand sandwich” if you want to provide reasons or background*. That is, state the demand, follow up with reasons/background, restate the demand. In this case: Stop grabbing the printouts. People often print multiple things or print things in a specific order; in short, you’re causing more problems. So leave other people’s printouts alone.

      *In the case of something simple like the printouts you could probably leave off the details entirely and just tell him to stop doing it.

  17. Confused*

    His weirdness aside, can’t you just tell him, “If you don’t stop doing X/don’t start doing X correctly, you will be fired?” At least that way he won’t be surprised.

    1. saf*

      He still might be surprised. I had a staff member much like this. I wanted to let him go 45 days into a 90 day probation period. The assistant director liked him (didn’t have to work with him), so he insisted that I put employee on a PIP. It was very clear, and made it quite plain that if he did not do x, y. and z within 30 days, he would be fired. He was shocked when he was fired, and made it plain that he thought he was being fired for being gay and for being a man, and that his performance problems were all caused by my unreasonable expectations.

  18. nnn*

    If some of the areas where he’s lacking general knowledge are relevant to the job or to his field, and if you want to give him guidance and direction to improve in this area, you could recommend something for him to read to get a general overview of the missing areas.

    When I was first starting out in my career, I knew very little about business. My job isn’t directly related to business – I’m just doing the technical work of producing teapots – but circumstances came up fairly regularly where people assumed you know the difference between capital and operating expenses, and I’d never learned that because I majored in teapot production.

    So a mentor recommended that, as an experiment, I read the business section of the newspaper (which we always had sitting around our break room anyway) every day for six months, and see where I was on my business knowledge after six months. And that’s all it took! I didn’t learn everything about business, but it gave me a sense of the scope of what’s out there (knowing what I didn’t know), and made me fluent in how people talk about these things.

    1. KR*

      This. I think OP shouldn’t have to deal with his sub par work and probably will end up firing him, but as a courtesy she could on the way out say something like, ” This isn’t directly related to your job performance but you seem extremely clueless on modern events and historical events most people seem to know about. It derails conversation and annoys coworkers when you ask about it in conversation. A tip I would have would be to listen to NPR/CNN/BBC/ect most days, watch the history channel, read *industry publication* periodically, and write things down in a small notebook when you don’t understand them in conversation to look up later. They could even mention it now if they wanted.

      1. Howdy Do*

        “Clueless” probably isn’t the word I’d use but yes, I think there’d be an appropriate way to suggest the intern consume some kind of news program or paper, suggesting that they will have an easier time interacting with co-workers if they build up that base level knowlege, even if the information isn’t interesting to him personally. Also the thing about jotting it down and looking it up later because the whole “derailing the conversation to explain the common knowledge” thing is also not going to benefit him the workplace no matter where he works.

    2. Ashie*

      Yeah, I would feel terrible releasing this person out into the world without trying to help him rectify any of this huge knowledge gaps. Like, personally responsible. If it’s an unpaid internship maybe it would be possible to just change his job duties to, like, reading the newspaper and researching the main topics or something. That way he’s not mucking up the business and he’s actually learning something about being a human being in the world.

  19. Katie the Fed*

    Ooooh yes. I agree – he gets 2 weeks max after you give him really clear feedback about the job-specific stuff that you need him to improve. And then cut him loose. There are too many eager, bright young potential interns to be wasting your time on this one. He’ll be more work to keep than to let him go. I’d still give him a VERY short amount of time to fix it, but be prepared to cut him loose.

    I’m working on a similar situation with a new hire. Good luck. Also please try not to get bogged down on the non-job stuff. Everyone has quirks – you might actually find his ignorance funny or charming if he was really good at his job.

  20. Ann*

    Do you hire interns from a university or organization. They might want a heads up about these circumstances.

    While we cannot speculate about why this student ended up lacking enough common sense to function in a work environment, it sounds like he will need more feedback than one employer can give to turn this around. So a discussion with the university office that funnels interns to you, if there is one, might be in order.

    1. drpuma*

      Yes! I was about to suggest exactly this. Also the school may be able to support this intern and fill in some of the gaps in his knowledge in ways that would be less appropriate/feasible for you or your company to take on.

      1. Sylvia*


        He clearly needs some help. Some commenters have suggested ways for the OP to do that, but the school will have the resources to really work on that. OP’s not his only chance to learn.

  21. Naomi*

    The ignorance of current events and common knowledge is weird, yes, and is probably going to cause him a lot of problems trying to function out in the world, but it’s not really yours to fix, OP. I don’t think it would be yours to fix even if his work were good and you were prepared to keep him on for the full internship, but it’s especially not yours to fix when you’re about to fire him. Stay focused on the issues with his work, which you do have standing to address.

    I think you might feel guilty because you think he can’t help being the way he is, or that he doesn’t deserve to be fired because he’s a nice person, but he’s consistently not following instructions and persisting in doing things he’s been told not to do. Those actions are choices he’s making, and getting fired is a fair consequence of those choices.

    1. Dan*

      His ignorance of current events and what not is certainly abnormal/unusual, no doubt. But… it doesn’t take much for me to imagine a scenario where someone can be ignorant about most of those things. I have a hard time getting bent out of shape over someone who thinks Starbucks just serves “coffee”. Even I don’t get into coffee enough to know the difference between lattes, cappuccinos, frappacinos, and all the other stuff. Its “coffee” to me. Just like beer is beer and wine is wine to the people who don’t drink it.

      The driving thing? Where I grew up, we had no mass transportation. Learning to drive was a “thing” that everybody looked forward to. But I can imagine growing up in NYC where cars are something for rich people or something like that.

      Some people hate politics and refuse to read anything about it.

      All in all, if his performance merits showing him the door, the right thing to do is to fire him.

      1. HollyTree*

        Starbucks serves numerous kinds of tea,hot chocolate and lemonade, and sandwiches, though, not different types of ‘coffee’, which is probably OP is weirded out by the guy not knowing that.

        Which just goes to show that you don’t know what you don’t know. For example, we just had a discussion about black pudding at work. Only one of us didn’t know what it was made of, which is odd in our country, but a good half of us haven’t really heard of white pudding, much to the dismay of those who had eaten it and thought it common knowledge.

        I’ve been described as highly intelligent, and I still think silly things like thinking you could get a bank loan instead of a mortgage on a house. It doesn’t make me any less clever, but it also doesn’t make errors in knowledge like that any less annoying for people like my poor mother who had to explain how buying a house works to her adult daughter on her break at work. When I don’t know things, I (usually) look them up, instead of derailing the conversation like OP says the guy is.

  22. JamieS*

    I can understand not knowing about more current events but I’m baffled how someone can make the dean’s list at a university and not know about World War 2 or Abe Lincoln. Do universities no longer have general education requirements?

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      There are universities and then there are universities. Some are really not rigorous. It would depend on where he went. (Plus keep in mind that some schools have religious agendas that block out what you’d normally think of as core curriculum. Also, some colleges don’t have core curriculum requirements at all, or not thorough ones.)

      1. Dan*

        And to be very clear, engineering programs have a very small lib arts component. IIRC, I had 15 credit hours to split between the humanities and social sciences. I have an AS, a BS, and an MS, and I haven’t taken a history class since like my sophomore or junior year of high school. History in any way shape or form was not required.

        Ask me who fought in WWI (the first one), and I uh, would be almost as smart as the kid in question.

        1. JamieS*

          15 hours or so is about what I was thinking. An English class, a couple history classes, and a couple electives. I think Alison’s right that his university may not have those requirements and/or has an agenda beyond postsecondary education.

          As an aside I think there’s a difference between not knowing who all fought in a major war and not knowing your country fought in the war. Then again I’m assuming OP and intern are Americans which may be wrong.

          1. Dan*

            “Technical writing” was its own class. For the lib arts electives, the requirement was that they be split between the humanities and social sciences. It was trivially easy to avoid history as an engineering major.

            in the sense that you used the term “elective”, we actually had no “free” electives in the mechanical engineering curriculum. *Everything* you took came off a list of some sort. Some lists could be pretty long, but there was a list none the less.

          1. JennyFair*

            I had to explain this to my roommate, who did not realize that the Germans were our enemy in both wars. Once I explained, a lot of things made sense to her that had not before, like the absence of swastikas. And we were in the same history class in high school. My roommate is not dumb by any stretch.

          2. CheeryO*

            *Raises hand tentatively* I was pretty sure it was WWI, but way less confident than I should probably admit. I had mostly horrendous history teachers in school, and my gen ed requirements for my engineering degree were… minimal.

        2. Kyrielle*

          Yep. I got a BS from a liberal arts school, and I took only one history class – related to the Mexican Revolution – and I didn’t have to take that one. History in general wasn’t my area of interest, and it wasn’t required. (On the other hand, there’s no way I’d have made it out of my particular high school without knowing these things – but someone whose schooling experience prior to college didn’t include these details could easily have gotten out of my – fairly good! – college without learning them.)

          Actually, thinking about that – college history courses can get pretty specific in my experience; one could also take several history courses at that college and never pick up those details. (A history major without them would be impossible, but…general ed for some other degree? Easy.)

      2. De Minimis*

        Some schools will allow people to take various electives to satisfy core requirements, so I could see someone maybe dodging US history, or at least some portions of it. If I remember right, I only had to take either early US history [to the Civil War] or later US history.

        Material may also be taught in a way where things aren’t retained.

        1. Countess Boochie Flagrante*

          In all fairness, my last math class was my junior year of high school. My (prestigious) university combined the math and science requirements for gen ed, so I got that out of the way taking interesting science classes.

          1. Turtle Candle*

            I did the same. And it would have been really easy for me to cherrypick my gen ed science classes to avoid whole immense swaths of scientific knowledge (I didn’t, but I could have). I could easily see someone doing the same, but with historical/cultural/literary information.

            1. De Minimis*

              I took what one of the lab assistants [for another class] kindly referred to as “Physics for Idiots.”

              I did avoid certain topics because I thought I’d have trouble with them or didn’t find them interesting. I chose to take later US history mainly because I never got to study it in high school. And I chose the lower level basic math requirement because I didn’t think I would be able to handle calculus since I did not take that in high school [went to a rural high school which didn’t have a lot in the way of college prep math and then to another school with weak academics.]

              When I was in college students not being adequately prepared for college level work was a huge issue, and I’m sure it hasn’t changed.

              1. Countess Boochie Flagrante*

                Ours was “physics for poets” which I think sounds much nicer :)

          2. miss_chevious*

            Yep. And my last science class was as a sophomore in high school (chemistry). I am an excellent test taker and the science section on the ACT is really just reading comprehension, so I tested out of all science at the college level. Depending on your major, it can be remarkably easy to dodge certain requirements.

          3. Emily, admin extraordinaire*

            Yeah, me too. My ACT score was high enough to be able to skip the basic college-math course at my prestigious, private, religious university, and the higher-level requirement was called “Languages of learning” and could be satisfied with either math or a 202-level foreign language class. My major (English) actually required the foreign language one, so I haven’t take math since I was 16. I also didn’t have to take a real history class, partially because of my AP US History credit, and partially because I took the “history through literature” variant of the World Civ requirement. I got a lot of English history in my English major, though, since so much of English lit is influenced by politics and wars and such.

          4. Talvi*

            It was almost like this for me, too – I did grade 12 math in grade 11. (Then I decided to take calculus for fun in grade 12, so.) But my university also combined math and science requirements into a single category(if you were an arts major), so I took two astronomy classes instead.

        2. Victoria Nonprofit (USA)*

          Right! Although I wouldn’t call it “dodging” so much as focusing on other things.

            1. De Minimis*

              I usually tried to save science for summer school and have it be my only course that term. If it was the only thing I had to focus on, I was able to get by.

              It at least fostered an interest in science on a casual level.

      3. TL -*

        I went to a really good liberal arts university and did a science major, and I did my common core with: ancient Greek literature, modern Russian literature, Asian religions, history of China, fairy tales as literature, early European history, and philosophy of gender. Probably a few more I don’t remember.

        I could have taken classes that covered USA/modern history but it was by no means a requirement unless your major asked for it.

        1. Not Karen*

          Good example.

          A few years ago someone wouldn’t stop making fun of me for not knowing exactly what year WWII (oddly enough) was. Bet he didn’t have any clue when the Meiji Restoration was, though.

          1. paul*

            Ask him which theater. If you’re an Asian history buff you can make an iffy argument for 1931 or a good one for 37 and flummox him :)

      4. Ask a Manager* Post author

        Also, for high school, it’s very possible to miss whole eras of history if you moved during high school. Your old state might have covered 20th century history junior year, but your new state did it freshman year or so forth. (This is how I missed U.S. geography in elementary school and to this day am not sure about the precise positioning of all the states.)

        1. Katie the Fed*

          I think the difference though is that you know you’re missing that. I mean, I doubt you’d pipe up in a conversation about Maine and say “wow I didn’t know Maine was on the Atlantic! Really? What else is over there?”

          This kid doesn’t seem to even have the common sense to know what he SHOULD know, and what he probably should look up later.

          1. Jessie the First (or second)*

            Katie, that’s a good point, and I think that is what is getting me about the intern – I get an overall impression that he is *extremely* not curious. Passive. Waits to be handed information, and if he is not handed information, does not spend a millisecond thinking about it – and certainly would not bother to *learn* a thing on his own.

            That’s how you could get through life not knowing that the US fought in WW2, or that it’s not legal to drive without a license, and all the other random things on that list. You make no effort to know something on your own time, or wonder about something. You wait to get the information handed to you.

            (I mean, a few things here and there, sure, people have blind spots. It’s the whole picture here that makes me think this)

            1. fluffy*

              Agreed. I work in an area with a large Somali population. Some of the teens I’ve worked with had spent years in a Kenyan refugee camp, then were dumped in a typical US high school. They had a hard time placing the American civil war, and it took me a while to figure out how to help them. But so many of them suceeded because the had the curiosity and the desire to get ahead. So9 many went to college. I’ve had wonderful coworkers from Somalia, and it’s easy to overlook a lack of local history.

        2. JamieS*

          I don’t know the precise positioning of all states either and I didn’t miss Geography. I think most people don’t know that but that may be a lie I tell myself to feel better.

          I can understand missing geography because that’s more of a one shot class. I have more difficulty understanding a person who wasn’t home schooled missing both Abe and World War 2 since those are taught numerous times in middle school, high school, and sometimes elementary school. Maybe the intern was home schooled but if not I’m going to need some time to wrap my head around this.

        3. Countess Boochie Flagrante*

          Thanks to this, I have never, in my entire life, at any level of schooling, taken a physics class. In my defense, the physics teacher at my high school had a hideous reputation of being a bully if you weren’t naturally good at it, so I did some contortions to take an extra year of biology instead.

          1. Elizabeth West*

            We actually had physics at our school (and it was a tiny school, too). But I never took it either because I couldn’t pass basic math. I was forced to study it in science my second time in college, but I failed that unit. Thank goodness the rest of the classwork was easy for me–astronomy, geology, etc. I can learn science things; I just can’t do the math.

            Off topic, but the astronomy part was awesome–our instructor was an amateur astronomer with an awesome telescope and he took us out into the boonies and we looked at frickin Jupiter. :D

          2. Cassie*

            I never took physics either – in high school, it was an optional AP class that you could take as a junior or senior, but I opted not to take it because my sister had taken it and failed. I took a 2nd year of chemistry (AP chemistry) instead. For my humanities-adjacent college degree, I only had to take 2 science-y courses and there was a whole range to choose from so I never bothered with physics. (Thinking back on it, I probably shouldn’t have let my sister’s F deter me… math wasn’t her strong suit, but it’s probably my strongest subject).

      5. Tourist*

        My university was fairly rigorous, but the journalism program didn’t require a history class. And it required only two math classes, so I took the most basic ones available (the first week was dedicated to addition). The last science class I took was chemistry in 11th grade.

      6. aebhel*

        I mean, I went to a pretty good university, but my gen ed requirement just required me to take classes in certain subjects; it didn’t require me to take a survey course on U.S. history (or any other subject that should have been covered in high school).

    2. Stop That Goat*

      I was regularly on the dean’s list and graduated with honors. However, history is easily my least favorite topic. I struggled through the few classes I had to take but I wouldn’t trust my knowledge on the subject. I do know who Abe Lincoln is though.

      Now, mathematical theorems, I can spout those back with no issue because I found that interesting and useful for my major. Depending on the rest of his grades, a class or two isn’t going to hold him down much.

    3. Risha*

      I once got into an internet discussion with a guy who thought that Shakespeare was all high class, no jokes, no swearing, no action, Serious Drama. At first I assumed that he had one of those English teachers who refuse to translate the dirty jokes, but it turned out that he had never read nor watched a single one of the plays, not even seen any of the movies. When I questioned how exactly he had pulled that off, it turned out he had left high school early (after freshman year, I think), to go directly into a very technical Engineering college program. He’d had one or two required English classes there, but those all assumed that everyone had done three or four years worth of high school english and had already covered all the basics. So it just… didn’t happen.

      1. TL -*

        I’ve only been required to read one of Shakespeare’s plays and we skipped the one of the acts because it was all “boring fight scenes.” (Julius Caesar)
        I read one on my own and I’ve seen several plays but that’s all been self-directed.

      2. Tourist*

        The only Shakespeare I read in high school was in an Advanced Placement English class where we read “Hamlet”. If you weren’t in AP, you weren’t reading Shakespeare.

      3. Kate 2*

        Yep, our class did Romeo and Juliet, in middle school I think, and our teacher treated it as *Serious Literature* and to this day, I am not sure if he actually knew about any of the dirty jokes in Shakespeare. I remember bursting out laughing when our class, reading the whole play aloud, got to the nurse’s joke about women being made larger by men, and having everyone, including the teacher look at me like I was crazy.

        1. Sparkly Librarian*

          I went to a university that had a Shakespeare program, and one of the courses I got to take was “Shakespeare & Sex”. We talked about ALL the dirty jokes.

        2. Solidus Pilcrow*

          I’d argue that Romeo and Juliet is probably one of the worst plays to teach Shakespeare. I mean, R&J and Hamlet are good to know because there are so many quotes and references, but as literature, are really kind of weak. And *reading* a Shakespeare play is not a good way to experience it. It’s a *play.* It really should be seen performed by actors that really understand the material (and all the dirty jokes!) to appreciate it. (I didn’t really get this myself until I had the opportunity to see Twelfth Night performed by a premier company – way better than reading words on a page.)

          I read some literary criticism that R&J and Hamlet where meant as parodies of their respective genres, and that really makes a certain amount of sense.
          * R&J: Star-crossed lovers, a great, sweeping romance! They both die at the end.
          * Hamlet: Palace intrigue, betrayal, revenge! Everyone dies at the end, including the protagonist (heck, the entire royal family of Denmark gets wiped out in the space of one duel).

          If you’re a fan of Hamlet, check out the McKenzie Brothers move “Strange Brew.” It’s Hamlet with Canadians, eh. ;)

          1. Elizabeth West*

            You should have seen the think piece I wrote about R&J in my Shakespeare class. We had it in high school and I loved it then (mostly because of West Side Story), but when I grew up, I couldn’t stand it. I was, shall we say, less than kind.

            Our best English teacher in high school made us read plays out loud. We were assigned roles and that’s how we read all the Greek stuff.

            1. Claire*

              I was in a four students Sixth Year English Studies class in high school, and Mr Brown who taught the Shakespeare topic had us read aloud and “perform” the three plays we did that year (As You Like It, Coriolanus and A Midsummer Night’s Dream), rotating the parts and with no regard for gender. He taught in the “huts”, supposedly-temporary additional accommodation in wooden structures, separate from the main teaching block, so we could be as loud as we wanted. It was my favourite class that year.

        3. pandop*

          The versions of R&J I studied at 13/14 had all the dirty jokes explained :)

          Speaking more generally though, even though the UK school system allows you to specialise really early (I haven’t studied Geography since age 14 for example), there is a reason common/general knowledge is called such. You can just pick it up by being curious, and reading.

          I’ll bet this intern doesn’t read anything.

    4. Lily Rowan*

      I went to a good university with general education requirements, but none of them included a requirement to study US history. So if I hadn’t learned those things before I went to college, I wouldn’t have necessarily learned them there, either.

      1. JamieS*

        You could’ve learned about World War 2 without being told about it in a History class. I’ve encountered multiple mentions of it in movies and TV, during Veterans day, in English class, Yahoo articles, etc. That’ swhat I’m having most trouble with. World War 2 is one of the biggest, If not the biggest, and pervasive events in U.S. history. It’s not something you only hear about in history class.You’d almost have to have purposely avoided learning about it to not have encountered it somewhere at some point.

      2. Cassie*

        For the university I went to, US history was a required prerequisite – our 8th grade and 10th grade (AP US History) counted so I didn’t have to take a US history course in college. I think our school district had everyone take US history in 8th grade, so for those not taking APUSH, they would have fulfilled the prerequisite.

        If the intern grew up in a different country, that might explain some of his cluelessness about WW2. (For people in colonies of Japan during WW2, the US was the enemy!).

    5. Not Karen*

      I’m baffled as to how that cashier I had the other day got her job when she couldn’t subtract 3 from 5. Apparently it happens.

      Like I mentioned upthread, I went to a very rigorous university that didn’t have a history requirement.

    6. Government Worker*

      I went to a top-tier liberal arts college. We had to take three classes in each of the humanities, social sciences, and math/science. There were a few requirements about what type of class, but there were courses in every department that met the requirements. I majored in a science and took theater, French and art history for my humanities and linguistics, psychology and econ for social sciences.

      This is not unique to the school I went to. I’d say most of the schools I looked at had similar levels of distribution requirements, where there were categories of classes you had to select from, but no specific curriculum required.

    7. Ramona Flowers*

      I went to uni with someone who got top grades who thought JFK was a fictional character invented by Oliver Stone. I think my jaw is still lying on the floor there…

      1. Ramona Flowers*

        And that was a Russell Group uni. She’d got an A for A-level history somehow, too.

      2. PM Jesper Berg*

        I’d say that most any character that appears in an Oliver Stone movie *is* a fictional character invented by Oliver Stone.

  23. S.G.*

    Don’t sweat it. I got fired from a summer internship and it was the best thing that happened to my career. I learned right away what’s acceptable and what’s not. And my career did not suffer as a result. Don’t worry about the guy. He’ll be fine and needs the wake up call.

  24. SLake*

    Be direct about the behavior issues, as a intern is there to learn, even if he’s faking it or trying to play it off as being the office ‘clown’ it’s not working. I still have to tell interns not to show up on Monday hungover on their way out on Fridays. The interns tend to bring their campus life mentality to a office setting and you to have be direct about how it is not appropriate behavior.

    I second Allison’s advise on judging him just based on performance issues alone, from what you wrote so far he’s display 2 traits I would have found fire-able for a intern training under me paid or unpaid. 1) Lack of ability to follow basic instructions and 2) inability to complete given tasks correctly.

  25. Lisa Fakes*

    My question is how did this kid graduate on the deans list, much less get into college with no basic understanding of history?

    1. Victoria Nonprofit (USA)*

      I’m kind of baffled that people are baffled by this.

      As an undergrad, I attended a competitive liberal arts college and graduated from a competitive state research university. For grad school, I attended a famous, snooty private university. At no point did I take any classes or exams about U.S. history.

      I’m not arguing that this intern’s lack of knowledge isn’t surprising or problematic. In fact, I think the reason this didn’t come up for me in college or grad school is because “Who is Abe Lincoln?” and “Did the U.S. fight in WWII?” are expected to be covered in middle school.

      1. Jesmlet*

        Right, it doesn’t come up in college because it’s usually so thoroughly covered in elementary, middle and high school. The issue though is how this kid went through 12 grades without retaining any information about the existence of Abraham Lincoln. Unless there was some sort of alternative education system in place (read: inept homeschooling or cult), it speaks to a much bigger problem and coincides with other learning/memory issues he’s clearly having.

        1. Emi.*

          Or he was educated outside the US, or he moved at an unlucky time, or he went to a bad public school, or he went to a bad private school, or he went to a bad charter school, or he went to a really good school that was focused on something else, or … There are so many ways this could have happened.

  26. De Minimis*

    I had to do this last year, not really an intern, but a student employee that we hired [we hire students for part time work.]

    Try to give feedback if you can. My boss told me not to do that when I fired our student worker, and I think she was really not well-served by it. I at least gave a warning, but honestly by then the die was mostly cast.

    Our internships are actual jobs, so I think that gives us more options as far as dealing with performance issues. It was my first hire as a student supervisor and I still feel guilty about making the wrong decision as far as hiring, but we were having a tough time finding candidates that semester.

  27. Salamander*

    I don’t know if this is appropriate or not, so I’m hoping someone who works with interns can weigh in here. Given the scope of the intern’s deficiencies in general knowledge and following instructions, would it be a kindness for the OP to have a conversation with the student’s advisor or internship contact back at the university he goes to? Maybe there’s some extra coaching or classes he can take, or a more closely-supervised work-study at the university that might get him up to speed before graduation?

    I feel bad for the guy, since he doesn’t seem actively malicious. But there’s no way I’d want to hire him or work with him. I would fire him in a heartbeat. OP shouldn’t feel guilty about that.

  28. Anon Accountant*

    2 weeks maximum and then he goes. There’s just too many talented potential interns who would do great and appreciate the internship.

    Better he get fired from an internship and learn early in his career.

  29. Katie the Fed*

    Just a general comment – I think this is a classic example of bad fit. So I know people are going to get bogged down in all of the specific examples given, but the problem is the big picture – the sum of the total sounds pretty bad, and sounds like he’s wildly different from the culture/expectations there.

    I’ve been dealing with a new hire who I’ve had a ton of problems with. None of them were deal breakers on their own, but at some point I realized there were infinite things I could tell her not to do, but at some point common sense and good judgement needed to kick in. It’s been like whack-a-mole, and that’s really frustrating.

    1. the_scientist*

      Agreed, agreed, agreed. I think the other day, on the post where someone walked into the room (door closed, do not disturb sign up) when someone was pumping, and a commentor said “I feel like if I have to specify to an employee that they are not to do certain things, I just need to not have that person working for me.” It’s the same thing here. Individually, these issues might not be bad enough to fire the intern. Collectively, the guy sounds like a nightmare. We can spend 600 individual comments debating exactly how big of a deal it is that he is completely lacking in basic American history knowledge, or we can take the letter writer at their word and accept that the intern’s complete and utter lack of common sense, ability to follow instructions, retain information, apply existing knowledge in different contexts, and seemingly, behave in a socially appropriate manner IN ADDITION to poor work output mean that this intern is just not a good fit for this office.

      I do agree that it would be a kindness if the letter writer could have a “come to Jesus” talk about how the intern’s current lack of awareness and curiosity may impede his career, but I think that’s separate from a discussion about work performance/quality, and certainly is not required.

  30. Roker Moose*

    I feel sorry for the intern. I don’t know what the cause of his ignorance is, but it must make life very difficult for him.

    But it sounds like firing him is a kindness for all involved.

    1. Katie the Fed*

      I don’t know. I mean, a lot of people who don’t know things at least have enough common sense to know they SHOULD know, and don’t disrupt conversations to ask about them. They quietly google on their own time. It sounds like he’s so ignorant he doesn’t know how ignorant he is.

      1. Malibu Stacey*

        Yes, this what I think the issue is. I am picturing a one-off comment like, “Thanks for coming to the sales meeting, help yourself to a scone from Starbuck’s” that is turning into a really distracting sidetrack.

      2. Falling Diphthong*

        I think this is an important part of social interaction. Asking questions is good, but there comes a point where it’s just disruptive and exhausting.

        I’ve heard of professors giving problem students (or everyone, but it only affected the problem students) a set number of questions per class, like four. Rather than pop their hand up to ask about every other phrase the professor spoke, they were forced to listen, keep track of things, and triage to what was important to ask. Even though Professors Want You To Ask Questions, they really do, it can be taken to excess.

          1. MamaZoe*


            I was a mediocre student at best thru high school (graduated almost 40 years ago) and never went to college. I know I have knowledge gaps large enough for trucks could drive through, but I know how Google works, and how to find info at the library.

  31. Zip Silver*

    The intern sounds like he’s fine and it’s an interpersonal issue. Lots of people don’t give a hoot about history or current events.

      1. Zip Silver*

        But OP didn’t mention that it was important for work, she was just listing stuff off to us, it sounds like to prove how stupid he is.

        I doubt think the ought to be fired. It sounds like the work thing is a training curve, and the annoyance thing is a personal problem. OP herself said he’s very intelligent and does well with a difficult major.

        1. Katie the Fed*

          But it is affecting his work. The OP says:

          “His knowledge of things is so lacking that he completely alienates everyone he has a conversation with because he doesn’t understand what is happening and interrupts because he needs basic things explained to him.”

          That’s a problem.

    1. paul*

      It doesn’t sound like he’s fine at all given that there’s specific job related things he’s messing up with.

      And I’d argue not knowing ham came from pigs, that you need a license to drive, that starbucks has multiple beverages, that reservations are a thing, etc are a bit more than not giving a hoot about history or current events. They don’t rise to the level of fire-able, but that level of unawareness (for lack of a better word) could be annoying on its’ own already.

      1. Kate 2*

        Agreed. The fact that he doesn’t know,for example, that it is illegal to drive without a license worries me and makes me wonder what else he doesn’t know, legally or safety-wise. He could become a serious liability.

    2. SL #2*

      He’s not fine, he’s not following directions and hasn’t properly completed any assignments in a month. That could be grounds for firing even if you’re not an intern.

  32. Jesmlet*

    Some people just need the right teacher in order to learn. Have you tried correcting/teaching him in a different way? Maybe he learns better with written instructions or something like that. I think if you feel like you’ve been very clear with him about the consequences of his continued issues, there should be no guilt in firing him. That in itself is an important lesson for everyone to learn.

  33. Anonymous Poster*

    Focus on the work issues with the intern. Ignorance and what have you is a quirk, but it doesn’t sound like the intern is working in a role where it’s necessary, like a specific advocacy group or something. But not following through, doing things in direct conflict with clear directives, and not improving are much bigger problems.

    I was basically fired from one job because I didn’t take these sorts of things seriously either. It was a mercy for both of us, and it helped hammer home to me in my pre-high school days the importance of doing a good job. It was absolutely invaluable and I’m still grateful to the gentleman that did it. I had it coming, and it set me up to do much better going forward. Have mercy on this poor intern and give them the right feedback, demand excellence, and then fire with exact reasons why to hammer home just the problem. You’ll be doing a gracious thing for this person going forward, and they’ll be set up to not repeat this behavior.

    Good luck!

  34. Soon to be former fed*

    My first thought is that the intern is not American. Anyone educated in the US knows who Abe Lincoln is by the time they get to college.

    1. Former Retail Manager*

      That was my knee jerk as well. If the intern came to the U.S. later in life and their studies have emphasized technical stuff in the math or science sector, I could totally see this happening. Or, as others mentioned above, the person may have been raised in a very secluded/restrictive religion of some sort with virtually no exposure to the outside world. I feel like it has to be one of these two things.

    2. Liet-Kynes*

      You’re getting hung up on particular examples, not looking at the picture OP is painting.

    3. Sibley*

      I wish you were correct. I know 3 people personally, and maybe a 4th, that prove your statement incorrect. :(

  35. a different Vicki*

    I don’t think this is just about him not figuring things out, though that would be a problem on its own. LW says: He doesn’t change when asked to do or not do something and it has become clear there is no salvaging things. and No matter how it was explained to him, he didn’t understand why he had to catch all the errors the first time and eventually the task had to be given to someone else.

    It sounds as though he not only didn’t understand why he needed to be thorough the first time, but he wasn’t willing and able to take directions on the basis that he’s an intern, there to learn things, and it’s their office, so they might have some arbitrary preferences. “OK, I’m not sure why they want it this way, but it’s their office, so I’ll do it that way.” There are things where there’s more than one right way to do it, but if it’s someone else’s office, you don’t rearrange the supplies just because you don’t understand the reasons for where they’re keeping the pens.

    I suspect the kindest thing to do here would be to fire him, and say something like “Fergus, we’re firing you from this internship because you haven’t been doing what we need, and in fact have been disruptive to the office. Being an intern means you’re here to learn, and to do that you need to pay attention and follow instructions.”

    That’s very brief, and other things to tell him might include “if people mention something you haven’t heard of, and it’s not part of your instructions, write it down and google it later. Wikipedia really is our friend.” To use someone’s example, he can look up later why Somalia is on a travel-ban list, but it”where can I find the travel ban list?” might be a reasonable question. Or it might be “Fergus, it’s in your instructions, please read them.”

  36. I'd Rather not Say*

    I’m in the camp of clearly stating the job related deficiencies, and consequences as AAM described. I wonder though if there’s something of a bad fit going on, too. When I was in college, studying for my teaching certification (Social Studies), we were advised to do our student teaching earlier, rather than wait until our final year. That way, if we decided teaching wasn’t for us, we could adjust and change majors or career paths easier. I ultimately ended up in an entirely different field, though did find my “Liberal Arts” background helped me develop good critical thinking skills. Maybe the intern likes studying the subject matter, but would be better off in a different sort of job, or using different skills.

  37. a thought*

    I have never been more excited for a follow-up letter. I hope OP will report back, and maybe provide a little more information about their field, because no where does this letter specify STEM, so the bafflement of other readers is understandable.

  38. NaoNao*

    Just to present another point of view here:
    I was raised in a very restrictive bubble: evangelical, fundamentalist Christian. The teachers at my school were uncertified and could pretty much teach anything they wanted.
    Combine that with a spotty memory, and you have me taking a split second to wonder if bacon and ham are the same thing or come from the same animal, and argue that Stalin was a dictator in Italy (*oops*) in WWII.
    It does sound like this guy is….a little “off”, but I’d like to add that my BF also seems to be lacking a lot of basic historical, social, and cultural knowledge (for example, he was flustered to find out that England, not the US, was considered the Major World Power from about 1750’s-1900 or so, that Native Americans were mostly killed by smallpox and STD’s, not wars, and that interracial marriage was illegal in many states until 1976). We both got pretty decent educations (especially when I moved into a private high school that actually HAD accredited teachers) but sometimes…the brain, she farts.

    1. JulieBulie*

      OK, but you know that Italy was involved in WWII, and you know that Stalin was a dictator. You know that ham is related to bacon. It sounds like you could beat that poor intern on Trivia Night.

  39. The Wall of Creativity*

    He didn’t know ham comes from pigs? OK. But how did OP find that out? What sort of conversation did that come up in? “How’s that ham sandwich?” “Mighty fine Bert. Ham comes from pigs, you know.”

    In fact, given that I’ve never had this discussion with any of my friends ever, I’m now wondering how many of them don’t know that ham comes from pigs.

    1. Katie the Fed*

      I think the problem is that he’s disrupting and asking about all the stuff he doesn’t know.

      So like, last week, I said I don’t eat octopus because I feel guilty eating really smart animals. I said I was trying with pigs but they’re a little too delicious.

      At that point, if Fergus was part of that conversation, it sounds like he was asking “wait, what food comes from pigs?”

      But really – everyone is getting bogged down in details here. The big picture matters a lot.

      1. AvonLady Barksdale*

        Yes, that’s exactly what I’m picturing– and exactly why it’s a problem.

    2. Former Retail Manager*

      Your comment made me laugh out loud and reminded me of my teenage daughter’s comment yesterday. “What is pork sausage?” It’s sausage honey…sausage comes from pigs, you know. “Yes, I know, but why not just say sausage, why pork sausage?” Because there is also sausage from other animals, such as deer, elk, etc. “Ohhhh…..” But this was at home, while reading the recipe for the dinner I was cooking.

      1. M*

        To be fair, you did just say “sausage comes from pigs” not “some sausage comes from pigs.”

    3. MuseumChick*

      I once volunteered at a historic working farm. It was really fun and I especially enjoyed teaching kids (in an age-appropriate way) where their food came from. But once, we got a call from an angry parent because they had been teaching their child that meat just comes in those plastic-wrapped styrofoam trays from the supermarket. She didn’t want her kid knowing that beef comes from cows and to get the beef you have to kill that cow.

      1. paul*

        That’s horrifying. Maybe it’s my redneck coming out, but don’t people know whats involved in making meat, at least the basics (i.e animal is killed, is cut up and cleaned, tastiness results)? Why *wouldn’t* you want your kids to know what’s involved in getting food tot he table? Not just meat either, but the veggies–farm work is *hard*, and that food on your plate took a lot of work to get there.

        1. the_scientist*

          Considering that according to a recent survey, as many as 7% of Americans believe that chocolate milk comes from brown cows, I’m inclined to believe that many people don’t understand what is involved in getting food from the farm to the grocery store.

        2. seejay*

          Because a lot of people don’t *want* to know the reality. Really. There’s some truth to the saying that more people would be vegetarian if slaughterhouses had glass walls.

          And this isn’t to argue the pros/cons of vegetarianism. Just the reality that there’s a lot of people that *really* don’t want to know the reality of where their food comes from and they want it to be nice and clean and neat and without the truth behind it.

          1. paul*

            It’s not just meat; pretty much all grocery store produce that’s actually affordable involves awful working conditions for people involved in it. Migrant farm workers get royally screwed routinely. I’ve *done* some limited farm work, it’s rough. it’s even rougher when you’re making agricultural minimum wage and 15 hour days 6-7 days a week of backbreaking labor.

        3. winter*

          I’d wager they don’t want to have to discuss with their teary-eyed kid why said kid should eat that dead, formerly cute animal.
          Or they actually believe they were “protecting” their child from that terrible knowledge? Who knows.

          1. MuseumChick*

            One of my favorite things to do was to take kids to feed the chickens, then ask them who liked chicken nuggets (95% – 100% of the hands would go up), then ask them where chicken nuggets come from and what their brains put 2 and 2 together.

    4. Falling Diphthong*

      There’s a whole interesting side digression into how the words for animal and cut of animal have different roots. And there are times it’s interesting to take that path. But having a new form of the question every few sentences when you’re trying to discuss what pizza to order for the twelve o’clock meeting rapidly gets exhausting.

    5. Turtle Candle*

      That specific example made me wonder if the problem was less “he’s ignorant” and more “he’s expecting us to answer questions all day long.” I’ve known people like that, and the way it would come up for them would be that Bob says, “Sally, that sandwich looks great!” and Sally says “Thanks! Ham and cheese, my favorite.” And then Awkward Aloysius says, “Ham? What’s that? Where’s it come from.” And if you have a real Awkward Aloysius on your hands, it segues into “cheese? what kind of cheese? cheddar? what’s cheddar? how is cheddar different from swiss? oh, it’s on rye bread? what’s rye?” and on and on and on until you want to crawl under the table just to stop the sandwich-related third degree.

      Often it’s with a very cheerful air of question which makes you feel like a jerk going, “shut uuuuuup, I want to eat my sandwich, not play Sandwich Fixings Trivia,” but yeah, it’s maddening.

      1. Elizabeth West*

        This reminds me of the Question Man from that episode of Roseanne? Every time Jackie said anything to him, he would start asking a zillion questions about it. And when she answered them, he asked questions about the answers.

        1. SignalLost*

          I know this person in real life. Except she asks her follow up questions while you’re still answering the first one, and she does it all in a tone that would be right at home in an interrogation. She is also an absolute idiot.

    6. Mephyle*

      That conversation comes up all too often for those who don’t eat meat, or those who don’t eat pork. “No , it doesn’t have meat in it. That? That’s ham, not meat.” Or, “you don’t eat pork? No problem, it only has ham.”

    7. J*

      With his ignorance of other subjects mentioned, I wonder if it was something tied to a co-workers religious dietary restrictions. “Have some ham sandwich.” “Oh, thanks, but no thank you. I can’t eat meat from pigs.” “Ham comes from pigs?!”

  40. Poster Child*

    Don’t feel guilty for doing the right thing. (Don’t we have enough mistakes we’ve made to feel guilty about?)
    I’ve felt guilty about turning down dates. But it is a kindness to be direct versus stringing someone along or ghosting. It doesn’t make sense to go out without someone if it’s not working out and it doesn’t make sense to continue employing someone who isn’t working out.

  41. animaniactoo*

    Apologies if somebody already addressed this above, but: You are making a mistake in not seeing “failure to follow directions” as “misconduct”.

    It doesn’t matter if you think there’s a reason for it, at some point failure to follow directions is just as much misconduct as extreme absenteeism is for somebody who has regular childcare issues. You can sympathize and understand until the cows come home – but it IS misconduct.

    If he can’t/won’t follow directions (and he has to be capable of it to be honest or he would never have made it to college…), that is misconduct – failure to behave as you need him to do in order for your business to be able to count on him as a reliable employee who adds value to your team/company. It doesn’t have to be malicious to qualify.

  42. AvonLady Barksdale*

    If this is the intern who came up in an open thread a few months ago, I have been waiting for this! That was a pretty interesting discussion.

    I think people are focusing too much on the actual ignorance (which, in the grand scheme of things, doesn’t really matter, even though I find it baffling) and not enough on how it comes up and how that might be distracting or annoying in ways that interfere with his work. If someone makes a cultural or historical reference and Fergus stops all of the conversation to ask about it, in detail, then that moves things waaaaaay off. If he said to himself– or even out loud– “I have never heard of that and I don’t get it, maybe I should look it up or ask about it later,” then of course that’s fine. But if he goes out of his way to derail work discussions asking questions about current and historical events, then that’s a problem and, in my opinion, an offense that should be discussed with him.

    1. Mainly lurking*

      Ah, Open Thread, that explains it!

      I’ve been having a weird déjà vu from this letter – when I first read it I wondered if it might be one of the ones Alison was revisiting.

      1. AvonLady Barksdale*

        I found it! March 24-25. I don’t know how to isolate specific posts and threads, though. I just remember being absolutely intrigued by this person.

        1. Emi.*

          The date and time on the line under the commenter’s name is a direct link to that comment.

          1. AvonLady Barksdale*

            Thank you! I learn something new every day. (But I learned about Abraham Lincoln a long time ago.)

          1. SusanIvanova*

            Whoa, if that’s the same intern it gives a lot more perspective on the “doesn’t know basic things” part -when he found out about medical helicopters landing on nearby skyscrapers:

            ” the intern was wowed because he said he didn’t know that helicopters went to hospitals or that they could land on rooftops. He talked about it non stop for 2 days, bought it up in a meeting and even mentioned it in work emails he sent.”

            Dude. Chill.

    2. Mona Lisa Saperstein*

      Thank you!! This has been bothering me all day – I definitely remembered it from something and was looking in the archives to see if it had maybe been published before.

    3. Helena*

      Eh, I don’t think it is the same person. The timeline doesn’t match at all. The internship in the open thread was from March 1 to June 30 according to the OP of the open thread. The OP of this letter says the internship runs over the summer. Unless Alison published a months old letter (forgive me – I don’t know the process or how long it takes to publish responses) it has to be a different person. The internship in the open thread would be over in 4 days, and the OP of this letter says they are only a month into it. Also, in the open thread post it’s clear management will not fire the intern but the OP says in this letter that their boss has given the green light to fire him.

      The facts don’t match IMO.

  43. So anon for this one*

    I just scrolled through the comments a few times and think I may be the first person with this view:

    In 4 short weeks in this office they have covered WW2, Somalia, software for the visually impaired, electric cars, Abe Lincoln, ham, hotel reservations, trump and more. Unless you are working at “The Onion” as a writer not sure any of this is relevant in any way. I don’t get why this should be held against the person. We don’t know what we don’t know, right? I am almost wondering if the workplace is made up of self proclaimed ‘intellectuals’ and this intern is spoofing all of you.

    Address the work issues as Allison suggested but I don’t think the rest of this should be held against him.

    1. Liet-Kynes*

      You’re not the first person, and I and others have explained why this may be salient in the workplace when others expressed this view.

    2. Jessie the First (or second)*

      “Unless you are working at “The Onion” as a writer not sure any of this is relevant in any way.”

      And yet it must be relevant in some way because these things have obviously come up. Because the OP knows of these giant chasms in her intern’s knowledge.

      It may be a directly work-related issue – he is asked to make hotel reservations for CEO, but can’t because “what do you mean, hotel reservations, what are those?”; he is asked to make a coffee and muffin run and it crashes because “But I can’t get those things at Starbucks, where do I go?”; a group is planning an event and he offers to drive a group of clients out, and last minute they discover he has no license and says “but that doesn’t matter, I promise I know how to drive”; or any of the examples about how these basic life knowledge holes can absolutely be a work issue.

      But even if these things have come up in water cooler conversations/pre-meeting chatter, it can be a problem. Given how much OP knows of what the intern does NOT know, it means that at the very least, conversations are regularly getting derailed because he has to jump in and inject his lack of knowledge about the subject into the conversation – that is going to be a morale killer, as everyone has to stop and Explain All The Things every. single. conversation.

      It’s also okay to look at the big picture. It does not have to be all about “Intern can do Task A , therefore we keep him.” It can be “Intern does not take direction, appears to have large holes in his knowledge that make it really difficult to know what he can be trusted to do and what he can’t, when we give him work it does not get done well or correctly or even reasonably close, he takes up lots of time with odd tangents, he can’t seem to retain information we tell him, and yes, he can do Task A, but even so this is not working out….” etc etc. (Although in OP’s case, there is no “Task A” the intern seems able to do anyway.)

      1. Turtle Candle*

        And the key thing there for me is the interrupting. It’s okay if two people are having a lunchtime or water cooler conversation about a WW2 documentary they saw and you don’t understand what they’re talking about, or someone makes an analogy in a meeting referencing Abraham Lincoln and maybe you don’t get it (presuming you follow the rest of the work-related point). The point at which it becomes actively problematic is if you bring those conversations to a screeching halt by expecting people to ‘splain to you.

        My suspicion is that if the intern didn’t know that, the LW wouldn’t even be aware of these knowledge gaps.

      2. Myrin*

        Exactly this. I’m baffled by people arguing how it’s possible to not know [one of OP’s examples] or how [another example] doesn’t automatically make him a bad intern or how [yet another example] isn’t actually relevant in most workplaces. I commented something similar on a post a couple of months ago so I’ll just repeat it here:

        “I think people are getting too hung up on these […] specific things as if they were the full extent of his “off” behaviour when they are almost surely just examples to […] paint an overall picture of his demeanour for us. It happens often with letter writers that they don’t just want to say stuff like “[I have a highly inept summer intern I need to fire – help?]” because then people will immediately go “Okay but HOW is he [inept]?”, so they choose a handful of examples they think are illustrative only for commenters to doubt the whole situation because they aren’t sufficiently convinced by the chosen examples (which, again, are very often two or three out of twenty things that happened).”

        The OP gave us examples of behaviour she has to deal with daily to make us understand that she’s in a situation that, to me at least, sounds absolutely nightmarish and horrendously aggravating. And her main question isn’t at all “Do you think I have to fire this intern?”. It’s “How do I get over the guilt and do what needs to be done?”, so she certainly doesn’t need a barrage of comments making her feel even guiltier when she has to deal with someone I’d personally want to flee from every time I’d see him walk around the corner.

    3. SL #2*

      The personality/knowledge issues and the performance issues are so intertwined that I (and the OP too, it seems) wouldn’t be able to trust this intern to do anything properly, whether it’s proofreading some documents or ordering the coffee for a meeting or even addressing a client in a way that wouldn’t confuse and alienate them, which are all things that an intern should be able to do with just a bit of coaching, not a full summer’s worth.

  44. Former Retail Manager*

    While the specific examples given are entertaining and astonishing at the same time, as so many others have said, the bigger picture is that is doesn’t sound like this person will be a good fit and it’s time to let them go, but not without some very candid feedback on his way out, as Alison has suggested.

  45. Ask a Manager* Post author

    My husband and I have been re-watching all of Battlestar Galactica. When I showed him this letter, he said, “Zach failed basic flight” and then stared at me meaningfully.

    (Zach Adama is a character who was allowed to pass basic flight training even though he couldn’t fly well … and then died because of it. The point being that the OP has a responsibility not to “pass” the intern out of the internship and lead other employers to think he’s accomplished something he hasn’t.)

    1. Liet-Kynes*

      “When I showed him this letter, he said, “Zach failed basic flight” and then stared at me meaningfully.”

      AAAAAAAAAAAAAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA rad. I do so adore geeky but on-p0int references.

    2. sunny-dee*

      It also could be how the kid ended up where he is. The OP seems a little confused that he’s successful in his major and such a screw-up in real life … but it’s also possible that he was passed for Reasons, and it was despite his levels of competence not because of it.

      1. Turtle Candle*

        Oh, that’s a good point. Sometimes people will pass students along if they seem eager and like they’re trying, even if they ought to fail, because they feel guilty or sorry for them; and this tends to work until the person slams headlong into a brick wall of something where seeming like you’re trying isn’t enough. And in my experience, the sooner they hit the wall, the better it is for them; better that it be an internship than later on in a full-time job.

        (This may also explain the weird help-y-ness of picking up printouts even when told not to. If you’ve skated along on seeming eager and helpful such that people feel too bad to fail you, it’s probably a hard habit to break….)

    3. Katie the Fed*

      Yup. I don’t know battlestar galactica, but this is exactly my mindset for working to remove (if I can’t rehabilitate) a new hire during the probation period. If I don’t, we’re going to be dealing with her for years – maybe decades! I can’t have this on my conscience.

  46. Valkyrie*

    Ooh, we had this guy at our office, except he was a full-time employee. He had a BA and a paralegal certificate, but didn’t know basic keyboard commands like ctrl+A will highlight all, and ctrl+C will copy, or how to use basic office software required for the job.

    He could not follow directions and was constantly making the same mistakes, and as a result generated LOTS more work for everyone in our small law firm. This was really rough because he was a super nice guy who we liked, but he mis-heard feedback among everything else, which made him really hard to manage. One day after he made a mistake that he had made before and I talked to him about it, he expressed his frustration with himself but added that in his recent meeting with the partners they had told him how well he had been doing (this 100% did not happen).

    We ended up letting him go before his 90 day probation period ended. It was hard and we all felt really bad about it, especially because this was his first position in the industry he wanted to work in and the whole experience should have indicated that maybe this isn’t the industry for him. But, my boss is a very kind person and did it in a really respectful way.

    I think the most important thing was that they had a clear and blunt conversation about it and why it wasn’t working out. Firing him was really the best thing that they could have done for our office, everyone’s morale was tanking because of our increased workload. Don’t feel guilty about it, assuming you’ve gone through the process the way Alison suggested–it’ll probably be a huge relief for everyone else.

    1. LCL*

      If keeping my job hinges on my knowledge of keyboard shortcuts, Imma be unemployed pretty soon…
      All excel and word skills are self taught.

      1. Elsajeni*

        Sure — but at some point you made the effort to teach yourself, right? I imagine the real issue is when someone, for instance, needs to change the font of an entire long document, doesn’t know that Ctrl+A will “select all” (or where to find the equivalent menu command), and doesn’t think to google “change font of entire document?”, so spends much longer than the minute or two their manager expected this task to take highlighting a paragraph or a page at a time and changing them one-by-one. In most jobs you can get away with not knowing every fact or skill that could be useful, but you’ve got to be able to recognize when there’s something you don’t know, and willing to find someone, even if it’s just Google, who’ll help you learn it.

        1. Word Power User*

          I mean, not to put a fine point on it, but if you want to change the font in an entire Word document, you shouldn’t be pressing CTRL+A and changing the font; you should be changing the “normal” style, or going to the “design — fonts” tab.
          I’m making this observation not to be pedantic, but to point out that we may legitimately have differing expectations of “basic knowledge.” I don’t inherently see how failing to master keyboard shortcuts ought to be grounds for termination, unless this guy was hired specifically as a word processor.

          1. Tyrion*

            Nonsense. Ctrl+A and right clicking to a new font is a perfectly viable, basic method. And the point isn’t which perfectly viable, basic method one might know; it’s whether one knows one at all. As in, sequentially highlighting individual blocks of text and changing their fonts (for example) is unacceptably inefficient.

    2. ZSD*

      Out of curiosity, do middle or high schools now teach you about keyboard shortcuts like that? My brother taught me about copy and paste shortcuts while I was in undergrad, but I didn’t learn about Ctrl+A or Ctrl+F until I had my master’s degree and was in my first office job. (And my old boss, who’d been in the working world for almost forty years, *never* learned those things.)

      1. ZSD*

        My point being that it doesn’t seem strange to me for someone with a BA to be unfamiliar with a lot of those shortcuts. However, the rest of what you’re describing sounds like reasonable things to criticize, and it makes sense to me that you let him go.

    3. Katie the Fed*

      Yeah – I mean, anyone who has ever managed someone like this knows EXACTLY the kind of situation OP is talking about. It’s really unfortunate and frustrating, but we have a responsibility as managers to look out for our organizations.

  47. North Dakota Jones*

    I would bet this intern is trying to “show initiative” or something with his distribution of the printer docs.

    1. Word Power User*

      Eh. Or he genuinely thinks he’s being helpful. In my current workplace, we do this all the time. Otherwise you’d get a huge backlog of documents piling up at the printer.

  48. A librarian*

    If the intern has done well at university, then he can handle homework. One way for you to get over the guilt of firing him is to give him homework. On the way out, hand him a reading list full of the information and actionable strategies he needs to do better in his next workplace. Some possibilities:

    Time or Newsweek magazine, cover to cover, every week
    The New Dictionary of Cultural Literacy by E.D. Hirsch
    Getting Things Done by David Allen

    1. Tiger Snake*

      You would think that, but I’ve seen so many interns and graduate-hires who believe the words “professional development” are dirty words, much less accept the possibility that they may need to do something tangentially related to work in their own time.

      Having seen a similar intern, my guess is that they would not do the reading, try to lie about it if asked, and claim ignorance if there was real evidence that they had just not done so.

  49. TheBeetsMotel*

    I think part of having an intern is teaching them professional norms and interactions; how to “be” in a workplace, as well as the specifics of the job itself. An intern’s first “real” job will likely have a lot less patience for lack,of professionalism than you’d be expected to have.

    That said, part of teaching professional norms involves teaching that continuing to ignore clear insteuctions has negative consequences. Far better he learn that now, at the beginning of his journey, than lose job after job and wonder why.

  50. AnonAlways*

    So…I guess I am kind of out of it. Internships are jobs now? In my day, back when we still had buggy whips, a internship was unpaid, and it was more a summer mentorship. My gut reaction with this guy would be to pull him in with me, working one on one, and downright instruct him on proper behavior. If he’s my intern, he’s my mentee. Otherwise, you are just dressing up a summer job by calling it an internship. jmo

    1. Liet-Kynes*

      Whether you’re out of it or not, you’re insisting on a definition of “internship” that is limited and not really in keeping with how most people use that term. Yes, there are paid summer internships that are more intended to provide limited work experience and build a resume than to serve as a sort of professional apprenticeship.

    2. Katie the Fed*

      Yes, they’re your mentees. However, if they’re so bad that they’re disruptive to the organization, and require more resources for you to fix/correct their issues than they actually produce, you should cut them loose. Interns are also often a trial run for employment at the organization – why keep someone around if you know they’re not going to work out there.

    3. Observer*

      Actually, even in an unpaid internship that is intended to be primarily to the benefit of the intern, your reaction is not reasonable. Sure, if you take on an intern, you should expect to spend time mentoring that intern. But the intern absolutely SHOULD complete tasks and act in appropriate ways. And the intern absolutely has to follow instructions and definitely avoid doing things he has been told NOT to do.

      If the intern is unable or unwilling to live up to that very basic bargain, then the employer has no obligation to expend the time and effort in mentorship.

      1. Anonymous for this*

        One of the Department of Labor criteria for allowing unpaid internships is that thederives no immediate advantage from the intern’s work “and on occasion, [the employer’s] operations may actually be impeded.”

        So if this is an unpaid internship, I don’t see why some mentoring of the type AnonAlways proposes is out of place.

        1. Ask a Manager* Post author

          “May be impeded” means you may have to spend time teaching the intern how to do things and giving more extensive than usual feedback on their work. It doesn’t mean that part of the deal is fielding a complete lack of ability and refusal to follow instructions.

        2. AcademiaNut*

          I think an appropriate analogy would be classroom work – as a teacher, you expect that students come in needing to be taught the course material, and some students will need more help than others, and you’ll sometimes need to teach them stuff that’s obvious and simple to you. But it’s not reasonable to be expected to give one on one tutoring for hours a day to get a student through a course, no matter how keen they are, and if you’re teaching first year calculus and a student hasn’t grasped basic geometry, you can’t take the time to bring them up to speed.

          So in an internship, you can expect to teach them how to do the work, even when it would be faster to do it yourself, to oversee, correct errors and provide feedback at a level that you might not accept in a full employee, and to give coaching on workplace norms. Spending the internship giving intensive coaching in Life Skills, Basic Human Interaction and General Knowledge is well outside of expectations. And an intern who is unwilling or unable to follow basic instructions should probably be cut loose sooner rather than later, because it will waste everyone’s time.

    4. Falling Diphthong*

      All of my daughter’s internships have been paid. (Two in high school, three in college.) She’s in the hard sciences, where I think that’s the norm.

  51. silvertech*

    I used to have an employee like this, a direct report. He totally drove everyone crazy with his complete and utter incapability to follow tasks, even the most basic ones, and inability to learn anything, from professional demeanour inside the office and with clients, to taking notes that he would later understand. He was completely clueless and helpless. My bosses were unwilling to fire him and one day he made a costly mistake, one that could have soured the relationship with a big client (we bend over backwards to fix it and no data was lost – we were IT folks – but still…)
    The point is, do not let this fester, it will be to the detriment of everyone, including the intern.

  52. m00nstar*

    I had to fire an intern who didn’t understand that you couldn’t sleep while in an all-hands meeting with the CEO looking right at you. And it wasn’t the first time he’d fallen asleep at work. I really hope that between his being fired and speaking with the University program that placed him that it made a difference.

    I don’t know how I inherited two sleepers in the same team, but I have a full-time employee who has done this. Last week I told him if he did it again, he would be placed on a performance improvement plan, which is the last step towards termination. Did he understand that being awake while being paid to do a job was a *basic requirement of employment?*

    I can’t understand how either of these guys thinks it’s okay? And the excuses! “Oh, I didn’t get enough sleep last night (again).” Too bad, make it work, or take the day off!

    1. bunniferous*

      Please insist that employee get a sleep study. If he or she has sleep apnea, ypu would be saving their life.

      My husband’s boss and coworker insisted he have one years ago. He was diagnosed with severe sleep apnea. Once he got a cpap machine he was a new person!

      1. Ask a Manager* Post author

        You can’t actually insist that an employee get a particular medical test or particular medical treatment. You can suggest it, but that’s as far as you can go with it.

        You can order a “fitness for duty” exam if the employee appears physically or mentally unfit to perform the essential functions of the job, but you can’t insist on specific tests.

      2. Liet-Kynes*

        “Please insist that employee get a sleep study. If he or she has sleep apnea, ypu would be saving their life.”

        Are you kidding? An employer doesn’t have the standing to insist that an employee undergo medical treatment! That’d be such an egregious violation of boundaries I can’t even frame it in words. The boss might, on a personal level, be in good standing to say something like, “Hey, Dweezil, you might want to get a sleep study, if you’re feeling unrested after full nights of sleep you might have sleep apnea,” but beyond that, nope.

    2. Anonymous for this*

      There are genuine medical conditions where people may fall asleep suddenly.

      There is also the basic point of human biology: that people tend to get sleepy for short periods in the mid-afternoon. I think that offices (particularly in places like law firms, where working very late is the norm) that provide a “nap room” are onto something.

  53. Rebecca*

    As a worker in an office, I think every future coworker is saying “please fire this intern!”. Hopefully this will give him the wake up call he needs so he can adjust his work style and not drive everyone around him crazy in the future.

    True story: I worked at a company and the president’s son was a bit like this guy. Of course, because he was the president’s son, he had to have a job, so he went from department to department, never staying in one place for very long. His last job was in inventory (apparel manufacturing). His sole responsibility was to do spot inventory checks. He submitted an inventory report once that showed we had 2 million pair of heavy wool socks on hand in our warehouse. For reference, socks were received in large boxes, maybe 40″ x 18″ by 12″, something like that, I just remember that even though I’m tall, I couldn’t reach the bottom of the box when I picked orders…and held 72 pair or so…and when you do the math, 2 million pair of socks would have equated out to over 27,777 boxes of just socks…or about 139,000 cubic feet of socks. In reality, we probably had 2,000 pair on hand, and if he would have just thought about this for a minute, he would have realized the error. At that time, the company wouldn’t have shipped a million total units of every single thing in a year, let alone 2 million pairs of socks!! This was just the icing on the cake of all the bad reporting he had submitted along the way. This of course caused a huge uproar, but no one wanted to tell the President his son was worthless as an employee, so the poor guy got “laid off” when his Dad stepped down from the President’s seat. To this day, he struggles to find a job and keep a job, and I’m convinced that if long ago, he had a wake up call, his life may have turned out differently.

  54. Ramona Flowers*

    Of everything in the letter it was actually the printer thing that bothered me the most. Respecting other people’s stuff and not doing ‘favours’ you’ve been told are categorically not helpful, well, that’s a big deal in my book. I did wonder if OP has asked him why he keeps doing it and done an AAM-style “can you do that” but it’s really just a symptom.

    1. Turtle Candle*

      That’s the part that stood out to me. The rest of it could maybe be chalked up to being not a detail-oriented person/being socially awkward/having major knowledge gaps (for whatever reason). But being told “don’t do the thing” and continuing to not just do the thing but to leap up and do the thing is frankly bizarre. I suppose if the LW has been soft-pedaling the “don’t do the thing” they could try being blunt about it first, but it does not make me hopeful that this is going to work out even with clear instructions.

      It’s just so odd. I can see thinking it was helpful and having to be told not to do it, but continuing afterwards…? What?

    2. Jane Dough*

      I work with many people who print confidential documents. Handling print-outs that aren’t yours is a HUGE no-no. He wouldn’t have gotten more than one shot from several managers I know.

  55. ellis55*

    I agree focus on the performance stuff, but I would push back a tiny bit on the “can’t address other personality things” advice. Certainly it’s not worth spending a lot of time here, but in a previous role I managed interns. We got a pretty steady stream of them from a variety of schools and due to the fairly nerdy nature of our work as well as our proximity to a few universities that were good schools but that catered to the home-school crowd, well. We got some weird ones and they really were served by some light correction – with the goal of helping them with Being in an Office. It’s different than school and some folks can be a little obtuse about the subtle differences, particularly if their other habits are things that might be rewarded in, say, some “gifted” programs that really don’t encourage even healthy conformity.

    It’s okay to occasionally say something like, “Hey, it helps with clients and coworkers to stay a little in the loop on current events, etc. I know they don’t go over some of this in school, but here’s some news/other sites I browse in my down-time.”

    or, “It seems like you’re asking a lot of questions because you’re not absorbing the information. The office norm is a little different than the school one – we really need to feel like you’re getting it the first time, unlike with a professor who works with you on an ongoing basis with each assignment. What might help you do that?”

    or even, “Can you tell me why you’re having so much difficulty not bringing print-outs around? We really need you to focus on the feedback of your supervisor above all else, even if people are thanking you when you do it.”

    and finally, “It can be disruptive to re-focus a conversation around a basic premise. If there’s something you don’t know or understand, it’s okay to dip out and focus on your work. You don’t need to be a part of every interaction to be successful. As an intern, it’s often more about listening and processing information than participating.”


    1. Salamander*

      This is really, really good feedback. It’s kind, true, and helpful.

      And I think that you’ve hit upon something that’s important making the transition from school to the work world…that the intern has to take responsibility for her own learning. Not everyone around is available to answer infinite questions or cater to gaps in knowledge. It’s important for everyone to learn how to try to figure out answers themselves before always defaulting to tugging on the shirttails of the nearest person for a quick answer. It’s more efficient for the intern, but can become a huge pain for everyone else if it’s a disruptive pattern.

    2. Elsajeni*

      I think these are great scripts, and I also think you’ve hit on something in a couple of them that might explain some of his weirdness — there are no points for class participation in the workplace! I mean, even in school, ideally the questions you ask should be relevant, but in a lot of classes it would also be fine to say “Wait, could you explain what you meant about Somalia?” even if it’s sort of beside the point. I wonder if part of the issue with him derailing conversations is that he’s trying to show interest and engagement, and not realizing that he’s coming off more “ignorant” than “curious.”

  56. Starkitten*

    I was the lead for an employee who was like this (social weirdness; he once asked me how to make a doctor appointment, as well as performance issues; he once left an urgent task unfinished without notifying anyone because it was his time to go home). I had the blunt, direct coaching talk that Allison suggested with him, and he quit within a day. So having that talk may resolve the problem for you!

  57. consultant*

    I actually worked with a similar person on my previous project. The funny thing about him was that everybody and independently from one another wanted to kill him after working with him for just a few days (“May I ask you something? I don’t want to sound negative but I’ve just been working with x for a few day and could you please tell me whether he’s always behaving like that?”).

    And yes, in his case it was clear that some psychological problems were involved.

    He still managed to get promoted and have a better salary than I do, I guess thanks to his incredible self-confidence and/ or good looks. Otherwise I can’t explain how a person lacking basic common sense (“So you don’t want to help me because I didn’t help you when you needed it last times? How is that even related?”, “I always do it like this” – no matter that his doing this like this caused huge problems for the rest of us and that changing his way of doing it wouldn’t cause him additional effort at all). I guess the guy I met was your intern several years later.

      1. consultant*

        :) Yeah, but in the series everybody was positive and uncritical towards Jon Hamm and with the guy I described everybody was furious with him (everybody apart from our PM who used to tell him he was handsome and treat him as a funny guy :).

        The project we worked on was in a very beautiful European city none of us had known. So we figured, we wanted to stay at a different hotel every week just to get to know the city a bit. Working 8 am-8 pm none of us had the energy to take a long trip to sightsee after work, but staying in different parts of the city we could see bits. It’s important to mention that our management wanted to save some money, so they pressurised us to stay at the same hotel to share the taxi in the morning/ evening.

        I recommended him one hotel at the beginning (I know, it was my fault…) and the guy wouldn’t stay anywhere else. We tried to convince him for hours. He wouldn’t go anywhere else, because in that hotel he gained loyalty points and was given a free drink during every week of stay. Obviously there were plenty of hotels from the same chain in the city, so we could move to another hotel from the chain and would gain his points. And even get a free drink every 4 days. But he wouldn’t accept that. You know a free drink once a week is such a treat you shouldn’t risk going to another hotel and losing the privilege. (As a senior management consultant he earns really a lot of money – definitely enough to buy a drink :).

  58. Anon for this one*

    Others have said similar things, but I wanted to share that I am what you might call well educated (went to expensive private elementary school/high school and a good liberal arts college) and I always did very well in school but don’t know a lot of stuff you might expect—or I know it on a very superficial level. Like, I know who Abraham Lincoln is but if you pressed me for more than the most basic info about him it would mostly be from the Spielberg film… It’s partly because up until I graduated 12th grade I exclusively attended Waldorf schools, and they were somewhat weak academically—the bar was pretty low, especially in high school, and it was easy to slack off but still get good grades. I graduated good at art, among other things, but with v. little knowledge of history, science, math, etc. In college we had distribution requirements, but I got around some of them by taking, for example, a literature class that somehow fulfilled my history requirement. (Partly because I was intimidated by/ill prepared to succeed in college-level history courses!) I am super ignorant about history—in a less extreme way than the OP’s intern, but it’s still something I’m kind of ashamed of and that might surprise you given my educational background. My pop culture literacy is also pretty patchy, since Waldorf discourages TV- and movie-watching in elementary school.

    Just sharing to say that you never can tell! You can be educated/successful and still not know a lot of things. It sounds to me like the problem is less a lack of knowledge than it is how the intern is handling it (interrupting to ask questions, etc.), and that that’s what you should address if you choose to give him a chance instead of firing him. If he were navigating his lack of knowledge in a more appropriate way, it might raise eyebrows but I bet it would feel like way less of an issue, OP.

    1. Lady Andthetramp*

      I almost sent my kid to a Waldorf school but when I went to the parent information meeting (my oldest was 5 at the time) and I told them my kid already knew the alphabet and basic math they asked me to stop teaching her those things and I just couldn’t wrap my head around it. I also had a neighbor whose son went to the school and when I asked him how he liked it he said it was good – but they were REALLY into fairies. Between those 2 things we ended up sending them elsewhere. I’m interested to know if you have regrets? Or was the education you received valuable enough for the deficits to be worth it?

      1. Gazebo Slayer*

        I learned to read at 3 and read incessantly from that age. I was unhappy in public school, but I’d have been a neverending explosion of rage at a school where I was forbidden from reading and strictly policed in terms of what I was allowed to read once they finally let me. I knew some kids who went to Waldorf schools and… the schools seemed have really bizarre rigid ideas about what was developmentally appropriate age by age.

        1. Anon for this one*

          Maybe I’m too late returning to this thread & I don’t have time for a long comment, but I just want to say that I taught myself to read at 3 and was never penalized for this at my Waldorf school! They didn’t teach reading til 3rd grade but certainly never forbade kids from reading before then. In reply to Lady Andthetramp above, I don’t have regrets, I think I got a lot out of my education—some more concrete stuff, and some of it intangible & difficult to quantify—but I might send my own kids to Waldorf schools for the early years… but maybe not for middle school and high school!

    2. Delta Delta*

      One of my very best friends in college was the same. She was really bright but just didn’t know certain things. She said things like, “wait, they take taxes out of your paycheck?!” and “you mean it’s legal for people to mow their own lawns? I assumed everyone’s gardener did it!” Not rudely, but just because she just didn’t know. I think she did some early education in a Waldorf setting. I do know her parents sheltered her A LOT. Now in hindsight, she mentions that some things she did and said were totally boneheaded, but she knows it’s because she legitimately didn’t know any different. And for what it’s worth, she now has a very high-level career, is generally awesome, and I love her to bits. But wow, 20 years ago – was exactly like this kid.

      1. Gazebo Slayer*

        “You mean it’s legal for people to mow their own lawns? I assumed everyone’s gardener did it!”

        Oh. My. God. I don’t even know where to start. I’m so glad she’s grown past that.

  59. Adlib*

    I trained a guy who was a former field tech person turned office worker. He knew the field, but office stuff was a little beyond him. I told him probably 5 times not to print off a duplicate once, and he still kept doing it. Not a fireable offense but just super annoying.

  60. Liz T*

    I think the oddest part about the WW2 thing is the idea that he’d know there WAS a World War, but not know we fought in it. I figured if Americans knew one thing about that war it was WE WON USA!!!1!!!!

      1. AvonLady Barksdale*

        That’s my assumption, but unless the OP shows up here, we can’t know. I am waiting for her to come back and tell us for sure!

        1. Katie the Fed*

          Right but Alison may not have published the letter right away. It sure sounds like the same guy.

            1. Katie the Fed*

              I’m reading this two days later, but that blows my mind. There are TWO of these guys?!

    1. Umvue*

      The thing I find amazing about the descriptions here is the range of stuff that surprises this guy. Like, I can imagine super-ignorance about academic stuff, and I can imagine super-ignorance about everyday stuff, but I haven’t personally encountered anyone who has both limitations.

      1. Liet-Kynes*

        The more remarkable issue, in my eyes, is that he feels it’s appropriate to send out company-wide emails marveling at staplers, and to gush at length about helicopters in work meetings. There’s a stunning lack of understanding of propriety and behavioral norms at work there.

    2. Helena*

      I don’t believe it’s the same person. The timeline doesn’t match up.

      According to the OP of the open thread post, the internship in the open thread was from March 1 to June 30. The OP of this letter wrote that the internship runs over the summer. Unless Alison published a months old letter (forgive me – I don’t know the process or how long it takes to publish responses) it would have to be a different person. The internship in the open thread would be over in 4 days from now but the OP of this letter says they are only a month into the internship And in the open thread post it’s clear the person in charge will not fire the intern and says they are there to stay but the OP of this this letter that their boss has given the green light to fire him. The facts just don’t match IMO.

  61. Mila*

    Great advice from Alice as always. One hint unrelated to the story but yet very important – does Alice know that her blog sends readers to malicious websites randomly while simply reading and not clickingon anything? This happens to me a lot while reading the blog on my smartphone. Suddenly I am redirected to some website that alarms me “a virus has been found on your iPhone!” (obviously I don’t install whatever they prompt me to, but it’s still difficult to get out of this annoying trap)

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      I don’t know who this Alice is, but I am Alison :)

      Yeah, there’s been a flood of it recently and we’re working on stopping it. For some people, clearing their cache and cookies has solved it.

  62. Hillia*

    I’m reminded of an incident in The Bell Jar (Sylvia Plath’s autobiographical novel). Sylvia Plath was an American poet and author, showed great promise early and won numerous awards, scholarships, etc. She was attending Smith University and had just completed a prestigious guest editorship in NYC when she had a nervous breakdown. During this time, she felt that she couldn’t handle the pressures of academic life at Smith, and decided to transfer to the local public college where her mother worked. She was shocked to discover that she didn’t possess a fourth of the qualifications that school required; as a literary prodigy at Smith, she had been free to concentrate entirely on topics that interested her and ignore those that didn’t, so she had huge gaps in her education. Even at Smith, she was able to talk her way out of a required chemistry class by proposing that they just give her an A, since she always got A’s, and she’d just sit through the class and audit it.

  63. Amy Cakes*

    I know it’s not helpful to say, but I want to hang out with this intern a bit. Just to open the watch and fiddle with the gears.

  64. Tiger Snake*

    I’m going to encourage the OP to keep an eye on how this person is affecting the general attitude of your office. When we had a similar intern, I ended up this close to telling my manager it was her or me, because I just couldn’t work with her anymore. It was the first time I’d honestly considered quitting my job, I was that miserable.

    My manager asked me to teach her. I’d taught a dozen interns before, but this was a completely different experience. She failed to retain information, could not make even simple logical leaps (“Tiger Snake told me to paint the last teapot spout green because it needed to match the lid colour. But this teapot lid is red. I don’t know which colour to use!”), repeatedly asked really basic industry questions that could be answered just by looking at google or the introductory documentation I gave her. Worst of all, she would not TRY; if I gave her a task, told her to do her best and I’ll review what you’ve done later, she’d just sit there for days and not even attempt to do it on her own.

    It was the singularly most demoralising thing ever. I was leaving each day feeling like an abject failure. I spent so much of my personal time trying to research ways to just get her to engage, switch on and teach her in a way that she would remember basic tasks day to day. I spent hours of extra time with her each day, trying just to get her to walk through step one of basic tasks and being constantly derailed by questions she had asked before. My happiness and health plummeted.

    I feel very lucky that my manager took my concerns seriously, tried to teach her themselves instead, and when that failed sent her to do busy work for the rest of her internship.

  65. nonegiven*

    What happens to Amish kids that don’t come back from Rumspringa? Do they turn into this intern?

  66. CS*

    A friend who interrupts other people’s conversations regularly has been reprimanded by her boss at work. She seemed hurt after the meeting and told “us” about it. She apparently was not aware that other people try to talk.

    The circle of friends have mentioned and are aware how she interrupts, but we did not have enough guts to tell her directly. We have been relieve that her boss had such a conversation with her. She has been trying hard not to interrupt others afterwards: She understood that such a behaviour may cost her professionally in the future.

  67. Managing to get by*

    I think the quirks and the performances are related. He probably went to a perfectly normal high school and took all the classes we’d expect. But some of the information, like Abe Lincoln and WWII and ham, didn’t quite sink in. It went to the same place as instructions like don’t take print jobs of the printer, and look for ALL the errors while proof reading. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that he can’t retain simple instructions and is also missing so much common knowledge.

  68. Jaybeetee*

    I’ve never worked with interns, but I have worked with some seriously bad temps. I’ve worked with Falling Asleep Randomly temps. I’ve worked with Mistaken For a Patient Because We Worked at a Medical Facility (But We Did Not Work With Patients) temps. I’ve worked with I Actually Think This Guy Is A Serial Killer temps. I’ve generally found that while you want to give people chances to turn it around, you often know pretty quickly when someone just isn’t going to work, and it does everyone a favour to cut the cord quickly. Usually those low performers don’t really want to be there anyway. It frees them up to find something more suitable, frees you guys up to find someone more suitable.

    In particular with Mistaken For A Patient temp, it was apparent basically from Day 1 that this woman was incapable of doing the job. But our manager was too nice, didn’t want to bring the hammer down, and kept giving her chances to improve. It took over a month to get rid of her. All it did was hurt morale for the people trying to drag her through training (which was usually 1-2 weeks in that job, closer to 6 weeks with her by the time the manager finally gave up), who didn’t feel listened to when we said she just wasn’t picking it up. That said, he learned the lesson, and the future bad temps were usually let go within a few weeks.

  69. Willow*

    Sounds a bit like my coworker. He does try, at least, but because he has basic literacy issues, I cannot take all my vacation time. I’ve tried the going to boss with screen shots thing…nothing was fine, so I am giving up and looking for another job. Have an interview next week. Oh yeah, my job is data entry from forms, so you have to be able to read.

  70. Maryann Weber*

    What are you waiting for? For him to screw up big-time? What if his next mistake costs the company tens of thousands of dollars? How would you justify that to your boss, who has already agreed to the personnel action?

    And don’t think you’re not doing the young man a favor. No feedback means no chance to change or improve.

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