my office thinks I insulted a coworker, colleague refuses to take my input, and more

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

1. My office thinks I insulted a coworker but I didn’t mean it like that

I work for a small nonprofit. I have one boss and about 14 coworkers with whom I’m “office friendly,” meaning I don’t socialize outside of work/discuss personal matters. Though I’ve been employed the longest, I know very little about people’s personal lives.

The other day my coworker “Susan” came into the office carrying a rock she’d found on a hike. She showed it to me saying that she thought it was a fossil and wanted to ask “Nancy,” our volunteer coordinator, what it was. Without thinking, I laughed and said, “Whatever would Nancy know about fossils? That’s not her background.” Susan gave me a strange look and walked away.

Later that day, our boss called me into her office, shut the door, and told me that “accusing a coworker of falsifying information on her resume is a serious issue.” She then asked me for proof that Nancy had lied. Apparently, Nancy has advanced degrees in paleontology and had taught at our local junior college before switching fields and joining our team. I confessed that I had no idea; what I said to Susan was based my not knowing Nancy’s background. The idea seemed ridiculous: Nancy coordinates volunteers at a nonprofit that has nothing to do with science. How was I to know her background? My response didn’t go over well. I received a verbal warning as well as “advice” about being more aware of how my words came across.

I was also asked to apologize to Nancy – which I reluctantly did. She accepted my apology, but seemed strangely hurt. I still feel that I did nothing wrong. I was merely responding to something that sounded silly to me; the others blew it all out of proportion. My boss said that my words had come across as “dismissive and sexist” because I’m a man and it sounded like I’d assumed Nancy wasn’t really a scientist. I did assume that, but not because she was a woman, because she’s working in a field that has absolutely nothing to do with her scientific background. What say you? Was I out of line? I want to return to friendly terms with my boss and coworkers, but I don’t want admit unwarranted guilt.

Yeah, your original comment was a little rude. If you didn’t know anything about Nancy’s background, it doesn’t really make sense that you scoffed at the idea that she could know about fossils (as opposed to saying something like, “Oh, I didn’t realize she knew about fossils”). And that does play right into some sexist tropes, even if you didn’t intend it to.

That said, your boss characterizing it as “accusing a coworker of falsifying information on her resume” is weird. That makes me wonder if this might be part of a pattern where you’ve been perceived to be dismissive or sexist before. If you’ve had that kind of feedback before, or gotten the sense people were taking you that way, I’d take this as a flag that it’s a serious problem with the way you’re perceived and your relationships with coworkers.

If not, and this is genuinely the first time this has come up, I’d still apologize. The comment was insulting, even if you didn’t intend it to be, and that alone warrants an apology. You could add that you realize now that it played right into a particular type of sexism that women in science have to deal with and that you’re resolving to be more thoughtful about that in the future.

2. Coworker refused to take the input I was hired to give

I started a six-month contract two weeks ago as an “expert” in a fairly technical field. Expert is in quotes because I’m really just someone with a great deal of experience (35+ years generally, 20 years with this specific technology). Part of the my job is to review other folk’s work, and “Ned” posted a change for comment that broke one of the basic rules in the field. I politely suggested a better way, and he replied by saying that he’s sticking with his solution.

Ned’s been with the organization about 10 years and is very bright, so my inclination is to leave it — except that I was hired (in my mind) to prevent exactly this kind of poor craftsmanship.

I think I may have to talk with the director who hired me to figure out how to deal with this. It’s a small group, and I don’t want to get off on the wrong foot — Ned’s been very helpful in orienting me. Consulting is hard.

The best way to approach it with the director is to frame it as asking for clarification about your role and about how she wants you to handle situations like this. For example: “Can I check with you about something? I ran into a situation this week where (describe situation). In a case like that, do you want me to do anything further after I flag the issue? If the person wants to move forward with their initial approach anyway, should I figure that’s their call at that point?”

3. I think I offended a client

I give private music lessons, often in people’s homes. About a month ago, I arrived and the youngest child didn’t know where her materials were, and said she hadn’t prepared. Normally I swallow this with a smile, but this time I chastised the child and brought the situation to the attention of her older siblings. This was obviously inappropriate and wrong! I should have brought it up with the parent, and only with the child in a polite, positive, or funny way. A few days later I emailed an apology to the mother (a real apology). I apologized directly to the child the following week (she said “thanks”) and a few weeks later apologized directly to the oldest child. However, the apology email was never acknowledged.

The mother is now giving me what seems to be the silent treatment — she does not show herself during lessons, she does not say hello or goodbye. The father now sits in the youngest child’s lesson (which is actually a win — I need parents in the lessons of young children). Since he never did before and now suddenly does every week, I imagine it was directed by her or decided by him, or both. He is pleasant and does not refer to the incident. The kids seem as happy and willing to play as ever, nothing seems wrong there.

What do I do? I would apologize to her directly if I could. I thought about finding her in the house, but I don’t want to create a scene. Background: I’ve been working with this family for six years, all without problems, in fact, they have been very vocally happy with me in the past. They do have a habit of leaving their children to work out their own practice, which is fine philosophically, but often frustrating practically. I think that’s probably why I snapped that day.

I’d let it go. You’ve apologized to everyone involved, and they might not think it’s as big of a deal as you do. It’s possible the mother has other stuff going on and you’re assuming it’s about you when it’s not. Or who knows, maybe it is about you! But you’ve apologized to her, and if she wants to be chilly for a while, hunting her down for another apology probably isn’t going to change that (and risks seeming very weird if she’s moved on).

It’s true that the father might be sitting in on the lessons to monitor you, but he also might be sitting in because the youngest child not being prepared made them realize she needed more parental involvement.

4. People try to make me work when I’m in my workplace on my days off

I work at a nursing home as a nurse, and my mother is a resident there. When I come in to visit her on my day off, is it fair that they ask me to attend work-related meetings and ask me work-related questions when I just want to see my mom and have a nice visit? I should be treated like a family member, not as an employee at those moments!

Yep, you’re absolutely right. When you’re there visiting your mom, you’re there in your capacity as a relative, not as an employee. It’s ridiculous that they’re asking you to attend work meetings during that time! (Work-related questions are a little less outrageous as long as they’re just occasional and truly time-sensitive, but ideally they wouldn’t be doing that either.)

The next time you’re there visiting and they attempt to pull you into a meeting, try saying, “Oh, I’m not working today. I’m just here visiting my mom and then I’ll need to leave.” If it keeps happening, you’ll need a bigger picture conversation with your manager, but simply being very firm about your boundaries (“no, I can’t do that, this is my time to visit my mom”) might solve most of it. And with the work questions, try, “I’m visiting my mom right now and need to focus on her rather than answering work questions, but I’ll be back on the clock on Tuesday morning.”

5. When is a reference too old?

I have someone who worked for me 10 years ago at a summer camp who frequently contacts me and asks me to be a reference for him as he applies for new jobs. I like him and he was a good employee, but we’re now both in careers unrelated to what we did when he worked for me, and the frequency that he asks seems … excessive … which may be why he’s still asking someone he worked for 10 years ago to be a reference. The companies do call me, and if I don’t answer (often due to doing my job or because of a time zone difference) I usually get a text or email from him freaking out. At what point is a reference too aged for an employee to use?

There’s no one point where a reference is too old — it depends on how long you worked together, how closely, and in what capacity. But 10 years is getting pretty stale (especially if it was 10 years for a summer job, which it sounds like it might be), both because the work you’re familiar with is so old and because it gets harder to speak about someone’s work with nuance when this much time has gone by.

It wouldn’t be unreasonable for you to explain to him that with so much time having passed since you last worked together, you don’t feel equipped to provide a nuanced reference at this point and that it would be better to use other, more recent references. If he seems alarmed, you could offer to do it if he’s really in a bind, but ask that you not be one of his primary ones.

Alternately, if your main objection is the frequency and urgency, you could say, “I’m happy to keep doing it, but I need you to be okay with there being a potential delay in my response, both because of work priorities and the time difference. If you need someone who’s always available right away, I’m not the right person to use.”

{ 1,246 comments… read them below }

  1. Ask a Manager* Post author

    A reminder: If you want to comment here, you need to be polite, even when you disagree with someone else. That includes giving letter writers and fellow commenters the benefit of the doubt, per the commenting rules.

    I will remove comments that don’t abide by that.

    (I will also sleep and be away from the computer at times, so if you see a rude comment, that doesn’t mean it’s passed some kind of acceptability filter; it means I haven’t seen it yet. Do not take that as provocation to be rude in return.)

  2. Annette*

    If your defense is you didn’t know her background. Then why did you say “that’s not her background.” That would only make sense if you knew for a fact she had a PhD in literature. Even then. People can know about different things. And academic job market = many PhDs work in fields unrelated to degree. As many know.

    Your boss may be OTT. But why dig your heels in when you hurt someone and were wrong. Consider that you also made Susan sound dumb. Why would she ask someone who knew nothing about fossils to have a look.

    1. JamieS*

      He said that because she’s a volunteer coordinator so he assumed that or something similar was her background. Clearly he was wrong.

      1. Annette*

        He did not say that. It seems he never gave her background a thought. Until the conversation with Susan.

        1. Sylvan*

          “ I confessed that I had no idea; what I said to Susan was based my not knowing Nancy’s background. The idea seemed ridiculous: Nancy coordinates volunteers at a nonprofit that has nothing to do with science.“

          I would make the same assumption as OP. Why guess that a volunteer coordinator is a (former?) scientist? Should people who only know my work, which is 0% psychology, guess that I have a BA in psychology?

          1. JunieB*

            No, but it’d be odd for them to hear someone mention wanting to ask you about a psychological phenomenon and confidently say that you couldn’t possibly know anything about it.

            I run into this a lot, as a woman with degrees in biochemistry and behavior analysis who works in an elementary school as a para. I don’t expect people to know or anticipate my background, but it’s irritating when they make assumptions and don’t consider other possibilities even when those possibilities are brought up by others.

            1. Sylvan*

              Odd, yeah, but more of a misunderstanding stated rudely than the type of insult aimed at women *known* to be experts to undermine them.

              Not that my BA makes me an expert. LOL. Talking about the sexist behavior trope here, how I’ve seen it affect other women.

              1. Tallulah in the Sky*

                That. OP’s comment was rude, and instead of wallowing in the injustice of it all, should be taking a good look at himself and wonder why his female colleagues reacted that way.

                But context matters too. Between a colleague asking me “How do you know that ?” and an old college classmate when we studied art history together asking me the same thing, it just isn’t the same.

                OP’s comment was rude, and it was sexist, no need to compare it to something worse for those statements to be justified.

                1. Not So NewReader*

                  Context here is super important I think. OP says that he has been there the longest but does not know anything about cohorts personal lives. This probably means that they don’t know anything about him either. Unfortunately, this means they will fill in their own blanks. “Man says woman does not know anything about fossils.” If they knew OP better, maybe the coworker could have said, “Hey, Bob, that sounds like something I don’t think you mean.” And she could have explained it from there.
                  Or maybe not. But I kind of think that probably that she would have said something in the moment if she felt she could. I have said things to people and people have said things to me. It starts with, “I don’t think you mean what that sounds like…”

                2. OhGee*

                  I got stuck on “I want to return to friendly terms with my boss and coworkers, but I don’t want admit unwarranted guilt.” I hope OP will think long and hard about why he feels *guilt* is the only reason to apologize to someone.

                  OP seems to be very much on the defensive here, but I hope he’ll see it as a learning opportunity. Specifically, I hope he’s learned that, if you haven’t bothered to find anything out about people in your life, best not to react unkindly when someone mentions something about them that seems unbelievable to you. Of course he couldn’t believe his colleague would know a thing about fossils – he hasn’t trouble himself to learn a thing about her. (And imagine if the colleague who found the rock on a hike didn’t “look like a hiker” to him, and he scoffed about that! Yikes.)

                  If that’s the attitude he’s going to take at work, he should take caution in situations like this. I think he’s bristling because he’s being accused of sexism (and I *do* think there was some degree of sexism involved in his rude reaction), but this kind of misunderstanding can come up in lots of other ways: religion, parenting, political beliefs, etc.

                3. Falling Diphthong*

                  OP’s instinctive reaction being to laugh and dismiss the idea that a coworker could know anything about fossils, rather than “Really, I didn’t realize she knew about fossils. Huh” suggests this was part of a pattern of dismissive behavior.

                  If you know nothing about someone’s background (drawing skills, ability to speak Flemish, etc) then “Why? That’s not her background?” is not a logical response to make to anything.

                4. Coyote Tango*

                  Yeah I’d tend to agree with this. It’s not unreasonable to think that maybe the person wouldn’t have a background in fossils (I mean, that’s a pretty niche knowledge area) but why was the response not “Oh, I didn’t realize Susan had that kind of background, neat!” instead of a resounding declaration that she wouldn’t know it. Even if she wasn’t a paleontologist plenty of people have niche hobbies that would make them more knowledgable than the average person.

                5. Fortitude Jones*

                  OP says that he has been there the longest but does not know anything about cohorts personal lives.

                  Yeah, this is the problem here. OP knows nothing about the people he works with, so why did he feel the need to comment at all? You can think something sounds ludicrous in your own mind, but that doesn’t mean you actually have to verbalize it. I’m not personally close to most of my coworkers either, so when they say stuff I didn’t know about each other, I just make the mental note and keep it moving without saying anything because I don’t know these people like that – it’s not my place to comment.

                6. JM60*

                  It was a little rude, but it’s not sexist unless he wouldn’t have said it if the coworker was a man.

              2. traffic_spiral*

                Yeah, a misunderstanding that was probably based in part on the fact that she was a woman. I mean, if I hear 2 people talking about some subject, one of them is talking like they know something about it, and I know nothing of the subject (so I can’t tell if the facts are right or wrong) or the person’s background, I might think “huh, wonder where they learned that?”

                To automatically jump to “they couldn’t *possibly* know that” implies a certain amount of prejudice. One does wonder if a man in the same situation would have st least gotten the benefit of “huh, maybe he’s really into rock-collecting.”

                1. Thursday Next*

                  Right, I think if OP had asked a question—“oh, are fossils a hobby of hers?”—he might have been able to elicit information about her background (“Actually, she has a degree in paleontology”) through a courteous exchange.

                  It’s all about the starting assumptions we make, and what underpins those assumptions. Someone merely surprised or curious is more likely to say something that expresses curiosity (or let the comment pass).

                2. Not So NewReader*

                  Both men and women can know a lot of stuff that they do not use in their current job. My husband’s degree was in labor relations. He never used the degree. He went on to become a techie repairing machines. He was kind of surprising to bosses who wanted to talk about labor law. All of the sudden he was rattling off laws, dates, cases etc. Where did that come from and how come he never mentioned it before?

                  It’s generally rude to make assumptions about people’s knowledge limits. Unfortunately for OP in this instance he has the additional layer in that the person was a woman. For the long term OP will make out much better by not assuming anything about anyone. I know in making my own adjustments I can be blindsided by the extent of what I need to rethink. I don’t think it’s a problem to say that we all need to rethink from time to time, I think the problem comes in when we DON’T rethink what we are doing.

                3. always in email jail*

                  Exactly what Thursday Next said, I probably would have been like “Oh, I didn’t realize Susan was interested in fossils!” which would have elicited “yes she actually has an extensive professional background in paleontology, isn’t that interesting?” “Wow, I had no idea! That’s so cool!”
                  That’s a lot different than just assuming there’s no reason to ask her about fossils… which also shows you defaulted to assuming the coworker with a rock didn’t have a good reason (making it kind of offensive to her, too)

            2. Ellex*

              My mother has run into this repeatedly. She has a degree in early childhood education, decades of continuing education, and a lot of specialized experience in educating young children with disabilities. But because she’s now semi-retired and works part time doing home care for the elderly and disabled, a lot of people assume that she has no or little secondary education or work experience.

              I run into it as well. I’ve had a number of jobs that have no relation to what I do now. Just because I don’t currently work with horses, or in a library, or in accounting, doesn’t mean I couldn’t possibly have any background or education in those fields.

              I’m frankly puzzled by the letter writer’s seemingly automatic assumption that someone he admits to knowing little about couldn’t have any knowledge in a subject that isn’t related to their work. It may or may not be subconscious sexism, but it certainly makes him sound very inexperienced or the type of person who is super-focused on work to the exclusion of all else.

              1. Seeking Second Childhood*

                In the early 70s my father taught me not to assume anything, just treat people politely and *ASK* if you have a need to know.
                He knew executives who did their own engine repairs so might walk into town in grease-stained shorts to buy oil & parts ….for their yacht or Porsche.
                He knew doctors and bankers who worked food service or as custodians because they’d fled Cuba and needed to pay bills until they mastered English & recertified in their new country.
                He quoted Ann Landers : Never assume because when you assume you make an a$$ out of U and me.
                This OP assumed.

                1. Liz*

                  Exactly! never assume, and as others pointed out, had he simply said “oh I didn’t know Nancy had an interest/knew a lot about, etc. fossils, that’s cool” it would have been fine. But his attitude, and i’m going to bet, tone of voice were quite dismissive.

                  There’s a guy who works for the cleaning company in my bldg; not only does he supervise the cleaners at night, but during the day he’s our go to guy for refilling coffee stations, setting up conference rooms with table and chair configurations etc. He’s from another country, and I don’t know his background at all, BUT he speaks four languages. Which is three more than I speak. Not to mention hes’ a really nice guy, and will do anything you ask him to, with a smile.

                2. ket*

                  Exactly. Like Liz, I know a cleaner in one of my buildings at the university who could definitely help you with your differential equations homework and more. He’s a Somalian guy who got his degree in engineering from Moscow State University in the 80s and moved to the US more recently as a refugee. Don’t assume.

              2. MatKnifeNinja*

                I don’t read this as a sexist pig thing, but as a job level/educating needing deal.

                I’ve run across many people who dog laborers, wait staff, security guards…anyone with a job that doesn’t need a degree as less than. Sort of well, if they were smart, they wouldn’t have those jobs.

                In this economy, you certainly can’t assume that.

                My older (65+ year old) relatives are pretty much like OP. The job tells you all you need to know about a person. They build a whole story around who the person is based on their job. It’s maddening, because it’s all based on assumptions.

                The most brilliant person I ever met is a guy who does shoe/leather repair. He is an chemist who graduated from MIT. Worked with polymers. Got bored/burnt out/needed a change of pace. Learn shoe repair/leather working, and has a little shop by me.

                People sometimes think he’s some dingo bat shmoe who couldn’t better himself. He’s authored pages and ran research labs, and was good at chemistry. He needed to change so he did.

                1. Ellex*

                  I’m reminded of Tom and Ray Magliozzi (aka Click and Clack, the Tappet Brothers), long-time hosts of NPR’s Car Talk, who also ran a car repair shop. Both brothers graduated from MIT.

                2. Rainy*

                  Virtually everyone I’ve known who was a volunteer coordinator had an advanced degree, usually (although not always) in something totally unrelated to the organization they were wrangling volunteers for.

                  I know a lot of people with advanced degrees, and once you reach the point where someone you know from your program is graduating and going on the market, at least in my discipline, they are statistically unlikely to ever be employed in anything like our field. Our discipline is useful for a lot of things, but the only direct career it leads to is teaching. The jobs in higher ed are vanishingly rare, and there aren’t even very many jobs in K-12. So most of us scatter into a variety of other non-academic fields.

                3. lemonade*

                  Alice, I don’t think this is the place that MatKnifeNinja’s comment refers to, but Felix’s in Harvard Sq is a great cobbler (at least, it was when I last lived there three years ago, I think it’s still there).

                4. Relentlessly Socratic*

                  Alice: there’s also Davis Square Shoe repair–if Somerville isn ‘t too far out for you.

              3. tangerineRose*

                “I’m frankly puzzled by the letter writer’s seemingly automatic assumption that someone he admits to knowing little about couldn’t have any knowledge in a subject that isn’t related to their work.” This!!

                “I didn’t know she knows about fossils” would have been OK. The LW assumed she didn’t know and said so – kinda rude.

            3. Allison*

              Right. I have a BS in Political Science, but I’m not currently working in that space. I wouldn’t expect people to know about the degree, but it would be insulting if someone assumed I didn’t know anything about politics. Give people the benefit of the doubt when it comes to their knowledge and intelligence, unless they’ve given you reason to believe they’re ignorant in that area.

              1. Anon for this*

                Yeah, people end up in interesting places these days. My father got an advanced degree, decided that field wasn’t for him, and completely changed career paths to go into a different field.

                I’m much more concerned that oP has apparently known these coworkers for a while, and still knows nothing about them. The fact that they are women makes it worse, because it implies that he doesn’t see them as worth getting to know. So that’s definitely something he should be aware of and work on. My coworkers barely come in and mostly work from home, and I still know that one has a degree in a completely different field, and wants to become a farmer some day (three wildly different career paths), one coworker is pursuing the typical for us degree path, and one coworker does random charity stuff in his free time that is only tangentially related to his background. Learning what your coworkers are interested in is not hard, if you care about doing it.

                1. Parenthetically*

                  I read once that upwards of 70% of people with degrees end up in careers unrelated to their degree!

                2. Beanie*

                  I want to give the OP the benefit of doubt here and point out that the fact that his coworkers are women is not necessarily the reason he doesn’t socialize with them. Some people are just very firm about keeping personal and work lives separate. Not everyone likes to socialize at work.

                3. Aitch Arr*

                  Even if he doesn’t socialize with them, he could at least look at their LinkedIn or intranet bio or something and find out about them.

                4. Paulina*

                  I think that the boss’s reaction (that the OP’s statement was accusing Nancy of falsifying her background), and Susan’s strange look, both indicate that Nancy’s background is well known around the office. They assumed that the OP knew and was contradicting it, because they considered her background to be common knowledge and he’s been there longer than any of them. And sure, it’s fine for the OP to keep himself apart from things that aren’t strictly work, and not know his colleagues’ backgrounds, but then he really needs to not make definitive statements about something that he is deliberately remaining ignorant of.

                5. JM60*

                  It’s a bit of a stretch to assume that the reason he doesn’t get to know his coworkers is because they’re women. Presumably, some of his 14 coworkers are guys, and there’s nothing in the letter indicating that he gets to know them any more than the women.

                  The commenter here on this site tend to be attuned to sexism. However, it seems to me that people are too quickly jumping to conclusions here without evidence that sexism was behind the OP’s mildly (IMO) rude remark.

          2. Akcipitrokulo*

            It’s not that he didn’t know her background. It’s that he stated he DID know that it WASN’T.

            And it was rude.

            Correct response isn’t “she doesn’t have that expertise” but “I didn’t know she had that expertise!”

            1. mcr-red*

              It’s crazy rude and I don’t even know why someone would word it like that. At least 90 percent of the population’s interaction would have been more like this:
              “I found this really cool rock that might be a fossil, I’m going to show it to Nancy.”
              Other person, confused: “Why are you going to show it to Nancy?”
              “Because Nancy has degrees in palentology.”
              Other person: “Oh, I didn’t know that.”

              Everyone has interests outside of work. Whether its a hobby, a background, whatever. Assuming that someone only knows about whatever it is they do for a living is frankly, bizarre.

              1. Works in IT*

                There is definitely a trend now that time outside of work should be spent on working on accreditations that will improve your performance in work. I disagree with it, I think it’s ridiculous to not allow your brain to rest and focus on things that aren’t work. Even my manager does it (teases me for playing video games when I could be studying for a certification and learning things, with automatic assumption that time not spent learning to be better at job is bad), so I’m not going to judge the OP for automatically assuming they had no interest in anything outside their background. I am, however, going to express frustration that he hasn’t bothered learning anything about them in the time he knows them. You never know when something’s going to come up that makes a coworker’s random hobby experience relevant for a project, things overlap in really weird ways.

                1. Wake up!*

                  I don’t think what you’re describing is widespread enough that the average person should assume if someone is doing something, it’s for work. The majority of people I know leave work at work with only occasional exceptions. Your manager sounds toxic.

                2. Michaela Westen*

                  That’s what they told/showed me I should do and I refused. I saw examples of people who work all the time, chasing the next deal, promotion, degree. Most of them were stressed-out and miserable.
                  I can’t live like that, and wouldn’t if I could. Life’s too short!

                3. I Don’t Remember What Name I Used Before*

                  I’ve worked with LOTS of people I knew little to nothing about. I was always “work cordial” and got along fine, but I’ve never viewed my workplaces as a social club and made very few work friends in my time. Partially this is because I keep my work life & private life separate, and partially because I tend to have NOTHING in common with most or sometimes any of the people I worked with at most of the places I’ve worked. I’m highly neurodivergent, can be shy, and am very private until I know someone well, but I also don’t participate in popular culture & activities the way most people do (don’t have TV, not into popular music or movies, HATE sports, read niche interest books, don’t travel, don’t drink, no interest in kids, and so on and so forth as infinitum) so it’s difficult for me to even make small talk.
                  Hell, my husband and I have a ROOMMATE of *11 years* that we know less about his personal life/background than a lot of people know about their coworkers.

                4. SarahTheEntwife*

                  It’s weird and rude that he automatically jumped to stating his coworker’s (lack of) qualifications despite not knowing anything about them, but it could also just not have come up in conversation. I have a coworker that I would have said I know a good bit about — we’re work-friends and chat about hobbies and stuff — but it wasn’t until she was giving a presentation for an internal interview that I found out she’d started in a totally different field.

              2. Oh So Anon*

                +1. The only way it isn’t rude is if the OP isn’t a native English language speaker and has trouble with phrasing.

              3. SignalLost*

                Also, I’m dying to know who offers an advanced degree in volunteer coordination. (Less snarkily, I’m astonished that OP made the assumption Nancy couldn’t have a degree in paleontology because she’s a volunteer coordinator. What is she expected to have a degree in? Auto repair?)

                1. Patricia*

                  It’s also sadly common for women with advanced scientific degrees to get pushed out of their field, and end up doing something else.

                2. Detective Amy Santiago*

                  I know your question was largely rhetorical, but I would probably guess a volunteer coordinator had a degree in HR or non profit management.

                3. SarahTheEntwife*

                  I’m guessing they work at, say, an education nonprofit and he assumes she has a background in education or child development or something along those lines.

                4. many bells down*

                  The volunteer coordinator I work under has a degree in Museum Studies, and she’s worked for several museums. But I’m starting to feel like she’s an outlier for having a relevant degree!

            2. Kathleen_A*

              Yes, Akcipitrokulo has got it exactly right

              “Why her? Does she know much about fossils?” = fine
              “Why her? She doesn’t know anything about fossils?” = sooooo not fine. The opposite of fine. Rude, in fact.

              I mean, you say you know almost nothing about your coworkers outside of work. OK, so be it. So why did you feel justified in making assumptions about one of them? You know nothing – so why did you assume that you did?

              Apologize, for goodness’ sake. I accept that you didn’t mean to be rude, but rude is exactly what you were. So apologize, and make a silent resolution to not make wholly unjustified assumptions in the future.

            3. From That Guy*

              I mean, really?? Really? This is something to get bent out of shape about? Yes, he made a clumsy statement, are we really that sensitive?? The person he said it to could have simply stated the other woman’s background and that would have been the end of it. For goodness sake!!

              1. Ask a Manager* Post author

                I suggest that you listen to the many women with lived experience explain how this plays into long-running and harmful sexist tropes, particularly in STEM fields, whether or not it was intended that way.

                1. Stranger in a Strange Land*

                  It was rude, but calling it sexist just downplays actual sexism. You don’t have enough information to know whether it was sexist, and attempting to read that much into it is ridiculous. Do we know if LW would have said the same to any person who worked there, regardless of gender? While I strongly agree that there are cultural issues surrounding women in STEM, jumping from an off-hand comment, relating to a woman who works at a non-profit in a non-scientific based specialization, to calling a (rude) action sexist, is quite the leap.

                  While I do enjoy your site, and find most of your columns insightful, there is a subtle, but noticeable bend towards assuming the worst of men in general. There is rarely a comment that assumes the best of an individual, instead I often find that posts indicate “well… even if this man wasn’t attempting to use his male privilege, most men do, and that makes it okay to talk about this one, as if he represents all men”.

                  To quote a comment you made:

                  First, unconscious bias is a thing for all of us. It’s worth learning about.

                  Second, if you have done the work of examining your own biases and are actively working to combat sexism and other forms of oppression, great!

                  It’s a two-way street, but sometimes as the minority here, it doesn’t feel like it!

                2. JHunz*

                  Sometimes the comments section stretches a little far to get to a sexism angle, but I really don’t think that applies in this case. It’s a man making a rude and unwarranted assumption about a female coworker’s level of knowledge and experience based on knowing nothing about it. It’s pretty much a classic representation of one of the ways sexism is expressed in the workplace, whether or not he actually meant it that way.

                3. Jake*

                  @Stranger, I would think assuming every sexist action has to be overt and egregious to be treated as such is more harmful. Being called sexist is NOT as harmful as experiencing sexism. The reason columns like these and others run by women have a bend towards assuming sexism is because of a LEARNED EXPERIENCE of sexism over and over again. A male colleague who states up front he doesn’t bother to get to know his colleagues, and then laughed at the very idea of one of them knowing something about fossils stinks of SOMETHING. The assumption that is may have been sexist is just a call out to the LW to reexamine his actions and his assumptions. Its not a witch hunt. If you have a problem with so many comments using individual anecdotes to relay a systemic and rampant problem, move on. There are endless possible spaces where a man can go and be part of the majority. Think about why you feel so irritated or angry at men being called out for their behavior. Consider that it isn’t because they are being targeted, but rather that they just do these things ALL THE TIME.

                4. JM60*

                  @Jake I don’t think Stranger is saying that sexism needs to be overt in order to be sexism. I think they’re saying that there’s no evidence to suggest that there’s any sexism, whether overt or not.

                  People in this comment section aren’t merely saying, “Check to make sure you’re not being sexist.” Most seems to be saying that it is sexism (at least partly). That is what Stranger is talking about, and I agree with them that although there may be some sexism involved, people here are too quickly jumping to that conclusion.

                5. Amykins*

                  @Stranger and @JM60

                  The point isn’t that there is direct, verifiable evidence of sexism in this specific situation. The point is that there is a very clear pattern of situations like this one having direct ties to sexism – many, many women experience exactly this type of situation, not many men do – and therefore, 1) it is worth noting that sexism COULD be a factor in this specific situation (where there’s smoke, there’s often fire, but sometimes just exhaust – but it is worth examining closely to see for sure), and 2) even if sexism wasn’t at ALL a factor in this specific situation, the fact that the sexist variation of this problem is widespread is enough to cause additional harm than just the original rudeness. Nancy may well have been the subject of many actual sexist comments of this nature and thus might be extra weighed down or hurt by it, or colleagues may take the OPs comments to heart more and trust Nancy less, etc. It is worth the OP acknowledging, doing some self-reflection, and including some acknowledgement of how they played into this common pattern even if it was totally unintentional.

                6. JM60*


                  I think we’re talking parst each other a bit. I get that people are making the general point that this tends to happen more often to women, and that it’s worth examining of sexism is a factor here. That’s not the point that I’m objecting to. What I’m objecting to is people jumping too quickly to it in fact being sexist.

                  It seems like many people here are basically reasoning, “This happens more often to women. The coworker he was talking about is a woman. Therefore, he probably said it because she’s a woman.” Although this can be a decent line of reasoning, it is jumping to conclusions without factoring in evidence from the person themselves. It’s coming to a conclusion based on how other people behave. Part of the problem with this line of reasoning in this case is that women are about half the population. So if he would’ve said this rude comment to anyone regardless of their gender, the odds are roughly 50/50 that the person in question would happen to be a woman.

                  Regarding people jumping to conclusions about the OP, there are people here suggesting that the reason why the OP doesn’t know the coworker well is because she’s a woman. That’s in spite of the fact that information in the letter suggests that he doesn’t know any of his 14 coworkers well, and it’s unlikely that all 14 of them are women.

                7. I Don’t Remember What Name I Used Before*

                  I’m a lifelong feminist and unconventional female, i and I totally agree with From That Guy. I think it’s REALLY bizarre that Susan didn’t just say, “Oh, Nancy has a degree in paleontology!” and the issue would have been cleared up immediately (and that’s exactly what I would have told her if I was managing her.)
                  It was phrased in a rude manner, but it was not NEARLY rude enough for Susan to escalate it to higher ups, and for the boss to frame it the way she did is beyond ludicrous. Both the coworker and the boss made a mountain out of a speck of dust, and they should be apologizing to OP for it.

                8. Mookie*

                  Stranger, why are you behaving as though Alison introduced the concept of sexism here? It was the LW’s boss who did that, and who had plenty of context and familiarity with the LW himself to do so.

              2. Kathleen_A*

                It wasn’t merely clumsy. It was rude. He knows nothing about Nancy – he says so – so why did he feel justified in assuming that she was ignorant – in belittling her lack of knowledge? Where does that even come from?

              3. SierraSkiing*

                He literally scoffed and acted with disbelief at the idea that his coworker could know something about a certain subject. Even when we remove gender from the equation, it’s belittling Nancy’s intellect and skills and the idea that she might have more interests beyond being a volunteer coordinator. Most people would be pretty insulted.

                1. R.D.*

                  Yes. Without the gender element, it was horribly rude. If Nancy actually didn’t know a thing about fossils, it’s still horribly rude. When you add those two items back in, it’s horribly rude and smacks of sexism.

                2. JJ*

                  Yep, probably made Susan feel like an idiot as well by shooting her idea down so hard and fast. I hope you apologized to her as well OP, if you were my colleague I would probably stop coming to you with anything other than what was required to complete our jobs. It’s fine if you don’t want to be pals (I like professional distance as well) but you were dismissive.

              4. Parenthetically*

                LOL. He mocked the idea that she could have expertise in a science field. He literally laughed at the notion. And in the letter, he doubled down on that reaction by calling the notion “silly” and “ridiculous.”

              5. Kathleen_A*

                Besides, even if it were just “clumsy” (which is wasn’t, but let’s assume it is), so what? When you hurt someone through clumsiness, you still owe that person an apology.

                1. ER*

                  Exactly this. If I accidentally tread on your foot, I might not have meant to do it, but it still hurt! Ergo, an apology is still warranted.

                2. Kathleen_A*

                  Yes, exactly. “I didn’t mean to stomp on your toe with the heel of my cowboy boots, so even though you’re now hobbling in pain, I’m not going to say that I’m sorry”…just doesn’t cut a lot of ice.

              6. B*

                He literally said she had no background in it when she has a degree in it; it’s all not directly work related so i’m plus/minus on whether manager’s response was over the top, but we don’t know what else is going on. At the least if’d made that kind of faux pas somehow i’d be cringing SO HARD and apologizing profusely (because of embarrassment) rather than doubling down and acting justified in claiming someone has no experience when they do

              7. Aveline*

                Intent is not magic. Intent is not magic. Intent is not magic.

                Also, it’s not on them to “not be sensitive.” It’s on him to not be rude.

                1. Aveline*


                  The ‘intent isn’t magic” has been around for a long time, but the exact phrasing I learned form Captain Awkward. If you don’t read her as well, I highly recommend her.

                  Also – Doctor Nerdlove

                2. JM60*

                  Intent is not magic, nor is it irrelevant. There’s a good reason why we treat murder differently than manslaughter, even though the victim suffers death either way. What the OP did was rude, but it would’ve been even more rude if it was done with malicious intent.

                  That being said, I agree that it’s on the OP to not be rude. But if the OP didn’t have bad intent, then I think sincerely apologizing and trying to not be rude in the future should be sufficient.

                3. TootsNYC*

                  ah, but there’s the rub.

                  He DIDN’T apologize sincerely.

                  That in itself makes me wonder about what sort of dismissive mindset he has about his colleagues (Susan, and Nancy, and all of them).

                4. BookishMiss*

                  I love CA and the Doctor! I tend to use “intent isn’t impact” but like this one a hair better.

              8. Bananka*

                Couldn’t agree more. The culture in this place seems disfunctional because instead of answering to the LW’s inconsiderate comment, the coworker not only shut down and left the LW to remain ignorant, but then took his comment to Nancy and LW’s boss !! This is so much unbelievably immature and gossipy, I am not surprised the LW wants to keep socializing to a minimum in this place. And how can Nancy be offended the LW knew notjing about her background if she’d never told him herself ? This makes zero sense and while the initial comment was a bit harsh, the reaction to it was absolutely ridiculous.

                1. Kathleen_A*

                  I have to think that you didn’t really read the letter, Bananka. People are offended not because the OP doesn’t know about her background. People are offended because the OP *assumed* Nancy knew nothing even though he had no knowledge one way or another.

                  If he didn’t know anything about her – which he says is the case – why did he assume she was ignorant? He doesn’t know her hardly at all, so on what basis did he assume ignorance? That’s silly – and, BTW, it does nothing except demonstrate his own ignorance.

                  And the other reason why people are offended is that he doesn’t seem to think he has anything to apologize for, and that’s bull. Even if he was merely clumsy, well, so what? If you hurt someone through clumsiness, you still owe that person an apology.

                2. Becky*

                  And how can Nancy be offended the LW knew notjing about her background if she’d never told him herself ?
                  The offense here is NOT that he didn’t know, but that he boldly stated that she had no such background when he had no freaking clue and thought the idea that she might have such a background ridiculous.

                3. Jadelyn*

                  The issue isn’t that OP didn’t know Nancy’s background. The issue is that, not knowing her background, OP then made an insulting assumption about Nancy and felt the need to scoff about it to other people.

                  The issue is not the ignorance. The issue is the assumption, and the rude delivery that followed that assumption.

                4. Janie*

                  “the coworker not only shut down”

                  Why would she want to continue to talk to him after he insulted Nancy and herself? What on earth would Susan get out of that?

                5. tamarack & fireweed*

                  What you’re forgetting, too, is that the OP put down his co-worker Susan with his dismissive comment about Nancy. He insulted Susan directly by implying that she was quite an idiot for showing the rock to the ignoramus, Nancy. So no, Susan has no obligation whatsoever to overlook *her* bad treatment and hold the line here. She’s perfectly within her rights to take this to their boss.

                  Also, if the OP has been around so long, how come that Susan is aware of Nancy’s background — so familiar, in fact, that she assumed he would be too, because otherwise her friendly chat about showing the rock to Nancy would make no sense. Sexism is IME a good first approximation to what the problem might be with the OP.

              9. Nesprin*

                Speaking as a female STEM PhD, there’s a particular sort of surprise that is innocuous at a glance and deeply cutting when repeated.
                Along the lines of: You’re a scientist, really? Are you sure? You don’t look like a scientist! You must be smart or something!
                If you cannot see this being something worth getting bent out of shape over, imagine having strangers suspecting that you’re trying to pull the wool over their eyes each time you speak with authority.

                1. anonny*

                  I feel this so hard. As a woman in a male-dominated field in which I excel, there’s always an element of surprise when people see me succeed which feels very patronizing.

                2. ER*

                  Thank you for sharing this Nesprin. While I wouldn’t wish it on you, it’s comforting to hear from other people who have experienced this too.

                  I went through a phase where if I heard ‘You’re an engineer?’ in a certain questioning tone I would just pull out the ‘Yeah, I know, I don’t look like one.’ just to get that inevitable part of the conversation over with. Now I say ‘Double degree actually, engineering and physics.’ Might as well maximise the dissonance.

                3. many bells down*

                  A friend of mine is currently working as a game developer. She’s a very short Asian woman. This year, she was presenting at a conference and when she went to pick up her presenter badge she was stopped THREE TIMES by security just trying to get into the correct line. Because, “you don’t look like a game developer.”

              10. Anna*

                Please see: the attacks on Katie Bouman, who led the development of the algorithm allowing the first ever photo of a black hole.

              11. Nic*

                He didn’t just make a clumsy statement, though. He laughed in Susan’s face because the idea was “ridiculous” to him. And then he doubled down and defended himself when talking to the manager, on the basis that Nancy having knowledge of another field seemed “silly”.

                That’s not just clumsiness, that’s derisive – and while there’s a possibility it might not be based in conscious sexism (although all too many women find themselves being treated similarly by people who very definitely ARE being sexist…) it’s certainly an unproductive mindset that LW needs to train himself out of.

          3. Ray*

            I think the issue is less that he didn’t know her background and more the tone/phrasing of his response. As Alison said it would have been fine if he had just said something along the lines of “Oh, I never knew Nancy had an interest in palaeontology. Did she work with fossils before she came here?”

            1. Aveline*

              Yes, he needs to examine why he presumed incompetence instead of competence and then felt the need to comment on it.

              Studies show educated white men get a presumption of competence , even when not warranted. Women, monitories, and foreigners do not. White men from coastal suburbs get it over southern poor shots men.

              In other words, our presumptions of competence track to to current social hierarchies and reinforce them. Kudos to the boss for stopping this.

              LW needs to ask himself why him first reaction was a snarky comment made to make himself look clever instead of a query asking for more info and exposing his own lack of knowledge .
              That type of reaction is both a joke and a power move. It is inherently something that makes someone else smaller and the teller larger. Or doesn’t matter if OP intended it that way, that’s the effect of “what is she, a rocket scientist?” type responses to statements about a woman’s abilities.

              If he doesn’t examine why he’s taking this as an approach, he’ll do it again.

              LW – I recommend you spend some time reading about how unconscious biases impact how we talk and about what we consider funny in our culture.

              1. Parenthetically*

                “he needs to examine why he presumed incompetence instead of competence and then felt the need to comment on it”


              2. darsynia*

                I think this assumption that white men get a presumption of competence is the reason this OP ended up getting accused of claiming his co-worker lied on her resume. Which is probably an indicator to OP that their opinion holds weight he didn’t think it did, and to keep that in mind in future.

              1. Washi*

                Yes! It would be one thing if the LW had said in a genuinely bemused tone “huh, what would Nancy know about fossils? That’s…not her background?” where he’s making statements in the form of a question. But based on his description it was more like “LOL what would NANCY know about FOSSILS??? That’s not her background!”

                LW, that’s rude, and you belittled both Nancy (who could know nothing about fossils) and Susan (for being dumb enough to ask her.) You need to do some thinking about whether you have a habit of aggressively presenting your assumptions as facts.

                1. Elizabeth*

                  “A habit of aggressively presenting your assumptions as facts” is a really helpful summary of a behavior I’ve struggled to name, thanks.

                2. Emily K*

                  Yes, the fact that Susan had decided to show it to Nancy should have been a pretty big clue here – Susan didn’t just draw Nancy’s name out of a hat labeled “People to Show This Rock,” she obviously had a reason to think Nancy might have valuable insight. Instead of concluding that Susan must know something about Nancy’s background and Nancy must know something about fossils, LW decided that Susan bizarrely chose Nancy to be her fossil expert despite the fact that Nancy knows nothing about fossils. Most people employing Occam’s razor would have landed on the first explanation, where Susan and Nancy are both reasonable and competent individuals, and it’s worth examining why LW’s mind seemed to go straight to the second explanation, where both of them are silly and ill-informed, instead.

                3. mcr-red*

                  Yeah I think we keep landing on how rude he was for making assumptions that Nancy knows nothing about fossils, but there’s also the fact that he was really rude to Susan for LAUGHING at her idea of seeking expertise. He’s kinda being doubly rude and really needs to take a second look at how he interacts with his coworkers.

              2. Ethyl*

                Yes!!! The wording already wasn’t great, but the laughter takes it from being a “foot in mouth” moment into something far more insulting and offensive.

            2. Works in IT*

              Yeah, is it similar to that time when my manager was going to show me an action figure he 3d printed then said “oh you’re a girl you don’t like action figures”? Because that was depressing… he knows that I’m a gamer, he knows I love comics, these are two things that tend to lead one to an interest in action figures and yet he assumed lack of interest, definitely because I was female. Have other coworkers been talking to her about her background around him, and it just completely slipped his mind because his brain didn’t flag “thing female coworker is good at” as important?

          4. Fish girl*

            OP isn’t to blame for not knowing about her background, but his insistence that it was “ridiculous” and “silly” (his words) for her to even possibly HAVE that background raises my hackles. Even if she didn’t have a degree in paleontology, plenty of people have hobbies. Why would it be ridiculous/silly for her to know about fossils?

            1. EPLawyer*

              this is where I got stuck. When the person said they were going to ask Nancy about fossils it should have been well within the realm the possibility that the person had an idea that Nancy knew about fossils. Instead of considering that, the OP jumped right to “nope, no way because they don’t work with fossils now.” OP’s logic of how the world works is flawed.

              Maybe OP didn’t mean it as rude, but it still seemed that way. It’s not about accepting guilt in the situation, its about smoothing over relationships at work. A simple “I’m sorry I should not have jumped to the conclusion I did ” would go a long way. Then THINKING before speaking in the future. It’s not guilt, its acknowledging need for improvement.

              1. I Don’t Remember What Name I Used Before*

                And why couldn’t Susan simply have answered with “Yes, Nancy has a degree in paleontology!”?

                1. ceiswyn*

                  Because that would be directly contradicting, indeed starting an argument with, a colleague on the presumption that her information is better than his.

                  Why would she do that?

                2. Akcipitrokulo*

                  That would have been a reasonable (and likely) response to “Oh, does she know about fossils?”

                  Not to a belittling laugh hand a *statement* that she doesn’t.

            2. Half-Caf Latte*

              Yeah. I have a twitter acquaintance who is a respiratory therapist, with a serious interest in fossils. If you didn’t follow her twitter and just knew her professionally, you’d have no idea, but through her tweets it’s clear she’s got serious volunteer chops, and is regularly invited to join pros on fieldwork .

            3. Observer*

              Exactly. The idea that she might know about fossils is ridiculous because she’s a volunteer coordinator, is what is really ridiculous. The fact that the OP can’t see that is a real problem.

            4. DinoNancy*

              I’m a Nancy who loves fossils so much, my wedding was all about dinosaurs. I have zero professional background in fossils, but I know enough that I could help someone with a preliminary assessment of what a fossil is. I know this post isn’t about me because I haven’t done that for anyone in a long time, but I do find that the OP’s insistence that it was ridiculous to expect that Nancy might know about fossils is the root of the problem.

              1. Michaela Westen*

                My grandparents were rock people, and I also know a little about rocks and fossils. My colleagues were surprised the one time it came up.

          5. MK*

            Making the same assumption is one thing, scoffing at the very idea that she might know something is another. The natural reaction to “I am going to ask Nancy about X”, when Nancy isn’t known to have a background in X, is to ask, sincerely, not rhetorically or in a scoffing manner, “Why would you ask Nancy? How would she know about X?”, at which point the other person will tell you why they thought Nancy is the person to ask (which could be anything from a degree, a former job, being the president of the amateur society of X, or even someone who reads a lot about the subject).

            In any case, the idea that someone would ask a coworker about a rock they found on vacation isn’t inherently ridiculous or wrong; it’s not as if Susan said she was going to show Nancy her biopsy results to get a second opinion.

            The issue here, I think, is that OP reacted in a rude (even slightly boorish) manner to a simple comment. And he apparently thinks this is a totally normal reaction, which it isn’t. Maybe sexism played a part, maybe not, but his attitude suggests to me that he might be the office grump/jerk and people are getting tired of being dismissed/laughed at.

            1. Aveline*

              Sexism played a part whether LW knows it or not.

              There are plenty of strides about cultural biases in competence. White men are presumed competent and intelligent event when they aren’t. Women, minorities, foreigners, etc. are deemed less competent than they are.

              It’s 2019, it’s time we all wake up to out culturally programmed implicit biases and do better.

          6. wittyrepartee*

            It’s hard to prove a contrapositive, but a lot of times when something like this happens with a man as the volunteer coordinator the response is “oh, does he know a lot about fossils? Is fossil identification his hobby?!”

          7. RabbitRabbit*

            I think the issue is that why would OP#1 make the assumption that it couldn’t *possibly* be her background, and then make the situation worse by going on to state it as a fact? The first half is bad enough (what, she can’t have diverse interests? care about something beyond fossils?), but to state something as though you know the truth about them is deeply problematic.

          8. Fergus, Stealer of Pens and Microwaver of Fish*

            “Should people who only know my work, which is 0% psychology, guess that I have a BA in psychology?”

            Perhaps not, but would you find it offensive if the whole idea of you knowing anything at all about psychology was “ridiculous” to them? I would. And I’m not that easily offended.

          9. Dust Bunny*

            But why not respond, “Oh, is she into fossils?” instead?

            Many people know a lot of things that don’t factor into their [current] work lives. I’m an office assistant in an historical archive, but I also know a lot about veterinary medicine through a former work life, and about sewing, cars, and animal conformation through independent interests. And actually a fair amount about geology and paleontology because of my parents’ careers. So basically I’m an office grunt but I’d also be a good person to ask about fossils.

            My boss is a canoeing expert (something that definitely doesn’t come up in our deskbound everyday jobs) and ex-steelworker. And I once dated a drug counselor who was a former Catholic priest and expert on Medieval religious art.

              1. Emily K*

                Brian May (Queen) has a PhD in astrophysics, and Sterling Morrison (Velvet Underground) earned one in medieval literature.

                1. Rainy*

                  Robert A. Leonard, a founding member of Sha Na Na, is a forensic linguist and credits his band days interpreting contracts with getting him started in his post-music career.

            1. ThatGirl*

              Yep. I work in a customer service related role, but I have a background in journalism, plus knowledge from past jobs and my personal life on a range of things from disabilities to photography to mental health disorders to Anabaptism – none of which you might guess if you only knew me casually at work. If someone was bringing me, say, an old camera to look at and someone else said “how would SHE know about that? that’s not her background!” I’d be pretty ticked off.

              1. Chinookwind*

                It was fascinating to see the looks on a sales person’s face when I, the receptionist, was able to go into an in-depth analysis of why steel became hard to come by and the resulting price fluctuations of the product he was selling.

                What he and others come to realize is that, as someone who has bounced around the country as a trailing spouse, it has been over a decade since I did anything with my B.Ed. but I have worked in a variety of different fields (because everyone needs admin. assistants). I have a brain for useless trivia and a curiosity for what is going on around me, so I have soaked up all sorts of information about the hardware and software development, nursing, pipelines, health and safety, ins and outs of certification and testing, inter-provincial labour laws, journalism, accounting, rust prevention through electrical currents, audits and the behind the scenes workings of very liberal environmental groups . Never mind my actual education in theology, educational theory, English as a second language and learning disabilities.

                Luckily, those who treat me like I am capable of nothing more than answering a phone are often schooled by coworkers who know otherwise.

                1. Arts Akimbo*

                  My aunt was like you! Incredible steel-trap mind which stored reams of general knowledge of many diverse fields. Served on the opera board in her city. Competition ballroom dancer. Her job? Secretary.

                2. Olive*

                  This is what bothers me most about OP’s comment- I don’t know what his position in the company is in relation to Nancy’s but his comment smacks of the attitude of “she’s just a silly little coordinator, what could she possibly know about anything!” Anyone who has ever worked in an admin or admin-adjacent position knows these comments well.

            2. Light37*

              A dear friend of mine had a PhD in geology, but was also a lay expert in dog genetics. She wrote chapters in books that were coauthored by specialists in the subject, and they would occasionally check with her when they had a coat color question, since that was her field.

            3. UKDancer*

              People are hugely varied and often know things or have backgrounds not always immediately apparent. When we had an awayday at my company we had an ice breaker where people had to share one interesting fact that people may not know about them. The sheer range of things people did was remarkable. One colleague was in the Sealed Knot (re-enacting civil war battles), another repaired dry stone walls and we had any number of amateur archeologists, fossil hunters, artists stand up comedians and singers. Incidentally none of these were as interesting as the person whose interesting fact was that they once worked with a serial killer. We all had a lot of questions about that one.

          10. Genny*

            If a coworker wanted another coworker to authenticate a piece of art she found at a yard sale, my first assumption wouldn’t be “coworker 2 has no background in authenticating at, so why ask her”. It would be “coworker 2 has a hobby and/or expertise I was previously unaware of. That’s cool.” I think LW would do well to examine why he immediately jumped to “this thing can’t be true because I’m not aware of it being true”.

            1. TootsNYC*

              and also, how insulting is it to SUSAN, that he assumed she was so stupid as to think Nancy would know about fossils.

          11. NotAPaleontologist*

            If I have no knowledge of something — say, your hobbies or your professional background — and despite my total ignorance, I choose to scoff at the mere idea you might know about a topic of which I am also totally ignorant, then I’ve been rude. It’s like saying “I am completely ignorant, but surely my instantaneous impression must be reasonable enough to merit comment.” The OP then followed up a merely rude comment with the “defense” that he was ignorant and therefore not to be held accountable. Except his choice to assume his opinion was solid enough (despite said ignorance) to scoff at two coworkers is exactly the problem, not the defense. And now, asked to apologize, he’s trying to insist that the error could not possibly have been his.

            Here’s an alternative narrative: I scoffed and offended someone, and then — much to my horror — I realized I am utterly and 100% wrong, and I promptly apologize to the scientist, explaining that I had no idea of their background and I didn’t intend to imply I thought them incapable of knowing about fossils. Privately, I’d be thinking I’d do better in future by not commenting snarkily ESPECIALLY when I have no background knowledge.

            Note that gender plays no part of anything I said here — but if we add it, and if the OP can hear that females get this “my ignorance must necessarily be stronger than your knowledge” thing all the time, then he might even learn something about how we all inhabit different worlds and view things through different lenses. But he’s not asking to learn anything here; he’s asking us to validate that he’s right. It’s not like he murdered a puppy; he’s not a monster, he just put his foot in his mouth. And a lot of people would learn from that. But he’s chosen to go full denial on it. So my guess is the same as Alison’s, namely that his coworkers’s extreme reaction suggests that scoffing is more of a common go-to for him than he lets on.

            1. Jadelyn*

              Very well-said. Quite honestly, I’d guess that OP may be viewed as That Guy to some of his female coworkers, whether he knows it or not. Most people won’t go to a manager over a one-off from someone they otherwise have no issues with, but I could definitely see myself deciding that an incident like this is the last straw and someone needs to have a talk with him about this kind of thing.

            2. Light37*

              Exactly. This is the moment to decide to do better in future instead of demanding validation of your ignorance.

          12. Artemesia*

            The world is full of people with hobbies, interesting backgrounds, self taught knowledge as well as degrees you know nothing about. It is oddly dismissive to insist that someone is ignorant when you DON’T KNOW their background. Maybe she just knows a lot about fossils and everyone knows it. I truly don’t understand ‘reluctant apology’ when you have gratuitously put someone down. A whole hearted, ‘I am so sorry for behaving so dismissively; I had no idea you were a fossil expert but still it was ridiculous of me to assume things I don’t know about.’ And of course, reflect on why you would gratuitously insult someone as a first response to something so mundane. It comes across as both sexist and arrogant; even if it had been true it would come across that way. Since your colleague relied on her for her fossil expertise, perhaps assume next time your colleague knows what she is doing rather than assuming the women you work with are ignorant and stupid — which is the way the comment feels.

          13. Gymmie*

            Sure, that makes sense, but the comment was rude anyway. Maybe she is a fossil enthusiast, maybe she loves museums or her dad used to collect them or she had a similar fossil on her shelf at home, whatever whatever whatever. It was just a rude comment.

          14. MM*

            Making the assumption and having this reaction are two things that do not have to go together. The assumption is entirely reasonable; there are other ways to have responded to being presented with information that conflicts with the assumption that would have avoided this mess. They involve being presented with conflicting information and taking it as an occasion to ask a question or question the assumption.

          15. Nic*

            I would not necessarily guess that Nancy was an expert/well-read amateur/hobbyist in a particular subject; but I also wouldn’t rule it out without thought or hesitation. And I wouldn’t think it ridiculous or laugh at the mere idea of it, the way OP did.

            Why not? Because people have pasts, people have lives and hobbies outside their work, and not everyone gets a job related to their degree specialty.

        1. MommyMD*

          This. And he tried to make the coworker with the rock feel stupid. He insulted all around. Kind of pompous. Just apologize truly and move on. Don’t assume you know everything. No one does. Somehow I don’t think this is the first time which is why Boss came down hard.

          1. Triplestep*

            This is my view. Boss probably went to the over the top “resume falsifying accusation” because earlier attempts to get the OP to see he was being dismissive weren’t absorbed by OP. Doesn’t say much about the manager’s communication skills, but OP, maybe think back on earlier conversations and see if this message has been delivered before.

            I suspect that your coworker didn’t run to the boss about this episode as accusation, but went to the boss to complain about you generally and gave this most recent example, which Boss seized upon.

            1. Parenthetically*

              Agreed on all of this. Boss’s response was OTT, OP’s derision was inexcusable and needs a lot of self-examination and a genuine, humble apology.

            2. Kj*

              I suspect boss is tired of the LW’s attitude towards colleagues. No way someone this contemptuous of others hasn’t frustrated coworkers and the boss before.

          2. L. S. Cooper*

            This is what I kept thinking, too! LW didn’t just insult the woman with the background in paleontology, he ALSO insulted the coworker who had found the rock. He assumed that, because *he* was unaware of information, the coworker with the rock was too dumb to make a decision on who to talk to, and the coworker with the background in paleontology was too dumb to have the expertise she had.
            But the only one who was ignorant here was LW.

      2. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

        He didn’t say that. OP said: “Nancy coordinates volunteers at a nonprofit that has nothing to do with science. How was I to know her background?”

        He’s doing two things in that statement. The first is what you’re describing, JamieS—he’s suggesting (but not overtly saying) that he assumed Nancy didn’t have a science background because of her current job. But then he goes on to say he knew nothing about her educational/professional background.

        Both of those are attempts to justify to himself why his comment wasn’t offensive, when in fact his comment was problematic and rude. If OP didn’t know Nancy’s background, he shouldn’t have said, “That’s not her background.” And he shouldn’t have assumed that Nancy’s current job/role precludes her from knowing something about fossils. For OP to understand why his coworkers are unhappy with him, I think he has to take a step back and take a bit more ownership over the faux pas.

        1. Ella Vader*

          Not everything is meant as an insult. People make assumptions about others all day, everyday. Consciously or not. I want to know why Susan couldn’t just state what Nancy’s background was and why she had to go tattle like a 3 year old.

          1. Annette*

            Hope I’m not commenting twice. Thought I said this but now don’t ses it.

            I said – nobody said it was meant as an insult. It can still be insulting. The tattling comment is very offensive. We are talking about an adult woman. I wonder if you are the same as Greg from NY below using two names.

            1. Ask a Manager* Post author

              Please don’t do that here. I don’t want people accused of sock puppetry simply because they share a less popular opinion with someone else.

            2. KayDay*

              I would agree with Ella that Susan’s reaction was odd/inappropriate. A simple “…because Dr. Susanlastname is a paleontologist,” or, if she wasn’t sure but just knew from the grapevine that Susan knew a lot about really old rocks and stuff, she could have said, “oh, I thought Susan had a background in this sort of thing from her time prior to joining the org,”. That probably would have solved the problem much more effectively. And the way the organisation phrased it as “accusing someone of falsifying their resume” is really weird to me. I obviously don’t work there so I don’t know if there is background we aren’t aware of, but a little lecture about the gendered nature of overlooking people’s backgrounds would have made more sense. Overreacting to people being somehow in the wrong–especially when it is unintentional–IME generally puts people on the defensive rather than giving them space to admit their mistakes. And giving people room to admit their mistakes/faults is really essential for people’s growth.

              I do totally get that this is a big problem for women in science, so I can see how the comment was seen has far more offense that the OP thought/intended. I’m not disagreeing with that, but I really feel that the reaction on the part of the organisation was misguided and not helpful.

              (If there is way more background in regards to bad behaviour on the part of the OP, I might revise the above, but we have no knowledge of that, so I’m basing my response on believing the OP’s explanation.)

              1. Fortitude Jones*

                Yeah, I wager that OP has made dismissive statements like this before and that’s why Susan went to the manager. OP just needs to be more careful about what he says and how he says it. Not every thought that passes our minds needs to pass our lips.

                1. I Don’t Remember What Name I Used Before*

                  Even if OP *has* made dismissive statements before, the boss framing his statement as “accusing someone of falsifying their resume” is so over the top ludicrous, that the boss really has lost all standing or credibility in my eyes.
                  If there is a problem, you address the problem. You don’t make up stuff up out of whole cloth to attack people over.

              2. Artemesia*

                The OP’s stance in his complaint to AAM suggests that he is arrogant and dismissive of the women he works with often. It would be odd for this to blow up like this if it were a one off. Note that some commenters seem to infantalize these women as well with comments about ‘tattling’ and so forth. I suspect that the OP got on their last nerve by doing this ‘yet again.’ The fact that he feels put upon and doesn’t think he should have to apologize because he ‘didn’t know’ is evidence that this assumption is possibly true i.e. not the first time a gratuitous insult has been delivered that demeans a co-worker. To say ‘it is not her background’ is a very specific charge especially when he has no idea what her background is. ‘I didn’t know that was her background’ could have expressed the same surprise without asserting she was incompetent to be consulted.

              3. Someone Else*

                Yeah I think some of the way the bosses handled this is feeding into OP’s defensiveness. But the thing is, they can both be wrong. The “you accused her of lying” assumes OP knew about the paleontology, and by saying “she doesn’t have a background in that” is claiming the background he supposedly knew about is false.I think that’s counterproductive of the company because it puts OP in the situation he’s in now where he’s all “but I simply had no idea she had that background” and now we’re into this discussion of “well then why did you state outright she had no background instead of questioning it”. So the boss’ approach here has muddied the situation.

                OP openly states he had no idea about the woman’s background. So the choice to go with scoffing at the notion she might possibly know about fossils is the problem. For all the reasons lots of people have discussed.
                OP wasn’t accusing her of lying about a paleontology degree, that part was a misunderstanding, but that’s irrelevant because without that bit, he’s still wrong. So OP can mentally choose to disregard the criticism of accusing someone of lying. OK, off the hook for that much. The rest is still a problem. The apology was still very much warranted. Focus on that.

          2. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

            From what’s in OP’s letter, Susan is not the person in the wrong, here.

            When a situation like the one OP is facing comes up in the workplace, it doesn’t matter if a comment isn’t meant as an insult. We all say careless things that inadvertently insult or contribute to inequality. Folks are responding to help OP understand why his comment was more harmful/insidious than he realizes, because that will affect the course of action he takes to fix his workplace relationship with his coworkers.

            1. Not So NewReader*

              Oh so much this. Everyone has times where something comes out and THEN it is realized that it was something more than ever intended.
              Apologies do not kill us. We don’t lose body parts when we apologize.

              I grew up in a family where apologies were avoided at all costs. I wanted to live differently. But how? Initially, it took courage for me to apologize because I thought my head would be on the chopping block.
              To my surprise people reacted like, you know, ADULTS. They accepted my apologies. And some how my apology helped to grow respect and trust later. Instead of losing parts of myself, I found all new parts. I grew.

              Yes, OP, sometimes we apologize for things that we are not even sure why we are apologizing. But we can see it is meaningful to the recipient that we try and learn what went wrong here. And above all else we want the recipient comfortable, so therefore we apologize. Then we take private time to read/learn more on what went wrong.

              I have mentioned it before, I think. There was one time where I said X (am calling it X to avoid derailments here). It was a stupid and ill-informed thing to say. My coworkers lined up to tell me just how stupid and ill-informed. Mortified, I went home and read up on the topic. Yes, they were correct. I totally changed direction on X.

              Yet another situation where things turned for me. I ended up happy that my coworkers thought enough of me to tell me something was wrong with what I was saying. Yes, they reacted strongly and that could have been prevented if I did not dig my heals in. I got what I deserved there. Among other lessons here, I vowed not to dig my heals in like that ever again. OP, let others tell you things.

              1. pancakes*

                This is an interesting perspective to hear from, and a very encouraging trajectory. It’s great to hear that people have been reacting in kind, like adults, and that you’ve both learned from and felt invigorated by—it sounds like—these experiences.

            2. Minocho*

              I have absolutely stuck my foot in my mouth in a work environment. Sometimes I realized it immediately and apologized. Sometimes it was brought to my attention that I upset a coworker. That is inevitably worse, because it means I made a blunder, and didn’t realize it – that means I have MORE than apologizing to do – it means I have some serious self examination to do at the least, and probably some major work to do at improving myself going forward.

              It’s terrible to realize you’ve messed up, but then you have a chance to correct going forward. I strongly encourage the letter writer to look at whether they need to recalibrate themselves socially – it could be hurting their career if they don’t!

            3. many bells down*

              I once said something to the parent of a child in my class that, in my youth and white privilege, I did not realize was racist. I was called out on it by this parent. Publicly.

              I was appalled and humiliated and I apologized and I’ve never ever said that thing again. I didn’t intend to be racist. But I did a racist thing and I was rightly chastised for it.

          3. Gaia*

            I’m not sure why it you’re saying Susan “tattle[d] like a 3 year old” for reporting super sexist behavior? Do we not want to encourage sexist (even unintentionally sexist) behavior be reported?

            1. Sylvan*

              I don’t see failing to divine someone’s educational background as super sexist behavior, but anyway, Susan didn’t just “report” OP’s comment. She spun it into something implying that the volunteer coordinator lied on her resume! Susan’s judgment is strange. OP, keep your distance.

              1. TooTiredToThink*

                But we don’t know that it was Susan that escalated it to lying on her resume. It could easily have been the boss that took what Susan said and made it into that.

                1. Works in IT*

                  I’m really wondering if nancy was introduced as “person who did lots of archaeology stuff and is now working with us”, and he just forgot. Would he have forgotten if Nancy was a Nathan?

                2. Dust Bunny*

                  If it isn’t something they use in the job at hand, probably? I’ve had coworkers of both sexes who had all kinds of skills that we forgot to use because they weren’t immediately applicable to our everyday tasks.

                  (I’m female, BTW.)

              2. Karen from Finance*

                Ok now you’re just misrepresenting the facts. Nancy didn’t go to OP and ask “hey guess Susan’s background” and report him when he failed to guess correctly. The situation was that OP was told by a woman that another woman knew a thing and instead of going “I didn’t know that about her”, he went “ha, how silly, how COULD she know a thing?”. Hence, OP’s response is dismissive of Susan’s judgement (he didn’t consider that if she wanted to ask Nancy there was probably a reason) and Nancy (who, with no knowledge of her background, he fully stated didn’t have this qualification as if he knew).

              3. Gaia*

                We actually don’t know that Susan did that. All we know is she reported it and the manager asked why he would accuse Nancy of lying. It could very well be that the Susan simply reported what he said without editorializing and the manager came to that conclusion on her own.

                And I want to be clear – it isn’t “failing to divine” Nancy’s background that is sexist. It is admitting he doesn’t know it, but automatically assuming it could never have been paleontology. That is sexist.

              4. Parenthetically*

                “failing to divine someone’s educational background” is REALLY not what happened here.

                OP laughed at the idea that his colleague might have had expertise in a science field, even though he admitted that he knew nothing of her background. The attitude behind his first impulse is the problem. Without thinking about it he dismissed the notion. He went straight to, “No, she does not know anything about that, how ridiculous!” when most of us would have responded with curiosity, interest, or at minimum confusion.

              5. Observer*

                You actually don’t know that that’s what Susan told the director. So claiming that she spun this makes no sense.

                And, as others have noted, the problem here is not that he didn’t “divine” her background. The problem is that despite KNOWING THAT HE KNOWS NOTHING OF HER BACKGROUND he treated the mere idea that she might know anything about fossils as SOOOO stupid that it’s reasonable to laugh at the mere idea. That’s a whole different kettle of fish.

              6. Ginger*

                I think the boss constructed the resume-lying bit to demonstrate to the OP how his words could seriously harm someone and highlight his appalling lack of any knowledge about his colleagues.

                OP scoffs at a colleague’s knowledge and I’m guessing this isn’t the first time. Being the most tenured employee but knowing nothing about his coworkers? This is one story among many that I bet his colleagues could share about him.

                1. Fortitude Jones*

                  OP scoffs at a colleague’s knowledge and I’m guessing this isn’t the first time. Being the most tenured employee but knowing nothing about his coworkers?

                  Exactly this. I don’t hang out with my coworkers outside of work for the most part either, but I still know what most of them majored in in college, what jobs they had before they came to work at my company, etc. That’s just basic, run-of-the-mill office talk. If he doesn’t know anything about anyone, I wouldn’t be surprised if his coworkers don’t already think he’s elitist and snobby and, therefore, anything he says that could even be slightly construed as negative will be so by them because they don’t know him or his intent.

                2. Rainy*

                  I was telling my husband about this post and when I got to the scoffing at Nancy’s background he put that together with the “been working here 10y and doesn’t know anything about his coworkers” and said “if it’s a majority female workplace, like a lot of organizations that need volunteer coordinators, I wonder if he hasn’t bothered to find anything out about his colleagues because he’s not interested in fucking any of them, and that’s the only reason he could imagine wanting to know anything about a woman”.

                  I’ve definitely seen this exact scenario play out before.

              7. Alice*

                No one’s pissed off that he failed to divine her background. We’re pissed off that, when choosing between “she has expertise I don’t know about” and “I know she doesn’t have expertise” he went with the latter.

              8. Artemesia*

                It isn’t that he didn’t KNOW her background. It is that he flatly asserted that she couldn’t possibly know anything about it because it was NOT her background.

              9. TootsNYC*

                I don’t see failing to divine someone’s educational background as super sexist behavior,

                He didn’t fail to divine her background.

                He laughed at the colleague who was actually talking to him, and he said “that’s not her background,” which was incorrect and yet he stated it as though it was a proven fact.

                THAT has a high likelihood of being sexist.

            2. Akcipitrokulo*

              Exactly. Reporting insulting and belittling behaviour (to two colleagues) is not tattling. It’s responsible reporting of an issue.

              1. Trout 'Waver*

                I strongly disagree on this one. I would expect adults would be able to have the conversation themselves without getting the boss involved.

                Context matters, and absent a wider pattern of behavior, both Susan and the boss acted weirdly adversarial in this case. Unless there’s clear evidence to the contrary, it’s generally best to assume good will and intent from your coworkers. Going around looking for trouble is a sure sign of a toxic workplace.

                1. Jaybeetee*

                  Unfortunately we have no way of knowing from the letter, and it’s too bad we don’t have wider context, but given that the LW describes both Susan and Nancy as being rather upset by the interaction, *and* his boss coming down that hard… either he’s working in an office full of over-sensitive people, or this is a pattern. One person reacting very strongly could be a fluke or you just ran into someone particularly sensitive. But all of them? Occam’s razor suggests that if every colleague involved in this interaction is reacting this strongly, there’s some reason behind it that isn’t clear in the letter.

                2. Jaybeetee*

                  Wish these comments had an “edit” button… I wanted to add I realize that the LW could be working in a pit of vipers in some way or another. Lord knows we’ve seen that plenty on this site, where (at least as the LWs describe), everyone around them *is* nuts. For those in toxic workplaces, I don’t intend to say “well it MUST be you, because it’s unlikely it’s everyone else.” Given that the LW in this case does describe rather rude behaviour on his part, and seems to not understand how it was rude/the role he played in the interactions, to me that suggests he’s said “problematic” things before and the people around him are reacting cumulatively – but that’s certainly not the only possibility.

                3. DCompliance*

                  You what else creates a toxic workplace? Not addressing hurtful things people and blowing it off as “well, I am sure he had good intentions”. Especially, when it is obvious the person did not have good intentions. Making an assumption that a person does not know anything about a subject other than their current job is not giving that person the benefit of the doubt, which is not good will.

                  I do think it is odd there was leap to Nancy making up lies and I am confused why the coworker didn’t just say this is her background, but I don’t believe OP was acting from a place of good will.

                4. Trout 'Waver*

                  “We’ve talked about it and you’re the problem. We know we’re right because we all agree.” is a very common form of bullying. I wouldn’t comment on the likelihood of various scenarios or invoke Occam’s razor in this case, simply because it can be marginalizing to people who find themselves in such scenarios.

                5. Trout 'Waver*

                  @DCompliance I’m not in any way saying or advocating for not addressing it or blowing it off. Absent a larger issue, co-workers should be able to tell each other when they’re unintentionally insulting each other.

                6. Katherine*

                  The OP comes off like an ass in his letter and like an ass in his conversation with Susan. Odds are he comes off like an ass all the time, and therefore it’s easy to understand why Susan wouldn’t try to work it out with him. Look how dismissive and condescending he is, even here, having realized that he was in the wrong/ignorant.

                7. ket*

                  That’s a good point for the OP: he should assume good will and intent from his coworkers, so if one says the other knows about fossils, he should assume that it’s not a lie or a belief founded on nothing.

                  I think there’s a lot more going on in this office and OP doesn’t even realize.

                8. TootsNYC*

                  heck, for all we know, Susan was complaining to Nancy about it and Manager overheard. And Manager decided she was not going to let it rest, because it was too dismissive of other people.

                9. Not So NewReader*

                  I would also assume two adults could talk things out.
                  Because Susan went to the boss, Alison noted that this could be indicative of previous problems.
                  The times people go to the boss is when they feel the person involved is not approachable or not reachable. These complications will send people running to the boss each time, every time.

                  In this case, she was right to some degree because we see here even after speaking with boss OP is still hesitant to apologize. I don’t think Susan would have been able to get her points across to OP.
                  To OP’s credit he wrote the BEST person, Alison, for advice. This means OP is still thinking about this and working it through.

                  In general, OP, if someone berates cohorts, that is reportable. It’s not tattling, it’s a reportable offense.

                  Unfortunately your setting has an undertone of sexism also. This is also reportable. It’s not tattling. Would you have had the same doubt if it were a man that Susan was going to ask about the fossil? Only you can answer that. And I think you should keep that answer private and use it for sorting out your own thoughts.

              2. DCompliance*

                @Trout ‘Waiver. I agree that Susan could have just said that this is Nancy’s background and that OP probably did not intend to insult Nancy.

                However, the way OP spoke to Susan was rude. While OP may not have thought “I am going to deliberately hurt Susan with this comment”, I find it hard to believe he did not intend the comment to come off exactly as it sounded as it did. So I don’t think this is situation of someone “unintentionally” being rude. And employees feel like someone is intentionally being rude, I do understand escalating the issue.

                1. Trout 'Waver*

                  I’m just taking the OP at their word that they didn’t know if they had did anything wrong or not. That their rudeness was unintentional necessarily follows from OP not knowing if they were rude or not.

                2. Aveline*


                  Given how he’s still minimizing and trying to come up with a reason why they are wrong and he’s right, I don’t think simply stating a fact back at him would resolve the situation.

                  I don’t know your gender or presentation, but I can tell you as a woman I’ve had this happen so many times.

                  Version 1:

                  man sayings something rude.
                  I say “but here’s fact”
                  Man ignores me and continues on.

                  Version 2:

                  Many says something rude.
                  I say “you are being rude because facts”
                  Man escalates.

                  Know what has never happened? I stated facts and the man then apologized.

                  Thing is, if he is the type of dude who responds to a situation like this by presuming incompetence and thinking it’s an appropriate place for a snarky joke, countering with facts was likely fruitless. He already assumed he knew more than the women involved.

                  Why would they waste their breat?

                3. Librarian of SHIELD*

                  @Trout ‘Waver:

                  To quote Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, “sadly, accidental rudeness occurs alarmingly often.” OP wasn’t rude on purpose, no. But he *was* rude. He needs to own that, and he needs to do some serious work on himself to keep that accidental rudeness from popping up in the future.

                4. Trout 'Waver*

                  @Aveline You’re making unkind assumptions and not taking the letter writer at their word. Both are against the commenting rules.

                  I think the fact that this is a work environment matters a lot. Part of being collegial is trying to resolve issues with your colleagues before escalating them. Context does matter, but we don’t know the context in this situation so I’m defaulting to the basics.

                5. Kj*

                  Trout Waver, part of being collegial is almost not making rude comments about the knowledge of others. The LW was the first person in the wrong here. Maybe Susan could have handled it differently, but it was on the LW to realize he was being rude and apologize. Scoffing at coworkers is never ok

                6. DCompliance*

                  @ Trout Waiver- Let’s say I gave LW the benefit of the doubt that he did not intend to be rude. I still don’t think that obligates me to only talk to him about it and not escalate. Truthfully, what you are advocating comes off as a way to silence a victim. “If you want to keep it collegial, you better not tell” is what you are saying . It stopped being collegial the moment the LW was rude. This is not like using the wrong fork at dinner. This is basic human interaction. If the LW, truly didn’t know scoffing at somebody is rude- even more of a reason for me to escalate this. His coworkers shouldn’t have to school him on professional conversation 101.

                7. Trout 'Waver*

                  @DCompliance Well, if someone’s instinct was to run to my manager and complain if I unintentionally offended someone, I would most definitely say we did not have a collegial relationship. And that’s not victim-silencing. That’s basic teamwork.

                8. DCompliance*

                  @Trout Waiver- You seem to be basing you statements on some premise that LW had no idea he was being rude. However, the LW doesn’t say, “I had no idea the way I spoke was rude.”

                  In fact, he implies he felt entitled to speak that way because he states what he “said to Susan was based my not knowing Nancy’s background.” Whether he knew he background or not, you don’t scoff at somebody. Just because he said he said “I was merely responding to something that sounded silly to me”, does not mean he did not know it was rude.

                  Focusing on unintentional insults and giving him the benefit doubt don’t because he didn’t know it was wrong don’t even seem applicable to this situation.

                9. TootsNYC*

                  he didn’t intend to be rude?
                  I’m skeptical. Because of these words of his:

                  “I was merely responding to something that sounded silly to me”

                  And he laughed.
                  He clearly intended for her to see that what she was doing was silly. He clearly felt a need to establish that he felt she was silly.

                  That’s rude–and it was intentional.

                10. Not So NewReader*

                  I am not sure where you are going with this.
                  Let’s go with the idea that it was totally unintentional. That’s fine. What’s next is that he still owes an apology.

                  If we are walking down a crowded hallway together and I accidentally step on your toe, I owe you an apology. The fact that it was accidental is irrelevant. I still must apologize to you. And I would apologize to anyone I accidentally bump or step on their toe.

                  I don’t see what the problem is with just saying, “OMG, where was my head. I am so sorry, I did not mean to say something like that.” It’s not hard and it takes less than a minute.

                11. Trout 'Waver*

                  @DCompliance I’m basing my statements on the glaring obvious fact that if OP1 knew he was being rude, he wouldn’t write in to an advice columnist. Duh! I mean, I know people love to be judgmental anonymously on perceived slights on the internet, but why the fuck would he write in if he knew he was being rude? Your sanctimonious aggro here doesn’t even bear the slightest scrutiny.

                  @NSNR Follow the thread. I’m not saying he wasn’t rude and I’m not saying he doesn’t owe an apology. All I’m saying is that is that when dealing with coworkers you should assume good will absent a recurring pattern, and deal with people directly rather than running straight to the boss. I had no idea my position was so controversial given how it’s basic common social interaction.

                12. Trout 'Waver*

                  @DCompliance I’m basing my statements on the glaring obvious fact that if OP1 knew he was being rude, he wouldn’t write in to an advice columnist. Duh! I mean, I know people love to be judgmental anonymously on perceived slights on the internet, but why the frick would he write in if he knew he was being rude? Your sanctimonious aggro here doesn’t even bear the slightest scrutiny.

                  @NSNR Follow the thread. I’m not saying he wasn’t rude and I’m not saying he doesn’t owe an apology. All I’m saying is that is that when dealing with coworkers you should assume good will absent a recurring pattern, and deal with people directly rather than running straight to the boss. I had no idea my position was so controversial given how it’s basic common social interaction.

                13. Tallulah in the Sky*

                  @Trout ‘Waver

                  “I had no idea my position was so controversial given how it’s basic common social interaction.”

                  Same as you. I’m all the more baffled since this is advice Alison regularly gives : first try to resolve the issue yourself, only go to your manager after having tried (barring extreme circumstance, like sexual harassment, of course). This is in posts such as “dealing with a snarky coworker”, “how to deal with a coworker who’s rude to you”.

          4. Ellen N.*

            Not meaning something as an insult is a weak excuse for saying something that a person with average sensitivities would perceive as insulting. Many assumptions that people make about women are insulting regardless of intent.

            It doesn’t sound like Susan was “tattling” on the original poster. It sounds like Susan believed the original poster and told the manager that Nancy had included false information on her resume.

            1. MCMonkeyBean*

              Yeah, it seems like because OP stated his erroneous assumption as if it were an obvious fact–Susan believed him! It’s not her fault he made it sound like he knew more than he did.

            2. Nic*

              Or that she was confused and took it to her manager for clarification: “I was going to take this fossil to Nancy, because she’s got a background in paleontology, but LW says she doesn’t. Er…help?”

              The problem is, LW made a grand sweeping statement of knowledge (based on an assumption)…and he’s upset because Susan and his manager (plus Nancy and everyone else) treated him like he made a statement of knowledge, and are pissed off at him because he was wrong to state that thing. If he didn’t want to be taken seriously – because of course he doesn’t know anything about his coworkers(!), well, he could maybe try not making grand sweeping statements where he assumes he knows best.

          5. Sylvan*

            Agreed. Susan could have said “Actually, she used to do X,” and none of this bizarre drama would have happened.

            1. LilyP*

              Probably Susan wasn’t 100% sure about Nancy’s background herself and was thrown off enough by OP’s confident assertion that Nancy actually had no scientific background that it made more sense to her to ask someone else about it instead of arguing with OP.

              1. Tallulah in the Sky*

                If it was just that, saying “Oh, I thought she had a degree in paleontology ?” wouldn’t have been issue (that’s not arguing, that’s talking). That’s why I agree with Allison’s theory that this isn’t an isolated incident, and Susan wasn’t comfortable saying anything because of that.

                1. Sam.*

                  I’m inclined to agree, but I think the other possibility is that OP is in a position where others would reasonably expect that he knows something like this. Maybe it’s common knowledge among those in the office, so Susan expected he would also be aware, making these comments sound like an attack rather than a clueless person responding to something he’s ignorant about in a rude way.

                2. RabbitRabbit*

                  Gribbler, we only know the OP’s description of the manager’s view on it, not Susan’s.

                3. valentine*

                  I wouldn’t bother correcting OP1 because he sounds like the kind of person who declares things and only reveals they don’t if you happen to contradict them. I would have eternal flames on the side of my face if I had to deal with that repeatedly.
                  Thomas: The third floor is closed today.
                  Pandora: Cassandra just confirmed our meeting there.
                  Thomas: Is the third floor open today?

                4. AKchic*

                  I’m inclined to think that LW1 has done similar things previously, so the people in the office no longer engage him directly when he does this BS, and now just report it to the manager to deal with. LW1 may have been a Missing Stair in other offices, or with another group of people, but this office really doesn’t want to keep skipping over him, so they are going to keep reporting the issues they are having with him until he either learns or is gone, whichever comes first.

                5. ceiswyn*

                  Why exactly would someone who has just been laughed at for being so silly as to think Nancy knows about fossils expose herself to continuing ridicule?

              2. dramalama*

                That would be ironic: OP didn’t give Susan the benefit of the doubt that she had a good reason to ask Nancy about fossils, but Susan assumed OP had a good reason for stating that Nancy didn’t have that background.

            2. DCompliance*

              I do wish Susan said that, but the “drama” happened as so soon as OP made his comment. I work with someone who has a background in law. She is into fossils. She shows her fossils to someone else who has a background in law. In never once occurred to me to say, “Why are you showing it Mark? That’s not is background.” The reason I would never make that comment because it’s rude and talking like that on office floor is unprofessional.

            3. Genny*

              This comment seems to make the whole thing Susan’s fault. It’s really not. LW said something rude and at least kind of sexist. His boss somehow learned about it and had a serious conversation about why boss thought it was problematic. Neither Susan nor Nancy were wrong to be offended and it’s not their job to make LW feel comfortable for ridiculing them.

              1. Aveline*


                Saying “but if the victim would have spoken up/said X, Y and Z, the drama wouldn’t have happened” is a classic blame-shifting and silencing tactic.

                It’s not ok.

                LW needs to own that what he said was wrong and sexist even if it wasn’t his intent. Even if he’s not sexist.. His statement was wrong irrespective of anyone else’s subsequent behavior.

                Full stop.

                Also, Susan isn’t writing us. So why are we focusing on what she should have done in the moment instead of what OP can do now?

            4. Librarian of SHIELD*

              Could Susan have said something in the moment? Maybe. Or maybe she had that moment that most of us have had where someone says something so astonishingly bad that you just stand there for a moment, incapable of finding any words to describe how awful the thing was. Or maybe OP has a reputation for stating his perceptions as if they are facts and Susan knew there wasn’t any point in trying to say anything. We don’t know. We know absolutely nothing about Susan’s motivations here.

              But, and this is a big one, even if Susan HAD corrected OP in the moment, OP would still have just said an extraordinarily rude and dismissive thing about his coworker out of complete and total ignorance. Even if Susan did everything in a way you would consider to be correct, OP would still have been in the wrong, and he still needs to figure out why his first impulse was to react in this rude way.

            5. Rusty Shackelford*

              Or Susan could have said to herself “ugh, there he goes again” and chosen not to argue with him, and later casually mentioned to Boss that, once again, LW assumed he knew something that he didn’t. You really have no idea what happened.

            6. TootsNYC*

              Or maybe she just didn’t want to get into it with the OP.
              Because if someone laughed at me and said, “Why would you do that? That’s not right,” I’m not going to hang around and talk to them about it.

              They laughed at me. I’m outta there.
              I put up with enough crap in elementary, junior high, and high school.

              1. Not So NewReader*

                This is where I go to also.

                “I am done here. I am going to go find someone I can actually converse with.”

                What I see here is that Susan was sharing something happy that was going on in her day. And then OP burst her balloon. She was just trying to be friendly. Somehow OP missed that idea entirely and Susan had the double upset of being put down plus having her joy stepped on.

                Women get a lot of this. I decided to get my windshield replaced on my car. A male friend said, “You don’t need to do that.”
                I went and found someone else to talk with.
                To his credit, my friend came over on replacement day to help as needed. When the service person got my old windshield out, he discovered that the windshield was getting ready to pop out anyway. It could have come off at highway speeds with nasty story in the end.

                How often do these things happen to women? I don’t count because I don’t think I could handle know the hard numbers. OP, women experience these types of comments A LOT.

          6. Tallulah in the Sky*

            I kinda agreed with you before reading Allison’s response. The comment was rude, but to the point to going to the manager about this, instead of simply explaining on the spot ? From my understanding, interpersonal issues should be solved among coworkers, they don’t need to involve the manager in those kind of stuff. And from all the letters we read here, many people need to learn how to speak up (thanks to this blog by the way, it helps me immensely in doing so :-) ).

            But like Alison pointed out, this might be part of a bigger issue. If OP is often dismissive of others or regularly says something sexist (even if not meant that way), it would explain why Susan wouldn’t feel comfortable pointing it out. And it could explain the fact why the manager came so hard on this. It’s hard to comment on every day subtle sexism (I’m a woman in IT, I work with 90% awesome males, who still make me stupid comments).

            Although, if my second paragraph is the reality, did the manager do her job well ? She framed it as OP accusing the coworker of fraud, which is ridiculous. The manager should have explained how OP’s attitude/comments/… is a problem, and used this as an example. She did mention his comment was sexist, but didn’t say anything about a pattern OP needs to change, just a one off OP needs to apologize for.

            1. Cindy Featherbottom*

              This is exactly how I feel about it. Coudln’t have phrased it better :)

            2. Inca*

              “From my understanding, interpersonal issues should be solved among coworkers, they don’t need to involve the manager in those kind of stuff. ”
              Having this as a norm will not so much encourage people to actually solve things in a constructive way, but rather lead to issues not being addressed or played out in petty ways. I think good management and having a safe work culture would necessarily mean that the option of talking things over with the manager (and then that manager supporting, moderating or in certain cases intervening) should be an explicit option that is not shamed up front.

              1. straws*

                This. Ideally, interpersonal issues should be solved among coworkers, but there needs to be room for escalation and exceptions. If someone comes to me with an issue with a coworker and no effort was put into solving it with that person, I’m not going to be pleased. But if they come to me having already attempted a resolution or with a good reason why they didn’t feel comfortable doing so, there’s nothing wrong with addressing these types of issues at the management level.

                1. Tallulah in the Sky*

                  FYI, that’s what I was saying in my comment. This is a one off ? Handle it yourself. This is an ongoing issue ? I understand why Susan went to her manager.

              2. Trout 'Waver*

                This sounds good to some in theory, but doesn’t play out well in practice. Having a safe work culture would necessarily mean that coworkers can discuss issues safely with each other as well. If I unintentionally insulted someone, I wouldn’t want everyone to discuss it behind my back. That seems cliquish and gossipy.

                Not being able to have conversations like this with a co-worker means there’s a much bigger issue at play. It could be a pattern of behavior by OP, extreme conflict aversion by Susan and/or Nancy, or a broader workplace issue regarding communication. But either way, the manager should be tackling that problem instead of treating this as a one-off. I think a better approach from the manager would be to ask Susan and Nancy why they didn’t feel comfortable talking to OP directly and try to understand what the broader issue is.

                1. Observer*

                  Well, you have not way to know that the manager did not ask them – or at least Susan. And in fact, based on what the OP describes, I’d be willing to bet that the manager DID ask and was told that he tends to be sexist and dismissive.

                  It makes sense – the OP is STILL dismissing the mere idea that he was actually rude and that he should have realized that it’s just possible that someone who he knows nothing about might know about stuff that’s not directly tied to their job.

                2. Trout 'Waver*

                  @Observer You’re making a lot of assumptions there. Ironically, about a letter in which the OP got in trouble for making a faulty assumption.

                3. Observer*

                  Actually, I’m not making any assumptions. I’m pointing out what we don;t know for sure – ie whether the manager asked why Susan didn’t say anything in the moment, and what is LIKELY – not definite. If the OP comes back and says that he asked the boss about this and the boss said “I didn’t ask and I didn’t care why”, I would be surprised but I would accept that I misread.

                4. Trout 'Waver*

                  You are, though. But I don’t think this is the right place to argue about what an assumption is. OP1 doesn’t quite seem to get why what he said is rude, but they’re at least open enough to it to write in to an expert. That’s actually pretty non-dismissive.

                5. Katherine*

                  Trout Waver- yes the OP wrote into an expert but come on. He’s taking essentially no responsibility. The others “blew it all out of proportion,” his manager’s “advice” is in quotes, he “reluctantly” apologized, etc.. Three people are upset about what he did, but, he “still feels that he did nothing wrong” (direct quote). You really want to give him a ton of credit for writing into Alison?

                6. Trout 'Waver*


                  If he thinks he didn’t screw up after reading Alison’s reply, then yes I’d agree with you. And yes, I want to give him credit for asking a disinterested third party, because that’s an excellent way to learn. Also, I like this column more when the people who screwed up write in than when the screwed-over write in. And when the commentariat goes in on them hard, despite the commenting rules, it probably dissuades a lot of interesting letters and content.

                  I really appreciate how good the comment section of this website is, but it skews very heavy towards passive-aggressive, never confront types. And that makes the responses to letters of this type especially vitriolic.

                7. Inca*

                  This “*I* wouldn’t want everyone to discuss it” is putting you center, while there is someone else there too. If someone finds something upsetting, than they *can* address it with you seek clarification, but there can be a host of reasons why they don’t and that totally doesn’t forfeit their right for talking with over with the manager.

                  Talking to the manager also isn’t necessarily reporting. It may simply be a reality check, or to clear up thoughts before addressing it with you, getting unwise ways of saying it out of the way first. The manager in turn can choose many things, first of which would be to just listen, and perhaps that will just clear things up. Then perhaps provide that reality check (including ‘I think you read way too much into that’), let the employee find their own preferred action (which may be none at all), instigate a conversation between the two of you, intervene and address the communication, or eventually, directly address or even put someone on notice.

                  But the point is: it’s a host of options. Most of them are not hurting you but very possibly help communication or help someone find the confidence to indeed address it. When you don’t want people to ‘talk behind your back’ you bar them from seeking out those options and finding their own coping style.

                  And this should be open on any issue: a one of, a minor one or whatever. t

              3. Aveline*

                Let the kids resolve it/adult’s should not intervene as a black letter rule always serves the interest of the powerful and bullying.

                it never serves the victims.

              4. Tallulah in the Sky*

                In a case where a coworker was wrong about someone’s background ? Even if stated rudely ? No, if this is the first time OP misspoke or was rude, than no, it doesn’t warrant going to your manager.

                I agree people should be comfortable to bring up issues, but it doesn’t mean that every issue warrants being brought up. A manager is not a kinder garten teacher, so small interpersonal issues shouldn’t be brought up to them.

            3. Anonny*

              I am wondering if this is part of an inadvertent pattern on OP’s behalf, because reading his letter I get the feeling he doesn’t realise what he said was rude? Which means he may have been rubbing a lot of people the wrong way for a while.

            4. Not So NewReader*

              It sounds like OP does not know his cohorts very well and probably they do not know him that well either. All those unknowns is enough right there. This is what can happen when people do not know each other.
              I worked with someone who kept everyone at arm’s length. Fine, that is their choice. One day in the course of a brief discussion this person raised an item in the air with a gesture that seemed to indicate he was going to hit me with the item. Witnesses to this conversation also thought he was going to hit me and asked me if I was all right. Yep, I did report the incident to my boss, rather than opening the topic with him. Turned out he had made the same gesture to another woman.
              From his perspective he could have thought he was just moving the item up and over something else. It may not have connected in his mind how that gesture looked to others.

            5. Karen from Finance*

              I think the accusation of fraud came from OP asserting that “that’s not her background” in such a strong and confident way. That implies that he knows that’s not her background, otherwise any reasonable person would have asked instead of stating. So that’s the interpretation the manager landed at, given what he knew.

              1. Works in IT*

                This reminds me of the letter writer whose boss wanted everyone to give “forceful, confident answers” to everything and didn’t want to hear maybes. Yet another example of why, if you aren’t sure about something, saying it in a forceful voice that leaves no room for doubt is a bad idea.

            6. Lora*

              Having been a manager, employee of and co-worker of guys who make assumptions like OP did, here is a piece of advice I would give OP:

              You won’t always work at your current employer. Someday, that employer will have a layoff, or you’ll see a job elsewhere that looks interesting or offers more opportunity for advancement, or you’ll have some personal circumstance that requires you getting another job.

              During your tenure at Current Employer, many many people will have come and gone to other jobs in the industry. They will know you and be able to speak to what kind of a person you are to work with.

              When you’re applying for another job, what are the chances that one of those other people will work at the company you’re applying to? Are they pretty low, because your field isn’t very specialized or tight knit? Or are they pretty high? Because I guarantee that a hiring manager looking at your resume is going to call your previous colleagues and ask what kind of a person you are, even if they are not listed as a reference. Or maybe the hiring manager will actually be Susan or Nancy. Or Susan or Nancy’s yoga buddy, or Susan or Nancy’s church coffee klatsch organizer. And then you can forget about getting that job.

              It is better for you in the long run to make sure you’re known as BOTH technically skilled AND easy to work with. There are a handful of colleagues in my field who are permanently stuck in their current positions because everyone knows how awful they are to work with – they’re JUST technically skilled enough not to get fired, but they fail miserably at getting along with other humans so nobody else wants to hire them. I’ve also known a few guys who were forced out of the industry altogether for being dreadful to work with even though they were indisputably technically skilled and came from top universities. Even if it is 100% a fake persona that you put on as a “would you like fries with that?” smile at work, I would strongly encourage you to compartmentalize and cultivate your Pleasant Work Persona (soft skills, however you want to call it) in order to maintain future employment opportunities. Asking pleasant, thoughtful, brief questions such as “Oh, is Nancy into fossils? Was it a challenging trail to hike, or easy? Sounds cool!” will help you a LOT more than you realize.

              1. MatKnifeNinja*

                You should teach a required, semester long university class on this. Know too many people who could really benefit hearing thism

            7. Michaela Westen*

              “From my understanding, interpersonal issues should be solved among coworkers, they don’t need to involve the manager in those kind of stuff.”
              Management needs to be available to help staff with interpersonal issues when needed. If they’re not, this is what happens:
              At some point a petty tyrant will come along and take over the staff. They will bully the staff and manipulate everyone to get what they want.
              The bully is focused on getting their way, and the staff (those who don’t leave) will be focused on appeasing the bully.
              The work will suffer and attitudes will go downhill fast. It will become a downward spiral that can bring down a business if it’s not stopped.
              Management needs to be available.

            8. ket*

              I wonder, if OP has been there longest, if he might have been involved in hiring or otherwise have been assumed to read the resumes promising candidates…. like Nancy. If so, that might explain why this was phrased as an accusation of fraud, rather than an ignorant guy being rude.

            9. Lilly*

              I wonder, is the fraud claim so ridiculous? OP said emphatically and, I’m assuming, publicly, that it was silly and nonsensical to think that Nancy would have knowledge of fossils.

              If Nancy were, indeed, falsifying her creds, a comment like this would be the thing that reveals her. But this isn’t CSI and OP isn’t Grissom. He needs to cut the haughty skepticism and learn some soft skills, like not being such an insufferable curmudgeon that colleagues can’t even make mundane small talk without getting snapped at.

          7. Age of Makto*

            It is reasonable to assume that someone working as (say) an accountant would not be a closet paleontologist. I agree with Ella that not everything should be taken as an insult.

            However, I think this sad story is a cautionary tale for introverted people who say that “never socializing outside of work” or “never discussing personal matters” is some kind of virtue.

            If you know a little bit about your co-workers’ backgrounds you know something about their skill sets.

            1. JSPA*

              In some countries this may be the norm, but in the US it’s hugely common for someone’s degree (even advanced degree) to be unrelated to their job. More importantly, it’s bad practice to assume that coworkers are doing something foolish (or lacking expertise) every time you don’t have…any information at all. And that goes double if you know that you barely know anything about your co-workers interests and lives, and the topic isn’t something where it’s your job to provide oversight!

              1. Psyche*

                The fact that it seems like everyone else knows indicates that the OP may be staying away from casual conversations a little too much. It honestly doesn’t sound like the OP is even “office friendly” with his coworkers. Some places that would be normal but it sounds out of step with the office culture where he works.

            2. ceiswyn*

              It may be reasonable to assume that any given person X isn’t a paleontologist.

              What is NOT reasonable is confidently telling someone else that X definitely knows nothing about paleontology, when you actually know nothing about X. Even had X not had an actual degree in paleontology, there is no reason why they couldn’t be a well-informed hobbyist.

              1. Blue*

                Yes, it’s the way he responded. As someone with an advanced degree unrelated to the work I do, I think it’s fine if people don’t expect me to have that background. But to confidently say, “No, there’s no way Blue knows anything about llama care,” instead of “Oh, really? I didn’t realize she had an interest in llamas,” isn’t really ok. I think the question here is why OP, who freely admits he knows nothing about his coworkers, felt comfortable drawing such a definitive conclusion about something he knows he has no context for. That’s the part I think he needs to examine more closely.

              2. Clisby*

                +1. And fossil hunting/collecting is not all that unusual a hobby. I agree with those who think the OP was rude, but to me it was particularly odd to assume she knew nothing about fossils. It would be like asserting “Nancy has no background in playing the tuba” or “Nancy’s background isn’t in Japanese art.”

                1. RabbitRabbit*

                  Not to mention the sheer number of children who become obsessed with dinosaurs – Nancy could have just been an intense student of them in her younger years, or has to keep up with the field due to her own child’s interest.

                  I agree that the worst part was openly stating, with confidence, that it’s not Nancy’s background.

                2. Genny*

                  This is one of the things that sticks out to me. Fossil hunting/collecting is in the same category as bird watching or participating in historical reenactments. You’re probably not going to run into a ton of people who are into those things, but they’re also not that unusual of things to be in to. Why assume that coworker can’t possibly know anything about fossils?

              3. Aveline*

                It comes off as hugely arrogant to say “Lucy doesn’t know anything about baking cakes” when I don’t know whether or not Lucy has baked cakes before.

                The LW definitively stated a woman was ignorant of something when he, himself was the ignorant one.

                That’s what he has to admit to himself. Until he can do that and stops making excuses or justifications, he’s not going to resolve anything.

              4. TootsNYC*

                What is NOT reasonable is confidently telling someone else that X definitely knows nothing about paleontology, when you actually know nothing about X.

                Add to this that Susan DOES know Nancy, and our OP would probably admit that Susan probably knows Nancy far better than HE does.

                And unless Susan is a total idiot, she would have SOME reason for confidently stating she wanted to show her fossil to Nancy. SOME reason, no?

                But then, he thought Susan was “silly” (his words).
                So, he must think Susan is a total idiot. And that kind of attitude certainly shows. All over the place.

            3. Katie's Cryin'*

              Not to mention that people will have a better rapport with you when they know a bit about you personally and will be less likely to make such harsh judgments and accusations in a situation like this.

            4. pleaset*

              The laughing and tone made it an insult.

              Asking, without judgement, “Why would Nancy know about fossils?” is not an insult.

              Saying the same thing as a statement, and laughing – which means the idea that she would is silly – is the insult.

            5. Beanie*

              I don’t think we should be shaming people who are less social at work. After all, how many complaints have we seen of people oversharing to the point it was uncomfortable? I know there’s a happy medium, but not everyone is a social butterfly.

              OP’s issue was not because he lacked socializing, it’s because he made a comment rooted in sexism that a woman could not possibly know anything about fossils, and this other woman was dumb to even suggest it. The lack of socializing may have led this to happen, but I doubt that socializing alone would erase that sexist mindset. That has to come from self realization, and judging by the letter, OP is not ready for that yet.

              1. Kj*

                I hate to say it, but there is a baseline of socializing that is expected and needed in an office setting. You don’t have to do anything out of the office with colleagues. But if you never socilize, you are likely failing at the soft skills part of your job. Everyone should be pleasent, kind and be able to make small talk with coworkers. Knowing Jenny has a dog and is into hiking goes a long way to having a pleasent office. I am very leery of people who never socilize. They are often placing themselves above coworkers. No one has to be super social, but I think the LW is failing at baseline social skills in an office setting.

                1. Beanie*

                  I would say that the comment of “they are putting themsekves above others” is a stretch. My husband does not talk to people business wise at all. He is a good person who struggles, and wishes he could talk more. He’s been to counseling and everything, but it doesn’t change the fact that if we go to a parent meeting, or a bank meeting, I literally do all tge talking unless it’s something he has to answer.

                  Let’s not turn this into a statement or debate about introversion. I don’t necessarily think it plays a role here, since it was the OPs demeanor that set this off. He was rude, then doubled down on it.

            6. AnonEMoose*

              Wow…you’re turning the OP’s clueless, rude behavior into some kind of commentary on introverts?

              I’m quite introverted. I prefer not to socialize with my coworkers outside of work. But my reaction to “I’m going to ask Nancy if this is a fossil” would be “I didn’t know Nancy knew about fossils – that’s really cool!”

              Preferring not to discuss personal matters or socialize much is NOT the same as making assumptions and not even considering that said assumptions might not be accurate.

              And OP was rude. And dismissive. He may not have intended to be, but as another poster stated, intent is not magic. OP should apologize and take care not to assume he knows more than he actually does in future.

              1. I Took A Mint*

                I think if he had made an effort to learn about his coworkers, he would have known about Nancy’s background. And if he tried to be more friendly with them, they’d give him the benefit of the doubt when there was a misunderstanding. As it stands he now has a reputation for being a jerk.

            7. Elspeth*

              Really? I think you’re reading way too much into this. I’m an introvert, know several other introverts, and we’ve all made pleasant small-talk and gotten to know our coworkers. Why? Because being introverted does not mean you don’t make the effort to be congenial and helpful to those around you.

              1. Kj*

                I feel like introversion is sometime used as an excuse by some not to have soft skills. That is nonsense of course- introverts can and do have great soft skills. Also, I work with kids on the autism spectrum. They often struggle with soft skills due to trouble reading social situations but they can and do learn how to have soft skills. Even if, for some reason, soft skills do it come natural to a person, they are a skill that can be learned.

          8. Anastasia Beaverhousen*

            It doesn’t need to be *meant* as an insult to be insulting. To some degree, when we’re talking about interpersonal interactions, intent doesn’t matter. If I’m driving my car down your street and I run over your puppy, it doesn’t matter that I didn’t *mean* to hit your puppy – the puppy’s still dead. (Well, I suppose there would be more of a justified WTF if someone had *intentionally* run over the puppy, but the effect of the situation doesn’t change.) If you offend someone, it kind of doesn’t matter if you meant to – you still need to deal with the consequences of your actions, not just rail about how they’re wrong to be offended because that wasn’t your intention.

            It would be one thing to say “I didn’t know she knew anything about fossils!” but it’s another thing entirely to assert that she doesn’t know. Heck, even without an academic background, someone could still know a great deal about a subject if it just happens to be their hobby. Laughing at the idea that a colleague could be a useful resource in any subject not directly related to what they do now is strange, insulting behavior.

            And… “Tattle like a 3 year old”? We don’t know exactly what happened in the background, but it’s not an immature reaction to tell your colleagues or manager when another colleague has made you uncomfortable and insulted a fellow worker behind their back, which is what happened from Susan’s perspective.

            1. Falling Diphthong*

              In the past several years I’ve noticed an increasing attempt to make consequences all about the intent behind an action, rather than any impact it had. But it’s just not the case that everything you do is perfectly fine so long as you meant it to be complimentary, or funny, or not wrong.

              1. Aveline*

                It’s an attempt to remove blame from those abusing their power/relative power in a situation.

                It’s also an attempt to put the blame onto the victim by saying they are being over-sensitive.

                It’s morally wrong and needs to stop.

              2. TootsNYC*

                also–intent is internal. So people can kid themselves about it (“I’m not racist!”) or flat-out lie or deliberately minimize (which is lying).

                That’s the other useful thing about it.

            2. JJ Bittenbinder*

              Yup, LW needs to learn the difference between intent and impact, and that it’s not his right to decide when or if someone gets insulted by a comment he makes.

            3. Psyche*

              The lack of a real apology later probably contributed to how cool everyone is being. It is one thing to say the wrong thing and sincerely apologize for the misstep. It is another to double down about not being wrong, how everyone is blowing it out of proportion and giving a grudging apology. They can tell that the OP isn’t sorry and that makes it harder to move on.

            4. Oranges*

              That’s why we have Murder 1, Murder 2, and the many flavors of Manslaughter. Intent matters a bit, so does owning your actions, but you still get punished irredisreagardless because you killed someone.

              They’re called “mitigating factors” not “get out of consequences free”

          9. mcr-red*

            I feel like the very fact that Susan did, as you put it, go tattle like a 3 year old, and from the whole tone of the letter in that OP doesn’t see why anyone would take offense to his words and doesn’t know much (or want to know) about his coworkers despite working with them for years, may be a hint that the OP has had issues with how he speaks to people in the past. Just my gut feeling.

            1. MtnLaurel*

              That is my impression as well. The boss’s reactions seems like it’s a bit extreme for a first time, so I’m wondering if this incident is the one that established the pattern in the boss’s mind. It’s seldom a bad idea to ask if there is something a person can do to improve the way their words come across. It helps to make a better communicator.

              1. Paulina*

                Being more careful with how he puts things will also make the LW more reliable as an employee and co-worker. Even without the statement being rude, it’s still a definitive statement that he made based on no knowledge, just a flimsy assumption. It may be becoming difficult for them to trust what he tells them.

          10. Turquoisecow*

            It doesn’t matter if it it was meant as an insult. It’s insulting. Intent doesn’t matter in this situation.

          11. Tisiphone*

            I wish I’d known as a child the difference between tattling and reporting a problem. It would have made growing up much simpler.

            Tattling is when the goal is to get someone in trouble.
            Reporting a problem is the first step toward fixing the problem.

            Susan didn’t tattle. She reported a problem. The problem was that her coworker was telling her that Nancy didn’t have a qualification. If what the coworker said was true, that could be an issue.

            The letter writer is in the wrong and needs to apologize at once and never voice such assumptions again, especially with nothing to back them up.

            1. Tallulah in the Sky*

              I think we can all agree here that Susan didn’t go to her boss because she was worried Nancy didn’t have a degree. She didn’t report possible fraud. It’s way more likely OP is regularly rude towards his coworkers and Susan was reporting on that.

          12. Observer*

            I want to know why Susan couldn’t just state what Nancy’s background

            Because she’s just shared something interesting and the person she shared with reacted like a total jerk with a ridiculous, offensive, incorrect and very rude response. Why would she continue the conversation?

            why she had to go tattle like a 3 year old.

            Seriously? They guy is being rude and dismissive of his coworkers, and there is a strong streak of sexism as well, and the OP has proven that he doesn’t take correction well. Bringing this to the attention of a supervisor is not “tattling”. This is kind of garbage is exactly how misbehavior in the workplace is allowed to persist.

            1. Aveline*

              Any why is it her responsibility to take on the burden of correcting his rudeness? Why is it HER JOB to correct his error and protect him from it?

              Seriously why?

              Ugh. I just can’t even with people who are quick to excuse rude behavior but expect victims to be perfect.

              To anyone stating that “Susan should have done X,” please explain o me why you are focusing on her instead of the man who started the whole issue by speaking out of ignorance in a rude fashion? Why is it on her instead of on him?

              1. Beanie*

                I think maybe people tend to write from their own experiences. I had a coworker once who took issue with my tone when I was giving her tasks. She (and a friend!) reported me. Over and over. Until I finally got called in for a meeting with a manager. I did pull my coworker aside to ask her why she didn’t just speak up, and she had no answer.

                So I told her that I wasn’t always aware of my tone, but I would monitor it, and to please call me out on it when she heard it so I could better identify it. Then I pointed out some frustrations I had with her work, and we worked out a solution there. Much more effective than getting management involved. Or so I thought.

                She and her friend (another coworker) complained about me every shift until she quit. It damaged office morale, and disrupted workflow. Management received over 100 complaints about my supposed rudeness. Ultimately, it turned out that those two could not stand a younger coworker having seniority over them.

                So I guess what I’m getting at is that people who have faced things like that before might be more likely to scrutinize Susan here. That doesn’t mean OP didn’t mess up.

                1. Observer*

                  That’s true. But in this case, we know from the OP himself that he was rude and dismissive. And in a way that is highly likely to throw people off, and which has a lot of gendered assumptions and shadows. So the focus on Susan’s response is not appropriate.

                2. mcr-red*

                  Honestly, at this point, OP needs to take this as a warning on watching his tone/how he speaks to people. His boss is effectively saying that. While I completely believe you that this happened, I feel like your incident is in the 10 percent chance of back stabbing coworkers and the other 90 percent of people that get called in to their boss for being rude/having a tone, are people who are rude or have a tone.

                  My husband got called in to his boss somewhat recently about having a tone with a female coworker (however he’s gotten called to his boss in the past about having a tone with a male coworker so he’s equal opportunity). He legitimately said to me and his daughter, “I don’t know what they’re talking about, I don’t have a tone!” I think if we both said some extremely unprintable things. He HAS a tone. Honest to God, I don’t know if he’s that self-unaware or he just thinks we’ll shut up eventually.

                  I’m just saying, OP could go home and say to his family members, “They basically said I was rude, can you believe it?” and they be like, “YEAH. We can.”

          13. Emily K*

            We don’t know what Susan did or said. Maybe OP’s laughter made her doubt her own knowledge of Nancy’s background and question whether she have been wrong or misunderstood something, and she asked Nancy or another coworker directly about it, and it made its way back to the manager. Or maybe Susan believed LW, thought that meant Nancy had lied in her application, and went to the manager to flag the possible fraud. That’s 2 plausible alternative explanations I came up with in about 30 seconds, and there are probably others as well.

            1. TootsNYC*

              Maybe Susan didn’t “tattle to the boss,” but was talking about it with Nancy, and Manager overheard and investigated.

              Bringing up the “you accused her of lying on her resumé and this is a BIG deal” thing may have been like the time at a “sword fight birthday party” that Phil got fed up with Fernando not hearing him say, “you’re hitting too hard–that stings!” and finally just decided to wallop him relentlessly as hard as he could, because maybe THEN he would listen.

          14. Essess*

            Let’s put this in another way…. A newer coworker comes in and claims to be an expert in subject “A”. I mention this in passing to another coworker who has been here a lot longer and has more seniority who states emphatically that the coworker doesn’t have any background in subject “A”. Since this second coworker has been here quite a while, there’s a good possibility that he knows something I don’t know about the newer coworker. Now I don’t know which of them is telling me the truth and this has a serious impact on who I should trust for future work-related information so I go to my boss with my concerns about worker integrity.

          15. I Don’t Remember What Name I Used Before*

            EXACTLY THIS. Susan made a mountain out of a speck of dust, and boss took the ridiculousness to freekin’ ELEVEN. Neither of these people is reacting reasonably or rationally to a statement that I agree was rude but by no means whatsoever rose to the level of needing to be reported to higher ups.

            1. Tallulah in the Sky*

              If this was a one off, if this is the only time OP talked rudely, or was dismissive, or scoffed at colleagues,… then yes, the reaction of all three coworkers and boss is weird and too much.

              But reading the tone of the letter, the words OP chooses, the total unwillingness to admit that he misspoke,… I would be surprised this isn’t a regular issue OP’s coworkers have to deal with. To me, the chances that OP can be a bit of a condescending jerk at work and people are sick of it are quite higher than three coworkers overreacting simultaneously for no good reason. This also would explain why Susan wouldn’t bother correcting OP, if she did on other occasions and got attitude back.

              Where I still agree with you is the boss’s ridiculous response. If OP’s attitude is an ongoing issue, she should have addressed that, instead of making it about accusing someone of fraud. That was just stupid. My guess is that like other managers who wrote to AAM, she doesn’t know how to address those “personality” issues, and just tried to find something “professional” to hit OP with.

          1. Ethyl*

            Yeah the way the LW himself described the comment made my shoulders go up around my ears. It was really, really rude! And he *laughed* while delivering it, which probably made the coworker he was talking to feel belittled and stupid I bet.

      3. JSPA*

        It works out the same way: to him, functionally speaking, people are their jobs (and nothing more). Even being “work friends only” normally allows for far greater awareness of people’s interests and backgrounds. OP could ask himself if he has a generally solipsistic attitude (such that he operates on the principle that the world = his perception of the world). Mistaking a person’s life for their job title and purpose is kind of a big deal. OP could apologize by saying that he’s been so focused on work that he fears he entirely lost track of the fact that people have rich, fascinating backgrounds and interests, separate from their work duties. (Even if the actual truth is that it never occurred to him). Paying attention to those things differentiates being truly “work friendly” from being “work non hostile.” Aspire to the former / don’t settle for the latter.

      4. MusicWithRocksInIt*

        See – with the information he was given at minimum I would assume that Nancy is interested in fossils as a hobby, and that Susan, who bothered to get to know her coworkers would know better than me what Nancy was knowledgeable about. So it seems like you were rude to both of them. You don’t necessarily need a degree or a professional background in something to know a lot about it, and there was no reason to think she had no knowledge of the subject at all.

        1. Allison*

          Good point. LW’s reaction also implied that Susan’s decision to ask Nancy about fossils was a silly, foolish decision.

        2. Alton*

          That was what I was thinking. I can see how the OP may have had a brain fart, but jumping to the assumption that Susan had no reason to ask Nancy seems like more of a leap than figuring there must be some context. Nancy could have told Susan about being a hobby rock and fossil collector, for example.

      5. PhyllisB*

        But why didn’t Susan say something like, “That’s odd, since Nancy has a degree in paleontology and used to be an instructor.” ? True, he sounds dismissive, but this would have given him the chance to say “Sorry, I didn’t realize that” or something similar.

        1. PVR*

          My guess is that it’s common knowledge in the office that she has a degree in paleontology and so the coworker was so stunned by what he said she didn’t know how to respond.

          1. Half-Caf Latte*

            My guess is that the OP’s dismissiveness signaled to Susan that a simple statement like that wouldn’t be met with an “Oh gee thanks I didn’t realize that’s neat”, and she decided it wasn’t worth engaging, which is her call to make.

        2. Lance*

          To me, it’s because receiving such a confident (and kind of ridiculing) response would really catch someone in the moment, and they wouldn’t know how to respond to that. What exactly happened after, we can only speculate as-is, but it doesn’t surprise me that ‘OP said this’ would get around afterward.

        3. Aveline*

          Why are you focusing on her, not him?

          Why does she have an obligation to say anything to someone who barged into a conversation that he wasn’t party to who then made a very rude and incorrect statement?

          Why does she have any duty to respond at all to a rude interloper?

      6. Observer*

        He said that because she’s a volunteer coordinator so he assumed that or something similar was her background.

        That doesn’t really answer the question. For one thing, adults generally know not to say everything that’s in their heads. And it’s also not unreasonable to assume that maybe people know about things that are not it their APPARENT professional background.

        So, he made a disparaging comment about a coworker, despite knowing that he knows absolutely nothing about her background, and he was rude to the coworker who mentioned it to him as well. Why do that?

        If the answer is that he really didn’t realize that it’s possible for Nancy to actually know something about fossils, and it’s ok to make someone feel stupid for thinking that she might, well that’s an issue he needs to think about seriously.

    2. Tiger Snake*

      Basically, OP, your letter here seems very excusatory. And if you’re making excuses like this to a bunch of strangers on the internet, it also makes us think that your apology in person was probably also filled with excuses. An “I’m sorry… BUT…” statement is not an apology. Doubly so when it’s part of a pattern.

      Going forward, I think you’re best benefit is to take what your boss said to heart. More specifically, I think you should train yourself to stop talking with dismissive language. I’m reading a lot of it both in your statements about Nancy, and in how you wrote your letter overall, and that’s something that will impact on your relationships no matter where your career takes you.

      1. Forrest*

        Yes, all of this:

        >>I was also asked to apologize to Nancy – which I reluctantly did. She accepted my apology, but seemed strangely hurt

        is exactly the opposite of what I’m teaching my 4yo about apologies! LW seems to be assuming “I didn’t mean to insult her, so why should I apologise?” When you hurt or insult someone accidentally, you apologise! You apologise for speaking without thinking or knowing anything about the situation, because … you spoke without thinking and without knowing anything about the situation!

        You say you “apologised reluctantly”, and that “Nancy … seemed strangely hurt” – you insulted her, apologised insincerely because your boss forced her to, and probably conveyed that you thought the whole thing was being blown out of proportion. Nancy superficially “accepted the apology” because that’s good manners and it’s part of resuming good relations in the workplace. But a “reluctant apology” is no real apology at all.

        You and Nancy have performed the outward signs of “apologising” and “accepting the apology” without any meaningful change under the service. This is really on you: you should reflect on this situation, realise what you did wrong and apologise for it properly, and do better in the future.

        1. Falling Diphthong*

          Yes–OP, if your goal, as stated, is for things to return to a comfortable level of office bonhomie, then you will need to do better on the apology.

          Your coworkers presumably have several years of context into which they fit this latest incident, and you’ve felt the resulting chill. If you want them to perceive you differently, it’s probably going to require at least a trio of sincere apologies–to Susan, Nancy, and boss–in which you convey that you get why what you said was offensive, you’ve realized you often make that sort of logic shortcut to land on dismissive, and you’re going to do better. And then do better.

        2. Joielle*

          Yeah – this is spot on. OP clearly still doesn’t believe he did anything wrong, so he gave Nancy a half-ass apology, which can be more insulting than no apology at all. And then he’s bewildered that she’s still hurt by his hurtful action.

          OP, that’s not how apologizing works. “Sorry” isn’t a magic word that makes everyone happy again.

        3. Aveline*

          He still doesn’t get it.

          I hope he reads the comments here and has a light bulb moment.

          I don’t think he’s a bad dude, but I do think he’s having an episode of privilege blindness.

          I’m not sure but I guess that doesn’t understand why he can’t go around dropping snark bombs as long as he doesn’t mean to hurt anyone.

    3. Beth*

      I think all of you are reading way too much into LW’s 1 response. He apologized. If the boss and the lady with the paleontology degree can’t accept it that says more about them than him. The whole atmosphere of the office sounds petty. My guess is he the only male in an all female office. If so , I feel for him.

      1. traffic_spiral*

        He apologized, but still insists he didn’t do anything rude, when he did. Also, your “all male in a female office” comment kinda makes me think you’ve got a few issues with women yourself.

      2. Slovenly Braid Cultist*

        Whatever do you mean about being the only man in the office?

        What a strange thing to infer.

        1. Kj*

          Saying you feel bad for a man working in an all female office implies that all female offices are bad places for men. That is pretty rude to women in general and to the many men who happily work with mostly women.

      3. KTSF*

        When someone announces that they apologized reluctantly, there’s little doubt that the disingenuous nature of the apology shown through.

        While I think the jump from boorishly assuming someone you admit you know nothing about doesn’t have a particular knowledge set to calling that an accusation of resume falsification is bizarre, unless they were trying to drive home a point that’s gone over OP’s head repeatedly in the past, his assumptions and poor communication skills are his issue. I do not socialize with co-workers but also would never declare someone does not have a particular background if I don’t know what their background is. That’s not a “safe assumption.” It is quite foolish and arrogant.

        His letter is overwhelmingly defensive and condescending. If that comes shining through when he tells his side, it makes me wonder how much more attitude the other participants would describe. Whether or not anyone else in the mix could have responded differently, he needs to understand how and why it went so wrong and the significant part he played in that.

        1. RandomU...*

          “When someone announces that they apologized reluctantly, there’s little doubt that the disingenuous nature of the apology shown through.”

          Which is why forced or coerced apologies are worthless and people should stop forcing them.

          Honestly the whole office sounds ridiculous. Our cast of characters include:

          OP: Yeah, you were insulting. Even if you didn’t mean to be, you were. I’d take some time to ponder this situation.
          Susan: Sounds like a shit stirrer. What did she do, run to Nancy and say “You know what the OP just said about you?” Gladys Kravits style.
          Nancy: Yeah I get it. I’d be pissed too. But really, this is one of those things you need to stand up for yourself with. I really can’t imagine that you are boosting your respect in the workplace by running to the boss over this.
          Boss: Way over the top. Great job giving the OP something to latch on to, to explain away the situation. By not focusing on the actual harm, you came up with something that the OP can dismiss and rationalize as everyone overreacting.

          1. Elspeth*

            Not really. LW made a very rude statement and backed it up with laughter (insulting). Susan, Nancy, and the boss aren’t the ones with the problem – LW is. Seems to me that the “over the top” reaction may be due to previous dismissive and condescending remarks from the LW.

          2. TheFacelessOldWomanWhoSecretlyLivesinYour House*

            There is nothing to state Susan went to the boss. Boss may have simply overheard. OP bears the fult here, no one else. And good on boss for teaching OP his sexist comments have consequences.

        2. Aveline*

          I don’t know if LW reads this site enough to know me, but I always want to try and be empathetic to the LWs.

          This dude is making it hard. He’s coming across as very, very purposefully defensive and blind.

          If he’s doing this over the internet, I’d imagine it wasn’t easier in person.

      4. MCMonkeyBean*

        He went through the motions of an apology because his boss made him, and if he is this open about his reluctance in a letter hoping to get us on his side it seems likely that reluctance was obvious to Nancy. It’s not petty to feel hurt when someone says something offensive and then not magically get over it because they *pretended* to apologize.

        And I’m not even going to start on that ridiculous comment about someone being the only man in an office, wtf even is that supposed to be about…

        1. Aveline*

          Yes, and accepting an apology is a grace we offer. It’s not a duty we require.

          If it were, apologies would be meaningless.

          And it doesn’t mean we forget the original offense.

        2. Slovenly Braid Cultist*

          Oh, I think we all know what that comment means, and frankly it makes the OP look harmless.

        1. Ask a Manager* Post author

          Yes, it is. Beth, I removed a similar comment of yours lower down. This is not a site where that kind of bigotry is acceptable; this is a warning to stop if you’d like to keep posting here.

          1. Beth*

            I am honestly not sure what comment of mine you are referring to that was so bigoted. I just don’t like the mob mentality going on today. If it is my criticism of feminism? I am feminist as they come. I don’t have to subscribe to all of its facets to be a feminist.

            1. Observer*

              Claiming that an all female office is a terrible place for a man to work is utterly and totally bigoted and incompatible with feminism of any stripe.

      5. Observer*

        A reluctant apology, based on the assumption that the person he offended is being over-sensitive is not an apology.

        The OP is clear in his letter – He did nothing wrong, it was “strange” of Nancy to be offended, and he refuses to accept that his assumptions were in any way unreasonable. “I’m sorry you were offended” is not an apology. “I’m sorry I offended you” by itself is ok, if not great. But, “I’m sorry I offended you but I don’t know anything about your background and it never occurred to me that you could know anything about fossils.” (which is what he said to his boss) is NOT an apology. Even if he didn’t SAY that part, it’s clear he was thinking it. That’s not an apology.

        1. RUKiddingMe*

          Of course she’s “over sensitive” because…woman.

          /s <—just in case it's not clear

          1. RUKiddingMe*

            I had a few words as well but decided I like commenting here and I’m pretty sure Alison would ban me for using them… ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

        1. Aveline*

          Also some reading on how women are presumed incompetent but men, particularly white and Asian men, are presumed competent.

          There are plenty of scholarly articles as well as summaries in the press.

          This It’s not something we overly sensitive social justice warriors are making up. It’s a real documented fact.

          It’s not as if there hasn’t been tons of studies of implicit bias of various shades in the past decade or so…..

          1. Michaela Westen*

            And those of us with more than a few years work experience have seen it. Many, many times. The white man who is not competent at *anything* is our boss because he wears a suit and tie and says the right things to management. If we, the women and nonwhites, mention this, we are punished. If the white man needs to cover his incompetence, guess who gets blamed.
            This has been the American way since this country began… we keep making progress a little at a time…

            1. RUKiddingMe*

              Or explains to me, as if speaking to a five year old child, my own research (more than one male!!!) as if he’s *the* expert even though he knows nothing about it.

              Well except for what he’s read, which is my stuff because I am basically the one researching that area in depth.

              But it’s just me being too sensitive when I get annoyed right? If I was only “more confident in my knowledge” and expertise his BS wouldn’t make me feel stabby or anything…right? I mean he’s just playing “devil’s advocate” after all…

              1. Brisvegan*

                The men who explain my research to me are the worst.

                I gave my PhD confirmation seminar several years ago. I discussed my theoretical framework, including comparing the approaches of various feminist scholars from different streams of feminism (Mackinnon, Butler, Irrigaray etc) and stated why I was using a particular theoretical framework (Foucauldian feminism, with some features of other theoretical approaches and certain methodological choices). To anyone up on feminist theory, it should have been clear that I not only understood very well the various streams of feminism, but I had evaluated them and chosen one to work with.

                One man who was not a theoretical scholar or feminist at all decided to weigh in during the Q&A part of the event to earnestly tell me that there are different types of feminist theory and I should look into it further, discuss the differences and pick one to use. It was clear that he had heard this amazing idea (not all feminists think exactly the same thing) and wanted to give silly little me the benefit of his wisdom. It was also clear to the rest of the room that he was amazingly ignorant.

        2. RUKiddingMe*

          Yup. Although I got the feeling that “Beth” is really a male using a woman’s name as a name to post under. Probably not, just a feeling…

      6. RUKiddingMe*

        He *reluctantly* apologized, which is no apology at all.

        This was after assuming he knew something about a coworker, being dismissive, and perpetuating a sexist trope about women and science…even if it wasn’t his actual intention. Now he’s all pissy because they see through his bullshit and his non-apology and he just wants them to not call him on his privilege and entitled attitude.

    4. MCMonkeyBean*

      I think that sums it up most precisely. You can’t say both “that’s not her background” and “I don’t know her background” and feel like both of those are acceptable to say. They are obviously counter to each other. Not to mention, what if paleontology wasn’t her “background” but was a long-time hobby and she had tons of knowledge on the subject even without the credentials? OP, the fact that your immediate response is “why would she know anything” is really problematic, especially since you say you don’t know anything about these people outside of work. Your default assumption is that she doesn’t know anything you haven’t personally seen her talk about or use at work and that’s not a great place to be.

      And FWIW, because OP seems skeptical as to the accusation of sexism so I feel I want to mention that before I finished the letter I started wondering almost right away “I wonder if this letter writer is a man because this feels really sexist to me.” Although honestly, this dismissive type of sexism can come from women too!

      I know it feels like it wasn’t that big a deal to you, but you are probably one in a long line of people who dismissed Nancy’s credentials. It really wears a person down. You didn’t mean to offend her but what you said was offensive and you need to own up to that.

      1. Escapee from Corporate Management*

        And we can never know–because this letter is our only source of information–if this is the first time OP has been involved in this type of incident. I am guessing from the tone of the letter (and sorry for speculating) that OP’s lack of understanding of why his colleagues were offended may indicate there are ongoing issues.

      2. RUKiddingMe*

        I kinda figured it was a male before finishing it as well. The sexism is just *there* yanno?

        He comes across as “the females are just *too sensitive* through the whole thing.

        Granted, seeing sexism is my north star, but the thing about that is that I’m usually right.

    5. Quickbeam*

      I happen to have 2 very different professional backgrounds. This happens to me all the time. And the dismissive tone almost always comes from men. Women are more fascinated. There may be an unintentional discounting of women having professional depth. I’d say this was a wake up call.

    6. Harper the Other One*

      That’s what jumped out at me too. Susan specifically said she’d talk to Nancy, which implies she knows something about Nancy’s background, and OP says he doesn’t. So not only is there the assumption that Nancy can’t possibly have that background, but also that Susan asks random people questions without considering their expertise. Add the outright laugh, and this is pretty darned offensive and merits an apology.

    7. CommanderBanana*

      I think LW 1’s response was bizarre, frankly. If I was in the same position and someone mentioned showing a fossil to someone to ask what it was, I’d be like, cool, let me know if you find out what it is. People have a lot of hobbies and/or other skills that may have nothing to do with their actual job, and I’d just assume whoever it was knew about fossils. People ask me about antique jewelry all the time because I collect it, even though my actual job has nothing to do with antiques and/or jewelry.

    8. Nobody Nowhere*

      Everybody is being too prickly here. Please stop picking at every single word of his response. I’m female, and it really annoys me when guys act like they have to be SUPER careful about what they say in order to not offend me. It leads to treating women like delicate flowers instead of regular people who can deal with awkward phrasing. And the boss is crazy.

      1. JB (not in Houston)*

        If men around you act like they have to be super careful about what they say in order to not offend you as a woman, then those men are the problem. Either they mistakenly believe all women are “too sensitive” and will take innocuous statements the wrong way and accuse them of misbehavior, or they truly say sexist things and keep getting dinged for it, and they have no conception of how to treat women like human beings. Either way, it’s not up to women to make those kinds of men more comfortable. I’m gonna keep calling out sexist assumptions and behavior, thanks, and if that makes those kinds of men uncomfortable and unsure of themselves, that’s not my problem to fix.

      2. RUKiddingMe*

        Not asking males to treat women as delicate flowers. Telling them that their sexist bullshit isn’t ok and we’re not going to just keep being silent in the face if it.

        If that makes the poor dears uncomfortable…tough. They can learn to treat women as human beings and not as some sort of alien “other.” *And* they can do it because it’s basic default acceptable behavior not to get a reward for bring a decent human being.

    9. TootsNYC*

      You didn’t know her background.

      And yet you said, “Why would she know anything about that? That’s not her background.”

      That’s infuriating.

      Why would you assume Susan was so stupid as to think Nancy knows about fossils for no good idea?
      Instead, why didn’t you assume that Susan DID know what Nancy’s background was, and that she might have some sort of way to know about fossils?

      And why would you assume that your cursory acquaintance (no matter how long it has been) with Nancy was superior to or more accurate than Susan’s?

      It just comes across as though your immediate assumption is that you are right, no matter how little you know about other people, and that other people are stupid.

      I think your apology might have smoothed things over better if you’d understood that.

    10. HB*

      Yes – the real comment here should have been “Interesting! I didn’t realize Nancy had experience with fossils” and then be open to learning more about your coworkers. Why make assumptions and dig in with a sort of rude comment when you literally do not know her background?

    11. I Speak for the Trees*

      I totally agree. It’s always good to avoid making assumptions (especially negative assumptions) about people’s backgrounds. I’ve found this to be especially true in non-profits (where some people just feel called to work for), bookstores (notorious for attracting the “over-educated”), and education (you’d be surprised how many people working as paraprofessionals/teaching elementary school) actually have advanced degrees in specific areas. Many people change jobs/fields throughout their lives, so you never know…

      1. RUKiddingMe*

        Exactly. I run three businesses. None of which is in my academic wheelhouse. They pay the bills.

        I research, write, and advocate in that area because it’s my passion…my “calling.” Would be nice if it paid the bills…

        Anyone looking at my “work for money” life that didn’t know my background would assume I don’t know what I know. Or at least OP would. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

  3. Drew*

    OP#1, I’m going to disagree with Alison here – I think your remark was very dismissive and quite rude. (I speak as a man who has been guilty of exactly that in the past and been correctly called out on it; I’m no saint.) I think you owe Nancy a genuine, heartfelt apology, not a pro forma “Sorry but how was I supposed to know you were actually smart?”

    I believe you that you popped off in the moment and didn’t think about what you meant, but that doesn’t excuse what you actually said. Hopefully, Nancy will recognize that you’re contrite and things will warm back up before too long.

    1. Annette*

      Alison said – the comment was rude and LW should apologize. How are you disagreeing. Feeling more strongly does not = disagreement.

      1. Drew*

        I disagreed with how rude I thought the comment was, not with Alison’s advice. Sorry if I failed to make that clear.

    2. anne_not_carrot*

      You aren’t disagreeing with Alison at all. Restating what she said as if you are making a new point is also pretty sexist and dismissive.

      1. Anonymous Educator*

        Yeah, your original comment was a little rude.

        I think your remark was very dismissive and quite rude.

        The disagreement is a matter of intensity, not direction.

        1. Ask a Manager* Post author

          Yeah, that’s how I read it.

          Y’all, please be civil here and give each other the benefit of the doubt. You are creating a massive moderation job for me today.

    3. traffic_spiral*

      Yeah… I mean:

      “I laughed and said, “Whatever would Nancy know about fossils? That’s not her background.” then he goes “I had no idea; what I said to Susan was based my not knowing Nancy’s background.”

      So… maybe if you didn’t know her background you shouldn’t have talking like you did know, huh? If I said that my coworker couldn’t speak French, and it turned out he could, I couldn’t be like “well, it’s not my fault I said he couldn’t, because I didn’t know.” If I didn’t know, I shouldn’t have made an assumption and presented it as fact.

      It’s especially ironic because he was chiding his coworker for talking about something she had no knowledge of [rocks], and now is defending himself for talking about something that HE had no knowledge of [her education]. So clearly he understands the concept of not running your mouth over things you don’t understand – just only when it applies to people that aren’t him.

      1. JSPA*

        Yep. Speaking from far too much early experience: When you talk out your ass and a mess ensues, you need to jump into cleanup mode. Not be irked that people didn’t notice what was going on and ignore you. And the more status or perceived status you have, the more essential it is.

      2. Ethyl*

        “made an assumption and presented it as fact.”

        Yes, that’s exactly what is really bugging me about the comment.

      3. Lynn Whitehat*

        I was just going to use almost that exact example. At one job, we did a multi-year project with colleagues in Germany. Sometimes their work came over to our side still in German. It so happens that my mother is from Germany, and I speak the language fairly fluently.

        Sometimes coworkers would ask me to translate. And when they did, sometimes other coworkers, always older dudes, would confidently ask, “why would you ask Lynn? She doesn’t speak German! “ Like, why would you just assume that? Fortunately knowing a language when you have a document right in front of you is a skill that makes itself obvious. So no one of them ever did it twice. But I also don’t think they ever learned a broader lesson that it is possible for young women to know things.

          1. BethDH*

            Yeah, it doesn’t need to be sexist to be rude. And sexism is just one way that I might worry about this if I were a manager. No matter what the conscious or subconscious motivation was, OP’s assumption that he could speak authoritatively about something he knew he knew nothing about is a problem.
            I’ve definitely said things that came out in a tone or phrasing I didn’t intend, but when that’s called to my attention, I can sincerely say it was a communication mistake. If OP said something like “being surprised made me sound forceful rather than inquisitive,” there probably wouldn’t be an ongoing problem here.

    4. JSPA*

      And one for the co-worker with the fossil — they were also doing something smart, by knowing whom to ask, and they also got a bucket of “presumption of cluelessness” dumped over them.

      Basically, two people making smart choices were mocked by someone who’s (tenure – wise) far senior, who mistook lack of knowledge & assumptions for facts. Additionally, if it’s common knowledge in the office that Nancy’s a paleontologist (or possibly even circulated, upon her hiring, in a “please welcome” email?) it’s less of a leap for the manager to accuse OP of doubting her credentials. (Those emails are sent for a reason; in a small org or department, behooves everyone to at least skim them.)

    5. JayNay*

      yeah, thanks for stressing that. The LW’s reply of “BUT I DIDN’t MEAN IT LIKE THAT” also made me roll my eyes hard. That’s exactly the kind of defense people so often use for sexist/ racist… etc remarks.
      Dear LW, please just take people’s word that your comments were not ok, accept that you made a mistake, and own it. It’s not that hard, really.

      1. Danger: GUMPTION AHEAD*

        Yep, LW, now is the time to gracefully remove your foot from your mouth. You said something ignorant, rooted in your own assumptions about the background of someone you don’t know much about. It can happen. Best path forward is to apologize and no longer opine on things you don’t know.

    6. ChimericalOne*

      Yes, I thought Alison wasn’t quite clear enough, too. She says that the OP should apologize, but the OP may see that and say, “Well, I did that already, so I guess I’ll just say to myself that I learned my lesson & we’re good now.” What the OP needs to hear is “You should go back and apologize AGAIN, sincerely this time, and make it clear that you were not at all justified in being dismissive of Nancy’s background.” It sounds like his first apology was a defensive non-apology. He should be clear with her that he was ignorant of her background and thoughtless (and, yes, even sexist) in his reaction.

      OP probably also needs to hear that choosing to know nothing personal about your colleagues, and for them to know nothing personal about you, creates a situation that is ripe for misunderstandings. It’s not enough to be polite when you ask to borrow a stapler. If you want your colleagues to have warm feelings towards you — and ergo, be willing to do things like give you the benefit of the doubt, go a little above & beyond for you when needed — you need to put in the time and effort to cultivate a stronger relationship. Even just little things like asking about folks’ weekends and sharing a detail or two about yourself can start to build those bonds. If, like me, you’re on the spectrum, that can take a lot of work, I’ll admit. And at the beginning, it can seem like more trouble than it’s worth. But the more effort you put in, the greater of a reward you’ll reap.

    7. Observer*

      not a pro forma “Sorry but how was I supposed to know you were actually smart?”

      Thanks for capsulizing what’s wrong with the situation that OP put himself into.

    8. KP*

      Sorry, disagree. My sister in law is literally a scientist but hasn’t used her degree for years and instead works in a non-science field. It would be utterly absurd for any coworker to be pulled into an office and accused of accusing her of falsifying her resume because they didn’t happen to know she got advanced degrees in one discrete area of science. Sure, an apology is fine, but this is beyond ridiculous.

      1. Observer*

        He didn’t get pulled into an office because he didn’t know that she has a degree. He got pulled into an office for rudely telling a co-worker as a fact that she DOES NOT have a degree. That’s a very different thing.

        1. Aerin*

          And laughing at the very idea that she might. That’s what gets me. Not just that he would assume that she couldn’t have knowledge he doesn’t know about, but that his knee-jerk reaction is that the possibility that she could have such knowledge is inherently absurd. That’s where it crosses the line from “didn’t think before he spoke” to “there’s something broken about the way he sees the world.”

  4. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

    OP#1, I would follow Alison’s lead on this. A sincere apology is necessary. This is an “impact v. intent” situation, where even though you didn’t intend to offend, your comment caused offense. If you’re apologizing reluctantly, it’s likely that at least some of your coworkers will think you’re a particular kind of boor when it comes to women.

    If this were the only time this had come up, I likely wouldn’t have accused you of saying a coworker had falsified their resume. But, like Susan, I probably would have found the tone to be condescending and dismissive of Nancy’s intelligence. If I also knew Nancy had a degree in Paleontology, I would have found your comment offensive. I think it’s worth eating a bit of crow on this one.

    1. lyonite*

      My guess is that the “falsified her resume” thing came up because Nancy’s background was common knowledge, and OP was perceived to be accusing her of lying about it. (Which impression would be supported by his phrasing: “She doesn’t know anything about paleontology” is a very different statement than “I didn’t know she knew about paleontology.”)

      Additionally, OP, responding to someone’s passing comment by laughing and (ignorantly) telling them they’re wrong is the sort of behavior that’s going to prevent you from building up the kind of goodwill that’s useful in getting past something like this. You might want to keep an eye on that.

    2. Grey Coder*

      I’m wondering if the “resume falsification” might have just been rhetorical snark. “So you say Nancy doesn’t know about fossils? Are you saying she falsified her resume? That’s a serious accusation — got any proof?”

      It’s a bit forceful, but it does highlight the distinction that the quoted remark was a positive statement that Nancy was ignorant about fossils, and not a neutral “I didn’t know Nancy knew about fossils”. OP1 should think long and hard about why they made this assumption, even in the face of evidence to the contrary (Susan’s choice to consult Nancy about a possible fossil).

      1. SS Express*

        I had the same thought (though I couldn’t put it into words this well – gold star for “rhetorical snark”).

        “You must be very confident that you know everything about Nancy in order to have made that statement (instead of recognising that she may have a background you aren’t aware of, and/or that Susan may know something you don’t), so presumably you are well aware of the qualifications she claims to have and you’re saying that they’re false. Orrrrr did you just jump to a conclusion that would appear quite extreme to anyone who knew a bit about the situation?”

        I’m actually quite a fan of this technique at times, and this scenario is the exact sort of thing I’d use it for.

      2. TooTiredToThink*

        I’m inclined to agree with you. A lot of people are blaming Susan for saying that OP said that Nancy falsified her resume; but we don’t actually know that. All we know is that OP said something to Susan and clearly Susan told *someone*; and by the time it got to the boss it became “falsifying resume”. I could see a boss using rhetorical questioning to get the point across.

        1. Green Great Dragon*

          I can completely see it happening by stages – Susan told Boss that OP said Nancy didn’t have a background in palaeontology (meaning ‘that was so rude of him’) and Boss heard that OP said Nancy didn’t have a background in palaeontology (meaning she must have lied in claiming she did).

        2. MommyMD*

          Susan is probably tired of the condescending attitude and THAT is what she reported. I can almost guarantee you this episode is far from the first time. This letter drips with derision.

      3. Yorick*

        I think the “rhetorical snark” thing is very possible. And OP might be doing that thing my students do where they take out one little thing I said and blow it up to be the main point of the conversation.

        Me: “Here are 10 things about this paper that were wrong/could improve: [Explain #1-9]. Also, you used Garamond when I asked for Times New Roman, please make sure to follow the instructions next time.”
        Student: “She gave me a C because I used the wrong font!”

        OP, really think about whether the boss meant to seriously accuse you of saying Nancy falsified information, or if you might have gotten stuck on this part of the conversation because it seems so strong.

      4. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

        Oh, that totally changes it for me in a helpful way. I wouldn’t have thought of this as rhetorical snark, but that makes much more sense than assuming Susan came p with this line of argumentation.

  5. Engineer Girl*

    #1 – Your comment shows one of the biggest hurdles that women have in STEM. Men are assumed to be competent unless proven otherwise. Women are assumed to be INcompetent unless proven otherwise.

    You made a default assumed of incompetence. You weren’t neutral. Sadly, it was sexist.

    1. Annette*

      Yes Engineer Girl. I’m not a scientist. But thanks to some male scientist commenters here I feel I understand the condescension. Nancy must be tired.

    2. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

      This does such a great job of clearly identifying why OP’s coworkers found OP’s comment so offensive/rude.

      Women in so many fields, but especially STEM, have to battle with men (and other women) presuming that they’re incompetent on a daily (and sometimes constant) basis. It’s exhausting.

      1. Engineer Girl*

        You know what drives me crazy? Having men tell me I can’t possibly have the knowledge when I’m introduced as the subject matter expert. I’m the expert! With 20+ years of experience! And some jerk with 5 years of book learning is arguing with me and telling me I’m wrong!

        It happens several times a month.

        It’s infuriating. It wastes the company’s money because I spend hours having to prove to these men I’m right. Yet some guy speaks up and they take what he says as gospel.

        1. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

          I don’t mean to derail, but all I can say is: Yes, this is so crazy-making, and it happens all the time.

        2. MommyMD*

          It is frustrating. In my field as well. Men are taken much more seriously. Even if they are wrong.

        3. Aunt Piddy*

          That happens to me constantly. I have ~15 years of experience in fairly specialized fields. One of the younger male associates (or a partner) will ask me a question. I will give them an answer, with citations.

          Then, hours later, they will invariably come back and say “Oh wow, I spent X hours researching this and you were right!”

          Not once have they actually accepted my answer, and not once have I been wrong.

        4. Aveline*

          I’m sure all the female attorneys on here can tell you tales about being asked to take notes, or being presumed to be the secretary, etc.

          It’s insidious.

        5. AnonEMoose*

          I had a male co-worker (no longer here), who used to do this to me. He would come to me with questions about something that was my specific area. And then he would go to another male co-worker (who sat near me) and ask the same questions. Especially if he didn’t like my answer.

          Except other co-worker didn’t do the stuff I did, so didn’t have the information or experience I do. And other co-worker was good about telling male co-worker that it wasn’t his area and he needed to talk to me. And yet, male co-worker Just. Kept. Doing. It. It was infuriating, and I complained to my boss about his sexist attitude more than once (it wasn’t just that behavior, but that was one of the clearest examples).

          Of course, Male Co-Worker also thought that making puppy dog eyes at me would persuade me to consider an exception…I have withstood puppy dog eyes from actual puppies. He didn’t have a chance.

          1. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

            I worked with someone who would ask me a question, then turn to the guy beside me (who was not the SME) and ask what he thought. Ninety nine percent of the time, that guy would look surprised and say, “I agree with PCBH entirely. What she said is correct.”

            After it happened 12 times in a 45-minute meeting, I spoke privately and directly with the guy. He was surprised he’d been doing this, tried to explain why it wasn’t sexist, stopped doing it for about a week, and immediately reverted. It makes me stabby with frustration.

            1. AnonEMoose*

              I had definite stabby feelings about it, for sure. There wasn’t a lot that happened after I complained to my boss about it, but at the very least, Boss didn’t try to minimize it or say I was overreacting. And Boss did back me when I declined to do what Male Co-worker wanted (of course, what he wanted me to do was not the appropriate course of action, so that one was fairly simple).

        6. Lora*


          At this point I don’t trouble myself arguing a whole lot, because I am old and grumpy. Fine, they want to fail, they can go ahead and listen to the Smartest Guy In The Room(TM). Let him stamp his own stupid drawings, if they’ve got so much faith in him. I’ve presented my data, I did my part, I wrote my report, I’m done, you senior fellows make your choices and see how it works out. I’m here to be the SME and tell you about the Subject, not to manage the department’s horrible personality problems.

          1. Michaela Westen*

            I feel the same about almost everything. I also find as I get older I am less likely to engage with this.
            I’ve done my part. With the bad friend, the bad date, and the toxic coworker. Life is to short to try to fix them. I did my part, they didn’t do theirs, I’m moving on.
            It really helps!

        7. BananaPants*

          Yup. I have a master’s in a niche engineering specialty and am the only person in my organization with this background. That makes me the subject matter expert for the org and I’m often a go-to resource for these issues. My boss’ boss asked me to do an analysis on a problem, and during the presentation of my analysis my then-manager got super nitpicky and questioned my judgment on *everything* and told me that I had to be wrong. When I produced source references, he just spluttered for a while.

          I celebrated when that guy took early retirement last year.

      2. only acting normal*

        It starts young too. My friends’ ~6 year old daughter was going on a school trip “to meet scientists”. I stuck out my hand to shake and said “Pleased to meet you!”
        She actually scoffed then said “You’re not a scientist!” (which saddens me rather than insults -she was only little). But worse, her parents didn’t (gently) correct her, and I met them at university when I was studying astrophysics. :’(

        1. Overeducated*

          Ugh. I’ve had that from dude on plain making small talk about jobs. “Oh, but are you REALLY an X, or are you just studying X?” “Um, both? I have my master’s, have worked as X for 5 years, am working on my PhD, and am on this plane to do X in the field…” Like man, why did you feel the need to question that? I didn’t ask if you were REALLY a sales manager or just a salesman aspiring to management….

        2. mcr-red*

          Don’t feel too bad about your friend’s kid, I think that’s more the “I know you as Aunt Nancy, not as a scientist” kid narrow field of thinking than her thinking that Aunt Nancy can’t be a scientist because she’s a lady.

          My own child did something similar to me once around that age, needing to do a report on something in my job field, and she was talking about who she could talk to, and I was like, “Maybe your mother???” And I could see it dawn on her that Oh. Yeah. You ARE something other than Mommy!

        3. BananaPants*

          It was probably a case of her thinking about you as a special person in her life, not as a scientist. Kids tend not to think first about a person’s profession or academic background – they think about the person. I’m an engineer and mother to two girls. I ran an engineering badge for their Girl Scout troop and asked the kids if they knew anyone who was an engineer – my own daughters didn’t raise their hands even though they *know* what I do for a living!

    3. M from NY*

      I don’t believe your statement applies in this case. OP knows co-worker from her position at work which has nothing to do with STEM. He stated he didn’t know about her previous career. I don’t see any reason to assume he wouldn’t have expressed the same comment if Nancy was Nathan.

      1. Engineer Girl*

        It absolutely applies because the knowledge area was science. OP made strong statements about Nancy’s competence.

        “Whatever would Nancy know about fossils? That’s not her background.”

        Not a neutral statement. It doesn’t even leave room for hobbies. It allows for zero room for knowledge.

        1. Willis*

          Right. Like if Susan came in with a cake recipe to ask Nancy about, would the auto-response be “what would Nancy know about that? Baking isn’t her background”? Somehow I feel like in that instance, it would be assumed or at least open up the possibility that Susan’s going to ask Nancy because she has some knowledge about it. So, why not the same for fossils?

        2. MommyMD*

          It’s so arrogant. Why are you asking Nancy? She can’t possibly know that! It’s rude to both the parties. Flippant answers are never nice.

        3. New Job So Much Better*

          True, but I can also picture him saying something similar about a male colleague he doesn’t know very well.

          1. Leela*

            Whether or not he’d say it at the same frequency to a male colleague, I guarantee you that most if not all the women in here experience this sort of thing with the same frequency. We have to deal with this and battle this constantly, so even if OP didn’t mean it that way it impacts us the same.

        4. M from NY*

          One has to take into account the context of the statement. If Susan referred to a different situation – hey I’m having issue with landlord let me ask Nancy – and OP made same response not knowing that Nancy was a former lawyer who still teaches but works as volunteer coordinator would the outrage still be the same?

          Invoking STEM bias in this situation will make it harder for offenders to take stock and change how they think in others that are far more relevant.

          1. Aveline*

            As an attorney, yes, my outrage would be the same.

            However, given the pervasiveness of assuming women don’t know scientific things, I’d say that the discussion of STEM is on point.

            If nothing else, perhaps LW will read this and realize that women don’t live in the same world he does. We live in a world where we are often assumed to be lesser.

            So I think it’s relevant.

          2. Not One of the Bronte Sisters*

            Yes. The response would be the same. It isn’t outrage, it’s righteous indignation. And I can guarantee you that if the volunteer coordinator were named Nathan instead of Nancy, the response would have been, “Oh, hey, does Nathan know something about fossils? Cool.” And what’s really sticking in everyone’s craw is that OP still doesn’t think he did anything wrong. Of course, if I were Susan, I would have said, “What the F*** do you know about Nancy’s background? Or mine? Or anyone else’s, you supercilious fool?”

          3. Emily K*

            Engineer Girl’s comment didn’t say that STEM fields are the only fields where women are presumed incompetent by default. She said that that presumption is a major problem in STEM fields, which it is.

            If I say that sitting at a desk all day is one of the leading causes of herniated discs, that doesn’t mean that herniated discs are the only problem associated with a sedentary job, nor that desk jobs are the only cause of herniated discs.

      2. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

        I think we can agree that regardless of OP’s beliefs about Nancy or her imaginary male counterpart, Nathan’s educational and professional background, that Engineer Girl’s experience is common for women in STEM. And in light of its prevalence, it’s helpful for OP to understand how he may inadvertently be contributing to that narrative.

        1. JJ Bittenbinder*

          LOL, seriously. Are we really now going to shift to what could Engineer Girl possibly know about sexism in STEM? I mean, what’s her experience, compared to that of the fictitious Nathan?

      3. Gaia*

        Every bone in my body says that M from NY is a man and is speaking out of actual ignorance of the sexism women (especially in STEM fields but really most fields) face and not, in fact, a woman who is denying something we all experience in many ways all the time.

        I might be wrong, but….

          1. Kettles*

            You’re right Beth, in that women are perfectly capable of being misogynistic and denying the reality of sexism in all fields, whether it’s STEM or PR. However it is, in fact, usually men who do this so Gaia is probably right.

          2. Gaia*

            I actually think a woman can think that way. But there is something about the comment that screams “I’m completely unfamiliar with this unique type of sexism” and that tends to indicate it isn’t a woman.

            1. Beth*

              Gale I am s woman in my 40s. When I was younger I would internalize off handed like the OP as saying oh he or she doesn’t think I am good enough to do so so. I don’t anymore. It is called maturity.

              1. Engineer Girl*

                I am a woman in my 60s. I’ve been around long enough to know the difference between clueless and truly sexist.

                After putting up with sexism for over 30 years I was done. I was tired of seeing it day after day after day. I had hoped to see some real change 35 years after I started working.

                This was after keeping my mouth shut to “get along”. This was after ignoring insult after insult to “get along”. In general, I do ignore the more innocuous sexism because I like my coworkers and I want to get along with them. I correct as needed. And they listen to me now because I am a proven engineer and I am their friend.

                A single incident where someone is challenged is met with me ignoring it. But when it happens multiple times it gets the category of “pervasive” and gets called out.

          3. MCMonkeyBean*

            You are absolutely right that women can be sexist too, which you seem to be trying your best to prove throughout this comment section…

        1. M from NY*

          You’re absolutely wrong. I am a Black woman who has had to deal with actual sexist/racist assumptions far more often then I can recount. Not agreeing with your take on this particular situation does not change that.

      4. Akcipitrokulo*

        It’s unlikely the scenario would have played out like that as it wouldn’t have been so inconceivable that Nathan might have known about science, even as a hobby.

        The response would have been likely to be “huh, I didn’t know he was into fossils.” not “she doesn’t know anything about fossils!”

        1. Tallulah in the Sky*

          There is really no information in the letter that would suggest that. I know men (and women) who don’t discriminate and or rude or dismissive towards people of all genders.

          1. Emily K*

            We don’t have access to the alternate reality where Nancy is Nathan; however, we do have a mountain of scientific evidence that this happens to Nancys more often than it happens to Nathans.

            1. Tallulah in the Sky*

              Yes, but we’re dealing with an individual here, and there’s no information in this letter on how he reacts and talks to men. The only glimmer we get is that he doesn’t socialize with anyone at work. So unless he works with only women, that means he (at least thinks) he’s treating all his coworkers with the same detachement.

              Making OP (and others) aware of the big possibility sexism is in play here, and saying with certainty OP is sexist and wouldn’t treat a man like this, is very different. There’s just a lot of assuming in this thread, and assuming the worst. Which I’m not for (and if I remember correctly, this site doesn’t encourage it either).

      5. Yorick*

        I think the response would have been, “Oh, is Nathan knowledgeable about fossils? I didn’t know that. Wow, he’s so smart!”

        1. Aveline*

          That exact thing happened to my husband this weekend. Everyone always presumes he knows everything.

          It’s also ver, very frustrating when he has to say, “Oh, I have to ask my wife, you know she’s the expert.”

          Which he does. Too often.

    4. HeyAnonanonnie*

      I get this sometimes and it is frustrating. I actually have a degree in a STEM field but am an attorney in an unrelated field. I went to law school intending to study patents and just ended up going a different direction. But sometimes knowing my old field can come up in my current job and can get some condescending remarks from attorneys, particularly older male ones, and I have to drop my pre-law school background on them. It can be annoying for sure.

      1. 1.2 years until retirement*

        I actually had to say to a non-STEM colleague the other day
        “You do realized I am a registered Professional Engineer” in a meeting where he was questioning my ability

      1. Annette*

        Why would EG write something she doesn’t believe. I assume yes she believes it. Not sure which part you think is an exaggeration. But if you pay attention at all the part about assumed incompetence. Is clear as day.

        1. Anonandon*

          Are you OP1? Because calling someone a liar just because you find their statement improbable or inconvenient is an asshole thing to say.

      2. mark132*

        30 years in professional life. But I’m not the one making the fantastic claim all men are presumed competent and all women are presumed incompetent in stem fields.

        1. Engineer Girl*

          Your use of the term “fantastic claim” and also asking me if I “really beleive that” proves my point.

          You second guessed a statement I made even though I have decades in the business.

          Your use of hyperbole (“fantastic”) shows the dismissive nature.

      3. Ask a Manager* Post author

        We’re not going to debate whether or not sexism actually exists. Please move on. (And I’ve removed a bunch of personal sniping here.)

              1. MusicWithRocksInIt*

                In this case it’s not the rude, it’s the dismissive. The “That female couldn’t possibly know THAT” which is a common form of sexism, especially in areas that are Male dominated.

              2. Le Sigh*

                This is a bit of a eye roll statement and I think you already know the answer to that is no. But a lot of rudeness directed at women (by both men and women) is rooted in misogyny, and learned, often unconscious sexism.

              3. Rebecca H*


                But you knew that, didn’t you? Can you please explain why you felt the need to be disingenuous instead of simply saying what you really mean?

                It’s not always sexism. But in this case, it was. Beth is trying to deny this, speaking for all women. A role she is remarkably ill-equipped to perform. Hence my comment.

                Hope that straightened that out for you, dear. If you’re still confused, Google is a wonderful resource and I can recommend it to you most highly.

                1. Courageous cat*

                  “But you knew that, didn’t you? Can you please explain why you felt the need to be disingenuous instead of simply saying what you really mean?”

                  God, more people need to have this said to them. Thank you.

                2. Trout 'Waver*

                  I’m legitimately curious how people can call it sexist in a situation stripped of all context.

                  Also, I’m not your dear and I’m not confused. Bless your heart. I’ll pray for you.

                3. Beth*

                  You have no proof whatsoever that what he said was with sexist intent. People should not have to worry about every word they say . That isn’t freedom. That is a thought prison.

                4. Darren*

                  It’s not really worrying about every word you say, it’s just having basic respect and as a result assuming that people other than yourself are smart and knowledgeable until proven otherwise. If you have that and think that way you’ll find you never actually need to think about how you are phrasing things because you’d never be approaching from the wrong angle to start with.

                  You should be defaulting to “X knows about Y topic? I had no idea, that’s pretty cool.” rather than “There is no way X could know about Y topic. It’s ridiculous to think someone working here would know about that.”

                  This is regardless of gender, but if you are defaulting to the first for men and the second for women that is just even more problematic.

                  I’ve found that in IT some of the people I work with have some very interesting backgrounds (from English Majors, all the way to Marine Biologists as well as actually people with degrees in Information Technology of one sort of another) and that’s without even accounting for hobbies (which are equally extensive).

                5. Beth*

                  Rebecca H . A single off handed comment is not sexism. It is okay to have a difference of opinion. That is another thing we learn as we get older. Maybe one day you will too. Then again, maybe not.

                  OP , if you are here reading these comments take heart. There are still people who will stand up for you. I have worked in similar work environments before. The stress and pettiness just isn’t worth it. My advice is to find another job with sane people. You will be happier for it.

    5. Bulbasaur*

      And a default assumption about Susan’s competence as well. If Susan mentioned Nancy by name, one might assume she had a good reason for doing so. Instead OP assumed that she didn’t (despite the fact that he knew nothing about Nancy’s background himself that might support that assumption) and that Susan was being ridiculous.

      I do agree that characterizing it as an accusation of falsifying a resume is a bit over the top though.

      1. SS Express*

        Yep – not only is it impossible for Nancy to know about fossils, it’s also impossible that Susan might know something about Nancy’s background that OP doesn’t.

        1. SignalLost*

          Which is particularly weird because he says up front that he doesn’t really socialize with his colleagues. Like, you’re not invested in learning about your colleagues, but you’re also an expert in what they know or don’t know?

      2. pleaset*

        ” If Susan mentioned Nancy by name, one might assume she had a good reason for doing so. ”

    6. Anonymous Educator*

      Yes, the proper response to Susan would be “Oh, I didn’t know Nancy knew about fossils,” and not “That’s not her background.”

      1. Dr Wizard, PhD*

        Even ‘Oh, why Nancy?’ would be fine, I think, if the tone was genuinely curious about why this person in particular.

        1. Paperdill*

          Yes yes yes – a thousand times yes!
          The actual response OP1 gave is really….odd, I feel.
          “I found a fossil – I’m going to ask Nancy about it”.
          “Oh, why Nancy?”
          “Didn’t you know? She’s got degrees in paleontology and geology. She’s the fossil rock star!”
          THAT is the normal conversation, surely?
          Not “[Chortle chortle] What would Nancy know? That’s not her background!” (I keep trying to say the line different ways with different intonations and tones in my head and they still all sound weird).
          I still think Susan’s response should have been “Uhhhh…yeah it is. She’s the fossil rock star – she has oodles of paleontology studies under her belt”. Not the also weird response of running to the boss saying “Wakeen’s saying Nancy lied on her resume and doesn’t know about rocks after all!”.

          1. Hekko*

            Susan’s response seemed really exaggerated to me at first. I agree that calling OP1 right away would have been much better.

            It may be that Susan was shocked by the response, or is otherwise too shy to just do that. It’s easier to come up with the correct answer when reading the story than when being in the moment.

            Or it may be that she perceives OP1 as someone who would insult others (and deserves to be slapped on the wrist for that). He doesn’t know much about his coworkers, it is likely his coworkers are equally ignorant about him. He assumes based on his limited information, they assume, too. And if he’s quick with comments like this one, he may have a reputation of an unpleasant, rude colleague.

            1. Librarian of SHIELD*

              We don’t actually know what Susan’s response was. We know OP said a thing to Susan, and we know OP’s boss took him to task for it later on. But we don’t know any of what happened in between. The “falsifying a resume” claim could have come from Susan, but it could just as easily (and I think probably more likely) come from the boss. All we know is that Susan heard her coworker say a rude thing and she didn’t keep it to herself.

          2. Marthooh*

            We don’t know what Susan actually said to the manager, though. Maybe she said “When I told OP I was going to show a fossil to Nancy, he laughed and asked me why I would do that, and claimed that Nancy doesn’t have a background in paleontology!”

            1. MommyMD*

              Exactly. Assuming Susan went to Boss and complained about OP accusing Susan of falsifying resume is as presumptive as the original letter.

          3. Half-Caf Latte*

            It’s also not clear from the letter that Susan went to the boss and said that. We know that OP made comment, Susan reacted with a strange look, later on OP got called in to talk to boss.

            It’s possible Susan replayed the conversation, and boss escalated it.
            It’s possible a third party (or boss) overheard and interpreted it that way.
            It’s possible Susan shared the interaction with Nancy, and Nancy took offense and went to boss.

          4. Thankful for AAM*

            @paperdill, it sounds like my workplace. Where the OP keeps doing things like this and supervisors have asked staff to report it immediately so it can be addressed.

          5. Washi*

            I think if this is an ongoing issue, I can imagine Susan’s inner dialogue being something like “omg I cannot even deal with you right now” and just walking away rather than saying something rude. The OP certainly does not come across like he takes well to being corrected, so I don’t blame her for escalating it to a manager (again, if it’s a pattern.)

            1. Traffic_Spiral*

              Yup. I’d assume Susan was like “christ, this again… you know what? Nope, not going to bother explaining – going straight to the boss” – especially considering how resistant OP is to correction. They’ve probably had this situation before and he’s probably been equally obnoxious when corrected.

          6. Essess*

            Or how about another possibility.. newer worker Nancy claims she has background in paleontology. Respected coworker who has been there a long time emphatically states that newer coworker doesn’t have that background, making Susan wonder if there’s something he knows that isn’t common knowledge since he’s made such a definite statement. Since both people are claiming opposite information, it makes sense to ask the boss if they know which is correct since Susan can’t be sure who is telling the truth.

      2. pleaset*

        True story: i worked in a nonprofit organization with another person on the fundraising team who had previously worked as a paleontologist. And in that field this person and a colleague found evidence of human’s first use of fire about 1 million years ago. That is a big deal, but most people in our organization did not know about this previous professional life.

        1. Harper the Other One*

          I am ASTOUNDINGLY jealous that you got to meet someone like that! Although I would probably embarrass myself as a coworker because I’d so much want to talk about it.

          1. pleaset*

            A few years later another team of researchers found even earlier evidence of human use of fire, so the person I know is not all that special anymore ;-)

        2. I Speak for the Trees*

          That’s incredibly cool, pleaset. And, though that’s an amazingly specific example, I do believe that many people with a wide variety of backgrounds work for non-profits which may or may not be in line with their backgrounds. My background is in American Literature and education, yet I now work in conservation. Yes, most people know (and come to me with grammar/punctuation questions), but it could easily be unexpected for others.

    7. Tallulah in the Sky*

      Totally agree with you about woman in STEM.

      But doubting a colleague’s knowledge about biology when you’re working together in a lab versus when you’re working together in an unrelated field, there’s a difference. At least for having experienced both, there’s a difference for me.

      But yes, OP should stop assuming and just ask question when you don’t know something. It’s not that hard.

      1. Tallulah in the Sky*

        I think that what bothers me is that making this about women in STEM kinda implies that if the subjects were reversed, it wouldn’t be as bad. If the coworkers were working in STEM and one coworker said that comment upon hearing “Oh, I’ll ask Marissa about this art history question I have”, it wouldn’t be seen as dismissive or rude. Which I think is wrong.

        1. I Took A Mint*

          I took it as “this especially happens to women in STEM” not “this ONLY happens to women in STEM.”

          It happens everywhere but it’s especially common when women are in traditionally male roles/fields. I don’t think anyone is arguing that it doesn’t happen in the humanities.

          1. Tallulah in the Sky*

            I know about male dominated fields, I work in one. All I’m saying is that making OP’s letter about women in STEM isn’t helpful in regards to OP’s letter since they’re not working in STEM. And it makes it seem like it would be less rude or sexist if Nancy’s background was in the humanities, or psychology, or law.

            1. M from NY*

              Thank you! The responses here will make it hard to have needed conversations regarding assumptions in workplace. This is NOT an example of STEM bias nor does it warrant the response the manager gave it.

              1. Tallulah in the Sky*

                I do agree though that it can explain why Nancy was hurt by OP’s dismissive response and reluctant apology. Like a lot of comments already said, STEM is not a welcoming field for women, and OP’s response probably is one Nancy has already heard a lot over the years. Is that OP’s fault ? Not really, but he could use some empathy and learn from this experience though.

    8. Mazzy*

      Everyone is talking about resume falsification or fraud when it was very clearly a joke about age. If you don’t know the person works with fossils, and say they’d know about fossils, you’re basically calling them old. I’m finding it hard to believe that this still isn’t mentioned at all this far down in the thread. It has nothing to do with assuming lying on a resume, and my guess is OP didn’t mention it because the commenters would jump on that, but other than that, the joke wouldn’t even make sense

      1. Bagpuss*

        I didn’t see anywhere tat Op suggested that he was trying to make a joke, or that he thouht that Susan was making a joke.
        He admits that he thought Susn’s question was silly, and his response was based on that.

        I agree that if there was no actual fossil and n knowledge of peleantology then someone talking about fossils *might* be an attempt at a joke about age, but the letter doesn’t suggest that thate was what was happening here.

        I thin kthe reason it went to falsification of a resume was becuase OP explicitly said that Nancy *didn’t* have a background in fossils, where as in truth, she does have that background, so the comment can absolutely be read / heard as accusing her of not being honest on her resume.

        1. Mazzy*

          Of course OP isn’t going to suggest it because making a joke about someone being old isn’t going to go over well in the comments. But that is the only context in which the comment makes any sense whatsoever. If he didn’t know she had that degree, and it wasn’t a joke, then the comment makes absolutely no sense. What else could it mean?

          1. Slovenly Braid Cultist*

            It could mean, as LW pretty explicitly said, that he assumed she couldn’t possibly know something outside the non-fossil matters she currently deals with.

            I don’t think anyone is suggesting OP thought “what? Science? Women can’t science, that’s ridiculous!”

            But there’s a deep seated bias about STEM fields which may have influenced his reply. When you mess up, assuming you’re right and everyone else is being ridiculous doesn’t effect change. This is a good moment for OP to think about why he made these assumptions… but it kinda seems like he’d much rather everyone tell him he’s right and these women are just being hysterical.

            I recommend the essay “men explain things to me.” It’s a good look at how pervasive this behaviour can be, and it’s exhausting.

            1. Mazzy*

              That article has definitely been mentioned here more than once and I very politely disagree that it has anything to do with this case. I simply believe OP made an ageist joke and wrote in seeking validation, but isn’t going to mention the intent of the joke because the comments would crucify him for it. So he actually kept it much more vague that most of the comments suggest. I think automatically making it about not respecting women in science doesn’t make sense because he had no reason to believe she had a science background.

              1. Slovenly Braid Cultist*

                “he had no reason to believe she had a science background.”

                He also had no reason to automatically disbelieve a science background.

                And yet.

              2. Green Great Dragon*

                He had not reason to believe she knew nothing about science. And yet he believed it so firmly he announced it as fact.

              3. palomar*

                So, your theory is that LW1 made a joke so nonsensical that it defies description, and in order to preserve his sense of pride and not wanting to be pilloried by the commenteriat, LW1 instead made up a story in which he maligns a coworker’s level of knowledge out of pure ignorance? And that that’s better than making an ageist joke? That seems… well, “wildly unlikely” is about the nicest way to put it, tbh. I honestly don’t see how one reads that letter and comes to this conclusion.

                1. AM*

                  Right? It’s kind of amazing, the mental gymnastics some men (and women) will go through to pretend sexism doesn’t exist.

              4. The Gollux (Not a Mere Device)*

                If so, he kept it vague because that’s not a defensible position either. It would become something like “I didn’t mean to insult Nancy or question her qualifications. I just thought it would be a good idea to interrupt what Susan was saying to make a bigoted joke, so you should give me a warning about that instead.”

                1. Anonny*

                  Does anyone remember that CA column where someone’s casual boyfriend screamed at them over their dog’s name, to the point where the writer thought the boyfriend was going to assault them, and then in the comments it came out that the dude’s “master plan” was to get the writer to break up with him so he wouldn’t look bad when it came out he’d gotten his stepsister pregnant and was planning to marry her?

                  This theory reads like a less soap-opera version of that.

              5. Yorick*

                Your comment only makes sense if SUSAN were the one making an ageist joke (“haha, I’ll ask Nancy because she ‘knows about fossils’ ifyouknowwhatimean”). But there’s no indication that OP thought that. OP’s response (“That’s not her background”) doesn’t go with that interpretation at all.

      2. Yorick*

        There is nothing in the letter to indicate that it was a joke about age. It was literally that he thought Nancy isn’t a scientist.

        1. AM*

          Yeah, reading the OP’s reaction as an ageist joke indicates to me that

          1) Mazzy has never made a joke in their life;


          2) Mazzy is going to great lengths to pretend sexism isn’t happening in a situation where sexism is obviously happening.

      3. Scarlet2*

        “If you don’t know the person works with fossils, and say they’d know about fossils, you’re basically calling them old.”

        Huh??? So you have to be “old” to know about fossils? I guess I was old when I was 6 then. Honestly, I don’t know how that’s supposed to be a joke, I’ve never heard anyone assume that paleontologists have to be “old”. It’s not like you need to be personally acquainted with dinosaurs to be interested in fossils or anything. How about archeologists, are they “old” too?

        1. Mazzy*

          My face is in my palm right now. Your comment makes absolutely no sense and it’s pretty ridiculous that I’m explaining something so basic. This thread is devolving to a point that I think it’s best to stop responding.

          1. Scarlet2*

            Oh so your joke is so “basic” it doesn’t need explaining? Funny that so many other commenters find it nonsensical.

            1. Jen*

              The joke really is a very common one. It implies that the person is so old they were around when the fossil was created. I don’t think anyone in the letter was actually making the joke, but I can see how a reader would be reminded of it.

          2. AM*

            The joke you’ve described is pretty bizarre and not at all ‘basic’. Sure, age-related jokes exist, but they do not typically present in the way LW1 phrased their comment.

            It seems to me that you’re doing some pretty elaborate mental gymnastics to reach the conclusion that his comment was an ageist joke, and I’m not sure why you’re doing this?

          3. Ethyl*

            Consider: if nobody else can tell what you’re talking about, maybe you’re the one not communicating well.

        2. valentine*

          One insult around age is calling someone an old fossil. Mazzy is responding as though OP1 said, “Nancy? She would know!” (Implied: being an old fossil herself.)

    9. wittyrepartee*

      Once, in response to a facebook post about something sciencey (I dont remember what), my aunt told me how wonderful it is that I think of myself as a scientist. Me: “I don’t think of myself as a scientist, I am a scientist.”

    10. Oranges*

      I call this the “All Knowledge is Stored in the Penis” phenomenon. So how could somen know anything when we don’t have a penis?

      *I need to laugh about it otherwise I’d be miserable all day.

    11. My boobs dont get in the way of my code*

      As a software engineer who is frequently confused as a designer, secretary, or some other position in the workplace by people who are not familiar with me, who know nothing about my background, and who I may have just met for the first time, (ie, who have no information to go off before asking, “oh, are you the designer for X team?”) I agree wholeheartedly.

      I can be walking down the hallway of a *software* company, just going about my day, and apparently the default is to assume that I have *any other job* expect for the job that is held by the highest percentage of our employees.

      While I’m a bit confused by the resume thing OP’s manager mentioned, I do enjoy the fact that OP was called out by leadership for this. It’s so, so, so important. I don’t think that this would be taken seriously at any place I’ve worked at, even in overt cases.

  6. Annette*

    LW4 – Trust your instincts. You wrote to AaM when you already knew you were right. It’s right there in your last sentence. Your day off is sacred. Remember to draw the L.I.N.E. = life is not employment.

    1. Gaia*

      All of this, LW4. This is YOUR time in which you are a family member of a patient. This is not the time for them to treat you like an employee.

      1. Maria Lopez*

        But OP should not wear any ID badge or work uniform while visiting the mother. It can be tempting to do that for easier access (in large facilities), but the staff may assume OP is working and just on break with the mother.

        1. valentine*

          I would go ahead and ask the manager to put a stop to it. You shouldn’t have to do even the extra work of pushing back on a case-by-case basis.

        2. Anastasia Beaverhousen*

          Yeah, there’s a possibility here that some of LW’s colleagues just… aren’t aware that it’s her day off. If I see a coworker in the office, I’m likely to assume they’re there for work, not social reasons. (Granted I don’t work in a nursing home, but still.)

          1. doreen*

            Yes, a nursing home is the sort of workplace where I would make that assumption . It’s not really the sort of workplace where it’s common to see off-duty employees ( like a store) , there are people working 24/7 and there are most likely too many employees for anyone to remember everyone’s schedule. Which means there may be no real way for the manager to put a stop to it. Although I work in an office , most of the staff have field positions which of course keep them out of the office a lot. They also work extremely flexible hours and it’s not unheard of for them to come into the office when they are not working to pick up car keys etc. It’s unreasonable to expect someone to keep track of 15 or 20 coworker’s schedules and to realize that even though it’s 2pm on Tuesday , and Jane is in the office, she’s not actually working.

            1. Karen from Finance*

              But one would expect that at a nursing home, staff would be aware that one of the residents is a relative to one of the staff members, and that OP would occasionally like to visit? I don’t think it’s likely that they aren’t aware that OP goes there for non-related reasons.

              1. Anastasia Beaverhousen*

                Depends on the size of the nursing home. But also, knowing that your colleague’s mom is a resident is not the same thing as being aware that “And today, she’s not just stopping to say ‘hi’ to mom on her break, it is in fact her day off.” Making a friendly reminder that she’s not on the clock an appropriate reaction. Very few people will have their coworkers’ schedules memorized.

                1. Karen from Finance*

                  No, I understand that and I wouldn’t expect the colleagues to memorize the schedule at all. I was responding to this specific part (sorry, I should have been clearer):

                  Yes, a nursing home is the sort of workplace where I would make that assumption . It’s not really the sort of workplace where it’s common to see off-duty employees ( like a store)

                  I disagree with that part, because I would expect to see off-duty employees sometimes if they have family there, which is something OP’s boss at a minimum should know happens sometimes, not necessarily the specific times.

                  I do think that there’s the possibility that people know she’s off-duty but make these requests because “she’s right there”. I think it’s possible that sometimes they don’t know she’s not working at that time, either. In either case it’s still a good idea for OP to remind people that it’s her day off and to follow Alison’s advice in general.

                2. Peachywithasideofkeen*

                  Agreed. I work in a nursing home and one of my coworker’s had a family member in our care. She would stop by and visit every day she was working, so if I saw her in the hall or walked by the room and saw her in there and had a work question, I wouldn’t assume she was off the clock and just there to visit. It’s also really common for nurses to pick up extra shifts, so even if it was someone who usually works AMs and was there at night, it might not register that she is just visiting. I’d just say something to your coworkers in the moment to let them know!

              2. doreen*

                Of course if I knew another staff member had a close relative there and had that at the front of my mind at that second , I wouldn’t assume the staff member was working.

                But “Yes, a nursing home is the sort of workplace where I would make that assumption . It’s not really the sort of workplace where it’s common to see off-duty employees ( like a store) ” wasn’t meant to imply that I think employees never have friends or relatives who are residents at the nursing home where they work – but I wouldn’t think it’s especially common. Certainly not as common as Target/supermarket employees who shop before or after their shift, for example ( which is probably all of them at least once in a while).

                1. Karen from Finance*

                  I think this is one of those cases where OP’s generosity in being succint is leaving us with a lack of context to fully understand the complete situation, for sure.

                  I agree that this case is not as common as the other hypothetical case you’re proposing. I still think that if OP keeps running into this and took the trouble of running into this, it’s most likely that at least some of her coworkers know that she has a family member at the home, making “she’s not on call right now” a possibility (if not necessarily a certainty) when they see her.

                  But I don’t want to derail the discussion lingering too much here, as we’re just speculating now. The facts that we know is that this keeps happening and that OP could be helped by asserting herself a little bit better.

            2. Coyote Tango*

              But realistically the staff is going to typically be in scrubs (or some type of uniform). Unless the OP is wearing her uniform in to visit her mom on her days off I feel like it would be fairly easy to tell who isn’t working?

              1. Harper the Other One*

                That’s what I was thinking – all the homes/assisted living facilities here have scrubs or uniforms. It would be VERY visible that OP is not on duty.

        3. Seeking Second Childhood*

          A uniform would indeed make it easier — it’s not on? I’m not on the clock.
          If there’s no uniform at the facility, maybe you could pick something on your own to indicate you’re on the job — scrubs, white jacket, whatever.

          1. ket*

            I like this idea, and was going to suggest the opposite, too: when you go to visit your mom, wear things that aren’t work appropriate :) Maybe you need a feather boa or a cool hat or a fun scarf that would get dirty/not be practical for your work tasks, or fancy shoes with flowers on the toes or something. A visual signal to differentiate “work Janelle” from “visitor Janelle”. Just an idea!

        4. The Cosmic Avenger*

          I agree; I’ve gone to workplaces during off-hours where I need a card or fob for access, and instead of wearing it around my neck or clipped to my top, as I would during work hours, on my off-hours I keep it in my pocket. So maybe she could still use it for access, but shouldn’t walk around displaying it the way on-the-clock employees do. I would also definitely dress down, as others have said, and try to slip in and out of my mother’s room unnoticed by coworkers and supervisors.

        5. BadWolf*

          I was thinking the same — if there’s clothing the OP tends to wear for work, do not wear the same to visit. Like if you work at a retailer, you change shirts before shopping there (or anywhere else) lest people snag you even though you’re not on the clock.

          Cheerfully deploy, “Oh I’m a visitor today, not working. Gotta get back to my mother. See you on Tuesday.”

          This reminds me a little bit of a friend who works at a pharmacy in another town. She could work in one closer to where she lives, but she chose one farther away to try and separate her clients from her social circle (and clients who might ask her questions if they run into her around town).

  7. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

    OP#4, this isn’t fair, and I’m so sorry your coworkers are doing this. If they don’t realize you’re off duty and seeing your mom, then I would kindly but firmly decline their requests. If anyone pushes back or throws shade, then I would escalate the firmness and frostiness in my tone.

    You have to be allowed to be a non-working human with outside relationships. But you’ll have to do the uncomfortable work of drawing and enforcing your boundaries. Otherwise, your coworkers are going to continue to infringe on your good nature (and your time with your mom!).

    1. Mean Something*

      I work in a school where some of my colleagues are also parents of current students, and we’re asked to be mindful about not ambushing one another in the parent/child’s teacher roles when we normally relate to one another all day as colleagues. If we need to talk to a colleague about their child, we sometimes say, “Can I ask you to put on your parent hat for a few minutes?” or if we want to talk to someone in their capacity as our child’s teacher, we say, “I’d like to talk to you as a parent, can we set up a time?” So I’m wondering if you could explicitly say, “I’m here as a daughter today” or (if it fits your style) “I’m Daughter Molly today, Nurse Molly will be here tomorrow morning.”

      1. Bilateralrope*

        Does the workplace in question have any sort of uniform ?

        If so, the option is “if I’m not in uniform, then I’m not working “.

        A dress code might require a bit more effort to distinguish your work clothes from visiting clothes.

        1. Jen in Oregon*

          Even if your facility doesn’t require them, perhaps you could wear a badge that says “VISITOR” when you are at there to visit your Mom? I hope you are able to find a solution that works for you.

          1. Jack Russell Terrier*

            That’s what I came here to say. If they don’t have visitor’s badge, wear something like a smiley face button that you wear when you’re visiting and smilingly explain to anyone asking about work related stuff ‘when I wear this I’m here visiting my mum – off duty!’. Mostly they’ll catch on.

    2. PurpleMonster*

      I mean, presumably they’d have something to say if OP was spending lots of work time visiting their mother, so the same applies here.

  8. DaffyDuck*

    Music lessons – I would let this go. It sounds as if both the child and the father are happy. Also, the mother not around may have nothing to do with you; she could be having health issues and need much more rest, decided it is the perfect time to get her exercise in, or any number of other things. If you run into her be friendly and positive, if not do not worry this into a bigger issue than it is.

    1. valentine*

      Could be the mom’s embarrassed the child wasn’t prepared, so I agree you can let that piece go.

      Why not request or even require parents to attend lessons for children ages x to y? How is a parent to know you consider them absent when you’ve not said you want them there? Maybe they want the lessons to be the child’s domain and think their presence defeats the purpose.

      1. Slow Gin Lizz*

        Yes, I was going to comment this about asking parents to attend lessons if the kid is under a certain age. Definitely a good idea to have another set of ears when explaining complicated music-things to young’uns. (Former music teacher here.)

    2. Daisy*

      I think OP is worrying too much about this. Also I’m not sure why they think what they did was wrong? Reprimanding a child for not practicing seems a very normal thing for a music teacher to do. I suppose perhaps they were ruder than they make it sound here? Anyway, doesn’t seem like anyone’s bothered

      1. Manon*

        I agree with this. A little chiding is sometimes necessary with school-age children to establish that yes, you actually do need to practice in order for these lessons to have any value. As a kid I certainly got my fair share of reprimands from teachers! As long as OP wasn’t overly harsh and conducted the rest of the lesson normally I don’t see a problem.

      2. Tathren*

        I think it’s because the OP raised the issue with the older siblings first, rather than with the parent. It shouldn’t be the responsibility of the other children to make sure their siblings are doing their music lessons. That should be something that the parents get involved with, and if the OP has a problem with how the children are preparing the parents should be the first ones they discuss that with not the other kids.

        Also, it sounds like the OP tries to generally reprimand their students in a more gentle way (maybe so the music lessons stay an overall positive experience for them). If they were harsher than usual in the moment, especially in a family they’ve known for 6 years where they haven’t done that before, I can understand why they’d be mortified and concerned that they’ve hurt their standing with the mother.

      3. Peachkins*

        Sounds like the OP thought they were a bit harsh to the child given their age, and on top of that, talked to the child’s siblings instead of the parents about the issue. I could see a teacher reprimanding an older kid, but someone young enough that a parent should be there when they practice? I do think OP did everything they needed to do to resolve the situation. If the mother is actually still upset, I personally think she’s overreacting given how long the OP has worked with the family.

      4. Holly*

        This would be very very touchy to a lot of parents because it’s really the parents job. It’s one thing to say “hey, it’s really important to be prepared” gently to the child and then report to the parents what happened. To “reprimand” the child and bring in the siblings *is* inappropriate.

          1. Janie*

            No, it’s not appropriate to talk to a child’s older siblings about their sports issues either, actually.

            1. Beanie*

              Here here! It’s not a siblings responsibility to manage their siblings activities (unless the sibling is of legal age and is legal guardian). That would be like a manager telling you that you had to manage your friend/family member in a different department just because you know them.

              I think the OP probably did overreact but clearly realized this and immediately apologized without prompting. Feel free to move on! :)

      5. Parenthetically*

        As a former taker of piano lessons and teacher of students, I agree. I don’t think OP needs to worry any more about it.

      6. Ra94*

        I agree. My mom is a piano instructor and I grew up with music lessons happening 24/7 in our living room- it’s totally normal and often necessary to chide kids for not practicing. I could see OP going too far, perhaps by yelling, but the way she writes- about always being positive with the kids- makes me think she may be a bit soft with them.

      7. Eisbaer*

        As a former music student and a part-time music teacher, I agree! You absolutely need to chide some students about not practicing. Nothing demeaning or angry, but I’ve dished out a fair amount of “You know, I can’t teach you any new things if you haven’t practiced your assignment from last week.” or “I can tell you haven’t worked on this much. Were you busy with schoolwork or something?” I don’t see why OP would have involved the siblings though, unless the parents had given instructions to do that (which would be weird). If it becomes a pattern, do mention it to the parents. They are paying for the kid to learn an instrument and would want to know if she isn’t making progress.

        You know what happened in my lessons if I hadn’t practiced? Scales and etudes! Even as a college student. Sometimes even vibrato exercises.

    3. Clorinda*

      If the parents were really unhappy, they’d fire OP and hire a new teacher. Since they haven’t, it’s fine.

    4. Samwise*

      Yes. If they were angry, you would know, because you would not still be giving the child lessons.

    5. ket*

      Totally agree with DaffyDuck and fellow commenters — and want to add that even if mom is ‘hiding’ from you, that could also not be your problem. Sometimes I ‘hide’/avoid people because I’m stressed out about some interaction with them, and I know this is my problem and not theirs. I’m just working through my own feelings. For instance, if I’m feeling I’m a failure as a mother because kid #4 did not have their music ready or whatever, I might not want to talk to you even though I know that 1) that’s not a failure of motherhood, 2) I’m anxiously blowing things out of proportion, 3) etc. And maybe it’s all for the good that that might have been a trigger to get dad involved in the music lessons.

      1. Dorothy*

        Thanks for the feedback. I was harsher than normal- no yelling or anything, but to a six year old not good, not good. I do tell new students and their parents that sitting in is a requirement. These guys have been with me so long, before I had developed expectations like that. I am not usually a chider with young kids, and I still am not sure why I lost control of that that day. The mother usually chit chats a little, so this is a change. I hope you are all right that it will blow over and I can move on from the mistake. Thanks for the feedback!

  9. M from NY*

    I disagree with response to OP 1. There is no reason for anyone to know about the misunderstanding if Susan hadn’t played telephone and escalated comment to Nancy (& for boss to go even further with accusing co-worker of lying on resume).

    Instead of mea culpa, I’d explain again to Nancy that I didn’t know and ask a little about her background but honestly I’d have a hard time dealing with Susan at all. All Susan had to do was state Nancy’s background instead of jumping to assumption that OP thought Nancy lied on her resume.

    1. Annette*

      Or perhaps – LW’s comment made Susan think he knew something she didn’t. He sounded very confident about her background. Hence boss’s concern that LW was accusing Nancy of lying. Why assume malice on the part of Susan. Seems to only reinforce the “women are busybodies” stereotype. No thanks.

      1. Ella Vader*

        That’s a convoluted way to get at “he’s being deliberately offensive” from an offhand remark. I work in a law office. All Susan had to do was tell him he was wrong and not been an obnoxious asshat about it. Susan is the shit stirrer in this.

        1. Annette*

          Again. Nobody said anyone was deliberately offensive. You seem to be reading what you want to read into every comment.

        2. Gaia*

          Not at all. No one is saying he was deliberately offensive. In fact, we’re all arguing that this kind of sexism is often NOT deliberate at all. It is ingrained. People don’t even realize they are doing it. That doesn’t make it any less wrong or any less deserving of a sincere apology.

          Look, I’ll be honest. I’m usually the first to suggest if it doesn’t personally impact you, keep it to yourself. In other words, most people would expect me to roll my eyes at Susan discussing what the OP said further. But honestly? No. Because it does impact Susan. It impacts all women when a man admits he knows NOTHING of a woman’s background and yet his immediate response is to dismiss (rather than ask for clarification) any hint that she might have a particular background known for being rather inhospitable towards women. That is the kind of thing a manager needs to know about. And it is the kind of thing that deserves some serious reflection on by the OP.

        3. I Took A Mint*

          From Nancy and Susan’s perspectives, a dude who doesn’t know anything about people’s personal lives, doesn’t work to build friendly relationships or chitchat, heard a woman was competent at something and was for some reason compelled to correct the misinformation, even though he had no way of knowing whether he was right or wrong. Why? Why was he compelled to correct Susan even though he admits he doesn’t know anything about Nancy’s background? Why did he assume he knew more than Susan about it?

          It was not intentional but he insulted both Nancy (“of course she’s not competent”) and Susan (“I don’t know anything about my coworkers but I know more than you”).

          The fact that this was the first thing to pop out of his mouth instead of a more humble “oh really? Does Nancy know about that?”—makes me think this isn’t the first time OP has been dismissive of women and assumes incompetence. OP should wholeheartedly apologize for his assumptions and do some reading and soul searching so he doesn’t repeat this mistake…and maybe learn a little bit about his coworkers.

        4. ceiswyn*

          But his response was so authoritative that it would have made Susan doubt. In her shoes I would also have been thinking ‘Nancy said she was a paleo, but he says that’s not her background… was I mistaken? Was Nancy spinning me a yarn?’

          The problem isn’t that he didn’t know Nancy’s background, it’s that he said with absolute certainty that it wasn’t in paleo when it was. At that point Susan is going to assume he knows something she doesn’t; because he has just claimed that in so many words. And it’s when she goes off to find out what it is that she doesn’t know that the Chinese Whispers begins, and the HR meeting results.

        5. Falling Diphthong*

          You think he’s an obnoxious asshat, but the problem is clearly other people in the office not intuiting what he really meant? Which was the opposite of what he said?

          Oh to be an obnoxious asshat, with the world ready to pave my way by explaining that the PROBLEM here is everyone else’s reaction to me.

          1. Not One of the Bronte Sisters*

            That is even better than, “Oh, give me the confidence of a middle-aged white man!”

        6. JJ Bittenbinder*

          We actually have no ides if Susan is the shit-stirrer here. In your version, Susan went to the boss and stirred up shit.

          Maybe she actually went to Nancy and Nancy went to the boss?
          Maybe something else happened to bring it to the attention of the boss.

          Why do we have to paint Susan in the “if she hadn’t said anything, OP never would have gotten caught” villian role? The problem is what OP said; not what OP’s boss heard.

          1. Fortitude Jones*

            Why do we have to paint Susan in the “if she hadn’t said anything, OP never would have gotten caught” villian role? The problem is what OP said; not what OP’s boss heard.

            Thank you. When did this become about Susan? She’s not the one popping off at the mouth about things she knows nothing about, OP is.

            1. ket*

              Yes, if we want to play with this scenario we could instead write, “This never would have happened if everyone always assumed OP doesn’t know what he’s talking about and ignored him!”

              That is actually more supported by the written evidence than this idea that Susan is a s%&%-stirrer, but somehow no one came up with it because… it… seems rude… while somehow assuming ill intent and gendered bad behavior on Susan’s part is, well, natural, ’cause womenamirite?

        7. Legal Rugby*

          I’m not sure what working in a law office has to do with this – but as an attorney who handled sex based discrimination, this is exactly the type of comment that comes across as ingrained sexism, coming from someone who seems to be dissmissing the very social skills that would allow them to see this.

      2. JamieS*

        If I knew Nancy had previously worked in paleontology and John said something that indicated he didn’t know her paleontology background I’d assume ignorance on John’s part not that he had some inside knowledge that Nancy falsified her resume. I think the majority of people would come to the same conclusion.

        1. Annette*

          No Jamie. LW indicated that he did know her background. And it is not paleontology. Small but crucial distinction.

          1. JamieS*

            I’m sorry I’ll rephrase. If John had said Nancy didn’t have a background in something I knew for a fact she did I’d assume ignorance on John’s part which is the most reasonable conclusion. Assuming he had some insider knowledge Nancy had lied is not.

            1. Karen from Finance*

              He was confronted with a new fact (a woman knows something) and his reaction wasn’t “oh that’s interesting”, or “oh, does she know this? I didn’t know that about her” or even “how does she know this?”. It was “Haha, silly woman, thinking that this other woman can know this, how could she possibly?”.

              No, he wasn’t intentionally offensive. He wasn’t intentionally malicious. But he was kind of a douche.

            2. ceiswyn*

              Why do you think it’s ‘most reasonable’ that John is wrong, and not that you are?

              Do you think that a woman, who has been socialised to give way to men all her life, is likely to react in the same way?

              1. bonkerballs*

                @ceiswyn, really? Because one man disagreeing with me wouldn’t be enough to make me doubt what I know to be true. And despite sexism being alive and well in the world, many many women would say the same and be pretty insulted that you assume otherwise.

                Can we talk about sexism without reducing all women to timid, subservient mice who don’t know how to think in the presence of men? Thanks.

                1. ceiswyn*

                  One man disagreeing would not make me doubt what I KNEW to be true.

                  One man disagreeing might make me doubt what someone else had told me to be true.

                  I would certainly not see any reason to assume that I was right and he wrong about something that we had equal chance to know. Certainly not to be so certain that I would start an argument with an over-confident asshole about it.

            3. ket*

              I agree that the women in this office should rethink their evaluations of John’s opinions and statements.

        2. Gaia*

          It would be one thing if he’d said “what? Is Nancy a paleontologist?” It is entirely different to announce that she clearly knows nothing of paleontology especially when he openly admits he does not know anything about her background and therefore was making a completely uninformed opinion.

          And we don’t know that it was Susan who said John had accused Nancy of lying. Perhaps that is the conclusion the manager came to and, if so, it would indicate this might not be a one time offense.

          1. Age of Makto*

            “It would be one thing if he’d said “what? Is Nancy a paleontologist?” It is entirely different to announce that she clearly knows nothing of paleontology especially when he openly admits he does not know anything about her background.”

            I thought we were not supposed to nitpick word choices here.

            It is unreasonable to ask that people assume that random co-workers are closet paleontologists. Life it not WarGames (“are you paleontologists”? “No, we’re high school students.”)

            1. SusanIvanova*

              This wasn’t random, though. Susan, who knows Nancy’s background, stated she was going to ask her about fossils. That should be enough of a hint that Nancy knows something about it. I don’t expect most of my co-workers to know that WWII espionage is my hobby (it’s related to my computer background if you stretch a bit), but if the co-worker who does know mentions it, I’d find it rude if someone scoffed at us.

            2. hbc*

              This is not a nitpick. “Oh, that seems strange, I don’t know of Nancy having special information about fossils” is miles apart from “That’s strange, Nancy knows nothing about fossils.” One is stating the state of your mind, while the other is declaring a Truth.

              I don’t *assume* any of my colleagues are former Olympians or knitters or wood workers. However, if someone says, “I’m going to ask Fergus to [show me his medals/help me with this pattern/make me a bird house],” my assumptions are going to shift a bit, and I’m certainly not going to make any absolute declarations based on my previous assumptions.

              1. Parenthetically*

                Not just, “That’s strange, Nancy knows nothing about fossils,” even, but, “Hahaha, why would you do that?! Nancy knows nothing about fossils!” It’s the derision that’s the genuine problem here.

            3. Falling Diphthong*

              We are not supposed to nitpick word choice in the sense of not commenting “Oh, you should have explained your problem to Alison with a different word.” In part because it’s derailing; in part because it discourages people from writing in.

              But for things said aloud that offended your coworkers, word choice probably did matter. So did tone. Which is why “Nancy knows Flemish?” (said with mild surprise at learning this interesting factoid) and “Nancy knows Flemish?” (said with a dismissive sneer and laugh) actually convey quite different things to Susan, who mentioned that she’s going to ask Nancy to translate a motto written in Flemish.

              1. Karen from Finance*


                And both are very different to outright stating “no, Nancy does not know Flemish” and then being defensive about the fact that you didn’t know she did.

        3. Mesmer*

          But he did not say something that indicated he didn’t know her paleontology background. He said something that indicated that he did know her background and it was not paleontology. There is a difference.

          1. JamieS*

            In general conversations that aren’t being overly analyzed by a group of strangers on the internet when people are talking about something, in this case fossils, and someone says “that’s not so and so’s background” they’re saying they don’t think so and so has a background in the specific topic of conversation which can be a mistake on their part.

            This isn’t that hard. Susan indicated Nancy knew about fossils, OP said Nancy didn’t because of an assumption based on her current job, and OP was wrong about that.

            1. Mesmer*

              No. When people are saying they don’t think so, they usually say “wow, I didn’t think Nancy was an expert on fossils!”. There is absolutely no reason to be as rude and dismissive of someone’s skills as OP was unless there is a concrete evidence. Even then,

              >I laughed and said, “Whatever would Nancy know about fossils? That’s not her background.”
              The fact that his first reaction is to dismiss Susan’s statement that Nancy knows about fossils instead of reevaluating his assumptions speaks volumes.

            2. PVR*

              Except that Susan DID know and OP DID NOT know. This is more than a subtle difference. If someone says to me, “that is not So-and-so’s background,” that is a very definititive statement vs “I was unaware that was her background” or “does she have a background in X?” or “I didn’t think she had a background in X” all of which describe not being sure or previously unaware. There is a big difference between not knowing and expressing that and stating as fact something is wrong when you actually just don’t know. The normal response to finding an acquaintance has a background you didn’t previously know about (or expect) is surprise—not immediate dismissal. And that’s what happened here.

            3. Myrin*

              I think that’s where you’re erring (and I say that as someone who gets regularly tired of the intense level of scrutiny and weird fanficications that can happen in the comments here) – I don’t think I have ever in my life heard anyone say “X is not Y” when what they actually meant is “I don’t think X is Y”. Literally never. I get where your thought process is coming from but I honestly think it’s wrong in this instance – this is not how people generally talk.

              1. Traffic_Spiral*

                Yeah, saying “this is a fact” is vastly different from saying “I have no information on this matter.” That’s not nitpicking.

    2. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

      I also don’t think OP will be able to calm the waters with his coworkers if he doubles down about not knowing Nancy’s background. If he tries to understand her background by asking about it after all that’s already happened, there’s a high likelihood that it will read as him suggesting he doesn’t believe she has training in paleontology and is now “testing” her to prove her credentials.

      Also, trying to shift blame to Susan won’t help OP fix his problem. All he can do is control his own conduct. He’s already apologized “reluctantly,” and framing this situation as a Susan problem prevents OP from taking ownership over his comment and the effect it had.

      OP’s letter doesn’t suggest that Susan said OP thought Nancy lied on the resume. All we know is Susan found the comment off-putting (which is reasonable) and likely told their boss. The only place where it’s possible to quibble with Susan is that she didn’t raise the issue with OP before raising it with others [imo, it’s ok for Susan to go straight to a manager for this specific concern/problem].

      1. Tau*

        Also, trying to shift blame to Susan won’t help OP fix his problem. All he can do is control his own conduct. He’s already apologized “reluctantly,” and framing this situation as a Susan problem prevents OP from taking ownership over his comment and the effect it had.

        Highlighting this. Focusing on whether Susan did the right thing or not would be appropriate if Susan were the one who wrote in. But it was the OP, and in the situation as described, the thing OP absolutely has to do is back down, sincerely apologise to everyone involved, and do some self-reflection as to why he assumed things about Nancy’s background based on no knowledge at all and despite evidence to the contrary. If he starts going “but Susan should have spoken to me directly!!”, it is going to sink him, even if it turns out Susan wasn’t acting appropriately. (I agree with PCBH that I think going straight to the boss is fine in this instant, especially since OP still doesn’t seem to understand what he did wrong, but tbh it’s irrelevant when it comes to the advice for the OP.)

      2. MeTwoToo*

        It’s also possible that Susan wasn’t the one to take it to the boss. Maybe she addressed the comment directly with Nancy when she showed her the fossil. In an office like mine rumors are rampant and sometimes damaging. I can see Nancy going to her boss and asking him to address it as OP telling other people my background is false. Better to nip that kind of rumor in the bud.

        1. Half-Caf Latte*

          Right, I said this in another thread, but someone could have overheard, boss could have overreacted, Nancy could be pissed because she’s told OP about her fossil collection before and he doesn’t value/remember it. The letter does not state that Susan told boss that OP said that Nancy was falsifying her credentials.

        2. CupcakeCounter*

          This was my thought as well – not that Susan went to the boss but that when Susan took the fossil to Nancy she made a comment about her conversation with OP and Nancy took it to the boss.

      3. CG*

        If I were Susan and OP had made those comments clearly highlighting his own personal misconceptions as fact to me, I… probably wouldn’t think that there was any productive point in raising the issue with him either. He literally laughed and implied that it was ridiculous that anyone might want to talk to Nancy about a scientific topic that she actually has plural advanced degrees in.

        The closing sentence “I want to return to friendly terms with my boss and coworkers, but I don’t want admit unwarranted guilt” really, really stood out to me here (as did the dismissively putting “dismissive and sexist” in quotation marks as if there could not possibly be a basis in reality to that concern). OP is looking for a permission to tell everyone else in the office that they are wrong and so should move past this and treat him well again, rather than trying to figure out what went wrong and how to fix it in the future. OP might want to consider whether he is inadvertently coming off this way in other areas of his work life as well.

        Intent behind actions is often NOT more important than the consequences of those actions: if I get into an at-fault car accident, not intending to hit someone doesn’t absolve me of consequences from hitting them (and my home state/insurance company might want me to take some corrective actions to lessen the chances of me repeating the incident – that’s not unreasonable).

      4. BethDH*

        Also people seem to be assuming that Susan told the boss in some sort of tattling way. OP mentions that it’s a small office — when I’ve been in those circumstances, it’s been pretty normal to have those conversations with your boss where you say something like, “Wow, Jim was in a bad mood this morning and he bit my head off when I said something about the rock I found!”
        I guess I just mean that in small offices information spreads in ways that are neither gossip nor formal reporting, and the boss is more likely to be sharing the same space when that happens.

    3. JamieS*

      Yeah I agree. I don’t think it’s outrageous someone didn’t know the volunteer coordinator was a former professor of paleontology and thought it was odd someone would go to them for expert advice on fossils.

      Although sexist or not there’s this thing where a person isn’t required to verbalize every thought they have and this definitely falls into that category. OP sounds like he needs to work on his tact and conversation skills so he doesn’t come across as rude or dismissive.

      1. hoi polloi*

        “Whatever would Nancy know about fossils?” Tactless and dismissive, perhaps, but probably wouldn’t have been offensive. Just leaving it at that could have indicated he didn’t know her background.

        But to then tack on the assertion “that’s not her background” gives the impression that he does have some sort of knowledge about her background – enough to say that she doesn’t have knowledge in this field. That’s where I think things become problematic.

        1. Anonymous Educator*

          Yeah, I never say “that’s not her background” unless I have actually seen that person’s résumé or had extensive conversations with that person about her background. Lots of people come to jobs from a non-traditional work history or educational training. If you don’t know, don’t say declaratively something that you don’t know (I don’t know her background, but that’s not it). Inquire instead, “Oh, does she know about fossils?”

          1. Anastasia Beaverhousen*

            Yup. It’s one thing to ask “Is that her background?” It’s another entirely to state “that’s not her background.” I know it seems like nitpicking, but a question versus a statement (on a subject you know nothing about!) is an important distinction.

            Whether it’s rooted in sexism or something else entirely, someone who generally acted on the assumption that their coworkers were competent, intelligent people wouldn’t have this kind of brusque reaction to one coworker mentioning that they were seeking another coworker’s opinion on something, even on something non-work-related. Regardless of how LW meant it, the comment clearly came off as dismissive of Nancy and condescending towards Susan.

        2. Tallulah in the Sky*

          I agree that “that’s not her background” could have thrown Susan for a loop (although it still wouldn’t have been that hard to say “Huh, I thought she had a degree in paleontology”), but not to the point of accusing a coworker of falsifying information. I really doubt Susan thought “Oh, based on this one comment, l think now Nancy must have lied about all of it, I have to tell Manager”.

          The “accusing a coworker of falsifying information on a resume” is a red herring here.

          1. Ethyl*

            “The “accusing a coworker of falsifying information on a resume” is a red herring here.”

            Totally agree. I also agree with other posters above who said it’s possible that the manager was being snarky or sarcastic and wasn’t actually making a serious accusation. It wasn’t the right way to handle it on the manager’s part of so, but that has nothing to do with what the LW should do going forward.

      2. Detective Amy Santiago*

        This is where I land too. I think the likely intent OP had in questioning why Susan was asking Nancy about a fossil was seriously lost in translation by the way he chose to ask. Because he didn’t really ask, he was derisive and presumed he knew something he didn’t. I could see myself saying “why would you ask Nancy about that?” if I didn’t know she had a paleontology background.

        I am inclined to suspect that Alison’s correct that this is a piece of a larger pattern of behavior though. Because in Susan’s place, I think I would have simply said, “Actually, Nancy’s background is paleontology” and left it at that if it was a one off. The fact that she felt the need to escalate it does seem indicate a bigger problem.

        1. PVR*

          But if it was common knowledge that that is in fact her background, I could see where Susan would be caught off guard in the moment and have no idea how to respond—especially if this is actually part of a larger pattern.

        2. Danger: GUMPTION AHEAD*

          I agree. This whole situation could have been avoided if LW had said, “Huh, I didn’t know Nancy was into fossils (optional: how long has she been doing that/how did she get into that/did she study it/etc)

          1. Age of Makto*

            This whole situation could have been avoided if — instead of casting things in terms of “you’ve accused Nancy of falsifying her resume” — the manager listened to the story and said, “you may not realize this, but she’s previously been a professional paleontologist.”

            1. TheFacelessOldWomanWhoSecretlyLivesinYour House*

              I think like some others that OP’s boss was basically stating this rhetorically–OP stated Nancy knows nothing of fossils and boss was telling him precisely he was wrong. And if OP wouldn’t admit he was wrong, then he is accusing someone of falsifying their resume.

      3. Susie Q*

        I agree with this 1000% . It was a rude, off the cuff remark but I think people are seeing malice where there is none. I have a background in a field that I do not work in. I would not except any of my coworkers to know about it.

    4. Arctic*

      He flat out said “that’s not her background” as if it were a fact. She had every reason to assume he knew about her background and she had lied.

      1. tangerineRose*

        Yeah, the statement of fact for something he is only assuming really irks me. I work in STEM and a lot of the guys I’ve worked with are great about not stating assumptions as fact, but the ones who are (and it’s generally been guys who have done this to me) just drive me up the wall. If you’re not sure, say so. I respect people much more if they don’t act like they know it all when they don’t.

    5. M from NY*

      There are a LOT of excuses regarding how the conversation moved from OP and Susan to include Nancy and the Manager ALL of which fall on Susan’s misread of the situation.

      Right now many are qualifying on “how” OP responded requiring certain vocabulary needed in order for you to give him benefit of the doubt. The OP is the one that wrote in here and this piling on isn’t helping him (or others since I can see myself making the same mistake in this situation) figure out how to avoid in the future. I have zero interest in quizzing coworkers about every single thing they do/did outside of the workplace.

      This scenario breaks 2 of the Four Agreements – Don’t take anything personally and Don’t make assumptions. If SUSAN had taken a moment to clarify what she thought OP said none of the subsequent bruhaha would have happened. Some situations warrant speaking to your manager immediately but IMO this isn’t one of them.

      Had the manager taken a step back to ask what and how the conversation with OP then they could have clarified WHERE the misunderstanding occurred. Even if a third party overheard and ran to the manager it still falls on the manager to not back up the version that OP said Nancy was lying about her background before hearing what actually happened.

      What the manager should have done was in the next meeting have some sort of icebreaker for everyone to share something outside of their employment. Expecting changed behavior only from OP is guaranteeing another blowup from assumptions of facts not known. One can’t demand OP give apology but then label any attempt to ask/get to know Nancy’s background as “interrogating” her.

      Some posters have made very good points regarding how bias occur in STEM I still disagree that this situation that OP wrote in about warrants the response given.

      1. valentine*

        Susan is not in the wrong. No one is obliged to spare OP1 the ricochet from his actions. There is no need to punish everyone with an icebreaker because OP1 refused to get to know his colleagues. He could have done so at any time prior to his sexist comment. Doing it now will ring false, at best.

        1. Fortitude Jones*

          There is no need to punish everyone with an icebreaker because OP1 refused to get to know his colleagues.

          All of this. Had he spent five minutes talking to Nancy, he probably would have known this already. The onus is not on the rest of the office to fall into line and start baring their souls in icebreaker scenarios because the OP can’t be bothered to make even the slightest bit of small talk with his colleagues. That’s on him.

      2. Aveline*

        Why are you still insisting this is on them?

        Don’t make assumptions! That’s a rule. Well, LW is the one who violated it first. Why aren’t you more upset with his violation of that by assuming someone else was incompetent at a subject?

        You are holding the LW to a standard far below everyone else.

        That makes no sense.

      3. Mr. Tyzik*

        You suggest that you would tell Nancy you didn’t know about her background and explain that you didn’t mean the comment that way. That’s exactly the kind of non-apology that OP has already given and it isn’t sufficient. OP must take on the accountability for his words and give a sincere apology. Your suggestion of asking more about her background is a good one but only if OP is genuinely interested. People can tell when they’ve been asked a perfunctory question instead of an honest one.

        As far as whether it is sexist, women face an assumption in the workplace of knowing less than men. I’d recommend listening to the women posting to gain more understanding about that. It doesn’t matter if the field in STEM – for example, I’ve worked in non-STEM and STEM fields and faced the same assumptions in both types of employment.

        Overall, you are putting the onus on Susan to comprehend what OP *meant*, not what OP *said*. Susan can’t read OP’s mind and can go only but his rude, dismissive comment. We don’t know that Susan went to the boss. Nancy might have, or boss could have overheard the exchange. Whatever the circumstances, OP made a bad assumption about a woman’s knowledge, made a rude comment negating that knowledge as though it were fact, and hasn’t accepted accountability for his action.

        Was it sexist? Yes. Ingrained, not overt, but sexist nonetheless.

      4. AM*

        I appreciate that you mention the rule “don’t make assumptions”, because that’s EXACTLY what LW1 did– he made assumptions! Why does this rule apply to Susan and Nancy and their manager, but not LW1?

      5. Genny*

        No, the manager should not force some phony ice breaker thing on the group to address a problem between three people (and I don’t even hate ice breaker). The problem isn’t coworkers don’t know enough about their colleagues or that Susan, Nancy, or someone else reported the conversation. The problem is LW made a rude statement that can also plausibly be construed as sexist. That’s what the manager should’ve (and did) address and LW should be examining why he made the comment in the first place.

      6. Librarian of SHIELD*

        This is not a case of Susan misunderstanding the OP’s perfectly innocent comment. The OP made an assumption he shouldn’t have made, and he expressed that assumption in a derisive fashion. If anybody’s made a communication error, it’s OP.

        And in a functional workplace, a person who makes a mistake like this for the first time doesn’t get met with this level of forcefulness by both boss and colleagues. Either OP works in a super dysfunctional office, or this was not the first time.

      7. LunaLena*

        @M from NY – “If SUSAN had taken a moment to clarify what she thought OP said none of the subsequent bruhaha would have happened.”

        You know what REALLY would have prevented the “subsequent bruhaha” from happening? LW1 not assuming that Nancy didn’t know anything about fossils and laughing at the thought that she might.

      8. BananaPants*

        Since the OP made it clear that he’s not interested in learning anything about his coworkers’ lives, I don’t think a management-led icebreaker would accomplish much – he’d just view it as uninteresting and irrelevant personal info and it’d go in one ear and out the other.

      9. iglwif*

        Wait, so it’s not OK for Susan to “break[] 2 of the Four Agreements”, but it’s OK for OP to break all 4 of them?

        I had never heard of the Four Agreements and had to look them up, so I’m not any kind of expert here, but it seems to me that the OP is saying he did not speak with integrity (saying rude things to Susan about Nancy, the “reluctant” apology) [rule 1], is taking everyone else’s statements personally [rule 2], has made and continues to make assumptions [rule 3], and is not doing his best [rule 4] either to relate well to co-workers or to look honestly at his own behaviour.

        We don’t actually know what Susan said to whom. We *do* know what OP said to Susan. By his own description, he insulted both Nancy, by declaring on the basis of absolutely no evidence that she couldn’t possibly know anything about fossils, and Susan, by strongly implying that she was foolish to think Nancy might know something about fossils. He may not have meant to be insulting but sometimes it doesn’t matter what you intended, it matters what you actually say and do.

  10. Kella*

    OP #1- I understand why you feel like your comment was no big deal, since it sounds like the fossil comment sounded random and out of place to you and you were reacting to that. The reason that it was rude was that as you said a. you didn’t *know* Nancy’s background but even so you b. assumed that fossils/science could not be part of her background and c. assumed Susan had no good reason for choosing Nancy to talk to about it. You assumed that your limited knowledge of Nancy was all there was to know, rather than recognizing an opportunity for new information, and undermined the judgement of your coworker in the process. And unless Susan is shy and avoidant of mild confrontation, my guess is that you sounded pretty condescending when you said it, otherwise it seems like she would’ve responded to your rhetorical question with, “Because she’s a paleontologist, or used to be.”

    With three people that all reacted to you as if this behavior was rude and hurtful and potentially more charged than it seems at the surface, I’m going to echo the theory that this is part of a larger pattern. Maybe of sexism, maybe of not being able to gracefully accept when you’re wrong or don’t know as much as you thought, maybe of undermining the judgment of your coworkers. Maybe a bit of all three.

    1. Annette*

      Yes Kella. Three people tell you you’re wrong. So you write to an advice column saying “tell me I’m right.” Hmm.

      1. Trout 'Waver*

        I disagree slightly here. It’s not three independent people. It’s three people who conferred together behind OP’s back. Even though OP was rude, it’s still off-putting when people do that.

        1. Yorick*

          I don’t think you can say a coworker telling a manager about your behavior is “conferring behind your back.”

          1. Trout 'Waver*

            Well, Susan clearly discussed it with Nancy. One or both of Susan and Nancy talked to the manager about it. And the manager had a false impression of what actually happened, which indicates it wasn’t a simple reporting of facts.

            Context really matters here. But you can’t simply say that because 3 people agree, OP is wrong.

            1. valentine*

              People have every right and are sometimes obliged to discuss colleagues with their managers. It’s not backbiting. Grey Coder could be right about how the manager framed it.

            2. Librarian of SHIELD*

              Why shouldn’t Susan have told Nancy? If one of my coworkers was telling other people in the office that I don’t know a thing I clearly *do* know, I sincerely hope someone would tell me about it. That’s my reputation that’s on the line. Nancy had every right to know that her coworker was saying she doesn’t know things that she knows.

              And whichever of them took the issue to the manager was absolutely right to do so. An employee who is this dismissive of his colleagues is a liability to the organization, and the boss needs to be made aware of that.

        2. Legal Rugby*

          From outside, it sounds like a coworker was unsure how to handle or respond to the incident and escalated it to her manager. Not sure if thats got the nefarious overtones you seem to be implying.

          1. Trout 'Waver*

            I think nefarious is too strong of a word. But, I am kinda getting a cliquish vibe from how this situation was handled.

            To me, it’s just common sense that if someone you’re “work-friendly” with unintentionally insults you, you just point it out to them and move on. Absent a larger pattern, it seems strangely aggressive to involve a manager in something like this.

            1. Danger: GUMPTION AHEAD*

              Maybe Susan doesn’t feel that the LW are work friendly to her? I know I have worked with people who had a very different interpretation of our relationship than I did

            2. AJHall*

              It sounds as if the manager was taking seriously a report which, if true, would have meant she had to sack Nancy. She and Susan presumably had been told by Nancy that she had two degrees and work experience in a specific subject, and now Susan comes to her and says that OP not only categorically stated that Nancy hadn’t, but laughed at the very suggestion. If OP is correct — and why would he lie about something like that? — then Nancy is completely untrustworthy. Obviously the manager can’t do anything except investigate. It’s not an “unintentional insult”: it’s a statement which, if the manager hadn’t investigated it, would have been a permanent slur against Nancy’s reputation.

            3. Fortitude Jones*

              To me, it’s just common sense that if someone you’re “work-friendly” with unintentionally insults you

              Being work friendly with people means you speak to them and you ask them questions like where they went to school (if they went), what they studied, what brought them to the company, etc. The fact that he didn’t know about Nancy’s background leads me to believe he’s not as work friendly with his coworkers as he’d like us to believe.

              1. bonkerballs*

                There’s no quiz you have to take on your colleagues in order to consider yourself work friendly with someone. I’m friendly with lots of my coworkers and also have no idea what their education background is. Hell, I have actual friends that I have no idea what their education background is, including my brother-in-law.

              2. Trout 'Waver*

                Nope. Being work friendly means matching energy. If you’re in a position of privilege or power, it means you take the lead of the other person and don’t pry or ask questions that they don’t.

                1. Trout 'Waver*

                  To expound a bit, it means if you’re a cis straight white dude, it means you let your coworkers lead the topics and don’t ask any deeper questions than they ask you.

            4. ket*

              “Absent a larger pattern,” you say… but you’re responding to a post that posits there’s a larger pattern (using those words).

    2. Tallulah in the Sky*

      Absolutely agree with this. I really hope OP takes this to heart and take this opportunity for some introspection.

    3. cncx*

      Yeah, i had a male coworker do something similar to me. I’m completely, 100% fluent in a foreign language he has no reason to hear me speak and he randomly told a coworker i was not good in that language because he too thought it was random- like you said, he assumed his limited knowledge of me and my background was gospel.

      1. Green Great Dragon*

        I do not understand that way of thinking. I do understand that when I have an employee who states as fact something that is only an assumption/belief, I need to prevent them ever, ever doing such a thing again. Or very bad things may happen, including legal consequences.

        1. Karen from Finance*

          You know how babies seem to think that anything outside their line of sight does not exist? I think it’s this. Some people assume that anything they haven’t seen for themselves does not -cannot- exist. That is my explanation for that way of thinking.

      2. Tallulah in the Sky*

        Or not.

        Had the same happen to me. I speak three languages (I’m for Belgium, so French and Dutch, plus English). We speak mainly French and English in the office. In a meeting someone asked if it’s OK we do it in Dutch, a coworker said no since I didn’t speak it. I said it was OK and started speaking in Dutch, and the meeting continued.

        This coworker had never heard me speak Dutch and so thought I couldn’t (you could also tell by my accent I’m a native French speaker). It was a female coworker. Would you say she also thinks what she thinks is gospel ? Because no, she’s a very kind woman, we laughed it off.

        I’m all for making people aware of their unconscious biases and pointing out sexist behavior, even if that person didn’t mean it that way. But there’s no need to villainize and assume the worst from people by saying things like “he assumed his limited knowledge of me and my background was gospel”. If he has a habit to dismiss you and/or other female employees, than yes he be that. If it’s just that one incident, why decide to believe the worst case scenario ?

        1. Karen from Finance*

          Just because your coworker was a woman doesn’t mean her assumptions can’t come from ingrained sexism. And it was rude of her to answer for you instead of asking you. It’s great that the situation was resolved gracefully, but still.

        2. cncx*

          As i said in the comment, he said i was “not good” in that language, not that i didn’t speak it at all. Your coworker was in your presence and coming from a place of politeness by wanting you to be able to participate, and you were able to correct the assumption. It’s two different situations.

          My coworker could have said i don’t speak it if he was coming from a place of ignorance, not that i’m not good in it, which he had no context for and, especially, he didn’t say it to my face to give me a chance to correct.

          I too do believe in seeing the best in people but it gets hard when they are seeing the worst in me .

  11. tra la la*

    OP #1, consider that if you know that you don’t know much about the people you work with, you should probably avoid making comments as if you did. You got tripped up here by your own incorrect assumption.

    1. Sara without an H*

      Yes, OP#1 — you say you’re “office friendly” with your co-workers. Are you holding yourself aloof for some reason?

      It’s probably time you got better acquainted with your co-workers, not necessarily with the idea of being close and giddy buddies with them, but just with the idea of knowing who they are and what they bring to your organization. If you knew them better, you’d have been less likely to make this particular mistake.

      1. Leslie Knope’s Long-Lost Twin*

        That’s the other issue I have with this letter, and what I suspect is why this incident took on sort of a life of its own. The LW says he is “office friendly” with his coworkers and doesn’t really talk about personal matters. He’s also worked there the longest and it’s only a 16 person office. Unless they have an incredibly high level of turnover, it seems to me like it would take some serious effort to know so little about one’s coworkers. I’ve worked on teams or in offices about that size and had coworkers who kept to themselves and didn’t talk much about personal matters at work, but you still end up learning basic things like where they went to school, where they worked before this, basic family info (single or partnered, name of spouse/partner, names and ages of kids), and maybe a few other random tidbits. And if you know very little about a person, you don’t assume that the few things you do know are the sum total of who that person is. I wonder if this LW’s level of interaction with coworkers goes way beyond just being kind of introverted and compartmentalized about work versus personal life to being almost willfully oblivious to anything about others that isn’t important to him.

    2. LadySmalls*

      Something that I really can’t wrap my head around is the fact that LW1 deliberately choose to not know his coworkers at all. He made this choice. And then to double down with ‘how was I supposed to know’ flabbergasts me. LW1 chose not to seek this information for years and then can’t admit ignorance?

      1. tangerineRose*

        I don’t mind that he didn’t know this about his co-worker. What gets me is that he said she knows nothing about fossils when he had no idea whether she did or not. I hope he doesn’t work in a field that requires being precise.

  12. phira*

    OP 1: Yeah, there’s a difference between making an innocuous comment about not knowing Nancy’s background, and making one saying that you know something *isn’t* her background. I’m not sure about how intensely you came across as accusing her of falsifying her background, but I think that it’s more a sign that you aren’t as “office friendly” as you think you are. Especially since your letter seems mostly like, “Get a load of this! Can you believe these people?” and not, “What do I do to fix this situation?”

    OP 3: Musician here! I honestly think that if you’d *really* upset the mother, you’d have been fired. I’d put my money on the mother being upset, but the father not, and agreeing to sit in on the lessons to appease mom. Which probably doesn’t make you feel all that much better, but I think that it is what it is and you don’t have to do more than you already did. To be honest, I think that if the mother *is* super upset, it’s an overreaction. Not to say that this is okay, but my peers and I endured plenty of this kind of thing and WAY worse from music teachers and conductors and a lot of our parents were just like, “lol okay but you didn’t practice so what did you expect?”

    OP 2: Not much to add except with your years of experience, I think you should feel free to own the title of expert!! It’s not a degree you earn or a certification you get.

    1. Dorothy*

      That’s my husband’s take too- that the father is showing to help the Mom. She normally does chit chat, even when she’s busy with stuff, so this is a change for her to act this way. Thanks for the perspective!

  13. Gaia*

    OP 1, let’s break down what you did here

    1. You openly admit you know nothing of Nancy’s background
    2. You assume that even though you know nothing of Nancy’s background, her background cannot possibly be paleontology
    3. You vocalized this assumption
    4. You get told by multiple people in your workplace that this assumption is offensive and problematic and you need to apologize
    5. You give a reluctant apology.
    6. You write to an advise column still assuming you were right.

    It is time to accept you were wrong. No one is suggesting you needed to know Nancy’s background. What we’re saying is that when you don’t know someone’s background you need to not speak as if you do (and really it is especially problematic considering her background is in science and women in science are often default assumed to be incompetent whereas men are default assumed to be experts).

    I hope you do some serious soul searching about this.

    1. LKW*

      For me the key word was “reluctant”.

      OP #1 – you were wrong. You made an assumption. It was incorrect and your coworkers found it insulting. Your manager demanded that you apologize. Now, I know that sometimes a manager in circumstances will lay out that an apology is expected – but here it seems that you were going to dig your heels in because you refused to admit that you made a stupid mistake.

      So your manager had to make it clear – and you, like a petulant 5 year old, reluctantly apologized. You can do better in this life.

    2. ENFP in Texas*


      I think this clearly and succinctly lays out the issues, and I hope the OP takes the time to read it and take it to heart.

    3. Clorinda*

      Even if Nancy didn’t have an actual degree in paleontology, she could still be an enthusiastic and knowledgeable amateur. People ask me scientific questions all the time; my degrees are in music and literature, but I have a lot of random knowledge. If Susan wants to ask Nancy about a rock, why not assume that both Susan and Nancy are competent to handle the conversation?

    4. Aerin*

      And I think that he’s working under the assumption that his intentions are what really matters here, when that’s not remotely true. It’s about *impact*: the way he made people feel in the moment, the way this plays into larger patterns, the way minor unpleasant experiences can add up.

      Look, if I ran over someone’s foot in my car entirely by accident, and then proceeded to squawk in the aftermath about how I’ve never done this before and I have nothing against feet and how could someone even think that I’m the kind of person who would do such a thing… Well, I’m not exactly the hero in that scenario. People mess up, but it’s the doubling down and refusing to understand that you did something wrong that’s the real problem.

  14. Lauren*

    Never commented before but this one struck a chord. I was trained in paleontology and now work for a completely unrelated nonprofit! I’m also female and have experienced my fair share of workplace sexism (and righteous anger relating to it) but this one didn’t strike me that way.

    Going against the grain here but I really would not have been offended by that comment. The whole situation sounds like an episode of Friends where every plot twists hinges on a very minor miscommunication getting blown way out of proportion. Agree with Allison that if it’s a pattern the OP should consider that and address it but going on this situation alone I think the nonprofit’s response was silly.

    Personally, if someone said something like “Why would she know anything about fossils?” I’d love to take the opportunity to say “Oh actually I have a background in paleontology, did you know about…etc.” It’s a conversation starter, not an insult.

    1. Gaia*

      I would agree with you if he’d stopped at “why would she know anything about fossils?” because that sounds like a genuine inquiry and, as he freely admits he doesn’t know her background that is fine. But going further to “that isn’t her background” is assuming facts not in evidence considering he. doesn’t. know. her. background. It could be paleontology. It could be law. It could be accounting. It could be art. She could be a freaking astronaut or the Grand Duchess of Cordovia. He literally has no clue so making blanket statement that it *isn’t* paleontology is really problematic. That is where he went wrong, not in questioning.

      1. tra la la*

        Also, while I totally agree about this as an opportunity to start a conversation, OP kind of doesn’t come across as interested in having this kind of conversation.

        1. Tallulah in the Sky*

          I think this is a bigger issue than “that isn’t her background”. If OP was knows as a warm/kind coworker, I don’t think this comment would have such an impact. If OP’s attitude in the letter is any indication, the problem here is less the wording and more how OP acts and talks to his coworkers.

          1. Fortitude Jones*

            Yup. If you’re aloof and standoffish with your coworkers, they’re going to take everything you say at face value.

        2. valentine*

          if someone said something like “Why would she know anything about fossils?”
          The wording is at least half the problem and this is a big improvement on what he said.

    2. WS*

      “Why would she know anything about fossils?” is at least a question that is open to a reply and thus could be a conversation starter. “Whatever would Nancy know about fossils? That’s not her background,” is a dismissive question followed by a statement…that he actually had no idea about.

      1. Washi*

        Right! The OP did not say, in a confused tone, “why would she know anything about fossils?” He laughed and made an absolute assertion that Nancy does not know anything about fossils.

    3. I Took A Mint*

      This is why I think this was instance 3728 and Susan and Nancy and manager decided to do something about it.

      1. Elizabeth*

        Yes, totally this. We know what being belittled feels like and we all know that any one incident can have a certain range of plausible deniability attached, but the whole pattern rarely does when seen as such.

        Maybe everyone else is overreacting, but the OP needs to at least very genuinely consider that they are not. And ask himself how he would *know* if that’s not the case. Examining his own intentions won’t give him evidence about how he comes across, so, what can he do to explore his behavior?

    4. Amber Rose*

      But that’s not what OP said. He said the equivalent of “There’s no possible way that Lauren knows anything about fossils.”

      A question starts a conversation. A flat denial does not.

    5. AM*

      LW1 did not ask if Susan had a background in paleontology, though. He outright DISMISSED the possibility of her having a background in paleontology. There is a very big difference.

  15. Piper*

    OP#2 might be implying there’s some certifying board for their field that controls who’s called an “expert” and who isn’t, because otherwise I can’t figure out how someone with “a great deal of experience (35+ years generally, 20 years with this specific technology)” *wouldn’t* be an expert.

    1. Strong Bow*

      OP#2 here .. I have a university degree that’s relevant to my occupation, but there’s not really a meaningful certification that covers the advanced work that I do — it’s more by reputation. Fortunately, it appears my comment did influence their thinking, they updated their work with a better solution. Small victory!

      1. Rex*

        OP, thanks for replying. Honestly it sounds to all of us like you *are* an expert. Can you tell us why you would think you are not? This hesitancy to own your own competence seems like it could impact your ability to do your job.

        1. Sally*

          I was thinking the same thing.
          Someone who resisted being referred to as an expert because i thought it meant i had to know everything about the subject and wasn’t allowed to say,”i dont know, but i’l find out.”

          P.S. I don’t do that any more.

          1. tangerineRose*

            I’ve worked with a number of experts who say that sometimes. Or “I don’t know, but have you tried x?” It increases my respect for them. They know enough to know what they don’t know, and they’re willing to admit it. It also saves a lot of time – have you ever worked with someone who starts guessing at things when they don’t know and don’t admit that this is a guess?

  16. Kat*

    Regarding the last letter, I am finding more and more employers are checking further back than before. I’m not sure why (though it happens more often when the company uses a reference checking service instead of calling the references themselves), but I’ve been asked to provide references 15 years old and older since The Recession (2008). So has my spouse.

    People already aren’t getting paid enough in most jobs. Why hurt someone because an old reference is required?

    1. DaffyDuck*

      I was a SAHM/hospice care for family for over 12 years while my DH’s job moved us around the country every couple of years. All my serious, supervisor-type references were more than 10 years old; my recent references were not in my field and for much “lighter” job positions. Thank goodness for those old references and an employer who was willing to look beyond the SAHM years. 4 years into new job and I now make what I did before we started the moving, without them I would be stuck in low-level retail jobs.

    2. Mary Connell*

      Agree. A while back I applied for a receptionist job. (My primary work requires flexibility, but it was a couple of minutes away and just a few hours a week.) The extent of the information they wanted was shocking. How — and why — was I supposed to track down managers from 25 years ago? All they needed was a friendly face a few hours a week.

      The hours turned out not to work and I’ve found much better supplemental work that required expertise and current references rather than references back 25 years, but it was eye opening to work through that application.

    3. Kristine*

      During my last job search in 2016 I was asked to supply references all the way back to my college job in the mid-2000’s. Not only did the hiring manager call my old manager from that college job, but my application got stalled because that old manager didn’t return the hiring manager’s phone calls.

      I actually pulled my application for that job after receiving multiple phone calls, texts, and emails from the hiring manager over the course of three days about how crucial it was for her to get in contact with that old manager, but that’s another story.

      1. JJ Bittenbinder*

        Yeah, that’s a hiring manager who is confusing exhaustive or thorough with meaningful when it comes to references. Sure, you can speak with anyone who’s ever known me, but that doesn’t mean you’re going to get the information you think you’re getting.

        I like the trend I’m seeing now in a few companies I’ve applied to, where they do more thorough interviewing and don’t ask for references. (As opposed to a different job I held, which asked for FIVE references!!)

  17. MommyMD*

    You sound pretty dismissive and arrogant all through your letter OP 1. At least to me. Maybe rein in the flippant remarks. Learn something from it.

    1. Jen in Oregon*

      I think he sounds arrogant from the subject line “My office *thinks* I insulted a coworker, but I didn’t mean it like that.” You did insult your coworker (two of them, actually), no matter what your intent was. You don’t get anywhere with anyone by dismissing or minimizing the impact of your actions, not matter how you intended them. Much like if you accidentally step on someones foot or elbow them in the face, you still owe them an apology and a promise to use more care in the future so as not to reduce the likelihood of a repeat instance.

  18. pcake*

    Even if OP1 wasn’t being sexist – say that he would have made the same comment about a male coworker, it was very rude. The poster wasn’t aware of Nancy’s resume or interests, so why assume that paleontology wasn’t one of them? Just because one doesn’t know about a coworker’s background doesn’t mean they don’t have unrelated degrees to their current job or volunteer at a local museum cleaning dinosaur bones on weekends. Or, for that matter, doing anything as a hobby or volunteer work from learning Russian to flying jets.

    1. Kettles*

      Yes. If Jane asked if Wakeen was around to evaluate a film they’d made, I’d assume Wakeen was at least a hobbyist in that field, not that Jane was randomly ascribing competence to a coworker.

  19. LDN Layabout*

    I’d be giving OP1 the benefit of the doubt if his letter wasn’t peppered with The idea seemed ridiculous and I was merely responding to something that sounded silly to me.

    Has the OP never encountered someone who works outside of their degree field? Because that’s the only excuse for not realising people can know things outside of their field. It doesn’t excuse how condescending he sounds.

    (Also, the crossover skills between advanced paleontology degrees and volunteer co-ordinator would be pretty high considering the amount of fieldwork/cross-disciplinary work you’re likely to be exposed to, I would assume)

    1. Green genes*

      I know quite a few STEM graduates. Very few are working in their degree field. I would never assume someone’s background by what they currently do for a living. Life happens!

      1. LDN Layabout*

        Literally the only STEM fields where I’ve seen people in my circle stay 100% in that field are med/vet and civil engineers. Everyone else is all over the map.

        1. Ethyl*

          I’m a former geologist now working in a food-related nonprofit! Life sure does happen sometimes!

        2. Gaia*

          My degree is in a very obscure and specific area of history …. and I work as a data analyst. I’d be pretty ticked if someone who didn’t know jack about my education just naturally assumed I couldn’t possibly be knowledgeable in this particular area of history because that isn’t the work I do. I paid A LOT of money for that degree that in no way relates to my work, thank you very much!

      2. Akcipitrokulo*

        I’m in IT. My background is astrophysics. Luckily my colleagues have always been “wow, cool!” not “nah…” if someone’s referred to it!

      3. ceiswyn*

        I’m a technical writer in software development.

        I have a Masters degree in Palaeobiology.

        Sooo… not that implausible, eh, OP1?

        1. curly sue*

          My partner is a professional artist and animator — and in his spare time he studies paleontology and does paleo-art illustrations for journals. He wanted to do that in university but didn’t have confidence in his science skills or money for grad work, and ended up going to art school instead. We end up gathering a comet-trail of listeners behind him every time we go to a dino exhibit.

      4. Cercis*

        And honestly, for a lot of us we aren’t in our chosen field because sexist attitudes kept closing the door on us – lesser qualified men being given the benefit of the doubt and hired over more qualified women, it’s happened to me in multiple jobs. And yes, that could partly be that my confidence doesn’t come across in my voice and body language, but it’s such a tightrope to walk – can’t be too confident but have to be confident enough. For men, it’s more of a balance beam if not a suspended walkway.

        So yes, if I wasn’t working in my chosen field due to sexism (I am now, it took 20 years of sustained effort), hearing something like that would have been a shot to the heart. It would have been a summary of every job interview I’ve had.

        1. PersephoneUnderground*

          This- even if not intended, the OP made a clumsy, rude remark that made his co-workers very uncomfortable. He should apologize for being dismissive and rude to his colleagues. He should also recognize that it was particularly bad because he replicated a common sexist situation that hurts lots of women- intentionally or not. He did something wrong that also possibly rubbed salt in a wound for Nancy. He should be extra sorry about that, not offended by the “overreaction”.

          Say you elbow past a colleague in the hall and they suddenly scream loudly- you think they overreacted until you find out you elbowed a spot they’ve had surgery on more than once. You shouldn’t be elbowing colleagues anyway, and you should apologize extra for unintentionally causing additional pain. What you shouldn’t be is indignant at them for overreacting when you were in the wrong in the first place.

    2. Bagpuss*

      Plus, people have hobbies and interests which are way outside their original fields of study, so even if he had been right about it not being Nancy’s background, that doesn’t mean it’s sillyto seek her views.!
      Heck, even if she had no background and no interest in the field, it’s still not *silly* to ask her – Maybe Susan has found that Nancy is generally a well-informed person or someone who is very good at identifying where / how to get better information.

      1. Ananas Bananes*

        +1 to this! As amateurs, my husband and I have edited and published an amateur historical journal, taught introductory birdwatching to a group, researched and wrote an ornithological study that was then published and cited by professionals. We have practiced crafts ranging from carpentry to beadwork to casting silver jewelry. Passionate amateurs can know a lot!

    3. Deejay*

      I once knew somebody who had a degree in marine biology and ended up in a finance job in the City of London. Cue obvious jokes about sharks…

    4. MCMonkeyBean*

      And I imagine a lot of volunteer coordinators have unrelated backgrounds! That’s not exactly something many people study in school. What did the OP think Nancy had studied in if he thought he knew enough to say what she *didn’t* study?

      1. One of the Sarahs*

        An ex of mine had a PhD in microbiology before becoming a volunteer coordinator! In the UK there are some really active Student Community Action societies that encourage students to volunteer, and run projects, and a lot of my friends ended up in the voluntary sector as a result.

    5. Parenthetically*

      Gosh, seriously, this. OP1, this language is THE REASON people are piling on you so much.

  20. JunieB*

    OP 4: it might also be worth reminding your coworkers that your mother, as a resident, deserves the full attention of her visitor. Most caregivers I know are well aware of the value of family visits. By making your visits into extra workdays, they’re doing a disservice to her as well as you.

  21. Maya Elena*

    I disagree with Allison’s interpretation on #1.
    You were rude, and an apology is warranted, but I don’t think the accusation of sexism is. Unless the position of “volunteer coordinator” is known to be a PhD position or requiring an advanced background, there’s no way for you to know that your coordinator has an advanced degree, any more than you know that your admin has an advanced science degree – or a public policy intern has an advanced degree in physics, or your IT guy actually has a PhD in literature.

    1. Sue Wilson*

      there’s just no reason to be so negative about someone’s relative experience in something unless you have positive proof they aren’t capable of having that experience. if you going to say something that illogical, people are going to understandably assume you have some type of institutional or personal bias.

      1. Tallulah in the Sky*

        “You were rude, and an apology is warranted”

        I think Maya Elena agrees with you ;-)

        1. Sue Wilson*

          I don’t think you can say the opposite of what I said (accusation of sexism isn’t warranted v. what I said, which is that it actually is, since sexism is an institutional bias) and still be seen as agreeing with me, so I’ll have to disagree with you there :)

    2. Tallulah in the Sky*

      I think people in the comments are a bit too stuck on the sexist part of OP’s comment (even if he didn’t mean it as such, even if he would have said the same to a male colleague, those kind of remarks do have a sexist connotation and it would be good for OP to be aware of them). OP was rude. He’s dismissive of the whole incident and the three people involved. That kind of attitude would explain why Susan wouldn’t correct him on the spot, and would be part of a larger pattern that OP needs to correct. It would also explain the weirdness of the manager; many managers still don’t know how to address attitude problems.

    3. Amber Rose*

      “there’s no way for you to know that your coordinator has an advanced degree”

      Right. There’s no way to know, one way or the other. And OP admits he doesn’t know anything about his coworker’s background. And yet he stated with absolute confidence, in a way that allowed for no other possibility, that Nancy could not have that background.

      If you don’t know something, why state so clearly that you do? That’s where the sexism comes into play. The response to not knowing why Nancy would know about fossils is not to firmly state that she couldn’t possibly.

    4. Dankar*

      I think the other side of this issue (that others have noted above) is that he’s probably not seen as a warm coworker deserving of the benefit of the doubt. I mean, it’s not unheard of to know that sort of information about the people you spend upwards of 40 hours a week with.

      I know that our admin has a degree in English lit, and that our IT guy has a history degree. I also knew that our accounts payable person was heavily involved with donkey and mule rescue groups. And this is all information that I picked up in under 2 years, without actively digging for it because I bother to engage in one- or two-minute personal conversations on occasion.

  22. EtherIther*

    >I was also asked to apologize to Nancy – which I reluctantly did.

    I think this is the issue. It’s one thing to accidentally say something and assume your coworker doesn’t have a history as a paleontologist… but why are you reluctant to apologize, instead of mortified that you accidentally spoke negatively about your coworker? I think that reluctance is tied to why you would say something like that to begin with, and also to why your coworkers are upset with you. You are not coming off as a person who made a harmless remark because you’re not feeling apologetic after insulting someone (and that is an insult even if she wasn’t an expert in this… you’re essentially saying “how could this person know anything”). And even if you didn’t get it, it’s also unideal to not feel apologetic after all of your coworkers think you insulted someone.

    I think you really need to check your thoughts and emotions here.

    1. Green Great Dragon*

      I think this sums it up very well. And while it was pretty unlikely for a random co-worker to have degrees in palaeontology, the chance of a co-worker who is about to be consulted on fossils happening to know something about fossils is pretty high, yes? So why were you so certain she wasn’t?

  23. Sue Wilson*

    OP1: If you make a comment that implies that either your co-worker doesn’t have the credentials she says she has, or alternatively that your co-worker only exists so far as your knowledge of her goes, i.e. you don’t recognize that she’s an independent being that exists outside of your need to interact with her, and you’re a man and she’s a woman, it’s not a surprise that you got accused of sexism. It’s true that you may not think that any of your coworkers, male or female, exist outside of your need to interact with them, but that’s not better.

    Either way it was really a quite rude thing to imply, that either she’s lying or from your limited interaction with her that you have gleaned what she is absolutely not capable of. Again, you could be that much of a misanthrope for every gender. But again, that’s not better and even beyond this incident, which you absolutely needed to apologize for, it might behoove you to consider re-framing your co-workers as people with inner lives rather than just people who can assist you with very particular and limited skills. It will cut down on these incidents immensely and if you have to interact with many of these people, it will probably make your job easier.

  24. Elder Dog*

    OP 4 if you are being asked to work on your day off, are you being paid for that time? Are you being paid overtime for that extra time?
    If they realized they’d have to pay you, they might be more careful about asking you to work on your day off.

    1. BlueWolf*

      I was wondering the same thing. Is this an hourly position? If so, is she clocking in for these meetings and being paid?

    2. Lance*

      That does depend if they’re exempt, granted; if they are, then unfortunately no extra pay/overtime (and I confess I know nothing about the field, so I’m not sure how likely they are to be exempt; it’s merely a possibility).

  25. Sue Wilson*

    OP2: Alison’s advice is the way to go, but it worries me how you’re going to approach your boss if you think experience does not make expertise. Your experience give you knowledge enough for authority on subject. You’re just asking your boss how they want that experience applied. If it helps, expert and experience are derived from the same word, and they are directly connected. Even certifications are certifying that you have the requisite skills and experience.

    1. Jaid*

      Exactly. You assumed, you made an ass of yourself, now accept the chiding with grace instead of doubling down.

  26. Sue Wilson*

    OP3: Take this as a win. You got a more invested parent, and you know that non-invested parents are kinda triggering annoyance in you, you apologized without having to be prompted (and kudos to treating those kids as their own persons who might deserve apologies), and you’re still employed. It wasn’t an ideal situation but you’ve done as much as is reasonable. it would be unreasonable, and purely for you benefit, to try to chase down someone to apologize. Don’t let your anxiety over how people might see you as a reason to push boundaries. just behave as professionally as you are capable.

    1. Dorothy*

      Thanks. I have been acting as though it’s all over when teaching them, despite so being anxious in my head. Thanks for the perspective!

      1. Ethyl*

        I have diagnosed anxiety and this is the kind of thing that would spin me up, too, no doubt about it. One of the things anxiety is really good at is convincing you that you can’t ever not think about something. But it’s totally ok to just not dwell on something that is over, that you’ve already done everything in your power to fix. Next time you start focusing on it, maybe you could have a little chat with yourself, like thinking “oh it’s this incident again, well that’s just my brain being weird, we already took care of it, let’s think about how pretty that tree over there is instead.” Good luck, you sound like a great teacher.

    2. Seeking Second Childhood*

      OP3 Relax. You may simply be family dynamics at play: If Dad’s the one who really wants all their kids to take music lessons, Dad’s the one who gets to monitor&cajole a reluctant child.

  27. Tau*

    Because there seems to be a lot of confusion about the dividing line between not knowing something about a person’s background and knowing for certain about the absence of something…

    …OP, here’s a few variants of what you could have said with different prior knowledge, all of which would not have landed you in the pickle you’re currently in:

    1. In which you did know she was a paleontologist
    Oh, Nancy, of course! Isn’t her degree in paleontology?

    2. In which you know nothing about her background
    That’s interesting – I didn’t know Nancy knew a lot about fossils! What’s her background there?

    2a. In which you know her educational background, and it’s not paleontology
    See 2.
    [Just because someone wasn’t a professional paleontologist doesn’t mean she couldn’t know stuff about fossils. Maybe it’s a hobby for her.]

    3. In which Nancy has literally told you she knows nothing about fossils
    Huh – why Nancy specifically? I thought she wasn’t interested in fossils, at least that’s what it sounded like when we talked about it.

    I draw your attention to the fact that:
    – the only one with the subtext of “you’re wrong about this, Susan” is 3., where you have actual evidence that Nancy knows nothing about fossils
    none of these are as absolute as your original comment. This is less about politeness to Nancy and more about politeness to Susan – leaving a bit of doubt there keeps the conversation open and collaborative, allows her to save face if it was a misunderstanding, and allows you to save face if it turns out you’re wrong after all.

    It is actually very hard for me to come up with a situation where I would be as absolute in my wording as what you said. It would have to be an area where I had expert-level knowledge, likely in a professional capacity. And I’d still word it differently to sound less dismissive. I think it’s worth reflecting why you felt comfortable jumping straight to that when you weren’t even in scenario 3.

    1. Overeducated*

      The closest I would even come to your last paragraph is if someone’s saying “I’ll go ask Nancy about thing Overeducated has expert knowledge of!” Even then I wouldn’t denigrate Nancy, I’d say (for example) “oh I published an article on that a couple years back, can I take a look?” There’s never any reason to totally discount someone.

    2. DaffyDuck*

      Yes, and even if you knew the person had degrees in a different area, or it wasn’t a hobby, doesn’t mean they don’t know about a particular subject. My father was an engineer who loved his job, most of our family vacations included looking at the underside of bridges, dams, etc. I was probably about 6 years old when I could first tell you about “Galloping Gertie”.

    3. hbc*

      OP, I know you’re getting hammered, but I think this is where you need to put your focus. If something “seems silly” to you, you will do much better in life if you cram down the (pretty natural) instinct to go with your impression and explore a little further. You’ll learn something either way–that Nancy is a paleontologist, or her hobby is fossils, or that Susan is kind of an idiot who thinks that being smart at one thing means you’re smart at everything, or that Susan is making some weird kind of piece offering, or Susan misheard Nancy talking about Fossil watches.

      On the other hand, I have never regretted coming at a situation with an (apparently) open mind. Sometimes it means that others leave in agreement with me because I didn’t start by assuming they were idiots (even if they were,) and occasionally it means I avoid making a mule of myself because of a blind spot. Make friends with openings like “The last time I checked…” and “I always believed….”

    4. Myrin*

      This is less about politeness to Nancy and more about politeness to Susan – leaving a bit of doubt there keeps the conversation open and collaborative, allows her to save face if it was a misunderstanding, and allows you to save face if it turns out you’re wrong after all.
      It is actually very hard for me to come up with a situation where I would be as absolute in my wording as what you said. It would have to be an area where I had expert-level knowledge, likely in a professional capacity. And I’d still word it differently to sound less dismissive.

      This is what gets me about this letter. OP’s reaction to Susan’s comment is so bizarre it seems almost… un-human to me. As in, like what an alien with a totally different cultural understanding of how conversations work and who had just landed on earth three days before would say. It defies any kind of societal grace and conversational patterns I’ve ever encountered and I remain stunned by it.
      And from the way the letter is written and how his coworkers reacted, I’d assume I’m not the only one.

      (As for your last point, I’ve been thinking about speaking with this level of authorative intensity and the only situations I can come up with where I’d feel comfortable speaking like that would be in regards to my mum and sister, where I know with absolute certainty every little part of their background and could 100% tell if someone was wrong or not. With everyone else, even my one friend I’ve known literally all my life who hasn’t had much chance of hiding her background from me, I wouldn’t phrase it that way if only for politeness’ sake and because, well, there could still be something I’m not aware of because there were periods in our lives where we were more distant.)

      1. Samwise*

        “seems almost… un-human to me. As in, like what an alien with a totally different cultural understanding of how conversations work and who had just landed on earth three days before would say. ”

        That’s awfully mean…

        1. Fortitude Jones*

          Actually, I think that’s a pretty spot on comparison. The language did seem very stilted and odd, with the typical conversational cues being missed.

        2. Myrin*

          I mean, I get why you perceive it that way but on the other hand, I really have no other way to express how outstandingly bizarre I find his behaviour. I’ve literally never encountered something like this before, even from people who were socially clueless or abrasively rude (the latter would typically say something like “Pfff, what could Nancy possibly know about fossils?!”, not “She doesn’t know anything about this!”). It’s just completely not-understandable to me in a way where we might as well be from different planets.

        3. I Took A Mint*

          What OP said was mean too. Tau gave a spot-on deconstruction of all the social cues he missed, and how most cultures navigate situations where you hear new information that doesn’t match your existing knowledge. Rarely is it acceptable to scoff at the person in front of you, and never if you don’t actually have any existing knowledge! Then you’re just doubting new information and being rude to the person telling it to you! Anyone who reacts like that does not Get how humans work.

  28. Sue Wilson*

    OP4: It’s totally unreasonable, but it’s also not uncommon in intimate situations like medical care. Alison’s scripts are great, and if you have a uniform or a certain professional standard, try to deviate from that when visiting your mom. Combined with those scripts maybe you can trigger a visual response to avoid you when you dressed more casually.

  29. Beth*

    I’m removing this because it’s inflammatory without containing anything of substance. You’re welcome to repost with a (civil) explanation of your thoughts. (I’m also removing some of the back and forth sniping that followed.) – Alison

      1. Ruksha*

        You do not speak for all women. Your opinion is not universal. You do not get to excuse sexist jerks of behalf of your gender.

        Speak for yourself. You don’t get to speak for me.

        OP1, speaking as a 43 year old woman, what you said WAS sexist. You probably didn’t intend it to be. Nevertheless, your comment revealed some of your hidden bias against women. Instead of getting defensive, take this as a learning opportunity. You can grow and learn and be better. Or you can stay stuck in the past, like Beth.

        Be better.

      2. Ethyl*

        Gen X woman here (don’t use the word “females” like that, it’s gross and creepy and dehumanizing) and you’re wrong.

      3. Anonymoose*

        First things first – I’m a gen x woman – you don’t speak for me.

        Personally I think the LW was rude and dismissive in his conversation with Susan about Nancy. Given how his manager reacted this could be the last in a long line of comments belittling his coworkers.

    1. Bagpuss*

      I’m a Gen. X woman and you don’t speak for me. I disagree with you.

      LW#1 was very rude, and that would be true if he had done exactly the same thing if it had been ‘Samel’ who found thfossil, and Ned who was going to be asked about it.

      However, the fact that heis a man talking to and about women, and the way he reatted to them and continues to justify his actions * also* flags up the sexism side of it, which is in additon to the rudeness.
      – He made an asumption that Susan was both silly and ignorant, in planning to ask Nancy, so he was assuming that Susan knows less than he does about her co-workers and that it was more likely that Susan was making a foolish choice than that she might have a good reason for what she was doing, or that she might know more than him about another person, even though he admits hedoesn’t take an interest in his co-workers outside of work.
      – He made an assumption that Nancy didn’t have specilised knowledge outside the narrow confines of the job she currently holds. Since he has admitted that he doesn’t interest himself in his co-workers much on a personal level, he again made the assumption that Nancy *wasn’t* knowledgeable or expert.

      Given that LW himself states that he was told by this boss that his words came across as dismissive and sexist, it seems reasonable to suppse that they did, indeed, come across as dismissive and sexist to the woman who was ctually there and heard them. They come across as dismissive and sexist to me, simp