update: my boss got weirdly aggressive about winning a game and now keeps claiming I’m angry about it

Remember the letter-writer whose boss got weirdly aggressive about winning a game and then kept taunting her about it — waving her plastic medal around and insisting our letter-writer was angry about losing? Here’s the update.

A few weeks after your advice and kind words from the readers, the medal showing continued but generally I felt better about it. I understood it wasn’t affecting how I was perceived by the wider team and it was Ethel’s issue rather than mine. I still got annoyed, but found it easier to let go.

Then I had a terrible afternoon: I had to help set up the conference room for a large meeting for a senior director and everything went wrong – catering didn’t arrive, the tech failed … you get it. It was a nightmare and although I sorted it all out without fall-out, it was a very high-stress situation with the director breathing down my neck to fix it. After I got back to my desk to finally exhale, my team knew about the drama and asked me if I was OK, did I need a coffee, etc. I would’ve been fine after a few minutes to decompress but Ethel, being Ethel, must’ve thought this was a good time to “lighten the mood” and, to my horror, got out the damn medal and started the routine. I felt myself going red and on the verge of tears, it was just the last thing I needed. I pretended I had left something in the conference room and excused myself.

Ethel followed, pulled me into a meeting room, and asked what was wrong and the floodgates opened. I was so worked up from the problems earlier and she caught me on my last nerve. I told her, quite heatedly, that I hated the medal speech and how small it made me, I didn’t think it was funny, and I just felt embarrassed in front of everyone each time she did it. She knew very well that I was stressed right now, so I couldn’t understand why she thought I wanted to be mocked in front of colleagues on top of everything else. She was genuinely shocked and didn’t know what to say. Eventually she apologized and quietly said she wouldn’t do it again and she thought it was just a fun joke “between friends” and it was meant to be funny. I said I appreciated her finally dropping it and could we just put it behind us, move on, and work together as normal.

After that I tried to go on as normal and treat it as a clean slate, but she was very awkward around me. She treated me with kid gloves, spoke to me solely about work queries and nothing else, didn’t make any jokes around me, and delicately checked in to see if I was OK with handling basic tasks I’d been doing for years. Our one-to-ones were just us both reading out bullet points of work questions. My colleagues sensed the obvious atmosphere and some asked privately if something had happened, which annoyed me – why couldn’t she be professional enough to act normally?! The medal wasn’t seen again though. I did wonder about going to HR, but felt she wasn’t really doing anything wrong on paper despite the weird vibe, I hadn’t been penalized for anything, the medal had gone, and my pay raise went through as normal, so I felt it best to leave it alone.

Some more background on Ethel: she’s great at the operational side of her job, really efficient and experienced. She gets things done and manages the workload well. She previously managed a small team with the same function as us, which is why the higher-ups felt she’d be good to head up the new, larger team. The problem is she’s not a great people person, she can be quite abrupt and struggles under pressure – everyone around her is aware when she’s having a bad day because she’s very vocal about it. If people interrupt up her at a bad time, she will hold up a single “one moment” finger and not look at them until she’s ready. She once told me she scored really poorly on an emotional intelligence test. So she hadn’t really clicked with a few members of the team and even had a few outright clashes. I also think she struggled with adjusting to having more direct reports than she was used to. One of my closer colleagues suggested that Ethel picked on me as she was a bit jealous as I had a good rapport with the team and she has struggled to build that herself, but even if that’s the case, it’s her job as my boss to be professional.

But I have now left, and have a new job! It wasn’t all about Ethel, I’d just been at that company a good five years and wanted something new. In a way I’m glad I confronted her about it. Even though it was in a more heated way than I’d like, it stopped her – but it also broke down our relationship. I don’t blame myself though. Thanks Alison and to everyone who wrote helpful comments and advice, my new boss and I have a normal working relationship and I’m not mocked in front of my team about stupid games!

{ 449 comments… read them below }

  1. Jennifer*

    As I originally suspected, Ethel lacked social skills. Doesn’t excuse her behavior, but I feel bad for her. It’s really terrible to think everyone has been silently annoyed by something you’ve done for months and no one spoke up. No wonder she just kept everything 100% dry and professional from that point on. It can be a kindness to speak up and speak up early.

    1. Radio Girl*

      Yes, I agree, and one day in the future, Ethel will probably look back and cringe at her awkward behavior.

      I feel bad for her, too, but happy for OP.

      1. That Girl From Quinn's House*

        Ethel is the sort of person who will not look back and cringe at her behavior. She will either think of it as “The time OP freaked out over a tiny joke,” or “What medal joke? I don’t remember any of that. What are you talking about?”

        1. Samwise*

          No, I think Ethel is cringing already. Her reaction to the OP’s breaking down makes that pretty clear.

          1. Purple*

            There’s not much you can do but apologize when someone cries over your actions. There’s no defense. I don’t think a single apology under immense emotional pressure means she got it.

            Her actions afterward point to “OP is a snowflake I can’t speak to.” Not some new respect.

        2. poodleoodle*

          Yep all of this. People like her don’t change because they never accept that anything could possibly be wrong with their behavior.

        3. Dust Bunny*

          No, she’ll think the OP is one of those sensitive types, but if people like this were good at internalizing how their “jokes” affected other people, they’d be better at learning from their own ineptitude.

        4. 4Sina*

          You can absolutely lack emotional intelligence but have self-awareness about how your actions ended up impacting someone else. It’s not an excuse for Ethel’s behavior, but my guess is if no mental health issues are at play and she’s generally not an asshole, she’s cringing about it now.

        5. Elemeno P.*

          Where are you getting that from? Sounds like she had bad social skills and felt really uncomfortable afterward because she wasn’t sure how to recover from making a mistake (likely due to bad social skills). I have also known people like the kind you mention, but I think you might be projecting onto this situation.

        6. ChimericalOne*

          If she truly thought OP was to blame — rather than herself — she wouldn’t have reacted by getting quiet and apologizing. She would’ve reacted by getting defensive and blustering. Ergo, we can infer that the stiff, overly-nice treatment of OP afterwards was a product of embarrassment and uncertainty.

        7. JSPA*

          If Ethel has confided that she rates very low on emotional intelligence, it’s actually Occam’s razor to believe
          a) that this is so
          b) intellectually, she knows it’s a problem
          c) she was set back on her heels badly by finding out that she’d unintentionally tortured someone in her ham-handed attempts to build camaraderie and forge a set of “in jokes”
          d) she’s having a retroactive cringe
          e) she might have believed, to the end, that OP was the one person who would NOT tell her when she was crossing a boundary, and thus decided to handle OP with kid gloves.

          Said as someone from a family with “spectrum” and “raised by and with spectrum” people (all of whom had some issues navigating normal social interaction).

          1. Sara M*

            YES. This is what I was getting at with my post below. I think Ethel genuinely didn’t know she was hurting you, and is very upset to know she had been.

            I was also raised by/with a family where all of us had to learn this skill. I was 12 when I learned the cruel jokes around my household (thought funny by most people in the household) were a terrible way to treat people. I was hreartbroken; I genuinely didn’t know I’d been mean to other kids. I thought I was being friendly and funny. :(

            1. Sara M*

              (But I was 12. Ethel is an adult. OP, you’ve done the right thing telling her! Let her handle her own reaction; you don’t need to do more.)

        8. AnnaBananna*

          I don’t agree, actually. She just doesn’t understand social nuances. OP saw that she could change her behavior when it was blatantly put in front of her face, but never would have picked up how weird she was percieved by others without it. I agree with the thread starter: she’ll appreciate the lesson on professionalism (and perhaps reading between the lines!) as she gets more comfortable with her leadership skills.

    2. PollyQ*

      In the original letter, OP says that she did bring up, several times:

      I’ve tried saying “It’s been months, why are we still talking about this?” but that adds fuel to her theory that I’m raging inside and spurs her on. I’ve tried laughing it off and that has the same effect — she claims I’m covering up my feelings. Once I just flat out ignored her and she started pointing out to other colleagues that I’m too angry to talk. The whole time she’s laughing like it’s some big joke. I even mentioned it privately in our one-on-one, but she started laughing and joking about my “obsession with losing.”

      Also, there’s nothing in the update that says that “everyone” was annoyed. OP just talked about her own discomfort.

      1. Jennifer*

        She lacked social skills. She thought that was part of the joke. Again, not saying it’s okay, but I don’t think she got it until the OP was very firm with her. Once she did, she changed her behavior.

        1. LDN Layabout*

          No, it didn’t take the OP being firm with her, it took the OP BREAKING DOWN AND CRYING for her boss to understand it was inappropriate.

          If that’s what it takes, this person really isn’t suited for her position.

          1. Jennifer*

            I agree that she’s probably not suited for the job and probably shouldn’t be managing people, but I don’t think she’s the bully and villain many made her out to be last time.

            1. LDN Layabout*

              You can be a bully without meaning to be one and Ethel clearly was. OP used several ways of asking her to stop and she never did.

              Poor social skills, just like the coworker with mental health issues, aren’t an excuse.

              1. Jennifer*

                If she’d said, “I don’t find that funny and it’s embarrassing, can you stop?” I think she would have. That’s the kind of directness people who have low emotional intelligence need. She just didn’t understand.

                1. NoMoreFirstTimeCommenter*

                  Can’t reply directly to Mockingjay but I agree. I can be a bit of an Ethel sometimes and I really appreciate if someone can be direct and ask me to stop saying/doing something they don’t like. I don’t want to irritate people so I then try my best to comply. If I had a similar issue with someone else I’d definitely be direct because in my experience it helps – but I definitely wouldn’t be direct to a superior person at work! In my mind, the boss is the boss and it isn’t my business to ask them to do stuff, unless it’s stuff I absolutely need them to do in order to get my part of the job done.

                2. ChimericalOne*

                  Right. As someone with Asperger’s (who has developed EQ with *much* work & help): People like Ethel can’t tell the difference between a joking “no” and a light-heartedly-phrased-but-serious “no.” For a long time, my go-to motto was, “Just because you’re joking doesn’t mean you’re not serious” (as a way to remind myself to check in & verify often, even when it “spoiled the joke” and made me seem a bit dumb, rather than make assumptions). OP needed to use either a very serious tone or serious/blunt wording (e.g., “This is embarrassing me”) if she wanted Ethel to understand right away. (Not easy to do in public, but she could’ve pulled Ethel aside at any time.)

                3. Observer*

                  but she could’ve pulled Ethel aside at any time.

                  Not when it’s your boss.

                4. AMT*

                  From the original letter:

                  “I’ve tried saying ‘It’s been months, why are we still talking about this?'”

                  “I even mentioned it privately in our one-on-one, but she started laughing and joking about my ‘obsession with losing.'”

                  It’s clear that the LW has tried to talk to her about it directly (and otherwise communicated about it in verbal and non-verbal ways) many times. It sounds like the only thing that changed was that she said it in a heated enough way that the boss realized she was serious.

                  As an aside, can we stop with the implication that people who don’t feel comfortable being 100% blunt about everything are being too indirect? There are plenty of reasons that someone might not speak directly. It’s impossible to know how someone will react to this kind of communication — especially someone in a position of authority whom you know has low emotional intelligence! Who hasn’t been on the receiving end of a blowout from someone who can’t handle being told “no” or “stop”? Even people who are blunt themselves — and who talk a big game about how they need direct communication and always “tell it like it is” — sometimes get weirdly emotional when you actually do tell it like it is.

                5. fogharty*

                  Off-topic, but @ChimericalOne

                  “People like Ethel can’t tell the difference between a joking “no” and a light-heartedly-phrased-but-serious “no.””

                  Thank you, thank you! You have just explained my friend’s behavior!

                6. Seeking Second Childhood*

                  @ChimericalOne and @fogharty
                  It honestly feels like the way a pre-teen will not understand that they’ve gone past funny and onto bullying (with friends, classmates, and siblings) or disobedience (with parents & teachers).

                7. hbc*

                  Sorry, but the idea that poor Ethel had no idea is ridiculous. If you can’t tell the difference between a soft no and a joking no, you need to warn people about that up front, or you need to err on the side of taking “no” seriously whenever you hear it. Probably both.

                  I mean, sheesh, “She should have said ‘no’ more forcefully” is straight out of the victim-blaming handbook.

                8. wellywell*

                  All these excuses, to protect and enable an abusive person in a position of authority, are disturbing,

                9. Librarian of SHIELD*

                  @AMT – I made my former “tell it like it is” boss cry once when I calmly and politely told her that a thing she had said was hurtful. No swearing, no accusations, just “that thing you said really hurt to hear, could you not say things like that anymore?”

                  Being super direct and up front about the negative aspects of your supervisor’s behavior is a minefield, and Ethel’s response when LW finally broke down over it makes it hard for me to say that LW was wrong in her attempts to use softer wording earlier on.

              2. JSPA*

                @ Chimerical one,
                I really like,
                “Just because you’re joking doesn’t mean you’re not serious”

                and of course the close correlate,
                “Just because I mean it nicely doesn’t mean it’s nice for you”

          2. poodleoodle*

            And then proceeded to treat the OP very differently and clearly made a big deal out of it by continually asking if she could handle basic tasks, which is passive aggressive behavior — like, oh you couldn’t take a joke, so you probably can’t handle your job either.
            I think people who make excuses for this behavior really don’t understand what kind of a person she is. She is absolutely a bully and punished the OP by treating her very differently from then on instead of being professional and just putting it behind her. Most people don’t need to be told multiple times, and finally have the object of their ridiculous behavior break down before making a change and making such a drastic behavior change wasn’t needed.
            It’s very typical of grade school “girl bully” behavior to ice someone out when they finally can’t take it anymore.

                1. emmelemm*

                  True. I’m not necessarily attributing that specific motivation to Ethel’s subsequent behavior, just relating that *being* iced out makes one feel like one is back in middle school. Basically, I’m reminiscing.

                2. Respectfully, Pumat Sol*

                  This is my read on it. Ethel is overcompensating. She doesn’t know where the line is, so she’s swinging too far the other direction.

                3. Yorick*

                  This doesn’t sound like silence motivated by embarrassment. It really does sound like freezing someone out because they’re “too sensitive to take my hilarious jokes.”

            1. LJay*

              She continually asked if she could handle basic tasks because the OP was so overwhelmed with some things going wrong in one of her tasks that she was visibly upset to the point that coworkers noticed and were trying to comfort her and then she broke down crying at work, not because she thought that not being able to take a joke meant that she couldn’t handle her job either.

              And she has bad social skills. She learned that OP did not like her joke. She probably did not want to risk attempting to make more jokes because that would likely upset the OP as well since clearly her (the boss, not the OP) joke meter is off. So she stopped making jokes and stuck to professional interactions. If she continued making similar but not the same jokes, she would be getting lambasted for doing that.

              I think she clearly doesn’t have the social skills necessary to succeed in the position (because both checking in on the OPs workload, and stopping the upsetting jokes could and should have been handled much better, and the joke situation shouldn’t have reached the point it was at at all) but I don’t think we have enough information here to show that she was purposefully bullying and punishing the OP, and plenty of evidence in the post that she’s just emotionally clueless.

              I had a boss like this. She was told to check in on her employees and to show appreciation for them. And she put those into effect by asking, “Are you okay?” constantly, and giving everyone an exaggerated “thank you” at the end of every night. It really got to the point where I wanted to snap, “Well I was okay, but now that you’ve asked me 50 times I’m not,” but she wasn’t bullying. Her heart was in the right place but her actions were just not because she lacked any sort of emotional awareness.

              1. Sloan Kittering*

                Yeah, I’d guess charitably (but really we’re all just kind of speculating) that Ethel was very taken aback that OP was crying given that OP describes themselves as very level and calm usually. I could see not being sure how to proceed after being shaken out of my usual perception of a coworker.

              2. poodleoodle*

                She broke down because Ethel picked that exact moment to bring up something she knew would set the OP over the edge. People get stressed at work, but that doesn’t mean they should be handled with kid gloves if they have a bad day. If she’s normally a high performer especially.

                Why would Ethel think that moment was the right one to bring up the medal again? I can’t think of a nice, non-bullying reason.

                1. Sloan Kittering*

                  “Ethel picked that exact moment to bring up something she knew would set the OP over the edge” – honestly, while this may be true, I don’t think it’s the only explanation: even OP suggested that Ethel thought it was a funny team joke and that humor would be a good way to relieve a tense situation with someone being upset. I think Ethel was very wrong to act that way (and someone with this little EQ shouldn’t be a manager), but it’s at least as likely an explanation, and it probably doesn’t help to assume the very worst interpretation – that Ethel is maliciously and calculatedly upsetting OP – is true.

                2. MayLou*

                  If she genuinely believed it was a shared joke, and that the OP’s attempts to shut it down were part of the joke (and I’m not going to speculate on whether or not this was a genuine belief because no one other than Ethel can know that and she’s not here), then she might have been trying to lighten the mood and redirect the OP’s thoughts to something that she believed was fun and relaxing. Obviously it didn’t work, and was never going to work, but she could have had good intentions. Nevertheless, impact over intent.

                3. JSPA*

                  If you can’t read people right, nor assign the right emotion to their demeanor, you can notice that “something is up,” but not notice that you’re a contributing factor, not an ameliorating factor.

            2. ChimericalOne*

              Some people DO need a different (more direct) kind of communication to understand people. It’s clear that Ethel was embarrassed to have embarrassed OP, and even more embarrassed that the “joke” had gone on so long without her knowing that it was hurtful. If she wasn’t embarrassed, she wouldn’t have reacted by getting quiet and apologizing, she would’ve reacted by being defensive or dismissive and belittling when the OP made her complaint.

              If you start by deciding that misunderstandings are uncommon and that people are usually just out to get you (or each other), you’re going to read a lot of misunderstandings unnecessarily as malice.

              1. Washi*

                “Some people DO need a different (more direct) kind of communication to understand people. ”

                The OP in her original letter details a pretty exhaustive list of the ways she tried to get Ethel to stop, including asking her directly in a one-on-one. I can imagine someone with poor social skills being a good manager, but only if they have a very high level of self-awareness so that if they wonder if they’re missing a hint, they ask for clarification, rather than just continuing with the behavior. “Well the OP should have just yelled at her boss months ago because that’s the kind of communication she needs” does not feel reasonable to me. Someone who needs to see an employee in tears in order to get the message is not a good manager.

                1. AngryAngryAlice*


                  I do feel for Ethel, but LW clearly spent months trying increasingly direct methods of communicating to Ethel that this wasn’t fun for them, and Ethel just kept going.

                  And whether Ethel feels awkward or embarrassed or not, it’s completely inappropriate for her to take out her feelings and discomfort on LW by severely overcompensating and treating LW with kid gloves. At best, that’s unprofessional and frustrating for LW; at worst, it’s a form of retaliation.

              2. poodleoodle*

                Misunderstandings aren’t uncommon, but when you tell someone time and time again that that joke really isn’t funny, and they keep bringing it up, it’s not a misunderstanding anymore.

                1. AMT*

                  Exactly. Sometimes, “I didn’t understand that you were hurt before” means “I was able to maintain plausible deniability until right this second when you screamed at me.”

                2. Yorick*

                  I agree. Like AMT said, this is “I can’t pretend you’re in on the joke now that you’ve cried about it.”

            3. Ellie*

              This is where it falls apart for me too… the rest of the behaviour might just be one really clueless person, but to hold a grudge like that, with one of your direct reports, for being called out (privately!) on your own bad behaviour is just terrible. They should never be allowed to manage anyone ever again.

        2. Darcy F*

          Yeah, I can imagine how this could happen. I grew out of this behavior in college, but the combination of having a naturally mean sense of humor (so you’re inclined to make meaner jokes and rib people more) and being raised in an environment where people’s boundaries/communication aren’t respected (so you think that being told to stop is part of the joke) is…quite a bad one because it means you don’t know to stop until someone visibly *shows* that they’re upset by crying or melting down. Which obviously a lot of people won’t do because they expect that when they say they don’t like something, it will stop, and don’t think they need to display intense emotion to be taken seriously.

          It sucks that someone of Ethel’s age who is leading a team still can’t learn to do better than this (hopefully this experience will be a lesson to her), but I think some of the things being attributed to her are not shown in the letters.

          1. we're basically gods*

            In my case, if I’ve told someone I don’t like something, and they keep doing it, they don’t get to see me in a moment of weakness, whether it’s related to something they did or not. They’ve proven that they don’t respect my feelings and boundaries, so why give them more ammunition?

            1. Darcy F*

              I mean, no disagreement there. It’s not how people should behave. I just think it’s a more likely explanation than Ethel intentionally upsetting OP and then “punishing” OP with her response, as some suggested.

      2. MarfisaTheLibrarian*

        Ugh, this is so frustrating to me. No matter how OP brought it up, nothing was going to change; it took literal tears to see that earlier, even earlier vehement, protests, weren’t part of the “game.” In that kind of situation, there’s just no middle ground or nice way to say it and that’s a really frustrating situation to be in, and something to be aware of if there’s a “friendly/joking pestering/heckling game” going on

        1. Sam*

          Cosigned! If nothing happened before tears, there’s no way that the OP could have brought it up in a way that let the other person save face. And that shouldn’t be the concern, either – that’s not for the OP to worry about, regardless.

        2. Aquawoman*

          No, this is ableist. Not everyone has the neurological ability to pick up on hints and indirect statements. The fact is Ethel immediately apologized and changed her behavior, and probably would have done the same if the LW had said, “Hey, Ethel, I find that joke embarrassing, can you stop?”

          1. Jennifer Thneed*

            I think that “It’s been months, why are we still talking about this?” is pretty direct. (And I say this as a person who is very bad at picking up on hints and indirect statements, to the point that it’s spurred some uncomfortable conversations with management.)

            1. Not my usual name*

              Depending on tone, I don’t know that would be direct enough for me. I can imagine that to be part of the “game”. Ethel heckles her and OP “pretends” to be annoyed. Obviously, the OP was upset about it, but I can totally see not getting it if the tone wasn’t very, very stern. I once was joking around with coworkers and had to have someone say “She’s getting upset” because I didn’t realize it. I was dumbfounded. I *still* don’t know what I did/said that was different from the other gentle teasing that was going back and forth among all of us and I’ve thought about it a lot in the last 10+ years since that happened. I don’t know that I’d go as far to say I’m not emotionally intelligent, but I’m definitely socially awkward. I react much the same way that Ethel did too. I will pull back and cut off all conversation that isn’t completely necessary because I have a hard time finding the line and so I stay very far on the safe side of it because I never want to upset someone.

              1. Observer*

                And it’s reasonable to expect someone to take a “very stern” tone with their manager? That’s ridiculous and unfair.

                It’s also just not reasonable to react people – who are trained to keep their emotions under control at work! – expressing annoyance as “pretending. It puts people in an impossible position. And it means that there is really no point in trying the more direct “Please stop this”, because why would Ethel (and her ilk) realize that this is NOT “pretend” when the SLIGHTLY less direct statement is treated as a pretense.

                In short, you are actually bolstering the point that the OP would never really have had a chance to get this to stop without the whole background and emotional fall out.

              2. we're basically gods*

                But how stern of a tone did OP need? The goal of the “game” is to make OP upset. That’s the entire point, is to hurt her and make her upset. If OP is annoyed and strained in her response, she’s playing along with Ethel’s stupid game.

            2. nonymous*

              I have a half-brother who thinks that Ethel-style teasing is a way of showing love. To this day I do not understand how a middle aged man thinks making a child cry (he’s considerably older than me) is a way of showing affection, or why one wouldn’t get the message that it is not the best interaction style after the first time that happened.

              However, my observation is that his basic goal is to get an emotional reaction. Emotional reactions that make the person lose control are especially entertaining. But when the response is of the type that OP demonstrated, it moves from “entertaining ribbing” to “A Serious Issue” and the other person has created a problem. Kind of like how it’s okay to lie until there are negative consequences.

              1. Yorick*

                My aunt is like this. It’s not a way to show affection. She likes to know that she’s hurt people’s feelings.

              1. CMart*

                Agreed. In a mutually friendly bantering relationship where your dynamic is understood, “why are we still talking about this?” is just a return-riff. Perhaps in Ethyl’s mind, their entire schtick was “Hahahaha LW you sure did suck at the Olympics, you sore loser, can’t believe you’re still sore about that” and LW’s return banter was “haha Ethyl you’re so hung up on this get a life lol amirite?”

                I would never, ever presume to have that kind of relationship with anyone but a few very close friends/family who I’ve known for years and years – but if one of those close people finally broke down about how mean I’d been being I would be totally gobsmacked, embarrassed, and feel just awful about it. So if Ethyl was somehow actually convinced this was their dynamic, I can see how it took a breakdown to get through.

                She shouldn’t have been acting like that in the first place. And she should have been able to take hints. But I don’t think “why are we still talking about this?” is straight forward at ALL.

                1. Observer*

                  Well then what differentiates “Why are we still talking about this” from “This is embarrassing”? If someone is going to refuse to “hear”, and insist that it’s all good natured sarcasm, then there is really nothing the OP could have done. The only thing that could work is this kind of emotional reaction.

                2. Close Bracket*


                  Well then what differentiates “Why are we still talking about this” from “This is embarrassing”?

                  With all due respect, the meaning of the words differentiates them. “Why are we still talking about this?” asks a question. It does not convey information. “This is embarrassing” conveys information, which Ethel could then act on. Everything that LW eventually told Ethel, from how she hated the medal speech to how embarrassed she felt, gave Ethel information about her feelings that Ethel could act on. Nothing that LW described saying to Ethel previously was a flat out statement about how much she hated it (granted, we don’t know what LW said during their one-on-ones). It was all a dodge.

                3. Observer*

                  Talk about nit picking. But to be clear, actually the OP did not just “ask a question”. They also specifically requested that Ethel stop it – and they did it at a time when it was out of public view and not as a response to a “joke”.

                  There is no way to interpret bringing it up in a one on one and asking for this to stop as “banter”.

                  There is simply no way to reasonably conclude that Ethel was not given actionable information.

                  And that’s even when you ignore what else the OP has posted in the responses – they used some very direct language asking Ethel explicitly to stop.

                  The ONLY thing that changed at this point is that the OP basically got emotional in way that’s generally NOT common at work, and is often considered unacceptable.

                4. Baru Cormorant*

                  I agree. I think the real issue here is that because OP’s “role” in the game is to pretend to be annoyed, there’s no way that she can react to Ethel without further reinforcing the “game.” Ethel’s teasing-meter is so out of whack that there is no right opt-out response for OP. If she tries to ignore it, “OP doesn’t feel like playing today.” If she gets really mad, “Oho, she really wants to play today!” There’s no way out for OP in this situation.

            3. Sloan Kittering*

              The confusion I think is that sometimes OP was “trying to laugh it off” which Ethel may have taken as a sign that she did enjoy the joke.

            4. JSPA*

              For years, if you’d said that with a smile and a laugh–even a pained smile and a strained laugh–I’d have missed that you meant is a a directive, and treated it as a simple interrogative. Oh, yeah, that, we do it as a group joke so everyone can have a laugh and we all relax.

              When you really need to say “please don’t, it’s not welcome” to someone of self-declared low emotional intelligence or emotional recognition issues, “why are we still” isn’t a synonym.

              I try to use the test, “would an old-style computer trained only in word denotation, not phrase usage, correctly assign the meaning here.”

              1. Sloan Kittering*

                This is not a good standard for how a manager should need to be communicated with in order to act. This person does not sound ready to manage staff.

                1. JSPA*

                  Eh, I think I did this more as phenocopy / learned behavior than true inability.

                  I knew from books that these variant meanings of a smile existed. (I was not particularly clear that the differences were readable on me, or that real people did not have to consciously interpret and interpolate to come up with the meaning of a particular smile or laugh.)

                  I actually could read stress levels acutely. If anything, got in more trouble (more often) for voicing the sorts of things that are supposed to remain unsaid, like asking the principal, “why are you smiling and being nice to me when you’re clearly unhappy when you have to deal with me?”

                  So, anyway, I knew there was a difference. I was aware of a certain level of cognitive dissonance. It helped when I had it pointed out to me that I also sometimes had (say) a “pained smile,” or a “startled laugh,” and the ability to smile intentionally, etc.

                  I then spent a couple of awkward years straight-out saying, “Is that an indulgent smile, a frustrated smile, or a regular smile.”

                  So basically, I had the ability to note the difference, once I knew where to look and did appropriate re-categorization of past events (no fun, that part).

                  The biggest hurdle was probably not even perceptual, but rather, fully internalizing that “feeling a deep sense of communion and belonging with some other person or persons is something that’s happening inside my head. Not in both our heads. It does not mean I can assume my feelings and reactions in any way correspond to theirs.” And nearly as important: “when people are nice to you, even though they don’t really get you–or maybe don’t even like you–they’re not being phony.”

                  Growing up in a house where tact, politeness and boundaries are cast as moral failings (phoniness, subterfuge, scheming, shallowness, and essentially dishonesty–and as importantly, are used in that way!–does not equip a person very well for regular kindness.

                  (In fact, it sets you up to gaslight people, if you substitute your supposedly more insightful view of their motivations for their actual stated intentions. Which is an evil thing to do to someone, even if it’s not done intentionally / with bad intent.)

                  It helped, then and now, to have occasional friends with an overlapping blend of perceptual and processing issues. It gave me a chance to see, as a third party, what they’d miss (sometimes blatantly) and what sorts of problems that caused. And that I had other friends who were good enough friends that if I said, “X can be really irritating when they don’t _______ and _________ and instead just assume________,” they’d look me in the eye and say, “You do that too, you know.”

                  What else? I of course knew from childhood that someone laughing doesn’t automatically make everyone else around them happier, and that “laughing with” and “laughing at” are two different things. It took far, far longer (far too long) to realize that the intention of “laughing with, in shared sympathy” can of course land as “laughing at,” when the other person has no reason to understand that there would be shared sympathy (or even to believe there is, when explicitly stated).

                  The fact that many people expect a certain amount of not only face-saving tact but often actual dishonesty from others (and that looking deeply enough will always turn up some “what’s in it for you” bit of self-interest)…and therefore are generally looking for those things…that’s a whole learning curve of its own, if you’ve been raised or if you are genetically predisposed to a WYSIWYG / filterness way of life. It’s shocking to be accused of lying, manipulation or self-interest when you have no concept of yourself as being able to do any such thing. (A confounding factor is that this remains true even if you’re so far inside your own head that you are, de-facto, manipulative, in that you’re substituting your version of what ought to be, for other people’s opinions and consensus.)

                  Basically, it comes down to asking quite frequently, “would this stance, action or interaction seem equally welcome and equally utilitarian to someone who believes A, B and C, where I believe B, D and Q?”

                  Eventually, pattern recognition sets in, the process becomes automated, and you may find that you’re actually more perceptive about ALL the possible readings, and are now the person who’s good at asking, “Do we all mean _______ when we use this word / refer to this concept / talk about this desired end result, or are some of us using it to mean __________ while others of us are using it to mean _______?” (And, yeah, some of the time, 9 out of the 10 of you actually ARE clear on each others’ meaning, and you’re the odd one out. But, that’s OK. Asking for clarification is healthy.)

            5. Yorick*

              I agree. I don’t think this was ever really a game. I think Ethel thought OP was upset to lose and that it was appropriate to badger her about it.

          2. Dust Bunny*

            Eh, sometimes people apologize and back off to quiet the person who snapped at them, but don’t really feel they’ve done anything wrong.

          3. poodleoodle*

            It’s abelist to expect a manager to quit bringing up beating the OP at a game?? Okay.
            I think if you’re so out of touch you need someone to break down into tears before you can figure out they are upset maybe you shouldn’t be a manager then.
            Plus if you read the original letter she was pretty direct to me. Ethel seemed to pick up on OP’s “hints and indirect statements” pretty well, too, saying oh she’s just angry, oh she’s a sore loser etc.
            This reads like someone who knows her behavior is not okay and just doesn’t care.

            1. Mr. Tyzik*

              And Ethel didn’t really change her behavior. She went from inappropriate to a complete pendulum shift of social awkwardness. Ethel didn’t regulate anything; she just shut down. Ethel doesn’t get any credit for that, in my book.

              Jennifer and Aquawoman – I think you two are way off on this. The behavior was bullying, inappropriate, and unacceptable and despite repeated direct requests, Ethel refused. Don’t put this on the OPs shoulders; this is fully for Ethel to bear.

            2. Miss Vicki*

              @Poodleoodle, I completely agree. The behavior is what counts here, not the cause. That doesn’t mean the cause isn’t important. It just means a manager treated one of her staff incredibly poorly after being given several cues to stop. That’s on Ethel, no matter what her abilities are. Good for you, OP, in getting a new position, and best of luck to you there!

            3. Kay Webble*

              Just want to chime in and say I agree with this. I don’t think we have enough information about the manager here to diagnose her as having neurological differences – or anyone questioning her behavior as ableist, to be honest.

              1. Yorick*

                No, we definitely don’t have that type of information, and I think it’s really harmful to think that anyone whose behavior is socially inappropriate is on the spectrum or whatever.

            4. Baru Cormorant*

              I agree. I’m sick and tired of people defending jerk behaviors on the basis that someone might be neurodivergent or mentally ill. If you need “don’t be a jerk” spelled out for you then you haven’t been trained right, and if your jerk-ometer needs recalibrating, that doesn’t mean people have to put up with you being a jerk.

              1. Tisiphone*

                That makes one more. In my experience, the neurodiverse people are more likely to be the ones on the receiving end of most bullying. It takes a lot more social calibration to deal with bullies effectively.

                Ethel is a garden-variety bully and nothing more.

              2. AMT*

                Right, and I’ll add that — judging by the many replies from autistic people to the inevitable “this person might be autistic” comments on various advice columns — autistic people are getting pretty frustrated that everyone jumps to autism when looking for something to blame for inappropriate or creepy behavior. Autism doesn’t make you deaf to direct requests. If someone keeps doing something after you’ve told them to stop, that’s not social ineptness. That’s maintaining plausible deniability.

            5. JSPA*

              I think we can probably all agree that Ethel, absent a lot of awareness-raising and hands-on coaching (or a co-manager to handle the communication between the team and Ethel) was not actually fit to manage people (as opposed to projects).

              Not one person here has said, “Ethel, what a great manager she’d probably be, if only given the chance.”

              The debate is over the secondary question of whether Ethel is necessarily just a huge jerk, down to her core; someone who doesn’t give a flip about others, or takes actual glee in causing pain. Additionally, the meta question, whether it’s helpful to presume that to be the case.

          4. Eukomos*

            OP openly asked Ethel to stop in one of their one-on-ones and she responded by making fun of her “obsession with losing.” That’s not failure to pick up on hints, that’s ignoring what you’ve been openly told because you don’t feel like doing what’s being asked of you. People shouldn’t need safewords to communicate with their bosses.

            1. ragazza*

              YUP. Some managers say they’re all about listening, but they’re not interested in listening when it involves changing their own behavior or acknowledging their own failures or weak points.

            2. LJay*

              I forgot about this part, and it does make me change my view quite a bit.

              I was remembering the OP only responding in the moment, after the teasing occurred, where it could be seen as part of a back and forth.

              But since she did bring it up privately, out of the moment where the teasing was happening, and still got mocked, it makes me lean a lot more towards the boss just being a crappy person.

              1. poodleoodle*

                I didn’t see this comment before I replied to your other one. To be honest I was willing to give Ethel more benefit of doubt until I went back and read the original post. Then I was like “…..”

            3. Seeking Second Childhood*

              THIS. LW *DID* tell Ethel clearly in a one-on-one meeting that the joke wasn’t funny and asked her to stop.

          5. Shan*

            I mean, OP said “I even mentioned it privately in our one-on-one, but she started laughing and joking about my ‘obsession with losing.’” Bringing it up in a one-on-one implies more than “hints or indirect statements.”

          6. Detective Amy Santiago*

            OP’s letter did not indicate that she made “hints and indirect statements”. I’d say this is pretty damn obvious. Especially for someone who is in a management position.

            I even mentioned it privately in our one-on-one, but she started laughing and joking about my “obsession with losing.”

          7. spock*

            Ethel did not “immediately” apologize, she apologized months later after being told to stop many times in many way. It’s not ableist to hold people accountable for doing something they’ve been told to stop. And why is it ableist to assume Ethel should have stopped after being told again and again, but not ableist to blame OP for not finding the one perfect way to stop Ethel?

          8. Trout 'Waver*

            100% hard disagree. When you are the boss, many people are going to be very hesitant to make direct statements. Especially when the boss is clearly over the line in this situation. It is 100% on the boss to know this and be receptive to indirect statements. Although, Jennifer Thneed points out, how much more direct can you can?

            The LW even said that they mentioned it directly in a one-on-one and it still didn’t stop.

            And the fact is Ethel did not immediately apologize. According to the LW, she apologized eventually. And went about with poor behavior, not professional behavior.

            1. Sloan Kittering*

              Yeah to me the mark against Ethel is that even after she understood (presumably) the error, her behavior following that revelation was also cruddy and ill thought out. A manager needs to hit a higher bar than that to be effective.

          9. Washi*

            Working for someone whose natural instincts are to taunt me about something that happened months ago and will not respond to any pleas to stop less subtle than literal tears sounds like a nightmare. OP tried to ask Ethel multiple times in multiple ways to stop, and Ethel, despite knowing she has low emotional intelligence, never even asked OP for clarification, she just kept up the teasing. I firmly believe that as a manager, you have to at least have the emotional intelligence to not torment your employees.

            1. SierraSkiing*

              Yeah – if you have low emotional intelligence, there are just some forms of joking that you absolutely shouldn’t try at work, and especially shouldn’t try with people you have power over. A lot of types of teasing, sarcasm, and dark jokes have a high risk of making people feel bad if they aren’t perfectly pitched. If you can’t read people well enough to dial it back when you hit a nerve, you should stick to “safe” jokes. Like humor that doesn’t involve repeatedly bringing up an employee having failed at something.

              1. JSPA*

                Oh, that part is entirely on Ethel. Unless it’s partly on her boss, who might have directed her to be more outgoing and chatty and collegial and to lighten the tone on her team.

                The thing is, it’s quite likely Ethel’s been on the receiving end of similar cruelty, and part of the joke was convincing Ethel that this was just a joke that was fun for everyone. This happens with spectrum people far too often; they are the constant butt of jokes in what they consider a friend-group, and then they parrot the interaction in some other situation as their learned “way to be friendly.” This may be projection on my part, of course, but it’s just so very common (and sad).

                So my take home is that Ethel may have been trained into being an unwitting bully. Which doesn’t make the bullying OK. But does mean that Ethel is now staring into the void, re-assessing both things she’s done and things that were done to her and whether or not her friends were ever her friends. My very spectrum-y older friend has had so, so many breakthroughs of this sort in the time I’ve known her, and it’s terribly wrenching.

                1. JSPA*

                  [not diagnosing ethel; making a comparison to the situation for people who do have a diagnosis, which is where this pattern is easiest to see and to name.]

          10. Observer*

            No, this is not able-ist. While the OP did not spell it our in absolute bite sized pieces, they were pretty direct. If Ethel does not have the ability to recognize that “why are we still talking about this” and similar lines for what they are, she has a significant deficit in her ability to communicate. Combined with the fact that what she was doing was something that it generally understood to be unpleasant for the person on the receiving end (calling people “loser” etc. even as a joke is not something anyone has a reason to expect the “loser” to find funny), there is no reason to believe that anything short of the OP’s rather emotional and heated response was going to get her to stop.

          11. Kate2*

            No it’s really not, says someone on the autism spectrum. OP details in her first post an exhaustive list of times she directly and indirectly asked boss to stop.

          12. we're basically gods*

            The LW brought it up directly multiple times, per the initial letter. And, frankly, can we ditch the idea that people with mental illness can’t be bullies? I was bullied FOR MY ADHD SYMPTOMS by another kid with ADHD. ADHDers struggle to control our impulses, so he was totally justified in throwing bits of metal at me, right?
            This is victim blaming, and it comes up constantly whenever someone has an issue with a person who might struggle with subtlety. It is not ableist to assume that people shouldn’t make unkind jokes at work where the entire point is to get someone else upset.

          13. Librarian of SHIELD*

            If Ethel’s neurodivergence means that people will have to be a lot more direct with her than people are generally comfortable with in conversations with their boss, it’s on Ethel to tell her staff that up front.

            This touches on the conversation earlier this week with the coworker whose mental health condition was causing problems in the office. Yes, an employee with mental health concerns does need accommodations, but those accommodations have to be clear and spelled out to everyone involved.

            Without that piece, we have staff who do not know that they’ll need to speak to their manager differently than they’ve needed to speak to previous managers, and as we’ve seen with this letter, that’s a recipe for tears.

            1. Observer*

              Yes, accommodations that affect others and how they should behave need to be spelled out clearly to everyone. However, allowing someone to bully their staff is NOT an acceptable accommodation, even if it’s spelled out. Nor is it acceptable to put the burden of policing a supervisor on the subordinates. You certainly cannot expect staff to actually cry and yell at their supervisor to get them to stop bullying and demeaning behavior, no matter how clearly you spell that out.

          14. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

            Strong disagree. OP’s letter makes it clear that she was direct and made several requests, including an explicit request to Ethel to stop. Ethel laughed in her face and ridiculed her. She did not listen when OP explained her frustrations, and Ethel literally had to see OP in tears before she realized her behavior was harming her employee. OP wasn’t indirect, nor did she rely on hints. Ethel refused to listen to multiple direct comments and an explicit request.

            This deployment of ableism in this context is a disservice to people who don’t have the neurological ability to pick up on hints and indirect statements.

          15. big X*

            LW did, in many ways, ask Ethel to stop in a clear and direct manner. Ethel didn’t.

            This is not ableism – please stop. This is actually offensive. Even if Ethel is neuro-atypical, it doesn’t mean she can go through life without consequence or being accountable for her actions. She’s not a child. Moreober, she’s a manager. A condition doesn’t excuse the behavior; if she does have some condition that causes her to not pick up on social cues then Ethel knows this about herself most likely and Ethel should be working on this for the sake of her job, which involves working and interacting with people.

          16. ceiswyn*

            No, having a neurological inability to pick on hints does not mean that you get to bully those around you and blame them for not being clear enough.

            The OP didn’t just give hints and indirect statements. She brought it up at a 1:1. If there is literally no way for someone to get information through to you without breaking down and crying, then that is on YOU to fix.

            The OP’s manager didn’t have to pick up on hints, she just had to listen to the OP’s actual words. And, if she wasn’t sure, she could have asked questions. Even if she has a neurological inability – which is in no way established – she dropped the ball in multiple ways, bigtime. This is all absolutely on her.

          17. Hyrrokin*

            Not to mention the swing to overly solicitous behavior makes sense because now Ethel is unsure of her instincts. She is erring on the side of caution. I’m on the spectrum and haven’t done something quite as extreme as Ethel, but I’ve had moments where I realized later that I had upset someone because I don’t catch social cues as easily as others and it takes time and rumination for me to completely understand some encounters. If someone emotionally broke down to me like in the OP’s situation, I’d be mortified that I had been unintentionally embarrassing someone. I would probably seek the safety of being overly solicitous while I continue to try to figure out how to treat the OP properly in the future.

          18. Lobsterp0t*

            People need to take responsibility and check in about stuff they’re doing. If you’re crap at gauging interpersonal humour (for whatever reason), maybe don’t make work your training ground. And don’t make your line reports your guinea pigs. I totally disagree that it’s ableist to expect a manager to comport herself with some degree of restraint. And I am NT too!

      3. LawBee*

        I can imagine that Ethel would now assume that she was annoying everyone. She’s not great at the cues. Which I think is what Jennifer was saying.

    3. Sara M*

      For what it’s worth, I’ve been Ethel (though nothing so dramatic). I am very bad at knowing when to let a “running joke” go, or when it was never funny in the first place. I’ve gotten better, but… FWIW she’s probably deeply mortified and genuinely sorry. It’s not your problem to fix her feelings, but I think she learned a good lesson here and none of this is your fault.

      1. valentine*

        I’ve been Ethel
        There’s a massive difference between “Time for a joke,” or even “Time for a joke and I’ve only got this one” and “OP had a terrible day. Time to remind her of another time she lost, to me me me! (Which I berate her about literally every chance I get, including this one!)” Ethel didn’t even make it a team thing, just something between OP and her, when Ethel had the workplace upper hand, anyway.

        OP, I’m so glad you’re Ethel-free. You are as compassionate and understanding of her POV as she isn’t about yours.

        1. Jennifer Thneed*

          > when Ethel had the workplace upper hand

          This. I strongly suspect that Ethel really doesn’t understand that there is an inherent power imbalance in some relationships, like boss/subordinate.

          1. The IT Plebe*

            Then she shouldn’t be a boss. You need to understand power dynamics in order to be an effective leader. It’s great that Ethel does the other aspect of her job well, but it definitely seems like she shouldn’t be managing people.

          2. JSPA*

            It’s easy to say that Ethel should have refused the promotion, but surely that’s also, or primarily, on whoever promoted her. (Like anyone, Ethel is allowed to take a promotion when offered, on the assumption that they wouldn’t offer if they didn’t believe she could do the job.)

          3. Yorick*

            I bet Ethel absolutely does understand that, and wouldn’t have badgered her own boss in the same way.

        2. Sara M*

          True. I would never have done anything this egregious. But all I’m saying is, I see how Ethel might have thought she was funny. :(

          I’m glad it’s done now anyway.

        3. LJay*

          The thought could have been, “OP seems upset. Let me try to cheer them up by joking with them so they forget about all the upsetting stuff.” But I don’t really know why I’m advocating for this person at this point.

          And really if you don’t have the emotional intelligence to tell that your joke is really not welcome in any circumstances and especially not in this circumstance, you probably shouldn’t be a manager. Even if you are well-intentioned. Michael Scott is a tv character, not someone it’s okay to emulate in real life.

          1. Spencer Hastings*

            Michael Scott is a tv character, not someone it’s okay to emulate in real life.

            So true. If more people kept this in mind, it would prevent many of the awkward situations that come up on this blog. ;-)

          2. Washi*

            Completely agree. Not every person on earth has the hard and soft skills for managing, and that’s ok. I would be a terrible salesperson, and it’s not because sales discriminates against anxious introverts, it’s because that is never going to be an environment I thrive in. If you don’t have a lot of people skills….then you shouldn’t be managing people!

          3. Observer*

            nd really if you don’t have the emotional intelligence to tell that your joke is really not welcome in any circumstances and especially not in this circumstance, you probably shouldn’t be a manager

            Exactly. It doesn’t really matter why. Allowing people to be berated and bullied is NOT a “reasonable accommodation”even if Ethel is neuro-atypical.

            Which is to say that all of the talk about how she could be on the spectrum, have social issues etc. is really, really not relevant. I do believe that she’s probably not deliberately mean. But she is a TERRIBLE, TERRIBLE manager and should not be given any authority over people.

            1. wellywell*

              THIS THIS THIS

              No excuses. Ethel’s behavior went on for months and she was told explicitly to stop.

            2. Helena*

              I agree – it is not on AT ALL to conflate “having an ASD diagnosis” with “behaving like a bullying asshole to your subordinates”.

              We could excuse every terrible boss on here by saying “oh maybe they have ASD”. The CEO who sacked a pregnant woman for refusing to donate her liver? Maybe he has ASD and she just didn’t refuse in quite the right way, how ablist of her to object to being sacked when instead she should have been apologetic for upsetting him. The boss who turned up to his employee’s chemo sessions? The one who crashed a funeral? Maybe nobody explained to them in precisely the right way that those are harassing behaviours. Totally the employees’ faults for poor communication and not their poor innocent little bosses’.

              But a) it is grossly offensive to people with ASD to claim they are all assholes who can’t help being assholes (pro tip – they aren’t), and b) it is terrible to blame the victim of a terrible boss for being “too ablist” to manage their boss’s shitty behaviour. “Oh, it’s your own fault you are being bullied, you brought it on yourself by not communicating effectively”. Just no.

              1. we're basically gods*

                This whole thread has been really reminiscent to me of the autistic man I worked with who harassed and groped multiple women and was never punished, because he had autism and ~just couldn’t know better~. No means no. You don’t sexually harrass people. You don’t mock them constantly and laugh when they get annoyed. It has nothing to do with autism and everything to do with not being an ass.

              2. JSPA*

                Nobody’s saying she was managing appropriately, though. Or that she IS neurodivergent. Or that the end result was OK. The whole thing was a total crap show.

                We’re pushing back against, “nobody could be this clueless and unaware, so she must have understood what she was doing, and continued it anyway.”

                Real, well-meaning, intelligent people who spend hours working on their interpersonal communications and believe they’re connecting wonderfully with their coworkers and subordinates can still be an Ethel.

                1. Lucy Montrose*

                  Real, well-meaning, intelligent people who spend hours working on their interpersonal communications and believe they’re connecting wonderfully with their coworkers and subordinates can still be an Ethel.

                  This is what I’m most afraid of. Trying your best and not succeeding. Having a negative impact despite your best attempts not to.

                  I know that in relationships, it’s better to think in shades of gray than in black-and-white… but any time I’ve had an Ethel moment, others’ response to me has been VERY black-and-white.

                  We, sadly, don’t like people in interpersonal relationships to be “works in progress”. We talk a good game about making mistakes and learning, but too often our social “learning experiences” result in alienating the person we “learn” with, and we can only apply our new life lessons with new people. We’re not allowed, out of respect and boundaries, to go back and repair the damage we caused with the person/relationship we “practiced” on.

                  I hate “learning experiences” that have severe consequences, like permanently losing a connection. What did you learn apart from what not to do?

      2. WellRed*

        “First time funny (hopefully), second time silly, third time spanking.”
        I mean obviously not literally, but this phrase from, I think, the Ramona the Great books, has always stuck with me as a good rule of thumb about when to let the joke go. That is to say, pretty darn quick.

        1. Allonge*

          That is a great way to put what I was thinking: I have never known an in-joke (even one that was funny in the beginning) that did not grow pretty old pretty quick for a lot of the people involved. Considering that so many jokes can be hurtful even if not intended… well, that is an excellent rule to follow.

    4. Zombie Unicorn*

      Doesn’t sound like she kept it professional – that’s not what I took from the letter at all!

    5. Falling Diphthong*

      Some people who are socially awkward will discover a trick–“I bragged about my glorious medal, and people laughed!”–and then that’s the hammer and every social situation around them is a nail.

      1. Nicki Name*

        Yeah, that’s exactly what I’m thinking happened here too. Doesn’t excuse her being a jerk to the OP though, especially after having been asked to drop it (per the original letter), and definitely doesn’t excuse whoever thought it was a good idea to put her in a position of power.

      2. The Man, Becky Lynch*

        They also don’t understand that “I don’t like this” and “stop doing that” really mean what they’re saying. It’s not the “LOL nooooo staaaaawp it lololololol” that they’re reading the situation as.

        All my bullies growing up are now adults and we’ve actually sat down to talk it out [weird but when at a class reunion and we’re a few drinks in, things happen]. NONE of them knew they were being bullies, they thought they were being friends with me and we were “joking”. I was like “LOL you thought me crying was me joking.” “Well you were so emotional all the time, we just thought that was you being you, you know?” and they do feel awful now looking back and you know, having matured a reasonable-ish amount. So I think I’m a little forgiving towards Ethel given that weird stuff I’ve found out from my own Baby-Ethels.

        1. Observer*

          I get being forgiving. But would you put her into a management position?

          There is a reason we don’t typically put adolescents into positions of authority – at that point, it’s not all that surprising if someone is not reading all the right cues and making stupid assumptions. But, if someone has never developed that facility for whatever reason, they should not be managing people. Any more than someone with a tin ear should be doing quality control on musical performances.

          1. JSPA*

            Heck, no. Ethels, broadly, need to be in charge of projects or work solo on projects, rather than managing people.

            Not because there’s no way they could ever manage someone well. But because the time and effort (and self-assessment and self-doubt and cross-checking) needed to make an Ethel into a good manager, is so labor intensive, and so risky. There are so many people who can far more easily manage people.

            In the same way that a tone-deaf person could learn to conduct an orchestra by rote (but no normal orchestra will go looking for tone-deaf people to conduct), there should be places where an Ethel can thrive, without being not only allowed but encouraged to have power over subordinates.

        2. JSPA*

          Even partial inability to read [pained / tense / defensive / anxious / angry / self-conscious / fearful] smiles and laughter as something other than “happy” is a huge social burden. That level of emotional blindness is not rare (even well beyond the category of people with broader spectrum issues).

          The human smile is unusual in the animal world. It’s adapted from/derived from/still overlaps with the tooth-baring fear and anxiety responses. Probably by way of dominance-submission signaling.

          We directly teach little kids, “Jane is smiling. Jane is happy.” We only rarely go back and teach slightly older kids, who have not figured it out, “Jane is smiling because she’s anxious in an awkward situation. Sometimes people smile as a defensive reaction.”

          1. Lucy Montrose*

            This is why I do NOT like people uncritically going on about how smiling always puts people at ease and always makes you warmer.

            No… it doesn’t! Ask any recipient of a creepy Nice Guy TM smile.

        3. Alli525*

          Fair, but there’s a world of difference between school-age bullying and your BOSS-at-your-adult-job bullying. The people who bullied you then are probably not bullying their employees.

        4. wellywell*

          What if the behavior here was sexual, and a man persisting with the unwanted behavior: Would “they also don’t understand that “I don’t like this” and “stop doing that” really mean what they’re saying” be a valid excuse for continuing the behavior?

          1. Helena*

            I was thinking that too – given the conviction rate of rape, unfortunately that excuse does fly very well with juries.

          2. Falling Diphthong*

            I don’t think anyone’s saying it’s a valid excuse. They’re saying it’s an explanation.

            And I like The Man’s point that bullies often don’t think to themselves “I’m off to bully someone! In my roll as bully!”

            1. Amber*

              But why is anyone trying to explain away the repeated bullying behavior of a manager toward her employee?

            2. Lucy Montrose*

              Most of the people who have taken actions that seriously effed up my life, saw themselves as trying to help me.

              Unwanted “help” that’s forced on you is harassment.

          3. JSPA*

            That’s why there are written harassment policies and training.

            I would also favor written teasing and shaming policies. Even if most people wouldn’t need them.

      3. NonaM*

        Gosh that’s painfully relatable. I’ve noticed I tend to do the whole ‘well it made people laugh in that situation… so I should do it in this one too!’ thing, with varying degrees of success. I’ve recently been able to catch myself and realise that some contexts aren’t appropriate and some jokes are getting old, but that’s recent. A few years ago I wouldn’t have been able to make the distinction. I do think I know better than to be at Ethel’s level – especially because I’m hyper-aware of my inadequacy here, and will always stop if someone even seems to imply they want me to – but I can understand where she could have been coming from. And I feel really bad for her, to be honest. I genuinely does suck to believe everyone’s laughing with you and realise that not only are they possibly laughing at you, but someone you thought found you funny instead found you hurtful.

    6. LGC*

      …I admire your compassion for Ethel. And I don’t mean that in a backhanded way – I read the letter and honestly…some of the ways she described Ethel (technically competent, but not a people person; makes weird jokes; withdraws when she finds out she offended someone) sound like me.

      Without diagnosing her, I do think she has genuine remorse. I also think she needs serious work on reading the room – one of the hard things for me is because I’m the lead supervisor for my project, some of my employees aren’t going to call me out if I offend them or say something that’s not appropriate. (Some will, so that makes it harder!) So I have to monitor myself constantly at work. (Sometimes I slip up still – I’m not perfect. I’ll quickly correct myself and apologize.) I hope that in the future, Ethel learns that lesson as well.

      I can’t say whether she should be a team leader – I’ll be honest, as I’ve matured I’ve realized that I’m not the best fit for this because I can’t be what my teams need me to be. (It’s not even being perfect – my co-supervisor, although she’s technically a step junior to me, is a FAR better supervisor than I am!) But also, like…I think it’s possible, if she’s willing to take this as a learning experience and has the right support – that she becomes a much better supervisor from this. It might have been at the expense of LW, which is on Ethel, but at least some good just might come from this.

      Damn, I just made this ALL about myself, didn’t I?

      1. Sloan Kittering*

        If Ethel had behaved better once she understood the situation, I would have been willing to forgive her for failing to understand that a joke wasn’t funny. But her behavior after it was explicit that she had behaved badly wasn’t helpful or constructive either – this is just someone who is a crappy manager and probably should focus on individual contributions IMO.

        1. LGC*

          I’m not arguing that her behavior was good, even after LW went off on her! But I…have behaved in ways similar to Ethel (although fortunately, not quite that extreme, especially at work). I’m not proud of it, to say the least.

          But I don’t quite think she’s a lost cause. Maybe that’s because I’m identifying too much with Ethel right now, but I hope that she actually does get shocked into being a better boss, and a better person.

      2. JSPA*

        There’s value in that exercise, though.

        We’ve had a “how to AD(H)D at work” thread, set aside for those on that spectrum. But that’s an easier one to self-report. One’s bosses notice, and let us know, if we’re not performing our assigned tasks well.

        For ASD, it might actually be useful to have a (separate) thread that’s NOT set aside for people on the spectrum, but also for people who have been successfully managed by (or worked on a project run by) a boss who’s on the ASD spectrum. Also, of course, for people who are diagnosed and have come to function well in those roles, and have gotten actual feedback that they can trust, to confirm this fact. (Could be retention, could be regular receipt of honest feedback, could be assessment from above specifically focused on the happiness of the team below you–whatever.) How do you steer away from shoals? How do you prompt for feedback to come in a form that you’ll process well? How much do you disclose?

        Not sure if those without a formal diagnosis should also be invited to participate if they self-identify as having low ability to read emotions and expressions, or if that muddies the water. Might be helpful, all the same.

        1. LGC*

          Moreover, it might be helpful to see that people on the spectrum (Disclaimer: IDK and really I shouldn’t care if Ethel is and it still doesn’t excuse her; I actually am autistic myself) can actually be managers or in supervisory roles! I mean, on one hand, I’m insecure about my job performance now and doubting whether I’m the right fit. But on the other hand, I’ve been a supervisor for five years. I’ve handled up to 70 employees as the lead supervisor , and while I didn’t do great…did I mention I was dealing with 70 employees? Even now, I’m the lead on a 20 person project. (It’s one of our more technical ones, so it’s a good fit for me.) I can’t speak for my employees, but I’ve had pretty low turnover on my current team, and it seems like most of my team is happy enough with me. (Maybe they love my coworker and that’s why they’re staying around. But I’m pretty sure I’m not bad enough that I’m repelling people, and I don’t think I’m oblivious enough to not notice if people don’t like me.)

          I’ll admit I’m projecting a bit – but it feels like a lot of the replies to Jennifer’s comment can be read as awkward people shouldn’t be managers, or that Ethel behaved the way she did because she’s a complete jerk. (Don’t get me wrong. She IS a jerk. But maybe not completely one.)

      1. Filosofickle*

        Yes. I hate teasing. There are hardly any situations where teasing doesn’t feel at least a little hurtful to me — even when it’s true, even when it’s someone I trust, even when it’s gentle. It’s taken me decades of adulthood to own that. (And even if you think you’re doing it in a way that it’s not hurtful, there are better ways to connect and show love. Use one of those instead.)

        1. emmelemm*

          I also really hate teasing. I’m an only child, never went through any of the “sibling ribbing” (which can be a little mean but can also come from a place of love) that people seem to take for granted. I’ve developed a thick skin over the years, but teasing never really seems natural to me.

      2. Sleve McDichael*

        Part of the problem is that some people see teasing genuinely done well and they don’t realise the deep connection and nuance that goes into proper, healthy teasing and think ‘That seems like fun!’. Then they try it out and hurt people in the process. I tease my childhood best friend, for example by calling her a fatty. She’s not fat, nor skinny, she is really fit and healthy and has a great relationship with her weight, much better than me. She teases me for my inability to handle even mild spices. I think it’s funny and will taste her food knowing that it will make my eyes leak and nose run, just to see her laugh. I would never mock her accent, and I would never tease my mother about her weight (her candle obsession, sure!). She doesn’t mock my athletic ability. I don’t mock my husband about anything because he didn’t grow up with friendly teasing and so he finds it uncomfortable. It can be done right. But only through a deep connection with and knowledge of the other party. Proper teasing takes respect. That’s why it’s so very difficult to get right. It’s extremely rarely (if ever tbh) something that should be done at work and DEFINITELY not something that should be attempted by a new boss. Especially one with admitted emotional intelligence issues. The mind boggles.

      3. JSPA*

        I figure some of them are actual sadists. Or unhappy people deflecting their own misery.

        But, yeah:

        Some enjoy being teased themselves, and therefore do same to others.

        Some just have no concept of a comment landing badly, if it’s not meant to be cruel.

        Some think they’re doing people a favor by reminding them they’re tough, and life is unfair and ridiculous, thus putting any other problem in context.

        Some think that any insult that’s clearly not true is clearly a joke.

        All fitting your hypothesis. I like it.

    7. gyrfalcon*

      But from the original post, the OP DID ask Ethel to stop and said she didn’t like it, and Ethel doubled-down on doing it. Sounds like she needed the nuclear option to pay attention, but she HAD been told it wasn’t funny.

    8. Nic*

      I don’t feel bad for her. She was in a position of power and she made LW’s life a misery FOR MONTHS.

      And what do you mean “no-one spoke up”? LW spoke up repeatedly – and every time she did, Ethel turned it into new fuel for her “joke” and made LW feel even worse. Which is probably why no-one else spoke up in her defence – why say anything when you have the evidence in front of your eyes of someone else (LW) trying to protest in a reasonable manner and being bullied for it by the person in power? At that point, it really doesn’t matter whether Ethel mistakenly thought it was a shared joke or intended it to be mean, because the effect was the same.

  2. Sir Peeves*

    Result! Good for you! It seems to me Ethel is one of those people who entertains herself at the expense of others; never noticing no one else is smiling/laughing.

  3. The Gilbert Principle*

    oh wow! OP I’m so sorry it ended up coming out like that – but congrats on the new role!

  4. CM*

    Ugh. Seems like a second conversation with Ethel would have been warranted if OP had stayed. So frustrating when other people’s behavior causes you to have to do lots of work. Stories about harassment strike me the same way, even though they’re obviously more serious — person A is just going about their business, person B starts bothering them, and then person A is stuck having to document, report, confront, and generally spend time and energy dealing with the situation that person B caused.

    1. emmelemm*

      “person A is stuck having to document, report, confront, and generally spend time and energy dealing with the situation that person B caused”

      Have been that person A, did not like it, would like not to repeat it.

  5. The Man, Becky Lynch*

    At least she’s a decent enough person who felt bad and most of all stopped the awful behavior when it came to light that you weren’t amused by it.

    Her social skills being poor and lacking the ability to read her audience when abstract humor is involved is unfortunate but not as crippling as someone who seriously just has a mean streak and lives to humiliate others.

    I’m glad you got to resolve that before leaving so it’s not unsettled business in the back of your mind!

    1. Cat Fan*

      Did we read the same letter? If by “came to light” you mean the focus of her taunting broke down crying, then yeah. There were other times before this final incident that the letter writer attempted to tell her boss to please stop. The boss totally ignored her and continued her taunting. When it was resolved, the boss just stopped normal conversation all together, treating the letter writer strangely in a different way.

      1. The Man, Becky Lynch*

        Since I’m not the only one who feels this way, I don’t know why you’re lashing out at me specifically? But that’s cool.

        She stopped when it went over the edge that she understood, since there was no actual conversation during the “joking” incidents. It was just a “Oh this is old” and “oh just stop” and that comes across as just casual play to a lot of people with different social backgrounds. But sure, let’s all string her up and act like she’s a monster.

        The awkwardness can also be perceived in the “aftermath” too, it comes from both sides, bro.

        1. Jenn*

          Ethel should have understood when OP brought it up in a one-on-one. It was not during a joking incident and Ethel still made fun of her.

        2. Observer*

          She’s not a monster. But her behavior WAS pretty close to monstrous.

          Firstly, refusal to accept repeated iterations on low key “drop it” please, is a problem by itself. Considering that the OP actually also DID address is directly in private, it rises to a level of REALLY bad. It should NEVER require someone actually tearing up and then getting all heated up, to get someone to stop something – ESPECIALLY something that clearly has the potential to NOT be “all in good fun”.

          As for the awkwardness afterwards, from what the OP describes, it was completely and totally on Ethel. She was the one acting like the OP was going to melt down if someone looked at her wrong.

        3. Cat Fan*

          I am not sure what you mean by lashing out. My comment certainly was not intended that way. It truly seems in your original post and follow up that you are not seeing the same key points that I am.

          1. JSPA*

            Indeed, but in some ways, that’s exactly the point.

            There are a lot of people who don’t “see” these things. Literally. They’re not ignoring it because they don’t want to believe it, or deciding that their entertainment and the entertainment of others warrants someone else’s suffering. They don’t categorize correctly, and because those skills are vestigial, the REALLY don’t re-categorize well upon receipt of new data, either.

            It’s potentially just as bad to be on the receiving end as it is to be on the receiving end of sadism or other emotionally-intended bullying at work; but unlike those other cases, there are ways to drill down to underlying goodwill. If we recognize that there’s such a thing as an “accidental bully”–which is distinct from momentary “accidental bullying, though they do overlap–we have extra tools to deal with the situation.

            “I can easily see how I would have done this, yet would never do something like this intentionally or willingly” is important information, coming from quite a few people who read and comment here regularly, and just by that fact, should be assumed to care about being good (or at least, not bad) as managers, as employees, and as human beings.

            1. Amber*

              It’s not the responsibility of the person being bullied or harassed to drill down to the underlying goodwill of the bully/harasser. This is unprofessional behavior of a manager to her employee no matter the intent.

              1. JSPA*

                I fully agree.

                But many things that are “not our job” are still mighty handy tools to have in our toolbox.

                And I’m not even primarily referring to the OP. I’m referring to all the people here who seem a bit quick to assume that Ethel is more or less a garbage human being, not just a bad manager, even after so many of us have posted, “What a shit-show…yet, there but for the grace of god go I.”

                That’s where the “lashing” comes in.

                A lot of people come here to learn how to manage (or be managed) because they have an uneasy awareness that they don’t come with as much interpersonal awareness as the average person. Insisting that Ethel “can’t possibly not have done this innocently” basically says that those of us who can see this craptastic shit-show happening innocently– because we could, at some point in our lives, have done the same!–are not only wrong about her, but in fact are wrong about ourselves, or perhaps we don’t even exist.

                That lands badly.

        4. PVR*

          That is absolutely not true. In the original letter the OP specifically said she brought it up in a one on one and detailed other ways she tried to get the harassment to stop. Belittling the tactics she used to try to set a boundary as “oh stop” is patently unfair to the OP and completely mischaracterizes the ways she asked her boss to stop. Yes Ethel might not be a one dimensional, horrible, cruel person but if “over the edge she understood” is crying… that is pretty bad.

      2. Sloan Kittering*

        Yeah I’m not at all impressed with Ethel’s behavior AFTER it all came out, which is a bigger failing in a way. She just hasn’t performed in a manger-level way throughout.

    2. Observer*

      I’m going to disagree with you. Her skills at this point are so bad, that they could easily be even more crippling. Because the mean person could shape up quite easily if they decide it’s in their interest. Someone who really doesn’t get it can’t do that.

      In terms of effect, I don’t see any difference. Ethel’s behavior until the OP blew up was not any better because she was clueless. SHE may be better, but the behavior isn’t. And her inability to act in a reasonable fashion once she was forced to acknowledge the problem is also a major issue. Sure, the OP wasn’t being humiliated, but her life was being made uncomfortable and she was being spotlighted because of her boss’ inability to act in a reasonable fashion.

      I think that that’s pretty crippling for anyone whose progression is supposed to include management.

      1. Sloan Kittering*

        Yeah to me it’s clear that Ethel can’t possibly be an effective manager, because she could have derailed OP’s career success with something that *wasn’t even work related.* OP ended up a) upset enough to write to an advice blog in the first place and b) crying at work – because of something that was totally extraneous to the job – that is a huge, huge failing for a manager.

    3. hbc*

      I dunno, when looking to excuse someone’s behavior, oftentimes a good question to ask is, “What would distinguish their behavior from that of some hypothetical ill-intentioned person?”

      I’m not sure you can even find a distinction in this case. The whole “I’ll treat you coldly because you failed to appreciate my totally funny, completely fake gloating” is straight out of the Mean Person’s handbook.

  6. LawBee*

    It’s good that Ethel wasn’t being deliberately awful, right? She was wildly misreading the situation, but she wasn’t actively being a bully out of hate or spite. I’m not surprised she veered so far in the other direction – she didn’t want to mess up again, she thought there was a relationship that there wasn’t, she was trying to fix it.

    You ask why she couldn’t be professional enough to act normally – perhaps she thought she was, and being told she wasn’t in a pretty dramatic fashion was a shock.

    Recalibration is very hard.

      1. valentine*

        Ethel wasn’t being deliberately awful
        I doubt it. Not only did she switch to different awful behavior, still between OP and her, and running jokes don’t require props. Props are about going the extra mile to rub someone’s face in it and who really thinks that’s funny all around when there isn’t, and can’t be, reciprocation? It’s not like the pranks can escalate until they punch each other in the parking lot because Ethel was OP’s manager.

        1. LawBee*

          Apparently Ethel did think it was a fun joke, since *she said that* and stopped the behavior when she finally got that it wasn’t the fun joke between friends she’d been assuming.

          Some running jokes do indeed involve props, even if none in your life do. Look, Ethel was being a jerk, for sure. But she didn’t and couldn’t see that until she was forced to because some people are just oblivious. It doesn’t mean malice though. If she was being malicious, she would have continued.

        2. Sam.*

          It sounds like the awfulness was at no point deliberate, though – the new unpleasant behavior was still a result of her not knowing how to interact appropriately, especially with someone subordinate to her. It’s still totally not ok that OP was stuck dealing with the consequences of that, but it does make me more a bit more sympathetic toward Ethel (and really happy for OP that she’s out of there).

          1. Sloan Kittering*

            Yeah I don’t think Ethel was being deliberately malicious after these updates, but she does seem to be fundamentally unqualified to manage. She just doesn’t have the skills required IMO.

        3. Arctic*

          I saw no evidence of awful behavior after she stopped the medal gag in this letter. OP was annoyed by Ethel being professional and sticking to work. But that is not awful behavior.

          1. OnTheWall*

            “Our one-to-ones were just us both reading out bullet points of work questions.”
            This is not professional behaviour.

            1. Arctic*

              That’s entirely professional. Their meetings stuck to work. THe definition of professional.

                1. LawBee*

                  It’s fine. Professional doesn’t mean never being awkward or not taking time to adjust one’s behavior, or acting perfectly perfect every second of the day. Heaven forbid Ethel not be perfect. Heaven forbid she take time to figure out HOW she’s supposed to be since what she thought was appropriate behavior wasn’t. Heaven forbid Ethel decide that perhaps the best route, since her sense of humor was hurting someone, is to be 100% impersonal at work. Heaven forbid instead of lashing out, or creating her own scene, or doubling down on her behavior, Ethel dial everything WAY back because she’s embarrassed or ashamed or feels bad or whatever. Your definition of professional is flawed.

              1. Kate2*

                Uh no. She could have asked how op was doing or included some other small talk. She didn’t even pretend to care about op or socializing with her, as is polite and usual in business situations.

                1. JSPA*

                  This only makes sense to people who come pre-equipped with a functioning “politeness detector.” I get it, many many people have one, so it’s easy to assume that we all have them. But actually, we don’t, all, have them.

                  A lot of us fake it, knowing ours arrived broken. (Some of us fake it excellently.) But if what we’re doing isn’t working, there is no “default polite” to step back to. Making small talk is at least as much a field of landmines as joking about a trophy. Often more so.

            2. LCL*

              In the distant past, when someone has changed their actions towards me from being a harassing glassbowl to cold and businesslike, I was very glad. Cold and businesslike is very refreshing, in a lot of circumstances.

          2. Observer*

            If people were asking what on earth was up, it’s clear that Ethel’s behavior was NOT “professional” – no one would have wondered what the matter is.

            Also, “reading from bullet points” as the sum total of a work related on-on-one is the exact opposite of “professional behavior” when the meeting is between a supervisor and employee. Those meeting are sopped to be an exchange of information and appropriate guidance from the supervisor. That requires an actual ability to have a conversation.

    1. BethRA*

      Ethel certainly put a LOT of energy into not being deliberately awful – to the point not just hauling the medal out and taunting the OP on a regular basis, but of sharing her song and dance with new hires.

      A more professional way to recalibrate might have been to ask for advice on how to move forward, not freeze OP out.

      1. LawBee*

        True. However, that assumes a level of social emotional understanding that I don’t think she has. People are human. We don’t always react 100% perfectly all the time. The OP could have sat Ethel down months ago and been a lot more direct than she was. She could have done that every time. That would have been more “professional” than having an emotional breakdown, right? But we do what we do, people aren’t perfect.

        Yeah, I sympathize with Ethel here. She was a jerk, but I’m not going to ding her for swinging too far in the other direction in an attempt to fix it, since she clearly struggles with social interaction. “Professional” doesn’t mean perfect, and I don’t know why people are assuming that Ethel would magically know how to act going forward when she clearly didn’t understand the consequences of what she was doing already.

        1. Jenn*

          OP did sit Ethel down in a one-on-one and tell her to stop. Ethel made fun of her and continued to act unprofessionally.

        2. Observer*

          Ethel’s behavior and her response to OP’s finally yelling at her is not not “not perfect”. It’s also not just an occasional issue. This was an ongoing and MAJOR behavior fail, and her response was also not just a minor and short mis-step. It was major, noticeable and ongoing.

          While that doesn’t make her a monster, it does make her behavior very bad, and it makes her unsuited to management.

        3. DANGER: Gumption Ahead*

          She did. In the original letter the OP chronicles months of asking, using different methods, for Ethel to stop, including directly in a 1:1 employee:manager meeting.

    2. Not So NewReader*

      Ethel may not have been deliberately awful, but she definitely was not trying to be deliberately kind either.

      Don’t gloat, Ethel, ever. It’s pretty straightforward. No gloating.

      This just goes to show, if a person does not know how to do humor then stay away from it. Enjoy other people’s jokes instead (where appropriate).

    3. ThatsMyStapler*

      Recalibration in this situation is not difficult. Recognition of the issue, an apology, an understanding and acknowledgment of how it got so bad, and a sincerely communicated wish to make it right is all it would have taken. That’s what good managers do. Hell, that’s what good HUMANS do.

  7. Dust Bunny*

    . . . aaaand here’s a really good example of why being a good manager is about soft skills as well as work skills.

    1. Mel*

      Exactly. Ethel’s weakness in soft skills is part of why she lost a good member of her team. (I know OP said that she didn’t leave just because of this situation, but it definitely was a factor.)

    2. The Man, Becky Lynch*

      Seriously! When we’re looking for managers, we’re always looking for both because we know that we can lose employees by hiring someone who has bad people skills, even if they’re awesome at their jobs. [Boss had to learn that the hard way, we had some unfortunate turnover with a manager that rubbed some old time employees wrong with some of their bulldog like behaviors.]

    3. emmelemm*

      Yes. I get that people are saying maybe Ethel isn’t neurotypical and you just have to understand her behavior in that light, but when she’s so wildly off the mark and didn’t stop when being pretty directly told “I don’t like this”, she’s not cut out to be a manager of other people. Neurotypical or not, if you’re *that bad* at reading situations, you shouldn’t be in that position.

        1. LDN Layabout*

          And that person wasn’t even a manager! And yes, being a manager means you have more responsibility in that department.

        2. emmelemm*

          Well, so in yesterday’s letter it was “mental health issues” that were causing the lack of people skills and here commenters are *wildly* speculating (which we’re not supposed to do, by the way) that Ethel MAY be non-neurotypical, and so if we relate these two letters to each other, they’ll say we’re conflating mental health issues and non-neurotypical-ness and how dare we.

          In my opinion, it doesn’t matter if mental health issues or neuro-atypicalness or just plain weapons-grade awkwardness is at the root of it, if someone is THIS BAD at soft skills, then they need a whole lotta something (training, or whatever) before they’re allowed to manage other people.

              1. JSPA*

                Not to put words in Close Bracket’s mouth, but I suspedt it alludes to the fact that “neurodiverse” isn’t just shorthand or a euphemism or a group-identity for people who are on the ASD spectrum.

                It also can correctly be used as shorthand for other sorts of divergent brain wiring / neuronal firing, some of which produce conditions falling under the DSM. Think of it as a venn diagram. “Neurodivergent” and “with a mental health issue” are not two completely separate circles.

                In particular, AD(H)D is still settled pretty firmly in the DSM (though not without controversy) and many people on that spectrum also speak of themselves as being “neurodivergent.”

                Speculatively, as we come to understand what differences (“divergence”) in neurons allow, drive or potentiate (e.g.) schizophrenia, narcissism, BPD, etc etc etc we may come to see more and more syndromes and “defined mental disorders” reinterpreted as different forms of neurodivergence. (Or not. But genetic overlap suggests, “maybe.”) Link to follow.

    4. BadWolf*

      Yes — from the first letter: I even mentioned it privately in our one-on-one, but she started laughing and joking about my “obsession with losing.”

      If an employee brings this up in a one-on-one, you should have a calm discussion about it. Not take the opportunity to ride that joke into the ground. Not cool, Ethel.

  8. Don*

    That didn’t break your relationship. If people can’t handle conflict, particularly being called out on behaving in a way that causes others hurt and upset, then it’s not really a relationship. Not one worth preserving, anyway.

  9. it's me*

    So… she thought this was good-natured teasing, predicated on the premise that it would be ridiculous and therefore hilarious for you to be upset about losing to her…? That’s all I can really make of this. She really DOES lack social skills, and I say that as someone who is awkward.

  10. Aquawoman*

    I don’t know, I get a little bit of a mean girl vibe from this follow up. Ethel was being very annoying and odd, but the LW continuing to pile on about how terrible her social skills were and how she was then TOO considerate of the LW after the LW lost her shizz with her just rubs me the wrong way. I don’t have the strongest social skills either (like, seriously don’t see a problem with the holding up a finger thing–it’s rude to interrupt someone and can derail their train of thought) but I am widely regarded as a good manager and I think my team appreciates me for the willingness to give as much opportunity as people want and approachability.

    1. LDN Layabout*

      Would you keep doing something a direct report had repeatedly asked you to stop doing, especially if they’d brought it up in a private one to one setting?

      Because that’s the stage Ethel got to.

      1. Jenn*

        Yeah, I’m assuming Aquaqoman that you don’t bully your employees to tears. That’s probably why they think you are a good manager.

    2. Jennifer*

      That rubbed me wrong too. So now after she changed her behavior you still find something to nitpick about her? Let it go. She’s not teasing you anymore. That’s what you wanted right? If she lacks social skills the safest thing for her to do is just keep everything dry and professional and save her “fun” side for the people she hopefully has outside of work who understand her.

      1. poodleoodle*

        The thing is it’s not the employee’s job to “understand her” and pretend like getting made fun of constantly is okay. There is no point in coddling a manager and excusing bad behavior.
        Do you feel like the OP is over sensitive and shouldn’t have been upset over it or something? Like she should have just gotten over it and accepted this is who Ethel is and so what if she’s on the verge of tears?
        Also, would you really be okay if you had a type of relationship with your manager and after you brought up something finally that had been bothering you, they scaled back so intensely that they iced you out? Because to me that sounds like high school/middle school stuff…it’s happened to me many times and it sucks. And the other person will deny anything is amiss and of course they aren’t treating you differently but they are. It’s some nonsense.

      2. Name of Requirement*

        She’s still acting oddly enough coworkers are asking about it. It’s actually pretty unprofessional of the manager to single the OP out like that.

      3. Medal Heater*

        Hi LW here, I’m sorry if it can’t across that way – wasn’t my intention at all, was just trying to provide context. And it’s quite difficult when your manager doesn’t talk to you all day unless you have a specific work question. I wasn’t trying to be a ‘mean girl’ so I think that’s a bit unfair.

        1. BethRA*

          I don’t think you were being a “mean girl” at all – and I’m a bit baffled by people who seem to want to hold you to a higher standard than your manager, and the person who basically harassed you until you had a meltdown.

          1. Medal Hater*

            Thank you, I think you’re right – everyone has their limits no matter how on top of things you normally are and unfortunately I reached mine.

          2. Jenn*

            And not recognize the LW did bring it up directly multiple times and ignoring the power imbalance in the relationship.

        2. Budgie Buddy*

          If it makes a difference I read “lingering but justified resentment” in the tone toward Ethel’s subsequent behavior. Glad you are out of that situation.

        3. Approval is optional*

          It is very unfair, and you weren’t being a ‘mean girl’. Your manager behaved terribly – first by harassing you and then by icing you out. None of that is on you.
          Good luck with the new job!

        4. Close Bracket*

          Ethel evidently wasn’t trying to be a vicious bully, either. You don’t need intent to experience impact, as you well know.

          I don’t want to come down on you about a painful incident. I want to validate that Ethel’s treatment of you *was* painful to you, and she should have stopped based on that. I do want to emphasize that she *did* stop once she realized how painful it was, and after she stopped, it is equally on you to let things go and move forward. What that means is, dont continue to pick at her other social skills, and take the extra considerateness in the spirit of conciliation.

          1. Medal Hater*

            That’s interesting, I didn’t think providing context about her social skills (to help paint a picture of the office and dynamics) was picking on her, merely explaining a bit more about how she is perceived by the wider team.

          2. Observer*

            “Pick on her social skills”? “extra considerateness is the spirit of conciliation”?

            Are you serious or trolling?

            Ethel was not being “extra considerate”, she was acting like the OP was some sort of fragile flower for blowing up at her for months of bullying and harassment.

            As for the OP’s providing some examples of Ethel’s behavior, it’s not mean and it does provide interesting context. I’m not sure that it’s all that relevant because while it does indicate that Ethel is probably more incompetent at people skills rather than just mean and vicious, it doesn’t really change the fact that her behavior is totally out of line and toxic for a leadership or management position.

          3. LDN Layabout*

            She iced out the OP in terms of standard office social interactions that her colleagues noticed, that is not conciliatory.

          4. Amber*

            The only person who did anything wrong in this situation is Ethel, both with the constant bullying and with the freezing her out. OP was giving an overview of her other social skills to help us readers understand her overall behavior and how the behavior in her situation fits an overall pattern. The OP did let things go and move forward.

        5. a1*

          And it’s quite difficult when your manager doesn’t talk to you all day unless you have a specific work question.

          According to many comments on many posts here, this is many people’s ideal – only talk about work, only when needed, and nothing else. Not to me, fyi. Regardless, I still don’t see what’s wrong with this. She overcompensated, for sure, but as long as she was still approachable for work items and discussion I personally don’t see the problem.

      4. DANGER: Gumption Ahead*

        You do realize that a manager has to talk to and relate to their employee, right? Praise, criticism, checking in on their career progress/goals, seeing if they need anything, etc.. Ethel wasn’t doing that and that means she wasn’t doing her job well, or even at all.

    3. The Man, Becky Lynch*

      I wouldn’t say “mean girl” vibes, I would say however that OP is at BEC stage with Ethel, given how much she’s been hurt by the behavior and the being pushed to the breaking point. I agree that I went “huh wut” at the idea of holding a finger up when it’s an inconvenient time and not making eye contact, she’s on the phone….she should do just that otherwise she’s saying “Yeah hey, I don’t respect the person I’m talking to, so let’s engage in some behaviors that may make me lose my concentration by fully acknowledging you!”

      Sometimes people with such varying personalities just will never ever click of figure out a comfortable way to work with each other.

    4. Arctic*

      “Mean girl” vibes is the wrong way to put it, I think. But it is very unkind to continue to bash Ethel after she stopped doing the schtick and began to act entirely professional.
      There is a difference between “stop doing this thing that is annoying” and “start acting exactly the way I want you to.”
      Wanting the medal thing to stop is the former.

      1. Spencer Hastings*

        I wouldn’t call freezing the LW out and running their meetings by a script instead of actually having a discussion “entirely professional”…

      2. Medal Hater*

        Can you possibly provide a bit more context about how I was bashing? I am curious as to how that has come across as I did not intend it that way at all.

        1. AngryAngryAlice*

          You weren’t bashing and it didn’t come across that way at all to the vast majority of us. You detailed events and added context, then you told us about how you felt about the outcome, which is a totally normal for LWs to do in most of the letters AAM receives.

          You did absolutely nothing wrong. I’m sorry that Ethel bullied you to the point of tears even after you asked her to stop multiple times over the course of months. I’m also sorry that she retaliated. She sounds so frustrating to work under, and I totally understand why she factored into your decision to leave.

      3. Myrin*

        OP didn’t “bash” Ethel, she provided further information to us, the interested readers, to give more insight into how Ethel was perceived in the office; which is an appropriate thing to do when she’s giving us an update on how a situation she wrote in about turned out.

    5. JB (not in Houston)*

      It’s not rude in a work setting to ask someone a question, though. If it’s always rude to interrupt someone working, how are you supposed to ask questions when you need to? It really depends on the circumstances. And in some circumstances holding up a finger might be ok, but also words exist–words like, “hang on just a second, let me finish this.” And what the OP described as Ethel’s behavior after the incident wasn’t being “considerate.” It’s not considerate for a manager to treat a report like that.

      I’m not saying Ethel is a monster. She doesn’t sound like it. And maybe she didn’t know how to behave anywhere in the large space between doing what she had been doing and holding her at this formal distance where she treated the OP like someone who would break if they talked about anything but work. But maybe we can trust the OP that Ethel doesn’t have good social skills. She’s there, we’re not, and if what the OP described is close to accurate, it sounds like Ethel really doesn’t have great social skills. The OP doesn’t like a “mean girl” (i really wish we could lose that term) in her description of Ethel, she just make Ethel seem like someone who maybe isn’t the best person to be managing a group of people.

      1. Arctic*

        So you think that if someone doesn’t have good social skills they shouldn’t be allowed to advance? Other than the medal thing, which stopped, there is no suggestion she’s actually a bad manager. She has regular meetings with employees (where both review their bullet points, unlike many meetings with managers which are one-sided), OP got a raise, she knows the subject matter well. So what if she holds up a finger (which I see no issue with) when someone interrupts?
        That’s a fast track to discrimination. ADA discrimination, racial discrimination, and gender discrimination. Because “good social skills” are totally arbitrary and tend to be based on upper class white mores.

        1. Detective Amy Santiago*

          I think soft skills are tremendously important if you’re going to manage people. Clearly Ethel lacks those.

        2. Washi*

          Right, if your poor social skills mean you think it’s appropriate to taunt a coworker repeatedly about losing a game after they’ve asked you in a multitude of different ways…then no, you should not be a manager.

          And honestly, that’s setting the bar pretty low for management. The power dynamic inherent in manager-report relationships means that it’s important for managers to have some degree of social awareness to avoid putting their reports in difficult positions where they will have difficulty bluntly objecting.

        3. MarfisaTheLibrarian*

          I mean,*I* shouldn’t advance to a management position, because I do not have the skills to handle conflict or address behavior/work quality issues. A management job *is* a person-focused job, and there’s at least a baseline of social skills needed: can address conflict (rather than hiding from it like I would); can contain emotions (unlike my boss who yells at staff and public alike), doesn’t play favorites, and–and this is more vague–can at least mostly read the impact of their behavior on others.
          I definitely agree that a lot of professional norms are arbitrary and upper class white and not infrequently kinda dumb. And there are workplaces/professions where yelling is the norm (though my understanding is that that’s…not great for anyone except the people with enough authority to yell). And as someone who’s not going for management jobs, it would be really nice to have more paths for advancement that don’t involve supervising people.
          And I think the OP, already frustrated with her boss, stayed frustrated by the slightly icier–but contextually understandable–treatment.

          1. nonymous*

            > it would be really nice to have more paths for advancement that don’t involve supervising people

            Try looking at fieldwork. Typically these can be grueling because of the travel involved, but these are positions where a high degree of self-direction as well as the experience to discern nuance quickly are needed.

          2. Observer*

            I definitely agree that a lot of professional norms are arbitrary and upper class white and not infrequently kinda dumb.

            This is true, and it’s a shame.

            I think it’s interesting that some localities are beginning to outlaw “hair discrimination” (ie rules that arbitrarily impose limitation on hair styles that tend to have discriminatory impact.) I’m not sure that laws are necessarily the best way to address these issues, but this is a perfect example of a “professional norm” that’s really arbitrary and stupid.

        4. Eukomos*

          There are ways to advance in your career other than going into management. If you’re good at your current job function and terrible at managing, you need to find one of those other ways. It’s not discrimination to refuse to hire someone for a job they’re so terrible at that it makes the people around them miserable.

        5. Observer*

          If someone has social skill this bad – no they should NOT advance into any position that requires managing people.

          You minimize the medal thing, but tat itself is HUGE. It was a totally inappropriate joke the first time. Continuing it for MONTHS and gratuitously bringing it up to new people with swipes about the OP brings it into “This is inappropriate for a toddler” territory. And once the OP had not only tried to get it to stop in public and EXPLICITLY called it out in private, it’s gone to bullying behavior, no matter how Ethel saw it.

          Bottom line is that if you can’t see the difference between bullying behavior and “all in good fun” and need someone to tear up and blow up at you in order to actually BELIEVE them when they ask you to stop some behavior, you should not be in a position of authority over people.

          As for the way she reacted afterwards, the fact that others noticed that something was wrong shows that this was NOT Ethel just being professional. She was most definitely icing the OP out, whether she meant to or not.

          And PLEASE do not perpetuate racist and sexist stereotypes. The kind of basic social skill we are talking about are NOT limited to “white men” – people of color and women are just as capable of not humiliating people “in good fun”, backing off when asked to, and responding like professional adults when they finally get faced with their misbehavior.

        6. DANGER: Gumption Ahead*

          A manager has to do more than read off bullet points to an employee. If that is all the 1:1 is, just e-mail the lists to each other and skip the meeting. 1:1s are for managers to check in with their employees, see if they need any help, troubleshoot potential issues, listen to and address concerns, etc.. If all Ethel was doing was reading a list, she wasn’t managing

        7. Baru Cormorant*

          So you think that if someone doesn’t have good social skills they shouldn’t be allowed to advance?

          …Yes. If someone can’t handle the soft skills of a position, or can’t follow social norms enough to cooperate in a work environment, then they can’t do part of the job, and they shouldn’t be in that job. Especially a manager role, where the job is to “manage” others.

          Good social skills are arbitrary in the sense that they vary by social group. If you can’t adhere to the ones in your social group, you’re going to get ostracized, that’s how social groups work. This isn’t a radical or extreme notion.

        8. ceiswyn*

          Yes, I do think that if someone doesn’t have good social skills they shouldn’t be allowed to advance into a position that requires good social skills.

          I don’t have good running or throwing skills. The fact that I’m not allowed to advance into an athletics team is not discrimination.

          Other than bullying one of her direct reports for months until she finally broke down, and then freezing her out, there’s no suggestion that she’s a bad manager. Yeah, and other than my joints giving out after a few paces there’s no suggestion that I’m a bad runner. Ethel can’t do the key fundamentals of her job; don’t you think that’s maybe a bit of a problem?

        9. AngryAngryAlice*

          I don’t think anyone who lacks the ability to realize they’ve been viciously bullying their report for months on end (despite repeated and direct requests to stop) and then retaliates after their victim finally loses their cool should be a manager, no.

        10. Nic*

          “Other than the medal thing, which stopped…”

          Wow. That’s such a MASSIVE downplaying of months of targeted harassment which drew in other people (especially the new hires) and only stopped after LW pretty much had an emotional breakdown in the middle of the office. She had a major impact on LW’s mental health, but somehow all our concern is for the abusive boss because she said it was an accident, so she MIGHT be neurodivergent or some kind of minority that doesn’t subscribe to “upper class white mores”?!

          I just…Wow.

    6. I Wrote This in the Bathroom*

      I didn’t get the holding up a finger thing, either… Unless you have come to tell me that the building is on fire and everyone needs to get out, or that I’ve been fired and need to leave immediately, whatever you came to me with can wait a few seconds until I get to a stopping point with what I’m doing. For all you know, I could be on IM with someone who also has a serious issue. You cannot expect me to “hang up” on them just because you walked in.

      1. The Man, Becky Lynch*

        Right? I mean I can think of a few other reasons to interrupt, I’ve had to slide into places and be all “Hey, so we have some government officials here.” or “So…there’s a cop that’s asking for you…”

        But otherwise, if it’s not an active “get your butt out here right now, things are going down!”, if I see someone is in a meeting or on the phone, I excuse myself. They don’t usually even need to give me a finger, I just do a “Whoops, I’ll show myself out.” and exit the stage. Then I message them all “Hey dude, when you’re done, I need you let me know when it’s cool to drop in.” or whatever is appropriate, sometimes I just ask the question or give them an overview of my issue and they come to me afterwards instead of having me to go to them. Whatever, it’s really all about everyone understanding they are not the most important person in the room at any given time.

        1. Observer*

          The OP didn’t say that she would do that when interrupted on a call or other conversation, so it’s hard to tell what the deal with that. But they implied that it was related to Ethel’s mood, not what she’s doing.

    7. Dust Bunny*

      The only mean girl vibe I got was from Ethel. I’m sure she’s clueless, but . . . this is really extreme. Some people are clueless, and some people use a reputation for being clueless to blow off the need to change their behavior until their victims make a big enough stink that they don’t have a choice.

      The thing is, Ethel knows she’s a bomb at EQ, but at no point did she check in with the LW about whether or not she was taking this joke too far. I’m on the autism spectrum and have blown social situations more often than I care to recall, so I am REALLY careful about letting jokes drop after x number of recaps, telling my friends that they can redirect when I’ve gone on too long, etc. We’re not getting reports that Ethel does that: She knows she blew the emotional intelligence test but, at least in the environment presented here, has proceeded without heeding the input she’s been given. (Or seeking any advice, that we know of. We don’t know that she hasn’t, of course, but she hasn’t from the LW.)

    8. CupcakeCounter*

      My take was OP was trying to provide a bit more color around Ethel’s personality and explain why she was in the position she was in (probably due to the comments from the original letter). The fact that several of OP’s coworkers noticed the abrupt change in Ethel and OP’s working relationship and mentioned something about it leads me to believe it was a very noticeable change on Ethel’s end. After the harassment OP endured painting her as a “mean girl” seems very unfair. The only thing OP wanted to change was the harassment over the long ago game and instead Ethel went to the other end of the spectrum which started causing other problems.

      1. Not So NewReader*

        This is the way I see it also.
        I think that Ethel was so invested in “being OP’s friend” that Ethel forgot she was the boss. I read this as Ethel was too buddy-buddy, even a friend might take issue here. If she thought they were friends, this is how you treat a friend? really?
        Then she went the opposite way with walking on eggshells around, OP. Well if she had not been so extreme in the first place, she would not have had to walk so far to get back to middle ground. She could not figure out where that middle ground would be, this can happen to people when they run out to extremes. It looks like she forgot that she apologized and she forgot that in most instances an apology should be the end. More than likely she is not sure how apologies work.

    9. big X*

      It feels weirdly victim-shame-y to say LW is the mean girl in this situation. Just because Ethel is trying to change doesn’t mean LW can’t be upset with her manager’s behavior anyways, esp if she went from this to treating LW like some fragile flower, which is what I interpreted as kid’s gloves. The latter is the crux – if she just started to treat LW as a professional then that’s one thing but having seen first hand a similar situation, I am convinced that LW was being treated as a glass doll and that is equally irritating.

      (Also, it rubs me the wrong way when you say LW ‘lost her shizz’…this was only after someone provoked her in a time of extreme stress – note how the other employees were asking if she was ok or offered a coffee while Ethel, her manager, decided that “let me just make this joke you have told me you don’t like” was the way to go).

      LW is understandably at the BEC stage, as someone else mentioned, which is why the finger thing rubs her the wrong way.

      1. Dust Bunny*

        It’s totally victim-blamey. Ethel should have (well, not started it in the first place) but let it go after the event at which the medal was won.

        I don’t think this is even BEC. Ethel has been haranguing the LW about this for months and ignoring the LW’s statements that it bothers her. This isn’t the LW being annoyed by something petty–it’s the LW being harassed into a corner.

      2. Serin*

        > note how the other employees were asking if she was ok or offered a coffee while Ethel, her manager, decided that “let me just make this joke you have told me you don’t like” was the way to go

        That actually clarifies something that may have been going on in Ethel’s head: she may have thought, “Oh, LW is stressed. Let’s lighten things up a little bit,” and then been utterly hamhanded in how she did it.

        (Of course it’s also a possibility that she didn’t notice LW was stressed because she’s bad at reading people, or that she thought, “Ooh, stressed people are easy to get a reaction out of,” or whatever.)

        The icy professionalism would really annoy me if I were the OP, but it could also spring from Ethel (1) trying not to make things any worse, while (2) feeling hurt.

    10. StaceyIzMe*

      No. It’s not mean to react when you’ve been targeted for a long period of time and are caught at a moment of utterly exhausted resilience. Why does Ethel get all of the benefit of possible poor social skills and the LW is supposedly piling on? Sometimes “poor social skills” is just code for “they are a complete asshole”.

    11. Medal Hater*

      (LW here) I’m sorry if it sounded that way, genuinely wasn’t try to be mean to Ethel but give context for how she is and perceived in the team.

      I wouldn’t say I ‘lost my shizz’ exactly, I was stressed out from a difficult situation and then reacted emotionally when my boss did the thing I hate, even if it wasn’t intended that way from her.

      And the finger thing – she would be typing on her keyboard and you’d walk over say ‘hey Ethel can I ask you a quick thing’ and the finger would shoot up, she wouldn’t look away from the screen for sometimes a minute. No ‘one moment, just a second’ or even ‘not right now’- it can be quite difficult as someone’s line report if that’s how your interactions with your boss go.

      I wouldn’t say it’s fair to call me a mean girl though, that definitely wasn’t my intention.

      1. Karo*

        I did that exactly once to a coworker because I was listening very intently on a phone call while an executive talked about something that I had been trying to pin them down on for like a month. As soon as I hung up I found the coworker and apologized profusely because even though I didn’t have much of an option it was still incredibly rude.

      2. DANGER: Gumption Ahead*

        You were not a mean girl and it is terrible that Ethel couldn’t hear “Stop it”, even when it was a direct 1:1 conversation, until it was delivered very forcefully. I don’t care what someone’s emotional intelligence is, if they are a manager and continue to exhibit a behavior to an employee after being told a number of times, in a number of ways, to stop, they are the problem.

      3. PVR*

        I am completely taken aback by the mean girl comments and saying YOU were piling on. I am sorry this happened to you and I am glad you no longer work there.

    12. Observer*

      Ethel wasn’t being “too considerate” – she wasn’t being considerate AT ALL.

      She was acting as though the OP was a child who needed to coddled and who couldn’t really do her job, and was being so public about it that others noticed.

    1. Nea*

      No, LW has been very clear that LW is quite bothered by Ethel making a huge show out of insulting her to her face (calling her a loser, etc) and then undermining LW with new hires and the rest of the team by constantly reiterating Ethel’s insults.

      And LW has every right to be incredibly bothered by that.

      1. Purrsnikitty*

        Haha, learned something and got a laugh :) <- not sarcasm….
        (and now I feel like pointing out I'm not being sarcastic is… looking sarcastic, augh)

    2. Minocho*

      From the original letter, it’s more that the LW is not particularly competitive, so the competition for something silly was a way to spice up an activity that is, in many ways, meaningless. Ethel got into it, and took it too far – maybe she’s been around really competitive people her whole life and was socialized to think this was an average response. Or some other issue. Either which way, the LW has low investment, but Ethel was demanding and imposing high investment, then continuing the seriously exagerated competitive narrative…forever.

      That would be super annoying to me too.

      I had something vaguely analogous: We had an air hockey table, and decided to do a tournament. I am no air hockey expert. I am not even a gifted amateur. I was eager to do my best, and had no expectations.

      Well, in round 2, the winners of round 1 were pitted against each other. And my opponent was the director. I beat him. Soundly. I am a woman in IT, surrounded by guys. The guys were *really* rubbing in that the director lost to “a girl”. Dudes. It’s air hockey.

      Anyway, my boss decided this was hilarious, and went into the director’s office and wrote on his white board “Haha, I beat you, what a loser – Minocho”

      He thought this was the height of comedy. The director disliked me ever since.

  11. Lilith*

    Somehow people need classes in how to read a room. There would be such a huge benefit all around. Ethel is a prime example. She could manage X people ok, but not X+Y. Then she didn’t understand when “jokes” went awry.
    Someone needs to develop/package a course in listening, observing. Kind of like an extension of Dale Carnegie.

    1. TootsNYC*

      also, my dad was a high school speech & communications teacher in the 1960, 1970s, and beyond. I was cleaning out his home office the other day, and tossing his notebooks and research.

      I found a bunch of folders with articles and booklets he’d used a background material for courses he taught, as well as the actual courses (outlines, homework, etc.)–and he had a section on listening.

      I remember taking it at one point.

  12. Lilysparrow*

    Ethel couldn’t act normally after the confrontation, because it finally became obvious to her that she had no clue what “normal” behavior is. She thought she was acting normally by teasing you. When she discovered how wrong she was, she didn’t know what to do instead.

    I’m glad she took it seriously enough to try to totally recalibrate her behavior. I know it was awkward for you, but I think it shows that she’s a decent person who is trying, rather than just a totally self-centered jerk.

    But mostly, I’m glad you have a new job so you don’t have to deal with her anymore. She’s way, way too much work on top of your actual work.

    1. Manchmal*

      I think this is right. Ethel doesn’t sound like some sociopath sitting at home plotting how to make the OP miserable. She clearly has very poor social skills. That’s not to suggest that the OP should feel bad for her, but she sounds more irritating than malicious. How annoying to have to deal with. Congrats on the new gig, OP!

    2. Elemeno P.*

      This. I once had a manager that made me (and others) cry because he didn’t know when to stop the jokes. He learned about it later on once I’d stopped working for him, and he was awkward for a bit when he saw me around after that. He wasn’t a bad person, but his gonna-tease-you-about-this-one-thing method of bonding with people did NOT work in a management situation, and it was something he had to learn.

      1. Jamie*

        I worked for someone like that once. But since he owned the company he didn’t have to learn from it and from what I hear it hasn’t changed since I left.

        Definitely socially awkward but a shitty way of treating people who can’t return verbal fire.

    3. Pomona Sprout*

      I completely agree with this. I think Ethel was mortified. All that time, she thought she knew exactly what she was doing and how it was being taken, and when she realized how epically wrong she had been, she was completely lost and had no idea how to act.

      Some people are just not cut out to be managers. Not without a course in “Emotional Intelligence and People Skills 101.” Why isn’t this stuff taught in schools, seriously? It seems to come naturally to some people, but if you’re not one of those, you’re evidently doomed to failure. Which actually really sucks when you think about it.

  13. Damien*

    Yeah, sometimes people can get caught up on the criticism-bandwagon and forget to readjust their sights on the situation – OP got (sort of) their desired result, but their problem-person was exposed as having the not-totally-deliberate but terrible social skills we suspected all along, and her attempted change in behaviour still isn’t good enough for some. There’s people and feelings on both sides of this, and it’s possible to cheer for one without ripping down the other after she’s made an attempt to change.

    1. Jenn*

      But Ethel’s behavior changed from constantly making fun of the OP even after being asked to stop to creating such a cold atmosphere between them that other employees expressed concern. Neither situation is good behavior for a manager.

  14. LDN Layabout*

    I get that people are viewing this through their own awkwardness lenses, but Ethel’s behaviour didn’t actually improve. It just turned into icing out the OP to the point that her coworkers realised there was an issue.

    1. Shan*

      Yes! It feels like some people are maybe recognizing themselves in Ethel, and instead of taking it as a “hey, learning opportunity,” they’re choosing to defend her/downplay what she’s doing and imply the OP is somehow at fault.

      Ethel’s behaviour was crappy, both before and after OP broke down. That doesn’t make her a bad person, but it does mean she’s a not great manager (at least at present).

      1. Bee*

        ^^This is exactly what’s happening, Shan. It’s weird that people are nitpicking OP for being annoyed that Ethel completely iced her out after the confrontation. I can see how Ethel just pulled alllll the way back because she embarrassed and didn’t want to cause any further issues, but it’s totally understandable that OP interpreted that behavior as retaliation/punishment for calling Ethel out.

        1. Shan*

          Absolutely – I mean, I’ve certainly been guilty of getting miffed about being called out for something and then deliberately overcorrecting, but I wasn’t a manager.

        2. we're basically gods*

          It reminds me of the comments on the letter from the woman who had been blacklisted by someone she bullied in high school. When someone starts nit-picking what happened to people who were bullied to justify why they deserved it, I really think the nit-picker’s behavior deserves a close examination.

  15. poodleoodle*

    I think it’s great that you got a new job because Ethel is not someone I would want to work for. She reminds me of my retail managers who were very petty and vindictive, and I’m super glad I am no longer in that environment either.
    I can’t think of any reason to defend her behavior unless of course, OP reads as overly sensitive and can’t take a joke.

  16. Approval is optional*

    The Jennifer who is implicitly blaming the LW for not being ‘kind’ enough? The Jennifer who contributed to a thread saying the LW was a ‘mean girl’? That Jennifer?

  17. mobuy*

    It’s too bad that the OP didn’t have the real conversation before the breakdown. I know she said stuff like “Why are we still talking about this,” but she never had the actual, “Please stop talking about this” conversation. Should Ethel have picked up on it? Well, yeah, but she didn’t.

    I think this story shows that if something is bugging us, we should either REALLY let it go, or speak up with unambiguous words instead of hints. Otherwise, it can come out of us with tears, yelling, or rage. I’m glad OP was able to finally get Ethel to stop, but if she would have used the real words earlier, it might not have gotten to this point.

    1. LDN Layabout*

      “I even mentioned it privately in our one-on-one, but she started laughing and joking about my “obsession with losing.””

      The OP literally asked her to stop in a one-to-one and Ethel kept mocking her. What was she meant to do, take out a full page ad in the local paper?

      1. Not So NewReader*

        Yeah, how many times does OP have to say no before she gets heard? “No” does not mean keep going.

      2. Lady Ariel Ponyweather*

        I agree. OP told her many different times in many different ways. Each time, Ethel refused to believe her and insisted OP was still angry. There’s a limit to how much a person can do, especially when they’re dealing with their manager.

        I’ve dealt with people who refuse to believe what you say and use your objections as fuel. It’s frustrating and dehumanising. It doesn’t matter whether they’re socially awkward, don’t get cues, or are deliberately out to hurt you. It’s an awful experience, and it’s so much worse when that person has more standing or power than you do.

        I do hope Ethel uses this experience to learn and change. She’ll probably be happier overall and so will anyone reporting to her. Thank you for the update, OP, and congratulations on the new job!

        1. LDN Layabout*

          I think the issue may be that the update didn’t include the titbit about the OP telling her in a one-to-one to stop, but even so the number of people saying ‘well you should have been direct!’ is mindblowing…

          1. Lady Ariel Ponyweather*

            That could be it, although I agree it’s still mindblowing.

            And honestly, I’ve been direct with people and literally said “No, I don’t want to talk about this” or “No, I can’t do this”, was completely ignored. I lost my temper with those people and, naturally, was blamed for not being direct enough! So while I do sympathise with Ethel having her own issues, I completely believe OP when she said she tried everything to shut it down and was dismissed.

            1. LDN Layabout*

              And the fact that the OP wasn’t taken seriously by her manager until she had literally been broken down? I think too many people are ignoring the effects of the power balance here.

              1. Lady Ariel Ponyweather*

                Oh yes. The power imbalance makes such a huge difference. Not just in the workplace: I know so many people who had to break down crying before doctors believed what they were saying. (And even then it was a toss-up between being believed and being told they were just trying to get sympathy.) It’s amazing how many people simply refuse to listen to the words people say.

          2. DANGER: Gumption Ahead*

            I know! My mind is blown. I’ve haven’t seen this many excuses for someone ignoring a person’s “No” and then acting like that person is the problem when they finally lose their temper outside of Reddit discussions of basically anything involving a woman saying no to a man.

    2. poodleoodle*

      It sounded like she did in the original letter though:
      I even mentioned it privately in our one-on-one, but she started laughing and joking about my “obsession with losing.”
      I mean we don’t know what was said but it sounds like OP did use real words.

    3. Mr. Tyzik*

      So now the victim blaming comes out. I was waiting for that.

      Don’t dare suggest that the OP is as fault here. She pushed back in many ways and Ethel still bullied her. You’re thinking logically; bullies don’t deal with logic.

    4. Medal Hater*

      Hi, LW here. I did try on lots of occasions, either when it happened or privately – but she continued. I feel I was pretty direct but as she was my boss there was an element of anxiety about how to word it without being insubordinate.

      1. Close Bracket*

        The things you described in your initial letter were not direct. You described deflection techniques. You didn’t tell us the kind of things you said during one-on-ones, so maybe you were more direct there. However, “why are we still talking about this?”, for example, is not direct at all. Laughing something off is not direct.

        One way to be direct to a manager without being insubordinate is to use “when you … I feel …” statements. Preface by saying “I really need to talk to you about something. It’s fairly serious.” Then go into, “When you joke about me being upset about losing, it embarrasses me, and I feel small. The things you say don’t reflect my feelings at all, and it’s hurtful to have such petty feelings ascribed to me. I’d like you to stop making those jokes.” That’s direct. It’s not insubordinate. You can use that type of wording on anyone.

        1. Pines*

          Normally it’s polite in society, whenever someone is bothering you, to let them know indirectly first, so that they can back off without being told and everyone gets to save face. Laughing it off and using indirect language before using direct language, which OP says she did eventually escalate to, is normal social behavior and not deflection.

          Today’s comment section is being so weird, honestly.

            1. Amber*

              It’s hurting my brain reading some of these. Apparently, if someone in a position of power treats me poorly it’s my fault for not being direct enough.

        2. Baru Cormorant*

          OK, so what should OP have said when Ethel then kept going? What’s the next step? Because that is what happened.

    5. Observer*

      I know she said stuff like “Why are we still talking about this,” but she never had the actual, “Please stop talking about this” conversation

      The OP shouldn’t have needed to have that conversation – but in fact, they actually DID have that conversation and Ethel just laughed and made some MORE jokes.

    6. Myrin*

      I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again until this site comes crashing down: When we get an update on AAM, that means there’s been an original letter some time in the past. As such, it would be most fortunate if people, before commenting on the update, actually (re-)read the original letter to become (newly or once again) familiar with the context before jumping to the update’s comment section to write weirdly uncongruous comments.

  18. Jess*

    You can bet if Ethel wrote in about what happened, people would have been kind to her, despite how egregious it was. This is a kind community.

    Jennifer suggesting the OP is nitpicking and should just get over it when her boss treats her markedly differently from the rest of her co-workers and acts as though ROUTINE TASKS in the OP’s job might be too challenging or stressful for her after a confrontation about ETHEL’S BEHAVIOUR is not exactly up to the normal par of kindness.

  19. FormerExpat*

    “X really bothers me and I am asking you to stop. Is that something that you think you can do?” Often we have to be much more direct than we think.

    1. Approval is optional*

      That’s not really the sort of script most people would be comfortable using with their manager.

      1. a1*

        Why? It’s not rude, mean, or disrespectful. We can expect people, even bosses, to read our minds.

        1. Approval is optional*

          The first part is fine (though I would completely understand someone not being comfortable saying it to their manager – the power imbalance can make directness risky): the ‘is that something you think you can do’ is not really something you can say to your manager IMO.

          1. londonedit*

            Yeah, I’ve seen ‘Is that something you think you can do?’ come up a few times here as a thing to say to someone, and I just can’t imagine any British person being able to say that without it sounding deeply sarcastic and patronising. It would be bad enough saying it to a colleague, let alone to your boss.

            I really don’t see what the OP could have done beyond trying a gentle approach in public and then bringing it up privately and saying ‘It’s been months, why are we still talking about this?’ I’d say that’s just about as direct as you can hope to be with your boss, and the fact that she still didn’t cotton on to the fact that OP didn’t find her joke funny isn’t OP’s fault.

        2. Kay Webble*

          I think many people legitimately are concerned about sharing feedback with their managers if they see red flags in terms of how their managers have taken feedback in the past. I had one boss, I avoided giving him feedback because he tended to spin feedback around on the giver to show them that (a) the feedback was not valid, and (b) it was, in fact, a weakness of the giver that they saw this as a development point for him. It was too risky for me to give him feedback: he was likely to come out of the discussion thinking I was a weaker employee than he had before I’d given feedback to him.

          I, however, think we agree that the script in question is even-handed, facts based and clear, and in an ideal manager-employee relationship, would be a good one to use!

        3. Eukomos*

          Bad bosses don’t retaliate because you were rude or unprofessional, they retaliate because they didn’t like hearing what you told them.

    2. Sienna*

      But she WAS direct. She mentioned that she confronted her with more direct language during her one-on-ones with Ethel in the original letter.

    3. Medal Hater*

      Hi, LW here. I did try similar phrases when bringing it up in the past but she always laughed them off.

      1. Not So NewReader*

        OP, I am getting more ticked on your behalf. This situation was ridiculous.

        Respectfully disagreeing with others who said you should have used a different set of words. Because of the power imbalance, the onus was on HER to ask you want you meant if she did not understand. And she not only ignored your request but she also chose not to ask you what you meant, repeatedly. Same mistakes over and over.

        I took over a group of people who felt pretty beat up by their former boss. So naturally, I was trying to tread softly but still keep everything in order the way it should be. I decided that if I did not know if they were joking, I would remain serious and ask, “Seriously or joking?”. They would answer me with which ever one it was. It’s so simple to do this and yet it prevents SO many problems. She could have done it at any point and she repeatedly chose not to.

      2. Turtle Candle*

        Medal Hater, I am absolutely losing my mind on your behalf. Because obviously* you can’t expect anyone to understand anything unless it’s conveyed with bullhorns and skywriting, and obviously** your boss has some kind of mental illness or is neurodivergent and obviously*** can only understand concepts if they’re spelled out in her desk with Kit Kats and thus obviously**** you should check your privilege.

        * Not obvious
        ** Definitely not obvious
        *** Still not obvious!
        **** Some people are projecting so hard they should rent themselves out to IMAX

    4. Jinkies*

      “Is that something that you think you can do” is a common script Alison has recommended for managers when addressing performance issues with their employees. For most offices it would read as oddly aggressive or even (as much as I hate the word) insubordinate to approach an issue with one’s manager this way.

    5. hbc*

      That is pretty much the script that Alison uses from boss to employee, not the other way around, and I think there’s a good reason behind that. Imagine a teacher saying that to a student, and then a student saying that to a teacher. It simply doesn’t work the same.

      Now, there are probably plenty of bosses who would take it in the spirit in which it’s intended and not bristle too much at it. The number of those bosses who would “joke” with an employee by telling new hires that said employee is a poor loser is approximately zero.

  20. Tessa Ryan*

    Glad this worked out for you, OP! I’ll bet that Ethel will cringe inwardly at her behavior for many years to come.

  21. The Man, Becky Lynch*

    I like Jennifer too, I appreciate everyone here really because it’s awesome to have the discussions we do. But this is so over the top and inappropriate. It’s borderline snarky behavior of it’s own.

    1. emmelemm*

      Yeah, this is pretty inappropriate. Jennifer has a valid perspective and is free to make her points, but come on.

  22. spock*

    Ethel is not the worst person to ever exist, but she was clearly in the wrong here and it’s not unkind to acknowledge that. I feel like some people here can see themselves as an unintentional Ethel (I know I can!) and it’s leading to a lot of excuses instead of accepting that you can be rude without intending to.

  23. ragazza*

    I find it very interesting that Ethel was aware enough to figure out that OP was upset, enough to follow her and ask what was wrong. Probably it took an emotional situation for her to finally get it, whereas being straightforward and saying “please stop” didn’t do the trick.

    It sounds like Ethel has a lot of shame around this issue. There are a lot of resources that could help her get over that and deal with her lack of emotional intelligence, even strategies for saying “sometimes I don’t pick up on things that others do, so please ping me if that’s what I’m doing.” Whether she just doesn’t care about improving or is just too immature to change, it doesn’t matter–the result is the same for her poor coworkers and employees. Her manager needs to step in.

    Anyway, this is Ethel’s problem now, not OP’s, and I’m so glad! Good luck in your new job.

  24. big X*

    Kindness is refreshing but Ethel is so deeply in the wrong that the implication in some threads that LW is somehow being mean because she isn’t ecstatic that Ethel did the bare minimum (i.e. stopped making the joke) is so ridiculously backwards that the kindness to Ethel itself feels like a mean girl move: “Omg, like why are you still mad about it? Like, I get you were low-key bullied for a while but someone senior to you but look, she’s over that now so stop being such a capital B! Why didn’t you try to help Ethel be better? It’s kinda your fault!”

    Being socially awkward is so relatable that I get why so many people’s knee jerk reaction is to defend her but that’s an explanation for Ethel’s behavior, not an excuse. It’s on Ethel to correct that, not LW or anyone else, and it’s so unfair to put that on others.

  25. Blah*

    It always baffles me how much people think it’s ok to let everyone around them know exactly how they are feeling at all times. It’s just so juvenile and unprofessional to me. Everyone has bad days but, there are some contexts, namely work (!!!) where we kinda gotta put on a face to keep things running smoothly. /Honestly./

    1. Kay Webble*

      Are you referring to Ethel, or the OP? I’m presuming not the OP – it looks like she’s got a reputation for being cool, calm and collected, but had one day when things really didn’t go as planned.

      Personally, I understand how people become emotional at work. When people are pushed to their limits, it’s easy to lose a cool outward demeanor (ask me how I know!). There are extremes, like when managers scream at employees for mistakes they make, or employees cry at the slightest feedback – but sometimes it’s precisely the act of holding emotions in that cause them to boil over.

    2. Librarian of SHIELD*

      If this comment is referring to OP crying at work, you’re really, really overreacting here. OP wasn’t walking around work all day every day announcing her emotional state to the bullpen like some sort of psychological town crier. Everybody’s had the kind of day OP was having when her emotions took control. The kind of day where everything goes wrong, and everything you do to try to fix it also seems to be going wrong, but she was holding it together until her boss decided some light mockery was the best way to proceed.

  26. WellRed*

    I had to go back and reread the original letter because I didn’t remember the OP taking this all so personally. I’m glad it’s behind now.

    1. Approval is optional*

      Taking it personally? Her manager was bullying her. How was she meant to take it?

      1. hbc*

        Yeah, she was personally being called out for being a poor loser, for sulking over a game from months ago. Unless Ethel had jokey insults for everyone in the office for months on end, this was the definition of personal.

    2. we're basically gods*

      Ah, yes, that dastardly OP, taking continual public mockery that doesn’t stop even when it’s requested in a one-on-one meeting sooooo personally. OP took it personally because it *was* personal.

    3. AngryAngryAlice*

      “Taking this so personally” … you mean being harassed and bullied at work BY HER BOSS and being ignored every single time she asked Ethel to stop? And then being frustrated that Ethel retaliated by freezing her out to the point that other colleagues noticed?

      Jfc I can’t believe how many people are victim blaming, downplaying Ethel’s abuse, and pretending that no doesn’t actually mean no in these comments. It’s honestly disgusting.

  27. StaceyIzMe*

    I hate to say it, but Ethel is a bully. She may have been clueless. She may have been calculating. She may have been both and extremely petty into the bargain. But I will never understand why someone who pokes another family member or professional colleague is “SO SURPRISED” when an eventual come-to-Jesus happens. Anyway- congratulations on having successfully moved on and this-was-never-your-circus/ these-were-never-your-monkeys. The strange doings with the trophy might have been tolerable as a one-off, but as an epic saga is serial form? No. Nope. Nein. Nyet. Non. Iiye…

  28. Not So NewReader*

    Just goes to show, unless a person is very good at humor then probably less is more. Even good humor in large doses tends to be too much.
    I am sure there are guidelines some where. In my own experience, never make anyone a butt of a joke. Never joke about something they did/wore/own/said. Don’t joke about anything in their immediate vicinity. (My crappy chair that won’t be replaced is NOT funny. That malfunctioning machine we absolutely need is not source material for jokes.)
    Don’t rely on jokes to lead groups of people. They want a boss not a comedian.
    Just because a person laughs does not mean the joke was funny. Just because a group of people laugh does not mean they think the joke is funny.
    And above all else, when a person says no, then stop. Ethel forced OP’s hand, Ethel turned herself into a person who needed a (figurative) concrete block dropped on her head before she decided to listen.
    I would be curious now to ask Ethel, what OP could have said in the one-on-ones to make her realize this was an issue. I bet Ethel would think about it and say, “Probably nothing OP could have said would have registered.” Ethel turned herself into a person that others cannot communicate with. Hopefully, she has learned something here.

    1. StaceyIzMe*

      “Ethel turned herself into a person that others cannot communicate with.” This. Precisely. Because, as a manager, it’s necessary to be accessible for work related queries and a professional “reset” shouldn’t be needed when, as a boss or colleague, you’ve been called out for your behavior. Why is Ethel checking in on LW’s routine workflow? It’s a total non sequitur. Kind of like the bragging about the trophy to begin with… it made no sense, became provocative by virtue of repetition and extreme emphasis and was never resolved in context. Go figure…

    2. Dust Bunny*

      Also, this falls under “don’t punch down”. Ethel outranked the LW and that alone should have stopped her from making a joke at the LW’s expense.

    3. Serin*

      See, if you wanted to have a wacky running joke with one of your direct reports? It needs to be a joke about the medal you LOST, not the one you won.

      “Man, LW wiped the floor with me, I’m not kidding, I’m still reeling, I’m totally going to hire a beanbag-toss coach to address my shortcomings” would still get old, but because it’s silly, not because it’s mean.

      1. Not So NewReader*

        I am introvert. When I am thinking I get very quiet, sometimes I’d stand still and stare at something. My group teased me, “Oh she’s thinking again!” and it went on from there. I just laughed. But I remember the very first time someone teased me, I had worked with her before and she knew I was okay with this type of kidding. Well she let out her comment and the group gasped. I just grinned and started laughing, “She knows me too well! We’ve worked together for a while and she knows what that expression on my face means.” That opened the flood gates, I got razzed many times when I had that look on my face after that.

        I was their boss. The joke was at me, but it was benign and a shared laugh is healthy. Interestingly, this keep morphing and they eventually would pick up on what I was looking at sometimes then they would start offering suggestions. (Reeeallly GOOD suggestions.)

  29. TootsNYC*

    Thanks for sharing this.

    And it made me think of a response I gave on a recent thread about the really rude colleague with mental health issues, and my advocacy of letting the anger show.

    Your story is a good reminder that this CAN break the relationship. Maybe my advice wasn’t so wise.

    1. The Man, Becky Lynch*

      But just accepting the abusive relationship and not letting them know at all, just rolling with it despite the pain on one side, that isn’t a sustainable relationship either. So yeah it’s sad that it couldn’t come out not broken but in the end, it’s damned if you do damned if you don’t!

    2. Jellyfish*

      Captain Awkward would say the relationship was already broken because it didn’t work on the OP’s end.
      No one has to up with poor treatment, whether it’s malicious or not, just to keep the unkind person from feeling less than happy.

    3. Not So NewReader*

      OP wanted a boss, boss wanted a friend. That would not have worked out anyway. If there had not been a blow up now, there would have been one later. They had two different goals. OP had the correct goal. Not all situations are so clear cut.

  30. sofar*

    I had an Ethel in my graduate program, and I “resolved” things in a similar way to LW. Instead of winning a game, the thing she teased me about was a presentation I bombed near the beginning of the semester (it truly was an awful presentation, but I put a LOT of work into my public speaking after it).

    It was another student who finally snapped and literally told her to “Shut the eff up about this, effing CHRIST, you are being so annoying about this!” during a group project we were all working on. There was a record-scratch moment, and then my Ethel starting saying she was just joking. I said, “Honestly, this has been bothering me, and it’s hurtful, and I probably should have asked you directly to stop. So ….uh… glad Curtis took that on for me. Thanks, Curtis!”

    I suspected she was trying to elevate herself in her peers’ eyes. Maybe she had come from a background where bullying had been successful in that way. In any case, my Ethel gave everyone the icy, super formal silent treatment the rest of the semester. It was an improvement!

    Sadly, when it comes to bullying (deliberate or no), being calm and redirecting often doesn’t work. You’ve got to confront them.

    1. Me*

      My experience with people like your Ethel (and I suspect the OP’s) is that they now feel like everyone was mean and picked on them when they were just joking. So they now pout anytime they have to interact with you because you’re mean.

      The type people who think “I was just joking” is an appropriate response are people I stay far far away from. I like “I’m sorry, that wasn’t my intent, I’ll stop” people much more.

      1. Jenn*

        It also reminds me of the guy at my work who would grab women’s butts and whenever he was confronted he was “just a joke.”

        1. Me*

          I also firmly believe these people do in fact know they are being jerks. They like it. It is fun – for them. They don’t like it when people ruin their fun.

      2. Bee*

        I know someone like this. Her heart is in the right place, but she has a dry sense of humor and very poor comedic timing. Another friend of ours nicely called her out on saying things that we all knew she meant to be jokes, but were landing as insults/mockery. Her response was basically “Sorry you’re all so sensitive, I’m just never going to make a joke again”.

        1. Not So NewReader*

          “No one likes me, everyone hates me, I am just going to go eat a can of worms.”
          Sigh. Some people can dish it out but they can’t take it.
          Out loud I would have had a hard time NOT saying, “GOOD! That’s what we want.”
          But clearly the remark is to inflict some type of self-imagined punishment, “You said something bad about me so now I am going to be humorless around you.”

          1. emmelemm*

            “No one likes me, everyone hates me, I am just going to go eat a can of worms.”

            My mom used to say that, jokingly, all the time!

  31. Me*

    Oh no no OP. Just as the initial medal issue was Ethel, all Ethel and nothing but Ethel and no reflection on you, so very much was her weird awkward response to being confronted. You’d had enough and while maybe didn’t handle it with the most grace, given the circumstances it was fine. Her reaction was hers and hers alone. YOU didn’t make it weird, she did. Repeat as needed – “other peoples behavior is a choice they are making”.

    I’m glad you have a new job.

  32. Observer*

    OP, I hope that if you had an exit interview, you brought this up. I don’t think Ethel is a villain, but her behavior is really, really not ok. Emotional intelligence is not just a “nice to have” in a manager – it’s an absolute requirement. Management needs to be made aware of behavior that could be really damaging and that will certainly reduce her effectiveness long term.

    1. Not So NewReader*

      Agreed. If a person knows they feel out of the loop a lot it’s up to them to try to get up to speed.
      If this manager does not make some changes then she could end up being a department of ONE.

  33. Cymru*

    Maybe Ethel has ASD, maybe she doesn’t.
    If she does, and reading the interaction through that lens a lot of her behaviour makes sense.
    That doesn’t make it okay, or excuse her, but it definitely explains it.

    When your social skills aren’t very good, thanks to ASD, you tend to cling to anything that brings you social praise, even if it’s just once. Once it’s established this thing brings you praise you will repeat it ad naseum because the initial feeling of joy that you got from it is the same level every time, it does not wane.
    And if you’re particularly unable to understand that others might not be taking as much joy as you, any time it’s brought up is seen as a positive reflection and therefore an indicator that the thing is good (e.g. “look why won’t you let the joke die?”, now Ethel is reminded of the thing and she’s thinking about how it’s a joke and perhaps not noticing the negative emotion that the other person is feeling because she cannot read it and did not take in the words).
    Her complete 180 after the LW was finally able to get through to Ethel that “this is not a thing that’s enjoyable”, is also understandable. Again not excusable because it once again made LW uncomfortable but it does indicate that Ethel understood that her “joke” wasn’t appreciated and she was trying to fix things with the tools she had at her disposal. Her not joking may have been because she didn’t know what wouldn’t be seen by others as “funny”, her checking in may be explained as trying to get an emotional read on work stress of the LW without finesse, and her only reading bullet points for meetings well again she’s could be trying to adhere to professional ‘norms’ but so literally in interpretation that it comes off as cold.

    I have no solutions for LW or her past coworkers on how to deal with this, much of the work has to be done by Ethel herself to understand the social mores of the world we live in without compromising her own psychological well-being (it’s hard work having to ‘pass’ as ‘normal’). One suggestion would have been for others in the office to speak up about how the ‘joke’ wasn’t funny anymore, but that isn’t entirely helpful a suggestion given the social rule against pointing out seemingly obvious things to higher ups, also that still may not have solved it if Ethel didn’t listen to the words and if the words weren’t particularly blunt.

    I think that LW has every reason to be upset with Ethel, she was made to feel bad by Ethel’s behaviour in both examples of it and that’s not okay. I do think that Ethel took LW’s words to heart though and did try to change her behaviour, not gracefully and without seeking outside help but she did try.

  34. Airy*

    Sounds like Ethel felt mortified, and frankly, good. I don’t know that she has the capacity to learn much from it, because she clearly didn’t know how to recover from it and establish a normal working relationship, but at least she stopped the medal nonsense.

  35. Medal Hater*

    Hi, original LW here. Thank you for your comments, just to be clear – I am not trying to be mean about Ethel in my letter as some have suggested, just providing context for how she is day to day. It’s not my intention to be cruel about her at all, she has clashed with quite a few colleagues/team members and it’s no secret than she struggles with the soft skills side of her job. I was just trying to include this to provide background/context.

    Additionally I feel I was quite direct in trying to address this before this happened. I frequently asked her to stop privately in our 1:1s and during the medal joking itself. I did choose my words carefully as she was my boss and there’s a power dynamic there, but I don’t think I was too subtle for her to understand my position.

    Maybe I should’ve been OK with how she was with me afterwards, but it’s hard when your manager doesn’t speak to or acknowledge you all day unless she has a specific work query for you. I know managers and subordinates aren’t pals, but it’s difficult to navigate when it’s so far the other way.

    thanks again for all of your help and support.

    1. emmelemm*

      Also thanks for the update. I do think some people here saying you weren’t direct *enough* maybe aren’t considering or remembering your original letter. It sounds like you were pretty clear, as clear as one can be with a boss who has power over your job and raises. You can’t exactly say “cut it out, for f*cks sake!” If you said, “Please stop doing this”, that should be enough.

      So don’t feel bad that you didn’t have the magic words to shut her down. Clearly, she didn’t have good emotional intelligence, for whatever reason. Even if there was zero malicious intent behind it, I think anyone would have felt stressed out by the whole thing at the point you were at.

      Hooray for the ability to move on, regardless!

    2. The Man, Becky Lynch*

      It’s completely reasonable to be unhappy with how she turned around and started treating you afterwards!

      Most people are just skimming and forming opinions along the way while reading, so they get sidetracked with things like that kind of stuff. Then they drill down into it and don’t look at the entire picture. I know I’m guilty of that frequently enough. So I’m sorry that people are harping a bit on the idea that you didn’t just accept the cold shoulder and kid gloves with a smile.

      I hadn’t realized how much you’d tried to address it with her but yeah, she’s absurdly obtuse and should not be a manager. Given she’s known to rub so many people wrong, it’s ridiculous they haven’t removed her from that position. Hopefully this is an eye opener for her but I wouldn’t hold my breath that it sticks now that you’re gone =(

    3. spock*

      Thanks for the update. It sounds like you handled everything as well as you could have. Congrats on the new job!

    4. Shirley Keeldar*

      I’m sorry about those comments accusing you of being mean and also about the weird insistence that you had not been direct enough, when it was clear that you had been as direct as possible–Ethel’s failure to take you seriously =/= your lack of directness! I think some people were trying so hard to give Ethel the benefit of the doubt that they ended up being unfair to you. Don’t let those comments get to you–I think most people realize you handled a very difficult situation as well as could be expected!

    5. we're basically gods*

      You tried very hard to get her to stop, and she pushed your boundaries. She is, at the very minimum, not a nice person, because she thinks hurting people is funny. The people who are blaming you are completely off the rails here– this is a mire of victim blaming that is so, so gross, and it’s the same thinking that allows bullies to operate everywhere.
      I’m so glad you’re out of that situation.

    6. Deb Morgan*

      The situation Ethel put you in was horrible and impossible, no matter what her excuse for that behavior was, and I’m glad you’re away from her. I don’t think you are being mean at all, and I’m very confused by some of the comments here today. Thank you for the update!

    7. big X*

      Don’t let some people gaslight you – you handled this very well considering the circumstances & you were not mean in the slightest. You’re way more compassionate towards Ethel than I would be in the aftermath of all this as well.

      Glad you’ve moved onto greener pastures!

    8. AuroraLight37*

      I’m glad you are out of there. Ethel is someone who should not be managing people, because she lacks the soft skills to do it well and hasn’t tried to improve herself.

  36. Miranda*

    So, to those excusing Ethel’s poor behavior, while I understand your sympathy to a point, you need to stop trying to victim blame OP (that’s what telling OP they should have been more direct is). OP literally called Ethel out on this in a 1 on 1 (they explicitly state that in the original letter). Yes OP does sound a bit BEC towards Ethel, but OP has earned it. I’ve been dense, maybe not as much as Ethel, but enough to cause me problems, and those problems were totally of my own making and I deserved being called out, and I stopped the behavior without treating the annoyed person like a “fragile, overemotional” flower (which is equally bullying, shitty, and possibly even gaslighting behavior, because the bully is now calling into question OPs ability to handle themselves, which is classic gaslighting/bully behavior- drive a person crazy with repeated assholery, and then get all ooh did I hurt your widdle feelings when they react like any normal person would under that treatment), because I recognized their right to be angry with me over my behavior.
    I’ve also been on the receiving side, and I have to say it sucks horribly to be required to be pushed to the point of breakdown in order to be taken seriously that X behavior has to stop. Yes the person behaving badly towards me was somewhat dense themselves and had anxiety (untreated), and NO that does not negate nor excuse that their behavior was abusive/bullying and I had no recourse to stop it because they would not listen/always managed to divert the blame to me for their shitty behavior and they had authority over me (it took getting very emotional for it to stop, it sucked). OP, congrats on getting out, I hope this is a wake up for Ethel and they do not simply switch targets. I hope you recover well and that the new job is entirely free from such drama. (do chat things out with good friends or a therapist if needed to work out any baggage, so you can feel better sooner)

  37. juliebulie*

    Interesting update. I’m glad you’re out of there now, medal-hating OP!

    The big thing that really struck me about the original letter is that they had a COMPETITION at a TEAM-BUILDING event. I know that isn’t unusual, but I don’t think it really sets the stage for true teamwork, assuming that everybody is supposed to be on the SAME team in the workplace.

    Thus, every time Ethel waved that medal around afterwards, she was further eroding the teamwork vibe. I wonder what would have happened if someone had caller her out on that, specifically.

  38. Knitting Cat Lady*

    Ooohhh, looks like Ethel is one of those people who can’t distinguish between laughing WITH people and laughing AT people.

    I had a teacher like this once. He asked me if I was going to vote during the next general election. When I said that I wasn’t he assumed that I wasn’t 18 yet and I said that it wouldn’t matter since I still couldn’t vote, being Austrian and all that.

    From that point on he started to make Austrian jokes. Constantly. Think ‘Dumb Blonde’ jokes and substitute Austrians for the blondes. After about a month, as I hadn’t developed laser eyes, I confronted him.

    ‘If I were from Turkey, would you make jokes about Turks instead of Austrians?’

    He was absolutely baffled that I was bothered by him constantly making those jokes. He apparently didn’t clue in that he was basically calling me stupid multiple times, every. Single. Lesson.

    He stopped, after that.

    This teacher was the third worst teacher I ever had.

    1. Minocho*

      I had two teachers that loved to tease their students.

      One teacher, once one girl teared up when he went after her, teased her more relentlessly through the year.

      The other teacher was worried that his teasing had hurt the student’s feelings. I saw him pull the student aside after class and begin talking to them as I went to my next class. Our next session, he apologized publicly to the student in front of the class, complimented them on something, and began the lesson.

      Guess which one has a loyal following of adults that were once students.

    2. Observer*

      You had teachers WORSE than this? I’m so sorry to hear this.

      He knew he was calling you stupid. He just didn’t care. But once called on it, he needs to pretend that he “didn’t realize”.

      1. That Happened*

        There are some really awful teachers out there, just like there are some really terrific ones. I had one who spent far more of the class sitting around talking about herself than actually teaching biology. One lesson, months in of listening to the crap day after day, she was expounding on how in college she had an eating disorder and used to stand at the sink, pour vinegar over a head of lettuce, and eat it. I rolled my eyes at a friend and she caught me, saying “oh don’t worry honey, that’ll be you too someday”

  39. Minocho*

    I had two teachers that loved to tease their students.

    One teacher, once one girl teared up when he went after her, teased her more relentlessly through the year.

    The other teacher was worried that his teasing had hurt the student’s feelings. I saw him pull the student aside after class and begin talking to them as I went to my next class. Our next session, he apologized publicly to the student in front of the class, complimented them on something, and began the lesson.

    Guess which one has a loyal following of adults that were once students.

  40. OA*

    Thank you for sharing the update and weighing in here. I wanted to say that I worked for an “Ethel” once and I get where you are coming from. Sometimes the joking was fun, but I came to realize that, more often than not, the “jokes” were directed at a few favorite targets. Also, because it was my boss doing the joking, and like your boss, they were very moody, I never knew when we were supposed to be in joking friend mode or boss subordinate mode. It got awkward fast. I’d try to change the subject, which usually just landed me in the hot seat. It was like once they found something that got under your skin, they couldn’t help but keep picking at it. If you tried to push back or ask them to stop, then you were an overly sensitive person who couldn’t “take a joke.” At one point, HR got involved and told me that they’d gotten similar complaints about this person, but there wasn’t much they could do. I eventually broke down and cried too. They similarly responded with the exaggerated I had no idea routine. I think they felt bad, and were genuinely perplexed. At the same time, their takeaway seemed to be to treat me differently because I was a fragile person who needed special treatment—nothing to do w/ them. I’ve had other bad bosses in my life, shouty bosses, creepy bosses, you name it. The “I’m just joking” mess is just as bad. It is awful and gaslighty and not ok. I’m sorry you had to go through it and glad that you moved on to greener pastures!

    1. Observer*

      Your HR was incompetent or the company had some bigger problems. HR most definitely can do something about behavior like this if the company is a reasonable organization.

  41. Tisiphone*

    Congratulations on your new job!

    I’ve known people like Ethel. They’re the kind of people who “don’t realize” that they’re nudging up against the boundary. They know exactly where it is and what they can get away with, and when you (understandably) went off on her, she did the obvious backpedal in which she was demonstrative of treating you like a nuclear reactor about to go off. Then when you do go off, they can claim that there is no pleasing you.

    If she truly didn’t get it, she’d make no excuses, but she’d apologize, be awkward, and then settle into more normalized interactions. I know so many people who really are socially inept, and their apologies are sincere and followed up by better behavior. They do not make a performance out of walking on eggshells around you.

  42. Amber*

    Even though the specifics of Ethel’s behavior changed, the overall impact of her behavior didn’t. She spent months singling out the OP by bullying her and creating awkward tension among her staff. After, she’s treating the OP so coldly other employees have asked about it, again singling OP out and creating tension among her staff. Yes, she’s stopped the specific bullying behavior of constantly calling the OP a loser publically but she’s still behaving poorly as a manager.

  43. Mel*

    People seem really concerned that Ethel doesn’t get social cues. She may not, but I have yet to meet the grown adult capable of holding down a job who doesn’t understand, “I don’t like this, please stop.”

    I don’t have a clue what her motivations could have been, but she was told that it wasn’t being received as a joke and she continued. It’s hard for me to feel bad for her.

    1. AuroraLight37*

      Agreed. The OP told her repeatedly she didn’t like it, and Ethel kept going until she got a burst of fury, which frankly she deserved. Then she responded by freezing her subordinate out instead of acting like a decent manager.

      I think a lot of people don’t get how important soft skills are in managing.

  44. ncfan*

    Honestly, I don’t Ethel’s behavior improved any after LW finally got it through her head that she needed to stop harassing her. Freezing her out might have been harassment of a different stripe, but it achieved the same effect. The LW was singled out by a boss who was trying her best to make her look incompetent in one form or another—and whether or not this was intentional does not matter. Intent is not magic. The impact is what matters.

    LW, I’m glad you’re away from Ethel, and I doubt you need reminding, but don’t ever use her as a reference; if at all possible, try to keep the company you both worked at off of your references list going forward. I doubt she’d pass up the opportunity to take one last potshot at you, if given.

  45. ProgrammerGuy*

    This person sounds almost exactly like Michael Scott from The Office, down to the background of being good at her job previously and then getting promoted because of it.

  46. Flash Bristow*

    Sorry for the late reply on this one; hope you still see it OP! I do remember the original.

    Thing is… I can relate to you both. And I wonder if you could have both dealt with this before. I know you’ve moved on now, but in case it helps anyone in the future….

    Initially I related to you. She’s teasing you, she can see you’re at best laughing awkwardly and trying to move on; it isn’t funny, drop it. I’d feel really awkward too. I get on well socially when I choose my friends but don’t always have stuff in common with workmates or other “enforced” social groups, so I really empathise with the situation.

    But then you described how she behaved when you let her know, in all honesty, how it made you feel. In her shoes I’d have been crushed – sounds like she was too. Not that you could have been sure of that, but perhaps could have given her more of a chance earlier on? I wonder if any clues were there at all?

    Thats no way a dig at you; you did right to tell her and make her drop it and I’m glad that happened even if she she found it hard to communicate anything beyond basic work needs after that. Her comments would have really got to me, too, especially if anyone joined along with the tittering.

    But I’ve been in situations – thinking about it, one where two teams were melded – and the others had clear in-jokes and if you didn’t want to be the butt of them (which I probably was anyway) you kind of had to find your own way to connect / join in? I can see her trying to create some sort of team in-joke and just getting the timbre very wrong. I’d be gutted to know I’d genuinely upset someone. And since you were genuinely upset yourself, maybe you can relate to that somehow?

    Others in OP’s situation, maybe consider talking with the “joker” before it becomes a serious issue – for either of you? “speaking as a friend” or “just a one to one thought” or some such introductory comment, whatever feels comfortable?

    Just my 2d: hope you’re happy and settled with any and all contacts now! And thanks for updating, I wish more people would! Best wishes for the future.

    1. Flash Bristow*

      Oh – when I said “given her more of a chance” earlier, I meant a quiet word etc sooner than you did. Soz, chance was probably not the right word.

      1. Anne*

        OP did talk to her quietly in a one on one and Ethel trampled over that, too. Also, her behaviour after OP had had enough doesn’t read as apologetic or mortified to me – especially the part where she started acting like OP didn’t know how to do routine tasks. Still nasty, still undermining.

        It doesn’t seem fair to tell the person who bore the brunt of it, “Well maybe if you talked to her as a friend?” Firstly, Ethel was OP’s boss, not her friend. Secondly, OP told Ethel her behaviour was unwanted many times and in many ways. Suggesting she should have tried even harder is awfully victim-blamey and bad advice for anyone in a similar situation.

  47. Luna*

    I don’t understand why someone thinks they are ‘friends’ with people from work based on seemingly nothing but working at the same place, and not wanting to bite each other’s face off. I have my own set of social issues and definitely am not that good at recognizing some subtle, social hints, but that’s why I would more opt to not do something, rather than risk what happened here: do something, with nobody outright saying anything or subtlely changing their body posture, and not letting someone know that there *is* a problem to begin with.

    Yes, I feel bad for Ethel because you exploded at her. Yes, it’s understandable that you were having a stressful day and this was just the last drop. But I do think you should’ve said something earlier, and not keep bottling it up for so long, so there wouldn’t be a drop to cause everything to spill over.

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