my boss from before my gender transition is now my colleague

A reader writes:

My first full-time office job was at an awful place. I was there for nearly three years before I was unceremoniously laid off, just a week before I was supposed to take on a new title and a raise. My boss, Marcy, handled it really poorly. It turned out that, although she seemed to be in my and my department’s corner, she was most certainly not. Our whole group was treated awfully with the acquisition that led to downsizing, and that’s not even getting into how overworked, underpaid, scapegoated, and frankly mistreated we were as workers.

Fast forward to fall 2020. On my second day of work, I realized Marcy works here, albeit in a totally separate department (in a company of about 300). I was startled but then realized it might not be an issue. At the time, I had two things working in my favor: I was working entirely remotely and I have fully transformed since Marcy last saw me. That is to say, she knew me as a twenty-something slightly-chubby young woman with a non-Anglo feminine name, and I am now a thirty-something fat dude with an Anglo name. I present as a man and use he/him pronouns at work, though outside of it, I’m out as non-binary and use they/them pronouns.

This year, we were mandated to go from remote to minimum twice-weekly in the office. There’s one day a week where everyone who doesn’t have a special exemption is supposed to be in, regardless of department. Wouldn’t you know it, the very first week they enforced it strictly was last week, and I ran into Marcy for the first time since she laid me off. Apparently we’re among the few who still mask and therefore eat lunch on the patio as a matter of course. I was writing when she came outside and while I registered her, I didn’t say anything. She was the one who engaged me in conversation for a bit. Before I left, she said she knew my name (new/current one, for the record) and introduced herself. I said, “Nice to meet you, Marcy” because I had no idea what else to do than roll with it.

This week, it happened again. She sat near me though there were other options and said hello to me. I was reading so I said hello back, but I didn’t disengage from my book. To be fair, I genuinely prefer a solo, quiet lunch as a break from all my meetings and other social interactions. Still, I felt rude because she seemed to want a conversation with me. It was really awkward.

I don’t know what to do, if anything. This has been so weird and I don’t know how to handle it. She could have known my name because lots of people at the office know me better than I know them; I do deliberately put myself out there whenever and wherever I can, both as part of my role and as part of the general office culture. But she also could have put two and two together. It’s not like there are absolutely no traits, habits, or features I share with my pre-transition self. Her (re)introducing herself might be a sign that she’s willing to start over with me.

If she hadn’t tried to engage with me so much, I wouldn’t care. Bluntly stated, I neither need nor want to be especially friendly with her. I simply don’t trust her. She was pretty sneaky and sinister as my boss. Her choices directly harmed me and had repercussions that affected me for years.

For now, I’m going to avoid being on the patio when it’s her lunchtime, but I can’t imagine this will be the only way I could have a run-in with her. Do I let her know that I know she knows? Drop hints and see if she takes the bait? Keep pretending like we’re brand-new colleagues? It’s weird and I feel weird.

I can see why you feel so weird and awkward — first, here’s the person from your past who was at the center of a really horrible experience at your old job and whose behavior affected you negatively for years. Second, there’s an information imbalance — you don’t know what she knows, so you’re left wondering and trying to figure out what she knows, and what that means for how you should respond … all without having any real information to use to navigate it. That’s incredibly nerve-wracking.

Here’s what I think: maybe she recognizes you and maybe she doesn’t, but so far she’s not indicating that she’s relating to you as anyone other than a new coworker she just met and so, at a minimum, there’s enough plausible deniability present that you can just go with that.

Best case scenario, there’s an opening for you to just model the relationship you want to have with her — which is as a new coworker who doesn’t work closely with her or know her well, and who doesn’t need to. You can be politely distant and see if she respects those cues.

If she recognizes you as someone she knew previously, there’s a decent chance that you demonstrating the terms on which you want to relate will result in those being the terms on which you do relate. And if she doesn’t realize you’ve worked together before … well, that’s still true. You will just be the politely distant new colleague.

The exception to this is if you would feel more comfortable raising it proactively. If you’d get more peace of mind from saying “I’m not sure if you realize we used to work together; I was on the X team at Y Org,” you can do that! (And I’d lean toward that if she starts treating you more strangely than she is now, as well.) Obviously that’s tied up with a bunch of issues around whether you’re out at work or want to be (which I am not addressing as a worry since you didn’t raise it) but if that would make you rest easier, it’s an option.

Thank you to Kalani Keahi Adolpho and Stephen G. Krueger of the Trans Advice Column for helping me think through my answer to this question.

Read an update to this letter

{ 196 comments… read them below }

  1. Ask a Manager* Post author

    A note since I can imagine this coming up in the comments otherwise: Kalani and Stephen both recommended being careful not to impose any stereotypical trans narrative on this letter, like assuming the letter-writer is worried about being outed. They might be but they haven’t said that, so my response deliberately doesn’t assume that. (Rather, the role of gender in the letter is that it’s the reason the old boss doesn’t recognize them.) Wanted to clarify that up-front!

  2. Richard Hershberger*

    It strikes me as unlikely that she recognizes you: ten years, different context, different appearance, different name. Heck, even without the transition, chances are good you would seem vaguely familiar but she couldn’t quite put her finger on it. This sounds like she is looking for a lunch buddy, while you want quiet time: the eternal battle of extroverts versus introverts. Approach the situation that way, whether explicitly stating that you need your quiet time or simply being a very bad conversational partner.

    1. Jules the 3rd*

      Agree. Unless the shared history comes up, OP has the option to remember it as a red flag, but to act like it doesn’t exist. The different work groups and lunch socialization preferences are plenty of reasons to keep a ‘polite but distant’ demeanor.

    2. I'm Just Here For The Cats!*

      I agree. I bet she’s going crazy trying to point out where she knows OP from and is waiting for OP to say something to jog her memory. I also bet if she thought she knew OP and they said “nice to meet you” that it really messed with her.

      1. ecnaseener*

        Hopefully she’ll chalk it up to LW just resembling someone she used to know.

    3. Caramel & Cheddar*

      It also sounds like LW doesn’t work directly with Marcy, so there’s an added “I’m vaguely aware of your existence as a colleague but don’t give it much thought beyond that” factor to it.

      I also wouldn’t discount just how truly bad some people are at being aware of others. Years ago I started a job with long hair and was introduced to a colleague I wouldn’t be working with very often. Fast forward a few months and one significant hair cut later, and the same colleague introduced herself to me in a meeting as if I was brand new and we’d never met before. The Clark Kent / Superman effect can be very real, even if as Clark Kent / Superman yourself you feel like it’s obvious you’re the same person.

      1. Teapot Program Manager*

        Just to be clear a significant number of people have a literal impairment called “prosopagnosia” or “faceblindness” that means their facial recognition is poor, it’s not actually that they’re bad at being aware of others.

        With many people who have this impairment you probably don’t know because they’ve learned to use other cues like hair or style of dress or glasses to identify a person, so they may actually be better at being aware of others than the general population, but if you change your cues it will mess them up.

        1. Caramel & Cheddar*

          There is indeed! But I’m speaking more to the general sense of how we tend to think that people are more aware of us than they are, i.e. the “Everyone’s staring at me!” feeling you have as a teenager when no one is paying the slightest bit of attention to you. Most of the time no one is going to notice the thing we’re experiencing that feeling over because they’re too involved in their own “Everyone’s starting at me!” experience. People just don’t pay as much attention to us as we think they do.

          1. Happy Peacock*

            There is also the phenomenon where bullies barely remember the people they bullied. In OP
            s shoes, I wouldn’t feel safe immediately assuming that Marcy has forgotten how she treated me, but it’s another factor to consider as I (in OP’s shoes) am wondering whether Marcy is going to bring up those TPS reports from 10 years ago. Wasn’t there a LW whose old boss was telling stories about how bad LW was, and it impacted the impressions of people who LW had been currently working well with? That boss wasn’t even trying to undercut the LW, but did anyway. Imagine what someone like Marcy could accomplish, if she were still that type of person.

        2. Bagpuss*

          Yes, I have prosopagnosia – had OP had the same name as when I worked with them before I *might* remember them in the ‘that name sounds familiar’ way, but given it was 10 years ago I probably wouldn’t be 100% sure where I remembered the name from. There’s no chance at all I would recognise them (and that would be true even if they hadn’t transitioned!) and since it sounds as though they no longer have the same name and that their appearance has changed significantly I doubt that even someone who has normal facial recognition skills would recognise them, although they might think they seemed familiar, and even that thy remind her of someone.

        3. Kelly*

          LOL this explains so much. I once introduced myself to a coworker who I sat across from daily because they wore glasses instead of contacts one day. So embarrassing!

      2. Happy Peacock*

        One significant haircut over the weekend would be enough for me not to recognize you…For OP’s situation, 10 years, weight gain, and a gender transition probably means Marcy does not recognize OP at all. Sure, superrecognizers exist, but they are rare. It’s probably safe to assume that Marcy is just interacting with a new coworker who she heard about, and OP is safe to treat her the same way he would treat any other coworker who he didn’t want a close relationship with.

        1. Kayla*

          I’m one of those oddballs who never forgets a face, if Marcy is someone like me. I imagine there would be just enough of a hint of familiar, that’s she’s wracking her brain to figure it out. If I were in her shoes I would be feeling bad, thinking that I have forgotten who this person is. Sounds like Marcy isn’t an empathetic person though. So even if she is a a weirdo like me, OP saying nice to meet you should squash that. But again, unlikely.

      3. Tad Cooper*

        Completely agree! And the Clark Kent effect is not just limited to casual acquaintances. I spent 13+ years going to a church, seeing and interacting with the same people every week at a minimum. I moved out of town for a couple years before coming back to visit, with a different hairstyle and glasses shape.

        Literally nobody recognized me unless I reminded them, much less ask if they knew me from somewhere.

        After so long and with so many changes in context, I bet Marcy hasn’t even asked herself if OP looks familiar.

      4. Earl Twents*

        I would agree. I was a restaurant server at a fancy hotel, but I was that butterfly that would also talk to the front desk, valet, housekeepers, and anyone else at the hotel, and of course, would party with any of them too. I made friends with one of the valet guys, and we hung out a decent amount, to the point where I met some of his siblings. I ran into him a few years later at some social event. He recognized me, but I, for the life of me, couldn’t remember him. He had grown a beard and gotten glasses. We had a 20 minute conversation where he was trying to jog my memory about who he was. I even remember remembering the context, but still couldn’t place his face. He told me his name, his job, his siblings, our adventures, and yet I still couldn’t see it in his face. I don’t even have face blindness! I’m usually better at faces than names. But he had changed his face! I felt like an ass, but he took it in stride and we had a pleasant conversation after that.

        (And no, the parties weren’t THAT crazy where everyone would black out all the time. We were just 20-somethings doing 20-somethings things.)

        1. Rainbow*

          Honestly, if the transformation has been so big, my guess (and it is just a guess) is Marcy will at most recognize that OP looks like somebody she used to know. I definitely have worked with people who remind me of other people, and that’s about all my brain has gone to. If it was very clear to her and you’re in the same city, she may wonder about the “two” people being siblings, I guess. I don’t think my brain would stretch further on a random acquaintance without being pushed to it.

          Honestly, I saw my high school bff who I’d lost touch with online after his transition, and it took me serious time to figure out who he was!

      5. Seashell*

        I worked with someone for about 3 years and talked with her quite a bit at work. After both transferring to different offices for about 15 years and a name change for me due to marriage, she seems to have no idea that she knew me previously. Another co-worker who I had a similar history with recognized me right away when we came back together.

        So, I guess you never know.

    4. Lacey*

      Yup. I’ve run into so many people outside of their usual context and no recognized them AT ALL.

      Granted, they did recognize me, which is why I had to quickly figure out who they were. But, these are people I interacted with regularly at the time we ran into each other – and neither of us had changed our appearance.

      You might seem familiar to her, but I doubt she’s figured it out. And I think you can just keep pretending you’ve never met her before now. I mean, I guess it’s a little gaslight-y if she actually does know/guess, but the awkwardness adverse part of me thinks this is 100% the only way to handle this.

      1. UKDancer*

        Yes, I used to go to the same butcher for many years. I saw the same chap serving there most weeks. I completely failed to recognise him when he was having lunch in a nearby pub with his mother and sister. I wasn’t used to him out of context and butcher’s whites so didn’t recognise him until he mentioned who he was and then I resoundingly groaned at the fact I hadn’t realised who he was when he was wearing street clothes.

        1. Oui oui oui all the way home*

          Ah, but I bet you didn’t say “I didn’t recognize you with your clothing on!” that my awkward self has said on more than one occasion.

        2. allathian*

          Yes, this. I ran into my hairdresser at the grocery store the other day and it took a while for me to recognize her out of context. I probably wouldn’t recognize my beautician if I ran into her unexpectedly, but in my defense she always wears a mask when I see her.

      2. Aggretsuko*

        The one thing I’d be worried about here is Marcy finding out later who OP used to be and then getting pissed off that OP didn’t openly recognize her. I don’t know how to handle that issue. Beyond that, I’d just be avoiding Marcy and pretending nothing was up, but I do wonder what happens if/when the jig is up.

        1. Dr. Vibrissae*

          I’d handle that by acting surprised that she was upset, like ‘Of course I thought she remembered me, so it didn’t seem worth mentioning.’ This would work especially well if LW stays politely aloof and rarely interacts with her.

          1. Richard Hershberger*

            Or, if willing to diverge from total honesty, claim not to have recognized Marcy. It has been ten years, after all…

            1. Storm in a teacup*

              I would do this and if I was feeling petty remark that it had been a toxic place with a terrible boss so I’d blocked it out of my memory

            2. LinuxSystemsGuy*

              I was going to suggest this. After all we have dozens of stories above showing how plausible that is.

        2. JSPA*

          You don’t have to actually feel or be private about transitioning to use it as an excuse.

          Most people (or, most people who are not jerks) will be OK with assuming that someone just didn’t feel like outing themselves as trans–which they’d have had to do, to admit to remembering.

          The LW is indeed “meeting” Marcy, because meeting (as opposed to recognizing) is a two-way street. Marcy has never before met the LW, in their current identity. Thus, “pleased to meet you.”

          It’s totally normal that the maskers who eat outside might want to make friends, but also totally normal that one of them might not want to.

          LW, your feelings about Marcy are unpleasant and awkward and unresolved, which is making the whole situation feel stranger than it is. But the situation itself is no stranger than running into anyone else you knew professionally in the “before times.”

      3. Elsewise*

        I once arrived at a work holiday party and realized a very pretty stranger was staring at me and starting to approach. Spent several panicked seconds trying to figure out if I knew this person or if I was being hit on by someone else’s date before they spoke.

        Friends, it was my partner.

        In my defense, we had arrived separately, I hadn’t seen them get dressed, and they were wearing contacts, which they don’t usually do. In my prosecution, we’d been living together for several months at the time, and it’s not like they sleep in their glasses.

        1. Richard Hershberger*

          Back when we were engaged, I arrived at an event separately from my now-wife. She was trying to figure out where I was, and who was the person walking up to her. In her defense, I had shaved my beard.

        2. Nina*

          My partner once failed to recognize their own mother, whom they have seen at least weekly for at least several decades, in a park in the town they both live in.

          1. rebelwithmouseyhair*

            My father didn’t recognise me the first time he saw me with glasses on. Completely ignored me.

          2. Sasha*

            I’ve done that. I thought “ooh look, that old lady is wearing the same coat as Mum!” Of course it was my mum.

            I also completely blanked a very close colleague who cut her hair. She was right in front of me, said hello, and I assumed she was talking to somebody behind me and sidestepped her. She found it funny when she realised I literally had no idea who she was – it took her saying “it’s me, Priscilla!” and me peering at her for a few minutes before I recognised her.

      4. Gumby*

        Yup, context matters a lot.

        I am generally good with recognizing faces (though less successful at remembering the names that go with them) but there is a certain set of athletes that I can easily recognize in a competition but put them in an office and… well, let’s just say it is a good thing my brain to mouth filter is fairly robust because “oh, I didn’t recognize you in clothes” is what I thought when one of the former gymnasts on the college team I follow started working for the same org. Though it’s probably as much hairstyle as clothes.

    5. UKDancer*

      This so much. I recently bumped into someone at work who worked with me 12ish years ago and I had no memory of her at all. She recognised me because my name is not common and she said I’d not changed much although I’m significantly slighter and have a different hair colour and style. I knew her once she told me who she was and when we’d worked together, but if we hadn’t I’d have continued to assume we hadn’t met before.

    6. Common Taters on the Ax*

      I vote for being stand-offish, and I personally wouldn’t avoid the lunchtime meet-up, because it gives the opportunity to bring that book, be buried nose-deep in it, and set the boundaries. Anyone who strikes up a conversation with someone reading a book needs to be fully aware that the person is more likely to be trying to read a book than to be using it for a conversation starter, so you can help her along to that state by looking startled when she interrupts you and giving the briefest answers possible. Then, once you’ve established that you’re the stand-offish type, at least with her and at least at lunch time, she’ll be loathe to approach. This works whether she fully recognizes you, kind of does, or doesn’t at all. If she does, let her stew in the soup she made in her role as an untrustworthy boss and wonder if that’s the reason. If she doesn’t, at least you don’t have to deal with her.

      The only way I’d advise something different is if there’s a pretty good chance you may work more closely with her in the future. If that’s the case, I would warm it up just a little bit with “yes, it is a pretty day” responses every now and then.

    7. Your local password resetter*

      Another thing in your favor is that you probably care a lot more about her than the other way around. She was at the center of an awful time in your life, so of course you remember her well. But you were one of several employees, and it sounds like she’s not exactly invested or interested in her employees, or that you were a focal point of her time there.

      She may have genuinely forgotten you even existed.

    8. Inigo Montoya*

      A likely alternative in my opinion is that Marcy thinks OP looks slightly familiar and is trying to open up a conversation to see either where she knows OP from or whether she is related (i.e. brother) of pre-trans OP.
      One thing that was not mentioned was whether OP has the same last name as before and whether that last name is a common one. If I saw someone with a face similar to someone I used to know and the same last name, my brain would be heading toward relative. She might be trying to draw on a shared personal connection to gain an ally, especially if she thinks OP left previous company thinking highly of her.

    9. MCMonkeyBean*

      Yeah, it seems likeliest to me that as OP said they are among the few people masking indoors and eating outdoors she sees that as a kind of connection to build a friendly work acquaintanceship. If OP is not interested in that I think it’s okay to just not reciprocate, say a polite greeting and then return to your book and your food. If OP is in the same hemisphere as me, maybe as the weather gets nicer more people will start eating outside and that will cut down on the awkwardness of feeling forced to interact with the few other people out there.

  3. Rocket Raccoon*

    My totally different take was that Marcy has identified the OP as a safe fellow-masker, and is trying to chat them up to diffuse her awkwardness around that. Nothing to do with anything else, she probably doesn’t even recognize them.

    If I were the OP I would just continue to be distant until she finds a new target.

    1. Eldritch Office Worker*

      That does feel likely, especially if masking still is rare and she’s trying to find safe friends at a new job. I agree that just being distant – even politely saying you prefer to eat lunch alone – will resolve it.

    2. AngryOctopus*

      Yes, this to me seems that Marcy is saying to herself “Oh, the new guy masks and eats lunch outside too. I feel like maybe I can relate to him! I should try to make friends!”.

    3. Sparkles McFadden*

      This is how I would interpret Marcy’s behavior too: “Ah…another person who masks up.”

      I think it’s a good way for LW to frame it if possible, though reframing is always difficult with someone who has hurt you in the past. Just say “Oh hi. This is the only chance I get to read and have a little quiet time.” That should keep Marcy at a distance.

  4. Not Tom, Just Petty*

    OP, you have all the power in this situation.
    You do not have to change your lunch schedule.
    You can take the situation at face value. She wants to speak to someone while she lunches. You do not. Be polite but brief.
    As Alison writes, model the relationship (or non-relationship) you want.
    She needs to prove to you that she is not petty, vindictive, malicious anymore. And she can do that without you getting involved.
    If she has a question, you can answer it.
    If she wants to go fishing, she can get a license and buy a boat.

    1. AwkwardTransOP*

      I appreciate the sentiment behind this, but I disagree that I have “all the power” here. She is higher-up than me. She is economically quite well-off and has been for a long time. She has a more consistent job history than me and is older than me. She’s a thin white cis heterosexual woman, I’m a fat brown pansexual trans man. I’m in the US, and we’re in an era of an alarming rise in anti-trans sentiment and laws. She could choose to wield all that against me if she wanted, and I already know she’s capable of underhandedness because she’s behaved that way before.

      1. Putting the Dys in Dysfunction*

        All the more reason to be distant while polite. And while you’re at it, be boring as well. :-)

      2. Observer*

        You still have a lot more power here than you seem realize, though.

        She’s not higher up in the hierarchy. If you’ve done good work here, you’re a known quantity in a way that wouldn’t be the case if you just applying or in your first weeks or months.

        Obviously that’s not a license for you to behave unreasonably, but you’re not suggesting anything remotely unreasonable. Even continuing to eat outside and not being responsive to her apparent overtures is not close to being unreasonable.

        As long as you continue on that path, she’s the one who is going to have to make it really weird if she tries to make an issue of your past history. If she starts going on about how she knows you and tries to make you look bad, she’s also opening herself to having you talk about her past, which she probably generally tries to spin as a positive. And even without that, she’s going to look REALLY odd to most people whose initial reaction is likely to be “wait, you figured out that you know someone in a DIFFERENT department from 10 years ago and are making a fuss about it?!” I know a lot of people who would conclude that she had too much time on her hands / is a pot stirrer.

        It would be different if she were in your supervisory chain, or even in your department.

        1. AwkwardTransOP*

          I am not sure where I said or implied that she’s on the same level as me. She absolutely is higher than me on the hierarchy. She’s not *my* boss, but she is *a* boss. I’m just an individual contributor. She overlooks a subsection of a function. Big deal, actually.

          1. Observer*

            The thing is that she’s not your boss though.

            I’m not saying that there is NO disparity here. But she doesn’t hold the kind of power she would if she were your boss or in your reporting hierarchy.

            And because she’s in a section that doesn’t really intersect with your work, she has even less power. Like you were providing service to her staff, she’d have a lot more place to talk to your reporting line without it being obviously weird. But not here. Trying to bring up your past would be pretty odd.

      3. yala*

        tbh, this is probably a lousy way to handle it, but I would change my schedule, just for a bit at least. I’d rather avoid folks I don’t want to deal with on my lunch break, since I can never tell how well asking or hinting that I’d like to be left alone will go over. I tend to eat lunch at my desk instead of the break room just because I’d rather not have to be social when I’m tired.

        1. AwkwardTransOP*

          I don’t eat at my desk because I’m still masking. I have decided that Wednesdays are “park across the street” days, and that’s been nice.

      4. Not Tom, Just Petty*

        Everyone clarified far better than I. So if you feel safest changing your lunch, absolutely do it. Protect yourself.
        Which also means, again, you do no have to volunteer anything.
        If she is underhanded, you cannot trust her with information, so trust yourself and give her none.
        Good luck!

      5. JSPA*

        Recent article in the NYT says women still lose status (and paycheck) if they’re heavier, but men actually do somewhat better in status and paycheck as they put on some heft. She’s relating to you as an equal; she’s a coworker, so she is an equal; and any feeling of being in the cross-hairs is left-over brain weasles from your past encounter. That’s the most obvious conclusion.

        Also note that she’s also aged; that in retrospect she may have had less power and been under more pressure and been, well, a lot younger than she seemed to younger-you, at the time. (Mergers can bring out the Donner-party mentality in people who are functionally trustworthy in less chaotic work situations.) This isn’t to say, “she must have changed! You must forget!” but to say, “don’t wind yourself into an anxiety spiral by putting yourself back in the position and mindset that you were in a
        decade ago.

        1. AwkwardTransOP*

          Respectfully, those studies are on cis-het white people and I doubt they took into account intersectional identity factors. I am trans (if not out about it at work), I am out about being queer at work, I am brown, I have a *much* spottier job history, I am lower in the overall hierarchy, and I don’t have the resources in life that she does. I don’t think you can boil that down to “thirtysomething fat man = powerful, thin older lady = just as powerful or less powerful.”

          Also, I am not sure how I miscommunicated my emotional state, but I am not in any kind of anxiety spiral. As someone d/xed with generalized anxiety disorder who’s been managing it will for a long time now, I know what those feel like and this isn’t it.

          1. allathian*

            Sounds like changing the time you go to lunch would be the easiest way to deal with this for now, TBH. I’m sorry some commenters are questioning your read of your own situation here. Good luck!

      6. Mike*

        One queer trans person to another—never underestimate the cluelessness of cis straight people. I have purposefully said things that I thought were really strong hints about my identity before, only to learn that it went totally over their heads. Unless you know people in common who know you are trans and know your former name and that your former workplace is also her former workplace…she almost certainly has no idea.

  5. Charlotte Lucas*

    Just coming here to assure the OP that trying to read, write, or whatever during your lunch break while someone tries to talk to you is not rude. She’s rude for demanding your attention while you are clearly doing personal things during hiyour break.

    1. Be kind, rewind*

      I don’t see any evidence in this letter that the person is “demanding attention”. We can assure OP that it’s OK to want a quiet break without demonizing someone for introducing themselves and then later saying hello to someone they know.

      1. AngryOctopus*

        This is also true! She’s just trying to make friends. It’s OK to say “oh sorry, I prefer to read over lunch, it gives me some time to decompress” or something similar. OP, I know it’s probably hard to reset to think this way because Marcy is such a disastrous person from your past. But I truly think she doesn’t recognize you at all, and is just trying to make friends with the new guy who seems to have the same mindset (masking at work) that you do. Just smile politely and deflect her attention when she greets you, or if she sits near you it’s OK that you ‘don’t notice’–if she says anything, you can say “oh sorry, I like to read over lunch and I get really lost in my books”.

      2. WantonSeedStitch*

        This. No one here is being rude. If Marcy continues to express a desire to spend time with the OP at lunch, they may need to politely state their preference for solitary decompression time, but it doesn’t sound like there’s been any pushing or demanding behavior yet.

      3. Charlotte Lucas*

        I see your point, but as a reader, it often feels like people are demanding my attention when they try to talk to me while I am reading. They are interrupting what I am doing. I should not have to tell them not to. And it’s unfair that people like the OP are made to feel like the rude one in that situation.

        Unless there is an emergency I need to know about, I would like to keep reading without any talking.

        1. Feral Humanist*

          “I should not have to tell them not to” –– so you want people to read your mind so that you don’t have to set a basic boundary? OK.

          1. nona*

            If you are reading a book and not interacting with other people in your vicinity, that’s a pretty good non-verbal clue that you don’t want to talk to other people. That’s not asking other people to read your mind – it’s asking them to read the room.

            1. Observer*

              Not necessarily.

              There are not a lot of people out there. It’s quite possible that someone is reading because they don’t have someone out there at the moment who they want to talk who also wants to talk to them, without it being that they don’t want to talk to anyone. It actually does happen!

              1. Saddy Hour*

                It does happen! I’ve done this! In these cases, I look up from my book, say hello to the person, and engage in conversation with them. It’s very easy to tell that I want to talk because I do it. In the cases where I don’t want to talk, I don’t do it.

                I don’t think it’s egregious or rude to say hi to someone reading, but I don’t think it’s all that wild to expect that if that person gives non-committal answers and continues reading, they are quite clearly signaling that they want to read more than they want to chat.

                1. allathian*

                  That’s just what I do. If I’m reading on my break to pass the time but I’m willing to chat, I look up when people pass and greet them myself. If I just want to focus on my book, I won’t proactively greet people and I’ll barely glance at them and mumble a greeting without smiling, at least if it’s a peer or someone lower than me in the hierarchy (junior IC or intern). With higher ups I might have to resign myself to not reading any further on that particular break, although my experience has been that they’ll mostly greet you and move on, they’re so busy.

                  Although to be fair, now that we’re hybrid, I don’t typically bring books to read during my breaks at the office. I go there to socialize and so do most other people.

              2. Rainbow*

                Oh yeah. I wouldn’t want to just stare into space if I didn’t find someone to talk to, so I might read for example. But especially at work, I’d likely prefer a nice person to politely start up a chat. I feel it wouldn’t get in the way of my book; I can read the book any time.

            2. yala*

              I thought this about wearing earbuds (meaning: please don’t interrupt me for a chat), but apparently not so much.

              It is still really frustrating when you’re doing your best to signal “Please, no, not right now” without actually having to say “I don’t want to chat” (which would also feel rude), and folks just ignore it.

            3. Nancy*

              Not true for everyone. I am happy to have my reading interrupted for a friendly chat. if I am really not in the mood, then I will say I need a break and will catch up later (if it is someone I know).

          2. Spencer Hastings*

            I would say it’s reading a body language signal, not reading someone’s mind.

          3. Nina*

            If you’re reading a book, it’s pretty obvious that you’re interacting with the book and not with other people. I give a pass to people who are legally blind, but even they are rude if they persist after ‘oh, I’m reading’.

        2. HoHumDrum*

          I dunno, as someone who reads in public a lot sometimes I enjoy being interrupted for a chat and sometimes I don’t. Sometimes I’m reading mostly to pass the time by myself and I would be equally interested in a nice chat instead. I don’t think it’s inherently rude for someone to feel you out, if they won’t leave you alone or are annoying about it that’s different.

          1. amoeba*

            Yup. I love reading, and I read a lot in public, but I’m also almost always happy to put my book away for a chat if/when I meet somebody I know. Would be quite sad if everybody decided they weren’t allowed to approach me just because I’m reading!

            If I say hi and then go back to my book, sure, that’s a signal that would be rude to ignore. But the bare fact that I’m reading, no.

        3. Yorick*

          As a reader who reads in public, I might not mind stopping reading if someone wanted to talk to me, depending on the circumstances. That’s why it’s good to be ready to explain.

        4. Observer*

          I should not have to tell them not to.

          And no one should have to read your mind.

          And it’s unfair that people like the OP are made to feel like the rude one in that situation.

          And who exactly is making the OP feel like the rude one? The consensus here that I can see is that it’s fine for the OP to state their preference and then go back to reading.

          Now, if Marcy continues to insist on conversation after being told that the OP would like to continue reading, that IS rude and demanding. But that has not happened yet.

          1. yala*

            “And who exactly is making the OP feel like the rude one? The consensus here that I can see is that it’s fine for the OP to state their preference and then go back to reading.”

            I cannot imagine a world in which I would actually say that to someone who wanted to chat with me where I would not be considered rude and possibly reprimanded.

            1. MCMonkeyBean*

              Yeah, I would tell my partner if I wanted to read instead of talking to them but I would likely not feel comfortable being that blunt with someone at work, especially if they are higher up than me as it sounds like is the case here.

          1. Nina*

            Meh. I can only interact with people for so long before I need a break (or I get Very Weird), if I don’t that break from interacting on my lunch break, the Very Weird tends to come out before going-home-time, which is suboptimal.

            People > objects when I’m freely choosing which to interact with, but my ability to continue supporting myself (by not getting fired for being Very Weird) >>>> my coworker’s preference that I talk to them when I’m on my own time.

          2. New Jack Karyn*

            It’s not ‘people vs objects’. It’s ‘my quiet activity vs talking with someone when I need a break’.

      4. AwkwardTransOP*

        In the interests of brevity, I did leave something out that might be helpful to know here: The second time this happened, she chose to sit very near me despite there being other tables/seats available. It’s very much not the norm to do this at the office unless you ask or are invited or know someone well enough to assume (and even then, people tend to ask especially if the person looks like they’re doing something else). I think that made my hackles go up extra hard.

        1. WeGetBetter*

          Op, I wear headphones in public spaces when I’m not even listening to anything because ugh, other people. Maybe another visual cue that you are a lone wolf will get you the space you seek.

          1. Sparkles McFadden*

            Oh yes, I do this all of the time! I’m plugged into nothing but it’s like a universal symbol for “Leave me alone.”

        2. Eldritch Office Worker*

          If she started during quarantine, and this started during the first week being back was strictly enforced, she may not know that! The norms at my office have changed drastically since we all left and came back with a slightly different configuration of people. I can see how if you’re used to one thing it can send your hackles up, but I’d bet this is just how she socializes and she doesn’t realize it’s odd.

          1. AwkwardTransOP*

            I started during lockdowns, while she started well before me and before pandemic stuff. The norms have been this way since my boss started here about a decade ago; I know because I asked him and others I knew about the general office culture before the mandated return to office. If anything, I’d be the one to dismiss as unaware due to pandemic things, but I, y’know, try to fit in. She is behaving out of the norm.

            1. Enai*

              Yet another reason to remain politely distant. The less you interact with her, the less she has to work with if she decides to involve you in her possible schemes.

            2. Storm in a teacup*

              Ooh yeah that does make it a bit weird.
              Still I think keeping to grey rock her and politely distant is the way to go.
              Do you have your old workplace on your CV? Do you think your manager may have done some due diligence when hiring you in and asked her about whether you crossed paths? Maybe she doesn’t recognise you but has heard you were at the same workplace so maybe is trying to see if she knows you.
              Unless you’re open at work about being trans I don’t think she will have guessed you are. She may just think you’re familiar, or a fellow mask wearer and therefore same page as her?

              1. AwkwardTransOP*

                I did a little light recon early in my job and my manager has no idea who she is. As he was the main driver of my hiring process, I don’t think that was an element.

            3. another trans worker*

              If she started at this work place way before you and is higher up, would it be possible that someone who was part of hiring you told her? Maybe they recognized that you worked at the same place or were just gossiping (unfortunately we know it happens), or your place (like mine) ends up having a ton of people involved in hiring and onboarding. And now that there is a face to face opportunity she wants to check you out? I transitioned years and years ago but when I did many people at work who knew me distantly did that like at meetings, it was not welcome. But my boss had my back and I was low enough that I didn’t have to interact with a lot of people regularly so I kind of did what you are doing, kept my distance and didn’t engage as much as possible (I also hadn’t had the previous bad experience you mention).

              1. AwkwardTransOP*

                She was definitely not involved, and the only person who could’ve made that connection (outside of LinkedIn snooping) is my manager, who didn’t know who she was when I lightly fished for info not long after I got hired.

            4. JSPA*

              A lot of people have been recalibrating their closeness meters, during and after the peak of the pandemic. I know I sometimes find myself leaning closer to a coworker, neighbor or rando when outside, I suppose just because I spend so much of my time masked and distancing, or because I have not been relaxed in a crowd in what feels like forever.

              I mean, she could be trying to intimidate, or trying to check for old tattoos, or flirting, or…anything really! You’re not required to take the most innocent explanation. But it’s helpful and calm-inducing to remember that innocent explanations exist.

        3. PhyllisB*

          The sitting extra close adds another dimension. Do you suppose she’s relating to you on a male/female level? Not really hitting on you, but maybe trying to gage interest?
          She may find you attractive, or she could just be one of those women who always have to have male attention.
          Still icky, but another reason to hold her at arm’s length.

          1. AwkwardTransOP*

            As far as I know, she’s still married to her husband (who was also a higher-up at the old place and was a bigger piece of work than her, and she defended him constantly). Most of my colleagues here think I’m a gay man (I was married to a man when I started here). While I’m technically bi, I don’t feel the need to come out about it at work, especially since I’m not dating right now.

            That is to say, the idea that she’s being at all heterosexual-lady about this would be a million levels of hilarious. I’m imagining her bringing me up to an office buddy and them being like “Uhhhh you’re barking up the wrong tree” in a statement that would be correct but for the wrong reason.

            1. JSPA*

              Not impossible–though I was thinking the old, ‘work spouse’ thing, or that she thinks you’re going to be Will to her Grace. Sigh.

        4. H.Regalis*

          This information makes it sound a lot different.

          Saying hi to someone rude. Sitting way too close to someone and ignoring “I don’t want to talk to you right now” social cues is veering into pushy/rude territory. That combined with the fact that she’s someone who treated you very poorly in the past and may or may not recognize you . . . I can see why this is giving you anxiety. She’s someone you already know is a total snake in the grass and she’s acting kind of weird.

        5. Lizy*

          Eeezzz … that makes me think she can’t place you, but definitely recognizes you somewhat and is trying to push for you to say “oh yeah hey I recognize you”. And then given the background you have with her… I don’t blame you for being wary! My vote is to continue to play it like you don’t know her (from before) and ignore her/keep her at arm’s length. This sucks. I’m sorry.

        6. Observer*

          The second time this happened, she chose to sit very near me despite there being other tables/seats available. It’s very much not the norm to do this at the office unless you ask or are invited or know someone well enough to assume (and even then, people tend to ask especially if the person looks like they’re doing something else).

          So either she’s not good at reading the room or she’s PRETENDING not to read the room. So I see why your hackles are going up. But two can play that game.

          If you keep on acting professionally, politely and distantly she has nothing to latch on to. In Yiddish there is a saying that someone is trying to climb a smooth wall. That’s what you should present. She’s devious, so if you don’t give her any foot or hand holds, she’s going to have a hard time pulling anything without making herself look bad.

        7. MeepMeep123*

          Since you’re both masking and presumably both COVID-safe – could you use that as your excuse? “Sorry, I need to keep my distance while unmasked for lunch” is a fairly reasonable thing to say to someone who appears to be COVID-aware.

    2. goducks*

      Not every interaction where people have different expectations needs to have one person be characterized as the rude one. It’s ok that different people desire different things.

      In a workplace, it’s entirely normal for people to try to strike up conversation with coworkers on break, and it’s entirely normal for people to prefer not to chat. Attempting to start a conversation with a coworker in the same space isn’t “demanding”. The LW should simply indicate he’d prefer to read and limit the small talk. No need to frame it as anything other than a simple mismatch in break expectations, the kind we all navigate daily.

      1. deesse877*

        I disagree–interrupting someone reading involves asking them to break their focus and make eye contact with you, and it usually carries one of two implied messages–either “what you are doing is not important” or “you will prefer talking to me to reading.” Both of which are pretty presumptuous. OP has also noted that the workplace lunch culture, like that of some coffee shops, accepts reading-in-public-and-not-looking-for-interaction as a normal or even normative behavior.

        And as someone noted above, serious readers are aware of this as a pattern, not a one-off “simple mismatch.”

        1. amoeba*

          As I said above – I’m a reader and would be quite sad if people stopped saying hi just because I have a book open! People are different and there’s no way to know. Ignoring any subsequent signals/trying multiple times, sure. But the idea that just saying hi to somebody with a book is rude is wild to me. (And I’m generally the one with the book, not the one saying hi…)

          1. metadata minion*

            Same here. I generally try to look up when someone else comes in and signal “I am enjoying my book but would probably also enjoy talking to you”, but a simple “hi” is not at all rude to me so long as they accept a distracted nod and don’t try to interact further if I don’t engage.

      2. Gemstones*

        Agreed. I think it’s easy to ascribe bad motives, but sometimes people just aren’t aware of how another person is perceiving something. Plus, there are readers who don’t mind being interrupted sometimes. I think the LW should make it clear he doesn’t want to engage when he’s reading; if she still persists, then yeah, we can call it rudeness, but until then…

    3. Feral Humanist*

      Oh for crying out loud, saying hello isn’t rude. Not all of us want to exist in a cone of absolute silence.

      If she’d continued to try to have a conversation once the OP didn’t engage, that would be pushy and rude, but saying hello during a lunch break to someone else who seems to share her feelings about covid safety is not, in and of itself, rude.

  6. Nebula*

    If this were me, I’d want to be proactive about it and would probably send Marcy an email with something along the lines of Alison’s suggested script. That means you don’t need to deal with her immediate reaction in the moment, which will likely be awkward at best. It saves you wondering if she knows or not, and means you can reset instead of pretending you didn’t know her previously – personally, I’d find that more stressful than bringing it up, but of course I understand why you’d want to act like that previous working relationship doesn’t exist.

    1. Sparkles McFadden*

      I get that an email might be more comfortable than an in person conversation, but I am a firm believer that you should never put anything in writing beyond bullet-point lists of work-related facts. Crazy, vindictive people can always make something out of nothing and email and texts are subject to misinterpretation.

  7. Teapot Program Manager*

    Hey OP, given that you are two of the few who still mask, do keep in mind that she might just be trying especially hard because she wants to make office friends who also care about safety. It might not be about you personally so much as it’s about having compatible habits in this regard. Speaking as someone who still masks at my own workplace, it can feel really isolating and if someone new came in who was still masking I would certainly try to get to know them.

    It’s okay for you not to want to hang out with her and I think maybe just saying politely “Marcy, I really look forward to some alone time at lunchtime, so if I’m reading my book it isn’t the best time to come talk to me” should put off any further attempts if she’s a reasonable person.

    1. Teapot Program Manager*

      Also, I’d like to draw your attention to the previous Ask A Manager letter “I bit my coworker.” Something covered in that letter and in the updates to it is that sometimes otherwise good people do bad things in bad environments. A bad environment warps your sense of what is normal and you also end up reacting to bad things that are happening.

      Obviously only you know the details of what happened between you and perhaps it’s obvious that “good person bad environment” doesn’t apply to Marcy. It’s totally justifiable to be cautious around her given the past work history, and it’s totally okay to not want to hang out with her socially. However, I just wanted to bring “good person bad environment” to your attention as something to think about should you end up having to work on a project or something with her.

      Here is the link but not sure if it will get through comment filters:

      1. AwkwardTransOP*

        Thanks for the perspective there. It was a pretty bad place to work for reasons that were at least partly outside of her control, though she did make some terribad choices that she could’ve very easily simply not made. In some cases, it baffled me that she chose to say or do certain things in situations where neutrality would’ve served everyone better, including her. Then again, hindsight and all.

        1. Miss Muffet*

          10 years is also a long time in the work world – it’s possible she could have learned and grown from that experience or from subsequent experiences. She may not be the same person at this point. Not that your caution isn’t warranted, but I assume you have also changed and learned in how you work, and have seen others do that in the intervening time.

    2. Midnight and Aurora*

      I agree that Marcy might try to make a new friend based on the masking. But OP added some context and told us that Marcy was taking a seat closer than customary in this office without invitation.
      The OP didn’t tell how close and I don’t think it matters much to my uneasy feeling about uninvited proximity and trying to make friends based on same safety behaviors (masking).
      I can’t quite put my finger on it, but it gives the vibe that Marcy assumed that her behavior is fine not just in an office culture context but also in a safety behavior context.
      (As far as I know OP didn’t mention that the uninvited proximity posed a health thread to the OP, but Marcy likely did make more than one assumption here and I don’t like it and think that that could be a current red flag about Marcy).

      1. Gemstones*

        A red flag for what, though? It just seems weird to assume that because someone is a little more social than other coworkers that something nefarious is happening, especially when so many people went out of their way to reassure the biting coworker (in the letter linked to above) that they shouldn’t feel bad/they were just doing what they had to do. Just seems like a bizarre disconnect that someone who bites a coworker has people trying to see things from their perspective but someone sitting down and saying hi is someone weird/off-putting…

  8. Venus*

    I agree with Alison’s response, especially about plausible deniability and modeling the relationship that you want. I occasionally worked with a sexist creep at a previous job and ended up working near him 5 years later. I did my best to avoid him until he stopped at my desk one day to introduce himself, and said that I didn’t seem to behave like I recognized him, and I blamed a bad memory and left it at that. It was a relief to finish that quick chat with “Nice to meet you!” and we rarely spoke since then, likely because I was a bit chilly to him (because the last time I was vaguely nice to him he quickly became creepy so I learned my lesson). Mine was a very different situation, but hopefully it’s a useful example that people often follow the lead we give them even if it seemed weird that I had forgotten him.

    Also good to know about the Trans Advice Column. Time to share that with a few people…

  9. Not a seahorse*

    Admittedly, I’m unusually bad at recognising people, to the extent that I have previously not recognised a coworker because they were wearing a hat.

    But, I’d honestly be really surprised if she did recognise the letter writer even if she was aware they’d transitioned.

    1. Rainy*

      This made me chuckle mostly because I saw something online this weekend about people’s pets getting alarmed when a known human wears a hat or changes their hair, but did you know there’s a word for that? It’s face blindness (prosopagnosia–comes from the Greek and literally means “no facial recognition”). :)

      1. Spencer Hastings*

        Well, prosopagnosia is a medical condition, and you can be bad at recognizing faces without meeting the diagnostic criteria (hi!). Kind of like how you can be bad at keeping track of time without having ADHD (hi again!).

        1. Rainy*

          Well, sure, but just in case someone does meet all or most of the diagnostic criteria, it helps to know there’s an actual condition for something you thought was a personal failing.

          1. Happy Peacock*

            There aren’t exactly diagnostic criteria atm. There are some tests that can differentiate between deficiencies in perceiving faces and deficiencies in recognizing known faces. There is also a test that was devised to identify super-recognizers that is misapplied as a test for faceblindness. It’s generally recognized that faceblindness exists on a scale, however, not a binary either you have it or you don’t.

            But yes, I completely agree, it’s good for an individual to know that they aren’t just stupid.

    2. Be Gneiss*

      I work at a place where many employees wear hair nets, and I have walked right past people I worked with for years without recognizing them! Especially seeing someone out of context, or what my kids call “seeing your teacher at the movies” I am just really terrible at quickly recognizing people when anything is different!

  10. Not A Manager*

    I’d assume that she doesn’t recognize you and take it from there. If you prefer in that case to meet as strangers, keep treating her like a stranger.

    Should your shared background come up for some reason in the future, you have the option of claiming that it was so long ago and things have changed so much since then, you also did not recognize her. If that’s so implausible that you can’t say it with a straight face, then I’d say something vague like, “so many things have changed since then, I preferred to start off on a new foot.”

    1. goducks*

      This is exactly it. Time and distance makes most of us fail to recognize people. I’m not sure I’d recognize many former coworkers from 10 years ago unless they reminded me.

    2. Sara without an H*

      Ditto. LW, I’d be willing to bet that Marcy thinks you look vaguely familiar, but that’s it. While your stint at Terrible Job, Inc. looms large in your memory, it’s just that — a memory. You’ve moved on. Marcy probably has too.

      So just go on being pleasant, polite, and a bit distant. Eat lunch when and where you please. Bring a book. Cultivate a distracted expression whenever Marcy tries to chat you up and go back to your book. Eventually, she’ll find someone else to have lunch with.

  11. learnedthehardway*

    Considering that many people have some level of face-blindness, you’re both masking, and you’ve radically changed your name, appearance and gender, and it’s many years later, I would assume that Marcy has no idea that she knew you pre-transition.

    That leaves the awkwardness of whether you decide to tell her who you were when she was your manager, of course. I mean, someone might – at any time – point out that you were DeadName. But is that at all likely? I’d evaluate that – do you know a lot of people in common or are you in touch with former co-workers who would mention you had transitioned if they were in conversation with FormerManager? Would there be any repercussions if she or other people at work found out that you were known to each other in the past, but didn’t mention it? (If so, can you plausibly say you assumed she knew it was you, and that’s why she was being friendly?)

    My guess is that she doesn’t know and isn’t likely to find out that you were the same person she managed, so I think you can take your time to decide what to do.

    1. AwkwardTransOP*

      To clarify, neither of us was masking while eating on the patio. Hence being on the patio to eat in the first place.

      As for repercussions, I am not all that worried about others. HR knows, my boss knows (I interviewed under OldName but onboarded under NewName), and it’s not really been an issue. I am not so much closeted as not declared myself as out. What I am worried about is her thinking she knows something and being shady about that, since she literally weaponized everything she knew about me in her position as my boss (and that’s what she did with other direct reports, too).

      1. Rainy*

        I would be worried about this too, quite frankly. I have pretty good facial recognition (I am TERRIBLE with names, though–the brain giveth and the brain withholds subject to its own whims) and I am very used to recognizing people who are maybe barely aware that there’s something slightly familiar about me.

        I think I would play it exactly like you are, for what that’s worth. I wouldn’t bring it up, I wouldn’t pre-emptively reach out about it, even though it would probably weigh on me until my brain moved on to something else, but a lot of this kind of issue will just resolve itself satisfactorily if I leave it alone, so I’ve learnt to do so.

      2. Happy Peacock*

        “What I am worried about is her thinking she knows something and being shady about that”

        Are you worried that she is being shady about knowing you transitioned and weaponizing it or are you worried that she is being shady about knowing things from your old work that she could weaponize?

        1. AwkwardTransOP*

          I worry about both, though more the former. I am not closeted, per se, but I haven’t exactly declared that I am trans to everyone here, either, and she might think she knows a secret and try something.

          1. Happy Peacock*

            I usually advise getting out in front of situations like this so that you can control the narrative. Regarding work stuff, you can tell stories about your work from those days that paint the narrative that you want communicated (to the extent that it fits into your current culture, of course, don’t be That Guy who talks about how much better everything was and what a rock star you were at Old Job). I am not trans and not a trans expert, so I will bow out of any input on how to handle Marcy potentially weaponizing your transition.
            The only thing I will say about both is that having worked with Marcy, you are still having a trauma response to her. Maybe that trauma response is still going to serve you well in this job, and maybe it’s not going to serve you well. While you are evaluating your courses of action, also evaluate whether your responses are useful in this new environment.

            1. Ally McBeal*

              I would say that the fact that HR and OP’s boss know *should* sufficiently constitute “getting out in front of situations like this.” If Marcy does guess or find out that OP is trans and she knows him from her previous role, her treatment of OP won’t be mitigated by the fact that she knew him before his transition, so I don’t think going to HR again to forewarn them will do much good.

          2. Storm in a teacup*

            You are under no obligation to declare anything. Your boss and HR know and it’s no one else’s business but yours.
            Do you have a read on what kind of reputation she has in your current workplace? It may be worth doing some low key sleuthing to understand who she is now at work. Appreciate you don’t trust her, but understanding where she is currently may help you contextualise her behaviour.

      3. Tio*

        On the questionably plus side, you said you don’t have much interaction with her. People like that tend to weaponize information to get what they want, and if your work doesn’t overlap much you probably don’t have much to “offer” her, as it were. I would just give her a generally wide berth and be pleasant if you have to talk to her

      4. deesse877*

        OOOOOOH. This makes it clear to me. You’ve twigged this person as a manipulator, and you’re worried she’s looking for an in.

        First, valid: people who weaponize all relationality are totally a thing, a very sad thing if we are taking the charitable view, and a very annoying one if we are taking the practical view.

        Second, the strategy of playing it like you don’t know her is also the surest way to piss her off and deflect her in this situation. Since it sounds like you don’t have immediate worries about your employer treating you badly, her only possible play is to make you feel personally insecure and scared of/beholden to you. So just don’t act like you know her, and she has nothing.

        It occurs to me as I write that she may think of YOU as someone who has dirt on HER–what you describe at your previous employer is her messing up real big, after all. So she may be attempting a preemptive strike: “I’ll make OP feel insecure before OP can do it to me.”

        1. Ro*

          It occurs to me as I write that she may think of YOU as someone who has dirt on HER–what you describe at your previous employer is her messing up real big, after all. So she may be attempting a preemptive strike: “I’ll make OP feel insecure before OP can do it to me.”

          -This is possible. It is the same vibes as cheaters saying “everybody cheats”. Maybe she thinks “If our positions were reversed I would use this info so OP must be plotting to use this info”.

      5. Sparkles McFadden*

        Trust your gut, OP. FWIW, though I am often a big fan of being upfront, I see no reason for you to do that at this point in time. Just keep treating Marcy as a person you just met and go back to your book, and maybe put on headphones as someone suggested upthread.

        Even if this person does recognize you, and assumes you should remember her, I’d keep up with the “Oh hi. Nice to have met you” fiction. Most people hate it when you don’t remember them and it kind of disarms them. It’s as if they think “I can’t believe you don’t think I’m important.”

        Remember: You don’t owe Marcy anything but civility and professionalism. I hope it all works out OK.

      6. Observer*

        hat I am worried about is her thinking she knows something and being shady about that,

        The thing is that she doesn’t have anything to weaponize. She might try, but there is nothing there. Say she tries to weaponize you that you are trans. What happens? Nothing – your boss and HR know and apparently don’t have a problem. I’m assuming that you didn’t lie about your time at Terrible Old Job, so what could she weaponize from there? And if she tries, she opens herself to have YOU weaponize her tenure there are well. People who weaponize everything tend to expect others to do the same.

        I totally get your caution. But I think that even in the unlikely case that she recognizes you, as long as you keep it totally bland and professional, she’s got nothing to work with, even if she thinks she does.

  12. Bookworm*

    No advice, OP, just sorry you had that experience and wishing you the best for the future.

  13. theletter*

    As much as we humans would like to think that we’d remember every person we work with, that simply isn’t the case. Names and faces fade from our minds, especially faces from times that were challenging or traumatic.

    You might find that even if you did present yourself unmasked and lay out all the details of who you were and what happened, she could possibly have no recollection at all.

    And I think if you were to point out that she laid you off, she might beg to let the relationship start from fresh. Most people find the process of laying people off to be just as personally traumatic.

    This is not to say that you should reveal these details to her – in fact I really think you shouldn’t. She’d like to know you now, and maybe she’s had significant changes too. Maybe she’s now someone you’d like to get to know – on days when you feel like having a lunch buddy, that is. If you just want to eat and read, she should respect that.

  14. Happy I’m Retired #500,000,000*

    I worked with someone who transitioned male to female, for 5 years while they presented as male, then a break where we were at different jobs, then for about 5 years while they presented as female. I had heard they transitioned so recognized them right away. I’m guessing with the mask she might not in the LW scenario. Maybe even without the mask if they didn’t really work together but it was more happening at the same employer. It’s probably more you look familiar if anything.

    1. Eldritch Office Worker*

      Well OP was Marcy’s direct report at OldJob, so they knew each other. And they’re eating lunch without masks. So it makes sense that OP might seem familiar.

      But people seem familiar to me constantly and I can never place them. Sometimes I worry I know someone and I’m being rude because of it, so I might try to warmly say hi and see what happens. (Not if they’re reading though)

      1. Storm in a teacup*

        I’m terrible at this. I once spent an coffee break at a conference making polite small talk with someone who clearly knew me, my family etc… and I had ZERO clue who they were. And their badge was on backwards so I couldn’t see their name. Eventually realised they were a cousin! I mean a second / third one but still!

  15. Irish Teacher*

    A lot of people have mentioned how it’s quite likely she wouldn’t recognise the LW, but I just want to add that even if she did remember the LW and noticed a resemblance, she wouldn’t necessarily assume them to be the same person. The odds are reasonably high that even in that case, she’d just think, “oh, he looks a bit like somebody. Who was it again? Oh, yeah, I worked with somebody back in the day who looked a bit like him. That’s who he reminds me of” or possibly “he looks familiar. I wonder if I’ve met him somewhere before” and wouldn’t think of it beyond that. People can have similarities and after ten years and with a different name and different gender presentation and possibly even reading as a different ethnicity given the change of name, I don’t think it’s likely she’d think any more than “he looks a bit like my old coworker” even assuming she did remember the old coworker.

  16. Yes And*

    I’m curious about Alison’s acknowledgement of Trans Advice Column. Do advice columnists have a form of professional courtesy, where they’ll weigh in on each others’ letters when it crosses their area of expertise? Or, given that it’s increasingly frowned upon to ask people (particularly those from marginalized communities) to do unpaid labor, is there a financial transaction?

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      I can’t speak to other advice columns, but I handle it the way most publications do — if I ask someone to write something to publish here (like when Kalani and Stephen wrote answers for this previous column), I pay them. If I ask someone to weigh in on something as a source (as with today’s column, just as with the sorts of articles where I’m quoted as a source but didn’t write the piece), I don’t. (Although in this case, I told them that I was open to a consulting fee if they wanted to do that.)

    2. Stephen Krueger (ey/em or he/him)*

      I’ll add that this is a situation where we’ve intentionally put ourselves out there for this labor and actively invite these questions. You’re right that asking people to volunteer this type of work based solely on their identity is usually not a good practice, but that’s not what is happening here. No complaints whatsoever about how Alison handles these things–she pays for guest writing and has certainly not asked for any labor that we don’t feel comfortable offering! (The Trans Advice Column itself is not something we make any money on, but starting it was our own choice.)

  17. The Wrong Goth*

    I do wonder if Marcy is more interested in OP because someone might have mentioned that they shared a former employer- if someone dropped a casual, “Oh, you used to work at Grains R Us? So did OP.” Which might make Marcy want to strike up an acquaintance with OP than she might otherwise.

    1. AwkwardTransOP*

      I don’t really talk too much about that place, but that’s possible. Our former shared workplace was a teeny-tiny small business. She was there from its beginning to its end, and was high-up enough to where she handled all new hires at least somewhat. If that shared past caught her attention at all, she’d probably know it was me.

  18. JMR*

    It’s been 10 years! I have trouble recognizing current co-workers when I run into them at Target, never mind people I used to work with a decade ago. I think there’s an excellent chance that even if there’s something at the back of her mind going “Huh, he seems familiar,” it’s pretty unlikely that she would put two and two together, especially given all the time that’s passed, the difference in gender presentation, and the change in name (and the ethnicities associated with the old and new names).

    I think the set of introductions gives you the opportunity to approach this with a clean slate, if that’s what you want. From her perspective, she was just introduced to a new co-worker, a male who goes by [New Name]. She has no reason not to take that at face value. Even if there is something nigging at the back of her mind, there’s a good chance she’ll be a decent person and figure out that you want don’t want to discuss your transition with her and just want to be treated as [New Name] going forward.

    1. Red Reader the Adulting Fairy*

      Haha, I LITERALLY almost ran into my grandboss at Target a couple years ago, like barely managed to drag my shopping cart to a stop when she zoomed out of an aisle without looking, and didn’t recognize her until she greeted me.

  19. Hiring Mgr*

    Obviously we don’t know if Marcy recognizes you, but wondering if you have LinkedIn and your old job is on there, she may put two and two together anyway

    1. AwkwardTransOP*

      I do have LinkedIn (though we are not connected there) and that’s part of why I think she might know. That, and the fact that when I first started, I still had my old last name, which is distinctive.

  20. fellow trans person*

    Unless you’re out-out at work (or prepared to be), I wouldn’t mention anything about why you know her to her. She’s shown herself to have bad judgement and be untrustworthy in the past, so I would not be willing to mention having worked with her or transitioned, both things she could use to harm you here (intentionally or not).

    Like many other commenters, I think it’s likely she vaguely recognizes you but isn’t sure why, so she’s trying to figure it out. The best response is going to be letting her know you prefer to eat alone/read/etc and just not engaging with her at all beyond that. It does mean more uncertainty for you, since you won’t know for sure if she knows it’s you, but in your shoes I would prefer that over being certain she DOES know.

  21. Elizabeth West*

    Oof. There are only a few people I wouldn’t want to run into at work again –BullyBoss and The Coworker from Hell in particular. If I ever had to work with Bullyboss again, I’d probably quit.

    I can imagine how uncomfortable this is for you, OP. She wasn’t a good boss and her crappy behavior affected you greatly at work. If I were in your shoes, I wouldn’t want to make nice with her even if she didn’t remember me. I guess I’d go with Alison’s advice; if there’s no reason to be social with Marcy at work other than polite acknowledgement, then that’s probably the best way to handle it. Hopefully she’ll respect your desire for a quiet solitary lunch and keep her distance.

  22. Nellbee*

    I think it’s tempting to try and project onto Marcy all sorts of reasons why she’s behaving the way she is, and ultimately that’s not all that helpful to the LW because they simply don’t have the information to judge Marcy’s motivations, and that’s exactly the problem.

    What we do know about her is that the LW absolutely does not want a relationship of any sort with her because she has proven herself dangerous. The fear is legitimate: it comes from experience.

    I think cool and polite and keep engagement to a minimum is the way forward. Be a grey rock (that term is worth Googling if you’re ever in the position of having to handle a particularly toxic work colleague). Answer all questions with utterly bland but polite non answers and trust that she will get bored and go away eventually.

    We do know from her history, though, that she’s quite capable of being nice to someone’s face while throwing them under the bus behind their backs. With that in mind, it’d you ever do have go do any work with her (or maybe even with someone who works with her), keep really good records.

  23. Alex*

    My money is on her not having any idea who LW is. I know I sure would have a difficult time recognizing someone from 10 years ago if they changed their name and presented as a different gender from when I knew them, unless someone had pointed it out to me. Is there a good chance that someone she knows told her that you are the same person she managed all those years ago? If not…just treat her like a new coworker and leave the past in the past.

  24. marvin*

    I would be suspicious of Marcy too. I’m wondering if there is any way to get a bit more intel about what’s going on with her. I’m guessing that if she’s still up to her old shenanigans, people who work more closely with her may be talking about it. Obviously depends on whether you have the kind of relationship with anyone in the know where you could figure out a way to ask about Marcy without news getting back to her.

    I’d also look into your organization’s policies and public statements about trans inclusion or harrassment more generally, to get a sense of how much leverage you have if she tries to start something. If they would be embarrassed by public reports of anti trans harrassment among their staff, there’s a better chance that a person at some level will want to put a stop to it, particularly if they get the sense that you aren’t going to just put up with it.

    In the meantime, I’d be taking notes of any weird interactions with her. I’d also lean on plausible deniability whenever she’s around and just be pleasantly blank. I realize that I might sound a bit alarmist in my approach, but when it comes to known problem people like Marcy at work, I like to take a cautious approach. Hopefully it isn’t needed and she just loses interest. I’m sorry you have to deal with her, letter writer!

    1. AwkwardTransOP*

      Thankfully, there is a solid anti-harassment policy here that explicitly includes trans people. One of the many trainings I’ve done addressed a situation that’s pretty similar to the one I am in, in that it advised cis people to not out trans people whom they knew from before.

  25. Random tuesday*

    my cynical side remembers a quote I can no longer find…. a prof in the university of California system transitioned from male to female, but kept the same last name and changed to an alliterative first name: Bob to Barb or something close. when she presented her academic results at a conference, she overhead people say how much better her brother’s research was than hers. so maybe your old boss will think you’re just more capable than your sister…..

    1. the Viking Diva*

      that was Ben Barres, a neuroscientist at Stanford, and the comment went the other way – his work was “better than his sister’s.” Other such stories, and how they affected his advocacy for women in science, can be found in (among other places) Sarah Kaplan’s obituary for Barres in the Washington Post (12/28/17, also reproduced on the Stanford neuroscience institute website, for those who want to search it out).

    2. Hlao-roo*

      I think it was Dr. Ben Barres, who transitioned female-to-male and was told his research was better than his sister’s. But I’m sure it has happened to more than one trans person.

    3. trans and tired*

      That sounds like Julia Serano (biologist at UC Berkeley at the time, she’s since left academia to focus on writing and activism), though I don’t know what her previous name was

    4. AwkwardTransOP*

      LMAOOOOO you have no idea how right you are. The astonishingly easier experience I’ve had as a man vs. a woman in the workplace has made me an even angrier feminist because now, I’ve got undeniable proof of how insidious and all-encompassing gendered privilege really is.

  26. Critical Rolls*

    It sounds like you’re pretty well situated in the sense that Marcy, even if she does recognize you, doesn’t have information that is unknown to persons of influence in your workplace. Based on her past behavior, I understand the impulse to try and get ahead of whatever unfortunateness she might get up to. But given all the unknowns, there’s really no way to do that. So I concur with the folks above to treat it simply as a case of someone who wants to chat when you don’t. This has the added benefit of you keeping the high ground by only reacting to what’s in front of you (as opposed to what you suspect — manipulative people are great at making that seem unreasonable) and putting the ball in her court regarding recognition or regular old pushiness. Keeping it framed as “she really seems to want to chat, which doesn’t let me decompress on my break” leaves out the weeds you don’t want to get into.

    With all that said, your comfort is important and you aren’t obligated to fight a battle over this. If changing your lunch schedule gives you peaceful meals and peace of mind (and doesn’t make you hypoglycemic) then switch!

    1. AwkwardTransOP*

      Thanks! As of last week, I have started heading over to the park across the way for Wednesday lunch. It’s actually been really nice to have a change of scenery once a week, plus then, I don’t have to worry about timing at all.

  27. Jamie (he/him)*

    I’m queer, but cis-male, AMAB, perfectly happy as a gay man. Weigh what I’m saying accordingly.

    Does she know it’s you? You’ve assumed that she does, because she used to have power over you and misused that power terribly. But allow for the possibility that she doesn’t and you’re a stranger she works with that she wants to be nice to.

    Does she know that you know it’s her? I don’t have face-blindness but the awkwardness you’re feeling seems to be based on the idea that if one person recognises another, it must be mutual. It’s not. Having three(!) face-blind colleagues over the past 30 years taught me that there’s awkward and there’s *awkward*. If she pipes up at some point and says “don’t you recognise me?” then the reply “I’m sorry, I don’t. Have we met?” is more than fine. The human response, even from someone awful, will be “I’m Jane Smith! I was at Amalgamated Teapots with you!” and you can go “Jane? Really! Gosh, I didn’t recognise you! Sorry! How are you?” and then you’ve reset the relationship. It’s back in Jane’s court as to whether she decides to be awful again, and you’ll deal with this later if it happens.

    Does you now presenting with your true gender impact on this? That are now your real self may mean something to her. It may not. She may react, she may not. She may be accepting, she may be awful. All of that is on her and it’s all to do with her. It remains her problem, not yours (although of course it becomes your problem by her making it your problem) and you can move on with the skills you’ve already developed for dealing with cis people and our acceptance, confusion, or hate. She had power over you previously at work and misused it. She might or might not misuse that power in this new job. But she has no power over your gender presentation. She never did before, she doesn’t now, and she never will. The only person who has power over that is you. Don’t let what she *might* do have any more power over you than you give any random person who might have power over you: none in your own head, and deal with any transphobia if it happens in the way you have already dealt with it (because you have, and it made you stronger. I know it doesn’t feel like it sometimes, but you’re a hell of a lot stronger than someone who hasn’t had to deal with this BS).

    TL;DR: you are, for very real and valid reasons, overthinking this. Even if you both have to pretend to not have known each other before, her to atone for having been awful, you because you’ve left your previous life behind, then you can both come to a silent agreement to do so. And that’s more than fine. Pretending is what we do every day when we ask a colleague “how are you?” as if we give a flying floop, and this is no different.

    1. AwkwardTransOP*

      I’d disagree that she has no power over this. She could start quietly telling people that did they know I was trans, and that would make things awkward. It would force my hand and I’d feel that I have to get ahead of it by coming out. I like the fact that I am out when/where it’s appropriate and comfortable for me, that I’m not necessarily secretive but didn’t have to make a coming-out a thing at work.

      To give an example, my coworkers know I have a (now-ex-)husband because I was married when I was hired. I wasn’t secretive about appearing to be a man married to a man. They don’t need to know that I’m trans, though. In a work context, it’s not relevant, and I am very loud and proud everywhere else.

      1. Observer*

        So the important question here is what damage can she really do to you? Given the your manager and HR know the score, and apparently don’t care, how much of a real problem is it if she outs you?

        Don’t get me wrong, I agree that if she tries to out you that’s gross and wrong. But if she can’t really do you any harm, it’s quite possible that she won’t try. People like that do underhanded things for one of two reasons: 1. To benefit themselves – and I can’t see any real benefit she might see from this, or 2. To really hurt someone – and if she can’t really hurt you, she has no reason to expend the effort.

        Given that reality, if your situation is such that being outed against your will is going to be upsetting, annoying and uncomfortable but not endangering in some way (eg threatening your job or putting you at real risk of bullying by your coworkers, etc.), then getting real clear about that in your head is kind of your secret power.

      2. Jamie (he/him)*

        It seems so bad to you, doesn’t it? They *might* recognise you and if they do they *might* remember you, and if they do they *might* be as awful as you recall them being, and if they are they *might* out you, and if they do colleagues *might* be awful to you, and if colleagues are you *might* be in a terrible position and…

        If you have decided that the worst *will* happen, despite the first “might” not even being on the table, and despite how the subsequent mights and ifs are tiny percentages of tiny percentages of probability, then… gosh, there’s not much you can do.

        Again: consider that you’re overthinking this. You have reason to — life is very much not easy for trans people — but you’re still assuming that “I saw someone I once knew” equals “I’ll get sacked and never work again”. That’s a huge leap. It doesn’t feel like it because on the meta level trans people are under attack right now, but remember: every single survey ever done including of right wing people has shown that cis people are broadly pro-trans. Not perfectly, not even comfortably often, but even Trump supporters are shown to be at worst generally indifferent on the subject.

        It doesn’t feel like that to you, and for good reason. And I can’t promise that if you were outed everybody would throw you a party. But the majority would be indifferent, and that means they’d look poorly upon the person who outed you.

        But we’re not even there yet: so far you’re worrying to the point of panic because this person might recognise you when all the evidence is they’re too self-absorbed to recognise themselves in a mirror, let alone that they then might do something that might make other people do something that might make other people do something that might make other people do something that might make you have to quit your job.

        1. AwkwardTransOP*

          I don’t think I am panicking? TBH I am not sure why several people in the comments are assuming I am anxious, spiraling out, and panicking. I am assessing the situation and deciding how to move forward. I handled the interactions with her in a manner I found to be satisfactory and calm. I am not ruminating. I wrote in hoping to get some advice that I couldn’t have thought of myself and ideas, not to be soothed. I’m perplexed.

      3. Happy*

        I’m really sorry that you’re having to deal with people making bad assumptions and dismissing the power imbalance in this situation.

        Best wishes.

  28. kittybutton*

    How do you typically navigate a situation when you encounter a person you knew before your transition and are not sure if they made the connection? (rhetorical question – not looking for a reply!) I would consider whether it would feel comfortable approaching Marcy in the same way. When encountering a situation that feels inherently more uncomfortable because it is with a person who gets under my skin or triggers me in some way, I often consider engaging with them in that situation the way I would with a more neutral person. Now this isn’t always the right approach, but it often helps me feel centered and empowered to take that route.

    1. AwkwardTransOP*

      Typically, in non-work settings, if I get any sense they are trying to figure out who I am, I will tell them in a very non-chalant, matter-of-fact, direct way, and make it contextual/humorous as I can. I am very out in social settings, so doing so isn’t a big deal for me.

  29. Inigo Montoya*

    A likely alternative in my opinion is that Marcy thinks OP looks slightly familiar and is trying to open up a conversation to see either where she knows OP from or whether she is related (i.e. brother) of pre-trans OP.
    One thing that was not mentioned was whether OP has the same last name as before and whether that last name is a common one. If I saw someone with a face similar to someone I used to know and the same last name, my brain would be heading toward relative. She might be trying to draw on a shared personal connection to gain an ally, especially if she thinks OP left previous company thinking highly of her.

  30. She of Many Hats*

    OP, you’ve gotten a lot of good advice how to grey rock Marcy but considering her history and her (hopefully) not reading cues well, you might want to get your boss’s take on what type of person they see her as. You may need to explain the odd lunch vibe you’re getting off her. You can get a feel if she’s grown and become a good manager or if there’s constant drama and turnover in her team. Then you can decide if she’s trying her old tricks on a new employee and you need help or can safely keep grey rocking her.

    1. AwkwardTransOP*

      This is a good idea. My boss doesn’t know who she is (because I did try fishing there LOL). I do have other members of my team who work with her more, so I can see about delicately doing a little recon using those avenues.

  31. DameB*

    I TOTALLY feel for you as a fellow “I’d like to eat my lunch quietly and not interact with coworkers” kinda person. I am an introvert in a company of extroverts and they all want to CHAT with me and BE FRIENDLY. They are lovely humans but I need an hour of my trashy novel outside and no talking to be able to function.

    What I’ve found works is just a friendly smile/nod and then back to my book. If someone keeps chatting or intruding, I just say “Oh, can’t talk, I’m about to find out who dunnit!” and go back to my kindle.

  32. Michelle Smith*

    I think you’re already handling this exactly correctly. I’d just avoid her as much as reasonably possible and be polite but distant when she attempts to engage you in conversation. If you want, you might do something like putting on headphones (they don’t have to be turned on if you prefer silence) to signal you’re not down to chat.

  33. SB*

    Yuck. I hate it when people want to talk to me while I’m on my lunch break. I am not a joiner so I deliberately seek out empty spaces to eat. If someone else joins me, that’s fine, but please don’t try to talk to me while I am very obviously already engaged in an activity (listening to a podcast with my headphones on).

    You already seem to be handling this exactly how it should be handled; a polite acknowledgment of the greeting & back to your book. If she continues to interrupt then it’s time to mention that you are really enjoying this chapter & would like to finish it before the end of your break!

  34. Mothman*

    I wonder if Marcy checked LinkedIn or something. Kind of a “this person looks familiar…” thing, then made the connection. She could have been hoping LW didn’t remember her after that earlier experience just as much! (Fingers crossed they’re on the same page that that was crap.)

  35. Imposter (they/them)*

    OP I think you are handling the situation with grace so far and Alison’s advice seems very sensible.

    That being said, being a far less sensible being than you are, in your position I would’ve promptly pretended to be my own twin brother.

    1. AwkwardTransOP*

      Bold of you to assume I didn’t want to say “I think my cousin worked for you”. Because I did, oh I did, LOL.

  36. MissM*

    My gut instinct is that it’s probably more to do with the fact that you’re two of those few still masking than anything else. Hope she’s changed her ways, but your current plan sounds like the way to go

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