I was fired for offending coworkers, interviewing someone with a visible squishmallow collection, and more

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

1. I was fired for talking to coworkers about their experience as immigrants

At lunch one day in our company cafeteria, I sat down with my supervisor, who had just returned from China to visit her family, and my coworker, a new naturalized U.S. citizen, originally from Kenya. We talk about current events, and I have nothing but genuine respect for both of them. They know I lived and worked in three western European countries for seven years. That day, I asked my supervisor about how it was to be back in China. I asked if she would want to go back and live there again and she said yes but her Chinese husband is a U.S. citizen and would not want to go back. I asked her whether, after living here in a democratic system, would she want to be back living under a communist system? She started to act differently at that point, and I said I find it interesting how may people have passed through the U.S. southern border and not gone through the legal immigration process. I referenced my colleague’s recent process to become a citizen. I also said that as I traveled around the world, I had many people telling me they want to come to America.

I did not think I had created any problems until two weeks later when I was contacted by HR. The call was basically the HR manager asking me if I had asked some specific questions. I was not given any names or dates, but I was able to conclude from the HR’s manager’s interrogation and her disapproval that it was about my lighthearted conversation driven by curiosity and not discrimination at the lunch mentioned earlier. My comments had been taken out of context to a different level, and I was being accused by the HR manager that I had said things and made them feel uncomfortable. I tried to convey that I never made any harsh or derogatory comments and it all was just in curiosity and sincerity. Next, I learned the comment I said jokingly, “they will just let anyone into the country,” was not acceptable per HR policy. When I said that, it was in a non-offensive way, followed by saying how I admired anyone who took the legal path to becoming a citizen.

The HR manager asked me not to speak to the individuals the rest of the day. The following Monday, I was fired. I received nothing in writing, nor had been given any warning. I had only been at the firm for 10 months and was given no recourse.

So I am emailing to ask how I can be fired for this. My work performance was never in question and I got along well with my team. I am still upset and can’t believe this has happened, and I and wonder if I should talk to an attorney in employee law.

It doesn’t sound like the company broke any laws.

Any chance this wasn’t the first time you had that kind of conversation with someone at work? If so, it would explain why they moved straight to firing rather than giving you a warning first.

Because it sounds like the conversation landed very differently with your coworkers than you realized. From your description, I see why; you were pretty weird, even offensive, about immigrants and made them feel othered. Against that backdrop, saying “after living here in a democratic system, would you want to be back living under a communist system?” sounds pretty jingoistic (and then more so when combined with the comment about people telling you they want to come to America, and that’s even before “they will just let anyone into the country,” which doesn’t sound like as a joke at that point). You’re presenting this as taking an interest in their experience, but they’re almost certainly tired of having to field racially charged comments all the time. What seemed like “curiosity and sincerity” to you could have been the 50th question about being Chinese that your colleague had to fend off this month. In some contexts, “curiosity and sincerity” can come across as “oblivious and overbearing.” In this case I think you likely came across as racist and xenophobic.

It sounds like the piece that’s missing in your thinking is that you don’t need to intend to be discriminatory for your comments to sound that way. You’re looking at it as “but I didn’t do something like use a racial slur” but there are a lot of other problematic ways to talk about race and national origin too. A lot of people of color have written about their experiences on the receiving end of that sort of conversation; I bet reading some of it would help you better understand what your company objected to. (This is one especially accessible place to start, but there are a ton of others. Here’s one more.)

2. Interviewing someone with a visible “squishmallow” collection

A few months ago, I was hiring for a contractor role at my nonprofit organization. The role is in community outreach and requires extensive “embedding” in at-risk communities — meaning that folks need lots of self-directedness, resilience, and social intelligence to be successful in the work. I consider these qualities to be separate from work experience. The role was entry-level and it was far more important to me that folks have these “soft skills” rather than extensive community organizing experience.

I interviewed candidates via Zoom. I’d like to think of myself as a fairly thoughtful person and I’m intentional about not letting biases and blind spots get in the way of fair assessment of a candidate. That said, I was thrown off when a candidate interviewed in their bedroom, with a large squishmallow collection visible in the background (I’m including a stock photo of squishmallows, oriented and hung up in the way they were in this candidate’s Zoom background).

From the interview, it was clear the candidate wouldn’t be a good fit for the role and we didn’t hire them. But I’m finding myself thinking about this interview and worrying the squishmallow collection biased me towards thinking this candidate was too young, emotionally needy, or lacking maturity. If a candidate had had a collection of a different sort in the background — like model cars, or dried flowers, or puzzles — would I have had the same perspective on their interview? I’d like to think I would, but the truth is I feel like the squishmallows really did factor into my concerns about the candidate’s emotional readiness for what can be pretty heavy work.

It’s an odd choice for an interview! I suppose it’s possible that they simply didn’t have anywhere else in their house where they could do an interview … although virtual backgrounds are a thing.

(Even more interesting, what if this was their choice of virtual background?!)

(Sorry, it is the end of the year and I am addled and reliant on ideas like this to keep me going.)

I don’t think the squishmallows alone would be a reason not to hire someone if they otherwise seemed great, but  I can understand why it gave you pause! It would give me pause too. If the person otherwise was great, I’d take it as a flag to dig in a little more on maturity and see what you find.

That said, because the role needs strong soft skills and maturity, ideally your hiring process would already be set up to probe for those things, even without the squishmallow conundrum. If it’s not, this is a useful nudge to make sure it is going forward.

3. My team’s name doesn’t match what we do

I’ve recently been promoted to a director level position, leading the team where I’ve been an individual contributor for the past few years. Our team handles a pretty standard business function, but for some reason (decided before I was hired), it has an unusual name that downplays or obscures the scope of what we do – to the point where it may not be clear based on our titles what we ACTUALLY do. Think something like “Manager, Turkey Sandwich Assembly” when the reality is more like “Manager, Global Bread Entree Design.” (This is a terrible analogy. And yes, I am eating a sandwich right now.)

While the function of our team is known internally, I believe the team name is confusing to others — specifically, when applying to other jobs. I believe it’s confusing to recruiters and hiring managers to who see it in a resume — and in fact, I’ve gotten feedback from recruiters that my current position did not seem like a good match for the role (when in fact it was).

I’d like to change the team name to move it more in line with what the industry calls our function, but since we’re already established under our current name in the org, the only reason to do so would be to improve my chances (or others’ chances) at getting a job elsewhere in the future. Is there a way to broach this subject with my boss and HR in a way that doesn’t make it obvious that I’m advocating for a name change that wouldn’t benefit the company, but would better position team members (myself included) for leaving the company in the future?

Can you say it’s to help in recruiting (because when you’re trying to woo candidates, it helps to have a job title that makes sense) and also for clarity about roles when people on your team are communicating with external contacts? Those are both good reasons on their own.

4. I don’t celebrate Christmas

I don’t celebrate Christmas. I’m an atheist, and the commercialization of Christmas makes me sick. After 35 years in the workforce, I’m tired of pretending I “had a nice Christmas.” Do I keep quiet or just say “I don’t celebrate” when people ask?

You don’t need to pretend you celebrate Christmas when you don’t! It’s fine to say, “Oh, I don’t celebrate, but how was yours?” when people ask. You shouldn’t go on an unsolicited rant about the commercialization of Christmas, etc. but there’s nothing impolite about the language above (and as a Jew, we use it all the time).

{ 1,059 comments… read them below }

  1. Ask a Manager* Post author

    A note that it’s not helpful or necessary to post other bigoted comments you’ve heard, transcribed verbatim, and I ask that you not do that. Thank you.

  2. Eliot Waugh*

    I can’t imagine many situations in which saying “they will just let anyone into the county” would be taken as anything but offensive. Also, you framed returning to her home country like something terrible!

    Some serious self-reflection on internalized bias and -isms needs to happen, OP #1.

    1. Avalanche*

      Agreed. What do you want to bet there was specific emphasis on their grand respect people who enter their country…legally, that is.
      One of the more disgusting letters I’ve ever read, and kudos to their company for recognizing the problem and acting immediately.

      1. diasporacrew*

        Absolutely. What they are saying is they respect Good, Legal Immigrants and don’t have any respect for Bad, Illegal Immigrants. But immigrants know they’re only ever a more restrictive law or a more conservative government away from losing their documented/legal status and becoming undesirable and risking deportation. What the LW was telling them was their respect for them was conditional.
        Not to mention if they have any undocumented family or friends, the LW was telling them they don’t believe in their loved one’s right to remain in the country… How terrible to have to hear that from a colleague over lunch who will then argue that it was all lighthearted chatter!

      2. Olive*

        Kudos to the company but I really wish Alison had used firmer wording than “In this case I think you likely came across as racist and xenophobic.” They acted in a way that was racist and xenophobic.

        And whether or not someone has heard 50 questions about their ethnicity this month doesn’t matter in this case. Even if this was the only time a white person had started interrogating them about their ethnicity, as unlikely as that is, the conversation was racist and xenophobic. The problem is NOT that the LW was acting appropriately and in good faith and unbeknownst to them it was just one time too many.

        1. Anon Again... Naturally*

          Agreed. I realize she’s trying to educate the OP but there is no way this conversation could be considered appropriate. Hearing this conversation would make me seriously concerned about the OP’s judgement. I’m glad the company took relatively quick action to protect their employees, but this is definitely a case where the single instance was just so egregious that I feel the firing was completely warranted.

          OP, for your own sake, you need to do some reflection on why you see this as ‘lighthearted’ and work appropriate, or you risk having similar issues in your next position.

          1. But what to call me?*

            In fact, the lack of reflection might have been what took this from ‘stop it’ to ‘actually, we’re done with you’. If the company did try to give OP the benefit of the doubt in case they hadn’t realized the strong implications of what they were saying, the fact that they dug in and insisted that, while they don’t deny that they said those things, there was nothing wrong with saying any of it, may have convinced the company that no reasonable amount of explanations or diversity trainings were going to make a dent in the problem.

            1. Minji*

              Agreed. I had a coworker who made a joke on twitter that used a phrase she did not realize was offensive in some cultures. When this was brought to her attention, she was shocked and horrified at what she’d done. She took the tweet down immediately and apologized profusely to her manager. To this day she is still embarassed and guilty about it. She didn’t try to justify it by claiming anything about intent, because she was aware that intent doesn’t really matter in these cases.

              That is one way to respond when you inadvertently do something offensive. OP’s is….another.

        2. W*

          I’m not convinced whether or not the OP was white is relevant as bigotry comes from all places. It’s note that the comments made were inappropriate and offensive , regardless of who said them.

    2. Flossy*

      Absolutely. As a Korean-born Australian (I’ve lived here since six months old) if someone said that to me, I’d be annoyed and going to HR too.

      1. Flossy*

        “ I said I find it interesting how may people have passed through the U.S. southern border and not gone through the legal immigration process. I referenced my colleague’s recent process to become a citizen.”

        Also, boy, I hope you just worded the above poorly, because the other reading of this is… really gross.

        1. Mister_L*

          Am I the only one who often internally translates it like this?

          “I’m not racist, I just think people should follow the legal process for something that has been made virtually impossible to do legally”.

          1. Foagmlord*

            Yes because starting a sentence with, “I’m not racist…” usually is a good indicator of the opposite.

            1. introverted af*

              If you have to say it (‘I’m an adult,’ ‘I’m a professional,’ ‘I’m a MaN’), it’s not true

              1. Purpleshark*

                Well… if someone reached over to cut up my meat for me I would probably say, ‘I’m an adult.”

          2. Mister_L*

            Also, something I missed the first time, I hope I can express it well:
            The LW mentions having lived and worked for 7 years in “western” european countries.
            This could be understood as countries where the majority of the population is white and non-white immigrants are easy to ignore if one wants to.

            1. MK*

              I think this was supposed to convey that OP “gets” the immigrant experience. Which is incredibly tonedeaf, as an American working in Europe for a few years is in no way comparable.

              1. Mister_L*

                I think we mean almost the same.
                I understood this to mean OP wants to emphasize they have no problems with other cultures, which, as you pointed out, is tonedeaf in this context.

                1. Pastor Petty Labelle*

                  I can’t be racist, I have ethnic friends vibes.

                  OP, you need to do some serious reflection. I get your first instinct is wait I can’t be fired for that can I? But now you need to reflect on why you think what you said wasn’t so bad. Because it really really was. I’m so white I am translucent, never lived abroad, etc, and even I found your comments incredibly bad.

                2. November Juliet*

                  I think it is not (only) about race. First, it is a way easier to get visa/work permit to Europe as American, compared to getting US visa as a person from “developing” country. Second, OP probably went to Europe because it was an interesting experience, or because it was good for their career, or because there partner was from there. While a lot of people cross US southern border (or use other immigration routes where available) to escape from something terrible, e.g. persecution for their political views or lgbtq+ status. OP really, really does not understand and lacks the basic empathy.

              2. Emmy Noether*

                What do you wanna bet LW didn’t even learn the local languages to any decent level (because you can live just fine with just English in Western Europe), but also finds it “interesting” (ugh, that word choice) that some immigrants to the US don’t speak perfect English? Because I’ve met that kind of person, and they’re never aware of their hypocrisy.

                And yes, being an expat in a country with a similar culture and demographics is a very different experience from being an immigrant from a country where those are different.

                1. münchner kindl*

                  That english-speaking immigrants call themselves expats already shows the double moral at play: Yanks (and Brits) are desirable immigrants in most countries, as opposed to “undesirable” immigrants from Africa or other poor countries.

                  So LWs experience as Yank in Western Europe is not at all similar to what non-white immigrants to US face.

                  I also wonder if LW had to deal with visas and immgration offices in Europe herself, or if the company did all the work for her to apply and meet the work visa/ work permit conditions, and then regularly show up at the foreigners office to comply with the local laws?

                2. Myrin*

                  @münchner kindl, I fully agree with your comment but felt the need to point out that an “expat” is indeed not the same as an “immigrant” – it means someone who plans on going back to their home country at a certain (often already fixed) point whereas an immigrant moved somewhere to stay there permanently. It has nothing to do with where one is from (although, of course, Americans and Brits are much less likely to permanently move somewhere else in general, so they’re also much likelier expats than immigrants).

                3. UKDancer*

                  We’re out of nesting but I’d agree with Myrin, I’ve always viewed an ex-pat as someone who lives somewhere for a while but will go back , whereas an immigrant is someone who has moved somewhere more permanently. So I worked in Brussels for a while and called myself an ex-pat because I was there temporarily and planned to return to the UK after my 12 month period in the job was up. I had no intention of permanently living in Belgium or becoming a citizen so I didn’t consider myself an immigrant.

                  I had a colleague who had gone as an expat, married a local and then immigrated to become a citizen but I’ve always viewed them as slightly different things.

                4. MK*

                  @Myrin ανδ @UKDancer, I think your definition is the “correct” one, “expat”=temporary resident, “immigrant”=has left their country of oringin permanently. However, there is a definite classist element in how people use the terms, “expat”=person who has chosen to reside elswhere for their own personal reasons, “immigrant”=person who has come to X country with nothing.

                  Not to derail, but there is considerable and irrational pushback because of this attitude. Circa-Brexit, I had a semi-hilarious conversation with a group of retired British people who resided permanently in EU countries about their position if/when the UK left the EU; they kept debating the claims of British politicians about the situation and I suggested they consult a lawyer who had expierience in immigration law. It… didn’t go down well, and I wasn’t even calling them immigrants!

                5. Emmy Noether*

                  Note: I agree with Myrin on the different meaning of expat vs. immigrant. It was an intentional choice of words on my part, as I gather LW is back in the US now, so they were an expat rather than immigrant.

                6. Allison K*

                  I live in the Middle East – here the terminology is class-based as well as race/color based. A Black/European/white/Asian/etc director or Vice President is an expat. The Eastern European hairdresser is a guest worker. The Malaysian nanny or Filipino waiter is a guest worker or contract worker, and the Indian taxi driver is a migrant worker.

                7. RussianInTexas*

                  “Expat” =/= “immigrant”. Those are very different things, and people are allowed to use them when appropriate.
                  I have some expat friends from Canada, and they are expats specifically because they are not trying to become immigrants, and here to work, but not live permanently.
                  I know Americans who were expats in Saudi Arabia, for example, for the same reason. It’s not the same.

                8. RussianInTexas*

                  In addition, even though it won’t nest properly, sorry about that, very many immigrants come to the US with a whole lot of money.

              3. Who, Me?*

                Maybe not comparable, but I was an American working in Europe for many years. And was subjected to a barrage of ignorant and jingoistic comments at work, including theirritating Good (white) Immigrant one. To the point where I pretended not to be American for a while.

                My point is that people in other countries are just as ignorant, and nobody in the companies there shut it down. It’s “just conversation”.

            2. Middle Aged Lady*

              Just because you are curious, you can’t satisfy your curiosity af other people’s expense. That in itself can make you come off as entitled and out of touch. Even if your questions and comments were worded sensitively, which yours were not. I think you have some learning to do around other people’s feelings and experiences. We sll make mistakes. I hope you can learn from this one.

              1. The Rise and Fall of Sanctuary Moon*

                Yeah! I feel curious about all sorts of things that are none of my heckin business so I don’t ask about them. Particularly at work!

          3. Clare*

            This will probably be controversial, but there are people alive today who are older than the modern passport. Modern immigration controls aren’t some inevitable fact of life like work or taxes. They’re an anomaly that we would be better off without.

            1. Emma*

              So many people don’t realise this – it’s awful how much our current model of immigration has become culturally invisible, like it’s always been there and always will

              1. Nebula*

                Clare said the modern passport system. Passports as we know them today came about after WW1 – border controls introduced during wartime remained, and even then they still weren’t standardised or universal. You can find accounts of tourists in the 1920s and into the 1930s complaining about having to use a passport and get visas and other documents for visiting different countries, it was seen as a major inconvenience and imposition.

                1. The OG Sleepless*

                  I’m reminded of the beginning of Titanic when Jack wins tickets for the voyage in a poker game, and he and his Italian friend just grab them and jump onto the ship with someone else’s tickets and no ID, just before it leaves.

              2. deesse877*

                No, the above is correct. Passports have existed for a long time, but their universalization is recent. Although I don’t have specifics for particular nation-states to hand, prior to the mid-20th century ordinary travelers and sailors only needed passports in highly specific cases. Mostly, if your home country had good diplomatic relations with your destination, you just went. This fact has been forgotten, or obscured by the current regime of paperwork.

                1. RVA Cat*

                  That mid-20th century timing may be burying the lede. It’s my understanding that a lot of the paperwork hell hit right around WW2. There are Reasons why refugees escaping the Holocaust so often needed forged documents.

                1. Willow Pillow*

                  It’s vague, though… I would call biometric passports “modern” and they’ve only been around since 1998.

              3. Kara*

                Passports were not required to exit or enter the US until after WWII. People could get passports but they were often issued on a State level. There was no standardized national passport.
                Today’s modern passport design – the booklet form – was introduced in 1926.

              4. Ace in the Hole*

                People used passports in the Qin dynasty too – that doesn’t mean it was anything like the modern international passport system. International standardization of passports didn’t begin until the 1920’s. Even then passports were typically issued only to men, with places in the man’s passport to add information on his wife and children.

                1. Bear in the Sky*

                  I got my first passport in 1995. The application form had spaces for “wife” and “minors.” By then, women and minors had been issued their own passports for decades, but it was still on the application form for a U.S. passport.

                2. Emmy Noether*

                  When I was a small child (80s), it was still possible to add one’s children to one’s passport (mother and father), and some places accepted that as a travel document. I still think that solution kinda makes sense. My children’s full passports with photo, eye color and height (!) from when they were a few weeks old are a bit ridiculous.

            2. Justme, The OG*

              My great grandparents had to have two English-speaking people to speak for their character for them to become US citizens. That’s it.

              1. Justme, The OG*

                Needed to finish my thought! It’s incredible (not in a good way) how much different it is in 100-ish years.

            3. MissElizaTudor*


              I read your comment to my partner who is an academic who studies immigration, and they pumped their fist and fully agreed.

          4. Ari the Lion*

            I think you hit the nail on the head. Many people have no idea of what the US immigration system is really like, how backlogged and crazy it really is. “Virtually impossible” is an accurate description. You think waiting 2 years for a disability application or a court date is bad? I’ve heard that the immigration backlog is much worse than that.

            1. Pepper*

              You can search “visa bulletin” to see the actual backlog. USCIS is currently processing F1 visas from Mexico from May 2001.

              1. RVA Cat*

                I wonder how many of folks die before they get their visas? I knew the backlog was bad, but not so long that someone could be born and become an adult ordering cervesas during it.

                1. Always Tired*

                  At my last role I did the HR side of employer sponsored visas, so I kept an eye on the visa bulletin for our EB-2 green card applicants. The F’s (family based) are all wildly backlogged. Those F dates moved up faster than they have in years during the early pandemic and I doubt there was a huge drop off in applications in the late 90’s and early 00’s. I think a lot of people waiting on family sponsored green cards from that time are older and probably work in “essential” roles that left them exposed to infection.

              2. Beka Cooper*

                This doesn’t make a lot of sense to me. I deal with documentation for F1 visas as the DSO in a university, and students apply for admission, get their admission letter and an I-20 (document from the school saying they are eligible to study there, have the funds, etc.) and then make their visa appointment. If it doesn’t get denied, they usually have their F1 visa within a couple months. If they don’t get it, they have to reapply for the next semester at the school and get a new I-20 that’s valid for the next semester.

                I have to imagine that someone who applied for an F1 (student) visa in 2001 wouldn’t really be waiting around for it in 2023, and wouldn’t still be admitted to the university they had applied to for the upcoming term for that visa to be applicable anymore.

                1. Beka Cooper*

                  Also to note, a requirement to get an F1 visa is that the student states they intend to return to their home country after the course of study is over. So an F1 visa is explicitly called a non-immigrant visa, so the status of F1 visas wouldn’t be a great way to measure how easy it is for someone to immigrate here.

                2. YetAnotherAnalyst*

                  I think this is two different things – “F1” here is the specific family group, unmarried children of US citizens, for family-sponsored immigrant visas. That’s different from the “F-1” student visa. Ain’t bureaucracy grand?

                3. Beka Cooper*

                  Ah, that makes a lot more sense! It honestly wouldn’t have occurred to me that the hyphen would make a difference, because my department’s documentation switches back and forth between using it or not.

            2. MsM*

              The waiting list for employment-based visas for Indian immigrants alone is over 1 million long. And that’s workers with specialized education and training.

              1. Kara*

                My partner’s company has stopped bringing their Indian employees to the US and started sending them to the Toronto office instead, because they can’t get timely responses when they need their folks on this side of the world.

            3. Momma Bear*

              I know people whose legal path to citizenship has been stalled for so many reasons, including simply backlog, paperwork, and funds. Every time they turn around there’s another new requirement. You can’t just get a physical. You have to travel to another city to see a specific doctor. Etc.

              1. Chirpy*

                I know an adult who’s lived in the US since he was a toddler, whose parents were well-educated and English speaking before immigration, but who forgot some paperwork for him 20+ years ago and now he’s in danger of being deported to a country he barely remembers.

                My great-grandparents just showed up here, no visas or anything more than a boat ticket and the name of a town with a community of similar immigrants…and while I don’t know the process of how they became naturalized I’m pretty sure in the 1920s they probably just showed up before a judge and paid $5 or something.

                1. Annie*

                  I know someone similar. Born in Mexico, but lived in the U.S. since she was a child, English as her first language. But her parents never got her citizenship, so when she went back to Mexico, she wasn’t allowed back in the U.S.

                2. MP*

                  I can attest to the capriciousness of the so-called system. I think others would expect that I would have as easy a time navigating the system as anyone (English speaking, college educated, married to a US citizen, having lived here for almost a decade etc.) and yet I became an undocumented immigrant through no fault of my own (I have that in writing from the US Govt).
                  The situation: I applied for an extension of my green card and only heard that it was in progress… for 2+ years. Finally, I started getting nervous about my status and also applied for citizenship. That process progressed at a good pace and I found myself at the Immigration office completing a civics test when an officer walked in and asked to see my green card. It was expired at this point but I believed I had proof that my renewal was still in process. He declared my renewal “was rejected” and my citizenship application was then also rejected because I had been living undocumented in the US.
                  It took months and money and lawyers to sort out, and the entire time I was concerned I could be deported or fired from work at any moment. And then with no other contact or announcement, via two letters that arrived on the same day, my Green Card was approved and my citizenship application was approved. I actually found out what happened from correspondence that arrived later.
                  In the end, the issue was that THEY had misprinted my expiry date on my Green Card, so I had applied for renewal too early(!), and they had rejected my application on that basis. Apparently, they had sent me a letter but it was returned “undeliverable” despite the fact that I had never changed address and I had received all other notifications. The online portal had also never been updated with that result (in fact it still hasn’t and online my green card application is still pending).

            4. RussianInTexas*

              I got my citizenship application processed in 2 years back in 2008.
              Friend got his done in 6 months in 2021.
              Now, neither had any legal issues or issues with the applications, it was all very much straight forward.
              The REAL backlog is getting permanent residency, aka green card, unless you are an underaged child of an American citizen.
              Once you got your residency, and no new issues popped up, the path from the residency to the citizenship is very much straightforward and easy.

            5. MigraineMonth*

              It’s also subject to “country limits”. If an employer wants to hire you or your immediate family is in the US, the wait for to apply for a green card is a couple of years.

              …unless you come from Mexico, India, China or the Philippines, in which case the estimated wait time may be over 50 years.

            6. Banana Tuxedo Junction*

              An ex of mine went through the immigration system as a wealthy-ish white British guy sponsored by his job (aka, with the peak amount of privilege and resources) and still described it as hell on earth because of the backlog. He’d technically been “approved” for two years, but had to spend a week at the Mexican embassy in peak COVID (????) for some arcane technical reason so he didn’t get deported, because “on the waitlist” still technically means “undocumented”. He nearly got deported *while he was waiting for his citizenship to get approved.* The wait is a black hole of money, free time, logistical energy, navigating bureaucracy, reading loopholes, hiring lawyers…and that’s when you can afford an attorney and an afternoon off work at short notice to go to the embassy. And you speak the language.

              1. Chirpy*

                I’ve known several people who found out as adults they weren’t American citizens…one’s American parents didn’t file American paperwork after giving birth to them in another country. The process to get that fixed as an adult is taking years and a lot of money…and they are legally American by birth!

                1. WillowSunstar*

                  Yes, our immigration system is very messed up. I don’t think average people should be punished for it, especially if they’ve otherwise been obeying laws.

            7. Doc in a Box*

              Yeah… my father, who has lived in the US on a G visa since the 1980s, married to a US citizen, has US citizen kids, owns property and a car and bank account in the US, had to apply for a spousal green card when he retired/lost the auto-renewing work visa. It took 18 months for his “expedited” application to be processed. When my parents showed up for their green card interview, the lady was like, “Uh, you guys have been married for 40 years? You’re fine. Moving on.”

          5. Nonanon*

            I live in a state on the southern US border. That’s exactly what people here mean when they say it.

          6. Longtime Reader*

            Yep. Plus, even if you know that everyone present was able to handle the legal process, the chances are certainly not zero that they have friends or relatives who immigrated outside of the legal process. So you could very well be telling someone, “I have so much respect for you, but your mother is scum.” Not likely to endear you to anyone.

            1. Chirpy*

              I also know a person who’s actually been told “well, we don’t mean *you* when we talk about those illegal immigrants”…

              ….they overstayed their visa years ago, but since they’re a white, English speaking Canadian, the fact that they’re *actually here illegally* really makes it obvious that the majority of people who use “illegal immigration” as a talking point really are just racist. Because these people definitely assume that the white Canadian is here legally, and the brown Mexican-Americans aren’t.

              1. MigraineMonth*

                The majority of undocumented immigrants entering the US overstayed a visa, but for some reason* we’re obsessed with the lower number of asylum applicants crossing our border with Mexico.

                *the reason is racism

                1. Chirpy*


                  Most white Americans’ ancestors came here for the exact same reasons as people do today- poverty, persecution, lack of opportunities in their country of origin, to rejoin family….the only difference is what countries are currently the biggest source of immigrants today.

              2. Hiding from my Boss*

                I’ve known illegal immigrants of all colors and, speaking for myself, when I refer to “illegal immigrants,” I am not using it as code for any particular race, color, or nationality.

          7. Hastily Blessed Fritos*

            I translated it as “I was being racist but made sure to explain I wasn’t being racist at my co-workers! Just toward other people!”

          8. November Juliet*

            I am an immigrant and I read it like minimizing my problems (or problems that people like me go through). I read it like “you’re lazy and dramatic, why do not do this easy and obvious thing”. But first, it is not easy, it is very difficult. Second, they do not understand, how difficult is it to live without documents/work permit, and that if it was in any way possible to obtain a legal resident status, 99% of these people would do it in a heartbeat. Also, op is referencing their naturalised coworker, and it seems that they do not understand that there is a difference between achievment-based immigration and refugee status. They say they are “curious”, but did not spend even 5 minutes to google that. Which means they are not in fact curious, they just want to boost their ego by judging others.

          9. Katherine*

            It’s like the people who say, “Well, when *my* family came over the America, they did it legally, so why can’t these people?” totally ignoring the fact that immigration pre-WWI was a cakewalk for most people. “Hi, I’m willing to work and not Chinese” did it most of the time. It’s become harder and more expensive every decade since.

        2. EchoGirl*

          Combined with OP’s later reference, I read it as OP saying, basically, “It’s great that you did it the ‘right’ way, not like all those other immigrants.” Basically an extremely backhanded compliment that also insults an entire group.

          1. NotBatman*

            YEP. Calling anyone “one of the good [Marylanders]” is wildly insulting to Maryland, no matter what word you substitute for “Maryland.”

          1. Slow Gin Lizz*

            It’s where I actually said, out loud, “Oh, noooooo,” which I NEVER do. I often think it when reading AAM but this might be the first time I’ve actually said it out loud.

          2. MusicWithRocksIn*

            I got kind of a ‘mentionitis’ feeling from the whole thing, like someone who can’t stop themselves from bringing up their crush with the spouse because their crush is on their mind so much. The feeling this person watches a LOT of news about immigration and is very interested in the subject, and some part of their brain is telling them this is not the right audience for their views on this, but they think about it so much they can’t pass up an opportunity to talk about it. “I can be cool and chill about this” they tell themselves while the tension in the other person’s eyes ramps up. I’m sure they felt very proud of themselves for holding back most of their real feelings on the subject, completely unaware that they were not winning the subtle Olympics.

            1. goddess21*

              dude they are mentioning racist stereotypes. they are a racist and enjoy being racist especially to Chinese ppl.

            2. Baldrick*

              Except that they also wrote everything out when explaining the situation to AAM, so didn’t even gloss over what they said and therefore don’t have any guilt or feelings of regret based on hindsight.

            3. Van Wilder*

              Yeah that explanation tracks for me.

              Also, like proving to themself that they’re not racist, because look, they can explain their perfectly reasonable views even to their (legal) immigrant friends?

          3. rollyex*

            ” I said I find it interesting how may people have passed through the U.S. southern border and not gone through the legal immigration process. ”

            I read this and thought “I do not like where the OP is going” and stopped reading too.

            1. Me...Just Me*

              “Interesting” — yeah, I find it hard to believe that this was the word choice they used in the conversation. Mostly, because it doesn’t make sense.

        3. Panhandlerann*

          And that phrase “find it interesting” in this context? That’s the vague refuge of someone who means something very different and negative!

          1. NaoNao*

            Yeah for me raised with a mom from the US Southern states, “interesting” is a very thinly veiled way of passing judgement. It’s like the meme “I just find it funny that…” which is understood to be the “warning shot” across the bow of the relationship when uttered.
            “Interesting” my Aunt Fanny. That’s like saying “I just find it interesting how the Target in San Fran had to close due to theft” (tilted head, big blinky eyes) the implication is blazingly clear at least to me it is!!

          2. Baldrick*

            When someone says that “they find something interesting” my typical response is to ask “interesting good, or interesting bad?” because it is an ambiguous word. In this case I think it’s clearly interesting bad, despite the OP clearly thinking that it can only be meant positively because it is was bad then that would sound racist.

          3. Arts Akimbo*

            I know! I just want to ask the OP “What do you mean by interesting? What specifically interests you about it?” Because there is virtually no chance that “interest” is in any way neutral.

        4. Introvert girl*

          As a European I’m fascinated by this stance as well all immigration to the Americas was in fact illegal to begin with in the 16th century. No one asked the native American population if they wanted so many people from European descent coming over. I just don’t get the audacity of OP 1.

        5. zuzu*

          And ironically, many, many of those going to the southern border ARE going through the legal process of claiming asylum. They cross the border and present themselves to border authorities. In doing so, they are NOT violating the law, and they are NOT crossing without documentation. They’re submitting to the immigration laws of the United States.

          1. GrooveBat*

            THIS! So many people lump everyone into the racist category of “illegals” even though anyone with an asylum claim in process is here LEGALLY.

        6. Rainy*

          Anytime someone says “I just find it interesting that…” and then says something about immigration, I’m always primed for something racist and terrible, and that comment definitely qualifies. Yikes.

          Given the subsequent termination, I expect the other interpretation is correct.

        7. Erin*

          I was pretty shocked to read that part, along with the portion re: living in a democracy vs communism.

          It’s fine to be interested in the lives of colleagues, but those comments were so far beyond “interest” in someone’s life.

          This person doesn’t understand how or why their comments were inappropriate, which is pretty shocking.

        8. Marzipan Shepherdess*

          Given the letter’s tone, I think we can take it as given that the OP did indeed word it very poorly indeed!

          OP, if you’re reading this, please reflect on the tone of your letter; it was extremely defensive and utterly lacking in any remorse whatsoever. You are more concerned with proving yourself RIGHT than you are about how your behavior affected your colleagues. This is a formula for continued career failure; if you don’t learn from this then you’ll keep repeating it and keep getting fired. Is this what you really want?

          Communication has two parts: what is said and meant and what is received and understood. You may indeed have meant no harm by your questions, but they were heard as passive-aggressive and contemptuous. OP, did you even stop to think that the past 3 years have been a nightmare for ever so many Asian-Americans (thanks to Trump’s “kung flu” cracks and his blaming of China for COVID-19)? And are you aware of the still virulent racism that greets Black people daily? For your own sake as well as for the sake of your future colleagues, take this seriously, open your mind to the possibility of learning and stop trying to defend the indefensible.

      2. MEH Squared*

        I’m Taiwanese American, born in America. My parents were immigrants, and this question had me gritting my teeth by sentence four. OP#1, none of this is lighthearted, and I feel like you threw in that word to try to claim plausible deniability. Saying that they’ll let anyone into the country is blatantly racist, and I am glad your HR did not buy your feeble excuses.

          1. Lady_Lessa*

            And all of LW’s questions sound like an interrogation. I can see “Welcome back, and how was your trip?” But further conversation about it, and the differences would be following the other person’s lead.

            1. Platypus*

              Especially because they really get so personal. Political, personal topics that don’t belong at work.

            2. MigraineMonth*

              For someone “curious”, the OP managed to do a whole lot of not-listening and also judging.

            3. Arglebarglor*

              EXACTLY. I feel like “How was your trip?”is a great way to start and if you were closer to the person maybe “It must be really hard to be so far from family all the time.” THE END

          2. Katherine*

            Yeah. I lived in China for a time, so when I meet a Chinese person, I’ll tell them where I lived in China (Shanghai and Changchun) and ask where they’re from and tell them how interesting my time was there and how much I miss the food. That’s “lighthearted lunch conversation.” Quizzing them on democracy vs. communism is just not something you should do.

          1. SofiaDeo*

            You know every single “it was just a joke” statement actually is coming from a place of bad intent.

        1. The Starsong Princess*

          Yes and I expect OP doubled down in the HR conversation instead of apologizing and that resulted in the firing.

          1. Momma Bear*

            Likely. There’s no introspection in this letter. No trying to understand why someone might have been offended. Just the way they put “I learned that…” which sounded like they don’t agree with HR that it was offensive and were not sorry for it.

        2. Annie*

          Yeah, I think the LW was okay until she said,

          I asked her whether, after living here in a democratic system, would she want to be back living under a communist system? She started to act differently at that point, and I said I find it interesting how may people have passed through the U.S. southern border and not gone through the legal immigration process.

          Possibly asking the first question about democracy vs communism a different way would’ve been okay, but then she just went beyond with the comment about legal immigration, because it’s such a flashpoint politically.

          1. TWB*

            “I said I find it interesting how many people have passed through the U.S. southern border and not gone through the legal immigration process” is also such a gross MAGA-esque slur against Mexico, in particular. What other inference is supposed to be drawn from a comment like this?

            I want to think that people can’t possibly be this oblivious, but clearly some are.

            It almost feels like LW1 is cloaking actual racist/xenophobic sentiments with the “I was just being curious” excuse. This time, they got called out on it.

            This reminds me of my STBX, who went on racist tirades on the regular, and then tried to justify it with “Well, everyone talks like that on the job sites.” Well then, everyone you work with is a horrible racist/xenophobe! He’ll never learn. I doubt LW1 will either. They’ll just learn to hide it better.

          2. Ace in the Hole*

            Yes. It would be very different if she’d instead asked something like “Ah, that makes sense. What about living in China did you prefer to the US?” or “If citizenship and being close to family were no obstacle, which country would you rather stay in?” or even “Having lived in both the US and China, what are the different political systems like as an everyday person?”

            Those are still quite personal questions that might bother some people in a work context…. but at least they’re not judgmental racist dogwhistles. Had she asked something along these lines I could believe it was a well-intentioned gaff. But the way LW describes the interaction it is very clearly not just an honest misunderstanding.

            1. Baldrick*

              I have spoken to a coworker about all the weird paperwork he has to go through in order to visit his wife because he immigrated away and the Chinese government no longer thinks he’s chinese, and I admit that I found it interesting and was glad that he chose me to vent about it because I learned more about the chinese government’s bureaucracy, but even that felt personal and I would have changed the topic if my coworker ever seemed uncomfortable. I’m still a bit shocked that LW thought all of what they said was okay because they sent it all in to AAM.

          3. MigraineMonth*

            Free tip: If someone “starts to act differently at that point” after something you’ve said, you probably said something offensive. If you then double-down with even more offensive things, expect a call from HR. If you quadruple-down about it not being offensive, expect to be fired.

            OP, why did you feel it was appropriate to continue interrogating someone who *you noticed* was uncomfortable?

          4. hello*

            Yeah…another Taiwanese-American here. The moment “democracy” and “communism” came out, I immediately went “oh, another one of THOSE people”. I would have felt uncomfortable hearing that, and I’m from the other side of the (supposed) divide. And then with the next line being the whole racist dogwhistle about the “southern border”, I have a hard time believing that all of this was just a good-faith conversation from curiosity.

      3. RussianInTexas*

        It absolutely mean “you are one of the GOOD immigrants, unlike all those others”.
        It’s at the least obnoxious, and at the worst – you know what it is.

        1. Skippy*

          Our estate lawyer said that to my husband! I really wish I had said something and left, but I was stunned.

    3. allathian*

      Yeah, I hope that the LW learns their lesson from being fired like this, sounds like the firing was fully deserved.

      1. B*

        This is one of those cases where the LW’s response to the firing provides a lot of insight into why HR probably concluded they needed to be fired. This does not sound like someone who has been receptive to constructive criticism on this issue.

      2. MCMonkeyBean*

        It definitely doesn’t sound like they learned anything. Maybe some of Alison’s links will help if they are able to keep an open mind.

        1. Tally miss*

          Ok, I will gove the OP 0.3% flexibility on this one. If the OP started this job 10 months ago directly after the Western Europe stint where people have contracts and there are rules about what companies can do, its possible that the OP didn’t realize that employment at will means the conpany doesn’t have to discuss anything before firing.

    4. coffee*

      Not only that, but framed the place where *her family is still living* as a terrible place, and then responded to the supervisor’s discomfort with a jab towards immigrants, which doubled down on the whole thing.

      1. Emma*

        Right, and did so based on some very off-base, incorrect assumptions – like that communism and democracy are opposites (a country can be a communist democracy, or it can be, like China, neither democratic nor communist), or that China is a communist country (the ruling party is called the communist party, but it’s a market economy much like the US).

        It’s understandable, of course, that LW doesn’t know much about China! But when you’re in that position, it’s appropriate to set aside your preconceptions and ask genuinely open questions, rather than putting the other person in the awkward position of having to decide whether to correct something you said (and risk the kind of fury that some people express when it’s pointed out that they’re wrong about a political topic) or grit their teeth.

        1. Olive*

          It can be appropriate to ask genuinely open questions when you know that someone has an interest in answering, but it’s best to not single out a coworker like that. If you haven’t been asking white coworkers a bunch of questions on their experience of growing up in Iowa, don’t start doing it to your Chinese coworker!

          1. Syfy Geek*

            …..If you haven’t been asking white coworkers a bunch of questions on their experience of growing up in Iowa, don’t start doing it to your Chinese coworker!…..

            I want to print this on cards and hand them to people who need it.

            1. Annie*

              uh, that seems strange. There’s a big different between Iowa and China, and certainly someone who lives in the U.S. would probably not have real questions about Iowa vs China. The approach is the difference. I agree, don’t aggressively ask about the political system in China and put it down, basically. If you want to have them answer open ended questions and they want to discuss it, that’s fine.

              1. Olive*

                There’s a big difference between making friends who you know are comfortable with questioning or going to a Chinese culture meetup, and inflicting these types of questions on coworkers.

              2. Chirpy*

                Having seen how New Yorkers react to normal Midwestern things, I can definitely think of several scenarios where someone from the coasts might interrogate a person about living in Iowa.

        2. M*

          This OP reminds me so strongly of the rural Texan journalist a friend and I did some background shots for a live-to-studio piece for about a decade ago. The news story itself doesn’t matter – we were there for a university event, from Australia, and my friend was about a week away from moving to South Korea, is the key bit.

          Anyway, he picked up pretty quickly in chatting that we were not exactly of the same political bent as him, and so between studio-crosses had a fervent-but-ineffectual go at persuading us we were uninformed about the world and just didn’t *get* how important the total absence of a welfare safety net and public healthcare was to Freedom(TM).

          He was delighted to hear my friend was moving to South Korea – and clearly thought this was his perfect in to an argument-ending gotcha.

          “And,” he asked, “what’s the difference between North Korea and South Korea?”

          My friend, witheringly: “well, one’s a *democracy*”

          …he stopped talking to us after that.

          1. MigraineMonth*

            Did he think that South Korea doesn’t have public healthcare? Because they do have universal public healthcare.

            1. Minji*

              I live in SK—they have government-provided insurance analogous to Medicaid here (which doesn’t cover a lot of stuff that private insurance does) but it’s not like the UK where everything is free.

        3. Ex-prof*

          Right. The opposite of democracy isn’t communism, it’s totalitarianism.

          And China has changed so, so much in our lifetimes– even in the lifetimes of the younger members of the commentariat.

    5. Myrin*

      It’s the kind of thing you can say to your best friend whose relationship with their country of origin, the country you now live in, and most importantly you you know well, or about yourself (I’ve actually encountered that a few times over the years) but not about a coworker (!) and your supervisor (!!!).

      I also want to stress your “terrible” sentence. I think that’s something a lot of people don’t realise/never even think about – even in many oppressive systems, the day-to-day lives of regular people are very similar to those in democratic systems unless they’re politically active; Chinese people have happy families, great jobs, fun with friends, loving communities every day and I can only imagine what it must be like to hear their lives basically referred to as “lesser”. (That’s not to deny the reality of Chinese politics, of course. I’m purely talking about any random person just going about their business.)

      1. Leelee Spaghetti*

        You’re not wrong. Sometimes, to avoid being seen as a racist, it can really help to avoid saying racist things and then pretending surprise or benevolence.

      2. Selena81*

        …I think that’s something a lot of people don’t realise/never even think about – even in many oppressive systems, the day-to-day lives of regular people are very similar to those in democratic systems unless they’re politically active….

        It also puts a lot of weight on the effects of a political system, when something like ‘being rich/poor’ is typically way more important for your daily life experiences (every country has both desperately poor and stupidly wealthy inhabitants)

        1. Panneni*

          That last sentence is not entirely true. In my country for example, the poorest people are poor, but not desperately so.

          People without work (and without monetary assets above a certain amount) get social benefits that enable them to live in a cheap home, eat, and pay the bills. Health insurance is mandatory, so people who can’t afford the premiums get a certain amount of that supplemented. Families with children get a monthly stipend for their children’s needs, etc.

          Basically everyone has either minimum wage with government supplements to make ends meet, has social benefits to replace the income (not without requirements), or earns a living wage.

          The social safety net has been eroded a bit over the last decades, but unless you have managed to wriggle yourself out through several safety holes, you’re not desperately poor.

          You’ll have your basic needs met. If you’re a child, your chances of a better future are reduced but not gone. You are as healthy as you can be as long as you make the effort to visit a doctor (or sometimes the doctor will come find you if you have a pattern of neglecting yourself).

          This is in the Netherlands. Life is not perfect, but liveable for almost everyone here.

          1. Outsider*

            European countries with these amazing benefits are also notoriously difficult to obtain citizenship in.

            Everyone in the club benefits, but it’s not so easy to get it.

            1. Chickadee*

              It’s also hard to get citizenship in the US.

              Everyone in the club benefits because everyone in the club (who can afford it) pays taxes. They’ve organized and voted and fought for these policies. It’s not magic.

              1. Child of Immigrants*

                Non-citizen immigrants in the US also pay taxes but have no say in how those taxes are used (unless the locality uses participatory budgeting, which some do).

                I felt tremendous pressure when I turned 18 because finally, after 20 years in the US, my household had a voice and a vote. Haven’t missed an election in two decades!

                1. GrooveBat*

                  Undocumented immigrants also pay taxes and have even less ability to exercise any say over how they’re used.

            2. RayRayFahye*

              As an American living & working in the Netherlands, it’s actually pretty easy here for your path to citizenship, the only catch is – I’d have to give up my US citizenship to get it. So I’m going for permanent residency instead.

              In any case, the Dutch American Friendship Treaty (DAFT) is one of the easier ways for Americans to get to the EU and get EU citizenship after 5 years. My spouse & I are here on my highly skilled migrant visa – that one’s a bit trickier as you need a college degree and a job that will sponsor you – but only one of us needed that, the other gets the same right to work & live here with no additional sponsorship needed. You can apply for permanent residence OR citizenship once you’ve been here 5 years.

              1. Minji*

                It might be easy to get Netherlands citizenship from the US but it’s virtually impossible from many non-western countries.

          2. Phryne*

            The difference between poor and non-poor people in the Netherlands is 12 healthy years. Meaning that poor people start losing their health on average 12 years before non-poor people. 12. Now subtract the average retirement age from the average life expectancy, and see how much these 12 years matter. I’m not saying everything is bad here, there are systems in place and these help people. But poverty here is as real as elsewhere and has horrible consequences.

          3. Freighter*

            Re: being poor in the Netherlands — Unfortunately, the Netherlands is famous in tech ethics circles for one of the worst recent tech-related human rights violations in terms of how it treats its poor people.

            For six years — *six years*, 2013-2019 — Dutch computer systems were kicking a huge number of poor people off benefits for “fraud” that didn’t exist. Low income people and non-Western immigrants have been shown to have been disproportionately targeted. They had no recourse. Thousands of kids were taken from their families and sent to foster care when they shouldn’t have been. People committed suicide because they were driven into poverty by the government.

            It’s easy to frame this as a technological failure that wasn’t the intent of the system, but it’s also a political and social failure — political because there were countless people who absolutely should have noticed and either didn’t or didn’t care to, and social because the people affected should have had some way to appeal or fight back against what the government was doing to them and afaik it was completely opaque and there was no way to have any recourse. Which was partially, of course, because the people affected were poor, and were put in even more desperate straits by what was happening to them, and they had no power to do anything and a lot of lives were ruined. And from what I’ve read no one’s taken adequate steps to prevent this happening again.

            So yeah, being poor or rich can matter a lot to quality of life and day-to-day security. Even in the Netherlands.

            (And I’m not meaning to pick on the Netherlands here, actually — because I agree with Selena81’s point about the difference that wealth makes. In a lot of countries, being poor means one stroke of bad luck screws you. In the U.S. maybe that’s a bad medical bill, in the Netherlands maybe that’s a racist computer system, in another country maybe it’s something else. I think the best we can say is that some countries it’s less likely than others, but I’ve yet to be convinced there’s any country where financial security doesn’t make that kind of difference.)

            1. MigraineMonth*

              That’s horrifying. I guess the difference I see between that and the treatment of the poor is that in the Netherlands it was considered a mistake, whereas sometimes I think that cruelty to poor people is the point in the US.

              (My state legislature at one point tried to keep food stamps from being used on expensive or unhealthy foods such as candy, quinoa and… lentils, for some reason. Apparently poor people should only be allowed to eat wheat-based products.)

              1. STAT!*

                Cruelty is the point in Australia for sure. See: our demonisation of refugees, mistreatment of indigenous peoples, and for comparison with the Netherlands, the Robodebt scandal. Though unlike in the Netherlands, Robodebt was actually a conscious government policy that drove people to poverty and suicide. It was also illegal, as the government at the time well and truly knew. Interestingly, it ran from 2015 to 2019, so around the same time as the Dutch failure.

                1. STAT!*

                  Also! as DH has just reminded me, at least the Dutch government had a sufficient sense of shame to resign after its benefits scandal. Over here, only one person resigned from Parliament, and that was only after he had been handed his arse by the Royal Commission.

        2. UKDancer*

          Yes I think you’re right. I went to Belarus on business (before the Ukraine invasion) and the people seemed very normal and happy and ordinary which really surprised me because I had an expectation of grinding oppression. Families in restaurants enjoyed lunch, people walked in the park and visited the art gallery and went shopping. Belarus has a horrible and oppressive dictator in charge, massive human rights violations and no free press. But if you’re an ordinary person on a day to day basis it maybe doesn’t seem so much like that.

          1. Ally*

            Yeah, I had the same experience earlier this year in Minsk, it was an incredibly nice city, and clean and safe.
            There were a lot of CCTV cameras around though.

            1. UKDancer*

              Yeah I noticed the CCTV cameras and the sense of being slightly watched, but thought it might be because I was expecting to feel watched. I agree Minsk is lovely.

          2. Annie*

            yes, I’ve worked in China, and the people there are 100% just living their lives, going to work, enjoying their family. Most don’t have a say in their government, but that doesn’t affect them for the most part on a day-to-day basis.

      3. JM60*

        It can depend on who you are and who your particular government is oppressing. If your government has the death penalty for homosexuality, then living under that government as a queer person is likely going to be terrible for your quality of life. But if you’re in the relatively privileged majority, than the quality of life difference between the oppressive government and a democratic government might not be that much.

        1. Nomic*

          I want to push back slightly here. In the US until quite recently (2003), you could go to jail for being gay (yes, yes, it was rarely enforced, but it COULD be enforced at any time,
          and the threat was used to silence dissent). We didn’t live our day-to-day lives in fear, and our day-to-day quality of life was not “terrible”.
          Where there moments of fear, or times when we changed our behavior to reduce risk? Sure. But our quality of life wasn’t “terrible”.

          1. Chickadee*

            The suicide rate for LGBT youth was, and continues to be, staggeringly high. Quality of life varies a lot depending on where you live and who your family is, plus intersectional issues like race, gender, income, etc. I’ve lived in places where I was deep in the closet (and only felt safe because I don’t “look” gay) and places where I felt free and open.

            I think a bigger point to be made is that oppression/danger doesn’t manifest 24/7 and people will find ways to survive and moments of joy when and if they can.

          2. Engineer*

            There was a fag drag 2 counties over from me in 2005. Everyone knew who did it, and they were never ivestigated or prosecuted, because of course the fag deserved it. And this was on the east coast, not rural America.

            *You* did not live your life in fear. *You* do not speak for *all*.

          3. JM60*

            The effect of oppression can vary depending on individual circumstance and on the intensity and form of the oppression. Thankfully, I never lived anywhere where sodomy laws were in effect, and even if I did, I was too young in 2003 for me to be in danger of being prosecuted for violating those laws. But personally, if Lawrence v. Texas was overturned today, and I lived in a state with sodomy laws still on the books, I think that would affect my everyday mental health. And that’s just with jail time (usually a misdemeanor) being the theoretical penalty hanging over my head. That detriment my to everyday life would be much worse if it was instead the death penalty hanging over my head.

            I get the point that living under some level of oppression doesn’t necessarily squeeze joy out of life 24/7. But how relatively privileged or underprivileged you are under that government can change that. Plenty of people under an oppressive government look the other way because it’s not them being oppressed (and for other reasons, such as feeling helpless to help those who are oppressed).

          4. Minji*

            Sure, but there are many countries where people actually DO, commonly, go to jail for being gay. And life there as a queer person is not always how you describe.

          1. Beany*

            Isn’t this where the hair-splitting begins, though? Like a “real” democracy is one where the whole population votes directly on every issue of governance, instead of electing representatives to do it for them? Though by that definition, there are no “real” democracies anywhere in the modern world.

            1. Pippa K*

              By “real” democracy I think you mean “direct democracy.” That’s not what democracy means in modern politics or in political science. Democratic political systems are those wherein sovereignty is vested in the people and the people exercise power through their freely elected representatives. Most political scientists would also hold that democratic governments must meet rule-of-law standards (government bound by law, no one is above the law).

              Democratic systems can certainly be flawed, and some are more democratic than others, and I’m no defender of the US shortcomings in that regard – especially inequalities and injustices on the basis of race, class, sex, etc. And there’s no guarantee that democracies remain intact; they can become authoritarian systems via coup or revolution or other means (and Americans should worry about this!). But the United States is, currently, a democracy.

          1. MigraineMonth*

            Is there a term that means that it’s a democracy but your vote has different weight based on where you live? The electoral college choosing our president seems undemocratic to me.

            Or what about a democracy where a significant portion of the population is disenfranchised?

        1. Xantar*

          I hope you aren’t trying to say, “The US is not a democracy, it’s a republic.” Those two things are not mutually exclusive.

      4. Cyborg Llama Horde*

        While I was in Spain, I asked my host mom what it had been like to live under Franco (after we’d known each other for several months, and had a very good relationship where we talked about meaningful and serious topics). “Oh,” she said. “It was… like anywhere. I was a child.”

        I’d spent my entire Spanish-speaking education being told how Absolutely Terrible The Spanish Dictatorship Was … and I’m not saying it wasn’t. But it was a pretty mind-blowing revelation to realize that you could grow up in that situation, and have a happy, normal childhood.

        1. UKDancer*

          I can relate. I was in Leipzig last year and I had a taxi to the airport. The driver was a pleasant woman in her 60s who had grown up under communism. She told me at length how things had got worse there since the Wende in 1990 and reunification, how much more things cost, how much less certainty there was and how much more she worried about her daughter’s safety because there was much more crime now whereas under Honecker there was no crime (so she said).

          She had a strong and clear preference for the period before which was surprising for me. I guess that’s why travel broadens the mind.

          1. AFac*

            The Germans have a word for this (because of course they do): Ostalgie.

            I’m not an expert, but it always seemed to me a combination of legitimate concerns, past privilege, and nostalgia. Sort of the way certain people in the US want to go back to the 1950-60’s: they’re generally male and/or white, were children or young teens back then, but also didn’t have to think about issues like climate change or predators on the internet or minority rights*.

            *Not to say these issues didn’t exist back then because they totally did, but these people likely didn’t experience them or hear about them the way the 24-7 news pundit cycle works today.

          2. Cruciatus*

            I studied in Leipzig and one of my (native German) tutors told me about her grandma who preferred “how it used to be”–everyone had jobs, everyone had food, etc.

          3. Child of Immigrants*

            My parents worked for an international organization and had colleagues from the former USSR who said the same thing. These were people who were adults in the 70s-80s-90s, so they certainly experienced life and political turmoil both before and after the fall of communism.

            My mom, by contrast, has vivid childhood memories of queuing for milk, winnowing grain to remove ergot, getting mimeographed textbooks sent by her uncle in the US because they weren’t available in India.

      5. ReallyBadPerson*

        ^This. I volunteered as a conversation partner for an ESL class aimed at Chinese people in the US on work or educational visas. Without exception, everyone was happy to be in the US for a time, and happy to return to their homes, where their friends and families were. Literally no one spoke of feeling oppressed or hating their government.

        1. NiHao!*

          I lived in China for 7 years and it was in many ways far more free than in the US. That isn’t to say that their authoritarianism isn’t sickening, especially the concentration camps for Uighurs. But I went there expecting tropes from films like police demanding papers and people disappearing and just a general air of sadness and oppression. In fact, you could basically do anything you wanted – permits were a kindof abstract concept, any type of “illegal” business from selling food to driving customers on the back of your scooter was totally cool, and I definitely miss drinking a beer outside!

      6. Ex-prof*


        I had at one time 148 students who came to the US from what many might consider to be one of the most beleaguered countries on earth. There are few human well-being factors on which their country doesn’t rank near the bottom.

        They LOVED the place. They told me this all the time. They urged me to visit it.

        I didn’t visit– it was too dangerous– but I took their point. Never mind what the stats say. Home is home.

        That should be honored and respected.

    6. Elle by the sea*

      Yes, that isn’t really a joke in that context. OP was already asking marginally annoying questions.

      I am from Europe and was a bit tired after the 1000th question on whether I wanted to go back to my country and if yes, why yes and if not why not. Also, the weird questions and assumptions about the culture of my country and the number of people purporting to be an expert on my country because they have travelled there once or some of their ancestors came from there a long time ago. I am fully aware that most of these questions are genuine and meant as icebreakers, but I can also understand why OPs colleagues just had enough.

      1. MK*

        They maybe genuine, but this is just not an appropriate issue to discuss casually, it is full of pitfalls. I come from a small european country that has a bad economy, but in many ways a lovely plave to live. Would a Northern/Western European or an American appreciate an honest answer to that question, when it often is “I would love to go back, here the people are distant, the weather awful and the food bad, but I need a job”?

        1. Selena81*

          lol, totally valid opinion afaic but not a good answer for people who are angling for ‘tell me why you moved to this fantastic country’ answers

          1. Tau*

            I think a good rule of thumb is that you should… OK, you should generally not be asking “would you move back” questions except to someone with whom you have a close relationship, but definitely not unless you’re prepared for an answer like that. Personally, I’m pretty sure a lot of my coworkers would much rather be in their home countries if not for [the economy/the job opportunities/the political situation/etc.]. There are often big disadvantages to immigration, ranging from culture shock + things you just don’t *like* about the new culture over climate difference to distance from your family and social network. Anyone who expects immigrants to respond like “oh yes of course your country is so much better than the one where I grew up and I never want to go back!” needs to take off their patriotism blinders.

            1. Emmy Noether*

              I remember once reading an article about -I think it was – Syrian refugees, that was composed of interviews with a bunch of them. And it struck me how homesick they all sounded.

              Of course, if you think about it, that’s to be expected. Most people like living in the place they grew up. The culture, language, festivals, food, weather, the people they know, even just that streetcorner that holds memories, the particular smell of the first day of spring… Of course one would miss it! Just because there’s some compelling reason one had to leave that trumps all the reasons to stay (such as one’s survival), that doesn’t cure homesickness.

              So, even if one wouldn’t/can’t go back, the answer is probably plenty complicated and emotional. It’s not smalltalk.

              1. Tau*

                Yep. I’ve struggled how to phrase this for a while and this conversation is making me think about it again…

                The thing is that a culture is a giant collection of lots of different things ranging from food over language to how you interact with strangers, a country is culture + geography + climate + architecture + lots more. It is going to be extremely rare for someone to be just fine with discarding everything in the bundle they grew up in, but you can’t pick and choose – you end up in a new country, you have to deal with their bundle as a whole. So even if there were things about it that drove you to leave, there are almost certainly other things you miss and mourn – whether that’s a specific place, the food, the way people interact in the street, the holidays, inviting their neighbours over for dinner, who even knows what. And really, this is going to be stronger if anything for refugees, since they were driven out by violence and had even less choice about leaving than other migrants.

                In short: 100% agreed. Not smalltalk, not a subject for someone’s casual curiosity, and do not assume that even (in fact, especially) someone who’s come from a nation dealing with war, poverty, dictatorship, etc. doesn’t have complex painful feelings about leaving their home country and some negative ones about the new one.

              2. Olive*

                Even if everything in a new place is amazingly good, it is very very very hard to become a full part of conversations if you’re learning the language as an adult. Beyond basic fluency, in a social setting, there are fast subject changes, regional slang, cultural references, and did I mention fast subject changes?

                Nice people will slow down conversations, and some people are more comfortable with other forms of communication and need verbal communication less than others. I’m not saying immigrants and refugees can never fit in with another culture. But the kind of wild, changing, inside-joking conversation that you have when you’re comfortable with friends? It’s nearly impossible to become part of those when you’re learning language basics. It’s a struggle every single day for a lot of people.

              3. EchoGirl*

                One of my sets of great-grandparents would up settling in Cuba after they were turned away from the US due to some of the earliest immigration restrictions. Recently, my mother discovered that they actually did get approved to emigrate to the US much earlier than we initially thought, but that the reason we didn’t know about this is that they only lived in the US for about a year at that time before returning to Cuba. Surviving members of the family told my mother that this was because my great-grandfather in particular found it wasn’t to his liking; they had been part of a thriving community in Cuba that would do things like get together for shared meals weekly, so when he moved to the US and found that people were more prone to keep to themselves, he felt isolated and miserable. Admittedly, Cuba was a lot different then, but it still shows that even going back multiple generations, not everyone saw America as the shining jewel of places to live.

                (If you’re wondering, my great-grandmother ultimately came to the US for good with her kids after my great-grandfather’s premature death, mostly because a lot of her family had already settled in the US by then and she wanted to be closer to them. That turned into a whole mess due to the fact that they’d effectively “given up” their spot in the earlier instance (as well as the fact that my grandmother was originally from Russia and by this time it was the early days of the Cold War), but that’s a whole other story.)

            2. Irish Teacher*

              Yeah, I’ve never been an immigrant but I grew up in the days when Ireland’s “best export was its people” and we spoke of “raising children for export” and therefore grew up with the idea of emigration as a trauma. Having to choose between emigration and unemployment was something I feared as a child. Emigration was something you did from desperation, not because you thought other countries better than Ireland, just because they were richer and that partly because they hadn’t been colonised.

              As a young adult, I watched in amazement and delight as the economy soared and the emigrants began to come home. I think more than the increased GNP or the multinationals moving to Ireland, the best mark of success was our people returning and then people from other countries actually starting to immigrate to Ireland.

              Ireland has a whole genre of songs about how much emigrants miss Ireland and wish they were back here, including some from the ’80s criticising the government for not doing enough to make it feasible for people to get decent jobs here so they can return.

            3. Platypus*

              Even when things are really rough, home is home, and there are family and friends and comfort in traditions and a way of life. My husband is from Russia, his parents are very much very Russian patriots, but are against the war and feel kind of isolated due to it. They recognize all the things that are difficult about their life, but it is their home. They also really wanted my husband and his siblings to come to the US, but they still love Russia and did not want to leave themselves.

              I think of many of the American immigrants of yesteryear where when you left, you literally knew you would never return and see anyone ever again. You could wait for letters that took a long time – months I guess. Yes, the decision was made weighing the pros and cons, but how heartbreaking still.

            4. Rainy*

              I’m from the US and back here now, but I lived in Canada for six years, and for the first four months I lived there, I flew home (it took basically a minimum of eight hours to get home) once a month. For the first eight months, I drove across the border into the US at least once a month to do things like buy food and personal items I couldn’t find in Canada etc. After the first year I started to acclimate, found Canadian brands for stuff, found a Canadian stylist, all those little things, but being able to go home until my new city started being home was so helpful.

              That homesickness piece is so real, even when the home you’re sick for is someplace like Kansas. I got over it, and I didn’t move back to Kansas when I moved back to the states, because in real terms Kansas isn’t that great a place for me, but until someone has lived in another country they honestly just aren’t going to get it–and so the best thing is to be polite and keep their mouth shut!

      2. münchner kindl*

        It’s also not part of lunch break, when people want to relax and eat, to instead educate their coworkers on things.

        Alison and readers have discussed this very often with DEI that minorities are not required to do the intensive labour of educating people when other resources are available, just because the privileged people take the way that’s easiest for them and ask instead of reading the first wikipedia entry or book on the subject first.

        Also, LW: a lot of people want to come to Hollywood USA – the fictive version of US, not to the reality of shootings, and police uncontrolled, and draconian, unreasonable laws.

        As western European, the current US fails a lot of tests for modern democracy, so the remark of going from democracy to communist china is not just tone-deaf, it’s simply false.

    7. Teapot Wrangler*

      I could see me making that joke to an immigrant friend but, importantly, 1) not at work 2) not in front of people who might not realise we’re joking around 3) only if I know her well enough to be sure she would find it funny.

      To say something like that in the context of all this other stuff…

    8. londonedit*

      Yeah…here in the UK a comment like that would immediately signal that you’re on the right-wing Suella Braverman ‘stop the boats’ side of things. Which really wouldn’t go down well with many people.

    9. Richard Hershberger*

      More generally, if it is a Fox News talking point, stop and reconsider before repeating it. Even “jokingly.” Remember the adage that dying is easy: humor is hard.

    10. Also-ADHD*

      I stopped counting micro aggressions before LW even got to that comment, when I’d already more than filled up a hand. Most places wouldn’t fire you out of the blue for these kinds of things, but it is less wrong than the sweeping under the rug that many places would do. And it seems impossible to me that LW isn’t constantly slinging around micro aggressions if they didn’t notice all the clear ones in this interaction. I’m not an immigrant, but I’d be so uncomfortable and bothered by any small portion of this conversation, as reported by them.

      1. Cyborg Llama Horde*

        Honestly, your comment makes me think that it’s entirely possible that this conversation wasn’t even reported by the two immigrants who participated in it, but rather by someone who overheard it and cringed throughout the whole thing, and wound up reporting it to HR as, “OP said X, Y, and Z which sounded really offensive to me, and Faith and Lily looked VERY uncomfortable the entire time.”

      2. MigraineMonth*

        I find it fascinating that OP noticed their *manager* getting visibly uncomfortable with their comments and apparently thought, “Great, I’ll keep digging!”

        I’d change the subject if I thought my manager was uncomfortable with my comments even if the topic had been extremely bland (rather than a known racial/political flashpoint).

    11. Filthy Vulgar Mercenary*

      And then doubling down on that phrase being ok because they said it jokingly? I can’t even.

    12. Jack Straw from Wichita*

      Literally copied that portion and came to the comments without reading any other letters to say the same. I can’t think of any situation where that would be funny or a joke. Like, none at all. Not even among the best of friends or family but certainly not at work.

    13. AliceInSpreadsheetland*

      Yes. I would never interpret that comment as a joke because of how often it gets said by extremely nationalist, anti-immigrant and racist people- especially paired with a comment about people who enter the US legally… most ‘illegal immigrants’ are actually just overstaying a visa they obtained legally, and people who are ‘illegally’ crossing the border are often fleeing for their lives and seeking asylum. The legal process to immigrate to the US can take years and cost a lot of money and many people don’t have that. (I looked it up and the average now for a green card is 5 years 8 months!) Both of my parents’ families had to flee their home country when they were children and then we came here (the US) on my dad’s green card when I was a child. I still don’t have anywhere near the same experience as many immigrants today. Living and working purely by choice in a couple European countries for just seven years is absolutely not an equivalent experience either.

      And this is how the comments came across in LW’s own retelling. We often have a rosier view of our own words and how they come across because we know our true meaning and intentions, and outsiders don’t. It’s possible in the original situation LW’s comments came across worse, or they said something else they didn’t include in the letter.

    14. It Takes T to Tango*

      Pointing out that a coworker is originally another country, “joking” that the immigration system is too lax and asking if they want to go back home can easily come across as a thinly veiled, “Go back to where you belong.” Commenting to your supervisor about how people slip across the border all the time, while talking about her citizenship and country of origin, is a patronizing pat on the head that “she’s one of the good ones.” Kudos to your supervisor and/or coworker for speaking up and for HR for taking action.

    15. The Formatting Queen*

      Oh, but they were “just joking” when they said that! That makes everything okay, right?? /s

      1. Wendy Darling*

        Also, jokes are funny, and I cannot figure out a context in which “they will just let anyone into the country” is funny other than if you are talking about how absurdly difficult legal immigration into the US is and are being sarcastic. From the context of the letter, I’m fairly confident that’s not what was going on, so I’m really curious how that was a joke.

    16. Hot Flash Gordon*

      Unless you’re a Native American, all Americans are descendent from immigrants who possibly came here illegally (I’m thinking of the gold rush in the Black Hills) and weren’t exactly sensitive to the fact that they were guests on Native land. People really need to do some self reflection on why they hold the beliefs they do.

    17. rebelwithmouseyhair*

      Yes, this is incredibly insensitive. They have family back in China, they don’t want to be reminded of the many ways in which their freedom is curtailed. They may have suffered in some way before coming to your country.
      My partner is from the Middle East, he had to flee for his life. He NEVER talks about it. For many years, he was a refugee and couldn’t go back. He really didn’t like being asked about it, and I would interrupt and deflect for him whenever possible. People in the west lead cosseted lives and very few have enough imagination and empathy to understand what others go through.
      OP1 you have some serious learning to do.

      1. MigraineMonth*

        Other immigrants would like to return to their countries, but cannot. Being expected to list the reasons the US is better or to express gratitude just for being allowed to live in the US is obnoxious.

    18. Momma Bear*

      I wonder if OP struggles in social situations in general. At the point where the other person was visibly uncomfortable, OP should have dropped the subject. If OP’s personality is to pick a scab (some people like a “lively debate” and many do not), then OP needs to learn time and place for that. I’m not going to armchair diagnose OP but perhaps talking to someone they know and trust about how they handle social interactions and where they might improve that soft skill would be beneficial for the next job.

      A good rule of thumb is to avoid any politics in the office – which would include immigration. Especially with your superior involved. Your boss is not the person to do a deep dive with on touchy topics.

      We also don’t know from this the culture of the company or the work they do. If they work with marginalized communities, for example, that could be a huge problem. I’m betting that it was either more egregious than OP is relaying here or not the first offence to warrant being fired.

    19. Beth*

      What’s wild to me is, I’ve seen people say things like this and be genuinely confused when people take offense. There’s something about certain circles (I’m thinking a certain type of Fox News watcher, but they’re probably not the only ones)–they’ve genuinely convinced themselves that their bigoted views are not just true but also mainstream, normal, and acceptable to voice, and they’re genuinely shocked and genuinely feel attacked when people react badly to the things they say.

      OP1 should take this as a wake-up call. Their views are deeply out of line with the majority, deeply unkind and biased, and so unacceptable in modern society that it’s not surprising to me that they got fired without warning. If they genuinely thought this was OK to say, then they need to seriously diversify their sources of info–if they don’t, this isn’t going to be the last time that their misaligned sense of social norms gets them in serious trouble.

      1. Not Jane*

        Ugh, that is so true! They take in so much right-wing media and start to think that everyone has those beliefs. Last Christmas, one of my relatives was laughing about the busloads of immigrants being dropped off in blue cities because, you know, “owning the libs” and he seemed so confused that the rest of us were horrified at people being used as political pawns.

        1. MigraineMonth*

          I wonder if the people who organized that are ignorant of the US history of “Reverse Freedom Rides”, or if they know about it and thought it was a great idea.

      2. So*

        Yes, exactly. This sounds like someone who is used to being an echo chamber and it didn’t even occur to them that their coworkers might not share the same worldview. Hence their shock that anyone could be offended by the disgusting things they said.

    20. Kara*

      When I got to that part of the letter I blurted “Holy crap!” out loud to my empty office.
      OP, you come across as incredibly tone deaf when it comes to immigrants and especially in our current political situation where a lot of people are leaning towards white nationalism.

    21. Veryanon*

      Exactly. I work with a lot of people who are from other countries, and when they mention to me that they’re going home to see family, my response is “Oh that’s nice, have a great time!” That’s it! No other comments are necessary or welcome.

      1. I Have RBF*

        Sometimes I’ll ask where their family is, and how long the trip is going to be. Just like with some here on the west coast going to see their family “back east”. (How long are direct flights to New York from San Fransisco these days?)

    22. WillowSunstar*

      Absolutely. I also wouldn’t be talking to my coworkers, and especially not a supervisor, about their experiences as immigrants unless they themselves brought it up. And only then would I be trying to keep my comments as vague and polite as one possibly can.

      I’m also typing this in the context of someone who is a member of a Toastmasters club where at least half the members are immigrants, if not on temporary visas, from other countries and who joined Toastmasters to practice English as a second language. Though it is highly interesting, and you learn a great deal about other cultures from their speeches.

    23. NotTheSameAaron*

      Yes, this is the kind of conversation you should only have with old, close friends. For a somewhat new coworker to talk about these topics is certainty off-putting.

    24. Jessica*

      The badgering about how badly most people want to live here, and if the supervisor would want to go back, and the “would you want to go back and live under a communist regime???” response to her saying yes–

      This isn’t “lighthearted conversation,” and the disingenuousness in portraying it that way is really obvious.

      This is a demand for the LW’s immigrant colleagues to perform gratitude for her about being allowed to live here, and for them to profess, to the LW’s satisfaction, the greatness of the US.

      Firing the LW was appropriate.

    25. Onomatopoeia Cornucopia*

      Legal immigration is borderline impossible (not quite, but almost) if you’re not wealthy and you’re from countries where a lot of people want to emigrate to the US. Because that fact is patently obvious to anyone who’s looked into it for more than five minutes, people who go around saying “I respect people who Follow the Process” (as if there is one) signal that they are willing to ignore the material reality of immigration in order to have an excuse to complain about illegal immigration.

      Basically, OP, if you really had “a spirit of curiosity” about the subject, you wouldn’t have said that, almost by definition. You showed your bias and people reacted appropriately.

    26. Some Dude*

      Yeah…not to mention, you need to step carefully when you are talking to people about their home country and their immigration status. Immigration status to me is like religion – do not go there if you don’t have to, unless you are in HR or managing them directly.

    27. Katherine*

      Yeah, as someone who works with immigrant populations, I started cringing about a quarter into the letter, and the cringe only got worse as it went on. That was . . . not good.

  3. nnn*

    #4: Fellow non-christmas atheist here. I find it effective to talk as though it’s just any other long weekend. You can even get ahead of the discourse by saying “Enjoy your long weekend!” or “Did you have a good long weekend?”:

    1. Magenta Sky*

      I’ve worked in retail far too long to have any interest in Christmas, other than it’s the busiest time of year (and we’re a destination for buying lights and stuff). It’s just a day off, nothing more.

      But most of my coworkers don’t feel all that differently, for obvious reasons.

      “Santa Claus didn’t die for our sins.”

      1. LifeBeforeCorona*

        Agreed wholeheartedly, I’ve had too many Christmases and the forced cheer and commercialization grates on my last nerve. Fortunately, I can cover shifts for people who really want to spend the day with friends and family. I’m doing both of us a favour.

    2. Jolie*

      I was thinking that too : “I don’t celebrate Christmas itself but I did have a lovely long weekend and watched a lot of Star Trek” does the job of conveying something pleasant without lying.

      1. Antilles*

        And it’s also all you really need. With friendly work chit-chat, you don’t need to provide tons of details, nor do most people even want that kind of breakdown. The 1-2 sentences just like you would on any other “how was your weekend?” conversation works just fine.

    3. Allonge*

      Yes, the close-to-zero-conflict version is to interpret the question as one of the ‘what did you do over the weekend’ small talk ones.

      I would expect that even practicing Christians usually don’t ask to learn about the specifics of religious activities (and a lot of them will be just as annoyed by the commercialization aspect, incidentally).

      There is nothing wrong with spelling out the ‘I don’t celebrate Christmas’ part, of course. Depends on how much energy one has at any given moment.

      1. UKDancer*

        Yes I think it’s small talk. I’d probably err on the side of saying something politely non-committal as Allison suggested. Most people asking it are just making conversation.

      2. JM60*

        I grew up in a very Catholic extended family and an extremely Catholic insular community, and that’s how the question was always interpreted. They would typically expect answers like, “We were hosting relatives from out of town and did fun activities X and Y with them.”

    4. Lea*

      Yeah I was thinking something like, I had a good day off and slept in/went on a hike/whatever would be a nice substitute? That’s really all people are asking anyways, how was your day off. It’s just that your day/week off was Christmas

    5. Green great dragon*

      That may even be what is meant! I have caught myself saying ‘how was Christmas’ to someone I knew didn’t celebrate, absolutely meaning ‘how did you enjoy the time off work over the Christmas period’ and realising just too late that was absolutely not the way to phrase it (I’m not religious and few people in my life are, so in my head Christmas=time off not religious observance, but I know that’s not true for everyone).

      1. amoeba*

        Yup! We usually have time off end of year that’s very commonly referred to as “Christmas holiday” even by the ones who don’t celebrate. When we all come back to the office, what people usually mean is not how you celebrated or not, but how your holiday was.
        Is it still insensitive to phrase it that way? Sure, and I try not to for the ones I know who don’t celebrate. But reading the question that way might make it easier to answer and less annoying.

        1. MigraineMonth*

          There’s also inherent weirdness in pretending that getting Dec 24th-25th off is for “winter holidays” (rather than the time most US Christians observe Christmas).

          I used to wish people “Happy Holidays” or “Enjoy the Holidays” when I worked in retail, but it always felt like a polite fiction.

    6. Richard Hershberger*

      Christian here. I most definitely observe religious Christmas, but find all the other stuff tiresome at best. A handy way to tell from the outside is that religious Christmas starts the afternoon or evening of December 24 and ends January 5. All the other stuff starts some weeks or months earlier and ends on December 25. There is only about a day and a half of overlap.

      1. amoeba*

        Huh, interesting! I’m culturally Christian and a protestant, although not actually religiuos, and have never heard of Christmas beyond the 26th (called “2nd Christmas day here, literally). On the other hand, “advent”, so the four weeks leading up to it, are definitely celebrated by churches here. (Wikipedia calls it a “time of expectant waiting and preparation”).

        Maybe it varies by denomination?

        1. Richard Hershberger*

          The traditional liturgical calendar has the year divided into seasons. December 25 is the feast of Christmas, and also the first day of the season of Christmas. The season lasts twelve days: hence the song. If you want to go really old school, exchanging gifts was not a Christmas tradition. It went with the feast of Epiphany, January 6, which commemorates the arrival of the three wise men. That story is from Matthew 2. It explicitly has them arriving in Jerusalem some unspecified time after Jesus was born, and going from there to Bethlehem. The nativity story as frequently popularized is a mashup of Matthew and Luke’s version, with the time frame a complete botch. So in any case, the wise men brought gifts, so gift exchange is an Epiphany thing, not a Christmas thing. But everyone wants to get a jump on the goodies, so this was pushed back to Epiphany Eve, more generally known as Twelfth Night. Hence the Shakespeare play.

          How this plays out in Protestant churches varies wildly. My Lutheran tradition generally keeps the traditional liturgical calendar. So does the Anglican tradition, and some but not all churches to derive from it. The Reformed tradition ditched it five centuries back. Modern Evangelicalism is something of a mishmash of traditions, mostly not doing the liturgical calendar, often rejecting it as a Catholic thing or at this point simply unaware of its existence.

          1. Clisby*

            Yes, this describes the liturgical calendar used by the Episcopal Church when I was growing up. I never knew anyone who postponed gift-giving until Epiphany, although we did attend church that day. And we didn’t put up the Christmas tree until Christmas Eve.

            1. Long Time Reader*

              It’s done in some Spanish cultures- Episcopalian American here with a half-Cuban family, and Kings day is a thing, we got presents growing up as well as on Christmas Day.

              1. Turquoisecow*

                Yeah I have some Puerto Rican friends who don’t do much for Christmas Day but go all out for Epiphany/Three Kings Day.

                Tradition for me has been you keep up Christmas decor until Three Kings Day.

            2. Platypus*

              I’m Episcopalian and we do Advent which is supposed to be a quiet, contemplative time, lol, not the pre-Christmas madness that happens. But anyway, we do everything culturally like everyone else with the decorations and whatnot and it’s not like you can get an Advent wreath at Target or something, its completely secular stuff. But what I DO like, is an excuse to carry on the season. January is so bleak, I never take my tree down before the Epiphany and it just lets me hold onto something happy for a bit longer.
              I also held a 12th night party – medieval style) one year and it was totally fun.

          2. Helewise*

            Many Reformed churches do actually observe the traditional liturgical calendar in one fashion or another as well, though practice varies more.

        2. Lady_Lessa*

          Richard’s description sounds similar to what Orthodox Christians celebrate. As a Baptist, we only celebrated Dec. 25, and just days around that. As a Catholic, I use Advent to prepare myself spiritually for Christmas that starts Dec 24 evening, and goes for about a week.

          As an adult convert, I am fairly unfamilar with the Octave of Christmas, since those around me don’t seem that aware

          1. fallingleavesofnovember*

            Orthodox here (in North America)! There are two things:
            – Different Orthodox churches use different calendars (Julian, ‘Old’ calendar, or Gregorian, ‘New’ calendar). New calendar celebrates on December 25th, while the old calendar folks celebrate on January 7th. Some families will celebrate both, especially if their church or their family tradition is the old calendar.
            – Either way, we have a 40 day advent period (so starting November 15th for new calendar churches) that is about fasting, prayer, and almsgiving. The fasting especially is a bit limiting when it comes to Christmas parties and goodies, and I do find it challenging that the world moves on so quickly after December 26!

            Theophany (baptism of Jesus) on Jan 6th (new calendar) is another major feast for us and kind of bookends the season.

          2. Irish Teacher*

            Catholics also take Christmas as being 12 days, from Christmas day to the 6th of January. I think Anglicans do too.

            In Ireland, it is somewhat jokingly considered bad luck to take your Christmas decorations down before the 6th and school Christmas holidays usually run from around the 23rd of December to around the 6th of January. They are two weeks long so that doesn’t always work exactly, but as close as possible. Last year, I think we went back on the 5th. This year, it will be the 8th as the 6th is a Saturday.

            The 12 days of Christmas is referenced a lot.

        3. Myrin*

          I was thinking about denominations – “Heilige Drei Könige” is definitely a thing on the 6th and has always been an official holiday in my majority catholic area, so “Christmas time” has always extended until then for everyone here (also traditionally the last day to leave your tree and the Krippe up) but I’m realising that I have no idea whether that’s something that’s even “observed” by protestants!

        4. WillowSunstar*

          Yes, was raised in a Protestant church and we had advent the month or so before Christmas. IIRC it’s for 4 Sundays before, then they light the Christmas candle at Christmas Eve service.

        5. GDUB*

          It doesn’t vary by denomination. Christmas is the 1st day of Christmas, and there are 12 days of Christmas, as you may know from the song. Christmas ends on January 5, and January 6 is Epiphany.

    7. Hot Flash Gordon*

      I’m Christian and get tired of the commercialization of the holiday every time it rolls around.

      1. ReallyBadPerson*

        Same. I’m also a religious Christian. I call the commercial Christmas that seems to start just after Halloween ‘Xmas’ (literally pronounced ex-mas). And I generally just wish people Happy Holidays unless I know they actually celebrate Christmas.

      2. NotTheSameAaron*

        Yes, Christmas goods seem to arrive in stores earlier and earlier each year. This year they were put out the same time as Halloween goods. Some people start to put their decorations up right after Halloween, though it’s considered polite to wait after Remembrance Day (Nov 11) to start.

        1. AnonORama*

          Ha, I call November 1 “AirPods Day.” I haaaaaate Christmas music (particularly the stuff they play in stores), and some now really do start it the day after Halloween, so I make sure I’ve got my earbuds any time I leave the house. I feel bad for people working in retail at this time of year — for many reasons, but having to hear about the sleigh bells jingling and ring-ting-tingling too for almost two months would put me over the edge!

    8. Helen Waite*

      Same! There are other holidays celebrated at that time of the year and my super inclusive Page a Day calendar lists almost all of them. Even if you don’t observe any of them, it’s still a day off.

    9. Jamjari*

      I came here to say that this is a good reminder for those of us who might ask the question to be more thoughtful with our language. As someone who doesn’t much practice Christmas anymore and hates the commercialization, I would as “How was your Christmas” as a short form for “How were your statutory holiday days” without thinking. Instead maybe I should just say “How was your time off?”

      1. Random Bystander*

        Would it matter if it is literally written in the corporate calendar as “Christmas”? My current company pays holidays for a number of days a year (not part of PTO), and it is listed on the corporate calendar as “Christmas, December 25”.

        I mean, if I knew for a fact that the individual I was speaking with did not celebrate Christmas (and either knew for a fact what holiday that person *does* celebrate or that the person does not celebrate any holidays), I’d be more specific about asking about their extra day off.

        Devout Catholic here–love my Advent season, celebrate Christmas with things not coming down until after Epiphany (though I have not had a tree up for several years, due to young cats who wouldn’t stay out of the tree–current youngest is approximately 6 mo old, former feral, so maybe in 2025).

    10. Momma Bear*

      There are so many reasons that someone might not celebrate Christmas. I’d say it’s not a holiday I celebrate but hope you enjoyed it and then move the topic to something else.

    11. Lucy P*

      For our own reasons, my family and I don’t celebrate a lot of holidays that are a norm to most people like Valentines Day, Easter (the part with the bunny rabbits) and Halloween. We do Christmas, but not the Santa and elves part of it.

      If someone says, “Have a great Halloween tomorrow”, we usually just respond with “You have a great day tomorrow”. Most people don’t even bat an eye.

    12. umami*

      Yeah, my thought was that they don’t necessarily mean ‘Christmas’, but the ‘Christmas break’? I’m not a believer, and I usually assume that to be the thought even if it wasn’t.

    13. There You Are*

      Also an atheist, and I have always automatically interpreted the question to be “How was your Christmas *break*,” and answer the “break” part of the question while ignoring the Christmas part.

      Them: “Did you have a good Christmas [break]?”

      Me: “It was glorious; I caught up on ALL the sleep!”

  4. nnn*

    #2: This is literally the first time in my life I’ve heard of squishmallows. Is the issue just that they’re plush toys, or are there other connotations that I’m missing?

    1. Magenta Sky*

      According to Wikipedia, “Squishmallow is a brand of anthropomorphic stuffed toy that was launched in 2017 by Kelly Toys Holdings LLC. ”

      That’s pretty much it. Plush toys in unusual shapes.

      I find the choice to interview from the bedroom far more strange than that they had a collection of plush toys. (And to be clear, I don’t find that all that strange to begin with, it’s very likely the only place they had the privacy to do it.)

      I mean, really, is it odd to collect plush toys? Is anti-nerd bigotry still that prevalent?

      1. Happy meal with extra happy*

        Yes, in all of the work environments I’ve been in, if a large stuffed animal collection was clearly visible in a Zoom background, it would be seen as odd.

        I collect Lego car sets, but I wouldn’t have a bunch of visible Lego out in my work space.

        1. Magenta Sky*

          A) This wasn’t work space, it was an interview.

          B) Would you remove all that from the background for an interview, if that was the only room practical to do the interview in? If so, personally, I find that far weirder than collecting plushies, since, according to polls, 43% of adults in the US have stuffed animals (and more men than women).

          1. Mangled Metaphor*

            there’s nothing wrong AT ALL with having a plush toy collection as an adult. there’s nothing wrong with doing an interview from a bedroom.
            I’d be more… concerned is the wrong word, but it sets off little belle in my head, that three years after we really started normalising and getting the hang of video calling software, they didn’t consider a blurred background, or virtual background.

            it’s a deliberate choice to have it on display – whether consciously or not. that speaks more to me than*what* they are choosing to display.

            1. Green great dragon*

              Personally, I hate virtual backgrounds, especially on a slightly iffy collection. They’re getting much better, but you still get mics popping in and out and people disappearing if they get too far from the camera. We can’t say they didn’t consider a virtual background.

              And a lot of people don’t regularly, or ever, use video calling!

              1. BubbleTea*

                And a busy background is particularly likely to cause problems with virtual backgrounds, because lots of things might read as being part of your face.

              2. Selena81*

                I don’t like them either: I don’t like the blurry line around your head, I don’t like the visual disconnect of mismatched shadows, I don’t like stuff suddenly popping up as the camera readjusts.
                And because I always avoid them they signal to me that you must have *a lot* to hide.

                And if the applicant rarely uses their webcam (because they spend most of their time embedded in the community) it makes sense to me that they wouldn’t even know how to use virtual backgrounds.

                1. Lea*

                  That’s so funny, everyone I work with uses backgrounds. It is funny the way they can do things around your hair though.

                  I don’t have anything to hide I just prefer looking at myself with a sunset background than the boring window in my office.

                  I’m wondering if young people have ‘don’t use backgrounds’ rules for school and carry them into work or if norms just haven’t quite sorted themselves on this topic yet

              3. rebelwithmouseyhair*

                I do occasionally have online meetings but I haven’t a clue how to use a background. I don’t need one because all you can see is a blank wall behind me, but honestly I would never judge anyone for what I might see in their background unless it were overtly sexual or violent or illegal in some way.
                Squeaky toys are inoffensive and I don’t see how it could ever be a problem.

              4. So they all cheap ass-rolled over and one fell out*

                I’ve found Teams to be pretty good at virtual backgrounds, but Zoom simply cannot handle the busy background behind my desk (including but not limited to the side of our fridge which is covered with magnets).
                If someone declined to hire me because of my magnet collection, well, I don’t want to work for them anyways (and I recognize that I’m privileged to be able to say that).

              5. But what to call me?*

                I don’t think it would even occur to me to use a virtual background, despite often using teams or zoom for work and school. For work, the meetings were usually only virtual when the client couldn’t come in person, so we were all already in our offices anyway, and even if there was something in our backgrounds other than boring walls the clients usually just called in without video so only our coworkers would see it. For school, it’s just a bunch of exhausted graduate students and some rather informal professors, so as long as there are no naked people or laundry of the undergarment-persuasion sitting around no one really cares what’s in anyone else’s background. I’m just not in the habit of using virtual backgrounds, and if I tried I’d be afraid that I’d do it wrong and end up looking sillier than whatever the background might be concealing.

                As for what was in her background, she may be so used to having the squishmallows around that they just read as neutral background items to her. They would also read as pretty neutral to me, but that might just be the field I’m in.

            2. Emmy Noether*

              I’ve had it happen that as an outside guest in a videoconferencing software, some functions were disabled. Blurring was often one of them. Maybe they were counting on the blurring and then it didn’t work. I’ve had to scramble to remove my ironing board and laundry hamper in that kind of situation.

              1. rebelwithmouseyhair*

                It might be easier to turn your laptop round so that only a blank wall is visible rather than the entire room.

                1. FrivYeti*

                  That’s probably not possible in a lot of environments; your laptop is going to be at your desk, and you can’t just pull your desk out into the centre of your bedroom and sit behind it against the wall if you’re in a smaller space. And if you don’t have a large place, there’s a good chance that you don’t have a new computer and might not be able to use a blurred background (if you’re even familiar enough with Zoom to know that this is a thing, which I can say from experience a lot of people still aren’t.)

                  Overall, the original complaint really just feels like unexamined classism to me – it’s assuming that someone should have a large enough home to have a working space for their computer that isn’t their bedroom, which simply isn’t the case for many young people, and it’s assuming that how someone decorates their bedroom reflects on their professional capabilities.

            3. ceiswyn*

              I haven’t had to interview in the age of Zoom, but I don’t know that I’d think to blur; most people at my current workplace don’t.

              Though if I did think about it, I still probably wouldn’t. I’m a nerdy girl with ADHD, and I’ve had a lot of difficulty in the past trying to cope with the set of arbitrary rules that some places regard as ‘professional’. Screening out employers who can’t cope with my plush dinosaur collection (and by extension, my other idiosyncrasies) seems like a sensible use of the interview to me :)

              1. Ellis Bell*

                This is where I land too, I think. Next thing you know they are objecting to your sloth pencil case.

              2. Weiner Mom*

                I came here to say something similar. Others below have mentioned the hidden information/classism thing but like…what does OP think people collect these days, precious moments figurines?

                Actually, a room full of those would give me a lot more pause than squishmallows would but that’s because I think they’re creepy.

                I resent the implication that liking toys and collectibles indicates a lack of emotional maturity. In my experience it’s very much the other way around.

                If you can’t see another adult enjoy something harmless that you don’t understand without denigrating them (assuming they’re not mature) and penalizing them (continuing to focus on the hobby you don’t understand to the detriment of their job interview, leading to them not being seriously considered), how emotionally mature can you be?

                People without a single Silly Bone in thier bodies tend to be the least in tune with their emotions and the emotions of others IME.

                1. But what to call me?*

                  From what I’ve seen, the argument is often that of course you’re allowed to like silly things but if you’re ‘mature’ you should know enough to keep them to yourself because of course people will judge you for them. As if surrounding yourself with things that make you happy was some deep, dark secret.

                  Now, in practical terms, sometimes you do need to conceal harmless things that other people might judge negatively because impression management takes priority in that situation, which could arguably be true of an interview. On the other hand, yeah, you might just decide that working for someone who would screen you out because of that just isn’t ever going to work for you so you might as well show them what they’re getting up front. And on the other, other hand, if you’re someone who sees squishmallows as a perfectly reasonable collection for an adult to have and haven’t interacted much with anyone who doesn’t, it might never occur to you that their presence might negatively affect someone’s perception of you.

            4. bamcheeks*

              LW says they’re hiring entry-level candidates for a role which involves outreach and community organising. “Everyone knows professionalism means having a neutral/blurred background” is very hidden-curriculum, and is probably going to exclude some potentially brilliant candidates.

              1. elaine*

                Strong agree. I resent the implication that the candidate doesn’t have “self-directedness, resilience, and social intelligence” because they also like stuffed animals.

                1. Parakeet*

                  This. I have a chonky seal pillow that a love (if you google this phrase, you will get tons of correct results), and a big soft turtle plushie that my youngest brother gave me as a gift a long time ago because at the time he was a little kid who was into turtles and therefore assumed everyone was into turtles. I love both of them. Between my various professional and volunteer roles, I’ve done crisis response and social services systems advocacy for survivors of violence, gotten a PhD, been shot at and beaten up, gone up against neo-Nazis (and I am Jewish), survived a mass-casualty terrorist attack, advised major federal government agencies, advised tech companies that you’ve all heard of, done search and rescue and disaster relief, presented to and trained national and international audiences. Among other things. What do the giant plushies have to do with any of the attributes the LW is looking for? I would like to think I have all of them and that my experience shows it.

                  I’m in my 30s but it’s still incredibly soothing to flop on to the bed and squeeze a giant plushie if professional or volunteer work has been hard.

                2. No Longer Gig-Less Data Analyst*

                  My 26 year old daughter is one of the best customer service reps on her team – she’s gotten a promotion every year for the 3 years she’s worked there and consistently earns bonuses for 5 star customer survey ratings. Her also 26 year old fiancé just graduated with her MSW and will be starting a position soon as a therapist-in-training.

                  Between the two of them, they have approximately 10,000 squishmellows (kidding, of course) in a net above the bed in their bedroom. I laughed when I saw the picture because it looks just like their place. They are two of the brightest, most hardworking young adults I know – they just love stuffies and other comfort items.

              2. Beth*

                Yeah, I’m blinking at the whole idea of this being an issue.

                I think I would notice whether the collection of stuffed toys, or Lego, or action figures, or bat’leths, or whatever was clean, organized, and tidy, in which case I’d regard that as a positive. Or I’d just ignore it.

                1. rhymeswithmonet*

                  Displaying a bat’leth collection would be unprofessional for an interview. A mek’leth collection, on the other hand…

              3. Twix*

                It’s also just wrong. Depending on your industry and role, having a background that isn’t sterile could be anything from a complete non-issue to actively appreciated. Frankly, my take would be that anyone who would judge a candidate based on this should follow LW’s lead and take a step back to question their own biases.

              4. sulky-anne*

                I got the impression that the LW isn’t concerned with professionalism so much as toughness, so the stuffed animals created a kind of dissonance, although I don’t think the two are necessarily related.

                If it’s more a question of looking for candidates who can fit in socially with the community they serve, this might be a good indicator that they need a more robust method for that.

            5. Leia Oregano*

              Also, idk if it’s changed, but older computers can’t use virtual backgrounds on some platforms! My old work computer was a 2017 macbook, and for the two years that I had that laptop, I couldn’t use virtual backgrounds on Zoom because the processor wasn’t strong enough — even though it was, at that point, only three years old and was set up for graphic design, so it was a solid computer! If the applicant was working on an older but still functioning laptop, I can easily see virtual backgrounds not being an option for them, either due to the app simply not letting them or the virtual background taking more processing power than they could spare when they’re already running a virtual conferencing platform.

              1. ruerue*

                Came here to say the same thing! I have an elderly Macbook and it doesn’t support blurred or virtual backgrounds on zoom. I didn’t realize people didn’t know some computers just can’t do them and now I’m wondering if others are wondering why I’m zooming in front of a very bland wall rather than something more professional :(

            6. Magenta Sky*

              Working in IT, working with users, for a long time, my experience is that even knowing that backgrounds can be blurred isn’t necessarily a given, and figuring out how to do so isn’t necessarily within everyone’s skill set. And, quite often, the technology behind it is, shall we say, not perfect, and disembodied heads are far more disturbing than stuffed animals.

            7. Thousand Ambulance*

              “they didn’t consider a blurred background, or virtual background.”

              Did you know that Zoom doesn’t support blurred backgrounds on some hardware systems?

              “it’s a deliberate choice to have it on display”

              Or, they only have one space to take the interview from, which isn’t easily rearranged, and a hardware/software combination that doesn’t allow blurred backgrounds.

              Why so many assumptions?

              1. Jelly*

                They can hang plain sheets or a plain blanket behind them as a background. Perhaps go online to get a sense of what a professional, non-virtual background looms like. I’d appreciate the ‘trouble’ a candidate would go through to make sure THEY are on display by doing something like that.

                1. New Jack Karyn*

                  I would find a random sheet or blanket hanging up more weird than a tidy bedroom, even if the shot included a displayed collection of work-safe items.

                2. Magenta Sky*

                  As an interview-ee, I’d appreciate an interviewer who doesn’t obsess over meaningless things like a collection of plush toys in the background.

                  Interviews, after all, go in both directions.

                3. Jelly*

                  @New Jack and Magenta:

                  Well sure, and those are your opinions. Other people have different opinions. As Alison said, not a deal-breaker, but not a great choice, either.

                  It’s really just that straightforward.

            8. Timothy (TRiG)*

              My graphics card isn’t good enough to do a virtual background well. It always looks very fuzzy.

            9. Sophie K*

              Not necessarily. I have an older computer and it isn’t compatible with virtual backgrounds or blurring, etc. My phone can do them, but I wouldn’t want to interview from my phone unless I had no other choice. If I were in this situation, I would probably decide that mentioning my background or making awkward, long-winded excuses for it would be perceived far more negatively than just ignoring it.

            10. Pastor Petty Labelle*

              Not everyone has a computer capable of doing the blurred or virtual background. I found out after I bought it that my computer did not have the capability. Most newer computers do, but some of the more affordable ones do not.

              Unless something is explicit in the background, I don’t care. Not everyone has space or technology to do the perfect thing.

            11. Admin of Sys*

              Some folks may still have technology that doesn’t do blurred / virtual backgrounds well. Especially if they’re not in a work-from-home environment where they may have a personal laptop they’re using just to interview.

            12. Stuckinacrazyjob*

              I have a lot of plush toys near my desk but not where the camera is pointing to avoid the fun police lololol

            13. Jessica*


              Blurring your background is far from a universal professional norm. It’s no where NEAR universal enough that you should consider not doing it some sort of statement.

              Not blurring is *literally the default setting on most video conferencing software,* so not using the feature is hardly some sort of “deliberate choice.”

              Most people I work with (at a company with over 100,000 employees) don’t blur. Frankly, I find blurring a distraction because the blurring algorithm frequently blurs out parts of people’s faces if the background is too complicated, or thinks the painting on the back wall is part of their head.

              It’s deeply weird to frame people not going in and changing default settings on software they might be using for the first time as a deliberate choice to make some sort of statement.

            14. raktajino*

              I have some coworkers in low bandwidth areas: adding a virtual background or filter to their video only makes the bandwidth issue worse. Without a filter it’s tolerable.

            15. Ace in the Hole*

              Huge segments of the workforce don’t use video calls often (or at all). Even at the height of the pandemic many jobs simply couldn’t be done without being physically present on site. Those of us in these jobs – which skew heavily to lower paid “essential workers” who had the shittiest time during the pandemic – have had little if any experience with workplace expectations for video meetings. We may use video calls outside of work (education, doctor’s appointments, social calls, etc), but those have a completely different set of expectations/standards.

              For example in my job I use video calls 2-3 times per year at most, and most of my coworkers never use them at all. On the rare occasions I do need to make a video call I’m either in the office or I can have my camera turned off… unlike an interview, which happens at home with the camera on. It would not occur to me to use a blurred/virtual background. I’ve never done it before. The times I’ve seen someone else do it have always looked glitchy, distracting, and unprofessional to me.

          2. amoeba*

            I mean… yes, yes, I absolutely would move my plushies out of the frame for a video interview. Not because I’m embarrassed, but they don’t exactly scream “professionalism”. Also, they could probably be easily moved in, like, 5 minutes? I’d never go as far as moving around furniture or whatever, but putting some plushies to the other side of the room? That’s a very easy investment to look more put together,

            1. Mill Miker*

              If they’re suspended in a net like that photo, I imagine they’d take a good amount of time to take down and put back up. Especially if the candidate is short or unstable enough that they can’t just stand on the bed to do it, and need to move furniture to get a stepladder in there.

              1. ampersand*

                I remember from my childhood how much work it was to move stuffed animals and those nets around. It was work.

                I feel ambivalent about this—on one hand, it’s nice to not have distracting stuff in the background on an interview. I wouldn’t want stuffed animals in view, personally. On the other hand, I would not want to invest the time needed to move the net o’ squishmellows for an interview. I’d be much more likely to re-angle my camera or chair or something. So…I could see this going either way, but I also see why LW wrote in about this. It’s one of those things that maybe shouldn’t matter but kinda does.

              2. NancyDrew*

                …so? Don’t you believe candidates should invest a couple of minutes in ensuring their background looks fairly professional before they take an interview?

                Real “but I don’t like sandwiches” vibes here.

          3. Also-ADHD*

            Virtual backgrounds are pretty ubiquitous now, so it depends if the settings for the interview somehow didn’t allow them (rare in my experience). I think the background isn’t that notable, but if I were doing am interview from a bedroom (and I have), I’d throw up a virtual background.

          4. Dust Bunny*

            Model horse collector here:

            I would find a way to rig up a backdrop that wasn’t populated with a zillion plastic horses because, yes, I would not be surprised if an interviewer found them distracting and a bit weird. I don’t work with horses–they don’t belong in my job interactions, even if it’s pre-job.

          5. Dust Bunny*

            Also, I would consider an interview to be at least a semi-workspace. It’s job-oriented. I might not be able to arrange my ideal workspace but I think I should make an effort and not include the more specific and definitely not work-related parts of my personal life.

          6. lilsheba*

            I have a squishmallow collection, and it’s in my room, and I have a computer with webcam setup in there so I could easily do a zoom meeting in there with those in the background. Would I? YES in a heartbeat. I refuse to setup virtual backgrounds to hide my home or my interests. Who cares what’s in the background? This not a sign of maturity level. Adults have these for a variety of reasons, including comfort to lay on due to disability.

            1. Shynosaur*

              I frame my stuffed animal collection–which is primarily Squishables and, yes, Squishmallows–as “for health”! They are more comfortable and entertaining than pillows, and I use them for all kinds of support for sleeping, sitting, you name it. I bought my friend Squishables to use for armrests after carpal tunnel surgery. I have a Squishmallow Stackable for a keyboard wristrest. I agree it’s really annoying which “child-coded” hobbies are professionally acceptable and which ones aren’t–and these things are essentially decorative pillows with cutesy faces. Nothing worth getting ruffled over.

        2. 1-800-BrownCow*

          Happy meal, your last sentence makes me chuckle as I sit here in my office at work and glance at my display of Lego builds. And I can think of about 5 or 6 other professionals at my company who also display their Lego collections in their office as well. They’re great conversation pieces and many people at my work enjoy checking them out. Maybe in some work cultures, displaying Lego’s would be seen as unprofessional, but not that case where I work.

      2. why not bedroom?*

        Interviews from the bedroom are the only place they can happen, for me. We’re 3 people + pets in 800 square feet. I can do an interview in the living room, but, it looks very livingroom-ish, and the animals can’t be kept out. The kitchen table has a giant window behind it, so it affects the lighting. My bedroom is the only place I have guaranteed access and the door closes.
        Sadly, Zoom blurred backgrounds no longer work on the computer I have. Luckily the back wall is just a bookcase, so it looks “worky”.

        1. Phlox*

          Yeah my computer is too old to do blur and with a small apartment with limited walls, my background has adult life things in it. The hiring expectations around video interviews are really making it apparent along income lines.

          1. Beth*

            I had that situation for a while (until my old computer died and I had to replace it), and I just arranged myself in spaces that looked decent behind me. I did lots of “this is totally at a desk” zoom calls where in fact I’d pulled a chair and a little folding table into my one corner with a blank wall behind it, stacked some books on the folding table to get my computer to an acceptable height, and moved a lamp behind it so my face was decently lit. My experience was actually that it was pretty easy to make it look on camera like my setup was a lot more professional than it actually was.

        2. Mister_L*

          About 15 years ago I enquired by cellphone about a job I had found in the newspaper.
          In what was probably the worst moment possible my cat jumped on the table, where I had laid out all the documents I thought I might need.
          Needless to say, it did not go well.

      3. Elle by the sea*

        Squishmallows are cute and liking them doesn’t make anyone immature. Some of the highest performers at my workplace have large collections of fluffy toys and pokemon characters. Many of them use these as avatars on their GitHub profile, wear pokemon or other videogame-themed T-Shirts and name projects after them. It’s quirky but not a red flag by any stretch of the imagination. Like Magenta Sky said, it’s anti-nerd bigotry.

        1. Selena81*

          I feel that there is a lot more room for ‘immature’ nerdy stuff at jobs that use GitHub than at jobs that require top-notch communication skills.

          Which might have some sexism attached to it (‘male’ StarTrek is a hobby for smart people, ‘female’ dolls is a hobby for weird lonely people)

          1. Cyborg Llama Horde*

            While I agree with you that tech jobs are more likely to be okay with people having stuffies of any stripe in one’s zoom background (I can think of two different coworkers whose zoom backgrounds feature them, and if it occurred to me at all that such a background was ‘unprofessional,’ it would only be in passing as, “Well, if they’re so uptight that that’s a problem, I don’t want to work for them anyway”), I will point out that some of us have jobs that require both github and top-notch communication skills.

            I also find it interesting that there seems to be an implicit assumption that “the community” doesn’t also include people who would feel more comfortable working with someone with a visible stuffie collection. Whereas I think at least half of my friends would see that and breathe a sigh of relief, going, “Oh, my people!” and it would actually be an asset in that interaction.

          2. Parakeet*

            As someone who’s worked in both (and likes both Star Trek and giant plushies haha), I don’t agree about it only being okay in the former.

            I do use virtual backgrounds on Zoom, but unless it’s one of a few specific circumstances where I use my organization’s branded virtual backgrounds, they’re mostly brightly-colored planetscape art and similar. I enjoy matching their colors to whatever I’m wearing that day. I’ve only ever gotten compliments, including from my boss, government officials, and UN personnel.

        2. ClaireW*

          I say this as a nerd with anime character plushies in my background – I think ‘bigotry’ is a pretty extreme term for this, especially in the context of the first letter and what some people actually face. It’s judgement and it’s a sign of very stuffy ‘professionalism’ expectations in certain industries but I think calling it ‘bigotry’ is too far.

          1. Minimal Pear*

            I do think that bias against nerdy people can often be ableism, but framing it as “anti-nerd bigotry” feels really weird.

          2. Eliot Waugh*

            Agreed. Also we live in the age of the MCU, mainstream Star Wars, and everyone and their dog gaming. Nerds are mostly mainstream now. I say this as a nerd.

            1. Dust Bunny*

              I think this is specific to a certain kind of nerd. I’m pretty nerdy but not in a superheroes, anime, science fiction, or comic books way. My particular brands of nerdism are vintage sewing patterns and model horses/animal figurines, which get a lot of gendered side-eye because (you’re shocked, right?) the hobby communities are mostly women.

        3. MusicWithRocksIn*

          So, I absolutely thought Squishmallows were these little squishy gel like things that fit in the palm of your hand. The fact that they are a brand of stuffy is blowing my mind. Now I gotta figure out what those squishy gel things are called because my kid loves them.

          1. Apt Nickname*

            Probably mochi? But you have to include the words squishy or toy when you search, otherwise tou get the food item!

        4. ThatGirl*

          I interviewed for my current job in my kitchen, and tried to reduce clutter behind me. But my desk at work now has all kinds of little toys and knick-knacks on it – little Timid Monster sculptures, a Hannibal Funko Pop, a few stuffed toys, an artist’s rendering of our late dog as a video game character…

          I do think “bigotry” is a bit strong, but bias, sure. Thankfully nobody holds my quirks against me :)

      4. Alinator*

        My bedroom was my office in COVID times, interviewed from there and totally forget my Guns and Roses “Appetite for Destruction” poster was plainly visible behind me. I got the job and found out that all 3 interviewers had not only noticed but had discussed it in a joking way. So it definitely get’s noticed – whether it should be an issue is a totally different matter

      5. Beth*

        That’s what OP is saying, yes. And I don’t think it’s about nerdiness–I think a collection of model racecars or action figures or Warhammer figurines or Lego sets would come off differently. (Maybe not well, still, but differently.) Plush toys come off as specifically childish in a way that other collection items don’t.

        It makes total sense to me that someone would interview from their bedroom (how many adults have genuinely private, guaranteed-quiet space that isn’t their bedroom? A home office, in this economy??). But I do think the strong norm with video calls is to 1) use a virtual background, 2) blur your background, and/or 3) set yourself up in a corner with a fairly blank or curated background. It’s reasonable for OP2 to worry that someone who both doesn’t have the sense of professional norms to do any of those AND is prominently displaying a thing that’s strongly associated with childishness might not be a fit for a role that requires a lot of social intelligence.

        1. Spiders Everywhere*

          Is the difference actual childishness, though, or is it that “boy” nerd interests have been rehabilitated in a way “girl” nerd interests haven’t? Because they all seem pretty similar, ie toys originally made for children that adults can also enjoy. (Except Warhammer figurines I guess, those are based on an “adult disposable income” business model.)

      6. WorkingGirl*

        Eh, plenty of adults have roommates and so the bedroom is their WFH workspace. Living room is a common area.

      7. Jelly*

        “Is anti-nerd bigotry still that prevalent?”


        Well, no, but real, actual bigotry is, and it’s truly offensive to passive-aggressively attach that word to something so insignificant (‘anti-nerd,’ whatever that means). Because it’s not anti-nerd; it’s disagreement about what constitutes professionalism regarding a background for an interview.

        I wonder if my response will even be published, because it does seem there are times here when an objectively offensive comment stays up, but the valid responses to it never see the light of day.

        LW: Personally, I think you made the right call, for whatever that’s worth. To me, , unless the interview is for the squish company, it is a sign of immaturity and lack of forethought and preparedness to have something on full display that could be seen as cutesy performativeness. Not worth taking that chance.

        1. New Jack Karyn*

          “cutesy performativeness”? They’re just stuffed animals. Lots of folks collect them, just as people have collections of all kinds of things. It’s not that deep.

          1. Jelly*

            It can be “that deep” to some interviewers, and I wasn’t arguing against what people collect. Context can matter; in this case, a job interview, and leaving a stuffed animal collection on full display can hurt a candidate. That’s what I was pointing out in that part of my post.

            As such, not sure why you’re ascribing to me something I didn’t write.

      8. Reluctant Mezzo*

        I am confused about maturity. I have worked with middle-aged people whose cubicles were Pooh Corner, Beanie Baby City, and Ft. Garfield (stuffed toys of a particular cat), and this was over 10 years ago.

        People interview from their bedrooms all the time because they have no other place to do so. Unless someone had other problems, I would just think ‘that’s cute’ and move on to my main questions.

        Now that we all know this is a problem, blurring your background becomes much more necessary, I suppose.

    2. Certaintroublemaker*

      I was wondering if there were other connotations, too. In general, there are so many reasons NOT to draw any inferences as we do more WFH.
      1. Layout of house makes a child’s bedroom the best setup for daytime work
      2. Squishmallow collecting was a shared hobby between candidate and a beloved family member
      3. Candidate is someone who can really put in the 8 hours of hard work when they have a nurturing environment

      1. Despachito*

        ” Layout of house makes a child’s bedroom the best setup for daytime work”

        I was thinking of this – what if the person was interviewing from their kid’s / little sibling’s room because it was the quietest place at the moment?

        The interviewing from home has a strange aspect of privacy invasion – you see things about the person you would never perceive otherwise. If the interview was in person, you would never know about the squishmallows. I know you cannot un-see certain things but it seems unfair to use it against the candidate.

        1. Allonge*

          It’s not the existence, but the visibility of the squishmallows.

          I think the issue is that this is on the borderline – however limited the choices, the interviewee still chose to show this particular background as it was, and not to, , e.g. remove the plushies from the shelf etc.

          It’s a bit like what you wear to an interview: obviously limited to what you have access to / own, but still some choice is made. And because the interviewer is working from what they see, it will be part of the considerations.

          1. rebelwithmouseyhair*

            yeah well this is getting far too invasive if everything that is seen can be used against you.

            1. Allonge*

              It has always been the case that what the interviewers see can and will be used against you. At least a plushie collection can be moved or hidden by a reasonable time investment, as opposed to skin colour, gender or age.

        2. Allonge*

          Uh, sorry, and to actually respond to the child’s bedroom point – it sounds like OP is hiring for a job where it would have been better for the interviewee to acknowledge this in a quick line, as in – sorry about the background, this is the only room with a door I can close against the dogs or something similar.

          It acknowledges the issue and demonstrates some of the desired emotional maturity at the same time.

          1. Parakeet*

            Squishmallows have nothing to do with whether you have the maturity or skills to be a community organizer, whether they’re your own or a family members.

        3. BubbleTea*

          I presented at a large conference from my 2 year old’s bedroom floor. Mainly because that was the only place in the house where furniture arrangement allowed me to drape a greenscreen cloth – but I’ve only just got a greenscreen cloth after several years of video calling for work. People interviewing for a job where they’d have an office provided are highly unlikely to have the necessary equipment to properly use virtual backgrounds.

        4. EAM*

          This is exactly what I was thinking. Why was interviewer assuming it was the interviewee bedroom? It could be a younger sibling or child’s room. Especially in blended families I could very easily see a child that splits their time between households having their room used as an office when they aren’t there.

          1. B*

            It doesn’t matter why, though. The issue (to the extent there is one) is that the candidate interviewed with them visible, for whatever reason, and did not even acknowledge in passing that it might be odd. That’s not a huge issue for most jobs but it could be for others. If this is someone who will be representing your business externally, for instance, you have to be able to trust their understanding of expected professional norms. I think the LW’s attitude, and Allison’s response, are both fair and reasonable–it’s not a big deal in itself but it’s one data point that might suggest some judgment concerns.

      2. Lea*

        This is a really really good point! I have a coworker who when they wfh does it from a child’s bedroom

        Maybe people should drop their assumptions

        1. Santiago*

          Is there some reason it would be hard to move a pile of stuffed animals from your camera angle? I don’t think I understand what a mushmellow is, because I’m just thinking of stuffed animals. It seems reasonable that while getting ready for an interview, you would move them out of the frame.

          1. Jessica*

            If it’s actually a *collection* the number of items and the way they’re displayed can make moving it a serious undertaking.

          2. Ace in the Hole*

            Looking at the example LW provided, moving them and then putting them back afterwards would be possible but take quite a bit of time. There’s just a lot of them and it would take a while to stack them neatly. How much work should a candidate have to put into rearranging their (harmless, inoffensive) home decor for an interview?

            If the employee will be working from home and expected to do video calls regularly, I think it’s fair to expect they’ll have a professional looking space for the interview. But if home video calls aren’t typically expected once they’re on the job, I think candidates should be given a lot of leeway on the environment for zoom interviews. Plenty of excellent employees don’t have a good home office space – which is not a problem as long as they’re not expecting to work from home. It isn’t like they had something controversial like a gun collection or erotic art displayed in the background… it’s a tidy pile of stuffed toys.

      3. Media Monkey*

        i was going to say this. my extremely professional boss often takes calls from his son’s bedroom depending on who else is WFH/ on a call at the same time in his house. i don’t take the star wars poster as a sign of his immaturity/ bad planning!

      4. Margaret Cavendish*

        I’m in my 40’s, and I still have my childhood teddy bear . Not because I collect stuffed animals, but because my mom made him for me; and my sister and all our kids have similar bear-family members. He sits on the display shelves in my bedroom, and it never occurred to me that people could see him until a colleague mentioned it – a good six months into lockdown! I was a bit embarrassed, but figured by that point everybody had seen him and made whatever judgements they were going to make.

        Obviously there’s a difference between a single animal and a collection, and between an interview and an established workday relationship. But even so, as an interviewer I wouldn’t think anything of it. It could read as immature, but that’s not the worst thing in the world – there are so many other possibilities, that could be so much worse!

    3. Squashmallowmom*

      No other connotations that I know of. My 4 year old loves her squashmallows, so in my mind, they are a very “preschool” item. I didn’t even realize that adults collect them. I agree that it does seem like an odd choice as an interviewee, to have a huge pile of stuffed animals in the background.

      1. Nobby Nobbs*

        The fact that they’re all one relatively new brand miiiiight carry connotations of “they’ve recently sunk a bunch of money into collecting these,” with whatever interpretation of that you want to draw, that a more mixed pile of stuffed animals wouldn’t, but I’d still say it’s a stretch to draw any real conclusions from it.

      1. LifeBeforeCorona*

        I know! I’ve already bought my 4 and 2 yr old friends more than one because they love them. The colours and shapes are so varied they can put in a request for what they like. I kind of want one for myself.

      2. Lea*

        The only reason I know about them is buying them for a seven year old!

        They are very soft and squishy though. I get it

        1. Lyngend Canada*

          And they hold up their shape and softness better than a pillow. (I used my niece’s as a seat and pillow when visiting)
          I would have a collection if I had the spare money to buy them.

        2. No Longer Gig-Less Data Analyst*

          I’m 52 and I have a Baby Yoda squishmellow that I use as a permanent couch pillow to lean on while watching TV.

    4. WoodswomanWrites*

      Nnn, I had never heard of these before either. I’m glad the letter writer included a photo for context.

    5. Artemesia*

      I am guessing that the applicant realized that soft skills were needed for this job and so figured squishmallows were the perfect background and why not? (my 12 year old granddaughter loves them)

    6. Proofin’ Amy*

      Actually, my understanding is that a lot of adults do collect squishmallows; they’re the modern equivalent of Beanie Babies, in that they come in limited editions (although I don’t think there’s some crazy black market for rare ones).

      I also know adults who have them for comfort objects and to deal with stress. So in one way, you might feel reassured that someone in an emotionally challenging form of work has an outlet for it; I can definitely think of unhealthier ways to cope. In a certain way it’s like interviewing in front of your liquor cabinet, which also wouldn’t be a great idea, but doesn’t have the same connotations of immaturity. Personally, I wouldn’t do either.

      1. Snarl Trolley*

        Your last point was where my mind went as well: the two separate adults in their 40s I know who collect soft plushies similar to these are both very successful, but work in wildly intense and exhausting fields. They have the emotional maturity and personal awareness to offset that with personal items that let them regulate the stress of their professional life. Their quiet collection of soft, cute stuffed animals is part of their wellness routines, and more than anything is indicative of frankly more self-awareness and maturity than many.

      2. Dek*

        I got a massive one on clearance before they became Expensive Collector’s Items, and have acquired a few other large-ish ones, because they make *perfect* pillows for me–they’re exactly the level between squish and firm that I want, and they’re very soft and stay that way. I draw the line a bit at a plushie hammock, but they’re still on the couch like throw-pillows.

      3. Dust Bunny*

        I think this is an employer drawing overreaching conclusions about a prospective employee’s personal life based on very thin evidence. Maybe it’s a healthy coping hobby. Maybe it’s emotional immaturity. Maybe it’s an overspending habit. Maybe they’re living with 17 other family members in a two-bedroom apartment and sharing this bedroom with four niblings and, actually, WFH is going to be a disaster. But the employer doesn’t have enough information to draw any of those conclusions, to the interviewee’s benefit or detriment, based on the mere presence of squishmallows. Which is why I would do anything I could to remove them from the background and not invite speculation.

    7. Generic Name*

      Ohhhh, if you’ve never hugged a squishmallow, you’re missing out. :) They’re stuffed with very fine synthetic fibers and the surface is velvety and kind of stretchy. I’m 44, and I’m slightly obsessed, but I fill my craving by getting them as gifts for nieces and nephews. And I occasionally I’ll go hug some at the grocery store. As far as I know, there’s no weird connotation. They’re just a popular type of stuffed animal.

    8. Catwhisperer*

      Some neurodivergent people use them as sensory toys and I’ve seen an increasing amount of posts sharing how they can be used to help posture for hypermobility, which is a common comorbidity with neurodivergence. Given that, I would be wary of making assumptions about someone with a collection in an interview because it may result in an accidental violation of the ADA.

    9. fluffy*

      See I would personally *favor* someone who has their plushies on display, but I’m also furry trash and I feel like it’s important that people be comfortable bringing their full authentic selves into their job. I spent way too long having to mask my transness and neurodivergence to want to be even remotely on board with the idea that people should be hiding things that bring them comfort just for the sake of “professionalism.”

  5. ENFP in Texas*

    #4 “I enjoyed having the day off” would be an appropriate response if you wanted to keep it non-religious.

    1. Violet Fox*

      Yes! Or something like “I had a quiet and relaxing time, how was yours?” and avoid the subject a bit by showing interest in the other person’s time. At least in my experience people tend to ask things like “How was your weekend” when they really want to tell you about theirs, or they are doing something that they think is polite.

      I’ve had people get real weird about me not celebrating Christmas, and sometimes it’s easier to deflect than have to go “still Jewish” to people.

      When I worked in places that were less shut down during that time period than my current workplace, I would volunteer to work so other folks who were celebrating could get time with their families for their holiday.

      1. AvonLady Barksdale*

        It’s so weird to me when people get weird about not celebrating Christmas. For decades I have breezily said, “Oh, I don’t celebrate Christmas,” usually with a big ol’ smile on my face, and the number of times someone has said, “Oh, that’s so SAD!” is… sad. I’m not sad, I’m Jewish.

          1. Donkey Hotey*

            Related note: it’s always entertaining to bring out old classics like jewsmas (dot) com. It’s a farcical mashup with tongue firmly planted in cheek.

  6. Mel*

    #2 Virtual backgrounds can also be a problem (tropical beach on a job interview?) and they can go a bit weird any time you move. I find that blurring my background works well.

      1. Elle by the sea*

        Blurring consumes a lot of memory- you can barely do a technical/coding interview with a blurred background. I would vote for the option of switching off your camera.

        1. Mel*

          Generally speaking (I accept there are exceptions to every rule) it’s inappropriate to switch off your camera in an interview. The whole point of of a Zoom interview vs a telephone interview tends to be that the Zoom is visual. Fortunately for me, I’m not doing technical/coding interviews, so blurring works for me. I understand it’s not right for everyone.

          1. Seeking Second Childhood*

            “…the Zoom is visual”

            A technical interview might also be visual without camera— screen sharing while doing exercises to demonstrate tool proficiency and discuss programming approaches.

        2. Gudrid the well traveled*

          The memory issue is good to know. After everyone saying we needed a staged background for zoom calls I was glad to see the blur feature. It’s a great equalizer.

    1. Poly Anna*

      They also don’t work equally well on all skin tones. I once had an extremely awkward moment when I realized my (Mediterranean complexioned) appointment hadn’t turned on her camera and wandered off, but was sitting right there, not getting picked up by the virtual background AI unless she was constantly moving and talking….

      1. borealis*

        Oh, this is something I did not know. Thank you! For me, the problem with blending into a virtual background is usually to do with poor lighting, but of course that can interact with skin tone.

      2. Justme, The OG*

        Webcams have a difficult time picking up darker skin tones in general. I had to troubleshoot my daughter’s during the early part of COVID. Any time I, pale white woman, was in frame it was fine. Any time she, tan mixed-race teenager was alone in frame it was not.

        1. Phlox*

          Can’t afford to update either my phone or computer, neither is new enough to get updates and I really want the screen size of my laptop not phone for interview. 2023 hiring expectations for pricey personal tech just stinks.

        2. Green great dragon*

          Phones aren’t as good as a decent monitor set-up, especially if there’s more than one interviewer. You’d be trying to read an expression half an inch across, keeping the phone far enough away they can see you properly.

    2. Junior Assistant Peon*

      Just find a spot with a plain wall behind you. The blurring is overkill unless you live in a hoarder house.

        1. Tally miss*

          I have a folding paper screen. Its light weight, has 3 panels and is about 6 feet tall. Great for blocking things I don’t want seen and easy to tuck away when not needed.

      1. J.*

        That’s a little aggressive – I acknowledge that I’m messy, but I’d hardly call my home a hoarder house, and I don’t have a single blank or even neutral wall to do video calls in front of. I’m old enough that I’m conveying personality, not immaturity, with my bookshelf stuffed with fantasy novels and action figures; I’m just lucky that I didn’t have to deal with this at the beginning of my career.

        I always blur my background just because it’s so noisy, but it sure works better on my work-issued 2022 MacBook than on my personal 2018 ThinkPad.

        1. Charlotte Lucas*

          I agree. In my one-bedroom apartment, the best lighting is not where there’s a blank wall behind me. In fact, it’s highly dependent upon time of day and weather. And nobody really needs to see the dishes in my kitchen sink behind me (where I can reliably get the best lighting).

      2. BubbleTea*

        I have no neutral walls in my office (one wall is window, one wall is mirrored wardrobes, the other two walls have calendars and noticeboards). I blur because my office is cluttered with work papers and the entire room is reflected in the mirrors so it’s twice as busy as in reality.

      3. rebelwithmouseyhair*

        yes! so many people put their desk against the wall, and the entire room is visible on zoom.
        I refuse to do that, because I hated when my boss used to creep up behind me. I have since always had a desk facing outwards. I’m currently sitting at my laptop with just a plain wall behind me, and I can see out the window, and I have a view of all entrances (front door and two staircases. So I can see anyone coming in and out of the house and this room, and when I had a zoom meeting earlier the others could only see a plain wall behind me.

      4. Ace in the Hole*

        Small living spaces rarely allow for empty walls. My home is neat, clean, and uncluttered… but I still have no spot with a plain wall large enough to use as a background. Much less someplace private with reasonable lighting and room to set my computer at an appropriate height.

    3. Also-ADHD*

      I thought the blur was a virtual background when I wrote another comment, but that’s a feature I use just to focus unless my background is very plain (one of my workspaces is set up plain enough now).

    4. Lyngend Canada*

      I tried using a virtual background at home and, because of the color of the fake wood, my hair completely disappeared.
      instead my interview was done with a tapestry blanket I put on the wall

    5. Corrigan*

      I don’t use one, but what’s the problem with a beach? I’ve seen so many people using something like that, I basically consider it neutral.

      1. Onomatopoeia Cornucopia*

        Yeah the beach virtual background seems totally neutral and normal. Also there are tons of “fancy minimalist house” or “fancy minimalist office” options. IDK why anyone doesn’t have the virtual background on in this post-2020 time.

      2. Warrior Princess Xena*

        We use Teams at my workplace. Last I checked, Teams includes a number of distinctly unprofessional ones (Minecraft. They’re Minecraft). The beach one is very tame by comparison!

  7. Catherine*

    Re OP1 saying: “I find it interesting how may people have passed through the U.S. southern border and not gone through the legal immigration process.”

    I’ve heard enough anti-immigrant dogwhistles that start this way that my hackles went up basically immediately!

    1. Quoth the Raven*

      I’m Mexican (I’ve spent time in the US and I have loved ones living there, but I currently live in Mexico) and yeah, my reaction to reading that was extremely visceral because I’ve heard it used in very racist, xenophobic contexts.

      1. Onomatopoeia Cornucopia*

        Yeah it seems like OP is surprised that two non-Latinx immigrants felt offended that OP took the chance to shit on Latinx immigrants. It’s called solidarity.

    2. .*

      Thank you for the word “dogwhistles.” The anti-immigrant sentiment was clear but I couldn’t quite pinpoint what it was exactly that he said that disturbed me.

    3. animorph*

      Absolutely. I could feel the ick and the “just asking questions”. I wouldn’t have gone so easy on LW1.

      1. General von Klinkerhoffen*

        Alison is unfailingly kind to LWs even when others would be disinclined to be so generous.

      2. Donkey Hotey*

        Every time I hear “I was only asking questions,” I remember a particular exchange from the movie The Crying Game.

      3. Kate Daniels*

        Not once has “genuinely curious” followed by a question ever been genuine. That similarly gets my hackles up.

    4. Boof*

      I was thinking the same thing. Allison asked not to quite other bigoted things, but it’s maybe like telling someone who just got a new puppy “i find it so interesting how many places outlaw pitbulls” – Very imperfect analogy, but again, why would you bring this up to a coworker who’s situation is hardly related???
      Why persist after visible discomfort?

    5. Namename*

      Yes. I’m shocked that there are people in this day and age who don’t understand 1) how incredibly inaccessible the legal immigration route is to people without means and who hail from “undesirable” countries and 2) the horrific conditions (famine, warfare, etc) that drive people to immigrate through our southern border in the first place. If you find it “interesting”, then read about it! Educate yourself.

      1. AGD*

        Bingo. This isn’t a legitimate interest, just smug xenophobia poorly disguised as a sequence of pseudo-innocent blinks.

      2. MigraineMonth*

        Your coworkers of color are not an endless teaching resource for you to exploit. Google exists.

    6. Knope Knope Knope*

      I am… shocked by the oblivion here! Obviously LW is in the US, but unless LW is completely oblivious to the wave of nationalist politics that has been spreading across the entire world for years, how on earth can they not identify how charged and inappropriate these comments were? I almost feel like this letter was intended to prove a point about oversensitivity or hysterics, because I really can’t imagine even someone who lived abroad for 7 years has plausible deniability about how these comments would be perceived.

      1. Miss Muffet*

        In some areas of the country, they may be so surrounded by people who think and speak the same way that they literally don’t hear that it could come off differently. It’s like how I read recently that so many people think the election was stolen because they don’t think it’s possible that THAT many people voted for Biden, because they themselves don’t know a single one. If that kind of attitude toward immigration/immigrants/others is just the water you swim in, it’s easy to not understand what you might be saying wrong that could be hurtful. Not excusing the behavior, obvs – and the LW def should do some reading – but just saying how easy it is to genuinely not know how else to be.

      2. rollyex*

        “completely oblivious to the wave of nationalist politics that has been spreading across the entire world for years”

        They might implicitly agree with this.

        1. Knope Knope Knope*

          I mean, it seems that on some level they do. But it still shocks me they would’t understand that these are pretty hot button topics that are going to get a reaction. Especially at work!

      3. I Wrote This in the Bathroom*

        Immigrant here and I am 0% shocked.

        I’ve been here 27 years and still get “Welcome to our country!” uh, ma’am, this is my country too. (Earlier this year, in a social setting, somebody told me “We are happy to have you here!” I decided to say something to educate the person so they wouldn’t do it again to someone else, but unfortunately, when I opened my mouth, out came “That’s a huge f*king relief, Tangerina” and then Tangerina and I stared at each other in horror. Oh well. I tried!)

        I am more surprised and impressed that HR took action. I thought we were supposed to just nod and smile through all of it, to be a team player.

    7. Lily*

       “I find it interesting…”
      Any sentence starts this way, I’m immediately on alert until someone adds something genuinely interesting and not concern-troll material.

    8. snaketime*

      Yeah, I had the same reaction. Taking LW1’s word that there was no ill intent, these are still staggeringly ignorant and xenophobic comments. It’s no surprise that someone making these comments would be fired.

      Think of it from the perspective of the HR team. What do they think when they hear about these comments? Especially when there are more comments made during the investigation? At a high level, I’d say they probably come to one of these two conclusions:
      1. The person making these comments knew how bad they were and is playing dumb to try to avoid the consequences. Conclusion: fire them ASAP.
      2. The person making these comments didn’t know how bad they were and the comments came from a place of ignorance, poor judgement, and unconscious bias. Conclusion: fire them ASAP.

      Doesn’t really matter which one HR believed since both lead to being fired ASAP.

      1. Boof*

        And for 2: wasn’t savvy enough to see their boss “visibly change demeanor” and back way the heck off – instead barreled forward; probably even when called into hr to discuss, and now even after being fired! Clearly not amenable to some simple education

      2. An Honest Nudibranch*

        Ya, like. Personally I would respond to comments like that with an attempt to get them into sensitivity training first (and to confirm the company’s current training and policies did make it clear that type of behavior wasn’t okay; sometimes people feel comfortable saying things like that because they haven’t gotten pushback in the past / have seen their coworkers do similar things without consequences).

        But if someone *reacted* to being told their comments were racist the way OP is acting in this letter? They’d be out the door, very quickly. Because that’s a person who’s very unlikely to get better, on any sort of reasonable timeframe for a workplace. And when workplaces let people like OP make comments like that unchallenged, it drives off everybody else, not to mention makes the work environment dramatically less pleasant for anyone the comments are targeting.

        Seriously OP, I recommend taking this as a sign to do some self-reflection.

    9. londonedit*

      Yeah, and then combined with the ‘Heeeeey, I’m just being curious! I’m just saying…! Just playing devil’s advocate here!!!’ attitude – it’s classic dogwhistle stuff.

      1. rebelwithmouseyhair*

        they didn’t seem to realise that anything was offensive though to pretend to be the devil’s advocate…

    10. Jam Today*

      Yeah I wonder if she would find it equally interesting how many people have passed through the US border in, oh say, Boston and not gone through the legal immigration process. Something tells me the answer would be “no”.

    11. Kevin Sours*

      Alison was kind. Perhaps in an attempt to get the LW to reflect on what their comments sounded like to normal people.

    12. SinginInTheRaine*

      Yeah, that was my thought as well. This is clearly someone who was interrogating a colleague about their background and thought this was a clever way of sneaking in their political opinions on immigration. Phrases like, “I find it interesting” and “I was genuinely curious” are so mindnumbingly transparent I wonder why people even bother using them.

      The sad part is, I believe this person genuinely thinks they are not racist. I think they know that they have opinions people will disagree with, which is why they go to the trouble of using phrases like, “genuinely curious,” and writing off very xenophobis statements as a joke. But I believe they honestly do not view those opinions as racist or xenophobic, and they’ll go on to paint themselves as just another victim of “the woke mob.”

    13. sulky-anne*

      Good on their ex employer for taking this seriously. If the LW felt comfortable treating THEIR BOSS to this pile of undigested nationalism, I can’t imagine this is their first offense. People who think this way are never anywhere near as subtle and clever as they think they are. It’s always the same handful of very obvious dodges.

      1. I Wrote This in the Bathroom*

        Oh wow, I was so dumbstruck by everything LW had said that I’d totally forgotten it was THEIR BOSS. Who does it? Why did LW assume that their BOSS exists to satisfy their curiosity about “those communist countries”? You’re curious? Google it.

  8. Plushwhat?*

    I am really confused by what owning plush toys has to do with maturity levels. I own several as does my husband and pretty much all of my best friends. I work as an emergency nurse, my husband is a graphic artist running his own business, and my best friends have jobs ranging from accountant to optician. The account has an almost identical set-up for their room as that photo, if not more plushes. Would I have it in the background while interviewing? No, but I also believe strongly that a neutral, flat background works best so I sit in a window or up against a blank wall when interviewing. But I wouldn’t question whether someone is emotionally or mentally mature based on any item they owned, that’s crazy to me.

    1. HannahS*

      Well, plush toys are often associated with children, so even though many adults enjoy them, having a large collection will often read as “young,” especially in an interview where most candidates would choose a neutral (or virtual) background. The issue isn’t that owning plushies makes a person immature, but that choosing them as your background while doing a job interview could mean that someone isn’t really thinking about managing someone else’s perception of them, or that they don’t care how they come across. Which, in many jobs, doesn’t matter. But it does sound like it matters in this job.

      1. Clare*

        I agree. It’s not the ownship, it’s lacking the maturity to briefly imagine some stodgy old interviewer in a top hat seeing your hobby (any hobby) and saying “Bah humbug! I hate your hobby and therefore you! Good day!”. I’m exaggerating, but I do suspect most people would think about it and go “Nahhh, better not risk it. I’ll pick a generic background for my interview”.

        1. KateM*

          Maybe they think “if my future manager was that immature as to reject me based on my innocent hobby / childhood memorabilia, I won’t want to work there anyway”?

          1. Allonge*

            You don’t have to show off your hobbies and memorabilia in the interview though. Just like you don’t wear your band t-shirt to the interview.

            But, certainly, if the hobby is that important, what you say works too. An interview is a two-way street.

            1. ceiswyn*

              It’s not about the specific hobby being important. It’s about the interviewer’s/employer’s general approach. Someone who is so conservative and rigid that they’d screen a good candidate out because they view anything fun or eccentric as ‘immature’ is someone I could not work with anyway.

              1. Allonge*

                That’s of course totally up to you.

                But if it can be a consideration (even a deliberate choice as a test) from the side of the interviewee, why not for the potential employer? An interview is not just the words you say, it’s everything you show. It’s a judgment call the interviewee demonstrated. It’s also not discussed as a “firing offence”, just a point for consideration.

                OP explains clearly that the job has something to do with how someone presents themselves – to me it does not look like they are judging this person independent of that.

              2. Platypus*

                And that’s fine, but it’s more convention of what is appropriate for an interview. And in most industries, that has implications.

                1. ceiswyn*

                  Yes; and so does judging someone based on whether they slavishly follow your preferred conventions.

                  In my industry, it means you’re out of touch and don’t get to hire the best candidates.

        2. MuseumChick*

          Especially since the interviewer was looking for soft skills! It’s one thing to have stuffed animals visible in the background when you’re in an informal internal meeting with close team members who have already formed their impression of you and trust your professional judgement, it’s definitely another to not understand that part of an interview is shaping their impression of you as a professional. I worked with an entry level curator during the pandemic who did a department wide presentation- including to our director- with pretty much exactly the same background that’s included in the letter. Most of us knew she was quarantining in her own apartment (so it wasn’t her childhood bedroom or a younger sibling’s and she didn’t have kids). It very much read as someone who was struggling to understand the level of formality we were looking for in those presentations and, fairly or not, certainly impacted the way senior curators saw her.

        3. Parakeet*

          Community organizers and social services people, and it sounds like the LW’s organization is something along those lines, shouldn’t be stodgy. Also, the LW admits that they might have felt differently about seeing some other kind of collection, so I’m not as sure as many commenters are that this is just about generic vs non-generic background.

        4. sulky-anne*

          The thing is, I’m not sure if that type of thinking is really what the letter writer is looking for. There are some jobs where “professional polish” will matter, for better or for worse, but this doesn’t sound like one of them. It seems more like it’s being used as a proxy for emotional coping skills, and I don’t think that approach will really serve them well.

        1. BubbleTea*

          Until a year ago, my office WAS my son’s bedroom. He used it at night, I used it in the day. It was a step up from when we slept in one room and I worked in the (only) other room.

        2. Irish Teacher.*

          Or the room is the only place their internet will work? I had a colleague who told us she was leaving her camera off for an online meeting because she lives in the country and she had to use the computer in the room that had the best signal and it wasn’t a room she wanted to show on camera – might have been her young child’s room, actually.

      2. borealis*

        You definitely have a point, but I can imagine being the interviewee, feeling stressed out about the interview, preparing by reading up on the job, thinking of possible questions, picking out an outfit that will look good on camera, etc… and having the kind of home blindness where you don’t remember the stuffed toy collection because it’s been sitting there all along! In fact, I can imagine being the interviewee and suddenly noticing the squishy toys in my picture while the interview is going on, and making the split-second decision that it would be weirder to suddenly change the background.

        I mean, I’m projecting things into a situation I don’t really know anything about here, but I think the background was not necessarily a choice so much as an oversight. It was an entry-level job, so the applicant might not have had a lot of experience with the situation.

      3. Bast*

        I read above where someone could view blurring or virtual backgrounds as “having something to hide” so it seems like it’s a lose-lose, and you’d have to guess which is worse — squishmallows or appearing like you’re hiding something. It’s all taking a guess as to how your background will appear to others.

        1. ecnaseener*

          Signaling that you might have something unprofessional* behind you (when there are plenty of other explanations like clutter or a simple preference for privacy) is better than having the unprofessional thing visible, yes.

          *By “unprofessional” here I just mean “outside the norms of what you’d expect to see in a professional environment” – not that it makes the person unprofessional to own plushies! Just, it’s really not a lose-lose at all, one option is much safer than the other. If the candidate were asking for advice, we’d tell them to hide the plushies even if we agree it shouldn’t matter.

        2. Platypus*

          Do people think that though? Privacy, distraction, other things going on in the background. I may think “someone has something to hide” and usually that’s personal pictures or laundry or something. Not something nefarious.

          1. Bast*

            I never had a negative connotation with it at all until someone mentioned it above, and it started my wheels turning, as it then became a “which is worse” in my head. If someone is viewing it as a “person is hiding something aka person is untrustworthy” that is entirely different than “person is hiding something innocent aka squishmallow collection/Star Wars figurines/a sink full of dirty dishes.”

            FWIW I’d think in this post-2020 environment we’d be used to seeing more of people’s lives than we normally would and becoming more forgiving, thanks to remote work and the associated Zoom and telephone calls associated with that. Plenty of people live in tiny apartments where the options for privacy are limited (particularly if living with roommates) or they only get good service in a certain part of the house. Doorbells ring, dogs bark, homes are going to look lived in and as long as there aren’t dead bodies on the floor, judging someone for something that clearly has no bearing on their work is a little odd to me, and reminds me of letters where bosses judge employees for (legal, just odd) hobbies they have outside of work. It isn’t professional but… it’s their HOME not their office or cubicle. I expect them to live in it and decorate it the way they like, not the way they might in case they get an interview. I also realize a home office isn’t possible for many. If painting the walls neon pink and decorating with squishmallow, kittens, and glitter makes them happy, that’s their business out of work. The only time their decor would make me question their judgment is if it was something clearly so offensive that it was impossible to ignore — ie: a poster for a hate group or something similar. While some companies may judge you for certain things that others wouldn’t, I’m a big proponent of letting people have their lives outside of work and not judging. There has been way too much interference lately from companies who want to control you even outside of office hours, and I’m not about that. I’ve seen several letters on here about that, and it’s quite upsetting.

            Sorry for the long rant, for me it just speaks to a bigger issue.

    2. nnn*

      It’s not the owning of them, it’s the choosing to center them that way during an interview. I’m sure the OP wouldn’t care if she found out an employee had them, that’s a different thing.

      1. SwingingAxeWolfie*

        I thought this too. I love soft toys! But there are so many viable alternatives outside of virtual backgrounds even if that room was the only one available (shift the screen or temporarily move the toys out), it makes me think it was a deliberate attempt to show some flair and that in itself is a little off the mark in terms of what to prioritise in how you sell yourself for a job.

      2. rayray*

        I don’t think the candidate chose to center the squishmallows behind them during the interview. Maybe this was just one quiet room with a desk and setup to do their interview and maybe it didn’t occur to them to move all the squishmallows.

    3. Electric Sheep*

      Soft toys have a strong association with children and it’s not uncommon for people to be less interested in them as they get older, so I see why they might be interpreted as being more immature by some interviewers.

    4. Tech worker*

      Came here to say this. I have a large collection of cute stuffed animals and also own a lot of clothing and items that are pink. Both of these things might be associated with being childlike but that doesn’t make me any less mature of a person, and especially does not have any bearing on my professional career (I am fairly senior and successful at work).

      1. lilsheba*

        I have several squishmallows, from large to small, a huge collection of a variety of dolls vintage and newer, and a klingon batlith, among other things. I’m close to 60 and in a technical field. I see no problem with this.

    5. WellRed*

      But the thing is, when you are interviewing someone you don’t know, and maturity is a job req, you only have so many data points to go by. Alison’s advice is good in that it invites the OP to consider other ways to assess that.

    6. hbc*

      It’s about the judgment you make on bringing your less professional side into a work environment, especially a situation that is *by definition* about making an impression. I mean, most of us own underwear but I doubt we’re leaving it out for everyone to see during a Zoom call. Most of us have mothers but it would be weird to have one sitting quietly in the background. Most of us have alcohol in the house but wouldn’t set up aimed at our large liquor collection.

      And yes, toys that are primarily aimed at children fall into the “less professional” category.

      1. New Jack Karyn*

        I dunno. Most interviewers wouldn’t feel the same about displays of baseball cards, or Lego constructions, and those are aimed at children. Stuffed toys are generally associated more with girls/young women, and I think that makes a difference.

    7. Olive*

      I’m not immature because I’m wearing sweatpants and haven’t styled my hair today, but I wouldn’t show up that way to a professional interview. I’d mildly question whether someone being hired to do outreach was understanding professional norms and taking them seriously if they had a bunch of personal stuff in view during an interview.

    8. casey*

      I think that, coming into a job interview, you have to assume that at the very least many people would associate stuffed animals with children. Whether adults do in fact own them, or whether it should be the case that stuffed animals are thought of as children’s things, is beside the point–playing to a common idea is the smarter choice.

      But beside that, owning such an extensive collection of them would probably be a flag even for many adults who do own them. I have to own that I think my bias is speaking here: I’ve never met an adult with a vast plush collection who I thought was very mature.

    9. Arthenonyma*

      I feel the same way you do, and have many friends and family who joyfully collect or keep “childish” things with no shame, but are you really oblivious to the fact that it’s still a fairly counter-culture thing? Plenty of people – I’d say the majority, to be honest – still have a knee-jerk response that adults should not have or enjoy anything that codes as a “toy”. Soft toys have a particular reputation as “cuddly cutesy baby things” and many people would take one look at the squishmallow setup and have the same or stronger reaction as this LW. Good for them for getting an outside opinion on their gut reaction.

    10. Feotakahari*

      I’ve seen cute stuffed animals on people’s work desks, even in client-facing positions like the reception desk at Urgent Care. It never occurred to me to think of them as unprofessional.

      1. sparkle emoji*

        I would have to assume quantity would be a factor though. A visible stuffed animal might not draw notice, but if it’s a large collection like the picture LW attached I think it would at least cause a little surprise.

    11. Ex-prof*

      I don’t think it’s the toy; it’s the choice to display the toy in an interview when you’re supposed to have your best foot forward.

    12. sara*

      As someone who lived in a tiny studio apartment while interviewing for a lot of jobs, I sat in a lot of strange spots to get a good background that wasn’t my gross kitchen (gross because of being broken and dingy, not actually messy/dirty) or my bed. The easiest one I found was sitting on the floor against the side of my bed with a dark neutral blanket draped behind me (to cover the under-bed stuff, and to try to make it look more couch-like), and then my computer propped up on whatever I needed to get it to eye height. The background was then a blank wall with windows above and a solid neutral “couch”.

      I wasn’t super worried about folks seeing my actual background but it both felt too personal/invasive to a job interview, and I didn’t want it to be a Thing anyone would notice. I was really just going for unremarkable on a (non-existent) budget.

      I really just share this to say that it’s very accessible even to someone without an office space of any kind to fake it for a job interview. If someone didn’t make an effort for an interview, that’s probably fine but it is a piece of information that you learn about someone.

      1. DrSalty*

        Agreed. For a virtual interview, setting up an appropriate place to interview is just as important a part of preparing as researching the company etc. It’s not that difficult or complex, it just requires a little forethought. It definitely does say something about this person’s professional persona that they chose to interview in front of a huge pile of stuffed animals. Whether that matters or not depends on the job in question and the interviewer.

  9. Lunita*

    LW1’s comments imply to me the that they don’t really understand how difficult it is to take the “legal path” to citizenship or the situations that some immigrants face that would make the legal path not a viable option (eg, if you fear for your life, can you really wait years to be approved)? I find the comments to be lacking in empathy and very “pro-America” in a way that I know I’d find uncomfortable.

    1. a sound engineer*

      They also seem to conflate “not being a citizen” with “not legally residing here” which… is not the same thing at all.

    2. Bill and Heather's Excellent Adventure*

      Agreed, my first reaction was “Interesting how ignorant you are about the difficulties involved in ‘legal migration’.”

    3. Lacey*

      Yeah, a lot of Americans are totally unaware of how hard it is.
      I was until I dated someone here on a student visa in college & it seems like things have only gotten worse since then.

      1. rebelwithmouseyhair*

        It’s the same in France. Right when I was applying for French nationality, I spoke with a right-winger who said it was far too easy to get. I asked how it ought to be made harder, he said applicants should prove that they have income to live on and not need to apply for benefits, I told him they already do (and minimum wage is not enough). He said applicants should do a French test. I told him they already do. Then he said applicants should prove they are well integrated and know about French culture, I told him they already do. I then reeled off a few of the questions I had been asked during my integration interview (that I knew the answers to before swotting up for it) and …

        he got them all wrong.

        1. Donkey Hotey*

          It’s that last bit about asking him the citizenship test questions. I won’t say most but a good percentage of born and raised Americans couldn’t pass a citizenship civics test. Evidence: the last seven years.

            1. Civics Teacher*

              We certainly do teach all of that stuff in school, but yeah, a lot of my students don’t remember it. Recently, a lot of them don’t learn it because they won’t get off of their phones, but that is a different complaint for another time.

    4. metadata minion*

      Exactly. Yes, my ancestors came over “legally”, but that’s because it was long enough ago that they would have had to go to considerable effort to find a way to immigrate illegally, especially being from Western Europe.

      1. Chirpy*

        This, “stowaway” was legitimately an option on immigration paperwork back in the day….

        You might get quarantined for showing up sick, but you could totally stowaway and get in the country legally.

    5. Ex-prof*

      Yes, all of that.

      Also, the LW’s comments make it sound like the LW is attaching some innate virtue to having been born in this country.

  10. .*

    #1 – What on earth. LW is either genuinely oblivious to his US-centric worldview is (and I’m willing to bet LW is a he) or he’s being disingenuous about his supposed innocence. No one who makes comments like those think immigrants are their equal. In their view, even the “good” immigrants need to be forever grateful for being “allowed” to enter the country–one wrong move and they’ll throw back the fact that they’re immigrants.

    I’m glad he was fired. Not shocked that hiring a lawyer is an option for him while most immigrants would just try to find another job.

    1. Dogwhistler*

      Yeah, this is some of the most disingenuous dog-whistling, just being ‘curious and sincere’ about ‘interesting’ things like irregular immigration and communism. Then when consequences are met it’s all surprised Pikachu face, because they didn’t use any ‘bad words’ at all and thought they were being so subtle about it. Sadly, LW1 will only come away thinking the problem is just ‘these people’ who come in to the country and don’t have a sense of humour or curiosity like him, and double down on his xenophobic ideas.

      1. Pippa K*

        Disingenuous is exactly what I thought about halfway through the letter. It has the same “just asking questions” vibe as other wink-nod you-know-what-I-mean-but-you-can’t-prove-it bigotry.

        How delightful that this time people said “nope, not having it, get out.”

    2. MK*

      There are times when assuming gender makes sense, but in this case, no. Sorry to have to tell you, but there are just as many women as men with those views.

      1. SarahKay*

        Sadly agree – I’m here in the UK being appalled at some of the policies currently being touted by a top female politician.
        As far as OP1 goes, the first question – ‘would you want to go back there to live’ – seemed reasonable, but after that it just became a series of more or less overt dog-whistles.
        Alternatively, if by any chance OP1 genuinely *didn’t* intend to be racist, xenophobic and generally unpleasant then they need to take a long hard look at themself and their beliefs, and how they appear to other people.

        1. Bonky*

          Greetings, fellow Brit. I’m refreshing the tab that has my newspaper every ten minutes or so in the vain hope that she’ll have been sacked.

          As well as being British, I’m Chinese. I’m hit with the sort of just-up-to-the-line bullshit that OP was landing on their coworkers many, many times every year, and I am delighted to see that some HR departments do take this stuff seriously.

      2. Toast*

        I’m from the Southern US and I can tell you that I’ve heard these types of opinions from women just as much as men. In fact from the way it’s worded I immediately thought OP was a women. It’s full of older southern lady isms like, “Well honey, I sure do appreciate good folks like you doing it the right way. Especially since they’ll let just about anyone walk through the southern border these days!”

        1. Fives*

          I cringed so hard reading this. Minus the “Well honey,” I’m pretty sure I’ve heard something similar from a relative. (I’m in the mid-Atlantic/South.)

        2. No Longer Gig-Less Data Analyst*

          I worked with an all-white, all-female team a few years ago and can confirm that they were some of the most openly racist, xenophobic and homophobic co-workers I’ve even had. I am a white, middle aged suburban mom just like them, and they were shocked when I pointed out that I didn’t feel the same way and would prefer that they not talk to me about social or political matters.

      3. Clorinda*

        Acceptable questions to ask of a co-worker who has returned from visiting family overseas include topics like, did you have a good time, was the weather decent, has your city changed after all this time (for someone who’s been away for years), and acceptable non question comments are I hope you enjoyed yourself and any variation thereof.
        This isn’t even hard. You can have a whole conversation and never bring up the politica of immigration at all!
        Not surprising LW was fired over this bc I would bet real money that it isn’t his/her first offense by a long stretch.

    3. Selena81*

      To me LW sounded more like a she.
      Some women think their gender shields them from accusations of discrimination.

      (But really it could be either. They don’t even have to be white, although the letter would probably mention it if they weren’t)

      1. Kevin Sours*

        There is a certain breed of dude that is big on “I have my rights” and because in their opinion their comments “weren’t offensive” it’s wrong and probably illegal for anybody to do anything to them over it. The whole “consequences are for other people” thing most strongly suggests a man here.

        1. MigraineMonth*

          Generally the same people who think “Freedom of Speech” means “freedom from social consequences for awful things I’ve said” and that they should be able to post them to private platforms.

          Ironically, the government forcing YouTube to stop taking down certain videos would probably violate the first amendment, since it would be the government interfering in what a private company can say.

    4. JM60*

      Hiring a lawyer is just about always an option if you have the money. You’d just need to find a lawyer unethical enough to make a buck by taking a meritless case on retainer.

      1. virago*

        Hiring a lawyer is just about always an option if you have the money. You’d just need to find a lawyer unethical enough to make a buck by taking a meritless case on retainer.

        What on earth. I assume that this is not a comment about the first letter, because hiring a lawyer, “unethical” or otherwise, is not an option for most people who are desperate enough to immigrate to the US through the country’s southern border.

        1. Limotruck87*

          I think that’s in reference to LW1 asking if their company did anything illegal in firing them–the implication is that LW is feeling out whether they could win an employment lawsuit “because I was just asking questions and didn’t mean anything by it!!!1!”

        2. Sally Rhubarb*

          Pretty sure JM60 was referencing the LW:
          I and wonder if I should talk to an attorney in employee law.

        3. CMT*

          They’re referring to the LW, who is considering hiring a lawyer for what would be a meritless claim that they were fired illegally. Ethical lawyers would tell them they had no chance. An unethical lawyer would take the case to get the retainer.

  11. MsM*

    Guess I’d better hide my little desk Dumpster Fire buddy from LW#2. Which is unfortunate: he’s a great conversation starter, not to mention a major morale booster for when my inner resilience and self-direction need some help.

    1. Flossy*

      I have a plush plant on my desk, because I can’t keep an actual one alive. It definitely is a talking point, and not in an “oh, she’s so immature!” sort of way. Giving LW2 the benefit of the doubt though, perhaps the first impression with said plush plant may be different.

    2. Em*

      I still sleep with my beloved teddy bear at the age of 33… and I have some glow in the dark stars on my monitor stand! Good thing this is an anonymous comment so I can keep my shame and immaturity hidden :D

      1. Light Up*

        You are not alone in this! I recently was on a group zoom with professional folks from different walks of life, where the conversation turned to teddy bears and soft toys, and several people sheepishly held up their own to show the camera. I’m writing this from bed, which I share with a beloved koala.

        1. Allonge*


          If OP went to this interviewee’s private social media and saw the plushies there, and had an issue, then this line of thinking makes sense. As things are though, the interviewee showed them in a job interview (even if this was really the only place they could call from, it’s hard to argue that removing them from the background would have been a huge exercise).

          I have roughly a billion fun things on my desk and around me in my office and at home. What is visible on camera is limited to blander things; what is visible when I am interviewing is even more choice.

          1. Modesty Poncho*

            I’m not spending 20+ minutes after the interview getting all my stuffed animals re-arranged in the net and balanced properly so that some jerk won’t judge my work by them. Taking it down isn’t the problem, putting it back up is.

            I’m on the side that yes, it’s unreasonable to let an inoffensive background decoration hurt a candidate’s chances. This isn’t a confederate flag, it’s a bunch of squishy eggs.

          2. There You Are*

            And, amazingly, all of this could have been avoided by telling a little fib: “Please excuse the background; the only quiet room in this house is my little sister’s bedroom.”

      2. Stella70*

        I have a really nice (spare-bedroom-turned-into-a-legitimate) home office (empty nests aren’t all bad, y’all!) which I share with my Russian tortoise, Callahan.
        His home is an oak giant box-thing, directly behind my desk/chair. There is a warming light on one end (looks like a desk lamp, pointed down).
        One Zoom interview concluded with the request by the interviewer as to what was in the enclosure behind me.
        Ever the proud mom, I grabbed Callahan and held him up in front of the camera, to show him off.
        Ever the predictable tortoise, he immediately pooped on my hand and arm.
        It was surprisingly difficult to wrap up the interview in a professional manner, while simultaneously wondering if his bowel movement (do tortoises have bowels?) coordinated with my outfit and if the greens he ate the night before disagreed with him (if you catch my drift).
        I didn’t get the job. Screw ’em.

      3. Lyngend Canada*

        My computer monitor has stickers around the frame. At work and home. A little immature looking ? Maybe. But the person who trained me put the first few on the screen and I just adored it. And they occasionally give me joy (otherwise I basically forget that they exist 99% of the time)

    3. ceiswyn*

      On my desk, I used to keep a miniature flail (think spiky-ball-attached-to-wooden-handle, approximately four inches long). I eventually had to remove it because of the number of people who would idly pick it up and start whirling the spiky ball around as they talked to me. The higher-level managers were actually the worst!

      1. Baby Yoda*

        My Baby Yoda figures are visible to my team mates, but I would put them elsewhere for an interview.

    4. Scientist*

      Ok, but also there’s a pretty big difference between having 1-4 plush things, and a collection of dozens that you’ve built display structures for in your bedroom. The latter does seem to me that this has become a major part of this person’s life

        1. Scientist*

          As someone pointed out in another comment, a majority of Americans own at least one stuffed animal. Fun, comforting, holds nostalgia. It’s far less common to have a large collection that’s stored and organized in a specific way and added to routinely. There’s certainly nothing wrong or bad with the latter, but in my mind that behavior is definitely more associated with kids than adults.

          This is more my personal reason why I find it a bit off putting, although it certainly doesn’t speak to someone’s ability to do their job well, but it’s also a hobby that emphasizes consumerism – this is the same for anyone who collects anything (at least anything they pay money for that doesn’t serve a practical purpose in their life too.)

          1. Hobbling up a Hill*

            Which is interesting because of the two groups, the one more likely to have disposable income, time, space and (hopefully) nobody who will throw them out with no reference to what you want is adults. This is especially true if you’re part of a community with other collectors because adults are the ones who organise conventions, who make or sell things relevant to collections, who are often the ones with knowledge of the history of or skills related to the collections.

            I would argue that in some sense all collections serve a practical purpose in someone’s life. Joy. And not just the temporary hit of buying a new thing but ongoing joy.

          2. Fives*

            I just want to make sure I’m understanding you. You find collecting itself off-putting? I’m in my 40s, and I’ve always loved stuffed animals and have a collection of Jellycat that I add to every so often. I also collect Hot Toys (which are essentially high-end action figures). They make me happy, and I enjoy displaying them at home.

            I probably wouldn’t make them the focal point behind me on a Zoom call, but I also don’t hide them. I have a few (non-high end) figures on my in-office desk, which management has always been fine with. I work very hard at my job, and I’m good at it.

            1. New Mom (of 1 3/9)*

              This is somewhat beside the point but I also don’t understand collecting almost anything, even though I know it’s pretty common.

              1. There You Are*

                Same. When I met my ex’s parents, one of the questions they asked me was what my “thing” was. They explained that Ex loves and collects dolphin-themed things; his sister loves and collects wolf-themed things; his father loves and collects U.S. Southwest themed things; and his mom loves and collects chicken-themed things.

                All I could do was blink at them.

                The only theme I have is buying decorative objects that I like to look at and useful objects that make my life easier.


          3. New Jack Karyn*

            People don’t react the same way to other collections as you are to stuffed animals. Even to items associated with children.

      1. Dancing Otter*

        Actually, a toy hammock like that isn’t so much for display as for corralling the clutter. We had one in my daughter’s room when she was a toddler.
        I do question the choice to aim the camera at it, though.

        1. Jaydee*

          I’ve seen YouTube and Twitch streamers who have significant Squishmallow collections prominently visible in their background when they stream. It’s entirely possible this candidate had them visible on purpose and wasn’t about to change up their background (or didn’t even think to change their background) for the interview.

          I have a friend with a huge collection of bobbleheads, many sports-related, and I’m pretty sure that collection wouldn’t be seen as “immature” or “childish” or “emotionally needy” in the same way as the Squishmallows collection. I think it’s worth considering why that is.

  12. Calvin Blick*

    I assume LW#1 came across differently than they portray the conversation, and I’m sure it was irritating to the people involved, but firing someone for that seems extremely disproportionate. This website leans a bit left, but I think most people would think that firing an employee with no warning or chance to defend themself over a causal, non-malicious conversation is an extreme overreaction.

    1. Eliot Waugh*

      What OP said IS malicious. By their own phrasing they said bigoted things. That should be a firing offense.

    2. Zanshin*

      Nope, it was not a “casual conversation;” it was an uninvited and intrusive interrogation combined with offensive comments…. and one of the persons subjected to it was their supervisor!

    3. MsM*

      Given this is the version of events likely to be most sympathetic to the LW, if there are any inaccuracies in the account, what was said was likely worse. And I’m having a hard enough time believing they have no idea how what they said could have been interpreted as xenophobic as it is.

    4. Confused*

      Bless your heart, but I think most people would agree that being xenophobic and racist in front of your boss is a pretty obvious one-way ticket to getting fired.

    5. MK*

      It’s likely that this wasn’t the only instance of OP being offensive. I find it hard to believe someone who thinks “they will let anyone into this country” isn’t offensive hasn’t been offensive in other ways. Also, they were given the chance to defend themselves when HR called them, and they basically confirmed everything. What more was there to say, 3xcept insincerly claiming they didn’t mean it that way? Your employer doesn’t owe you a full inquiry, especially when you aren’t disputing what happened.

      1. Sprinkles*

        This! If OP had responded to HR’s call by acknowledging that their questions unintentionally got a bit too personal, said they felt terrible for hurting their colleagues and that they wanted to apologise unreservedly, things may have gone differently.

    6. Despachito*

      I would like to know whether this was a first offense.

      It came across to me as very tone-deaf and American-centric, and after such a conversation I would think OP is strange (to put it mildly) but I would rather expect a warning than straight-out firing OP.

      1. MigraineMonth*

        Saying, “They’ll let anyone into the country” to your immigrant boss and another immigrant is definitely firing territory. Remember that national origin is a legally-protected class.

        If OP had realized how badly they’d screwed up and apologized sincerely, maybe it would be a first strike. The fact that OP thinks they can sue their company (but doesn’t realize that the targets of their harassment could sue) indicates that they don’t understand the seriousness of their actions and are likely to reoffend.

      1. Beacon of Nope*

        And that’s not nothing. Still, I have to wonder about the supervisor’s management skills if her tools are limited to “starting to act differently”. This could have been a teaching moment.

        1. Observer*

          This could have been a teaching moment.

          I suggest you follow up on Allison’s reading suggestions. Look, I love explaining stuff. And I generally have very little problem pushing back on people. But it’s just not reasonable to demand that people who’ve just been hit with an incredibly rude pair of questions move into “teacher mode” or have their competence questioned.

          The OP asked a question that was rude on multiple counts. I don’t think that it was on the manager to coach their supervisee on basic politeness. On the other hand they *did* provide some really useful information that the OP should have acted on. The fact that pushed on when their boss made it clear that they didn’t like the conversation tells me that they were not amenable to being “taught”.

          1. FitPro not Fitspo*

            Furthermore, in general people who have just done a series of micro aggressions and doubled down after a mild call in are not too receptive to those teacher moments.

            If you want people to spend the energy to help you see your blind spots, it’s your own responsibility to be the kind of person who is open to that, not theirs to exhaust themselves banging their heads on your calculated veneer of “I’m just curious.”

            1. Pastor Petty Labelle*

              THIS. Boss does not need to hear I was just joking, or I was just curious.

              Also I HIGHLY doubt this was the first time OP had such a conversation. Boss might have tried to get through to them before. Or Boss just realized this person is hopeless, doesn’t need the hassle and fired them.

          2. Jackalope*

            This is very timely to me because last night I was hanging out with a group of 2 people that are…. friends? Hobby friends? Let’s go with hobby friends; we hang out because of a specific interest but also enjoy each other. We were in a group with a couple of hobby acquaintances. One of the acquaintances went off on a spiel using casual slurs and put-downs for 2 minority groups; I belong to both groups, and my 2 hobby friends each belong to one of the groups. I was surprised at how quickly I froze; one of my hobby friends managed to push back a little bit, but it’s really hard in the moment when people are casually denigrating you to find a good response sometimes. So no, I don’t blame the supervisor for being too surprised/taken aback/whatever to be able to respond on the spot. And as others have said, her reactions changed at that point per the OP; maybe she DID push back but the OP ignored it.

          3. RussianInTexas*

            As an immigrant (a good one, according to the LW), it is not my job to teach someone not to be racist and/or xenophobic.

          4. Turquoisecow*

            It’s been my experience that people who look down on others (racists, misogynists, homophobes, etc) don’t usually react positively or kindly to attempts from the “lower” group members to educate them.

            It’s unlikely that the supervisor’s attempts to explain to OP why exactly their questions were offensive would have been reacted to as “oh gosh I’m sorry,” and more likely “ugh she’s just too sensitive, immigrants should grow a thicker skin.”

          1. Pastor Petty Labelle*

            Can you imagine the PIP? I want you to make 25% racist comments within 6 weeks, can you do that?

            This isn’t a performance issue for the manager to address.

        2. Captain dddd-cccc-ddWdd*

          > I have to wonder about the supervisor’s management skills if her tools are limited to “starting to act differently”

          Yes, and then even after the fact she’s gone to HR about her direct report 2 weeks later instead of, y’know, talking to them. (Or was it the other colleague, who is from Kenya but has just become a US citizen, who complained?)

          1. Also-ADHD*

            She might have gone to HR right away. It’s not unusual for HR to pre-investigate an incident (speak to the other witness) and individual (look into LW) and even plan so that the individual can be efficiently terminated if needed (it may not have been inevitable in LW’s conversation but still have been set up as an option). That can take about that long.

            1. Margaret Cavendish*

              This was my assumption as well – supervisor went to HR right away, then HR took a couple of weeks to investigate and plan for OP’s termination if need be. Perfectly reasonable timeline.

          2. Observer*

            Yes, and then even after the fact she’s gone to HR about her direct report 2 weeks later instead of, y’know, talking to them.

            What the others said.

            But also, talk to them about WHAT? The supervisor made it abundantly clear that they didn’t like the way the conversation was going and the OP just doubled down. At that point, it’s perfectly reasonable for the manager to decide that this is just not a situation that *can* be managed. And maybe in discussion with HR, a decision was made that this is a situation that *should not* be managed because it exposes the company to too much risk.

            And either of those scenarios is perfectly legitimate. What the OP said and how they reacted, based completely on what they themselves said, is bad enough that even a good manager might just decide “This is enough”.

            And what’s more there is good argument that this is not only *ok*, but actually the necessary, more ethical, and more sound (management-wise) decision. Because the OP has shown themself to be capable of being extremely rude, bigoted and very pushy about their bigotry. If they are willing and comfortable to do this to the *supervisor*, what are they capable of pulling on their colleagues and people lower in the hierarchy. This manager and HR have a greater obligation to protect staff from bigotry and harassment, which they have real reason to fear, than they have to the education of the OP.

        3. Marvel*

          FFS. Supervisors are obligated to teach their employees relevant work tasks, not basic human decency.

          1. Beacon of Nope*

            Supervisors are obligated to have difficult conversations with their employees about behavior. She didn’t even try. This site is chock-a-block full of stories about supervisors who don’t even try to have difficult conversations about behavior.

            1. MEH Squared*

              This was behavior directed at her which is much different. She did the appropriate thing, which was to bring it to HR. Yes, she’s the supervisor, but she’s also the victim. It should not be on her to make it a teaching moment because that’s too much of a burden–even given the power differential.

            2. Allonge*

              No. Supervisors can decide that someone is behaving in a way that is not for discussion but for immediate firing. Even if the boss feels like they can handle themselves, why put every other employee at risk of getting this ‘innocent’ discourse at lunch?

              1. Allonge*

                And if for whatever reason we need to think that OP’s supervisor ‘owed’ a difficult conversation to anyone, I am fairly sure that the one she had to have with HR qualifies.

            3. Kella*

              You are conflating “difficult discussion” with “discussion in which the supervisor and many people close to them are being dehumanized.” These are not in any way the same thing. If you are being dehumanized, it is fully justified for you to remove yourself and allow someone else to do the teaching.

              You are also ignoring the incredibly complex power dynamics of being a superior who is a member of a marginalized group trying to manage an employee who is a member of a privileged group who is actively asserting their privilege over you. It is not enough to teach. She would also have to protect herself from further micro or macroaggressions, and walk a line between acting as an authority and not driving a white person to anger or aggression (which would end up being blamed on her.) And none of that would’ve mattered if OP was not willing to listen, which it sounds like he wasn’t given that he did not clue in to either his supervisor’s change in behavior or HR’s questioning.

            4. Mister_L*

              This isn’t a “I’m sorry, I didn’t realize I had noticeable BO” situation.
              This is a “What do you mean, people take offense to the n-word” situation.

              No “difficult conversation” needed for this one.

            5. ClaireW*

              Why should this supervisor have to explain to her employee not to be racist to her? At what point do you accept that the company shouldn’t make this supervisor and another employee face consistent racism and xenophobia so that the LW can “learn”?

            6. MsM*

              So if OP had made multiple sexist comments followed by a “joke” so indistinguishable in its content from sexual harassment as to make the tone irrelevant, it’d be on the supervisor to stay there and deal with it? Or would it be a reasonable conclusion that someone saying those things is not going to respect the supervisor’s authority, and it needs to be taken to a higher level?

            7. Hastily Blessed Fritos*

              No, they aren’t. Some behaviors are so egregious that immediate firing is appropriate, and Alison consistently mentions bigotry as one of them.

            8. Margaret Cavendish*

              We don’t know that she didn’t try. OP says “we talk about current events,” which suggests this type of conversation happens pretty regularly. And if OP genuinely doesn’t understand how their comments are being received, it’s likely this is not the first time they’ve said something inappropriate.

              The supervisor may not have directly said “don’t say racist things in the office,” but that doesn’t necessarily mean she never said anything. It’s possible that she tried something more gentle, and OP just didn’t get it for whatever reason.

            9. Observer*

              Supervisors are obligated to have difficult conversations with their employees about behavior. She didn’t even try.

              They are SOMETIMES obligated. But there are also times when behavior is egregious enough, or presents enough risk that, No, they do NOT have an obligation to have a conversation about it.

              Here, there is both a legal and ethical issue with taking the very real risk that the OP will mistreat someone else this way. And the company *will* be on the hook because the OP *did this to a manager*, so they know about it and they know just how entrenched this behavior is. And they ALSO know that the OP is actually not open to listening. It comes out in how they handled the conversation in the first place. Their conversation just confirms it.

              Sometimes behavior is so out of line that it’s not on the supervisor to coach their employee on the matter.

            10. Cubicle Escapee*

              For all we know, the supervisor could have been told by HR to not have a conversation about the incident until they were able to finish their investigation.

            11. Czhorat*

              Yeah. Even now, after facing a major consequence, the OP just does not get it. That’s not really fixable, nor does the company owe it to the employee to try.

              Their responsibility to protect the employees who ARE victims of what could quickly become a hostile environment trumps any need to play remedial DEI teacher to people who don’t want to learn.

              Every workplace in which I’ve been for the past decade has included anti-harassment training as part of onboarding, and it all pretty explicitly calls out nonsense like this.

            12. Turquoisecow*

              OP’s comments clearly indicate that they don’t think the supervisor is worthy of their respect. It’s reasonable for the supervisor to come away from that conversation feeling like they cannot manage a bigoted, racist employee who is clearly racist against a group to which they themselves belong.

              I wouldn’t be surprised if the supervisor went to HR and said they could not manage OP and would not manage OP and asked for them to either be moved or fired. Because no conversation, with or without the supervisor or HR being present, was going to change OP’s mind. For one thing, deeply entrenched thoughts like that are not changed with a single conversation, and for another, the supervisor, as an immigrant herself, would be the least effective person to explain to OP what was offensive about their comments and questions. Most likely, OP would write off their complaints as the supervisor being “too sensitive.” The supervisor is completely understandable for not wanting to manage such a person any more.

        4. NotQuiteCool*

          It’s notable that there is very little information in the letter about what the supervisor and colleague said in response, especially after the more offensive sentences were said. All we know is that the supervisor’s attitude changed.

          Assuming it wasn’t just a monologue at that stage, it wouldn’t surprise me to learn that the supervisor did say something in response that was a guidance on what was acceptable, and it was ignored.

        5. Also-ADHD*

          I don’t think managers necessarily should have to take racism and xenophobia in stride as part of their job. I feel like that’s asking for emotional labor no one should be forced to do, management or not. By their own account, I find LW’s comments harmful and harassing and creating a psychologically unsafe environment so calling HR to address is correct. Whether fitting was the only option depends on many factors, and it does seem surprising, but only because so many companies don’t address such comments appropriately and give so many chances, creating unsafe spaces for others.

        6. Calamity Janine*

          counterpoint to this notion, twofold:

          1. if the manager that LW1 spouted racist things to was able to manage this in a teaching moment, surely LW1 would have indicated they were willing to learn at any point here. they had the chance to do that and instead answered HR with “but i didn’t do anything bad!”. if they don’t have the filter to not say this to their boss, is there any reason to think they would suddenly remember their boss is an expert on this subject to be listened to?

          2. with how maliciously clueless LW1 is, i would theorize that the supervisor may have already tried and gotten steamrolled during that conversation.

          3. okay. let’s say this becomes a teaching moment. and then later on LW1 gets in trouble for some other work issue. do you honestly think LW1 is able to keep from saying “my boss is biased and hates me for no reason! she’s so easily offended and taking it out on me!” about it? i personally wouldn’t take that bet.

          4. and if that does happen, making boss teach LW1 that racism is bad actually is putting a unique and undue burden on the boss. this is enough of a burden, specifically assigning the boss extra work due to her heritage, that the company has some potential legal liability.

          going straight to firing here after LW1 declined to take this as a serious fault after talking to HR makes perfect business sense. LW1 simply decided to be too much of a liability for corporate to bet on.

          and, well, a good manager will not throw good money after bad in terms of trying to keep a liability around. when someone needs to go, stepping back and getting the ball rolling to deal with it decisively – while keeping quiet so that LW1 did not have an opportunity to retaliate – IS good management.

          to expect otherwise is to demand the boss be LW1’s personal Jiminy Cricket. that is simply not good business sense, especially when it so directly opens the company up to liability. the company exists to make money. it does not exist to sacrifice itself for an employee’s basic housetraining.

          surely, if you are grumbling about how we’re a bunch of leftists, you can appreciate that commerce teaches it is bad business to invest more in an already bad investment.

    7. Astor*

      The letter writer did have a chance to defend themself; HR asked them questions and did not fire them until at least a day later. And, from their description in this letter, I think that firing was exactly the right call because every example they gave of what they said to their colleagues is textbook racism/jingoism. This letter doesn’t sound like someone who was accidentally racist/jingoistic, it reads like someone who is surprised that their dog whistling racism/jingoism crossed the line because it’s always been okay before.

      Not only do I think the firing was justified, I actually think Alison was not strong enough in telling the LW their comments should be unacceptable in every workplace. If the LW really was just curious and friendly, they need to know how badly they missed the mark on every step.

    8. Observer*

      and I’m sure it was irritating to the people involved

      No, it was not *irritating* to the people involved, but deeply offensive and uncomfortable. I mean, the OP told a *Black* newly naturalized coworker that “they will let anyone in”. Is is really that hard to understand how offensive that is?

      And the OP themself acknowledge that their supervisor’s *behavior changed* after their questions about going back to China. That alone is extremely telling. But the OP then *doubled down*. They essentially said that “it’s so interesting that *you* don’t want to stay here, when all ~~those~~ people are trying to sneak in, and even people for ~~Western Europe~~ want to come here.”

      This website leans a bit left

      That’s not the issue here. And it’s a HUGE mistake to think that immigrant / pro-immigrant is automatically a politically left thing. It’s not (as the Democrats have been learning.)

      And regardless, please don’t use irrelevant political assumptions to defend bigotry, rudeness and bad behavior.

      I think most people would think that firing an employee with no warning or chance to defend themself over a causal, non-malicious conversation is an extreme overreaction.

      Nope. The fact that the bigoted behavior was “casual” does not make it any better. The OP was deeply offensive to both of the other people in the conversation. Intent is not magic. The OP may not have meant to be offensive, but they *were*. Extremely so. And in ways that they really should have realized could be a problem.

      Also, they *did* have a chance to defend themselves. And all they did was dig the hole deeper. When HR asked them about what they had said, they did not apologize or acknowledge that they might have made a mistake and commit to doing better. No, they insisted that it could not be a problem because they were “just curious” and that they said an extremely offensive thing in “a non-offensive” manner.

      When someone is that rude in public to multiple people – including their supervisor! and then indicates that they simply won’t accept that they had messed up, it’s not unreasonable for management to decide that they enough was enough.

      1. Richard Hershberger*

        Intent: In some ways, being unintentionally offensive is worse. There is an old line that the sign of a gentlemen is to never offer insult unintentionally. If the offense here were intentional, the LW could in principle conclude to sit on their hands in the future, then go home and complain about how woke everyone is at work. If the LW genuinely doesn’t understand the issue, they are likely to go around offending people day after day.

        1. münchner kindl*

          Good point. And I think that’s also why supervisor went to HR and didn’t try to explain to LW why their whole “just asking curious questions” conversation was so deeply problematic – even if a person outside US culture had the requisite vocabulary to explain systemic racism, they might have (correctly) concluded that there’s no explaining that.

          Reminds me of another blog, where slacktivist said that “if you have to try to explain to somebody else why eating babies is wrong, you need to take so many steps back that you might think you just can’t” (paraphrased).

        2. Decima Dewey*

          As far as intent goes (as in “I didn’t mean to be racist/offensive/sexist/etc.”), it doesn’t matter how you’re claiming you meant or didn’t mean something. What matters is how the comment lands with the recipient.

        3. Observer*

          In some ways, being unintentionally offensive is worse.


          If the LW genuinely doesn’t understand the issue, they are likely to go around offending people day after day.

          Yes. I was just thinking about that piece this morning.

          And for all the people talking about “coaching” this employee. Anyone who is THIS clueless is not teachable by the manager. There is just toooooo much here and no reasonable employer has the bandwidth to do that much *while protecting other employees*!

        4. Turquoisecow*

          Yes! If OP genuinely doesn’t understand how offensive they were then it’s only a matter of time before they say something else offensive, and the supervisor (and the other immigrants on the team) shouldn’t have to worry about whether or not OP actually thinks they don’t belong/shouldn’t have been allowed into the country or if they’re just going to continue to “accidentally” make offensive comments. And since OP doesn’t seem willing to learn from their mistake, they 100% WILL make another offensive statement.

          Why should the supervisor or the other employees have to put up with that?

    9. Calamity Janine*

      even if you think none of that was harmful or malicious (which you are wrong about), a few points –

      1. given LW1’s pervasive cluelessness, or more likely “cluelessness”, i highly doubt this is the first time.

      2. spouting racist stuff talking down residents of the country that your company wants strong ties to… could be utterly catastrophic. at that point he is a major liability to be dealt with swiftly. he’s going to cost more in potential broken deals than is worth keeping around.

      3. if LW1 couldn’t filter what exits his mouth talking to a supervisor at his workplace whom he reports, going up the chain of command is unlikely to do much. he did the offense by breaching it, after all. why would a man with no respect for rank listen when the rank is pulled?

      4. if someone is racist to his own supervisor, he’s just created an issue of “aw jeez now we have to figure out what to do with him. she can’t keep managing him, it’s kind of a conflict of interest…” and similar quibbles. turns out he is easier to replace than his supervisor. and the previous three points likely didn’t help.

      1. Turquoisecow*

        Yes I wouldn’t be surprised if the supervisor went to HR and said they couldn’t supervise OP, so HR had to either fire them or move them to another team, which might not have been possible.

    10. Ellis Bell*

      OP presents themselves as someone who would hate to offend others, and didn’t realise the seriousness of what they were saying, so it does make you wonder why the conversation with HR didn’t end up with them being given a chance to apologise and do better. Alison speculated that there were other incidents, but in OP’s shoes I’d also be asking myself if I was more defensive and disbelieving than “of course I can be appropriately apologetic” in that meeting.

      1. LawBee*

        OP certainly presented themself that way in this letter!! But not in the actual words they quoted as saying.

        OP is a racist and a bigot and knows it. The doe-eyes “but I wasn’t wrooooonged I don’t understaaaaaaand” is horse hockey, and OP also knows that.

        OP is also probably reading the comments and laughing.

        1. Ellis Bell*

          I mean, I did say “presented themselves” because I also think there’s a disconnect with reality, but I wouldn’t necessarily say unkind things about OP even if I did take your view.

      2. An Honest Nudibranch*

        I mean, in many ways the convo with HR *was* a chance to apologize and do better – OP didn’t take it. I think it’s telling that it wasn’t until afterwards they got fired: if the company wanted to fire them based on comments alone, they could have done so right there. But to a lot of employers, the difference between “I didn’t realize this would impact them that way, thanks for letting me know, I’m going to see what I can do to educate myself so this doesn’t happen again” and “but lmao I didn’t meannnn anything by it why are you all such oversensitive bleeding-heart whiners” determines whether you remain employed.

    11. Kella*

      White folks really need to stop framing comments that were unintentionally but definitely racist as “irritating” or “unfortunate” and we need to start seeing them as “harmful” and “actively damaging.” It’s not theoretical racism we’re talking about here. These comments weren’t the precursor to the “real” racism. People of color were harmed during this conversation.

      Meanwhile, OP received his fair opportunity to defend himself with HR. That happened. He got a chance. He flunked it.

      Notice that the common thread here is that when OP did something bad it “didn’t count” and when OP was given a fair chance at accountability but *not* a pass, that “didn’t count” either. OP’s actions are real and he is accountable for them.

      1. MeowMeow*

        If OP reads the comments, I hope they read yours! This comment was so perfectly explained that I’m actually printing it out to bring to my office with me. I work with students, and many have similar attitudes to OP. Your comment is such a great explanation of what we’ve been trying to explain to some of our more difficult students.

    12. Selena81*

      We’re not supposed to speculate too much in this comment section, but my mind jump to ‘if this is the behavior they *admit to*…..’

      I assume a lot of letter-writers tend to frame their problem in a way that makes them look better. Partly because that’s just how human minds work and partly because you aren’t writing to an advice column when you already know the only advice is ‘please just stop being a horrible person’.
      And this letter in particular makes me wonder what parts they decided to leave out.

      1. korangeen*

        Right! I’m amused by the facts that this was a) an interaction with their direct supervisor, so presumably they were on their best behavior, and b) their own telling of the events, so presumably putting it in the best possible light… and it STILL comes across as incredibly offensive. Like, come on.

    13. JM60*

      I’m typically a fan of using warnings prior to firing for these types of things, but that conversation was pretty atrocious, even from the OP’s account of it.

      1. Bast*

        I am wondering if there have been prior conversations that didn’t register in OP’s mind because they “weren’t a big deal” AND/OR if it may NOT have been a firing IF OP had come in genuinely remorseful and apologetic instead of doubling down. Attitude can make a huge difference in what happens next in disciplinary meetings.

    14. hbc*

      I’ve tried to write a similar PIP/warning before. If it starts “Don’t threaten to have your husband come in and beat up your boss” or “No longer say racist things even when you don’t think they’re racist,” what’s the point? You’re just waiting for the next time they do something objectively out of line.

      I mean, LW still thinks everything they said was perfectly fine, after being explicitly told that it wasn’t fine. Why do you need to wait for it to happen again when they’ve essentially said they’ll be doing it again?

    15. Olive*

      The tone of the letter makes it clear that the LW learned nothing and thinks they did nothing wrong. This could very likely have played a part in their firing. If they went into HR with the attitude in their letter (and the attitude in this comment), it would be a huge red flag.

      It’s not just irritating. I stopped going to a community group because a member who is always there started telling me how he prefers to date Asian women over “American” women (I AM an American woman, so [insert profanity]). It would be so much worse to have to work with him every day.

      What defense do you think works well for racism?

    16. B*

      By “leans a bit left” I assume you mean that the site doesn’t take kindly to racist and xenophobic remarks? Yeah. Shouldn’t be the political stance of only one side, but…

    17. MCMonkeyBean*

      It sounds like they were in fact given a chance in the HR meeting, and if they spoke in that meeting as they do here–doubling down on the fact that they believe what they said was reasonable and non offensive–it’s no surprise that they were fired. Good on their company to responding swiftly.

      You are severely overestimating how “casual” and “non-malicious” that conversation was to the other people involved.

    18. Sparkles McFadden*

      I am going to go ahead and say that this isn’t an “out of the blue” firing. It might seem that way to the LW because people who think they’re not doing anything wrong are always shocked to find out that their opinion isn’t the only opinion that matters, and that “It was just a joke” doesn’t always work as a defense.

      This letter is completely LW’s account and any decent HR department would fire the person based on what was written out in this letter alone. It’s likely that the actual interaction with the coworkers was much, much worse. My experience tells me the LW probably has had these “interesting” conversations on a fairly regular basis, and has been spoken to about this behavior and just ignored (or laughed off) what was being said. I’m betting incident before the firing wasn’t the first time HR heard about this. It was just the last straw.

    19. RayRayFahye*

      I’m sure LW #1 has portrayed the conversation in a way that is flattering to them, as we all do when relaying stories, and I said “yikes” at several points just reading it. I have worked in very international environments for years myself and am now myself a migrant worker and those comments were VERY thinly veiled dog whistles and xenophobia AT BEST, assuming LW #1 didn’t cut anything out. That was not a non-malicious conversation.

      It sounds like the supervisor did the right thing – removed themselves from the situation, went to HR, and worked with them to sort it out.

      Also – being left-leaning doesn’t mean pro-immigrant or whatever it is you’re implying. Immigration is a separate and very complex issue. I will also say that working abroad for a few years in western Europe (mentioned in the letter) is quite different from deciding to stay indefinitely, as somebody who has transitioned through both and is now working towards permanent residency in another country. Not to mention that I am still a highly educated white American who moved indeed to western Europe and is a native English speaker, which makes things a lot easier for me than for a lot of the other immigrants, refugees, and expats I work with.

    20. Common Sense Not Common*

      Many workplaces have a zero tolerance for things that the letter writer said in their conversation. Perhaps that is letter writer’s workplace.

      1. No Longer Gig-less Data Analyst*

        Yep – pretty much any large company I’ve worked for explicitly states in their handbook that discrimination is a terminatable offense. It’s right up there with threats of violence, fraudulent activities or watching porn on your work laptop.

        Also, this person was only there for 10 months! I personally don’t think it’s ever worth it to attempt to retain racist employees, even if they’re been there for decades and have tons of institutional knowledge – but cutting someone loose when they haven’t even been there a year is likely to have little impact on the employer. The cost/benefit analysis is very straightforward in this case.

    21. girlie_pop*

      I don’t think most people would agree with that at all. Saying racist stuff to your coworkers isn’t “irritating,” it’s unacceptable. And the fact that he felt so comfortable having this kind of “casual” conversation with two people he knows are immigrants tells me he has almost certainly said other inappropriate things to people who aren’t white guys before.

    22. Jennifer C.*

      I think what LW#1 actually said was more offensive than they described it here; I think they toned it down to try to gain sympathy for their “lighthearted,” “joking” remarks. Immigration at the southern border doesn’t seem relevant to a conversation with colleagues born in Africa and Asia. “They let anyone in” meant exactly what it sounded like.

      And LW#1 probably sealioned the poor HR person when asked about the conversation.

  13. justcommentary*

    I asked her whether, after living here in a democratic system, would she want to be back living under a communist system?

    LW1, I can’t stress enough how hostile this comes across, especially right now. I suppose you could’ve meant it sincerely and at face value of the literal terms here but it basically translates to “I think your native country, where your family lives and that you have some intimate connection to, is backwards and weird and I don’t get how anyone could like it.” Especially in a time when US-China geopolitical relations are so mutually antagonistic.

    Also China isn’t a communist country anymore? That kind of ignorance and the assumptions you’re making raise a lot of red flags and paint a context in which, if I was that supervisor, I wouldn’t trust you to even understand how off-putting those questions are.

    1. Sunny*

      All this! I’m from an east European formerly communist country. I was often asked if I was a commie growing up in the 80s/90s. It was both confusing (for a child) and upsetting. Yes, I can talk now about the differences between the places – but we need to be friends first or have some base trust and even then – and I really do have a laundry list of issues with communism – it can be tricky to navigate.

      1. Kwebbel*

        Although I can’t claim to speak on behalf of the poster who first called out that China is no longer a communist country, my assumption is that they’re referring to the lower-case-c definition of communist ideology, based mainly on Marxist-Leninism, that the CCP themselves say is not their sole ideological foundation.

        I’m conscious that expanding on this too much will derail the discussion, so I do hope I’m correctly interpreting other commenter and that my comment serves as a quick and simple clarification of what they mean.

      2. ceiswyn*

        I’ve worked in a few companies that had a lot of employees who’d immigrated from other countries. I once spent a fascinated half-hour in the canteen listening to a colleague who’d immigrated from an east European, formerly communist, country comparing experiences with a colleague who’d immigrated from China.

        I would never have dreamed of asking either of them about those experiences myself. That would have been othering, treating their life as a curiosity, and simply intrusive. Even if LW1 didn’t realise their questions were racist, how did they not realise that their questions were *rude*?

        1. Captain dddd-cccc-ddWdd*

          Yes, I have asked my partner (who grew up in a different country with a very different system of government and economy) about that; would he ever want to move back there, what are the differences in lived reality, etc. But I wouldn’t ask a colleague that, even one I was “friendly” (rather than just a team mate- I do make an effort to get on with everyone!) with.

        2. Observer*

          Even if LW1 didn’t realise their questions were racist, how did they not realise that their questions were *rude*?

          That’s a really, really good point. And that’s at the heart of why I think that the OP’s company really didn’t have much choice. It’s really hard to “counsel” and “coach” someone in an office environment who doesn’t seem to have a grasp of basic manners!

        3. Lana Kane*

          Honestly, I think the OP knows. I’m not getting sincerity from this post – I believe they said these things knowing it would deliver a message, and they’re now acting incredulous that it came back to bite them.

        4. sulky-anne*

          This gets at the inherent lack of respect behind the intrusive “just interested/curious” questions. If you really have an interest in an aquaintance’s experiences and perspective, it makes sense to treat them with basic politeness and if you get close enough, perhaps they will want to share with you at some point. The people who take the aggressive interrogation route generally are looking to confirm what they already believe and demand the other person account for themselves in a way that fits into the interrogator’s worldview.

          All bigotry is also just basically rude at some point. But in a bigotry centred world, politeness is about not challenging the status quo and knowing the rules of elite society, not about treating other people with kindness.

      3. king of the pond*

        It’s not only an 80s/90s thing, unfortunately. I’m 22 and dealt with being called a commie for having eastern European immigrant parents my entire childhood. It’s extremely upsetting.

    2. AutihdElno*

      What definition of “communist country” are you using? The Communist Party of China, as currently lead by General Secretary Xi Jinping might disagree with your assessment that China is not one.

      1. RH*

        I don’t want to derail too far here, but in the interests of clarity and preventing the spread of misinformation, I think it’s important to note that ‘communism’ is an economic and political doctrine which, while the subject of much debate, has a generally-agreed upon definition, at least at a very general level. For example, the Encyclopedia Britannica defines it as “A political and economic doctrine that aims to replace private property and a profit-based economy with public ownership and communal control of at least the major means of production… and the natural resources of a society.”

        The economy of China in the 21st Century is a profit-based mixed economy (‘mixed’ in that it involves both private enterprise and state-controlled economic policy). There is significant private ownership of resources and the CCP heavily encourages private enterprise, although it maintains significant government control over that private enterprise. State-owned resources are primarily used to make profit, which is then reinvested into those resources to increase profitability. Far from shifting its focus away from profit, which you would expect to see in a communist economy, China’s system is completely centred on profit-making.

        Note that state planned/controlled economic policies need not be *communist* economic policies: A state can plan, implement, and control *any* type of economic policy! Indeed, the CCP’s economic policies might be best described as ‘state capitalism’, which is a term many economists have used to describe China’s modern economy.

        Obviously, the ideology of communism in China has a long as complex history which I won’t get into here. The reasons for the CCP’s continued co-option of elements of communist ideology are many and varied, and largely relate to historical and geopolitical issues far too complex for a brief comment written while I procrastinate my actual work! Suffice to say that few economists would define China’s economy as ‘communist’ in the 21st Century. The fact that the CCP calls itself ‘communist’ cannot provide a factual basis for calling China’s economy communist in any objective economic or ideological sense.

      2. Good Enough For Government Work*

        I hate to break it to you, but China is currently Communist in the same way that Germany under the National Socialist German Workers’ Party was socialist.

    3. IainC*

      Not sure why you made that last paragraph – China has been a one party state for a long time and if anything is going backwards of the liberalising it did do for a while. Maybe you disagree on how truly communist it is, but that’s the label they give themselves.

      It’s been a few years since I spent time working there, but the people I worked with completely ignored politics and just got on with life, working, having fun, posting bills etc.

      The fact that the Chinese immigrant OP was having an “interested” chat with does go to and from China makes it worse – way to make someone who has no say in their home country’s politics feel more othered. (They may well feel that the US is also their home country)

      1. andy*

        China is capitalist, not communist. It is one party dictatorship and it is also heavily corrupt. But, the reforms from communism toward capitalism were done long time ago. Just that, it did not became democratic country in the process.

        It does not have communism as an economic system.

      2. RH*

        The economy of China in the 21st Century is a profit-based mixed economy (‘mixed’ in that it involves both private enterprise and state-controlled economic policy). There is significant private ownership of resources and the CCP heavily encourages private enterprise, although it maintains significant government control over that private enterprise. State-owned resources are primarily used to make profit, which is then reinvested into those resources to increase profitability. Far from shifting its focus away from profit, which you would expect to see in a communist economy, China’s system is completely centred on profit-making.

        Note that state planned/controlled economic policies need not be *communist* economic policies: A state can plan, implement, and control *any* type of economic policy! Indeed, the CCP’s economic policies might be best described as ‘state capitalism’, which is a term many economists have used to describe China’s modern economy.

        Obviously, the ideology of communism in China has a long as complex history which I won’t get into here. The reasons for the CCP’s continued co-option of elements of communist ideology are many and varied, and largely relate to historical and geopolitical issues far too complex for a brief comment written while I procrastinate my actual work! Suffice to say that few economists would define China’s economy as ‘communist’ in the 21st Century.

        1. rollyex*

          Coworker should have asked the OP how it feels working for 资本主义走狗 (capitalist running dogs) here in the West.

    4. StrikingFalcon*

      Also, OP, even if you genuinely don’t understand why what you said was problematic, why didn’t you stop and apologize when you noticed your coworker getting uncomfortable after the communist country comment?

      1. Dark Macadamia*

        +1 this is what got me. Enough awareness to realize they’re making someone uncomfortable, and that it’s relevant to include in the letter, but not enough to… stop, and be kinder.

      2. Observer*

        why didn’t you stop and apologize when you noticed your coworker getting uncomfortable after the communist country comment?

        Yes. This so much!

        OP, if you learn nothing else, please keep in mind that if you can see that someone is uncomfortable, then you NEED TO STOP. No matter your intent, if you think that your “curiosity” or “sense of humor” or whatever else you claim is more important that the other person’s basic comfort, then *you* ARE the problem. Because, aside from bigotry, this is just fundamentally rude and selfish to an extreme degree. And that’s true even if you are talking about the most innocuous topics. When you get to something this sensitive, it’s just . . . REALLY bad.

    5. Lacey*

      Yeah, this just isn’t an appropriate thing to ask a coworker at all. I might ask a close friend how they felt about returning to their country after living here – but I’d also be prepared for the answer to potentially be complicated & to not neatly line up with my perspective as someone who has only ever lived in America.

    6. AndersonDarling*

      I don’t want to speak for these individuals, so I’m open to being corrected, but I’ve learned that when you work with people who lived in totalitarian countries, you shouldn’t ask them what they think of those governments. They may not live there anymore, but there is an engrained fear of speaking out against their government. It was dangerous for them while within those borders, and they could still have family living in those countries that could be punished for anything negative the individual says.
      The OP was having a casual conversation, but it was likely beyond a trigger for the other individual.
      I’ve heard my colleagues redirect conversations and feign ignorance when confronted with these questions. I couldn’t imagine being bombarded with these questions. It must be exhausting and terrifying.

      1. rollyex*

        “when you work with people who lived in totalitarian countries, you shouldn’t ask them what they think of those governments.”


      2. Kevin Finnerty*

        This was one of my first thoughts – if the colleague still has family there, it could be genuinely dangerous to say anything negative about China’s government! One of many layers of insensitivity from OP in the conversation.

    7. learnedthehardway*

      Agreed. There’s also the aspect of NOT ASKING people questions about an oppressive system when you don’t know them well or have their trust. It goes beyond insensitive and intrusive to being an active threat.

      Beyond the egregious aspects of what the OP said to their colleague, something they may not know (but definitely should be aware of) is that people from oppressive regimes are sometimes surveilled and monitored outside their country of origin. They are quite rightly concerned about making comments about their country’s regime and will be very uncomfortable if you mention it or ask their opinions.

      This has been in the news in Canada – ie. that China has unofficial “police stations” in Canada to monitor expatriates. There have been incidents of people’s families being targeted back in China for statements / activities of theirs in Canada. In fact, one of our elected representatives in our federal government reported that his family was threatened over something he had said within the context of his government office. That’s VERY concerning, and you can bet that people with family back in China are very concerned about it.

      I have a friend who lives in a country with an oppressive regime – I am extremely careful to never ask any questions that would require them to comment in any way about the situation. We assume their telecommunications are monitored.

      Security and safety are a very real concern for people from oppressive regimes. Beyond the casual racism and bigotry displayed in the OP’s letter, the OP caused their supervisor to fear for their family’s safety.

      1. Serious Pillowfight*

        Coming here to say this. I hosted a Chinese exchange student and they are raised to be very careful about what they say to the point that it’s ingrained in them. Absolutely no disparaging their country or its leadership in even the slightest way. Severe consequences are possible. I can see why this question made your coworker uncomfortable.

      2. Observer*

        people from oppressive regimes are sometimes surveilled and monitored outside their country of origin. They are quite rightly concerned about making comments about their country’s regime

        Yes. You mention the issue in Canada, but it’s happened here as well. And it’s not just physical presence – their cyber-attacks are quite scary. If anyone follows the tech cyber security news, you’ll be familiar with the Apple hack that the Chinese did to target Uyghurs.

        The only reason I didn’t bring it up is because it *is* possible for the OP to have not realized this. So, that could have been a teachable moment *FOR HR* (not their manager.)

        On the other hand, I think that this is useful for people to realize. In general, and specifically about China.

    8. rebelwithmouseyhair*

      Even just the first bit is offensive. “after living here in a democratic system”: the foreigner would not have had a chance to exercise democratic rights, since they wouldn’t have the right to vote or run for election. They might enjoy a greater degree of freedom in some ways, but they wouldn’t have any personal experience of living in a democracy.

    9. Budgie Buddy*

      This stuck out to me too. Lots of Chinese people will rag on the CCP (when they’re not afraid of censorship or retaliation) but hey I have my beefs with the American government and there’s still lots of things I like about America. Like starting with all my family who live here. That’s not hard to grok.

      It’s also possible to ask about the experience of living in various countries and what’s easier or harder without coming off this way.

  14. Sunny*

    Really taken aback by #1 too and completely understand why this was escalated. It hasn’t been mentioned yet but my hackles when up as soon as the “democracy vs communism” point came up. That’s an immediately inflammatory question that sets up the US as the superior model. And overlooks that immigrants can have many complicated feelings about their home country, its systems, its culture, whether they’d go back, etc. so it’s a sensitive matter even without the political angle. Which is fine if you’re among friends or approach it in a different way, and with a lot of empathy. But not by implying their country is wrong.

    1. Roland*

      > Which is fine if you’re among friends or approach it in a different way, and with a lot of empathy.

      Yeah… None of this is fun, “lighthearted”, or an appropriate topic to bring up in a cute little lunchtime conversation with coworkers.

    2. Dek*

      “That’s an immediately inflammatory question that sets up the US as the superior model.”

      Yeah, it’s not even remotely an innocent or appropriate question. (Also, as many people are quick to point out when the issue of popular vote vs actual representation comes up…we’re not actually a democratic country.)

      And all that’s without even getting into the whole “Hey, you’re an immigrant–let me talk to you about illegal immigration from completely different areas!” thing. Ugh.

    3. pageall*

      Totally agree that there is a time and a place for genuine curiosity and conversation, and work is SO FAR from that place. My husband is Mexican and it’s truly mind-boggling how many people will make comments about our relationship (I’m white), about our kids, about his family, his language, etc at the most inappropriate times. The first time I called someone out, he said “Wow, you’re so defensive when I’m just asking questions.” I get the same vibes from this letter. Work and personal, political, or sensitive topics have no business mixing.

      1. Turquoisecow*

        Yeah and your experience is probably why the supervisor didn’t call it out in the moment, OP would have said she was defensive or sensitive or something and not been educated in the least.

    4. With A Y*

      It’s not even a dichotomy. It’s not apples to apples. Democracy is a political system and Communism and economic system. Obviously, there is a lot of overlap and nuance, but this argument even irks me on a semantic level.

  15. Over It*

    #2 I think calling the candidate “emotionally needy” based on the squishmallows is a bit unfair, but I agree it definitely comes across as young and unaware of professional norms. I wouldn’t write off an otherwise good candidate over that alone, but I would certainly raise with them if hired that they shouldn’t be visible in calls.

    #4 I too am tired of the hyper-commercialization of Christmas. Also a Jew who has never celebrated it. Saying “I actually don’t celebrate Christmas” when asked is totally fine, just make sure your tone is casual and not antagonistic. People are just trying to make small talk; they’re not actually that invested in hearing all the details of how you spent your holiday. But sharing your true feelings on the subject is unlikely to go over well in the workplace.

    1. Fikly*

      If only it actually was fine – it should be fine, but when the majority have the power and a different view, saying things that should be fine doesn’t protect you from the consequences, especially when you can’t prove a connection. Whether or not your suggested language and tone is fine depends on where the LW lives and their workplace.

      Still today some people get extremely upset if their “Merry Christmas” is returned with “Happy Holidays!” and if that person is your boss, well, you’ve got trouble.

      Which is why the advice AAM gives for this LW is not great.

      1. Ask a Manager* Post author

        No. People who celebrate Christmas are free to feel however they want that others don’t. They are not free to pressure us hide the fact that we don’t. Not ever, and especially not right now.

        1. cassielfsw*

          The dynamic Fikly describes is real, though, and there are people forced to make choices they shouldn’t *have* to make to avoid angering a potentially unreasonable conservative Christian boss.

          I’m an atheist and have spent the last 9 years maintaining a “nice Christian girl” facade at work because I’ve heard the things my boss says about atheists and they make me not want to let on to him that I am one. So I told him early on that my sister is a minister in the Christian denomination we were raised in (100% true by the way), allowed him to make certain assumptions based on that fact, and elected not to correct those assumptions.

          I’m giving notice today and I am SO GLAD that at my next job I’ll have the liberty to say “actually, I’m not religious” without having to worry about it.

        2. Wrong Religion*

          I agree with Fikly on this one. I’m an atheist and I’ve learned not to admit it at work (I’m a librarian, and many of my colleagues are the older white church choir types).

          I had a boss ask me once what I did for the Easter weekend and I said I went camping with friends and had a great time. She immediately countered with “Why weren’t you at church?”

          Unfortunately, in some workplaces it’s not safe to admit you’re not Christian. I learned to say “Oh, I had a lovely time, how about you, was your Christmas great?” and imply that I celebrated.

      2. Delphine*

        I agree that there are many places where it may not be “fine,” as in “free of consequences.” And if people choose to prioritize their jobs or their professional relationships or their lives over being honest about their religions (or lack thereof), they should be supported (or at least understood). But in this LW’s case it sounds like they would prefer to stop pretending, so the advice makes sense.

    2. Warrant Officer Georgiana Breakspear-Goldfinch*

      People are just trying to make small talk; they’re not actually that invested in hearing all the details of how you spent your holiday.

      This may be true for some, but my casual “oh, it’s not my holiday, I spent the vacation clearing out the basement” gets a BUT CHRISTMAS!!! more often than not, and then I have to manage other people’s feelings around me not being interested in their religion, and frankly I am SICK of it.

  16. Jade*

    I would have expected to be fired after saying “they will let anyone into this country” and “how would you feel going back to a communist country” (their homeland). Nothing about any of this is light hearted. Learn from this. This is going to get you into trouble anywhere. You don’t need to pry so much into other’s lives. Good luck with a new job.

    1. Bast*

      I’m really not sure how OP expected the “they will let anyone into this country” comment to fly. That alone is… much. Given we are heading into the holiday season, it reminds me of all of those nosy relatives who make comments like, “Are you SURE another slice of pie is a good idea?” and then get offended when you call them out on it because “they didn’t mean anything by it” and are completely baffled at “how sensitive” you are. I can see OP being this person in their personal life too, with the difference being that you can’t fire family (just stop inviting them places) but you can get fired from your job… And the “I was just kidding” “People are so sensitive” type of comments don’t work in the office the way they may with family.

    2. Cat Lady*

      “they will let anyone into this country”

      Hoooooly. I work in an office with multiple people who immigrated to my country (Canada) from a few different places. If I said something like that to any of them, it would very likely become an HR issue, and I would deserve it.

  17. McThrill*

    OP 1, the phrasing of your letter (not even the conversation quoted in the letter, your actual letter) is word-for-word exactly how hardcore xenophobic anti-immigrant racists couch their discussions about immigration and citizenship status in order to get their points across while still being able to defensively say “But I’m not racist, I’m just asking questions!”
    I am not implying that you believe in any of that but if you don’t want to be lumped in with extremist bigots you shouldn’t use the exact same language they do, and bring up the exact same talking points they do, and then follow up with the exact same defense of your actions that they do.

    1. McThrill*

      I’m sorry you lost your job, but it’s genuinely weird, offensive, and extremely concerning to follow up a question about your boss’s homeland (in Asia) with an immediate follow-up comment about illegal immigration from Central America. To say to *any* immigrant that “they’ll just let anyone into the country” is immedately off-putting and offensive no matter how you meant it, how else should they take a comment like that?

    2. Nela*

      Yes. I’m not even American, but I can’t avoid their media on the internet and I’m familiar with bigoted talking points, this is exactly how they sound.

      LW1, what kind of media are you consuming that’s leading you to the conclude it’s OK to talk like this **at a workplace, to people of other ethnicities**?

        1. FitPro not Fitspo*

          I’m not sure LW did think it was ok. I think “LW overestimated the naievete and/or sympathy to this bigoted worldview in the room” is a strong contender.

          I have certainly run into an awful lot of people who think others just won’t admit to agreeing with their terrible opinions because “it isn’t PC” or whatever to know that the “just asking questions” line is best friends with “my views are oppressed (but not because they are horrible and I should feel bad.)”

    3. Twix*

      This was my thought as well. I try to give people the benefit of the doubt, but the entire letter came across as wildly disingenuous. In my experience if you can recognize where you need to qualify the things you said as “light-hearted” or “out of genuine interest” or “just a joke”, you know where you said things that could be interpreted offensively. LW, if you are genuinely unsure how you ended up here, then you really need to take Alison’s advice to heart that intent =/= impact. And if you were actually looking for validation that racism is okay as long as you have a (very transparent) fig leaf to hide behind, it’s not and people are more and more willing to call it out.

  18. IainC*

    #2 Surely they’ve demonstrated strong Soft skills. They’ve immersed themselves in Soft!

    More seriously, I think it’s worth raising an eyebrow over – not their like of them, but lack of a better background when a virtual one is so easy. But only a raised eyebrow, not more.

    1. Over It*

      Virtual backgrounds use a ton of bandwidth, so they’re not always a great option since they’re more prone to cause freezing. My wifi isn’t the strongest so I personally never risk that in an interview. But I 100% agree a more neutrally decorated setting would have been a better choice.

      1. rollyex*

        I’ve got to say that that background was so well-curated and visual that while it’s weird it also demonstrates some skill. Maybe off-brand for how the interviewee wants to come off, but it’s very well-done.

    2. Twix*

      Frankly I’d question the assumption that a virtual background is inherently better than one that shows off a completely inoffensive interest. To me this reads more as a “The times, they are a’changin'” thing than an actual problem.

  19. Clare*

    Oh no LW#1, I’m really sorry you had to learn about the nuance of banter in such a brutal way! You absolutely cannot make jokes like that unless you know for a fact that immigration, nationality and race aren’t an uncomfortable topic for the others in the conversation. My father moved from a Western European country to my country before I was born. I have safely made that exact joke with him many times because I know his history and feelings on the subject. Jokes are funny when they’re ludicrous. There’s no chance my father would have been kept out of my country, so it’s funny to suggest it. That’s not the case for your co-workers.

    The goal of friendly banter and joking is to make people feel part of the group by delivering the subtext:
    “I know you well enough to know what your sensitive points are and I like you well enough to make sure that I avoid them”

    The safest way to banter in the workplace (or anywhere really) is to pick things that are clearly ridiculous. You can safely tease the English Major when they accidentally say “mawn lower” instead of “lawn mower”, because they won’t have any doubts about your true opinion of their grasp of English. You can offer your team coffee addict a cup of tea when you’re making yourself one because it’s an inversion of what they’d want and there’s nothing embarrassing about preferring coffee. If in doubt, leave it out!

    I wish you luck with you future humour crafting endeavours LW#1.

    1. Moth*

      I like this kind response. I can see a scenario where LW1’s brain hadn’t realised their comments could easily be seen as very offensive. I’ve done and said some extremely tactless things in my life, and I live in a state of anxiety about unwittingly doing it again. All because my brain is genuinely interested and curious about all sorts of questions, and unfortunately does not always pick up on crucial context. I work on it.
      The comments do sound dog-whistley to me, but I can see a scenario where the person has picked up some questions/perspectives from online without realising how bad they are. Naivity can be a bit of a disaster.

      1. Lime green Pacer*

        I could see my mom naively making such remarks. But she is 80, and her only social connection is her church. She doesn’t follow the news at all.

      2. Bast*

        I think we have all said cringe-worthy things and had foot in mouth situations before. The difference is, when you are genuinely embarrassed and apologetic about it vs. doubling down and trying to defend the offensive remark. There’s a big difference between, “I’m so sorry, I didn’t realize how that sounded until I said it” or “I’m sorry if that came out wrong; I am so embarrassed” (and meaning it) vs. “I don’t know why she’s making a big deal over it. It’s not offensive” or “I’m sorry she found it offensive. I didn’t realize she was so sensitive/can’t take a joke.” LW definitely seems to have appeared to be more of the latter.

        1. borealis*

          Right, and it would have been slightly different if LW1 had come here saying “I clearly said something offensive, can you please help me understand why it was so bad, so I don’t do that kind of thing again?”

          (I mostly put this comment here so I can mention that I like your handle, and so does the Cat Bast who is currently purring her little heart out on my lap.)

      3. Jan*

        Good point. The whole point about dogwhistles is that they’re subtle and so I can see how it’s easy to repeat them without realising just how problematic they really are. Not that that excuses OP’s behaviour, but I’m hoping they’re just a bit socially inept and not purposely malicious (I was getting some serious David Brent vibes from the letter!).

    2. Selena81*

      Yeah, context matters a lot.
      There is f.i. that famous example of racists pretending to be confused: ‘but black people use the n-word amongst themselves all the time, so why am I singled out when I use it?’

      A lot of sarcastic humor is based around saying things to an in-group that you would never say to an out-group.

    3. Doc McCracken*

      This is genuine and useful feedback to someone, whom if we take them at their word, really upset their colleagues unintentionally. Allison’s response was also an excellent example of giving someone feedback that if he chooses to really look at, will serve him well though his whole career. If someone is struggling with workplace norms, where else can they go for real help but Ask a Manager?

    4. Former academic*

      The social psychologist Peter McGraw has a framework of humor as “benign violation”– it has to (a) not cause any kind of harm and (b) violate something we know or expect. (Think of the difference between writing something like “over the hill” in soap vs. spray paint on a friend’s car windows on their birthday– one of those is a prank because it’s harmless, the other is just vandalism) When it became clear that their coworkers were harmed, it failed at being benign and therefore *wasn’t actually funny* anymore.

  20. I've got the shrimp*

    I’m willing to give LW1 a little bit of slack because them writing in supports a little that they didn’t seem to have ill intent, but I was horrified by the so-called joke and was really side-eyeing that they continued the conversation despite noting that everyone was uncomfortable ( Per the letter: “She started to act differently at that point”).

    LW1 I’m sure you’re going to feel uncomfortable reading Alison’s advice and what I’m sure the comments are going to say, but I think you should take some time to genuinely consider outside opinions and learn from this experience.

    I genuinely don’t know how your colleague was meant to take that as a joke and that alone would have been outrageously poor form, please consider your “jokes” and how they land in personal and work relationships in the future in case others are similarly upset but unable to comment.

    1. Dark Macadamia*

      This really feels like one of those letters where they’re just looking for validation and didn’t expect to be called out. They’re not asking if they should apologize or if what they said was really that harmful, they’re asking if they have grounds for legal action!

      It comes across very disingenuous. They know what they did and they’re hoping AAM will support their desire to double down.

      1. I've got the shrimp*

        I’m hoping that even if they thought they were right that they’re willing to take on feedback.

        I generally find that AAM and the commentariat are generally relatively left leaning, so if we give the LW the benefit of the doubt they might be horrified at how horrified we all are and they can learn?

        Either way, this letter genuinely shocked me.

      2. Selena81*

        if I’m giving them the benefit of the doubt: they are probably still in shock about getting fired, so their first instinct is ‘what are my legal options’ rather than ‘maybe I really did hurt people and should apologize’.

      3. MCMonkeyBean*

        I agree, I think they thought Alison would agree they shouldn’t have been fired if they could downplay the conversation enough–but even in their own retelling of it, trying to paint themselves in the best possible light, it’s so bad.

        And frankly I do not believe for a second any of it was truly intended as jokes; that is just the go-to after-the-fact claim when you are called out for saying something offensive.

      4. Margaret Cavendish*

        >>just looking for validation

        Captain Awkward calls this “who is more right here, and why is it me?”

      5. rebelwithmouseyhair*

        yeah, like they heard that this website has a left-wing slant where the manager is prepared to side with the employee when it’s not fair… except that in fact it is fair here because nobody should have to be exposed to racism at work.

    2. Ellis Bell*

      They didn’t just continue the conversation when their supervisor started acting differently; they amped it up! I have to wonder if they are relying too hard on memories as a world traveller when curiosity made sense, they were given compliments about their home country because of politeness and no one was made to feel like an outsider because OP was the outsider.

  21. Sara*

    #1. Hmm. So I am not American but lived over a decade there, and have also lived in several European and Asian countries. This type of comment / conversation would be more normal in many countries without any harm intended (not places like the UK… But I could see this in Eastern Europe for example). So I am a bit sympathetic if the OP themselves are not American, but otherwise, they should have known better, Americans are crazy touchy about this stuff, and I’ve learned to keep my mouth shut.

    1. Foagmlord*

      But it seems like OP is American though because they clearly don’t understand the struggle that non-US citizens have to go through. For anyone to say “They’ll just let anyone into the country” to an immigrant who likely had to work very hard to get to this point is very much invalidating their experiences.

      I am American from an immigrant family that came from Asia, and I’m also currently living elsewhere in Asia after immigrating myself. Many of my friends come from similar backgrounds. I definitely know what it’s like.

      For you to claim that “Americans are crazy touchy about this stuff,” is extremely ignorant because it wasn’t the born-American people in this story that were offended. There is no context where asking someone of immigrant origins if they want to go back to a communist country or claiming to them that the US will let just anyone in is acceptable.

    2. Nela*

      Wait another decade and we won’t be so direct in Eastern Europe, either. With the refugee crisis there will be a lot more people who would have come into our countries in “illegal” ways. We’ll have to adjust our language in order not to offend our neighbors and colleagues.
      But I can hear the same bigoted things spoken here about Middle Eastern “migrants” and I don’t appreciate it.

    3. Flossy*

      Admittedly I’m Australian and we do have cultural differences to the US, but I think overall you’ll find a lot of people everywhere would be offended if they “looked different” from the “typical” person that came out of that particular country and were told that “oh, we just let anyone in. lol!”

    4. WellRed*

      As an American, I believe the OP is as well. Everything about the tone and language of the comments is all too familiar but espy the southern border reference.

    5. Testing*

      I’m neither from the US nor from the UK… but have lived in several European countries, and “They’ll just let anyone into the country” wouldn’t fly *anywhere* I’ve lived.

    6. hbc*

      I’ve had similar conversations as an American in European countries, started by chatty Europeans. I could definitely tell when it was more of a “what do you like about here versus there?” genuine curiosity versus “wow, it must be so *different* there” where different clearly means backwards and awful.

      Unless the LW thinks democracy and communism are equally valid, that statement falls in the latter category. I wonder how they would have taken one of their European counterparts saying, “How do you think it will feel going from such a safe place back to the dangers of daily mass shootings?”

    7. Observer*

      Americans are crazy touchy about this stuff,

      Neither of the victims in the story are culturally American.

      Also, do you *really* think that their victims REALLY were being “crazy touchy”?! Is it *really* being “too sensitive” to take offense at someone “joking” that someone “Let the trash in” in reference to you? Is it *really* being “too sensitive” to have someone challenge you if you REALLY would want to go back to your terrible home country now that you know about how “good” countries work? And then have that person double down and tell you how “interesting” it is that *you* have such an attitude when even the “anyone we will let in” *AND* people from the (important parts of the) rest of the world want to come here?

      The OP was being *incredibly* rude, even if you ignore all of the racism, bigotry and political shenanigans that people are living with.

    8. rollyex*

      The people complaining about the implicit bigotry were not Americans.

      That said, some of us Americans are “touchy” because of 400+ years of oppression of people of color and pervasive racism that literally takes years off some groups lives, on average, due to stress alone. To say nothing of direct impact of racism.

      You can shrug, but it’s exhausting for some of us. I wish more people would try to be anti-racist and not just think “How touchy.” Keeping your mouth shut is a decent second option if you can’t do that.

    9. New Mom (of 1 3/9)*

      Yes, I socialize with many Eastern European immigrants in the US and people have been very curious and direct about ethnicity in a way that second-gen etc people just don’t. I have been told “You don’t look [Mediterranean ethnicity]!” before, lol. I can’t speak to race but I would not be surprised if it was the same way.

      1. New Mom (of 1 3/9)*

        In my first post-grad school job I fumbled this with a colleague from South America (I forget where). I was curious about her background but was a bit more circumspect than she was, and asked something along the lines of if she spoke other languages. She looked at me like I was an idiot and said she spoke four. Oops.

  22. Stained Glass Cannon*

    LW1, as I read your letter I at first thought you were simply very lacking in self-awareness. Then I noticed that you have taken pains to deliberately minimize how offensive you might have come across to your coworkers. You’ve described your conversation as lighthearted and your comments as nonoffensive in a way that I can only describe as ‘methinks the LW doth protest too much’.

    To be absolutely clear, what you said WAS highly offensive, and I’m not surprised HR called you in. You basically insulted someone’s home country, implied they’re inferior to you because of where they were born, suggested they entered the country illegally, and overall created the textbook definition of a hostile working environment.

    Was this a one off incident, or have you behaved like this repeatedly? Because if it’s the latter, your behaviour is a massive liability to your employer and you shouldn’t be surprised that you got fired.

    1. MsSolo (UK)*

      It reminded me slightly of “I called my boss’s daughter a wh0re”, the letter that got me hooked on AAM. It’s possible that this LW has also grown up in the kind of controlled environment where they became so used to hearing immigration talked about in this way that it truly doesn’t register as offensive as it is to their ears (I suspect, in that case, it was very much talking about immigration and not talking to immigrants, or they’d have seen these kind of consequences happen to someone else). If that is the case, I hope they go through the same journey as the previous letter writer, interrogating their biases and challenging themself to let go of assumptions that are harmful to others.

      But having said that, I agree with your read of “protest too much”. There’s a little more calculated language in this letter that makes me think the LW does understand that what they said was offensive, but rejects the idea that it’s offensive enough to be fired over, and that their supervisor and HR figured the same out from the LW’s lack of apology. I still hope the LW rethinks their whole position on immigration and the desirability of living in the US over all other countries, but it’s going to require even more work than the former LW because they’re self-aware enough to have chosen to hold these beliefs, rather than carrying them passively.

  23. Lorikeet*

    Re No 1 – oof.

    I’m a white dual citizen of the UK and Australia and I can see absolutely no way in which any of that would come across as anything but racist and, bluntly, ignorant. Sure, China isn’t a democracy, but I personally query whether the U.S. could be considered one either, especially after the last few years. And if that is confronting, then you’ve gone some way to understanding why a citizen of another country might find the US = superior, all other countries = inferior mentality offensive also.

    1. Jill Swinburne*

      I hold similar dual citizenship to you and all I could think was, assuming this OP is indeed American, how offended would they be if I started *just asking questions* in that vein about their country?

      1. KateM*

        If I had been there and listened to this discussion OP had, I would just ask in a heartbeat why would anyone want to live in USA (only problem that would require me to be in USA). :D

    2. rebelwithmouseyhair*

      OK China isn’t a democracy, but a Chinese person may still prefer to live there, with their family and friends nearby, rather than work in the US and get hassled by racists at work.
      My Indian colleague was telling us that he’d received a letter from the French government telling him that he was entitled to a fast-track application for French nationality. A French colleague said “right that’s great, you need to apply!” and was very taken aback when the Indian colleague explained that since India does not admit dual nationality, he wouldn’t take the offer up because no way would he renounce his Indian nationality. No, not everyone is jumping at the chance to stay here!

    3. Anony Moose*

      I’d also question whether the UK is a democracy as you still have a queen.

      The answer for OP isn’t more ignorance.

  24. Observer*

    #1- Immigration conversation

    I was wincing as I read your description of your conversations, especially the first one. I’ll take your word that you did not *mean* any harm or offense. But, boy do you need to learn to pay attention to how people react to you! And also that no matter how something sounds in your head, you really cannot make comments that ignore the context of the real world.

    I mean you said “they will just let anyone into the country,” to a *Black* person?! In 2023 and immigration is a big, hot button topic, and it’s not just about illegal immigration? Where racism is still a real thing that still affects people deeply? Not reckoning with this is like walking around with something over your eyes and then being surprised when people are annoyed with you when you bump into them.

    As for your Chinese colleague, I winced when I read that you asked her if she would “want to be back living under a communist system?” Yikes. Had you stopped there, it would have been a problem, but it not might not have been *so bad* (ie enough to send her to HR). But She started to act differently at that point and instead of dropping the subject you insisted on plowing ahead with discussing how so many people are trying to sneak into the country! And then you also informed her about how so many people told you that they want to come to America. (Unlike *her*.)

    When HR told you that you had made people uncomfortable doubled down. You *had* said these things, and whatever you meant, they *had* made people uncomfortable. It sounds like you effectively told HR that they are “over-reacting” because you were “just curious”. You seem to have missed the fact that “I was just curious” only works with young children. By the time you hit voting age, you should know that curiosity is not a good enough reason to ask any question that pops into your head.

    It sounds to me like your responses to HR not only confirmed that you had done what you were accused of, which is making your colleague and supervisor deeply uncomfortable, but also that you seriously, seriously do not get it. Not only that you do not get it but don’t seem to be amenable to learning and understanding what the problem is. And that means that there are likely to be further issues down the road.

    If I were the HR person and heard you say that you didn’t say anything derogatory, even though you *had* actually said that “they will just let anyone into the country,” I would be just over with you. Because even if you had said this to someone who looked right they could have stepped out of a classic British country home, that IS a derogatory statement. And then doubling down that you said it in a “non-offensive way”?! That actually makes it worse, because that sounds like *classic* “I was just JOKING! Can’t anyone take a JOKE, for crying out loud?!” responses to being called out for offensive statement. It’s like saying “Oh, yes I said she’s a twit but I said it in a non-offensive way.”

    Allison’s suggestions for further reading are good. But here are tips that works for all sorts of situations, not just immigration / racism issues.

    * “I’m curious” is not a good enough reason to ask a personal or potentially sensitive question.

    * When someone’s demeanor or behavior changes in response to something to you say or ask, that is a signal to BACK OFF!

    * Intent matters in a moral sense. But for the most part intent is not what’s most important – impact is. If you are making someone uncomfortable you need to apologize, back off, and resolve to do better. Not insist that it’s ok because you didn’t mean any harm.

    * It’s really not possible to say offensive things in a “non-offensive” way. Don’t even try.

    1. Armchair Analyst*

      Thank you for pointing out the noticed change behavior and uncomfortableness, and yet the persistence in the conversation

      LW can believe any thing they want. They don’t get to make co-workers feel uncomfortable about nationality or ethnic origin or race or language or …

      And how great is America where people can be fired “at will”! Love it or leave it

      Either way, send us an update, please – would love to learn along with you LW

    2. Luva*

      “But for the most part intent is not what’s most important – impact is.” YES. From a legal standpoint, HR has to consider how your words impact other employees, and if your words create a hostile environment for another employee because they’re in a protected class, HR is obligated to stop you from saying those words regardless of your intent. Ideally OP1 would have been deemed coachable and put on probation; we don’t have enough information to know why that path wasn’t pursued, but firing OP1 is a way for the company to fulfil its legal obligation to protect their employees from harassment. I’m glad OP1’s former colleagues work at a company with an HR department willing to stand up for their rights.

      1. Observer*

        <i. we don’t have enough information to know why that path wasn’t pursued,

        Well, we can’t know for sure. But we do know two things that any competent HR is going to have to take very seriously.

        Firstly, the OP did this to a supervisor. Which means that either this person is truly disrespectful of the supervisor, in which case that’s a real problem that the company is not going to be interesting in working around. (It’s one thing to do things like move a real rock star to a different supervisor if they don’t get along. But the OP is not that.) Or the OP is doing this to someone whose authority and status they do recognize. If that’s what they are saying when they are on their “best behavior” what are they saying and doing when no one in authority is looking?

        Secondly, the OP’s responses to the HR’s rep’s questions – as described by the OP! – would not lead most people to think that the OP is really amendable to being coached. That means that your typical PIP type process just doesn’t have a lot of chance of really working.

    3. McThrill*

      “[…] for the most part intent is not what’s most important – impact is.”

      If I offer to give my friend a ride to work and back my car into their mailbox while picking them up, I’d be a total asshole if I just said, “But I didn’t mean to do it and it only happened because I was doing you a favor!” when asked to pay for a new mailbox. I didn’t *intend* to do any harm, and was actually trying to do something nice, but the intent doesn’t matter once the mailbox is under the car wheels.

      1. Katie A*

        Hold up, you’re saying intent doesn’t matter, which is both untrue and a very different thing than “impact is more important than intent”. Intent does matter, and intent can lessen the impact or make it way worse. It just doesn’t erase the impact.

        The example you used is perfect to illustrate this, in fact. Yes, the intent doesn’t matter to whether or not you should agree to pay for a new mailbox because the reality is that you did destroy the mailbox.

        But if you had intended to destroy the mailbox, that would make you a way worse person and your friend would be very justified in refusing to associate with you anymore because you’d be an unsafe person to be around. The impact would then be way greater than if you hadn’t intended to destroy the mailbox.

        1. Flossy*

          Yes! Whilst murder shows intent and manslaughter doesn’t necessarily, it doesn’t mean somebody didn’t die.

        2. B*

          It’s become very en vogue in some more aggressive DEI-oriented spaces to say “intent doesn’t matter.” I agree it is totally inconsistent both with how we intuitively, morally, and legally judge harmful acts, and actually a very alarming concept to have gained purchase with influential people. But it is very much out there and even taken as gospel in some circles.

          1. Mill Miker*

            My favourite is when “I didn’t mean to hit your mailbox” gets a response of “Intent doesn’t matter”, followed by “So why did you hit my mailbox”. It’s like, “Good intent doesn’t matter, so there must be secret bad intent, and I’ll keep pushing until you reveal it”

            And it’s like, if you’re going to say good intentions can lead to bad outcomes (fine. good. true. makes sense), then you can’t turn around and insist that bad outcomes are always proof of bad intent.

        3. Roland*

          Thank you. Intent DOES matter, we don’t have to pretend it doesn’t in order to pay attention to impact as well.

        4. McThrill*

          Yeah, I’m not saying intentions don’t matter but a that a lack of sinister intent doesn’t free you from dealing with the responsiblities of what you said or did. In regards to the OP’s example the intent truly doesn’t matter – there are some things that you just cannot say to people in a work context without creating a problem regardless (for example, telling 2 immigrant co-workers, one of which is your boss, that “Boy, they’ll just let anyone into the country won’t they”).

    4. bamcheeks*

      But She started to act differently at that point and instead of dropping the subject you insisted on plowing ahead

      Yeeeaahhh, that’s where my focus was too.

      LW, I would take a brutally honest look at yourself here. You know the temperature dropped like a million degrees right here, and the conversation changed. After this point, you don’t mention your colleagues saying anything, and just talk about what you said. Which seems like a conversation you remember pretty crystal clearly– the way you do when stress hormones are flooding your brain and your brain is shouting NO NO NO, but your mouth keeps talking. I don’t know whether you were in “I’ve got to get this angry rant out” mode or “Oh no, I’ve made an error, keep talking keep talking maybe I can still rescue this” babbling mode, but I think you KNOW that every word from this point onwards was going down like a lead balloon.

      You had a chance here– when HR called you, you could have said, “I know exactly what conversation you’re talking about, and I feel really bad about it. Is there anything I can do to make this right?”

      Here’s the thing about Good Intentions: they do count for *something*, but *demonstrating* good intentions counts for a lot more than *preserving your own image of yourself as A Person With Good Intentions*. Because if you have real Good Intentions, then you don’t want to upset people, and when you find out you have upset someone, you are upset yourself and you say, “Oh no, I’m really sorry, that wasn’t my intention, but it matters to me that I hurt you. Can I make this right?” That right there is what Good Intentions look like. Saying, “my Good Intentions are more important than the harm and offence I caused, you are wrong for being offended” is putting the other person secondary to your desire to think of yourself as a person who doesn’t do anything wrong. That act overrides every good intention you might have had.

      So look, be honest with yourself. In my opinion, you don’t need an education about why saying these things is offensive. You *knew* they were. You might believe them, you might agree with them, maybe you think it’s not fair that you’re not allowed to say them at work, but you also know that they are contentious views likely to hurt your co-workers and you saw and recognised the evidence of that right in front of you. Now you need to work through all the layers of self-justification and excuses and defences you wrapped yourself in.

  25. John Smith*

    re #4. Non practising Catholic / peripatetic agnostic here also sick of Christmas, or rather the near 6 month long commerce fest that it’s turned into (in the UK at least). People who know me know not to ask about how my Christmas was because I’ll simply say “Shit”. And that, or something non sweary, will be said to anyone (including the local priest I sometime assist at community events who at least sympathises with my views). I’ll always be cheery when replying and will either change subject or genuinely ask how their Xmas was. Either way, it’s clear to the other person that I’m not being rude and the subject is not up for discussion.

  26. AmyKat*

    I find it interesting that OP#1 says they have lived and worked in three Western European countries, then comments about all the people they have met as they “travel around the world” who want to come to America.

    Western Europe is NOT the whole world, and the inability to recognize that is pretty illustrative of the LW’s attitude. The whole letter makes me uncomfortable.

    1. Bagpuss*

      I suspect it’s a self-fulfilling situation. If you are an American who goes around ‘just asking’ about immigration issues then you are obviously going to have more conversations about whether people are interested in immigration.

      And also, something which I have encountered and which anecdotally seems to be pretty common – there are a lot of Americans who assume that if you are a non-American visiting the US / working temporarily in the US / expressing interest in the country / expressing interest in visiting for a holiday you must also want to immigrate. I do wonder how much of OP1’s conversations with people who ‘want to come to America’ were actually OP bringing up the subject and the other person not directly contradicting them.

      A Spanish friend of mine who has worked in multiple different countries has commented about this and said that the USA is the only place she’s ever worked where it happened and that it happens there on a very regulars basis, with people giving her unsolicited advice about how she could get round the terms of her visa to remain there permanently. And as she said, since they skip the whole part of finding out if she’s even interested in immigrating and take that for granted, it’s quite difficult to explain that she’s not interested, without being (or being perceived as being) rude.
      Of course there are plenty of American’s who don’t think or act in that way, but I am getting that sort o vibe nd those assumptions from OP1

      1. Tau*

        Fun fact: the English textbook we used in high school (Germany) had a chapter for tips and tricks if you went on exchange to the US. Alongside general advice on cultural differences was a warning that you might be asked which country you liked better or whether you’d like to immigrate to the US. It further went on to warn you that the person might take offence if you honestly answered that you preferred your home country, and offered conversational tips for politely side-stepping the question.

        I’m not going to pretend either Germany or the UK, where I’ve also lived, are paradise for immigrants (um. lol. not so much.) but I don’t remember noticing this normalised, idk… not just patriotism but unprompted demand that people from other countries support it for you in either place. FYI to anyone who does this: it does not go over well. Also, please leave the poor high school exchange students alone.

        1. münchner kindl*

          I think non-US western countries don’t demand that support, or ask immigrants that question, is because there is no deliberate cultural effort to teach kids that country X is the greatest country in the world; instead, deliberate effort is made, along with the general way history is taught, that “country X has good and bad points, our borders shifted over the centuries because of war – war is bad, mkay – and now we’re all part of EU so we can have peace and thus work together and have fun together, and maybe learn better practices from other countries”.

          If every country in EU (except for those backsliding into autocratic regimes again) guarantees Human Rights and citizens can call upon Higher Court, and the 4 freedoms apply to all, then it matters not much on which side of the border you were born, you can move from Germany to France to Italy for work or vacation or study and back.

          Also, that people learn the difference between full immigration; asylum seekers who want to go back once the war/ tyrannical regime in their country is gone; EU citizens, who have freedom to stay wherever; workers from abroad for a limited stint, because they encounter it in media and at work.

        2. UKDancer*

          Yeah I lived in Germany (as a student and did a casual job) and Belgium (as a professional in a multinational) and in neither case did anyone ask or expect me to want to move there or become a citizen. I think perhaps in Europe there’s an expectation that people go to other countries for a while and then go back.

          Part of me was tempted to move to Germany but I felt I’d never quite fit in so I go for holidays several times per year and that gives my fix of hearing German spoken, eating the food I love and remembering the German family friends I grew up with and who gave me a love of the place.

        3. Meghan*

          One of the thoughts I had was what OP would have done if his supervisor (!!!) had said “yes, actually, I’d love to move back to China.” It’s not a crime to not be all 100% rah-rah-America!

      2. münchner kindl*

        Bill Bryson had a column in one of his books, how a foreign exchange student at US High School was asked by “friendly midwestern folk” about if she liked USA or Sweden better, and if she wanted to return, and she (not used to US politeness lying) answered honestly, a bit puzzled “I like Sweden better, and of course I will return there” utterly shocking these folks who had grown up with the deeply ingrained conviction that US is the greatest country, the only with True Freedom and True Democracy, and that everybody wants to come there, that they couldn’t process at all that a foreigner
        liked their home country better
        could see the many instances where their home country was at least equal to, or even better, than US
        that many instances which US folks think better (hundreds of cereals in supermarket! Donuts! Deep-dish pizza!) are not important, or distasteful, to foreigners (we can do without donuts, we like Italian pizza, a dozen cereals is enough).

        1. borealis*

          I’m not sure if that would be more a case of not being used to politeness lying (Swedes do that too, more than Americans in some contexts) or of negotiating that kind of conversation in a foreign language. Especially since many Swedes are, on the one hand, secretly convinced that Sweden is the ideal place to live, and on the other hand constrained by a cultural prohibition of saying nothing that can be interpreted as positive about themselves or their country. (The word that translates as “un-Swedish” is almost always used as a positive adjective, meaning exciting, uninhibited, and not bland.) But that prohibition isn’t necessarily there when the conversation is in English!

          1. Jessica*

            As an American, I find it difficult to imagine a modern Swede wanting to immigrate to the US. Of course I know some do, for various personal reasons, but I doubt any are doing it because America Is The Greatest.

      3. allathian*

        Great post, thanks.

        There are definitely a lot of places in the US that I’d love to visit, but I wouldn’t want to work there. From where I stand, no amount of money would compensate for the lack of universal healthcare, long working hours, and short or non-existent PTO. But that’s just me and YMMV.

      4. Irish Teacher*

        I do wonder how much of OP1’s conversations with people who ‘want to come to America’ were actually OP bringing up the subject and the other person not directly contradicting them.
        They could also be just being polite/just making conversation. I’ve had plenty of people online say, “oh, you’re from Ireland. I’d love to go there” or “I wish I lived there.” It doesn’t mean they want to immigrate here, just that they think the country looks pretty when they see pictures or videos of it and would like to see it or they are just being polite or just responding to something specific I’ve said.

        I do think it’s likely the LW has taken comments about wanting to go to the US way too seriously. It’s very likely it was just a throwaway comment or a joke or just being polite rather than an actual desire. By joke, I don’t mean a derogatory joke, more like the LW mentioned taxes being lower in the US than whatever country she was in or mentioned shorter waiting lists for some procedure or mentioned it being easier to fire people whose work isn’t up to standard and somebody replied, “oh, I wish I lived there.”