update: a “thought experiment” is causing a cold war in my office

It’s “where are you now?” month at Ask a Manager, and all December I’m running updates from people who had their letters here answered in the past.

There will be more posts than usual this week, so keep checking back throughout the day.

Remember the letter-writer who worked in an office where a lunchtime “thought experiment” had caused a cold war (first update here)? Here’s the update.

I saw it’s update season, so I thought I’d do so one more time. Things have gotten a lot better since that original update I sent in. The major ringleader of the “Carrie is weird/robotic” discourse was let go in September. I didn’t know why at first, but Steve confided in me that he mentioned to one of our bosses in a private chat that that person really had a toxic effect on the workplace (in addition to just not being great at her job). I imagine it was a combination of those things that led to the termination. Her closest friends became much quieter generally almost immediately, perhaps hoping to avoid being perceived the same way. For all I know, our bosses reprimanded them. I do want to say I believe the “robot” nickname started because that little group felt her answer to the Shakespeare question was cold/inhumane. It wasn’t anything to do with her affect. Not that that makes it better, but I saw some commenters feeling worried about their own manner of speaking/interacting with people and how that could target them for that kind of name calling (and those who had actually been targeted). I just wanted to clarify, and say be yourself even if you feel like you sound less than enthused/gregarious at work if it’s safe/otherwise professional for you to do so. Horrible people will be horrible regardless, so there’s no reason to police yourself that way.

Carrie is actually on her honeymoon leave right now. We gave her a work shower right before her wedding, as we would for anyone else here for a wedding or baby (not a big production, just a sheet cake and group gift from her registry). I was a bit nervous about it, to be honest, because I wanted it to be nice for her but I knew that a few people in attendance would be the ones who’d talked about her behind her back earlier in the year and I just thought the hypocrisy would be awkward. It wasn’t, though, really — those folks had already been acting chastised after the other coworker’s termination, so they were once again quiet and mild. Our bosses attended Carrie’s wedding and they said it was lovely.

I will say that in my view there was a LOT of projection in the comments based on identifying with Carrie. I’m not trying to diminish anyone’s personal experiences with feeling ostracized at work or in other social settings for any reason, but respectfully, none of the commenters really know anything about her or any of the rest of us. She is a nice, serious, quiet person and no one ever deserves to be talked about like that behind their back for just being a bit outside office culture (or for any reason I can think of barring actual criminal behavior!). But the idea that some commenters were fantasizing about Carrie being promoted to manager and then immediately firing the rest of us was so bizarre to me as the person who knows her and our workplace. However, I accept that I could not possibly include every piece of context that seemed relevant to me to head off that type of comment, and even if I sent in an entire novel (instead of a novella, haha) and you were willing to publish it, some people would read into it what they wanted to and there’s nothing I can do about that. I lost control of the narrative when I wrote in, which I felt I was prepared for, but maybe not as much as I thought.

Thank you again for your original response. I am still grateful you urged me to consider this wasn’t really about the thought experiment at all. I couldn’t see beyond that one event because it loomed so large in my mind at the time. And truly, thank you to those commenters who engaged with my situation the same way and shared their stories of feeling alienated for any reason, especially if they’re neurodivergent. I didn’t think it was healthy for me to try to respond in real time but I read them all.

{ 127 comments… read them below }

  1. Employee of the Bearimy*

    This is a great update, and a really good example of how one or two people can have a huge effect on office culture. I’ve been thinking a lot about that as it relates to my own office, and this gave me more to chew on.

  2. MechE*

    “I will say that in my view there was a LOT of projection in the comments based on identifying with Carrie. ”

    There are quite a few folks who seem to revel in comment section fanfic.

    1. cindylouwho*

      Yeah, I submitted a letter that got published a while back, and some of the comments were WILD. It’s 90% of the reason I haven’t sent an update.

      1. ThatGirl*

        I see it all over the internet – I once submitted a question to a Carolyn Hax chat and her advice was fine, but the things the commenters jumped to were truly bananas in some cases, and because it involved my marriage, some people definitely jumped to “divorce!”

        1. hohumdrum*

          When the Carolyn Hax commenters are unhinged it’s so funny to me because I generally feel Hax is one of the most correctly hinged, sensible, reasonable advice-givers out there.

          Hax: Well of course your feelings are valid. Perhaps your husband is just stressed, or feels unheard, or any number of reasonable/human feelings one might have that leads them to behave less than optimally. Try talking to him directly about it, and consider what you can do realistically to change the situation. Give it time. Get outside help if it doesn’t get better. Etc.


          its so funny (except when it’s your letter, of course) and also a little baffling- I often wonder if the comments don’t actually read Hax’s advice

          1. davethetrucker*

            They’ve really gotten worse over the years. I have had three letters published from Hax in the past ten years, in decreasingly controversial order. The first one had only one ugly comment on it, and the one about my dead brother had so many comments that were just all-out nasty. It’s not just there; but it’s disappointing that the vitriol is there, because I’ve been reading the comments since there were only 50 a column, and the commenters used to be some of the nicest people on the internet.

            1. Princess Sparklepony*

              Sorry to hear that. It used to be a nice group. There was a lot of camaraderie. But then they banned side chatter, so people left, and the people commenting got a lot meaner. Lots of What if the sexes were reversed junk – the answer there is Same answer. And a lot of Women are the problem comments. You do get the dump him posts but sometimes (not all the times) it’s the right thing to do,

          2. MM*

            Ah yes, AITA-itis. And on AITA, there’s no columnist’s advice to read, so people can jump straight to DIVORCE CALL CPS RESTRAINING ORDER HUMILIATE THEM ON SOCIAL MEDIA unimpeded.

            1. Jaybeetee*

              That’s basically every subreddit that discusses interpersonal relationships lol. Arr / relationships is infamous for being populated by Redditors who are either 14 years old and/or have actually never interacted with another human in their lives.

              1. Too identifying for my usual handle*

                I’ve worked in an LGBTQ+ anti-domestic-violence program, and mutual Internet milieux deciding that the survivor, as screened by the program of trained experts who know details, was an abusive monster (probably “a narcissist”), after the actual abuser talked trash about them online, was a depressingly common scenario.

            2. Princess Sparklepony*

              I think it was here where but I could be wrong where someone said to call the police about a bad workplace coworker relationship. Nothing threatening going on, no violence or hints of it, but their idea was to call the police. Seemed way over the top to me. Save the police for your stalker ex or actual theft.

        2. Vio*

          There’s some people who seem to assume that if you’re asking a question on the internet then what you really want is their idea for a pilot for an awful and controversial reality tv show that includes characters loosely inspired by those in your question. One day maybe they’ll finally find somebody asking just that question and everything will fall into place.

          1. Parakeet*

            Yeah there’s a lot of people who treat the Internet like a bunch of over-the-top morality plays to which they are spectators who are supposed to have a certain equally over-the-top “correct” reaction. Instead of situations involving real people. It also happens in online settings where the parties aren’t anonymous, and then it can really cause problems in people’s lives.

        3. Zombeyonce*

          I had a question answered once by Dear Prudence and the comments were so rude. One tiny piece of information was edited out that I, frankly, didn’t even think was that important, and people jumped on their idea of what the answer would have been. They burned me in effigy in the comments because I was just the worst person ever for not considering it in my potential solution (spoiler: I had that angle covered!) and I’ve avoided Slate ever since.

          1. Nebula*

            I had the same experience! I had questions published by Dear Prudence and Care and Feeding, and I would absolutely never submit anything to Slate advice columns again because the comments were so horrible. The Care and Feeding one was about trying to make a decision about whether or not I want kids, and I had people saying that the fact I was even asking meant that I would be an unsuitable parent because I was clearly incapable of making decisions. It was wild.

          2. Anya*

            This happened to me in an xoJane comment section once (throwback)! I asked a question about my messy early-20s dating life, they put the headline as something more sensational but less accurate, the comment section decided I was the worst person ever extrapolating from the somewhat inaccurate headline. Luv the internet

        4. Crooked Bird*

          I wrote in to Miss Manners once while feeling annoyed about the way someone had spoken to me and the consensus in the comments was that I had clearly been up to something shady or the comment would not have bothered me.

          Interestingly they also all knew my gender though I hadn’t specified it… and they were wrong…

        5. Mouse*

          Yes. I have also sent in a letter, and while Alison’s advice was thoughtful, helpful and kind, (a small part of) the comments section kinda made me wish I hadn’t written in. My letter was fairly low stakes, and it was mostly just chastising me for not already knowing how to handle the situation, and unhelpful speculation about my age and experience levels, but there have been a number of more notable letters recently where the comments have really started to feel the opposite of constructive.

            1. Ticotac*

              I think that “my letter was fairly low stakes” and “a number of more notable letters recently where the comments have really started to feel the opposite of constructive” are also pretty key components

          1. Temporary Name*

            Yes. I asked a question in the open thread recently and two different commenters accused me of lying by omission with express intent of manipulating the commentariat.

            1. Lying doesn’t get me anywhere. No one can appropriately advise me if I lie.
            2. You’re breaking at least 2 community rules.
            3. Why are you being so unnecessarily mean?
            4. Did you read the thread or any of the clarifying comments?

            One even went so far as to imply I won’t be able to hold down a job because I’m stupid and dishonest and too stupid to see how dishonest I am.

    2. 7889*

      My favorite was the letter about a coworker who had lost her husband, immediately met by speculation that she must have murdered him, because…she was taking a lot of bereavement leave?

    3. rollyex*

      ” the idea that some commenters were fantasizing about Carrie being promoted to manager and then immediately firing the rest of us”


    4. Jake*

      I read but didn’t participate in these comments, and the vast majority were not fanfic, they were real acknowledgements that based on the information in both the op and update, her coworkers were merciless bullies in this situation. Her excuses, denials and “I can’t give full context to prove you wrong” don’t paint a great picture either.

      1. Meat Oatmeal*

        Wait, are you saying “I can’t give full context to prove you wrong” counts as a ding against a letter writer’s credibility?

        I think that’s a perfectly reasonable thing for a letter writer to say. They’re not on trial, not obligated to tell us anything, and have already made themselves vulnerable by writing their letter in the first place.

        If you disbelieve the information they chose to share, okay. But it’s just so odd to me to find fault with someone for choosing not to share additional information.

      2. Lydia*

        Nah. The commenters here have an incredibly bad habit of creating whole scenarios of questionable truth based on what is and isn’t included in a letter.

    5. H.Regalis*

      I agree with LW and MechE. Good lord, is this ever a thing right now. I’ll be glad to see the back of this trend.

    6. Afraid to Ask Questions*

      I have quit posting in the open threads because of the extreme reactions, both to questions I wrote and to questions other people wrote.

      OP: “My company is implementing a policy that I can’t comply with because of a medical condition. I need a script for requesting an exemption from the policy.”

      Fanfic: “You sound very angry about the new policy, and talking to HR with that much anger in your voice isn’t going to get you what you want. You should rethink your whole attitude about this!”


      1. Elizabeth West*

        I had to step away for a while too. Then someone followed me to another place online to berate me, where they were promptly blocked.

    7. Irish Teacher*

      Yeah, there did seem to be a lot of assumptions in the comments. I especially remember a lot of people assuming that Carrie must be socially awkward or something, when there was really nothing to suggest that. Her behaviour as described, was completely normal and it was the reaction that was completely bizarre and socially inappropriate.

      But I am not sure it was all projection. I think a lot of it was that the behaviour was so bizarre – adults calling somebody a “robot” for giving one of the two expected answers to a thought experiment? – that people kind of figured there must be something more to it and were looking for interpretations that made it make a bit more sense.

      This update does throw some light on it as it sounds like there was one ringleader, who presumably had some quarrel or personal reason to dislike Carrie (or was jealous of her) and that that ringleader was just looking for ways to turn people against her and zeroed in on anything she said or did differently to the group.

      Still kind of sounds straight out of middle school and I’m not surprised the ringleader was let go as it’s unlikely somebody that petty and vindictive in one situation (and that childish – calling somebody a robot!) wouldn’t have other issues in the workplace.

      1. GreyjoyGardens*

        I was one of the commenters who felt bad for Carrie and thought that the ringleader(s) were bullies. It does seem like there was one main person, and that person did have a middle-school mentality, and was the proverbial “bad influence.”

        Sometimes that happens; one person has an outsized influence on their group and eggs them on to do mean things, and once that person is gone, the group disintegrates. It’s as if bullying is the glue that holds the together, or something.

      2. Princess Sparklepony*

        And once that person was gone, people stopped bullying. So it does indeed seem that there was one bad apple spoiling the whole bunch.

  3. Dust Bunny*

    “I will say that in my view there was a LOT of projection in the comments based on identifying with Carrie. ”

    However, having people speculate based on minimal information is the flip side of the coin when writing in for advice and needing to keep it both short and anonymous.

    Also, sometimes comment-section speculation crystallizes for an OP something of which they had an inkling but not yet full recognition, but there is no way to know at first which way it’s going to go.

    1. WhoAmIWhyAmIHere*

      This feels to me dismissive/minimizing of the frequency with which updaters share that a lot of commenting was wildly off-base/insulting/demeaning.

      1. Pippa K*

        Some LWs: I wish people wouldn’t speculate so wildly in the comments; it can get a bit weird and unpleasant.
        Commentariat: but you might find it helpful!
        LWs: No, it’s unpleas—
        Commentariat: BUT YOU MIGHT FIND IT HELPFUL

        1. Vio*

          Some degree of speculation that takes the presented facts into account can probably be helpful at times. Wild conclusions leapt to at Olympic record breaking levels are probably best shared only if clearly sarcastic and hilarious. And even then only if certain that they’re not offensive and/or inappropriate.

          1. sleepy in the stacks*

            yeah, earlier today I saw someone imply on the dog name post that the person naming their dog after real people will probably abuse the dog. Just such a wild thing to jump to.

            1. Afraid to Ask Questions*

              I didn’t want to comment in that thread because of the fanfic extreme responses, but I have a cat who I named after the owner of the farm where I got her.

              The cat is now 16 years old and is given twice-daily insulin injections, twice-daily transdermal applications of medication for high blood pressure, and every-other-day infusions of subcutaneous fluids to help her failing kidneys.

              I don’t go on vacations, or nights out with friends, or work trips in order to take proper care of this cat.

              Kitty is named after a human and is the faaarrrrthest thing from being abused.

              So, I agree: It was a mind-bendingly wild thing to jump to.

              1. Lady_Lessa*

                I think that both you and your cat are lucky. The cat because of having someone to take good care of her/him. You because the cat will let you do that reasonably safely.

              2. LadyVet*

                The vast majority of my family’s pets — cats, dogs, fish, etc. — have had people names. All very loved.

      2. Elle*

        Yup. I’ve been noticing in updates recently, LWs will mention that they were uncomfortable with or surprised by or generally had negative feelings about the speculation in the comments. It’s mentioned a LOT.

      3. Myrin*

        Yeah, Dust Bunny isn’t wrong but I think her “sometimes” is key here – because let’s be real, most of the time, the simplest, most benign, straightforward reading of a letter is the most “realistic” and true one.

        (And personally, I have found that this quite often correlates with an apparent inability or at least hesitation of commenters’ to accept that some people are just exactly as they appear.
        Did the guy who knelt in front of his manager have some cultural thing around kneeling, an injury making it impossible for him to stand, or was he three metres tall so he could only ever look others in the eye that way? No, he was just a bit of a weirdo and a talk fixed that.
        Did the intern who would bag food and goods laid out for all employees have some horrible trauma regarding food insecurity and loss, making him completely unable to behave politely in this regard? No, he was just a guy from a wealthy background with massive entitlement issues.
        Did the woman who was so annoyed by her coworkers’ repeating stories that it almost blew up the business and who mentioned that this was something she already hated in a relative survive a terrible childhood with an abusive family? No, she was just someone who had always felt annoyed by people doing this thing both her coworker and relative did.
        And so forth.
        It’s not always like that, of course, but it follows that pattern incredibly often.)

      4. H.Regalis*

        The one where people were convinced the OP’s coworker who was breaking quarantine had an identical twin!

        And then in the update post comments, a few people were like, “When you hear hoofbeats, think horse, not zebra,” and some people replied to it like, “But it could be a zebra though.” AAAAHHHHHHH!

    2. Ink*

      eh, looking back on the comment sections there seems to be a lot veering toward diagnosis-by-comment, which is against the rules. So is comment section fanfic adding new details the LW didn’t include. That’s a fine line, sometimes, but the best way for the rules to keep the comments a positive place is to internalize them enough to stop edge cases from showing up in your own comments before pressing submit and note when a comment you’re replying to is unkind or unwarranted, not gesture vaguely at the idea that it’s all just a natural consequence.

      It isn’t a natural consequence of writing in anonymously for things to push the limits of the site rules that far, it’s a choice individual commenters make when they send their response without taking a moment to check that they ARE being helpful and as kind as is reasonable.

    3. hohumdrum*

      Eh…respectfully it’s frequently very obvious the speculation comments are unhinged and unhelpful. Just today we have the perfect example of “the guy who named his dog after his boss is probably abusing it :(((” and “the coworker who shares food is a creep” in the same comment section.

      1. Gemstones*

        I noticed that, too, and agree it definitely doesn’t help. It also just seems to frame things in the most unkind, uncharitable way possible, based on nothing.

        1. hohumdrum*

          It absolutely does not help, but it *is* fun for the commenters themselves, which is the issue.

          Commenting/interacting gives you a dopamine hit, and that alone creates an urge to say something…regardless of whether you actually have something useful to say. And people here comment so regularly that a community has developed where people are going to want to share and interact with each other outside of the specific context of assisting letter writers.

          All of that creates a powerful incentive for commenters to come up with something to say, something unique and not-yet-said by anyone else, something that will get noticed by others and generate more interaction. I think some of those motivations also can be a bit subconscious, which is worse- people really dig in their heels and double down when they’re told they’re not being helpful because they’re not always aware consciously of other factors for why they feel compelled to join in.

          And all of that is totally expected and is a common issue in these spaces, but also a little ironic for a comment section for likes to talk a big game about being introverts with no need for socializing :)

          1. Arts Akimbo*

            Dopamine hit– yes! Very well-put. It’s even worse on sites where there’s a comment liking or upvote mechanism in place, because you get multiple dopamine hits, for commenting and then for every time you see people have liked or engaged with your comment. As much as I have wished I could upvote some of the awesome comments here, I think it’s truly for the best that we can’t. When we’re interacting by text, our brains have a tendency to treat other people’s life issues like a videogame to be solved.

            1. Vio*

              I’d often felt glad that there wasn’t an up/downvote thing here but could never put my finger on why. I think you may have hit the nail on the head. Which means you have won the game!

          2. Tau*

            Another danger point is that righteous anger feels weirdly good and can be addictive. I notice sometimes that comments seem to be seeking an injustice with a clear bad guy to be righteously mad at, often resulting in the super unkind uncharitable interpretation of at least one person involved in the situation. I think it’s people unconsciously trying to feed that desire, but it’s almost always going to be super alienating for the OP, who knows all these people as real flesh and blood human beings and is very aware of the messy bits that don’t fit the neat narrative the comments have just invented.

            And yeah – I always try to ask myself before I hit the comment button whether my comment would be useful for the OP, and it’s quite surprising how often the answer is “…no, but I totally want to comment here anyway for some reason.” (Including, arguably, here, but in this case I think the discussion is valuable enough I hope OP doesn’t mind. I’m sorry to hear comments were so frustrating, OP! I’m glad things have died down at your work and hope it all continues on peacefully!)

            1. WhoAmIWhyAmIHere*

              +1. I think I’ve seen the “righteous anger” downward spiral a lot while catching up on AAM.

      2. FricketyFrack*

        Oh my lord, I thought (if the boss was someone the coworker hates) maybe the dog’s name came about after it ate a shoe or pooped on the floor, or maybe it just looked a little like the boss, and even that felt like a bit of a reach. People need to step back from the internet sometimes, I swear, and this is coming from someone who is terminally online.

        1. hohumdrum*

          Oh, absolutely!

          As someone who is rather impulsive and does not think in a straight line, I am often amused by commenters who always assume deep thought and reason behind every action from someone. Sure, maybe coworker named the dog after the boss because they loved the boss or hated the boss, but honestly, like you said, just as likely they did it on random impulse and never gave it a second thought.

          People online want human interaction to be like a story, where every choice has meaning and narrative purpose, and aligns with themes brought up previously. But real life isn’t like that- it’s chaotic and jumbled, lots of loose ends and unsatisfying arcs, and a general lack of narrative cohesion :)

          1. Irish Teacher*

            Yeah, my assumption was that they just liked the name. Like it could be to honour a boss they liked or for the fun of ordering somebody with the name of a boss they disliked to “sit down,” “roll over,” etc, but that doesn’t strike me as the most likely explanation.

            1. GreyjoyGardens*

              The Duchess of Suffolk (Queen Catherine Parr’s best friend) was a committed Protestant (so much so that she went into exile under Mary I). She reportedly named her dog after a bishop she especially hated, because she liked being able to order the namesake around. Nothing really new under the sun, I guess!

    4. My Useless 2 Cents*

      When there is a minimum of anonymous information to go on the commentary are going to base advice/comments on their own experiences and speculation will reflect that. I find it odd when LW’s seem to take the speculation so personally.

      Both the updates seem to really emphasis the fact that we don’t really know Steve as a person and take affront to comments that implied he was not the great guy LW believes he is. The thing is that based on the original letter, Steve did not come across as the nicest person. Sure, we don’t know Steve, but plenty of us have worked with people we don’t particularly like but who are thought of very favorably by other coworkers. Combine both those things and you get a lot of speculation that perhaps Steve isn’t the stand-up guy LW thinks he is. It is not personal. It is just a common scenario that people can relate to, having never met Steve, that they have a thought or two about and wish to share.

      1. Myrin*

        The first update talked a lot about the whole “Steve” situation but this one mentions him exactly once and in a much different context – I’m not really seeing any emphasis here.

      2. Willow Pillow*

        Commenters are asked to “limit speculation on facts not presented by letter-writers to reasonable assumptions based on the information provided,” though. It got bad enough last week that Alison nuked the comments section (“update: after I hired someone, a mutual friend told me I’d made a huge mistake”).

        1. Ticotac*

          God, I remember that one.

          OP: “The person I hired is working on himself, he only had a minor situation that we could fix easily, and accommodations are working great!”
          Comments: “Have you considered the idea that you may be coddling a dangerous and unstable monster who is terrorizing everybody else into silence?”

          1. Turquoisecow*

            Whoa, I remember those comments but missed that they were closed, guess that happened after I stopped reading them.

            1. Myrin*

              Yeah, I’m on the opposite side of the world from the US and only saw the first few comments on that post, which were all very positive and expressed being glad that a good, compassionate solution had been found all around. Glad I was peacefully asleep when all that shit went down. :/

      3. Also-ADHD*

        I don’t really think someone can be a “nice person” and act as Steve did in the first letter honestly. I consider nice to be actually kind (truly nice) and inclusive. I don’t think it’s okay to egg people on the way he did in LW1 or an okay mistake to make and still be a nice guy past the age of maybe 11, and even that’s pushing it. I do think it’s common enough that many people still think people who can do that are nice in other situations.

        I’m not sure if there was other speculation (sounds like yes, but I didn’t reread all that—just the letters), but just because someone can be pleasant to be around, likable to many, etc. doesn’t actually make them nice to everyone, depending on how you view kindness and inclusion.

        We’re all flawed but Steve’s particular flaws went pretty far and seemed malicious (non accidental) in the first letter. But many Steve-like people exist in the world and are liked by many others. It’s not uncommon and I’m not surprised someone would defend him.

      4. Blueberry Coffee*

        “I find it odd when LW’s seem to take the speculation so personally.”

        Because the LWs have written in about their personal reactions to events in their personal lives, and they are the people you’re speculating about.

        1. Lydia*

          Exactly. Being surprised they take the speculation personally is weird. I’m willing to bet this person doesn’t question when an OP takes the comments personally and uses them to make better choices. It’s two sides of the same coin.

      5. Fluffy Fish*

        There was some wild speculation for sure. And some very obvious hyperbole like what OP references about Carrie becoming manager and firing everyone – the point was the behavior was inexcusable and nothing was being done about it, not that Carrie would actually do that.

        That said, there was a lot of people sharing how it feels to be the odd one out.

        And a lot of people commenting that certain actions don’t align with those of a “good” person.

        And I think both of those things were important because where OP started and where OP ended are two very different places.

        Dismiss the wild speculation but how hurtful things affect people and that people who do mean things are in fact being mean doesn’t fall into that and I hope that’s not what OP is referring to.

    5. Ann O'Nemity*

      Comment-section speculation on this site seems to have gotten more and more outlandish over time. Not sure if that’s specific to the commenters on this site, or part of a general trend in increased trolling.

      1. Jaybeetee*

        Everywhere – online spaces and IRL – has gotten generally angrier and more combative since Covid. I’m not entirely sure what caused the A to B there, but it’s unfortunate, and I’m not sure what anyone can do to fix it.

      2. Double A*

        I dunno, I think this is confirmation bias. I think if you made a chart over time things would be pretty consistent. Just like how people have been saying “People are ruder than they used to be” at the exact same rate since they started doing surveys asking that question.

        1. MsSolo (UK)*

          Yes, if you ever go back to the comments on letters in 2014, there are some really unhinged responses, but there’s also significantly fewer comments, so 1 in 10 comments on a letter being fanfic maybe stands out less than 30 in 300, especially with the threading so a significant proportion of the other comments turn into people telling each other off for speculation.

      3. Temporary Name*

        This happened to me in the open thread recently. Two commenter accused me of lying by omission expressly to manipulate the commentariat. One of them went so far as to imply I won’t be able to hold down a job because I’m stupid and dishonest and too stupid to see how dishonest I am. In spite of the fact it was from someone whose comments I regularly skip or find way off base, it was still incredibly upsetting.

  4. Ink*

    Even if the other members of the group weren’t chastised after the termination and aren’t reading in anything about their own job security if the behavior continued, I’m sure that was huge for the change of mood. If she was the one most likely to start a complaining session, her absence could mean they just stop on their own. Very middle school, but one source of negativity really can poison the broader atmosphere. Whatever the factors, I’m glad it ended! It can be hard to remember the same principle can work the other way, but LW talking to Steve seems like it could’ve been a factor in expediting the termination. If it dragged on longer, shy of enough evidence for it to move ahead, for all we know the bullying might’ve approached a new peak, moved onto a new target, etc. in the meantime. Hurrah for standing up for each other, I guess!

    1. GreyjoyGardens*

      It really sounded like the correct interpretation of “one rotten apple spoils the whole barrel.” (By causing the other apples to rot.) I’m glad that in this case, “Chris Hargensen’s” departure stopped all the bullying.

    1. Ticotac*

      Wild! Anyway, did you know that group activities are the absolute worst and everybody, literally everybody, hates them and even if the entire group says they like them they’re lying because they’re afraid?

    2. nofiredrills*

      For real, whenever I read soooo many internet comments. it reads like they have someone specific in mind, and they should probably have a conversation with them, not the internet lol

  5. Awkwardness*

    I remember this one. I had goosebumps reading the original letter and update because the group dynamic was so strong.

    It is good to hear things calmed down. It seemed to be overwhelming at some point, so I appreciate the second update even more!
    “I lost control of the narrative when I wrote in, which I felt I was prepared for, but maybe not as much as I thought.”

  6. BigLawEx*

    I really love the self-reflection in this update (and others). It makes me think that one individual thing/action that seems outrageous is often – maybe even probably – symptomatic of larger issues.

    It reminds me of the concept of the ‘acting out’ child my therapist once shared. A child acting out is often emblematic of a problematic family system. However, the focus starts (and too often stays) on the one action versus looking at a system that produced the acting out.

  7. It's Fine*

    I do want to say I believe the “robot” nickname started because that little group felt her answer to the Shakespeare question was cold/inhumane. It wasn’t anything to do with her affect.

    But in the original letter you describe her as having a “chilly personality” and having always been “off” even before the thought experiment. A *lot* of emphasis was placed on how *different* Carrie is, and it comes off as trying to justify everyone’s attitude here. I know you don’t intend it that way! But I really encourage you to examine these judgements and see how they lead to things like the nickname and the mean talk behind her back.

    1. Observer*

      But I really encourage you to examine these judgements and see how they lead to things like the nickname and the mean talk behind her back.

      Why? It’s not really relevant to the main point of the update, which is that people were being pretty awful and it was wrong regardless of the reason.

      I mean, sure, it’s not all that helpful to the people who she’s telling “don’t worry about *your* affect.” But at the same time, I think that she’s right about that, because fundamentally, the real reason this was happening was because there was a bully in place who was inciting others to bully someone and there were too many people who thought it was just fine. The toxicity was not truly tied to Carrie’s affect. And by the same token, most people like her will be fine in an office with *reasonable* people. And if people aren’t reasonable? Well, that’s a problem no matter how you try to bend yourself.

      1. Jake*

        Because it is helpful moving forward to think about your past behaviors critically to make sure you are constantly improving.

        1. Eulerian*

          What’s wrong with a cold affect?

          Why should everything need improving? Why can’t we embrace our different personalities – especially when people who don’t like it are becoming the bully about it?

    2. SereneScientist*

      Yep, agreed that this likely wasn’t LW’s intention but it *is* very interesting the ways our unconscious biases about other people can come out even in how basic facts and descriptors are given. A little bit of defensiveness is understandable when it feels like the internet mob is reading more into the details than exists, but that can blind any of us to our own complicity when something goes wrong socially in the workplace.

    3. Seashell*

      If the negative nickname was solely based on the answer to a hypothetical question that almost certainly could not occur in real life, then everyone should remember that an answer to a hypothetical question really doesn’t matter. It seems like Carrie was the only one who realized that at the time.

    4. Myrin*

      But I really encourage you to examine these judgements and see how they lead to things like the nickname and the mean talk behind her back.

      OP dedicated a whole paragraph to this in the first update and in general seemed very aware of all the dynamics at play here. I really don’t know where this (very common in this comment section) “But have you considered XY?” attitude comes from when it’s literally written down black on white that yes, they have.

      But also – she ended that relevant paragraph with “I never saw it that way but this is my best guess as far as why people were so quick to turn on her” and it’s possible that she’s since realised that she’d been wrong about that, hence the different viewpoint in this letter. People are allowed and in fact should be encouraged to incorporate new information into their understanding of situations.

  8. Observer*

    but Steve confided in me that he mentioned to one of our bosses in a private chat that that person really had a toxic effect on the workplace

    This is totally not surprising. I think that this shows that one piece of speculation in the comments was on point – that the issue with Carrie was not the only problematic behavior going on.

    It’s also nice to know that the owners are reasonable people. I recall that in the original post you mentioned that you didn’t think that the bosses would take it seriously, but it sounds like they did. Maybe not to the point of firing her *only* because of this, but still, even if it “just” influenced their decision that’s a good indicator that they do value decent behavior.

    no one ever deserves to be talked about like that behind their back for just being a bit outside office culture (or for any reason I can think of barring actual criminal behavior!).

    Yes! This is totally true. And it’s to your credit that you recognized this and tried to push back.

  9. Falling Diphthong*

    Some people would read into it what they wanted to and there’s nothing I can do about that.
    Won’t fit on a throw pillow. The AAM bolster is born?

  10. darsynia*

    Any thought experiment that has a ‘wrong answer’ shouldn’t be brought up at work anyway. I’m glad things are better now!

  11. nodramalama*

    It sounds like in the end it was a good outcome! And agree with the projection from some commenters.

  12. Sue Wilson*

    Honestly, this is entirely irrelevant to the question, it’s very interesting to me that as a matter of course Steve has so much sway in this office. He’s all over the letter and update. I’m glad the environment is better and you’ve said he’s a (usually) a great person so it’s wonderful he decided to use his powers for good and revise his opinion! But whew, that’s a lot of power.

    1. 2e*

      It *is* a lot of power, and I would bet that he’s been conscious about cultivating his “unofficial leader” role. The thought experiments, for instance, strike me as strategic; not so much a hobby as something he pulled from a book of team-building discussions so that he could hold court in the lunch room. (And FWIW, I’d be eating my sandwiches at my desk in that kind of environment…)

      Not necessarily contradicting OP’s characterization of Steve! He could very well be a genuinely nice guy who is aiming for a leadership role. The two things are obviously not mutually exclusive.

      1. Ace in the Hole*

        That’s… quite a stretch. Some people are just assertive and charismatic, and have an uncommon degree of influence on social groups because of it. It’s possible he was consciously cultivating leadership – but it’s just as possible he ended up there without conscious effort and these events were a wake-up call to him that he needed to be more conscientious about the influence he has.

        As far as the thought experiments: I genuinely enjoy hypothetical questions and friendly philosophical debates. If I worked in an environment where a team routinely ate lunch together and other people seemed receptive/interested in these sorts of discussions, I could totally see myself doing this on a semi-regular basis (as long as it seemed like everyone else was enjoying themselves). I certainly wouldn’t think of it as a way to “hold court in the lunch room” or position myself as an unofficial leader. Nor is it something I’ve seen recommended as a team building activity, although I admit I don’t read a lot of corporate leadership self-help type books.

    2. Eulerian*

      Ok but the letter and update are describing one particular incident. I don’t think we’re qualified to speculate on what the office dynamics are the other 98% of the time, it seems a bit of a leap.

      1. Lydia*

        “He’s AAAAALLLL over this one particular story where he featured prominently.”

        It just never ends, does it?

  13. Cyrano*

    I’m glad there was a good outcome for the letter writer and for Carrie, but the details of this workplace raise some red flags for me. Without wishing to engage in projection and fan fiction commentary:

    It seems quite a cliquey office – it’s good that this has resolved favourably, but the fact that it happened at all speaks of a quite adolescent mindset, where someone was, by any definition, bullied and mocked for being professional, getting the job done but not wanting to be best friends with her colleagues.

    Again, good that ‘Steve’ was able to be a positive influence in this situation, but he seems to have *a lot* of influence for an ‘unofficial leader’. Should the process of letting someone go start with his informal feedback?

    While this specific issue has been resolved well for the people concerned, it doesn’t feel like the organisation has appreciated the culture problem that might mean it happens again tomorrow.

    1. wordswords*

      “Should the process of letting someone go start with his informal feedback?”

      I mean… why not? It’s not as if OP has given us indications that people are getting fired right and left based on Steve’s informal opinion of them. (Quite the opposite, in fact, given that we’ve been told only the one person was fired over this.) But a manager getting feedback from a team member that their coworker is having a toxic effect on team dynamics is an extremely reasonable and useful spur to start looking into the matter and taking it very seriously. It’s not sufficient reason to fire a person just for that, obviously, but we have no indication that that’s what happened. “Steve says this person is bad — fire them immediately!” would be awful, but there’s no indication that that’s what happened. “Steve said some worrying things about this person, so I looked into it, and apparently they’ve been bullying Carrie and doing X and Y and Z, which we cannot tolerate here” is perfectly reasonable.

      I’m sorry, but I do think that this whole comment is, in fact, doing something of the projection fanfic OP was talking about.

      1. Cyrano*

        Thanks but I don’t think so. I said, specifically, that I was concerned the firing process would start with informal feedback from an unofficial leader not because I think it happened on his say so, but because it speaks of a culture without trusted official processes for raising such concerns. Our letter writer didn’t describe considering bringing this issue to HR or management, not even to eliminate the idea as disproportionate.

        I’m not inventing extra details, just reading the letters that have been sent in on this issue. The situation’s resolved happily for all concerned but no one seems to recognise the culture that caused it in the first place. This is not a big leap.

        I’m certainly not inventing sinister motivations for Steve or the LW like other posters.

    2. Observer*

      Should the process of letting someone go start with his informal feedback?

      Absolutely! Refusing to take action on a real problem, or to investigate a potential problem unless someone makes a formal complaint is morally problematic, pragmatically stupid and legally perilous.

      The idea that you allow someone to harm others because none of the victims made a formal complaint is at the root of some of the most toxic workplace stories we see. Not just on this site, but all over the place. There are a lot of reasons why people don’t make formal complaints. That doesn’t mean that the behavior is ok. It’s not okay to bully people, harass them, steal from them or the company etc. A company needs to stop all of these and other behaviors whether or not they have received a formal complaint.

      Specifically, from a legal POV, if a supervisor or manager get “informal feedback” regarding illegal behavior, such legal hostile workplace behavior, and refuses to take any action without a formal complaint, they WILL lose a case if they are sued, and they will be held liable by government regulators. Because the legal standard is whether the employer “knew or should have known”, regardless of where the initial information came from.

  14. Anita Brake*

    Yes, OP, there are always several people here who love to jump on the “it must be OP’s fault” or “OP did it wrong” or “how could OP think that?” I don’t keep track of names or anything, don’t know who they are, but it’s just part of AAM sometimes. You did the right thing standing up for Carrie. Strong work!

  15. GreyjoyGardens*

    Sometimes one rotten apple does cause all the other apples in the barrel to rot. In this case, when the ringleader of the bullies left, it took the wind out of the rest of their sails. (This is why splitting up classroom cliques can work so well.) I’m glad there was a happy ending for Carrie here.

    The only thing going forward is to make sure that nothing like this happens again. I don’t know if it will, seeing as this seems to have been the result of one particular “Chris Hargensen” having more than normal sway over her coworkers. Management should probably keep a look-out for any other cliquish or scapegoating behavior and stop it if it happens again.

  16. Is it spring yet?*

    I would love to work with the letter writer because I think she is kind. I was on Carrie’s side from the get go and am glad to read she went on her honeymoon and things have stopped at work, the bullying that is. She sounds awesome as a person as well.

  17. Cat*

    Every time I read this letter, I think “What an awesome answer” to the thought experiment. I think Carrie and I would be friends.

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