my coworker doesn’t like it when I set boundaries on conversation topics

A reader writes:

I work in an artistic field, which leads to a much more casual environment amongst coworkers and a lot of time for chatting. I’m usually fine with this, but I’m having increasing issues with one coworker, Tommy.

Tommy routinely brings up topics that I’m uncomfortable discussing. He initially respected this, but has started to get very annoyed because I do it so often. The problem is I have to do it so often because his discussion points are extremely upsetting. Today alone, for example, I had to opt out of conversations on:

• he believes abuse victims who don’t leave deserve the abuse they face and are stupid for staying
• a detailed description of the gore in a horror movie
• women who dress in revealing clothes deserve to be harassed/assaulted

Tommy is not intentionally playing devil’s advocate; on days when I’ve had the bandwidth, I’ve talked to him and changed his mind. (For example, I convinced him that using people’s pronouns is a matter of politeness even if he didn’t understand why they used those pronouns.) But I’m clocking in to do my job and handle discussions about my work, maybe some chit chatting about tv shows — not long discussions having to explain why sexual assault is bad. He genuinely doesn’t view these topics as controversial or difficult to discuss, and thinks I’m fussy for not wanting to. He’s started to say he’s “pulling a (my name)” when he doesn’t want to talk about something — which of course I always respect. But he doesn’t say it like it’s a good thing, and he tends to do it while sighing dramatically.

I’m worried Tommy’s attitude will continue to get worse as I continue to set polite boundaries, to the point it might interfere with work. Or that he might start ignoring when I ask him to stop — he already pushes it with frequently bringing up horror movies because he thinks my discomfort about the very idea of most of their plots is funny. Is there a polite way I can explain to him that I simply never want to discuss serious or violent topics at work without him taking it poorly?

Escalating this to HR or management is technically possible, but would certainly make things fraught. We’re short-staffed so there’s no way he’d get fired, and if he’s reprimanded he would know I complained and he doesn’t seem the type to take that well.

Tommy is an ass.

Your best move is to decide you don’t care what he thinks about you. If this edgelord wants to believe you’re a delicate tulip who’s ill-equipped to survive in the world, so be it. He can think whatever he wants as long as he abides by your request to let you work in peace, without having to listen to his shitty misogynistic viewpoints.

Right now, it sounds like you’re looking for a way to get him to stop without him losing respect for you in the process. And that would be nice, but it’s not a necessity. We just need him to stop repeatedly violating your boundaries. (And really, since his opinions suck on a whole range of topics, it’s not surprising that his opinion about you might end up being wrong too.)

So: “I don’t want to discuss abuse, gore, harassment, or your views on women while I’m at work. Stop bringing those things up with me. This is me clearly telling you that it’s unwelcome and needs to stop.”

If he takes that poorly, that’s on him, not you. If he’s a halfway okay guy at heart, he won’t want to keep upsetting you and you’ll be doing him a favor by spelling it out so clearly. And if he’s not a halfway decent guy (spoiler: he’s not), then why worry that he won’t like you setting a boundary?

If you use the language above and he still keeps at it anyway: “Dude, I told you to stop. My next step is HR. I’d rather not, but this is a warning that I’m approaching that point.”

If he uses “pulling a (your name)” to mean avoiding a topic, roll your eyes and ignore him. He wants a reaction from you; your reaction probably makes him feel important. Ignore him.

If he makes snarky comments about how he can’t talk about topic X or topic Y around you, say in a bored tone, “Yep, thanks.”

But please don’t rule out escalating this to your manager or HR just because he would know you were the one who complained. It’s fine if he knows you complained, as long as someone with authority intervenes with him. (Plus, I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s doing this to other people too, so there might be a whole menu of people who could have reported him. In fact, that’s another reason to escalate it: at some point he’ll do this to an intern or someone else with much less power and/or who feels less comfortable than you do asserting boundaries. You’re  doing everyone who works with him a favor if you help connect him with an official “cut this out” edict from above.)

{ 300 comments… read them below }

  1. Lydia*

    “Right now, it sounds like you’re looking for a way to get him to stop without him losing respect for you in the process.” He already treats you without respect.

    1. not like a regular teacher*

      And, I would add, his respect isn’t worth much. Given what we know of his views, I’d be giving serious side eye to the people he does respect.

      1. Wintermute*

        it’s easy to say that until you need to be able to manage laterally or count on his cooperation to get something done.

        A lot of folks say “well I don’t care what they think of me!” but if you have to work together sometimes preserving the relationship is a tactical, not moral choice.

        1. ferrina*

          IME, people who are demand boundary-stomping in order to “respect” you are mercurial in other ways. They will respect you…until they need to throw someone under the bus.

          Maybe that day won’t come and things can float along like this indefinitely. But generally placating jerks in one way is no guarantee that they won’t be a jerk in other ways. It just means that they won’t yet be an jerk in other ways.

        2. Lydia*

          There is no benefit to preserving this relationship. It’s the kind of situation that becomes a classic Missing Stair, and what’s really interesting about so many of those situations is the person being placated doesn’t hold that much power to begin with. They’ve just convinced everyone they do.

          OP, this is not a relationship you should worry about preserving. You’ve asked him to stop, he’s being even more of an ass, now is the time to escalate.

        3. Warrior Princess Xena*

          Only up to a point. “Please don’t discuss R-rated topics in the workplace” is a perfectly reasonable boundary, especially when it’s for someone you are dealing with repeatedly (rather than as a one-off conversation with a client/vendor). If he gets huffy to the point of it affecting OPs ability to work, that is when it’s appropriate to escalate to the boss.

          Preserving a tactical relationship should not have to involve harassment. Preserving a tactical relationship is smiling and nodding politely during the umpteenth conversation about football scores, or (like yesterday’s letter) potentially ignoring your coworker talking about coffee All Day. It shouldn’t involve having to ask your coworker to not talk about rape in the office.

          1. Phryne*

            Agree. Expecting a coworker to cooperate without having boundaries trampled and no matter what they think of you is not too much to ask of any workplace. And if Tommy cannot do that, that *is* a matter for HR. And if HR cannot enforce that, anyone should take stock and decide if this is a work environment they want to stay in.
            It sounds like LW keeps (or kept) engaging in hopes of changing Tommy for the better. I appreciate that, but I think it is time to conclude it does not work and is not worth your energy. It is probably best to start to grey rock him entirely.

        4. Observer*

          it’s easy to say that until you need to be able to manage laterally or count on his cooperation to get something done.

          That’s normally true. But at this point, the LW does not have his respect and he’s being utterly obnoxious. Forcing the issue is the only way to stop him. And given his opinions, being forceful (and even “impolite”) is more likely to make him respect them than not, and regardless it’s the only way to ensure any level of cooperation (other than management doing it.)

      2. Observer*

        And, I would add, his respect isn’t worth much. Given what we know of his views, I’d be giving serious side eye to the people he does respect.

        This x 1,000

        LW, please don’t waste your time and energy trying to gain the respect of someone who thinks it’s funny to make someone (you) uncomfortable or that “genuinely doesn’t view these topics* as controversial or difficult to discuss”. Because his opinion is just SO wrong headed that I wouldn’t trust his judgement for a millimeter.

        * eg People “deserving” to be abused and or harassed.

        1. Mr. Mousebender*

          Your advice is perfect. I had to deal with someone who made a workplace hobby out of making me uncomfortable, and even raising it with HR only obtained temporary relief.

          At one point he even talked about turning up at my home in order to continue his provocations there. THAT, at least, never happened again, after I told him explicitly what would happen if he did that. (Let’s just say I would have been facing some very serious criminal charges).

          This person has absolutely zero respect for your feelings and boundaries, therefore they deserve absolutely zero respect from you.

      1. Magenta Sky*

        The only respect I’d want from someone like that is the respect that comes from being hauled in front of HR for his antisocial behavior and told to stop or he’d be fired for cause.

        Personally, and I speak only for me, I don’t get the reluctance some people have for someone like that to know who complained. I’d go out of my way to make *certain* he knew. (But that’s me. Other people have other priorities.)

          1. Lydia*

            Retaliation is more of a worry with someone who controls your work in some way. It doesn’t sound like Tommy has that kind of sway over the OP. That doesn’t mean he can’t make her unhappy, but he’s already doing that.

            1. JSPA*

              But you still live through it, for howeverlong it takes (which can be minutes or years) until you get to document and leverage the illegality thoroughly enough to shut it down.

              With luck, your boss has your back (or HR does) and he’s out the door, short staffed or otherwise. But there are also times we have seen people have to get the head of HR removed, in the process of rectifying retaliation (the “thief ate my spicy lunch and got sick” saga, for example).

              He’s crude obvious and oblivious, so you’re assuming any retaliation will likewise be crude and obvious and oblivious. But if the office has awarded him missing stair status, the retalition may come from elsewhere, and be subtle and harder to document.

              So long as there’s a straightforward way to tell him to be quiet that has not yet been fully eploited, the LW does need to try that first, in best gray-rock tone (then let him pout, sigh, and roll his eyes as he likes).

            2. Marmot*

              Its also very hard to prove until you’re fired (source – facing retaliation and speaking with multiple employment lawyers)

          2. Magenta Sky*

            It is, and if HR doesn’t come down on it *hard*, then Tommy is no longer the problem, incompetent or corrupt HR is. And that’s time to find a new job.

            And as I said, I speak only for myself.

        1. al*

          And Tommy doesn’t get the reluctance of abuse victims to leave their abusers.

          The most likely outcome is so often not the what-should-happen ideal outcome. LW and the abuse victims in question are just weighing the facts of the situation from their own perspectives and making the judgement call.

        2. Seashell*

          Tommy seems like the type to complain to everyone else in the office about how you ratted him out for something minor (and he will spin whatever obnoxious thing he said to sound minor.) I can see why someone wants to avoid being a topic of gossip or becoming the office pariah.

          1. Observer*

            I can see why someone wants to avoid being a topic of gossip or becoming the office pariah

            If that’s a likely outcome, then the OP should be planning an exit strategy. Because regardless of what happens with Tommy, any reasonable coworkers are going to see and hear what’s going on and will know who should be the “pariah”. If they don’t get it, then the place is beyond toxic.

            1. Seashell*

              It’s hard to predict how people are going to react when they get half the story. Maybe Tommy behaves differently around the men in the office, so they’d believe him if he said he just mentioned watching a horror movie and OP flew off the handle because she’s so uptight. Or he could be a jerk to everyone and they’re all more reasonable and likely to take Tommy’s story with a large grain of salt.

              1. Magenta Sky*

                “It’s hard to predict how people are going to react when they get half the story. ”

                That’s why I’d make sure they hear the entire story.

          2. Magenta Sky*

            Realistically, the only real alternative is that He. Gets. Away. With. It. Forever.

            Life is about choices.

          3. Jennifer @unchartedworlds*

            Yeah, I think it might be wise to sow a few seeds with other co-workers if possible, when Tommy isn’t there. I’d pick a friendly moment and drop in something like

            “I was meaning to ask, by the way – do you find that Tommy’s always going on about abuse, and gory horror movies?

            “He does that all the time with me, and it’s really getting on my nerves.”

            “I actually did say to him could he give it a rest, but he just goes on and on. It’s really distracting when I’m trying to work.”

            Dots are where you’re listening to the other person, and finding out if they’ve had the same or if he’s targeted you in particular. But either way, this type of grumble enables you to share in a low-key way that he’s creating a problem, and find out where you might have allies.

            I’m imagining it said in a tone similar to how you’d say “Do you find that the printer always jams on the blue paper? I keep getting that, it’s really annoying.”

            I don’t know if “give it a rest” is actually an expression where you are, but I’m also imagining a particular kind of bored, weary tone to use with Tommy himself, which that phrase is very good for :-) “yeah, yeah, give it a rest mate, heard it before…”

        3. Princess Sparklepony*

          I’m getting vibes of Olenna in Game of Thrones and I like it!

          “Tell Cersei I want her to know it was me.”

    2. A Simple Narwhal*

      Excellent point.

      Reminds me of other excellent advice I read (either here or from Captain Awkward) that the goal of a hard conversation cannot be that the other person is not upset. Tommy can have all the fee-fees he wants – that’s ok, he just needs to stop forcing gross conversations on you.

      1. Isben Takes Tea*

        Exactly! So often, the actual request is “what is the script I can use to get the effect I want without affecting the other person’s emotional state,” which unfortunately does not exist. But once you realize that, it frees you up to think “what is the *practical* outcome that I want, irrespective of feelings?” and work towards that.

      2. Freelance Bass*

        Totally. It reminds me of the script CA gives for responding to people who call you sensitive: “Yes I am sensitive about that, so please don’t talk about it with me.”

    3. Petty Betty*

      He doesn’t respect the LW, otherwise he would be respecting LW’s boundaries, even the soft ones.

      There’s no way to make him “lose” respect for LW when he never had any to begin with, and I can guarantee it’s because LW is a woman, and respecting a woman’s opinion is a foreign concept to him.

    4. Analytical Tree Hugger*

      Or even basic courtesy and dignity! Seconding the comments that you wouldn’t want the respect of someone who behaves this way anyways.

    5. goddessoftransitory*

      My first thought. He’s a dicksmack who doesn’t respect you, LW. That’s where to start from. Don’t worry about losing what you never had.

  2. Czhorat*

    Tommy sounds exhausting.

    I honestly don’t know if it’s worse if he actually believes this tripe or is sport-arguing for its own sake.

    To me it’s enough that it may well not only be worth escalating but, if enough of the topics are sexual in nature (the bit about women “asking for it” based on their dress fits here) it could be considered hostile-environment sexual harassment. Even if it isn’t that, talking about gory movies *because he finds it funny that they upset you* is not only childish in the extreme, it can be a fireable offense in many, many companies.

    Good luck, and I’m sorry you have to deal with this.

    1. MsM*

      Yeah, I’m going to push back on the “he’s not intentionally playing devil’s advocate” assertion. He knows these are not socially acceptable opinions. He just doesn’t think there are sufficiently harsh consequences in voicing them to OP to keep his trap shut.

      1. Managing While Female*

        I took the “he’s not intentionally playing devil’s advocate” to mean “Tommy actually believes this crap.”

        1. Dust Bunny*

          These are not mutually exclusive. He can believe it and also being playing Devil’s advocate to goad the LW.

          1. Managing While Female*

            I’ve always taken “Devil’s Advocate” to mean “arguing for the sake of arguing without conviction”. Nonetheless, for the sake of the LW, I’m not sure why the distinction matters – it’s worse morally for Tommy if he believes what he’s saying, but it doesn’t change the situation for the LW. Tommy is an ass no matter what.

            1. jojo*

              I have the same understanding of the term “devil’s advocate.” We have a separate term for what Tommy is doing: trolling.

              A devil’s advocate isn’t necessarily trying to upset and offend (though in my experience they tend not to mind very much, or even consider it a bonus, if that’s the consequence of their behavior).

              A troll intends to upset and offend their audience, regardless of whether they believe what they’re saying. Offense is their primary goal. If they also happen to think they are right, and they get satisfaction out of expressing their sincerely held shitty opinions, that’s a bonus.

              1. Wombats and Tequila*

                I don’t know this winner from a can of paint, but my vote goes to trolling.

                The important nugget here is that he is successfully distracting OP from working, both when he suckers her into debating him, and when she has to deal with her stress level afterwards.

                Along with notifying HR about the subject matter of his rants, she should approach both her boss, Tommy’s boss, and Tommy with the issue that he is wasting your time as well as his own. No matter how casual, it is still a workplace and you’re being paid to work.


                OP should hold her hand up as if to stop him, but avoid eye contact.

                “Tommy, not now. I’m busy.”

                “I’m have a deadline.”

                “I’m trying to focus.”

                “I’m working on something.”

                If he asks what OP IS working on or what is so important, she can just say, “My work,” or “This thing I have to get done,” or just, “I’m busy. Take it somewhere else.” If he persists in asking and doesn’t leave, she needs to say firmly, “You need to go. Now.”

                Wearing headphones would also send the signal that she is not up for Exhausting Point Counterpoint Social Hour.

                The important thing: do not JADE: Justify, Argue, Defend, or Explain. He wants to play, and his idea of playtime is to aggravate OP.

                OP needs to let go of the idea that it is her personal mission or obligation to teach or save Tommy. Her obligation is to her employer.

            2. Phryne*

              Devils advocate is arguing the other side of an argument than you personally believe to see if you can pick holes in your own plan or argument. In that sense is it a neutral device useful for forming an opinion or plan, especially if you are in a group where everybody agrees but it is still important to make sure you are not missing something. So it is the very opposite of arguing without conviction.
              But it does get misused and misapplied so much that I guess this meaning is pretty much dead now.

          2. Helen Waite*

            When people claim to be playing devil’s advocate about these kinds of topics, they almost always really hold those opinions and just want to say them out loud without consequences. The devil already has a law firm and these people don’t work there.

            1. Princess Sparklepony*

              Helen Waite – love this comment. It’s very true from what I’ve seen about devil’s advocates. And love the bit about the law firm.

      2. Beth*

        Yes to this! He may not be playing devil’s advocate in the sense that he may genuinely believe what he’s saying…but he knows it’s not socially acceptable. You already know that he leans into some of these topics (like horror movies) BECAUSE he knows they bother you. Being mean to you is funny to him, and he chooses to do it on purpose. You should assume that he does that across the board.

        1. Miette*

          Exactly. Tommy is a bully and he’s enjoying a no-consequences free for all that pushes your buttons because he knows he can and you won’t do anything about it. I am typically conflict-avoidant, but for something like this I don’t think I’d care if the dude knew I’d reported him. Use the script above next time it happens and put him on notice–and he doesn’t deserve a second strike once you do, either.

          1. JSPA*

            Alison called it right. Edge Lord is exactly it. Suggest searching past Captain Awkward posts for that precise term. He’s also a troll and perhaps a missing stair, but sounds like he’s all edge-lord, all the time.

      3. Tea Time*

        Yeah, the fact that he ends up agreeing when you engage him on an issue isn’t really good evidence. He probably wants to both play the edgelord and be seen as a Nice Guy™. I bet he turns around and goes right back to his first opinion when he talks to everyone else.

    1. Heart&Vine*

      I’d suggest shutting him down by naming the behavior. “I don’t tolerate misogyny so please stop talking about this” or “Transphobia doesn’t sit well with me so I’m asking you to change the subject” or “Applauding SA is deeply concerning and offensive and if you don’t stop I’m going to report you to HR” are all perfectly valid ways to call him on his behavior. You’re not shaming him if what you’re observing is true. None of what he’s saying is remotely okay and no one should have to tolerate it.

        1. Dek*

          Nah, then that opens a whole new debate about how he’s not a misogynist, you’re just being mean and calling anyone who criticizes women a misogynist, etc etc

          1. Elbe*


            If calling-out or naming the behavior would give the LW any kind of peace, then she should go for it. But calling Tommy a misogynist is only going to make him want to engage further, and argue more. It would be giving him what he wants.

            1. Oregonbird*

              Too often we are told to be silent because taking a stand will create issues. We speak up because there are already issues, and we are adults – being female doesn’t mean we can’t handle fallout, it just means if there is fallout, it *will* be coming our way. Oh well, it must be Tuesday!

          2. Heart&Vine*

            That doesn’t mean she has to explain or continue to engage. “I can’t believe you’re calling me a misogynist!” can be met with “I just said I don’t tolerate misogyny so I’d appreciate it if you’d change the subject.” Any further sputtering or complaining can be continued to be met with, “I keep asking you to stop talking about this or change the subject and you won’t. If you keep pushing this conversation I’m going to have to go to HR.” Rinse and repeat.

          3. Boof*

            If lw feels like naming the behavior, then it’s important to only call the behavior out and not get sucked into what it means Tommy is as a person. I know the start of this thread literally says Tommy is abad person and it’s easy to just get the internet feels out and move on but in person always and only address the behavior.
            Example: “that’s a really misogynistic thing to say; stop or i’ll report this to HR”
            “What? I’m not a misogynist!”
            “Ok! Then you’ll stop saying misogynistic things.”

        2. MCMonkeyBean*

          Yeah, this is way beyond a “boundary” issue. This is someone openly and regularly spewing misogynistic garbage at work. This is fully into hostile work environment territory and absolutely worth a discussion with HR.

    2. Dark Macadamia*

      Yep. It’s not a coincidence that all of his chosen topics are some combination of violent and/or hateful.

  3. Jiminy Cricket*

    Tommy is an ass.

    But there is also the possibility he is doing this only to the OP and not to others. Asses tend to be good at picking their targets. He’s not doing this to other guys (I’m making the assumption the OP is a woman, I could be wrong) and he’s not doing this to anyone with any power over him or significant pull in the office.

    1. Sloanicota*

      Yes, but he may have miscalculated that OP won’t do or say anything that could come back on him – sometimes the office mouse tuns out to be a lion. And as the advice says, she may be in a better position to speak up than the other people he targets. It’s rare that someone is an a*s to only one person. Most commonly, there is a whole class of people they think they can get away with being a jerk to.

    2. Festively Dressed Earl*

      Because Tommy is so red-flag fixated on justifying violence towards women, I seriously doubt that OP is the only person Tommy is harassing. If OP is male, Tommy might assume that OP shares his views; if OP is female or enby, it’s almost certain that Tommy is enjoying causing OP unease. The only situations that limit Tommy’s harassment to OP is if OP works in an all-male office or if the non-males are in positions above Tommy’s level. I’m very concerned about any women in OP’s company who are Tommy’s subordinates.

  4. HailRobonia*

    Surprise, another dude who thinks HIS freedom of expression needs to be respected but then ignores everyone else’s.

    1. Magenta Sky*

      That’s not a “dude” trait, that’s a “human” trait. There’s plenty of asses of all genders who act that way.

      1. a good mouse*

        Did they say “Wow all dudes do this” or did they say “another dude who does this”? Seems like projection on your part. It’s frustrating when people go beyond #notallmen to #notanymenstopaccusingmenofdoinganythingbadeverthismanisclearlyfineleavehimalone.

      2. Siege*

        Sure. And women and visible minorities who do it get slapped down faster and harder than a white dude. There are statistics on about a dozen different factors that indicate Tommy is nearly certainly a cis white dude, and that matters in this context since OP seems likely to not be. I’m all for equity in this world, but I’m also aware of how lenses of privilege can and generally do play out in Western workplaces. Starting from insisting on an equitable assumption that Tommy is a disabled trans Filipino lesbian is weird, because the power dynamics are kinda different, and CERTAINLY read as playing into why OP feels hesitant about telling Tommy where to stick it.

        And, of course, #notallmen is really gross and I feel gross every time I reflexively do it in person because we shouldn’t have to disclaim to people with more power that of course we don’t mean them. Just other men, not ones in the room with us right now, of course.

        1. Specks*

          Siege, what a wonderfully put comment. Thank you for explaining it so clearly, I’m going to borrow your framing in the future.

      3. Beth*

        Most people learn pretty early in life that this doesn’t fly. Continuing into adulthood is either a sign that you’re so committed to being an ass that you keep it up through serious negative consequences, or a sign that you have a lot of privilege and have always gotten away with behavior that should have consequences.

        That first condition could be anyone, yeah. But it’s ludicrous to suggest that the second condition doesn’t correlate with gender.

      4. Ann Onymous*

        Historically cis-men have suffered far fewer consequences for this type of behavior than other people, so “dudes” are much less likely to feel a reason to keep their thoughts to themselves even though they may or may not actually have those thoughts more often than anybody else.

      5. A. Nonymous*

        Interesting how it’s “not all men” and yet every single woman has a story about a man like this….. and men never seem to know these kinds of men. Funny how that happens, eh?

  5. Cat Tree*

    Here’s something I wish I had realized long ago. There’s a sort of cathartic freedom when you accept that you will never please someone, *because you get to stop trying*. Tommy will always be unhappy with you no matter what you do, so you no longer have to factor in his feelings when you decide what to do next.

      1. Magenta Sky*

        It’s a lesson I learned at a very young age, it’s it’s served me well for decades.

        There are people whose opinions I care about, but I’m very picky about who they are. Tommy would never be one.

    1. Texan In Exile*

      This. When my husband’s father complained to my husband that I ate bacon wrong (five years after I met husband and a few years after the alleged Bad Bacon Eating Incident had happened), I knew there was nothing I could ever do to make him like me.

      It was liberating – I stopped trying and I started taking notes.

      And I danced on his grave.

      1. Dust Bunny*

        Short of maybe cutting it into thin ribbons and inhaling it through your nose, then pulling it down through the back of your throat, I cannot possibly imagine how one would “eat bacon wrong”. And even the nose thing, I would only care if I had to watch.

        1. MsM*

          Depends how strongly you feel about chewy vs. crispy. My husband and I had a bunch of debates over this until we realized that the “wrong” preparation meant we could just offload it on the other person.

          1. Lydia*

            I mean, even then someone is still cooking bacon and someone else is enjoying it. Therefore, it is Right.

          2. ferrina*

            My partner and I settled on “whoever cooks the bacon decides”, because the other person got to still eat bacon without doing any cooking. The cost of not cooking was not having your ideal bacon (but still having bacon!)

        2. Warrior Princess Xena*

          Chewing on a raw unsliced hunk.

          And even then, I don’t know that I’d go further than “Hey, you know you can get salmonella from that…”. If this potential person decides that they are ok with that then… there’s really not much I can do.

          1. Red Reader the Adulting Fairy*

            I knew someone once who cooked and ate a whole package of bacon that was old enough that the packet (which he left on the counter because, shocker, after eating an entire packet of green bacon, he was unable to leave the bathroom to clean up after himself) still had visibly green residue in it. I was like THE HELL DID YOU EVEN EAT THIS FOR, IT IS GRASS-GODDAMN-GREEN!

            Dude looked me in the eye, sweating and miserable, and said “I’m colorblind.” I moved out three days later.

            1. goddessoftransitory*

              He couldn’t smell it? My God, the whole house must have reeked like Hell’s sewer line.

          2. Ellie*

            I feel like this is a personal attack on my dearly departed beagle… he used to love stealing raw, dripping hams from the fridge. No amount of childproof devices could stop him.

        1. Texan In Exile*

          I do not like bacon fat when it is attached to the bacon and I especially do not like flabby undercooked bacon fat. So I was peeling the fat off my bacon and giving it to my husband, who loves fat in any form.

          No bacon was being wasted.

          But my husband’s father thought my bacon redistribution scheme was an insult to the chef. And so he told my husband, years later.

          (He was also still angry, years later, that I had not offered him oatmeal one morning when he was already finishing his cornflakes. I think this or the fact that I ate some leftovers at their house was a topic of discussion on his deathbed and I am not making this up.)

    2. Czhorat*


      The way I frame this to myself is that I only care about the opinions of people who I respect. The local gang of bigots who show up at school board meetings? I don’t care if they hate me because their opinion means nothing to me. The office edgelord looking for a constant fight belongs in that bucket. It’s not always the easiest mental shift to make, but you shouldn’t care what he thinks of you because he’s a terrible person whose opinion shouldn’t matter.

      1. Jackalope*

        This is a really good point and something I’m working on. I arrived at adulthood with the (erroneous) understanding that I had to be liked by everyone or I was a bad person. This is hard to ditch even if I know intellectually that it’s not only false but impossible.

  6. Marie*

    My experience with dudes like this is that they KNOW it’s a taboo topic and they get off on making other people uncomfortable and/or engaging in debate. Whatever you do, however you respond, he’s going to needle you and needle you and needle you until you react, then he’s going to get the dopamine hit he so desperately craves.

    Treat him like you’d treat a little kid trying to get a rise out of you, because that’s EXACTLY what he’s going for. Roll your eyes and be like “Whatever Tommy” whenever he brings stuff up. Refuse to engage.

    Also, go to HR anyway. This dude is talking about GORE at work, he’s bringing up sexual abuse, this is far beyond time to at least tell HR that he’s talking about some seriously “don’t talk about this at work” stuff.

    The really petty person in me also wants to give him a really unflattering nickname the next time he brings up this stuff, so if he’s talking about his gross views on SA start calling him “R@pe apologist Tommy” or if it’s gore, start calling him “Corpse F#cker Tommy”. That is probably not the way to go, especially in an office setting, but if this was in a friend group it’s exactly what I’d be doing.

    1. Freddy*

      I totally agree he’s just trying to get a ride out of OP. Like a little kid. I wouldn’t even roll my eyes. I would tune him out completely when he makes these remarks. The most I would do is yawn.

      1. MsM*

        But he’s not a little kid. He’s a grown man who knows better, and OP doesn’t just have to ignore his inappropriate behavior unless management is equally terrible. And if they are, OP doesn’t have to put up with that, either.

        1. Sleeve McQueen*

          Give him a bottle of Prime energy drink and a can of Axe/Lynx body spray and when he asks why say “if you’re going to act like a 13 year old edge lord, I am going to start treating you like one.”

          1. Sleeping Panther*

            Oh no, don’t give him Axe/Lynx! He’ll use that to troll, too, and become literally noxious as well as metaphorically.

      2. ampersand*

        Exactly! I wouldn’t roll my eyes, either, because that’s a reaction and dude wants a reaction. I would look super bored–and go to HR/management about it.

        I know it’s a terrible feeling to have to report someone’s behavior at work–especially when you feel like you SHOULD be able to handle it yourself. However: 1. this is out of LW’s control, and 2. Tommy brought this upon himself when he decided to embrace being an asshole and make that his whole persona.

        1. WheresMyPen*

          Makes me want OP to carry round a notebook and every time he says anything along these lines, take it out, say in a bored tone while writing: ‘Monday 7th May – Tommy says abuse victims deserve what they get’ in front of him. And when he asks what you’re doing, say you’re keeping a record so it’s easier to remember when you go to HR.

    2. learnedthehardway*

      Agreed. The only way to deal with these types of people – whether it is sexual harassers or people like Tommy who have found other ways to harass you – is to go scorched earth on them. They respect nothing else. And frankly, you have to make the payoff SO negative that they are scared to try it again. Anything less is just fuel for them to decide to continue.

      DEFINITELY approach HR and frame it as a hostile work environment situation.

      1. Elizabeth West*

        Yep, the words “hostile work environment” hopefully trigger their this-could-be-a-legal-issue sense. OP said “artistic environment” and not what kind, but AFAIK, federal laws apply to most workplaces. It’s not okay in an office or in an art studio or on a film set.

        1. goddessoftransitory*

          Tommy’s clearly found a nest for his little edgelord ducklings in this “artistic” environment (A shiny dime says it’s video game design) but he would have done the same at the stuffiest law firm in the land, I would guess. There’s always, always, ALWAYS at least a potential growth environment for this crap in a workspace.

          1. Mr. Mousebender*

            I would not bet against you, regarding the likelihood of it being video game design. The utter vileness of what went on at Blizzard is pretty much engraved on my brain, and that’s just as a random guy who occasionally bought & played their games, I’ve never worked for them.

        2. Katie Impact*

          Courts do give a little more leeway to creative productions under some circumstances. There was a sexual harassment lawsuit back in 2006 (Lyle v. Warner Brothers) over sexually explicit conversations in the writers’ room for the sitcom Friends; that lawsuit was dismissed in part because the court considered the conversations to be an integral part of the writing process, and in part because the conversations weren’t targeted at the plaintiff specifically.

          This case sounds pretty different from that, though. It’s going to be a lot harder for Tommy to have a leg to stand on if his conversations aren’t related in any way to work and he’s seeking out OP to talk to her about this stuff when he knows it’s unwelcome.

    3. Elbe*

      Working in tech, I’ve come across my fair share of this type of dude. In my experience, it seems like they think doing this type of thing makes them seem cool/like a free thinker/rational/edgy/masculine/smart/bold/etc. It’s hard for any reasonable person to understand, but they actually think that this behavior reflects well on them (to the people they think matter).

      Undercutting that image of themselves will ultimately be what gets them to stop, because they certainly don’t care about how it affects anyone else. Getting upset will encourage him. Being disdainful and mocking his comments is what will get results. When these conversations start having negative consequences for Tommy, then he’ll stop.

      1. Freddy*

        “Getting upset will encourage him. Being disdainful and mocking his comments will get results.” Yes! That’s what I was getting at in my prior comment; you worded it far better than I did. Anyway that’s why I’m a big fan of yawning at this stuff. It’s a two-fer.

      2. Silver Robin*

        +1 I see them all the time and they drive me bonkers. I used to buy into that but too many years of moving goal posts and condescending “sweet naive little girl with all her idealism” vibes and I stopped playing nice.

    4. Ellis Bell*

      Yeah the whole point of raising these controversial, distressing, and dark topics that provoke arguments is to be controversial, to distress, to be dark and to argue for sport. He may have the emotional intelligence of a lime, but he’s not an absolute moron; he knows he’s being provocative. OPs refusal to take part meant she capitulated too quickly before the sporting season even began, so he threw a few “OK I see your points” her way in the hopes of hooking her. But OP has zero interest in debating darkness so now he’s actually changed the subject of the debate to whether OP is allowed to nope out of his conversational topics! In OP’s shoes I’d rotate 1) grey rocking, where I don’t even respond or object, I would just go “Uh huh” “mmm” or “don’t know” and act epically bored. 2) Piss-taking of the constant need to be controversial: “Tommy, have you ever considered just talking about television or hobbies?” 3) Plain old subject change. “Uh I don’t really think about corpses much! You know what I have been thinking about though? I am all about (brand new topic) lately.”

  7. Pastor Petty Labelle*

    OP I bet you dollars to donuts you didn’t actually talk him around — he just learned not to express those particular views around you. Now there are more topics because he wants to seem edgy and cool and he doesn’t want to self-censor as much. So he is a making this a you problem instead of a him problem. Return awkward to sender and make it a him problem.

    Reasonable people respect boundaries without being dramatic about it. Unreasonable people do not. Guess which one he is?

    1. Double A*

      I bet he also loved the attention he got from OP when she spent all that time and emotional labor to “change his mind” on bog standard common sense information. He’s hoping to get more of that att and time.

    2. AJ*

      I knew a guy who would pretend to come around in order to keep you on the hook. Then he could play you around on a more serious topic and you’d hold out hope of “convincing” him eventually.

      That guy would also resort to emotional blackmail, so be careful, OP.

  8. Not on board*

    Man, Tommy sounds like an incel. I would escalate this to HR because honestly, saying that women who dress a certain way deserve to be assaulted/harassed could be triggering to actual sex assault survivors. And who cares if he knows it’s you or what he thinks. I remember an incident where the wife of my husband’s friend didn’t like me – considering the character of one of her best friends, and later her character, it meant nothing.
    If someone of low character or with horrible viewpoints doesn’t like you or thinks poorly of you, I’d consider that a win.

    1. Elbe*

      The LW mentioned that she doesn’t think that going to HR would be helpful and that it would only create problems. There are certainly work environments where that would be true.

      It may be a good first step to have a more general conversation with HR before making a formal complaint. Asking a general question like, “If XYZ behavior is happening, is that something that HR will help with?” prior to formally naming Tommy could give the LW the info needed to make a good call.

    2. metadata minion*

      “And who cares if he knows it’s you or what he thinks. ”

      I realize that not everyone who says horrible misogynist things is actually going to escalate beyond being generally obnoxious, but as someone who is generally read as a woman, I would not feel safe angering someone who believed sexual assault was ok.

      1. Not on board*

        That is a fair point, but to me that would further demonstrate the need to go to HR. Let them know that you’re having this issue, and that this person has said that sexual assault is okay and you no longer feel safe. This then becomes a legal issue that HR needs to look after to prevent the company from having legal liability.

    3. Festively Dressed Earl*

      +100. Worst case of going to HR is that Tommy is limiting his BS to OP, nothing gets done, and OP loses the ‘respect’ of someone who’s not worth it. Best case is that HR has a valuable insight that will help them protect OP’s coworkers from Tommy, up to and including firing his sorry behind.

  9. Venus*

    “Pulling a (name)”
    I would be tempted to lean into this and use the term myself, but only if it’s defined as avoiding the topics of abuse, gore, and harassment. When he starts talking about a gory movie, say “I’m going to pull a (name) because this is gory, and get back to work”.

    The other option is to frame it as being busy with work, so you suddenly need to get back to work when some topics pop up. Excuse yourself from the group and blame a deadline or that you want to get back to project Y. If he’s coming to your desk and talking at you then that’s even worse, but again it’s okay to say that you’re busy with work.

    1. DameB*

      Indeed. And if you want to push a bit, when someone is being an ass and violating boundaries, you can say “Oh, he’s pulling a Tommy”.

      1. CatWoman*

        I’d lean alllll the way into these comments from this jerk. When he rolls his eyes and says that he is “pulling a *OP name*, smile broadly and say, “Oh, look! Tommy is learning to set boundaries, too! Glad I could set such a good example!”

    2. The Other Sage*

      “If he’s coming to your desk and talking at you then that’s even worse”
      If he does that, then you can add “disrupts my work” as complaint for HR.

  10. Yup*

    Maybe a go-to line like “Did you mean to sound that small-minded?” or “Is your intention to sound ignorant?” to shut down future conversations? Or maybe keep a trumpet handy and then just blow a loud note when he gets started. Pavlov’s dog him our of your space.

    1. TurkeyChili*

      Those lines are more likely to start conversations with Tommy than end them. IMO full-on greyrocking is the way to go.

    2. Nesprin*

      I’ve had great luck with a bland “wow” or “that’s certainly an opinion” or “huh, what an awful thing to say” and then turning around and leaving.

    3. Caramel & Cheddar*

      Or the old chestnut “I hope you’re not saying that to me because you think I agree with you!”

    4. Tea Time*

      Yeah, in this specific situation I’m going with greyrock/HR. But in other areas of life where there is no HR, I’d be sorely tempted to go with something like:

      “Where did you read that?” “Do you believe everything you read on the internet?” or even “Dude, you gotta stop being so gullible.”

      He’s marketing himself rigorous-thinker-with-unpopular-but-legit-ideas. I’d take that right off the table and re-brand him as dummy-who-copy/pastes-his opinions. (THEN I’d greyrock.)

    1. Jojo*

      Yeah. It’s clear this dude does not care about consent. Women are just objects for his entertainment. Be it sexual, or in the case of LW, it’s about being amused by her discomfort. For people like him, they tend to lack empathy, and enjoy being cruel. Not a good look.

    2. ampersand*

      I don’t know if anyone else has mentioned this, but same–this type of person actually worries me when it comes to others’ safety. I would not feel safe at work around someone like Tommy.

  11. Presea*

    “Tommy is not intentionally playing devil’s advocate; on days when I’ve had the bandwidth, I’ve talked to him and changed his mind.”

    OP, even taking you at your word that Tommy isn’t playing Devil’s Advocate intentionally, it is NOT your job to teach this guy why his shitty viewpoints are shitty. Your job is to do the job you’re being paid for and to be a reasonably pleasant coworker, and so is his.

    I would also implore you to really question whether or not him being willing to learn/change his mind when specifically educated is really the same thing as him not having bad intentions.

    1. Nicotene*

      Yeah, maybe someone out there can talk Tommy around – and around, and around, and around – on one crappy point after another, until he realizes that maybe all people in all circumstances deserve basic respect and courtesy. Maybe. But is that really what OP is supposed to be doing with their day? Would OP’s boss be happy that they are taking on a new full time assignment of Teaching Tommy to Human instead of whatever their actual job is? Is Tommy really the best use of OP’s limited time and energy, when there are so many people more deserving of it?

      1. TurkeyChili*

        I think Tommy *wants* to be talked around and around and around; it’s a power trip. When guys like this want to “debate,” they’re really saying “I want you to prove to me why I should treat you with respect.”

        1. bamcheeks*

          Yep! Every response is a dopamine hit for Tommy. The most frustrating thing you can do is not engage.

        2. Dust Bunny*

          They’re saying, “I want to waste your time and energy and witness your distress while I keep you dangling on a string because I know you can’t resist trying to reason me out of something I have no intention of being reasoned out of.”

          Don’t engage. Report his ass.

          1. ferrina*

            It’s a form of breadcrumbing. You convinced him on Point A (after an hour of debate), so you feel like Tommy isn’t that bad of a person, he just needs education.

            We can’t ever know what’s in Tommy’s head or whether he would change if he had a moral Anne Sullivan dedicated to teaching him. More importantly- this is not your job and not something you ever signed up for. If Tommy wants a therapist/life coach, he can pay for one. Heck, if he wants to have better morality, it’s pretty easy to go to the local Giant Bookstore and walk over to the self-improvement section (or woman’s studies).

            Tommy needs to function like there are other people in the world. Tommy knows this. Tommy is choosing not to. Act accordingly.

    2. Magenta Sky*

      I would argue that “pleasant” is the wrong word, even with the qualifier “reasonably.” “Civil” or “professional” would, IMO, be a better choice.

      The question LW should ask themselves is what their real goal is. Is it to get Tommy to stop being offensive to them, or to change his mind on his many antisocial views? Because those are very different goals that are nearly mutually exclusive. You can’t change someone’s mind without engaging with them, which means listening to their drivel.

    3. Poison I.V. drip*

      ” it is NOT your job to teach this guy why his shitty viewpoints are shitty”

      I agree but a lot of people these days are insisting that if you care about social justice and you hear shitty talk then you’re obligated to speak up. To me, that’s like saying if I see a burning building I’m obligated to pretend I’m a firefighter. Not everyone is equipped or wants to push back, and this letter shows why.

      1. Dust Bunny*

        I mean, if you see a burning building, you call 911. You don’t fight it yourself–you report it to the proper authorities. Which is why the LW should go to HR rather than trying to save Tommy herself.

      2. Moira's Rose's Garden*

        IME, most of the people saying those sorts of things are doing so from a position of at least relative privilege compared to the harm under discussion.

        Certainly in DV & SA circles, the mantra is “support the decision making and expertise of the person on the ground”. In my own life, I try very very hard not to ever put someone down for how they are navigating a sh*tstorm I myself, do not have to sail in.

      3. AgentLadyHawkeye*

        There’s a difference between confronting someone for a shitty opinion (“that’s a terrible way to treat/talk about people” is a good easy way to do it) and putting in serious emotional labor and time to talk someone out of their opinion.

        I’m not sure Tommy is even capable of being talked around. He gives me the impression of being a future rapist. Especially given his opinions of women, SA and abuse survivors, and his apparent delight in tormenting LW.

      4. Tea Time*

        That advice is very specifically about people with privilege speaking out for those with less privilege. Men calling out their buddies for misogynist remarks instead of taking the easy route. That sort of thing.

    4. learnedthehardway*

      Tommy KNOWS BETTER. He’s not some uninformed innocent who happens to have ignorant opinions. His act of unwitting ignorance is part of the game, to him.

    5. Dark Macadamia*

      Yep. Making you expend tons of effort talking about his chosen topic, knowing it’s something you’re invested in and he’s not, is still a win for him. How much time and emotional energy did you put into “convincing” him?

    6. Boof*

      Yep. Tommy has plenty of resources to educate themselves if they actually cared. There are huge swaths of the internet, advocacy groups, etc devoted to this. Tommy doesn’t care to look, just wants to make lw talk about it with them. Ewww

  12. So Tired*

    Tommy doesn’t seem like the kind of guy you’d ask for advice, so I suggest freeing yourself from worrying what he thinks of you and your (entirely reasonable) boundaries.

  13. Tobias Funke*

    Let somebody else educate #ThisFuckingGuy. Make like Maxine Waters and reclaim your time. You don’t need to get negged by an idiot at work.

    1. Jiminy Cricket*

      Yep. Zero engagement. Zero. Not even engagement on why you’re not engaging.

      “No, Tommy. We’re not having this discussion.” Turn back to computer.

      Add this to the long list of reasons I’m grateful to work fully remote.

  14. Not on board*

    Sounds like Tommy is an incel – and if he’s making those kind of sexual assault comments, it would be very triggering to sex assault survivors.
    You don’t want to be a person that Tommy respects – I’ve had experiences where someone didn’t like me, and considering their character, that’s probably a good thing.
    Escalating to HR would be doing everyone a favour – it would let Tommy know that you’re not going to take his BS and if he’s specifically targeting you with these awful viewpoints, it would out him for the a-hole he is. It’s not your job to fix his awful viewpoints.

    1. Nicotene*

      Yeah, sometimes I have to shrug and remind myself that you can judge a person by their enemies. Tommy is someone I won’t mind never being aligned with.

  15. Yup*

    Maybe try a go-to comment like “Did you mean to sound that ignorant?” or “Is it your intention to come across as small-minded?”

    Or keep a trumpet near you and blow it whenever Tommy starts in on one of his rants. Pavlov’s dog him into staying away.

    1. Ally McBeal*

      I would just buy a kazoo and start playing the Benny Hill theme every time he opened his stupid mouth.

      1. Goldenrod*

        “buy a kazoo and start playing the Benny Hill theme every time he opened his stupid mouth”

        I love this creative solution.

  16. Not Tom, Just Petty*

    Is there a polite way I can explain to him that I simply never want to discuss serious or violent topics at work without him taking it poorly?

    No, you cannot control how he feels.

    Your goal cannot be “tell him to stop doing X that he enjoys AND be happy about it.” Your goal is to have him stop saying things that make you uncomfortable, (including mocking you for feeling uncomfortable.)
    He enjoys your reactions. When you close down the conversation, he waits and finds another way to get you to react (pulling an OP.)
    If you really want to him to stop, ask.
    Ask him to explain what “is pulling an OP?”

    Also, when he starts a conversation, tell him to go to reddit.
    “Ya know, OP, I think there should not be rules about big game hunting. I think if you want to shoot an elephant for its tusks you should be able to.”
    “I see. Well, there’s probably reddit thread about that. You should look it up.”

    1. Nicotene*

      I also think OP could get a lot of what she wants by pulling back from Tommy generally and not having a particularly warm collegial relationship. That may honestly be easier than staying friendly with Tommy but getting him to stop talking about things you don’t want to discuss. Be polite but brusque and a bit chilly, and try to excuse yourself before any greater intimacies come up. You are soooo busy, excuse you, you’ve got to run. Tommy’s feelings may be a bit hurt but that is fine. Be prepared for an extinction burst and grey rock it. If he actually has the guts to approach you directly and ask you why the change (unlikely) you can honestly say that you don’t feel like you have much in common and would prefer to keep the relationship work focused.

      1. Not Tom, Just Petty*

        OP, is Tommy someone you want to have as a work friend? What are you getting out of it?
        If your social time is spent listening to him tell you things that upset you (horror movies) or off the wall political and social stances and you are asking him to stop or educating him about his misconceptions, how is that fun?
        I talk to work friends to take a break. And they talk to me for the same reason.
        This friendship has outgrown its benefit to you. Grey rocking is best. It’s not rude, bad, wrong, immoral, unacceptable. It just happens.

  17. Bebe*

    Tommy believes that victims of violence and sexual assault “deserve” to be hurt and violated. Tommy is not a safe person, and if he were my coworker I would frankly be afraid of him. Which would be a valid point to bring up if/when you do talk to HR.

    1. Bruce*

      This is what jumps out at me. This guy is broadcasting danger. My late wife worked with a lot of creepy guys in her younger days, but this one sounds outside the range of normal creepy.

  18. Dawn*

    Where I’m located it would be straight up illegal for this dude to keep on sharing this stuff at work, particularly after being asked to cut it out.

    Don’t give him the benefit of the doubt, OP. He’s a terrible person and he doesn’t deserve your discretion or careful handling.

    1. House On The Rock*

      Yeah, him talking about sexual assault/domestic violence and his (absolutely abhorrent) views about it could be construed as harassment in and of itself.

      OP you don’t owe this guy anything, but you do owe it to yourself to escalate his behavior to your boss, his boss, and/or HR to make him stop.

      1. Dawn*

        I know that we tend to see a lot of overuse of the concept of a “hostile work environment” but – while I’m not a lawyer – repeated and explicit support for gender-based violence expressed to someone of the gender the violence is being directed against seems fairly cut and dried.

      1. Hannah Lee*

        A violation of laws concerning workplace harassment and hostile work environments.

        (Someone repeatedly advocating violence, talking about violent acts … yeah, that fits)

        1. Dawn*

          Plus, advocating violence and talking about violent acts about people of a specific protected characteristic, to someone who shares that protected characteristic.

          I’ll bet you dollars to donuts in all those horror movies he keeps talking about in lurid detail, the violence is all directed against women as well. Our guy here wants the OP to feel intimidated.

      2. Ally McBeal*

        Talking about sexual assault in a workplace setting (where the work does not require it) is a form of workplace sexual harassment, and if it happens multiple times it escalates to creating a hostile work environment.

      3. Dawn*

        In addition to what everyone else has already noted about the gender-based violence comments, in my jurisdiction it’s not legal to refuse to respect someone’s pronouns and would also create a hostile work environment around gender identity and expression.

    2. Zarniwoop*

      Maybe he really isn’t a terrible person. Maybe he’s just ignorant and repeating what he was raised to believe.

      You still shouldn’t give him the benefit of the doubt. Educating him is not your responsibility.

  19. Kris*

    This guy sounds terrible. I think there is a sort of fair-mindedness that we learn as kids, like, “Well, I should hear people out, even if I don’t agree,” that people like Tommy really learn to exploit to make people uncomfortable. They do this because… they like making people uncomfortable! I’ve definitely gotten trapped in those “But rape evolved for a reason!” type discussions with gross aggressive edgelord dudes at parties, but in a workplace setting you have a little more leverage to shut that down, and I, for one, would use it!

  20. Busy Middle Manager*

    Control what you can actually control

    From a practical perspective, How are these topics coming up? That’s what you can control. These things don’t just get blurted out, something leads up to them. Control the situation by controlling it from the beginning. Don’t stand around chatting with Tom

    Again, from a practical perspective, with Tommy Tommying, I’m not sure why you’d delve into pronouns? That’s like going from 2 + 2 to calculus? Unless there was an example where you were talking third-person about someone standing right there. Which is unlikely. If there was something such as using the wrong one in writing, delegate to manager

    1. metadata minion*

      If Tommy is repeatedly using the wrong pronoun for someone, it’s completely reasonable to ask him to cut it out. It’s particularly helpful to ask him to cut it out *even when the person isn’t there*.

  21. Joelle*

    Go to HR. Topics like “women who dress in revealing clothing deserve to be assaulted” may count as sexual harassment. This dude is a misogynist and deserves none of your time, and is a walking lawsuit for your employer. Any halfway competent HR person would know that, and should be horrified.

  22. bamcheeks*

    LW, it is VERY HARD to have a charged political discussion with someone who just … isn’t having it back. Any kind of response, whether it’s enthusiastic agreement or passionate argument, is a reward for Tommy. Changing the subject, giving a polite smile and saying nothing, turning back to your work, rearranging some papers, staring into the middle distance, looking at your phone, starting another conversation with someone else — these are all perfectly professional and deeply unrewarding responses to Tommy trying to Stoke Controversy, and you’ll find that a lot of people employ these tactics in the workplace.

    Initially, this feel like a cop-out because you aren’t Standing Your Ground or Setting a Boundary. After you’ve done this kind of stuff a while, you start to notice that the edgelord finds it extremely irritating that nothing he is saying is landing, and some time after that he gives up all together. At that point, it becomes super duper rewarding because it’s much lower energy and less draining for you, but it still WORKS.

    1. Jackalope*

      I’ll also put in a plug for a noncommittal, “Hmm.” And nothing else. It’s perfectly professional, will be hard for him to do anything about (what is he going to do, go to his boss won’t complain that you aren’t discussing gory movies with him?), and involves less thinking through a response. And you can use it many times in a row.

      1. bamcheeks*

        Years ago, I was out with my mum and a broader social group we were both part of through a shared hobby, and someone said, “Thatcher was brilliant though, wasn’t she?” My mum looked at him in amazement and said, “Really?! You think so? Oh!” and then sat back with a slight frown, as if she was mentally re-arranging what she had previously thought about this person. He looked very perturbed. It was very subtle and it still makes me laugh thinking about it.

    2. AngryOctopus*

      I’m particularly fond of the “unblinking eye contact for 5-10 seconds, then turn away and get back to whatever you were doing” method. The eye contact with no speaking makes them uncomfortable, then they get nothing when you turn away and ignore them.

    3. cloudy*

      I worked with a Tommy at a summer job when I was a teenager. I handled the awkward, inappropriate political comments by just kind of blankly staring at him. Mostly because I was young and didn’t know what else to do. But it was satisfying to watch him ramble and dig himself further into a hole while the lack of engagement made him increasingly visibly uncomfortable.

      After a few instances of that he started avoiding me entirely for anything but necessary work, which was a win for me.

    4. AgentLadyHawkeye*

      I wouldn’t even give a polite smile at this point. I wouldn’t put it past Tommy to take that as tacit approval to continue the conversation/approval of his opinion.

  23. Bear Expert*

    1) Stop worrying about if Tommy is going to like/respect you. Tommy sucks. You don’t need his affection or respect, you need him to behave like a reasonable colleague.

    2) Find a moment where you have a few minutes and you aren’t already annoyed at something and ideally he isn’t either. Have the general, pattern based discussion like he’s a reasonable, though dim, human. “Tommy, I’m as happy to have wide sweeping cultural discussions as the next person, but I’m here to work and I would like to keep work chat to chat about work topics and extremely light/short topics. I don’t have the time to get into deep culture stuff at work, and I need you to keep that in mind and not bring up sex, violence, or sexual violence around me, ever. Can you commit to doing that?”

    3) Talk to your manager! They need to know the Tommy has decided that the cube farm is the best place to share his ideas on sexual assault and you’ve asked him to stop, and you’d like your manager’s backup when he does it again. Your company is responsible for making sure that your work environment doesn’t have unnecessary violence and sex in it! Let your company do its job.

    1. Elizabeth West*

      I think OP is past #2. They’ve already tried talking to him and it hasn’t stopped him.

  24. HonorBox*

    Tommy is an ass. Tommy isn’t respecting you, your boundaries, or really societal norms. I think you can do two things at the same time. First, don’t worry about the fact that he might not respect you or your lack of desire to talk about the crap he’s trying to talk about. Give yourself some grace and realize that if he’s reacting poorly to your boundaries, that’s a Tommy problem not an OP problem. And then I’d say you should mention something to management or HR. This isn’t a one-off conversation that was about an uncomfortable topic. This is him constantly bringing up topics that we don’t talk about at work, and that can make people feel unsafe. Will he likely know it is you who said something? Absolutely. But *easier said than done* you don’t need to worry about that because he’s already being an active asshole to you on the regular. So what if he is upset that he got a talking to? Your right to work in peace and not be subject to really off-putting topics of conversation is more important. Someone else needs to hear what’s happening and needs to shut it down. You’ve asked him to stop. He’s stomped all over that request. Now someone else needs to tell him to stop. Whether it is just you or there are many people who are getting this crap from him doesn’t matter. These are things that aren’t talked about in the workplace and can frankly be triggering for people for a variety of reasons.

  25. ticktick*

    He’s a co-worker, not a friend, so you really only need to engage with him on work topics – I would go with, “Look, you and I clearly have very different viewpoints, so I’d prefer to keep our conversations on point regarding work matters. So what does this have to do with work?”

  26. Not A Manager*

    Tommy’s behavior with you is consistent with his other opinions. He doesn’t respect people’s stated preferences about their pronouns and identity; he doesn’t respect other people’s decisions about what is or is not safe for them to attempt in their personal life; he doesn’t respect other people’s choices about their bodies; OF COURSE he doesn’t respect your stated boundaries about what makes you comfortable.

    Tommy is a terrible person and Tommy is never going to change. I’d pick two or three phrases that you pull out on repeat. Something like, “I’m gonna stop you right there,” “It doesn’t matter why I don’t want to discuss it, we’re both here to work,” “Yep, I’m absolutely pulling a [my name], thanks for respecting that,” “Let’s get back to business.” Say them in the same tone, using the same phrase, every time, and don’t get drawn into explaining why or addressing some kind of rules lawyering.

    Also, Tommy is not your friend. Adopt the internal AND external position that as long as you can work together civilly, that’s all that matters. And if you can’t work together civilly, then your management needs to know that.

  27. DramaQ*

    Go to HR. Do not pass go, do not collect $200. On top of everything else he’s said the dude has said women deserve being assaulted if he thinks what they are wearing tempts him to do it. While at the moment it is just talk I would be taking no chances he’s prepared to walk the walk. That alone is enough for HR to fire his butt IMO. Add in the rest of it and he should have been gone yesterday. We women are taught not to rock the boat, not to hurt a man’s career, to be polite, to be considerate to the point where we consider boundary setting to be a taboo even when most of us have yearly training about how the Andrew’s of the world are NOT acceptable in the workplace and please report them to your manager and/or HR. It’s really shameful how society has trained women to put up with this kind of stuff. Please please go to HR. If Andrew retaliates, go again because at least in every company I have worked for that is immediate termination. Also I would really stress his attitude about assaulting women and how you do fear retaliation. I know in most places I’ve worked if you don’t feel safe security is willing to escort you to your car at night and stuff.

    1. Quandong*

      LW please take this advice from DramaQ, this coworker is a danger to women at your workplace (and elsewhere).

    2. Tea Time*

      The more I think it over, the more my perspective shifts. Tommy is not an ass. Tommy is deeply dangerous.

      Look at how *systematic* he’s being. He is targeting OP with threatening opinions. He is making it clear to her how much he enjoys gore. He is publicly shaming her for resisting.

      There is a non-trivial chance that Tommy is already committing violence against women.

  28. Delta Delta*

    Lawyer here. You know what? Call a lawyer! Explain what’s gone on and get a solid legal opinion about whether this is sexual harassment (it probably is, but I don’t do this kind of law so ask someone who does). Have that in your pocket. Go to HR. Tell them what’s going on and that it’s awful and probably sexual harassment. If they waffle or say something ridiculous, tell them you’ve consulted with counsel and you’re weighing your options.

    Meanwhile, also look for a new job if it seems like HR is going to be pro-Tommy.

    1. Busy Middle Manager*

      Going to HR or a laywer isn’t the slam dunk people think it is, especially the lawyer. Everything comes out on the table. “How did you even get into this.” “Oh we stand around gossiping about stuff for a couple hours a day” or “we talk about movies I just don’t want to hear about those movies” won’t lead the Tom “winning” and OP “losing” in this case, it’s just that it may not have the direct and immediate outcome y’all make it sound like is going to happen. Also a lawyer is going to want to see steps taken before contacting them.

      I also have often seen a misconception that going to HR = you as the reporter don’t need to do anything and won’t receive any advice. In this case, OP will most likely be asked to avoid Tommy. It will be annoying to hear and feel like you’re being blamed for the situation. Just something to consider

      1. Jackalope*

        Contacting a lawyer in a situation like this is suggested in the regular on this site for a specific reason: employment lawyers know the laws surrounding things like this and they can help with “official-sounding” actions like sending a formal letter to the employer even if they do nothing else. As Delta Delta pointed out, and is frequently a part of such advice, you can start with just getting a consult; you don’t have to go any further than that.

        And as far as wanting to make sure the OP has taken action, she indicated that she has from the start told Tommy not to bring up these topics with her and he has consistently continued to do so. Not that she would have been required to do so in order to have a right to want the conversations to stop now, but there is no way that Tommy doesn’t know how she feels about these conversations at this point since she has communicated that clearly over and over again.

      2. Goldenrod*

        “Going to HR or a laywer isn’t the slam dunk people think it is”

        In general, I consider HR to be useless at best, and dangerous at worst. HOWEVER, in this case, Tommy insisting on talking about topics such as sexual violence against women after he’s been asked to stop…this is sexual harassment. Which is illegal. Which means HR is legally required to take it seriously and reprimand Tommy, not the OP.

        I guess a very badly trained HR department might fail to see this…but that’s where advice from a lawyer comes in.

        1. Dinwar*

          That’s why I noted below that hostile work environment determinations are not just based on employee perceptions. How clients, visitors, auditors, and others entering the workplace for business reasons view comments is also a factor. It’s much safer for the company to shut this down because an internal whistleblower alerted them to the liability than for them to continue to risk being sued by a third party. And if your company isn’t aware enough to realize this is a pretty simple equation (“uncomfortable conversion” cost < "actually end up in court" cost), they won't be in business for long.

    2. Orv*

      A lawyer is going to say, “hmm, I don’t know, but if you pay me $5000 maybe I can come up with something.”

  29. theletter*

    I’m fully onboard with the Tommy is an ass sentiment, but there’s one thing you could bring up that might help – Work as a concept is stressful by default. We get paid to do stressful things because it’s activities that hardly anyone would just do out of joy. Therefore, even if the work doesn’t seem that stressful, everyone at work should strive to make the workplace as comfortable as possible. Coworkers who bring up topics that are stressful (horror movies, assault and other crimes, etc) are bringing more stress into an inherently stressful environment, and therefore reducing productivity and morale.

    This is why the walls are grey here, Tommy.

    If Tommy persists, you can then state that you are going to ‘pull a Tommy’ every time you have to bring up something stressful.

  30. Karate Saw*

    Just remember that you described it as “an increasing issue.” It sounds like you told him to knock it off and it escalated. This is not going to get better, in my experience.
    Also consider your phrasing that his finding out you reported him would “make things fraught.” The fact that his behaviour makes you uncomfortable means it’s already fraught! If we’re going to get into feelings, yours right now are ceratinly as valid as his in the future.

    1. The Other Sage*

      Him escalating after being told his behaviour is nit welcome sounds like extintion burst. He could be trying to make you give up.

      It also signals that he doesn’t respect you.

      My psychologist told me that people who behave like this do it to show you that they won’t let you tell them anything.

  31. DameB*

    This is a strategy from Captain Awkward that I have adopted. “Indeed. I am a delicate flower. Thank you for recognizing that.”

    “Indeed, I am well known for my lack of humor about those things! Thank you!”

    “Yes, I know! My name is now synonymous with setting polite boundaries! thanks you understanding!”

    1. AngryOctopus*

      I would go with “That’s correct! I do not discuss [topic]!” in a tone of praising a potty training toddler.

  32. House On The Rock*

    OP, lots of others have reinforced the advice to not care what this guy thinks of you and to escalate this to HR. Please take that to heart.

    But also, regardless of your “artistic” workplace, this isn’t normal! He should not be discussing sexual assault, domestic violence, gory movies, etc. at work and her certainly shouldn’t be sharing his really awful views on all of these topics. I know that some fields do have more muddy work/life boundaries, but this is not simply that. This isn’t someone oversharing about their family or asking slightly too personal questions. This is a man who is trying to get a rise out of his coworker in a disturbing way and he absolutely needs to be shut down.

    You say it would make things “fraught” to bring this to HR or other higher ups, but if that’s really true that says a lot about your workplace. I can assure you that as a manager myself I would want to know if someone was doing this to one of my staff or if one of my staff was doing it to someone else. This is a big deal and Tommy needs to stop. If he can’t or won’t repercussions up to and including termination are appropriate. Being short staffed doesn’t matter – management can’t prioritize that over having a safe workplace. He is not your friend and his intentions are not good. I hope you can get this resolved quickly.

    1. Dinwar*

      “I can assure you that as a manager myself I would want to know if someone was doing this to one of my staff or if one of my staff was doing it to someone else.”

      I want to add my voice to this. I’ve thrown people off site for less than what Tommy is doing. As a manager I cannot afford to keep someone who’s making such comments–they’ll drive away good people, they’re a massive liability bomb waiting to explode, and frankly the work I do requires everyone to have a good understanding with one another which Tommy is ruining. I would absolutely want to hear about this, and would take immediate steps to fix the problem.

  33. Cryptic Daves*

    Joining the chorus of Please Go to HR. Even if Tommy’s comments about women and SA survivors don’t qualify as hostile work environment, HR should have a record of his comments. And creating that record could be the first step in his eventual firing.

    I’m sorry you have to deal with this person at work, OP. For your own sake, try not to engage with him on these topics. He wants to get a reaction from you. The way you win is to be boring and unresponsive.

    1. Czhorat*

      I don’t know if they do qualify as hostile work environment, but they’re honestly close enough that any competent manager would *at the very least* shut him down immediately and fire him if it recurrs.

      Quite honestly I’d be find with his being fired for his actions to date; they’re that far outside professional norms that any reasonable person would know that this is not workplace acceptable conversation.

    2. HonorBox*

      If not hostile work environment, there’s potential sexual harassment. It is something that a good manager or HR rep would want to know about because the company has some liability if this is allowed to continue or someone else is faced with Tommy’s “discussions” and the discomfort it causes.

      1. Czhorat*

        If it is sexual harassment then it’s hostile work environment harassment, in which the victim is exposed to explicit conversation, images, or other media to an extent that a reasonable person would find unacceptable in the workplace.

        The other kind of harassment is “quid pro quo” in which the victim is directly or indirectly asked for sexual favors in exchange for favorable treatment.

  34. NotARealManager*

    Boundary stomping people take it very poorly when you uphold your boundaries. You won’t be able to change that. Hold firm and if he hates you for it, oh well. His opinion isn’t worth worrying about.

  35. B00merang*

    What an annoying coworker! I’d stop trying to change his mind, and give him nothing but boring replies like the one Alison recommended in the response.

  36. Sharon*

    You don’t have to go into a big discussion or debate the views when someone brings up a not appropriate for work topic, just respond “Not a good topic for work” – if that doesn’t end the conversation or if the person keeps harping on the same inappropriate topics, I think you do need to get your manager involved.

    1. Elbe*

      “You think that this is a good work topic?!? Wow, you need to work on your professional judgement.”

  37. BellyButton*

    OMG I want to throat punch this as$hat. Women and abuse victims (more women than men) deserve it?!?!?!?!?!

    I don’t care who he is- I would look him dead in the eye and tell him “as a human being with empathy, everything you have said is offensive. Stop talking to me or I will report these conversations.” then if he acts like an even bigger as$ you go straight to HR and management. As someone in HR he would get ONE warning, and then he would be fired. All companies are short staffed right now. So please do not hold back.

  38. WellRed*

    OP, walk away when he starts talking. And maybe consider when you can keep on walking out the door to work for a company that doesn’t allow this because they are “short staffed.”

    1. Czhorat*

      This is the one place that I question OP, very gently: they don’t KNOW that he’ll not be fired because the company is short-staffed.

      I believe in giving people a chance to do the right thing, rather than assume they won’t. In this case the right thing is to either fire him outright or give him a very serious “you’re on thin ice one more slip and you’re out the door” warning. OP doesn’t know that management won’t do that unless they report Tommy to managagement.

      1. Nat20*

        This is a good point. Management might actually decide being short staffed is still preferable to having a problem employee, but they can’t make that call if they don’t know.

      2. House On The Rock*

        Yes to all this. I’ve been in a position where having a difficult/problematic employee quit or be fired would be a short term hit but would be way better overall. I’ve also wanted to bang my head against the wall when an employee finally comes to me with something HR-worthy and says they “didn’t want to be a pest”.

        In this case if Tommy were gone OP themselves would spend less time trying to correct his (horrible) opinions and would be happier and more efficient. That could be the case with other staff too. Let management and HR decide how to proceed once they are apprised of the situation.

  39. Nat20*

    Yeah someone who says those things and thinks it’s funny to genuinely upset you is not some misguided soul, but just an asswipe. Stop trying to change his mind, though – it’s his own fault that he sucks, and it shouldn’t be your (or anyone else’s) responsibility to fix him. And like Alison said, if he knows you went to HR or he thinks a harder boundary you set is dumb, who cares? As long as it doesn’t put you in danger, you do not need to care what a jerk’s opinion of you is. You just need to be able to work in peace around him.

  40. Retired Vulcan Raises 1 Grey Eyebrow*

    Tommy is a misogynistic creep who enjoys making women feel uncomfortable. He’s decided you are a convenient target and he’s guessed you’re afraid to complain to HR in case he escalates.

    However, he’ll continue to push and escalate until stopped, probably by a higher authority, but just maybe by you rejecting creepy conversation topics every single time.

    Even though you think they’d never fire him, HR & your manager have other sanctions available, e.g. no merit rises, grade rises, promotions.
    So if he still won’t listen to you, I’d report the list of what are really NSFW topics he keeps raising.
    You’re worried that reporting could make him worse; well, not reporting will likely bring the same result, as he’ll want to keep pushing for better kicks.

  41. Ugh Tommy*

    I would go to HR now. If you tell Tommy your are going to go to HR, there’s a possibility he’ll go there first to put in some lame complaints about you making HIM uncomfortable. I’d want it on record. He IS creating a hostile work environment. If he doesn’t like being reprimanded, oh well. Tommy won’t stop on his own, and you might need the formal process to get him to stop. It is completely OK to transfer the discomfort to the person causing the discomfort.

    1. Goldenrod*

      “It is completely OK to transfer the discomfort to the person causing the discomfort.”

      Yes, this! And, as someone who has very little faith in HR to help in most situations…this is an exception. This is very much an HR issue.

  42. She of Many Hats*

    Please talk to HR.

    His insistence on talking at work about his views on assault, abuse, and his negative views of women is creating a potentially unsafe space for women especially but others who have issues and/or trauma that are triggered by his toxic or hate-based views. You’ve repeated multiple times that these are the boundaries, it’s impacting your ability to work with him, and he’s low-grade bad-mouthing you (He’s OP-ing cuz he doesn’t want to talk about X) to others. He’s a potential liability to the company.

  43. Goldenrod*

    OP, it’s not your job to politely ask Tommy to stop in a way that is comfortable for him to hear.

    It’s such a feminine trait to feel like we have to be “nice” in how we assert boundaries. But you don’t have to be nice, or worried he won’t like you anymore, or concerned about making things “weird”…none of this is your job. This doesn’t have to be your concern. You do need to be professionally civil and direct…that’s it.

    Sometimes it’s not a bad idea to just let the discomfort be. Society tells women that we have to be so careful in how we stand up for ourselves, do it in just the “right” way, god forbid someone gets offended by how we communicate our boundaries.

    It can be liberating to realize that NONE OF THAT is your job here. And you’re not asking him for a favor either. You’re telling him what he needs to stop doing. And next stop, HR.

  44. Retired Vulcan Raises 1 Grey Eyebrow*

    Oh and hasn’t your manager noticed his behaviour has become NSFW ?
    If not, they’re not paying enough attention to what is part of their job

  45. L. Ron's Cupboard*

    It sure doesn’t sound like he respects you very much to begin with, so you shouldn’t feel obliged to avoid hurting his feelings. If this were a marriage, I feel like Carolyn Hax would have called his constant ignoring of your concerns and your clearly stated (and polite!) refusal to engage a big red flag that he’s just not a nice person. He knows exactly what he’s doing and he’s getting a rise out of poking at you.

  46. Normal Rachel*

    I was able to get a coworker to stop spouting off about assault must not have been “that bad” if the victim didn’t report to the police by looking him dead in the eye and saying “I didn’t go to the police when I was r*ped. Do you mean to tell me that it wasn’t bad?” He got real quiet and apologized. Then I cheerfully changed the subject back to something appropriate for happy hour drinks.

    I wouldn’t do this today, probably — I was in my early 20s then and a loose cannon. But I will say, people do tend to shut up when you put the pressure back on them to reckon with the impact of their words.

    1. Dinwar*

      I second this! I’ve used this tactic in a number of cases, and it either works wonderfully at shutting them up, or they’re consistent and everyone around them is so horrified that they no longer have an audience. People like Tommy talk big, but when it comes time to actually face the real-life consequences of their statements they’re cowards.

    2. Elbe*

      A ton of people hold very crappy positions for things that are very abstract and theoretical for them. Bringing it back down to reality can do wonders.

      But, in general, I would be cautious about revealing sensitive info to someone so insensitive. It can really backfire. Tommy, in particular, sounds like he’s intentionally trying to be callous to people as a way of seeming edgy.

      1. Normal Rachel*

        Definitely — there’s a risk of it massively backfiring and with someone who has already made a point of ridiculing OP for her response it would almost certainly be unwise. If OP did want to try a tactic like this, I would say to keep it fictional and refer to some third party (a sister, cousin, best friend). It creates a similar conversational block.

        But I would avoid engaging w Tommy at all about any of his topics since it’s so broad. If it were just one topic that he was being provocative about, this tactic could work, but that wouldn’t account for all the other repugnant views he’s intent on sharing.

  47. Retired Vulcan Raises 1 Grey Eyebrow*

    Sounds like he’s adopted the “boiling frog strategy”: gradually pushing the boundaries more and more, so you get used to working with ever increasing creepiness and menace.

    It will likely continue to get worse unless/ until he’s stopped by someone in authority

  48. Garlic Microwaver*

    I mean- aren’t there laws against some of the statements Tommy is making? How are these offenses not fireable? If HR has any sense, they’d send him off right away.

    1. Antilles*

      No, if it’s in the US, none of his listed statements would violate any form of law.
      Of course, the constitutional right to free speech only applies to the government, so it’s completely legitimate to make it a fireable offense from his job. And HR would indeed fire his ass on the spot if they had any sense, but YMMV on the “if they have any sense” part.

      1. Dinwar*

        The constitutional right to free speech does not include speech which creates a hostile work environment (otherwise the concept of a hostile work environment would not exist). Whether repeatedly stating that women who are raped deserve it, or victims of abuse are idiots, constitutes such is a matter for the courts to decide.

        The First Amendment is not a blanket get-out-of-jail-free clause for any speech. Every court, from county courts to SCOTUS, has ruled over and over that there is speech not covered by the First Amendment, and conditions which are not governed by it.

        1. Antilles*

          The First Amendment is not a blanket get-out-of-jail-free clause for any speech.
          No it’s not, but he’s not going to get jailed over these statements because him saying them doesn’t violate the law. There are indeed exceptions to the First Amendment (which as I noted only applies to the government, not his private employer), but none of them (e.g., the classic “fire in crowded theater”) would come into play here.

          Him saying these things is within his legal rights. The workplace harassment/hostile workplace you’re mentioning would primarily come into play for the *company* if they refuse to act. The company could potentially be liable for what he’s saying, but he himself isn’t going to get jailed or prosecuted by the government for saying them.

      2. Goldenrod*

        “No, if it’s in the US, none of his listed statements would violate any form of law.”

        I disagree. Insisting on talking about abuse against women and the victims “deserving it” after being asked to stop is a form of sexual harassment. Which is illegal in workplaces in the US.

        1. Pescadero*

          To qualify for hostile work environment –

          The behavior must be more than just offensive; it must be objectively abusive.

          The unwelcome conduct, or harassment, is based on race, sex, pregnancy, religion, national origin, age, disability or genetics.

          The harassment is continued and long lasting.

          The conduct is severe enough that the environment becomes intimidating, offensive or abusive.

            1. Czhorat*

              Depending on how frequent these discussions are it appears to me that Tommy is at least arguably guilty of this.

              It is certainly close enough for a serious discussion.

  49. Andromeda*

    Seconding, thirding, fourthing, fifthing the “grey rock” advice. It’s super hard to not have obvious emotions in response to deliberately charged topics (as someone who finds it *very* hard to tamp down big emotions), but all this stuff sounds like hot-button specifically chosen to get a reaction — especially if you’re a younger woman. It’s best to change your “win condition” from “changing Tommy’s mind” to “disappointing/thwarting Tommy by not doing the things he wants, which include making you upset or grossed out because he’s terrible”. There’s a kind of schadenfreude in that too.

    Also, genuine question: why are you worried about Tommy knowing it was you who reported him? If you’re nervous about retaliation of any kind, that is something worth reporting in and of itself. You may also be able to indicate that you want it all handled discreetly/in confidence.

  50. LCH*

    why care what he thinks? he is a horrible person. his regard is meaningless. just stick to saying you prefer to focus on work at work. if he feels the need to discuss other topics, there is a whole Reddit for him to do so.

  51. LCH*

    there is also the gray rock method which comes from Captain Awkward, but has definitely been mentioned on this site before. if he brings up something you don’t want to discuss and it is in an area he already knows you don’t want to discuss, just don’t respond. only respond to work stuff. why waste your time and breath on this guy?? continue chatting with other, better coworkers on the fun things.

  52. HugeTractsofLand*

    If it helps to convince you to report it: this is really a professionalism issue. I can’t imagine a work situation (outside of a related nonprofit) where abuse victims and sexual assault come up casually in conversation. Tommy is the instigator and he’s seriously out of whack with any work norm and majority social norms, which needs to be addressed (by his boss!) and have consequences. The next time he acts like you’ve spilled his milk when you set a boundary, I might say “Let me ask you: has anyone ever brought up this topic *to* you? Or are you always the person bringing it up? Because if no one else is, there might be a good reason.”

  53. Goody*

    Tommy sounds like a bully (no wonder he has no empathy for abuse victims!) and even though this may not fall under the legal definition of a hostile work environment, he’s certainly making it a painfully uncomfortable one. And that “pulling a (name)” line is passive aggressive at best.

    HR and management need to be informed.

  54. Csethiro Ceredin*

    This guy is the living embodiment of the meme with the guy at the table with a CHANGE MY MIND sign.

    Nobody owes anyone a debate, and people more affected by an issue than sign guy definitely don’t owe him a debate.

    Next time he suggests OP is a snowflake for not wanting to discuss these topics, OP can go the “sure, I am fragile, and I am telling you I am not having these discussions with you”. I’d be tempted to add that he probably shouldn’t be having them with anyone in the workplace, but if he intends to do that he can go and ask HR whether “it’s partly the woman’s fault for wearing that” or whatever is appropriate to say at work.

  55. Stuart Foote*

    If Tommy genuinely doesn’t understand that these are inappropriate topics (as the LW states), then I don’t see any way to explain to him these topics shouldn’t be discussed at work. But it seems to me that going to management or HR should be the first step because this guy seems incapable of respecting boundaries. I have worked in a lot of offices and assault, abuse, harassment, etc just don’t come up that much (certainly not on a daily basis), so this guy has to know he’s pushing the boundaries of what is appropriate, even if no one said anything.

    Alternately, LW could just find another job and let Old Job be even more short-staffed. Unless it’s a great job in other ways, based on this letter they aren’t running a tight ship there. I know sometimes it’s tough to find jobs in artistic fields, but if leaving is an option it’s probably best because this seems symptomatic of a bad company culture.

    I have run across some Tommys in my time and while they are often decent people in some ways, the idea of filtering themselves or changing their behavior to accommodate others is just foreign to them. Mysteriously, they tend to be single and indignant about how women treat them, although it never crosses their mind that those things could be connected.

  56. Beveled Edge*

    How is a guy who thinks that rape victims deserve what they get if he deems their skirt too short not a huge legal risk? Plenty of young women who are new to the workplace don’t dress appropriately at the beginning; how is the LW not worried he’s going to assault a coworker if he thinks her clothes are asking for it? He’s already told you he thinks it’s okay!

  57. Cicely*

    Oh, geez. I mean, just – wow. People deserve what they get because…why, Tommy?

    I’d tell him off, as often as needed, even if I wound up getting written up for it. He sounds like he is aching to act out on his fantasies, and I wouldn’t speak with him unless I absolutely had to.

    What a psycho.

  58. Elbe*

    Does anyone else find that when terrible people don’t like you, it feels kind of like a compliment?

    LW, you don’t want this guy to like you, or think you’re chill, or feel comfortable “speaking his mind” around you. The faster he identifies you as someone he can’t chit-chat with, the better. If his “good” opinion of you is the cost of peace, then so be it.

    1. Andromeda*

      Depending on where OP works, and what her status is there, survival may be an acceptable tradeoff for peace. Not always! But she isn’t obliged to make a big stand if he’s got the power advantage and will make her life miserable if not.

    2. Awkwardness*

      This is a good point.
      OP, try to visualize this: do you want him to consider you as one of his buddies where he can “speak his mind”?
      If you have this clear in your mind, you might feel less obligated to enter any discussion at all.

  59. cityMouse*

    The Tommies of the world are why I want to wear a bodycam at work, so I can hit record. I work with these … individuals… from time to time, and they need to be shut down as it happens, and then reported. This doesn’t always change things, and the fear of retaliation is real. I’m lucky in that I’m in a union and we finally have some effective members at large, so this stuff doesn’t last long, but wow is it stressful while it’s happening!

    Please note the bodycam comment is only a wish; I’m not saying to illegally record someone and rules are different in different countries/places (I’m in Canada). But wouldn’t the workplace be different if we did wear them.

    One tactic I have used is to loudly repeat what they just said, so that everyone hears it, but it sounds in this case that this Tommy is just saying it to everyone and getting away with it. It’s certainly not the OP’s fault.

    Management needs to know. Can you push back as a group? Or are you being singled out, OP? I’m so sorry this is happening. We need an update on this one…

  60. LisaD*

    Seems like OP is assuming that setting a strong enough boundary with Tommy will cause him to respect her less, but Tommy is a bully. Bullies have no default level of respect for other people, but sometimes gain respect for other people who show strength in standing up to them. The best way to get a bully’s respect is to make them back off without losing your cool.

    Also, changing the subject to something workplace appropriate without taking the bait to start an argument about the subject being off-limits is always an option.

    TOMMY: (repulsive opinion)

    OP: Did you see the Dodgers game last night? I think they’re headed to the World Series again!

    TOMMY: but what about (repulsive opinion)?

    OP: So you didn’t catch the game? Bummer for you, it was a great one. Anyway, gotta focus on this project now. (puts on headphones)

  61. Dinwar*

    I’d be curious to know at what point this crosses into “hostile work environment” territory. Talking about how women deserve to be harassed, on the other hand, can cross that line–I’m having trouble imagining a situation where it couldn’t be construed as him saying it’s okay to harass women.

    And remember, it’s not just about what you think. If a customer or visitor comes in and hears Tommy and believes he’s making comments that constitute creating a hostile work environment, that can be sufficient to open your company to legal liability. Such remarks are no different from having a nude calendar posted in your cubicle. Imagine the consequences if an auditor or inspector came in and heard Tommy’s rant–especially if the auditor or inspector was an abuse survivor or knew any. I’ve known far too many abuse survivors, and I damn sure wouldn’t be working with a place that forced me to endure Tommy telling my that my friends and family deserved what happened to them. And having that mark against your company would make it very hard for you to work for my company in the future as well.

    At the very least, I think it’d be perfectly within reason to go to HR and say “Look, I tried to deal with this between Tommy and me, but this is rising to the point where I think we could face legal consequences if something isn’t done.”

    The important thing here is that this isn’t about your relationship with Tommy, or about you being a snowflake, or any of that crap. This is a business issue. Tommy needs to stop saying these things at work because if he doesn’t the business could–almost certainly will, this day and age–suffer.

  62. Lobstermn*

    My 2c is to document the last 5 or so hostile encounters, go to HR, and ask them to tell Tommy to dial it back and not even consider retaliating. My experience is that in general, whoever goes to HR first is believed.

  63. Dasein9 (he/him)*

    As people are noting, you need two approaches here, one for HR and one for Tommy.

    For Tommy in the moment, gray rocking would probably be effective and save your sanity. No debate, no response. Do not give him what he seeks.

    For HR, name the problems with Tommy’s behavior. You have someone creating a hostile work environment by repeating misogynistic points over and over. You have someone bullying you in particular because he enjoys your reaction. You fear retaliation.

    Personally, I wouldn’t give Tommy a warning or one more chance. What I would do is go through my work journal and see if I can put dates to the worst of his comments and goading. Having those at the ready when you go to HR can help a lot.

  64. Awkwardness*

    Tommy is not intentionally playing devil’s advocate

    OP, I am sorry you have to deal with him.
    This sentence alone leaves enough room to assume what kind of opinion you have to hear. I am sure they always somehow, coincidentally fall on the anti-LGBTQ/anti-women’s rights end of the spectrum.
    He is not playing devil’s advocate – these are his opinions. He very likely knows that these are controversial topics and does not have any possibility to air those somewhere else except with those in the same echo chamber as him.
    The good thing is: you do not need to be the one person to let him talk. A talk is only good if both people enjoy it. If he does not respect this and is not willing to choose a topic that is fine for you both, it’s only fair consequences he doesn’t get any small talk at all.

  65. LizWings*

    I hear throughout your post that you feel in some way that you are the one who is making the problem by having what are perfectly normal reactions to Tommy’s completely inappropriate talk around you. Please try to reframe it in your head that HE is the problem, not you. You’ve already done everything you need to do to try to politely get along with this guy, and it isn’t working. It’s time to stop being polite (he sure isn’t!) After you follow Alison’s advice, please get angry about the position that Tommy is putting you in, through his own choices and actions, and try to shut him down immediately when he brings up anything horrible like these bs opinions, because he’s being very rude to you and he doesn’t deserve your time or attention. You could try just saying “Nope.” or “Stop.” and walking away. He’s wasting your time and enjoying getting you upset. He doesn’t get to do that. Once you’ve done what Alison advises, and tried HR, just don’t even give him a minute of your time. He’s proven that he’s disrespectful and doesn’t deserve your time! You have every right to choose to walk away! I think it will feel so good to get to be in control of ending your interactions. Good luck! Send us an update!

  66. Susie goose*

    Oh no OP…I used to work with a ‘Tommy’, who finds it a sport to table controversial topics in the workplace. Excellent advice from Alison but I would add, from my experience; you must be consistent in shutting it down. Sometimes you are indulging him when you have the bandwidth, but treat it like disciplining a kitty scratching the furniture and close it off every time.

    1. Salty Caramel*

      Too bad LW can’t spray Tommy with a water bottle like you can do with some pets to train them.

  67. Cymru*

    Some commenters have pointed out the sexual harassment aspect of Tommy’s first and third conversation examples.
    I would like to highlight the fact that much of the horror genre focuses on a lot of bad things happening specifically to the women in the movie, not just gory stuff.
    This underlies the pattern of misogynistic/anti-LGBTQ views that Tommy appears to need to share.
    In case OP feels they can go to HR, pointing this out helps underline the pattern of poor behaviour on Tommy’s part.

    1. Andromeda*

      Nah, Tommy’s actions are gross enough on their own without the need to imply that the whole of the horror genre is inherently misogynistic. There *is* a history of misogyny in horror but there is also a history of misogyny, including misogynistic violence, in all of film. There are plenty of excellent feminist horror films.

    2. Boof*

      Horror fan here – horror is a whole genre that explores a lot of stuff. Are some of them clearly racist / sexist / whatever ist? Yep. Do others use horror to try to explore social justice? Also yep. It’s like saying “Comedy”, or “science fiction”. The genre will explore whatever the makers want to explore, and the consumers will pick the ones that speak to them.
      Once I heard that the premise of fantasy is that the world is a good place; the premise of science fiction is the world is a logical place; the premise of horror is the world is out to get you. I don’t think that works perfectly but for me at least horror is probably about processing negative stuff in a way that makes it contained and manageable / isn’t real so it’s ok to laugh at it or root for the protagonists or whatever.
      Also I don’t try to talk horror to anyone who doesn’t like horror and I married someone who isn’t a horror fan and I get it; heck now that I’m a parent some of the tropes that I used to find funny or just part of the show now really get to me and I put the movie/book/etc away. Tommy’s a jerk and nothing wrong with LW for not liking this stuff, something is wrong with Tommy for trying to shove it on the LW.

  68. Notmyjobreally*

    My response is to be more tediously annoying, or if I am feeling nice to change the topic to sports or weather.
    Huh…Horror movies. You should join a horror movie group, so you can talk to someone who cares. It seems kinda of boring to keep repeating yourself. Women’s clothes. Yeah about 100 years ago men got very excited to see women’s ankles. I wonder why ankles are so exciting? repeat to boredom
    Abuse topics. (If I didn’t restrain myself, I would ask if he had been an abuser/abused, since I can give play by play details on those who have been abused and/are abusers.) I would go with the business polite Have you finished xxxx? Or start talking technical aka for example about color and how people respond it and why color values changes in light.

  69. Ms. Murchison*

    LW, I’m sorry to have to point this out, but Tommy is most likely getting off on harassing you this way. No amount of trying to set him right is going to make it stop because he probably gets off on that too. You’re his target. Intervention from HR or someone higher up is necessary in this situation, and if those aren’t options for you then consider whether this is something you’re willing to live with.

    Alison’s advice on how to address it with him will make you look better in the eyes of higher ups and put you in a better position to get a good reference from them if/when you manage to escape. But I’ve been in a situation like this, and when bully is getting off on offending you, especially for so long that he’s labeled being offended as “pulling a [you]”, he isn’t going to stop without a higher power forcing him to.

    In my case, I ended up quitting the group with everyone hating me because no one wanted to admit how horribly racist, misogynistic, and vile his humor was. They all thought he was hilarious and couldn’t admit that made them racists too, so it had to be a [me] problem.

  70. Let's not name names*

    I’ve worked in the arts for over a decade, and specifically in contemporary galleries and organizations, which does include a lot of discussion and exposure to things you wouldn’t in a typical office. Images of nudity, even sex, or violence; exploration of sensitive political, social, and religious topics; or disclosure of personal and sensitive traumas and events are all the stuff of life, and therefore, source material for artists! Managing this delicate balance between transgressive art and professionalism requires additional discretion, respect, and consent—not less. Unfortunately, this dynamic can breed toxic environments, I know a lot of men in the industry in particular use it as excuse to transgress boundaries around bodies and sex (including artists), and young arts workers especially are eager to demonstrate they belong and will go along with an abusive dynamic, unfortunately thinking that that kind of abuse is just part of being open minded and working in the arts (see the case of disgraced Artforum publisher Knight Landesman).

    If it empowers you to act on Tommy’s bad behavior—we will all be better for coming down on people who act like this, calling out and making their conduct unequivocally unacceptable. His views are just shockingly regressive and dumb, so please don’t worry what he thinks of you!

  71. Pita Chips*

    frequently bringing up horror movies because he thinks my discomfort about the very idea of most of their plots is funny.

    What a twit.

  72. r.*


    You need to stop rationalizing this aways as he’s “most likely not doing this on purpose”. What he does is bullying, borderline toxic behavior and harassment; for crying out loud he uses *sexual assault* as a topic to make others uncomfortable. That is not something you do out of innocent misunderstanding.

    Were I your manager I would certainly want to know about this.

    That is certainly something we would let go people over, even in difficult circumstances, because ultimately, no matter how short-staffed you are, people like that will drive away your best people; all believing your staffing situation gives you no choice but to countenance it long-term will accomplish is to make a bad situation worse.

    From that perspective it is something you can at most postpone a couple months to prepare the ground for Tommy’s departure, but ultimately its not something you can ignore.

    On a personal level I am a domestic abuse survivor, so you can probably think my opinion about some of *that*. It isn’t something I exactly advertise, and sometimes that this could happen to someone who’s not exactly matching the societal cliches about it surprises people; but the circumstance itself, repercussions and recovery are things I have spoken about openly inside and outside of corporate contexts. At the same time there’s still significant stigma about the topic, and many victims through no fault of their own are not given the opportunity to escape it. Thing is, you never know, and if you did, you would be surprised by some of it.

    To sum an overly long post up, LW, what Tommy does is Not Okay. It is not an innocent mistake. It is not a triviality. It is something deliberate, and something that is definitely actionable — potentially even in your current staffing situations.

    Only you can judge how your management would react to it; but please do not discount it so quickly as something they don’t want to, or would want but can’t, act upon.

  73. Boof*

    I love horror movies.
    I do not talk about horror movies at work. I do not try to engage my husband on horror movies, as they bother him. I only talk about horror movies with other horror fans.
    Tommy has a lot of gross viewpoints. Substitute the sexist stuff for racist stuff; how would you handle it? My guess is you would not want to have to convince him not to be racist, because that is so far out of what you should be doing with your time and if he wasn’t already convinced by now you aren’t going to be the one person who can somehow convince him where everyone and everything else has failed; no, either he’s bad enough that you’d report him to HR or it’s microaggressions and dogwhistles you should just shut him down every time with a quick “wow, no.” and then move on to workstuff.
    And I realize that analogy is imperfect in a lot of ways, but I find sometimes people are more willing to advocate for others than for themselves. And frankly anyone who says someone who wears skimpy clothes deserves harassment probably ought to be reported to HR for hostile environment, but if you feel like they somehow deserve a one time “oh hell no gross, never say that again k thanks” then fine.

  74. Raida*

    Honestly I’d talk to my manager – doing things deliberately to make other uncomfortable, repeatedly, is harassment.

    Or it is where I work in Australia.

    So I’d talk to my manager and state what you’ve stated: he’s being negative about boundaries as though he’s making fun of the idea of them, he’s bringing unacceptable subjects up at work, and he will – for his own amusement – bring up media I have clearly set a boundary around.

    It’d be different if he had opinions and didn’t grasp it’s not appropriate in the office. But you said he finds amusement in your discomfort and therefore proceeds to create that discomfort. That’s harassment. Hell, if there’s anything in a horror movie he’s describing that’s sexual or lewd in nature then it’s Sexual Harassment!

  75. Marmot*

    I’m sorry OP, but he ABSOLUTELY knows that this is offensive, and he is ABSOLUTELY doing this on purpose.

    Don’t buy into his bullshit – this is harassment. He enjoys making you uncomfortable.

    I’m really sorry he is doing this to you.

  76. Time*

    I was kinda surprised Alison didn’t tell the OP to read The Gift of Fear, and maybe even get a lawyer. IMHO, anyone who says women deserve to be assaulted (for how they dress or any other reason whatsoever) is potentially dangerous. Also he is expressing views I bet your company wants to stay FAR away from, especially if they rise to the level of sexual harassment or hostile workplace behavior.

  77. Morgan Hazelwood*

    My inner-snark wants to counter his eye rolls with “And you’re pulling a [co-worker] again, trying to push the conversation envelope.” + (if you WANT to still be friendly and chatty, otherwise, walk away) [Topic change: how’s project coming along. Try any new restaurants lately. How was your weekend. Whatever].”

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