“My male co-worker just called me, ‘babe.’”
I turned to look at the forty-something woman sitting next to me on the plane who had just ended her phone call. “Can you believe someone would say that?,” she said. “How could he not know any better?” She explained that she didn’t feel like the comment was sexual in nature, just disrespectful.
I am confident that the comment from her co-worker had nothing to do with whether or not he knew it was unprofessional to call his co-worker “Babe.” Responding to my seatmate, I offered the possibility that her co-worker may have said it quite unconsciously. In fact, I asked if she thought it possible that he said it because he felt so comfortable with her.
“Yes,” she answered thoughtfully. “It was kind of like that.”
I observed that she still seemed unsettled by his comment. I added, “What he doesn’t understand, though, is how offended you feel right now. Is that right?”
“Yes, his comment makes me really uncomfortable even though I don’t think he intended it to.” After a few silent moments, she added, “I doubt he has any idea how he made me feel.”
And, how could he, really? I had overheard her side of the phone call and observed that she made no mention to her co-worker that she did not like being called “babe.” She may bring it up to him later, but certainly during the time that we were talking, I was quite confident that the co-worker had no reason to suspect that she did not appreciate his remark. In fact, her silence may be all the encouragement he needs to continue to refer to co-workers as “babe” and the like.
As I reflected about this brief exchange, I surprisingly felt more compassion for the errant co-worker than my seatmate. The lines between what is and isn’t professional are so confusing, and the range of contexts in which people are deemed “at work” are broader than ever. The globalization of our workplace cultures adds even more confusion around what is and isn’t respectful. For instance, while in Germany last month, my highly-educated clients were stunned to learn that referring to an American woman as “Mrs.” was not universally welcomed (and may even be offensive to some). We had additional discussion, as often happens with U.S. leaders as well, about whether it was appropriate to embrace or kiss on the cheek (one, two, or three times?) when greeting colleagues from other cultures.
All that is to say, when it comes to demonstrating respect, it’s not that easy these days. In contrast, growing up in a military family during the sixties and seventies, the lines were exceedingly clear. You were “at work” whenever the uniform was on. Everyone wore their rank on their sleeve, and their resume was summed up by the medals and ribbons on their chest. Rule #1: Salute anyone who outranks you.
My teenagers have an entirely different perspective on today’s workplace. For one, they see me frequently working from home (and everywhere else we are when I get calls or messages). Even at school, my children call their teachers by their first names and more than once, I have shown up at a parent-teacher conference and couldn’t tell who the teacher was – in one case I was completely fooled by the teacher’s outfit: slippers, hoody sweatshirt, nose-piercing, and purple hair. She was brilliant, as it turned out, but looked more like one of my son’s peers than his teacher/authority figure.
We do a disservice to ourselves and our co-workers by assuming that people have an innate and universal understanding of how to appropriately demonstrate respect in today’s workplace when the lines between work life and personal life are so fuzzy, and where organizations demonstrate a prevailing preference for informality, less hierarchy, more 24/7 communication, and global diversity. More than ever, I think it’s reasonable to expect that people have as much chance of getting it wrong as they do getting it right – unless we commit to helping each other out. Learning from each other is critical if we want to effectively communicate and receive respect.
Returning to the dilemma of my seatmate who asked why her co-worker didn’t know it was inappropriate to call her “babe,” I am reminded of a quote I’ve kept on my desk for the last 13 years; it reads: “What you accept, you teach.” Bearing that in mind, the question for all of us when confronted with behavior that makes us feel diminished, unrecognized, disrespected, or offended is: What are we willing to do to gentlyteach the other person that it is not acceptable to treat us in that manner? In other words, how do we ask for what we want most without punishing the other, or doing some other form of harm in the relationship? I offer these suggestions, to you and to my seatmate –
1. Communicate the “why” – explain why you are bringing the concern to them.
The reason that I want to talk with you is that I really value our relationship and the work we do together on the team.
2. Acknowledge the positive intent.
I know we are relaxed with each other and that you feel at ease with me. I’m glad that we can have fun together.
3. Provide specific examples.
There have been a couple of times, though, where you have made a comment that made me uncomfortable. For instance, when . . .
4. Explain your point of view without judgment.
I realize you meant no harm when you said that and that you probably even meant it to be a compliment, but it was embarrassing to me because . . . and it made me wonder if . .
5. Ask for agreement.
In the future, would you be willing to . . .
6. Thank the person for caring and listening.
I appreciate your listening to my perspective on this. I am glad that we are able to work together.
7. Invite them to ask you for what they want as well . . . either now or in the future.
I hope you will feel comfortable coming to me in the same way if there is anything I can do to enhance our ability work effectively together.