Is it him? Or is it me?
April 15, 2010 8:10 AM   Subscribe

Am I lunching with the new office creep? Or am I just letting my dislike get in the way. Either way how do I extricate myself from this situation?

So a couple of weeks ago we had a new guy start at my work. On his first day, I, being the friendly fellow I am, invited him to join myself and my regular lunchtime companion (another male, incidentally) for lunch. You know, break the ice, introduce ourselves... that kinda thing. He has come every day since. No surprise I guess; he moved from overseas to work here and is obviously keen to make friends in a country where he doesn't know anyone. (We all work at an academic institution in the UK). Anyway, his presence wouldn't ordinarily be a problem, but I have quickly grown to dislike him, not least because of the offensive topics he likes to talk about over the cafeteria table.

I will spare you the specifics, but amongst the things he has said in the last few weeks are:

- a stunningly racist pun involving 'The Black Watch' - a famous military regiment here in the UK.

- a graphic retelling of the various fetishes 'a friend of a friend' indulged in. Let's just say it went along the lines of a certain infamous internet meme.

- hijacking a conversation about farms and farming by regaling us with a story about a gang of men he read about, who did untoward things with farm animals.

- constantly telling us his thoughts on the physical appearances of various females we work with, as well as calling his wedding ring 'the ultimate cheating device'.

This is all on top of heavily embellished stories that usually conclude with an example of how awesome he is.

Now look. I am no prude. I talk crap as much as the next person. But I draw the line at racist humour and misogyny; especially in a professional academic workplace where people have come from all over the world to work and study. Indeed, I moved here from another English-speaking country, whilst my regular companion and the 'creep' are from Germany. This lack of self-censorship, constant ogling and creepy descriptions of my female co-workers and students, make me think he is a colossal cluster-frack waiting to happen. When it does, I want to have as much distance from him as I can. I also don't want to be seen to tolerate or enable behaviour which I find offensive. Clearly, he has to cut it out, or I have to stop going to lunch with him.

So how do I go about it?

The thing is, our lunchtime meals are an ingrained routine. And a sudden change, such as me pointedly not going, is going to make a statement to everyone in our group, who may not yet be aware of how he is acting and what he is saying. My workplace has had more than its fair share of bullshit sniping between members in the past. I really don't want to add to it any more than I have to. I also have to consider my other lunchtime companion, whom I consider a close friend. He is of a similar mind about him, but I think he is too polite to do anything about it. My refusing to be there is going leave him holding the can.

So, Hivemind, enough is enough. How should I handle this?

- Should I confront him discretely, or would the nuclear option have more of an effect?

- Keep going to lunch, but call him out each time he strays into offensive territory. It shames me to admit that our usual reactions to his comments are either awkward silences, or quickly changing topic. Though I did bring him up on his Black Watch comment.

- Should I just absent myself diplomatically from lunch with him and let my regular companion come to his own conclusions?

- Talk to my boss about it?

- Or am I just letting my own personal dislike of him cloud my judgement. (I do have a bad habit of finding someone to pointedly dislike everywhere I work). I know part of the rub of being professional means putting up with things you don't like about someone you work with. But I really really feel that I just shouldn't let this go, even if some people consider it to be normal guy talk.

Any advice on how I should proceed will be gratefully received!
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (19 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Keep lunching with him, but stop his conversation derails as soon as they begin. Visibly frown at him, shake your head, and change the subject. If he persists, say "that's really not appropriate for lunchtime conversation." Do this every time until he gets the point.

If he doesn't get the point, confront him in private after eating with him. Tell him bluntly that you can't handle any more. Give him one more chance. If he fails again, do lunch somewhere else. Do not tell any of your coworkers why (if they're observant, they'll figure it out for themselves).
posted by The Winsome Parker Lewis at 8:16 AM on April 15, 2010 [9 favorites]

I was in this situation with someone who wasn't necessarily offensive, just excessively whiny and boring. My friend and I just planned to have lunch elsewhere without telling her. If he asks why you're not inviting him anymore, tell him that you find his conversational topics offensive. This eliminates the problem of leaving your regular companion in the lurch.
posted by desjardins at 8:19 AM on April 15, 2010

You have options. First, don't enter into debates with the guy, but make it very clear when you don't like his comments or jokes. Simply say "that's racist" or "that's awful" or something similar. Then he'll probably say your an annoying PC person or you need to lighten up. You can make an "you're an idiot face" and then leave it at that. But don't let it become a debate. Just make it clear where you stand.

Change up your lunch routine so that it is not an institution. Go to different places. Bring your lunch. Eat earlier, eat later, bring a book, sometimes alone, sometimes in groups. Then you can always maintain your comfort zone.

Do not confront him one on one. You are not his superior, not his mother, and not his teacher. If you feel like it is really that out of hand, talk to your boss. He or she will want to know if there are behaviours in the group that are affecting work.
posted by molecicco at 8:25 AM on April 15, 2010 [1 favorite]

Also, it's him :)
posted by molecicco at 8:26 AM on April 15, 2010 [1 favorite]

Hmm. I am now the new guy in a new job in a foreign country, in a language that I'm so-so at, so lunchtime is a sensitive time for me. All of my coworkers are strangers and étrangers and I'm trying to find a human connection to them. I don't think I'm being at all a creep (though I did relish the opportunity to explain to one of my French coworkers why "douchey" means what it does) but I am afraid I'm being a drip.

Fear of being a drip, and wanting to make a splash in a new environment, could easily someone to act out in a way similar to your coworker. He won't be able to draw his own conclusions about avoidance because there's just so much that could make this situation fail for him.

I would want you to quietly confront me and say that it's not cool.

Honestly it sounds like this guy *is* a creep and is someone you don't want to be having lunch with. But he could just be nervous, lonely, and aiming for the lowest common denominator. At least telling him why will give him a chance to show different parts of his personality, if he's not 100% creep.
posted by xueexueg at 8:26 AM on April 15, 2010 [6 favorites]

You should acquaint him with the concept of creating a hostile work environment. He's from another country, so he may not be aware of this from a cultural or legal standpoint.

Is your company large enough that you have an HR person or department? Next time he makes an offensive comment you should point it out and suggest that he talk to HR. This could be as simple as, "we don't talk that way here. It's serious and it could get you in trouble."
posted by alms at 8:49 AM on April 15, 2010

Keep lunching with him, but stop his conversation derails as soon as they begin.

This. A simple "uh, that's really unpleasant", or "OK, that sounds like a story I don't really want to hear, please stop", or "you know, I find that subject offensive and I don't appreciate it", are what is needed.

Followed with, "you know, I need to tell you this: a lot of the jokes and stories you tell are really offensive, and I don't like hearing them. And you know, that kind of thing isn't appropriate to be talking about in public, in this country." Or something like it.

Whenever it starts, stop it. If he keeps doing it, de-invite him to lunch: "Look, pardon my candor but you're crude and offensive. As long as you talk like that we really don't want to spend time with you outside of work. We need to ask you, please make other plans how to spend your lunch".

I imagine this person is poorly socialized and doesn't really realize how off-kilter he really is. Candid information is useful.
posted by thermonuclear.jive.turkey at 9:05 AM on April 15, 2010 [6 favorites]

What do you typically do when he derails the conversation? He starts in on bestiality and you... what, exactly? Have you tried interrupting him and saying, "Dude. Gross." or "I don't want to hear about that"? I understand that there are cultural differences involved, but if you've done nothing while he goes on about fetishes or your female coworkers, he thinks you're ok with his preferred topics of conversation. Try stopping him and see if your direct objection to his comments has any effect--if so, great! Problem solved. If not, then find a new lunch buddy.
posted by Meg_Murry at 9:09 AM on April 15, 2010

xueexueg: "Hmm. I am now the new guy in a new job in a foreign country, in a language that I'm so-so at, so lunchtime is a sensitive time for me. "

What a great, compassionate comment. The poor guy is totally out of his element. Let him know when his speech isn't appropriate in his new work environment. If he can't take it, he'll probably fix the problem himself by removing himself from your lunch group. If he can, you've helped the guy out and maybe made a new friend. New friends are nice.
posted by Barry B. Palindromer at 9:26 AM on April 15, 2010 [2 favorites]

"he is too polite to do anything about it"

I think you mean "too submissive to do anything about it", or perhaps "doesn't know what to do about it". One possible response is to say nothing pointedly - frosty silence.

Or you could say, "Perhaps you don't realise that my gf is [ethnicity]" in response to racist comments, "Perhaps you don't realise that my mother is a woman," in response to misogynistic comments, and so on.

After a couple of warnings, you could just excuse yourself and get up and leave.

You don't have to put up with it, and arguably you shouldn't put up with it because stuff like that shouldn't go unchallenged, really. Difficult to be anything other than stunned by such barefaced outrageous behaviour, though.
posted by tel3path at 10:03 AM on April 15, 2010 [1 favorite]

Should I just absent myself diplomatically from lunch with him and let my regular companion come to his own conclusions? - That's what I'd do, but I'm not very good with people ;-) You could try telling him once, "Listen, I'm not so cool with racist/misogynist stuff, so you might want to tune that down a bit", and if he doesn't comply or pretends not to understand (seems likely), avoid him from then on. I'm sure your other acquaintance will understand.

BTW, this is definitely not a cross-cultural problem √° la "Oh, the poor lonely guy just doesn't know how people behave in the UK and is trying to fit in". This stuff is totally out of line in Germany, too (I'm German). Sounds like a totally disgusting creep, and it's not your responsibility to house-train him.
posted by The Toad at 10:46 AM on April 15, 2010

Disagreeing strongly with molecicco. Even though "You are not his superior, not his mother, and not his teacher," you are a peer of his and you have the right to state your opinion of his behavior. Don't wait for it to become a bigger problem; confront him one-on-one, state your opinion plainly, and if he responds positively or apologetically then thank him, if not... well, no big shock then if you make other plans for lunch. You might also want to let your friend know that you're having a talk with this guy, although I'd resist having your friend along when you talk to the jerk.
posted by Halloween Jack at 12:41 PM on April 15, 2010

alms> You should acquaint him with the concept of creating a hostile work environment.

Note: this is a question about work behavior in the UK -- there may be similar laws there to the U.S. concerning hostile work environments, but citing U.S. law won't work, especially not on the "creep".
posted by UrineSoakedRube at 2:08 PM on April 15, 2010

"we don't talk that way here. It's serious and it could get you in trouble."

Yeah, he needs to hear something like this. He's in a new place, maybe that stuff he's saying was OK where he worked before. Probably no one has yet explained that's what he's saying isn't appropriate for his new workplace. Right now he's still saying it to you because he has no reason not to, you haven't given any real indication that it upsets you. If it was me I'd roll my eyes and say "Dude we don't do that here, it's really inappropriate". I know it's scary and feels like you're confronting him but you don't need to make a big deal about it, just shut him down and make it clear that it's an overall workplace culture thing rather than your specific personal preference.

If he doesn't stop then you probably do need to disassociate yourself with him because if your academic setting is anything like the ones I've worked in (which it may not be of course) he will get in trouble and your putting up with it could also get you in trouble, depending on who overhears him and complains. I can see this becoming 'that gross group of guys in the lunch room' rather than 'that creepy new guy', as completely unfair as that is to you.

And yeah, he is a creep. Ogling women walking past is never cool. If I noticed someone doing it to me more than once I'd be mentioning it to my supervisor. You're entitled to be uncomfortable in this case.
posted by shelleycat at 2:45 PM on April 15, 2010 [4 favorites]

I don't know how well this might work in your situation, but it's done wonders for me: if your goal is to try to clue him in on social norms in the group without being confrontational, and if you believe him to be of at least moderate intelligence and social intuitiveness, one thing you can do is bring it up indirectly in the hopes of prompting him to change. That is: at lunch one day, with the new guy present, turn to your regular lunchtime companion and remark: "gee, did you hear the obnoxious stuff (random unrelated coworker, or maybe even a made-up name) was talking about yesterday? Sex, profanity, et cetera - totally inappropriate stuff for the workplace. I couldn't believe it. I mean - who you want to have sex with? Weird fetishes? I just don't want to hear about it. Y'know?" Your regular lunchtime companion, who you've clued in ahead of time, can nod knowingly: "I know. That's really not cool." The trick is to point out, in a way that doesn't involve him at all personally, that the behavior isn't really accepted in your circle. (Of course, you have to make sure not to make him feel as though you're secretly talking about him - it's just some other person that made the offensive remarks.)

Like I said, he has to be moderately intelligent to pick up on this sort of thing, of course. If he's just thick, he could hear all this and say: "yeah, that's ridiculous!" and then keep on being obnoxious. But one hopes that it might get through to him without calling him out.
posted by koeselitz at 2:45 PM on April 15, 2010

In my experience, when confronted by something like this, people are usually ashamed and/or grateful.

Personally, in situations like this, I feel that I have an obligation - to women, to minorities, to humanity in general - to confront behaviour like this because doing nothing is effectively perpetuating it. I want to be the guy who made someone's day better, not worse, and keep silent on makes my day better.

I find a direct, and firm-without-being-aggressive approach is best.

"Whats-your-face, that comment is not appropriate. It is offensive and racist/sexist/whatever. If you make those kind of comments you're gonna in serious trouble with your career. Please don't say anything like that around me any more. Okay?"

I find it's important to ask the question, that way you get acknowledgement from the person that they have heard, and understood you, and that they have agreed not to talk like that again. Also, by making them say "yes", there's a subtle undercurrent that in acknowledging your request and opinion, they are also acknowledging that what they are saying *is* racist etc.

I have never regretted calling someone on this.
posted by smoke at 4:51 PM on April 15, 2010 [2 favorites]

For what it's worth, I've known people who blatantly use being crude and offensive as a tactic to keep everyone around them on eggshells as a kind of power play. The more off-balance and awkward you are, the more they enjoy it.

Why waste your time on a jerk like this at all? What has he ever done to deserve being "compassionately straightened out"? Making excuses for him for being from Germany is ridiculous; you think they don't know any better there? Please. A jerk is a jerk.

Life is short and you deserve better. Enjoy your lunch in peace and let him be a boor at somebody else's expense.
posted by aquafortis at 5:13 PM on April 15, 2010

I'd rather eat lunch with someone who doesn't make a secret of their dislike for me than with someone who does.
posted by inconsequentialist at 5:43 PM on April 15, 2010

What Shelleycat said. Has he worked for a University before? Frame it as 'I dont know about where you worked before but theres a distinct culture to working for a UK University and the sorts of things you're saying will damage your professional reputation'

Do the University have an equality/diversity policy? If its anything like the place I work then HR are really hot on this and will have a least a web page, tell him how to find it.
posted by Ness at 3:24 AM on April 16, 2010

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