What should I do about this insensitive acquaintance from work?
May 24, 2011 1:33 PM   Subscribe

What should I do about this insensitive acquaintance from work?

Somehow related to this previous question, although not quite.

So imagine this colleague from work which became somewhat a friend. We show respect for each other at work and he often solicits my attention as a good listener to talk about his issues. We also routinely have outings outside work with other friends in a very relaxed way.

Then a while ago we had dinner with a group of friends and we were talking about learning foreign languages. I was mentioning my interest for Chinese and how it is difficult to find decent courses in Amsterdam (where I live). Around the conversation, said colleague proposes jokingly that I should get me a Chinese girlfriend if I want to make the learning easier – the joke being the idea of founding a relationship solely on my interest for a language.

Awkwardness ensues: everyone around the table – 5 people, including mr insensitive – is aware of my preference for men; the guy clearly either did not realize his blunder or made it purposefully. So I look at him with some incredulous look on my face (the "we both know you just said something quite stupid, now is the moment to correct yourself" look), two seconds pass and he says nothing, so I just closed off the topic half-jokingly, half-sarcastically with "well, I'm not sure a girlfriend is what I need". The other people said nothing.

Since then nothing of the kind happened again, just because the occasion never came up. However I am still hurt by the occurrence. I am hurt because I believe one's sexuality is one of the key aspects of one's identity, and so in my opinion this blunder highlighted that the person does not respect this part of who I am. Also, I am hurt that nobody else in this group – where two people are quite dear to me – supported me in that awkward moment. It feels like a betrayal.

This lack of respect is incompatible with my notion of friendship, but what should I say about it? It is especially troubling because this is a person who would be likely very hurt if I were to dismiss his sexual identity by suggesting he finds himself a man to support him in something he finds difficult. What is going here, and what can I (should I) do about it?
posted by knz to Human Relations (41 answers total)
If this truly was a one-time occurrence, I'd let it pass without doing anything. You should give your friend the benefit of the doubt- he made an easy joke forgetting that it doesn't really make sense for you. You handled it well by responding in kind with a joke, and the subject dropped. To make this one time event into a "betrayal" or something that's "incompatible with (your) notion of friendship" would probably be blowing things out of proportion.
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 1:41 PM on May 24, 2011 [6 favorites]


Do you think he was making a serious suggestion, and you're offended by it?Or do you understand that it was a joke, but you think that your sexuality is sacred and mustn't be joked about?

Honestly, it seems so innocuous that I'm not sure I even understand your problem and/or question.
posted by General Tonic at 1:42 PM on May 24, 2011 [36 favorites]

Yeah... if this is an isolated incident, then you have blown things way out of proportion. Sometimes people say stupid things. Sometimes, people don't know how to make a graceful recovery from saying a stupid thing. The easiest and best thing is to ignore and move on. It's not that your friends weren't supporting you, it's that they were trying not to blow this awkward offhanded comment into a major deal. My take is that this wasn't meant to be an offensive comment, the guy just misspoke while trying to make a stupid joke. Let it go.
posted by kimdog at 1:43 PM on May 24, 2011 [2 favorites]

"Girl" was the part of that sentence that you found most ridiculous? He made a joke. The point of jokes is that they are ridiculous. Horses don't walk into bars and order beers, and people don't get girlfriends or boyfriends for the purpose of learning languages. He didn't think he was "dismissing your sexual identity," he thought he was making a joke. He hasn't done it since, probably because you reacted to it the way you did, which was less "I am offended to the very depths of my identity" than it was "That joke was dumb, dude."

No one can read your mind. He and the other people at the table don't know that you were that offended. Talk to them (individually), and don't be at all surprised if they don't even remember it.
posted by Etrigan at 1:43 PM on May 24, 2011 [9 favorites]

If this isn't part of a pattern of behavior, it's perfectly likely that he forgot you were gay and slipped into a heteronormative assumption. When he realized what a dumb thing he said, he clammed up out of embarrassment.
posted by Faint of Butt at 1:43 PM on May 24, 2011 [39 favorites]

@GT there is nothing sacred about sexual identity. Yet I believe that dismissing it outright is quite insulting and disrespectful. However it might have been a honest mistake which is why I am asking for external opinions on this.
posted by knz at 1:47 PM on May 24, 2011

Most people, except for those who are our nearest and dearest friends and family, don't think about us nearly as much as we think they do. So it's really easy, since they are looking through the world through their own eyes, rather than yours, for them to say something that can be offensive to you that wouldn't seem offensive to them at all.

Likewise, I have lots of co-workers who respect me tons and who know I have a male partner withi whom I live. However, when they think of me, they probably first think of me as a competent business analyst, a writer who cares more about his own projects than our professional ones, the guy who has lots of comic books where other people keep their manilla folders full of work. Only after a number of other things do they consider me someone whose gay -- or at least that's how they treat me. Since the majority of the world is involved in opposite sex relationships, for someone to make that assumption when making an off the top of their head joke doesn't seem disrespectful to me.

You can bring it up to him if it's really going to keep bothering you. But I'd choose different battles.
posted by MCMikeNamara at 1:48 PM on May 24, 2011 [5 favorites]

However I am still hurt by the occurrence. I am hurt because I believe one's sexuality is one of the key aspects of one's identity, and so in my opinion this blunder highlighted that the person does not respect this part of who I am.

You are drawing a conclusion based on facts not in evidence. You really don't have any concrete proof that he doesn't respect this key component of your identity; all you know is that he didn't acknowledge his words as a blunder in the way that you see fit. He might have not realized what he was saying; he might have thought it was a self-evidently dumb joke and not a blunder; he might have realized it was a blunder and have been too embarrassed or unsure how to correct it; he might have thought (erroneously) that others at the table weren't aware of your sexuality, etc.

The point is, there are any number of scenarios as to what this off-hand remark might "mean"; your conclusion that he completely disrespects your very identity (and that none of your friends care enough about you to speak up on your behalf) is only one of them -- and an extreme, unlikely one at that.

tl;dr: you are making this out to be much bigger than it almost certainly is, which is causing you to cling to a sense of offense that may very well not even exist... thus making yourself unhappy while blaming it on someone else. This is a small piece of emotional baggage that's only going to get larger and heavier unless you put it down sooner rather than later.
posted by scody at 1:49 PM on May 24, 2011 [7 favorites]

Either ignore it, or say "hey, I think you're great, but when you said X it really upset me." Chances are he'll say "oh, sorry man, I didn't mean anything by it" and you'll move on.

As far as other people not getting involved, I know it can be frustrating to feel like you both have to deal with bigoted behavior AND be the only person speaking against it. It's exhausting.

Of course, shocked silence is sometimes a good way to communicate social disapproval. That may be a cultural difference; in the US people sitting there silently would be a rather harsh negative reaction depending how long it went on.
posted by the young rope-rider at 1:49 PM on May 24, 2011

I think you handled it well by laughing it off. I'm guessing he blundered, knows it, and cringes inwardly every time he thinks about it. It would have been helpful if other people had joined in at the time, but I'm guessing they were embarrassed for him, too.

Stop letting it eat at you. It sounds like an innocent mistake.
posted by tully_monster at 1:51 PM on May 24, 2011 [1 favorite]

I'm OK with the idea (suggested above) that he felt so embarrassed that he could not come up with a good way to fix his blunder and just kept silent instead. Retrospectively that looks quite likely.
posted by knz at 1:51 PM on May 24, 2011 [1 favorite]

We can't tell if it's an honest mistake or not because we don't know this person.

In fact, we'll probably never know if he truly respects your sexual identity or not. The content of someone else's mind is unknowable (to be philosophical about it).

Practically speaking, however, if he treats you with respect 99.9% of the time, it leads me to believe that he does respect you. I can't guarantee that but it sounds like a pretty good bet.
posted by the young rope-rider at 1:52 PM on May 24, 2011 [1 favorite]

At a guess, this may be someone who doesn't have enough homosexual friends that he's used to filtering for heteronormative language. If you want to see it in a positive light, consider that he's comfortable enough with you as a person that the fact that you're gay is not a big flashing neon light over your head distracting him from normal conversation. With time, his idea of normal conversation will become less hetero-normative.
posted by aimedwander at 1:54 PM on May 24, 2011 [4 favorites]

You know the other people at the table were aware of your sexual identity. Did he know that they were aware of your sexual identity? That is, is there any chance he erred in defaulting to heteronormative because he didn't want to accidentally out you to people who didn't know?

More likely it was just a simple blunder, but just thought I'd mention it.
posted by penduluum at 1:57 PM on May 24, 2011 [3 favorites]

Maybe "Chinese girlfriend" just sounded funnier in his head than "Chinese boyfriend". Jokes are weird. It really doesn't sound like he was disrespecting your sexual preferences, and it would be a shame to let a blossoming friendship wither because of one isolated incident.
posted by amicamentis at 2:12 PM on May 24, 2011 [4 favorites]

So, I'm married, and we make jokes with our friends all the time. One married couple plays cards with us, and the two women will often team up against the two men. And my friend's wife has said things to me like, "Hey, we should be married, we make the best couple!" and things like that when we are kicking the guys' asses (I am sure the guys make similar remarks, but I have blocked from my memory any instance when they actually won the game instead of us).

The point is, no one responds, "Wait just one moment, we could not actually marry each other because I am a hetero women and you are a hetero woman! I am offended that you do not take my sexuality seriously!"

We're friends, we joke, it's not a thing.

The only reason this situation became "awkward", as you say, is because you apparently were utterly thrown by it, made it into A Thing and the others did not know how to react to it without making it more of A Big Deal.

Relax and let it go. You know your buddy is not homophobic, right? So why get upset about this, anyway?
posted by misha at 2:16 PM on May 24, 2011 [2 favorites]

I've said all kinds of dumb stuff when I was on autopilot - the worst of which was saying jokingly to a friend that the friend's daughter, who can't have children, would have to produce grandkids for her mom. I knew that (luckily the daughter wasn't there) but my brain switched into "ha ha, I don't know what to say about wanting grandchildren so I'll just make this dumb joke". I've referred to a trans friend by the wrong name. I've accidentally implied that immigrants from a certain country tend not to be educated and tend not to hold skilled jobs (that one was poor phrasing rather than carelessnes). In none of those cases did I intend any disrespect; in fact, in each case the topic was one I actually cared about - a friend, being an ally to trans folks, immigrants' rights. That didn't stop me.

Your friend should have apologized - probably in a light-hearted "oops, perhaps you should seek a Mandarin-speaking boyfriend" way. But if he doesn't dismiss your sexuality in general, I would give him a pass here.

(I just want to add that "get a boyfriend/girlfriend of color to [have educational/exotic experiences]" jokes kind of creep me out. I used to know lots of gross white guys who absolutely preyed on economically vulnerable young Chinese people when I was working abroad. I'm assuming that the racial context of the joke made this okay (ie, your friend is from China or something.)
posted by Frowner at 2:17 PM on May 24, 2011 [2 favorites]

Just to double-check, you're 100% sure that he and all the other people know you're gay? If he really does know that then why wouldn't he just say "uh, I mean boyfriend" or similar.

Maybe he actually doesn't know. Maybe when he was told you were gay, he took that as a joke? It could happen.
posted by AmbroseChapel at 2:22 PM on May 24, 2011

I would go with "he momentarily forgot you were gay." I'm married, I'm not going to sleep with any of my friends, so I honestly occasionally forget their sexual orientation, because it's not relevant to me.
posted by desjardins at 2:25 PM on May 24, 2011 [5 favorites]

He probably did feel weird about it and didn't know how to correct the mistake, but he also probably would never have thought it was this big a deal to you. It's okay to be sensitive about your sexual identity and it's within your rights to be offended by relatively innocuous statements, but assuming the worst about other people's intentions will turn them off.

It's probably a good rule of thumb that you should try to read your friends' statements in a non-offensive or hurtful manner if such interpretation is plausible or likely, as it seems to be here. There is genuine and malicious homophobia out there, and then there are fights not worth fighting, and then there are fights that only exist in your head. I don't say this to pass judgment, but just to suggest that it's in your best interest to scrutinize what about this situation came from your friend's statement and what came from your interpretation of it.
posted by dixiecupdrinking at 2:32 PM on May 24, 2011 [1 favorite]

dealing with ambient -- and overt -- heterosexism all on your own is wearying. those bad jokes? after hearing so many stupid jokes per day, from all sorts of directions, it's hard to just laugh them off.

if my friends didn't have my back sometimes, it'd be near impossible to handle every thoughtless comment with grace and tact. i understand your disappointment, knz, that your pals didn't step it up -- this seems like the biggest hurt here, if i'm reading it right?

these two you mention -- if they are dear to you, they will want to know how to support you, how to be your allies, and this might be a really meaningful in-road to chatting about it with them. this is where i would focus my energies, were i in your position. the weight of heterosexist garbage like this is totally divided when you've got pals in your corner :)
posted by crawfo at 2:38 PM on May 24, 2011 [1 favorite]

I say boneheaded shit all the time. It's probably because I drink too much Diet Coke, and also I often don't get enough sleep, and occasionally I have mild aphasia as a migraine precursor. When I tell my husband that my car is nearly on empty and I need to stop at the "library" on the way home, he does not assume it's because I'm stupid or trying to trick him or something. I pass the library on the way home and that somehow jumped in the way of "gas station" on its way from my brain to my mouth. Sometimes I will do this and as far as I remember, I said "gas station" and not "library."

Maybe more of his male friends are straight than gay, and he's more accustomed to saying "girlfriend" than "boyfriend" to a man and so he meant the one and said the other. Maybe his eye snagged on a straight guy at the table and his brain did a switch on him. Maybe he was thinking about his own girlfriend or Chinese girlfriends or suddenly realized he was making an offensive joke before he even *got* to the word girlfriend.

In the grand scheme of things, it's a whole lot more likely to be about him than about you.

Your friend made a mistake. You are being far less than generous here.
posted by Lyn Never at 2:39 PM on May 24, 2011 [2 favorites]

dealing with ambient -- and overt -- heterosexism all on your own is wearying. those bad jokes? after hearing so many stupid jokes per day, from all sorts of directions, it's hard to just laugh them off.

if my friends didn't have my back sometimes, it'd be near impossible to handle every thoughtless comment with grace and tact. i understand your disappointment, knz, that your pals didn't step it up -- this seems like the biggest hurt here, if i'm reading it right?

On second thought, I take back my comment and switch my alliance to this one.
posted by Frowner at 2:50 PM on May 24, 2011

I used to know lots of gross white guys who absolutely preyed on economically vulnerable young Chinese people when I was working abroad.

I'm thinking this is exactly who the joke was about. The butt of the joke was not you (a gay man and his friend), but the type of sleazy guy who would just "get a Chinese girlfriend" for some exterior motive.

Or, like everyone said, he momentarily forgot, and everyone else was quiet thinking either "oops, that was a faux pas" or "that's not particularly funny."
posted by DestinationUnknown at 2:53 PM on May 24, 2011

Some people are just clueless - it can be difficult cutting them slack, but sometimes that's the best thing to do (definitely not easiest, but the best thing nonetheless).

However, your friends didn't support you and that is probably where the real pain lies. And that is the thing you should probably focus on working out the most.
posted by mleigh at 3:06 PM on May 24, 2011 [1 favorite]

Stop. Breathe.

Feelings are not facts. Your feelings inform you of your underlying attitudes - do not make the mistake that your feelings indicate another person's thoughts, intentions and attitudes.

First, have you come out to that person? Does he know for a fact you're gay? If not, cut him a break - the world is evolving, but not everyone evolves at the same pace. While people you know may no longer make the heteronormative assumption, some still do. If he's a decent person, he'll catch up.

There are other responses you could have made. If you come from a place of having a sense of humor about yourself, you might have said something along the lines of, "I'd much rather have a hot boyfriend!"

If you wanted to respond in a more serious tone, you could also have simply changed the subject.

Have some empathy for your friend. He wasn't trying to be mean, or trying to make you uncomfortable - he was just trying to inject some levity, however presumptuous or hopefully unintentionally racist what he said may have been. There are a lot of behaviors you will have to deal with day to day that are obnoxious, but not malicious - it's the price of having friends.
posted by medea42 at 3:26 PM on May 24, 2011 [1 favorite]

I occasionally get poked by my friends about finding a girl friend as well. And they know bloody well I'm playing for the other side. That said, we're friends, and I know they are making a joke. In fact I find it comforting that we are able to joke about something like this with no ill effects.

I don't see why this is an issue really.
posted by TrinsicWS at 3:42 PM on May 24, 2011

Awkwardness ensues: everyone around the table – 5 people, including mr insensitive – is aware of my preference for men; the guy clearly either did not realize his blunder or made it purposefully.

Do your other friends know that Mr. Insensitive knows you're gay? Maybe they were worried about outing you. Or if they're straight, maybe they just aren't comfortable talking about someone being gay, if they're otherwise gay allies (not homophobes, whatever).

I'm also wondering if Mr. Insensitive thought folks were quiet/offended because of the race issue. That's where I originally thought you were going with this--a friend made a slightly racist comment. Or maybe it was the double whammy and he didn't want to stutter along and say, "Oops, I mean get a Chinese boyfriend; I mean oops that's racist..."

In any case, why not check in with a friend or two about this and get their take?
posted by bluedaisy at 4:03 PM on May 24, 2011

Sigh. I asked for a day off this week to go to a funeral. My boss replied "No problem. Have a good time."

I assume he just wasn't paying attention, rather than that he was being mean or that this is somehow a way of expressing that he doesn't believe I'm really going to a funeral, or whatever.

Did it bother me? A bit, yeah. Do I hold it against him? Of course not.
posted by tel3path at 4:45 PM on May 24, 2011 [4 favorites]

p.s. To answer your question directly: I don't plan to do anything about it, since I perceive nothing about which to be done.

If he did it all the time, sure.
posted by tel3path at 4:49 PM on May 24, 2011

Hetero woman here...When I was single and worked full time as a lawyer, all of my mostly-male colleagues had stay at home wives who handled the day-to-day things in their lives like going to the dry cleaner,grocery shopping, meeting the plumber, etc. I used to joke that I needed a "Wife". I was not being dismissive of women as wives or their respective roles in the family. Nor was I looking to get married to a woman. I was just insanely jealous of all the help my colleagues got outside of the office and wished I had someone to help so that my limited free time could be spent doing things other than household chores.

I was simply making a joke that I someone could have taken the wrong way. Honestly, I never thought about it before now. But I think everyone gave me (and my joking way of phrasing it) the benefit of the doubt.

I think you need to let this one go.
posted by murrey at 4:50 PM on May 24, 2011 [1 favorite]

If I were in your position, my response would have been something along the lines of "my boyfriend would be so mad if I got a girlfriend though," or "you know, that's a good idea. I've never a dated a woman, are they usually ok with going out with gay guys?" or "haha dude, you knew I was gay right?" or... whatever. If he didn't know then he didn't know, so what. If he misspoke then he misspoke, so what.

Our feelings are our own of course and I don't mean to suggest that your response is invalid or anything. But I think it would probably be healthier for you in the future to cultivate a more laid back attitude about stuff like this. From the evidence you've presented, I do not at all get the feeling that he's "dismissing an aspect of your identity" or anything.

Further: what misha said.
posted by kavasa at 5:27 PM on May 24, 2011 [3 favorites]

"... the guy clearly either did not realize his blunder or made it purposefully."

I would bet the former. Hanlon's Razor - "Never attribute to malice what can be adequately explained by stupidity." I normally think posting up twee little quotes is kinda pretentious, but I fracking swear by this one. People aren't malicious, they're just stupid. And they do innocently stupid things.

As everyone has already pointed out, there are like three hundred reasons for his comment other than "he was trying to insult me", ranging from a genuine slip of the tongue to the idea that he was actually trying to support you and just thought it through wrong ("Hmm, I was going to make a joke about how he should get a chinese boyfriend, but I don't know if anyone at this table knows he's gay, and I don't know if he wants them to know. But if I don't say something this conversation will stall and I'll look dumb. I should make a standard hetero comment as a cover just in case he doesn't want them to know, and if he's cool with it he can just say something like "Lol dude, I'm into guys, remember?") Unless you have solid, irrefutable proof that he was making an active attempt at insulting you, it's more likely that he was just trying to make normal conversation and innocently fumbled it.
posted by Fen at 5:31 PM on May 24, 2011

It was a bad joke. Period. Unless this is part of a pattern of behavior, just drop it. Humor doesn't come so easily to everyone, and even the best of them have off-nights.
I sincerely doubt he was trying to demean or disrespect you in any way. Parsing which part of the joke means what to who and why it's not funny gives it way more than it's due.
posted by BillBishop at 5:44 PM on May 24, 2011 [1 favorite]

People say things. Brain fart, slip of the tongue, whatever. You're being overly sensitive -- if he's otherwise a friend, attributing a one-off to malice is a stretch.

What should he have done? Made a big deal out of it and apologized? He had no way to know that you would think it was such a big deal -- especially, I think, after you made a joke and laughed it off.
posted by J. Wilson at 5:55 PM on May 24, 2011

Without knowing you personally, I don't know how appropriate this is, but I have a few friends who are only out to certain people. It can be a little hard to keep track of who knows and who doesn't (and it's certainly not my place to out my friends), so maybe this factored into the slip? Mr. Insensitive might not have known you were out to everybody.

Also, if alcohol is involved, it can make people verbally slip up in very stupid ways. (I hate myself every time I screw up pronouns when talking about my transgendered friend. It happens less frequently with every passing year, and it only happens when I've been drinking.)
posted by smirkette at 6:18 PM on May 24, 2011 [4 favorites]

I believe one's sexuality is one of the key aspects of one's identity
nothing sacred about sexual identity. Yet I believe that dismissing it outright is quite insulting and disrespectful

Maybe this is a good opportunity to question these beliefs, at least as far as believing them to be universals go. If your sexuality is a key aspect of your identity, great; enjoy that. But it doesn't follow that others feel that way about identity, and I don't know if you want to knee-jerk like that when you find others less interested in it than yourself. You can, and you can go around being hurt by innocuous things like this, but it doesn't sound like a pleasant way to go about living one's life.

You've branded this person as "mr insensitive," and here you are on Ask MetaFilter because you didn't have the sensitivity to come up with the many possibilities already put forth. What should you do? A little introspection would not go amiss here. You sound like a nice guy who is maybe a bit too trapped in certain expectations and beliefs and who is maybe not spending enough time with enough of a variety of people.

When hurt, a brief pause for analysis of others' motives with an assumption that no malice was intended makes for a much happier, richer life. Going straight to "This lack of respect is incompatible with my notion of friendship" -- what does that do for you? Ask instead: this person who has (I believe) inadvertently (for reasons that may be unfortunate, but, still, inadvertently) hurt me -- how can I help this person?

You don't have to go around pretending to be Jesus or Buddha 24/7, but a more charitable take on the world does wonders for the soul.
posted by kmennie at 7:37 PM on May 24, 2011 [4 favorites]

I actually had the reaction that he said girlfriend because it would make it even more ridiculous. This attempt clearly flopped, and I think it was in poor taste. But it almost could have been an awkward attempt to recognize rather than dismiss you sexual identity.

A lesbian friend has a funny story about men seeing her as a great, no strings attached, green card marriage opportunity. Many similar jokes ensued.
posted by lab.beetle at 9:29 PM on May 24, 2011

I'm gay and I really don't get why this was a big deal. If one of my friends had said this, I would have laughed. And then forgotten about it.
posted by venividivici at 6:13 AM on May 25, 2011 [2 favorites]

"You should get yourself a <insert nationality here> girlfriend" is the flippant remark made in the Netherlands when talking about learning a language. It's usually Dutch but Chinese will do just as well. He may have been saying it on autopilot, or making a meta-joke about the general remark, thinking your preference would add a bit of delicious irony. Regardless, as others have said, he was probably embarrassed when it fell flat.

I don't know the nationalities of those involved (or actually the language of the conversation... assuming it's English?) but some leeway -- and occasionally some discreet correction -- is required in mixed company.
posted by rocketpup at 7:37 AM on May 25, 2011 [2 favorites]

BTW, by "preference" I mean "sexual orientation"... awkward...
posted by rocketpup at 7:42 AM on May 25, 2011 [2 favorites]

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