Awkward coworker issue - is it any of my business to dig deeper?
July 3, 2012 6:27 AM   Subscribe

We talk friendly, appropriate coworker talk about our lives, but he never talks specifically about his spouse though he's married and uses the pronoun "we" when talking about his personal life. I'm feeling awkward not asking him any other details about this part of his life, but also wonder if I should just leave it alone until he brings it up since it's really none of my business and this is a professional work environment. What to do?

My coworker, with whom I work relatively closely, has mentioned once that he's married and usually wears a wedding ring. He always talks in the pronoun "we" but never mentions his spouse by name or any details about him/her. He does frequently mention his ex-wife, two kids, by name, and gives other friendly details about his home, hobbies, etc.

I hate to make assumptions about people and consider it really none of my business since this is a professional work environment and he's a bit older than me. However since he offers other relevant details about his personal life and always uses the "we" pronoun, but avoids specific details about his spouse I am assuming his current spouse is a man and he's uncomfortable bringing this up. I feel I'm increasing awkwardness by also not really asking him more questions about this part of his life, while offering the occasional (work appropriate) details of my own (straight) marriage and spouse. I assumed he would just bring it up on his own if he felt comfortable, but now I'm worried he doesn't actually feel comfortable or he would have brought it up.

I'm erring on the side of leaving it alone because of the professional work environment/none of my business issue. But is this really ok to not ask any further questions about the person he clearly lives with and is married to and mentions daily via pronoun?
posted by wannabecounselor to Human Relations (40 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
It's always OK to not ask questions about someone's personal life.
posted by Sternmeyer at 6:28 AM on July 3, 2012 [48 favorites]

I'd just leave it alone; or, a non-threatening way of asking for information is to simply ask "So how did you two meet?"
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 6:30 AM on July 3, 2012 [2 favorites]

Follow his lead. He might be weird about being out at work. You could always ask them out as a couple, but it you're not at that level of intimacy, does it matter?
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 6:30 AM on July 3, 2012

I'm erring on the side of leaving it alone because of the professional work environment/none of my business issue.

Sounds like you answered your own question. I don't think he's fishing for questions. If it sounds like he's specifically not bringing it up (and it does), there must be some sort of impetus for that, so why push it? What do you have to gain, other than an awkward situation if your first instinct turns out to be correct?
posted by supercres at 6:31 AM on July 3, 2012 [1 favorite]

Rather, that's a non-threatening way of showing you're interested while still respecting privacy.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 6:31 AM on July 3, 2012

Is it really ok not to pry into your coworker's personal life for details about someone he has avoided discussing? Of course. As you said, it's none of your business.
posted by J. Wilson at 6:37 AM on July 3, 2012 [1 favorite]

I'd leave it alone, but if you ever invite colleagues and their families over for dinner or are responsible for planning a work-family event, make sure everyone knows all spouses/partners are invited and welcomed.
posted by zizzle at 6:38 AM on July 3, 2012 [1 favorite]

now I'm worried he doesn't actually feel comfortable or he would have brought it up.
I don't think you should be worried about this.

I mean, I do think it's kind of odd that he is telling you all his other business and avoiding that, but I wouldn't assume it has anything to do with you or that you should try to make him feel comfortable with talking about his current spouse. Personally, I would just leave it alone.
posted by sm1tten at 6:47 AM on July 3, 2012

Questions like "How was your weekend?" or "Got any big plans for the summer?" let a person know that you are interested in them as a fellow human, not just a co-worker. That kind of question is also open enough to allow them to disclose or not disclose certain details as they choose. It allows for answers like "Oh, just sticking around the city" as opposed to "Hosting a big Pride party" or "My brother is out on a weekend pass from the penetentiary." If he's not saying, he's not saying.
posted by ThatCanadianGirl at 6:47 AM on July 3, 2012 [2 favorites]

Him saying "we" IS him bringing it up. Ask away.
posted by hermitosis at 6:51 AM on July 3, 2012

Do let him know that you're an ally. Mention the same-sex couple you and your spouse had dinner with the other night, or how annoyed you are that your state doesn't acknowledge your nephew's marriage, or whatever.
posted by feral_goldfish at 6:59 AM on July 3, 2012 [2 favorites]

"So what does your spouse do?"
posted by moammargaret at 6:59 AM on July 3, 2012 [1 favorite]

It's always OK to not ask questions about someone's personal life.

On the flip side, it's always OK to be private about your private life, too.
posted by Capt. Renault at 7:01 AM on July 3, 2012 [2 favorites]

I have one coworker who just doesn't talk about his home life; sometimes I feel bad that it's just the two of us on the project and I know almost nothing about him, but he just doesn't talk about this stuff. After 3 years I found out last week that he and his wife and small dog (all I previously knew about the family) also involve "children", though I have no idea how many or how old. Occasionally I wonder, but most of the time it's not difficult to just not be curious. I don't ask, he doesn't mention anything - but it's not like he's talking around it or hiding anything, he just doesn't talk.

If your friend does talk, but seems to be avoiding the issue, don't feel bad about asking a few peripheral questions. Share a little more of your personal life, as you ask a few easily-ducked questions. Your goal is to let him know you like talking with him and are interested in who he is, without actively prying or putting him on the spot.

Best idea: Really, you got it in one. The absolute most professional behavior is to ignore his private life entirely. But if you like him and enjoy working with him and would like to consider yourselves friends as well as coworkers, "most professional" isn't the criterion you're after.

Worse ideas:
2- Is there someone at work who knows him better? Ask them. However, this quickly devolves into gossip, if in fact he doesn't tell anybody his personal details.
3- On the assumption that he's gay and would be okay with your knowing if he trusted you, hint around, drop a few clues about yourself that would put him more at ease. e.g. He knows you go to church, but does he know it's not catholic but the super-liberal unitarians? (or whatever)
3b. There's enough going on politically about gay marriage that it wouldn't be hard to mention your support of it. Or lack of support, but in that case I don't blame him for keeping his mouth shut.
4- Refer to his spouse in passing as "he", see what the reaction is. i.e. he mentions that "we" did X, and you say, "oh, he's into X, too?" (alternate, try "she" or the ever-vague "umm... they" and see if he notices)
posted by aimedwander at 7:03 AM on July 3, 2012

If this doesn't sound like an Ask vs Guess situation, I don't know what does.

Me, I'd ask; I'd expect to be asked, I have asked, and I have told and been told. But that is all a function of a mishmash of stuff including being queer and never closeted, working in fairly informal (culturally) offices, and working with people who just naturally talk about life outside the office. Not in a TMI way (mostly), but in the "Oh, Joe and I went to the farmers market and then came home and made pie," kind of way.

You could always try something like: "Joe and I are going to [event] this weekend. Have you and your partner - I'm sorry, I don't know their name? - ever been to [event]?" and see what happens.
posted by rtha at 7:09 AM on July 3, 2012

I'm gay. I use the "we" pronoun at work whenever we're talking about something we're doing on the weekends or what have you, or in the context of "Yeah, I got this awesome shirt at the thrift store when we went last weekend." I'm not necessarily uncomfortable at work about being gay, but to be honest there are few ways to say "hey! I'm a raging homo!" without saying essentially that. Whenever it comes up in conversation I usually just say, "Yeah, I've been with my girlfriend for 6 years now. Crazy, huh? How long have you guys been married" or what have you. Then there's usually this really awkward conversation where whoever I'm talking to brings whatever gay-related things into the conversation that they can think of. Pride Parade! Drag Queens! Ellen! I love gay people! If I could choose I would be gay because then I could fart rainbows!
To be honest, I dread that part more than anything else.
If it comes up in conversation, such that you would naturally ask anyone else about their partner, then I don't see why there would be any reason why you shouldn't ask him. But take the hint if he changes the subject. Not just gay people like their privacy.
And, please- don't feel like you have to pontificate on why gay people are rad and awesome and you hug every one you meet if he does come out to you. A simple, "Hey, cool. I'm happy for you, man. 10 years is a long time to be together." is fine too.
posted by shesaysgo at 7:10 AM on July 3, 2012 [15 favorites]

Um, I do this. I'm straight. I just don't get into a lot of stuff about my private life. My co-workers aren't my friends, they're my co-workers, and there's just no place for me to go on describing all the people in my life. That's normal. Especially because he's older, he's probably decided work is work and home is home. It's really none of your business.
posted by Miko at 7:18 AM on July 3, 2012 [7 favorites]

I don't know why you're assuming he's gay unless there's some other evidence that you haven't told us about. Ex-wife and kids would seem to point in the other direction, right? Most men I've known do not talk about their spouses. I don't think this is abnormal at all.

By all means, express your support of the gay community, but don't do it as an oblique way of getting him to come out to you. That's just weird. You have no right to know.
posted by desjardins at 7:21 AM on July 3, 2012 [9 favorites]

One thing I'll add: no idea if he's gay or not, but in my experience, straight people always think they're much more reticent about their "private" lives than they are.
posted by rtha at 7:25 AM on July 3, 2012 [5 favorites]

It's possible that he has other personal reasons for not talking about his current spouse, and finds it easier to just take a really strict line and reveal nothing.

Maybe his spouse is connected to the company and he would be uncomfortable were this common knowledge. Maybe there are custody issues and it's best for him to reveal no details. Maybe his spouse is intensely private and would prefer to not be the subject of his/her spouse's office chitchat.
posted by desuetude at 7:25 AM on July 3, 2012 [2 favorites]

A yes or no question like, "Did you and your spouse participate in local event?" makes it clear that you don't make any assumptions and also lets him answer without providing any more details than they are comfortable providing.
posted by amarynth at 7:39 AM on July 3, 2012

Gayness aside, some folks are just private, or their spouses are more private.

My wife is a very private person, she opens up to very few people and selects them carefully. I respect her right to do that and, as a result, divulge very little about her when in a social or work setting, that's her prerogative to do so, not mine.
posted by HuronBob at 7:39 AM on July 3, 2012 [3 favorites]

4- Refer to his spouse in passing as "he", see what the reaction is. i.e. he mentions that "we" did X, and you say, "oh, he's into X, too?" (alternate, try "she" or the ever-vague "umm... they" and see if he notices)
If indeed his spouse is male and you use 'she', you'll be putting him on the spot with no warning, while at the same time signalling that you assume his spouse should be female. Don't do this. 'They' works best, since it explicitly signals that you're not assuming anything, and implies nothing he might feel obliged to confirm or deny.
posted by feral_goldfish at 7:46 AM on July 3, 2012 [1 favorite]

I would be dying if I were you, because I'd be in mortal fear of accidentally using a pronoun with regard to his spouse/partner. Because either mistake there is room for bad feelings and/or hilarity! (Best possible outcome: "Haha, remember that year when all my coworkers thought I WAS GAY?")

I personally love being nosy, but this is a situation where I would back the heck back and stay in my corner. (Also: "usually wears a wedding ring"??? Are there weird men who sometimes don't wear their rings?) I think that I would ONCE, just ONCE, where reasonable, and totally NATURAL, drop in a "I went to Adam and Steve's wedding this weekend, it was awesome" but JUST ONCE. Otherwise you will get the side eye.
posted by RJ Reynolds at 7:57 AM on July 3, 2012 [2 favorites]

Don't ask directly about his wife/husband, just keep having casual conversations. He'll bring it up eventually, or he won't. No big deal.

I'm gay and totally out and I'll usually correct people when they ask about my husband ("Actually, I have a wife. I'm a lesbian. So, anyway, while we were camping....") but it can be bit awkward and the assumption I'm straight always bums me out just a little bit. Especially when it is followed by "Oh! Well there's nothing wrong with that!" As if I thought there was.

I agree with the people upthread who said that you could drop some hints into your conversations if possible. So, for example, "We had dinner last weekend with my cousin Susan and her wife, and I made the most amazing appetizer" or something along those lines.
posted by Cuke at 8:02 AM on July 3, 2012 [5 favorites]

Some people are just super private.
posted by heyjude at 8:04 AM on July 3, 2012

Are there weird men who sometimes don't wear their rings

I wear my ring about half the time as I try to avoid wearing it when doing physical work because of the risk of degloving. Someone might not wear their ring if they intend to visit the gym during the day.
posted by Mitheral at 8:13 AM on July 3, 2012 [1 favorite]

It may really be nothing. Despite being in a heterosexual relationship, I don't often use my partner's name because I assume they'll be like "wait, who's so-and-so?" Perhaps wrongly, I assume they just aren't tracking that part of my life. And there's not much to say about him. I'm not going to share his news ("guess what happened to so-and-so!?"), and there's nothing about the relationship that makes for good office conversation. So what remains for chit-chat is "we did this," "we did that." There are few moments when it makes sense to use the singular pronoun. As soon as it leaves the "we" sphere, it usually feels like it's not my news to share, or too detailed to be interesting.
posted by salvia at 8:17 AM on July 3, 2012 [2 favorites]

It's weird to me that the story you've made up in your head about him is that he's gay. There are many different reasons he could be keeping this private. Perhaps he's married to someone at your company, or a client, or something. Or maybe it just hasn't come up to offer more information.
posted by valeries at 8:58 AM on July 3, 2012 [3 favorites]

Personally, I would ask another coworker who might know him better, but that's because I'm nosy.

It's hard to say if he is gay and not comfortable mentioning it, or just someone who doesn't talk about their family. I had a new VP in my department who I was trying to be friendly with so I asked about his child and dog (who doesn't like to talk about their family?) and he seemed really freaked out! Then again, he is an exceedingly weird dude to begin with.
posted by radioamy at 9:16 AM on July 3, 2012

Perhaps his current spouse has asked him not to talk about her or him at work, because he or she is very private. That would explain why he talks about the ex and the kids, but not the spouse.
posted by Sidhedevil at 9:27 AM on July 3, 2012

I kind of accidentally had the kind of hinty hint/leave them an opening kind of conversation others are suggesting with a coworker whose orientation I had never thought about (and rightly so, of course) some years ago - I'm not sure how Disney came up, but (as a childless feminist who doesn't watch kids' movies) I said something about my intense dislike for Disney products, then backpedaled because of something I'd read in the news not long before and added something like "Well, actually, I DO really like their pro-gay policies like insurance benefits for partners of employees." Coworker replied that he and his boyfriend liked to go to one of the Disney parks during a gay family friendly week the park has.

I was glad coworker felt fine being out with me, but later I worried that he'd thought I was fishing FOR him to out to me, although I hadn't been; I'm just socially awkward. I'm saying this because if you do take that route, your coworker might know, and might not appreciate your curiosity.
posted by Occula at 10:15 AM on July 3, 2012

I used to feel uninhibited about being out until it bit me in the ass in a work environment that I assumed would be safe and accepting. If indeed your coworker is gay and reluctant to discuss his personal life, don't take it personally. He might be perfectly comfortable with you, but the reality is, once one person knows, everyone knows, and he may not want to risk it.
posted by Wordwoman at 10:29 AM on July 3, 2012 [3 favorites]

Hi. Hetero female here. The last guy I dated was kind of insane about his privacy, and because we worked for the same company he refused to let me even say his name in conversation with coworkers. (No, there was no policy against coworkers dating. Many of our coworkers were married to each other. He was just extremely uptight.)

Sometimes people like more privacy. Maybe your coworker is in this category. I kind of feel like, if he felt like talking with you about his private life, he would do so, and any efforts to make an end-run around him and quiz other people about the gender of his partner would be... not well received. And it would have the added effect of making you look like a nosy gossip, which isn't a great position to be in, so maybe don't do that. Just let it go.
posted by palomar at 10:29 AM on July 3, 2012

FWIW, I use 'we' all the time, too, to talk about things Mother Renault and I do together, she being widowed, and me being permanently single, and it just being convenient to do things together rather than each sitting at home miserable, and though I use the 'we', we're definitely not a couple, thank you very much.

Which is just to say that buddy's story can be anything, and ultimately it's his business, unless he decides to share.
posted by Capt. Renault at 12:07 PM on July 3, 2012 [3 favorites]

I have a teaching colleague who is my age (late 20s) and routinely asks/interrogates the rest of us in the department (I am the only male, the rest are women in their 20s/30s) about our personal lives. We more or less all get along well and talk about our SOs, children, etc all the time.

But this colleague has been so thorough and cunning that she knows quite a bit about all of us, and yet we know nothing about her, not even where she lives! To make things even more confounding (at least for my female colleagues who notice this kind of stuff) she apparently wears very expensive jewelry and clothing and appears to have more than one engagement-style ring that she wears on her left hand.

So my advice is to drop it and perhaps share less with him over time if it makes you uncomfortable.
posted by vkxmai at 1:51 PM on July 3, 2012 [1 favorite]

I had no idea so many straight people didn't use the names of their SO's!

But really, as a gay person, I am very certain that using elusive "they" instead of a gender-specific pronoun or name and "we" instead of using an SO's name "Kate and I" or whatever IS a gay-specific cultural thing. I've never heard anyone do this repeatedly who wasn't glbtq with the very rare exception being a few liberal-extremist friends who intentionally don't use gender pronouns because doing so would give them a "non-queer advantage" - these people tend to not shut up about their politics, so you would know if your coworker was in this category.

When I was younger I sometimes fell into a trap of just using "we" and then people assumed I was straight and then it became very awkward to correct so I kept doing it, ad infinitum. If he is gay, I think referring to his husband as "your spouse" or "your partner" will let him know that you know, and are ok with it, and aren't going to out him. This may be all it takes for him to feel comfortable enough to open up to you. If he's a very private straight person, he'll either not notice or think that your grammar is a little off.

Don't ask him directly. Don't drop hints about how queer-friendly you are. Don't use a pronoun to see how it goes.
posted by lodie6 at 3:44 PM on July 3, 2012

I agree with much of what you're saying, lodie6, especially your bolded part. However, do note that the OP didn't say the co-worker used "they", just that he used "we". I think that's slightly different. (I'm gay too, but not sure it matters).
posted by valeries at 4:34 PM on July 3, 2012

Dropping in here just to note that it might also be that he's unhappy in his relationship and doesn't really want to talk about it. I've seen this happen too.
posted by corb at 7:49 PM on July 3, 2012

I don't know if anyone will see this but I wanted to update - my coworker has officially started using a name (which could be male or female) and male pronouns with me. There was never a big "ok this is what the situation is," talk, he just threw in the name/pronoun under his breath a few quick times, and now uses it more frequently in our everyday conversations. I still don't ask anything like, "how did you meet" etc. but just wanted to offer this update. I really enjoyed reading all your insight!
posted by wannabecounselor at 2:27 PM on October 23, 2012 [2 favorites]

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