Fighting back against innuendo
March 24, 2014 3:34 PM   Subscribe

I'm in a work place environment, and lately some people have found out some personal details about my life, and are using these details to disparage me in the office environment. I know that they must be talking about these details openly together, but in front of me and to me, they merely make repeated allusions or oblique references, usually with a twinkle in their eye. How do you respond to an attack that is indirect?

These personal details have nothing to do my function in the office; they are more of a personal nature and are really none of their business. This is hurting me in my job, and it's especially hurtful because all the attacks are indirect; it's more difficult to confront them directly. I feel like their attacks are cowardly and wrong, but I'd like to be able to keep my job. Help me fight them, because I have done nothing wrong, work admirably, and deserve the considerate behavior I treat them with. Also, help me find realistic solutions to fight such attacks of disparaging innuendo.

...There is an obvious path that involves saying something directly, but because their statements on the surface look innocent, then I look like the "bad guy", will be playing into their hands, and will lose my job anyway. Is there a direct path to fighting innuendo, that can bypass this? I don't want to appear like the aggressor, when really they are being (indirectly) aggressive, and I am their undeserving victim.

Help me outsmart these mean cowards.

***To be clear about what specifically I'm trying to counter, I found this definition of innuendo on Wikipedia:

"An innuendo is an insinuation or intimation about a person or thing, especially of a disparaging or a derogatory nature. It can also be a remark or question, typically disparaging (also called insinuation), that works obliquely by allusion. In the latter sense the intention is often to insult or accuse someone in such a way that one's words, taken literally, are innocent."

Thanks Metafilter!
posted by tenlives to Human Relations (29 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
Just ignore it and do your job. Eventually, they'll fixate on somebody else.
posted by SkylitDrawl at 3:36 PM on March 24, 2014 [4 favorites]

In my experience, this is the sort of thing where it should not be necessary, but about the only way to actually deal with it is usually to just make these things public knowledge. I do not like being out at work, but I far prefer being out at work to the person who everybody snickers like ten-year-olds about behind my back. I realize there are some things that this is impossible or inadvisable for, but without knowing the details... even if it's uncomfortable, sometimes it's the one thing that works.
posted by Sequence at 3:37 PM on March 24, 2014 [5 favorites]

Without an example (and I understand why you're hesitant to provide one) it's difficult to say for sure what your response should be. Could you clarify whether or not these people are your peers or your superiors? Is the information merely personal/maybe embarrassing, or it is actually damaging?

In most cases, however, I think the best course of action is to ignore this crap. When I was teased in middle school my mom always told me to ignore the kids who were picking on me because they just wanted to get a rise out of me. It seemed silly at the time, but she was totally right, and the same logic works with childish adults, too. Don't show them that they're getting under your skin, and eventually this game will get old to them.

Hang in there!
posted by schroedingersgirl at 3:38 PM on March 24, 2014 [3 favorites]

Completely ignore, unless someone gets more aggressive and overtly offensive/questioning. (Do not answer any questions, though. "Is there a reason you need to know that?" stated neutrally shuts most people down.)

If it gets overt you have reason to document it. I'm sure you feel like it's hurting you right now, professionally, and it may be for the moment. But if you can keep your head above this, some people will question if the rumors were even true, and others won't care when they see you showing up every day, doing your square best. Don't lose your cool. Take walks if you can, and vent to people who are not related to work and who know you.

I'm sorry bored jerks are going after you. It's never fun. Good luck.
posted by Lardmitten at 3:42 PM on March 24, 2014 [9 favorites]

In a calm and professional tone, preferably face-to-face: "I have noticed occasions of disparaging innuendo from you [all]. I have done nothing wrong, work admirably, and deserve the considerate behavior I treat you with. I would appreciate if you would refrain from referring to my private life at work." Just make this statement and do not open it up to a conversation in which they can deny and defend. Speak, pivot, return to desk.
posted by greta simone at 3:44 PM on March 24, 2014 [1 favorite]

depending on how confrontational you are, you could ask the next innuendo-er "what do you mean by that?" if they balk, press harder "no, i asked you for an explanation, not a non sequitur" and when they finally spill, "since when did my personal life become a legitimate topic at this workplace for the likes of you?"
posted by bruce at 3:49 PM on March 24, 2014 [6 favorites]

I like the be-stupid tactic. Which generally follows this pattern:

Co-worker: *innuendo*

You: *blank puzzled stare*

Co-worker: ...'Cause, you know, *innuendo*.

You: I don't understand.

Co-worker: well... uh... you like *topic of innuendo*, right?

You: What are you trying to say?

Co-worker: Oh, never mind.

You may get a reputation for humorlessness, but it's better than being the butt of small-minded people's small-minded jokes.
posted by mornie_alantie at 3:50 PM on March 24, 2014 [61 favorites]

Smile and say "Really? Still in junior high?" and walk away.
posted by raisingsand at 3:50 PM on March 24, 2014 [4 favorites]

This is one of the scariest things to do, but here's what worked for me in the past...

Channel your inner Charles Bronson, James Earl Jones, or similar bad-ass.

In a measured voice, eyes staring right into theirs, say : "Stop. That. NOW."
Coward: "What? I didn't mean anything!"
You: "Seriously. STOP."

And THEN ignore.
posted by kimberussell at 3:52 PM on March 24, 2014 [1 favorite]

I'd go with mornie_alantie and stick to variations of "I'm sorry, what do you mean by that?" and "I don't understand what you're trying to say."

It puts them on the spot: they have to back off or else explain that they're being rude.
posted by Andrhia at 4:07 PM on March 24, 2014 [7 favorites]

Yes, definitely question them on what they're talking about when they start with the innuendo. Eventually, one of the folks is going to crack and state something outright, and then you can work with that.
posted by xingcat at 4:30 PM on March 24, 2014

There is a way that you actually earn respect here instead of losing it.

Pull the worse offender(s) aside into a private room and manage them the way you would if they were your direct report (even if they are peers or your superiors).

Completely stony-faced, in a Don't Mess With Me tone:

"The repeated references to my personal life are completely unacceptable and unprofessional, whether you intend them as jokes or not. You need to stop. The next time you mention this, I'm going to take it up with HR/the management/[their boss]. OK?"

Then look them in the eye until they sheepishly say "OK."

"Thanks." And you walk out of the room.
posted by amaire at 4:46 PM on March 24, 2014 [9 favorites]

Just say what you want, be the adult here: "Hortense, I don't know if you realise it, but I find the jokes about my eleventh finger a bit upsetting. I would really appreciate if they could stop."

If they are dumb enough not to immediately apologise, and instead plead innocence or just a joke, you just say, "Well, i really don't like it, and I'm asking you to stop/ stop making references to finger-licking."

Smart arse retorts etc are only buying into the discourse that this okay.
posted by smoke at 4:54 PM on March 24, 2014 [2 favorites]

It's really hard to give useful advice without knowing a whole lot more about the situation. We'd need to know more about the power hierarchy and the nature of the thing they're alluding to (there's a big difference between say, them constantly alluding to the fact that you have an unusual but not particularly socially stigmatized hobby [model railways, say] and them alluding to something that's more central to your identity [sexuality, race]--or if it's some fact about your past whether it's a random colorful detail or something you would seriously prefer was not widely known). There's a huge difference to how you might best react to some harmless and basically well-intended ribbing over [X quirky thing] and how you might best react to what would essentially be hate speech creating a hostile work environment. The "ignore it and it will go away" advice is good for the first, the second requires something more along the lines of lawyering up--certainly talking to your bosses (unless the offenders are your bosses) or HR or whatever.

All that said, I will say one thing that is generally true for a wide range of possible scenarios: the fantasy of coming up with the perfect zinger, comeback, putdown etc. is just that, a fantasy. Unless you're a professional stand-up comedian, forget it. People tease you because they want to get a rise out of you. No matter how brilliant the comeback is in your mind, the fact that you made it counts as a "win" for them--they got proof that their teasing worked--and acts as encouragement to keep going.
posted by yoink at 5:01 PM on March 24, 2014 [21 favorites]

Scratching chin, tilting head: "If that were true, how would it affect my work here?"

Long pause while they realize the only correct answer is: it wouldn't.

Cheerful shrug: "Since that won't affect my work here, then there's no need to discuss it here at work. Jimbob, do you have a minute to go over the widget report?"
posted by Bentobox Humperdinck at 5:06 PM on March 24, 2014 [2 favorites]

Sounds like you've found a group of workplace bullies. Like with the grade school variety, confronting them or trying to set boundaries only makes them smell blood. Instead, roll your eyes and treat them like the insignificant babies they are, but document *everything*. Even if it's just an e-mail to yourself: "3/24, meeting with A, B and C. A started searching the Internet for pictures of me again and B and C followed along. I got the meeting back on track by referring to the agenda, which did not involve my personal life". That gives you something concrete to do and also a valuable record if this gets to the point you need to bring in a lawyer (and do that before contacting HR - otherwise they'll just tell the bullies what you said about them, like the sillier teachers in grade school).
posted by SakuraK at 5:09 PM on March 24, 2014 [3 favorites]

Best answer: I vote for going full bitch. Call them out on it.

"Are you implying [innuendo]?"
(Look at them and wait in silence for an answer. Put on your best bitchface.)

Hopefully they will scatter like the rats they are.

If one of them takes you on,"why yes I was [innuendo]" then you say, "Great that's exactly what I thought you were implying. Now how about we go upstairs so you can imply that to HR as well."

Escalate. Walk them to HR. Have HR come down and give them a talking to. Tell your manager. Don't take this bullshit lying down and don't play nice.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 5:13 PM on March 24, 2014 [6 favorites]

"Really? We're doing that/going there again? I must have missed the part where talking like that about someone's personal life became appropriate." With an appropriately lighthearted or 'I'm going to maim you' delivery, depending on the context.

I completely agree with yoink about this being context dependent, and I wish I could help more specifically.

I work in an environment where innuendo like this happens regularly, and it irritates the hell out of me when used against other people. I straight up ignore it about me, because I just don't care. Find an ally if you can, it may feel comforting to know that there is someone out there going "Wait, you're calling one of our colleagues [derisive nickname]? Fucking serious, dude? What would make that appropriate to call anyone, let alone your coworker? Are you twelve?"
posted by skyl1n3 at 5:18 PM on March 24, 2014 [2 favorites]

My tack would be to say, "You know what, I don't come to your desk and knock the dicks out of your mouth..."

Actually, I'd do the whole, "I don't get it. What do you mean?" If that doesn't end it, then get heavy with the next person who does the old, nudge-nudge-wink-wink.

It doesn't matter if it's true. There are lots of true things out there, and they don't always belong at work.

Hang in there.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 5:27 PM on March 24, 2014 [1 favorite]

Without knowing the full story, maybe this will help anecdotally:

In Naval Aviation, one way to ensure that a demeaning or embarrassing 'call sign' will follow you for life is to let it be known that it bothers or offends you. However, if you just give it a big shrug, another call sign eventually comes along that you actually like because it better represents 'you'.

I realize that doesn't fit your story, but maybe it's a coping tactic. Don't let them get to you.
posted by matty at 5:59 PM on March 24, 2014 [1 favorite]

I've found bullies only ever knock it off when they can't gang up. They bond and grow power by snickering with others behind a persons back.

Go with the "what did you mean by that", but go all the way. If they try to slime out of it, turn to the person they were snickering with and ask them. You know who's talking shit and they know it too. They can deny all they want: "that is clearly some sort of joke. What about it makes you uncomfortable discussing it with me?" Be merciless.

If they can't use you as a gossip tool it stops being fun for them.
posted by Blisterlips at 6:24 PM on March 24, 2014 [2 favorites]

I don't necessarily agree with the "they just want to get a rise out of you" theory. I mean, there are people like that, but they tend to operate by themselves, not in a pack. Usually, they pick on everyone, as the opportunity arises or someone seems touchy.

From your description, it sounds more like a bonding triangulation othering thing. They're trying to create this "in" group by being united in making fun of you. It's simple one-upmanship that they're doing it in your presence, who can be the boldest? type stuff.

I'd play the long game. I would tell my manager at this point my concern and that I wanted him/her to do something before this turned into a hostile work environment (use these words exactly) for you. Document that conversation. That should energize your manager like a lightning strike.

If not, then I would just wait and document the cases. Eventually someone is going to get a bit too carelessly bold and say something actually actionable. Boom. I drop the hammer, including the documented conversation with my manager. Someone gets fired. It may be my manager if it turns out he/she did nothing when I brought up the concern. (If I liked my manager, I might have that conversation twice, both the initial, and the "things haven't changed, fair warning" one. Both documented.)

This is what managers do. That's why they get paid more. But more than likely, it will not come to that. Hostile work environment is a key phrase that makes managers very eager to get involved and head off something potentially really ugly.
posted by ctmf at 6:37 PM on March 24, 2014 [3 favorites]

Best answer: I'm going to be the downer and be the one to say it: absolutely nothing in this thread is going to help you if your manager is on their side. If he is (I'm going to take a not-very-wild guess and assume he is male and you are female, because this is depressingly frequently how it plays out), then you're essentially fucked, as the best case scenario is that anything you say or anyone you report things to, up to and including HR, will be laughed off. The most you might accomplish is getting them to take it behind your back rather than in your face. Whether that's an improvement is really up to you.

(If I'm right and they ARE male and you ARE female, and particularly if it's a male-dominated field, it may or may not comfort you to know that this has very little to do with you and everything to do with how office politics coalesce around gender. Maybe I'm reading into this, but there were too many pangs of recognition, particularly regarding the "personal" stuff, for me not to mention it.)
posted by dekathelon at 6:47 PM on March 24, 2014 [4 favorites]

I'd be tempted to do the, "Sorry, is there something you would like to say to me?" Or "Sorry, is there something you are trying to say here? I don't understand what you're getting at." With a totally straight face.

Sometimes people flip out when you just call them on their bullshit. I've done that when I was younger and older (gross) colleagues would insinuate things about what I must be getting up to with other colleagues who I was friendly with (uggh so happy I no longer work there). They would get so flummoxed and just trip all over themselves and walk away pretty much.

However, without know the nature of the personal thing I can say whether this could backfire on you or not.
posted by whoaali at 6:49 PM on March 24, 2014 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks everyone for the answers so far! You've given me some new perspectives to think about. From the input here, I believe the people at work are trying to get a rise out of me. This behavior seems to be from their overall immaturity, and my plan now is to tackle it from that angle.
posted by tenlives at 11:45 PM on March 24, 2014 [2 favorites]

regarding this response -

This is what managers do. That's why they get paid more. But more than likely, it will not come to that. Hostile work environment is a key phrase that makes managers very eager to get involved and head off something potentially really ugly.
posted by ctmf at 6:37 PM on March 24 [2 favorites]

I would disagree that using the phrase "hostile work environment" to the boss should be the OP's first line of defense. Most managers will recognize the legalese, yes. Will most managers be "eager to get involved" in solving the employee's problem at the first sign of a verbal threat to take legal action against the employer? Not necessarily.

Many managers will perceive a veiled threat along these lines as an aggressive move by an underling who is betting everything on their own indispensibility, which is always illusory. It's just how work is. Nobody is indispensible, and good though you may be, there's a line around the block of other people who could fill your job tomorrow.

Some managers might be galvanized into action by a threat of legal redress, but only if the employee is seen as valuable enough to go to bat for. Any employee who makes a legal threat to a manager has to be ready to face the possibility that the employer will call their bluff and solve the issue by removing them, rather than the issue. It's easier to remove unhappy people than to actually fix problems. Not at all how it should be, and life isn't fair, etc.

OTOH, a discussion with management might be helpful if, as dekathelon suggested, you have some support there in the form of a manager with clout who is on your side. Good luck!
posted by cartoonella at 1:57 PM on March 25, 2014

Some managers might be galvanized into action by a threat of legal redress, but only if the employee is seen as valuable enough to go to bat for. Any employee who makes a legal threat to a manager has to be ready to face the possibility that the employer will call their bluff and solve the issue by removing them, rather than the issue.

Thus opening themselves up to a retaliation claim? I mean, maybe someone might do that? But it's much easier to conduct a crew YFG meeting and be done with it, unless you know the complainer is malicious or asking for special treatment that would be a big burden on everyone else.

I suppose your attitude would matter. There's a difference between, "Hey, I've got a problem I need your help with" and "I'm going to sue your pants off, asshole." But seriously, this IS (one part of) what managers do. Some even voluntarily because they're good managers. It's almost a routine "You guys knock it off" situation. I'm a manager--I like to think a good one though that's not my call to make--and I'd appreciate exactly what I suggested above. (And immediately take action, of course, so no need for the rest.)
posted by ctmf at 3:29 PM on March 25, 2014

Another way to handle it might be to simply tell them that what they're talking about makes you uncomfortable and would they please be considerate in the future. You don't need to elaborate. Adults definitely act like children sometimes but maybe this will help them get back to.. work? I'm sure at least a few of them are somewhat good people, just caught up in the current gossip, and will be more respectful. Also, if you set boundaries this way you can probably follow up with HR if it continues.

I also wanted to add, while I know what it's like and I totally understand when there is no other logical explanation, but it IS possible that the innuendo is about one of them and just happens to seem directed at you. Again I don't know what type of innuendo it is but maybe one of them shared an embarrassing /funny/whatever fact about themselves and now it's an inside joke with the group that heard it. If this is the case, then they will also probably make an effort not to talk about it around you if you say the subject makes you uncomfortable.

Hope that helps. Good luck :)
posted by soitgoes at 3:59 PM on March 30, 2014

Oops, forgot this.. For clarification on why I would suggest this.. you can probably go to HR regardless, but the coworkers may not admit to it being about you. However, if there is recurring conversation about subjects that make you uncomfortable and interferes with work, I am pretty sure (though not positive) that it would be considered harassment.
posted by soitgoes at 4:08 PM on March 30, 2014

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