Workplace etiquette question
June 4, 2014 10:33 AM   Subscribe

I've recently been teamed on a project with a co-worker who dresses and acts professionally, but tends to wear low-cut blouses. The problem is not what she is wearing but that she is frequently, nervously making adjustments to her neckline. So often that it's now making me nervous. Question inside.

Co-worker and I have been assigned to work on a long-term project. We get along and work together very well and our business relationship has always been perfectly pleasant/cordial and professional. But when we're around each other she seems to be constantly self-consciously adjusting her neckline to cover herself or pulling her sweater across her front.

I don't pay much attention to what the people I work with are wearing and am not the type to stare at a woman's breasts. She's doing it even when I'm not even looking in her direction. But now that we're working more closely those constant adjustments are making me nervous that I'm throwing off a creeper vibe. Or worse that she thinks I'm staring at her chest when I'm not. It's distracting and weirding me out. Like I'm doing something wrong. But I know I'm not. I'm also sort of concerned that her body language will be a sign to the other people in the office that I'm a creepy guy to avoid.

I spoke with another co-worker and asked her if I have ever made her feel uncomfortable and was told no. I also asked if she'd noticed our mutual colleague adjusting her neckline and she said, "now that you mention it yeah, but just around you" but otherwise had no explanation. She thought it might have something to do with my being the only male in my office. Also said that if it was a real problem our colleague would be wearing different tops.

I feel like I should speak to her about it. But how? In the past, I've had to speak with subordinates about dressing appropriately in an office environment. But this isn't that. We're equals and I don't want to embarrass her. Plus I'm not the most socially graceful person. Is this something I can safely bring up without sounding sexist or horrible? Should I? Or should I just suck it up and ignore it & hope she somehow gets more comfortable around me?
posted by qi to Human Relations (31 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
You have no way of knowing if her behavior is about you. Say nothing.
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 10:34 AM on June 4, 2014 [3 favorites]

Suck it up and ignore it. There is no way you can approach this without looking like a weirdo. I think it is probably because you're the only guy in the office, but that doesn't mean that it's personal to you or that you're doing anything wrong.
posted by desjardins at 10:36 AM on June 4, 2014 [9 favorites]

I am a woman in a male-dominated office. I suspect that this is not about your behavior but rather a semi-conscious process on her part. There are some meetings where I am constantly adjusting my blouse NOT because I think all my male coworkers are perverts but because I'm afraid that I'm flashing people.

I would be horribly embarrased if a coworker brought this up to me.
posted by muddgirl at 10:37 AM on June 4, 2014 [49 favorites]

Absolutely do not say anything about it. Speaking to your female coworker about how she handles her clothing will always be inappropriate. Ignore it, act professionally, and try to shrug it off. You're thinking about this way more than anyone else is.
posted by brainmouse at 10:37 AM on June 4, 2014 [2 favorites]

This seems like a super terrible idea. She could say you were sexually harassing her if you talked to her alone. Just ignore. It's really not a big deal.
posted by Aranquis at 10:39 AM on June 4, 2014 [1 favorite]

Agree with the above noters, ignore it and keep your eyes averted for now. She will probably get more comfortable with you in a couple of weeks or so, and hopefully this nervous behaviour will cease. In the meantime, try to remember that this is her nervous tic, and is no way under your control or responsibility.
posted by rpfields at 10:39 AM on June 4, 2014 [5 favorites]

Don't gossip with other coworkers about the cleavage of a colleague.
posted by theraflu at 10:44 AM on June 4, 2014 [16 favorites]

I wasn't gossiping about my colleague's cleavage. Asked for a reality check because she seems uncomfortable around me.
posted by qi at 10:59 AM on June 4, 2014 [9 favorites]

It's most likely not your behaviour, just her being careful. As someone with larger breasts in a male dominated environment I am always conscious of not accidentally giving someone an eyeful. It's not because I think that all men are pervs but because I don't want to put them in a position that would make both of us uncomfortable. I imagine she is just doing the same thing.

Ignore her behavior, keep your eyes to her face or the work you are doing together. Be careful that now you are conscious of her fidgeting you don't keep glancing at that as well as it will just make her more self conscious.
posted by wwax at 11:06 AM on June 4, 2014 [1 favorite]

[Couple comments removed, keep it helpful.]
posted by cortex (staff) at 11:10 AM on June 4, 2014

Possibly not a PC thing to say, but I will suggest one possibility is that she is finding you mildly attractive/distracting and it is making her self conscious about not wanting to inadvertently give off the wrong signal. Sort of a variation of what muddgirl said but more nervous making.

If I were you, I would make it a goal to be reassuring that you are not uncomfortable around her. I know her behavior is making that difficult but it might be the only PC path forward that does not make her cleavage into some kind of problem. Since you don't stare at her normally, I would assume she is uncomfortable because of something going through her head and one possibility is she is mildly attracted to you, just enough to be distracted and self conscious. For me, the correct answer when I am uncomfortable around a man in that particular way is for him to be platonically friendly, calm, and reassuring.

My reason for being uncomfortable with mild attraction is not the attraction per se, because I don't feel some big need to act on it, but my fear that he will turn it into a big deal -- because some men do and that becomes a very big problem no matter how I respond. Men who make it clear that they are flattered I like them and they are not concerned about it becoming an issue, because they know they wouldn't act on it (under inappropriate circumstances) and they trust that I don't have some evil agenda to seduce them and damn the consequences, have been successful in getting things back on friendly, professional terms. Men who noticed I was mildly attracted and then jumped to ugly conclusions about how I clearly had some agenda to seduce them and ruin their lives -- train wreck, no matter how far I bent over backwards to reassure them that I was not up to something nauseum.
posted by Michele in California at 11:13 AM on June 4, 2014 [2 favorites]

Ignore it. I adjust my necklines constantly because I have a larger chest and have been since puberty because 99% of things don't fit me correctly in that area. It's probably not you, just a learned habit that she may not even be aware she's doing.
posted by picklesthezombie at 11:13 AM on June 4, 2014 [2 favorites]

Clothing adjustments, especially around body area that a person feels uncomfortable about often become an unconscious, nervous tic. I've known women who unconsciously pulled at their blouses and necklines and men who pulled at their shirts and sweaters when they hugged a belly too closely. I would assume it's that and not take it personally. It sounds like you're already being careful about not leering and being conscious of your body language and that's more than enough.
posted by quince at 11:25 AM on June 4, 2014 [1 favorite]

Hi, I'm that woman. I find there's a difference between the amount of cleavage I show staring at a mirror straight on while at home and then in every day activity. I have a rather robust bust and in some ways it doesn't matter if I'm wearing a shirt up to my neck, if I lean over the right way I might accidentally flash someone. One of the worst feelings in the world is to think that my d├ęcolletage is okay, sit down at a desk or lean over a computer screen, and suddenly realize that it's not. As a result, I get really self-conscious about it - especially because I never want to come off as anything less than professional - so I suddenly mess with my neckline a lot (the holding papers to my chest trick! The sweater trick! The going around the corner to tug trick! etc. etc. ). This sounds a lot like your colleague.

Your colleague had a work wardrobe she felt was fine... until she started working with the lone male more frequently, and suddenly it may be making her nervous and/or more aware of her body. She's not going to rush out and buy more clothes unless she truly was uncomfortable, so she's going to make nervous adjustments instead.

If her behavior changes in any other way than cordial, professional, and pleasant - like she doesn't want to be in a room alone with you, or she's trying to limit conversations - i.e., if you engage in small talk and she engages back without reservation and without trying to rush away, that's a pretty good sign things are fine (usually......) - then it's her own awareness of herself, not your awareness of her, that's causing this behavior. Think of it this way: She's SELF-conscious, not YOU-conscious. If that changes, then you need to be concerned you're acting inappropriately.

The worst thing in the world you could do is engage in any way with her about it. Not only could it be construed in the wrong way's also none of your business. (Assuming you are not a creeper, but if you were, it's STILL only your behavior you have to worry about, not her behavior.) It's not affecting her competence in any way, but moreover, since you're an equal, not her boss, than it's only YOUR competence you need to worry about in the first place. And that's your problem, not hers, just as her competence and professionalism is her concern, not yours. Treat it like the millions of other nervous habits one is exposed to in business by ignoring it, and focus on your own behavior and work.
posted by barchan at 11:47 AM on June 4, 2014 [28 favorites]

"Does it seem to you like Jane is always rearranging her chest in my presence?" is not a question I would want to come close to answering in any form or degree. When men talk about feeling uncomfortable around women, sometimes it feels like they're trying to find a professional way of telling everyone that they find someone sexually pleasing. See also: the high school teacher that lectures about the value of wearing modest clothing so as to not make male students uncomfortable. Odds are low that she's even thinking about your opinion on her clothing or body. The fact that you're noticing it, however, should be a wakeup call that perhaps you should stop noticing it by not looking at her chest in the first place.

But seriously, don't speak to her about it. All she's going to hear is that her tits made you look twice. Please, don't do that "I wasn't looking, but if you're interested in me, maybe I was looking!" shit that guys have done to me. You're making a lot of pains to explain that you weren't looking at her chest, but now you're noticing every time she adjusts her bra. Doesn't that mean you are looking? Just don't do it, and don't let her small movements bother you.
posted by theraflu at 1:09 PM on June 4, 2014 [1 favorite]

Since you're the only guy, possibly, she's self-conscious around men, can't figure out what to wear in the morning and thus, keeps twitching and fidgeting and pulling and adjusting. I guess you can't very well leave a roll of fashion tape on her desk, but it would be nice if someone would. If I was in your place (and I'm a middle-aged woman) I'd be very uncomfortable. Maybe try to have all your meetings arranged so that you're both standing or sitting on an equal level so that you never have to look down at her and her bosom.
posted by Ideefixe at 1:28 PM on June 4, 2014

You know those guides that are called, like, "Flirting 101 for nerds" or whatever? The ones that point out that when a woman touches her hair, or makes some other innocuous movement, it's because she's flirting with you? Those always make me panic slightly, because I do things like rearrange my hair all the time. Even when I'm all alone. The fact that some guy might think I'm doing it because of him is just...eurgh. I am 99% sure your coworker's little habits have nothing to do with you. Ignore.

And on the 1% chance that they do have something to do with you? Ignore anyway. If she's flirting with you, she can try harder next time. If she's uncomfortable around you, she can deal with it in an adult fashion. (Discuss it with you, or wear a scarf.) There is noting to be gained by asking her why she's adjusting her shirt.
posted by DestinationUnknown at 2:14 PM on June 4, 2014 [4 favorites]

I noticed a co-worker doing this once and was worried that I seemed creepy or something. Then one day she said to me "Bob in IT is always staring at my chest when he comes in my office. It's so creepy!"

That's when I realized that it had nothing to do with me. She wouldn't have mentioned it to me if she thought I was creepy. She was self-conscious because of someone else she interacts with.
posted by tacodave at 2:41 PM on June 4, 2014

The fact that you're noticing it, however, should be a wakeup call that perhaps you should stop noticing it by not looking at her chest in the first place.

But seriously, don't speak to her about it. All she's going to hear is that her tits made you look twice. Please, don't do that "I wasn't looking, but if you're interested in me, maybe I was looking!" shit that guys have done to me. You're making a lot of pains to explain that you weren't looking at her chest, but now you're noticing every time she adjusts her bra. Doesn't that mean you are looking? Just don't do it

Imagine you're working with someone at the same desk and sharing a computer. Or sitting accross from each other in a meeting room or at a conference table. Or are talking to them in a hallway. They are fidgeting. Often. Pulling at their blouse or sweater in an attempt to cover themselves. Patting their shirt to make sure there's no gap. They seem uncomfortable and even when you're not interacting, you're peripherally aware it's happening when you're around.

You'd notice. It is hard to miss. I don't have to stare at her hands or chest or be physically attracted to her to be aware of it.

I'm not staring at her chest. I'm not "gossiping about her cleavage," ffs. Both of your comments seem filled with preconceived notions about what's happening. You are ignoring my stated problem to make up ones that don't exist. Not helpful.

and don't let her small movements bother you.

Easier said than done, but I will try. Will not speak with her about this, either.
posted by qi at 3:29 PM on June 4, 2014 [2 favorites]

If it gives you any peace of mind, adjusting your shirt when you know it's low cut is just something people do. It's not a reflection how you're interacting with her (Could be in some circumstances, but if you said you're not staring at her cleavage then you're not staring at her cleavage.) It could be that they sense your discomfort as you are worrying about appearing that you are looking at her cleavage, and interpreting that as, "My cleavage is making him uncomfortable, I need to adjust my shirt." Rather than, "He is looking at my cleavage, I need to adjust my shirt." I am a woman, but sometimes when a co-worker is wearing something really low cut, it's like it's sort of hanging out but I am thinking, "Don't look at their boobs, that will make them feel weird." But then it's likely I'm pointedly not looking at their chest and so it's obvious somehow. Maybe it's the vague discomfort they are picking up on.
posted by mermily at 4:13 PM on June 4, 2014 [2 favorites]

I'm really surprised that the other colleague who said she noticed it, too, didn't offer to drop a hint. The fact that she's constantly adjusting it HAS to mean that she's just as uncomfortable with it as she's making you.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 6:25 PM on June 4, 2014

So I was in this exact situation (I was the blouse-adjuster), and my male co-worker brought it up to me. I had no idea at all that I was doing this and it definitely didn't have anything to do with him in particular. For me, I think this is a nervous habit brought on by years of unwanted attention and a desire to appear "professional" but feeling that showing cleavage isn't. My co-worker framed it as "I've been noticing that you adjust your blouse a lot when we're interacting, and I hope you don't think I'm staring at your chest". FWIW, I would have never thought he was staring at my chest in a million years until he said that! I was really embarrassed and uncomfortable when he brought it up with me, but we are long-term co-workers who have a high level of trust and respect for one another, and it didn't damage our relationship in the long term. If it had been a co-worker I felt less comfortable with, it might have been a different story. I really doubt that this has anything to do with you, and I don't think you should bring it up with her.
posted by ezrainch at 7:41 PM on June 4, 2014 [2 favorites]

Speaking as a busty woman, if it makes you feel better, try not to tower over her or hover from behind. That's when we can't help thinking that the hoverer is getting an eyeful of breasts, because necklines show more from above than from the front.

(And *we* look at our breasts from above, so we're totally aware of that)
posted by sukeban at 11:25 PM on June 4, 2014

You are ignoring my stated problem

Your stated problem does not exist. Some people adjust their clothing frequently, as a nervous habit. Women in particular are highly encouraged to worry about how they look, which often means "fussing" with clothing, hair, etc. Women are also often told to make sure necklines aren't too low in a workplace, yet most women's clothing shifts around enough that almost any shirt can show cleavage even for an average sized woman, if it shifts in the wrong direction. People who lack boobs often don't realize this, but they pull against your shirt enough that every time you sit down, reach up, twist around, etc, your neckline changes.

Some people are more worried about showing cleavage than others and will adjust necklines a lot, especially when a man is around. I really, really wouldn't worry about it and would absolutely not say anything about it to her. If said in the wrong way, it could easy come off as (or be) sexual harassment. Talking to other colleagues about her "cleavage adjustment" is already in an iffy zone, I'd stop doing that as well.
posted by randomnity at 1:17 PM on June 6, 2014

I'd like to add that it's surprisingly difficult for me to find women's business casual/professional blouses that are immune to cleavage, at least in a reasonable price range, and I've been keeping an eye out for years. Button-ups inevitably gape open, most other blouses you see on the racks are scoop or V-necks cut low enough to show cleavage in some positions, and the few high-necked shirts are usually very clearly intended for much much older women, and would look really strange on someone in their 20s. The problem becomes worse and worse as bust size gets larger.

I'm sure many women have no trouble finding those magical no-cleavage non-hideous blouses, but I can't possibly be the only one who does have trouble. So the "low-cut" clothing may not be a deliberate choice on her part, or a sign that she's comfortable showing cleavage.
posted by randomnity at 1:34 PM on June 6, 2014 [1 favorite]

If it's because she has a badly fitting bra, I feel bad for her because I used to be this woman. I didn't know I was sized wrong. I thought you went to Target and just picked out whatever seemed OK even if the straps fell down literally every 10 minutes or showed under my clothes unless I pushed it back every time I moved. Then I found an article online about women not wearing bras that fit and started getting properly fitted bras, which also sucked because I am apparently a more unusual size. Even now I sometimes accidentally where the wrong bra with the wrong thing and I have to still fiddle with it. I think a lot of women are in this boat.

If you want to understand how complicated it can be, check out this calculator I had to use to find my fit
And then my size is something obscure which is only available at some stores and definitely not at Target.

But it's none of your business and Bravangelism would be creepy if you brought it up as a man.
posted by melissam at 2:11 PM on June 6, 2014 [2 favorites]

I'm really surprised that the other colleague who said she noticed it, too, didn't offer to drop a hint.

They went to lunch today together without me and she brought it up. Got an email a little while ago after they got back that said: "Spoke to [our mutual coworker]. You're fine, love. It has nothing to do with you so just ignore her."

A happy ending.
posted by qi at 2:18 PM on June 6, 2014 [2 favorites]

But it's none of your business and Bravangelism would be creepy if you brought it up as a man.

I wouldn't bring that up even if she were a close friend. There's no way I'd talk to a woman I work with about their underwear. Thanks for the link.
posted by qi at 2:23 PM on June 6, 2014

Your stated problem does not exist.

Yes it does. It's behavior I have a problem with, which I will have to learn to ignore and live with.

Talking to other colleagues about her "cleavage adjustment" is already in an iffy zone, I'd stop doing that as well.

I went to someone I trusted to remain discreet. Respectfully asked if they had noticed a fellow co-worker fidgeting and acting uncomfortable around me, and did they think it was my fault. That's all.
posted by qi at 2:44 PM on June 6, 2014 [1 favorite]

I have marked this resolved. Thank you everyone for your advice and guidance.
posted by qi at 2:45 PM on June 6, 2014 [1 favorite]

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