Rate my social misstep
August 8, 2018 8:18 PM   Subscribe

I'm worried that I horribly misrepresented myself to new coworkers. How would you interpret this situation?

I was at a happy hour with most of my coworkers, including my boss. I was telling a story about surly teenagers trying to intimidate me, and I said "they called me a word I won't say because you all don't know me too well and I don't want to give a bad impression." Everyone thought I just meant I didn't want to swear, and I had to explain that no, I meant a word that started with F and concerned my sexual orientation.

I didn't think anything of it at the time, but after I left I realized it could have sounded like I use that word on my own time, or that I'm OK with it, or something. I'm worried that I've hurt or offended any of my coworkers, or that someone will wonder if I'm a secret homophobe. I'm worried I'll be spending the rest of my time there with people suspecting that I'm secretly bigoted against any of them, or that I'm a secret bigot in general.

It's not a word I ever say or think about, and my only thought when I was telling the story was "whoops, I was about to repeat something awful and potentially hurtful, and then everyone would hate me!" So I meant that I wasn't going to say it because it was potentially hurtful, but it came out like "I shouldn't say the word I'm thinking to people who don't know me." Why was I even telling this story to coworkers? Because I'm awkward and I overshare and I didn't think about whether a story about something that happened to me might hurt someone else.

If it's as bad as I fear, what do I do? If it's not, how can I avoid phrasing things so badly? I feel like this happens to me all the time.

This site tends to be a very harsh judge of character, so what do you all think?
posted by shapes that haunt the dusk to Human Relations (27 answers total)
Hi! I may be projecting here a little bit, but do you think there's a chance that you have social anxiety? Do you have anxiety about other things in your life? Because I tend to fixate on imagined faux pas like this, and for me it's an anxiety symptom.

For what it's worth, I don't think you committed a social offense, and I don't think your co-workers are going to think you're a secret homophobe.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 8:20 PM on August 8, 2018 [20 favorites]

I think you're fine. Your fear about what you said relies on someone thinking twice about what you said and then choosing to find the worst possible interpretation of it. It's really unlikely that either one of these things happened in your coworkers' minds. I'd just try to think about something else until you forget it ever happened. You will forget this.
posted by bleep at 8:21 PM on August 8, 2018 [4 favorites]

I would view it as someone avoiding using profanity with a new group of coworkers, no more no less. I would not assume you were someone who approved of using the word, even, because you were quoting someone who called you that name.
posted by randomkeystrike at 8:23 PM on August 8, 2018 [33 favorites]

you didn't say anything offensive. if you told the story again you could just say they called you a slur. or that they tried to provoke you with offensive language. either of those is short and simple. while I can see that the over-explaining was perhaps an awkward moment, it will not make anyone think you're secretly bigoted.
posted by queenofbithynia at 8:26 PM on August 8, 2018 [6 favorites]

I’ve read your question twice, and I can’t figure out how a reasonable listener’s take-away would be that you use that slur in private or that you’re a bigot. I rate your social misstep as “not one.”
posted by whitewall at 8:48 PM on August 8, 2018 [32 favorites]

I would simply assume you were trying to maintain professional boundaries by not using harsh swear words at a work function. I wouldn't think you use bigoted slurs in your off time.
posted by BeeJiddy at 8:49 PM on August 8, 2018 [6 favorites]

Yeah for real no worries! You didn’t commit a faux pas, I hope you feel better soon.
posted by tristeza at 9:00 PM on August 8, 2018

I don't think you outed yourself as a closet bigot.

If you're looking for specific language for next time, I would say something like, "They called me---and I don't know how keen you all are about the use-mention distinction so I'm going to be a bit elliptical. They called me a word that starts with F and refers to my sexual orientation. Does everyone know which word I'm talking about? Anyway they started calling me that word and you could tell they meant it to be an insult and then I said..."

The key bits being, (1) that you make it clear you are quoting someone else and (2) that you clarify their intent in a way which indicates that you don't yourself share that interpretation or expect your audience to share that interpretation.

FWIW, I also think that with one notable exception where many of the relevant population have made their opinions clear on the matter, people are usually okay with mentioning a word as a word, even if they would object to using that word directly.
posted by meaty shoe puppet at 9:10 PM on August 8, 2018 [1 favorite]

Everyone thought I just meant I didn't want to swear, and I had to explain that no, I meant a word that started with F and concerned my sexual orientation.

Reading this, without the additional context provided by an in person situation, my impression is that you are saying you are LGBTQ, and don't want people to presume you are straight, but they don't know you too well and might be assuming you are straight. If I thought about it a bit more (which I probably wouldn't do in an actual conversation) I would assume you are perfectly find with using "a word that started with F and concerned my sexual orientation" when you are in company that knows you better and will understand you are referring to yourself. I don't think you have to worry about people thinking you are a secret homophobe.

But based on your asking this question, you are either not LGBTQ and/or not out at work.

If the context was such that it would be difficult for people to assume you fit somewhere under the LGBTQ umbrella, even then there is nothing here to indicate that people would think ill of you for what you said.

Everyone thought I just meant I didn't want to swear, and I had to explain that no, I meant a word that started with F and concerned my sexual orientation.

You know you can just leave it at people assuming you are avoiding saying a swear word, right?
posted by yohko at 9:22 PM on August 8, 2018 [6 favorites]

By attempting to avoid saying the word, you demonstrated awareness of boundaries and potential offence which defaults people toward the charitable interpretation, if they weren’t there already. No need to worry.
posted by iamkimiam at 9:41 PM on August 8, 2018 [2 favorites]

On a scale of 1 to 10, where 10 is your worst fear, I would rate this a 0.

Regarding phrasing things better - if you're talking specifically about avoiding offensive words, you could just say "a word I'm not comfortable repeating to you because it can be used as a slur". If you were asking more generally, as someone who also feels awkward and like they overshare, my counterintuitive solution is to lean into the awkwardness and oversharing instead of trying to stop it (after many years of trying to limit how much I speak to avoid revealing my awkwardness). Mostly, what I think is oversharing isn't. Also, when I continue sharing, people get to know me and realize that, for example, I'm clearly not a homophobe. When I say or do something awkward, I openly acknowledge how awkward it was. If I realized I said something potentially homophobic, I'd probably say "that was really badly phrased and now I'm worried you'll all hate me because you'll think I'm secretly homophobic", even if it was an awkward amount of time later. Heck, I'd probably say "and this is an awkward amount of time later to be mentioning it".

In this case, though, I guarantee nobody misread it (except possibly as you being LGBTQ, if that's a misreading), and if you brought it up probably nobody would remember it.
posted by ersatzhuman at 10:38 PM on August 8, 2018

I don't remember offhand if you're actually LGBT, but as a queer person, I have met, you know, plenty of people who were homophobic, and this doesn't even vaguely resemble the ways those people have signaled to me that they were awful, so yeah, you're super fine on that count. But it does sound like you've got some anxiety crud and therapy and meds are A++ good things.
posted by Sequence at 11:15 PM on August 8, 2018 [1 favorite]

And here we see the golden rule of AskMeFi at play: When metafilter is a less harsh judge of your character than you are, it’s time for some good ol’ fashioned therapy.

(And no shame in that! Or in your faux faux pas! You seem like a stand up human being! I’d be your friend!)
posted by suncages at 11:24 PM on August 8, 2018 [9 favorites]

If I was your colleague, I’d wonder why you couldn’t just say: “these surly teenagers called me a faggot”, and would think you’re either bigoted or closeted.

I’d not necessarily remember it the following day.

If it's as bad as I fear, what do I do? If it's not, how can I avoid phrasing things so badly?

Just say things like they are, it’s the editing that make people wonder about your motives.

I’m a Black man and if someone called me a Nigger, and I told the story to someone else, I would say exactly that, rather than struggle for a periphrasis.
posted by Kwadeng at 11:25 PM on August 8, 2018 [5 favorites]

You're worried about this:
after I left I realized it could have sounded like I use that word on my own time
but you also note this:
Everyone thought I just meant I didn't want to swear
That's what I'd have thought, presumably because you didn't want to offend anybody, and after you'd explained which word it was I'd keep right on thinking that you didn't want to offend anybody.

This wouldn't warrant a raised eyebrow from me. If anything I'd appreciate your sensitivity. Bigots and homophobes don't tip-toe around these sorts of words. They're too busy shouting them at other people.
posted by some little punk in a rocket at 2:14 AM on August 9, 2018

I would draw no conclusions from this about whether you were gay or not or homophobic or not. This “f” word has just about got the social status of the “n” word — simply prohibited even in the most causally profane of environments but for some very specific cultural context use by and among members of the group it usually defames. I hang in some foul-mouthed Wall Street and cigar smoking golfer circles and haven’t heard either word in a long, long time, from black or gay people, or anyone else for that matter.
posted by MattD at 3:34 AM on August 9, 2018 [1 favorite]

or that someone will wonder if I'm a secret homophobe.

My takeaway was like yohko's. I assumed you were GLBT but this story wasn't about that and so you glided past discussing your own sexual orientation. I did not, at all, read this as "This person uses that word in private and that is why they are stumbling over using it in public" I think you are fine and for whatever reason your anxious mind is pushing your buttons about this and you should kindly tell it to shut up.
posted by jessamyn at 6:28 AM on August 9, 2018

I think you're fine. I think you were right to not just say the word these days as well because a lot of people lose their minds on stuff like that.
posted by jenfullmoon at 6:30 AM on August 9, 2018

or that someone will wonder if I'm a secret homophobe

I would've taken it the opposite way, that you don't have a huge problem with swearing per se, but that you know that this word is a hateful one that homophobes use, so you won't even relay others' use of the word around people who haven't yet learned that you aren't one. "I don't want you to get the impression of me that I'm the kind of person for whom this word easily rolls off the tongue." You said you didn't want to give the wrong impression, so to me it implies, "this word gives a bad impression and the wrong impression about the kind of person I am."
posted by salvia at 8:14 AM on August 9, 2018

I'd have lost the total gist of your story while trying to figure out why they had called you a fuck, continued to nod and smile and appear attentive and some five minutes later come back to the conversation having realised you meant fag... or thinking that you meant fag.

Not a faux pas. Not giving them a bad impression of you.

Your social anxiety probably peaked then, as opposed to you actually violating a boundary or making yourself look like a gay slut or a homophobe. You noticed a glitch when they didn't understand for a moment and the attunement of the conversation faltered. It is very anxiety provoking to realise you don't speak the same language as other people, as that is ordinarily the way tribes differentiate themselves. A lot of people can't get over their anxiety to speak a foreign language in public because of this, while they can speak it in the classroom. Not being understood can be scary - uh-oh, am I in enemy territory! So your heart rate went up and you are looking at the words very closely, although you might have had a similar glitch in communication while talking about time sheets, or celery, or how to use the phone system. If the glitch had occurred during one of those subjects you would be worried that you were coming across as dumb, or bossy, or impatient, on uneducated, but since it occurred while you were nervously checking out if they were going to react positively to your basic identity your social anxiety went off like a klaxon.

Basically you expressed yourself validly, the way you are you, being considerate about people understanding and not making slurs against groups. Good. You are more than an acceptable person. You are an empathetic and intelligent person.

And they got puzzled, and maybe, just maybe will have picked up a bad impression of you. But if they did it's because they like to use the word fag as a slur, or are impatient, unkind, cranky people who only want to associate with people who are very like them. In that case you will soon figure out that your office is full of homophobic jerks - and it will have nothing to do with the way you expressed yourself. But more likely they are decent people - because the majority of us are, the majority of the time - and they will have been worrying in the back of their head if you actually document your code, or get your time sheets in on time, or whistle tunelessly while concentrating, are get pissy if someone brings in muffins because you don't think muffins are healthy, or do any of those important things, and would be prepared to leave out any references to gay people or gayness around you, if you turn out to be homophobic because eh, we can't choose who we work with and as long as you don't rant about hating gays this is not the hill they want to die on, even if they adore their gay neice.

I suggest that you mention gayness in a positive light in conversation with your new workmates - not in a personal sense as in referring to the great time you had at the truck stop last night, or the fact that your mother has always been totally accepting or anything that might hit a sensitive spot, but in reference to media popular culture that they will have possibly encountered but will still be neutral ground. That way if you have come across as a homophobe you will undo the impression and that way you will elicit their homophobic or homopositive characteristics and if they are homophobic you can start looking for allies on the job who are not. But, although this is important to you, it's not immediately important, so take it slow and be friendly. Gently coax them into talking about what is interesting to them and they will likely consider you a very sensible and articulate person even though they will be the one doing most of the talking.
posted by Jane the Brown at 8:31 AM on August 9, 2018 [1 favorite]

I would assume you just didn't want to swear, and then I would probably try to be a little more careful about my own potty-mouth when I'm around you. There is nothing wrong with either.

You didn't commit a faux-pas, and I'm sure you spent more time typing this out than any of your listeners did thinking about your phrasing. You're good.
posted by arcticwoman at 8:47 AM on August 9, 2018

As a recovering over-thinker, I can legitimately state that you are over-thinking this encounter! You are FINE. I hope you enjoy your new position.
posted by Mayree at 9:21 AM on August 9, 2018

You're fine.
posted by escape from the potato planet at 12:47 PM on August 9, 2018

Zero faux pas, zero misrepresentation IMHO. I wouldn’t give this a second thought in any gathering, and can’t even think of a single person in my social circle who would.
posted by rpfields at 12:52 PM on August 9, 2018

Have you seen this?

Just give it 7 seconds
posted by salvia at 1:29 PM on August 9, 2018

Just joining the chorus to say that you're 1000000% fine here. No faux pas, no bad impression (unless someone was actively looking for one, maybe), nothing to stress about or fix for next time. I personally thought, upon initially reading, that you were lgbtq and trying to be discrete about that fact around people who don't know you, rather than that you're bigoted or free with your use of slurs.

I relate so strongly to this, which makes me agree with those who mentioned social anxiety as a possibility. I suffer from it too and this kind of overthinking and dissecting everything you said to find some fault with it is what I do on a daily basis. Look into that, if you haven't already, but otherwise, congratulations on your position and I guarantee your coworkers haven't given this a moment's thought since you said it.

As for your character, from this one ask, you seem lovely and considerate and conscious of other people's feelings.
posted by Anne Shirley at 3:13 PM on August 9, 2018

Thanks for the reassurances, everyone. Coworkers did not seem unusually weirded-out by me today.

Also, I've mentioned my girlfriend to more than a few people, so I doubt anyone thought I was gay. Probably just socially awkward, which: see above. I only found out recently that my nickname around the department at school was "Awkward [name]," so I'm sure this is in keeping with my reputation.

But really, thank you. I've managed to let this one go.
posted by shapes that haunt the dusk at 8:14 PM on August 9, 2018 [1 favorite]

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