Every week, Mallory Ortberg answers questions from readers in a live chat. Now she’ll be answering a few additional questions for Slate Plus members only.
Q. Immigrant Co-Worker Occasionally Inappropriate: A few months ago, my department at work hired a new employee, and I was asked to be her mentor—I was delighted, and I’ve been doing my best to help her out.
But I’m running into one issue that I’m not sure how I should handle. Every now and then, she’ll say something incredibly inappropriate for the office—sexual jokes and anecdotes/comments that are bigoted in a variety of ways. She’s a fairly recent immigrant from Russia who sometimes struggles with English, so I try to give her the benefit of the doubt and assume that she is not as bigoted as she may seem, but how do I gently let her know that she’s crossing the line of what is appropriate at work in this country? Her jokes have included “Oh, we had a shipment go missing in Moldova? No wonder, it’s full of Gypsies, they probably stole it, like they steal everything,” as one example, and in another, referring to a transgender client as “it” instead of “her.”
Another wrinkle to this is that while I’m mentoring her because of my experience on the job, I’m about 10 years younger than she is, so I get the feeling she may regard me as naive in some areas. How do I broach this without coming down on her like a ton of bricks?
A: This falls pretty squarely into the scope of the mentor-mentee relationship, I think. If she makes racist comments and refers to clients as “it,” even if it’s only every now and then, she’s risking her own job, not to mention running the risk of alienating and offending your company’s clients and her co-workers. It’s completely appropriate for you to draw her attention to it. Not commenting on a client’s appearance or gender identity is fairly standard professional behavior, as is refraining from referring to an entire ethnic group as a bunch of thieves. If she’s not clear on that yet, she should be.
You can either wait for her to make another inappropriate comment and gently alert her to the fact that it’s not suitable office conversation, or you can take her aside and tell her that you’ve noticed an occasional tendency of hers to make offensive remarks about other people’s gender and ethnicity. If you think she’ll laugh you off because of your age, feel free to frame it as something that could get her in trouble at work, rather than solely something that bothers you personally. If she’s a new hire, presumably HR has given her a welcome packet with appropriate training on your company’s policy on racist comments at work. It might help to show her what you’re talking about in writing, so she realizes that you’re not unusually sensitive but that in fact it’s considered unprofessional to say “they steal everything” about other ethnic groups at work.
If she doesn’t learn this from you, she’ll have to learn it from someone else, and that person might not have the same compunctions you do about coming down on her like a ton of bricks.
Q. Husband Focuses on Looks: My husband and I have a 6-year-old son who is very outgoing. He loves meeting new people and makes friends easily. However, every time my husband meets a new female school friend of our son’s (or an adult woman he finds to talk to at church or the store), he always comments about how pretty or cute she is to my son. And then once they are home and rehashing the story to me, he will continue to say, “Son, wasn’t she pretty? Do you like her? She was very beautiful.” This has begun to really irritate me and seems like just one more way women are treated as objects, or are marginalized for not meeting a false standard of beauty. How can I approach my (seemingly well-intentioned but very sensitive to criticism) husband, and how can I undo any damage that has already been done with my son?
A: It’s definitely weird of your husband to bring up the attractiveness of strangers to your son as often as he does! It’s a shame that your husband is very sensitive to criticism, but that doesn’t mean he should never experience any. Ask him if he’s noticed that he repeatedly points out the way women look to his son, and tell him that you think it’s unnecessary (and more than a little strange) to do every time your son meets a new woman. If he has an outsized emotional reaction, that’s a shame, but he’ll eventually calm down and you two can talk about why he feels so strongly about this.
I don’t think you need to worry about lasting damage to your son (it’s not as if your husband has been training him to rate women on a 1-to-10 scale), but it’s fine for you to steer the conversation in different directions if he starts volunteering opinions on strange women’s appearances.