my coworker doesn’t like it when I set boundaries on conversation topics — Ask a Manager

here are the 10 best questions to ask your job interviewer — Ask a Manager

A reader writes:

I work in an artistic field, which leads to a much more casual environment amongst coworkers and a lot of time for chatting. I’m usually fine with this, but I’m having increasing issues with one coworker, Tommy.

Tommy routinely brings up topics that I’m uncomfortable discussing. He initially respected this, but has started to get very annoyed because I do it so often. The problem is I have to do it so often because his discussion points are extremely upsetting. Today alone, for example, I had to opt out of conversations on:

• he believes abuse victims who don’t leave deserve the abuse they face and are stupid for staying
• a detailed description of the gore in a horror movie
• women who dress in revealing clothes deserve to be harassed/assaulted

Tommy is not intentionally playing devil’s advocate; on days when I’ve had the bandwidth, I’ve talked to him and changed his mind. (For example, I convinced him that using people’s pronouns is a matter of politeness even if he didn’t understand why they used those pronouns.) But I’m clocking in to do my job and handle discussions about my work, maybe some chit chatting about tv shows — not long discussions having to explain why sexual assault is bad. He genuinely doesn’t view these topics as controversial or difficult to discuss, and thinks I’m fussy for not wanting to. He’s started to say he’s “pulling a (my name)” when he doesn’t want to talk about something — which of course I always respect. But he doesn’t say it like it’s a good thing, and he tends to do it while sighing dramatically.

I’m worried Tommy’s attitude will continue to get worse as I continue to set polite boundaries, to the point it might interfere with work. Or that he might start ignoring when I ask him to stop — he already pushes it with frequently bringing up horror movies because he thinks my discomfort about the very idea of most of their plots is funny. Is there a polite way I can explain to him that I simply never want to discuss serious or violent topics at work without him taking it poorly?

Escalating this to HR or management is technically possible, but would certainly make things fraught. We’re short-staffed so there’s no way he’d get fired, and if he’s reprimanded he would know I complained and he doesn’t seem the type to take that well.

Tommy is an ass.

Your best move is to decide you don’t care what he thinks about you. If this edgelord wants to believe you’re a delicate tulip who’s ill-equipped to survive in the world, so be it. He can think whatever he wants as long as he abides by your request to let you work in peace, without having to listen to his shitty misogynistic viewpoints.

Right now, it sounds like you’re looking for a way to get him to stop without him losing respect for you in the process. And that would be nice, but it’s not a necessity. We just need him to stop repeatedly violating your boundaries. (And really, since his opinions suck on a whole range of topics, it’s not surprising that his opinion about you might end up being wrong too.)

So: “I don’t want to discuss abuse, gore, harassment, or your views on women while I’m at work. Stop bringing those things up with me. This is me clearly telling you that it’s unwelcome and needs to stop.”

If he takes that poorly, that’s on him, not you. If he’s a halfway okay guy at heart, he won’t want to keep upsetting you and you’ll be doing him a favor by spelling it out so clearly. And if he’s not a halfway decent guy (spoiler: he’s not), then why worry that he won’t like you setting a boundary?

If you use the language above and he still keeps at it anyway: “Dude, I told you to stop. My next step is HR. I’d rather not, but this is a warning that I’m approaching that point.”

If he uses “pulling a (your name)” to mean avoiding a topic, roll your eyes and ignore him. He wants a reaction from you; your reaction probably makes him feel important. Ignore him.

If he makes snarky comments about how he can’t talk about topic X or topic Y around you, say in a bored tone, “Yep, thanks.”

But please don’t rule out escalating this to your manager or HR just because he would know you were the one who complained. It’s fine if he knows you complained, as long as someone with authority intervenes with him. (Plus, I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s doing this to other people too, so there might be a whole menu of people who could have reported him. In fact, that’s another reason to escalate it: at some point he’ll do this to an intern or someone else with much less power and/or who feels less comfortable than you do asserting boundaries. You’re  doing everyone who works with him a favor if you help connect him with an official “cut this out” edict from above.)

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