I work in the billing department of an automobile dealership in the upper Midwest. One of my colleagues, a man I’ll call Ernie, constantly refers to me as “Cupcake,” something which I think is demeaning and degrading to me, especially since I just got my CPA. I told Ernie a couple of times to knock it off, but all he ever says is, “Lighten up, kid.”
Ernie is old enough to be my grandfather, and I suppose I have to be tolerant of the behavior of a different generation. The guy is—let’s face it—an uncouth slob. I can’t tell you how much it sickens me to watch him licking the peanut butter off his knife as he makes his lunch every day. To top it off, he burps after every bite.
The other day, a couple of the other girls and I were talking and we discovered that he calls all of us awful names. Sally, who is talkative, is called “Parrot,” and Mildred, who is short, is called “Runt.”
We went right to the HR department, but they said this was not sexual harassment. Bob in HR said Ernie was a jerk, but that isn’t a crime.
Well, we thought about it for a while and decided to take matters into our own hands. Late one afternoon, we took Ernie’s peanut butter jar from the fridge and went out to the park behind the dealership where lots of people walk their dogs. We scooped out about half the peanut butter and replaced it with—you guessed it—some things the dogs had left behind. Mildred, who never seemed very witty to me before this, couldn’t stop talking about the type of grin that we could expect to see on Ernie’s face tomorrow at lunch. As you might imagine, we laughed ourselves silly thinking about the next day’s menu.
But, sad to report, it didn’t work out like we figured it would. Ernie, who has a keen olfactory sense, smelled a rat, or rather a dog, and started screaming like a wounded animal. He was still screaming as he got to the HR office.
The bottom line is: we were fired, and it doesn’t seem right to me. After years of having been belittled by this oaf, we respond with a little joke—and for that we are banished.
Sally said we ought to write to June about this. We knew she’d understand that we were at our wit’s end and HAD to do something to fight the abuse.
Please tell us we did the right thing with our canine caper.
—Upset in the Upper Peninsula
Were it not for my trusting and generous-minded nature, I might suspect this letter of being a hoax. Despite my growing reputation, it is a bit hard to credit a scenario where, after the three of you are summarily fired for what you actually call a “caper,” at least two of you think: “I know what will make it better—getting the approval of the advice columnist at an avant-garde online literary magazine!”
But I will assume that you are real and sincere. Because I can. And my answer is: no, you did not do the right thing. Ernie could have gotten very sick indeed if he had eaten the dog shit. (Why is it, by the way, that you can actually feed shit to an old man but get all coy about using “shit,” or any word at all, even “feces” or “poop,” to describe it?) Or he could have had a heart attack—and the law says, rightly, that you take your victim as you find him. As it is, Ernie seems to have been traumatized, which I can understand given the surprise factor and the sense of being targeted by one or more anonymous enemies. You injected disgust and terror into the food he used to eat every single day, happily burping and licking his knife.
I admit that Ernie does not sound very appetizing. Indeed, were it not for your stunt I think you might have had a case, although a rather anemic one, that the “Cupcake” nickname is a mild form of sexual harassment. And if Ernie singles out women for the nasty nicknames, “Runt” and “Parrot” might also be suspect. You all would have had my sympathy, at any rate. It’s also true that Bob the HR guy is a slacker, or worse, for apparently not even admonishing Ernie, much less giving him a warning. Most good HR officers set a higher bar on employee conduct than its not being demonstrably illegal.
But you sound at least as put off by Ernie’s eating habits and eructation problem as his nicknames—which, I might add, are pretty lame. And you seriously overreacted to the situation. It sounds as if you never even tried responding to him in kind: “Is ‘Cupcake’ the best you can do, Belch?” I admit that trading dumb nicknames is not exactly edifying. I, for one, would probably have opted for rolling my eyes and carrying on with my job. But a tit-for-tat approach, especially if you, Sally, and Mildred presented a united front, could have worked. My main point, though, is that even when nothing else works, it is rarely a good idea to poison people—and don’t tell me you never thought he might actually eat the adulterated peanut butter. Mildred’s joke, and your apparent surprise when Ernie’s sense of smell saved him, strongly suggest otherwise. When I think of you three “laughing yourselves silly” as you plot and premeditate, my image is less of feminist comeuppance and more of people being mean and childish and egging one another on.
All that said, I am a little sorry you got fired, although I probably would have felt constrained to fire you myself under the circumstances. (I mean, conspiring to adulterate a coworker’s food?) And I do hope not only that Ernie has recovered from his shock, but also that he doesn’t gloat. I hope and expect that he will actually miss ol’ Cupcake, Parrot, and Runt.
I also hope that the three of you either don’t need Unemployment Compensation, or can manage to avoid its being denied due to your having been fired for willful misconduct. If there’s a dispute about this, I strongly urge you not to say that the old man had it coming, but instead to stress that you may have overreacted but that, after years of restraint and generally irreproachable conduct, you were driven to do so by the hostile work environment. And no giggling, even if lips are twitching all around you.
It also makes sense to take whatever steps you can to protect your reputations as you look for new jobs. I trust that you, Upset (never “Cupcake”!), will do fine now that you are a CPA, and I hope that Sally and Mildred will also find new, jerk-free work environments where they will not be tempted to retaliate like malicious schoolgirls.
Oh, and stop calling yourselves “girls” when you talk about your job. Have some respect for yourselves. Women in the workplace, whether or not they are CPAs, deserve to be referred to as women, not girls, for the same reasons they should not be called “Cupcake.”
Executive summary: nobody, male or female, should have to put up with insulting nicknames at work. But name calling is never grounds for subjecting another human to the risk of whipworms, hookworms, roundworms, tapeworms, parvo, corona, giardiasis, salmonellosis, and so on—to say nothing of interfering with my enjoyment of PB&J for what I’m afraid may be years to come.
My only son is getting married this month (June!) so in preparation for several parties at our house, where we have lived for 27 years, my husband and I went to much effort and expense painting our downstairs rooms, cleaning, and decorating. We were thrilled to do it for the occasion, but we are on a limited budget and for us these seemingly minor improvements are a big deal.
Last weekend, we hosted a dinner party for my son, his fiancee, and her in-town family—a total of 14 guests. Early in the evening, during cocktails, I noticed my future daughter-in-law’s brother (a banker in his mid-30s) leaning his greasy palm against our freshly painted living room wall. I could see the grease stain forming and I didn’t know what to do—it will be another ten years before we can afford to repaint those walls. I offered him a napkin. He declined and repositioned his hand. Then I lost my head and asked him not to lean on the wall. He looked at me oddly, then apologized and complied.
My son overheard the exchange, called me into the kitchen, and accused me of humiliating him with my bourgeois manners. I realized my son is as stressed as I am about entertaining our substantially better-to-do future in-laws, but his accusation sent me to the edge of despair after working so hard to create a beautiful evening.
To make matters even worse, during dinner my future daughter-in-law’s father upset a glass of red wine and then instinctively grabbed every linen napkin in reach to blot the stain. All I could think of was that the napkins were now ruined in addition to the tablecloth. I tried to be resolutely cheerful and, of course, rejected their offers to replace the linens and broken glass (Irish crystal, inherited from my grandmother, as were the linens.) But I felt the evening was ruined and now my son is furious with me. Every time I walk through the living room the grease stain reminds me of my ungracious behavior. My husband thinks I’m being silly and that it will all blow over, but with multiple events ahead of us, I fear further destruction and my own poor reaction.
What’s a mother to do?
Miserable in Malvern
What a mother’s to do is chill. You know that already, though. I can almost hear you saying: “If only it were that simple.” Too true. Weddings, class and money issues, social anxiety, and mother-son bonds are almost never simple. But maybe our talking things through will help you relax a little.
First let’s get the smokescreen issues out of the way. You seem to be way too pessimistic about minor damage repair. Grease spots on paint, especially new paint, can almost always be cleaned. If not, some primer and a small can of the original-color paint should do the trick. It is hard to understand why you seem to think you have to wait ten years for a major repainting job before this gets fixed. And linens that have already survived for three generations can usually survive wine; if not, they can be charming even with lingering stains. One glass did break, but it is one glass. This happens at parties. Besides, even if some physical damage from this or future June parties turns out to be permanent, or to require repairs and replacements you cannot afford, what better time to take such a risk than during the season when your only son is getting married? And bear in mind that the practical effect of any damage, at least on your social lives, is minimal. Very few people notice stains, mismatched glasses, and the like when they are at a social gathering, and almost nobody both notices and cares.
But I think you know all that, too. When you say that you fear “further destruction and your own poor reaction,” I believe you mean that your poor reaction is the real worry—and, perhaps, that the “destruction” you’re afraid of is not damage to your walls and tablecloths, but something deeper and more pervasive. Your family is changing. Your place in the new, extended family is presumably still evolving. Your son’s needs and allegiances are shifting. It is perfectly understandable, in this situation, to want to present your own life and family in the best light when you host an event. Trying to have a successful, elegant event is a generous act—you are bestowing the gift of hospitality, paying the compliment of careful preparation. But in the present case it is also an act of self-protection, a way of saying that, although you may not be as wealthy as your future in-laws, you can still host a beautiful event because you have fine values and family traditions that are worth preserving. Sadly, both your generous and your self-interested plans can backfire when, like many hosts and hostesses I have known, you become so anxious about hosting a perfect event that you end up sabotaging it.
I was struck by your description of the grease-stain incident. It reads (you write vividly, by the way) as if you were virtually hypnotized by the darkening stain, and that when you spoke up it was because you could not help yourself. This convinces me that you were seeing more than a man staining your wall: you were seeing a heedless privileged outsider (you go out of your way to tell me he is a banker) sullying your perfect surface, diminishing this party and future parties in ways that he, with his money, could fix without a care but you cannot afford to correct. And you were not seeing just a wall, but everything Martha Stewart and wedding planners hold dear. You were, in short, having a vision of purity and danger—all the while trying to make sure that everybody was having a good time.
Your son was right, I think, that this was also a bourgeois moment, in the sense that your anxiety over the trappings of bourgeois life overshadowed the rules of hospitality and good breeding—which are also, bourgeois, of course, but I do not want to belabor this issue. The real point is that your anxiety crystallized around the damn spot on the wall, and you had a momentary lapse in judgment. But now you are on the alert for such moments, which makes them much less likely to recur.
It might add to your own wellbeing as well as extended-family harmony if you offer the young banker a not-too-solemn, not-too-public apology. If you can corner him alone for a moment at an outdoor event or other loose informal gathering, I suggest smiling sheepishly at him and saying something like: “Hey, Jason, I’m sorry I acted so weird about your leaning on my wall. I think I’ve got my own wedding jitters. But Mominlawzilla is no more. Forgive me?” If you think an explicit apology is not appropriate or that you might not be able to pull it off, it still can’t hurt to be especially nice and attentive to him.
Would it make sense to consult your son about the banker? It is, of course, your son who matters most, not only because he is your prime ethical responsibility but also because he is the person whose love and respect you and your husband most want to preserve. See if you can mollify him and generally calm him down. As you say, he is probably at least as stressed out and socially insecure right now as you are, which explains why your gaucherie with his future brother-in-law so angered your son, and why he thought of the incident in terms of his own supposed “humiliation.”
I am somewhat perplexed by the second incident, with the spilled wine and broken glass. You say that you tried to be “resolutely cheerful.” Did you succeed? If so, I do not understand why your son would become any more furious than he already was. And what do you mean by “the evening was ruined?” If everyone else still seemed to have a good time overall, you must mean that it was ruined only for you, or for you and your son. Perhaps in time, after the wedding madness has abated, you will be able to revisit the evening and hold it as a pleasant memory, or at least a neutral one.
But how do we get you to chill as you proceed through this celebratory month? One way, which I recommend if you can manage it and have no principled objections, is to quite literally take a chill pill. Your primary care doctor can and probably would prescribe a mild anti-anxiety medication to help get you through this time. Believe me, you will not be alone in using chemical assistance to survive a child’s wedding.
And please do whatever else relaxes you. Go on walks, spend time with your mellower friends, take deep breaths, and seek perspective. Talk to your husband, who sounds like a sensible soul. Drink some wine before it has a chance to spill.
Many experts would also advise positive visualization—creating mental images of each upcoming event as a great success, with all your earthly goods remaining intact. But in this case I prefer the opposite approach. We see where the pursuit of perfection landed you during the last event; instead, I suggest that you visualize broken china, gouged floors, torn curtains, lost forks, perhaps even a cigarette burn on your best table. Let your imagination run wild where minor property damage is concerned, but don’t even think about whether your response to the damage will be socially acceptable. As you create this list, imagine people having fun despite the flying crockery and dented soup tureen, and tell yourself these things:
—stuff doesn’t really matter,
—parties don’t have to be perfect, and
—for mothers of the groom, just surviving the wedding month is a victory.
I am confident that you will not lose your composure when faced with the next stain or crack, if any. Your refurbished house, and your life as an in-law, have had their baptism of fire—or, if you prefer a more secular analogy, your shining new social vehicle has gotten its first ding. The burden of perfection has been lifted. Next time you will not care so much about your belongings, nor will you have unrealistic expectations. And you will be vigilant—but, I am sure, in a relaxed sort of way—in staving off discourtesy or other gaffes on your own part.
This is what I believe, and what you must make yourself believe. Malvern is lovely this time of year. It would be a shame for you to live through this hopeful, if hectic, month on the alert for “future destruction,” as if you were in the path of a tornado rather than your friends and extended family.
Cleaver’s in-house advice columnist opines on matters punctuational, interpersonal, and philosophical, spinning wit and literary wisdom in response to your ethical quandaries. Write to her at [email protected]. Find more columns by June in her attic.