One of my coworkers, a middle-aged married man, regularly refers to his wife as an alcoholic in casual conversation. He uses the word as if it’s a punch line in a joke, and for some reason, others tend to laugh. Sometimes, he elaborates by calling her a “mean drunk.” I’m uncomfortable with this on so many levels, especially as individuals in my immediate family have struggled with alcoholism. I’m torn between telling him that I don’t find addiction humorous and asking him, very genuinely, if everything is okay. I’m also angry for his wife and feel compelled to defend her privacy. Even worse, he keeps asking my partner and I on a double date! How do I handle this overshare?
—Uncomfortable in New England
I see three separate concerns in your letter: your coworker’s possible suffering, his wife’s privacy, and your own discomfort. I will try to touch on all of them. I just wish I knew more. From your letter, it sounds as if you have little or no reliable information about the wife’s actual condition. (If you do know, and simply haven’t thought to tell me, just skip ahead two paragraphs and pick the scenario that fits the facts.)
Is there any way you can discreetly learn more before deciding whether and how to approach the husband, whom we shall call Dan? Perhaps you have a lunch buddy or coffee-machine pal at the office who knows Dan better than you do. If so, wait until the opportunity arises and ask your colleague a question or two. Ask lightly, as if in passing, so as not to feed the gossip mill. Try something like: “Speaking of Dan, what’s up with his wife? Does she really have a drinking problem?” Unless you are practically siblings with the colleague in question, I would not start with something like: “I’ve been waiting to raise this issue with you. I don’t know whether to be more concerned or offended by Dan’s insensitivity when he talks about his wife’s being an alcoholic.”
Even better, the next time Dan strikes you could find some way to be alone with one of your colleagues immediately afterwards and ask something like: “Do you think he means that stuff about his wife’s being an alcoholic and a mean drunk?”
Who knows what you will find out? I see three broad possibilities.
(1) This scenario is a bit far-fetched, but I wish it were true: There may be an inside story, even a fairly benign running joke you’re unfamiliar with perhaps about that single time Dan’s wife had one too many at a holiday party and insulted the boss. If Dan is just referring to some joke or isolated incident, you can rule out concern for him, and should also accept that protecting her is not your role here. The only issue is your sensibilities. On which more later.
(2) Or she may be a seriously addicted person who is dysfunctional at home and ruins any gathering where she shows up, and Dan may say what he does out of pain, or in an effort to protect her by preemptively raising the issue, or because he is kind of a jerk, or some combination of the foregoing. In this case, I might consider finding a time when you and Dan are alone together in some no-big-deal, impromptu-seeming situation, perhaps in the break room or on a take-out run. This would give you the opportunity to tell Dan that you’ve noticed how often he mentions his wife’s alcoholism and, as you suggest, asking if he is okay. You might also want to let him know you have some familiarity with the issue and would be happy to listen if he wanted to talk about it. I do want to stress, though, that Dan’s being a coworker puts you under no special obligation to him, and certainly not to his wife, in this instance. Since you already seem oppressed by his “over-sharing,” you should consider whether expressing concern might give him the wrong idea about how close you want to be with him. If you do choose to try to help him–which, if he actually wants help, is laudable—think twice about disclosing your own experiences with alcoholism in any detail. If he doesn’t respect his wife’s privacy, he probably won’t respect yours.
(3.) Or Dan’s wife may be a social drinker, maybe even a heavy-ish one, but not an alcoholic, and Dan may be not just kind of, but truly, a jerk at least in this one area—who is happy to slander his wife and trivialize alcoholism. In this case, and if you think you can pull it off, you may still want to play the innocent and ask if he is okay, preferably while looking into his eyes with an expression of deep, grave sympathy. Then he will have to say that no, his wife isn’t that kind of alcoholic, not a real alcoholic. Let’s hope this makes him squirm a little. You could then reply that you are so relieved, because you were afraid he had serious problems at home, and some of your coworkers may have similar worries. And if you are on a roll, you could try saying something to this effect: “Your wife must have a really thick skin. I know I would be devastated if my partner told people I was an alcoholic.”
It may be that your coworkers can’t tell you anything more than you already know. In that case, the “are you okay?” approach is probably best. He may need and welcome it. And if he brushes you off, and continues to offend you, I suppose you can always switch to the more antagonistic, “I don’t find alcoholism humorous,” approach.
I would be cautious with this approach, though. You can gauge better than I whether Dan is the sort of bluff, life-of-the-party guy who’ll say “Really? Okay, fair enough!” and clean up his act once you tell him you are offended. But, in general, it is hard to tell someone they are being offensive without giving offense yourself. I am guessing that you are younger than Dan, which may make him extra-sensitive to rebuke. And I can tell from your email address that you are a woman, which can be tricky—his disrespect for his wife hints at some sexism. After thinking though all the consequences, you may not want to risk making an antagonist out of someone who now considers himself a friend of sorts, as his double-date invitations suggest. (Another thing you don’t tell me is whether he’s a well-meaning guy aside from some blind spots. If so, and even if not, his discomfort is a factor to consider.)
If his behavior makes you uncomfortable enough to risk intervening with the “not funny” approach, by all means do so. But try not to start with a confrontation. And really try not to sound preachy. Tell him that you’re sure he can’t be aware of this, but when he talks about his “alcoholic” wife, especially in what seems like a joking way, it upsets you. Add that you have had your share of experience with addiction (again, avoid details), and that you are sure other people in the office have, too. Thank him in advance for respecting your concerns. And hope that he tones down his remarks in the future.
But what if he doesn’t? What if you remind him, and he still doesn’t? You could try going to your H.R. department if you have one, or to your supervisor if not. Although Dan has done nothing illegal, most supervisors or H.R departments do try to mediate disputes and improve the office environment. But I do not recommend this, except in the unlikely and rather weird event that Dan’s remarks distress you to the point of seriously affecting your work. Sometimes you just have to suck it up. There are some who might find an H.R. level of concern oversensitive as regards your own psyche, sanctimonious as regards Dan, and officious as regards his wife, whom I am not sure you even know. Besides, bringing more people, especially authority figures, into this dispute is the kind of escalation that may backfire by antagonizing Dan. If he makes the conflict public, people may take sides. Office gossip may increase. Dan’s wife’s reputation may suffer if her alcoholism, real or fabricated, becomes an office issue.
Now what to do about the double date invitations? It sounds as if you can’t bear the idea of getting together as a foursome. In that case you will just have to follow the time-honored practices of evading the issue when he makes a general remark about going out, and saying you’re busy every time he asks you do something specific. He should get the idea. But he may be tone-deaf, or relentless. In that case, you will have to invent and invoke some general principle. (If your partner rarely comes to the office, I would liberally shift responsibility to him or her. No harm done, and Dan can’t cajole your partner on a daily basis.) A suggestion: “Pat and I have a deal – we never mix work life and home life.” Or: “I’m sorry, but our families and old friends take up so much of our time that Pat insists we limit our social schedule.” Of course, if you have other social friends at your office you will have to tinker a bit with your ironclad rule.
Or you could just go on a double date! That would certainly help you assess the situation. If he ever asks you to an event you can gracefully limit to a one-off—say, an open-bar benefit for some cause where you can say you are making an exception to your general rule–might you consider it? Just a thought. I would hate to get a follow-up letter saying that Dan now considers you his good friend and closest confidant, and that it is all my fault.
Good luck! You sound like a thoughtful and empathetic person.
Is it rude to bring a latte to a music lesson? I was only about a third of the way through my Starbuck’s latte grande when I realized I had to hurry to my next cello lesson. While I was scurrying along I texted the question to my mom, who texted back that she wouldn’t risk it. What do you think?
Caffeinated in Chelsea
Are you the student or the teacher? If you are the student, it would be polite to ask permission at the door before you bring the latte into your teacher’s home or classroom. I assume that most teachers would say it was fine, and that many would be pleasantly surprised at your having the good manners to ask. (I have seen a boy choke on cold Pop Tarts during a voice lesson, and a girl answer several texts on horseback during a riding lesson.) If your teacher has an absolute rule about outside food and drink in his or her space, or near the instruments, so be it. I do not think it is rude to ask, though.
But I am guessing you’re the teacher—you speak of a “next” lesson as if you have several in a day, and you seem to have been traveling sans cello, because how else could you have scurried while texting and carrying a hot drink? If you are the teacher, I think it would be the height of rudeness for your student or his or her family to object to your bringing the latte. This is certainly true if you are teaching somewhere other than the student’s home. Indeed, I would worry about your self-assertiveness if you had qualms about bringing your own latte to your own teaching space.
But even if you are bringing the latte to someone’s home, they should be gracious about it. I doubt that they pay you enough for the cost of a latte to be minimal. And itinerant teaching is thirsty work. Indeed, your hosts should be offering you something to drink—ice water at the very least— after you have come all the way to their house to teach them or their young prodigies. Personally, I think that cute little cookies and maybe cheese and crackers are also in order, but that probably depends on one’s subculture.
The only exceptions I can think of are cases where you know that somebody in the student’s household always prepares something for you in anticipation of your arrival. In that case you should take a last, long sip and say ciao, latte.
Special message for Down in the Doldrums: Your letter raises questions that plague about a third of the people I know. I would have answered you this week, but I wanted to ponder your letter and consult with one or more fellow mavens first. In the meantime, I hope you will be of good cheer and have faith in yourself. Invictus! Excelsior!
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 AskJune@Cleavermagazine.com. Find more columns by June in her attic.