I am a graduate student at a major public state university in the US. Yesterday, I was visiting my department's main office and when I entered the doorway, a department administrator [L] and administrative assistant [H] were having a discussion about the recent rash of mass shootings. I am from different, rural state near this one. L turns to me and asks in what I believe was an angry tone "[Name], you're from [state], right? What do you believe about all this stuff?" referring to the conversation she and H were having. Before I was able to respond, L interjected that "I just wouldn't be able to like someone who disagreed with me about it."

I was completely blindsided. Due to other conversations I had been a part of or overheard, I knew that we all were very likely to share the same opinion. I told the truth about what I believed, and L seemed happy we agreed and I left because I had to teach. This morning, I was going over the event and the whole thing struck me as very problematic. I sent her an email where I stated that I was made uncomfortable by the situation, and outlined points 1 and 2 as below (in a different format).

Ultimately, I am frustrated for three key reasons.

  1. Due to my origin, I was required to pass a political test for an administrator's approval.

If I had been from another religious or racial background, and L had asked "Hey [Name], you're Muslim -- what do you think about suicide bombers?" or "Hey [Name], you're black -- what do you think about cops?" I would feel more than justified in filing a discrimination complaint. I was put on the spot about a contentious issue which related (in a vague way) to my background, as if I had to demonstrate that I was "one of the good ones".

  1. I was put on the spot and essentially "outed" when any way I could handle the situation might have very negative consequences.

In my university, as in many others, personal political beliefs can be quite contentious. Academics are stereotypically liberal but I know for a fact that our department has more than one conservative professor, more than one conservative administrative staff member, and more than one conservative graduate student, not to mention any undergraduates who may have been walking by. No matter who is asking and whether or not I know their beliefs, I feel I have three equally bad options:

a) Answer truthfully, and risk upsetting the person, anyone in the conversation, or anyone nearby, and potentially damaging relationships with coworkers and academic partners.

b) Give them the answer I think they want to hear and potentially guess wrong or even right, but both revert to the same problem as the previous point.

c) Answer noncommittally or refuse to answer, but their anger and a contentious political climate means they'll (likely) assume I'm the opposite position as them and we're right back at the first point.

After an hour or so, she responded to my email, which leads me to my third point.

  1. Her response to my email was, word for word, "No problem [Name], I won’t bring up anything controversial around you again. I certainly don’t want you to be uncomfortable around here!"

It looks like she didn't read past my first sentence, and said what amounts to "I'm sorry your feelings got hurt, I'll be sure to walk on eggshells around you from now on." Except without even the apology.

In any case, I sent a follow-up email where I outlined that no, it wasn't that I was upset the issue was contentious, and again outlined my major concerns. I also expressed distress at her dismissal of my concerns much as I outlined the third point, (though without quite as petulant language). My follow-up email was sent around 3:30 this (Friday) afternoon, so I didn't expect a response before the office closed.

I'm seeking advice on the following two points. (Sorry for so many lists...)

  • How do I handle this event further? I would consider the issue solved for now if she apologized (even insincerely) about points 1 and 2, and apologized sincerely about point 3, and discontinued grilling her employees in public about their political opinions. If she continues to disregard my concerns I would like to find someone to escalate this to -- I don't know who the appropriate person would be or if it's even possible/fruitful to pursue. I also expect there to be an in-person confrontation about this at some point, it is impossible to avoid seeing her as we work in the (small) office.

  • How should I handle conversations like this in the future? I understand it is always my right to say "This discussion makes me uncomfortable" and try to exit, but this is another form of c) outlined above. I fear any way I approach the situation I could sabotage myself.

I have asked H over Facebook messenger what she remembered of the conversation, and did not lead her with anything. She responded that she remembered the conversation but not the particulars. I asked if she specifically remembered the first two quotes in my first paragraph and she did remember my state being mentioned but not anything more in particular. We had a brief, careful conversation about it, I forwarded the email chain onto her, and we decided to talk about it another time while I wait for a response from L. I asked H not to mention the conversation to anyone, but that I understood that if L asks her that H would be in a complex situation and that she should use her best judgement.

Sorry for the long post, I've just read a few things on here and know how details are important and tried to include everything that usually gets asked. I can be more specific if necessary.

  • 1
    "more than one conservative professor" Shock horror! While I can understand wanting to separate politics from work, being unable to articulate an opinion simply because others could differ... doesn't seem conducive to an Academic environment. Then again, your department administrator seems to lack such a skill as well! – NPSF3000 Feb 24 '18 at 4:25
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    It would be great if you could highlight your actual question. Then we don't have to read your whole post. We might decide to read it completely after we read your actual question and maybe some other highlights first. – Edgar Feb 24 '18 at 7:19
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    You dragged this way too much more than necessary, and you are asking us how to continue doing so. I would have either asked her at the start not to get me involved in any political discussions, or I would have let it go right after the conversation ended. Sending an email, then sending another email, then following up with the other person over Facebook messenger went way over the top. – Masked Man Feb 24 '18 at 14:56

How do you proceed? You don’t.

She publicly asked you an awkward question, and now you want to humiliate her by forcing her to publicly apologize. Frankly, your hurt feelings are out of proportion and the analogies don’t apply. You wrote an email to her, and now she understands her mistake. That should end this story. If you continue with the drama, some people will remember you as a drama queen.

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    +1 alone for the fact you appear to have read the entire OP. – bharal Feb 24 '18 at 10:49
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    Where did the OP ask for a public apology? – walkar Feb 24 '18 at 13:04

Pragmatically if you're in a minority with beliefs and culture that are not popular, you don't have an opinion on anything. You just collect your pay and keep your head down.

You always have the option of relocating to where your beliefs and culture are popular.

  • +1 for a straight and short answer. I like it when people work with reality and don't pretend how things should work in a perfect word (which just doesn't exists). – Edgar Feb 24 '18 at 7:23
  • The OP does not indicate which stance they have on the issue in particular, why are you assuming they're in the minority opinion? – walkar Feb 24 '18 at 13:04
  • @walkar I wasn't talking about their opinion, or I would have mentioned it – Kilisi Feb 24 '18 at 23:18

The safest initial response would have been "I prefer not to discuss politics or religion at work."

That would have deflected the whole issue, without requiring you to state your actual position.

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