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Consider the case:

1) On a mailing list a question got asked by manager @Alice "why is this Blah Blah not shown in upcoming list on homepage"

2) I replied with following:

Because the way Data Structures are implemented.

The index page is rendered based on .......(some three four lines of how we render index page)

@Bob, add facts, if I am missing anything.

Bob is the guy who had implemented index page initially. He has started implementing the system from scratch and I just jumped in to add new functionality. Consider Bob as fresher, and I am experienced developer. Does the above reply is offensive or an example of accusatory? My manager @Alice thinks this is offensive for @Bob

How should I handle this situation in order to discern whether or not what I did was offensive or not?

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    Have you discussed this with Bob? He would know if he was offended or not. – user8365 Sep 10 '13 at 10:03
  • @Jeffo Bob might mind or not, I am not sure. I don't see anything offensive. My manager thinks this example of accusatory. Please migrate to workplace. – Ankit Jain Sep 10 '13 at 10:06
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    IMO, accusation can happen only if there's a mistake identified. I don't see any mistake being identified or pointed. The reply is a clarification. And clarification!=accusation – Sundeep Sep 10 '13 at 10:21
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    This is almost certainly culture-dependent. What type of organization is it? In which industry/country? Incidentally, whether we (or anybody else) think it was genuinely offensive or not does not necessarily change the way you should address it. If your manager took this apparently polite comment to be offensive, chances are that confronting him or her on the subject would also seem quite offensive. – Relaxed Sep 10 '13 at 11:31
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    My guess for why this might be offensive is that "@Bob add facts, if I am missing anything" can be taken as an order to Bob, which isn't appropriate if Bob is your peer. My guess is that simply turning it into "@Bob, please could you add anything I have missed" would be better. Adding the word "please" is almost never a bad thing. – DJClayworth Sep 10 '13 at 15:08
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It doesn't really matter if you think or we think it was offensive if your boss does. Ask your boss to suggest better wording to you so you can learn how she wants things handled. We all have to adjust our communication style to suit our boss's wants. Maybe she would have preferred you to say, "Bob implemented that part of the site, I will forward your questions on to him." I'm not her, so I don't know what she wants. So ask how she would have wanted you to phrase it.

Tell her that you didn't mean to insult Bob and wish to avoid inadvertent offense in the future. You can also directly ask Bob if he was offended (she might have had a complaint from him about being embarrassed by your email, after all) and if he was, apologize.

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    I agree, but it sort of DOES MATTER that the OP (and everyone else) was utterly unable to discern was was offensive. It could be that there's some context, history or information that is missing. It is important for the OP to find out what that is and why he wasn't privy to it, otherwise it could happen again when there are bigger stakes. – Angelo Sep 10 '13 at 13:20
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    @Angelo, that's why it is important to ask the boss how she thinks it should have been phrased. That will give insight in how she thinks and what she thinks is less offensive. I agree there could be context that is missing. It could be that the contact included other people she would prefer not to have seen it. Or she thinks there is problem between these 2 people due to the more senior person looking down on the "Fresher" (I hate that term. It seems degrading to me.) This perception of insult is not without context. But the OP needs to find out what the context is by talking to the boss. – HLGEM Sep 10 '13 at 14:04
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    And you don't find equating a working person to a freshman in college to be derogartory? I certainly do. – HLGEM Sep 10 '13 at 20:19
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    It's simply a convenient shorthand for a new grad. Just as a freshman in college is new to the college world, so the "fresher" is new to the corporate world. Calling someone a word that means "new grad" is a statement of fact and is not meant to be derogatory. "Derogatoriness" is culture-dependent and in India, "fresher" is just a word that means "new grad" and no one takes offense to being called one (when they are one). I didn't, when I was one. – Jay Sep 10 '13 at 21:17
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    Your objection seems to stem from the fact that the same word is used to refer to both college freshmen and new grads. I understand your viewpoint, but there are about 100 million English-speaking Indian people who feel differently and have no problem in using "fresher" in the non-derogatory, merely-as-an-adjective context I described (I'm not one of them however; I just think "fresher" is an aesthetically terrible-sounding word :P. But I will defend my compatriots' right to use it) – Jay Sep 10 '13 at 21:21
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Your answer was strictly factual, containing no context to convey tone. That allows the reader to supply her own tone, and for many people a lack of emotion implies negative emotion.

So when the communication is written, take extra care to insert wording to establish the tone you intended. To a technical person, it seems superfluous, but it's important to make your communication clear. For example, you could discuss some good things about the data structures, or the reasons why this particular case may not have been anticipated, or take some blame for not noticing when you made your additions.

It's also possible asking why was mostly rhetorical, and going into too much detail made you look defensive and accusatory. A simpler answer might have been in order, like, "That appears to be a bug. I entered it into the tracker and I'll coordinate with Bob to see how he wants to handle it."

  • Many people will disagree, but I think being this foreseeing in communication and how it might be interpreted, can prevent a lot of grief. It does take the responsibility away from the other party, but I prefer a good atmosphere because I did the extra effort, over a bad one because I think other people should put more effort in proper interpretation. – Grimace of Despair Sep 11 '13 at 9:40
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How should I handle this situation in order to discern whether or not what I did was offensive or not?

You are asking the wrong question. It was offensive to someone, you need to be asking, "how should I handle a situation where I accidentally offended someone by my communication style?"

Talk with your manager. I would suggest focusing the conversation with the manager a bit more like, "I didn't mean to be offensive, what sorts of things should I be aware of in the future to avoid this?" - instead of trying to justify yourself or directly figure out what you did wrong.

People are more willing to discuss when they don't feel defensive. The key here is to bring it up with your manager and try to learn from them.

Communication is fickle (and people, for that matter). Sometimes you just have to shrug your shoulders and say, "I guess I don't get it" - but this point should happen after discussing the issue, not before.

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Does the above reply is offensive or an example of accusatory?

It doesn't matter what we think. The only opinions that matter are those of your Manager @Alice, and to a lesser extent @Bob. Taken out of context, I don't see anything offensive, but there may be a pattern here, or your company's culture may deem that offensive.

How should I handle this situation in order to discern whether or not what I did was offensive or not?

Since your Manager @Alice deems this offensive, then clearly you should talk with her first. Ask her why she feels it was offensive. Ask her what you should do about it now (apologize, resign, etc). Ask her how you should handle this sort of situation in the future.

As always, talk with the person who can give you the answers you need. In this case, Go Ask @Alice!

  • +1, although I would be very surprised if the OP was asked to resign over this incident. – Kevin - Reinstate Monica Sep 10 '13 at 19:02
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One possible interpretation of your email is "The code sucks, @Bob did it".

Although I doubt that's what you intended, it's possible that's how your boss read it. The biggest problem with that take on your email is that you might be seen as to be dodging responsibility.

If you really wanted bob to fill in details, you could have gone and talked with him first and then not mentioned him in the email, or you could have just cc'd him which would have brought him into the discussion without calling him out--he's obviously a person of interest at least.

  • Well, that fragment with @Bob could be considered sarcasm. – user1023 Sep 11 '13 at 10:17
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What is the communication norm?

The answers as to whether this was offensive or not depends completely on the culture of your locale / industry.

Even within the same country there are industries where a more confrontational communication is the accepted norm. For example, within a front office envrionment in a financial firm one can expect the F word to be thrown around discussing people's and system's F-ups all the time. A person that does not fit in to this culture will not last.

At the same time, in the same country, the norms for communications within a government organization will be such that people will have to undergo sensitivity training (and potentially get fired) for the same behaviour that is acceptable, and indeed expected, in finance.

You need to figure out what the norm in your company culture is.

What to do now that you know the norm?

If it was you that was out of touch with the culture and the norm, then you should apologize to all parties, and make sure to not make the same mistake again.

If it was the manager that was out of touch with the culture, then you should still apologize for offending anyone but keep doing what you are doing. I have seen people get pulled over and told that they are being 'too soft' and not 'pushy enough', which ultimately limited their career.

In summary, there is a danger in being 'too soft' as well as in being 'too offensive'. Your manager may dictate the company culture to some extent, but they are not necessarily the authoritative figure that define culture (and I've seen managers get pulled out for 'not fitting in').

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