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My boss is a great guy. Probably my favorite boss I've ever had, both professionally and personally. There is one thing that's very strange about him. At work, he often uses "baby-talk" phrases. Here are a few examples of phrases I've heard him use in the last several weeks:

  • "Potty" instead of "Bathroom/Restroom"
  • "No-No" instead of "Not allowed"
  • "Oopsie Poopsie" instead of "Mistake"
  • "Uh-oh Spagetti-Oh's" instead of "Shoot/Dang/etc."
  • "Went Boom" instead of "Fell Down" (when referring to his elderly mother who fell and broke a hip)

People are constantly making fun of him behind his back. I am 90% sure that he's not trying to being funny/cute, because he never smiles, grins, or looks for a reaction. He just keeps talking like it's a normal conversation. It's like he's oblivious to the fact that it's not professional.

Just last week, we were on some meeting with upper management, and he made some comment like "The team is doing a great job coding in a new language, but inevitably a few oopsie poopsies happen." I cringed so hard when he said that.

If it matters, he is native to the US, so I don't think it's a matter of him coming from another culture. He also doesn't have kids. From what I've pieced together, I think he just led a very sheltered life.

Is it inappropriate for me to tell him this isn't professional, or is that overstepping my bounds? I want to help him out because I really like the guy, but I also doesn't to be unprofessional myself.

----UPDATE----

So, this post has gotten the interest of some of my coworkers. (Apparently, this came in their recommendations on the side when they were looking at Stack Overflow for some coding questions).

Long story short, one of my peers was inspired by this post, and brought to my manager's attention how people were making fun of his "baby talk" phrases behind his back. From how she tells it, my manager was super appreciative and said he had no idea that those phrases were seen as unprofessional.

Later today, he had a short meeting with everybody on the team (minus my coworker mentioned above). He said he was really disappointed with us that we never gave him feedback on his communication style, even though he regularly asks us for feedback in general. (He didn't specifically call out the use of baby-talk phrases, but it fairly clear what he was referring to). I've never seen him so angry before.

So unfortunately, I'm worried now that my relationship with my boss will now be strained. We'll see where things go from here...

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    Comments have been moved to chat; please do not continue the discussion here. Before posting a comment below this one, please review the purposes of comments. Comments that do not request clarification or suggest improvements usually belong as an answer, on The Workplace Meta, or in The Workplace Chat. Comments continuing discussion may be removed.
    – motosubatsu
    Mar 6, 2023 at 19:15
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    Regarding the update, did your coworker identify you as the author of this Q and your boss as the subject? Or did she just notice the similarity? If it was the latter, there is no need to be concerned that your boss would identify you specifically and change your relationship. Mar 9, 2023 at 10:06

8 Answers 8

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I disagree with much of the answers posted here. He may not realize that people are definitely going behind his back and mocking him. This may not cause any issues immediately, but long term, we'll see him for nothing more than a strange and/or creepy old man and not necessarily an authority figure.

You need to direct and tell him about this, I'm sure he'll appreciate knowing this as I'm sure nobody has confronted him yet. For those who are wondering, I am fairly certain I work with OP's manager, a few of us were laughing at the last few phrases he said this past lunch.

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    "and not necessarily an authority figure": if you want to be a leader, act like one. Talking like a kid doesn't make you a man. If you have to tell him because he didn't realize, well... there's no value telling him...
    – OldPadawan
    Mar 8, 2023 at 20:19
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    @OldPadawan If you want to be a valued professional, act like one. Laughing at other people behind their back for a harmless trait tells me more about the employees than the boss.
    – T. Sar
    Mar 9, 2023 at 16:00
  • @T.Sar : agreed. 100%. and I like to quote the If you want to be a valued professional, act like one part in my everyday life :) It's another (important) point, but not really the one discussed in the OP, which is more about the boss's language.
    – OldPadawan
    Mar 9, 2023 at 16:15
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    @OldPadawan The boss might have a legitimate reason to talk like this (controlling tourette's, for example). The crew has none for the way they are acting. If they were being professionals themselves, they wouldn't care if he talks with those words, a lisp, a stutter, or dresses in glittery dresses. As long as the boss make himself understood, that's all that matters.
    – T. Sar
    Mar 9, 2023 at 18:12
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Is he using this language with customers, or just inside the company? If the latter, cut the guy some slack; it's pretty clear he isn't deliberately using it to insult you, and if the people he is presenting to don't mind there's no reason it has to be changed.

For a while I worked under an extremely bright man whose verbal tic went on for eight words, absolutely same timing and intonation every time. We'd hear that phrase in almost any conversation, and it might be repeated many times in a meeting. Everyone just accepted that he didn't have much control of it, smiled gently to themselves and ignored it. I recommend the same to you.

It really has nothing to do with you; you aren't his mom or even his manager. If you're embarrassed by it, that's your problem.

.....

Additional thoughts:

Some of us honestly don't care a lot about social expectations unless it's a situation where we must conform to achieve our goals. Some actively enjoy "freaking the mundanes," forcing them to think about why conformity is necessary or just plain enjoying watching how different people cope. Not everyone gives a damn about being laughed at as long as they're also respected, and the two are not in conflict unless you make them so.

And yes, some of us have a hard time picking up social cues. But you need to know someone Pretty Damn Well to understand when they would appreciate/accept advice and when they would find it intrusive. If you have to ask us, you don't know them that well.

Drop it.

......

Additional thoughts, part 2:

""Stop talking baby talk because it embarrasses me on your behalf" is being an arsehole about it. Frankly, being embarrassed on someone else's behalf usually is being an arsehole about it; that phrasing makes it about your feelings, not theirs.

If you really *must" intervene, go with something like "Hey, I've noticed you use some unusual turns of phrase in places where I would have said something a bit ... earthier, or more blunt. Is that for comic effect, a resolution not to swear, or something else?" Discuss, rather than immediately trying to "fix". Give them the respect of assuming they are fully aware of themselves until established otherwise.

(I have known people for whom that "I want to swear here but I'm not going to" would, in fact, be the explanation for some of the examples you've given. For some people, even "drat" is stronger than their beliefs allow.)

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    Yes, honestly I'm embarrassed for him. I feel very bad that everybody mocks him about this behind his back. If your boss had a big piece of food stuck to their face, would you discreetly tell them? Or would you let them go into a big a meeting with food on their face and tell yourself "It's MY problem that I'm embarrassed because he has food on his face". To my question, I don't know if it's the right/wrong thing to tell him. But I don't think it's fair to say it's just MY problem. It's his problem; he just apparently doesn't seem to realize it. (IDK... maybe he does, but doesn't care).
    – Acheron
    Mar 6, 2023 at 3:59
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    Or he does and can't fix it, as with that verbal tic. Or it's a more natural part of the dialect he grew up with than it is of yours. But you being embarrassed by it is under your control and you really can just let it go. Do you really think he is unaware that some folks find it silly? Do you really think that you telling him will be well received? This is something for his own manager to bring up with him, very cautiously, if they think it's a problem; you are really not in a position to do so unless he asks you for assistance. The food analogy is weak at best.
    – keshlam
    Mar 6, 2023 at 4:08
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    @keshlam "Do you really think he is unaware that some folks find it silly? Do you really think that you telling him will be well received?" You say these two things as if they reinforce each other but to me they seem opposed. If he was already aware then why would he not receive it well when told that some people find it silly? And if he isn't aware then maybe he should be.
    – DKNguyen
    Mar 6, 2023 at 14:49
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    "Some of us honestly don't care a lot about social expectations unless it's a situation where we must confirm to achieve our goals" oh yes, this, this! Mar 6, 2023 at 18:51
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    I don't know about this... It depends on whether he'd be embarassed to find out everyone's taking the piss behind his back or if he knows and doesn't care... If I had shit on my face and I didn't know, I'd want someone to tell me. Although it's entirely possible that I put that shit on my face as a creative expression, at which point if someone tells me politely, I'm just going to say "Yeah I know"... It's fine to tell him, just don't be an arsehole about it Mar 7, 2023 at 13:26
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The other answers say it's not your problem. So what?

If I was doing something that made my co-workers laugh behind my back, I'd want to be made aware of it, and so would you.

You sound like you're friendly with your boss. Maybe the next time you have a conversation away from everyone else, mention it kind of in passing. Don't use the term "baby talk". Somehow, mention that the other co-workers think it's -- I don't know, odd or corny or something. Avoid saying that they're making fun of him.

And @Erik has a point about the co-workers who make jokes about him behind his back. Next time you hear that, tell them its not cool.

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    Also do not suggest he needs to stop...reserve that for the coworkers. Personally, I would have probably just asked out of curiosity at some point long before now where he picked up those unusual phrases from. Not unlike being completely unaware that two pronounciations of potatoe exist and encountering someone pronounce it as pot-tah-toe for the first time. That's probably a decent way to broach the topic to work your way to informing him that people are talking about him.
    – DKNguyen
    Mar 6, 2023 at 20:03
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    Reminds me when a coworker and I were standing outside the restroom talking and a third coworker went in to use the toilet. And the flatulence of doing his business was very loud and could be heard from outside and he burst out laughing and I casually told him "C'mon man, grow up" with a smile on my face. He then laughingly told me a story about how the same thing happened before but he was speaking with two managers and the two managers just kept a straight face and acted like nothing happened while he laughed and it made him feel awkward wondering whether he committed a faux pas.
    – DKNguyen
    Mar 6, 2023 at 20:07
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    You'd want to be made aware of it if others laugh behind your back, but you don't want that the OP tells the boss that others are making fun of him? Isn't that contradictory?
    – gerrit
    Mar 7, 2023 at 7:10
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    @ScottishTapWater Well, maybe not poh tah toe (I'm not sure really) but they do say toh mah toes.
    – DKNguyen
    Mar 7, 2023 at 14:41
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    I like this answer. I honestly find that the general attitude in this entire site seems to always be "Just keep your head down and NEVER make waves for any reason" to be troubling at times. It gives vibes of "just be a good cog in the machine". And yeah sometimes a bit of that kind of thinking is okay and important for society to function smoothly. But that seems to be the reaction that every question here gets. Mar 8, 2023 at 7:08
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TL;DR: Get over it.

Is it inappropriate to tell my boss that "baby talk" is unprofessional?

Are you in a position to make that statement?

If you challenge your boss's choice of words you are going to have to deal with the consequences.

Do you know enough about him to make it clear to him that you're not intending to attack him?

It seems that you don't know the answer to those questions, so I'll give the same recommendation others have given: just go along with and ignore it.

Your time (at work) is better spent doing actual work than obsessing over someone's (harmless) word choice.

It's not your responsibility to tell him about your co-workers making fun behind his back.

I'd suggest to distance yourself from those co-workers as much as possible.

If he finds out some day, you'll be in a better place; nobody can force you to take a position in that matter.

You can keep your personal opinion to yourself and it will be okay, focus on your work (that's what you are paid for).

If you can't go along with it, either take the risk and approach your boss or look for another position / job somewhere else or in a different part of the company.

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    I agree with you and am surprised your answer hasn't had gotten more upvotes. Especially your comment "distance yourself from those co-workers as much as possible." 100 percent. One immediate question I had is, shouldn't the focus be on the organization's culture that does not address why workers are making fun of anyone behind their backs?
    – jrdevdba
    Mar 7, 2023 at 20:10
  • I upvoted, but I think it should be stressed that it is not the bosses choice of words, but the fact the OP is hearing his boss being ridiculed without the boss present. This should be the question "What to do when associates belittle or ridicule my manager behind his back?"
    – paulj
    Mar 8, 2023 at 16:21
  • @paulj : That would have been a more reasonable question. Alas, the OP doubled down on describing it as the Manager's behavior being what needed to change.
    – keshlam
    Mar 9, 2023 at 14:15
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If you want to "help" someone, you can always do it. But is it useful? Is it "your" business?

I would distinguish 2 areas:

  1. Appearance related issue: you see your boss with a stained necktie or pants/skirt, open fly, or any other problem, you can always discreetly point this out without embarrassing them.
  2. Attitude related issue: you think your boss is using a childish language, or is doing something different because of education/background/habits, you should not mention it. It's not something in your area of competence.

Bullet-point #2 should be your manager's problem or, maybe, his manager's. Either he knows and doesn't care, or he doesn't know, but stepping in isn't a good idea.

On a personal note, we sometimes had small talks at the coffee machine with colleagues and making fun of our weird words or expressions. But that was not embarrassing or intended to correct someone's language/attitude. It was just that: small talk. You can't do that to your boss.

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    Or rather, if you do it to your boss -- or anyone -- they should be aware of and in on the joke, and okay with laughing at themselves. Never laughing at behind someone's back. Mar 6, 2023 at 13:00
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    @LukeSawczak : most (all?) of the bosses I had wouldn't have jumped in with us and make fun like that, so, you're right, and it could be nice, but it didn't happen in my world :)
    – OldPadawan
    Mar 6, 2023 at 13:05
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    Indeed, my experience also suggests that it takes someone exceptional. Maybe not to jump in on the conversation, but to allude to their well-known foibles in public and let themselves be the subject of fun :) Mar 6, 2023 at 13:44
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    @LukeSawczak : thanks for suggesting I'm exceptional now :D
    – OldPadawan
    Mar 6, 2023 at 14:29
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As other answers have said, this isn't your problem, and I think trying to talk to him about this would be extremely uncomfortable for both of you. I don't think you should bring it up with him unless it really makes it difficult for you to work for him.

If his behavior undermines his authority with the team and/or impacts the company (perhaps by giving a bad impression to customers/vendors if he interacts with them), it should be his manager's responsibility to deal with it. You mentioned that he spoke like this in a meeting that included upper management, so it seems like his manager should be aware of it already, and has chosen not to take any action (or if he did, it was ineffective). Again, not your problem.

Unless this is a recent change (maybe he has a new baby at home), he's managed to rise to this level of responsibility despite this minor oddity. You should respect that.

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This feels like your boss is over-correcting to avoid using harsh language.

I've seen this happens a couple times, and the root cause is often either because of:

  1. Being called out by some higher ups on the usage of foul language;
  2. Censoring how you talk because of a young kid, and this bleeding up to the workplace.

#2 often happens because of a decision of the parents, or because they got called out in school because of the foul language of their kid. They then start censoring themselves so the little ones don't pick on it/don't use it at home, and it ends up becoming an habit.

Either way, it's not a thing you should worry about. Your boss' language is his problem, and if he can a run a company effectively, it doesn't matter if he is using baby talk, talking only in rhymes or incorporating his best Yoda Inpersonation.

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  • And I'm sure the boss will let you know when you really f*ed things up vs. just regular ""Oopsie Poopsie" :) Mar 8, 2023 at 1:10
  • The censorship can also be for other reasons, including religion. I have known folks who take extremely seriously prohibitions against "strong language", just as I've known folks for whom even caffeine is an unacceptable drug. Hence my suggestion to assume self-awareness and ask rather than jump to correction.
    – keshlam
    Mar 9, 2023 at 14:19
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I was meaning to write this as a comment, but comments are disabled here.
I would say something like "Some people have Tourette syndrome and express themselves in a very ugly way. Our boss has just the opposite and expresses himself in a very nice way. I don't know about you, guys, but if I need to choose between Tourette and this, I know what I choose." :-)

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