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I am quite new to the job market. I usually come across as an (maybe too much) upbeat and friendly, yet hardworking person. About a month ago I joined a local consultancy-like company and quickly started talking with everybody. We got confident and play jokes on each other. At some point, a coworker played a joke on me and I replied by adding a friendly (but probably workplace inappropriate) "silly" at the end of it. I live in Spain. He did not seem bothered (at that point).

Some days go by and this 30 year older Senior coworker tells me publicly "we have to talk". Feeling something was off, I privately approached him repeatedly and he just did not tell me anything just, "something kind of serious". Days go by, and he starts acting very unfriendly: he ignores me, avoiding eye-contact even in public conversations for days. I once heard he shouted to another coworker, "I have to talk seriously to some people in this company...", probably referring to me. He is the "funny-pranky guy" in the office even at his age and he is not my superior in any way, just senior.

At some point, I decide to avoid him as well, in an attempt to deescalate the situation (or just hide it under the rug and let time heal). After some days avoiding contact (even at company meals and team-building events), he told me if I had a second to talk and I agreed. He told me:

  • What I did was wrong and insults in the workplace are completely out of place (even in a friendly way). I agree with this. After about a week or so, this is the first time he told me what was wrong.
  • I said I completely agree, and I added he knows me enough to know I did not mean any bad intentions at all. But I messed up.
  • He told me he would ABSOLUTELY NOT let me do that if he ever saw me doing it again to other people or him in a quite threatening tone. Then, he softened it by saying he was also subject to this rule himself.
  • I told him I would follow this advice and went on with my day.

I am quite young, inexperienced and just entered the company a month ago, so I concluded to proceed as follows:

  • I most likely messed up by using this "insult" in the workplace. I agree. It is a no-no and I got too confident.
  • He looks like a potentially toxic and manipulative person. Even though his argument is right, he completely overdid it by attacking a 30 year younger, new addition to the company in weaker position, and not even letting go when I approached him trying to deescalate the situation for a couple of weeks (making it a bigger deal than needed). I think it is best not to confront him about this but to avoid contact with him when possible.
  • I probably should tell NOBODY (not my coworkers, managers, bosses or HR) about this since I am a very new addition to the company, and I do not expect this to have a significant impact from now on (although it will certainly be a concern for me).

Since I do not know who to ask for advice I posted this here... Is my assessment right?

EDIT (update)

(11/10/2023) Even after the "talk" and letting me know, he is still ignoring my greetings, avoiding me and giving side-eye looks when I am doing my stuff. It is sad situation for me but i will try to not loose too much sleep over. I know it is impossible to be liked by everyone...

I really do not think trying to "talk it through" and submitting myself to his game is the way to go. I will just let it be.

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    The first bit in boldface of what the incident was is very unclear/evasive. Was this an interaction in person, on paper, the phone, by text or email? Was the thing you added literally the word "silly", a silly emoji, gesture, something else? Oct 10, 2023 at 22:00
  • I was an ordinary conversation, face-to-face in the office. Oct 11, 2023 at 21:46
  • Was the thing you added literally the word "silly", a gesture, or something else? Oct 11, 2023 at 21:51
  • Just the word, and said it in a friendly smiley face. After saying it I even backed down and told another coworker "i take it back, i am getting too confident..." while laughing. I even used to give a soft friendly bump in the shoulder to this guy when I walked into the office in the morning.... Oct 11, 2023 at 21:57
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    I'll just say that I'm completely boggled at how the single word "silly" could possibly detonate a working relationship like this. Completely incomprehensible. Oct 12, 2023 at 20:10

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There is much we don't know about this situation - but here's my gut-feeling (based on the fact it took me a good few years to get a good gauge on the appropriate level of banter for the work place).

It probably wasn't the usage of your word 'silly' that is your co-workers issue. If he's 30 years your senior, he is probably seeing some young guys mucking about at work, pranking each other and 'Not working hard' (not saying you don't work hard - I'm saying what his perception is likely to be).

He's getting annoyed at this disruption to the workplace - and then he sees a word 'Silly' and this is something he can pin all his annoyances on and hit you up about.

I don't know if the word in Spanish has a harsher connotation than in English - I would think absolutely nothing of being called 'silly', especially if it was in a pranking/joking context.

If someone called me stupid or idiot and I got a whiff of malice, I might be mildly annoyed - but certainly not enough to have a word.

In terms of how to approach this situation - Firstly - is this person in your direct managed chain? If the answer is No - then I would let this slide for now - but if he hits you up about anything in the future - I would suggest that you stop him firmly but politely and advise him that this is a conversation you'd rather have with your manager or HR present.

There is a type of person in some organizations who has been there a while and thinks their age/tenure gives them authority beyond their station - the best way to deal with them is to make the go through the official channel(s) which ensures they are reminded of the authority that they don't have.

If they are in your management chain - then suck it up buttercup - you got reprimanded and you should pull your head in.

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    I appreciate you answer. He is the "funny-pranky guy" in the office even at his age and he is not my superior in any way, just senior. I will just be careful with him and avoid interaction, he looks like bully, judging by his looks & personality. Oct 10, 2023 at 20:04
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    "not superior just older" should be edited into the question
    – AakashM
    Oct 11, 2023 at 8:47
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    @BrainOverflow you can't judge a bully by their appearance (if that's what you mean by looks), so be careful with that. Their personality and actions yes, but not their appearance.
    – rooby
    Oct 11, 2023 at 23:17
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I don't see anything "toxic" here. There was a misunderstanding. Someone took offense. You sincerely say "oops, that isn't what I meant, sorry!" and try not to repeat that particular mistake, especially with that individual, and they will get over their grumpiness. You damaged their trust in your judgement, unintentionally; it will take a little while to rebuild that trust.

If either of you is working in a language that isn't your own, or if you're working in two different dialects of the same language, misunderstandings are particularly likely; even when you agree on denotation you may not agree on connotations. All you can do is be aware of that and try to allow for it.

Humor, in particular, may be full of land mines. I have a somewhat sardonic sense of humor, and I've learned that I need to be EXTREMELY clear that I'm joking when dealing with people who don't know my patterns. Especially in writing, where they don't have tone of voice or facial expression as a cue that I'm not serious. It's not a skill that's taught, but it's a skill you have to learn, and the way you learn it is usually by making mistakes and being corrected. Preferably gently, but that isn't always possible.

I had a misunderstanding of this sort at work a few years ago, despite decades of practice, where someone thought I was beating them up when I was trying to suggest ways to improve. I backed off, apologized to the offended party (being careful not to come across as defending myself), explained to management, and we moved on from there.

It happens. All you can do is learn some of the things to avoid or to put safeguards around, learn how to gracefully say "I'm sorry it came across that way" rather than trying to justify the mistake, and take each occurrence as an opportunity to improve your communications skills.

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  • Side note: The word "silly", by itself, may mean you're calling them silly rather than saying your comment is silly. If that's how it read, their reaction isn't completely out of line.
    – keshlam
    Oct 11, 2023 at 5:13
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    With the context of days/weeks going by between the incident and the eventual "meeting", with various levels of negative attitude shown by the coworker at the OP and others in the office, this does rise to the level of toxic. If it had been a short convo right away about it being inappropriate, then it would just be a standard course correction, and whether it was appropriate or not wouldn't really matter if everything was fine after that. However, with the coworker making a fairly big thing out of it, it's definitely inappropriate for what the OP tells us. That, too, means it's toxic. Oct 11, 2023 at 18:18
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    The relationship hasn't been fixed, but I don't have enough info to know if that's because the senior is carrying a grudge or the junior hasn't said "I understand and won't do it again." Also.leople can be grumpy without being "toxic"; you don't have to be friends with someone to work productively with them.
    – keshlam
    Oct 11, 2023 at 22:14
  • And I seriously doubt the querant is "despised". Mildly disliked possibly. That will pass if there isn't a repetition.
    – keshlam
    Oct 11, 2023 at 22:17
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Don't worry about it. Some people will just look for things to be offended by.

Your approach of "I really do not think trying to "talk it through" and submitting myself to his game is the way to go. I will just let it be." is correct.

Pranks are fine if everyone involved is happy with it. Once a person indicates that they did not appreciate a prank, move on and don't include them in such behavior again. That's especially important if that is the office culture. In general, if you don't prank people at the office, you can't be accused of anything.

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I think it's important to understand where to draw the line when it comes to pranks. Criticise and make fun of people is not something I would accept as innocent pranks - even how innocent they are. This can in many cases look like a "hidden battle" to establish where people belong in the hierarchy. That is why I have zero tolerance for people making fun of each other. If we want to establish our place in the hierarchy at work, it should be done through knowdlege and the work we do - not by attacking/making fun of coworkers. As I've gotten older, I have less and less tolerance for this. Two strikes and I don't have any passion to have any other contact than what's needed for doing the work.

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