Are you in need of advice? Write to firstname.lastname@example.org with “Aunt Acid” or “Businesslady” in the Subject line.
Dear Aunt Acid and Businesslady,
I’m writing to both of you as my question is both professional and deeply personal. One of my coworkers is my age, but she has a much more senior role. She is sort-of-not-really my boss but she is also clearly interested in finding a work friend. To this end, she asks me numerous personal questions that are not entirely appropriate for our relationship. While I have no problem not answering many of her personal questions, my real dilemma is when she asks me pointed questions regarding my faith. She recently found out, through my casually mentioning it, that I am devoutly Catholic, and has asked me several pointed questions about it.
On the one hand, I am aware that this is not at all appropriate for the workplace or our relationship. On the other hand, I do want to be a witness to my faith, as she has clearly had very little interaction with young people who happen to be religious and I want her to be aware that it is possible to be simultaneously devout, progressive, and professional. Today, she asked me about my stance on abortion. I demurred at first to answer her, but eventually just told her as concisely and considerately as possible. I am not sure that was the right thing to do though. What should I do going forward?
Suffering succotash! Cubicle Catholic, are you my coworker Diane from 2004? I thought you liked talking with me about religion. It passed the time that we otherwise had to spend in service to misogynistic blowhards; it gave us something to think about besides the fact that we were working 10 hours a day and yet barely making enough to cover dry cleaning.
I’m so sorry I was impolitic and overenthusiastic in my questions. You didn’t seem uncomfortable — but then, neither did my friend P. at the beginning of Freshman Year when I chattered a bunch of personal questions at her, not remembering that everyone is a confessional blogger at heart, and she began avoiding me and later transferred schools altogether. It didn’t help that I had accidentally hooked up with her boyfriend while drunk on Mint Juleps, having misread him as a Jewish (because he was wearing an Israeli army t-shirt) and romantic (because he carried me up a hill). In my defense, I didn’t even know his last name, let alone whether he was in a relationship, and I had seen Ang Lee and Emma Thompson’s Sense and Sensibility too many times.
I have strayed from the point, which is that your coworker-interrogator may well be, as I was, well-meaning, even fascinated by you, yet tone-deaf. She might be trying, as you surmise, in her awkward, too-talkative way, to bond. Perhaps she grew up in a family where discussions about religion and politics at the dinner table were considered normal rather than potentially hostile. Or perhaps I’m giving her too much credit because I’m over-identifying with her and she’s merely a person with scrubby boundaries and even scrubbier social skills.
In any event, you should feel free to do two things. First, figure out what you want to accomplish: a better working relationship? Fewer questions from her? Better questions? Do you want her to find a different office buddy, or would you be fine with her as a friend should she be willing to be trained? Identify your ideal. Then, ask for it.
If you are willing to be friends under somewhat modified circumstances, approach her at an opportune moment — happy hour; while browsing the candy racks at the drug store during lunch; sometime calm — and let her know, in your kindest voice, what you need. For example: “Hey, BTW, I like hanging out and I’m even cool talking about my faith, but talking about my personal life and controversial issues like abortion during the workday makes me a little queasy. Can we save the intense conversations for the weekends?”
If not, the next time she asks you something you think is out of bounds, you can give a polite smile and quelling answer like, “I don’t really feel like getting into it right now,” and then change the subject or go make a Cup of Noodles. Be bland but firm and all but the most monstrously nosy people — like Cyrano or Pinocchio-level nosy — will get the hint.
Regardless, for what it’s worth, it doesn’t seem like you’ve done anything wrong. It might be that you’re not a great personality match for a deep office friendship with this person, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Still, under questioning, you have proven true to yourself, and you have educated somebody. Not bad for a day’s work.
What say you, Businesslady?
I basically agree with Aunt Acid’s advice overall, but want to double down on the “avoid discussing religion and associated hot-button issues at the office” part of it. Even if you and your coworker achieve a harmonious rapport for talking about your respective faiths and how they intersect with contemporary culture and politics, your other colleagues might not appreciate being privy to your opinions. While I believe that you’re open-minded and respectful about other peoples’ belief systems, someone might get an erroneous impression like “Cubicle Catholic thinks I’m going to hell” based on something they overhear, and that could significantly impact your working relationship. This is especially true if you’re a manager or otherwise work closely with other people, since the appearance of bias (even if unfounded) could cause problems for you and your employer if there’s an unfortunate alignment between your actions and a publicly stated belief.
Now, to be clear, I wholeheartedly encourage your impulse to hash these things out with your coworker—I think our society would be better if people didn’t shy away from discussions of difficult and/or complex issues. But the rules governing workplace conversations are different from those out in the real world, and religion should be handled with extreme delicacy if it’s brought up at all. Being too candid runs the risk of alienating coworkers, who might not feel comfortable addressing the source of their discomfort directly, and could have potentially serious repercussions in a worst-case scenario.
Still, there are plenty of places beyond the office where you can discuss this stuff freely (if you want to), and if your coworker doesn’t respect your demurrals of “not at work,” then that’s a sign that she’s probably not the best confidante anyway.
The role of Aunt Acid is played by Brooklyn-based know-it-all Ester Bloom.
Businesslady is in her early 30s and somehow managed to find a rewarding career despite her allegedly useless degree in the humanities. Her job history includes everything from food service to retail to corporate nonsense, but she currently does writing and editing for a nonprofit, and devotes the rest of her life to playing video games, patronizing bars, and spending way too much time on the internet.