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Workplace Awkwardness

Freedom Requires Wings | by on




Since I’m really tired tonight, and therefore having trouble coming up with a more serious topic, I’ve decided to regale you all with a tale of workplace awkwardness. For context: I work in a department of six people (myself included). Two of them are the manager and the supervisor, the other three hold the same position as me. The four of us get along pretty well, and we chat a lot among ourselves during the work day. One of my colleagues is in his late 30s and has a 3-year-old daughter. Another is in her 50s and has a daughter who’s my age and married with three kids. Those two have a constant friendly banter back and forth about all sorts of things, one of which is that he doesn’t want any more kids, and she keeps telling him he’s going to have another one. He usually tries to deflect this onto my supervisor, who just turned 40 (though she looks and acts much younger!) and is married but has no kids yet, but last week, I somehow got dragged into it. To make this easier, I’ll call him MC (male colleague) and her FC (female colleague).

It was their typical banter. MC stated that he loves his daughter but is DONE having kids. FC responded that she thinks he’ll have another one because he needs to have a boy. MC came back with the retort that he thinks she’ll have another one, despite the fact that she’s in her 50s and probably can’t at this point. FC basically said as much, and told MC that it’s all on him. MC responded again that he won’t be having any more kids, and that FC should talk to our supervisor about this topic (implying that she should be the next one to have a kid). This exact exchange happens about once a week in our office. Then, this time, it suddenly took a different direction.

MC continued on to say that if it wasn’t our supervisor’s turn to have a kid, maybe it was mine. I guess it shouldn’t have caught me off guard, but it did. Suddenly the attention was on me, and I was scrambling to come up with an appropriate response. Since sexuality isn’t something that’s generally discussed in the workplace (at least in corporate America), obviously my co-workers have no idea that I’m asexual, and that’s not something I would ever think to tell them, at least in the context of the work environment. I think I managed to smile at them and play it off like a joke or something, but it left me reeling a little.

Heteronormativity is deeply ingrained in our society. Heterosexuality is assumed, and anything outside of it is seen as “different” or “other”. I know my co-workers didn’t mean anything by their assumption that I was heterosexual. I don’t even think they were aware that they were making that assumption. But if I wasn’t married, I don’t think they would have pulled me into their discussion in the same way. Because they know I am married (they’ve met my husband, too), they assumed that my next life step would be to have kids. While they happened to be correct in that regard, the assumptions they made about my life made me very uncomfortable. It was awkward because I couldn’t tell them why it made me uncomfortable, or even THAT it made me uncomfortable. It was awkward because I knew that even if it was appropriate to tell them, I couldn’t tell FC anyway, because she’s extremely religious and believes that homosexuality is a sin (although she’s actually very tolerant – she thinks it’s a sin, but not her place to tell other people how to live their lives, so she says it’s none of her business), so I have no idea what she would think about asexuality. MC might be a little more open-minded, but it’s a moot point, since it’s not appropriate for a co-worker relationship. And it was awkward because it made me feel like an outsider among them. This was not their intention, but that’s what heteronormative assumptions can do.

So why am I bothering to tell this story? It’s certainly not something that hasn’t happened before, and I’m sure it will happen again, many times, to many people. But for some reason, that moment stood out to me. It brought up a lot of questions, most of which I have no answers for. Why can we discuss kids and family life in the workplace, but not sexuality? Why is our society still so deeply heteronormative even now, when alternatives to heterosexuality have become so pervasive that everyone is aware of their existence? Am I doomed to always have that awkwardness pop up unexpectedly throughout my career?

I put these questions out there, not to find answers (I don’t think there are answers, necessarily), but just to raise awareness. To show that assumptions happen all the time, even when we’re not aware that we’re making them. And to show that the people on the receiving end can be potentially put into a really awkward position because of our assumptions. Even when we’re in an environment where sexuality is a taboo subject, these assumptions and their effects are still relevant.
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