This is Awkward with Virginia Sole-Smith | Crooked Media
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May 24, 2023
Work Appropriate
This is Awkward with Virginia Sole-Smith

In This Episode

We’ve received so many questions about awkward/mean/offensive/weird things your coworkers have said and done… that we had to make a whole episode about just that. Virginia Sole-Smith, author of Fat Talk: Parenting in the Age of Diet Culture, joins host Anne Helen Petersen to help listeners figure out what to say, how to say it, and when to just go straight to HR.








Anne Helen Petersen: Hi everyone. I’m Anne Helen Petersen. And this is Work Appropriate. [music plays] Over the course of the last nine months, we’ve received hundreds of work questions and quandaries, and I have read every single one. But our producer Melody, usually reads them first, and every so often she’ll text me one of these questions with the comment, truly, what the fuck? Sometimes these questions involve a workplace that is behaving in truly unbelievable ways, but more often it involves coworkers saying ridiculous, offensive or just awkward shit. At some point we realized we had enough of these questions to fill an entire episode. But I needed someone as my co-host who was an expert at one, navigating others awkwardness and two not putting up with it in the name of social niceties. [music plays]


Virginia Sole-Smith: My name is Virginia Sole-Smith. I’m the author of Fat Talk: Parenting in the Age of Diet Culture, and I write the Burnt Toast newsletter and host the Burnt Toast podcast. 


Anne Helen Petersen: So you didn’t say I write The New York Times bestselling book Fat Talk. 


Virginia Sole-Smith: Oops. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Which congratulations. [laughs]


Virginia Sole-Smith: Thank you. 


Anne Helen Petersen: So a lot of people, including myself, have said really nice things about the book, but a lot of people, too, have said really dumb and awkward and mean things. 


Virginia Sole-Smith: They have. 


Anne Helen Petersen: So what has been your strategy for dealing with having all of that in your inbox and in the comment section? 


Virginia Sole-Smith: Oh, man. Well, I mean, I stay out of the comment sections. That’s an easy one. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Yes, yes. 


Virginia Sole-Smith: The inbox is harder because I have to go there to do my job. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Uh huh. 


Virginia Sole-Smith: And then you never know what’s coming. But you know, most of it, you know, I don’t internalize it like it is an energy drain to have to like, read it and sort through it. But mostly it’s just super interesting to be like, oh, that is the thing that is making people really upset. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. 


Virginia Sole-Smith: With their feelings about processed foods or. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Yep. 


Virginia Sole-Smith: You know, a lot of it is just men angry at the sheer audacity of a fat woman existing unapologetically. And I can’t help them, but I, you know, I will get their emails. [laughter]


Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah, well, and that’s the thing is that like, what they really want is for fat women to, like, invisiblize themselves. 


Virginia Sole-Smith: Yes. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Right. And you are refusing to do that. And also suggesting that other people refuse to do that and also refuse to perpetuate that in their parenting.


Virginia Sole-Smith: Right refuse to shrink their kids and make their kids feel like they have to be invisible. Yeah, it’s really interesting. I mean, there’s this proxy conversation that happens that’s about it’s about health and it’s about people being lazy and there’s all that. And then there’s always the troll who’s like, well, I just want my kids to be pretty [laughter] or fat women aren’t attractive to me. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. 


Virginia Sole-Smith: And I’m like, well, that’s that’s what it’s really about. Thank you for saying it more clearly for us. [laughs]


Anne Helen Petersen: You know, I think I take a similar tact to you in terms of the hate mail like mail that is obviously not or even mail that is quote unquote, “well-intentioned.”


Virginia Sole-Smith: Mm hmm. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Like I think of it as almost like discourse analysis, like I’m looking at what people are sending me to see what is touching that nerve. 


Virginia Sole-Smith: Yes. 


Anne Helen Petersen: That’s really interesting. 


Virginia Sole-Smith: Yes. Yes. 


Anne Helen Petersen: If you can if you have that ability to cultivate that distance. 


Virginia Sole-Smith: Yeah. 


Anne Helen Petersen: To be like, oh, this is what is still an incredible cultural sensitivity. Right? 


Virginia Sole-Smith: Yeah. 


Anne Helen Petersen: This is still hotwire. 


Virginia Sole-Smith: Oh, yeah. It’s fascinating to see how because I think the people sending the messages often think they are saying something I will have never considered or that I will have never heard before. [laughter] Like there’s a lot of do your research and like, are you unaware? 


Anne Helen Petersen: Or I did some research. [laughs] Right?


Virginia Sole-Smith: Yes. I’ve listened to these podcasts, so there’s a lot of that energy and it’s like, but I can actually look at this like, you know, set of 50 emails and see like three themes like over and over and over. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Right. 


Virginia Sole-Smith: So that is fascinating. But yeah, but I also do want to hold space for like it’s also fine if it super bums you out and is traumatic to look at because it’s a lot of negativity and no one deserves that. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. 


Virginia Sole-Smith: And it’s a weird you know, a lot of people just shrug and they’re like, well, what are you going to do? And you have a book doing well. And it’s like, this is an unacceptable cost of working. This is not this is actually too high of a price. No one should experience abuse in their workplace, which for me, my inbox and my book is my workplace. So yeah, it’s interesting. 


Anne Helen Petersen: That is so interesting. I can’t believe that I have never thought of it that way, that the abuse that I received online, particularly when I was working at BuzzFeed. 


Virginia Sole-Smith: Right. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Was abuse in the workplace. 


Virginia Sole-Smith: Yeah, yeah. These are our offices. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. 


Virginia Sole-Smith: I mean, you know, we’re here on the Zoom screen like this is our office and all of the messaging that comes in the computer at us is the office. 


Anne Helen Petersen: And, you know, we’ll talk, I think, as this episode goes along about the responsibilities that workplaces have to make safe workplaces for their workers. But there’s also just like how it feels different when it’s personal, when it’s an interpersonal relationships. So like if someone you knew, like, I don’t know, like an uncle or a cousin emailed you, maybe not with the same vitriol, but like with a similar critique, it would feel markedly different than some rando on the internet. You know? 


Virginia Sole-Smith: Yeah, yeah, yeah. I mean, there at least I have a relationship with that person and it may benefit both of us to find some common ground. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. 


Virginia Sole-Smith: And to hear each other out. And to you know, like for the good of our future relationship, I want to do that work. It’s interesting when you write about issues in a public facing way or exist on the Internet and any kind of public facing way, the number of people who feel entitled to a private conversation with you. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Uh huh. 


Virginia Sole-Smith: About the things they don’t like about you, that is really interesting to me. And I think that is, again, a unique experience for women on the Internet or otherwise marginalized folks on the Internet, that we are somehow like men think, well, you owe me an explanation. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Mm hmm. 


Virginia Sole-Smith: As opposed to like, I could just read all your books and articles and get the explanation that way, they would like hand-deliver to them. 


Anne Helen Petersen: The ire when you’re like, okay, I’m muting you. 


Virginia Sole-Smith: Yeah. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Right. So like, you can still talk at me, but I’m never going to see it. I always love to say that, like, you’re muted, like, so just so that they know that I’m not seeing it in any capacity.


Virginia Sole-Smith: Yeah. It is deeply satisfying. [laughter] Yeah. Yeah. 


Anne Helen Petersen: So how do you like what is your general philosophy about how to deal with awkward comments? Mean comments, dumb comments like how does it shift when someone is trying to be well intentioned and someone who’s just kind of like running their mouths? 


Virginia Sole-Smith: Yeah, I think a lot about some really good advice I got from Ragen Chastain, who’s an incredible fat activist and writer, and she told me a long time ago and I think this is like good for dealing with trolls, but also extrapolates to all sorts of interactions like you don’t owe them anything, you don’t owe the trolls anything. So you don’t need to have a protocol about like what’s best for troll management. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Right. 


Virginia Sole-Smith: You just need to think about like what centers your needs in the moment. And sometimes that is just like, I don’t want to deal. I’m going to mute this and block this. Sometimes it’s like I feel like making a funny TikTok about this comment and that is satisfying for me [laughter] to sort of share it with people who will also be like, what the fuck, this is ridiculous, you know, and like you can just go with whatever makes sense to you. And I think about this a lot also in context of a comment where someone mistakes me for pregnant and, you know, gets into that where comments people make about other people’s bodies or food habits. The person making the comment is the one who can feel awkward and uncomfortable. And so you only need to worry about what will help you in the moment. And it doesn’t and it doesn’t mean you have to come across as like having the perfect come back or rise above or any of that. Like you can be a floundering mess and walk away and that’s fine.


Virginia Sole-Smith: Right. 


Anne Helen Petersen: That’s a totally valid way to handle it because none of it was your fault to begin with. It’s not your mess to clean up. 


Anne Helen Petersen: And I think this is why these sorts of comments become particularly difficult to deal with in the workplace, because if you make someone feel awkward, particularly someone with more power than you. 


Virginia Sole-Smith: Yeah. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Sometimes that can manifest in fascinating and troubling ways, right? 


Virginia Sole-Smith: Absolutely. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Like there can be repercussions that don’t necessarily look like them responding to what happened, but it is right like it is a manifestation of that awkwardness is then like, okay, well, I’m going to make them suffer in some way. 


Virginia Sole-Smith: Mm hmm. 


Anne Helen Petersen: And especially if you’re a junior in the workplace, that’s a really difficult place to be. 


Virginia Sole-Smith: Oh, 100%. And I mean, this is why we really need more systemic protections in place. This is why it’s such a victory that New York City just passed a fats rights law that’s going to apply to, size, discrimination in the workplace and housing and health care settings. Like, you know, this is why we need those protections codified, because whenever you have to take that power imbalance into account, you then have a completely different set of calculations. And if there’s no larger protections in place, which in most places there aren’t when it comes to weight comments, and really with so many of these comments we’re going to get into, that’s a whole different conversation. 


Anne Helen Petersen: So this is a great segue into our first question. So the last time you were on Work Appropriate, we talked about specifically handling fatphobia and anti fat bias at work. So this first question is in a similar vein, and it’s from Morgan and our producer Melody is going to read it. 


Morgan: I have an older coworker who makes so many unnecessary and problematic comments about food. Sometimes. This is regarding our office snacks, the special treats we order, or baked goods that I occasionally bring in. They will make comments about how they shouldn’t have it or that people are trying to give them diabetes. A comment I feel really crossed the line is when a Muslim coworker said they were fasting and the co-worker’s immediate response was to ask how much weight this person loses during Ramadan. No one in our office forces food on anyone else. If anyone chooses not to eat food, it’s not a big deal. Despite all the comments this person makes about food in the workplace, they still eat the food that is brought in. I feel like they are saying these things to fill space or make conversation or process their own food trauma. I don’t want to make a big deal out of it, but it bothers me a lot and I find it a little triggering and I can’t imagine that there aren’t other people in our workplace who find it upsetting too. And yet just saying, hey, everything you say about food is problematic does not feel like a plausible solution. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Okay, so the Ramadan comment, first of all, I really hope that the person on the receiving end of that question documented it somewhere. 


Virginia Sole-Smith: Mm hmm. 


Anne Helen Petersen: But Virginia, a lot of these comments seem to be happening in a group setting around the snack table or whatever it is. But what do you think Morgan’s options are if she wants to take this coworker on?


Virginia Sole-Smith: I mean, first I just have to say I’m having like a PTSD flashback to my women’s magazine years where every tray of Magnolia Bakery cupcakes that came into the office which was like for some reason all the time, was like then all of the women’s magazine editors standing around the cupcakes saying they couldn’t have the cupcakes. They were being bad, maybe taking like a sliver, trying to, like, split a cupcake between eight people [laughter] which is an absurd concept. They are individually portioned [laughter] so I have a lot of empathy because this is a very common narrative. And I also I hear it a lot from teachers, too. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Hmm. 


Virginia Sole-Smith: I think particularly in women dominated workspaces, this is common, obviously, not just that, but the thing to understand is this is someone performing their own body and relationship with food. Although they’re making comments about other people, they’re really talking about themselves and they’re really talking about the fact that they don’t feel like they have permission to eat the cupcake or be in their body in a public way. And so I think that can help us to find a little compassion for the fact that this isn’t really about the other people. This is somebody’s own struggle that they are narrating in a very uncomfortable way [laughter] for the rest of us. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Right. 


Virginia Sole-Smith: That said, yeah, it’s not okay, it’s not comfortable. It’s triggering for you. It’s triggering for your colleagues. The Muslim colleague in particular should not have had to experience that. So I think one strategy would be to think about how you could adopt some language as a workplace community that, you know, is there some way and this might be a job for like your DEI committee or something where you can adopt like we are a food neutral office and we don’t make comments about foods and bodies and maybe this is like a graphic up in the breakroom or an email that goes out. So it’s not targeting this one person, but it’s giving some framework for the fact that these comments aren’t okay and sort of a starting point for bigger conversations about it. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah, I love that you point out that there’s a way to feel a little bit of sympathy for this person. 


Virginia Sole-Smith: Yeah. 


Anne Helen Petersen: I read this and I’m like, I’m really sad for this person. Like they clearly have a difficult relationship with their own body and feel shame about eating and eating in public in general and like you said, need to narrativize it. And I do wonder depending on the workplace if if something like food neutral work like if that is something that would not fly in the workplace for for you know sometimes that’s that just the character of the workplace. 


Virginia Sole-Smith: It wouldn’t have flown at a women’s magazine, that’s for sure. [laughter]


Anne Helen Petersen: Right. 


Virginia Sole-Smith: They would have been like what? [laughs] Yeah. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Sometimes I think having one conversation, like maybe no one has ever said to this person, when you make those kind of comments, it’s really hard for me. 


Virginia Sole-Smith: Yeah, that’s a great point. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Takes courage. But to even sit down and just kind of be vulnerable and even if it’s playing out more of your own reaction than necessarily the case, just be like, it’s really hard for me when you say stuff like that. And I would say personally, because I do have a complicated history with food, I would be like, I have a complicated history with food. And it’s really hard for me when I hear things like that that bring me back to that place in my life. 


Virginia Sole-Smith: Yeah. And I would look for a way to have that conversation, not at the conference table. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Yes. 


Virginia Sole-Smith: With everybody around but me, and maybe not even in the moment, you know, like, maybe this is something you swing by their desk a few days later and like, or go to lunch with them in like, a one on one context. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. 


Virginia Sole-Smith: If that doesn’t feel possible. Something I like to do whenever these moments come up and I feel like I have to navigate it in the moment is just look for the most straightforward way to put the blame back on the system of diet culture and anti fat bias. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Yep. 


Virginia Sole-Smith: So if you can say something like, oh, I hate that this culture makes us feel like we have to apologize for eating this food, you know, that’s not antagonistic to your coworker who’s making the comments. It’s actually kind of aligning you with them, like, oh, I’m seeing you have to do that and I’m really sorry you’re having to do that. And I’m really sorry. We all feel like we have to do that. So that could also be another way in because it’s also possible, in addition to no one ever saying to this person, this doesn’t feel good for me, probably nobody has said to this person, you shouldn’t have to do that, you shouldn’t have to perform your body this way. And so opening the doors to that conversation could be huge for for both of you. 


Anne Helen Petersen: So I was just rereading the question to see if there’s any indication of what gender this person is who is making these comments. And it doesn’t it’s not a parent. I can see a world in which if you try to gently point this out, that then in the future, every time that like cupcakes show up, they’re like, oh, but I can’t say this around Morgan, because you know what I mean? Like they double back on it and kind of make it into a joke that then feels like even more annoying. [laughter]


Virginia Sole-Smith: Yeah, that’s a real possibility. 


Anne Helen Petersen: It is, so we just want to acknowledge that possibility. But I also think that the best first approach is either to think about a group solution, because I think that’s powerful for the culture of an office. 


Virginia Sole-Smith: Yeah. 


Anne Helen Petersen: That would be a really cool thing. But then the second route would be having that one on one conversation. 


Virginia Sole-Smith: And even if the one on one conversation goes badly and they do start doubling back and making those jokes, well, it was already uncomfortable, right? So now it’s just still uncomfortable. But at least you were able to say something and that benefits everyone else who’s uncomfortable because now at least you’ve articulated that in some productive way, even if the person making the comments doesn’t actually change their behavior. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah, and I want to also say that, like nothing that this person has said is explicitly anti fat bias. Right. Explicitly. 


Virginia Sole-Smith: Yeah. Yeah. It’s real baked in there. But yeah. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Totally baked on there. 


Virginia Sole-Smith: But like asking about weight loss. Yeah, that’s pretty anti fat. 


Anne Helen Petersen: The reason I ask is even in New York where these laws have been passed, like, how would this even be handled if you brought it to H.R.? Say. 


Virginia Sole-Smith: It’s definitely a gray area. I mean, the law is so new, I don’t think we’ve had a chance to test it yet, they just voted like two weeks ago. So it’s certainly the kind of thing that I would hope we would be getting some protection for. But I agree it’s a gray area, especially because so many of the comments are more about food than they are specific about bodies. And they’re not. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Right. 


Virginia Sole-Smith: About I mean, the the Ramadan comments, because it’s like both about religion and body maybe is falling into a different category that, like you said, that’s one to document. 


Anne Helen Petersen: And this is just a good time to also say that people who are not Muslim often ask people in burqas, say like, aren’t you so hot in there? 


Virginia Sole-Smith: Mm hmm. Mm hmm.


Anne Helen Petersen: Right. Other people’s religion is not a spectacle for you to ask questions about. 


Virginia Sole-Smith: Right. 


Anne Helen Petersen: And I think that sometimes people think that they’re being inquisitive or, like, trying to show interest. Yeah. And just don’t do that. [laughter]


Virginia Sole-Smith: Don’t don’t be inquisitive. When you really are, what you’re really doing is objectifying them. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. Yeah. Turning it into just like the clothing or the eating habits or that sort of thing. I think like you could a more interesting question, and there’s so many different ways that you could ask a question about the experience of Ramadan, right? Like, what’s the meal called that you eat when you break fast? And like, what’s your favorite thing to eat for that? 


Virginia Sole-Smith: Right. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Instead of how much weight do you think that you lose during fasting? [music plays] Our next question is from someone who has just totally had it with jokes that are not funny. This is from Lisa and our PR manager Ashley is going to read it for us. 


Lisa: I have a coworker, age 37, who teases me about my age 52. I think it’s most likely her acting out about her own age and looking at 40, but it’s super annoying. Any suggestions on a good way to respond? I’ve mostly been quiet about it, but have these responses locked and loaded? Being younger doesn’t mean you’re cooler. Anything over 30 is old, so you’re in the same boat, etc. etc.. I feel like it’s petty to even respond, but it’s getting old having to deal with it. 


Anne Helen Petersen: What do you think of this assessment that the younger coworker is acting out of her own insecurity? Virginia. 


Virginia Sole-Smith: I’m sure that’s true. I mean, ageism experiences of ageism for women start at 35. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. 


Virginia Sole-Smith: So if not younger in a lot of workplaces. So I’m sure that is what’s happening. But in acting out her own anxieties around aging, she is perpetrating ageism against her older coworker who is a protected class. So this is another one where you could be documenting this and bringing it to H.R. because this is workplace harassment. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. And I’m sure that this person would die if someone said this is workplace harassment. 


Virginia Sole-Smith: Yeah, absolutely. 


Anne Helen Petersen: They’re like, I was just joking. But it is like the seriousness of this is as a parent. 


Virginia Sole-Smith: Yeah. 


Anne Helen Petersen: And I think that that’s that’s validating to say, like, I think sometimes people are told that there is a certain type of treatment that they just have to deal with, like a certain type of razzing that’s just like, oh, that’s what it’s like to be in a workplace and it doesn’t have to be that way. 


Virginia Sole-Smith: No, and I can understand there may be a thousand reasons why the actual pathway of going to H.R. doesn’t feel useful or available to you. But I do. That’s why I just want to name like that is what’s happening. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. 


Virginia Sole-Smith: And regardless of what action steps you take, you are valid to be angry about this. You are being discriminated against. This is not okay. Making jokes about people’s age is unacceptable. 


Anne Helen Petersen: So do you think this is another one where if this older woman said even just one time like this really hurts my feelings and makes me feel vulnerable, like if they showed that, do you think that that would be effective? 


Virginia Sole-Smith: I think it might. I mean, she doesn’t say really how friendly they are, how it’s sort of like, you know, I’m curious to know more— 


Anne Helen Petersen: Right. Yeah.


Virginia Sole-Smith: —about their relationship. And is this a case of the younger person really just not reading the room and thinking that they have a closeness where this kind of banter is allowed. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. 


Virginia Sole-Smith: And that this, you know, younger person may have a very different interpretation of it. That doesn’t mean that, you know, intent is not impact and this is still harmful. But if that’s the case, that it would be all the more reason to say, hey, we’re friends. I really value our relationship as colleagues. These comments really bum me out. And you know, it doesn’t feel good for me when you say that and seeing if that elicited the correct response. But if it’s like someone you don’t have a close relationship with, it’s hard to tell from the email the level of sort of barbed ness to the comment. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Yes. Yes. 


Virginia Sole-Smith: And that’s, I’m kind of wondering about that. 


Anne Helen Petersen: You know, I think about the fact that I am older than my partner. And so sometimes when I was like, oh, when I was in high school and he’s like, oh yeah, during the Roosevelt administration? [laughter] And like because we have an intimacy and closeness like it doesn’t feel offensive to me, like I don’t feel vulnerable. Like it’s just hilarious to me that, you know, when I’m talking about how we didn’t have Facebook when I was in college. 


Virginia Sole-Smith: Right. 


Anne Helen Petersen: He was like, did you have telegraphs? Like, what was going on? [laughs] But that too is my like, I’m emphasizing how much older, like how different things were, but this does not seem to be the case of what’s happening. What do you think about any of Lisa’s responses like being a like a snappier response? 


Virginia Sole-Smith: Well, again, I always you know, as we sort of talked about, I think whatever feels good to you in the moment. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. 


Virginia Sole-Smith: Is totally valid and worth saying. I will say, though, the responses don’t undo ageism. Like they’re sort of still playing into the ageism. And so if you want to tackle that more directly, saying something more directly about how this is ageism, I mean, that’s not a snappy comeback, but it is an act [laughter] you know, or, you know, I think so often in our conversations around aging, there’s an interesting thing happening where we are still not questioning the premise that nobody wants to get older and that aging is bad and to be avoided at all costs. And so often when older people experience these comments and this is, you know, similar to what happens with fatness, right? We experience these comments. And the assumption is it was unkind to say because it’s true. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Right. 


Virginia Sole-Smith: As opposed to it’s unkind to say because it’s offensive. And that’s a really important distinction to make. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. 


Virginia Sole-Smith: Aging is actually, I would argue, the ideal scenario for most of us. Like, I would prefer it to death at a young age. So I’m pro-aging. [laughter]


Anne Helen Petersen: Yep. 


Virginia Sole-Smith: I think, you know, we can reframe the whole narrative around aging. As the 52 year old colleague. You have years of wisdom and experience that your younger colleague can learn from. There’s so much power there. We should be celebrating this process like there’s just a whole cultural narrative that needs reframing. And that’s difficult for you to take on in a workplace conversation like this. 


Anne Helen Petersen: And, you know, depending again on the relationship between these two, I wonder how she could maybe use this as an opportunity to say like, I love being 52. 


Virginia Sole-Smith: Right. Right.


Anne Helen Petersen: And you know, especially if this younger coworker is maybe acting out some of her anxieties about aging, it has been incredibly powerful for me as I get older to hear older women talking about how every decade is better. 


Virginia Sole-Smith: Yeah, and it is by the. [laughter]


Anne Helen Petersen: For me. 


Virginia Sole-Smith: We are both in our forties, it’s great. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Yes. Yes. 


Virginia Sole-Smith: Well, I’m in my forties. Are you in your forties? I forget. 


Anne Helen Petersen: I think we’re like the exact same age. 


Virginia Sole-Smith: Oh okay. 


Anne Helen Petersen: I just turned 42. 


Virginia Sole-Smith: Oh I just turned 42 as well okay. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah, yeah. [laughs]


Virginia Sole-Smith: The forties are amazing. I loved my thirties, but they’re way better than my thirties. They’re for sure better than my twenties. Good lord. [laughter]


Anne Helen Petersen: I know. Right. Well, and I think like there’s a way to say, you know, if we don’t want to make it into this comparison too, you don’t have to be like, I wouldn’t give anything to be 37 again. 


Virginia Sole-Smith: Yeah. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Like, you don’t have to make it derogatory. It can be more like, I’ve really enjoyed aging. 


Virginia Sole-Smith: Yeah. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Like, I just love where I am right now. It is a really cool place to be and that’s a sort of thing that someone is not expecting. 


Virginia Sole-Smith: Yeah, I love that. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Because there there is this expectation that when someone teases you about being older that you have to like, you somehow fulfill the stereotype and are like, oh yeah, when I wake up in the morning, everything hurts. Just you wait, you know? 


Virginia Sole-Smith: Yeah. Yeah. And again, I think too, there’s the option of pivoting to the larger system. Ageism is also a systemic oppression. So like, I’m just so sick of this narrative that women aren’t allowed to age. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. 


Virginia Sole-Smith: You know, I’m sick of this idea that somehow I’m not supposed to like being 52 and I love being 52. And then you’re not saying to your colleagues, you are the problem. You’re helping them with their own anxieties. And we don’t have to be so afraid of this thing. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah, this is not a dialogue that we have to have. This is not a back and forth like a performative back and forth about aging that we have to have. Yeah. 




Anne Helen Petersen: Our next question could be described as actions speak just as awkwardly [laughs] as words. So this is from Sally, and our colleague Caroline is going to read it. 


Sally: A few months ago. My job was split back into two positions and someone was hired to be my partner. My new partner is very nice and I have enjoyed getting to know her and we have a very good rapport. My problem is that she’s touchy and I don’t mind the occasional hug or pat on the back from a coworker, but her level of touching is uncomfortable. She often comes up behind me unexpectedly and gives me a long hug. When I say something funny. She squeezes my knee or lower thigh. If we sit next to each other, she will rest her leg on my leg or her head on my shoulder. The first couple of times it happened, I told her I’m not a touchy person and that seemed to help things for a few weeks. But then it continued. We are both straight females in our late twenties at the same job position. Is it too late to say something now? Is this normal? Am I the weird one for not wanting to be touched? 


Virginia Sole-Smith: You’re not the weird one. Oh my God. [laughter] I am so uncomfortable at this question. 


Anne Helen Petersen: I know but sometimes, sometimes Virginia I’m like are we just wafts who can’t— [laughter]


Virginia Sole-Smith: Sure. Yes, absolutely. But also, it’s okay to not want to be touched in the workplace. 


Anne Helen Petersen: I don’t want to be touched in the workplace at all. 


Virginia Sole-Smith: Oh gosh. 


Anne Helen Petersen: And good for Sally for trying to say something. So what does she do now? 


Virginia Sole-Smith: I mean, again, this is if this were a straight man. 


Anne Helen Petersen: I know exactly that’s what I was thinking about. 


Virginia Sole-Smith: Or a man period. 


Anne Helen Petersen: That’s what I was thinking about. 


Virginia Sole-Smith: You would have a very straightforward case. And sexual harassment is not defined by sexual preferences and sexual identity. Right. Like straight people, can harass other straight people. Like— [laughs]


Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. 


Virginia Sole-Smith: You know, it can like, two straight women. You can still have that being the dynamic. So if she is not open to. Conversation about it. Then that is definitely, again, going to H.R. with this seems pretty clear cut to me and pretty necessary. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. 


Virginia Sole-Smith: Because your body, it belongs to you. And it’s not for her to I mean, the like leg on your leg in a meeting like what is happening? What industry is this? No. [laughter]


Anne Helen Petersen: [?] industry. I wonder how much to depending on the industry. Like, do they think like, oh, we’re like best friends. Like, you know, it’s this sort of intimacy that you would have with a friend and maybe they think like their coworkers or their best friends, like that sort of thing. 


Virginia Sole-Smith: And if it’s like a very intense workplace where there’s lots of late hours and there’s all those blurred life work boundaries where we all sort of are in it all together, I mean, that leads to so many problematic breaking down of reasonable boundaries. 


Anne Helen Petersen: So I’m getting a note from Melody that they work as clinical research coordinators. So in like a hospital setting. So yeah, that’s like kind of intense but also not what I would necessarily expect [laughter] to generate this sort of intimacy. 


Virginia Sole-Smith: No, that’s not the tech start up with no boundaries. [laughter]


Anne Helen Petersen: I wonder if it’s worth one more conversation before H.R. being like we talked about this before. It still makes me really uncomfortable. I really hope that you can stop or you know what I mean. 


Virginia Sole-Smith: Yeah, I think given that they are friends, having one more conversation makes sense. But I do think it’s a conversation where you need to lay out some stakes and say, I know this is well-intentioned from you. I am truly not comfortable with this I’m saying this to you as clearly as I can. And if this isn’t something you can understand, I’m going to have to loop in, you know. But there’s a process here. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. 


Virginia Sole-Smith: And I hope that this person can understand it. But there’s also the fact that sometimes when people have those conversations, there are repercussions. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. 


Virginia Sole-Smith: And so that is something to just be aware of and know that you really deserve support on this and you don’t have to be okay with this. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah, I think this is one of those scenarios where a lot of people would say, do I want to deal with the awkwardness of them touching me or do I want to deal with the awkwardness of the repercussions of this conversation? And they choose that awkwardness of them touching, you know. 


Virginia Sole-Smith: Uh. Breaks my heart. 


Anne Helen Petersen: And I understand that. And I can see myself, like making a similar decision at different points in my life. But it doesn’t have to be this way. 


Virginia Sole-Smith: Yeah. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Like your work should not demand, like having a peaceful work scenario should not mean that you are touched in ways that make you feel uncomfortable on a daily basis. 


Virginia Sole-Smith: Yeah, and I would love if, you know, if this person really is your friend and they are open to hearing this, it can become something you joke about. It can become something that’s like, you know, like there’s there’s a world where it turns into a sort of thing we dealt with and we can move on from in a productive way. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. 


Virginia Sole-Smith: And there’s a world where it doesn’t and you have to go the other route. And if it goes that way, that is not your fault. That’s not because you didn’t handle it right. That’s not because you know, that is because this person chooses not to respond to your feedback and your very valid boundary with respect. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah, that’s important. I think, like, let’s say this ends up with you getting a new partner. That’s not your fault, right? You aren’t being a problem. 


Virginia Sole-Smith: No. 


Anne Helen Petersen: They were being a problem. 


Virginia Sole-Smith: Yeah, yeah 100%. Yeah.


Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. So our last question is so relatable and it’s about dealing with a negative Nancy, [laughs] this comes from Abden. 


Abden: I have a coworker in my department who is constantly miserable and complaining about her basic job duties. Despite our boss’s very reasonable efforts to offer resources and assistance, she dismisses him, privately, berates him, and refuses to change. I tried to offer help, be supportive and express sympathy if she were to consider quitting, nothing has worked. How do I communicate to her that her attitude is negatively affecting everyone else at the company? 


Anne Helen Petersen: I have some experience with people who are similar to this and you know, sometimes they’re called negative people, pessimists, complainers. What’s interesting, if you talk more with them about it, I think if you if you dig down deeper, they would probably not say like, I’m miserable. I want to quit my job. This person doesn’t want to quit their job. This is their way of processing everyday life. 


Virginia Sole-Smith: Yeah, that makes sense. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Is they articulate through like talking about what is bad about it in the same way that sometimes I go through my life and I’m like, oh, that’s annoying, but I’m going to try to think about something else that I actually like doing, right? 


Virginia Sole-Smith: Mm hmm mm hmm. 


Anne Helen Petersen: And I think the thing to understand is that people are conditioned to respond that way by their parents, other people who are around them when they’re growing up, caregivers. There are so many things that can condition you to process in that capacity. 


Virginia Sole-Smith: I think a big one is when you feel like. And I don’t think the question talked about how senior this person is, but when you feel like you don’t have a lot of power in the situation. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Yep, yep. 


Virginia Sole-Smith: And maybe you really legitimately don’t have a lot of power, there can be interpersonal drama among assistants, you know, like more junior employees in a workplace or in lower income jobs. Like there’s no there’s no changing the larger framework of the shittiness of things. So what you have is venting and letting out your feelings and frustrations about how bad so-and-so is. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Yep. And coming to understand that it took me a long time. It took me until my late thirties to understand that like these people that are part of my life, like they’re not just bummers, right? They’re not worse people. They’re just processing really differently than I process. And for me, as someone who is not like a useful tool has been to say, do you want help processing this? Or do you just are you just venting? 


Virginia Sole-Smith: Yeah. Do you, do you want to like solutions and ideas or do you just want to let it out? 


Anne Helen Petersen: Right. But then the other thing too is if they’re venting this much, they feel like they are not being authenticated in the things that are hard and that can mean outside of the workplace too. 


Virginia Sole-Smith: Mm hmm. 


Anne Helen Petersen: If this were a friend of mine, I would be like, you should consider therapy. 


Virginia Sole-Smith: Yeah. What else is going on? 


Anne Helen Petersen: Right. 


Virginia Sole-Smith: How’s your relationships? Yeah, how is your family set up? Like the yeah, the lack of power thing may translate to a lot of different scenarios here. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah, and, like, maybe they don’t have anyone else to talk to about things that are really hard in their lives. 


Virginia Sole-Smith: But that doesn’t mean you have to be the person they talk to exclusively—


Anne Helen Petersen: I know. 


Virginia Sole-Smith: —about things that are hard in their life. [laughter]


Anne Helen Petersen: Right. And that’s that’s something. Right? Like, you know, emotional dumping. That’s kind of. 


Virginia Sole-Smith: Yeah. 


Anne Helen Petersen: This is like a workplace version of emotional dumping. 


Virginia Sole-Smith: Totally. 


Anne Helen Petersen: And that’s not a healthy relationship characteristic. So you can understand it and not excuse it. 


Virginia Sole-Smith: Yeah. Yeah. 


Anne Helen Petersen: So how do what kind of advice would we give to, to Abden about like how to respond to this other than like are you venting right now. 


Virginia Sole-Smith: I love that as a starting point and I think maybe if the answer is I just need to vent, Abden can say, okay, you know, I’ve got like 10 minutes before my next whatever thing, let’s do it. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. 


Virginia Sole-Smith: And sort of set some boundaries around how available you make yourself for this. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Yes. 


Virginia Sole-Smith: And you don’t have to go to drinks after work if you know it’s just going to be this. You don’t have to go to lunch with this person. You know, like you can put some limits around how much time you spend down in this sort of wallow session with them. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah, I think you can also it’s fair to understand that, like talking with this person in the place where they are right now, it makes you feel shitty. 


Virginia Sole-Smith: Mm hmm. 


Anne Helen Petersen: They’re your coworker, they’re not your best friend, they’re not your family member like you do not you are not responsible for their well-being. 


Virginia Sole-Smith: Right. 


Anne Helen Petersen: So it’s okay to, I think, draw some of those lines around the interactions that you want to have with them. That doesn’t mean you’re a bad person. 


Virginia Sole-Smith: Yeah, and I think that really resonates because I think those of us who are more fixer problem solving oriented people often fall into the role of fixing and problem solving for everybody in a workplace or in any system where a part of. And so asking yourself like, am I taking on more of this than they’re even asking me to take on.


Anne Helen Petersen: Right. Because they probably don’t realize that they are dumping it on you. 


Virginia Sole-Smith: Right. 


Anne Helen Petersen: For them. They just need to get it out of their system, right? They need to dump it. And they’re not realizing the destination of that dumpage which is on the people around them. 


Virginia Sole-Smith: Right. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Okay. The last thing that I will note is that it seems clear from the question that maybe this isn’t just an interpersonal thing, like it’s not just Abden and this coworker who are having these negative interactions and Abden kind of wants to tell her that she’s sucking the lifeblood out of the team. [laughs] What is your thoughts on that? Because I think this is actually poor management. 


Virginia Sole-Smith: Mm I agree. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Like this is not Abden’s job. This is the manager’s job. 


Virginia Sole-Smith: Yeah, I think it’s like we were just saying, is this Abden wanting to be the fixer? And maybe that’s not necessarily the role they need to play. And can this be something a manager needs to get in and address with her versus because if it’s impacting the whole team, that’s not—


Anne Helen Petersen: Right. 


Virginia Sole-Smith: —on any one team member to solve. 


Anne Helen Petersen: And, you know, Abden says despite our boss’s very reasonable efforts to offer resources and assistance, she dismisses him, privately berates him, refuses to change like the manager needs to try again. But also if Abden wants to talk more about it, they should talk with their manager. 


Virginia Sole-Smith: I agree. 


Anne Helen Petersen: About this is really affecting the team. 


Virginia Sole-Smith: Mm hmm. 


Anne Helen Petersen: And maybe this is a scenario where this team member is not a good fit, right? 


Virginia Sole-Smith: Yeah. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Like she needs to go if she’s not going to change. But also that’s not Abden’s responsibility. 


Virginia Sole-Smith: Yeah, I think the best thing Abden can do is kind of be in conversation with the manager as needed. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. 


Virginia Sole-Smith: And set the boundaries that they want to set around, how much they’re involved and, you know, and and the other team members can do that too. You know, I think there’s a I think there’s a troubling dynamic that could pop up here where everyone’s kind of gossiping about how terrible she is. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. 


Virginia Sole-Smith: And then not only making it all worse. So looking for ways to kind of step out of that dynamic seems important. 




Anne Helen Petersen: Okay, so we did an episode with our mutual friend Lyz Lenz a couple of months ago about annoying things coworkers do like send emails in their dogs voices, and we got so many questions, for this one that we want to do another quick lightning round. 


Virginia Sole-Smith: Let’s do it. 


Anne Helen Petersen: So we asked for questions about dumb things that your coworkers have said, and we got so many people who wrote in so to cram as many into this episode as possible, we’re going to do another one. So Melody is going to read the questions and we’re going to give ourselves like 2 minutes to answer. Let’s see how many we get through. 


Melody: My boss called me into his office to say, you’re gay, right? He followed up with asking me to be on her corporation’s pride float. I couldn’t believe he would out me then use me as a token. What should I do? 


Anne Helen Petersen: Oh, my God. 


Virginia Sole-Smith: Call H.R. call H.R. [laughter] Are these offices in the human resources departments? 


Anne Helen Petersen: I mean, I think we have to remember that there are so many without human resources. 


Virginia Sole-Smith: Yes, fair, fair. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Or where the H.R. has established itself as adversarial. 


Virginia Sole-Smith: Yes. I know that is a good point. 


Anne Helen Petersen: But if that’s not the case, this is an H.R. violation. 


Virginia Sole-Smith: Oh, my gosh. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Like, absolutely. Not okay. 


Virginia Sole-Smith: Absolutely not. Yeah. 


Anne Helen Petersen: And sometimes people, I think, write in because they want us to say, this is not okay. This is not okay. 


Virginia Sole-Smith: There is no world in which it would be remotely okay. Any part of that conversation? 


Anne Helen Petersen: Oh, my gosh. Yes. Okay, let’s go. Melody number two. 


Melody: I was turned down for a job. The candidate they chose had more project planning experience than I do, but I had direct experience doing part of the project they were beginning. After I was turned down, the hiring manager emailed me to ask if we could chat about the experience I had that their new employee didn’t. He’s basically requesting the knowledge he turned down by not hiring me, and I can’t believe he doesn’t see how this comes off. I don’t want to burn the bridge, but I do want to tell him that’s not okay. How do I respond? 


Anne Helen Petersen: [laughter] Burn that bridge. 


Virginia Sole-Smith: Burn it, burn it down is not a useful bridge. You don’t want to walk through that bridge. What do you need the bridge for? Oh lord.


Anne Helen Petersen: Seriously, you don’t want to be you want to be hired by this person. 


Virginia Sole-Smith: No. 


Anne Helen Petersen: And it is totally inappropriate that the emailed asking for this knowledge. And again, it’s okay. I mean you don’t have to like email back with like [laughs] screw you. You can be like, I don’t feel comfortable. I don’t know what. How would you respond here? 


Virginia Sole-Smith: Well, as a freelancer. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. 


Virginia Sole-Smith: We always have the option of saying, I’d be happy to share that this is how much it’ll cost you. [laughter] And as an employee, you don’t usually have that option. But I want there to be some equivalent. Like if you are going to provide the labor and institutional knowledge, you should be compensated for it. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah, you could be like, oh, that would be some knowledge that I would be happy to impart if I were part of the insert company name here. 


Virginia Sole-Smith: Mm hmm. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Right. And that might sound like kind of weird, but I think it will get the message across. 


Virginia Sole-Smith: And also if there is some documentation or, you know, meeting minutes or that you can say like I think most of that’s over here and just like, you know, go do the work, go read whatever you need to read and like, you can do this work. I’m not gonna do it for you. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. All right, Melody, question three. 


Melody: What do you do if you have a colleague who is extremely rude via email? I have a colleague who emails as if she is texting someone she hates every time I receive an email from her my blood boils. Should I address it with her or H.R. Or my supervisor? Should I email her back the way she emails me or be annoyingly pleasant in my responses? 


Anne Helen Petersen: I want to see the emails because my guess is that she’s probably just like using periods instead of exclamation points. [laughter]


Virginia Sole-Smith: Or no punctuation is another common. You know, like misstep. 


Anne Helen Petersen: [laughs] Yes. 


Virginia Sole-Smith: I think email is the land of misinterpreted tone and she may not hear you like at all. She just has no idea how she’s coming across. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. Or she’s emailing like a man. 


Virginia Sole-Smith: Yeah. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Like, to be very clear, there are very gendered expectations of how men and women should email. And I think, you know, I had a colleague at BuzzFeed who once spent a week emailing like a man and just like, got so much done. [laughs]


Virginia Sole-Smith: Because he didn’t have to find all the damn unicorn emojis and stick them in there. [laughter] And the hearts—


Anne Helen Petersen: And I also had a I have a good friend who was actually recently a co-host on the podcast who people thought she came across as kind of bitchy in her email and she had to like, force herself to use more exclamation points and that sort of thing because it softens her, her mode of address. So I think for this person, I would ask them to just reconsider. 


Virginia Sole-Smith: Yeah. 


Anne Helen Petersen: What maybe makes them think that she is being mean. I also have a friend who does voice to text on her text to me, which creates a period at the end of sentences and I’m always like, oh, this is so annoying. 


Virginia Sole-Smith: Right this sounds—


Anne Helen Petersen: Like you don’t have to be final in your texts. And it’s truly she told me. I was like, Beth, why do you always put a period at the end of your texts? And she’s like, oh, it’s just because I’m talking to my watch. You know what I mean.


Virginia Sole-Smith: [laughs] And that’s what my watch does it. Yeah, yeah, I like that. Investigating what’s really going on. And also ask yourself if you need to be as nice in your emails as you are. Could you be getting more done with fewer. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. 


Virginia Sole-Smith: Laughing face emojis [laughter] and exclamation points? 


Anne Helen Petersen: Okay. Next question. 


Melody: I have a coworker who spent a significant part of our company staff calls talking about how hard working while parenting is. For example, on a recent call with more than 30 coworkers, she announced that her kid had to poop and then returned to say she was done, quote, “wiping butts.” Now I have three kids and remember the madness of toddlers. I sympathize, but I also don’t want to hear about poopy butts on a professional call. Our organization is super into team bonding flexibility and mental health support, which is great but can lead into a lack of boundaries between personal and professional worlds. So I, a normally empathetic person, am instead feeling like a humorless headmistress in my reaction. Have I inadvertently internalized the patriarchy? Is this a generational thing? I’m in my fifties. She’s in her thirties. Is airing home life challenges as part of our work interactions a healthier way to be? Please help me not be an unsympathetic jerk to this fellow mom. 


Virginia Sole-Smith: Look, she’s making the labor visible. Sometimes it involves poop. It is just what it is. [laughter]


Anne Helen Petersen: I think I actually. I praise this question writer because I think she’s seen. 


Virginia Sole-Smith: Yeah. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Some of her limitations. She’s like, what’s going on in my head here? That I’m reacting this way? And I think that’s. That’s important. I think it’s generational. 


Virginia Sole-Smith: Yeah. And I get it. I just as someone who also really wants to be done wiping poopy, it’s like I think it’s just I want it to be done so badly [laughter] and I hope to never talk about it again. But I also hope I remember how trapped I felt in these years. [laughter] And I can extend that compassion to someone when they’re in that and I’m older. Yeah, I think it’s making the labor visible. I think it is fine to not be into it, but just trying to find grace for this person who is doing the really hard work of parenting and doing this job. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Love it. Perfect. All right. So one more Melody? Do we have time for two more? 


Melody: Well, we only have two left. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Oh, yeah. Okay.


Melody: I work at a university admin office with a lot of older women, and I’m a younger millennial slash gen-z individual who is nonbinary and gender non-conforming. Normally, this is fine, but people tend to call me young lady often. And one time in the breakroom, an older colleague said to me that she, quote, “understood trans men and women but doesn’t get the whole nonbinary thing” and that she, quote, “doesn’t think it was real.” I felt super awkward and just tried to casually change the subject because I don’t know what to do in that situation, especially when I myself am non-binary. I really like this colleague, but that comment made me suddenly feel isolated from her. There aren’t any other openly gender queer people at my office. I don’t want to have to be a spokesperson or anything, but I want things to be more comfortable. How do I even begin to make things better?


Anne Helen Petersen: This poor person. This is really hard. 


Virginia Sole-Smith: Yeah. Not okay.


Anne Helen Petersen: They should not be responsible for educating other people about their own. 


Virginia Sole-Smith: Yeah about their identity. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah, yeah, yeah. But that is not anyone’s responsibility. And so I think this is, H.R.’s a hard one because I feel like it would be almost too corporate. Like. Like there will be an email that goes out that this person will just delete. 


Virginia Sole-Smith: Certainly this sounds like a workplace that could use some anti-bias training. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. 


Virginia Sole-Smith: And maybe that’s a conversation to have with your manager or, you know, as a sidebar, but also know this is the perpetual problem of marginalized people in workplaces is you are asked to do the labor of educating everyone in your workplace about your own lived experiences. And this is never okay and it’s additional labor you should be compensated for. Additionally, if you are providing it to your workplace in any way in that moment with that, I don’t believe it’s real. I would have said something like, I guess I’m a unicorn then. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Right. [laughs]


Virginia Sole-Smith: You know what I mean, like they literally tried to deny your existence. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. 


Virginia Sole-Smith: And that is absurd. But again, to go back to what we were talking about with trolls like you don’t owe them the response that solves it or makes them more comfortable. You just need to do what feels safe for you in the moment. And if that’s just getting out of that conversation, that’s totally fine. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah, this is especially a person who is younger in the workplace and who doesn’t feel like they have that solidarity. I do think, you know, one piece of advice that we’ve given in previous episodes is like finding other people at the university. 


Virginia Sole-Smith: Mm hmm. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Who are also gender queer. Or part of like an LGBT alliance, right? Like just so that you can talk as fellow coworkers about your experiences and and feel like you have someplace to talk about this because you’re not going to find that in your department. But I think re-emphasizing this is not okay. And you don’t have to make this person feel more or less comfortable. Any response that you have in that moment is valid and it’s totally fucked up that this person said to you. 


Virginia Sole-Smith: Yeah. 


Anne Helen Petersen: That they don’t believe that your existence exists. 


Virginia Sole-Smith: Absurd. Absolutely absurd. 


Melody: Did either of you watch The Good Place? 


Virginia Sole-Smith: Yes. 


Melody: I keep envisioning Janet being like, not a girl. I like what they say. [laughter] Well, they call you young lady, just like a finger gun. And be like not a lady. 


Virginia Sole-Smith: Not a lady. 


Melody: Just like you have a good relationship with them. Just sort of if there’s, like, a lighthearted tack, it’s not a lighthearted subject, but. 


Virginia Sole-Smith: Yeah, no, that’s. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Just another [laughter] another way too to say like, don’t call people, young lady. 


Virginia Sole-Smith: Yeah. Yeah.


Anne Helen Petersen: Like, it’s patronizing. 


Virginia Sole-Smith: It’s patronizing. It’s you’re bringing in ageism and gender and everything, and it’s—


Anne Helen Petersen: It’s the intersection of so many. 


Virginia Sole-Smith: Yeah. 


Anne Helen Petersen: So— [laughter] All right, last one. 


Melody: A few years ago, when I was a fairly new and lowly employee at my academia job, an older coworker, a man saw me outside of the office when I was waiting for someone, looked at my stomach, smiled and said, should I be congratulating you? At first I had no clue what he was talking about and even naively thought I was being promoted or recognized somehow for my work. So I smiled back and asked for what? And he just looked more pointedly at my stomach and asked again, should I be congratulating you? At that point I realized he was asking me if I was pregnant. Needless to say, I was not. I responded this time without a smile. With another,  for what? What should I have said to him when I realized what he was asking? What can I say to others who make comments about my body? Or if I’m ever again asked whether I had unprotected intercourse while I was ovulating? 


Virginia Sole-Smith: I just want to say solidarity. I have been here so many times. Your response was perfect because you said what you needed to say in the moment. You owe him nothing. This happened to me just recently. We were at a barbecue with a bunch of friends who I hadn’t seen. Like, I don’t know, everyone at the barbecue. And some people were coming up and saying, congratulations to me about my book. And it was clear that people were looking at me and thinking it was a different kind of congratulations. And it was like, really? [laughter] I’m still here, still doing this. This is the very definition of you only need to say what makes you comfortable because this person has violated so many boundaries. So many boundaries. 


Anne Helen Petersen: I just want to bring this full circle by saying that one of the great things about your book is that you give a lot of scripts for how people can respond to not just comments like this, but anything that is really seeped in diet culture, how to talk to grandparents, how to talk to in-laws, how to talk to friends, how to talk to your partner, how to talk to your kids. Because I think so much of preventing this moving forward is stigmatizing this sort of commentary on anyone’s body.


Virginia Sole-Smith: Right. This is what we need to make people feel uncomfortable with the idea of talking about other people’s bodies, because that’s uncomfortable, too. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. Yeah. So even though this guy might never get it, he should feel awkward and uncomfortable. And hopefully the next generation feels that they would never want to say those sorts of things or even think those sorts of things because it’s none of their business. 


Virginia Sole-Smith: Yeah. And I will say too, every time I talk about mistaken for pregnant, that’s a recurring theme in my work in my life. [laughs] You know, the avalanche of other people who are experiencing this and who know what is unacceptable is so huge. Like you are not alone. And I do think we’re seeing something of a sea change where people are understanding that, yes, unless a baby is crowning, there is no acceptable time to congratulate people for a pregnancy. You don’t know what’s happening. I mean, then, yeah, there’s just that’s the end of it. So. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. All right, Virginia, thank you so much for coming in and helping me answer these very awkward and bad and offensive questions. 


Virginia Sole-Smith: Solidarity, to everyone out there just getting through their day. [laughter] Being talked at by people. It’s a lot. People are a lot. 


Anne Helen Petersen: In the workplace they are so a lot, all the time. 


Virginia Sole-Smith: So a lot. Yeah. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Where can people find you on the internet?


Virginia Sole-Smith: So Burnt Toast is at The Burnt Toast podcast is wherever you are listening to this podcast and Fat Talk is available wherever books are sold. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Thank you so much. 


Virginia Sole-Smith: Thank you. [music plays]


Anne Helen Petersen: Thanks for listening to Work Appropriate. If you need advice about a sticky situation at work, we are here for you. Submit your questions at or send a voice memo with your question to Work Appropriate at We love building episodes like this one around your questions and you can stay as anonymous as you like. Don’t forget to follow us @CrookedMedia on Instagram and Twitter for more original content hosts takeovers and other community events. You can follow me on Instagram @AnneHelenPetersen and you can sign up for my newsletter Culture Study And if you like the show, leave us a review on your podcast app of choice. It really helps. Work Appropriate is a Crooked Media production. I’m Anne Helen Petersen, your host. Our executive producer is Kendra James. Melody Rowell is our producer and editor. Alison Falzetta is our development producer. Music is composed by Chanell Crichlow. Additional production support from Ari Schwartz and a special thanks to Katie Long and Sarah Geismer. [music plays]