Miss Conduct

Advice: Getting past a co-worker’s sexist comment

He apologized to our group. How do I respond?

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I was one of two women on a business call with two men. One of them made a sexist comment, which I let go. The guy who made the comment sent the group a gracious apology afterward. Should I respond? Or just let it go? The comment wasn’t aimed at me, but it did offend me. If I respond, what do I say? I want to reinforce his taking responsibility for it, but I also don’t feel like thanking him when he should have known better in the first place. What’s the right thing?


A.K. / Newton

Prejudice drains, doesn’t it? It drains energy that could be spent so much better elsewhere. Thank you for phrasing your question the way you did, and not asking, “What should I do?” Because if we’re talking “should,” you shouldn’t have to spend time strategizing over this. You shouldn’t have to expend so much thought over someone else’s thoughtlessness. So there.

That said: Respond. Unlike a gift, an apology can be correctly accepted without thanks. Something like: “I accept your apology. I was bothered when you said that, but I kept it to myself. We’re all learning. Let’s move on!” . . . and then do. This closes the loop and does a few other things as well. Letting him know you were upset in the moment reinforces that the apology was indeed necessary; there was a human cost to his words. The best work groups acknowledge mistakes and learn from them, so that’s always a good norm to reinforce. And the phrasing suggests that you feel your silence might have been a mistake, too, and one that won’t be repeated.

Tweak the above as necessary for your specific circumstances — power dynamics, corporate culture(s), how long you’ve worked together, usual communication channels, etc. When in doubt, ask yourself: If you’d been the one to make an unthinkingly bigoted statement that included — without targeting — a colleague, what kind of response would make your work relationships (and ideally, your social conscience) most productive in the future?


Miss Conduct is Robin Abrahams, a writer with a PhD in psychology.