Today I’m going to tell you an old, old story. Guy meets girl in a workplace. Guy tries to chat girl up. She finds his comments overbearing and creepy. Guy continues, despite her discomfort. When the inevitable HR investigation happens, he explains to the boss that it was ‘only banter’. Starts jumping in any time other colleagues make jokes of any kind: “you wanna watch out, mate! You’ll get reported for that! You can’t say anything these days!”
I’m nicking this story from a mate, so details are anonymised (obviously). But as this person told me about the HR problem they were trying to unravel, I realised there was a misconception at the heart of it that so many inappropriate workplace men buy into. So many inappropriate men in general, if I’m honest. They seem to genuinely believe that what you can and can’t say ‘these days’ could (and should) be neatly summed up in a universal list of rules.
Let’s do a little test, shall we?
What are you ‘allowed’ to say?
Sam is at work. It’s about an hour before the shop shuts and everyone’s shift ends. Ashley is looking a little down. Is it appropriate for Sam to approach Ashley, put an arm around them, and ask ‘you seem glum. How about we pop to the pub for a pint when we’ve finished?’
Question: is this appropriate in the workplace?
a) yes of course that’s fine
b) no that is inappropriate
c) don’t know
Well done if you said ‘c’.
The problem with this scenario is that we don’t have enough context. There isn’t nearly enough information to work out whether Sam is being a) kind or b) creepy. So let’s add some.
The reason Ashley is sad is because she had a really bad day. A few customers had been rude to her over the course of her shift, and eventually she lost her temper and got snappy with another customer, for which she received a verbal warning from the shift manager. Sam owns the shop where Ashley works, and not only is he twenty years her senior, he is also the person ultimately responsible for whether she’ll pass her probationary period and be allowed to continue working there. This is the first ever time Sam has invited Ashley to the pub.
A, b or c?
Ashley is feeling down because her dog is really ill. Sam and Ashley have been working together for a long time, and they’re good friends. They have been to the pub together many times before, and leant on each other for support when they’re struggling. Ashley and Sam are equally secure in their jobs, and neither of them has ‘hire and fire’ power over the other.
A, b or c?
Do you see? To me this shit is so unbelievably fucking obvious that writing a blog post about it seems as useful as writing one which says ‘you know grass? Innit GREEN?’ In order to know whether this behaviour was inappropriate, we need loads more relevant context – about their relationship, their previous interactions, any power imbalances that might influence those interactions, etc. But listening to my pal discuss this HR incident gave me a window into how some people genuinely do still view the world. Believing that behaviour can be categorised into ‘good’ and ‘bad’ without any context, and acting as if the complex network of power structures which influence our daily lives have absolutely no bearing on the way we should be conducting ourselves.
Having pled ‘banter’ and ‘morale’ and ‘I was only joking!’ when told his comments had made a coworker uncomfortable, Inappropriate Workplace Guy – later that week – picked up on a couple of genuine friends who were bantering with each other in the staffroom and told them ‘careful! You’ll get reported for that sort of thing. You can’t say anything these days!’
Context and cuntery
The problem cunts don’t realise is that context is important. Always. That’s why you’ll never be able to make an exhaustive list of ‘Dos’ and ‘Dont’s’ for what might count as appropriate behaviour. Here on this blog I get sick of talking about ‘consent’ because I’d much rather talk about desire, lust, craving, want. But every time I mention the ‘c’ word, some other c-word pops into the comments to ask me for a cast-iron list of rules to guarantee that he’ll never ‘accidentally’ push things too far.
I cannot provide that: no one can. Sure, we can give a general guide – be aware of your power in any given scenario, make sure you check in with the other person, and if you’re not sure whether you’re making them uncomfortable, back the fuck off. But just as ‘consent apps‘ will never be a suitable tool to negotiate sex, likewise blanket rules about what you can and can’t say will never be sufficient to cover every workplace interaction you might have.
Like the dude at my mate’s work who thinks there’s a list of what you ‘can’ and ‘can’t’ say, these people are forgetting that context is key. The reason the ‘banter’ excuse rings so hollow is because most of us instinctively understand how ‘banter’ works in a genuinely friendly (i.e. wanted, enjoyed, consensual) context. We know the difference between a friend making a welcome joke because they want to cheer us up (even if it’s an awkward or terrible one) and someone in a position of power who’d be happy to hear the hollow ring of uncomfortable, nervous laughter.
The guy who’s the subject of an HR complaint would understand exactly how inappropriate his joke was if it were made at his own expense instead of someone else’s. Instinctively, when the tables are turned, most of these fuckers recognise that context is key. Feigning ignorance to cry ‘bants!’ is just a way to avoid confronting the fact that until now their power was enough to protect them from consequences.
It’s not that you ‘can’t say anything these days’, it’s that ‘these days’ you don’t always get away with it.