Get Ask a Boss delivered every week.
An employee, “Sally,” started at our workplace about a year and a half ago. She’s not my subordinate, but is the subordinate to a peer of mine, and works frequently with my subordinates. A few months later she got a new boyfriend, “Peter.” (I found out about this through normal water-cooler-type conversation.)
After she’d been with the company a few more months, at Christmastime of 2015, she invited her boyfriend to our holiday party. (This is totally normal in our workplace; people are welcome to bring any family or friends they like to the party as long as they RSVP.) Everything there seemed fine as well, although at one point Peter asked Sally to get him a drink, to which she replied, “Yes, master!” in a very I Dream of Jeannie kind of way. We all laughed it off as a joke, and it didn’t come up again.
… until it did. We had an early-summer party in late May at which Sally and Peter both attended (again, bringing significant others and friends was totally acceptable, so that was not in itself a problem). At this party, there was a good deal more of Peter ordering Sally around and Sally calling him “master”: He sent her to fetch drinks and hot dogs, he told her to find a place for them to sit, etc., to which she replied consistently with “Yes, master.” It made a number of people, myself included, clearly uncomfortable, but there was nothing objectively abusive about it (he never yelled at her or threatened her), and her immediate supervisor and her supervisor’s supervisor weren’t there, and so no one said anything (perhaps incorrectly?).
After the party, at the office, I overheard a conversation in which one of her co-worker friends was like, “So, uh, what’s up with the master thing?” and she explained that she was in a 24/7 dominant/submissive relationship, and he wasn’t her boyfriend or her significant other or her partner, he was her “master,” and needed to be referred to as such. Her co-worker was clearly flummoxed and didn’t have much response to that.
Later, I heard her correct someone who referred to her boyfriend as her boyfriend/partner, saying that he wasn’t her partner, he was her master, and should be referred to using his appropriate title. She compared it to gay rights, saying that if she were a man, they wouldn’t erase her relationship by referring to “Peter” as “Patricia,” and so they shouldn’t erase the d/s relationship by calling him a partner instead of a master. It’s pretty clear that her co-workers aren’t comfortable asking her “will your master be at the end-of-summer barbecue?” or “did you and your master do anything fun this weekend?” though, and thus have just stopped referring to Peter at all.
Her direct boss, my colleague, is baffled as to how to sensitively address this issue. My instinct is that there’s a very big difference between insisting that colleagues acknowledge that you’re in a gay relationship and insisting that they refer to your partner as “your master,” and that it borders on involving other non-consenting parties into your relationship … but I can’t really articulate why. For what it’s worth, I am a bisexual woman, and our office has a number of gay, lesbian, trans, and poly individuals, so it’s not an issue of being against nontraditional relationships. It just seems to be that it seems very important to Sally that Peter be referred to as “her master,” and it seems equally clear that her co-workers find this intensely uncomfortable.
Help? How can I advise my colleague? What’s reasonable in this situation?
Whoa. Yeah, your co-workers definitely don’t need to refer to Peter as Sally’s “master,” and she’s wildly out of line to request or expect it.
What Sally is asking for is indeed akin to involving non-consenting parties in their sex life and in their relationship. Even if she wanted to argue that the term isn’t a sexual one (which is a bit of a stretch), she’s still insisting that people participate in a dynamic of her relationship with Peter that people haven’t signed up to be a part of.
That may become more intuitive if you consider that there isn’t actually any need here for a label more specific than partner (or, you know, even just “Peter”). Partner is a conveniently generic term that covers a whole spectrum of possibilities — boyfriend, girlfriend, spouse, long-term companion, asexual mate, and so forth. There’s no need to use a term that describes the dynamic between them so specifically. After all, imagine if you had a co-worker who insisted that people identify her partner as her “lover.” It’s too much information, it’s not needed, and it’s understandably going to make people uncomfortable.
(The “lover” comparison works particularly nicely, since anyone insisting on it would come across as just as self-involved as Sally is doing here. And to be clear, Sally’s behavior is self-involved; making a point of describing the inner workings of your relationship to colleagues and insisting that they use very specific, sexually charged language to describe it when a more generic term would do is very much the province of people who are indulging their own urges at the expense of consideration for others.)
And really, “partner” should cover it. Someone could be your partner and also be your master; it might be an unequal partnership, but it’s still a partnership.
That’s why refusing to refer to Peter as Sally’s “master” isn’t at all equivalent to refusing to acknowledge gay couples or calling someone who identifies as a man by a woman’s name. You’re not refusing to recognize the relationship’s validity; in fact, by referring to Peter as your co-worker’s partner, you’re inherently recognizing the relationship’s validity. No one is being erased.
But Sally is asking for more than that: She’s asking you to get involved in and play along with a specific dynamic of their relationship. It’s entirely reasonable to decline to do that. Whatever she and Peter agree to do together is all well and good, but you and your co-workers don’t need to participate in it.
And the fact that this is happening at work, as opposed to just in a social situation, gives this a whole additional layer of weirdness and discomfort. It would be odd enough if Sally were just doing this socially, but it’s infinitely weirder and more disturbing that she’s making it A Thing at work — where people normally have stronger boundaries than this, where she has something of a captive audience, and where people feel pressure not to cause tension in their relationships with her.
So, should her boss — your friend — say something to her about it? Probably, especially if it’s making people uncomfortable, as of course it is. If Sally pushes back with the gay-rights comparison again, her manager can point out that everyone is happy to acknowledge her relationship with Peter, but that they’re going to use the term “partner” as they would do with everyone else — gay, straight, poly, or any other relationship category.
Get Ask a Boss delivered every week.
Got something to Ask a Boss? Send your questions to email@example.com.