Office Hostility

Q: Dr. Hurd: What fundamentally motivates people who continue to act in a disagreeable way even after you confront them about it? For example, my coworker intermittently makes indirect suggestions that I am gay. I am not, and I eventually told her why it bothered me and to stop doing it. She seemed to understand my concern, but now that things have settled down, she is gradually, ever so subtly doing it again. Generally, what motivates people to act like this? I regarded it as a suppressed hostility toward me (she claims to like me and is otherwise all smiles, laughs and jokes).

A: Either she didn’t understand your concern, or she doesn’t care about your concern as much as you would believe. Perhaps she finds you attractive and, assuming you never expressed interest in her, she feels that the only possible explanation is that you must be gay. Or, maybe she believes you’re not gay, but feels she should insult you–since many would consider this an insult–as a form of subtle retaliation.

It’s also possible that she has issues about gays and/or homosexuality. Perhaps she needs to put people down–for what she views as a weakness–in order to feel better about herself. We all need and require self-esteem. There are rational ways to get it, and not so rational ways. Bringing others down a notch or two, rather than lifting oneself through effort, accomplishment and character, is an all too common approach. This might not motivate you at all, but it does motivate a lot of people.

I agree she’s showing you a suppressed hostility. Actually, it’s no so suppressed. She’s insinuating that you are gay–a highly sensitive and charged subject matter, especially on a personal level in an office setting. She knows what she’s doing. Although we don’t know why she’s doing it, and can only speculate, it is reasonable to speculate that she’s hostile.

At the same time, let’s be careful not to read too much into this. It may have something to do with you or it may have nothing at all to do with you–other than she considers you a valuable target. You mentioned that she’s generally full of laughs and jokes. Maybe she simply thinks this is funny. It isn’t, but she thinks it is, and she wants some kind of an audience. She could be a frustrated comic. You could remind her of someone who used to tease or even taunt her, and she’s now doing to you what was done to her. To some, this is justice–even though it isn’t.