I gasped out loud when I received this letter, and so will you.
A reader writes:
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 Christmas time 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 SOs 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 coworker-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 SO or her partner, he was her “master,” and needed to be referred to as such. Her coworker 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 was 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 coworkers 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 coworkers find this intensely uncomfortable.
Help? How can I advise my colleague? What’s reasonable in this situation?
You can read my answer to this (amazing) letter at New York Magazine today. Head over there to read it.
my coworker wants us to call her boyfriend her “master” was originally published by Alison Green on Ask a Manager.