How to Handle Awkward Questions at the Office

Question mark., originally uploaded to Flickr by SegozymeHow do you handle questions about Ramadan at work? I think this is a great topic because awkward questions arise in a lot of different situations, whether the question stems from a religious practice (Ramadan, observing the Sabbath, ashes on Ash Wednesday), a medical issue (allergies, Celiac disease, etc), or a personal preference (e.g., a new diet). Reader D is new at her office and observing Ramadan, a month without food or water during daylight hours. Here’s her question:

Ramadan has just started and I am a practicing Muslim (but people would not guess based on my appearance, so I am told) and I am working in a law office. I really like the job and I am pretty new, and everyday attorneys are asking if I’d like to join for lunch or coffee and I say no thank you, I really appreciate it etc. What gets trickier is at lunch-ins where there is a surplus of food and people give me looks about not eating (Ramadan rapid weight loss does not help the suggestion of other issues), but I really don’t want to tell them that I am observing the month of Ramadan (yes an entire month without food or water during daylight hours). Any suggestions on how I can field these situations which will be coming up every day for the next 20+ days? I only ask because I have had a pretty rough experience in the past when people have ‘figured out’ I am fasting- and I just don’t think religion is a relevant topic in the work place, as long as it does not affect my performance, and it has not.

I’m curious to hear what the readers say here. (Pictured: Question mark., originally uploaded to Flickr by Segozyme.) For my $.02, I think this is how you should handle it:

  • First: Don’t feel weird about it. Whether you say “I’m fasting” or “I’m observing Ramadan,” those are both perfectly acceptable reasons and are complete answers in and of themselves. Some people may press on — gee whiz aren’t you hungry and my gosh how are you not falling over from exhaustion and so forth — and that’s where you need to make the next decision:
  • How much else are you going to say?You can come at it from a few different angles:
    • Humor. Come up with a pithy one-liner or two and just repeat that when you get further questions.
    • Education. Call me crazy, but I like to believe that most people are coming from a good place, particularly if they have questions — they’re trying to learn more. You can use it as a teaching opportunity and think of a few bullet points you’d want people to know, and perhaps a website to refer them to more information, even if it’s just Wikipedia.
    • Silence. If you’re really not comfortable talking about it more, don’t. Change the subject, excuse yourself to go to the bathroom, or start talking to someone else. I wouldn’t advise this as a general “across the board rule,” but — let’s face it — there are some people and some situations where this is going to be the most graceful way to end the conversation.
  • If it’s a social or networking opportunity, particularly with new colleagues, suggest you do something else instead. For example: “I’m fasting this month for Ramadan, but I’d love to get lunch next month.  Is Tuesday the 13th good for you?”  Depending on the situation you may want to suggest doing something else entirely, such as getting a manicure together (if it’s a friendly female colleague), making a run to the nearby bodega together at snacktime (you can pick up a magazine or newspaper instead of a snack), or more.

Readers, what is your advice for Reader D? How do you handle awkward questions?

Comments

  1. I really can’t imagine why you wouldn’t want to admit that you’re not eating because it’s Ramadan. It’s not at all inappropriate to mention your religious practices in response to a question, and you may discover that you have other Muslim colleagues. Plus, once you say you’re fasting for Ramadan, you’ll close off any further attempts to get you to eat something.

    I’d far rather have my colleagues know that I’m Muslim (well, in my case, Jewish), than speculate and gossip that I’m anorexic.

    • I can imagine why, or at least understand and respect the notion that you’d prefer not to discuss it.

      That having been said, if you’re going to be working here for the foreseeable future, and you’re new / trying to make a good first impression, you’re probably better off with a brief, polite explanation “Oh, I’m fasting for the month of Ramadan, actually. But thank you” and move on. It will silence the questions, clear up any speculation, and simply make it a non-issue.

    • scientist :

      I can definitely imagine why you might not want to call attention to your religion in the workplace by admitting you aren’t eating due to Ramadan. Among other very valid personal reasons, some offices are very homogeneous and no one wants to be “The Muslim/Jewish/Catholic/Atheist/Whatever Lawyer;” not to mention that the political tone in America right now is appallingly anti-Islam.

      I think the best method might be to change the subject – “oh, no thank you, not right now. Did you get a chance to look at the memo?” – and act like it’s not a big deal, and people will forget. Once you’ve settled in, by next year, you’ll have a better feel for whether it’s something you want to share, and I guarantee by October people won’t remember your slightly different eating habits in August.

      • You could just say “I’m on a limited duration fast” and leave it at that.

        That lets people know that you are not eating, that it’s not forever and that they should stop forcing food on you.

        They may mistakenly surmise that you are on some medical fast or that you are doing a cleanse fast, but the “why” is not really important is it?

      • Anonymous :

        It’s weirder to act as if it’s weird, when it isn’t, in the slightest.

        Evasion = shame, distrust. I hope neither applies.

        Don’t let people think You think it’s a negative. It’s not.

    • I agree, just be open about it, and if people make a big deal with more questions, just shrug it off (“It’s no big deal, I can handle it.”) The added bonus is that once people have seen you doing it and not making a big thing about it, it no longer appears “weird” to them, so you’ve broadened some minds in your own little space in the world.

      And, to respond to scientist, yes, there are a lot of people who have a problem with Muslim-ism politically. However, very, very few of them have an actual problem with Muslim individuals who they know personally. If anyone has a problem with your religion, just ignore it, or if they really give you trouble, go to supervisors, but that seems extremely unlikely in a professional environment.

      • Muslim anon :

        I am not the original poster and I tell people I’m fasting. But there are a lot of people who DO have problems with Muslims personally, think we’re all terrorists etc etc, even in the most educated of circles. I can tell when people “figure out” I’m Muslim and notice a shift in their attitude.

        • Well, at least then you will have “figured out” that that particular person is a stereotyping jack*ss and can shift your own attitude accordingly :)

  2. I’m a celiac. At my law office, where there are frequent baked goods, weekly in-office lunches, and numerous other food events, it was not an option simply to continuously decline food–at some point, people are going to think I am “weird” or “rude” because I always say no. At least, that’s my perception. So I was very open and honest with co-workers about why I couldn’t eat any of the baked goods or, generally, why I always had modified foods at the in-office lunches. People were extremely receptive and, once they knew, often have asked if they could bring something I could eat, or if they could do something to make an event easier for me.

    At my previous law office, people were equally receptive to my allergy. They always had an alternative and never pressured me into eating anything I wasn’t comfortable eating, even if it was a specially prepared alternative.

    I would urge Reader D to let folks at her office know about her fasting (quietly, when they ask–I wouldn’t send a .all email about it). That way people won’t give her strange looks or make inappropriate or rude comments. Maybe I am too naive, but generally I think most people have good hearts and in this day and age are open and willing to accept most peoples’ religious beliefs and food restrictions, assuming that the individual with the food restriction isn’t placing a burden on the office as a whole.

    Also, perhaps folks around Reader D’s office may make an effort to be supportive of her during Ramadan… maybe offering to go for walks during the lunch hour instead of offering to go out to coffee/lunch… or maybe just stopping by to say hello during lunch while everyone else is eating.

    Again, perhaps a little “optimistic,” but having a food allergy myself, I have never had a negative reaction to it in an office setting, assuming I am not placing a burden on anyone else in the office to manage my food allergy for me or to go out of their way to accommodate my needs.

    • I’m celiac, too. And you make great points. But every time I have to explain why I’m sitting there at the pizza party office lunch without a plate, there’s always at least one person who wants to make my health issues a topic of public discussion. So I completely understand the OP’s anxiety over not wanting to make a full disclosure, even when there is a perfectly good reason for her behavior and choices.

      • regular poster :

        I’m lactose intolerant, so I hate pizza party day, too. Several years in, people are used to my dairy issues by now. I try to keep a good attitude about it: “I can’t eat the pizza, but it looks delicious! Enjoy!” but I do admit to grumbling to myself when it’s pizza at the weekly office meeting YET AGAIN.

        I agree that, if you feel comfortable, a short, light, smiling “Oh, thanks, but I’m fasting for Ramadan. So, how great is it that the NFL lockout is over? I’m so excited!” A very short explanation, and display of positive attitude which shows you’re ok with differences, which I like to think encourages a similar reaction, and then a subject change to something in common.

        • Rural Juror :

          Ditto. Pizza lunches are the worst. I scrape off the cheese and just end up looking picky/weird. I feel like although I am open about my LI people forget and are silently judging.

        • Equity's Darling :

          I also have a food allergy and I’m vegetarian, and my firm is very good about avoiding that food (though it’s admittedly an easy food to avoid), and they always order a veggie meal for me and the two other vegetarians- my office has probably 85-100 people total.

    • Yeah, I have severe food allergies and am used to having to explain them in the workplace (and basically to everyone I know). So maybe that’s why I don’t see the big deal about not wanting to tell others that one is fasting. Sometimes people have questions, but these are usually about what I can and cannot eat with the intention of bringing food I can eat in the future, so it doesn’t bother me.

      • I agree with everyone who says a simple response explaining that you are fasting for Ramadan is the way to go.

        And, really, anyone who either gets (1) offended because you mentioned something based in religion or (2) irritated by your eating habits in the office is going to be that person that gets bent out of shape no matter what you, or anyone else you work with, does or doesn’t do. If it isn’t your eating habits, it’ll be your shoes, or the fact that you staple documents vertically instead of horizontally, or something. People looking for a reason to get bent out of shape will always find one.

        • I agree with the above. I don’t know if it is because I have a very restricted diet (celiac + other food intolerances) and it changes my perspective, but I think it is easier to have a short explanation and be done with it.

  3. I really don’t see what the big deal is. I know lawyers who observe Ramadan and it’s fascinating to me. Like those who golf, are into cars, or shopping, it just gives you more personality, imo.

    • i think i could understand if the OP didn’t want her religion to become a source of “fascination” for others, though – many people don’t like being the subject of that type of focus!

      • Anonymous :

        But if something is true, it’s true.

        Someone might not want her pregnancy to define her, but denying her bump would be bizarro.

        We’re social animals. Be who you are, and be proud of it, and if you want your professionalism to be your most defining characteristic, emphasize it without denying your other facets.

    • I am also Muslim but don’t “look it.” I started my new job three years ago during Ramadan and got a lot of questions about not eating (or drinking at Happy Hours). I was up-front and open about it — I stated that I was fasting for Ramadan. It *always* *inevitably* ended up in questions from co-workers about my religion and fasting practices. I did not volunteer information, but responding to the questions was exhausting.

      I nonetheless decided to be open, address awkward situations as they arise, and respond to questions as long as people wanted to ask them. I took this approach for a few reasons: 1) because I don’t look stereotypically Muslim, it was an opportunity for me to bust stereotypes and educate people who might otherwise be afraid or threatened to ask “stupid question” — there’s a lot of misinformation out there, and we all benefit when it is counteracted; 2) I’m not ashamed of my religion, and avoiding it seems ashamed; 3) it’s the obvious answer/elephant in the room, and it’s kind of rude not to explain or respond; 4) I intend to take my religious holidays off (and am willing to work at Christmas if someone needs to), so it’s not like it will remain a secret forever; 5) if people are ignorant and biased, at least they are on guard to not say it around me.

      The questions completely stopped by about 6 months in. Now, no one says anything when I join the table for lunch without eating for the company, when I’m wearing long sleeves and pants all summer long, when I go to happy hours and drink nothing but diet coke, when I host poker night and don’t serve pepperoni pizza and wine. So, I think the painful period at the front was worth it.

      • Oops, meant to say *don’t* host poker night. :)

        And, btw, Ramadan Kareem to you, Reader D, and other Muslim Corporettes.

      • Meant to say, when I *don’t* host poker night. :)

      • Hey MM, haven’t seen you around in a while! Ramadan mubarak to you and everybody else observing =).

        • I’ve posted under an alternative moniker for a while now. I got paranoid when I found out that people I know read the site, worrying that this piece of my identity might be too big of a tip off when combined with other, more random, pieces of information about myself that would come out in my posts bit by bit. I’m sure it’s ridiculous to think that anyone cares so much about little old MM’s “real life” personality. But every once in a while you see someone post “I think I know you!” — then I get paranoid that it will happen to me and I’ll lose my internet anonymity. :)

  4. scientist :

    As far as getting coffee or lunch, I always bring my own lunch and don’t drink coffee but i often will walk to get coffee or over to the deli with colleagues just to take a break, chat and stretch my legs. I’ve never had a weird reception when I say “you know, I’m not interested in coffee but I’ll walk over with you,” or something like that.

  5. I don’t really think this example is an awkward question — I think in most cases you can say that you’re observing Ramadan, especially since it’s going to come up every year. It will also prevent you from deflecting the same questions for a month. What were the rough experiences you mentioned? I think being straightforward, in this instance, is better than being mysterious.

    I think with the medical or diet issues also mentioned in the intro, where prodding or unsolicited advice is likely to follow, a quick “for health reasons” and a change of subject is fine.

  6. I kind of think you have to say you’re fasting for Ramadan, honestly. Or just fasting for religious reasons and leave it at that. Unfortunately, people will hold grudges against associates they feel aren’t receptive to their attempts to be nice – I’ve seen it happen in my office, which is generally pretty laid back socially. The feeling is that if the partner is taking time out of his schedule to meet with a junior person, the junior person certainly can’t be too busy (this wouldn’t apply to an individual day but would apply if you tried to schedule for a month out; the thought would be, oh please, like there’s no time before then she can meet?).

    And the alternative is that they start speculating about an eating disorder, which is worse, IMO. That’s another thing people get very judgmental about (unfortunately).

    • Diana Barry :

      Asking for lunch/coffee is basically an excuse to get to know someone, particularly when they are new in an office. I would suggest taking a walk or getting lunch together next month, instead of saying no. The risk, as noted above, is that if you push people off while you are still new at the job, then they will think that you are unfriendly etc., and not want to get to know you. If you tell them about Ramadan, then you can reschedule for next month and they know you are not saying no to lunch just because you don’t like them.

      • R in Boston :

        This. I think if you spend a month saying that you’re not available for lunch, you will have bigger office misperceptions to deal with than potential anorexia.

        If people press on, I think you can say “My practice is personal to me and not something I like to discuss at work” in a nice tone of voice and let that be that.

        Plus, your colleagues may offer up other ways to get to know you once they know what the scoop is. People are often considerate. I took a class in college that met at lunchtime so we all frequently brought food. When a Muslim classmate said she didn’t bring lunch because it was Ramadan, our professor asked everyone else to refrain from eating in class during the fast and that was that.

    • I have to agree. If you don’t tell them why, they will most likely think you are being anti-social or are not appreciating the higher-ups’ attempts to take time out of their schedules to get to know you.

      If you get questions/comments like “oh, you must be thirsty!/starving!/exhausted!/etc!” (which to be honest, would be likely to come out of my mouth as an invitation for you to talk a little about yourself and things that are important to you, or just share something about your day, or not, as you chose), a simple “oh, it’s not that difficult/I like to focus on other things to keep my mind off of it/whatever” should suffice.

      I’m so sorry you have had a rough time of it in the past – I can’t imagine working somewhere that closed-minded about something that was important to me. I hope your new office is a better workplace for you!

  7. A quick rant that is somewhat on-topic. It is really uncomfortable when colleagues point out that you are not eating or drinking something. For example – oh, you’re not drinking beer? Come on, have a beer? Why aren’t you drinking? Wink wink, nudge nudge. Maybe because I’m pregnant, or because of a medical reason, or because I don’t feel like it . . . but putting someone on the spot really makes things uncomfortable.

    • Club soda in a rocks glass with a lime wedge. I haven’t had a drink in years and don’t care to discuss why with my colleagues, so this is my standard order. Also works to get soda in a rocks glass. If it’s in a rocks glass everyone will just assume it’s alcoholic.

      • Generally I agree with the rocks glass advice, but as someone who is pregnant and not public about it yet (and had to attend a few happy hours), it’s more difficult when you have to order your drink in front of everyone. So far I just order water or iced tea and explain that I have to work again later that night/plan on working out later/had some Tylenol earlier and don’t want to drink any alcohol. So far, only one person has been ballsy enough to ask “What, are you pregnant or something?!” and a good, silent look made her backtrack.

        • scientist :

          Someone asked me that recently! I declined a drink because I was on antibiotics, and said so, and a friend’s girlfriend said something to the effect of “oh right, but seriously are you pregnant?” Responding “No, I have an infected toenail, which you can verify…[reaches for shoe]” put an end to that. Though I don’t recommend that approach for work outings!

          • Always a NYer :

            I love this!!! It’s genius, especially [reaches for shoe]. I almost laughed out loud at my desk. This is one I’ll remember for the future, thanks for sharing =p

          • Research, not Law :

            Hilarious

        • I agree. It’s easy to do this if you’re the one controlling the ordering or at the bar. It’s harder if someone else orders a drink for you (one girlfriend literally listed every alcoholic beverage the bar had in hopes of enticing me to drink one night). My excuse is usually that I have an early morning workout.

        • Good point – I always order at the bar. If it’s mealtime, I usually say I’ll stick with water “for now” and no one notices I didn’t get a drink later on. When it’s just a temporary thing and you’ll be telling them the real reason in a few weeks, you can always say you’re taking an antibiotic.

      • I’ve used the soft drink with a lime wedge solution before too (when taking a medication for a condition that I did not want to discuss publicly), and it worked pretty well. I also enlisted the help of one of my close friends in the department who was aware of my health issues — we would order the same beer, and then discreetly trade bottles at some point so that I had a half beer to carry around with me. It worked really well for large events/mixers. I was able to return the favor for her later on and drink her beers when she was pregnant.

        • I’ve done the trading drinks thing too when a restaurant gave us complimentary champagne, with the result that my poor friend got completely blitzed when they came over and refilled!

    • somewhere(less)cold :

      Could you just get a non-alcoholic drink to sip that isn’t obviously non-alcoholic, such as cranberry juice and seltzer, or even just a soda, which could look like a mixed drink? I would guess that your allergy is fairly uncommon, and it’s probably not worth going into all the details in every situation (especially if people decide you just have a low tolerance), so it seems like it might be easier at times fake it.

    • This is interesting. I can’t imagine badgering anyone for not drinking. I can imagine saying, “are you sure I can’t get you something?” once or twice, but not asking a million questions or badgering. I mean, no offense, but I can’t imagine caring so much about what someone else is or is not doing in the context of having a drink or not.

      By the same token, I would not fake it if I didn’t want a drink. I just order a non-alcoholic drink and say, “I don’t feel like drinking tonight.” or “I never like to drink when I’m driving/have to get up early/have a busy week at work.” I can see faking it if you are a regular drinker and are early pregnant, but that the only situation I can imagine where I would pretend I was drinking alcohol when I wasn’t.

      • Me too. Sometimes I drink and sometimes I don’t, but no-one ever seems that interested in why I don’t, when I don’t, and I don’t see why they should be interested. It isn’t really that big a deal.

      • Agree. I’ve never been in a situation where I’ve been harassed for not drinking, or seen anyone bugged for not drinking. The subterfuge some of you seem to have to go through just because you don’t want to drink is very puzzling to me. Some people just don’t like alcohol or won’t/can’t drink for any number of reasons that are not my business. Then again, I view “happy hours” as a time to socialize, not necessarily drink. I’ve invited people to happy hours because I want to hang out with them, not judge their choice of beverage. I usually only have one, on a rare occasion two, drinks myself, because I usually have to drive home.

        • Let’s face it. The only people who are really genuinely interested in whether another person is having a drink that is specifically alcoholic (that is, would badger you or make comments if it was evident that your drink was non-alcoholic) are people who are a little too free with the booze to begin with, and feel better about their own drinking if everyone else is doing it too. Normal people couldn’t care less if you had sparkling water, iced tea, lemonade, diet coke, or an alcoholic beverage, any more than normal people couldn’t care less if you had a turkey sandwich or a ham sandwich for lunch.

      • This, for me too. Sometimes I have a drink, sometimes I don’t. I don’t believe I’ve ever been questioned beyond the “can I get you something? No? OK” level. If I am asked those questions, I can’t imagine a smile, a “No, thanks, I’m fine,” and a change of subject wouldn’t do the trick.

  8. Non-drinker :

    I don’t think there is any issue saying you are fasting for Ramadan. It certainly seems better than the alternative of people thinking you are anorexic or otherwise have an eating disorder.

    Medical/diet issues are harder, because there are some times where you really do not want to go into detail. My situation isn’t that bad. I am allergic to alcohol and people tend not to believe it. They think I have no tolerance and if I just drank more, I’d get over it. I feel like with any other food, people would just move on, but with alcohol people are really nosy and persistent. It gets really tiring when people go on and on about it. Usually I try not to drink anything quietly, but invariably people ask why I’m not drinking and just saying “I can’t drink” results in more questioning.

    • Said this above but it applies to you too – Club soda in a rocks glass with a lime wedge. I haven’t had a drink in years and don’t care to discuss why with my colleagues, so this is my standard order. Also works to get soda in a rocks glass. If it’s in a rocks glass everyone will just assume it’s alcoholic.

      • Non-drinker :

        This isn’t really an option in my case, as most of my coworkers/colleagues tend to entertain at home or in places that specialize in beer/wine.

        • SF Bay Associate :

          My friend is also highly allergic to alcohol and would agree it can get very frustrating. She brings a “festive beverage” to these home events which is safe for her which she happily shares with designated drivers. Her favorites are fancy single-varietal grape juice from Navarro Vineyards (comes in wine bottles complete with corks) or Jasmine Star Tea from Whole Foods (fancy looking bottle, great chilled/with desserts). As for the beer/wine venues, well, it just sucks. Make friends with the bartender and see what s/he can whip up for you.

          A few times, she has had to lay it out: “If I drink any alcohol at all, I will end up in the hospital. It is medically dangerous for me.” which has admittedly put a damper on the event for a few minutes, but the people pushing her were jerks anyway.

        • So get a soft drink or water if that’s what you prefer. Why do any of you feel the need to either pretend you’re drinking alcohol with a look-alike drink, or “explain” to others why you aren’t? What are people going to think of you if you aren’t drinking alcohol when other people around you are? Those are the people with the problem, not you for not having alcohol.

          • Non-drinker :

            I couldn’t agree more, which is why I am reluctant to try to “fake” it. I do think it’s my colleagues that have the issue, as one day I found a group of them discussing how to “cure” me of my allergy. Needless to say, I was absolutely livid.

    • The disbelievers are the most frustrating – I cannot eat any gluten (not even a tiny crumb) yet I always get the “but a little can’t hurt” – alcohol and bread and cake and cheese seems to be the things that people get the most persistent about asking.

      • This. I can’t tell you how many times I get “come on, one?” Or “really? you can’t have even one bite of this ______ that I made?” Um, no, not unless you want me down for the count for the next 3-5 days while I go through a severe reaction to your baked good/bread/beer/pasta/etc.

        Some people have a hard time understanding food allergies because they aren’t “visible” health problems… If you can’t see it, it can’t be real, right? Riiiight.

        • So true – and it is not like you actually want to get into the specifics of it. FOrtunately my first symptom (and it is pretty immediate) is instant joint pain in the wrists, knees and elbows – the wrist/thumb pain can get bad enough to make typing very uncomfortable, so I would totally focus on that if a person at work wanted me to eat something at work.

      • Non-drinker :

        It’s frustrating. I tell people that just 1-2 sips and my throat starts to close up. Usually they realize at that point that hey, it’s not really just intolerance. Just smelling red wine and some beers triggers an asthma attack as well- that’s a little bit more frustrating because sometimes I have to move away from someone to avoid an attack.

    • I completely agree. Way better for people to know than to think you’re antisocial, anorexic, have weird food issues, etc. And that is your alternative.

    • I very rarely drink socially because most alcohol makes me have a rosacea flare and it’s embarrassing to explain. I’ve finally started telling people because I got sick of the questions, so I just say “Alcohol makes me have a terrible skin reaction and I wouldn’t want you looking at my pustules all night instead of having fun!”

    • I don’t drink, and maybe this isn’t the best answer, but whenever someone who doesn’t know me well (coworkers, mostly) ask me why I’m not drinking I just tell them I take migraine medicine that can’t be mixed with alcohol.

      It’s better than just saying “medication” because that could lead to any kind of stigmatizing conclusion, and it usually just ends in someone saying “too bad” and not harping on it.

      Also, I second the club soda or diet coke in a rocks glass, it usually keeps away the questions in bars.

  9. I agree with others that I don’t see this being a big deal/uncomfortable topic. I think that if someone asks if you want to grab lunch/why you aren’t eating, just simply say that you’re fasting for Ramadan.

    I understand not wanting to share personal details with co-workers, and/or concerns about perceptions of your religious observance into the workplace (didn’t we have a thread about this?), but I think that so long as you’re 1) casual and friendly about it, and 2) willing to answer non-intrusive questions about your observance (like, explaining why you fast during Ramadan), people will be very easygoing about it (and less prone to weird looks).

  10. Kathryn Fenner :

    I can definitely understand why “outing” your self as a Muslim might be more difficult than outing yourself as celiac or Jewish–at least in many law firms. I am so sorry that this is true.

    That said, I worked with a Bahai lawyer before 9/11/01, and he was my first experience of someone who celebrated Ramadan. He put some sweets in the coffee station with a note saying he was fasting for Ramadan but would gladly join the rest of us in feasting after sundown (it was that kind of law firm where most were around after sundown even in August), but not to wait on him to enjoy the treats. I know many of us were impressed with his grace.

    • This is so beautiful. It’s a passive method of getting the word out, it shows your colleague to be a lovely and gracious person, and enlists coworkers in spreading the word (“Don’t bug her about lunch! Didn’t you see the note in the coffee room?” etc.). Very smart.

    • What a graceful way of handling the situation…love this solution.

    • Ok guys, seriously. I’ve seen a couple of times on this thread that people might not want to admit they are Muslim. Really? Come on. I know I am in Canada and not the US, but are people really that sensitive in the US these days? And in law firms and other professional offices, where people ought to be educated enough to know that there are good and bad people all over the world and they don’t belong to any particular religion? If that is really the case, I am sorry, but I am really ashamed for the US. Maybe I am just a leftie Canadian, but I cannot believe this is actually an issue.

      • Yes, really. Here in the US, it’s easy for people get the wrong idea about Islam and Muslims every time they turn on the TV. Sure, we like to think that most people are educated / enlightened enough to have an informed point of view on this, but we also like to think that people aren’t sexist or racist or whatever-ist and guess what, some people are.

        As for your being ashamed for the US – you wouldn’t be the first Canadian to feel that way, or the first American. But such is life.

      • From what I understand, in some limited instances, the proportion of people of Jewish faith/heritage in the law field may cause some Muslim colleagues to think a bit more heavily about announcing their faith publically.

        And for the record, I don’t mean to be insensitive in any way, and I know that 99.9% of Jewish-American people would have absolutely no problem with a Muslim colleague, but after working for a partner with very strong ties to the nation of Israel I realized that it could pose a potential problem.

        Also, Nonny, you may be ashamed of the US, but anti-Islamic sentiments are a minority opinion, which been shaped by the media and politics of the last decade in our country. And I think the responses of the professionals in this forum will give an idea about the majority’s opinion of the Islamic faith, educated or otherwise.

        • Anonymous :

          Exactly. No one here has a problem with Muslim colleagues, friends, or strangers.

          There are creepy, ignorant people everywhere, who have decided they don’t like something or some group on abstract, yucky principle. I know this from art, media, and sensitivity to the historical and contemporary stories of injustice. But I have never met anyone hateful or faced such hate myself– even belonging to an group I am aware has been and is abstractly hated by such ignorant people.

          Most people are good people. Part of being good is knowing that not everyone is, but striking up friendships and being ourselves nonetheless, in the most diverse country in the world or anywhere.

  11. For Ramadan or Jewish Yom Kippor fasting or even for Catholics giving up “X” for Lent, I would advise being up-front about it and then deflect follow-up questions if you get them. I can’t imagine that many people are clueless about fasting for religious reasons or haven’t been exposed in one way or another, although you may get some folks who are (too) curious.

    I’ve had coworkers who observed Ramadan and Yom Kippor and we as a group either stopped bringing in treats or, in the case of Ramadan in the short wintertime daylight, saved the treat for the coworker so s/he could eat it after sundown. Same with vegetarians – all of my workplaces have been very accomodating to dietary preferences whether it’s pork or meat in general.

    In my case, I have celiac disease and am quite sensitive to small amounts of gluten. I refuse all food that is brought in for lunches and meetings, with a small exception for fresh fruits (like grapes). Since I’ve been diagnosed, I’ve become an expert at sitting and watching others eat while not eating myself. I either bring my own food, eat ahead of time or tough it out. If I’m at a restaurant or event, I either call ahead and get a plate prepared for me or go without. Many times, I’ll get a plate at a banquet or buffet-type event and my food is totally different from that of my dining companions. If the group is going out for pizza or sub sandwiches or any place where I would be unable to get a safe meal, I just decline the invitation without giving a reason.

    I don’t bring it up but usually I’ll get questions about why I’m not eating at all or why my food is different. Depending on the time or place, I may explain celiac disease or I may just say I “can’t eat” what is being served and then change the subject. Some people are genuinely curious and so I do give a short celiac explanation on the theory that I’m raising awareness.

    So Reader D, I hope you can get comfortable in your new office and after Ramadan is over, have lots of fun lunches with your coworkers.

  12. There are advantages and disadvantages to having co-workers (or your employer) know what your religion is. One of the advantages is that you will be less likely to hear unpleasant remarks being made in your presence about your religious group. A disadvantage is that you may experience religious bias. You will have to weigh the choices and accept the realistic consequences, given the world we live in. I personally prefer not to have business and professional contacts know what my religion is – but I sometimes make limited exceptions.

  13. Muslim too :

    You don’t say why mentioning it is out of the question for the corporette, but as someone who has worked for over 10 years and always fasted for Ramadan and always been very matter-of-fact about it, please don’t feel that it’s something you have to hide. Many people may raise eyebrows or make jokes but most people understand that different religions have different practices. Most people will say “Oh, I always give up chocolate for Lent.” or “I’m familiar with fasting in Judaism” or “that sounds like a great diet I should be on.” If you feel that you have to hide your religion altogether, that’s a much bigger problem. The key is not to draw a lot of attention to it, act completely normal about it, put people at ease and get your work done. If you want to avoid further questions or drawn-out conversations, people will take the lead from your approach. If you’re not chatty about it, they’ll get the hint. For the dense people who go on and on about it, just grin and bear it. Someone did this to me last week “Oh my god, I can’t believe I’m drinking coffee in front of you” every time she saw me. Seriously.

    For anyone who’s wondering, at least for me, it totally does not bother me when people eat in front of me during Ramadan. I also bring in treats for everyone when Ramadan is over and everyone loves that.

    • re: eating in front of people, I have family in Morocco (we’re Jewish) and it was always extremely awkward to eat in public during Ramadan. Some people definitely find it annoying for others to eat in front of them when they’re fasting. So maybe that person has been snapped at by a cranky, hungry, fasting person before and is just trying to be nice.

  14. I think that religion doesn’t belong in the workplace in the sense that noone of any religion (or nonreligion) should use it as a soapbox to proselytize, but that doesn’t mean you can’t identify with a faith or a practice if it comes up in conversation or is relevant to your daily life at work.

    For instance, I would like to know if someone working for/with me at my firm isn’t responding to email because they observe the Sabbath versus someone who just didn’t feel like responding becuase it was a Saturday. And I would like to know if the new associate is rebuffing my lunch invites because she is fasting versus she just doesn’t want to eat lunch with me.

    I understand the reader’s sense of privacy, but I think you run the risk of establishing yourself as an unsocial person rather than someone with a perfectly good reason behind their behavior. First impressions can be very hard to shake off, especially in law firms which are, in my experience, pretty judge-y gossip-y places, unfortunately.

    • I especially agree with the soapbox comment. I belong to a restrictive religion (no alcohol, coffee, tea) and I am also a vegetarian, so I end up declining things/finding alternatives pretty often. Members of my religion are unfortunately notorious for using their restrictions as a way to push their beliefs on others or make some sort of statement, like refusing to attend any functions where alcohol will be served or going off on some big explanation with an undertone of “and you’re going to hell.” Vegetarians/vegans are also sometimes “smug” about their choices. I try to work really hard to counteract these stereotypes by not making any sort of evaluative comments. State why you are not partaking in a matter of fact way if and when someone asks, but don’t bring it up to demonstrate how great you are and don’t linger on it and compare your moral choices to everyone else’s.

  15. When I became a vegetarian 7 yrs ago, I worried that some clients (particularly) would see it as a sign of being wimpy. Some had already made comments that not so thinly veiled that they thought guys were tougher and some people (wrongly, IMO) seem to equate vegetarianism with being weak and sickly. So at first I didn’t really mention it. Just ate what I could. Finally I said something and the client I was most worried about was most thoughtful. He always made sure his secretary had ordered something vegetarian for me or had made reservations at a restaurant with a vegetarian offering. Its so much easier not to try to hide something so fundamental about me. Its not like I get on a case and say “welcome to the case with a vegetarian lawyer”, but food comes up in work settings. Sure, once in while, people make comments about “rabbit food” or whatever. But that is so rare that I just brush it off. Recently I’ve been barely drinking b/c I just eat so cleanly and have been running a lot that alcohol sometimes really really goes to my head right away. And not drinking is seen as weird in my office. I just joke that I’m weird one who goes for the salad and the water rather than the beer and burgers. No one cares. People are only interested in other people when they think there is something “secret”…so they will speculate away guessing if you’re anorexic or pregnant or whatever. But when they know why your eating habits are different, they quickly lose interest.

    • This is so true – people love to speculate, and if there’s nothing to speculate about, they move on.

  16. I would just like to add that my local International Market left a flyer in our mailboxes last week, covered with delicious looking pictures of various international foods, with the exclamation “Happy Ramadan!” I, personally, thought that this was hilarious.

    • But Ramadan is a time of feasting after sunset each day.

      • I assume that’s what they were going for, but I’d hate to stare at the pictures any other time, particularly in this season of very long daylight hours.

        • Personally, I have always been impressed with people who prepare the food for the evening meal while fasting! Talk about self-control.

    • Sydney Bristow :

      There is a fantastic food card in Midtown NYC and the guys who are in it every day are currently fasting for Ramadan. I can’t imagine what they’ve been going through!

  17. Why are we ignoring Reader D? :

    Ladies (and men, says the survey): Reader D CLEARLY said, “I really don’t want to tell them that I am observing the month of Ramadan.” And, she is asking advice about how to handle, essentially, pushy or judgmental people. Seems most of the responses that say something to the effect of, “You should/have to/might as well tell them,” are the same as the people that push others to have a bit of cheese/drink of beer/pound of gluten. I have no allergies, have never been pregnant, and do not practice any religion, so none of this is coming from a personal place, I just think the responses to Reader D are a bit hypocritical. And the ones that contain underlying threats (e.g., you’ll be seen as unsocial/anorexic/etc.) are wholly unhelpful and unsupportive. Our community member asked for advice since she “really doesn’t want to tell.” Let’s start from that place.

    • I totally hear what you are saying and when reading the post and some of the comments initially felt like Reader D’s request of “i really don’t want to tell them” should be honored more. However, I actually think that not saying anything is the more difficult option, which I think that is why people are giving the advice they are giving. I noted my bias above in my answer, but reading your comment made me think about it more (as someone who has to pretty much constantly navigate food questions, I think about these things more than the average person).

    • Can you come up with a way to handle the situation through non-disclosure that won’t have potentially very serious job repercussions for the OP? I couldn’t.

    • I wasn’t ignoring Reader D’s choice. I was sharing that in my experience, telling people isn’t actually as bad/painful/nightmarish as you might perceive it to first be… not that she HAS to tell people.

      Ultimately, every detail of yourself that you choose to reveal or choose not to reveal to those in your office is your decision. I often have found that the “hive mind” on this site has changed my opinion about things I may not have wanted originally to share with co-workers, or things I was debating sharing and decided, after reading everyone’s opinions, not to share. Hence my “opinion” to Reader D. I thought maybe another person having experienced a similar (but not identical, for sure) experience would be helpful to her.

      I have always found this site to be open to everyone’s opinions and ideas on a topic. I would hate to think that perhaps because a post isn’t “directly on point” it is deemed “not useful.”

    • The problem is that there’s no way to avoid telling them why she’s not eating unless she wants to A. lie, or B. have people gossip about her and think she’s antisocial.

      • Always a NYer :

        I 100% agree. We’ve all had situations that we haven’t wanted to talk about with other people but at the end of the day it really was the best option. As sad as it is, the only two options would be to lie or have people gossip. A little discomfort upfront is much better than people finding out through the grapevine. While one’s religion is no one’s business but their own, people get funny if they think you purposely tried to hide something from them.

        Reader D, I understand your hesitation but honesty, while difficult, really is the best way to go. I wish you the best of luck with what you decide to do.

    • I did acknowledge Reader D’s concerns. But ignoring what could be the reality is neither hypocritical, unhelpful, nor unsupportive. There are workplaces in which silence on the matter will cause more problems than it solves.

      • BTW, I’m not “anon” the muslim associate. I’m “anon” the proud agnostic/atheist/secular humanist. Now if you want to talk about obtuse people. :-)

  18. Anonymous :

    It’s a shame people give Muslims a hard time when they find out they’re fasting for Ramadan – how ignorant. I’m vegan, so I feel like I have a natural affinity for anyone whose dietary habits are a little out of sync with mainstream culture. I struggled with how to deal with my veganism when I was a summer associate in a corporate law firm. Ultimately, I decided to disclose it matter-of-factly when appropriate, and I sometimes made calls ahead to restaurants to see if they would accommodate a plant-based diet. I ended up faring much better than my other vegan friends who decided to describe themselves as “vegetarian” or who decided they’d partake in just a little dairy or the occasional egg dish over the summer. In fact, I ended up eating well that summer and found one attorney who shared my persuasion.

  19. i’m muslim and a big law associate. personally, i’ve generally felt comfortable discussing my cultural religious etc background at the workplace, but in big law i’d just rather not. there’s enough drawing attention to me (being very young, married, female, not from a pretigous enough law school, being a native new yorker with more personal commitments than others junior associates who moved here for work) that i’d rather have the focus be only on my work product and intelligence, than my personal life.
    that said, i wouldn’t publicly announce fasting and probably wouldn’t explain it if i were asked to join for a coffee run, but if i’m in a situation where its blatantly obvious (departmental lunch, during business travel with a colleague) i wouldn’t hesitate to say “no thanks, i’m fasting today” and provide no further explanation.
    i have to say despite serious attempts to keep my personal life personal, i already get called out on being muslim (the only one in my enormous office), married (apparently i’m too young for that), people wondering when i will get pregnant (because seriously, i’m the only married female junior associate-isn’t that what i’m supposed to do?), among other things. people just need something to talk about when their own lives aren’t interesting enough.

    • Research, not Law :

      I like this. My devout Catholic mother fasts substantially over Lent in a manner similar to Ramadan fasting. She also prefers to not discuss it. She does quite well with a matter-of-fact “No thank you.” If pressed or at risk of offending the host, she simply says she’s fasting and leaves it at that. If said firmly but graciously, it is quite effective. I think she has needed to explain further only a handful of times, and I’m sure they were something as brief and simple as “I’m observing Lent.” She’s also quite good at avoiding shared meals during that time, and at times when it’s unavoidable, she accepts food and breaks it up with her fork. It’s surprising how well that works.

      I’m guessing Reader D is asking because they have experienced looks, questions, and perhaps rumors. But I find people are actually quite oblivious to my mother’s fasting. I’m embarrassed to say that I often don’t even realize when I’m with her. I know that she does confide in certain people to ease it a bit, and Reader D may be able to enlist a trusted admin or boss to help steer her schedule or plans to avoid meals.

    • Anon for This. :

      I am also fairly junior, married, and work at a law firm. People hint at the pregnancy question all the time, and for me it’s an extremely personal issue because I physically am unable to get pregnant. I don’t want to have to explain to people “I can’t ever get pregnant, no need to worry about me” because it comes off in an awkward way (I’ve tried it before). On the other hand, I don’t want the partners worrying about when I am going to run out the door pregnant (and thus unable to work on cases). It’s frustrating.

      • I hear you. As someone who very recently lost a wanted pregnancy without many of my coworkers knowing, I find these kind of insinuations or hints very painful. I don’t want to educate people about the need to mind their own business/be sensitive at the cost of my own still somewhat fragile emotional well-being, but I am shocked at how people treat such a personal issue.

        • Anon @4:24, I just want to say I’m sorry that happened to you. I remember being the object of a pregnancy joke right after I had lost a very early, but much wanted pregnancy, and having to laugh it off; then going in my office and crying. Everything in your life is so raw right after you lose a baby and yet you have to pretend everything is fine, and jokes/comments just make it so much worse. People really should keep the pregnancy jokes/comments to themselves. For people who cannot get pregnant, like Anon For This, or people who are having difficulty conceiving and carrying to term, it’s not just annoying, it’s painful.

      • How about “I don’t plan to have children”? Also not ideal since it might invite questions as to why, but I’d think it at least isn’t quite as personally as “I can’t have children”.

      • I’m young and married too and people make pregnancy comments and jokes all the time. I usually say in a completely serious tone of voice, “Oh, don’t worry, as soon as I’m pregnant you will be the first to know.” As long as you keep the sarcasm out of your voice, people are generally taken aback and realize that it is none of their business. It generally stops the comments from that person. But I’ve never had to do this with anyone I wasn’t on very friendly terms with (and I work in a casual-friendly environment), so ymmv.

        On the other hand, I recently was at a business lunch where people tried to convince a partnered gay man in his 50s that he should have/adopt/whatever children. That was… interesting.

    • I am also a young Muslimah who has recently started at a law firm. Aside from navigating the whole discreet hijab with suit look, which is way harder than I thought it would be, and living at the office without sacrificing prayer, Ramadan has posed its own set of challenges. I’ve told some coworkers I’m fasting, but only those who I am working closely with, and only when a situation comes up where I think they might get the wrong impression otherwise or just wonder. In addition, one coworker who I’ve been working very long hours with also knows that I sneak off to take prayer breaks. (She caught me doing wudu, haha.)

      Reader D, I understand where you’re coming from and that it really sucks being “the Muslim xyz,” as tends to happen in so many social settings. It’s especially bad at many big law firms, where everyone seems to be white/Jewish/maybe East Asian, and the last thing you want to do is stand out based on how you look. But honestly, you should just mention you’re fasting, or you’ll risk making a way worse impression. The key is how you mention it. Say it simply and with a smile, say it like there’s not a single thing weird or embarrassing about it, like it’s totally normal and no big deal. When people encounter something new, they will usually take their cues from the introducing party. If you act relaxed, confident and comfortable, they will too.

      Salam sisters.

  20. same anon :

    I’m curious to know whether Reader D plans on letting her co-workers/boss know she intends to take a day off for Eid at the end of Ramadan? I know it’s easier to just take a day off without saying why, but I do think people need to understand that you don’t want to be disturbed, similar to how they wouldn’t want to be called on Easter morning, etc.

    • Or what about the Orthodox Jews I’ve worked with on occasion who were not accessible during Sabbath and on important holidays? At least I knew that if I left a message it would not be heard until a specific time.

  21. While it might be uncomfortable to tell the office about whatever food/beverage restrictions you have, I’d rather get it out in the open than have my colleagues think I am being unfriendly or standoffish when invited to lunch or happy hour, especially if I were still fairly new to the job. But that’s just my personal view; I understand this is a complex/sensitive issue for many people!

  22. Trying to be sensitive to your wish not to discuss your faith or the specific reason you’re fasting, I’d just say, “Sorry, I can’t. I’m fasting.”

    I do agree with a prior poster that if this is really a networking opportunity, suggest an alterative like a walk.

    I think in most office environments, we will be respectful of other’s food or drink choices, we just don’t want to be lectured on our own. i.e. “No, thanks I don’t eat meat” vs. “NO, I don’t eat meat and neither should YOU!”

    • “Trying to be sensitive to your wish not to discuss your faith or the specific reason you’re fasting, I’d just say, ‘Sorry, I can’t. I’m fasting.'”

      I think that sounds evasive. If one is going to acknowledge that one is fasting, I don’t see the harm in explaining that it’s a religious obligation.

      • “anon” the agnostic, not the muslim.

      • Fasting isn’t always necessarily religious. It can also be a medical thing.

        I don’t see it as being evasive to not explain further. She’s explained why she is not eating by saying she’s fasting. If she doesn’t want to explain further, then she shouldn’t need to. She’s not really obligated to satisfy anyone’s curiosity about WHY she’s fasting.

        Just sayin’

  23. Questions like these really confuse me and I don’t know how to answer them but I’ll go on about my experience. I’m visibly Muslim, super-visibly Muslim. And I think I mentioned before that not only am I female engineer with a male to female ratio of 10:1 in the office but I work for a company devastated by 9/11. Being repeatedly asked for ID while on the field at sensitive sites, such a joy. So, being a Muslim female in the spotlight is not fun, I get it.

    So even though I feel like I have this huge target on me and people absolutely and totally are sure that I’m Muslim, whether they know me or not, *forget* that I am fasting. Yes, they know about the month of Ramadan and the not eating and whatever and they forget! I still get invited to lunches and I offer walks instead, which are just as good a way of spending time with coworkers outside of the office and I also get the looks of commiseration from other fasting people and those aware of Ramadan. Really, people do not think about your issues all the time, they really do not.

    You say that people have given you a hard time when they have “figured out” that you’re fasting – well, now you know that way doesn’t work out so well for you. You have control of the situation, let it out in a nice way. You can mention it in passing to the secretary or the office gossip and word will spread around, “Oh, I don’t know what to say at lunch and I don’t mean to be rude but I’m fasting; I don’t want to bring up personal issues at work and I don’t want to offend, etc, etc.” It’s a good way to get closer to the people in your office, they’ll feel like they know something about you and people may even share something about themselves, you never know.

    As for affecting job performance, I can undeniably say that fasting has affected my job performance 100%. I get these random spurts of super-efficiency, where my mind is clear and I can just pound out tasks, which is great. And, I’m a lot more sluggish in the field, which I’ve been warning my coworkers and bosses about beforehand, that although I won’t pass out if I have to do field work in the muggy August weather, I’d *absolutely* prefer not having to do it *this* month and we’ve completely rearranged out schedules, no harm, no foul.

    Really, at the end of the day, it’s all up to your comfort level. People will wonder why you hid something about yourself and that might have them view you in a more “disfavorable” light than being Muslim. Joining a new job and repeatedly declining all invitations at the beginning without a good reason that others are aware of also does not bode well for your professional career at that place.

    • Another Anonymous :

      Thank you for posting this., especially where you say that sharing the fact that you are fasting may be an opportunity for people to get to know you.

      I think many of the responses have seemed to imply that every time someone asks a question when learning about a religious practice (or food restriction), it is unbearably rude. Obviously, if someone gives unsolicited advice or is obnoxious about it, the question would fall into that category. But sometimes people really just want to get to know something about you, and I don’t think it’s always prying if the question is appropriately restricted and respectful.

      I was vegetarian for several years and never had any problem answering questions as to why. I am also mixed-race and came from a mixed-religion family. I also have no problem answering polite questions about either of those things, regardless of who asks. I certainly won’t share my deepest, darkest, most personal feelings about them, but I wouldn’t fault anyone for asking how my holidays were divvied up between my Catholic and Jewish family.

      • I absolutely agree. If I thought that everyone was out to get me all the time…well, isn’t that just paranoid? Most people are just nice and inquisitive.

        • Also, if learning about new religions/cultures leads to a better understanding and more acceptance, why wouldn’t you answer questions? If I met a Muslim who was fasting for Ramadan and he/she was kind enough to answer my questions and enlighten me, I’d carry that enlightenment with me for the next time I met someone whose religion/culture was a mystery to me.

  24. I’m not going second-guess someone else’s feeling of discomfort about disclosing her religion — she’s in that workplace, not I — but given the way Christians, and, to a lesser extent, Jews, influence the workplace calendar I don’t see what’s wrong with telling people that one is fasting because of a religious obligation. People should know that there are religions beyond Christianity and Judaism, and that some people have no religion at all.

    It’s not even like you’re asking for a special accommodation (Susan can’t work on Christmas, Joel can’t work on Yom Kippur), you’re not doing anything. I understand that’s not the questioner’s point.

    I’ll be curious to see more responses for my own purposes. I’m considering following a fasting plan, Fast-5, http://www.fast-5.com/ for which one eats only during a five-hour window in the evening.

    • To be clear, I’m “anon” the agnostic. And I am agnostic about what Reader D should do.

    • I would definitely think a colleague doing that diet had an eating disorder but I would try to be nondescriptly supportive on the theory that judgment is never helpful and anything more explicit is none of my business.

  25. As a Muslim, I too deal with issues similar to Reader D’s. In my experience, it is best to be upfront about why I can’t eat during Ramadan or why I don’t drink alcohol. In fact, when I was interviewing with the the law firm that I will be joining next year, it was Ramadan and dinner was a standard part of the callback interview. I explained that I couldn’t eat until X time because I was fasting for Ramadan and they simply scheduled the dinner after that time. During the dinner I apologized to the two associates who took me out for the later dinner and it was cool. Had I tried to get out of the dinner portion of the interview any other way, I think it would have reflected negatively on me. Disclosing my religious practice worked in this instance and I got the job. So, while I wouldn’t parade my religious beliefs at the firm, I wouldn’t hesitate to disclose it when non-disclosure could be more harmful.

  26. agnostic anon :

    Subject for another thread:

    What to do with religious people who insist on inappropriately injecting religion into the workplace? For example, I once shocked a woman who announced she was praying for me when I said a relative was sick. I replied that I very much appreciated her good wishes but that she should realize that not everyone was a believer and I did not share her faith.

    She really did not seem to understand that I don’t want to be “included” in her faith as some kind of honorary member.

    I am not talking about Christmas and Hanukkah parties and other festivities that I consider to be social events.

    • Anon Catholic :

      As someone who is religious and prays on a regular basis, I don’t think that woman was trying to “include” you in her faith as “some kind of honorary member.” I think by saying she was praying for your sick relative was her way of saying that you were both in her thoughts and she was wishing for a speedy recovery. I’ve said the same thing before, granted I try not to at work unless I know the person won’t go off on me.

      As for Christmas and Hanakkah parties being social events, they all stem from very religious events. Do you correct someone if they wish you a Merry Christmas or a Happy Hanakkah?

      That being said, when I first started reading your comment and how you were “shocked,” I thought the woman started lecturing you on abortion or how you need to be religious, not a simple I’m keeping you in my prayers.

      Your comment also reminded me of the Dane Cook joke about the sneezing atheist, which made me laugh at the memory of it.

      • agnostic anon :

        I actually usually say, “Happy Holidays,” because there are religious and cultural traditions beyond Judaism and Christianity. But as I said, I don’t have a problem with Christmas and Hannukah parties because in a typical American workplace they are social events, not religious ones.

        I sometimes go to Christmas Eve mass. I like the music, and the fleeting feeling of fellowship. Actually, at St. John the Divine, where I went last year, the minister made a point of welcoming everyone, there were quite a few non-Episcopalians, and he commented on a then-recent tragedy that had befallen Muslims. I can spin a mean dreidel.

      • agnostic anon :

        I’ve had other encounters. I picked one of the milder incidents.

        • What bugs me is how in the US it’s totally OK to say “I’m Christian”, “I’m Jewish”, “I’m Muslim”, etc., but somehow not so OK to say “I”m an atheist”. Somehow “I’m an atheist” gets taken to mean “I hate you and everyone else who believes in god”. That’s not true – it’s simply the way I was raised.

          “I’m agnostic” seems OK to say but doesn’t quite describe my belifs. I’ve learned to say “I have no religion”, which seems to go over totally fine most of the time – it just really baffles me that “atheist” carries so much baggage.

    • I don’t really see a problem with someone saying they’ll pray for you or your relative. Just thank them and change the subject or walk away. She is not requiring you to participate. The only time I do think it is a problem is when the group is asked to participate- e.g. sign a get well card that has very religious overtones, do a group prayer, etc. In my office the religious cards do make me feel uncomfortable because we are expected to sign them and pass them on.

      • California Atheist :

        Wow, the card would make me really uncomfortable. I couldn’t sign that. And the group prayer – yikes. Totally unacceptable and inappropriate at work.

        • I’ve been asked to sign multiple cards that quote various scriptures, and We still have Christmas and Easter parties and get a lot of group emails referencing how we should pray for so and so or contribute to a “prayerful” gift for someone in need. We’ve had some other issues as well, and it seems as if it’s not even a thought in people’s minds that not everyone is Christian.

          • Are you in the South? I can’t imagine that going on in the North or Upper Midwest.

      • agnostic anon :

        I once had experience in which a woman had been harassed by some co-workers. I had nothing to do with it, and I’m sure that group knew I would not have tolerated it (the idea that you have to be religious to be moral is idiotic). Some time afterwards, when I heard about it, I told her how sorry I was. She appreciated that, but then got into this fire and brimstone stuff about them after having publicly forgiven them through an team-wide email .

        I didn’t know what to say. I just nodded and got away as quickly as possible. But I thought she’d been crazy to forgive them; they’d behaved terribly.

    • California Atheist :

      I think you’re overreacting, agnostic anon. I used to be more militant and confrontational regarding my atheism, using every interaction with religion as an opportunity to proclaim my lack of belief because I felt constantly bombarded with religion – “thanks for the good wishes but I don’t believe in any god.” Over time, I’ve come to regard the “I’ll pray for your sick relative” as a kind thought expressed in a different language than my own. It doesn’t hurt me that my coworker wants to pray for me. On the other hand, it’s on like Donkey Kong if anyone makes statements that religion will solve my problems, or that its absence is the source of my problems.

      • agnostic anon :

        I disagree. In the workplace, one should keep one’s religion to oneself.

        • And one’s race, gender, sexuality? All in the closet?

          Secrecy and silence are not respect, they are shame and fear.

          Be who you are, and let others do so– if they try to change who you are, then get offended. Being offended by their being themselves is hate.

          • This! This stuffed in the middle of a perfectly toasted bagel, slathered with lox. This this this this this.

    • I don’t think she was trying to include you in her faith. I think she telling you that she’d keep your relative and family in her thoughts and do what she does in such situations. How is that offensive? If I told someone that my relative was sick, and they responded sincerely with “Well, in these types of situations, I juggle tennis balls and dedicate each successful catch to the person who is ill,” I’d think they were a bit batty but appreciate the sentiment.

      I have no problem with your being agnostic, by the way. I just don’t think that the woman was trying to hold you down and force feed you her religion.

      • agnostic anon :

        By offering to pray for me she’s implying that I think what she believes matters. That is wrong.

        • I disagree. I think she’s saying, “I can’t do anything really helpful, but this is something symbolic I can do, and even though it might not mean anything to you it’s my way of showing that I care.”

          I’m not thrilled when I hear such comments – in fact, yes, they bug me a little, but I try to just see the good intention and move on.

        • anotheranon (of undisclosed beliefs) :

          I think by offering to pray, she’s implying that she know it’s important to you, and she’ll help you in the way she knows how.

          I also love Baffled’s analogy.

        • Wow!

          You must not think she matters, then. What people believe does matter, including yourself. People matter.

          Maybe you didn’t mean this the way it came out.

    • Seattleite :

      I’m not sure how you got from ‘praying for you’ to ‘you’re included in my faith as an honorary member.’

      I’ve never been offended when people offer to pray for me. It doesn’t hurt me any, it’s a gift in their language, whatever. She wasn’t praying to save your soul from hell, she was praying for a sick relative. Jeez.

    • Anonymous :

      Um, if you don’t believe in God, then why do you care if she is praying for you? Get over it. There is no possible way that she is being rude.

    • Anonymous :

      As someone who is not religious at all, I do not appreciate having people tell me that they are praying for me. I suppose this is because of a difficult religious upbringing. I know they don’t mean it in a bad way, but I still don’t like it. I have had people say it to me knowing full well that I am not religious at all and speaking to me as though I am the prodigal son who will someday return to the church.

      It is fine if people want to pray for me, I would just rather not know about it. “Thinking good thoughts” seems to be a better way to say it, that could include praying but doesn’t necessarily mean specifically praying.

      I’m sure this comes across as harsh, and I don’t intend it to. Agnostic Anon, I just wanted to make sure that you see you aren’t alone.

      • agnostic anon :

        Thank you very much. Maybe you had to be there. This woman was very arrogant and she also belonged to some kind of Christian sect.

        Unfortunately, subtlety does not work on some of these people. I’m rather tired of the idea that I should be grateful for ministrations I neither requested nor believe in. By acquiescing, I’m implying that I think their God has magical powers.

        • Just like to point out that you’re judging someone on their religion and yet you seem to be offended that the woman wasn’t considerate of your beliefs.

          Bottom line, people are people and not everyone knows the most appropriate thing to say at any given time. People, often in hopes of being compassionate, sympathetic or approachable, often say all sorts of clumsy things. Intent is what matters.

    • I agree with Baffled (and I love the juggling tennis balls analogy, by the way- lol). I am not a believer , and I was raised by parents who are pretty outspoken about the problems (their words, not mine, don’t jump on me!) of organized religion. Nevertheless, when someone tells me that they are praying for me or my family, I always graciously say thank you. I know it comes from a heartfelt place. Even my parents, outspoken as they are on this issue, would never respond other than to say thank you. In the end, it doesn’t affect you, really. The person wants to offer help, and this is their way of offering it to you.

      • agnostic anon :

        Just because it may be “heartfelt” doesn’t mean it’s appropriate. It’s extremely presumptuous.

        • Presumptuous like a hug, or holding the door for a lady. None of which we all appreciate all the time, but none of which are intended to hurt.

          You are setting yourself up for prickly feelings for the rest of your life if you take strangers’ (sometimes strange!) kindness for unkindness.

      • agnostic anon :

        As I said, I was gracious. But I am not here to humor people in what I believe to be mistaken beliefs that are directed at me.

        • I’m assuming you’re from somewhere other than the South, agnostic anon. Down here, it’s very similar to what a previous poster said….just common vernacular for saying you and your family are in their thoughts. I’m not particularly religious either, but being overly sensitive with regards to religion when someone obviously only intends you goodwill seems harsh and unnecessarily touchy about the issue.

          • agnostic anon :

            Correct, I’m not from the South. I take issue that my objecting to someone’s interjecting their religious beliefs is oversensitivity.

            Personally, I try to be sensitive … by being sensitive.

            Whenever I bring this up, half the people say something like, “Oh, it wasn’t meant that way. ” The other half say something to the effect of , “GOOD FOR YOU”. I am tired of certain religious people acting as if everyone else shares their beliefs.

    • another anon :

      I don’t really like when people say this to me either, but I find it helps if I just translate it in my head to something along the lines of “You and your family member are in my thoughts and you have my sympathy.” Which is basically what they mean. I am then able to respond graciously, instead of getting worked up about it.

      (Incidentally, I also have to do something similar when people talk about “energy” when they don’t really mean energy in its scientific meaning. e.g., in yoga class, if the instructor says to think about sending “good energy” to someone in need or talks about being able to feel the particpants’ “energy”. I just pretend they said “good vibes” or “good wishes” instead, and it makes me feel much better.)

      • agnostic anon :

        Why should I have to turn on my internal translator? These people are native or otherwise excellent English speakers. They know EXACTLY what they’re saying. They’re simply not used to being challenged. Some of them like to coerce people by playing on the desire of others not to offend.

        This is not a Christian nation.

        When I find this behavior by lawyers in a workplace, it’s particularly puzzling.

        • California Atheist :

          Are you kidding? The US is totally, and unfortunately IMO, a Christian nation. Isn’t the US one of the most religious countries in the developed world? And while there’s supposed to be separatation of church and state, we don’t really have that either. As I travel for work, I realize that one of my most important factors in choosing a place to live is the percentage of the local population that attends religious services. How I love costal California.

          No, in an ideal world, you shouldn’t have to turn on an internal translator. In my ideal world (say, Sweden), no one would say things like “I’ll pray for you.” Or if someone did, everyone agree that it was really weird. But we don’t live in Sweden. I don’t want people praying for me either, and I certainly don’t want to hear about it, but I guess I swallow my frustration because for me, it’s not generally a battle worth fighting. I’ll save my energy to fight about creationism b.s. being taught in schools. But then again, I can’t remember the last time someone said they would pray for me. If I lived in an area where that was a regular occurence, as it sounds like you and MelD do, I can easily see myself getting more militant and frustrated, especially when constantly confronted with an arrogant zealot.

          Being an atheist in the US is so tiring. Hang in there. I keep hoping we’ll become the silent majority at some point.

        • Because that’s how social people interact with a social world.

    • Well, it doesn’t look like you are really looking for different opinions or approaches or points of view here, based on your responses to everyone who has suggested one.

      So short of telling the inappropriately religious people to go to hell (which, I guess would not be appropriate either since it would imply an actual belief in hell, which you don’t share :) – I’d say you already have the right approach. It is certainly makes your point of view very clear, and it also ensures that the well-wisher won’t be making the same mistake again.

    • I, too, dislike the concept of other people praying for me, but nine times out of ten, their hearts are in the right place, so the appropriate thing to do is thank them for their concern and move on with your day.

    • With the “I’ll pray for you” type things, I always inwardly roll my eyes a bit but I know they mean well, so I try to just take it in the spirit in which it was meant and thank them.

      I do see your annoyance, though. I don’t have a particular problem with religion, but I know many atheists who believe that religion has a detrimental effect on the world. To them, it must be like telling a vegan you’ll have an extra big steak dinner to celebrate their promotion, or toasting a prohibitionist with a glass of champagne.

    • I’m late to this part of the discussion, but I ran across this soon to be published book:

      Jacques Berlinerblau is director of the Program for Jewish Civilization at Georgetown University and a contributor to The Chronicle’s Brainstorm blog. His book How to Be Secular: A Field Guide for Religious Moderates, Atheists and Agnostics is scheduled to be published in 2012 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

  27. anon for this :

    I work for a government. I’m #2 in a department shares a suite with another department. The director in Other Department left in December and they are now interviewing for a new director. The #2 in that department is one of the people they are interviewing and has been called back for a second round. #2 is constantly trying to undermine me at work and I may leave if #2 gets the promotion because my job requires me to work regularly with that director. Is there a way I can tell the hiring committee I don’t think #2 is a good fit for the position?

    • anon (yet another one) :

      I wouldn’t volunteer it unless you are asked directly for your opinion (it sounds like you are not on the search committee). If you are asked for your opinion, I would find something more neutral to say than the undermining. But the committee may well be aware of what’s going on–if they are and they choose her, I would be inclined to take that as a signal that it’s time to move on.

  28. Reader D: There’s a way to diplomatically and firmly refuse food without offending and referencing your Muslim faith: “No thanks. I had a huge breakfast…I’m still full from it!”

    • This is actually great advice! I’m surprised no one else mentioned it. It’s actually what I do when faced with the monthly office birthday cake, doughnuts/pastries for the morning meeting and the pizza lunches during crunch times etc., etc. – “Gosh! I just ate and I’m too full.” It would work just as well anytime someone didn’t want to eat something due to fasting, veggie/vegan, dietary needs, kosher/halal etc.

    • She can’t say that all month , surely? What about afternoon coffee invitations?

      Speaking as a non Muslim, but as someone who doesn’t share the majority (where I work) Christian faith, if you can’t or don’t want to be upfront, say you’re fasting but be prepared for others to then leap to conclusions.

      On the other thread that agnostic anon started, I actually had a boss who tried minor proselytising (showing video of a non Christian /non believing drug addict who saw the light thanks to Jesus) over Xmas dinner at his place where the team was invited. Awful.

  29. I have a counterpoint, which will probably make me seem like an asshole, but I haven’t seen it mentioned. Fasting is hard on your body and your mind. We all know this, our performance at work changes (whether anyone can tell or not) if we skip meals or lose sleep. How can one expect the performance of a fasting person not to change? I once worked closely with a woman who observed Ramadan and by her own admission she was not in the mental and physical place she usually was. Indeed, if one’s Ramadan fast is having no effect on one, then what is the point, spiritually speaking? Religious fasts are SUPPOSED to change you.

    I’ll be blunt, and this is the maybe-asshole part…if someone tried to convince me that a month-long fast had no effect on them and I could expect the same level of performance, I would not believe them.

    That said, what I WOULD want to know is what I, coworker/boss, should expect. For example, I know from days when I miss meals that it is harder for me to switch focus. But I can hyperfocus. So I can be productive, if I am aware of and can work around the limitations of my body. As a boss I would want to know that my employee had insight. That is to say, I would rather they talk to me and ask for an accommodation, as with a disability, than try and tough it out and force me to judge them against an unfair standard (them at their well-fed best).

    • Interesting POV. I read your point as saying that fasting is stressful to the body/mind and might impact work performance, and therefore should be disclosed to one’s boss or colleagues. Well then, what about any number of personal issues that might have the same effect, like divorce, or marriage problems, or a bad breakup, a lawsuit, an ill parent, a problematic child, an alcoholic sister .. whatever? Do you have to hear about all of that? Are people obliged to tell you about these things simply because they might be getting a little less sleep than normal?

      I don’t mean to equate these personal hardships with Ramadan/Islam or religion in general, which is typically meant to give meaning and strength to its adherents (not stress), but the point is that Life Happens. As a human, colleague and certainly employer you have to expect that your co-workers/staff are going to live life in and around their jobs, and they won’t always be at 100% for any number of reasons. Nor is it fair to think of Ramadan fasting as a ‘choice’, as I assume that devout Muslims would no sooner forgo Ramadan fasting than a loyal daughter would abandon her ailing parent.

      I appreciate your point of view, I just think that your Boss’ Right To Know only goes so far. I agree that it’s better socially and politically to be open about the situation, but not that you’re obligated to inform your employer about it.

    • So by your logic, every person who doesn’t eat breakfast should ask for an accommodation, because they’re fasting from dinnertime to lunchtime. There are other people who just eat one meal a day normally as well. The reality is that everyone has different eating practices, and Ramadan fasting really isn’t any more extreme than the fasting that a lot of people do on a normal basis. 8pm to noon is a much longer period from sunup to sundown and from what I’ve seen, people who don’t eat breakfast don’t seem to have significantly worse performance than people who do eat breakfast.

    • Anonymous :

      techne,
      Now it’s my turn to be a blunt asshole.
      If we take your argument to the limit the following things also tax people’s ability to concentrate at work, and threfore their performance:

      a failing relationsip
      a sick parent
      a car accident
      infidelity
      infertility
      a terminally ill dog
      a child not doing well at school

      are you willing to give a status report to your boss evertime these things happen in your life?

      • @anon : you read me right but draw the wrong conclusion; there is no “should” in what I say. I think it’s your call, not a policy everyone should follow.

        @MelD, i don’t know that “Ramadan fasting really isn’t any more extreme than the fasting that a lot of people do on a normal basis.” For my n of 1, that wasn’t true. I would love to hear about other people’s experiences.

        @Anonymous, the answer is no because you took my argument to the limit. There is a gray area in between never saying anything and oversharing, don’t you think? I do. For example, how out should one be at work? Is being openly gay an overshare?

        Maybe my office is unusually interpersonal. If someone or their wife is pregnant they will choose a day and announce it as a staff meeting. I told my boss/coworkers when I got engaged. When a coworker got a bad burn in an accident, we knew why she wasn’t there for 6 weeks. etc.

  30. I’m a Christian and of a particular flavor that requires a lot of observance (very high-church Episcopalian) and observe a boatload of holidays that are not typical for Christians in this country (All Souls Day, St. Mary the Virgin, Candlemas, etc.). I live in a very, very secular part of the country, and people often ask me a LOT of questions when I explain that I can’t work late on a particular day because I have to go to church, that I’m fasting, that the smudge on my head is there on purpose, etc. Yes, it can get annoying, especially because a certain type of person always expresses surprise that someone “like [me]” (liberal, active on gay rights issues, hypereducated) goes to church. In the end, I have to see it as an opportunity to be a good example of my faith. Avoiding talking about it would involving more lying, whether actively or by omission, than I’m comfortable with.

    • This is lovely.

      Mormons (I’m not one) have a fabulous saying:
      They shouldn’t have to ask if you’re Mormon.

      This doesn’t mean wanting to make others whatever you are, but wanting them to know that You are, proudly, and to remind yourself to be a good ambassador.

      This can be applied to being a feminist (I’m one!), a Republican (I’m not!), an American (am one!), a teacher, an I-banker, etc.

      We are who we are, might as well be proud and brave and self-aware about it, for the benefit of others in our group, not in our group, and ourselves.

      And, I think, for the people who came before us in whichever group, and who likely had it harder in their day, being the odd-feminist-out, the first-generation-Italian, whathaveyou. Be proud to be X because of their struggles.

  31. Wow, now I know why lawyers charge so much…they’re busy spending everyone else’s hard earned money treating their staff to lunch every day. Maybe if they stopped robbing the public, these lunch issues wouldn’t be a problem cause you’d all have to PACK your lunches.

  32. Question for Muslim ladies: can you advise me on how to be respectful and accomodating, while also pulling off a good event? Situation: hosting small, nontraditional bridal shower next Fri night. 7 women, haven’t met them before except bride. It is at my home right after work and won’t go long since most have to get home to families. One emailed that she is fasting so I am assuming Ramadan. We are having dinner, and don’t think we can put it off long. Plus sunset here in Seattle isn’t til 9:30 pm this time of year. (4pm in winter:)) I’d like to avoid anything that would make her uncomfortable- certain foods etc.- but I think we will have to eat in front of her as it’s a dinner event. She said she won’t be staying long but I’d like to make her feel that she can comfortably. Any inputs? Thanks.

    • I’m not Muslim (but I am in Seattle) and I would suggest having a small goodie bag for the fasting guest to take home with her so she could enjoy it after sundown. Perhaps a slice of the cake/dessert, and some of the dinner in a take-out container and a few of the sweets that you are serving. She might appreciate not having to cook later and I think it would make her feel included.

      • That’s a lovely idea! I would also add that you definitely should not delay dinner, as that would likely only make her feel very awkward. Trust me, she will not care if you eat in front of her. :)