A reader writes:
I’m a summer intern in a very relaxed office at a very friendly but large company. There’s a full-time employee who informally advises the team of interns — he’ll check in on our project, offer his advice, help guide us to the information we need, etc.
He’s got a very dry sense of humor and is very sarcastic. Unfortunately, he turns the joking behavior on and off very quickly and it’s hard to tell when he’s being serious. Additionally, he likes to use the naive interns as the center of his humor and ended up playing a prank on me that made me the laughing stock of another department.
After that incident, I swung by his office and told him that I enjoyed the humor he brought to the office but would appreciate if it wasn’t at another’s expense. Since then, he’s stopped talking to me or making eye contact with me at all. Unfortunately, this means I don’t get his guidance the way the other interns do.
Should I just learn to take a joke? Would there have been a better way to approach the situation afterwards? How can I avoid this in the future?
Without knowing all the details, it sounds like you approached it just fine. You stood up for yourself calmly and (it sounds like) without being inappropriately aggressive.
The person who sounds in the wrong here is your coworker. His role as an informal advisor to your team of interns is at odds with his desire to “use naive interns” as the butt of his jokes. If you and the other interns are going to come to him with questions and problems, you need to trust him not to mock you. He’s creating the exact opposite of the environment he should be establishing.
That’s bad enough on its own, but his reaction when you asked him to tone it down took his mishandling of his role to a new level. Refusing to talk to you or even make eye contact now? That’s not an okay reaction for any colleague to have to another, but it’s especially inappropriate when he’s charged with giving you guidance.
And sure, I suppose it’s possible that you badly botched the conversation and were offensive in what you said to him (I suspect not, but it’s possible) — but then his job would be to sit down with you and tell you, “Hey, that’s not a great way to approach these issues, because it comes across as ____. Instead, in a situation like this, you should ____.” That’s what it means to give people guidance. You don’t freeze them out when they handle something differently than you would have liked.
Now, in answer to your other question — should you just learn to take a joke? Without knowing what this joke was, I don’t know. It’s certainly true that some people would benefit by lightening up. It’s possible that you’re one of them. But I wouldn’t use this particular guy or this particular situation to draw those sorts of conclusions about yourself, since he sounds too problematic to use for that sort of calibration.
If there’s someone else in your organization who you have good rapport with (like your direct manager or someone else you work with and respect), you could run the situation by them and ask them for their candid assessment. (And if you frame it that way — as seeking feedback about yourself and advice for the future — it would have the side benefit of alerting someone to this guy’s behavior without actually complaining about it. And that’s a nice side benefit.)
But I wouldn’t let this ass rattle you too much.