Handling ageist stereotypes and candy bullies diplomatically

Our advice columnist delves into dealing with prejudice, a Sysyphian situation with a boss, and more

As the space between work and not-work becomes ever more blurred, questions about how to do this thing we plug away at for 30 or 40 or 70 hours a week become all the more expansive. In this column, Work Flow, we’ll delve into the novel dilemmas created by the new ways we work, as well as timeless questions about ethics, gender assumptions, and toxic work situations (and how to escape them). How we work is an important component of how we live—and we’re here to help you do better at both.

Something messing with your flow? Unload your work problems here, and you’ll not only feel heard, but you’ll also get unbiased, real-world advice. (That’s something your work sibling/spouse just can’t offer.) Tell us everything: ideasbywe@wework.com.

Q: I was advising a young founder (20-something) on how to best market his new app. We talked about how his target market probably spans generations. In referring to my peers (consumers over 50), he said, “Elderly people may not be as comfortable with technology.” Not only was I shocked, but I was also angry. Although some of my peers are challenged by technology, “elderly” implies frail, over-the-hill, and out-of-touch. I would never think to call his peers “kids.” How do you address ageism and stereotypes in the workplace without sounding like a cranky old crone?

As another person who is over 40, I find the fastest way to come off as a cranky old crone is to yell angrily at young people. They never take it the right way! Which is not to say that it’s not merited, sometimes.

I agree that “elderly” has some unfortunate negative connotations, perhaps because we live in such a youth-focused society that anything described as anything less than, well, young seems to carry with it the stench of mothballs. Is there even a clear, agreed-upon sense of what the word means? Merriam-Webster defines “elderly” as “rather old, especially: being past middle age” (which, what is that, even? 45? 55? 90?) and “old-fashioned” (fair, perhaps, but that could apply to any young-in-years hipster who insists on listening to vinyl on a vintage hi-fi and scoops up a portable typewriter at the local flea). The dictionary’s concluding attempt: “of, relating to, or characteristic of later life or elderly persons.” “Elderly” may be elderly, but what is elderly?

Personally, I like specifics, and feel that it’s never wrong to recommend speaking with accuracy: What’s the actual age being discussed? There is a huge difference between 45 and 90—generations, even. No group of people should be lumped together and assumed to be a certain way. We are all unique and weird and challenging and human—and for your founder’s purposes, we are all potential customers.

That’s where you make your point. Ask him what “elderly” means to him, and if, as a businessperson, there might be a better way to put it rather than discounting an ever-growing demographic of possible customers. You might say: ”‘Elderly’ doesn’t sit right with a lot of people who are 50 or over. I’d consider another way of describing this age group or groups that’s going to be much more helpful to your business. What age or ages are we really talking about? And why do you think that so many of them are bad at technology? Is there an opportunity for marketing your app?”

Ask him if he’s ever dealt with age discrimination, and how that felt. Making a joke in such moments also usually goes down better than rage: Tell him it’s quite funny that he sees your (and, yeah, make it personal! Personal is how we get our point across!) age group as elderly, because they’d see him as a kid—yet neither of those perceptions are correct, are they? Finally, you could note that he’s turned to you, who fits in the demographic he has broadly misconstrued, to instruct him. Clearly, his perceptions of the so-called elderly aren’t in keeping with what he actually knows to be true: that people at least twice the age of 25 can bring expertise, experience, and deep knowledge to a situation.

The way we start speaking differently about age is by speaking differently about age: not hiding it, but calmly and surely pointing out the problem when it comes up, regularly proving people who underestimate generations older than they are that they’re wrong, and continuing to have those real, honest, personal conversations as often as necessary while remaining professional about it. You can do this. You have the benefit of not only age but also wisdom. And keep in mind that everything, including the very app this founder hopes to sell, will someday age, wither on the vine, and die. If that makes you feel any better?

Q: I just moved to New York City from Texas and started working for my godfather’s company. They gave me the “good” cubicle right outside my boss’s office. After I was there for a week, my boss’s gopher handed me a candy bowl and informed me that the woman before me always had a bowl of candy, and I needed to uphold the tradition. So I did. The office goes through the bowl in a day or less. It’s starting to really add up financially. If the bowl is empty, my boss will knock on my desk and tell me the bowl needs to be filled… and he won’t give me my instructions for the day on what to do. If it’s full, he’ll stop and talk and tell me how much he likes the candy and then give me my instructions for the day. This small bowl has become a huge issue. Much of the office is on a Weight Watchers plan, and everyone participating comes to talk to me about the candy bowl and what it’s doing to their diet. This situation is distracting from my work and costing me too much money! What do I do?

You’ve heard of Sisyphus, perhaps? According to Greek legend, because of a variety of bad behaviors in life, he was condemned in Hades to eternally roll a heavy stone up a hill. It would, of course, roll down; he’d then have to push it back up again. This candy bowl is your Sisyphus moment. Luckily, you’re not in hell; it just feels like it. And it’s time to let the candy bowl roll down the hill.

Address it all calmly and clearly, in person, with your boss. “The candy bowl is distracting from my work and causing problems with coworkers who are on diets, and I’m spending too much time and money thinking about it. I am no longer going to manage a candy bowl.” Hold firm to that. If he protests, tell him simply that you will no longer be able to keep up with tradition in this case, for all the reasons you’ve mentioned. If he refuses to give you work because of it, spend that time looking for another job.

There’s another renegade move up your sleeve. Let the candy bowl “disappear” (i.e., sequester it away in your desk, or put it in the back of a kitchen cabinet, or hand it right back to the person who gave it to you). If someone asks where it’s gone, say, “I have no idea what happened to that” or “I’m not doing that anymore.” (It was never your business to have to deal with it in the first place!) This may seem cowardly or passive-aggressive, but let the candy bowl be someone else’s problem for a while. Shrug it off, do your job, and either start looking for a new job or stick around and avoid all candy bowls forevermore. Whatever you do, get out of Hades.

Q: Is it ever OK to trim your nails at work? Not at my desk, of course, but maybe a bathroom stall?

Nope, nope, nope. Don’t even try it—I can hear you click-click-clicking in my nightmares. Some things in life are meant to be done only at home, or in the nail salon.

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