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Supervisor asking for my religion

Hello guys,

The other day my supervisor asked for my religion. It is close to Christmas and all. That being said I know that people think I'm muslim and I noticed that many people are prejudiced against muslims where I live. I am not muslim nor religious. However, in Switzerland religion is considered a private matters. And in all cultures it's not something you discuss at work.

I told him: "I don't have a religion". So he asked me if we were celebrating, etc.

Why did I tell him that? Because if I would have answered him: "It's private matters", it would have looked suspicious and rapport-breaking. I wanted him to know that I'm not muslim because I noticed he might be prejudiced against it. I think I let him in a judge role and it was too unbalanced.

2 alternatives that I did not do:

Alternative 1: answer back: "and you?" to agree to volunteer to a private information but to ask him to disclose this information as well

Alternative 2: answer first: "why?" and then answer him and then ask him "and you?" to show him it's inappropriate, that I'm willing to share this information with him but that I want him to reciprocate.

What do you think?

Cheers!

Hey John,

Very interesting situation.

What it says and what it means depends a lot on how it was asked.

You know that better, but for future folks who stumble upon this thread:

In a way, it's nosy that he asked.
And it says some not so good things about possible prejudices, as well as an indirect way of showing his mindset, plus "officializing" that "you're different" (in case you were worshipping/celebrating in any different way).

But also depends on how it was asked.
Asking for personal information can also be a sign someone respects, want to know and/or wants to get close to someone.

Judging by your message, I think your case was the former, and not the latter.

I think your answer was good, based on both of your premises:

  • Not breaking rapport (it would have been a big rapport breaker to decline answering)
  • Not framing yourself as "different"

REBALANCING POWER

  • "and you?"

The simplest way to rebalance the power dynamics was indeed to ask "and you" right back.

Not the best one, since he'd still be power-up as you're reacting, but a solid way to make up some difference, and the most natural answer for most people.

  • "why?"

This option is better, higher power, more assertive.
The only possible downside is that it could still break some rapport.

But I think one can still go for this option with some tweaks and make it the best option available.

A socially smooth way of doing that could be to ask "how come you're asking" with a visible, sly smile as if to say:

You're being nosy now, and you know that. And I know why you're asking, and you know why, and we both know it's not very cool. But I'm being polite right now, so show me some more investment / justification for your question, and then I'll be polite back

"How come" is the same as "why", but less strong.
Then, after he justifies or backtracks a bit, you can give him the answer.

Actually, I'd probably have taken this opportunity to get closer.
How to do that?
You make the answer a bit longer, volunteering some more information, and then, asking him the same back.

Say something like "I know because of my name some people think I'm Muslim, it's normal (pacing reality, making explicit what you both thought, but didn't say), actually though.... (tell some backstory / beliefs), and what about you?"

Of course, whether or not one chooses this option also depends on the type of relationship one wants to have with coworkers. This reply is for encouraging more  informal / closer relationships.

Transitioned has reacted to this post.
Transitioned
Have you read the forum guidelines for effective communication already?

Thanks a lot for your answer.

Another situation was when two colleagues asked me my religion, one of whom is my supervisor. My supervisor who's catholic had revealed multiple times she's catholic and that her mother is a "pious catholic". She's libanese and has the same problem as me: she says openly she's catholic because of the prejudices towards muslims. So she does not want to be a target of hatred if she's not the intended target. I understand that.

So she asked me my religion. I said calmly: "it's not secret but it's private" and they did not insist. Personal beliefs are exactly that: personal. I do not think it has anything to do with my ability to do my work. So I keep it private. For the background, I am not religious, but it's none of their business. Especially in Switzerland where there was religion wars and from there, religion is considered in the culture a private matters. It is, but the cultural norm protects it.

I said calmly: "it's not secret but it's private"

I like the first part, it takes some of the edge off from the refusal.
As if to say "I might say, eventually, but when I decide so, and not right now". Still, it leaves the social door ajar, so to speak, instead of shutting it down.

John Freeman has reacted to this post.
John Freeman
Have you read the forum guidelines for effective communication already?

As if to say "I might say, eventually, but when I decide so, and not right now".

So it seems based on your feed-back, that I'm making progress. That is exactly the intention I had. So I can see that I quite probably was able to communicate this idea in this situation.

Yeah, it was going in that direction, also depending on tonality of course.

If you wanted to make extra-sure, you might have said that with a smile and/or added:

"it's not a secret, but for now, let's keep it private (then, we'll see)".

Neither are strictly necessary, if you prefer a professional, detached, "we do our work, but we don't get close" type of approach, then all those bits aren't necessary.
It's more of a personal choice.
Since work is an important part of life, I'd personally advise that, when possible, close is better than distant. But it's a personal choice.

Have you read the forum guidelines for effective communication already?

Since work is an important part of life, I'd personally advise that, when possible, close is better than distant. But it's a personal choice.

I agree: close with the right ones, distant with the right ones.

Lucio Buffalmano has reacted to this post.
Lucio Buffalmano
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