A reader writes:
This happened years ago, but I still wonder what (if anything) I should’ve done. I was teaching at a small independent school. I had a colleague, Maria, who was in her mid-twenties; she was enthusiastic, upbeat, and a fine teacher, really good with the kids, and I liked her personally, as well as appreciating her professionally.
Maria had a baby while I was there. We were all delighted for her, and even more delighted when she dropped by a faculty meeting — with the baby! — while on her maternity leave. “I have some pictures to show you!” she said enthusiastically, and set up the video system in the classroom we were using so she could display them. “They’re a little PG rated,” she added, “but that’s okay, we’re all family here!” And then the slides started…
….and they were not, as I had anticipated, pictures of the new baby and the smiling parents. Rather, they were pictures of the baby’s birth. They were not in my opinion PG-rated at all, as among other things they showed a number of parts of Maria’s body that frankly I would rather not have seen. I found the slide show inappropriate for the workplace, and while I wouldn’t say I was offended it certainly made me uncomfortable.
In the moment, though, I wasn’t sure what to do, and looking back at it, I’m not sure either. I could’ve gotten up and left the room, but because of where I was sitting I thought that would attract more attention than I wanted. I was her peer, not her boss, and I wasn’t running the meeting, so I didn’t feel I had standing to ask her to stop. After the third or fourth picture I simply ignored the pictures and concentrated instead on some work I’d brought with me. I kept half expecting that my boss, who was a wonderful boss and a wonderful human being with outstanding interpersonal and diplomatic skills, would do something to stop it, but that didn’t happen.
Anyway, in the general scheme of things this was not a huge big deal, but I do think about it from time to time. Was there something else I could have, should have done, or was focusing on my work folder in fact my best bet?
Ooooh, your manager should have spoken up! Even if everyone in the room seemed comfortable with the photos, it’s a manager’s responsibility to realize that people won’t always indicate when they’re uncomfortable with explicit content because they don’t want to create awkwardness. We know at least one person in the room wasn’t comfortable (you) and your manager should have accounted for that highly likely possibility.
There’s also just the basic principle of “don’t show photos of your naked body at work, period.” With birth photos, those lines do seem to get blurred for a lot of people. But the principle remains regardless.
Ideally your manager would have said something like, “These are amazing photos but more than everyone might be comfortable with at work — we’d love to see the baby herself though!” Or, “Since we’re at work, we need to keep it G-rated.” Or, if more appropriate for their relationship and the vibe of the room, just approached Maria and quietly asked her to show only G-rated slides.
I’m guessing the fact that you were teachers might have played into this, in that the culture in teaching can assume a comfort with all things kid-related (in the same way a group of teachers might be presumed — rightly or wrongly — to be more comfortable with a colleague breast-feeding a baby at a meeting than you’d expect in, say, finance) and that statistically speaking, because you were teachers it was more likely to be a heavily female group, which sometimes carries an expectation that you can cross boundaries you wouldn’t cross in a more mixed group.
In any case, I think your strategy of focusing on your work instead of the photos was a reasonable one. You did have standing to say it was too much or to just discreetly leave, but as her peer in a group where no one else seemed to be objecting (and in fact might have been oohing and ahhing because A Baby, the miracle of life, etc.), I can understand why you didn’t!