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Moderator note: A follow-on question about how to avoid the behavior described here has been posted.


In recent news, two academics are at odds over this incident full article here:

The fuss started when [Prof. X] and [Prof. Y] ended up in the same crowded elevator during a conference at a Hilton in San Francisco last month. [Prof. Y] said she offered to press the floor buttons for people in the elevator, whom she described as mostly conference attendees and all, except one other woman, white middle-aged men. Instead of saying a floor, [Prof. X] smiled and asked for the women’s lingerie department "and all his buddies laughed," [Prof. Y] wrote in a complaint, the details of which he disputed, to the association later that day.

This incident has escalated to the point that the academic organization that organized the conference has decided to sanction Prof. X.

I don't understand why the joke was funny, but that's not really important. I would like to understand why it was offensive. Specifically, I'm wondering

  • In what way was this comment offensive?

The bullets above are not rhetorical or sarcastic; I am completely sincere. I am worried because I don't understand precisely what was offensive, so I fear that I might do something similar. I have wondered whether the remark was offensive because:

  • It referred to underwear
  • It referred to women (in any way) and was cause for laughter
  • There is some unstated assumption about his reason for supposedly going to a lingerie department

But I really have no idea, and I want to understand. I could not find an answer in any of the news pieces on this incident.

I realize that this question might get closed as off-topic. However, I think it is wrong to assume that no part of this is specific to academic culture (if that's the case, that's part of the answer). Certainly it occurred in a uniquely academic environment, and is a dispute between academics and an academic society, that seems to jeopardize at least one academic career.

Please refrain from using this as a place to express your opinion on who is right in this dispute. That's not what I'm asking.

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    Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. If you want to explain the joke, either elaborate in an answer (but please ensure that your answer actually adds something to the existing ones) or do so in chat. Please use comments only for their intended purpose. – Wrzlprmft May 15 '18 at 12:41
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tl;dr: The joke was funny because it was absurd and taboo (made people uncomfortable). It was "offensive" because it may have been intended to make the person operating the elevator feel embarrassed or singled-out. Avoid making jokes that make people feel singled-out.

How is the joke funny?

As other answers have pointed out, the joke is funny because it makes reference to a time when elevator operators were the norm and people would call out the desired floor in a department store by asking for a specific department. It is an absurd (out-of-place) comment to make in the context (the present day, and not in a department store). Often, absurdity is funny.

There is, however, another layer to the humour. People will often laugh when in an uncomfortable situation. The joke is uncomfortable because of the floor that was asked for: ladies lingerie. In some cultures (I can say Canada and the UK for sure) the topic of undergarments, especially ladies undergarments, is taboo and therefore not supposed to be discussed in "polite society".

In what way was the comment offensive?

I think other answers are close, but slightly miss the mark. The reason I think the joke is offensive is because, whether it was intended or not, it made the person operating the elevator uncomfortable or embarrassed. On a more subtle note the reason is context.

The person operating the elevator may have felt like they were targeted by the joke. They asked an innocent question "What floor?" and the joker replies with the less-than-innocent answer "Ladies lingerie". We can only speculate as to the intentions of the joker, but it is clear that while the joke may have been directed to everyone in the elevator, the answer was directed to the person operating the elevator. Add the fact that the person operating the elevator was a woman, and it doesn't seem so far-fetched to think that she may have felt targeted by the joke.

To further consider this point: why was the department "ladies lingerie" chosen? The joker could have asked for "the hardware department" or "men's clothing" or "sporting goods" and the joke would have drawn a few chuckles. "Ladies lingerie" was chosen because it is taboo, and it is extra taboo because it is a man directing the comment at a woman. More discomfort = more likely to provoke laughs (even though the people in the elevator might feel more uncomfortable than tickled).

Finally, consider the context: a male dominated space. I can say from personal experience (as a man) that it is not uncommon for a group of men to direct lewd or taboo comments at women (or sometimes a young/innocent-seeming man) to provoke embarrassment. Heck, I'm guilty of doing it myself, before I realized how it makes the target of the joke feel! It is likely that the person operating the elevator experienced this sort of behaviour many times before and assumed (perhaps rightly) that the joke was targeted at her and was intended to make her feel embarrassed.

Making someone feel embarrassed for your personal entertainment = bullying. Bullying should not be tolerated, especially in a professional setting.

If it was an elevator full of women and a woman made the joke, the context would be different and the person operating the elevator may not have felt singled-out. Similarly if it was entirely men. However, even in these contexts it is possible for the joke to be construed as bullying, especially if the target of the joke is someone that the joker knows would feel embarrassed.

How do I avoid offending people in a similar way?

Avoid jokes involving topics that make people uncomfortable, especially when telling jokes to strangers or acquaintances. Generally avoid taboo topics of whatever culture you are in and especially avoid jokes that might make someone feel targeted or singled-out based on race, skin colour, sexuality, gender, etc.

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    I think this is a good answer because it addresses something that others have missed. Even if the target of the joke "gets it", they may still be made to feel uncomfortable by it. A joke can be inappropriate even if you understand why it is supposed to be funny. – MJeffryes May 15 '18 at 14:51
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    So the answer obviously is to stop joking about anything at all, ever, except perhaps when you're by yourself. Don't joke. If you joke, you deserve what you've got coming. – L0j1k May 15 '18 at 15:03
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    @L0j1k I'm sorry that you interpreted my answer this way. In fact, I never commented on what the joker may or may not "deserve" for making someone else uncomfortable. I also never said joking is wrong. In fact, I offered examples of other jokes in a similar vein that wouldn't embarrass someone else, while sacrificing (I suppose) the "punchiness" of the joke. It's a matter of simple professional politeness, and perhaps a bit of empathy, to determine what sorts of jokes may be acceptable in a given situation. We're not talking about a comedy club, we're talking about an elevator at a conference. – CuriousFindings May 15 '18 at 15:11
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    I wouldn't say that it's bullying, specifically. That seems to require intent and repetition? ... Googles Or maybe not. ... Your answer is a lot better than mine, congrats! Although, I find it overly verbose, but like the detail... Well, those are mutually exclusive. – Malady May 15 '18 at 17:43
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    From the article, "He said it was a man, not a woman, who asked for the floors and that the other men in the elevator were not his "buddies" as she had described them.". If it were a men asking for the floors, would the joke still be considered offensive? – DjangoBlockchain May 18 '18 at 13:49
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@Najib Idrissi gave a very good answer, but I think there is one more key element to this situation, and that is the typical dimensions of a lift.

Lifts are small, people have to stand close together. This makes some people a little nervous about the possibility that someone else might take it as an opportunity to invade their personal space or touch them inappropriately. In a lift, such an act could be passed off as unintentional, because people were standing close already. Just like the problems with people getting groped on packed trains.

So in this situation, it is only kind to behave in as reassuring a manner as possible. This will reduce the fear people feel because of how close they have to stand.

As such, even if this joke had not been specifically about women’s sexuality, and just about sexuality in general, it was the wrong moment to tell it.

To tell a sex related joke is always a bit of a gamble, but if the person you are talking to is comfortable around you, it might be fine. The trick is to know if they are comfortable at that moment. In a crowded lift they are more likely to be a little uncomfortable. In a male dominated environment this is more likely to be a problem for women, but it could apply to anyone.

The long and short of it is don't tell sex jokes unless you are confident that they are not misogynistic (in context this one was), and confident that that the other person is comfortable around you.

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    +1, this is the right answer! The solution is just to not tell crass jokes. It really doesn't matter the intent (which in this case was perfectly benign), the point is that communication is difficult and language is a lossy medium. It's just common sense. – knzhou May 15 '18 at 11:07
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    @knzhou You cannot know what the intent was at the time... – mb21 May 15 '18 at 11:16
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    @TheoreticalPerson I don't think it's really about the lift, there have been plenty of similar job-ruining incidents in totally neutral environments. One just should not be crass anywhere at all. – knzhou May 15 '18 at 12:41
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    @knzhou I have to disagree with you there. In the relative privacy of my office I have a good handle on what jokes my office mates will find funny and what would be going too far. But I know these people, I know they are comfortable with me and I know their sense of humour and that makes all the difference. – Clumsy cat May 15 '18 at 12:46
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    If mentioning underwear even under the name lingerie is tantamount to sexuality then am I going to be labeled a pedophile if I mention a need for diapers? – Dean MacGregor May 18 '18 at 6:50
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I think the main reason why this joke gave offense has already been covered in Najib Idrissi's answer, i.e. the lingerie/sex-object angle, but there's another aspect to it:

When [Prof. X] was young, in the 1950s, he said, it was a "standard gag line" to ask the elevator operator for the hardware or lingerie floor as though one were in a department store.

Elevator operators are almost entirely obsolete now, but back in that era, many hotels, stores, and office buildings had an employee whose job was to work the elevators for guests. It was a junior role, similar to a valet or a store greeter.

So part of the "joke" here is that Prof. X is talking to Prof. Y, his professional peer, as if she was a junior hotel employee - an occupation which carries much less status than "professor".

Women in academia have had a long struggle to be treated with the same respect as their male peers, and there's still a long way to go. (One example of many). Because of that situation, it's a bad idea for a male academic to make jokes which rely on reducing the social status of his female peer; this amplifies the "merely sex objects" aspect of the joke that Najib Idrissi discussed.

A lot of comedians invoke the rule "Never punch down" - in other words, don't make fun of people or groups whose social standing is lower, or less secure, than your own.

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    part of the "joke" here is that Prof. X is talking to Prof. Y, his professional peer, as if she was a junior hotel employee That is not conclusive. I read the joke as self-mockery, where Prof X is pretending to be confused about where he is. Asking someone else what floor they want is similarly acceptable when two people enter an elevator without either person being employed specifically to operate the elevator. This was actually the case here: one professor asked another professor what floor they were going to so they could press the button for them. That context hasn't changed. – Flater May 15 '18 at 13:16
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    @Flater It could perhaps be interpreted as self-mockery, but I don't see anything in X's response where he offers that explanation. On the other hand, I quoted directly from a part of the article where X explains that this is how one used to talk to elevator operators... i.e. junior hotel/business employees. – Geoffrey Brent May 15 '18 at 13:34
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    So your angle is, if a woman politely offers to push an elevator button for you in a crowded elevator, and you respond, then that means you're treating her like a "junior hotel employee", which is bad? This clearly has nothing to do with gender. Is asking somebody to pass the salt bad too? – knzhou May 15 '18 at 15:16
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    If this is true, he should have said "Hardware department, please," instead of "Ladies lingerie." Then he could have simply explained the joke on the way up. – J.R. May 16 '18 at 21:19
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    @knzhou Perhaps you've missed the part of my answer where I specifically said that this is NOT the main reason why it might be offensive, but rather that it amplifies the issue that another answer had already discussed? Offense is a non-linear phenomenon. – Geoffrey Brent May 16 '18 at 21:19
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The remark is offensive because it implies that women are merely sex objects, only good for leering at while scantily clad. I implies that the women attending academic conferences are not real academics, but are only there for show. We are talking about a professor, a respected scholar who is an expert in her field. The other professor only appears to see her as an object, a servant to dress up in lingerie, not his equal. This is degrading and offensive.

If you want to avoid this kind of "fuss", talk to women (and everyone, really) as if they were human beings and your peers, rather than objects, especially in a professional context.

If you want to understand why the professor violated the code of conduct (and I think it's sad that it needs to be spelled out), you can read it here, in particular:

4) Nonetheless, the ISA recognizes its duty to ensure that members and participants are not bullied and/or harassed. It further recognizes that this duty is of wider application and includes all members and participants, regardless of status or the period of time. [...]

b) Harassment may be defined as, but is not limited to:
i) Unwanted conduct affecting the dignity of people or individuals. It may be related to age, gender, gender identity, sexual orientati on, race, disability, religion, nationality, citizenship or any personal characteristic of the individual, and may be persistent or isolated. The key is that the actions or comments are experienced as demeaning and unacceptable by the recipient. [...]

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    -1 you'e completely ignoring the fact that the OP and me as well in this case are not getting the joke/innuendo. Please address why the sentence implies women are merely sex objects? As guy G stated it also strikes me as a complete non-sequiter. I wouldn't laugh at it because it would make 0 sense to me. What does going to the women's lingerie department have to do with the woman in question? What is the innuendo referred to? – DRF May 15 '18 at 10:45
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    Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. Please use comments only to suggest improvements to the answer (e.g., asking for clarification of an aspect). If you have a different stance on events to offer, please post your own answer. – Wrzlprmft May 15 '18 at 12:29
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    Okay, here are the rules for this comment thread: 0) Be nice! 1) If you can suggest an improvement that adds something to the already suggested improvements, write a comment. 2) If you disagree with a suggested improvement, don’t do anything or take it to chat. 3) If you agree or disagree with the answer, vote up or down. 4) Everything else, take to chat. 5) If you think that out of several similar suggestions for improvement, I should have chosen yours to stay, take it to chat. – Wrzlprmft May 15 '18 at 13:56
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    @DRF, the answer does not need to address that because OP wrote I don't understand why the joke was funny, *but that's not really important*. I would like to understand why it was offensive. (and Wrzlprmft, I am specifically commenting this here instead of chat because @DRFs is the only comment you left here, and it has 39 upvotes. Treat this comment of mine is an outlet for balancing out those 39, maybe.) – AnoE May 15 '18 at 14:08
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    It might be helpful to clarify a bit more that it is important that the offending professor said "lingerie" and not "underwear" (as the OP used). Lingerie is associated with a context where women are attempting to visually please (usually) men with their bodies. I think the joke would have been (minimally) less offensive if he had said "underwear." – Azor Ahai May 15 '18 at 18:22
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In what way was this comment offensive?

Here is a quote from the professor in question:

"Ladies’ lingerie” is an old joke dating back to the days of manually operated elevators, when lift operators in department stores would yell out: “What floor?”. I meant no harm by my joke – a version of which even pops up in the Harry Potter books. Indeed, it was meant to be an attempt to make light of the mundane, boring process of being stuck in a lift. And why must such a comment have sexual or offensive connotations?

So it seems the joke was only offensive to those who didn't get it. They hear the word 'lingerie' in association with a woman, and assume it's somehow a sexist or dehumanizing joke, when it wasn't intended that way at all. The joke would have been the same if it had been a man pushing the buttons.

(Edit: the joke here is that the request can't be fulfilled at a hotel, but would be reasonable in a similar context. It'd be like getting into a race car and telling the driver "Airport Hilton, please". It's not sexual or sexist in any way.)


What are examples of other comments that might be offensive in a similar way? How can I avoid offending people in a similar way?

It's possible for someone to misconstrue literally anything you say as offensive, so there no way to completely avoid these sort of situations.

However, when people are offended, they give off obvious non-verbal cues. If someone gets offended due to misinterpreting something you've said, the best thing you can do is apologize and explain to them what you meant.

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    This whole answer apparently hinges on the unwritten assumption that if something is a joke, then it is cannot be offensive, and if someone finds it offensive, then it is because they do not "get" the joke (a veiled manner of calling the female professor dumb or something, I presume). Can you clarify why you are assuming that? – user9646 May 15 '18 at 13:45
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    @NajibIdrissi: That's oversimplifying. The answer addresses that for the current scenario, the offended parties likely did not understand the actual joke and took offense to the words without observing the actual intended context. This answer does not argue that that is a global rule where offense/humor are mutually exclusive at all times. (Ironically, overzealously assuming that a statement is implicitly a global statement is the main reason as to why this joke was considered offensive in the first place) – Flater May 15 '18 at 13:51
  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. Future comments that will not directly address issues with this answer will be deleted without warning. If you want to discuss the history or exegesis of the joke, please take it to chat. – Wrzlprmft May 15 '18 at 14:36
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    @NajibIdrissi: There is absolutely no way you could have gotten that from this answer. It seems you only want it to be true so you can continue to take offense at something entirely non-offensive. – BlueRaja - Danny Pflughoeft May 19 '18 at 2:44
  • I agree with @NajibIdrissi. I also want to add that professor Y was only 1 of 2 women in a lift full of male professors. Based on this fact alone, "lingerie" whether preceding the word "department" or not, is inappropriate by itself, based purely on the usual association with "lingerie". Second, in old times when lifts WERE operated by attendants, those attendants were usually women, by (jokingly or not) referring to the professor who offered to press the button (who happens to be a woman) as the attendant is degrading, no matter how mild the connotation is. – PandaPants May 27 '18 at 14:58
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First, to explain why the "joke" is "funny" (inverted commas because I don't find it funny, and I suspect many others don't either). Thanks to Flater and knzhou for explaining this.

During the time of manually-operated elevators, there were so-called "elevator operators" who would ask passengers where they were going. A possible answer for example could be "second floor". In those days, departmental stores were also organized by departments that could take up an entire floor. To say "take me to the ladies' lingerie department" is equivalent to saying "take me to whichever floor sells ladies' lingerie". The joke is that the speaker, as a man, is not expected to want to buy ladies' lingerie. The same joke would work with a female speaker asking to be brought to the men's lingerie department.

The joke is offensive because the listener didn't understand it. Since some people laughed, the listener knows it's a joke. However she didn't know why it's funny - not surprising, from the comments many don't either. Still, since 1) women and 2) lingerie were mentioned, she assumes that it's a sexual joke. That immediately makes it offensive.

Here're a couple of other situations which were interpreted badly: when a man invited a woman to coffee in an elevator, and a joke about dongles and forking at a technology conference. You can easily find more using Google for terms such as "humor in different cultures".

As to the question of how to avoid it: unless among friends, avoid making jokes entirely because humor translates poorly across cultures. This is the same reason that one should avoid injecting humor into e.g. a conference presentation. As you can probably imagine, the hassle that Prof. X is going through is not worth the laughs he got.

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    Allure, I'm confused why I see an answer written by you and a vote to close by you. That has occasionally happened to me -- but when that happens, it's a good idea to provide an explanation. – aparente001 May 15 '18 at 18:28
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    @aparente001 I didn't vote to close because the question is unanswerable; I voted to close because I think it's better suited to another StackExchange. Since others evidently don't think so, I might as well answer it here, especially since at the time I wrote the answer there were some things not yet said in other answers. – Allure May 15 '18 at 21:42
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    FYI. You can consider retracting the Close vote option when you decide to answer a question which you already casted a close vote before it is put on hold. – scaaahu May 16 '18 at 3:52
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    @Allure - What scaaahu said -- do you want me to rephrase it? Or do you understand what he was getting at? It's your decision, of course; I just want to make sure you understand what your options are. And I would like to repeat, it has happened to me too; based on experience gained over time, in such a controversial situation like this, I would encourage you to give it some more thought before jumping in to vote or to post, until you've had a chance to figure out what your position is. – aparente001 May 16 '18 at 19:15
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Well, there was no offense intended, and initially, I didn't see how she was offended. You also can't please everyone, so it's hard to avoid offense unless you carefully curate your jokes?

The offense was taken, and I'm saying it was an over reaction, unless given other context, as it was just a topical joke, I think. I'd say "ladies lingerie" was the first floor type that came to mind, given the circumstances, and on-the-spot jokes need people to be quick on their feet.

And I'm also thinking that the joke was probably the best one that could be given. Any other options wouldn't have been enough of a non-sequitur to be as funny, possibly offered even more offense.

An alternate floor, like "Housewares", for example, might have brought to mind "Stay In The Kitchen" attitudes.

The situation is sort of like a rapid fire answer test, think Word Association and Rorschach testing?

Unless you can find something at least as odd as women's lingerie for a man to publicly state he wants, the joke falls apart.

The woman took offense because she didn't get the joke, I assume. A fault on her, instead of the speaker, due to a lack of historical knowledge.

While it might not be reasonable to expect that knowledge, I find her offense unreasonable, as I didn't immediately find a reason to take offense, unless the core of the complaint is that such a joke doesn't fit the academic setting... But, it's an elevator joke, in an elevator. I love how the situation fits, from a jokester's perspective? ... I might even say she fed him that straight line, but she didn't know it.

On having read some other answers and other commentary on the situation, I find the possible types of offense caused by the joke to be... loosely connected, I think is the right phrase? Although, there is enough connection, to find it as the first associations to come to mind, in someone unfamiliar with the joke?

If I were confronted, I'd ask for an explanation for the offense and defend the joke, but that might not be the best option for you.

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    The question isn't whether the woman was right to be offended, the question is how to avoid offending people. This doesn't and doesn't try to answer that question. – hvd May 15 '18 at 11:39
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    @Flater The OP did ask that: "how can I avoid offending people in a similar way?" The OP also specifically noted "Please refrain from using this as a place to express your opinion on who is right in this dispute. That's not what I'm asking." – hvd May 15 '18 at 11:42
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    @MJeffryes: Regardless of quality issues in this answer, "it wasn't actually offensive" is a valid answer (note the difference between valid and correct !) because it addresses the premise of the question; which is built on the assumption that the joke is offensive in the first place. – Flater May 15 '18 at 11:42
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    @Flater This answer is not useful, since the professor involved seems to have followed the course of action advised (going on the defensive), which has not worked out very well for him. OP has stated they want to avoid being in the same situation as the professor concerned, so clearly, this strategy is useless in that context. I'm going to refrain from any further extended discussion. – MJeffryes May 15 '18 at 11:46
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    @MJeffryes: Note the difference between valid and correct. To the question "is the sky blue?", Yes is a valid (and correct) answer, No is a valid (but not correct) answer, and Carrot is not a valid (nor correct) answer. I said OP's answer was valid, not necessarily correct. – Flater May 15 '18 at 11:57

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