Attention has been drawn recently to an incident that occurred at a scientific conference and its sequelae described in this article:

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 [Prof. X] disputed.

[Prof. Y] [...] then wrote to the association’s executive director, who forwarded the complaint to the group’s Committee on Professional Rights and Responsibilities, which determined that [Prof. X] had violated the conduct code.

[Prof. X] insists it never should have gotten to that point because he tried to resolve the problem informally, as the association’s conduct code recommends. After being informed that his conduct was under investigation, [Prof. X] wrote [Prof. Y] an email assuring her that "I certainly had no desire to insult women or to make you feel uncomfortable." He suggested that [Prof. Y], who was born in Romania and raised in Israel, might have misinterpreted his remark. When he 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.

"Like you, I am strongly opposed to the exploitation, coercion, or humiliation of women," [Prof. X] wrote. "As such evils continue, it seems to me to make sense to direct our attention to real offenses, not those that are imagined or marginal. By making a complaint to ISA that I consider frivolous — and I expect, will be judged this way by the ethics committee — you may be directing time and effort away from the real offenses that trouble us both."

[Prof. X] was told to write an "unequivocal apology" to [Prof. Y] and submit a written copy by May 15 to the association’s executive committee. The apology should focus on [Prof. X's] actions, rather than [Prof. Y's] perceptions of them, it said, adding that if he failed to comply, the executive committee would consider appropriate sanctions.

As a male member of academe, I am worried. I feel bewildered and fear that I might also offend someone some day.

How can I avoid committing an equivalent faux pas in an academic environment, such as an international conference?

  • 2
    Note: this is a drastically reduced version of this original question, per meta discussion here
    – jakebeal
    Commented May 17, 2018 at 16:44
  • 2
    Note: The question is a community wiki as per the linked meta post. This automatically turns all answers into community wikis as well, but we moderators can manually make them to non-wiki answers. If you post an answer, feel free to raise a custom moderator flag to have the wiki status removed. Update: To avoid abuse of this, we will now convert all community-wiki answers to regular answers by default.
    – Wrzlprmft
    Commented May 17, 2018 at 17:50
  • 1
    See additional meta discussion.
    – StrongBad
    Commented May 17, 2018 at 17:58
  • Comments have been moved to chat. 1) If you want to discuss whether this question should be closed or not, do it in the respective meta discussion. 2) If you wish to debate offensiveness, take it to chat. 3) If you have suggestions how to improve this specific question (that were not subject of existing meta discussions), such as the title or wording, write a comment (or suggest an edit). 4) I removed the title discussion, since it seemed to be over with everybody being happy. If not, it’s still in chat.
    – Wrzlprmft
    Commented May 21, 2018 at 19:49
  • What's the point of discarding the names of the people involved if the pointed source has them? Commented May 21, 2018 at 21:31

11 Answers 11


When I step on someone's foot in a crowded subway, I apologize, even if I didn't do it on purpose. I don't refuse to say I'm sorry, I don't imply in a sarcastic way that the other person should have gotten their foot out of the way, I don't suggest that it cannot have hurt all that much, and I don't tell them they should relax, it's just a prank.

If you read the full story, you will see that Prof X's problems really started when he reached out to Prof Y to tell her she was wrong and had no right to complain, and even further refused to formally apologize when asked to. When you read the organization's reasoning, you see that they also consider that it is not so much the intent of the actions that matters, but rather the consequences and hurt they caused.

So I would suggest apologizing if someone tells you that your actions hurt them, instead of telling them that they had no right to feel hurt. Showing that you are a human being capable of empathy helps, usually. I have never witnessed an attempt at going down the second route that worked out well.

  • 19
    I really wish people didn't see apology as an assault on their ego or power, then we might see more of them. The apology is not about being right, it's about acknowledging that someone got hurt and showing that you're a decent human being in lessening that hurt.
    – Edwin Buck
    Commented May 21, 2018 at 14:09
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    This seems like dangerous advice to me. It's easy enough to look at Prof X's situation and suggest that qualifying his apology made things worse for him, but you don't actually know that without seeing the counterfactual. I have heard that hospital lawyers in the US tell doctors not to say things like "I'm so sorry" to grieving family members, lest an expression of regret be spun by an adversarial party as an admission of culpability. The same risk applies here. When you already know that you're dealing with somebody who wants your head, it's wise not to hand them the axe to take it with.
    – Mark Amery
    Commented May 21, 2018 at 15:20
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    Apologies absolutely can and often are about power. And make no mistake, there is currently a cultural dialogue (some say, war) that has been going on about the limits of taking offense, how carefully we must tread to avoid offending others, what constitutes unacceptable behavior, etc. To offer an "unequivocal apology" is not simply being decent and empathetic human being, it's to admit you are wrong in the first place, and possibly (if you care) to cede ground in this cultural dialogue.
    – John K
    Commented May 21, 2018 at 16:28
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    Wow, some startling but enlightening comments here. I'd happily employ someone who sometimes makes bad jokes and takes responsibility for their actions in a mature, friendly and good-humoured way. I would not want to employ someone who would refuse to apologise after making a bad joke because they are afraid to "cede ground" in an imaginary "cultural war" they are fighting, 24/7, with their own colleagues and peers! Not on my time, thank you. Commented May 22, 2018 at 8:36
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    @MarkAmery If someone says you hurt their feelings, or their behavior clearly indicates it, then their feelings were hurt. If this was the result of an interaction with you, you hurt their feelings. There's no room for 'this is possibly untrue' here, no room for argument. The only thing you can argue in front of a disciplinary committee is whether or not you intended to hurt their feelings, on which the proposed apology concedes nothing.
    – Cronax
    Commented May 22, 2018 at 11:08

The problem here stems from two sources 1) it was a bad joke in poor context and 2) as Najib pointed out the guy didn't accept responsibility for his actions. Breaking it down:

It was a bad joke

As was pointed out in this question what exactly the joke was was unclear. Let's go back to the original joke to see why. According to the guy:

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.

In the 1950s when elevator operators were a thing, if you asked to be taken to the hardware floor, the joke is relatively clear:

  • I am confused about where I am because conference centers don't have a hardware floor.

Making the same joke today would relatively clear though it have the previous humor and would add an extra potential layer of self deprecation:

  • I am old and senile because I don't realize elevator operators aren't a thing anymore.

If we assume he was in an elevator with all men adding to the joke that he is looking for the lingerie floor adds more possibilities to the joke:

  • Why is he looking for women's lingerie? Is he suggesting he is a cross-dresser? Is he wanting to leer at the sexy clothing?

When the person he is speaking to is a woman, it adds the possibility that the joke was actually aimed at her:

  • Is he suggesting he wants to buy her lingerie?

Seeing as it was a conference where women are under represented another possibility arises:

  • I am confused about where I am because you don't belong here. You belong in a shopping center or some other place with a lingerie store.

Basically, because of the context and content of the joke it became unclear what the joke was. Giving him the benefit of the doubt, he was trying to make an innocent old joke and chose poorly. However, because of the time and place he made the joke it is also possible he was trying to demean [Prof. Y]. In the context of an academic conference where there is already a lot of sexism the women there are having to overcome, making a joke that can be interpreted as sexist is dangerous.

He didn't take accountability

Everything probably would have been fine if [Prof. X] had responded by saying, "I'm sorry, I was trying to make a joke at my own expense, but executed it poorly and it came off as if I was trying to make a joke at [Prof. Y]'s expense. I shouldn't have made that joke, I didn't mean to imply anything at all about [Prof. Y] or the presence of women at this conference." By insisting he did nothing wrong he failed to acknowledge how is words impacted another person specifically and a group of people generally.

Instead, while [Prof. X] did state that "I certainly had no desire to insult women or to make you feel uncomfortable" and "Like you, I am strongly opposed to the exploitation, coercion, or humiliation of women" he did not acknowledge that his statement could be interpreted as doing exactly that. Instead he insisted that the interpretation of his joke was invalid saying "As such evils continue, it seems to me to make sense to direct our attention to real offenses, not those that are imagined or marginal" and called her complaint "frivolous".

The committee even stated that this lack of accountability was the greater crime stating "[An even] more serious violation, [than the comment in the elevator was] that [Prof. X] chose to reach out to [Prof. Y], and termed her complaint ‘frivolous.’"

How to avoid a similar problem

  1. If you are going to make a joke, think about how it might be interpreted in the context you are in. In particular, make sure it can't be interpreted as making fun of a group of people that has to overcome adversity to share space with you.

  2. If you do accidentally make a bad joke that comes off the wrong way, accept the impact it had on the other person and apologize.

  • 23
    How many career destructions might have been prevented if only people had the ability to discern which jokes were the bad ones? Commented May 17, 2018 at 23:17
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    @ASimpleAlgorithm and how many more could have been prevented if people would just apologize for cracking a bad joke instead of getting indignant about someone else taking offense at it?
    – Doktor J
    Commented May 18, 2018 at 21:01
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    A simpler way to put it: in the 1950s many things were seen as funny that are considered in poor taste or actively offensive today. A good rule of thumb is to refrain from making jokes with sexual, religious, or ethnic content in public. While the old joke wasn't all that funny, professor X would have probably gotten just a few smiles if he had asked for "auto parts" or "accounting department" instead of something with sexual connotations.
    – arp
    Commented May 19, 2018 at 10:24
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    @ASimpleAlgorithm True, but one must remember that comedy is a skill. It takes practice, and in truth, very few people are good at it. Those that are recognize that a good joke is one the audience deems good, not the teller. This person specifically isolated a member of their audience for the benefit of the rest of the audience. That alone was a jerk move. That he did it along sex lines means it is a legally punishable jerk move in many countries. This guy need to pay attention to what's around him, for his sake, and then tell jokes.
    – Edwin Buck
    Commented May 19, 2018 at 14:00
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    There is an additional aspect. Elevator operator, when it existed as a job, was a much lower skill, lower pay, job than college professor. Using a 1950's elevator operator joke in this context says that Prof X would prefer to treat Prof Y as someone whose job is to push buttons for him, rather than as a peer who is graciously assisting her fellow conference attendees. Commented May 21, 2018 at 3:48

Two rules which would have saved him

Do not speak words which may demean or sexualize others, even as a joke.

By this, I mean it is a good idea to use neutral, sanitized language in a professional context. More casual or familiar language should only be used when the speaker is familiar with everyone in the conversation.

To wit: A hotel does not have a "women's lingerie department", so his comment was clearly not a serious response. This leads his listeners to wonder what he really meant.

It is certainly debatable whether he intended to demean or sexualize her. But his intent behind the "joke" would be irrelevant if he never said it in the first place. There is no professional reason to mention lingerie.

A simple "Floor 11, please" would have sufficed.

When in unfamiliar company, do not discuss sexual matters as a general rule, and most especially do not direct sexual remarks toward unfamiliar people.

The same rule applies when one party has power over another, e.g., supervisor/subordinate or professor/student. There are potential legal and ethical problems in this case, and it is best to avoid that quagmire entirely.

  • 5
    If he doesn't think his words fit the premise of your first rule then he would not be warned by the rule to "not say it in the first place". For example if he meant the joke in a self-deprecating way, with people laughing at him for shopping for his personal use. A better wording (which covers both your rules) would be to stay away from taboo subjects or statements that might be construed by others as inappropriate or demeaning. Commented May 17, 2018 at 23:03
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    I would expect that any reasonable person understands that mentioning lingerie is sexualizing the conversation. Directing such a comment to an out-group female passenger is sexualizing, even if he didn't want to do that. In most of the US, the choice of "lingerie" over a neutral term like "underwear" is suggestive, nevermind the questionable decision to mention undergarments in front of a stranger in a hotel.
    – DoubleD
    Commented May 17, 2018 at 23:18
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    "demean or sexualize" is far too often in the eye of the beholder to be a useful discriminator. Commented May 18, 2018 at 13:51
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    @CarlWitthoft no they are not. To be generous we could say that some people who use demeaning or sexualizing language have not taken the time to reflect on their power and privilege sufficiently to recognize the effect that it is having on others but there is little ambiguity about what constitutes demeaning and sexualizing language.
    – DQdlM
    Commented May 18, 2018 at 18:18
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    This answer reminds me much of a sign I see frequently at work. It says (approximately), "Always make sure your words are soft and sweet, in case you ever have to eat them."
    – TOOGAM
    Commented May 19, 2018 at 23:15

You simply apologize. Note that you do not apologize for your intentions or for them feeling bad (like "I'm sorry you feel that way"). You apologize for the offence you caused (whether it was your intention or not). If appropriate, you may explain what your intentions were.


  • You: "blah blah blah something that sounds [or is] sexist."
  • Another person: "That is offensive"
  • You: "I'm sorry I offended you. That was not my intention."
  • Another person : "Ok. blah blah"
  • (optional) You: "The comment meant blah blah blah. Thank you for bringing up that it offends people. [or something similar]"
  • 3
    The person who should be being focused on during the apology is the other person. Leave your intentions, that it was a mistake, etc. out until the other person feels you've adequately communicated that you think what happened was just straight-up bad. What matters here is whether you did your best to apologize and make amends if possible. Commented May 18, 2018 at 19:14
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    s/ I offended you// or it's a fake apology. The problem is not that you offended them (or, as implied, that they took offense). The problem is that you did something you shouldn't have. Either stop at "I'm sorry" or follow up with "I shouldn't have said that.". Commented May 23, 2018 at 3:00

How can I avoid committing an equivalent faux pas in an academic environment, such as an international conference?

In this particular example by being more careful. Do not make jokes with unknown people unless they are very tame jokes.

In general you can't. No matter what someone will eventually take offence at you. Sometimes with good reason, sometimes for no good reason. Don't let it bother you too much, such is life.

When it happens be honest and think if you could have done something to avoid the situation. If so apologize, no buts.

If neither did you intend offence nor could you have done anything to avoid such offence then do not apologize. Don't apologize for things outside your control.

The following decision tree shows how to deal with requests for apology. Note that the option "Explain why you should not be offended" never appears, that almost never works. enter image description here

  • 2
    Did you make the decision tree diagram yourself? If not, can you please post a link to where you it came from?
    – Dan Romik
    Commented May 22, 2018 at 5:25
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    @DanRomik Done by myself for this specific answer. Commented May 22, 2018 at 12:23
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    This diagram is just bad. (1) Your decision on as to whether to apologize or not hinges on whether the other party holds power over you; as opposed to a moral consideration. So if a CEO inadvertently offends an employee of theirs, they shouldn't actually apologize? (2) Furthermore, you're saying that someone who meant to be offensive shoud apologize, but someone who didn't mean to be offensive (but is now being reprimanded by someone who has no power over them) should not apologize. I can't even begin to comprehend the logic behind that.
    – Flater
    Commented May 22, 2018 at 13:19
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    What if given the knowledge you had at the time, more diligence would not have helped prevent the offence, but with a bit a research and understanding, the offence could have been easily avoided? Is that covered under the having more diligence clause?
    – Eph
    Commented May 22, 2018 at 13:29
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    I'm having real difficulty imagining a scenario where "As ordered by X, I apologize" would be a good idea. Have you actually seen this done? Did it improve the situation?
    – G_B
    Commented May 31, 2018 at 5:46

In addition to the other answers, I want to highlight that it's not enough to just apologize, as you can see in the example in the question. Apologizing for the wrong thing can make the situation worse.

As a cyclist I'm reminded of this frequently when I try to have a friendly chat with a driver who almost ran me over. Drivers who seem genuinely apologetic were probably merely ignorant about how to drive safely around cyclists. However, there are many other drivers who refuse to recognize that what they did was dangerous, and will instead at best apologize for only startling me, not almost killing me. The implication is that the danger exists only in my mind, and I find this to be a very self-serving attitude. Some drivers have clearly stated that nothing they did was even slightly dangerous. It doesn't matter if I try to convince them that what they did indeed was dangerous, either. To top it off, these drivers often add things like "I'm a really pro-cycling person, and you're just being oversensitive." But mere talk has little value to me. If they were a truly pro-cycling person, you'd see it in their actions.

You can see elements of the same mistake in the given example.

Admittedly, sometimes the offended person is wrong. But even if you believe this is true, being courteous is still the best course of action.

  • I removed the community-wiki status to avoid the problem of intrusive edits. If you want this to be a community wiki, you can always re-convert it to one.
    – Wrzlprmft
    Commented May 21, 2018 at 19:31

To avoid getting yourself into a mess in the first place:

  • Gradually build up your awareness and understanding of diversity concerns by reading an article or book chapter once a month about gender and diversity issues in academia.

  • Build up your empathy: when you hear about an incident of intolerance, imagine that you work in a female-dominated field that men (including you) have had difficulty cracking into, and someone says something that draws attention to your gender minority status.

Let's imagine you've been called out for saying something sexist or intolerant. Perhaps you showed ignorance, lack of consideration or a lapse in judgment. Perhaps someone else showed hypersensitivity or reactivity.

  • It's understandable that you might feel confused, hurt, indignant. Express these feelings in private, not in public. Remember that email can appear deceptively private but is actually extremely public.

  • Allow yourself time, before responding in a public way, to think about what happened, and imagine how the other person/people might feel. If you draft an email, don't hit "send" right away -- sleep on it; show it to someone whose opinion you value.

  • If anyone pushes you to apologize before you feel ready, ask for some time to reflect. An apology that criticizes the person who felt hurt is worse than no apology at all.

  • 5
    Besides the situation in this question, do you think there is ever a situation where one may reply "I think you're overreacting" to a callout? Or is this unacceptable no matter what the complaint is?
    – knzhou
    Commented May 18, 2018 at 1:10
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    @knzhou Even if they are overreacting, saying "I think you're overreacting" to somebody you don't have a trusting relationship with will typically communicate "I am not taking your concerns seriously."
    – jakebeal
    Commented May 18, 2018 at 1:14
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    But I don't agree with the ideas in some of the answers. The original answer to the closed question attributed extreme malice to Prof. X. The current top answer, respectfully, frames Prof. X as an idiot. And I read your answer as saying, "if somebody is offended, you are surely in the wrong, so educate yourself and apologize." I don't think this is a productive way to address the problem. Calm, one-on-one conversation where both people treat each other as human fixes problems, while a hardline stance leads to blowups like the one we've discussing, which make nothing but lingering bitterness.
    – knzhou
    Commented May 18, 2018 at 1:41
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    "I think you're overreacting" is virtually never going to end well. If you're right, the other person has a proven record of overreacting and is likely to react even harder against this criticism; if you're wrong, you've now added insult to injury. Either way, you haven't helped to resolve the situation. (Unless you are in a position of power over the other person, and evil, in which case saying "you're overreacting" to a legitimate complaint is an excellent method for maintaining the oppressive status quo. Cf. Gaslight.)
    – 1006a
    Commented May 18, 2018 at 4:02
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    @aparente001 Sorry, I was responding to knzhou's question, not your response; I agree, there are relationships/situations where probing a (likely) overreaction is appropriate. I took your comment to be saying that this wasn't one of those. Even with my spouse, though, I think I'd be wary of using the exact phrase "you're overreacting"—I know I'd probably just get more upset if he used it to me, especially "in the moment". I class it with phrases like "you need to calm down" and "no offense, but" that almost never have the expressly-intended effect.
    – 1006a
    Commented May 18, 2018 at 21:28

So I am going to do something foolish and wade into this issue. Your specific two questions are:

How can I avoid inadvertently offending my female peers and getting into trouble for it?


How can I avoid committing an equivalent faux pas in an academic environment, such as an international conference?

These really are two different but similar questions. There are also deeper dimensions to this problem, including the issue of how both professors experienced themselves.

Let us start thinking about how Professor X may have experienced the question of "what floor?" I grew up in a place that still had one elevator operator when I was very little. I also used to spend Saturday and Sunday morning watching old movies and old television shows from probably age 8 to 18. I have seen more very old movies that I could probably count and I still watch them. I watched many American and British movies and television shows.

Professor X, who is both British and 75, would have spent about half of his life not only seeing this joke live in the real world, but watching on television and movies. This was more the case after the operators vanished. This is because humor is about a disconnect between the speech and the environment. I could probably find an Academy Award winning movie with that line in it. I certainly could find principal comedians who have performed that line.

It is quite possible that the professor who said the joke was trying to make people feel more comfortable with an old silly joke. I am bringing this up because, assuming neither the original speaker or you are a predator like Harvey Weinstein, if you do this faux pax it will likely be with positive intent or without thinking, but no ill will.

In academia, there are multiple levels to this issue. It is possible that this professor is a predator, though there appears to be no evidence of this anywhere. The specific problem in academia is that it is common for there to be only a handful of academics specializing in many fields. In this case, Professor X is not only a principal academic in his field, he is faculty at two Ivy's and Oxford. This professor is powerful. This professor may not experience himself as powerful, but just ordinary.

Now let's look at Professor Y. Professor Y may be too young to even know what an elevator operator is, probably never saw the mountain of movies that used it as a gag, and was American. Professor Y may or may not know their relative power position, but believes that some consequence for the action taken should happen. We do not know the personality of Professor Y, nor do we know their views on punishment, appropriate conduct, or Professor Y's cultural experiences.

Professor Y is also trying to act appropriately. Not only is Professor Y offended, but feels the need to protect other female academics. Professor Y also appears to be acting in good faith.

This is the problem with this type of situation, it is really only a problem if both parties are acting in good faith. If Professor X was a predator, this report may have caused other reports and some of them may have caused dangerous revelations to come to light and we would not be discussing this. Likewise, if Professor Y had a habit of being litigious it would become known within the community and she would probably begin to be ignored. That is a problem though, still, it is what people do.

For the second question regarding an international academic conference, the simplest is don't tell jokes. When I was an undergraduate an international student from Japan gave me a book of jokes and I didn't find many funny and I found some extremely offensive. I didn't tell him I was offended, but I did explain that an American wouldn't find these funny. Furthermore, humor is conditioned on the culture. The Three Stooges wouldn't be considered funny anymore, indeed, there would probably be Twitter attacks on them.

Nonetheless, you could easily do a non-humor based faux pas in an international setting. Cultural rules on food, clothing, body positions, and so forth are extensive and contradictory. Americans regularly give the English their equivalent to "the bird," without meaning to or even any idea that they are. The best solution, if you believe you have offended someone, is to flat out apologize. You can explain you were unaware of the perceived meaning and that you will try and be careful in the future. Unless you step on a taboo and seriously cross a line, most people will laugh it off.

Professor X crossed an American taboo and it is a new one. I don't know the professors involved, but I would expect neither of them foresaw the results or feel they are really in the wrong. If you break a taboo, you probably cannot fix it. Both of them probably broke taboos, actually.

The old rules of civility, particularly English, would have both of them talk it out and try and "make nice," to use the older phrasing. The fact she went straight to a formal complaint violates the society's actual rules, but also probably the older English norms and customs professor X values.

The most you can do is try and be civil whenever possible. Of course, as mentioned above, Professor X was probably trying to do just that.

Now as to female academics, that is a slightly different question. I am presuming you are in the United States. If you are not, then nothing I said applies.

For starters, the social rules are changing very fast in the United States. Indeed, much of the political unrest is that some parts of society have decided to hold onto older rules while other parts have tossed the older rules and have adopted new ones. Two women could easily offend each other if their operating version of the rules are different. In fact, I have seen that happen. I know of two female academics that are at loggerheads over what are differences in generational perceptions of appropriateness. There are also power issues as one is a full professor and the other an assistant professor.

Still, I would like to point out a study.

Files J, Mayer A, Hayes S, et al. Speaker Introductions at Internal Medicine Grand Rounds: Forms of Address Reveal Gender Bias. Journal Of Women's Health . May 2017;26(5):413-419.

Now, as a disclosure, I find this paper problematic on methodological and statistical grounds. There are three specific issues that should have been addressed in the editorial process, in my opinion.

The first is that there is a disclosure issue. Incomplete disclosures are not unique to this paper and plague many fields, but I find them troubling. The second is that the inference may suffer from Yule's paradox and so either the inferences should have been greatly restricted or cautioned, or not done at all. The third is that they had data that they didn't use, most likely for reasons of cost, time and the fact they likely didn't know it would matter, but which could have flipped the inferences to the other direction.

With those disclosures, let me provide descriptive information from the article which bears on this discussion.

The paper is from data collected from video recordings of internal medicine grand rounds. The speakers were physician and researcher peers with MD, PhD and MD/PhD qualifications.

In professional dyads, women introduced other women as doctor 97.8% of the time. Men introduced other men 72.4% of the time. I bring this up because I would be willing to bet that the same female physicians don't stop at stop signs 97.8% of the time. That is an incredible level of social conformity for any group. It implies it is very important to the group. Being called "doctor" and calling someone "doctor" is quite important to women.

Men, overall, only introduced a person as "doctor" 65.6% of the time with women doing so 96.2% of the time. Men introduced women as doctor 49.2% of the time.

There is a lot more going on here, but if you drop the inference of implicit discrimination, it still says a lot about the four sex groupings.

For women, explicit signs of respect are important and the joke could have been interpreted as that she was less than he was. You never joke downward. If you are powerful, relative to another group, you don't tell jokes about that group. With women, the fact that they are engaging in a behavior at such a high rate says it is important to them.

For men, on the other hand, being introduced as "doctor" is not of particular importance. One could infer, at least enough to investigate whether it is true, that men have other sources of power in addition to their degrees. As such, the title means less. Since it means less, they use it less. You could actually argue that in a meeting filled only with doctors, the title could be dropped entirely. That the formality is present implies that someone with power or a group with power feels that it should still be used at a high rate.

I am interested in this line of research for a couple of reasons so you will understand the advice I am going to give you.

The first is that I am rarely addressed as either "doctor," or "professor." I noticed this very early on, while other people are always addressed by title or with the title preceding the name. Because I am curious, I have been counting this and I have been addressed by title six times in the last four years.

The reason I noticed it was it is disconcerting sometimes for me to be addressed as "mister," by individuals who seem to have forgotten that I am a "doctor." However, as I have performed research in two completely different academic fields, I viewed this as a research question. "What triggers people to use titles?" It may help you here.

It also isn't that I am doing minor work. I just submitted a paper to a conference with the conjecture that there is an entire branch of stochastic calculus that nobody noticed. If correct, its effects could impact things ranging from particle physics to the social sciences. Still, I would be willing to bet money that if the paper is accepted, I will be introduced using my first name in its diminutive form "Dave."

Because my first research field was in industrial psychology and we performed field observations of seventy-seven teams in the field over a period of many years, I became proficient and tracking who spoke to whom, the nature of the content and word use and word choice. So I started, informally and without an IRB as I am not publishing, paying attention to academic language use. I saw some professors addressed as professor one hundred percent of the time. It was the personality characteristics. They were so formal as people, even when not working, I couldn't imagine addressing them by name without a title. Others, like me, were so laid back that they were rarely addressed by title by anyone.

To avoid offending anyone, female or male, listen to them. I did observe that several female colleagues expressed views that formal shows of respect were important to them. Although they didn't say it in those words, if you listen, you will hear it. Sometimes the best way to find out what matters is to shut up. Consider this my permission to you to shut up.

You should avoid jokes in general with colleagues that are not your friend. I have a fellow academic who is female that I usually stop by and say good morning every day. Her office is on the way to my office. However, on the day after Donald Trump was elected, I told her that I would have to stop going to her office starting January 20th. With the new rules of appropriate behavior, I expected her to come by my office and to bring coffee. She would also have to say good morning to me before I would say good morning to her given her reduced status for the next four years.

With good friends, you can usually joke. Still, you should be careful. Jokes are associated with pain and sometimes that pain is personal.

The best way to avoid offending anyone is to remain in a formal emotional stance until you know how they want to be treated.

You are going to offend people in life, see the advice above. Spend time being considerate, listening and showing respect. Then they will forgive you when you remind them that despite their doctorate, they should be bringing you coffee now that we have new rules. With some friends and in some environments, that joke will fly. In others, it will not. If they know you care and respect them, people will forgive you your faux pas.


It is obvious that these two colleagues don't know each other very well.

Jokes about emotionally sensitive topics are never appropriate with an unknown audience. Politics, religion, and sex are some of the most emotionally sensitive topics.

If you know your audience extremely well, you can craft a joke that has the desired effect leveraging these strong emotional cues. Until you have that kind of intimate knowledge of your audience, odds are you will upset them. Occasionally you can avoid the fallout of dealing with an emotionally sensitive topic by effectively lambasting all members ("A priest, a Rabbi, and a Minister") but to do so, you need to clarify a scenario that's clearly fictional ("walk into a bar").

Not knowing these ground rules for comedy is a sign that [Prof. X] isn't a funny person, and is pantomiming other people that are deemed funny. This joke seems to be one in the vein of Groucho Marx, an incredibly funny person; except, that when Groucho said it to a complete unknown person in a hospital, he rephrased it as "Men's Kidneys, Please." In a department store, his joke might have worked, but I doubt he could frame the context to make it work.

Now, his inability to properly apologize has been covered well. Exceptionally well in Najib's answer, so I won't cover it in detail here.

So, you have a person that doesn't joke well and doesn't apologize well. It is hard to tell a person that they don't do something well, as most people tend not to receive information about their shortcomings well.

Ideally [Prof X] would take a class or read a book in the art of apologizing; but, it seems that he would see such a thing as patronizing, and decline. Perhaps he would consider otherwise if the request was framed in the light of the damage his poor apology has caused; but, odds are more likely he'll rationalize that this wouldn't be a problem if [Prof Y] just didn't make such a big deal of it.

After all, [Prof X] will eventually make a second misstep, we are all human and non-perfect, and if he was more skilled in apologizing; it would help the world view him as vulnerably non-perfect, but sincere and kind hearted. Such a combination is even better for one's career than perfect, because people strongly identify with those who are flawed outside of their area of competence.


This situation looks complicated and bewildering in large part because it has already gone several rounds before you even reached it. Your goal should not be to avoid any and all possible uncomfortable incidents, but to avoid them going many rounds and becoming complicated and bewildering.

How can I avoid committing an equivalent faux pas in an academic environment, such as an international conference?

I'm going to assume you mean equivalent to what you quote, and therefore Prof X's denial that this is exactly what really happened is irrelevant to the question. However it is worth bearing in mind that just because someone remembers something a bit differently from you certainly doesn't mean they've invented their own reaction to whatever it was that happened.

You cannot avoid ever making the faux pas of a comment that affects someone differently from how you wanted it to. Even worse, the effect which you desired from an action (including speech) is not the end of your responsibility for that action.

It might happen, it might not, but you must not fall into the trap of thinking it never will. You especially must not fall into the trap that Prof X. gives every appearance of having fallen into, of thinking that if my intentions are good then I will cause no harm. My intentions are good. Therefore, if someone claims I have caused harm then they are either making it up or otherwise being unreasonable. The harm is not my fault. All parts of the syllogism are wrong in their way.

What you can do, is mentally prepare for what happens when some incident like this does occur:

  • If you are a white middle-aged man, be aware of when you are surrounded almost (but not entirely) by other white middle-aged men, and try to develop some awareness of the range of effects of being in a small minority in such a group. Often it doesn't matter at all. Occasionally it will be extremely intimidating to face a group of like-thinking people (because all laughing at this remark), especially like-thinking white middle-aged men, when you are not one. What are likely to be the most memorable examples of Prof Y's previous experiences involving groups of men laughing at something which makes her uncomfortable? Probably not the positive ones, if indeed any of them have been positive. So, what effect did that group have, on the impact of Prof X's remark?
  • If you can, read the room. If everyone in the room except one person is laughing because of something you just said to that person (or about them), then regardless of what it was you said and what you meant by it, you might like to consider their point of view immediately, rather than waiting for it to be presented to you in writing by a disciplinary committee.
  • When someone says that you caused them harm (including humiliation), start by saying (or at least thinking, if you're not quite ready to say it yet) "oh no, that's terrible, I'm sorry", rather than saying "well, self-evidently it cannot be my fault, so let's try to get to the bottom of what's wrong with you, how you came to the absurd conclusion that you've suffered harm, and why you should shut up about it ASAP".
  • Applying that principle to the case at hand: don't use someone's upbringing (or nationality, race, gender, religion, etc) as an explanation of why they might have failed properly to grasp the normative opinion of the majority of white, middle-aged men in the room. See also: effects of being a group dominated by that demographic.
  • Maybe don't mention underthings to women you don't really know. But bear in mind that making a specific list of things to avoid cannot possibly succeed, because the issue is not whether that particular joke about the lingerie department is or is not on a list of "jokes I'm entitled to make at academic conferences". The issue is the belief in one's entitlement.

In summary tiny offence + powerful ego = big offence. It is not easy to control your own ego, but it's easier than avoiding even tiny offences for the 40 years or more of your expected career.

As a male member of academe, I am worried. I feel bewildered and fear that I might also offend someone some day.

You have offended people in the past and will do so again. Worrying about it is fine.

Bewilderment will be somewhat diminished by actively trying to identify when it has happened, and when it is happening. For example, can you think of a time in the past where someone has said to you, "I find that offensive", or "I'm hurt that you said that"? How do you think they felt? How did it make you feel? Did you think as you said it that what you said was inoffensive? Did you still think that after hearing them? Are there jokes that you have told in the past but now consider offensive or otherwise inappropriate? Etc, etc. Try to spend your time thinking about this rather than worrying too much about incidents you weren't present at :-) This isn't especially complicated, it's just difficult not to be defensive, especially if you are afraid.

  • 1
    If you've ever had someone say to you "I'm hurt that you said that", then you roll in very different circles to me. In general, feminists don't strike up conversation about why they object to something you said; they just try to destroy your entire life as recourse #1, exactly as Prof Y did to Prof X here. I agree with much of the advice here - yes, it's predictable that any reference to "underthings" will make you a target - but this answer is written as if there's a world in which offended feminists actually explain to you why they are upset by things, and that's not a world I've ever seen.
    – Mark Amery
    Commented May 23, 2018 at 22:49
  • @MarkAmery: pretty much all the women I know well enough to speak about feminism with, are feminists to one degree or another. I suspect many of the ones who've never told me so are too. So yes I write as if that world exists, because I live in it. Granted, "I'm hurt that you said that" is a phrase way more likely to come up in a personal relationship than at work, but from the POV of self-examination I'm not saying the questioner should only consider examples from work. If the questioner (or you) has no such examles to work with from any context then, OK, that part is fruitless. Commented May 24, 2018 at 13:22
  • So we could reframe the question as "are there any characteristics or behaviours that distinguish the group of men whom at least some women try to correct when they cause gender-related offence, and who therefore have examples they can reflect on to avoid the incidents the questioner wishes to avoid, from the group of men whom no woman does this to and instead either do nothing or try to destroy their life? And is there anything I can do to join the first group rather than the second?". Commented May 24, 2018 at 13:49
  • In any case Prof Y did not try to destroy Prof X's life: she reported him to an authority who directed him to apologise. Perhaps considering even a minor complaint to be life-destroying is one of those distinguishing characteristics. I'm not sure, but I get the impression from the Washington Post column that it's Prof X who publicised the issue by writing an "email to colleagues" about it. So if the goal is to avoid the international fallout of the embarrassing incident, rather than avoiding the embarrassing incident itself, then we could add "don't destroy your own entire life" to the list... Commented May 24, 2018 at 13:49
  • Your point about the degree of harm is well-taken; I don't know what damage Prof X's career and personal life have suffered from this case, but to claim his life was destroyed is likely hyperbolic. (It was a case of commenting after too many beers, for which I apologise.) As to the rest: yeah, there seems to be a divide in experience. Of the feminists who've yelled at me, refused to speak to me, or sought to poison relationships between me and friends, not one has articulated what I had done to upset them; the women I talk seriously about gender issues with are all more-or-less anti-feminists.
    – Mark Amery
    Commented May 24, 2018 at 13:51

Every time you say something, there is a risk. Topics that are especially risky are sex/sexuality, race, class, and the like. When it comes to these topics, it is always wise to make sure you're absolutely confident that the individuals in your current vicinity are okay with your conversation, or especially humor. Oh, and on humor, my opinion is that humor (even beyond the discussion about offending someone), should be for the other person. When your are making a joke, are you making sure that the other person you are saying it to will laugh? Or are you just trying to make yourself laugh? Whenever there is some issue of someone making an offensive joke and then going "aw come on it was just a joke," it always seems to stem from the person making fun and then expecting that everyone else be amused by what they think is funny. When you tell a joke for someone else, like to cheering them up or just lighten a moment, make sure the joke is actually for them, since this will help you consider what their actual sense of humor is. Keep in mind also that people have vastly different experiences. Individuals such as women currently face many issues, and it's not that these are new by any means. We are just in a society where they are more empowered than ever to talk about oppression they've been dealing with since written history.

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