Unwonk - Episode 8: Directions

We learn about puts the “ass” in “harassment,” why nothing good happens on your birthday, and how you already know that you need to move in a new direction.

Listen with the player below, subscribe in iTunes or Stitcher (links above), or with your favorite podcast app.

Please enjoy the links to additional information relating to the questions on this episode:

“‘Who has put pubic hair on my Coke?’ - Clarence Thomas” - Anita Hill

  • And that’s the law.
  • Lunchtime.
  • It’s already been pointed out to us that some people consider the three things to not talk about in polite company are religion, politics, and money. No. You can always talk about money, as long as you’re not talking about your money or asking someone about their money. Stuff it, pedants.

“You’re the birthday, you’re the birthday, you’re the birthday boy or girl” - Wall E. Weasel & Friends

“We welcome you to San Francisco. And come back again.” - Marian and Vivian Brown

[Episode keywords: Harassment, lame birthday, Frisco.]

Episode Transcript


Hi, friend. This is a rough transcript of this episode of Unwonk. What's that mean? It means that we're just pasting the original script for the show plus unvetted transcripts of any interviews. So, you're likely to see content that maybe didn't make the final cut, maybe not see some content that was in the episode but not the original script, and run across a few typos. 

As with everything on Unwonk, the transcript below is for general informational purposes only - this is not legal advice - if you need to have a legal question answered, please seek legit legal representation. 

On this episode of Unwonk, we learn:

  • What puts the ass in harassment,
  • What to do when flaming death cake attacks, and
  • What it feels like to be naked under the veil of ignorance.

This is Unwonk. We respond to your questions with relevant and useful information. If you would like to submit a question, please visit our site at

At the site, you can also find where to follow us on twitter, facebook, and all the social things. And make sure to tell your friends about us. Because friends are great.

Even though the general information on this podcast is provided by actual attorneys, you’d be an idiot to think it is actual legal advice, and you’d also be the type of person who points to an item in italian on the menu while also loudly mispronouncing it - I mean, pick one and commit, man.

And now, our first question.

 A co-worker keeps telling me to have a "blessed" day. She knows that I’m not religious, and I think she may be doing it to harrass me. She also insists on everyone participating in a blessing when the boss caters lunch. Can I have the HR people make her stop? 

I need to set up an image of your workplace to properly analyze this problem. Here’s what I’m seeing: 

The place you work is an office. Can we agree on that? Good. It’s an office. I’m thinking a company that distributes gardening supplies, or something practical - that’s good money, they say that about practical but lucrative businesses. The building is non-descript, in a business park that’s showing its age, like the parking lot asphalt buckling a bit with root damage. The paving stones that make up the building’s facade - a good aesthetic decision at the time in the 1970’s - are coming loose from the concrete. The carpet inside is thin, gray, fraying in spots, stained in others. The furniture is solid but worn, strips of veneer curling off of edges, adjustable chairs of arms asymetrical. It’s a comfortable place but nobody’s going to call it home - it’s a place of life decision compromise, settling. On the bright side, there’s regular birthday cake, the annual BBQ, and the taco truck that pulls into the parking lot on Tuesdays at 11:45, tooting its horn to the tune of La Cucaracha. The tortas are fantastic.

And then there’s Debbie from Finance. 

For the purposes of this question, you do not report in any way to Debbie, and Debbie does not report in any way to you. But, you do have to interact with her. So let’s say you’re in sales. That’s a realistic office working relationship. Debbie frequently tells people to have a “Blessed Day.” Is it “blessd”  or “bless-ed”? And, yes, when lunch is brought in, she likes to do a blessing. Let’s amp this up a bit. Debbie keeps a bible on her desk, big enough to rival the generic facial tissue box next to it. Debbie is on the surface a nice person, and - like everyone else at your office - competent but not a rock star (or ninja, or whatever patronizing term they use to describe employees who exceed minimal standards). 

Most of the time when we think about harassment in the workplace, it’s generally in the context of sexual harrassment. There was a brief period of time - specifically during the Clarence Thomas hearings - that it was pronounced harrasment - we appear to have swung back the other way to harrassment - which is funny, because when you pronounce it that way, it so much more clearly has the word “ass” it.

But there’s all sorts of harrassment. And it doesn’t have to be just sexual. Title VII of the Civile Rights Act of 1964, imposes an affirmative obligation on an employer to maintain a work environment free of harassment, intimidation and repeated insult with respect to race, color, religion, sex (including pregnancy), national origin, disability, genetic information, or age (40 or older - though, people in their 20s are the most fun to repeatedly insult - very thin skins).

Harrassment can happen in one of two ways: “quid pro quo” harrassment (sorry for the latin) or hostile environment harrassment. With quid pro quo harrassment, the harrasserdemands some kind of religiious compliance in exchange for a workplace related thing. Obvious case would be employer refusing to promote a Jewish employee until he stops wearing a yalmuke. That’s a kipah, for the gentiles out there. Or - if you need to get really simple - the beanie thing that Jews wear and like to customize and give out at Bar Mitvahs and Weddings.

We’re not looking at quid pro quo here. Debbie is apparently doing this of her own will (or, God’s will, if you will), and you’re not being threatened with a tradeoff.

So, is Debbie’s surfeit of indiscriminate blessings creating a hostile work environment? What about that giganto-bible she’s keeping on her desk?

Religion, is weird. It’s one of those three topics you’re not supposed to discuss in mixed company, along with politics and sex. Unless it involves all three - in which case, it’s probably awesome and you should discuss it immediately with everyone, and probably tweet about it, too. Like you should be tweeting for people to listen to this podcast. <deep breath> sorry

The first amendment pretty much guarantees no such thing as a religious only- workplace or a religion-free workplace. The intermingling of at least two humans in an office is going to guarantee the first ingredients of an idea soup, with backgrounds, preferences, cultures, thoughts all coming together, mostly to complain about how how IT can’t fix anything or how cheap the CEO is. You’re not going to like all of them. Further, the binary assumption that someone is either atheist or 100% religious about whatever is not going to help. Debbie sounds less like a prosteletyser and more of someone with some social boundary issues. Or maybe you’re somewhere in the country where everyone’s offering everyone else blessed days. I have no idea.

I’m going to assume further that you’re not in a workplace where everyone is like Debbie. Let’s say that some people like to bless her back - whether they’re religious or not - and are thrilled to join in for a prayer over greasy pizza. Is your employer required to make her stop? Only if Debbie - and maybe some others - are creating a hostile work environment and your employer knows or should have known of the religious harassment and failed to take corrective action.

So what is harassment? It’s behavior with the effect of unreasonably interfering with your work performance by creating an intimidating, hostile, or offensive work, environment.”

As in many workplace issues, this is very fact dependent, so we’d need to do some more investigating. Can HR make her stop? Well, telling people to have a blessed day might not jibe with your belief system, but unless she’s doing it to such a degree as to interfere with your work and the work of others  - you hinted that she might be doing it spitefully - it’s probably just something that is annoying. And there aren’t any laws about workplace annoyance.

Can HR make her stop leading prayers over lunch? A competent HR team would have a good read on the tone of the crowd for this - if it’s not really making anyone uncomfortable - and you’re not forced to join in or even sit through it - might not be something HR would want to take on. 

It’s not just about your feelings and suspicions about Debbie. It’s about how it affects your time at work, your performance at work, Debbie’s intent, what your employer has done about it, and a lot of other factors.

You should check with an employment or civil rights lawyer in your area - but I’m not seeing a lot of legal cause for HR to shut Debbie down from individual blessings. Stronger case for HR to look into the pre lunch prayers, but, again, that’s going to depend heavily on a lot of facts related to your local culture, office culture, how everyone else is reacting, etc.

Court decisions are not entirely clear when an employee is harassing. The hard part for your HR group is to balance Debbie’s rights with those of the other employees of the company.

Nobody should be facing harassment  at work of any kind. Because it sucks.

You have limited choices here: see a lawyer, avoid debbie, be nice to debbie, or a combination of those things. Debbies gonna be Debbie, man. 

Unless you’re at a tech company, where you no doubt have an in-house evangelist or guru, who’s primary purpose is to be avoided by everyone at the company who needs to get work done that day.

Worst. Birthday. Ever. I celebrated my 40th birthday last week. My friends brought in a cake and candles for the restaurant to use. When the cake arrived, and everyone was done singing, I went to blow the candles out and my hair caught on fire - singed, but not bald. Granted, there had been a few cocktails, but pretty sure if I got to 40 with this happening only once, it’s not my fault. I'm a real estate agent, so appearance is really important. Do I have recourse for damages against anyone here? It was humiliating.

This is the second hair-related question we’ve done on this show. Hair, it turns out, is something very important to people, and easily ruined.

Like birthdays. 

The first thing we should cover here is that birthdays are not immune from disappointment and humiliation. In fact, they seem to attract it. Also on this list: New Year’s Eve, Halloween, all holidays with family. In case my family is listening, that was obviously a joke. [It’s not a joke.]

At least you reached 40 and hit disappointment - you’re better equipped to handle it at 40. My worst was 28. It was in New York, a house party. Started well. Same crowd my roommates and I always had over for parties - we had a pretty sweet place that we specifically rented to have awesome parties. The night had gone as planned - booze, food, deep intense conversations on the rooftop that felt important at the time but nobody remembers. As far as evenings go, it was aces. Then, around 1 am, I had the brilliant - and at the time apparently very much needed - plan to move to a bar. I deputized one of the guests to figure it out. 

Everyone filed out the door around 1:30 a.m. I stayed behind to clean up a bit. And by a bit - I mean, a lot. My friends, it turns out, were not very good at leaving things cleaner than they found it. I looked at the clock. It was 2 am. Not only had I wasted part of the birthday party by cleaning up, I was way behind on my booze consumption. I thought about just going to bed, but this was my birthday, these people were going out for me. It was about me, and they needed me.

The neighborhood I lived in then is now a lively, fratty, bro-ville - a nesting place and destination for all those who don’t want college to end. Back then, though, it was just tumbleweeds instead of cabs - and the inexplicable occasional hookers shouting “blowjobs, baby” from mini vans with Pennsylvania plates. So getting a legitimate lift took awhile. Finally got in a cab and made my way to bar, which was for no reason very far away: the Spring Lounge in one of those micro-neighborhoods near SoHo. A bar so unremarkable that the only reason I’m remarking about it now is because it is part of this story that happened in reality.

I pulled up to the bar. It was now 3 am - the cab scrounging and slow drive downtown took awhile. Walked up to the door, it was locked. Knocked on the door and a flannel clad gentleman kindly opened it for me. 

“Last call’s up, buddy. We’re closed”

This resulted in a drawn out, gentlemanly discussion of the fact that it was my birthday - well, had been my birthday a couple hours before - and the party had moved, but I had to clean up, because my friends were messy, and then there was the cab finding situation, and then the traffic caused by the teeming hoards exiting the island by bridge and tunnel. And now I was here.

He nodded, signed and said, again, “We’re closed.” 

And I could see them. My friends. Inside, not hearing me call. Having a very good time, which frankly they probably weren’t going to remember. Clearly - it was for my birthday. But it was any other night. So, I did want anyone else would do. I walked, in a distraught 20-something only-me moment, until I reached a random curb in Chinatown. Sat down and sobbed. Because I had been locked out of my own birthday party. Also because I was apparently, more drunk than I thought. Because, except for the fact that it was my birthday that night, there was absolutely no difference between that night, and any other night. 

The next morning, as I continued the apartment clean-up, my pinkie toe caught the edge of a dining room chair and made a tiny pinkie-toe whisper of a cracking sound. I hobbled over to the ER a few blocks away. I was told that when you break a pinkie toe - you pretty much don’t do anything. When asked HOW I broke my pinkie toe, I said I had been tired, sad, cleaning my living room, and kicked a chair (these items were not related, but he didn’t know that). He promptly brought in the hospital therapist - kind, sweet and surprisingly handsy - I discharged myself. Not like that. I mean, showed myself out of the hospital. Didn’t really need therapy.

And that was the end of my worst birthday ever. Which, within two days, I realized was not the worst birthday, but the most narcissistic stupid dark dive I’ve ever taken. 

Now, your birthday - who are we looking at? The restaurant, the baker, ther friends and the candlestick maker. No, it’s not a shitty nursery rhyme - it’s the potential liable parties.

Let’s start with your friends. They bought the candles. Let’s assume they’re not the lowest common denominator ones that re-light when you blow them out. You can always tell it’s those candles, too, by the slightly sparky flame. I have vowed that if at any of my birthdays - during the cake processional and song - I notice that the candles are the relighting kind, as soon as the cake hits the table, I’m going to  stand up, sink one fist slowly into the cake, swing my free hand around with accusatory finger in an arc across all the guests and shout “I’m not going to fall for it, ass-holes.” and then sit down and wordlessly watch the candles burn themselves out, never getting a chance to relight, my fist still in the cake. Dickheads.


I’m going to assume they just had regular candles. Unless your friends did something negligent, or even willfull - like pushing your face into the candle’s flame as you blew out the candle - not much recourse there.

Aha- what about the candlemaker. Is there another word for candlemaker? Like a shoemaker is a cobbler and a fish seller is a fishmonger? Seems like one of those crafty professions - like a recreatable vocation at a historical museum. Stringwaxer? Let’s go with that. With you, sounds like the candles did their job. Assuming no sudden giant flare up or sudden candle collapse, candles are supposed to do what they do: be on fire. Good job, stringwaxer. 

And unless the restaurant placed the candles in such a weird way that it was negligent to do so, the only bad thing they did was to sing the shitty version of happy birthday that they have to sing to avoid copyright infringement claims. 

We’re going to leave the cake baker out of this. I don’t want to live in a world where a cake baker can be liable for hair flames. Just not worth it.

Aaaaand, you said there were plenty of cocktails. 

I think you know the answer here. Unless you get a fantastic litigator to cook up a cohesive argument of contributory negligence among some or all of the involved parties, there’s really nobody to pursue except ... yourself. Because you’re a middle age drunk who can’t dodge a field of small fires with your giant head. Or because at 40, you knew exactly what was going to happen and likely were a bit too impaired, distracted, depressed, or whatever.

More than that, let’s get back to the keystone of recourse: Where’s the harm? So, you singed your hair. Are you going to lose business because of it? Has the humiliation caused emotional distress? Probably not. A good real estate agent can pull off burnt hair, turn it into a funny story, making you memorable as the confident agent that brushed of a middle aged hair burning. We’ve all been there.

Well not really. 

Personally, I’d take it in stride. At least your friends were with you at the table. Putting your out your flaming hair, like good friends do. And if that’s the worst birthday you’ve had - then happy birthday to you.

Which direction should I head in next?

And that’s it. Erin just wrote: Which direction should I head in next? 

Not really a legal question, but that’s OK.

I’m thinking Erin is a woman due to the spelling E-R-I-N. 

So I’ve got no context here. Except, that, Erin is a woman living in San Francisco. And is looking for direction.

And that kind of question, out of nowhere and without context, usually comes from someone in their late 20s or early 30s, in deep self-questioning mode. I base this, of course, entirely on my personal experience. 

This question may be a combination of where you’re at in life, both geographically and age-wise.

And, even though this is not a legal question, because I have so little information about you, let me apply a legal concept to better answer this question from a broad perspective: The Veil of Ignorance. No, the veil of ignorance is not what you are required to wear starting on your first day as a member of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology. It’s a concept used by legal philosopher John Rawls to figure out how to structure society while we’re standing in what’s called the original position, or, what prior philosophers had referred to as the state of nature or state similar terminology. 

Wearing the veil of ignorance, we don’t know anything about ourselves, including our ethnicity, religion, economic status, whether we have all of our limbs, if we sometimes turn on Billy Joel in our cars when we’re alone, with nobody knowing except some Spotify server way out in Stockholm. Wearing the veil of ignorance, we can stand firm in the original position without self-selecting bias, and carve out the best answer for everyone. 

True story: In college, I was writing a paper about John Rawls’ book, A Theory of Justice, and came across an ambiguity - my professor disagreed with me on my interpretation, so - this was the early days of regular joes having email - I emailed John Rawls. To my surprise, he emailed back. More to my surprise, he agreed with my interpretation. Loved that guy. Still got a shitty grade on the paper, though. Turns out, I’m just not a very good writer.

OK, so the veil of ignorance isn’t totally valid here - I know a bit about the person I’m standing in the shoes of, but it helps. 

Let’s start with where you are geographically: San Francisco has a lot of tension, always has from the beginning. 

Right now, some people would have you believe that technology workers and so-called locals are opposing forces, along with those who want to build housing and those who don’t. This tension is not new in San Francisco. And if it wasn’t technology, it could have been any industry to serve as a scapegoat - what’s happening in the San Francisco right now is the culmination of decades of well intentioned but poorly implemented housing policy, a toxic mix of ineffective progressivism and life-in-amber NIMBYism (that’s an acronym for not in my backyard - people here like labels - for a city with a so-called reputation for tolerance, there’s more labelling here than in a one-hour panel show on FOX news). People complain that new buildings are too big, too ugly, don’t fit the character of the city. When the buildings are scaled back and made to resemble short boxes that vaguely mimic the shapes of Victorians, people complain that there’s not enough new housing, and that the buildings are bland monstrosities. It can be a bitchy, thin-skinned little town. And that’s kind of part of its charm. People blame housing developers for not providing affordable housing, when they should be blaming city hall and the generations before them.  

San Francisco is not a big city. In fact - even though it’s locally called The City - as if there was no other city in existence - and you’ll find that attitude a lot around San Francisco - it’s less than a million people. You may be feeling that San Francisco is not the city you thought it was. Here are some facts that may help give you some comfort:

7 by 7 - You hear that expression a lot about San Francisco, especially in these housing crunched times. San Francisco is popularly thought to be 49 square miles - 7 miles by 7 miles. No. It’s actually somewhere around 46  to a bit over 47 square miles. This is based off of a valid scientific survey. Former mayor of San Francisco, Willy Brown, responded to this FACT by saying “"Don't disturb me. Leave me in my ignorance.” …."I prefer the 49-mile figure.” What a San Francisco statement. So, if you were worried about where to head to live next, San Francisco has a bit less space than you thought.

San Francisco is not a single culture for anyone. Lots of the self-labeled locals   complain that “transplants” - as they call them pejoratively - turn the city into their own personal playground. Well, you know, there is a lot of stuff to do in a city. That is what a city is for. To do things. On the flip side, the city is not preserved for one group as a bohemian fantasyland. All of this is subject to change at all times. That’s what cities do - they  balance tradition and change. 
San Francisco has a deep history of darkness, corruption and grift. In 1869, for example, Bill Ralston’s Bank of California was not in good financial standing. And his customers suspected that. Rumors were abound that the customers were going to make a run on the bank. Ralston hatched a plan to break into the Subtreasury of the United States in San Francisco, only 400 steps away, move 10 tons of gold to his bank under the cover of night, and then to invite his customers to witness for themselves, and then to secretly return the gold. And it worked. At 10 am, when the bank opened its doors, the angry mob waiting to cash out flooded the bank. When they saw all the gold stacked behind the tellers, the crowd was satisfied and left. Crisis averted, Ralston and his friends snuck back to the treasury that night, and returned the gold. OK. I’m feeling just at least a hint of bullshit in that story. But I like it. And the history of this town is full of them. 

Of course, there’s the cliched beat generation and everything that followed - putting a global focus on San Francisco as a place to escape to and reinvent yourself. It’s harder to do that now. Rent and home prices are insanely high. Hard to drop out when you and your 10 roommates need to pay the landlord every month for your 2-bedroom apartment. 

Why am I talking about all this? San Francisco has always been a bold quiet town. A place of paradoxes - where change and tradition co-exist, overlap and fight. Like all cities. And this is an issue happening in cities all across the country - affordability and economic diversity - the reurbanization of America, but not for everyone - it just so happens that the circumstances are just right to magnify what’s happening in San Francisco, though. 

Of course, I have no context.

And taking your question, asked with an economy of words: Which direction should I head in next?, and assuming you’re the age I think you are, I’m thinking you’re fairly young, live in San Francisco, have given a passion a solid try - whether it’s art, teaching, robot building, I don’t know - and it’s either not paying the bills or not as satisfying as you thought it was - and fold that into the churning uncertainty and increasing cost of living in San Francisco, you may be looking for a new direction for everything in your life. Maybe you’re not giving up on your dreams - if you have any - but you’re certainly questioning their scope and scale. And I’m looking at this through the veil of ignorance, so this applies whether you’re the tired caricature of an interloping transplant or a provincial native.

And that’s just fine. Sometimes, just the ability to vocalize the question - however few words are in it - is enough to crack the edifice and stoke a desire, a plan, a strategy, for something else, and it may not be something you ever thought of or considered before. Just keep asking the question. And you can do that out loud as many times you want in San Francisco - nobody will even look at you weird.

Your question, in its economy of words, should be enough to answer your own question. Because it sounds like you haven’t asked it out loud yet. And that’s enough to kick you in the ass to pick a new direction, and follow it.

And, please, Erin, discount this entire answer if you were literally looking for directions to a geographic point. Google Maps would probably be a better solution. 

And, no matter what you take from this, Erin, I want you to know one thing about your question, “Which direction should I head in next?” You’d be on the better side of grammar if you had asked, “In what direction should I next head?” Just sounds nicer that way.

Thanks for listening to this episode of Unwonk. 

Please visit our site at to submit your questions, and for lots of bonus material about the topics discussed on today’s episode. Please also follow us on twitter, facebook, and generally tell everyone you know to subscribe to this podcast.

On the next episode, we learn:

  • The three things that will shock you about justice roberts panty collection,
  • How justice kennedy’s panty collection is way better than the panty collections of both justice roberts and justice thomas, and
  • How to get a flakier crust for your summer berry pies.