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I am a man in forties. I work as a scientist in Germany, but I am not local.

My boss at the university uses words "stupid" and "idiot" in relation to me in front of other people or in a direct conversation. He does not use them directly though, for instance: "You have to do this, you don't want to look as an idiot, aren't you?" "This is a stupid question". Clearly, he thinks I should regard it as harmless because the next day he would just walk into my office for a scientific advice.

My question is how do I let him know he offends me?

I am not afraid to be fired--my contract will end soon. Yet, I am too afraid to speak directly. Why?

  1. I will get a panic attack, my voice will change like I am crying.
  2. Because by this I admit that I am weak and he is strong. He constantly in needs to show his supremacy.

Is my only goal to inform the boss about how I feel?

Probably, this is the only feasible thing. People do not change. I just want to work in a quiet atmosphere for a few remaining months. I want to finalize 3 papers for him. I already have invitations to work from two different countries and weighing my options. I am fully independent on him, nor do I need his recommendation in the future.

However, do I want to tell him soon, or would doing so after your contract expires be enough?

That is what I was thinking, I can write a letter to him, wrap it in a nice envelope and put it in his mail box. Good... I learn hiding and escaping. Nothing new for me and nothing to show my children as an example. They know the situation and even offered me some help to talk with my boss.

Do I want to offend him back?

No, I want to act with dignity.

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    Is your only goal to inform your boss about how you feel? Or do you need something else (or that and something else), like your boss stopping this type of behavior? Do you feel you need to tell him soon, or would doing so after your contract expires be enough? – Upper_Case May 19 at 4:12
  • @Upper_Case Please, see my edits. People generally do not change. It is also not my job to educate him with good manners. On the other hand, I do not want to be remembered as a complete looser in personal relations. – Rama May 19 at 6:30
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    Does you boss mean to offend? By that I mean whether he's knowingly and willfully insulting you; or whether he's simply using strong language without ill intentions. That distinction influences the right answer. While my inference is liable to be wrong, the fact that two unrelated people (your boss + your wife) seem to behave the same way (using words that are too blunt for you) seems to suggest that you're taking more offence than is intended. That doesn't mean you shouldn't speak up about it, but you should approach it very differently from how to speak up about intentional insulting. – Flater May 20 at 13:58
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    There is a way to know if your boss is simply rude ("has a communication problem") or actively trying to bully you: smile, or display a positive attitude, or announce some good news about you, and watch his reaction closely. If he immediately bullies you, or says something insulting, this will give you a big hint that he wants you to be miserable. What were his reactions in similar past occurences? – peufeu May 22 at 13:54
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I think it is best if you take the approach of transactional analysis in this case.

This answer takes into consideration that you are not afraid to lose your job.

Since you want o keep your dignity (which is the best approach), you need to behave like an adult:

  • state the facts;
  • state what you want as a result of the discussion.

The alternatives:

  • be a child:
    • rebel: be angry, make demands, be non-professional...
    • adapted: accept anything that comes at you;
  • be a parent:
    • teach your boss why his behavior is not good, how it hurts you, threaten to punish him...

The situation is favorable to this way of dealing with the problem because of where everything happens:

My boss at the university

and

I work as a scientist


To summarize, I will provide a skeleton of a statement from your side (to be delivered verbally!!):

Dear [X], you keep using expression like you don't want to look as an idiot and This is a stupid question. Especially because this is highly academic environment, these kinds of statements make me highly uncomfortable (and possibly other colleagues as well). Please stop using using words like "stupid" or "idiot", especially when they are addressed to the colleagues or their work. I are aware that we can improve, personally and professionally, and we shall gladly take criticism if it is based on factual statements, without emotional load. Thank you.


Please note that this statement will probably not make our boss happy. It has the benefit that it is academic and professional, limited strictly to factual statements. I cannot see how your dignity has anything to lose because of this.


It has a better chance to work to your desired effect if you deliver this message privately, just after he uses one of his offending statements. If approach him in public, he will have no choice but to feel embarrassed in front of all those people, which is an undesirable result. In eastern cultures, it is called "to lose face".

  • I like your classification of 4 possible responses. You did not mention how the statement should be delivered. Since you write "Dear" in front, I presume email? – Rama May 20 at 7:36
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    The statement must definitely be delivered verbally. – virolino May 20 at 7:39
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I used to tell my sister quite often she did something stupid. I never had the intention of implying she WAS stupid, only that the specific thing she did at that moment could've been avoided if she had just stopped to think for a moment.

What I didn't realise back then was that for certain things that looked stupid to me, it was only because she was missing some vital experience to know that it wasn't going to work. So the problem was ignorence rather than stupidity.

The result was usually that she got really upset and responded half crying with "I'm not stupid" and refusing to listen to any explanation to why it wasn't going to work.

Since then I have learned that even smart people do/say stupid things. Mostly when they can't remember a vital piece of information or are missing a certain insight in that specific context. Without my sister crying out to me that "she wasn't stupid" even though I never said that I never would've realised how my way of wording actually felt to her.


From what you describe with your boss I see 2 possible reasons why he would use that way of wording:

1) He's ignorant about the effects like I was.
2) He's trying to manipulate you.

Either way you can simple answer the remark with:

Are you calling me stupid?

If your voice cracks or you choke up it only adds to that message. That his way of wording would imply that you ARE stupid (even though that's not literally what he says).

In case of (1) he might back off or at least explain the difference between "a stupid question" and "someone stupid asking a question". Either way, just mention that you are not interested in excuses but would still like to know the answer to your "stupid question" (using air quotes with your fingers optional). Or you could handle it like in this conversation:

OP: Sorry, what is X?
Boss: That's a stupid question.
OP: Are you calling me stupid?
Boss: No, I'm calling the question stupid, everyone knows what X is.
OP: I clearly don't, otherwise I wouldn't have asked what it was in the first place. So could you please just explain what X is without implying I'm stupid?

In case of (2) the manipulation is turned around. Especially if your voice cracks.

You have to do this [my way], you don't want to look like an idiot, do you?
Did you just call me an idiot?
No I'm saying you'll look like an idiot if you don't do it [my way], not that you are an idiot.
Care to explain what makes you think I would look like an idiot otherwise? I must be missing something.

He can either prove the stupidity of your question by explaining it so you can see it yourself (most likely you'll just have that aha-moment and can cary on like nothing happened, doing it [his way]) or he is unable to really explain it and the best he can do is ignore you further or keep trying to (sublty?) belittle you. The longer you then force him to explain himself the more you take the power out of his argument.


Virilo in his answer says it's an undesireable result to make your boss feel embarassed. I disagree with this. A person in a respectful position like your boss should still earn that respect. If he has no issue with implying other people are stupid, then those people should be allowed to call him out on that.


Important note: If you choose to handle it this way make sure to actually allow your boss to answer your original question.

If you just shut down after any mention of stupidity and stop listening altogether then it's THAT action that makes you look stupid. If on the other hand you only insist on being explained something very basic that you should've known since first grade while asking nicely to skip implying you're stupid, then you're only looking as stupid as your question actually is and shift the blaming back to your boss.

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