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This is my first holiday season at my current company. I recently noticed that one of my team members, 'Alice', wasn't coming to any of the work sponsored events. When I asked a coworker, they informed me that Alice held certain religious beliefs which prevented her from celebrating any holidays (birthday included).

By all means, this is fine with me.

However, because Alice wasn't the one to tell me this, I have felt somewhat rude not acknowledging her lack of presence at events that everyone else has been at. Since Alice doesn't know that I know this information about her, I'm afraid of coming off as uncaring of her presence.

On the other hand, I'm concerned that by blatantly asking her why she hasn't been in attendance at these events, I risk coming off as presumptuous and dismissive of her right to believe in something different than the majority of folks at our company.

That being said, what is the best way I can set the stage for Alice to choose whether or not to share this information with me herself?

Just to clarify, I mostly feel rude because I am acting on information about Alice's personal life that Alice did not share with me herself. I'd like to 'set the stage' for her to choose to share this information with me herself (or not), and I'm comfortable with whatever she would choose.

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    You do you feel rude in regards to a choice that Alice, as an adult, made for herself? If she felt awkward for not attending she might have said something to you herself. Since she didn't, she clearly feels like it's not a big deal (to her). Why push the issue? – AndreiROM Dec 18 '17 at 15:10
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    I only feel rude because if I didn't attend a whole string of events and no one asked me where I had been, I'd feel like no one knew I was even gone. I've just always assumed it's polite to acknowledge someones absence to let them know you think of them. – Jess K. Dec 18 '17 at 15:12
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    Alice and I don't communicate on a daily basis (so I wouldn't expect her to just walk up to me and announce this, because that'd be kind of weird) but we have held a positive relationship and the nature of this company is to treat everyone as though they were your friend, which makes me feel rude for dismissing my instinctual actions of common courtesy (asking Alice where she's been) without her being aware of why I'm doing so. – Jess K. Dec 18 '17 at 15:16
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    @JessK. You might be interested in the opposing opinion: I take offense, and consider it slightly rude, when people assume that I should have attended something and want to know why I wasn't there. – Aaron Dec 18 '17 at 18:03
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    If Alice is a Jehovah's Witness, she probably wouldn't mind you asking. Preaching is a big part of the faith. – Steve Cox Dec 19 '17 at 15:56

10 Answers 10

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I would just chat with her, letting her know you missed her, but without directly asking why she wasn't there. For example,

Hey Alice, I missed you at the holiday party! Did you get to see Bob's winning ugly Christmas sweater? It was hilarious!

This lets her know you notice her in a positive way, and gives her an opening to explain if she chooses. However, since the premise of the conversation is just to catch her up on office fun, she can just as easily choose to move the conversation in that direction. If she does this, then you know not to mention it in the future.

You can use any bit of news; it doesn't have to be about the party. Keep it casual in tone, and mention her absence only in passing: you want to come across as "I thought you'd appreciate hearing about this thing and didn't get the chance to share it with you yet", not "I was disappointed to see you weren't there..".

Avoid using phrases like "You really missed out!", as that could make it seem like you're trying to pressure her into attending. I also wouldn't ask directly why she wasn't there, because this backs her into a corner of either lying or telling something that may be private. You could ask if she's planning to attend an upcoming event, under the guise of innocence, but I'd be very careful for the same reasons.

It's also possible that the coworker you asked told Alice, so she knows you know! As other answers have mentioned, if Alice has been at the company for a while, it's possible her religious constraints are common knowledge.

You mentioned your reasoning for asking after her in a comment:

I only feel rude because if I didn't attend a whole string of events and no one asked me where I had been, I'd feel like no one knew I was even gone. I've just always assumed it's polite to acknowledge someone's absence to let them know you think of them.

You don't need to ask why she wasn't there to show that you appreciate her presence and think of her - simply letting her know that you missed her is enough to convey this.

In the meantime, since you're unsure of how public she is with her religious beliefs, act as if Alice herself told you in confidence. Not drawing attention to her differences can be the nicest thing you can do if she wants to keep it low-key.

  • The first quote, were it told to me, I'd interpret as an attempt to apply social pressure to get me to go to these things, which I would not take well at all. They are supposed to be optional, and a person should not be getting lots of guff for choosing to do other things with their own personal time. In short, please don't say that. – T.E.D. Dec 20 '17 at 15:35
  • @T.E.D. Tone makes a big difference - I envisioned it more like "Hey, I thought you would appreciate this and didn't get the chance to share it then, so I'm telling you now", rather than "I was disappointed you didn't show up". I've made an edit to clarify that part, thanks for the feedback. – Em C Dec 20 '17 at 16:11
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Sometimes it's better not to ask.

When people have something that sets them apart from their peers being asked about it, over and over, can get a little old. This person probably has to have the "I don't celebrate because..." conversation with an awful lot of people this time of year, every year.

With that said sometimes it's better to be the person that doesn't need to have that conversation with them. If you want to make them feel valued and respected, it may be better to ask them if they would like to join you for coffee or something completely unrelated to holiday cheer.

Knowing a little bit about you, I'm sure you can relate to having an aspect of your personal life that people can be a little weird about and that sometimes it's nice when people don't feel the need to make a big deal about it.

So rather than:

I missed you at the holiday party.

Say something like:

Hey how's it going? Wanna grab lunch or coffee with me later?

This shows them that you care about their presence, and that you like/respect them as a person, without needing to set the stage for a potentially uncomfortable conversation.

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    I appreciate that answer. Can definitely sympathize with not wanting to state a POV over and over like beating a dead horse to everyone that asks. Maybe that's why I feel weird about it? I always like it when people know, but it can be stressful to repeat the information to a new party. I definitely am taking into consideration doing nothing direct about it, but wanted to weigh out all possibilities. So thanks for this one! – Jess K. Dec 18 '17 at 16:42
  • I'd also suggest, if by "my team members" you mean someone who reports to you, offering to bring them something from the party, if they like (eg: if T-Shirts or bags get handed out), since they can't really go themselves. That ought to get the point across that you accept their decision, and still feel they are part of the team. If its just a co-worker, then simply be nice to them the next day. That ought to be plenty. – T.E.D. Dec 20 '17 at 15:47
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I think you are overthinking this. After a few days in any workplace you may know who is married, who is gay, who is religious, who is an amateur speleologist and which is the boss's favorite football team, unless they want to keep that information secret.

Are Alice's beliefs a secret? If she has been in the company for some time, she has avoided a lot of events and she has probably told other people the reason and it's just common knowledge. You can assume she assumes everybody knows, or everybody is going to know.

Of course, she may have decided to keep it secret, but in that case Jane would have told you in a different way.

Anyway, if you think Alice wants her beliefs secret, you can help her by not asking and not mentioning her revealing absence from the party.

I don't think your urge to make her know you know may be helpful in any case.

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    +1 for the closing sentence about the 'urge to let her know that you know' – Paolo Dec 19 '17 at 2:15
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You could show doubts/concern about her possible other problems; something among the lines of

[When you first meet her after the event] Hey Alice, everything alright? I didn't see you at the event, thought your cold got worse.

Of course, the "cold" component here is just a (silly) example of excuse you can use to initiate the conversation while attempting to assume the role of the "totally clueless person who didn't even know about her belief": you are putting her in the situation of unconditioned freedom of choice to

  • either tell you the truth

  • or invent an excuse/provide a different reason

If she tells you the truth (which you already know), there you go; if she invents an excuse or provides a different reason, you're receiving the hint that she'd rather not talk about it.

BUT, THAT BEING SAID,

imho you should not raise the question at all. I personally see "setting Alice up to share this information with you" as an attempt at snooping in her private business: after all, she has right not to come to events for whatever reason, she does not need to ask permission or anyway let others know why. So, I'd suggest, do not ask anything in any way. Should she ever want to share something with you, she will.

  • You're right, and definitely so on the last bit. I edited my question to make it more clear that I'm not looking to force this information out of her, but rather just give her the opportunity to share it herself instead of me receiving it from other people. It's more as though I just don't like to have this 'hidden knowledge' of her personal life without her being the one to tell me. If she blatantly decides not to share it, then I'll hold onto it as though I never heard it. – Jess K. Dec 18 '17 at 15:25
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    -1 Playing games is immature behavior, if she never told you she was going to the event and if she wasn't obligated to go, then I wouldn't ask if she was ok just because she didn't show up. – Acumen Simulator Dec 18 '17 at 17:41
  • @AcumenSimulator I hope you DID read the part where I say "BUT, THAT BEING SAID, imho you should not raise the question " etc. etc. All the text before that was to specifically address the asker's question. – Markino Dec 19 '17 at 8:32
  • Yes, I read it... was just explaining why I downvoted. Your first suggestion is commonly accepted behavior; I just believe it should not be. – Acumen Simulator Dec 19 '17 at 12:30
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I'd avoid any options that involve pretending not to know. That can get very tangled:

Jane Doe, to Alice: "By the way, I mentioned to Jess that you don't do office parties because you're a Reformed Dagonist."

Alice, to Jane: "No problem."

You, to Alice: "I missed you at the office party."

Alice: tries to figure out why you're pretending not to know the thing that Jane told you

If you want to establish a friendly atmosphere, just pick something other than parties to ask about. If you're occasionally asking Alice how her weekend went, how her family is, etc. etc. (pick something appropriate for your work and individual circumstances) then she's not going to feel missed if you don't ask her about the parties. She may just assume, correctly, that you already know.

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I am a member of one religion that has some of the same requirements, like not going to birthdays.

That being said, I think you are maybe overreacting about this issue. I can assure you that if she feels the need to say it to you, she will.
The same thing happens to me often. At the beginning in some company, I may say to one or another on their birthday about the why I'm not going or so, and people just start sharing it because people. As soon as I know, the whole company is knowing about my beliefs, even if I wasn't the one that bring it up to most of then.

And I am completely okay with the situation. I don't really like being put in a position that I have to explain to everyone about it, and the whole point of me having to share it is to make people not think that I am rude for not going to any party.

If I could say anything to you, is to just let it go. She can even expect that you already know.

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I suspect that anyone who does not attend celebrations because of religious reasons has probably "heard it all" by now, just think of all the relative's birthdays she's missed, they probably had some things about it. So the best approach is probably something very casual like:

YOU: Hey Alice how was your weekend? Me, I went fishing, caught me a pretty big carp. Oh by the way, did you go to (or are you going to) that company thing?

ALICE: Nah

YOU: How come, don't feel like it?

Then Alice can reply with whatever feel comfortable, the key here is to not push and not make it into a big deal, because you don't know if it's something she wants to elaborate on, or if she already had many fights with her relatives about and is really not in the mood to start again with a casual coworker

  • Leave out the second question. If Alice wants to tell you why, she’ll do so without it. Otherwise, she’ll resent it. – WGroleau Dec 18 '17 at 22:27
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TL;DR

No excuse is required, religious or otherwise, and it should not be automatically assumed that everyone is expected to go.

For example, in my case it's nothing personal but I just don't want to spend time with you. I want to go home instead and do something interesting.

Long Version

The religious aspect may indeed be the reason, but that is not really relevant to your concern. Even without religious motives, people do not need to attend special celebratory events. It is not mandatory.

I do not go to such work sponsored events. My reason is that I simply do not want to. I don't go to company picnics or holiday parties. I do not go out to the social gatherings for a drink after work. I avoid all of those things for the simple fact that I just do not want to attend them.

My reasons for not wanting to attend a company sponsored event are my own, and they are none of anybody else's business. I will, however, mention some here so as to remove the veil...

As much as I may like some of the people at work, I don't go there because of them. I don't go to socialize or to have fun. I do talk to people sometimes, sometimes about fun and interesting things, but that's not why I'm there. If it weren't for the fact that I need money to pay the bills, I would not be there at all. That is true for most people.

If I am not working, I want to be home teaching my son something cool or playing Minecraft or World of Warcraft with him or whatever he is into at that time. I want to help my daughter learn to swim or skate. I want to watch a movie with my wife.

I do not drink alcoholic drinks socially, nor do I drink coffee, and I have low expectations when it comes to food, and I do not care about football, baseball, or Nascar; so the bar does not interest me, nor do restaurants, nor does 90% of what my co-workers want to talk about, so when I am not working I do not want to be wasting my time drinking a soda or eating something fancy or talking to people whose interests are boring to me. Nor do they want to hear me talk about what I'm interested in; I could talk for a half hour about the fine art of lighting a fire in the rain with flint and steel, but most peoples' response is "Why didn't you just soak it in gas and drop a match on it?"

I can understand asking someone who usually does go to such events but misses some specific ones. If I usually did go to them but skipped the Christmas party, I would understand you asking what's up. But if I just don't go to any of them, then it seems like you're trying to pressure me into going - some people actually do that, and I have been pressured into going to events that I really did not want to attend, and I have sat there bored for over an hour just waiting until I could politely leave you. That is well beyond rude.

When I do find a specific person at work who shares common interests, then sometimes I make friends with that person outside of the work setting. In general though, I do not want to attend your events, and it gets annoying when people keep asking why I don't go, as if I have done something wrong. I didn't go because I didn't want to.

So, how does this answer your question? Like so: The best way for you to give your co-worker the opportunity is to just keep doing what you are doing; that is, let them tell you if they feel like it. If you really have no good reason to inquire and you just feel like the person should be there, then just leave it alone. If you have some other reason for concern and you do try to coax out my reasoning for not attending, please be very considerate when doing so as to make sure that I do not feel bullied.

It might help if you make your intentions known up front about why you even care, such as "Hey, I noticed you don't go to the company special events and was wondering about that. I'm not trying to be pushy, but if you want to go and feel like you can't we'd like to help you work things out." Then I can answer simply "Thanks for the offer, but I just don't go to those things." Or if there was some roadblock you might hear about it and be able to help, ex: "I just can't make it because of my kids," then you would have the option to try and push for more kid-friendly activities if you wanted.

  • Or, the less polite variation could also be the case for some places, "I didn't go because I didn't want to deal with any of you." Left out of the answer so that it doesn't seem too harsh. – Aaron Dec 18 '17 at 18:36
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Great discussion. I agree with the others who said just to basically ignore the issue but be friendly, and she will know you are friendly and her religious beliefs will not play into the whole thing.

Like someone said, she might already know you know so trying to be all clever might backfire.

Here's an example for you. I have a much younger brother and I have never lived with him nor even in the same city. Once when I was visiting my family I found out from another family member that my brother is gay. I had no idea and had never heard this before from anyone, including him. Of course, it didn't matter to me at all one way or the other. But I worried that the reason he didn't tell me was because he thought I would react badly or judge him in some way, or something negative. Anyway, since he didn't tell me but I knew, I went through all these machinations to somehow let him know I would be ok with it if he told me and to show my support for him. Well, it turns out that he didn't tell me because it was not a big deal to him and just normal life. Not a big secret to tell. We had never talked about relationships so it didn't come up - also he was an teenager and you know...mostly you just dont chat with your family about sexy time. At least not my family haha.

I felt like an idiot for making a big drama in my own head.

What I am trying to say is that you might be overthinking this, like I was.

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As a vegetarian who is constantly being asked why I don't eat at the potlucks, or if I eat (insert specific type of animal product here) I understand how frustrating it can be for someone with different views. Some people just can't leave well enough alone! What I appreciate the most is the people who just accept it and leave it at that. Most either go out of their way to be PC (Buying veggie burgers...I'm the only veghead so that just draws attention to me and is embarrassing) or constantly questioning (word spreads fast in the office, I know they all know, so why do they keep asking?).

If you are friends and chat, it will probably come up in normal conversation. If you're not close enough for her to willingly share that kind of info, don't question her about it. More than likely enough people already do, and she would probably rather not explain her beliefs again.

Let your words and actions demonstrate that whether or not she comes to the holiday parties really doesn't matter to you, you just appreciate her as a person!

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