A few months ago, I was teaching a class and mentioned that my boss would be visiting us to share some information about an upcoming conference. Immediately one of my students said, “Don’t use that word. Boss has negative connotations.” So I asked, “What word would you use in its place?” and she suggested supervisor.

This set up a monumental conundrum for me because I see a boss and a supervisor as being two different things. A supervisor feels like someone on the factory line who would be telling me if I’m assembling widgets fast enough. A boss is a sort of weird relationship–part friend, part person who can fire you. It’s the imbalance in the relationship that intrigues me, and, in fact, in the suspense novel I’m writing, a boss plays an important part.

On the other hand, I respect this student and certainly do not want to use a word carelessly. Part of why we see this word different probably comes from our backgrounds. She is an African-American woman from the South, and I’m a white woman from Long Island. The word “boss” has all sorts of subtexts to her that it simply doesn’t have for me.

Meanwhile, I had this sentence to write, that was setting up an important scene: “She waited for her boss to call.” I tried: “She waited for her supervisor to call.” No.

So I went to They suggested “dominator.” That gave me pause. They also suggested chief, leader, exec, big cheese, top dog, chieftan, executive. Nothing felt right. And then, I happened to be reading The New York Times and right there, on the front page, was a headline that used the word boss and I thought, OK. that’s it. Stop thinking about it.

But I’m still thinking about it. What word would you use?


  1. Supervisor feels strange to me! But you’re right these words are more laden with history and a bunch of other stuff than we realize. I’m afraid I’ll stick with boss.

  2. My grandmother used to watch The Jack Benny Show and I would sit with her not quite getting it. (I was barely a tot, but even so, am dating myself.) The Afro-American side-kick, Rochester, always called Benny, “boss.” Even at an early age, I sensed that Rochester wasn’t considered Benny’s equal. I can see where the word might be charged for some.

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