Welcome to the latest installment of Ms. Opinionated, in which readers have questions about the pesky day-to-day choices we all face, and I give advice about how to make ones that (hopefully) best reflect our shared commitment to feminist values—as well as advice on what to do when they don't.
Dear Ms. Opinionated:
How do you tell if a guy is hitting on you or just being nice, particularly in a work context? I work in a pretty male-dominated field and I'm not interested in dating any of my male colleagues for obvious reasons, but I don't want to act like invitations to grab coffee are the same as Invitations To Grab Coffee and be thought of as snobby or not doing the necessary networking to get ahead. On the other hand, I don't want to be caught on an inadvertent date and then have to deal with dumping someone. Help!
I wish I had the perfect answer to this, as it would have saved me a ton of trouble and awkwardness at the start of my professional life. I assumed then that a combination of conservative attire, playing up the good-student part of my persona and avoiding men who were obviously hitting on me would keep me from having to navigate almost any sexually-awkward experiences in my professional life. I even got a fake engagement ring at one point for when I had to travel for work, hoping to head off conference attendees and hotel barflies alike. Instead, I ended up with a powerful stalker who wouldn't take "no" for an answer, a Congressman who kept ringing my home phone (which I didn't give him) to try to talk me into drinks near his apartment and far from mine, a dinner arranged by my boss with a client who wanted it to be a date, more than my share of (above-board and otherwise) invitations, and, most annoyingly, men who insisted that I was hitting on them.
And I'm not even particularly pretty.
But that, of course, was the problem. I understood being hit on when I was dressed "sexy," when I was flirting, when I was allowing the part of me who was interested in engaging with people on a more personal/romantic/sexual level out to play. But short of a man going over-the-top in expressing his interest in more than my professional work product, I never noticed when they were more subtly hitting on me because I thought they wouldn't -- I just thought that that my not-interested signals would ward it off when my lack of socially-defined good looks did not, and thought it only fair to give the men with whom I interacted professionally the benefit of the doubt.
And, if I'm being honest, reading what Molly Crabapple wrote recently in Vice gave me pause as I recognized myself a little:
A woman's beauty is supposed to be her grand project and constant insecurity. We're meant to shellac our lips with five different glosses, but always think we're fat. Beauty is Zeno's paradox. We should endlessly strive for it, but it's not socially acceptable to admit we're there. We can't perceive it in ourselves. It belongs to the guy screaming "nice tits."
I'm no grand beauty, but believing that I wasn't pretty enough for a man to risk his whole life to fuck just led me to a place where men were doing just that in ways that were disconcerting, disturbing and, in retrospect, dangerous, and I never just said, "No" until way late in the game, and never headed anything off at the pass because I was trying to be nice.
All of this is a long way of saying that, no, there's no real way to know. But there are plenty of ways -- and reasons -- to suspect when a coffee is more likely A Coffee, and they all require you to think of yourself in a way that I didn't when I was younger: as an attractive person who might well get hit on no matter what you're wearing or how you are acting. It also requires you to listen to that little voice that says, "I think this is A Coffee" without dismissing that voice as being too egotistical.
So now you've been asked for coffee, and the little alarm bell is going off in your head that makes you suspect this isn't merely an excuse to gossip outside of the office or get through that mid-afternoon slump. Now what? Well, if the suspicion is a strong one and there's no actual reason to get coffee, you could just say you'd prefer to get your work done in a timely fashion so you can get to your evening plans on time -- and then be conveniently too busy in the evenings to get dinner or drinks, if he ups the ask (and be prepared to tell him that you don't date people with whom you work if he continues to press to socialize after you've said no twice).
If it's a mild suspicion and there's a legitimate other reason, go but be wary: keep the discussion to work topics, deflect any attempts to talk about not work ("Oh, I'm sorry, I'm just super-busy with work today, so I need to finish up our work stuff and get back to the rest of it!"), make sure it's in the middle of the day so that you have to go back to the office after, and choose some place that isn't designed to encourage people to stay forever. Or, push the coffee into a Sorkin-scene -- talk while you're walking to get it and walk back immediately. Or, you could always invite along a third colleague or another office mate -- after all, it's just coffee?
But if no alarm bells are ringing and it seems like just coffee... just go, as long as you feel safe. Worst case, you end up finding out it's not just coffee and explain that you don't date within your professional circles regardless of the person in question.
The most important thing is to listen to yourself and your own instincts with each invitation, and act according to what makes you feel safe, first and foremost, and in ways that are in keeping with your own boundaries. Networking is something you can (and should) initiate one-on-one and engage in when you're in a group setting. And if people think you're a snob for not leaving your actual job to get coffee all the time, that's almost its own answer to the question of whether the person saying it was hitting on you.
And finally... Anybody who doesn't accept your explanation with grace and an end to the offers -- especially if it's a coworker, client or supervisor -- should be reported to your supervisor (or his, if it's your boss), because that's sexual harassment. You shouldn't have to tiptoe around other people's erections to do your job.