Tuesday, August 07, 2012

"[T]otally inappropriate"

The Prudie letter in question, with some thematic overlap with this earlier post:

Q. Workplace Awkwardness: I'm in a really awkward situation here. A co-worker with whom I've had several five-minute conversations but nothing more recently sent me an email telling me how beautiful I am and wondering if I had a boyfriend. I figured it was for somebody else, so I ignored it. I then received a Facebook message with much the same content, so I know it was for me. This guy doesn't even really know me—we've only spoken a few times! I have absolutely no attraction toward him. He's a nice guy though, and I try to be a nice person as well, and I am totally unsure of how to handle this. Do I just live through the awkwardness at work and pretend nothing ever happened? I'm usually a drama-free person who can handle this sort of stuff just fine, but I am really dreading returning to work now. 
A: You need to step up and deal with it in a drama-free way. Tell him his emails and Facebook posts were totally inappropriate and you don't want to get any more such personal messages. Keep copies or screenshots of what he sent. Then if he won't stop, take the evidence to human resources and say you tried dealing with this yourself, but he's not getting the message.
So. Harassment, stalking, these are real problems, but sometimes even a creepy tone or what have you can give a woman a bad feeling about a situation that on paper sounds innocuous enough. I fully support putting a stop to all threatening attention ASAP, and involving authorities if necessary. If you're actually scared, don't worry about hurt feelings, political correctness, etc. By all means, use the tools of feminism and sexual-harassment law to defend yourself. My bias here would be to side with the woman, and not with the ogling dude.

But how are these issues relevant here? From what we know, a man who is not this woman's supervisor, at a company that presumably doesn't have a no-dating policy (written or otherwise - in plenty of fields/companies this alone would be our answer) or the letter-writer would have mentioned that, who has indeed met and interacted with this woman in real life, has expressed romantic interest in her. Awkwardly - he should have asked her to go get coffee - but perhaps his thinking was, if she has or makes up a boyfriend, or otherwise provides a not-interested, I'll have my answer. He emailed twice, yes, but the first one was ignored, and it won't immediately be obvious to sender why that was the case. Maybe she doesn't use whichever account, or maybe it's her work account and she's behind by 500 emails. As it happens, she ignored it because she didn't realize it was even meant for her, which presumably the second, Facebook approach confirmed. Again, not the best way to go about it, but dude was just asking her out. Nothing lewd. This constitutes "totally inappropriate" behavior?

It could be that Prudie mistook Facebook messaging, which is private, with Facebook posting, and imagines that dude is pulling some kind of horrible rom-com gesture. But it could also be that certain women respond to any attention from men they don't find attractive (or even ones they totally do like and will say yes to shortly thereafter) as some kind of offense to their dignity, and use the language of feminism - the right of a woman to go through life as something other than a sexual object - to back themselves up. (The connection to the Brussels-catcalling post, I suppose, is that we need to consider the possibility that some white European women object more to catcalls from darker-complexioned immigrant men than they do to equivalent attention from, say, drunken white European men, who are not exactly immune to that behavior.)

But we live in a society in which heterosexual relationships tend to form only once the man has made the first move. This means that there's a certain amount of uncertainty for the man when doing so. Even assuming a man who doesn't just ask out every woman he likes, regardless of her plausible reciprocation (and boy does this exist), a man might think a woman reciprocates his interest, only to learn that he misread her signals. The younger, prettier, nicer (misinterpreted as flirtation), and less wedding-band-having a woman is, the more of this she's going to have to fend off. But unreciprocated asking-out, while technically unwanted attention, is not a kind of unwanted attention one can ever systematically avoid. People who like you will always ask you out, and unless they don't take no for an answer (or it's your boss, etc.), they're not doing anything wrong.

Going only by what's in the letter, this guy didn't have a chance to take no for an answer and back off, because she never answered. If he'd emailed four different accounts and gotten nothing, yet pressed on, creep city. But once to her email and another time to Facebook? This sounds like he has asked her out, and in all likelihood would take no for an answer, and would in no time at all find another woman to declare "beautiful."


All of the above is basically standard-issue commentary. The more interesting question is why a woman would respond to getting asked out as if it's harassment (assuming we have all the relevant info.) and why an impartial observer (Prudie) would agree.


Andrew Stevens said...

The great thing about Prudie's answer is that she says the writer has to step up and deal with it in a drama-free way and then suggests a drama-full way of approaching it. When in fact simply making up a boyfriend (assuming one doesn't actually exist) or a simple, "Thank you, but I'm not interested" would likely do the job nicely.

(For what it's worth, I do agree with Prudie that the man is acting inappropriately regardless of the dating policy of the company. It is just about always wrong to ask a coworker out in a professional environment.)

Phoebe said...

"It is just about always wrong to ask a coworker out in a professional environment."

I think it depends what you mean by "professional." Maybe they're working together scooping ice cream for the summer. Maybe they're teachers at the same tiny private middle school, where if anything went wrong, this would be disastrous. Maybe it's some giant company with different divisions, and this is a guy she might run into in the elevator - or at a holiday party - but that's it. (My husband and I met as grad students - but paid, so work-ish - at the same university, in very different fields. "Co-workers"? Technically, perhaps, but practically speaking not one bit.) "The workplace" isn't a monolith, and there are plenty of workplaces where someone who isn't your current supervisor is someone who might well become your spouse. We have no reason to imagine here that this is some corporate, high-pressure environment and dude's in the next cubicle.

As for "in a professional environment," if what you mean is, while at the office (assuming an office job), it would seem that the Facebook message was a way of asking her out outside of work.

I guess what it comes down to is, while we don't want the workplace - any workplace - to be a hostile environment, we also need to acknowledge that there are only so many ways of meeting people socially orromantically past college, and two people who work for the same organization, depending on so many factors, might perfectly well end up getting together, even if it means only formalizing things once one switches jobs. This is hardly the height of scandal, and is common enough in the NYT wedding pages.

Andrew Stevens said...

She claimed to dread returning to work. It's possible this is a dramatic "OMG, I almost certainly won't see him, but maybe I will and then how awkward will it be" in which case he wasn't being inappropriate (and she's not nearly as drama-free as she claims). The other possibility is that they work together regularly (even though they don't seem to have anything but five-minute conversations), in which case I believe he was acting inappropriately.

I freely acknowledge that there are many, many times when such relationships have worked out fine - the man makes an advance, the woman reciprocates, and they end up getting married or whatever. This doesn't change my opinions that such an advance is inappropriate. Professionals ought to act professionally toward their coworkers. I honestly don't think it's asking too much to refrain from hitting on the people with whom you regularly work. (I did restrict it to professional because I'm inclined to not care about the ice cream shop couple. The people in other divisions at a company or in other departments at a graduate school aren't really your coworkers.)

Andrew Stevens said...

By the way, I'm not even opposed to dating one's coworkers. If that situation comes about because a professional relationship leads to a situation where it is obvious to both parties that they are interested in each other, etc., I don't really see a problem there, but that is not the situation described.

Phoebe said...

Again, the answer is a great big it depends. How closely together they work, what kind of work environment it is, and whether we're drawing any kind of line between "hitting on" as in "asking out" and "hitting on" as in lewd come-ons. In any workplace, including the ice cream shop, explicit sexual remarks are off-limits. But this woman hasn't even managed to tell the guy she's not interested. Unless this is a professional environment where couple-formation is really off-limits, but perhaps even then, she needs to start there and see if maybe that's enough.

As for why she'd protest if she wasn't genuinely scared to return to work... Maybe she was! Some people really fear confrontation, or maybe there was more of a threat than the letter let on. But if she wasn't? There are some women - not many, but a handful - who imagine that men's lives will be ruined if they say no, and who dance around this, not realizing that the guy probably asked out ten people that week. There are some - again, not many - who, like I say, respond with eww, gross, to all male attention, including desired male attention.

Re: your next comment - it's not clear this guy didn't get that it wasn't reciprocal, at least at the initial-interest level. He may have thought she liked him enough for a first date. Which is why he ought to have asked her to coffee, and not put, in writing, things that could plausibly be interpreted as sexual harassment, even if that's a stretch given the info. we have. It might not be, like you say, depending the workplace. But, to repeat myself once more, if it were the kind of workplace where asking-out isn't allowed, no matter how suave, this should have been noted.

eamonnmcdonagh said...

" If that situation comes about because a professional relationship leads to a situation where it is obvious to both parties that they are interested in each other, etc."

How can it become obvious that there is a mutual interest if one person can't ask the the other person out? Politely, of course, understanding the meaning of the word "no" etc. etc.

I'm sure we all know some couples who've - after only an exchange of glances - cut right to the chase in that unused cubicle in a distant corner of the office, but in general, assuming that it's obvious that another person is interested in you without them responding positively to an initial - refusable - advance is likely to lead to much worse problems than the one described here.

Jacob T. Levy said...

Also a question: Why are you still reading Prudie?

Andrew Stevens said...

Eamon - A good question. To get to what I meant about this, I guess I'm siding with Phoebe's awkward versus non-awkward. I.e. starting with "You're beautiful. Do you have a boyfriend?" is very different from asking someone to have coffee. The first is in my opinion an unprofessional thing to say to a coworker (though, like Phoebe, I just think it's simply awkward, not wrong, in other situations) and the second is ambiguous enough to be safe. As a married male, I have asked other married male coworkers to coffee to discuss this, that, or the other and nobody thought I was hitting on them, even though I don't actually drink coffee myself.

In situations like that (eating lunch together regularly, meeting for coffee and discussing non-work-related things, etc.), I believe it is very easy to fall into a relationship without anyone having to explicitly ask the other person out. Keeping in mind that I don't know how it is with the kids these days, I can recall a number of different relationships I was in where there was never a time that anybody asked the other person out on a date without already being certain the answer would be yes (or at least, "That's not good for me. How about Saturday?"). It may be possible that the modern dating environment is more formalized than it used to be, I suppose.

Andrew Stevens said...

As for why she'd protest if she wasn't genuinely scared to return to work... Maybe she was! Some people really fear confrontation, or maybe there was more of a threat than the letter let on.

My point was about how likely she was to see him. If, for example, he works in another department and/or is easily avoidable, then I agree that he wasn't being inappropriate, but now I think she's being overly dramatic about going back to work, if she sees him only very sporadically.

Andrew Stevens said...

Prudie has added an update at the end now, where someone makes your point and she agrees that she went overboard.

Phoebe said...




Advice columns are totally compelling! And Savage is on vacation.


That had been part of the Slate post all along, I think. And Prudie may be right re: the screen shots - if this woman has a weird feeling, it's best she keep track of what's going on.

caryatis said...

Phoebe, I had the exact same reaction. I think Prudie is leaping to the assumption that the male coworker won’t respect a polite “no thank you.” IF he doesn’t respect the polite no, then it’s
appropriate to stand on your dignity and tell him to cease and desist, and ultimately go to HR, but that is not the appropriate _first_ response.

What the letter writer wants is pretty hilarious: she wants never to respond to the email or Fbook message, but she wants the messages to stop and also for there to be no awkwardness! I don’t think any advice columnist could make that happen for her. How to reject unwanted advances is a skill all women need to develop, inside or outside the workplace--and part of doing that is knowing how to start out being kind, and escalate as necessary.

I have been in the male coworker’s situation here...after only a few convos with a coworker, I decided we were compatible and asked him out. Of course, being a woman it’s easier for me to get away with that sort of thing, and I was lucky that he reciprocated my feelings. As Phoebe says, “the workplace” is a very broad term, and the sort of sexual advance that would be totally wrong from, say, a drill sergeant to a recruit, would be okay for many other coworkers. I’m not sure why the imperative to “act professionally” is enough to squelch the basic human desire for a sexual relationship.

Andrew, you say that asking someone to have coffee is “ambiguous enough to be safe”...but the problem is, if you want a relationship, at some point it has to get unambiguous and that means taking the risk of being unprofessional and (for a man at least) violating those HR rules. “Falling into a relationship” and never talking about it creates a huge possibility for misunderstanding.

Also: is the woman Facebook friends with her coworker? If not, it’d be pretty hard to see his message. (Facebook hides messages from nonfriends.) If so, he might have taken that as a sign she was interested in him for nonprofessional reasons.

Can we agree the woman who cries at the sight of a beard is either seriously ill or incredibly manipulative?

Phoebe said...

The more I think about it, the more I think asking her for coffee maybe wouldn't have solved much. First off, there are awkward ways to ask even that. (Word to the wise: cornering someone while she's trying to do work at a library and repeatedly asking when she's ready for coffee, which she will be eventually but not with you, isn't so great.) The guy's approach -"beautiful" and "boyfriend?" - was unambiguous while not being lewd. Thus sparing her months of awkward coffees with a guy who has no real interest in being her friend.

"Can we agree the woman who cries at the sight of a beard is either seriously ill or incredibly manipulative?"

Only if we first provide several disclaimers, most obviously that creepiness does exist, and can't always be conveyed in a brief (and perhaps edited) letter to an advice columnist. There are all kinds of reasons this woman might be justified in her response. They're just not in the letter we have before us.

Phoebe said...

Oops - beard reference was to another letter.

Andrew Stevens said...

Caryatis, perhaps. I realize that there are some pretty clueless people out there. I will say that I generally have no difficulty realizing when a woman is flirting with me (even if she's deliberately keeping it ambiguous) and gently deflecting her. (Nowadays I just bring my wife into the conversation. Back in the day, I used other tactics or encouraged if I was interested.) Usually this works and everybody goes on with no hard feelings. I'm sure there were probably even occasions when I misread some women's intentions (because she's just aggressively friendly with everybody, perhaps) in which case there were still no hard feelings, because those women probably didn't even realize I was deflecting them. I've had only rare occasions with people who couldn't take a hint. I realize, however, that there are probably many more men in that category than there are women.

But I'm afraid I'm still going to have to insist on professionalism. I have already conceded various cases where I would say that such advances are fine (you work for the same company, but do not in any meaningful sense work together, you're not working a professional job, etc.). I don't think it's too much to ask that a person act professionally with the professionals that he/she works with regularly. There are billions of people in the world. It is really not that great a sacrifice to ask that one should avoid romantic entanglements with the couple of dozen people that this is likely to apply to. All of them (male or female) are entitled to a work environment where they don't feel like they're in a singles bar. If one has any doubts at all about whether an advance would be welcome, one should back off and look elsewhere.

PG said...

I'm sympathetic to Andrew's take, though I'd note that the informal, gradual moving from friendly acquaintance who'd find out without explicitly asking whether there's a boyfriend, to being possibly boyfriend, is not what everyone likes. Some people -- particularly conservatives, actually -- tend to prefer the formal asking-out kind of process, which also has become renewed by online dating sites. But Facebook, not one of those sites.

Discerning whether someone is interested doesn't require months of coffee dates. To take the example of one of my relationships that got relationshippy before there was a formal asking-out: 1st meeting to drink with other acquaintances; 2nd meeting to consume food/drink on our own in public place; 3rd meeting to watch movie in one person's abode with no one else around. If one party is completely uninterested in spending time with the other, the 1st wouldn't occur; if one party doesn't want to do anything date-like with the other, the 2nd wouldn't occur; if one party isn't feeling reasonably trusting that the other isn't a potential rapist, the 3rd won't occur.

If not, it’d be pretty hard to see his message. (Facebook hides messages from nonfriends.)

When did this start? I've gotten many messages from nonfriends. The only way I don't see messages is if I'd blocked the person earlier.

caryatis said...

PG, I should have said Facebook hides messages from people who are neither friends nor friends of friends (you have to click on a special hidden "other" link to see those messages.)

Andrew, I'm not convinced that we should value "professionalism" in itself. There are people at your workplace whom you need to impress, and you should act more formally around them. But if you are lucky enough to have coworkers who have little impact on your career, so that you can relax around them, why not do so? Not to the point of sexual harassment, but, you know, be informal, tell jokes, talk about politics, gossip, and maybe go out for a drink after work. And maybe date. There's a middle ground between the singles bar and the meeting-in-my-boss's office level of tension and caution.

Oh, and although there are billions of people in the world, there are significantly fewer people in my social circles. Or yours. The attractive people at work are a significant percentage of total attractive people I know, and without a compelling reason, let's not make dating even harder by ruling them out.

Andrew Stevens said...

PG - I do happen to be for the whole formal dating thing. I wish I had done more of it when I was younger. (I didn't do much of it at all, but c'est la vie. I am hoping to encourage it in my own children.) However, I don't think it's either appropriate or wise to formally ask out one's coworkers while I can see the "sliding into a relationship" thing happening and I suppose I'm okay with that.

Caryatis, I am certainly not opposing friendly relationships (and I have been known on many occasions to talk philosophy, politics, religion, and many other sensitive subjects with coworkers). What I am saying is that all of those things are delicate judgment calls. I wouldn't talk politics to coworkers unless I knew in advance it wasn't going to be a problem. I wouldn't make a joke to a coworker unless I know he/she is likely to find it funny. And I definitely wouldn't ask a coworker out on a date unless I knew for sure the coworker was going to welcome the advance.

As for coworkers being a significant percentage, I agree that may be true. If one is actively looking for a partner (and presumably one is, if one is considering asking out one's coworkers), then I would recommend expanding the social circle in whatever way is appropriate, exactly as one would do if one's social circle was limited to the people one doesn't work with.