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.