update: I think a colleague asked me out

It’s our last update of the year! It’s from the letter-writer in November who had received an ambiguous lunch invitation from a work contact and wanted to decline since she was pretty sure he was asking for a date although he hadn’t been clear about that (#3 at the link). Here’s the update:

I did not expect such vigorous and thoughtful debate in the comments section, but the variety of viewpoints helped inform my response.

I ended up saying I was too busy for social lunches for the foreseeable future, and then I added — almost as an afterthought — that I was probably misinterpreting the situation, but that I wanted to let him know that I am in a serious relationship. As expected, he did not then reveal a work-related reason for lunch, which further supported my hunch that he had been asking for a date. This face-saving solution has made subsequent hallway run-ins less awkward than they could have been!

The asker seems like a lovely person, and it’s not like he did something egregious, but the whole situation has helped me develop some best practices that I’d advise to anyone considering asking out a colleague. Before asking, put more effort into gauging whether there is chemistry or mutual interest than you might with a person from another context, because with someone you see a lot, the possibility for awkwardness after such an invitation is high. And when you do make the invitation, make it explicit that it is social. While it was clear to me that this was not a work thing, the fact that he hadn’t SAID that was what really flustered me as I was trying to respond… Normally when a co-worker invites you to grab lunch, it would be inappropriate to respond with, “Not interested” or “I have a boyfriend.” And, make it clear that it’s totally fine to decline. In summation, here’s the email I wish I’d received: “Hey, do you have any interest in grabbing lunch in the next couple of weeks? I’m interested in hanging out with you socially – but if you’re not on the same page, no problem!”

{ 16 comments… read them below }

  1. Cat steals keyboard*

    I think that’s a brilliant way to turn down a might-be-a-date invite without leaving egg on your face or theirs.

    I also think this just goes to show hunches exist for a reason. Glad you were able to handle it but sorry you had to.

    1. MillersSpring*

      Great job, OP. Having a SO gave you a handy explanation, emphasis on handy, because I think you got too many original comments arguing that of course you shouldn’t need an excuse.

      1. Mookie*

        As the OP emphasizes repeatedly, the advice hinges on exploring mutual interest (in addition to, rather than substituting for availability) and, critically, making one’s intentions clear up front and to avoid awkwardness later down the road. Doing so is respectful and kind, salvages a future professional relationship and/or friendship, and saves everyone a lot of time.

  2. INTP*

    I love the OP’s advice for other potential coworker-asker-outers. (I personally am no fan of the ambiguous date request from anyone, just because it’s so often used to insult a woman for thinking it was a date after she rejects a man and make her feel like she has to go or else she’s conceited. But it’s especially troublesome for coworkers.)

    I think the important thing to remember is that YOU are placing THEM in a potentially awkward situation, and you owe it to them to minimize the awkwardness as much as possible. They have no idea if you take rejection well or if you’ll cause difficulty for them after (which can happen intentionally but also very unintentionally just by people being too embarrassed and socially awkward to work well with a rejector after the fact). Verify interest first – do they flirt with you a little, or come by your desk to see you? Be intentionally unambiguous about your intentions, don’t ask in a way that you can play off as platonic or professional when they say no. And give them an out, convey as best you can that they can trust that there will be no weirdness if they say no. (And frankly, don’t ask out coworkers if you’re one of the people that can’t work well together after feeling embarrassed as mentioned above.)

    1. One of the Sarahs*

      Re your first paragraph – it is always interesting that the comments on this kind of question tend to have a significant number of responses that chide the asker for thinking it might be a date, even in this kind of situation where the Occam’s Razor solution was clearly that OP was being asked out. (In this situation, the person asking OP out didn’t even know their name, let alone the areas they work on, so the chances of it being not-a-date were still minimal, but there were STILL the “maybe you’re reading too much into it” replies).

      1. hbc*

        As someone who has been asked out by a coworker and been completely oblivious, there are downsides to *not* looking at the possibility of romantic intent when someone has been vague. If my boyfriend hadn’t come up organically in conversation, I would have been on one heck of an awkward bike ride, which I only realized when the planning got dropped without another word.

        Whether you want a work/fun outing, a platonic-but-non-work thing, or a date, it’s better for everyone to be crystal clear up front.

  3. Temperance*

    What a nice update. LW, I give you kudos for handling what had to be an amazingly awkward situation with aplomb. Your advice is also very wise.

  4. Dylan*

    This is a timely update because I’ve had my eye on someone at work for months. I’m just too chicken though! One day as I was steeping my tea in the breakroom, she said hello with a smile; I said hi with a smile, and then nervously darted my eyes away, turning my back to retrieve this pathetic red sip stirrer which I did not need except to hide behind. She seemed open to chatting, or, she was just waiting her turn for paper towels, I still can’t tell. In any case, we’re in different departments on the same floor and her desk is right next to the breakroom—at the front of all the cubes in our freakin’ open office plan. Curse this modern architecture! What happened to the rock or tree you could hide behind at recess? I know, there is no chemistry and I should really focus on becoming man enough to be myself and one day seize such an opportunity. I want to change that this year. Happy New Year, Alison and everyone!

    1. paul*

      Dang, I guess I’m old fashioned, but dating at work seems like a disaster in the making. I’d just move on

      1. CanCan*

        On the other hand, what if it’s someone that you don’t actually work with (different department, in this case), and don’t have much likelihood of working with? Assuming neither of you are in managerial positions (even if not managing each other), and preferably more than one step removed from each other (not just different boss, but different grand-boss).

        The question I would ask is: how would you feel if your ex had her job? Would it be awkward? In my workplace of over 400, there are many positions that can be occupied by ex, and I couldn’t care. There are also quite a few positions where having an ex would be awkward, so I wouldn’t consider dating those people. (Which, of course, happen to be the people I know most, but if I met an awesome person at the all-staff annual outing, for example, I might consider dating them.)

        Stirring up the pot, I’m sure :)

        1. Dylan*

          It’s interesting that you ponder this because I’m actually leaving the company at the end of January for different work. The next few weeks are a decent chance to find out more! Oh and I want to clarify for fellow readers: I’m familiar with the norms of asking for a date and I do my best to respect them. It’s just that in professional environments, I’m rather stoic because I want to perform at a high level. At work, it’s hard to take a break from that mindset. Even if I love meeting new people, I usually distance myself from others at the office when I need to recharge or focus. I’m currently at a junior level in my career and I have a lot to prove so I feel very pressured. Thinking about how to talk to the cutie at the corner just fries my brain!

    2. Connie-Lynne*

      Wow, I would really encourage you not to “seize the opportunity” here. To quote the LW: “Before asking, put more effort into gauging whether there is chemistry or mutual interest than you might with a person from another context, because with someone you see a lot, the possibility for awkwardness after such an invitation is high.”

      1. Dylan*

        I appreciate the quotatious caution, but the opportunity I’m talking about seizing is simply being more conversational—not requesting a date up front. I’m not worried about long-term awkwardness because I’ll be gone soon enough. It’s more about being able to relax when the time is right. I feel that opportunities are passing me by in life literally at every moment!

  5. Friday*

    Story of how this can go down very well – my slightly shy but very cute coworker asked me out to dinner on his last day at the company, so it was nice and clear that He Wanted a Date. We’ve been married for 10 years.

    If I was in the OP’s coworker’s situation – working with someone who he’s physically attracted to but doesn’t even know her name yet (dude.), I’d try to strike up casual but brief conversations with the person in group meetings/chance encounters. We’re talking “hey how about this weather”-type stuff. No one-on-one asking of anything until a good chunk of time of this interaction first.

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