Hooray for embarrassment in the workplace.
March 25, 2011 5:18 AM   Subscribe

I have a crush on an older co-worker and would like to stop acting like a nervous schoolgirl around him. How do I do this when he seems nervous too?

I’ve developed a crush on a co-worker twice my age (I'm in my mid-20s, he's 50) whom I've worked with for about seven months. It's a big age difference, I know, but he's got a great sense of humor, our personalities are similar, and he's good-lookin' to my tastes. As far as trying to get over it based on the age difference – that’s out. I am open-minded when it comes to relationship "goals," in that I don't have any that would be easy deal breakers with regard to older men.

This guy has always had a tense energy with me. We don't work in the same department, so our need for work interaction is rare. But on the few occasions he's had to come to me for help with something (all of which happened before my crush really developed) he didn't ask me for help directly, had a hard time making eye contact, would only look at me when I looked away, and seemed very tense. A couple of times as I passed his desk during the day, he'd turn to see who was walking past and when we'd make eye contact, I'd smile politely. He'd look away real fast upon seeing it was me and say "hello" while looking down at his paperwork.

The problem is that 1.) I am naturally shy too, and 2.) I tend to soak up the vibes that other people are giving off and give them right back. It doesn't help that I looked at this man and realized that I find him attractive, in addition to observing how witty and funny he is with all of the other people in the office (including a lot of women my age and barely older). We’ve gotten locked into this cycle of me trying to be nice and normal and him being weird in return, then him trying to be nice and normal and me being weird in return.

For example, we were good at the end of last week. Then on two occasions at the beginning of this week, he came in in the morning and I made eye contact and smiled in greeting, but he just looked at me blank-faced and then said hello to everyone else, acting his normal, pleasant self with them. Today I was the one who looked away purposefully and blushed a little as we passed each other, and he was the one smiling at me when later I got up the nerve up to see.

So…clearly it’s awkward! How do you break this cyclical tension? Can you? My office is tightly knit and laid back as far as its dating stance goes – there’ve been a few couples, kept quiet but known about – which means I can’t use harsh policy to discourage my crush. I know that he’s single, know that he’s straight, so that doesn’t help either. I socialize with a lot of other people in the office and have a pretty decent workload on some days, so it’s not like I’m sitting at my desk thinking about him 24/7 and just need to find other things to focus on.

He’s just a person and we have had regular, nice conversations intermittently. I want that to be the norm, crush or no crush, and I am tired of my sympathetic nervous system getting in the way. How might I work this out?
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (18 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
This may well go on for weeks or months, however long it takes you to get over someone you're crushing on. Or it could go on indefinitely, depending on how your interactions go.

But you know, one way to resolve potential relationship awkwardness is to bring it up...
posted by valkyryn at 5:22 AM on March 25, 2011 [1 favorite]

Ask him out on a date?
posted by hworth at 5:44 AM on March 25, 2011 [1 favorite]

Is he single? Why don't you just ask him out? It might fall flat because of the age difference or any other reasons why relationships don't work out, but why not give it a shot.
posted by pintapicasso at 5:48 AM on March 25, 2011

Ask him out. The energy sounds to good to pass up, you're both single, don't work directly with each other, it's like you're being sent signs.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 5:53 AM on March 25, 2011 [1 favorite]

Do consider the possibility that your flirtatiousness has made him uncomfortable.
posted by Carol Anne at 6:05 AM on March 25, 2011 [9 favorites]

He's single. He straight. There's sexual tension. You're interested.

posted by inturnaround at 6:12 AM on March 25, 2011 [2 favorites]

Honestly, any action is going to have to come from you. I am an older guy who works with a lot of people 20-25 years younger than I am, and, while I try to be friendly with everyone I work with, and I end up doing a fair amount of mentoring of younger workers, I would never, never suggest even hanging around outside of work (especially if I found them attractive) because -- a) creepy, b) creepy, c) we all have our own lives and see each other a lot at work, and d) creepy. Once every couple of years, a younger coworker invites me to a party or something and some of these have developed into actual friendships (although this is becoming naturally rarer as the age gap widens), and I get invites to big, general social events like weddings, but I would never initiate anything remotely date-like.

Be prepared, of course, for the possibility that you are misreading him and that he is not interested in a significant friendship or romance. The age difference works both ways, you know.

On the other hand, having that conversation is the only way to either a) start a closer relationship if that is what you both want or b) set the boundaries for a successful friendly work relationship. Normally, I would suggest just ignoring the feelings, but things have progressed to the point where it seems to be affecting your working relationship, and you both likely need some resolution to move on.
posted by GenjiandProust at 6:15 AM on March 25, 2011 [5 favorites]

I have been in your shoes. At the time, I had season tickets to a local theater, and a few days before a performance, I went to the much older man who'd been exchanging flirty glances with me and said "I've got tickets to this play at BAM, and the person who was supposed to join me can't come. Would you be interested in joining me?" He declined, and after a while the crush worked itself out of my system. A few months later I met my delightful boyfriend (who is the same age as me) which helped, too.

So, basically I:
  1. Came up with a way to act on the crush in a non-skeezy way (by asking him about the play).
  2. Used his demurral of my invitation to help me stop thinking "what if" (because now I knew that the answer to "what if I ask him out" was "he will say no."
  3. Rode out the slow dissipation of the crush after that, and dismissed it completely when something new came along.

posted by ocherdraco at 7:05 AM on March 25, 2011 [7 favorites]

Is there a specific reason that you can't pursue this? Like, are you married? Have you taken a vow of chastity? Are you merely worried that there would be too much office-weirdness if it doesn't work out?

I also once had a crush on someone in my workplace. It was awkward. So I asked her out, and then we dated briefly! It ended remarkably badly! BUT: we TOTALLY FRENCHED and no one can ever take that away from me. And now there's no more awkwardness! Or, rather, there still is, a little, but it's the easy-to-deal-with kind of awkwardness where what's happened has happened, not the low-level constant "OH MAN DUDE JUST SMILED WHAT DOES THAT MEAN DOES HE COMPLETELY WANT TO TOUCH MY FACE" kind of awkwardness that keeps one from concentrating on anything else.

If you do not subscribe to this "no way out but through" approach, I suggest making up a mildly-unsettling backstory about the guy that you can consciously choose to believe, like he spends every evening transcribing episodes of Cougar Town and combing through the transcripts for Bible-Code-style messages.
posted by Greg Nog at 7:19 AM on March 25, 2011 [15 favorites]

There's the possibility he's interested, and even if that were the case there's the 99% probability that he knows that asking you out would be creepy and will never do that. So unless you ask him out, you will never date. That said, don't ask him out.

From your description of the situation, he finds you attractive at least occasionally, but that doesn't mean much. Daydreaming is fun and easy, and getting accidental feedback from each other is thrilling and fun and intriguing, but that's very different from wanting a relationship, wanting to risk his work reputation, wanting to take you around to meet all his middle-aged friends and elderly relations. Not saying your crush isn't reciprocated, not saying a relationship would be a terrible idea - just saying that he may see "dating" as being a much more serious and complicated step than you do, and the gap between having a crush and genuinely wanting to do something about it may be a pretty wide gap. In any case, don't rush things. The situation has a lot more evolving to do before it'll be clear where to go.

So don't ask him out. He's not only a work colleague, he's one of your favorite work colleagues. He's also easily embarassed, and will probably never speak naturally to you again if you ask him out. Don't do that to yourself and all your coworkers.
posted by aimedwander at 7:37 AM on March 25, 2011 [3 favorites]

Sometimes this is all just a vicious cycle. So if you don't care to take the advice above and ask him out (for whatever reason), choose a response and stick with it. Smile, be professional, even if he ignores you or beams at you. Pretend he's a boring coworker in your head. Make up stories about how he isn't as awesome as he seems. Find a new crush. Those things can all help dial the tension back down to normal levels so that you can be colleagues instead of crushes.
posted by ldthomps at 8:05 AM on March 25, 2011

You're going to have to ask him out, because he's probably scared that if he asks you out and you say no, everyone in the office will find out and they will shun him as a creep.
posted by Slinga at 8:11 AM on March 25, 2011

I notice you say HE'S single, but not that you are. So maybe that is why you don't just ask him out? (Which would also be my approach. He's not directly supervising you or anything. Seriously, even if you are shy in person, isn't there a way you could email him to say, "Hey, want to meet after work for a coffee?")

So, if you are taken and he isn't and you want to get past the awkwardness--does he know you have a partner? If not, load up your workspace with pics of the SO. That might help him, knowing you are unavailable. Or it might make it worse.

So it that happens, you will just have to suck it up and speak to him, even if you are stammering and blushing all the way through, to tell him that you've noticed some awkwardness between you, no one is at fault (no need to make the poor guy feel worse), but can we work on this, because I admire your work and like you as a person and would like to be able to interact without all the uncomfortable stuff getting in the way.
posted by misha at 10:22 AM on March 25, 2011

Do you stop by each others' desks to chat / for semi-invented work reasons? I would do that and/or email him an interesting link - lightweight, easily reciprocated interest. This will help you verify that his behavior is because he liiiikes you, but it is pretty normal friendly office behavior if he doesn't.

I would also recommend actively looking for partners elsewhere (online?) to help rule out that you're just bored / need some excitement.

Then, ask him out.
posted by momus_window at 10:31 AM on March 25, 2011

Any time the man "can't" ask you out for reputation reasons, you need to think long and hard about why that is. And why you asking first would change anything. If he's powerful and older, he should be able to do what he wants and fly in the face of convention based on sheer social capital. You don't have that, but that doesn't really mean you have "nothing to lose" either - there are negative numbers on this scale, so to speak. Think carefully before making the first move "for" him. It's a rookie mistake that sets up a precedent for a double standard.
posted by Nixy at 1:44 PM on March 25, 2011 [1 favorite]

I suggest making up a mildly-unsettling backstory about the guy that you can consciously choose to believe

Yes. If you want to kill it, think things like "He's probably awkward around me because I remind him of his daughter who died tragically." Or "I probably remind him of his estranged daughter whose mom he abandoned right after the child was born and never paid child support and whose good graces he keeps trying to win." Or that he recently divorced his wife because she was getting too old. I can keep going but only you can come up with a story that rings true, if you do want to quit the crush.
posted by salvia at 11:22 AM on March 26, 2011 [1 favorite]

Also, try getting angry at the awkwardness. It can't be good for your professional reputation. Get mad at the awkward vibe for threatening you in this way.
posted by salvia at 11:26 AM on March 26, 2011

(Also, on a re-read, sorry for the ageism in my gruesome stories. I'm not against cross-generational romances. They were just the ickiest things that came to mind.)
posted by salvia at 11:29 AM on March 26, 2011

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