Damage Control
February 13, 2012 8:05 AM   Subscribe

I think I accidentally lead on my non-English-speaking coworker. iAyudame, por favor!

I just started working as a hostess at a restaurant where the kitchen staff are all Hispanic males who don't speak much English. Having studied Spanish in high school, I am able to communicate with them in basic phrases but I don't always understand what they say. Two of the guys--I'll call them Guy X and Guy Y--are pretty flirty with all the female front of house staff; Guy X is always asking about my non-existent boyfriend/saying he wants to be my boyfriend. A third guy who works in the kitchen, Guy Z, is probably in his late 30s or early 40s; unlike the other two he's pretty quiet and reserved, but there have been times when I've seen him getting down to some song that's playing on the radio in the kitchen, and I've found him rather intriguing, because I feel that I see some of myself--shy and withdrawn but really loving to let go and cut loose sometimes--in him. This has led me to saying things that I had hoped would be taken as a joke whenever the two other guys give me shit about getting a boyfriend/wanting to be my boyfriend, like "Z is my favorite" and "I'm in love with Z." At one point I said "Le amo" to Z as a sign of my appreciation when he was helping me out with something during a busy dinner shift. I always figured that because there's an obvious language and age difference between us, the three of them would know I was just joking, but now I am not so sure.

What's causing my uncertainty is an episode that occurred last week: during my fourth week of work, I found out that one of the servers, who doesn't speak any Spanish, sometimes hangs out with Guy Z. I thought the fact that they could spend time together in spite of the language barrier incredibly cool, and so when I found out that they were going to a dance club one night with Guy Y I decided I would join them too. She paired up with Y, so I danced with Z. At first, he and I danced separately, and I was happy we were staying out of each other's personal bubbles because I have personal space issues. But as the night progressed and people started packing closer together he put his hands on my waist and I put my hands on his back, because I thought backing away would have been awkward and perhaps insulting, although in retrospect I realize that I really should have done this since I didn't feel comfortable with our physical contact. At first I thought that we were dancing together in a friendly way. But I have never been in a relationship, so I am now wondering if touching each other while dancing is something that people who aren't romantically interested in each other do.

As I think back on that night, a few other things stand out in my mind as being somewhat questionable. Z walked me home, and as we walked he asked if I had a boyfriend (I guess he missed my informing X that I didn't have one) And when I asked him what he liked to do when he didn't work, he said he enjoyed eating at one of the local Mexican restaurants and asked if I liked eating there, too, saying maybe we could eat there one day. (Though, to be fair, he did say non-romantic things like "I look forward to being friends with you" and talked about us becoming better friends) When we said goodbye, he gave me a hug and a kiss on the cheek, which was surprising but I just figured it was a cultural custom (he's Honduran, in case that's relevant at all). At first I thought that this was all just a friendly exchange laying the basis for us to become cultural/language exchange buddies but the more I think about it, the more I wonder if there were some more suggestive undertones to it.

The next day, I thought he would be more friendly or talkative, but he didn't act any different, going about his business as usual. The fact that he didn't act really buddy-buddy with me makes me hope that he just sees me as a friend. And this guy really does seem like a decent person, from the fact that he walked me home and the fact that in the past he has apparently warned some of the female employees to not get drinks with Guy X (X made some aggressive, unwanted advances with a female coworker when they were drinking together once, which doesn't surprise me given his overt flirtatiousness when sober). Z also seems a lot less lecherous and more respectful than the other two guys, but there are certain things that are making me question how he sees me/what his intentions truly are:

1.) He told me he was 25, when he clearly looks older. I gullibly believed him, thinking that a lot of people look older than they are, but one of the servers said he was lying. When I asked him again how old he was, he said he was 26, so I figured if he didn't want to reveal the truth about his age I wouldn't push it any further. When he asked me why I was curious, I said "Just wondering" because I figured that was a more tactful answer than "Because you look a lot older than 26," but I wonder if he took my inquiry as a sign of interest in him.

2.) A few nights after we hung out, we were talking and although I'm not 100% certain, I think he said something about wanting to find a girlfriend. After that, two of my coworkers told me separately that he has kids and a girlfriend (I highly doubt his kids live with him here; otherwise, why would he go out dancing late at night after work?). One of them mentioned it off-handedly without any knowledge of the kitchen staff's boyfriend banter with me; the other, who is also a native Spanish speaker with limited English, was pretty emphatic about the fact that he has a girlfriend and kids, so I'm now starting to see that what I considered friendly banter about my getting a boyfriend might have been taken more seriously than I initially imagined. But it could be that this coworker is blowing things out of proportion and thinking that I'm interested in actually dating one of these guys when I'm really not.

3.) He has sent me two text messages after work saying "Feliz noche." The second time included "ilove" (I guess he forgot to text "you"). I really didn't think about it that much, because I thought maybe it was an instance where someone with limited knowledge of a different language is just using a common phrase that they don't really intend as a vessel for substantive meaning, sort of like when I said "Le amo" to him. But maybe I'm wrong?

I am horribly embarrassed about this situation. If this guy is interested in me, I feel as if I've led him to cheat emotionally on whoever he is dating. I figure that if he ever invites me to go dancing or asks if I want to eat dinner, I will definitely not go. But am I overthinking this? Could it be possible that maybe he's just really friendly and wanting to make friends with a native English-speaker? And if he is interested, what would be a good way to handle our interactions so that I still come across as friendly but not flirty?
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (13 answers total)
This...is not a big deal. You danced with a guy and flirted a bit and he came on to you kind of. You have like 10 paragraphs of beans up there. Going out dancing, flirting and having a little fun with coworkers is part and parcel of working in a restaurant.
posted by Katine at 8:17 AM on February 13, 2012 [8 favorites]

Ahhh, the pitfalls of high school Spanish. For future reference, "te amo" is a romantic expression. "Te quiero", which can be used romantically, is also used between friends and family in more affectionate way. Next time Guy Z helps you out, tell him you quiero him, not that you amo him. That'll keep some things from being lost (or generated) in translation.

This might also be a good time to stop dropping hints about how you'd never date a coworker. Might help this particular situation, and generally speaking, not a bad idea to set some boundaries at work anyway!
posted by olinerd at 8:24 AM on February 13, 2012 [2 favorites]

Yup, overthinking it. You didn't lead him to emotionally cheat on whoever he is dating. He's an adult, likely one who will take a chance with someone as soon as he sees a window of opportunity, which he probably did with you. I suspect this is no big deal to him and as soon as you start being distant he'll move on.
posted by Sal and Richard at 8:29 AM on February 13, 2012

We can't tell you whether he's hitting on you or not, because all we have to go on is your text and you don't know, yourself, whether he is. From the way you've framed things, it does sound like he has a crush, though he probably knows you aren't too likely to reciprocate. But he probably figures, why not go for it?

If he is crushing on you, you can let him down gently by starting to cheerfully mention your new amazing boyfriend. Not all the time, obviously, but drop him into conversations occasionally. I know, I know, you don't have one. Make one up.

When I worked in restaurants, I used to naively tell the truth when co-workers and/or patrons asked my relationship status, but that always ended up resulting in my needing to extricate myself from awkward situations later on. I also was initially resistant to making one up because I thought I might meet someone I liked but my figment of a boyfriend would deter him; but anyone you become interested in can be told that to desexualize the workplace you find it easier to "be in a relationship", and I'm quite sure they will understand. It's exceptionally common. I started "dating" a fabulous figment of my imagination and it stopped my accidentally involving myself in unreciprocated love drama.
posted by vegartanipla at 8:35 AM on February 13, 2012 [1 favorite]

Restaurants are lots of drama. You're making lots of drama by being so open and friendly at work.

Stop doing this RIGHT NOW.
posted by jbenben at 8:41 AM on February 13, 2012 [4 favorites]

I had what I thought was a friendly, platonic chat with a Latino restaurant employee one night. The next time I was in there he muttered "give me a kiss" in Spanish when he went by me. When I called him out on it in front of one of the bartenders, he claimed he didn't know what I was talking about, but since then he has kept his distance.

Nthing that this needs to be nipped in the bud pronto....and if Guy X has been harassing the female employees, he should have been fired the first time it happened.
posted by brujita at 9:08 AM on February 13, 2012

You're the hostess at a restaurant. The entire kitchen staff will be hitting on your forever if every restaurant I've ever known the inner workings of is any gauge. You've got to be firm if you want it to stop.
posted by cmoj at 9:48 AM on February 13, 2012 [7 favorites]

Cool civility is really the only way to navigate the hostess/male kitchen staff relationship, because restaurant culture is just such an over-the-top machismo cockpit culture. Channel your inner Grace Kelly from now on (her screen image, not her party-girl real life self).
posted by Sidhedevil at 11:10 AM on February 13, 2012

You're being really, really painfully naive. You don't need to tell the kitchen staff at the restaurant where you work that you love them when they help you, whether you mean it in a friendly way or not. You don't need to know how old they are or whether they have girlfriends or kids and they're not interested in being your "cultural/language exchange buddies." That just doesn't happen in this situation. I'm sorry, it doesn't.

Could it be possible that maybe he's just really friendly and wanting to make friends with a native English-speaker? And if he is interested, what would be a good way to handle our interactions so that I still come across as friendly but not flirty?

Most of your actions here could be interpreted as flirty even without the language barrier. Tell everyone at the restaurant you have a boyfriend, stop telling men that you love them when they're just doing their jobs, don't tell one guy that you love another guy who is right there as a way to deflect flirting (which, if it's not intended as flirty, is kind of cruel and demeaning, honestly), don't go out with them after work, don't dance with them one on one after work, don't assume that age or language or power differentials mean that they don't see you as a romantic prospect.

Boundaries. Get em. The way you talk to men in other contexts like college courses are not going to work here. "Friendly" flirting is going to be taken in earnest. If you don't mean it that way, then don't even go down that road.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 12:01 PM on February 13, 2012 [6 favorites]

On second read, I realize that something else could be going on here, namely that you saw a kindred spirit, flirted a little bit (half not expecting for it to be taken seriously), were surprised when it was (given your inexperience), and, worse, felt embarrassed to find out he has a girlfriend. Which would explain why you feel guilty (really, there's nothing to feel guilty about). Just know in the future that people in these situations--restaurants, especially, but at work generally--are likely to take you seriously as a romantic prospect and that the rules of flirting shift as you get older. Flirting itself is no big deal, but there's always the possibility that the guy is going to think you mean it. Try to keep that in mind. As for the situation now, just be a little more distant, a little less inclined to joke about "love" or "boyfriends", and a little more aware.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 12:18 PM on February 13, 2012 [1 favorite]

It's common for Mexican men to assume that young women from the US and Canada are easy to get into bed. If the same is true of Hondurans, then any flirty behavior from you could be much more loaded in his eyes. I live in Mexico and I've learned that as a gringa I have to be more "proper" than is necessary in the US to set clear boundaries.

As olinerd pointed out, you said you love him romantically. "Te quiero" is what you use with a friend, but I don't think you should say even that to him. At least among my friends, you don't say "te quiero" with a casual work acquaintance. You say it after you've spent a decent amount of time together talking about the meaning of life, personal challenges, and so forth.

The hug and kiss on the cheek would be totally normal in Mexico and maybe also in Honduras. However, the "I love you" text he sent was likely testing to see if you would open the romantic/sexual door to him wider.

It's time for clear boundaries and more professional behavior. If he or another member of the kitchen staff wants to be your language buddy, even as amigos, politely explain that you're muy ocupada. Don't give your phone number out. Don't respond to any more texts. Greet him and the other kitchen staff in a friendly but professional way and restrict your conversations to work topics.
posted by ceiba at 4:03 PM on February 13, 2012

I am a Mexican girl who has worked in a very drama-filled restaurant.

Hugs and kisses on the cheek are common when you are in Mexico. When with Americans this is usually a huge no-no because you guys emphasize your personal space more than we do.
I think he thinks you want to get in his pants. I don't think he wants you to be his girlfriend.

You need some serious boundaries. You can be friendly with the kitchen staff, but from what it sounds like to me you're in the realm of aggressive flirting, the kind that would make me uncomfortable if I was in the staff's position. You need to back off, and the way you do this is by keeping conversation work-oriented, by ignoring texts/calls, and by avoiding any outings with them until this blows over/they get over it.

Don't worry too much about the te amo stuff, though. This is an incredibly common mistake made by non-native Spanish speakers and we generally assume that you mean the much less sappy te quiero when you say that.
posted by cobain_angel at 8:11 PM on February 13, 2012 [1 favorite]

My experience as a girl working in restaurants is that the kitchen staff (especially the Latinos) are intensely flirty and persistent. I don't know if they actually mean it most of the time. There's nothing wrong with you being a little flirty, because that's just how things are at restaurants. But it's good for you to ALSO set boundaries -- this doesn't have to be "don't smile at me ever." This doesn't mean you have to stop being flirty. It means you have to be clear that you're just TEASING and are not actually serious when you flirt. That's pretty much the standard for where I've worked.
posted by DoubleLune at 4:12 PM on February 15, 2012

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