Have a platonic, non-alcoholic drink with me?
January 28, 2013 7:21 PM   Subscribe

A few days ago I met someone who attended an early college program, and I'd love to learn more about her experience. Unfortunately, this person I met is a seventeen year old girl, I am very much neither of those, and it's apparently not unheard of for people my age to make passes at people her age. Is there any way for me to ask her for a cup of coffee (hot chocolate?) that is tactfully and yet unmistakably devoid of romantic subtext?

My interest is part academic and part personal. Academically, I TA'ed and tutored a bunch at the university level, went to some information sessions for secondary science teaching programs in Chicago, and am generally interested in education as a practice. I'd love to learn more about how you design a curriculum for an early college program, what distinguishes it from a magnet high school, what kind of students attend and why they choose to apply/matriculate/stay, how it affects their lives out of school and their later studies. You know, the usual first-pass questions that pop into your head when someone tells you they skipped the last two years of high school for a non-traditional program. I also hope this person might be able to introduce me to one of her teachers so I could get the other perspective.

And personally, I was sort of recruited (read: bulk mailed a bunch of brochures) by a similar program way back when, but decided not to go because of cost and distance and comfort in my then-current high school. So this also has a certain level of what-if to it, I admit, though I'll try to keep that from dominating the conversation.

As a tutor, my usual strategies for protecting myself would be to meet in a busy public area or in the presence of an adult relative. Unfortunately, I don't know her parents or any of her friends, and it turns out people sometimes take their dates to coffee shops too. Maybe it would still help to offer to meet with her parents beforehand? Or should I just drop this idea entirely and resign myself to reading the admissions brochures?
posted by d. z. wang to Human Relations (51 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
How did you meet her? That might help us understand the potential skeeve interpretation of this.
posted by sweetkid at 7:23 PM on January 28, 2013

Ask her if she and/or some of her classmates would mind helping you. And offer to speak to their parents about your interest.
posted by juliplease at 7:24 PM on January 28, 2013 [1 favorite]

Maybe there's a way to do this over email.
posted by ftm at 7:25 PM on January 28, 2013

We've seen each other at a couple of contra dances. I've chatted with her at the break a couple of times. It was the last of these when she mentioned her age and the early college program. She's facebook friends with an extremely sanitized Facebook account that I created after college just because all of contra is run through Facebook. I would probably make this request via a Facebook message, if at all.

I'm not ignoring the email suggestion. My thread-sitting policy is I respond to direct requests for clarification whenever I happen to see them, but hold off on substantive comments.
posted by d. z. wang at 7:30 PM on January 28, 2013

E-mail is probably your best bet for this, although it sounds like your question are somewhat macro- in nature and it seems unlikely that she'd be able to fully address them being only one person plus being as young as she is. It might be better to reach out directly to educators who work at the school.
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 7:30 PM on January 28, 2013

Can you contact this person's parents and ask them what the best way to do this is?
posted by dfriedman at 7:30 PM on January 28, 2013 [2 favorites]

I am with ftm: do this over e-mail. No in person meetings, because I can't think of a way to not be skeevy-seeming in your situation.
posted by jenfullmoon at 7:34 PM on January 28, 2013 [1 favorite]

Do you have a female friend with a similar interest in education whom you could bring along?
posted by Ralston McTodd at 7:34 PM on January 28, 2013 [8 favorites]

I'm sure she can tell you about how it impacted her life but curriculum design might not be something she has considered. I don't think you'll get all the information you're after.

Anyway, I think your best bet is to strike up a conversation at the dances and ask if you could get more information from her after the event. Surely there would be people milling about in the room after it's over. If you bring a pencil and paper, that would be less sketchy. And keep the conversation strictly about the school. And don't stare.

I think it's fine and you don't have to ask her parents.
posted by cranberrymonger at 7:36 PM on January 28, 2013 [1 favorite]

I'd mention that you're interested in learning more and ask for suggestions on who to contact. Then see if she offers to talk to you about it outside of class or suggests getting in contact with one of her teachers. But honestly, unless she's a very atypical 17 year old, I wouldn't expect either of those.
posted by matildatakesovertheworld at 7:38 PM on January 28, 2013 [2 favorites]

Message her and ask for her teacher's contact info FIRST. Contact the teacher, get that perspective, then ask for THAT person's suggestions on getting the students' side of things. There's a decent chance that you could provide a list of questions that could then be answered (maybe anonymously) by a number of students, possibly without having to negotiate the face-to-face aspect of things.

(I get that the face-to-face thing would potentially allow for more spontaneous questions/answers, but considering that it involves minors, it's just also way more fraught.)

Or just wait until this person is 18.
posted by emumimic at 7:49 PM on January 28, 2013 [16 favorites]

Nthing that you should make your request through some kind of authority figure. And, if you want to collect data, why not run a focus group? You might be able to do it at the school and you could have an individual interview portion.
posted by windykites at 7:51 PM on January 28, 2013 [2 favorites]

You met her at a dance? Absolutely do not ask her out for coffee or for anything else personal. There's no reason you can't cover this in email or via IM.
posted by empath at 7:52 PM on January 28, 2013 [16 favorites]

She won't be able to address a lot of your questions about curriculum design or how the program differs from the high school experience she never had. So first, be realistic about what she will be able to comment on knowledgeably - namely, what the social experience was like for her, what courses she took, what college-prep help students are given, etc.

Your questions about the higher-level stuff should go to one of the adults who runs/works at the program.
posted by LobsterMitten at 7:56 PM on January 28, 2013 [2 favorites]

Agreed that you should keep this conversation at email level. Or, if you feel you must meet her, say what you said above regarding your interests and ask if she and her parents would like to meet with you together, seeing as how it might be interesting to get the parents' perspective as well.
posted by greta simone at 7:57 PM on January 28, 2013

Sorry, but I'm finding it hard to buy that you have no interest in her beyond those you've listed. Why is your first thought to meet in person? There's no way to ask her to meet for coffee that's not skeevy. Contact someone who works for the program to discuss your questions, and ask them if there's a student that they could put you in touch with to discuss things from a student perspective.
posted by amro at 7:58 PM on January 28, 2013 [29 favorites]

She's 17. She's not going to be able to tell you jack about curriculum design. You'd get much more useful information by using next week's AskMe to pose these questions to your fellow Mefites. There are probably quite a few of us that attended these programs. (I chose to stay in my district's magnet high school, while my brother attended our state's pre-college math and science academy. We'd be happy to compare and contrast our exeriences for you.)
posted by MsMolly at 8:03 PM on January 28, 2013 [22 favorites]

"I'd love to hear your perspectives, and your parents', about how these programs work for students. Maybe your mum and/or dad and you can join me for lunch some Saturday so I can hear your stories?"
posted by Sidhedevil at 8:25 PM on January 28, 2013 [7 favorites]

Yeah it seems unlikely that a 17 year old kid is going to be very helpful with most of this stuff. Are you sure this curiosity didn't develop after meeting her and you're not just trying to convince yourself that you don't have a romantic interest?
posted by windykites at 8:28 PM on January 28, 2013 [9 favorites]

Ask in an email (so it's documented) if you could talk to her and her mother/parents: "I'd love to hear what you or your parents have to say."

It's up to her to include her parents, but at least you would be visibly treating her like a kid.
posted by KokuRyu at 8:37 PM on January 28, 2013

Yes, step one is to make sure you aren't secretly harboring some kind of romantic fantasy. If you think you might be, stop now. Danger, creepy, etc.

Step two is to do it in person. Next time you see her, mention that you enjoyed talking about whatever it was, and would she like to grab coffee so you can talk about it more? Preface it with a "I'm totally not hitting on you" or whatever works for you. Don't be coy. If she demurs, give it up. Continue your limited chatting like you always do.

There is nothing wrong with this. Provided your intentions are as platonic as you say.
posted by gjc at 8:55 PM on January 28, 2013

When I was 17, this guy on his 30s or 40s was weird with me. At the age, I assumed he and guys his age who wanted to talk to me or email me were pervs. Maybe it's unfair, but they perved around other young women, too, and it's gross.
posted by discopolo at 9:06 PM on January 28, 2013 [2 favorites]

Also, why can't you just look the info up on the web? It's available. It would take a couple of phone calls at worst. This sounds so fishy.
posted by discopolo at 9:07 PM on January 28, 2013 [2 favorites]

I agree with those who say the fact that you met her at a dance makes it impossible to carry off an in-person coffee date without coming off as a real skeeze. Even after you've proclaimed your purity of intent, my skeeze-o-meter is going haywire. It's just weird. Your justifications just don't really ring true, honestly.

Preface it with a "I'm totally not hitting on you" or whatever works for you.

Don't say this. God, do not say this.
posted by allnamesaretaken at 9:08 PM on January 28, 2013 [14 favorites]

Do her parents dance? Are they part of the contra community there?

I feel like this stuff starts to become possible when you're part of a well-connected community in which lots of people have strong connections to lots of other people in all directions. If you've both got family and friends who dance together, and have been dancing together for ages, then that's high up on the "Well duh then you just talk to her" scale. If there's less of that sort of social structure around you, then you have to be more careful.
posted by Now there are two. There are two _______. at 9:37 PM on January 28, 2013

Jeez, give this guy the benefit of the doubt. When I was a 17 year old girl I had plenty of platonic conversations with people of all ages and genders outside of a parental context. He could have legitimate interest in her perspective, and sometimes meeting people face to face aids in the actual facilitation of exchange. I know I often ask to meet with strangers to get to know more about their interests with non-romantic intentions (informational interviews anyone?). If I wanted to talk to a minor about something I would just make sure to include their parents. Simple.
Not all men view all underage girls as sex objects. We don't even know the OP's sexual preference. So let's not jump to conclusions, k?
posted by greta simone at 9:43 PM on January 28, 2013 [7 favorites]

OP, can I ask how old you are? It makes a difference.
posted by Salamander at 9:46 PM on January 28, 2013

It's not prima facie skeevy, but the fact that there's a "what if" aspect for you pushes it over the edge for me. When I was a teenaged girl, the skeevy older dudes (whether 25 or 75) were always keenly interested in talking about high school and what I thought about high school. Many teenagers do have many interesting things to say, but this is going to come across to her as being interested in her, not like an "informational interview."

Also, I think between AskMe, other research, and chit-chat at contra events you can learn far more than taking her out for coffee.
posted by stowaway at 9:57 PM on January 28, 2013 [1 favorite]

OP, can I ask how old you are? It makes a difference. (Salamander)

I'm fresh out of college. Yeah, I know, this would be a lot less creepy if I were in my eighties, or whenever it is people stop thinking of men as sexual agents.
posted by d. z. wang at 10:10 PM on January 28, 2013

I agree that you should go straight to asking for the teacher's contact details and skip talking to her in person.
posted by jacalata at 10:37 PM on January 28, 2013

I am (okay, was) a 17-year-old girl in an early college program. IANThis17YOGIAECP (mainly because that "was" was a few years ago by now.)

She gets asked about this. A lot. Both in totally platonic friendly curiosity ways, and also in vaguely skeevy hitting-on ways.

It sounds like, since your interest is on an academic level, the course of action I'd recommend is asking her for the name of her program and maybe the name of the director or coordinator (I am assuming from your description that the program she's in has a certain amount of structure, and is not just an exceptional acceptance thing that her university occasionally does.) This will (a) make it absolutely unambiguous that your interest is not romantic or sexual, (b) give her an out if she's not interested or uncomfortable talking about it, or talking about it to you, (c) give you the best chance at getting the information you're interested in, since any director/coordinator will be used to talking about the program, talking about any related research, etc.

P.S. If there's any questions that you'd like to run by a graduate of one of these, my Memail is open.
posted by kagredon at 10:43 PM on January 28, 2013 [2 favorites]

Actually, I think it's less creepy because you are college age and she is too, ostensibly. I went to an early college program (Bard @ Simon's Rock) and definitely thought of myself as sooo grown up at that age! However, I still wouldn't do it, and think that you can get better answers to your questions by asking for teacher contact info. You might also try posting an AskMe. I know that several MeFites attended these programs and have the benefit of hindsight, which she does not.

Curriculum design at SR was not very different from a typical college program, just FYI. That's the point - it's supposed to be comparable to college-level work. (My hunch is that she attends the Bard program in NYC - which doesn't have the same facilities as the campus, so there may be important differences)
posted by decathexis at 10:44 PM on January 28, 2013

Oh, but even though I said it's less creepy, keep in mind that any attractive young "advanced" girl knows, probably better than you seem to, that this derives from an interest in her rather than in her curriculum. You say it isn't, but look a little deeper - would you pursue a boy to ask these questions? A less attractive girl? You aren't the first person to treat her like she's special for something that is actually rather mundane, and this attention definitely didn't ever happen to the boys in my program. I used this to my advantage constantly until aging made it a moot point.

What you said about sexual agency was kinda creepy, actually. Just a little doth-protest-too-much.
posted by decathexis at 10:57 PM on January 28, 2013 [10 favorites]

If you want feedback on early college programs I can help you. I was a PEG student (program for the exceptionally gifted) at Mary Baldwin College in 1990. Went from 8th grade to freshman year of college (that first year we took college courses on campus with regular students AND had "catch-up" senior highschool math content by a private teacher in our dorm at the same time and then after that we were strictly taking college courses). It was a crazy, enriching, and at times damaging and demoralizing experience. There is a PEG alumni group on facebook and you can probably get q&a sessions with several folks on there as well if you have specific questions you'd like us to answer.
posted by TestamentToGrace at 4:03 AM on January 29, 2013 [1 favorite]

She's 17; she's almost certainly going to assume there are romantic or sexual intentions.
posted by BibiRose at 5:05 AM on January 29, 2013 [2 favorites]

Talk during the break at a dance (if she's not in a kid-clique puppy pile) or if you happen to be sitting out the same one, or ask, "hey, want to sit out the next one and tell me about your college program?" (this will probably set off warning bells for her).

(credentials: have been contra dancing since age 14 and have turned down many invitations to coffee/dinner/etc from perfectly nice older men who I like to dance with but that's it and I don't want to give a wrong impression)
posted by nonane at 5:10 AM on January 29, 2013

She's 17 and you just finished college? So you're like 22 or something? I thought you'd be significantly older. Dude, just wait a year. Then you can just ask her out and you won't need a pretext.
posted by windykites at 5:41 AM on January 29, 2013 [9 favorites]

When I was a 17 year old girl I had plenty of platonic conversations with people of all ages and genders outside of a parental context.

But how did those conversations occur? Did someone you meet once at a dance later contact you to suggest an in-person meet-up, to have a platonic conversation? Regardless of what his actual intentions are, the particular circumstances here make it SEEM sketch, even if it's truly on the up and up.

I think the time to have an in-person convo with her was at the dance. Send an email.
posted by 23skidoo at 6:52 AM on January 29, 2013

There is literally no way to pursue this with her directly without seeming incredibly suspicious. Having been a 17 year old girl in an early college program myself once, I would have seen right through the premise of a coffee date so an older man could ask me pedagogical questions about the curricular details of my program. Instead, I would have immediately seen this as an older man asking me for a coffee date, pretty much period.

If you are genuinely only interested in obtaining her thoughts about her program, previous posters have it--ask her parents or follow up with the director of her program. Otherwise, drop this like a hot rock, because it looks bad.
posted by anonnymoose at 7:33 AM on January 29, 2013

Have your wife or girlfriend there when you ask her.
posted by Stagger Lee at 7:42 AM on January 29, 2013 [1 favorite]

I don't get why this is such a big deal. A 17-year old is not a child. I think it would be really weird to go through her parents and teachers. Just say, "I'm interested in hearing more about your experience in the pre-college program. Would you be up for meeting for coffee sometime and talking about it?" If she thinks it's a date, so what? Just don't act date-ish when you're there -- don't touch her, flirt with her, etc. If you really want to be clear up front, say, "Can I interview you about your pre-college experience as part of my education research?"
posted by chickenmagazine at 8:12 AM on January 29, 2013 [2 favorites]

Yeah, I'm with chickenmagazine. Some of these responses strike me as quite odd. When I was a 17-yr old HS senior/college freshman, I had conversations with all kinds of people about my education and school experience. And no man of any age or description ever tired to hit on or date me in any fashion, even when I would have given anything for them to have done so. Just tell her you're interested in the program she did because of X and Y reasons, and you'd like to ask her some questions about it and if possible get the contact info for her teachers so you can talk to them too. Suggest meeting in a public place like Starbucks or a library and then just act normal, same as you would with another guy.

It's not at all unusual for people ages 17 and 22 to be taking the same classes, or working at the same entry-level jobs. You guys aren't that far apart, and she's not a small child. (I'd wait till the next contra-dancing thing, if these are regular, and just talk to her at that point. But if it's not regular and FB is all you have, I don't think that's horrible.)
posted by DestinationUnknown at 8:42 AM on January 29, 2013

If she thinks it's a date, so what?

She's a 17-year-old girl and it's deeply unkind to put her in a position of wondering if this adult man is asking her out on a date. Yes, she's almost an adult. Yes, the OP is relatively close to her age. There's still a power imbalance that puts her at a disadvantage. Asking someone out for coffee in a way that might be construed as a date is very different from talking to someone at a social event or in a class. I remember being 17 and feeling, acutely, the difference between chatting with all different kinds of people at my job as a barista, and receiving attention from older men who were asking me to spend time with them one-on-one.

I am pretty sure that you can find out the name of the program and a way to contact the director or someone else involved in the program without even talking to this girl. If you can't, memail me the information you have and I'll find it. Seriously. Or, ask around your adult friends to see if you have connections to this type of educational program.

Once you have a lot of background information and a sense of direction about what you want to do with the information you're gathering, I think it'd be fine to email her a few specific questions or arrange to meet with her as long as you're explicit that 1) you'll be bringing a colleague, 2) she's welcome to bring friends from the program or her parents, and 3) the purpose of this meeting is to further your plans to, say, design a similar program at another institution, or whatever it might be.
posted by Meg_Murry at 9:14 AM on January 29, 2013 [2 favorites]

Contradancing is such a weird environment because as a young girl, you do socialize/dance with a variety of people of all genders and ages.

Preface it with a "I'm totally not hitting on you" or whatever works for you.

Seriously don't, the only guy who ever said anything like this to me ("sorry, I'm not hitting on you, this isn't a date") asked me to go back to his apartment (explicitly for sex!) with him in the middle of the ballet we were attending. He was 40 and I was 19. Nearly any young girl who spends much time around older men probably thinks that "I'm not hitting on you!" means "You're very attractive and I'd like to, but don't want you to pre-judge me."

I also recommend asking for her teachers' contact info first, and asking them about ways to survey students. They will know better, and if it doesn't have to be THIS girl, it will be just fine.

(Also, a lot of 17-year-olds drink coffee.)
posted by stoneandstar at 10:30 AM on January 29, 2013 [1 favorite]

I think you should research these programs in ways other than asking her. I don't understand what she would get out of such a meeting. You aren't friends nor plan to become friends. It would be incredibly tedious to meet up to talk with someone about something like this. I will take you at you word, that it's not sexual, but I still don't understand why she would want to sit down and discuss her experiences from her early college program when she gets absolutely nothing in return.
posted by parakeetdog at 10:37 AM on January 29, 2013 [3 favorites]

I don't get why this is such a big deal. A 17-year old is not a child. I think it would be really weird to go through her parents and teachers. Just say, "I'm interested in hearing more about your experience in the pre-college program. Would you be up for meeting for coffee sometime and talking about it?" If she thinks it's a date, so what?

I'm probably in the minority here, but actually, if the question had been "Is it okay for me to ask this 17-year-old out for coffee to get to know her better (i.e., as a date)?" I probably would've shrugged and said "Eh, it depends on the 17-year-old." Because, yeah, 17-year-olds do sometimes date 22-year-olds, and in my admittedly anecdotal and limited experience, 17-year-olds in college do so a lot more often than 17-year-olds in high school, and in some cases it's creepy and there's a significant and obvious power imbalance, and in some cases it's really not a big deal, and it's kind of something to take case-by-case, IMO.

But. The question was "How do I make it absolutely clear that I am not asking this 17-year-old on a date, because I want to ask her about this thing?", and the answer to that is "There is really no way to ask her without her at least wondering briefly if it's a date, and also she is probably not the best person to ask about this thing from a purely pragmatic point of view."

I was thinking about this thread more this morning, and Parakeetdog kind of beat me to what I was thinking. Because when I was 17, I was in my first serious relationship, starting a new job, fighting almost-constantly with my stepmother, doing normal social and hobby stuff (not dancing, in my case, but anyway), and also trying to get a decent grade in 400-level biochemistry. If a friendly near-stranger had asked me if I could sit down with him for an hour or two to discuss my college experience, I'd (a) have thought he was hitting on me and (b) even if I hadn't, it would be so far down in my priorities that I'd probably have to say "No, sorry, I can't, here's an email address for the program director, he'll be happy to talk to you." Except that, when I was 17, I hadn't totally figured out when and how to gracefully say "No, sorry, I can't," so I probably would've said "Sure!" and then constantly have to flake out or reschedule and then he wouldn't get the information he wanted and I'd feel pretty bad about it and no one would be happy.

tl;dr just email the program director.
posted by kagredon at 11:18 AM on January 29, 2013 [6 favorites]

Thanks for the replies, everyone. You've convinced me there's not really a good way to do this. To respond to a few of the more common suggestions:

- I know the name of the program and have already looked through the website.

- I've asked the mods and it turns out they would not consider it chatfilter for me to ask about people's early college experiences next week, so check back for that.

- If I see her at another dance I might ask her a few questions but I won't try to contact her otherwise.

A few of you have suggested going directly to the admissions department/faculty. Does that actually work? I've done a couple of officially-sanctioned classroom observations shifts before, which did include interviews with students and teachers, but they've always been arranged through my school and theirs and in one case required me to be cleared by building security first. Now that I'm not affiliated with a university and studying this stuff, how would I approach them? Specific advice would be appreciated.
posted by d. z. wang at 7:45 PM on January 29, 2013

To be clear, I wouldn't be asking for any kind of extended visit, just a chat with a teacher or two. I'm just hung up on the part where I no longer have any official reason to be interested in this stuff. I feel like the staff would be unlikely to entertain requests from the general public for curiosity's sake, and I'd like some advice on how to make it worth their while.
posted by d. z. wang at 7:47 PM on January 29, 2013

I think the key is to have some specific goals in mind and be able to show that you've done your homework, both about the field and about the program or person. Something like, "I've done [type of coursework], and [type of classroom observation], because I'm working toward a career in [professional field]. I'm interested in learning more about your program, because I think that I'd like to do [thing the program involves or thing the person you're talking to does]. Do you have half an hour free in the next few weeks? I'd love to ask you some questions about [the program] and your role there."

In general, people like to be helpful and give advice, even when they don't know the person seeking their advice. People like feeling that they're considered experts in their domain. Sometimes they're truly busy, but often they'll suggest another person, and even make an introduction, to help the advice-seeker. The only complaint I've ever heard from a professional about this kind of situation was that the young advice-seeker didn't seem to have done any work beforehand to begin to understand the field--but with your educational background and classroom experience, that's unlikely to be a risk for you.
posted by Meg_Murry at 7:22 AM on January 30, 2013 [1 favorite]

I'm sure the program director fields many questions from media, prospective students, other schools and even the general public. Part of their role would be to promote the programs as much as possible. You could frame it as an area that you might want to get into on a professional level... that might be more immediately understandable than simply a passing personal interest.

I agree with Meg_Murry that people like to talk about their work and what they do. As long as you come prepared and stick to the meeting timeframe, I can't see this being a big drain on resources/time.
posted by cranberrymonger at 12:00 PM on January 30, 2013

Followup question, for people who offered to comment on it: tell me about your experience at an early college program.
posted by LobsterMitten at 10:20 PM on February 12, 2013 [1 favorite]

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