How to not make my coffee meeting with an important person awkward?
September 3, 2014 4:08 PM   Subscribe

I'm meeting up a manager of a big organization that I want to learn more about tomorrow. I have never met him before and was introduced by a mutual friend. He offered to meet me one-on-one for coffee to chat. I didn't think much of it at first and I agreed to it. A couple of my friends have commented that it seems awkward to meet someone (opposite gender) for the first time at a coffee shop. It's too late to cancel but now I'm feeling awkward about it. Should I offer to pay for his coffee tomorrow since he offered his time? Thanks for the advice!
posted by missybitsy to Society & Culture (28 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
This is normal networking, your friends are the ones with weird expectations. It's a nice gesture to pay for his coffee since presumably he is offering you some valuable professional insights, job lead, whatever
posted by slow graffiti at 4:13 PM on September 3, 2014 [40 favorites]

Yes, pay for his coffee. He's making time for you and there should be a reward for that, however small.

I don't see why your friends think this is awkward — I've done exactly this several times, and not always after being introduced by someone else; sometimes the whole process was started by me sending an email to $person_in_question.
posted by gmb at 4:14 PM on September 3, 2014 [1 favorite]

A couple of my friends have commented that it seems awkward to meet someone (opposite gender) for the first time at a coffee shop.

What on earth does his gender have to do with it? You're not dating, you're networking. Meeting for coffee is a totally normal thing to do with a business contact. And yes, paying for his coffee is a courteous thing to do.
posted by ottereroticist at 4:14 PM on September 3, 2014 [11 favorites]

I don't think the gender has to make it awkward, especially if he suggested it. Coffee strikes me as a very neutral and common place to do the informational-interview sort of thing it sounds like you're going for here. Offering to buy the coffee would be a nice gesture, but is not required, nor should you push it if he declines.
posted by Stacey at 4:14 PM on September 3, 2014 [1 favorite]

I don't see what's awkward about meeting in a coffee shop. That seems like the quintessential neutral place. Yeah, people go on dates in coffee shops sometimes, but I think if anything they do that because it's so neutral and doesn't create any expectations.
posted by needs more cowbell at 4:14 PM on September 3, 2014 [4 favorites]

What? No, this isn't awkward at all. I suppose it depends on where you are, and what kind of coffee shop it is, but not awkward at all. Yes, pay for the coffee - play it off as "the least I can do is get you a coffee!", etc.
posted by suedehead at 4:14 PM on September 3, 2014 [1 favorite]

Your friends are weird. This isn't a blind date, this is a networking meeting and it's TOTES normal to do it at Starbucks.

I'd draft some questions you'd like to ask, and take it from there. YES, offer to get his coffee and a muffin for him. He's doing you the favor.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 4:15 PM on September 3, 2014

Suggestions: do not take advice from your 22-year-old college peers about workplace propriety.

The setup as you describe it is completely routine, normal, and very generous of the person meeting you tomorrow. Your genders are irrelevant as this is a networking coffee -- note the word working -- not a dating coffee. Offer to buy his coffee but it's more likely he'll buy yours. NOT because you're a woman, but because that's typical of the higher-up person in that kind of meeting.*

*OK maybe it's me but I always buy for young people to whom I am giving information interviews. I made a living last year; you made student loans.
posted by DarlingBri at 4:15 PM on September 3, 2014 [35 favorites]

Just came in to say that not only are coffee shops neutral ground, but they're free of possible work related distractions. That's probably why he suggested it.
posted by Gygesringtone at 4:17 PM on September 3, 2014 [1 favorite]

This doesn't seem strange at all to me. You requested an informational interview, this person was nice enough to offer his time and arranged to meet at a coffee shop. That's all perfectly normal in my book. It has nothing to do with gender. This is how networking looks in the real world. Get there early, be prepared, and offer to pay for his coffee and a danish - it's the least you can do in a case like this. Follow-up with a thank you email or note.

Also, don't listen to these friends when it comes to issues related to your career or professional networking. Their suggestion that this is in any way awkward or inappropriate means that they have no idea what they're talking about and are giving you poor advice.
posted by quince at 4:18 PM on September 3, 2014 [2 favorites]

Did your friends have any suggestions? I'm just not sure of the angle they're looking at this with. I'm honestly stumped to come up with a more appropriate location.
posted by griphus at 4:19 PM on September 3, 2014 [1 favorite]

I also strongly disagree that this is weird or awkward in any way. As for "how to not make it awkward," you just stay completely professional the entire time, which I'm sure you were going to do anyway.

You might want to point out to your friends that this sort of attitude has the practical effect of preventing women from advancing in the workplace. Since men are over-represented in the professional world at the moment, any suggestion that "opposite gender" interactions are weird or inappropriate effectively reduces the options that women have for workplace interactions. If women are to advance professionally, men will have to interact with them and it will have to be not-weird.
posted by Joey Buttafoucault at 4:20 PM on September 3, 2014 [12 favorites]

Tell your friends to butt out and don't listen to their advice at all. They're mapping really unprofessional feelings onto what is going to be a professional situations.
posted by Hermione Granger at 4:25 PM on September 3, 2014 [2 favorites]

Assuming that this is because you would like to work for this organization eventually, (and assuming for the question that you don't much experience with information interviews) I just wanted to add the suggestion that you dress in a way that would be workplace appropriate for the job that you want. Not job-interview appropriate which is usually a step more formal but in a way that suggests that you would fit in with the culture. In some places that might be clean jeans and a polo, in others a blouse and skirt or dress pants.
posted by metahawk at 4:47 PM on September 3, 2014 [1 favorite]

I've done this multiple times, both as the manager giving advice and as the worker bee seeking advice and even as colleagues on similar levels. And yes, always opposite genders and meeting for the first time over coffee. There is nothing awkward about this. This is actually how this is done. Your friends sound like they severely lack the insight here to be making you feel self-conscious about this. Do not listen to your friends.

In all likelihood, he will pay as the higher-ranking person. But you can offer to pay if you want. I always offer and many times I get "Nah, don't worry about it" and I thank them. This is so not a big deal. It's a $2 cup of coffee, for fuck's sake.

My advice is to come into this conversation knowing what you want to get out of it. Do you have specific questions? Do have specific networking goals? Do you want an introduction with someone else? Figure out what you want to get out of the conversation, but do not blurt it out up front. Ease into it. Remember, this is only a conversation. A friendly but professional chat, really.
posted by AppleTurnover at 4:47 PM on September 3, 2014 [1 favorite]

The Starbucks near my office (in Silicon Valley) would probably go out of business without all the networking going on there, between people of all genders, as far as I can tell. It is not weird; your friends' judgement of this as awkward (because gender?!?) is what's weird.
posted by rtha at 4:49 PM on September 3, 2014 [1 favorite]

Think about what's in it for him. He may like the mentor role. He may constantly scout talent for his company. He may be doing it because of a friendship. None of these put a burden on you beyond being punctual and businesslike.
posted by SemiSalt at 5:08 PM on September 3, 2014

Ask yourself-- where would it be less awkward to meet someone for a chat like this? Not your apartment, let's hope, nor his office, ideally (makes it harder to speak freely and casually). Coffee it is.
posted by acidic at 6:48 PM on September 3, 2014

Agree that this is totally normal and not weird. But, as a woman who has done this, I get why you might feel that you need to try hard to MAKE it not weird. Some options, if you are anything like me and feel like you have to explicitly advertise to all and sundry THIS IS NOT A DATE:

(1) even though this is casual, put on your best professional clothing (where "best" is appropriate for your industry... Technology will be different from law, for example). Clearly be in Work Mode, not Social Mode. That goes for selection of shoes, accessories, bags, etc. If you're like me you'll feel more confident that you're here for business, and that will come through in how you walk/sit/speak/etc.
(2) set the dynamic from the start. Good firm handshake, "can I order you something?", sit across from rather than at a 90 deg angle from (if you're at a table), etc.
(3) if you get food to nibble on make it something that's easy and clean to eat.
(4) accept the fact that someone in the coffee shop, in passing, will maybe think you're on a date, and that's okay and doesn't matter and doesn't affect what you're doing in the slightest!

Good luck!
posted by olinerd at 6:51 PM on September 3, 2014 [3 favorites]

nor his office, ideally (makes it harder to speak freely and casually)

Everything has been said in this thread - twice - but I would only add that towing a new person through an office is going to raise all kinds of questions ("Is that the new hire? Is she replacing Bob? Oh god, are they firing Bob?") which is another of 100 reasons that the coffee shop is the most appropriate place imaginable in which to do this.
posted by ftm at 6:54 PM on September 3, 2014 [2 favorites]

And if it's anywhere near lunchtime and he buys something to eat for himself get something for yourself to eat too.
posted by bq at 7:21 PM on September 3, 2014

Just adding to the chorus: not weird at all, totally appropriate, yes offer to pay but don't be surprised if he pays for you instead as the more senior person. Also wanted to add that you should follow up with a written thank-you (email or physical card, whatever is most appropriate to your preference and your industry's culture), and also don't forget to follow up three or six months later. You're building a network here and staying in touch with him will help you maintain an active professional connection with him.
posted by aka burlap at 7:26 PM on September 3, 2014

As long as you don't pour booze into your coffee, you're fine.

Business one-on-ones with alcohol can quickly seem datey, but coffee? You'll be fine.
posted by suprenant at 7:34 PM on September 3, 2014

accept the fact that someone in the coffee shop, in passing, will maybe think you're on a date, and that's okay and doesn't matter and doesn't affect what you're doing in the slightest!

I'm sorry, but I disagree. No one is going to think you're on date for meeting with someone for coffee in the middle of a work day. This is literally how business is done. As I said in my post, I've done this tons of times. (I'm a woman. I've always always met with other men.) I've bumped into (opposite co-workers) having meetings with clients, colleagues, mentors, etc. too. There is literally nothing to feel weird about. There is not even the appearance of something other than business.

I also don't think you should order food. Again, this is a business meeting taking place at a coffee place. It's not lunch. It's not hanging out. Yes, if you go to an office lunch, get something easy to eat with a fork or spoon. But you should really be focusing on getting what you want out of this meeting, not nibbling on food. And I don't want to be overly strict here because this is a friendly meeting and you want to treat this guy like a friendly yet professional acquaintance. It doesn't need to be super uptight (just as it should not be treated super casual and open). But I wouldn't order food unless he does, and even then you don't have to. If you will just barely pick at it or feel awkward about eating, then don't. If he randomly orders a huge lunch (which I doubt), I'd just get something small, like a side or something.

Anyway, I don't think you need to overthink it. It's seriously Not A Big Deal.
posted by AppleTurnover at 8:00 PM on September 3, 2014 [2 favorites]

Business one-on-ones with alcohol can quickly seem datey, but coffee? You'll be fine.

I'd even go so far as to say alcohol is not a problem. As a mid-career professional I don't have too much time during the workday to leave the office and go chat with someone for half an hour or more; it's much more convenient for some of us to meet during happy hour, at which point coffee is no longer desirable. The last informational interview I held took place unsketchily in a quiet bar (granted, it was with a recently-graduated master's student; this would of course be a different situation with an undergrad).

In short, everyone else is right to think there's nothing weird about this unless you live in an unusually conservative/traditional area.
posted by psoas at 8:17 PM on September 3, 2014

Yeah just to add to the chorus here that your friends are overthinking it. Date coffees are so different from work coffees - the clothing, postures, vocabulary used are worlds apart. It's very generous of this guy to give you his time - I think offering to pay for his coffee is a good idea as a sort of thank you. Hope it goes well!

If I could favourite Joey Buttafoucault's comment fifty times I would.
posted by Ziggy500 at 2:07 AM on September 4, 2014 [1 favorite]

How do your friends even know this guy's gender? You know of him in a professional realm. His private life might be quite different. Maybe he has private lives, plural.

Sorry to be glib, but seriously I'm utterly confused by your friends.

Not awkward. You pay. Good on you for networking.
posted by Lesser Shrew at 7:04 AM on September 4, 2014

You should offer to buy his coffee, but it's pretty likely that as the older person/person with a job he'll counter by insisting on buying yours instead. Just accept graciously if this happens and follow up with a nice email or note thanking him for his advice.
posted by betsybetsy at 5:31 PM on September 4, 2014

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