Help me not appear to be sleeping my way to the top
September 8, 2007 1:43 PM   Subscribe

How do I as a young female professional behave warmly, but not flirtatiously, towards attractive men with whom I want to network?

I'm just launching my career, and I realized that I'm somehow going to have to deal with my propensity to get all crushy over the attractive older men in my field. How do I form personal/professional relationships with them without being overly flirtatious? How do I deal with, say, having drinks one-on-one at a conference?
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (35 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
Act as if you're not attracted to them.

You know how you deal with guys whom you like, and want to have a good relationship with, but aren't actually interested in ever sleeping with?

Same thing.
posted by bingo at 1:53 PM on September 8, 2007

Assuming that bingo's answer isn't that helpful on its own, you could start by actually paying attention to how you interact with people who you're not attracted to "that way". Other women?

Honestly, though, I'm not sure that even my addendum helps me. I have no idea how to act around people, and the specific situation you describe -- younger professional woman alone with an older professional man -- would be difficult to observe in the wild. How much eye contact? Handshaking? What kinds of jokes? What if he seems to be flirting? Is he flirting? How much personal information to give? Specifics like these would be really helpful. I'm pretty sure one wouldn't want to figure this stuff out just from watching movies.

Is this what "business etiquette" books offer? Can you trust books like that? Does it vary by industry, company, office?
posted by amtho at 2:02 PM on September 8, 2007

i think some flirtation is par for the course, at least with some men.

treat them like a brother-in-law: someone you want to connect with, but not in that way.
posted by thinkingwoman at 2:08 PM on September 8, 2007

I have the opposite problem: how do you network successfully with older men hitting on you without sacrificing your professionalism (and dignity)?

As advice to the OP: I would just remain focused on your goal... why do you want to know this person? Be kind of a jerk and spend the conversation thinking about how they can be useful. Maybe that will help you detach your attraction from the professionalism?

I'll be watching this thread with interest. Good question.
posted by olinerd at 2:12 PM on September 8, 2007

Assuming that you aren't ever interested in these fellows for anything more, can you drop a reference to a boyfriend or someone you are seeing? I think that might put it out in the open that you aren't looking for more.

Also, you could try to have these types of encounters with more than one other person.
posted by mmascolino at 2:20 PM on September 8, 2007

Yea, olinerd, I tend to agree, give these attractive older men half the chance and they will be hitting on anonymous.

Maybe if you had a partner to whom you were fully committed it would help.

And to fend off the guys, cheat a bit and wear, if not a wedding band, a flashy ring that looks like it should be an engagement ring. Since flirting is a 2-way street, a ring may also help you avoid beginning to flirt.
posted by londongeezer at 2:23 PM on September 8, 2007

I just wrote four or five paragraphs, and then I deleted it all, because really – I flirt my face off at work when I have the opportunity.

The brother-in-law thing is the best advice so far, I think. Keep in mind your professional abilities – you're there for work and so are they. Keep your eyes on your job, be cordial but not sultry. When you're having conversations keep those low suggestive tones out of your voice (every woman has them in her arsenal, I'm convinced.) Act uninterested and they'll act uninterested. It's a polite fiction that keeps us from tearing each other's clothes off in the office hallways except at Christmas parties, and lets everyone get work done.

Maybe I am being too realpolitik about it. But seriously. We all get attracted to other people at work. Just make sure you're getting your work done and be nice and friendly. If you don't have a boyfriend, act the same way you would if you had an absolutely wonderful boyfriend that you want to propose to you.
posted by blacklite at 2:41 PM on September 8, 2007

The ring idea is great, actually. A friend of mine has this really quite nice ring she wears, she likes it, it's attractive, it makes her happy – and people notice. And hey, when you get really interested in someone, you can go, "so, what do you think of this ring I bought for myself?"

Instant clear message.
posted by blacklite at 2:43 PM on September 8, 2007 [2 favorites]

I'm pretty perplexed by this question. Has anon been told she is too flirtatious? Is anon propositioned by every guy she talks to? What does it mean to "appear" to be sleeping your way to the top?

I am repeatedly struck these days by how sexist things are still in the workplace and through every age group. I have stopped smiling at the guys in my office unless they smile first because they never smile. You pass a male co-worker and smile and say "good morning" and sometimes they just nod their head. What's wrong with you guys? All my female co-workers smile and say "hello."

I also overheard a male manager interviewing a prospective female employee and lamenting about how hard it is to combine motherhood and work and how often pregnancy can interfere with work. The hell?

Anyway, anon, don't worry about it. Be professional and act like yourself. Be forthright and true to who you are. No matter how you act, some guys are going to take it the wrong way. Some men can't seem to resist giving every woman who crosses his path a shot. You shouldn't worry about it. It's their problem, not yours. As long as you are ethical, professional and responsible and do good work, you will get ahead and feel good about it.

You cannot stop some men from judging you based solely on your sex. Figure out who they are and work around them.

I've been in networking situations before where I'm having a great discussion with a peer and when he finds out I'm married the conversation is suddenly over. It makes me laugh and I make a note never to do business with those guys or recommend them to anyone for anything. That goes for any kind of sexist bullshit.

Save your "crushy" for available guys outside of your field.
posted by amanda at 2:46 PM on September 8, 2007 [4 favorites]

Another clarification question: are you asking how to control how you *feel* ("getting all crushy") or how you are *perceived* ("being overly flirtatious")?
posted by amtho at 2:46 PM on September 8, 2007

Maybe the "instant clear message" thing works differently in reverse. I'm a single guy who often wears a ring on the finger that means 'married', even though I am wearing it for a different personal reason.

It pretty much triples the amount of flirting and hitting-upon I receive from women. And that's 10+ years of sample size.
posted by rokusan at 2:59 PM on September 8, 2007

"... How do I deal with, say, having drinks one-on-one at a conference?"

I'm an older businessman. I go to conferences.

No way, in these litigious times, I'd have "drinks," one-on-one, with a much younger female colleague. Older guys that do, aren't just looking to exchange shop talk. Younger women that aren't being disingenuous know this.

You build a professional reputation by being, in all circumstances, at all times, unquestionably professional. I think you'll find that, the more august your professional acquaintances, the less likely your opportunity for personal relationships with them outside the professional sphere. For all that is said about the power elite enjoying Bacchanalian revels at every turn, the reality is that most senior men in any significant role are all too aware that May-December flings look lousy in newsprint, and court filings. And quite frankly, a lot of older men don't think 20 something women are attractive.

For every tabloid, trailer-trash Clinton-Lewinsky pairing, there are 300 senior partners from WilmerHale who would smile softly at the naivete of your question. And none of them would have "drinks one-on-one" with you, either.
posted by paulsc at 3:02 PM on September 8, 2007 [4 favorites]

I think being perceived as flirtatious has a lot to do with the things you are willing to talk about with men --- and the way you talk to them.

There's flirty chatter, and there's professional chatter.

Flirty chatter involves being giggly and admiring and complimenting the other person too much. If anyone watching you might mistake you and your conversation partner for being on a date, you're probably being too flirty.

Professional chatter involves treating the other as if their sexuality does not exist, not trying to stroke their ego or make them feel good about themselves. You can have pleasant conversation that is still professional.
posted by jayder at 3:09 PM on September 8, 2007 [2 favorites]

You're kinda asking two questions--#1 How do you behave socially and network and so that it's not perceived as flirting, and #2 How do you keep from actually developing crushes on the men in your field.

As for the first part, cautiously determine where a good line is for a woman in your industry, and then don't cross it with anyone, for any reason. Then, be sure to let the the men know that you only flirting without intent to proceed. How? Be an equal opportunity flirter--men, women, fat, old, ugly, that way nobody gets the any ideas it's serious. If you wouldn't say it to the sweet little old bad guy in accounting, don't consider saying it to the cute hotshot in sales.

As for your tendency to get crushy, try to imagine these guys as your step dad, or your best friend's older brother: just completely off limits. Imagine a young woman in your dad's office flirting up a storm with him--that's not who you want to be. Remind yourself that what you want is their respect for your abilities, not to think you're hot. Maybe flirting is what you fall back on because you're not confident enough in the substance of your work. If a man gets too flirty with you while you're socializing, casually mention his wives or girlfriend or mention your boyfriend or ex or the guy your dating, even if you have to make one up. And try to imagine what it's like to be those women--really try to empathize with the sisterhood here. You might be in that spot at some point. Men tend to compartmentalize work and home, so keep popping that bubble for them. And if the guy is single, take a good hard look at him--and ask around of the other women who know him. It may well be a sign that he's really bad at the relationship thing.

You might wind up falling in love with someone through work, and that would be great. Falling in bed at a conference or after an office party wouldn't be the best way to start.
posted by tula at 3:11 PM on September 8, 2007 [1 favorite]

And quite frankly, a lot of older men don't think 20 something women are attractive.

Just for the record, I'd say that the number of older men who don't think twentysomething women are attractive is probably a vanishingly small minority.

(I think paulsc is wrong pretty much across the board in that comment.)
posted by jayder at 3:13 PM on September 8, 2007 [1 favorite]

paulsc, how should the OP already know the answer to her own "naive" question, if not by asking it? It seems to me that one-on-one drinks between two May-December males would be okay, as would drinks between two females. Isn't that mentorship? It's actually rather unclear where the propriety border is in regard to age and gender, which is why the OPs question is valid and probably not disingenuous.
posted by xo at 3:39 PM on September 8, 2007 [2 favorites]

Professional is professional: clear personal boundaries, a set of ethics, behavior consistent with those principles. It really is not about your feelings, it is about your behavior. If you let your feelings interfere with any professional relationship then you are not being professional, you are being human which is a struggle for all professionals. Being professional also meets treating all clients (patients whatever) with the same professional courtesy, warmth, distance and competence. All is all paulscis on track.
posted by rmhsinc at 4:53 PM on September 8, 2007

As paulsc says, act professional at all times. Act as if your sexuality doesn't exist. You're there to gain people's respect, not their friendship or anything more. You want them to remember you as an interesting woman who they may be working with in future, not the hot chick they may be doing something else with in future...

Remember why you're there - to further your career not to meet the man of your dreams - and keep the conversation on that track. Talk about them and ask questions about their career - not only do people love talking about themselves, but you can learn a lot from what they tell you. If your conversation strays outside professional lines, talk about your recent weekend climbing trip, but not your weekly burlesque dance class. I never mention my boyfriend (invites discussion of my personal life, and can also send the message "but for the boyfriend, things would be different"), but I would say "you remind me a lot of my dad/uncle/high school maths teacher" (in a good way).

Personally, I'd avoid one-to-one drinks at a conference, unless you're looking for a mentor, in which case that should be clear. And if you're choosing a mentor, pick someone that you're unlikely to develop a crush on!
posted by finding.perdita at 5:02 PM on September 8, 2007

A note, on reading the comments thus far: I feel like the OP's "having drinks one-on-one at a conference" scenario may not mean what a lot of people here think it means, e.g. going somewhere, an outside venue like a bar or chic restaurant, to have drinks, with only this older man as company.

No, the way I read it, it sounds like at conferences in the OP's field, there are often large rooms where people are mingling, wherein "drinks one-on-one" would just mean two people in the room talking together for a time, each with a drink in his/her hand. Not quite as serious, but still raises the questions the OP is asking.
posted by limeonaire at 5:26 PM on September 8, 2007

As everyone said - no drinks or dinner 1:1. Just no.

When you give someone your card, do not add personal information (such as your cell phone) - always say, "Call me at my office." That keeps it clearly professional.

If you need to work with a colleague at the hotel, then find a spot other than a hotel room.

Dress modestly and professionally - especially at after hours events. Don't tart it up at the cocktail hour.

Don't be coy or disingenuous. You know when you're flirting. Control it.

I'm chatty and flirty too, but in my professional life I do not flirt. It's too much of a hassle for me and any man involved.
posted by 26.2 at 5:44 PM on September 8, 2007

Assuming that bingo's answer isn't that helpful on its own, you could start by actually paying attention to how you interact with people who you're not attracted to "that way". Other women?

Best answer. Absolutely.
posted by Neiltupper at 6:08 PM on September 8, 2007

What everyone else has said, really. Being unquestionably professional and concentrating on being good at your job are both crucial and important traits to master if you want to be taken seriously. When I first started out in a management job at a major corporation, I read this book, which is actually more about just understanding how men and women are different & how to to handle yourself as a real professional than it is about actually "playing hardball." I really learned a lot from that book about what it means to men to work as part of a team (it's way different than for women) and how crucial it is to put my emotions aside and focus on goals in order to get my job done well. And that it's not important if people like you as their best friend as much as that they respect what you bring to the table when you are working together as teammembers.

That said, one thing I also learned over the years is that even if you are the most hard nosed uber professional on the earth sometimes it's possible for another person to project sexuality ONTO you no matter what you do, though. Especially when you're a young girl, it's possible that despite all of the professionalism you can muster, someone may someday project something onto you. That's because the fact is you may be able to control your own behavior, but you can't control other people's emotions. If you honestly feel you didn't do anything inappropriate, then take a good look at the person accusing you & consider the politics around you. Your accuser could be a woman who is possibly jealous of you & in competition with you & trying to make you look bad. Or possibly some guy who actually wishes you WERE getting crushy on him & has ego problems. Short of becoming Pat, it's impossible to avoid being seen as a sexual being by the people around you entirely if you are a slightly attractive young woman.

So with that in mind, it's ESPECIALLY important to gain a reputation for professionalism. Because that way when some fool accuses you of unprofessionalism not only will you know in your heart that you have done nothing wrong, but other people will probably take your word for it and stand up for you. Having your reputation speak well for itself is always a really good thing.
posted by miss lynnster at 6:24 PM on September 8, 2007 [1 favorite]

Interesting. I think a lot of men will assume you're flirting with them even if you're not.
posted by onepapertiger at 7:17 PM on September 8, 2007

From Rokusan: Maybe the "instant clear message" thing works differently in reverse. I'm a single guy who often wears a ring on the finger that means 'married', even though I am wearing it for a different personal reason.

It pretty much triples the amount of flirting and hitting-upon I receive from women. And that's 10+ years of sample size.

That's pretty interesting. Are they really hitting on you? Sometimes I feel more comfortable and at ease around a guy who I know or think is married since it feels safer. Hm. Navigating these areas sometimes seems like too much effort.
posted by amanda at 9:05 PM on September 8, 2007

When women are flirting they tend to play up "feminine" behaviors. If you are not conscious of which behaviors these are, try to get conscious of it. I actually learned a lot about what signals femininity by watching The Crying Game (eg, when your arms are exposed, keep your shoulders back and down, and elbows very slightly in); you might try renting some movies with femmy main characters and see what they're doing.
Don't be Meg Ryan.
Smile confidently rather than coyly -- the same look you have when you're about to give someone a good business handshake. Make direct, not tentative, eye contact and know when to break eye contact. Don't drop your eyes in a shy/sweet way when breaking eye contact - instead move them to a target off to one side, not down. Shake hands in a businesslike and upbeat way. Know how to smile with just your mouth and not your eyes (use sparingly to connote "I mean business"), know how to smile with just your eyes and not your mouth, etc.
posted by LobsterMitten at 9:18 PM on September 8, 2007

Avoid femmy behaviors like apologizing too much, which tend to put the other person in a position of having to "take care of you" conversationally (eg by saying "oh, no, don't worry about it" or whatever) -- you don't want to get people in the habit of thinking of you as someone who needs a caretaker.
posted by LobsterMitten at 9:20 PM on September 8, 2007

Maybe the "instant clear message" thing works differently in reverse. I'm a single guy who often wears a ring on the finger that means 'married', even though I am wearing it for a different personal reason.

It pretty much triples the amount of flirting and hitting-upon I receive from women. And that's 10+ years of sample size.
posted by rokusan at 4:59 PM on September 8

It's not just you.

I've certainly sensed it, and most of my married male friends all report much greater interest from females after they got married. One of my friends has said for over 15 years now "The greatest aphrodisiac in the world for women is a male wedding ring".

The evolutionary biology thinking on it, which I know is controversial even in its existence, is that women look for good mates, and having the "stamp of approval" from another female in the herd makes the male more attractive than a single, "unapproved" male.

I also think lots of women consider a married man "safe" to flirt with, to go over a line that they may not with a single man. Think dog on a leash... he can only go so far.
posted by Ynoxas at 9:49 PM on September 8, 2007

Concretely: keep conversation to business and work like hell to always know what you're talking about. Non-business small talk, which is important to master if you want to connect with and be memorable to people, should be neutral: books, travel, anything edifying you'd feel comfortable talking about with your grandma. If they are married and/or have kids politely ask after their families. Nothing kills a crush like hearing about how Junior's doing in the science fair. If you are interested in a more experienced person to be a mentor or close associate, carefully suss out their reputations, male or female, to make sure they're the sort who will really help rather than exploit you.

Generally: Always bear in mind that an older and especially married man who would flirt with you at a conference or in any professional context is almost never doing it for the first time or because he thinks you're special or particularly fascinating -- you're likely just one in a line of disposable young women. And if this thread has given you nothing else that's truly useful, it should help you to never forget that if you do flirt, you risk being mocked for your "naivete" or otherwise being condescended to and underestimated. For your own self-respect and self-interest, don't give them that preening satisfaction.
posted by melissa may at 12:56 AM on September 9, 2007

Every day when you wake up, think of how glad you are that you didn't hook up with anyone you work with. Take the time to thank yourself for practicing restraint.
posted by Afroblanco at 1:08 AM on September 9, 2007

As someone who goes to conferences/workshops/meetings etc a lot, I have to offer this: do not ever make personal connections while on work trips like that. It speaks enormously against your professionalism. Let alone that you will be preyed upon by gossiping coworkers --it's brutal and usually unfair.

I always avoid discussing matters other than work related even with my female colleagues. Generally I avoid one-to-one dinners/drinks/daytrips with colleagues. If I have to discuss something in person, I choose a neutral environment: eg the meeting cafeteria, or a quiet corner during a break, but in everyone's view. If I am invited on the meeting-sponsored-daytrips by one person I ask someone else to tag along. Flirtatious comments, even from people I could be attracted to, I fend off by returning the topic of conversation abruptly to a work topic. That has cleared things quickly and always in my ten years of experience.

If you want to be a warm person, which is nice in my opinion, be warm with all, women and men, crushes and not. Crushes rarely last, ill-reputation rarely doesn't.
posted by carmina at 3:43 AM on September 9, 2007

There is some bad/unrealistic advice here.

In my last performance review, my boss instructed me to have at least one lunch or dinner each month with a different higher-up in various local tech companies. Guess what? They're all men, mostly in the 40 to 60 range. I'm a 20-something woman. Nobody would look twice if I was a 20-something man. I'm following in the footsteps of a 60-something woman and a 40-something man, and they both were able to have these regular meetings with tech executives. Does my femaleness mean that I should just choose not to fulfill some of the core functions of my job?
posted by croutonsupafreak at 12:16 PM on September 9, 2007 [2 favorites]

Raymond Chandler:

"Once in a while in this much too sex-conscious country a man and a woman can meet and talk without dragging bedrooms into it. "
posted by croutonsupafreak at 12:21 PM on September 9, 2007

Second croutonsupafreak. I have closed door 1:1 meetings with men all the time, with such people as my boss, my boss's boss, and miscellaneous coworkers. I do not see how you could conduct a performance review, get career advice, or even just have two loud talkers discuss a mundane subject without disturbing others without meeting behind closed doors. It will happen.

And here's a secret: I even have a little crush on my boss's boss. I've known him for two years now and it's not going away. I don't openly flirt with him and I always act professional. I do, however, wear my favourite shirt and make sure my hair looks ok before I meet with him. And I can't suppress some of the coy smiling and looking down and away, especially when I am getting a good review/compliments on my work.

You know what, it is ok to have a crush. And it is ok to have a flirty subtext to a conversation. It keeps life exciting and verifies that you indeed have a pulse. Just never make an overt action. In my case, it helps that I am happily married and that I would never ever want to enter a serious relationship with that man because I think I'd have to murder him due to some of his personality traits and lifestyle choices. However, I know what I do want from him (raises, bonuses, promotions) and he gives me those in spades. Hell, the subtle flirting may even help keep me as one of his favourite employees. So, keep your eyes on the prize and you'll be fine.
posted by crazycanuck at 2:08 PM on September 9, 2007 [1 favorite]

Does my femaleness mean that I should just choose not to fulfill some of the core functions of my job?

Yes, I too have managed to meet with men at conferences one on one -- and have even have been bought a drink or two or vice versa -- without anyone thinking I was selling my ass. People generally insanely overschedule themselves at conferences, so you steal time with them where and when you can. You're all likely in the same hotel. Where the hell else do you grab a quick meeting but a lounge or a bar?

If I'd been too shy or fearful to think I could carry off a duenna free meeting without handling myself competently it would have harmed me professionally. If some professional contact had refused to meet with me in a public place because he feared litigation -- well, I suppose I'd never know it. But if I did, I'd think a lot less of anyone who felt entitled to deny a young woman a business opportunity because of his own discomfort or paranoia, and so would most other professionals I know.

The more I've thought about the advice given here the angrier I've got. Anonymous, again: consider this an object lesson that plenty of men, especially the older ones you're attracted to, are already doubtful of you and are denying you access and opportunities in ways you might not even be aware -- so don't load their guns for them by being anything but together and professional. And paulsc, your advice here, like much of yours regarding women, is so smug, condescending, and retrograde it's embarrassing just to read. You're like the Bobby Riggs of AskMe. On the bright side, you do seem to know an awful lot about shoes.
posted by melissa may at 2:56 PM on September 9, 2007 [6 favorites]

Croutonsupafreak / Melissa May - I agree with you - I'm in a similar position. But the OP admits to a propensity to get crushy with older men, and is looking for advice about that, so I think that's where the responses have been coming from.

Once you feel comfortable with your professional work persona, you can rethink the 1-2-1 situation. Until then, play it safe. Lunch is better than dinner. Cafeteria during a break is better than drinks at the bar. Although I still avoid 1-2-1 drinks with a bloke I've only just met at a conference. But that's just me.
posted by finding.perdita at 5:43 PM on September 10, 2007

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