I arrived at the lunch thinking a new job or freelancing gig might be on the table. He greeted me with an air kiss, which didn’t set off any alarms. But when he steered me to the table by my elbow and chivalrously pulled out my chair, I realized I’d made a horrible mistake. I thought we were networking, but he thought we were on a date. I needed to clarify my interest, and quickly. “So! What’s on the agenda?” I shouted brightly, throwing in a coach-y handclap so sexless as to border on cruelty. He looked startled, then stammered something about wanting to “take your temperature” on “some projects on the horizon.” We ended up having a productive discussion of work and life both — and without an iota of sexual tension. I had succeeded. He was in my “colleague zone.”
The colleague zone is the careerist version of the “friend zone” — the distancing technique for turning down suitors you are unable or unwilling to cut social ties with. (“You’re a great guy, but I only like you as a friend.”) The friend zone gets a bad rap, owing to its usage among whiny bros who believe themselves entitled to be “more than just friends.” The truth, of course, is that a person who “friend zones” doesn't necessarily even want the target as a friend. They’re being polite, because “GTFO; I wouldn’t touch your genitals if they were the last functioning set of sex organs on Earth” is a tough rejection to live with when you’re apt to run into each other at parties and stuff.
Likewise, shooting down a would-be paramour you share a workplace or professional network with requires some delicacy. For present and potential colleagues both, the difference between flirting and networking can be confusing — in both interactions, a hopeful person seeks another’s attention, then tries to appear intelligent, impressive, and winning. Moreover, the peak ages of active dating — the 20s and 30s — coincide with a relatively desperate moment in your career, when you’re trying to figure out what you want, get a toehold, maybe start some momentum. The result is a smorgasbord of miscommunication.
“I used to go to these networking happy hours where one guy consistently hit on me,” my friend Lisa said. “My strategy was to play dumb, like I was just not picking up on the obvious invitation, then redirect and offer to introduce him to other colleagues.”
“Quick Q: Is it a good sign that my date from last night just sent a LinkedIn invite?” one hopeful romantic asked recently on anonymous-gossip-app Secret. “Weird,” tech blogger Mike Isaac wrote after coming across and tweeting the Secret. “I'd say a LinkedIn request is a fairly strong signal that you're networking and aren't going to get laid,” he later elaborated. “That said, a few weeks ago I had coffee with someone who sent me a LinkedIn request the day after — and then asked me to go out again and get a drink. So maybe it's not a reliable indicator.” After all, I pointed out, if you’re really into a potential date, you stalk all aspects of his social-media presence. (Sometimes stalking is part of the flirtation: Witness the “deep like.”) Mike agreed that the best colleague-zoning technique is the brisk asexuality of corporate jargon: “When they text later, you have to be like, ‘Thanks for reaching out!’ And then they will immediately lose their erections. Or ‘Ping me!’ as opposed to, ‘Hit me up later girl.’ Not that I would ever say either of those, but you know.” Other popular colleague-zoning phrases: “Shoot me an email,” “Great to connect,” “Let’s circle back later,” “Do you have a business card?” A man who emails “just to touch base” isn’t planning to let you get past first.
And if your networking does take a turn for the romantic, retroactive colleague-zoning can provide an easy out if things go sour. A male friend admitted to invoking “workplace ethics as a scapegoat” when breaking up with a co-worker he dated for several months. “Never mind that you are invoking a hypothetical moral code that you violated in the first place,” he reflected. “It’s like having an extramarital affair and then falling back on, ‘Oh but my wife!’ when you change your mind for entirely non-wife-related reasons.”
Most important, it’s all relative. As is the case with most forms of flirting, “appropriate” has as much to do with the participants’ willingness as it does with the forum. “But then another time after one of those networking happy hours,” Lisa continued, “I totally ended up sleeping with this other guy I’d known for a while. What can I say? Networking is boring. He hit on me, and it was more fun than whatever we were supposed to be doing.”
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