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Seeking advice on relationship with colleague

July 25, 2016

Dear RPW,

I have a situation at work and I'd like to get some input on a graceful manner to handle it.

I work at a school where there are only six full-time teachers. The majority of them are older except me (27) and another man (30). This man and I also share the position of being heads of the same department.

The situation is that he's very friendly to me, the problem is he's a little too friendly to me. He has a long-term girlfriend and I don't see it as him trying to make a move on me because I do understand that being the two younger teachers we will be more relatable to each other. However, it's making me feel a little too uncomfortable.

I haven't made friends with men since college. I'm a pretty warm and friendly person, which is such an RPW tenet, but I actively protect myself from getting too close to other men since I'm in a relationship. I personally don't believe men and women can be "just friends" because having a connection means there's chemistry.

Anyways! So my colleague and I have to work very closely often. He and I used to go on lunch breaks together (since we would be in a meeting immediately prior), he's also a friendly person, likes to ask me questions about myself, some a little too personal such as about my boyfriend or life problems, likes to compliment me on my outfits, sometimes slightly crossing the line by actually touching my blouse or skirt while complimenting, likes to make jokes, sometimes slightly too sexual get the idea.

I've been noticing this increase in intimacy and subsequently discomfort on my end. There's no way I can avoid him at work. I've been a little more distant in my answers and not as warm to him lately, but he has such a strong (and funny) personality it's almost impossible not to respond to him.

What are some ways I can handle this situation with grace? How can I keep my distance yet still stay my friendly self? What are some responses I can use when he does say/do something I find uncomfortable? I'm trying to hide in my office more and have made excuses to not take lunch with him but I can't just avoid him like a plague. Trying to quash my instincts to respond is incredibly difficult, I feel like a soulless human being...!

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[–][deleted] 15 points16 points  (3 children) | Copy Link

I'm sure he knows what he's doing. He's interested in you. The downfall of being friendly with men is they will mistake that for interest. And because you are "nice" they will think you are inviting the attention. Don't give him a reason to. Stop all one on one lunches. I'd wait until he makes a sexual joke, you know something that is blatantly out of line. Here's what I would say, in a tone like you're explaining something important to a teenager:

"Joe. I need you to stop making sexual innuendos. I like working with you but it's been making me uncomfortable."

He'll probably act taken aback and be all "oh I didn't mean anything by it. ".

" I know. I just want to maintain a professional relationship because I do like working with you, so I want to be upfront. Let's keep it cool and professional, ok?"

Expect him to be awkward around you for a bit, but it will subside.

[–][deleted] 6 points7 points  (0 children) | Copy Link

I 100% agree! Be direct, assertive! You can still be pleasant about it.

[–]QueenBee1264 points5 points  (0 children) | Copy Link

This is great advice for OP.

[–]vanBeethovenLudwigEndorsed Contributor2 points3 points  (0 children) | Copy Link

That's a great way of phrasing it as well. I'm terrible with conflict resolution so I tend to sound like a teenager myself! I'll have to practice in my head...

[–]HelloNeo9 points10 points  (1 child) | Copy Link

With men, you have to be straightforward. Subtle hints will likely go unnoticed. For that reason, a firm, kind, and direct approach will work best in my opinion.

[–]QueenBee1263 points4 points  (0 children) | Copy Link

I second this. Men communicate in a very straightforward way, so when something is important, be blunt.

[–]rprollerEndorsed Contributor5 points6 points  (11 children) | Copy Link

I've been in your shoes before, and trust me when I say it never ends well. Downote me all you like, but I think there's a small part of you that's attracted to this man. Let's take a look at how you're describing your interactions with him:

because having a connection means there's chemistry.

Right off the bat you understand how male/female attraction works.

He and I used to go on lunch breaks together (since we would be in a meeting immediately prior)

From how you've written this, it sounds like a date. Unless you eat with the other teachers, too (which would make the "since we would be in a meeting immediately prior" comment make sense.) I get that the other four teachers are older than you two, but you don't only have to eat lunch with people in your age group.

some a little too personal such as about my boyfriend or life problems

It sounds like he's asking questions (plural). He would not continue asking these types of questions if you indicated that you were uncomfortable with it. I'm guessing you probably answered them anyway (maybe not with 100% truth, but answering == IOI). Unlike women, men don't ask these kinds of questions for shits 'n' giggles; he's gauging how open you might be to a relationship with him.

slightly crossing the line by actually touching my blouse or skirt while complimenting

It sounds like this has happened more than once. Unless you physically recoiled and told him not to touch you, it sounds like you've given him the "green light" to touch you. Basically anything other than a firm "NO!" is an implied "yes." And it seems to me that for a man to get to the stage of touching you while complimenting your appearance (read: kino escalation), he would have gotten "signals" from you indicating interest.


My solution? Be firm with him and tell him that his behavior towards you will not be tolerated. But because actions speak louder than words, you HAVE to follow that up with actions corresponding to your words. That means no more one-on-one lunch dates, and no more private conversations with just the two of you.

It might help to frame your actions like this: "Would I do __________ with this man if my boyfriend were in the room?" If the answer is no, then don't do it. Worst-case scenario, resign from your position and find another school. Trust me when I say it takes a long time for a man's attraction to wane if you're constantly in his vicinity.

[–]vanBeethovenLudwigEndorsed Contributor0 points1 point  (9 children) | Copy Link

Yes, this is something I need to learn in general to be firm with men. I'm naturally submissive and friendly and if any man strikes up a conversation with me I don't really know how to give signals that I'm not interested. I'm someone that will pretty much reply to anybody if they "flirt" with me. I've had situations where a man will chat with me, then ask for my number, I'll say I have a boyfriend, then said man is extremely defensive or laughs at me saying he just wants to be friends. I guess part of me feels like I should be polite because I'm not a mean person but it seems like it's impossible!

Things like the blouse touching, I don't know how to tell him stop without being angry about it. I feel like I have to be professional at work and it seems rude to flinch or tell him stop when he thinks he's innocently" complimenting me (because most men will be defensive when you call them out on hitting on you). I suppose this is what the problem is as well, I take everything with appreciation and with politeness that I don't know how to not be polite and clam up instead. Last time he complimenting me on an outfit I curtly said thank you and walked away. But one time, we had to listen to student interviews in a tiny room sitting next to each other, and he touches my blouse. In that situation I found it difficult to walk away, and to have to deal with it in between interviews is inappropriate.

In regards to the lunch dates, it's a tricky situation because we have to write a curriculum together for our department, which means the meetings are only the two of us, sitting in one room at a computer together, not full staff meeting. Whenever this happened we would be writing past normal lunch time, which is why we'd take lunch together. It's a bit different than having a full staff meeting then the two of us running off together. But doesn't matter, I've already mentioned I've stopped taking lunch with him!

Thank you for taking the time to write out such a thoughtful response, I guess I'm just learning that I can't just sit there and do nothing in response and hope it goes away. You make a good point about imagining my boyfriend there with me, I just find it so difficult because when my boyfriend is there I can be my friendly self to anyone and everyone and feel safe, does that make sense?

[–][deleted] 1 point2 points  (2 children) | Copy Link

I feel like I have to be professional at work and it seems rude to flinch or tell him stop

The very fact that he touched you first is unprofessional. It isn't unprofessional of you to tell him not to do that. He did it to see how you would react. You didn't, so in his mind it is OK with you if he touches you.

You can say oh it's tricky, oh it's hard for me, but what it comes down to is your behavior is leaving your relationship wide open for someone to cross a line. How do you think your SO would like to hear this blouse touching story and how you reacted? He probably wouldn't be too happy with you.

You can be feminine and assertive. /u/VigilantRedRooster wrote a whole post on it.

when my boyfriend is there I can be my friendly self to anyone

Yes having your boyfriend there is different because then he is expected to mate guard but you're an adult. Time to stick up for yourself. It's either that or people are going to assume you're OK with the attention you're getting. So is your choice really.

[–]vanBeethovenLudwigEndorsed Contributor0 points1 point  (1 child) | Copy Link

Yes, I guess you're right about needing to create my own boundaries and not being afraid, even if it's in a professional environment where I feel I can't be "unprofessional." I can actually be a really ugly person when I'm "rejecting" somebody, so I felt the need to see if there was a more graceful way to do it. But thinking about past experiences, I remember men wouldn't stop bothering me unless I had an extremely cold face or and angry tone of voice...

Actually, I did tell my SO the blouse touching happened, and he immediately blamed the man (the story gets more complicated because we live abroad in a very international city, and this man comes from a country where the stereotype is the men are kind of...scumbags). He told me he would beat him up!

[–][deleted] 1 point2 points  (0 children) | Copy Link

Lol maybe you should let him.

[–]questioningwoman0 points1 point  (1 child) | Copy Link

What about constantly acting like you have to leave? I'm pretty passive aggressive. If someone's pestering me too much I'll give them a fake phone number or fake email address.

[–][deleted] 0 points1 point  (0 children) | Copy Link

None of this solves her problem directly. How would giving a co-worker a fake number or email work out long term? At some point he's going to ask about it. These aren't the most mature options available.

[–]rprollerEndorsed Contributor0 points1 point  (3 children) | Copy Link

I just find it so difficult because when my boyfriend is there I can be my friendly self to anyone and everyone and feel safe, does that make sense?

Can you clarify this point a bit further? Do you mean to say that your behavior with this man is the same regardless of whether your boyfriend is there or not?


Aside from that, you should never feel obligated to be polite to someone who is making you feel uncomfortable from unwanted touching. You would have already given him warning that this is unacceptable behavior, so for him to continue touching you when the touching is unwelcome is called battery, which, in of itself, is at least a misdemeanor in most states (assuming you're in the U.S.).

I get the sense that you don't want to rock the boat and make things uncomfortable. While that's a perfectly understandable desire, the fact that you two would, for professional reasons, have to continue one-on-one contact only makes your situation worse. Not to mention, it continually puts you in a position where either of you are given the chance to cheat on your respective SO's. IMO, there's no delicate way to 1) not make things awkward, and 2) not step on anybody's toes. My suggestion would be to leave altogether and find another school to teach at. I'm sorry I couldn't think of a more sophisticated solution, and good luck :(

[–]vanBeethovenLudwigEndorsed Contributor1 point2 points  (2 children) | Copy Link

What I mean is I'm a friendly person. I'm good at conversation with anybody. So me being naturally friendly to this colleague, he's taking it as signals even though I'm pretty much like this to anyone. Eg. "I'm sick" "Oh no! Are you OK?" Or "It's almost spring break, what are your plans?" It's simple really, that's why I don't feel I'm flirting back, I say this to my other colleagues (including older male) with no problems, so apparently I can't even make simple conversation with certain people without seemingly giving signals....

I think you're making it sound like I'm actively flirting back and from my post it also might sound like this but I just feel like I'm a normal person. Let's say he makes a a joke at me, I'll giggle (because I'm a giggly person) and leave it at that. I don't make a joke back. As much as it sounds like I'm "inviting" his interactions I'm not actively doing so or at least trying not! He's also just kind of an aggressive person, I've seen him make slightly inappropriate jokes to other colleagues. I'm just the unfortunate one because I have to work so closely and often with him and I'm a young woman...

I'm not a cheater, I've never cheated and will never cheat, so I would really appreciate if you could please stop implying I'm trying to pursue this "relationship" because I'm not. I wouldn't have asked for advice if I didn't have a problem with it. If I wanted to cheat I would have done it already and kept it inside!

[–]rprollerEndorsed Contributor2 points3 points  (1 child) | Copy Link

I am glad that you decided to ask for advice--from all of us (FWIW)--before your situation got more serious.

I think the problem is that whether you intended to or not, you are giving this man responses that he interprets as signals of interest. Your older male coworkers may understand that your responses are purely innocent, but the coworker you're talking about clearly doesn't. Being civil is not the same thing as being friendly--but you don't need to be friendly with him to continue working with him.

I don't mean to imply that you are going to cheat, but I don't think you can deny that merely being in this man's presence--alone--puts you in a position to potentially cheat. If your boyfriend was in a similar situation, would you be comfortable always wondering what he was doing alone in a room with a woman you knew was attracted to him? No matter how much you trust your boyfriend, there's always going to be that voice in the back of your head that wonders, "What are they doing now?" Unless your coworker actually backs off when you tell him to back off (respectfully, of course), I seriously doubt that your relationship with him will ever go back to the way it was before.

All I can do is share my experiences with you. Please understand that my strongly-worded responses are not an attack on you personally, but rather an impassioned plea and warning for you to learn this lesson the easy way, rather than the hard way--like I did in the past.

[–]vanBeethovenLudwigEndorsed Contributor1 point2 points  (0 children) | Copy Link

I'll definitely try to be more cold to him, perhaps less smiley although I'm horrible at not smiling. But I will certainly try! It does sound like I need to step my foot down to create a thicker fence...boundaries are a great quality for any RPW to have anyway, shows respect for oneself, right?

Thank you for helping another woman out!

[–][deleted] 0 points1 point  (0 children) | Copy Link

I think you are spot on!

Have an upvote!

[–][deleted] 0 points1 point  (0 children) | Copy Link

Keep your interactions strictly to what's necessary for work. Keep it cordial.

There's no doubt to me that he's interested in you. The fact that he and you are in relationships won't curtail his desire for you. It obviously hasn't. You need firmer boundaries than what you'd put up between you and the average Joe.

When he makes a sexual joke, politely ask that he refrain from doing so. When he touches you, ask that he not touch you. When he compliments your appearance, just say thank you and move on. Eventually, he'll get the memo of your disinterest in flirting with him. He will then have to chose to do the sensible thing and back off or plow ahead anyway.

You need not feel bad about his feelings here. He's bringing heartache upon himself. You do what you need to do for yourself. Don't worry about him.

[–]energyinmotion0 points1 point  (0 children) | Copy Link

My personal policy is to not fraternize with co-workers, no matter what. Just my two cents.

You can kill a man, but you can't kill an idea.

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