Dear Captain Awkward,
I’m a 23 year old college student, and the kind of degree and profession I want to work in requires constant joint projects where working alone is not an option, and because our industry is so small, making good connections in college with your peers can be really important.
My problem is this: last semester, while working on a project together, a class mate told me he liked me and wanted to go out with me, and I turned him down because I wasn’t interested. We finished the project, he was professional, and I pulled back from hanging out at school because I didn’t want him to feel awkward.
Then the semester was over, we didn’t really talk, and when a new semester started, we hang out a bit more at school (sitting in class together, chatting at breaks), because I liked him as a friend and would have liked to work on more projects together. Two weeks ago we made some vague plans to go see a movie, he saw it without me so I offered to go to a different movie. We ate something and saw the movie (each of us paid for ourselves), and apparently he thought it was a date. Thing is, I deliberately leaned away from him and put my beg between us to not give the wrong impression. He took my bag and put it on the floor (wtf), then put his hand on my knee. He asked me if it was okay, I said no and he took his hand off. We’re on break from school now, and haven’t talked since.
I’m mad at him, and I don’t know if I’m being cruel or not. On one hand I’m pissed off he just assumed I changed my mind. On the other hand, did he harbored a crush on me for months and I was careless with his feelings? Did I sent the wrong signals, or did he ignored the signals I sent? Should I assume he is not interested in being friends?
Truth is, I’m a very traditionally attractive woman and I usually gets more romantic\sexual attention than I would like. I work with other women on projects, but only working with ladies will really limit my options.
The whole not-date throw me into a spiral of insecurities (I’m not really talented, nobody really likes me, guys lie to me and only put up with me because I’m pretty etc) and I’m feeling really shitty right now, and I can’t focus on my school work. What can I do to make things better, and to prevent situations like this in the future?
Dear Frustrated Student,
You made it perfectly clear and none of this is your fault. I’m sorry that you’re dealing with this. There is one sentence in your letter that really brings everything home, when after the first time he asked you out.
“I pulled back from hanging out at school because I didn’t want him to feel awkward.”
This is YOUR education, YOUR career, YOUR precious time to learn and make connections and his awkward feelings about being rejected don’t really matter. Having a crush on you is not wrong, and asking you out is not wrong, per se, but a man not taking no for an answer or continually interpreting professional/collegial/friendly interest as romantic or sexual is a nuisance that makes it harder for women to participate in educational and professional life. You have to actively fight to overcome the way you’ve been socialized (to worry about men’s feelings) in order to get the education you signed up for, and you have to hope that he won’t retaliate in some way by making your experience miserable. And then I have to say stuff like, “Well, probably don’t hang out with him one-on-one anymore” and “He’s probably a bad fit for a classwork partner” and it feels like I’m blaming you for what happened or trying to constrain your movements even though you didn’t do anything wrong.
I don’t know what’s going to happen in class this term or how you’re going to make decisions about partnering up on projects, but I advise – nay, IMPLORE – you to prioritize your own feelings and your own career and education. Do not avoid school, do not avoid socializing with your colleagues en masse, and if this guy tries to ask you out or make a move or touch you again, consider telling the instructor or a mentor/advisor you trust. “Mike has asked me out several times, I’ve said no, and he continues to try to make something happen between us. It’s making my learning environment very uncomfortable. Can you speak to him/make sure we are not assigned to the same team for the time being?” If the mentor/instructor gives you the “Well, you’re gonna have to learn to work with all kinds of people if you want to be successful!” cop-out, try this:
“I realize that, and I was able to work with ‘Mike’ successfully after the first time he asked me out and I said no. The thing is, both at work and at school, there are laws and policies to protect me from harassment by a colleague, and I think that Mike needs the same reminder you just gave me: In the professional world, he is going to have to work with all kinds of people, and his career could be harmed by his inappropriate behavior. I have told him “no” x times and maintained my professionalism. Now I hope you (as his instructor who wants him to succeed) will do the same, so that I can fully participate in the educational experience I am paying for.”
If men make passes at you and are rejected, it is on them to handle it and to behave themselves in the aftermath. You were just minding your business and their feelings are not your fault! It is on your instructors and your institution to create a safe learning environment for you.
Crushes happen, but they don’t have to derail your semester. To that end, I’m going to answer the questions you didn’t ask for people who want to avoid annoying the crap out of their colleagues:
Question: I have a crush on a classmate. What’s the best time/way to ask them out?
Answer: After the class has ended for the term is the best time, and please make sure you are clear that what you are asking for is a date. Do not use “hanging out as friends” or doing classwork as a fig leaf when what you want is a date.
Question: They said no, but I still really like them and now it’s awkward. What should I do?
Answer: Find another outlet for your feelings, like writing in a journal or making up sad songs with your guitar or telling a friend, so that when you’re around your crush you can try to behave in a relaxed and professional way. Do not mope at them or eye-fuck them or try to get on every project and team they are on. Give them (and yourself) some space!
Question: I asked them out, they said no, and it was weird for a while but now things seem to be more relaxed. They are being really friendly and I’m wondering if they’ve changed their mind about going out with me. What should I do? Should I seize the day?
Answer: Leave the day un-seized. People don’t forget when a friend or colleague makes a romantic move like asking for a date or putting a hand on their leg at the movies. The most likely explanation for the relaxed mood between the two of you is that you’ve handled rejection well and let the topic drop, they’ve stopped bracing themselves for more romantic advances from you, and they are psyched to have the friendship that they hoped for in the first place. If that’s not the case, and they have changed their mind about going out on a date or getting involved romantically, they can tell you that in words. Or make a ‘move’ or whatever. Their affections are not a game for you to win, so turn off the wishful-thinking generator, do not manufacture ways to be alone, and do not take their friendliness as a cue re-start your courting behaviors.