Is this a date?

By Sean Carroll | February 7, 2006 11:56 am

Question of the day: Highly-credentialed academics vs. nervous high-school students — is there a difference? The forums at the Chronicle of Higher Education erupt with excited controversy over whether coffee with a colleague is an innocent intellectual meeting, or rife with illicit romantic subtext. (I think it’s available to non-subscribers; let me know if not.)

Is this a date?
Author: Coffee drinker
Date: 01-18-06 11:32

I have been having great discussions with a man that is interested in the same research of which I am involved. After a flurry of emails, I (innocently, really!) suggested that we get together for coffee, which we are doing tomorrow. Today, I received an email from him telling me to “have a great day.” Nothing else in the email, just that sentiment. Is it possible that this man thinks that “coffee” is a euphemism for ______?

Full disclosure: We are both married.

Confession: He’s attractive.

I’m feeling a little panicky right now.

Men! They are so inscrutable sometimes. Who knows what this cryptic email is supposed to mean? The Chronicle’s readers bravely wade in.

Re: Is this a date?
Author: Prytania
Date: 01-18-06 11:38

It’s possibly innocent and possibly not–depending on how coffee goes. You know the answer to this.

Re: Is this a date?
Author: single gal
Date: 01-18-06 12:11

Yup–everything you described to me sounds EXACTLY like a date–the “have a nice day” e-mail is just the kind of thing men send when they are interested in you. It’s textbook.

I was happy for you up till the final part of the e-mail! Get out now.

just coffee
Author: missing Europe
Date: 01-18-06 12:52

Why can’t you people just go for coffee with someone who is pleasant company? What’s the problem?

What a wet blanket is this “missing Europe” person. Sure, it could just be coffee, but what fun is that?

Is it possible?
Author: brewhaha
Date: 01-18-06 12:54

I’ve been thinking of starting a new topic on a closely related question — IS IT POSSIBLE for people who share peculiar scholarly interests to work together closely without feeling turned on by each other’s company?

By “turn on” I don’t mean necessarily that sexual involvement is inevitable. Hardly. But I’ve noticed of late that a lot of people seem to have intellectual crushes on each other. I’m no exception. I’m wondering if it’s just human nature, then, that spending such time together with a member of the preferred sex makes romantic attraction (of whatever degree) inevitable.

I’m in Coffee Drinker’s shoes constantly — where the male colleague starts showing signs of extra-scholastic interest. For the most part, I keep my husband up to date on these developments and he has so far found them to be exceedingly amusing (maybe it makes him feel more macho that his wife is considered attractive by other men). I’ve also discussed this with a close friend/male colleague who has a similar problem — he says it’s because we both look people in the eye more than others (Americans) do, and so normal humans perceive it as flirting behavior, even though it’s not intended as such.

Coffee Drinker, tread carefully. A few months ago, I had a very bad experience with a senior colleague who apparently thought something was going on between us because of the awesome intellectual rapport of our conversations. (That I shared with my husband a blow-by-blow of each and every conversation didn’t make a difference).

I suppose the question we should try to answer is: WHAT CAN WE SAY OR DO, IN A NON-THREATENING COLLEGIAL WAY, TO NIP THIS IN THE BUD — that is, without coming across as mental (or vainglorious).

Whoa! “brewhaha” ups the ante, suggesting that it’s impossible for colleagues who share intellectual interests to work together without getting turned on. (For the record: brewhaha is not right. It’s perfectly possible to work with members of various genders without getting all distracted. But let’s run with it a bit.)

Re: Is this a date?
Author: ExPat in UK
Date: 01-18-06 13:46

Coffee drinker wrote:

> Today, I
> received an email from him telling me to “have a great day.”
> Nothing else in the email, just that sentiment. Is it possible
> that this man thinks that “coffee” is a euphemism for ______?

I’m totally confused… just where and when has ‘have a great day’ turned into ‘I want to suck your toes’

Finally, someone had the courage to put all of our thoughts into concrete imagery. Thanks for that, ExPat.

Re: Is this a date?
Author: single guy
Date: 01-18-06 14:16

“Yup–everything you described to me sounds EXACTLY like a date–the “have a nice day” e-mail is just the kind of thing men send when they are interested in you. It’s textbook.”

“single gal” knows men! she’s right–men don’t email women wishing them a good day if they have no interest. plus, you invited him for coffee–to a man (and we’re notoriously bad at reading signals) this says “ding, ding, ding, she likes me (in some way.)”

I so don’t believe that “single guy” is a single guy. Regardless, there is some truth there. It’s not so much that men are bad at reading signals — they just read them whether they are there or not.

Re: What?
Author: Varying degrees
Date: 01-18-06 14:47

It’s kinda fun to have these innocent meetings and conversations with the sexual tension bubbling beneath the surface. It’s a bit naughty while being completely innocent. The forbidden fruit is tempting. It’s nice to look at it, hold it, smell it, squeeze it, but oh no, I don’t dare taste it…oh but it would be so delicious. Alas, I cannot….

Well, we should stop here, as this is a family-friendly blog. There’s much more. Suffice it to say that “Coffee drinker,” while perhaps confused, hasn’t lost all perspective.

Re: What?
Author: Coffee drinker
Date: 01-18-06 14:49

Prytania wrote:

>
> She’s totally titillated by this experience but has no one to
> share it with for the obvious reasons.
>
> You know you are, OP. No judgements here.

Yeah, well, maybe. But not enough to shave my legs before I meet him.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Academia, Humor
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  • fh

    LoL!
    Thanks a lot, that made my day.

  • Ken Muldrew

    I hope “coffee drinker” sticks to decaff; you wouldn’t want physiological stimulation to impose yet another layer of confusion onto a situation so rife with possibilities.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/clifford/ Clifford

    Wait….. why is this filed under “Humour”? This dating business is rather serious stuff! 😉

    Actually, all the humour gets sucked out of it when State Law requires your employer to force you to fill out an hour-long interactive web questionnaire (so you can’t speed it up) on sexual harrassment in the workplace, going through endless scenarios like the one above! “Press a button to suggest what Sarah should do next”….. “torching his office….congratulations, that’s the correct answer!”…”let’s now explore, taking each in turn, why all the other seventeen answers -which you did not choose- were not correct”….. goes on like this for an hour….or maybe two, I forget…. By time you’re done you just want to curl up in bed in a foetal position and never interact with another colleague again (of any gender).

    -cvj

  • http://thebumblebeeblog.blogspot.com/ Poppycock

    Sean, you missed off an important part of this story: her suspicion was vindicated! She went for coffee and then reported back to the forum that he wasn’t interested in intellectual exchange after all. He even told her he had married the wrong person.

    I feel sorry for her. Though slightly baffled as to why she would want to discuss this in a public, albeit anonymous, forum.

  • Jocelyn

    Darn, if I’m not allowed to get together for innocent coffees I think my social life is going to be pretty much screwed. Er, not in the intimate way.

  • http://www.crookedtimber.org Kieran

    We all know what you’re really trying to convey by posting this thread, Sean, so why not just come out and say it?

  • http://valatan.blogspot.com bittergradstudent

    Ah, the debate about in-department dating. If yo don’t date in-dpartment, then good-bye to being able to talk about what you did at work with the s.o., but if you do, then say hello to the hijinks above, with all the attendant in-department gossip. But wow, you’d think coffee man would be aware of the horrible situation that coffee drinker is being put into.

    ugh.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/sean/ Sean

    Kieran, I admit it. “Coffee drinker” was really me. I was just going undercover to find out what women really think.

  • Sam Gralla

    I enjoyed that post

  • agm

    bgs, it’s more like date-along-the-hallway-or-not-dating-at-all right now =).

    Re: Is this a date?
    Author: ExPat in UK
    Date: 01-18-06 13:46

    Coffee drinker wrote:

    > Today, I
    > received an email from him telling me to “have a great day.”
    > Nothing else in the email, just that sentiment. Is it possible
    > that this man thinks that “coffee” is a euphemism for ______?

    I’m totally confused… just where and when has ‘have a great day’ turned into ‘I want to suck your toes’

    It is left as an exercise for the reader to flesh out a proof of the cup-of-coffee theorem, as laid out by the famous Professor Izzard. (Note: this proof has a splashy corrolary, but that’s trivial once the cup-of-coffee theorem is shown…)

  • Harv

    I don’t see anything wrong with in-department dating (my dept. is all either married/engaged/dating each other – particularly the grad students), but yes, there is this problem of how to talk science with another person. If at a conference, you want to discuss a proposal or some puzzling observations with a collegue, one may want to go to lunch, dinner, or have a drink at the hotel bar. There seemingly are ways to do this, but how do you sidestep all the above stuff?

    And I’ve had friends who have been hit upon by their married collaborators at conferences and such (who were European, so I don’t see where the above remark about Europe being so much better comes from).

  • http://www.amara.com/ Amara

    Hmm. I’ve had a rule ever since I was in my early 20s not to date any men in my working group (working groups that were usually 90% men). It keeps my work life professional.

    The coffee story is hilarious. Quite a lot of work gets done at our ‘bar’ (where Italians get their espressso), and quite a lot of flirting gets done too!

  • http://thebumblebeeblog.blogspot.com/ Poppycock

    I’ve had a rule ever since I was in my early 20s not to date any men in my working group (working groups that were usually 90% men). It keeps my work life professional.

    But have you ever been attracted to any of the men in your working groups? And if there was a mutual attraction, don’t you think you might have missed out on something by abiding by your rule?

    I didn’t find the story funny really – once it’s happened to you and resulted in the loss of a potential friend, it’s just sad. Especially if it happens more than once and you realise that you have to stop being such an open and friendly person because this gets misconstrued as “being interested” and so completely backfires as you then have to disabuse your friend of the notation that you want anything more, which is awkward for all concerned.

  • http://www.amara.com/ Amara

    Poppycock: Never change yourself because of how your natural behavior might be misconstrued! It on the shoulders of the other person for how to handle your natural behavior (speaking as someone who is normally extraordinarily open.. that openness after some years has turned into one of my strengths).

    Your question about attraction: the answer is yes. Working at astronomy observatories (in snowstorms, so then you don’t even have the telescope to focus you) under such conditions can be a kind of torture.

  • http://www.xanga.com Josh

    What confuses me about the dating scene most is: why does making the degree of dateness in the get-together clear almost always diffuse the fun of the situation? Do we, for whatever reason, derive some twisted enjoyment from being absolutely bewildered concerning the preferred gender?
    Ah, the seduction of mystery.
    Or, perhaps, determining the romantic component of the rendezvous beforehand is useless. If there is such a component, it will usually make itself clear while the coffee, among other things, is being enjoyed. With the flow, you should go.

  • Dumb Biologist

    NEVER date intramurally. Found that out the hard way. Just don’t do it. Run away. Screaming. Stuck in the lab ’til midnight every night? Have no life, to time and nowhere else to search for Mr./Ms. right? You’d be surprised, relatively speaking, at just how goshdarn rewarding celibacy can be once you give it a chance. Plus, with all the cold showers, you’ll save a bundle on utilities.

  • D. Rad

    As my species reproduces asexually, I find attending a particularly pure mineral node with my colleagues a wonderfully relaxed event.

  • http://thebumblebeeblog.blogspot.com/ Poppycock

    You’d be surprised, relatively speaking, at just how goshdarn rewarding celibacy can be once you give it a chance

    Yeah. When I’m on my own the house is always immaculate, I eat way more healthily, practically never drink alcohol, I do enough exercise and read more books. So at least I get to feel smug!

    Oh, and Amara: I thought you were supposed to focus the telescope, rather than the other way around 😉

  • spyder

    I just am wondering: if we changed the entire thematic element from a “cup-of-coffee” to a late-lunch martini, would many of the readers suddenly perceive lesser degrees of innocence?? “Coffee Drinker” becomes “Martini imbiber” seems to not be all that out of place in academia; nor for that matter would those who share wine and bread with colleagues, unless of course they are doing so over the proverbial collection of etchings.

  • http://angryforareason.blogspot.com Burrow

    What a wet blanket is this “missing Europe” person. Sure, it could just be coffee, but what fun is that?

    That almost led to a coffee/computer mishap.

    Although I agree with Poppycock as it sucks when it happens to you (although there are many more signs then a “have a good day” email, at least from my sphere of experience.)

  • http://fockingscience.blogspot.com The Disgruntled Chemist

    Who does things without drinking coffee? 15 hours a day in a windowless chemistry lab means that I’m always drinking coffee. If I can’t talk to a female colleague about chemistry without drinking coffee (or beer at night), I’m in trouble.

    And I’m with bittergradstudent (since, you know, I am one) – no interdepartment dating. There are just too many things that can go wrong there.

  • JoAnne

    Poppycock says:

    I didn’t find the story funny really – once it’s happened to you and resulted in the loss of a potential friend, it’s just sad. Especially if it happens more than once and you realise that you have to stop being such an open and friendly person because this gets misconstrued as “being interested” and so completely backfires as you then have to disabuse your friend of the notation that you want anything more, which is awkward for all concerned.

    That’s right, Poppycock. It’s not funny when it happens and sometimes you do lose a colleague and/or friend. Sometimes it’s just plain embarrassing and difficult to know how to disfuse the situation. But it really is just like high school or college. Never, never, change your personality or stop being yourself. If a colleague hits on you, just politely tell the person you’re not interested (unless, of course, you are) and move on. It is surprising how often stuff like this happens.

    Clifford: It was 2 hours. I left the office to get some coffee, trying to oustsmart the program and eat up some of the mandated time in front of the monitor. However, the system was smart enough to note my inactivity and logged me off! Meaning that I had to start all over!! I was not a happy camper.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/clifford/ Clifford

    Ah, yes, you had to do it too, and presumably almost everybody in California. I forgot it was as much as two hours! It was just so annoying the way it took you through all the wrong answers even if you got everything right. Grrrrrr! Like I said…. if you follow it to the letter, it sucks all the fun out of interacting with anyone, ever again….

    -cvj

  • AstroCook

    I think coffee drinker isn’t seeing a problem with just getting coffee. It’s more that the guy then sent her a weird kind of email. I think all of us recognize that a coffee with a colleague is innocent behavior, but his email is very close to the line. He could have made his comment much more acceptable if he had said something like “This paper reminded me of what we talked about the other day. Are we still on for coffee? It’d be fun to chat about this one. Have a great day!”

    Now THAT’s innocent. I’m afraid that his one-liner is really blatant flirtation.

    On the topic “can men and women be friends without thinking about OTHER THINGS?”…. as a female graduate student, I find that glimmers of flirtation appear in nearly every situation concerning my peers. I have every hope that this diminishes with age… maybe I’m being naive, though??

  • Frumious B.

    Rule of thumb, learned from experience: if you think you are being hit on, you are. if you think a meeting is a date, it is.

  • Henry Holland

    I slept with a co-worker once and it was a horrible decision. [raps own knuckles with ruler]

    I’m gay, so I’m totally oblivious to women being interested in me *that* way. I’m out to anyone who thinks about it for about 10 seconds–I’m kind of fem, so it’s just obvious–but I’ve had some akward situations at work where I’ve found out women have had crushes on me from a third party. I’m stunned, at first, but then I start thinking back on my interactions with that particular woman and I realize that I might have unknowingly sent out the wrong signals.

    Oh, and coffee is eeeeevvvviiiilllll. I call it Liquid Heroin.

    Great post, Sean, it made my day too.

  • http://www.amara.com/ Amara

    AstroCook: “On the topic “can men and women be friends without thinking about OTHER THINGS?”…. as a female graduate student, I find that glimmers of flirtation appear in nearly every situation concerning my peers. I have every hope that this diminishes with age… maybe I’m being naive, though??”

    Dear AstroCook: Yes, you are being naive, and I hope for me that it doesn’t diminish with age!

  • john rom

    Well, according to Urban Dictionary coffee means

    simply it means sex,
    “hey u wanna come up for coffee”
    really he/she means hey u wanna have sex.

  • http://angryforareason.blogspot.com Burrow

    Well crap, then that’s why all those people I invite out for coffee are so sad when we end up just having coffee. Here I was trying to share my favourite beverage with people. Silly me.

  • http://thebumblebeeblog.blogspot.com/ Poppycock

    AstroCook: “On the topic “can men and women be friends without thinking about OTHER THINGS?”…. as a female graduate student, I find that glimmers of flirtation appear in nearly every situation concerning my peers. I have every hope that this diminishes with age… maybe I’m being naive, though??”

    Dear AstroCook: Yes, you are being naive, and I hope for me that it doesn’t diminish with age!

    AstroCook: pretty much the same problem. And the thing is, it’s not even flattering, since all it really means is “Hey, you’re female AND you do physics! Wow! You’ll do, since I can’t date any of the women I’m actually attracted to as they get sick of me spending all the time in the lab.”

    As for diminishing with age, I figured that it would as the proportion of married people would rise?

  • http://www.amara.com/ Amara

    Doesn’t flirting go both ways? (meaning amongst women and men)

    I think that there’s a spectrum, like many aspects of human interactions. Note that the culture you’re in embeds its own rules too. Crudely the variation of flirting might look like this:

    -light (harmless, playful),

    -annoying (in which case, the offended party should say something to him/her),

    -heavy (harassment, here if the offended didn’t say something, they certainly should, and if it continues, then talk to your boss/his/her/boss to stop it.

    I am sure that all of my coworkers and me in all of my jobs over the years have engaged in the light variety. I don’t see a problem with that, in fact why not enjoy being the women and men that we are? Our work occupies a large part of our lives usually, so it’s nice when different facets enter to make it more enjoyable. Everyone has their own thresholds for the annoying kind of flirting. I agree that harassment kind has no place in the workplace, it creates a poisonous ambiance.

    My mother years ago told me that she feels sad for how far the harassment statutes have gone in the US workplace. It’s a heavy weight for the guys to carry, that is, not being able to relax with what they say or do around a woman at work because that woman might be offended.

    One would think that a relaxed workplace is a productive workplace, yes?

  • Elliot

    limerick time

    A collegue and I went for coffee
    I guess I’m too much of a softy
    Cause after the latte
    Then thickens the plot eh?
    Cause now I can’t get the guy off me.

  • http://valatan.blogspot.com bittergradstudent

    I’ve always wondered how much of the nervousness people have re: harrassment in the USA is due to media hype about a few isolated cases. I wish the media would talk more about how widespread things are, citing statistics and historical prescedent, than simply cite a couple of cases. Not to mention a survey of workplaces to objectively show how widespread it is. Ah well

  • http://thebumblebeeblog.blogspot.com/ Poppycock

    Very good, Elliot! 😀 That is exactly the sort of thing I’ve had happen!

    Amara: Absolutely there is a spectrum, and light-hearted banter/teasing is something I enjoy(ed). The trouble comes when someone starts to think/hope that it is meant seriously. I think perhaps the trouble is I am not easily offended, and am quite open as I said upthread, and so what to me is normal behaviour to someone less open seems like an invite to get closer.

    bittergradstudent: I think your wishes re. the media apply in a lot more context than just harrassment. They very frequently don’t include any background or include the whole story.

  • Harv

    The whole “not dating within your department”, is that a small department thing? Or is it a function more of the culture of the department?

    We have a large grad student population (for astronomy – 38) and ~25% of them (including myself) are dating each other or a former grad student who has since graduated.

    Then again, all the women on the faculty are married to astronomy faculty.

    And also, our dept. has tended to be more open, family friendly, encouraging of outside activities, etc. than some others.

    We do worry more about the two body problem here

  • http://www.amara.com/ Amara

    Harv: “The whole “not dating within your department”, is that a small department thing? Or is it a function more of the culture of the department?”

    I know, it’s a fuzzy boundary:

    Perhaps a little of both of what you say (small department, culture of the department). Workplaces could have a thousand/more people with many departments, and each department could be large too, so then a rule not to date those in a very large environment (for ex. a large company) doesn’t seem like a reasonable rule. Also, my rule might look strange in the culture (Italy) where I’m working now because I see many husband/wife(s) researchers working with each other (I think it is part of the family aspect of the culture). Finally, if the work area is at home (home office) as a consultant, say, then such a rule doesn’t seem appropriate.

    In a research or academic environment, the farther in physical space, the better for me, for who I could think as ‘dateable’. If I consider one of my typical research areas where I’ve worked, I break down the ‘dateable’ rule like this:

    Within my close Working Group (usually 10-20 people): No.

    Within my Department (several working groups, ~50 people): No.

    Within my Division (several departments, ~200-400 people): I prefer not, but I don’t rule it out.

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  • http://www.irrationalpoint.blogspot.com Quibbler

    On the bright side, if your colleagues want to date you, it also means that they *talk* to you occasionally. It’s taken me weeks to get my British male informatics classmates to acknowledge my personhood. It used to be that, on the rare occasions when they would talk to me it was to ask for help on an assignment, but I didn’t get responses to courtesy phrases like “hi.” We’re doing better now — they talk to me in full sentences about stuff other than differential equations. (Of course they have always been perfectly capable of talking to other British males.)

    –Q.

  • citrine

    I think that just the coffee part is harmless, but when coffee + everyday conversation segues into personal territory … that’s when the trouble starts. To avoid this (potential) slippery slope I’ve learnt to keep strict boundaries between the personal and the professional, even with women, as gossip has a high velocity of propagation! I know this may sound pretty stand-offish but it’s worked for me so far. :)

    This means that

    a) colleagues do not know anything personal about me except for my hobbies and interests

    b) my friends and colleagues fall into non-intersecting sets

    c) anyone who brings up the “my wife/ g.f. doesn’t understand me” line will get the “I’m in Physics and Math, I’m not very good with giving advice on personal stuff” response from me – said nicely but firmly. Only friends get the benefit of my personal side.

    Anyway, the ppl I’ve met in Math/Physics have not been interested in discussing anything uncomfortably close to heart, so I’ve never really been tested on this!

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Random samplings from a universe of ideas.

About Sean Carroll

Sean Carroll is a Senior Research Associate in the Department of Physics at the California Institute of Technology. His research interests include theoretical aspects of cosmology, field theory, and gravitation. His most recent book is The Particle at the End of the Universe, about the Large Hadron Collider and the search for the Higgs boson. Here are some of his favorite blog posts, home page, and email: carroll [at] cosmicvariance.com .

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