Over the years I’ve learned that, if I’m going to get anywhere, I have to put myself out there more. That includes going out and actually talking to people about my writing and services rather than just sitting around hoping they’ll find me at my house.
There are times when it’s subtle, but there are also times when it’s pretty obvious that the person I’m meeting with isn’t on the same page.
In once instance, I was at a networking event in my area.
At the event, I connected with what seemed to be a really great young man. A business owner who is trying to boost his online presence through a newsletter or blog for people to follow. Of course, I was all ears and wanted to keep in touch. We exchanged information and set up a time to meet over coffee or dinner to discuss the details and see if it makes sense to work together on these projects.
Or so I thought.
On the day we were supposed to meet, I got a message from him asking if we could change locations. I originally picked out a coffee shop where we could meet, but he was opting for a dinner cafe instead. I was taken aback but didn’t want to draw my own conclusions. When I thought about it, I did set up the meeting around a time most people would be eating dinner. And this location was a lot more central for both of us, so I agreed.
That evening as I was approaching the meetup spot I spotted him outside waving. I came closer to give him a handshake but he immediately went in for a hug. Without even realizing it, I took a step back and cringed as he came in with the now intensely awkward hug. Not only am I not a hugger, but I was genuinely confused. It’s not as if we hugged when we met. It felt very out of place.
We overlooked that awkward moment and took a seat at a table. After having some cordial small talk, I started asking more about his business and what his expectations are for blog or newsletter writing.
However, this is when I noticed a strange pattern. I would talk about something oriented towards business, he would answer, and then come back to me with a question that was completely irrelevant like, ”What do you like to do for fun? How long have you been in the area?”
I’m not saying that building rapport is bad — it’s actually great to take a genuine interest in people and make a connection.
However, the fact that he kept asking personal things while I was clearly trying to stay on the topic was alarming.
But then it hit me. The change in location, the initial hug, the inability (or refusal) to actually talk about his business.
He’s made this into a date.
Why a man — whom I met at a networking event — thought I was doing anything other than networking is beyond me.
But let’s just say the rest of the time there was very uncomfortable. I think as time went on, he too grew to understand that I genuinely wanted to talk about work. I could sense his embarrassment at the end of the “meeting” as he could barely look me in the eye as I shook his hand and took my leave.
I don’t find myself in this situation frequently, but it’s enough to cause concern. For whatever reason, there’s a number of men who still regard my interaction with them as “she wants me” regardless of the context.
The cool thing about seeking writing opportunities is that I’m not limited to just working with people in my area. It’s for that reason that I like to utilize networking apps like Shapr, LinkedIn, or Bizz (a business subcategory of Bumble).
But even in these spaces, I’m not always safe from the weirdos.
Of course, the good thing about these apps is that it’s pretty easy to report and block people who give you trouble like this guy.
Talk about things escalating quickly.
Be mindful, but know it’s not just you.
Just as I am typically aware of myself as a Black person, I’m also aware of myself as a woman. Is it right? No. But it’s something that I’ve come to learn as a surviving mechanism.
The last thing I wanted to do was stop going to events or talking to people because I was afraid of guys thinking that I’m hitting on them.
An associate of mine found that she was facing the same problem a lot more frequently. Her personality is a lot more personable, bubbly, friendly and — objectively speaking — she just happens to be really hot. I found that in her case, a small portion of it had to do with how she carried herself.
Here are a few things that helped me when it came to my representation in business and networking settings:
- Firm Handshakes — No, you don’t want to have a squeezing competition. But you also don’t want to hand someone a dead-fish-hand either. Sometimes a good handshake is enough of a mental cue to wake someone up and to keep the right mindset.
- Tone — My friend started making it a point to lower her tone a little when speaking to both male and female professionals. Not enough to cause vocal strain, of course, but to present a more mature and professional self. Tone is one of the things that we subconsciously judge in other people. We automatically associate the tone of voice to whether someone is being friendly, stern, flirty, etc.
- Proximity — Even something as small as how far (or close) you stand to someone you’re talking to can make a difference. Create a little more than an arm’s length of distance between yourself and the other person. This helps the mind differentiate between an intimate interaction and a non-intimate interaction.
- Fidgeting — Certain fidgeting gestures like playing with your hair or swaying around when you talk to someone is not only visually distracting but sometimes can be misread as flirtatious behavior. If it’s more of a habit for you, practicing conversation in the mirror helps you to become more mindful of what the other person is seeing when they speak with you.
- Mention a S.O. (if applicable) — One habit I’ve gotten into is, when it’s relevant, mention the fact that I have a boyfriend. Most of the time mentioning your significant other in conversation can help keep the topic from veering away into an inappropriate space. This doesn’t mean you go into all your interactions going “I have a boyfriend!”. It could be as simple as using your significant other to build common ground: “Oh, you went to [insert college]? That’s my husband’s alma mater! What did you study there?” etc. And if you find that the conversation still veers that way, despite having mentioned this, you’re obviously dealing with someone you don’t need to associate with anyway.
Sadly, for a lot of guys, their only friendly interaction with a woman outside of consumer services is when there is romantic interest involved. Meaning that you could be as professional as you possibly can, but still get that one guy who misunderstands. For guys like that, there’s pretty much nothing you can do except make your intentions clear and move on. That’s obviously not a person you want to connect with anyway.
Case in point, here’s what happened when I literally asked someone (once again, on a networking app) one question:
Don’t worry, he came in with a nice save by backtracking and trying to ask me about my career. You know, like what the app was made for.
Keep It Moving
I think the worst thing we could do is hesitate to put ourselves out there in fear of our actions being misconstrued.
As I said before, you can do everything “right” but still be misunderstood by some guy who doesn’t understand the purpose of a networking event. We can’t let that hinder our growth as professionals.