When Men Want to Talk Shop

The email came unsolicited. I was beginning to enter a new professional field and I was writing about the little I knew. It came from his work account and was ostensibly in response to my latest post. He said that he “quite enjoyed it” and that the subject was something that his team continuously grappled with. He asked whether I had time to “grab coffee and talk shop.” I couldn’t help but feel flattered. He was the head of his department at a rocket ship startup and he had taken notice of lil’ ol’ me. It was like when social disaster Rachael Leigh Cook first caught the eye of heartthrob Freddie Prinze Jr. in She’s All That — he wants to talk to me?

After a couple of emails (he was out of town, my family was visiting), we scheduled for a Friday at 6:30pm. He suggested drinks, and sent over his phone number.

At this point, there had already been a couple of warning signs, but as a semi-new graduate with only two years of “real-world”experience, I didn’t catch on.

I arrived early and texted him that the bar was packed, assuming that we would have to try our luck somewhere else. He arrived and — wouldn’t you know it — had had the foresight to make a reservation at the restaurant. So we were having dinner. I hadn’t expected that, but okay, let’s go with it.

The first alarm bell sounded when, after sitting down at our table for two, he asked me something along the lines of, “what do you like to do in your free time?” My free time? This meeting was supposed to be about the exact opposite of that. The question threw me off and I answered hesitantly about how I like to write and run and [insert other uninteresting interests here]. He ordered a charcuterie board and, with alarming enthusiasm, asked astute questions about my writing, about my running. We ordered entrees and he wanted to talk about our families, giving me an elaborate run-down on his. Halfway through my coq au vin, I was hit with what was happening — he didn’t care about my article and he certainly didn’t care about my work.

I looked at him closely for the first time. Had I known that this was going to become a date, I wouldn’t be here right now. But of course, that was the point, wasn’t it? Under normal circumstances, I would never have agreed to a dimly-lit dinner with him. He had enticed me with his tantalizing talk of exchanging ideas! knowledge! and then ambushed me with entirely different intentions. He had bamboozled me. He had, in essence, forced me to go on a date with him, and without my consent.

I began to panic. Although my instinct was to remove myself from the situation, I had never really “networked” before and I felt a increasing sense of doubt intermingling with my anxiety— maybe this was normal? I wanted to handle the situation diplomatically and gracefully. I frantically considered my options. Should I get up and leave? That seemed like an overdramatic and impolite reaction. Finally, in a desperate bid for control, I abruptly began to “talk shop.” I asked him questions about his company, about his team, about their projects and their process. He handled the redirection well, remaining eager.

At the end of the dinner, he refused to split the bill. I hurriedly thanked him and said that I had to run to a friend’s in Nob Hill. “Oh, I’ll walk with you!” He insisted, scrambling up from his seat. Great.

As we walked toward her apartment, he regaled me with stories of his scuba diving adventures and his celebrity encounters — seemingly a last-ditch Hail Mary to pique my romantic interest.

Once safely inside my friend’s apartment, I began my diatribe. In a scene typical of Hollywood’s romantic comedies, four women griped about men over glasses of wine and Trader Joe’s tartlets. The camera zooms out to the sun setting behind a bridge. The difference though, is the content of our girl talk. One woman had sent a cold message to someone on LinkedIn and by the end of the exchange, he had invited her to a DJ set at Ruby Skye. Another had been interested in a mutual friend’s startup and, despite her aggressive efforts to schedule morning coffee at his office, he insisted on evening drinks. She arrived early, in flats, no makeup, and he still wanted to talk about her “free time.” The last time I asked a male acquaintance to send my resume to a founder, he forwarded it and then told me that I “owed” him a drink should I interview there. I did interview there. And he came to collect on that drink. Another friend recalls a dinner with her mentor, someone she had “put on a pedestal” for his abilities and his intellect. At the end of the evening, he tried to kiss her. She threw up on the street.

There are men in the Silicon Valley, who, upon meeting a woman, see her first and foremost as a potential mate — relationship status too often notwithstanding. For professional women, gender continues to be something that must be overcome, not only because we’re assumed incapable until proven capable, inexperienced until proven experienced — not only because our abilities are met with skepticism, but because our career aspirations are as well. When we network, we have to prove that we’re serious — that we’re here to “talk shop,” instead of small talk about our favorite brunch spots. Even when we’ve proved our “seriousness,” victorious in the first battle, we have to be on high alert for attempts to re-route the meeting, de-rail the conversation.

And sometimes, when you think you’re in the clear, the ‘follow-up’ lands.

Two days later, he texted me that he’d had “a great time” and that we “should hang out again soon.” He suggested dinner at a “new restaurant” in Hayes Valley the following week.

For a week, I wasn’t sure if and how I should respond — as someone junior in my profession, I didn’t want to burn bridges, especially not with a well-respected leader. Two weeks later, I replied “Would be great to talk shop over coffee.”

We never did talk shop, but we didn’t talk about our free time again either. We’d reached a truce: I never heard from him again.

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