You meet someone after work, just "for beers." You hang at the bar, laugh over a dumb joke. Then, suddenly, they casually throw this whopper into the conversation: "So, um, how many people work at your company?" You're caught off-guard and immediately ask yourself: "Wait, this is a date, right? Or is this person just networking?"
Does that sound uncomfortably familiar? Today, confusing networking for a date (or, alternatively, a date for mere platonic connection) has become one of the most common courtship land mines.
When dating morphs into networking: A few months ago, Alan*, a 20-something who works with media startups, had a series of what he called the "worst experiences" ever. Three different OkCupid dates over the course of one month all seemed to unfold along the same script: "The date's going well, I feel like we're really hitting it off, and towards the end they sheepishly confess that they recognized me from Twitter and wanted to ask about media jobs," Alan told Mic.
While he paid for the first two "dates," by the third, Alan felt embarrassed and frustrated. "The third one I actually told her off politely, told her I was leaving and that it hadn't been a pleasure, pounded my drink and walked out," he said.
This conundrum is particularly modern. In an age when both men and women are pushing hard for professional success, often at younger ages, it can be hard to determine when work life ends and personal life begins, as proven by our 11 p.m. business emails and midday friendly Gchats and Slacks.
That blending is exacerbated in certain industries, like media, in which employees are encouraged to network and capitalize on their public identities. "In this new economy of the personal brand and doing your own thing, everyone is constantly working the room," Meredith Fineman of the Harvard Business Review wrote.
Kelly, who works as a chief of staff to a CEO, attended a wedding where she thought she was going to meet a groomsman on a set-up. "We were talking a lot, and at the end of the party he asked for my number. I gave it to him, and then he said, 'Thanks — I'd really love to meet your boss some time,'" Kelly told Mic.
When networking veers into dating: Plenty of ambitious young professionals reach out for networking opportunities that are then misconstrued as dates.
"As an editor, I considered taking talented, new writers out to drinks to be a big part of my job," Elizabeth, a features editor, told Mic. So Elizabeth made drink date with a talented male writer she admired, meeting at an expensive cocktail bar — his choice — and dishing out compliments about his writing, as she often did in such meetings.
Then the conversation turned to dating. "He told me crazy stories of women he had met through his blog, fans who reached out through the comments or Twitter," Elizabeth said. After she joked with him about why he would meet women through Twitter, he replied, "Well, you contacted me through Twitter."
"It was awkward for a second, when we realized that one of us was on a bad, overly-aggressive date," Elizabeth said.
What does "grabbing drinks" mean? The lines between networking and dating get fuzzier not only as jobs bleed into personal lives, but also as dating gets more casual and vague. Cassandra, a 20-something who works in tech, endured what she called a "sneak date."
"A co-worker, who I had been to happy hour with a couple of times in a group, emailed me on company email about grabbing a drink that day after work. Only once I got there did I realize it was just the two of us," she told Mic.
Ultimately, the intersection of jobs and personal lives is natural. Job-heavy conversation on a date or divulging personal anecdotes at a networking event are equally commonplace, and careers play an important role in partner selection. As Match.com's 2015 Singles in America study found, 44% of men want an independent, career-driven woman.
But most of the time, we'd still like to know whether the person sitting across from us is a future professional peer or a romantic prospect. Dating is awkward enough without having to simultaneously be interviewing for a job.
*Names have been changed to allow subject to speak freely on private matters.