my coworkers think I’m flirting with them

A reader writes:

I’m a young woman in the first few years of my career. I have a fairly bubbly personality, and pretty much all throughout my life, regular interactions with men seem to get misconstrued as being flirtatious. I’ve recently found out that two of my coworkers were planning to set me up with a colleague because they “could tell I was into him.” I’ve also had one male coworker ask me out after he “sensed we had a connection.”

In fact, I am a lesbian and nothing could be further from the truth! I’m incredibly embarrassed that my behavior has given my colleagues that impression. So my question is, how do I come across as being warm towards my colleagues without giving the impression of being flirtatious or romantically interested? I’d prefer not to disclose my sexuality to my workplace, but outside of that I’m having trouble figuring out how to alter my behavior in a way that doesn’t give anyone the wrong impression but also doesn’t come off as cold or inauthentic.

Ugh.

This may not be about anything you’re doing at all.

Some men are primed to assume that any friendly young woman is showing romantic interest in them, because they have their own incentives to see it in that light (sometimes it’s ego, sometimes it’s wishful thinking, sometimes it’s an inability to see woman as people rather than potential romantic/sexual partners). And some bystanders are primed to see romantic interest when you’re just being friendly, because they’ve mentally categorized you as “to be paired off.”

So it’s possible that it’s something you’re doing, but it’s really, really possible that this is just you being warm and friendly.

There are some behaviors that will feed into this, like physical contact (like a touch on the arm while you’re talking, hugging, etc.) or giving lots of personal compliments (“you’re so funny,” “your hair looks great,” etc.).

But usually when people have this problem, they’re not doing anything that’s causing it. You’re existing while being young and female.

One option, of course, is to pull back and be less warm and friendly at work. I don’t think you should have to do that. Warmth and friendliness are great qualities.

But that leaves you with having to get used to the “no thank you, I’m not interested in you like that” conversations that you’ll end up having a lot of, which also sucks — especially at work, where you then having to worry about whether the person is going to be weird around you after that (or worse). Because of that, some people will use “I don’t date coworkers,” which can work (but sometimes leaves you open to pushback, which is ridiculous).

There aren’t great options here, and I hate that. What do others think?

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