It was, in all ways, a good and appropriate conversation, and an example of the reason I go to conferences like that in the first place. But he later confessed to me that he'd been very hesitant to speak to me because he was afraid it would come across as cover for some kind of flirtation. It seemed ridiculous, because he was so far from anything inappropriate, but his uncertainty came a hair's breadth from actually diminishing the conference's benefit to both of us.
You see the big fat irony. Avoiding sexualizing a woman's professional environment is an absolutely appropriate and important goal. But sidelining women from a professional community's social aspects is genuinely harmful.
Most men can easily judge for themselves the difference between friendly and creepy, but geekdom is infamous for its high proportion of the awkward.* I'd love it if there were a really clear and well-known rule of thumb that would assure even the most shy and awkward guys about where "the line" is. The hard part is that men differ so widely in their judgements and self-judgements. Some will be critical or suspicious of themselves at virtually anything, and some find excuses for even the most egregious of their own behavior. It's hard to know how to encourage the former but not the latter.
My first thoughts -
- Imagine that she were a man. Would you still do or say what you're doing or saying now, or would it feel too awkward?**
- If you're genuinely worried about it, you're probably not a problem guy in the first place.
* - Understand that, when I say this, it's with affection. I love the socially awkward! I find communities where everybody adheres smoothly to a single social standard to be boring and uncreative. I hope geekdom will always be a haven for the awkward.
** - Obviously not a very useful standard for bisexual people.