A few months ago, I was waiting for the subway after work. It was one of those days when all of the lines were screwed up. A guy next to me turned and asked, “How was your day today?” I was taken by surprise since, nine out of 10 New Yorkers waiting for the subway are either plugged into their iPod-Phone-Pads or have their faces buried in Kindles. To kill time, it was refreshing to have an actual conversation with a seemingly nice person. And I was happy I did, quickly learning he was an experienced financial reporter. As a fledgling journalist myself, we had a lot to chat about.
Twenty minutes later, the train came and our conversation turned personal. We started talking about our friends and relationships. He asked me if I was in a relationship. I said yes, long-distance, since my boyfriend is in Hong Kong for a year. He proceeded to tell me how he prefers his relationships to be more “convenient” and that he is currently single. I ended up leaving the train with his card and emailed him a few days later about officially meeting to talk about his media experience and any advice he might have for me as a beginning journalist. We decided to meet for a drink. He picked the place. Arriving at what turned out to be a dimly lit restaurant, he said, “Hey, sorry, there’s a wait for dinner.”
I mentally reviewed our email exchange. He definitely did not ask me to go to dinner. All I wanted to do was talk shop and learn something from a more experienced reporter over a Blue Moon, but apparently, a networking drink to me meant full-fledged date to him. I came in expecting to be out in an hour at the most, only to find myself stuck eating pasta with a guy questioning me about why I was still in a long-distance relationship and when my boyfriend was coming back. I suddenly realized I had made a big mistake. It had happened so fast. I had been ambushed.
Looking back now, here are the six things I could have done differently (and will do differently in the future) to avoid being ambushed ever, ever again.
1. Control The Conversation. When meeting new people, either in a professional or causal manner, it is important to be personable. Asking some non-invasive, personal questions is a great way to get to know someone. “Where are you from?” So is sharing some personal facts about yourself. “I’m a journalist.” But be aware if the conversation gets a little too personal for the situation. “When is your boyfriend coming back from Hong Kong?” If someone starts harping on your current relationship status and/or significant other, trust that alarm going off in your head. Steer the conversation back to something general and eradicate those flirtatious vibes before they go any further.
2. Set An Appropriate Meeting Time. Now, this will vary depending on your schedule, but whether you are meeting a work colleague or say, that guy in your study group, plan to meet on the earlier side of the evening if possible. Right after work or class. Or on a weekend afternoon. If you can, make sure to mention that you have dinner plans later. This will make it less likely you’ll get ambushed into hanging out longer than you feel comfortable. If you can’t meet until the later hours, you may want to reschedule.
3. Pick The Venue. While it is not a glaring sign of an oncoming date if the person you are meeting picks the location, a great way to steer clear of an ambush date is for you to insist on picking the venue. Taking control of the location will allow you to avoid any bar or restaurant scenarios that might imply the wrong mood. In my case, he picked the place, which ended up being a small Italian restaurant with dim lighting. If I had picked the place, it would have been a well-lit dive bar or a coffee shop.
4. Assess The Greeting. First impressions can be very revealing when meeting someone new. If you receive a greeting that is too affectionate from a new acquaintance, proceed with caution! “You look beautiful” or “Hi, sweetie” are not appropriate greetings. Use your judgement to decide if that hug from your co-worker was a little too friendly. If so, stay alert and prepare to politely excuse yourself if need be.
5. Remember, The More the Merrier. While my case was decidedly one-on-one, other ambush dates can spring from causal situations depending on who is or isn’t around. Let’s say your friend has a friend in town from home and that visitor asks you to show them around town. Nip this potential ambush in the bud and invite one or two of your friends to join you. Same with the studying scenario — make it a study party and prevent a one-on-one situation. If the meeting is intended to be friendly, the guy shouldn’t mind if you bring some friends as reinforcement. The more the merrier, right?
6. Leave When You Want. Maybe this is obvious to you, but I still need to say it: You can leave at any time you want. You are in no way obligated to participate in an ambush date out of guilt or politeness. In my case, I endured our dinner. I slipped the waitress my card to try to pay for my half of the meal, but he wouldn’t let me. If I had it to do again, I would have told him that I couldn’t stay for dinner, that I had somewhere to be later, and suggested that we have a quick drink at the bar. You live and you learn.