Is My Mentor Hitting on Me?

What women really think about news, politics, and culture.
Oct. 4 2011 7:04 AM

Is My Mentor Crossing the Line?

We talked on the phone for five hours, and now I want to redraw a boundary—but I don’t know how.

Illustration by Jason Raish.

Illustration by Jason Raish.

Dear Friend or Foe,
When I was in high-school Model U.N., I befriended the keynote speaker, a journalist I’ll call “Stan.” Since I was interested in becoming a journalist myself, I was delighted to get to know him in a professional capacity. Over the years, we maintained a mentorlike relationship. But when he started to want to talk about personal instead of political things, I drifted away. Recently we made contact again for the first time since 2005. I was driving across the country and was happy to have someone keep me awake by talking on the phone for five hours. During the conversation, I also offered to volunteer as a researcher or editor for his upcoming book, thinking it would be great experience for when I apply to law school. I was also hoping he’d recommend me to the top-tier school from which he obtained his legal degree. I also believe his book is visionary. However, no amount of résumé boosting or intellectual edification (never mind the recommendation) is worth the commitment that this offer seemed to imply to him.

Lucinda Rosenfeld Lucinda Rosenfeld

Lucinda Rosenfeld is the author of four novels, including I'm So Happy for You and The Pretty One, which will be published in early 2013.

Since then, he has left me multiple emails and calls, wanting to catch up more and talk about my role in his book. Now I’m dreading having to talk to this man for another five hours, since I know it will become either a personal or one-sided conversation. That or an alarmist rant about foreign affairs. Now I need to find a polite way of drawing a boundary. I’d still help him with his book if we could correspond via email, and I'd be happy to have a one-hour phone conversation every few months if it affords me the opportunity to work with him. How do I articulate exactly what I'm willing to commit to and make it clear that I’m only interested in a professional relationship? Or should I just sever the friendship and apologize for not following through on my offer?

Sincerely,
Professional not Personal

Dear PNP,
First of all, I hope you used a headset! (That’s one loooooooong conversation.) Second of all, forgive the nostalgia trip—but you remind me of myself in the early (and frequently confused) stages of my own career. I’d go on what I thought was a job interview and wind up having drinks with the so-called “employer” in some hotel lobby bar, wondering whether this was “just how business was done”—and baffled, later, to find that I hadn’t gotten the job. Except, wait—was that the same guy on my answering machine calling to say “hi” and “see what [I was] up to? Unfortunately, young women are easy prey in this department, eager as they are to climb the ranks, reluctant as they are to offend, and flattered as they are (who wouldn’t be?) by the attention.

Here’s the deal with Stan. He doesn’t need a research assistant for his book. He’s lonely and thinks you’re cute. That doesn’t make him an evil rapist. But it means that, if your only interest in him is professional, you should tell him you’re busier than you thought you’d be and are therefore unavailable. (No apologies necessary.) Why? His law-school recommendation will get you nowhere. Nor will you learn anything if you agree to be this man’s researcher—except, maybe, where he buys his socks. I can also guarantee that the pay will not amount to minimum wage—if you factor in all the hours spent listening to the man prattle on. Still convinced the work is visionary? You can recognize the genius by buying a copy of the book when it’s published.

My advice: Apply to law school on your own merits and see how the dice roll. As you’ve learned for the second time now, if you give this man an inch, he’ll take a football field. A final note: I’m sure you were a very mature 17 (weren’t we all?), but a bona fide grown-up befriending a high-school student of the opposite sex is—I’m sorry—Creepsville.

Sincerely,
Friend or Foe

Dear Friend or Foe,
As Indian-origin teens, my friends “Amy,” “Sasha,” and I were racial minorities in our school. I came to appreciate my culture mostly through our shared experiences. Amy is competitive and would go to any means to garner a win. (She has seen great success as a lawyer.) Sasha is gorgeous, finds that everything comes easily to her, and is content to put family ahead of career. In high school, Sasha moved across the country and we lost touch. Sasha re-entered our lives six years ago, after she got married (though arranged, it was of her own choosing). A short while later, I moved out of the country for an extensive graduate program. By the time I moved back this year, both Amy and Sasha had moved to New York City, and Amy had also married (by arrangement) a doctor from India.

Unlike Sasha, however, Amy had a harrowing marital experience (the husband turned out to be abusive), followed by a long and distressing divorce. Since then, she has become very bitter toward doctors from India, which she shows through passive-aggressive comments toward Sasha's husband. Recently, Amy and Sasha's husband had a falling-out (which was prompted by something inappropriate he said) that has led to both ladies calling me to complain. I've played this part before, just as I’ve repeatedly asked both not to involve me. However, the drama doesn’t seem to end. Should I mediate an intervention and insist that the two make up or break up once and for all without dragging it out? On a selfish note, I dread being divvied up between the two, as I don’t have the free time to indulge in separate rendezvous with Amy and Sasha.

 

Sincerely,
Caught in the Middle

Dear CITM,
You say that, thanks to her awful marriage, Amy is bitter towards Indian doctors in general. I guess that’s possible, but are you sure you’re giving your friend enough credit? Isn’t it just as likely that she doesn’t like Sasha’s husband because, well, his personality is unlikable? You say he made an inappropriate remark to her. So, this one time at least, she did have grounds—beyond his job description and ethnic origin—for starting a fight. The unanswered question here is whether, inappropriate remark aside, Sasha automatically took her husband’s side. (You seem to imply so much, since it was Sasha herself who called you to complain—not her husband.) In that case, I’m with Amy.

That said, the three of you share a long and unique history. So I’d make a last-ditch effort to repair Sasha and Amy’s friendship before you give up on the trio. I suggest calling Amy’s husband and asking him to send a one-line email apology for whatever it was he said. If he agrees, call Amy and tell her that, for the sake of the three of you, you’d like her to accept the apology, drop the subject, and move on. Ideally, that will keep the peace for another few months at least. If it doesn’t, you have my permission to divide and conquer. I’d also suggest setting up Amy on a date. It sounds as if she needs to be reminded that there are good guys in the world! Only, please—no cardiologists from Calcutta …

Sincerely,
Friend or Foe

 

Dear Friend or Foe,
Several years ago, I became friendly with another man, "Fred," at work. (I’m a guy, too.) He's a bit of an odd duck (i.e., dysfunctional, but loyal and sweet), but I enjoy his company. However, over the last few years, he has made several comments that lead me to believe I’m his best friend, while, to me, he’s more of an acquaintance with whom I enjoy spending time when I can. This may be attributable to differing lifestyles. He’s single and underemployed, while I’m married with a family and a full-time job and am also trying to finish a graduate degree.

At my old job, Fred and I both developed friendships with a woman, “Wilma.” But Fred developed romantic feelings, and the two engaged in a relationship (despite the fact that she was married). After she broke his heart, he complained bitterly about her. However, none of this changed my opinion of either one of them. After I got got a new job, a year ago, I maintained friendships with both of them, though I saw each separately—about once a month.

More recently, Wilma asked my assistance in getting her a position with my new company. I put her in contact with the right people and gave her a glowing recommendation. She got the job.

Now Fred says that he’s deeply offended—and that my loyalty to him should have superseded my desire to help Wilma. He also thinks that, once he told me what a horrible person she was, I should have ceased all contact with her. He is upset enough to never speak to me again. I maintain that I did nothing wrong in helping a friend and would do the same thing over. Did I violate some sort of "bro code," or is Fred acting like a middle-schooler?

Sincerely,
Totally Perplexed

 

Dear TP,
Hell had no fury like a—well, in this case—man scorned. Which is to say, yes, Fred is acting like a sixth grader. But you’re expecting too much if you think he’s going to be rational on any subject even tangentially connected to Wilma. You may have done nothing wrong from an ethical standpoint. Your mistake was to tell Fred the truth about what you did. Since he and Wilma probably have no contact anymore—and were therefore unlikely to confirm your story—why didn’t you just shrug and say that you had no idea how she got the job? Conversely, telling the guy that you wrote the woman who broke his heart a glowing recommendation—if that’s what you told Fred—is rubbing the rejection in his face.

If I were you, I’d take Fred out for a beer and apologize. Tell him you were thinking with your professional cap on (not your friendship one), and that you hope the two of you can get past it. You don’t have to promise never to speak to Wilma again—just reaffirm your bond with Fred. Think about it this way: He’s the only one of the three of you who’s alone right now. Even Wilma has her cuckolded husband to keep her company (and to quietly humiliate, but that’s another story).

Sincerely,
Friend or Foe