Background

I am a computer programmer working as a graduate student under a biochemistry department in a university affiliated hospital. So far I have had a very successful career, having written novel and published data mining algorithms on top of programming hardware for spectrometers. I am also tall (around 6'2") and fit at around 178 lbs. I don't think I'm particularly attractive (facially), but in the past I have not had a problem finding casual relationships.

The problem

Some people at work (school?) question my single status - particularly the female staff (the biochemistry lab is 50/50 male/female, however the hospital is heavily female dominated) and I am starting to feel that it is impacting my career and reputation. Examples:

A woman (who is married) told me directly that she feels a man who prefers singledom is not "normal".

My supervisor (PI) told a female co-worker not to talk to me (she revealed this to me the other day and asked why he would say this).

A woman whose advances I purposely ignored is accusing me of being gay.

Why I'm single

I personally have little to no interest in relationships. I have had a few short term relationships in the past and realized that relationships are not for me. I am an extremely introverted individual with clear structure in my life and in the past I have found that all the emotional needs, spontaneity, ups and downs, etc., of relationships have left me extremely depressed.

Like most humans, I have sexual needs. I found these could be met relatively easily (and on my ordered schedule) through online dating apps which further compounds my decision to avoid long term relationships.

The question

How can I reply to people in such a way that it leaves little to their imagination (i.e. prevents further rumor generation)?

  • 1
    What have you told them already? How do they know you don't have a significant other outside of work? – scohe001 Jun 12 at 3:13
  • 86
    A co-worker publicly "accusing" you of something private, a supervisor acting on homophobia and rumours by telling people not to talk to you... Particularly the latter, these are both pretty gross workplace misconduct incidents. It might help to more clearly outline what your goal is here in relation to these people, do you want to reply to them with security and privacy? are you okay with getting support from co-workers or other external sources? do you want to make sure this will make no impact on their or your job security? how far are you willing or wanting to go to shut this down? – Jesse Jun 12 at 5:05
  • 6
    The problem is that I'm a grad student and I'm not sure if I am afforded the support of HR staff. My goal isn't to start any sort of workplace war - more so to tactfully deflect any questioning in such a way that it prevents the generation of ridiculous rumors about my sexual orientation, etc. – David Jun 12 at 5:12
  • 4
    @David you might want to try academia.stackexchange.com about whether you are afforded support by the HR staff. I think if you phrased the question along the line of if there's help available, you'd get good responses (if that was an avenue you wanted to look down). You might even get good responses about dealing with other academic types (some of whom are in a position of seeming authority over you). – Philbo Jun 12 at 14:34
  • 1
    @tox123 Nahh but what concerns me is what other reasons people may be suggesting for my singledom. In some ways I feel there is a witch hunt against men who are single past a certain age, being pinned as "undesirable" or whatever and in some ways that spills over into the way employers and others view potential workers as well. I feel it's unfair though because many of us choose singledom for personal reasons. – David Jun 17 at 5:39

10 Answers 10

up vote 93 down vote accepted

Boy, this is tough and you are probably not going to like what I have to say on this topic.

I have been walking in your shoes, sort of: Semi-attractive male in my late 20s, long term single, working in IT, workplace dominated by female colleagues (sometimes being the only man in a department).

My reasons for being single though are different and I would classify myself as very extroverted, so take this with the appropriate amount of salt.

You will not be able to prevent people having these kind of thoughts if they hear about your condition. Don't waste your time on this.

In the end, we behave outside the norm and there is a price for it. You probably have similar experiences being classified as nerd among other things because of your field of study. This is no different in its core. Is it fair? Of course not. But the world is not going to suddenly change overnight.

That being said, I'm not here to tell you that all hope is lost. There are ways to deal with this, but they depend on what you are confronted with, so here is a quick analysis.

As far as my experience is concerned, and contrary to what the popular debate might suggest, women can just be as nasty when it comes to sexual harassment as men can be. I've been there first hand, having my sexuality questioned, my butt slapped while fixing some cables below the table and uninvited comments about how much I need a girl in my life and who that girl should be.
Yes, this is sexual harassment, don't sugarcoat it. If you have any doubt about that, just imagine you telling said coworker that a woman who chooses to work is not normal... Exactly.

However, the motivation of your collegues might differ. Some just need this as a sort of self-validation for their life decisions (maybe they regret marrying early). Others might not be aware of how much over the line they are and would stop if they knew. Finally there are those with an axe to grind, maybe because you denied their affection or they have bad experiences dating in their age span with men only wanting something "casual", thus resenting you for this behaviour. This is the hardest group to deal with. Nothing of this is an excuse. But your approaches may differ.

How to deal with it, in order of my personal success:

  1. Do not disclose your relationship status. This is the method which worked best for me, although it's too late in your case, you might consider this in the future. I know you meant well by socializing, but this is a can of worms you should avoid. Don't talk about it. You may be blunt "Sorry, I don't talk about my relationships" or vague "Someone is waiting for me when I'm coming home, thats all I'm gonna say (wink wink)" (does not have to be a lie, that someone could be a girl waiting for your dating app reply, your pet hamster, whatever).

  2. Be serious. If someone brings it up again, politely and calmly ask, if they think it is OK for them to make that comment. Ask them how they would feel if you commented on their marriage, the age they got pregnant, or their femininity in general. Be polite, but insist on an answer if they try to evade at least for some time. The second group of people I described will most likely back off immediately and the first might shut up. This does not work with the third group, as they are inappropriate on purpose.

  3. Fire with Fire. This might very well be out of your comfort zone, but I will list it anyway. It skips the politeness of method 2 and goes head on. When the married woman approaches you with the same bs again, ask her how she has the time commenting on your behaviour when she should be at home cooking for her husband. If the jealous one claims you are gay, ask her how much it must suck to always fall for the gay guys. Or publicly ask her about her issues with gay people. Or tell her that the three chicks you banged last month can confirm otherwise. A lot of possibilities.

Careful to not get in trouble with HR yourself. I'm from Germany and things here are a bit less...agitated as it seems to be the case in the US or Canada for that matter.

Group 1 will most likely be shut down by this approach. Group 3 might shut up as well or take it as an incentive to escalate further.

  1. The silent treatment. Straight up ignore them. They want to rustle your jimmies, do not let them. Don't give them the slightest hint of emotion, annoyance or attention. Treat them with professional distance only. This might be effective with all groups, because at some point, it will become boring for them. However, you 100% forfeit the initiative and let them control the circumstances and the narrative, which is not a good thing at all. It also might take quite some time and kill any fun you might have at your job.

  2. Talk to HR. Yup this is last for several reasons. I do not want to keep you from getting help if you really need it, and you absolutely should do this if things get out of hand. But in my experience, women already often have a hard time when they have legitimate complaints about sexual harassment from their co-workers. Men have it even harder. Be prepared to just get told to "man up". Be prepared to get resented even more by some people. Be prepared that your boss might see you as a liability from that point on. Again, I'm not saying that this WILL happen, it might very well turn out perfectly well if your HR and management consists of professionals actually doing their jobs. I'm just telling you to be prepared.

To add to the already good answers, I'll make this one a bit shorter. If you want to dismiss questions in the future of "why are you single" you can answer

"I'm on a few dating apps, but haven't found anyone I want to be serious with"

which is not false and generally understandable. It can often end the discussion on the topic and will not raise as many flags as "I prefer being alone".

If they make advances at work, make it clear you don't want to date colleagues.

Your problem

It sounds like some of your female coworkers are worried about your character if you can't "hold down a relationship." You seem to be the subject of a prejudice.

Maybe these coworkers simply haven't met a man with your ideals before who wasn't a scumbag. Or maybe they had a bad experience with someone your age who was single. Either way, the best way that I've found to deal with prejudices is to try to separate yourself as an individual from the group you're being lumped with.

A solution

In this case, the group is "single men over a certain age." Next time a coworker tells someone not to talk to you, make it personal. Ask them why they've done this and when they reply that it's because they don't think you can be trusted or something else about your single status, ask them:

Have I ever shown any signs of being untrustworthy? Or have I ever tried to take advantage of my female coworkers? I enjoy working with all of you and though I may be single, I'm still just another person trying to get through his daily grind.

This may not convince them and things may not change immediately, but if you can repeat this pattern of not playing into their prejudices and reminding them of this fact, eventually they may realize that you're not another sleazy guy.

If it's me I like to add some humor to lighten the mood. If someone tells you they think you're not normal for being single, I'd respond with:

I agree that I'm not too normal, after all I do {insert that goofy thing you do} sometimes. But I'm not sure being single makes me strange. Why do you think so?

Listen to their reasoning and try to find the root of their prejudice. Do they think that you're clearly attractive so you must either have a girlfriend or be a player? Remind them that you've never been a player around them and this basis is unfounded.

Again, in my experience this doesn't work immediately, but repeated enough times it eventually begins to stick.

An important note for the workplace

I would like to note that if this is going so far that your supervisor is telling coworkers not to talk to you, you may need to talk to a higher up. This is all well and good as a minor interpersonal issue, but if it affects your job or your education, it may be time to go to HR. For more on this, you might want to ask about your situation on The Workplace.

Sometimes it helps to put labels on things. From your description it sounds like you might be an aromantic. That is, a person who experiences little or no romantic attraction to others and does not wish to engage in a steady relationship with a Significant Other. Aromantic people do value friendship and close family bonds, it's just they are not interested in "single love". It also does not mean that they are asexual. It's not that uncommon, one study suggests that the prevalence is around 1% in the US adult population. It's also bit of a spectrum, there is quite some room between 'I can only love one person and will do so for my entire life' and 'I have never felt in love with someone'.

The woman that said you your wish to stay single is not "normal" expressed herself in an amatonormative way, the "the assumption that a central, exclusive, amorous relationship is normal for humans, in that it is a universally shared goal, and that such a relationship is normative, in the sense that it should be aimed at in preference to other relationship types." Amatonormativity is deeply engrained in US culture and by extension in most other western cultures. And yes, it is harmful to those who do not lean that way. Culturally, amatonormativity is more engrained in women than in men ('slut' versus 'stud').

To illustrate how bad this is: the prime minister of my country six years running is single and has no obvious love life. There is quite a bit of conjecturing in the (social) media about whether he is a closet gay or whatever. He himself does not say anything about that part of his life as it is nobodies concern but his and his alone and he of course has sufficient power, influence and media skills to make this not stick to him.

That said, being aromantic in itself does not create stress or unhappiness, you can be perfectly happy living single. Stress can however be caused by social stigma (the first woman) or wrong interpretation of your sexual and/or romantic preference (the third woman).

Now, what can you do or say?

Lie

I just haven't found my true love yet. I hope I will find her* someday.

*Insert your sexual orientation here. This method neatly sidesteps wrong assumptions and any discomfort in others about you being deviant from the norm. On the other hand, well, it is a lie if you are definitely aromantic. The lie is somewhat excusable because it is about your private life, which your coworkers have absolutely no business with, and it is only temporary as you will not be working there forever.

Tell them off

I find all this prying, implying and conjecturing about my private life pretty offensive and disrespectful

And it is. But nonetheless, it will continue to happen unless you take a stand and say that you will have none of it. Of course that won't happen to stop people from doing it behind your back, mixing it with the 'lie' should be more effective in that respect. My prime minister certainly won't phrase it as harsh as this, because he does not want to alienate potential voters.

Come out

I am what you could call an aromantic. Never fell in love with a woman, probably never will. It's perfectly normal. Lots of people stay single [and still have casual sex every now and then].

Only do this if you are definitely an aromantic. Some people will think you are weird because you go against one of the more fundamental assumptions about life they grew up with (the first woman) and they will reject this concept out of personal belief. Others will be more open, but be prepared to keep on explaining yourself forever. If you get fed up with it, mix in with two. Explanations can involve something like the genderbread person, where romantic attraction is just one of the five axes.

Ask your supervisor what was meant by advising coworkers 'not talking to me'

This depends slightly on the rapport you have with your supervisor, the level of hierarchy in the company culture and other factors that involve your job security. You may need to talk to HR first. If true, it appears you are stigmatized and possibly discriminated against.

How can I reply to people in such a way that it leaves little to their imagination (i.e. prevents further rumor generation)?

If you're in an environment where they don't know, don't volunteer the information. Most of your post involves places where people do know, but for new places, consider keeping this information private by implying that you're taken - which can be interpreted to be true since you can fulfill your needs when you want per your original post.

As to places where they know that you're single, look at your own examples:

A woman (who is married) told me directly that she feels a man who prefers singledom is not "normal".

My supervisor (PI) told a female co-worker not to talk to me (she revealed this to me the other day and asked why he would say this).

A woman whose advances I purposely ignored is accusing me of being gay.

Men have a tendency to just "handle" discrimination - which most of what you list borders on discrimination (or is blatant discrimination depending on how you look at it) - but if you just let these fly, these people will do this to others. Discrimination isn't always about you, it affects others.

In your third example where a woman accuses you of being gay, she's essentially implying that if you don't like her or attracted to her, you're gay. Not only is that arrogant, some might find that somewhat homophobic. Your second example is someone encouraging discriminating ("don't talk to him") and your first example is discrimination where a person implies there's something wrong with you if you're not married. This speaks volumes about where you work and given that it's multiple people (every company has at least one bad actor), this sounds like a hostile work environment.

The best solutions in your case:

  1. Escalate your examples due to discrimination. If you don't, there isn't a way around people treating you this way. These examples are awful treatment. Keep in mind that people preventing others from meeting or talking with you may impact your future career potential.
  2. If people are being respectful, but curious about your relationship status, like "What makes you prefer being single" you can be reasonable and explain in a manner you find equally respectful. Your OP does a great job of this and is perfectly reasonable.
  3. If people are curious and are disrespectful in the process, like "What makes you prefer being single, even though it's much better to be married" you can respond in an equal manner here - "You're right. A breakup is much worse than alimony and child support for life! I really need to find a MS that I can give 60% of my money to." Disrespectful questions deserve disrespectful answers. In the least, these aren't discriminating against you.

If you choose not to escalate your existing situation, in the least, look for an exit and consider not revealing your single status in the future. If you do let this fly, these people will keep treating others this way though.

Specifically speaking about the audience which is trying to exile you:

Being rejected because the target (you) is "off-limits" (taken, married, or gay) is a far easier pill to swallow compared to being rejected because the target does not want them. It is far easier to make you feel bad about your life choices rather than suck it up because they are not considered as one of your choices. If they cannot have you then they would prefer if you weren't even around as a temptation.

You never specified your country/culture but the main conclusion which I have gathered is jealousy.

Unfortunately they're goal is to badger you until they feel better about themselves.


So what can you do about this? Unfortunately, not much besides get them to believe you are seeing someone.


Keep focused and do what you do because it sounds like you can continuously upgrade your career with new employment.

Most importantly Don't s**t where you eat

  • I'm in Vancouver, Canada. I think you brought up a good point with the jealousy too although I don't think it's because I am off-limits. In an unrelated issue, many of them are struggling to get publications as their work is a lot more laborious than mine (hands on wet lab work, long hours) vs. my computer work which yields publications easier. This is understandable. Anyhow food for thought! – David Jun 13 at 0:49

Responses to these specific circumstances:

Generally the earlier answers should be your first choices and the latter options are for increasingly difficult individuals.

A woman (who is married) told me directly that she feels a man who prefers singledom is not "normal"

Option 1: ask her to explain herself. Ask "Why do you think it isn't normal? What's wrong with prefering being single?". With any luck, getting her to express her opinion fully will highlight the flaws with it.

Option 2: ask why it matters to her. Ask "You're happily married, so how exactly does my singledom affect you?". Again, with any luck she will realise she is being judgemental.

Option 3: "Since when is it down to you to decide what is and isn't normal?"

My supervisor (PI) told a female co-worker not to talk to me (she revealed this to me the other day and asked why he would say this).

You don't explicitly state how/why this relates to the singledom issue. Are you sure it's related?

Are you sure it's not because said supervisor thinks the opposite - that you are interested in said co-worker, and he is also interrested and thus sees you as faux competition?

If this was related, document the issue (perhaps don't mention which coworker told you unless said coworker would be willing to back you up on the matter) and do not take it further unless the issue becomes repetative and you have some form of proof or more witnesses prepared to come to your defence.

Really that's a workplace issue, not an interpersonal issue.

A woman whose advances I purposely ignored is accusing me of being gay.

As other answers have said, this woman is rationalising the rejection because the idea that you simply aren't interrested in her is too much to bear.

Option 1: "If I was gay, I assure you I would not be hiding the fact because there is nothing wrong with being gay. However I am not gay, I am straight. I am just not interested in long-term relationships."

Option 2: question her motives. E.g. "Is that it then? I'm not interested in you, so the only explanation is that I must be gay? I'm sorry, but that sounds a little bit irrational to me".

Option 3: question her accusation. E.g. "I am categorically not gay, but if I were, would you have a problem with that? Do you have a problem with gay men?".


General suggestions:

Don't panic. Remain calm.

In the case of work-related issues, don't rush to HR, but document the incident somehow and if others are present, make it clear that your love life or lack thereof is not your colleages business and should not have an impact on your work life. State that your personal life is personal and you choose to keep it to yourself.

In the case of more casual digs, turn the person's comments back on them by questioning their belief. Try to make them justify themselves. Most likely they will want to change the topic because they will not want to be questioned on the matter.


Other stances:

Perhaps consider maintaining the notion that you don't date coworkers and you don't discuss your love life at work. As long as you enforce that rule it acts as a facade for what your love life is actually like. Coworkers will never know whether you're seeing someone or not and you can fall back on the rule as a way to deter romantically interested coworkers.


Regarding myself:

I am in a similar position. I'm not in a heavily female environment and haven't been for some years, but I remain single purely because I have been single for so long that I've gotten used to the situation and have grown content with the way things are. Likewise, I don't find the stress that comes with relationships very attractive and have been accused of being gay in the past, at a time when it was less socially acceptable to be gay. (In hindsight I find it quite laughable.)

I think there is an implied prejudice in people questioning your marital status. They assume that having a relationship is the norm and not having it is due to something wrong with you.

To deflect that you can use a quote that I hear often from people on the situation you described:

Single yes, but never alone.

Sounds to me like a somewhat ironic way to deflect questions about your marital status. It makes clear that it's your option not to have a relationship and it also makes clear that you have occasional relationships, showing that there is nothing wrong with you.

The other answers give good suggestions for how to stop people from continuing to question you, however if your main concern is your relationship with your coworkers (and how to not be discriminated against), a softer response would work better. Perhaps you could provide some backstory as to why you don't prefer relationships, even if you have to make it up. For example,

My dad has had some really bad divorces and generally unhealthy relationships with women, so the idea of a relationship has always seemed negative to me

or

My parents had an arranged marriage and don't love each other. The concept of a romantic relationship still doesn't seem very realistic to me, so I've never tried to pursue one.

(This second one is pretty much my situation, although as a female in my early 20's I'm young enough that coworkers don't think it's weird that I'm not in a relationship.)

Hopefully this will satiate people like the first woman ("preferring singledom isn't normal") without offending them too badly. People with more traditional views on marriage are likely to take offense if you reject their traditions out of your own volition, but will be more accepting if you can provide a reason that's out of your control.

The 2nd point about the supervisor is unclear to me. Does the supervisor have some sort of grudge against you? (This doesn't seem to be a gender issue since the female coworker was just repeating what the supervisor said.) Do you know any information beyond them telling your coworker not to talk to you?

For the 3rd type (woman who accused you of being gay), I don't think there's much that can be done to combat their jealousy/arrogance, unless you want to use some kind of pretext like not wanting to date a coworker. Either way it would probably be better to nip in the bud and reject the first advances, instead of ignoring it and hoping they'll take the hint. It's pretty clear that that particular person doesn't have very good social skills.

  • I am unsure to this day why my supervisor said that but I'm not terribly interested in finding out why. I feel an "ignorance is bliss" strategy is best here. Especially considering the supervisor has otherwise been fantastic - i.e. he gladly writes most of the biochemistry background for our co-publications (whereas I write mostly the applied mathematical/programming methods sections). – David Jun 18 at 2:14

To the people questioning your single status - Why should you have to explain your single status to them anyway? If you say your single and they don't listen than thats their own problem. You can't make people's minds up for them. Simply say 'I have no reason to lie about my status...'

To the woman who says being single isn't 'normal' - Just don't even pay attention to her... a 'normal' person wouldn't say something like that.

To your supervisor - That is very unprofessional... Your higher-ups shouldn't be saying things like this to begin with.

I think you are over thinking this my friend. You have every right to be single and not be judged for it. You're young and just trying to progress your own life. There is no shame in that.

So what do you do now? Suggestions...

  • Brush it off. Don't let these people bring you or your name down. Keep your head up. And, if they continue, confront them about why your status has anything to do with the workplace or THEIR lives.

  • Flip the question back on them. Ask them why you need to be in a relationship? No one's relationship is perfect and I guarantee that all the people in relationships, at some point, wished they were single.

  • Be blunt about it. Just tell them you have no interest in a relationship at this point in time.

protected by Community Jun 18 at 7:27

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