Kadath's Sound Advice To The Lovelorn

When this first came up, I thought it was really outside the scope of my blog. But then I thought about all those stories you hear about women on tech campuses getting "glommed" by clueless nerd boys. I remembered dating catastrophes and tragicomedies from my own undergraduate days, a hundred years ago. And I thought, well, maybe there is a place for at least some brief commentary on this topic.

In the comments to this blog post, Anonymouse asked

Granted, a lot of the behaviors described elsewhere (tit-grazing, eg) are very much not appropriate, but how exactly DOES one go about the whole mating thing? From the beginning, and for both 'sides'? (asketh one who, @22, still hasn't figured out much at all of it - if any)

Dear readers, I am willing and able to pontificate on many, many things, but dating advice is not what I would usually consider to be one of my areas of expertise. You'll see by my answer which follows Anonymouse's comment that I was most likely not of much practical use to him. (Though the book I recommended there is a good one for anybody to take a look at.)

But fortunately for him, and for all you likewise desperate souls out there, kadath stepped into the breech with a reply so wonderful it deserved promotion into a post.

Hi, anonymous. I usually lurk, and I hope Zuska doesn't mind me jumping in here, but I've answered your question for well-meaning but clueless guy friends of mine before, so I think I know what you're getting at.

Yes, it's unfair that the culture still expects men to do the initiating, but it sucks for women, too, so we mostly don't appreciate the "it's so hard for guys" pity-party that some men decide to throw themselves.

You may be lucky enough to attract the attention of a woman bold enough to ask you out, but otherwise...the one-step plan to not be a skeezy jerk when approaching women is:

Take "no" for an answer.

It's not that simple, of course. You have to put yourself in the mindset of being willing to respect that "no," first, whether it comes in verbal or non-verbal form. That's where doing the work beforehand to confront your privilege comes in.

You need to be willing to do the unspoken emotional work and social barometer-reading that our culture expects women to do. If you are paying attention to the object of your affections as a person, and reading and responding to her with unfeigned respect for her feelings, you're already most of the way to avoiding the jerk trap.

Here're some quick tips (cribbed from the last time I answered this question):

Be aware of context, and which ones will automatically make your interest feel threatening, even if you're the reincarnation of Galahad. ("Gallant hits on women he meets at house parties. Goofus hits on women when he's alone with them in elevators.")

Not everything will be clear-cut, but I'd hope you already know better than approach women in circumstances where they've been socialized to fear the rapists who are hiding behind every bush--which, as a rule, is when you're strangers or near-strangers and alone, extra bonus points if you're in the dark. (Lest you think I'm exaggerating, I have friends who check under my 8-inches-of-ground-clearance coupe when we're in dark parking lots for the muggers who must be hiding under there.)

More generally, any interaction where you have the upper hand is a bad one to express sexual interest. So, women you supervise at work are RIGHT OUT. This is especially true of service jobs, like waitressing. (You can get to know that hottie barista outside of work if you're head-over-heels, but you have to be a pleasant, friendly regular first and you have to be slow about it and give her room to say "no.")

So! Assuming you're in a reasonably-equitable social situation with the object of your affections, the next thing to do is be aware of body language, yours and hers.

Don't use potentially threatening body language. Put yourself (especially if you're a big guy) at or below her level, which avoids the "looming threat" problem. Be outside her bubble of personal space. A good rule of thumb is 6-8 inches farther back than you'd like to be--you're interested, so your bubble is going to be smaller than hers is if she's not. Don't block off "escape routes." If she's standing in a corner, stand or lean next to her, not in front of her so she's got walls on three sides and you on the fourth. Look at her face. Do not deliver your solicitation to her breasts. (I hope that one's remedial.) And open body language in general will be helpful: face your whole torso toward her, don't cross your arms, that sort of thing.

For her, you want to be alert for closed body language--turning or backing away from you, not making eye contact, folded arms, hunched up posture. These are all "I am not interested" signs at best. Abort!

If, despite all this, it turns out you've misjudged a situation, apologize and mean it, but don't fawn. "I seem to have imposed/scared you/come off as a jerk. I'm terribly sorry." Then be elsewhere, which will do more to prove you sincerely meant the apology than anything else. If you didn't actually scare her, she can come after you to correct the miscommunication.

Some stuff I didn't work in elsewhere:

Don't instantly go from introduction to getting your mack on. Make small talk about the weather if you have to (granted, this works better in New England than, say, southern California.) This gives each of you time to get a read on the other.

Learn the different levels of compliments:

Things that are not intrinsic to her person, and that she has control over are safest: "That's a great haircut."

Things that are intrinsic to her and she has no control over need to wait until you've established that your attentions are welcome: "You have incredible eyes."

Mixtures of the two are opening-volley flirts: "That haircut really brings out your eyes." She can take that as a compliment to her haircut, and move to a conversation about her awesome stylist if she doesn't want to flirt, or take it as a compliment to her eyes and flirt back.

Oh! The "hard to get" issue, perpetual whine of the man who doesn't want to take no for an answer and is looking for a loophole: tough shit. Treat all "no"s as genuine. You may be missing out, but it's much more likely that you're instead not imposing. "Hard to get" is the artifact of a deeply fucked-up culture, the "good girls don't" lie, and the sooner we stamp it out entirely, the better.

I hope this gives you a starting place. You could also ask your female friends what they like and don't like in terms of being approached. Don't couch it as "what do women want?" That's crap. It assumes that Woman is a monolithic class, strange and unknowable. We're just people...even if you're socially awkward, if we get the vibe off you that you're genuinely trying to respect our feelings, it doesn't matter if you're not the smoothest conversationalist ever.

Absolutely awesome advice!

Kadath's commentary got me to thinking about when Mr. Zuska and I first met. We met at a music festival. I was alone. He'd gone there with his friends, but at the time we met, he was by himself. This was his first wise move: do not approach a woman in a mob of d00ds. The first thing he said to me was to ask if he could bum a cigarette from me. Warning: I totally do not recommend or approve of smoking; I quit years ago; I do not recommend you take up smoking as a way to pick up chicks. After this he stood next to me, but several feet away, both of us facing the band stage and listening to the music. Very important: he faced the stage, and did not stare at me. He left a fairly wide space between us, which was not threatening to me, yet stayed close enough in my vicinity that I had a clue he might be interested in more than a cigarette. After some interval of time, he ventured a comment about the group performing on stage. I said something back. This was a clue to him that I did not mind his presence and was willing to engage in conversation. It was only after my reply that he turned his body to face towards me, because I had already turned toward him. Very shortly, we were having a conversation about types of music we liked, bands we'd seen, etc. During this conversation he did not crowd into my physical space but let me decide how close I wanted to come to him. When the set ended, he asked if he could buy me a drink. This gave me the option of saying yes, which would let him know I wanted to spend more time with him, or no thanks, I've gotta go meet up with my (imaginary) girlfriend, which would let him know I did NOT want to spend more time with him. Of course, I answered yes and the rest is history. We spent the rest of the day together talking and listening to the bands and have been together ever since.

Note that when we met, Mr. Z did NOT come up to me and remark upon my physical appearance. Instead he engaged me in CONVERSATION about a mutual interest. This gave us both a chance to slowly figure out if we really wanted to spend more time getting to know each other.

You might wonder how I remember all this detail about a Sunday afternoon in May, 1994. I used to journal a lot back then, and I wrote down a lot of detail about that day. Warm fuzzies, folks - I'm feeling all happy just thinking about that day.

Does anyone else have a story they might like to share about meeting someone where things went really well? Or a cautionary tell about an attempt that was just doomed to fail? Let me hear ya in the comments!

More like this

I'd been blogging for a couple of years when I began to get frequent comments from a woman quite a bit younger than I am; I'm 54 and she was 29 (she's now 30). We began e-mailing back and forth and eventually we met at a music jam session where I have been playing for years here in Hannibal.

During her second or third visit we were watching a BBC nature video; she placed her legs over mine -- this was a signal of trust, and before long we were off to the sexual races.

Wow, I didn't expect to get my own post! :D

But then I thought about all those stories you hear about women on tech campuses getting "glommed" by clueless nerd boys.

This is my undergrad social experience in one sentence.

I did meet my husband in the deal...but, on the other hand, I really didn't like him for the first year or so after we met. We didn't even rise to the level of "doomed to fail"--I didn't want anything to do with him, and he says I intimidated him. A few years of desensitization worked wonders, though. ;)

Living vicariously through my adult daughters and their friends....

The dates they have fond memories of don't involve drinking. They take place during daylight hours in public spaces. Stuff like tennis, ice skating, visiting the zoo, sports events and yes, music festivals. Even if the girl you like doesn't warm up to you, she may like you well enought to introduce you to some of her friends!

Even if you are truly in love at first sight, assume the object of you affection is too prudent to believe you. Don't say it out loud.

She enjoy hearing it so much more once she is confident you are not a psycho staulker dude.

Women talk about men - but not how men think they do. If you are a total jerk to one girl within 48 hours you will have been a total jerk to all her friends, co-workers, room-mates and their sisters. This is why being gracious when you are told no is so important.

My husband and I met in graduate school, and before we dated we knew each other through group social activities. One day he called me directly and asked if I wanted to go out for pizza, and we had such a good time talking our date lasted well into the wee hours. So that perhaps isn't so helpful.

But my husband does sometimes play in a band, which means I've done a fair share of hanging out in bars while he's playing. I've had nice chats with strange men - about the game showing on the TV (yes, many women have a clue about sports), about the weather if it's unusual, about beer or music or a variety of other topics. Sometimes it's casual and sometimes it's because a guy is interested. I usually work the fact that I'm with the band into the conversation (in case the wedding ring is too subtle), and usually either the guy excuses himself or we continue chatting because he was genuinely interested in conversation. But I've run into "don't take no for an answer" guys too and it can be very uncomfortable. He usually isn't interested in any kind of conversation - he's trying to convince me to dance, or telling me about how great he is, and he really isn't paying attention to my responses at all. Fortunately, these guys usually back off when my husband comes over on his break, but if I was really there by myself I would be extremely uncomfortable and concerned about walking to my car alone. I have no way to know if the strange men I meet are simply clueless or actually dangerous.

So my suggestions are:
- practice your small talk. That's the easiest way to start a conversation with a stranger. If you are attending the same school there are lots of topics you probably have a common interest in - classes, sports or other on-campus events, bad food in the dining hall, etc.

- don't assume that women aren't interested or knowledgeable about the things you are interested in. Some of us do like sports or science fiction or comic books or gaming or have other stereotypical "male" interests.

- don't assume that just because a woman chats with you that she's interested in anything more than conversation. Pay attention to her responses and body language. Be a nice guy, but not a Nice Guy(TM)

- if a woman says "no", back off. She can always approach you if she changes her mind.

- if a woman gives you her phone number, call!

And remember, the dating game is complicated for almost everyone, male or female. Women are trying to read your signals, just like you are trying to read theirs. We're human too.

I'm going to throw in an additional note for boys with a chip on their shoulder about how jerky guys get more dates, especially at younger ages. This is from my trove of Various Internet Quotes of random origin.

"Basically, it boils down to things not being fair in high school, to your naive mind. You're a nice guy! You're smart! Why shouldn't women want you and men want to be you?? And so you get caught up in this whole assholes-get-all-chicks ethos and it makes you bitter. And, to some extent, it's a true stereotype, but not for the reasons you might think: Women like the assholes, at least in high school, cuz they're preferable to your whiny ass who won't shut up about how unfair life is."

By andofcourse (not verified) on 04 Oct 2008 #permalink

I met Mr. Jane at a grad school mixer. He was the *only* guy there who did not hit on me. I remember vividly how incredibly uncomfortable I felt at the time---I went to this thing just to meet other grad students and have a good time, and instead ended up feeling like a freaky sex object. But Mr. Jane made me feel so comfortable---he just came up, introduced himself, made some small talk for a bit, then excused himself because he didn't want to monopolize my time. :) It took us a while to get together (mainly because of my own youthful stupidity :)), but he remained patient and polite and, most importantly, was willing to just be friends if that's what I wanted---and we were, truly, just friends for a while, no weird sexual undercurrents, and it was great.

Kadath's point about being willing to do your share of the social work is really critical. That's pretty much always been my make or break criterion on meeting a guy.

Doing your share of the work means:

1. You read body language accurately and show great respect in how you react to it.

2. You are good at making conversation that is light, nonthreatening, and interesting. If you initiated the conversation, you do more than half of the work of keeping it going.

3. You say exactly what you mean as opposed to being vague or confusing.

Violating any of those makes you tiresome and aggravating.

One way of getting past some of the initial awkwardness of meeting someone is to try internet dating. I met my partner of 5.5 years online and I found that it was a way (as a sort of shy female) that I could get to know someone a bit before I had to interact with them in person. I also felt like knowing a lot about a person (from initial emails and phone calls) before I met someone made me feel like it was a safer interaction than if some random guy started talking to me.

I have a piece of advice which will help all the nerd boys out there hit on the nerd girls. Don't brag! Don't tell me about how awesome you are in so many words. This is a huge turn-off. I think it happens when a guy is trying to impress a girl he likes, but especially if she is also a nerdy overachiever-type this makes the chat up seem like more of a competition than a sexy opening gambit. Really. If you want me me to know that your Robot Wars robot came in second at the national competition, work it in as a funny story, with maybe a little self-deprecating humor, such as, "It looked like Smasher3000 wasn't going to make it out of the starting gate but fortunately I happened to spot the missing widget just in the nick of time!" Or whatever. If you're awesome, I will find out. If you say, "I am soooo great at fixing widgets and I got 1600 on my SATs" I am going to think you are a wanker. under no circumstances should you tell me the good things other women have said about you. Instead, ask me questions about myself and my interests, and if you have to brag, do it in a way that doesn't make me feel like you're trying to one-up me. This may work with your nerd-frat friends but it's not sexy, it's just annoying.

Let me just say that I'm glad to be married now and don't have to play the game anymore. I can actually be myself, including being direct with my intentions..

But from back in the day, I was a timid person when it came to approaching women, and I certainly took a "no" to mean a no. However, why couldn't I just walk up to the next closest woman and try again..? Just another reason why I'm glad to be out of the game.

Just one thing:
If a woman tells you she's married, don't come back the next day and tell her you don't believe her.
Shockingly, this will not magically remover her underwear.

My boyfriend and I met at my weekly D&D group.
The thing that stood out to me was that he did his best to include me in an unfamiliar group (my old group had died a little while ago and a friend had convinced me to join this one. Knowing one person out of a whole group is not an easy thing to deal with as I'm terribly shy).
Too many people were ill to continue our game that night so everyone had popped off to do their own little thing. He made sure (without being pushy about it) that I was having fun with the other people there. Eventually we paired off and spent the rest of the night chatting about an online forum we both happened to frequent and internet culture in general. At the end of it all he offered me AND the friend who had invited me a ride home, an especially nice touch, since a ride home alone with someone you've just met can be creepy.
:3 We've been together ever since.

Wow- Kadath was way more patient and sympathetic to this guy than I would have been. My response would have been that someone who talks about "tit-grazing," refers to the whole situation as "mating," and feels the need to clarify that even though he's lonely, he has never ever gone so far as to rape anyone, should not be given any encouragement on the dating front. The "tit-grazing" and "mating" comments can possibly be chalked up to unfamiliarity with the English language, so I may be too harsh on those counts, but really the defensive reference to rape in Anonymouse's original comment is what bothers me.

To be clear- I am certainly NOT saying that I think Anonymouse is a rapist. I don't think he's threatening at all. I am saying that referring to rape in that way is not going to be welcome to most women and seems to indicate that he really hasn't done a whole lot of thinking about what women would want out of a relationship with him. Clue: being not-a-rapist is not good enough. Being not-a-tit-grazer (?) is not enough. Kadath did a great job of giving hints on how not to seem like a creep, but I feel like that's putting the cart before the horse. #1 priority should be to think about your potential relationship partners as real human beings with interests and feelings of their own rather than just as someone who's going to cure you from your loneliness or "mate" with you.