Ask Dr. Nerdlove

DEAR DR. NERDLOVE: How does one distinguish between a person signaling an interest in platonic friendship and a person signaling an interest in a romantic relationship?

It seems to me that many of the behaviours that signal a person is romantically interested could be fairly interchangeable with someone with whom you get on really well as a friend (e.g., teasing, Duchenne smiles, remembering small details from previous conversations). And logically, that makes sense, since flirting and friendship are ultimately about producing/reinforcing some sort of emotional bond. Granted, there’s the physical proximity thing, but even that can get a bit muddled as I often find that I’ll sit quite close to my friends or lean into them while looking at something on their phone – and to make matters even more confusing, because I suffer from social anxiety, I actually tend to instinctively increase my physical distance, face away, and avoid eye contact when I am attracted to someone, because I get painfully nervous. I imagine the same may go for others dealing with the lovely anxiety beast.

In the past, I’ve misinterpreted signals from people I thought were ‘just friends’, and I’ve also long been quite petrified of misreading a guy’s ‘just friends’ signals as something more. So:

1) How does one distinguish between ‘friend’ signals and ‘potential romantic partner’ signals?

2) How does one determine whether someone is flirting/interested when communication is mainly online? I’ve noticed that despite the increasing prevalence of people forming friendships and romantic relationships online (particularly in the nerd/geek community), the topic of ‘reading signals’ from online behaviour is rarely addressed.

3) What happens to flirting dynamics when you’re *both* socially anxious/awkward/generally terrible at the whole dating thing?

Thanks again for a great resource!!

– Avoiding False Positives

DEAR AVOIDING FALSE POSITIVES: As a general rule, the biggest difference between “friend” signals and signaling romantic or sexual interest is, well, sex. Attraction is, after all, a mix of emotional and physical chemistry; if all you you are doing is trying to build an emotional connection while neglecting the physical aspects, then you’re going to have a platonic relationship instead of a sexual one.

Touching is one of the biggest differences; while touchiness and comfort with physical proximity is highly cultural, there are differences in how you touch someone who you’re interested in getting to know as a potential BFF and someone you’re hoping to see naked. For example, while we may let friends into our personal space, we tend to move closer – or allow others to come closer – to us than we would friends and acquaintances; this is known as “intimate” space and it’s usually reserved for very close friends, family members and lovers.

Generally, the more interested someone is in you physically, the more likely they are to move touch up the intimacy ladder. For example, you’re unlikely to sit with your legs pressed against a friend’s legs unless you have no room to space out; however, to a couple looking for some quality naked time, putting your leg against the other person’s – more-so, if you’re sitting across from one another – is a flirting signal. Even the way you lean in can make a difference; a friend isn’t likely to lean into someone in such a way that it presses her breasts against the other person unless the two already have a comfortable and intimate friendship. Similarly, friendly hugs are usually an a-frame – strictly upper body contact while keeping the lower bodies apart. As a general rule, lighter touches, such as gentle brushes with the fingertips, tend to be flirtier than the palm of the hand firmly on the shoulder.

Someone who’s flirting or interested in another person as a potential romantic or sexual partner will also tend to preen and show themselves off a little. Both men and women will make points of adjusting and straightening clothes when they’re interested in someone, as an attempt to fluff up their appearance in hopes of impressing the other person. The hair-toss is a classic sign that women give – not always consciously – because it draws the eye to her face and neck. A man will stand up a little straighter, puff out his chest (and suck in his gut).

Flirting and antagonistic teasing also tends to have more of a sexual edge than basic friendly ribbing. Flirty teases tend to be more challenging rather than just ego-poking; the unspoken message is “show me that you’re worth it” or “I dare you to try”. One of my go-to’s for absolutely intense flirting is to watch Vesper Lynde and James Bond square off on the train to Montenegro in Casino Royale; the tension between the two of them is palpable even as they jab one another.

But the key to picking up on signals is to watch for clusters of signs – signals that come either directly on top of the others or occurring in close proximity. One sign could be anything, so you want to watch for groups of three or four; this is known amongst body language experts as the “rule of four”. This helps you sort the signal from the noise and cut down on false positives. For a geeky example, watch how Han Solo and Leia Organa act and react around each other all throughout The Empire Strikes Back – you’ll see how their teasing is more challenging, how Han closes the distance from social to intimate and how Leia responds to him.

But if you’re unsure or you and the person you’re interested in are both anxious and feeling awkward about the whole thing? Toss subtlety out the window and just use your words. It’s a lot harder to be misunderstood when you tell someone you really like them and want to go on a date/make out/what-have-you.

Good luck.

DEAR DR. NERDLOVE: So, I’m 27 years old and I’ve never been in a relationship. I’ve always been nervous about pushing for anything more than friendship, and to be perfectly honest, I was actually okay with that… Until recently.

I met this woman a few months ago, having relocated to find work, and I feel completely lost. Suddenly, I’m focused on losing weight and exercising, I’m trying to develop better interests, and I spend a lot of time thinking about starting a family.

The problem? She has a boyfriend.

I feel like I’m genuinely in love, but I have no idea what I’m supposed to do or how I’m supposed to act. I see her and her family a lot, since my best friend is married to her best friend. I’ve always been fairly negative about myself, but when I’m around her, that all just disappears. She makes me want to be a better person, but I’m also terrified that it still won’t be enough. I think she likes me well enough as a friend, but I don’t know if I should tell her how I feel, or if I should just keep these feelings bottled up unless she just happens to break up with this guy?

For that matter, having been really overweight when I initially met her, am I just kind of doomed to always fit that initial first-impression?

– A Helpless Romantic

DEAR A HELPLESS ROMANTIC: Dude, you know what’s up here. You’re just hoping I’m going to give you a different answer. She’s got a boyfriend and she’s not giving you any signals. Telling her how you feel isn’t going to change anything except make things unnecessarily awkward and hanging around just “in case” she breaks up with him is a deeply sh

ty thing to do to somebody who thinks you’re her friend.

Look, I get why you’re doing this, even if you’re don’t: you’re chasing after somebody who’s unavailable because they’re safe. You don’t have to worry about having to measure up to a relationship or screwing up and getting dumped because you know on some level that this isn’t going to happen.

Living in hope without expectation of actual fulfillment is considerably less intimidating than having to actually be in a relationship. But being a Nice GuyTM isn’t the answer. If you want to find a relationship, then you need to let go of this unrealizable crush and take some risks, pursuing women who are not just available but actually interested in you. 

Let this one go, man. Holding on is only going to bring you pain and hold you back from achieving your true potential.

You’re on a good path right now, don’t screw that up by getting hung up on someone you know isn’t into you. You can be better than this.

Good luck.

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