Ask Dr. Nerdlove

DEAR DR. NERDLOVE: I’m a nerd of the female persuasion, with a loving and nerdly partner whom I’m about to marry. Things are great with him; our relationship is the best thing that ever happened to me. However, our romance grew from an existing friendship, and he is the first and only person I’ve ever “dated”. I’ve gone my entire life without ever having navigated the murky and treacherous waters of the dating scene, and as a result, I suspect I might be a little stunted when it comes to certain skillsets.

Basically my question is this: How can I tell when someone is flirting with me?

It doesn’t happen very often (thank god), as I do my best to radiate “not-interested” vibes. But every now and then a friend or acquaintance will lean in a little too close, start finding reasons for the two of us to see each other without mutual friends or my fiancé, or just behave in a way that feels too intimate. I should probably mention at this point that I’m somewhere on the shallow end of the autism spectrum, and have difficulty picking up signals that other women find obvious. So when a guy (or girl) is displaying apparently amorous intent but isn’t being explicit, I find myself grappling with… Schrödinger’s come-on. This is what goes on in my head:

“Is he hitting on me? That last conversation was pretty weird. He knows I’m getting married, so that means he can’t be hitting on me… right? Maybe he’s just really friendly. Maybe he just has bad boundaries. I used to have bad boundaries, so I should cut him some slack. Oh god, he’s coming over. Should I make eye contact? Does that smile have a double meaning? What if he wants to hang out after work today? What if I tell him I’m not interested and he is offended because he was just trying to be nice? AAAAHHHH!”

Then my head explodes, and I ooze towards the nearest exit in a slimy trail of social awkwardness.

Thing is, if people are up-front about their interest, I can just say something like “I’m flattered, but I’m getting married soon, and as such I’m not interested”. It’s still awkward, but at least the course is clear. But if people are being subtle, I’m never sure whether I’m interpreting their behavior correctly. Some people really ARE just touchy-feely while getting to know new friends. Those same people occasionally react with fury and indignation when being told to back off. (“Ugh, I was never interested in YOU. Why are you such a bitch?” etc)

So, can you help me, Doc?

– Taken

DEAR TAKEN: Here’s a dirty secret: those guys who react with fury and indignation? A lot of ’em were flirting with you. You caught ’em, you shot ’em down and that hurt ’em. Assuming you weren’t being cruel when you turned them down (“How DARE you? I’m ENGAGED, YOU LITTLE TROLL, THANK YOU VERY MUCH!!!”), that little “UNGH, AS IF!” is their way of trying to take back the power. They’re trying to lash back at you – first by insulting you then by trying to make it about you rather than about them. “I’m not the wrong one here, you are…”. Secure guys say “well that sucks” and move on. Insecure guys freak the hell out and try to gaslight you about it instead.

But let’s get to the crux of your problem: how to tell when guys are hitting on you, especially if you’re not so good on picking up their signals. It’s worth noting: sometimes it’s not about you not being able to pick them up so much as other people trying hard not to give them off. Lots of nerdboys have a hard time openly expressing their interest in women; they’re afraid that if they’re overt, they’ll get shot down and would rather risk getting friend-zoned than have to actually close the book on the hope of getting together with someone. So as a result, they’ll pull the “I like you, no, wait, I’m just kidding… unless you like me back” card. They’ll tentatively put out a feeler or two, yank it back almost as soon as they say it – trying to pretend that it’s a joke – and then hope that you’ll take it seriously after all.

Now, some general tips: keep an eye on their eyes. If they’re pulling the “triangle gaze” on you – looking from eye to eye to lips and back – they’re thinking more about how much they want to kiss you… especially if they’re leaning in close. Watch the hands as well: is he touching you a lot more than he might touch other people? How his he touching you? With the back of his hand to your shoulder, say, or putting his palm on your back or your forearm? Touching your hand or forearm carries more implied intimacy than, say, a friendly slug in the arm. If he’s a hugger – some guys are – then see if he’s trying to do the full-body hug instead of the a-frame.

For that matter, pay attention to his body — specifically, where he’s standing and why. Is he always having reasons to be around you or standing closer than circumstances would actually dictate? Is he always looking to get you alone? If he’s coming up with contrived reasons for the two of you to get together – just the two of you – then it’s more likely than not that he’s hoping that getting you alone will increase his chances of getting somewhere WITH you. See how he reacts if you suggest bringing someone else along; if he resists, then it’s not unreasonable to wonder if he’s hoping to slip a date through the back door without your noticing it.

(Wait, are we still doing “phrasing”?)

Here’s what you don’t have to do: don’t worry about if you’re accidentally leading him on or giving false signals. When you start over-thinking whether he is or isn’t flirting with you and start trying to second-guess your own behavior, then all that’s going to happen is that you’re going to make yourself even more anxious and awkward than you already are. I’ve found that dropping references to your fiancé is a subtle (for suitably low values of subtle) way of saying “I think you’re hitting on me, but I’m not sure, but please stop if you are”… it indicates that you’re not interested, reaffirms the existence of your soon-to-be hubby and gives enough plausible deniability to the both of you that you can get through the rest of the interaction pretending the Schrödinger’s Flirt didn’t actually happen.

Above all else, don’t forget to use your words. You don’t have to ask “Hey, are you hitting on me?” Just tell them that you’re not comfortable with them being so touchy-feely or standing so close to you or making those jokes and you’d really appreciate it if they’d stop. It’s important to remember that you’re not required to go along to get along if someone’s making you uncomfortable. Even if it’s a little awkward afterwards, being willing to say “Hey, listen, dial it back a notch” is important; even if it’s all a misunderstanding, you’re not obligated to put his comfort above your own.

Good luck.

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