Ask Dr. Nerdlove by Harris O'Malley

How Do I Apologize For Being A Creeper?

DEAR DR. NERDLOVE: Owing to my reflection on some recent events in my own life within the last week or so, it occurred to me that I may have accidentally creeped someone out a bit over time, and now may be facing some social consequences for it, to say nothing of feeling like an idiot.

For background information, the someone is a young lady who I have had an off and on fancy for, whom I happen to have shared a musical ensemble with for about a year and a half or so. She seems fairly shy and fairly hard to read, which has proven a bad combination with my social ignorance: she has shown interest off and on, e.g., randomly bothering me or asking what I am doing, even fairly recently, but I have not acted on her signals in a timely way. Consequently, our relationship has mostly consisted of occasional brief chats and awkward eye contact across the room, other than the occasional outings with the other ensemble members.

In the past month or two, though, I felt stronger feelings for her and, in what I now rather feel was a mistake, attempted to hang around with her more around campus as a puppy might. On top of that, in what I now know and believe to have been a terribly stupid way to try to signal my interest, I took to seeking more eye contact with her. I think this fawning may have backfired rather badly. I was more or less politely signaled to piss off with a round of “I don’t know where we’re goings” to what seemed to be a group meeting a few weeks ago. While there may have been other reasons, I now suspect that it was probably not unrelated to making her or others uncomfortable by my nonverbal social stupidity.

Fast forward to this week, more or less. Things seemed a bit better, and I was tired of my not making my intentions relatively clear, so I asked her by text to coffee with a firm option of Wednesday or Friday. After a notable delay, she said she was very busy and was not sure that she could manage anything. Given everything else, and my understanding that she had just quit her job, I figured she was just letting me down gently. However, things have been appreciably more awkward since, as may be expected. The main differences I have noticed with her is that she is now often blushing when I am around, but she also seems more averse to contact in general, though she does not present with obviously defensive body language or anything like that, and does seem to glance at me every now and then. I can’t help but wonder if she is actually trying to get my eye contact or is trying to check if I am looking at her. Feeling like I cannot win, I have tried to ignore her and give her space since that exchange, out of my fear of having creeped her out, but I find it hard to completely ignore her as she still confuses me. Now I worry that she was just trying to spare my feelings, and my reaction to that is sending the wrong message of my being angry with or otherwise insulted by her: this is on top of my concerns that I have become the “weird guy” in the group for the time being, which makes it difficult to assess how involved I should be with anyone for the moment.

So the rub of it is this: I would like for things to at least be cordial, if not amicable, between us and her social circle, as a lot of them are my fellow musicians. I believe I accidentally did some socially stupid things and may now be viewed with some suspicion or other form of disdain. I am tempted to apologize to her for having creeped her out over the last few weeks, but I am not even completely sure if I have offended her, and am worried that apologizing for what could be nothing could make me appear to be an insecure and paranoid person, which I admittedly am to a degree. Asking her if I have bothered her seems like an even worse idea. However, I also rather naturally would prefer to not be a pariah in the group on account of all of this, and would like to correct things as smoothly as possible.

Any and all advice would be appreciated.

Did I Err?

DEAR DID I ERR: One of the keys to social success is self awareness. Sometimes that means having a good handle on your emotions, understanding how you feel and why you feel that way. Other times, it means understanding the social dynamics of a situation and recognizing when, say, someone’s being polite, rather than flirting. And sometimes that self-awareness means recognizing that maybe you aren’t actually reading the room correctly.

I think you’re really not reading things correctly, DIE. In fact, I think pretty much everything you’re dealing with is spiraling out of your being a little socially unaware and you’re drawing all the wrong conclusions from… well, damn near everything.

If we look at the inciting incident, for example: the behavior you’re describing and the way you’re describing it doesn’t really sound like someone who’s showing romantic interest in you. It sounds much more like someone who’s being cordial with an acquaintance. As a general rule of thumb, one of the ways you gauge the difference between someone who’s being friendly and someone who’s flirting is to look for repeated patterns of behavior, especially ones that stand out from the norm. Occasionally saying hi is fairly typical. Making a point of talking to you, asking about your plans beyond trying to make casual conversation, finding reasons to be around you when she doesn’t have a reason to be…. those are signs that she may be interested in you. If you’re not sure, start by examining whether she acts like this with other people or if it seems to be something she does around you.

So I don’t think you were really getting the signals you thought you were getting.

But the way you were acting around her wasn’t exactly signalling your interest, either. I can tell you from personal experience that hanging around someone like a lost puppy doesn’t really endear you to them. Neither does trying to make prolonged eye-contact from across the room. Being in someone’s proximity and nothing else doesn’t create or engender feelings. Neither does giving someone the hairy eyeball, for that matter. Spending time with someone makes you more familiar and that familiarity can increase comfort as they get to know you… but that has to be paired with actually interacting with them in some way. There’re folks I see every Wednesday at my local comic store, but that doesn’t mean I’m particularly warm to them; they’re just folks I see regularly. On the other hand, there’re bartenders, waitresses, store clerks and other folks I see on the regular and talk to frequently; those are folks I’d say I’m on friendly terms with, since I actually chat with them and have gotten to know them over time.

Eye contact works much the same way. It’s not just meeting someone’s gaze, it’s using eye-contact as a form of non-verbal communication. Someone meeting someone’s eyes — say, a waitress dealing with a troublesome customer — and giving a knowing smile and an eye-roll, for example, is a way of communicating. In this case, it’s sympathizing with her and saying “well, get a load of THIS a--hole.” Similarly, doing the classic “meet her gaze, look away, look back and smile” is a way of signaling interest; you’re showing that you saw her looking at you and you like that. Just staring at someone could mean anything from “you look familiar and I don’t know why” to “you’ve got something stuck in your hair” to “I want to lick the inside of your ribcage.”

So no, I don’t think the issue here is that you’ve been getting mixed signals. I think the signals she’s been sending, such as they are, are pretty clear; she thinks of you as another guy in the group. The only mix-ups have been that you’ve let some wishful thinking color your interpretation of things.

I think your misreading things is causing you to severely overthink… well, everything. I suspect the most likely answer to all of this is that you made it clear that you had a crush on her via the hanging around etc., you asked her out on a date, and got turned down. Now she’s trying to do the polite thing of just acting like nothing happened and just continue on as normal. The problem is that because you’ve been trying so hard to read the tea leaves and determine whether you’ve creeped her out and if you’re about to get kicked out of your group that you’re accidentally sending all kinds of weird signals and she’s not sure what to make of it.

The best thing you can do, honestly, is to assume the best: you got a crush on her, s--t got a little awkward, now you got your answer: she’s not interested in you the way you’re interested in her and now things are basically normal. You just need to calm down about everything and go back to behaving under the assumption that nothing’s wrong and you can just relax. Getting hyper-vigilant about “oh god does she hate me now” is just going to make you more anxious and throw a bunch of false-positives your way that’ll only make you even more anxious. So take a deep breath, relax, and assume that the status quo is where things were before you did your lost puppy routine. Everyone’ll be happy to get back to the status quo and you can start relaxing.

And in the meantime: maybe spend some time working on your social skills. I have some exercises on that’re designed to help you learn to be more socially fluent and better able to read the room.

Good luck.

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