DEAR DR. NERDLOVE: I’m not looking for advice for dating or sex but in relating to women as a loner, quiet, unattractive man. Specifically, at work. I’ve been reading several threads on Reddit among its female users that my kind of man is really looked down upon, even feared or looked at in disgust:
the socially-awkward causing them to feel “jumpy” around him
the virgin guy creeping them out
the quiet guy ticking them off
several who felt the loners at the office were threatening to them due to the Oregon shooting
Which agree with my experience with women in the real world, and what they say in Twitter and Facebook and so on.
I really didn’t mind until yesterday, when my HR manager told me next week we were going to have “a talk” regarding my relationship with the female staff.
Now, I don’t treat women… at all. I try to avoid them. Since I started working 4 years ago female co-workers (except perhaps the mandatory-polite HR employee or recruiters) have been at best curt towards me. Which never bothered me, because that’s the relationship I have with women in general, both at college and outside. So I just ignore them and only just say “good morning” if I bump into them at the office kitchen or something and nothing else. Avoid even looking at them when they walk by me (and I make an EFFORT there, since I have terrible concentration and having them walk around my workstation all the time is really distracting). The few times I have to talk to a female coworker I do it in a polite, professional way, without betraying any sort of familiarity that might make them uncomfortable and jumpy or feel creeped out.
So when our new HR manager told me about this meeting I wondered if all those experiences these guys at Reddit talked about were real all along and it finally happened to me. I’m accustomed to being “the loner” and having women look down on me in social spheres or even try to avoid siting close to me in public transportation, but I never thought they would go out of their way to try to get me kicked out from work.
So what am I to do? Socializing with them is out of the question: I’m already 25, a kissless virgin with no friends or experience and, honestly, if it comes to being given the choice of being laid off or having to play the role of the pity-project or the laughingstock due to my inexperience and low social status, I’ll choose being laid off. I was hoping there was a way to just be ignored, or wondered if there was something that may have ticked them off about me. What could I have done?
Just The Guy In The Corner
DEAR JUST THE GUY IN THE CORNER: Ok, JTGITC, I get that you’re anxious and that you feel incomplete and depressed because of your relative lack of experience. It totally sucks when it feels like the entire world is sitting there silently judging you because you’re a little further towards one end of the bell curve or the other.
But I’m gonna be honest with you here, dude… you’re bringing a lot of this on yourself. It’s time to call in the bellhop because man we’ve got a lot of emotional baggage to unpack in this letter.
Let’s start with the obvious thing first: the fact that you’re a virgin really has nothing to do with anything. Being a virgin at 25 is relatively uncommon but hardly rare or unusual; it happens far more often than you’d think, for men and women. Whether you’re a virgin or not has nothing to do with your worth as a person, with your potential or even an indication of anything other than the fact that you just haven’t had sex yet. Period, end of.
The people who make the most fuss about a virgin being a shameful thing aren’t women, they’re other men; the idea of sex as demarcator of personal worthiness is part of the toxic masculinity package. Most of the women you’re going to encounter in your day to day life not only aren’t going to know whether or not your a virgin but frankly, most of them aren’t going to give a damn. 9 times out of 10, most of the people in your life really aren’t all that invested in whether you’re a virgin or not, and the ones who give you crap for it are proving themselves to be jerks.
Now, what are the people in your life going to care about more? Your attitude. The fact of the matter is, folks prefer being around positive people and avoid being around negative people because negative people tend to infect others with their negativity. It’s generally unpleasant to be around someone who responds to a “Hey, how’s your morning?” with a grumble and a f
k-off scowl. Same with the guy on the bus who looks like he’s imagining the best way to rip out the lungs of the next bastard who talks to him – most people aren’t going to want to deal with him, so they give ’em a wide berth. Someone who’s generally smiling and upbeat is much more pleasant to be around.
Frankly, there’s a lot in your letter that suggests to me that you’re the former, rather than the latter. It’s totally understandable that you might withdraw into yourself, considering how you feel about yourself; it’s a way of protecting yourself from being hurt by others. After all, folks can’t make fun of you or hurt you if you if you don’t let them in. But now you’re faced with the classic Hedgehog’s Dilemma: nobody can get close because you’ve invested so much pushing them away, even if you aren’t consciously aware of it.
And of course, part of the problem with this negative outlook on life is that it very quickly becomes self-reinforcing. You treat yourself as though you’re worthless and you look for evidence that it’s true… and you’ll find plenty of it because that’s how brains work. It’s an intellectual fallacy known as “confirmation bias” – you’re basically doubling up on things that confirm what you already believe while discounting what you don’t, assuming you see it at all. Tracking down Reddit threads follows the same pattern; you’re going to only pay attention to the ones that fall in line with what you already believe.
Now let’s talk about your specific example:
The fact that you made people feel uncomfortable and ended up getting called into HR. Let’s start with the way you phrased things: that your co-workers “would go out of their way to try to get me kicked out from work.” I’m going to be honest here: I really doubt this. Yeah, there’re times when high-school never ends and even grown-ass adults can get all Mean Girls on others but frankly, those times are really rare. Most people don’t have the time, energy or interest for Machiavellian plotting against their co-workers; most of the time they just want to get through their day with a minimum of fuss.
On top of that, there’s not really anything your letter that inspires me to believe that your experiences happened exactly as you’re reporting them. You’ve got a pretty strong confirmation bias going here, and that’s coloring how you see the world and it’s blinding your self-awareness.
Before I get to your behavior specifically, let’s take a moment to examine the difference between intent and how it’s perceived. Fortunately, pop-culture has recently provided an excellent example in Rami Malek’s performance as Elliot Anderson in Mr. Robot. Anderson is, frankly, kind of creepy. He doesn’t mean to be; he’s socially awkward and clearly has anxiety issues. His behavior is off, in a way that makes people uncomfortable. It’s something of a shame because he’s got a good heart and he’s incredibly lonely. At the same time however, when people try to include him or connect with him, he pushes them away. He barely hides his contempt for most of the people around him and he’s still cold and stand-offish to others who’re actively trying to reach him. To be sure: it’s a defense mechanism. Deep down, he’s terrified of being hurt again by people close to him and he tends to keep people at a distance in order to avoid giving them the chance to hurt him. However, nobody knows that; they just see someone who makes them uncomfortable and apparently actively dislikes the people around him. As a result, people quite understandably see his behavior in a negative light. Meanwhile he tends to assume the worst in others, in no small part because that’s all he looks for. He looks for proof that his dour outlook on life is correct and – naturally – finds it, which just encourages him to be even more pissy to the people around him.
I suspect that, as with Elliot Anderson, the way you’re behaving isn’t being perceived the way you think it is. You may intend to come off one way – trying to avoid any contact beyond the bare minimum in order to ward off creeping people out – but I rather suspect you’re coming across much like the guy in the third link: surly, sullen, stand-offish and pissy. This is doubly true if you’re only behaving like this around women. People are going to notice when you’re only giving the go-away behavior (even if you’re not intending for it to come off that way) to women instead of men and that’s going to give them the impression that you really dislike women. So, yeah, that’s going to make people uncomfortable, and not unreasonably so.
So I know this is all coming across as pretty harsh. You’re probably feeling pretty defensive right now. Believe me, my intention isn’t to make you feel like a loser or a creep, because I really don’t think you are. I think you’re scared and hurt and lonely and you really don’t want to be, and I want to help you. But before I can help, you have to see the real issue and why your behavior and your attitude is contributing to the problem. And that’s not gonna be pretty. But I promise you: get past the ugly parts and life is gonna get better. Because now we’re going to talk about some practical steps to help fix things.
My very first suggestion to you is that you quit reading Reddit, or at least threads and subreddits that focus on issues like social anxiety and being an older virgin. Despite it’s claims of being the front page of the Internet, Reddit is not a representative slice of the population. Hell, it’s not even statistically significant. Trying to gauge women’s opinions via Reddit threads is a giant mistake; it’s like trying to diagnose your cough via WebMD. All that’s gonna happen is that you’re going to convince yourself that you’ve got cancer and Venusian Death Lung and drive yourself into a panic.
Quite frankly, I think this is a large part of your problem: you’re continually reinforcing this internal narrative you have about being a pathetic virgin. When you surround yourself with people who only say “yup, it’s pathetic, people hate us and there’s nothing we can do about it”, you’re setting yourself up to believe that there’s nothing you can do. And that’s not true at all.
My next is to go into that HR meeting and listen. Don’t go in assuming that people are trying to get rid of you; all that’s going to do is put you on the defensive and make things more difficult. Instead, go in with an attitude that you want to fix things. This will totally change the tone and make things far less confrontational. Ask questions: what about your behavior made people uncomfortable? What could you have done differently? When given a chance, apologize for making people uncomfortable – not a “I’m sorry you were uncomfortable” passive-language non-apology but a legitimate “OK, I did this, I’m sorry” apology. After you’ve apologized, explain that you’re socially anxious and you tend to avoid people because you get nervous around them and worry about making them uncomfortable. To be sure: being socially awkward isn’t an excuse but giving the context for your behavior – as you’re trying to improve and make amends – can provide much needed context and help people realize what you’re doing.
Following that: talk to HR and see if they can recommend a counselor. I’ve written a lot about overcoming social awkwardness but you have some deep-seated issues that are best sorted out by talking with a professional instead of your fellow travelers on Reddit. This doesn’t mean that you’re broken, defective or otherwise bad; it just means that you’re carrying around a lot of pain and you would probably benefit from talking to someone who specializes in helping you deal with that pain. If your company’s HR department can’t recommend someone, then there’re a number of other places you can turn to find affordable mental and emotional health care.
Believe me, I understand how you feel. You feel like you’re trapped, that you’re stuck living a lousy life and being a defective person. But here’s the thing: you don’t have to be. As dismissive as this may sound, a lot of your problems really are in your head… but that’s actually a good thing. This means that you can identify the problems and – with time and effort – overcome them. You have the power to make your life better. Right now things suck, but you can make things better. Get through this immediate problem – it doesn’t have to be as dire as you think it is right now – and then get some help.
Take a deep breath and let down your defenses.
You can feel better. You can be better. You can overcome this. You’re going to be ok.
Please send your questions to Dr. NerdLove at his website (www.doctornerdlove.com/contact); or to his email, firstname.lastname@example.org)