DEAR DR. NERDLOVE: I have Aspergers and never really learned any way of dealing with it. Admittedly, when I was a kid I did alright, I could get by with being the class goofball that made friends who could laugh at my weirdness.
Now that I’m a 38/M, I can’t just wear my pants on my head at recess and sing Over the Rainbow.
I’ve had a crush on this girl for a couple months now, and I have no idea what to say to keep the conversation going. We have gone to the same school since Kindergarten, though we never spoke much. She was actually my 7th grade crush.
Years passed. My mom died over 2 years ago and she contacted me about it. Everyone in the neighborhood knew my mom, she was very outgoing with everyone, kids and their parents. She and I became Facebook friends. And she’s managed to win my heart all over again and she doesn’t even know it. The problem is I don’t know how to talk to her. Our texts are very short. Sometimes she responds but then I just leave the conversation hanging. Example:
Me: What are you guys up to this weekend?
Her: Just relaxing! You?
Or when she posted pictures of the light show she took the kids to…
Me: Love the pics! Worth braving the cold for?
Her: Thanks! Yes, we enjoyed it!
Me: Are you still there?
Her: No, we’re home.
I have no idea what I’m doing. Am I flirting? Does she know I like her? I suck at reading people, and I don’t have any conversation skills. Oh, and she isn’t like me; She’s a normal woman without any kind of autism that I can tell. I really hope that isn’t the problem, but it could be. Being more aggressive and blunt is tough for me, too, though. I’m not one of those guys that can just walk up to a girl and be like “Hey, you and me, wanna go out?” I wish I could. Am I reaching outside of my league?
Another factor is, I don’t want to scare her off, or be too creepy.
She got out of a mentally abusive relationship with her ex husband. Similar to my own relationship with my father. I admit it still causes distress in me, dad messed me up pretty bad, But she appears to be doing better than I am. Still, I don’t want to create any red flags with her, and I want to show her I’m a good person. Maybe I’m being too cautious?
I think most of the people in my neighborhood thought I was autistic because I rarely spoke and never made eye contact. It was mostly true, I was scared to speak up for myself back then, so mom had to be my voice. I was very sheltered, even though I could take care of myself behind closed doors, mom always seemed to do everything for me in public. I worry about how that image sticks in people’s minds. But I don’t need a caretaker, I just want a partner. Someone to witness life with.
As an adult, and without mom or dad around anymore, I have changed a great deal. But I don’t feel like I erased that image everyone has of me. That “the autistic kid” is still my reputation. I worry that will be the main reason she’d reject me. I mean, that’s how I’ve been presented my whole life till now. I just wish that I had been better in the past. More outgoing. Different.
I wouldn’t want her to feel forced to talk to me, or date me. I always imagine that eventually she’ll be the one to ask me out after I’ve shown her how different I am. Yes, I’m a coward. I just don’t want to scare her away.
I have no idea what I’m doing. Any advice would be helpful!
Need My Cyrano
DEAR NEED MY CYRANO: First of all NMC, it’s good that you’ve been working on your life and making things better. That’s awesome, and you should be proud of all that you’ve accomplished. I’m just sorry that these improvements had to come around because of the loss of your mother.
So let’s talk about your situation. Like a lot of folks who write in, you have a few different things happening here, NMC. And, again, like a lot of the folks who write in, the issues you’re having aren’t the issues you THINK you’re having. However, dealing with the underlying issues will also help with the problem you’re asking about.
But let’s tease this apart a little, shall we?
On the surface, we have the issue with being unable to really get a conversation started with her. Your issue here is two-fold. The first is that, to be blunt, your conversations are boring. The first example you shared is an incredibly generic message, especially as a way of trying to start a conversation with someone that you’re interested in. “What are you up to?” doesn’t really get the conversational ball rolling; unless she already has plans or something interesting going on, the conversation is going to grind to a halt fairly quickly because there’s nowhere to go after “just relaxing”. That’s a conversational dead-end. Plus, it tends to put the effort on getting the conversation started on her — you’re functionally asking her to choose the topic of conversation. Unless you and she already talk at length on the regular and have the sort of friendship where you shoot the s--t about nothing, it’s not going to go anywhere.
If you’re going to try to start a conversation, you do better to have a reason to either talk to her or to get her engaged with you — something that will get the conversation rolling and encourage a response.
In my book “I Got Her Number… Now What?”, one of the things I advocate is to engage someone on an emotional level — ideally something that provokes a laugh, a “wow!” or an “awww”. Something that can get the person you’re texting or messaging to laugh is a good one; laughter is one of the the things that triggers our brain to produce dopamine and oxytocin, after all. One of the ways I’ve gotten conversations started is to find a funny GIF or meme and send it with some form of commentary. An example might be a video of a snow leopard grabbing a cabbage and hauling it into a bucket with some quip — “ever loved anything as much as this cat loves cabbage?” or “getting the coleslaw ready for the BBQ like…”. It doesn’t need to be the most trenchant observation or greatest bon-mot; the laugh from the meme or video will do most of the work, and it gives you an opening to start the conversation. Hell, it can even be “I need someone else to see just how goddamn adorable this cat is.”
Other times it can be sharing a relevant (or amusing) tweet, facebook post or Reddit article. I’ve had conversations that would go on for hours that were started by sharing Am I The Asshole posts or “Look at this whacked out music video…”
Also: “same” is a lousy reply. Not only does it cut the conversation short — where do you go from there? — it’s boring. Why are you asking about her plans, when you don’t have plans either? You’re either going to come across as being bored and hoping that she’ll have plans you could latch onto, or just living a boring life. Even if you aren’t doing something, you could at least make it entertaining, something you’re looking forward to, rather than just “yeah, I got nothin’.”
If, for example, you also have no plans, it’d be better to say “I’m doing absolutely NOTHING this weekend and it is going to be GLORIOUS.” This way, it’s not “I don’t have plans”, it’s that you’re choosing to stay at home because you’d like to just relax and recharge. It’s something you’re looking forward to, rather than something you’re stuck with.
But again: it’s still better not to start the conversation with “so what are you up to?”
Just as importantly though is that in your example, you’re asking the wrong questions. The questions you’re asking can all be answered in three words or less — and most often in one. The worst questions to ask are binary questions, where they can be answered with a “yes” or “no”. Those are conversational dead-ends because there’s nowhere to go from there. “How was it?” “Fine” “Was it cold?” “Yeah”. None of that facilitates conversation. You want to ask open-ended questions, ones that invite more participation and conversation. Instead of saying “how was it” with the lights, you’d be better asking about which were her favorites, or did she ever used to go to these as a kid? You could even prompt things with sending a video of one of those super-elaborate Christmas light setups that people coordinate to music with a comment like “one of these days I want to do this to my house”.
By focusing on engaging with her emotionally and asking more interesting open-ended questions, you’re in a better position to get the conversation going and find opportunities to connect, flirt and possibly even ask her out on a date.
But those are surface issues. The bigger issues here are a) whether there’s a connection or interest there at all and b) your own self-perception.
The former is the tough part. If I’m being honest, it sounds like this is a fairly shallow connection. I’m not saying that she doesn’t think you’re a great guy, but the conversations you’ve been showing have been the polite small-talk variety, not the “I want to hear more” or “Let’s keep the conversation going, maybe over coffee?” kind.
Which… well, that’s going to be life. Sometimes you’ll have folks who you crush on, who like you as a person but who just aren’t into you that way. And that’s fine. It sucks… but it’s normal and it happens to everyone. Part of life, dating and finding a partner is learning to navigate those particular waters and not let it wreck your s--t.
The tricky part is not getting hung up on one person, especially one person who’s been a long-term crush.
I suspect part of why you’re hung up on her is as much about what she represents as it is about her as a person. I mean, don’t get me wrong: I’m sure she’s a lovely and wonderful person. But it sounds like it’s as much a case of “the one that got away” and her having reached out first (even under tragic circumstances) as it is about the things that make her special. A lot of times when folks have the “I have a crush on her and she doesn’t know”, it tends to be a case of her representing something specific to them — an aspirational goal, a way of fulfilling thwarted dreams, even just “the first one to be nice to me”. That makes people less likely to act on those crushes because a relationship in potentia can’t be ruined. It can be as perfect as you want it to be because it ultimately is all in your head. Trying to act on it — asking her out on a date, making a move, even just indicating that you’re attracted to them — makes it real. And if it’s real, then it can fail. It can fall apart. Or, worse, you can get rejected. When you’re always on the edge of “But how should I tell her” and the answer isn’t just saying “hey, I’m doing $COOL_THING on Friday and I’d love to take you,” then it’s a pretty good sign that the thing holding you back tends to be a fear of losing the fantasy.
In fact, that’s often a big part of why folks hold back and wish that their crush would notice and then do the work for them; that’s part of the fantasy. They don’t have to do anything, just demonstrate how awesome they are and their crush would swoon and take the responsibility for everything.
Unfortunately… that doesn’t happen, and it can’t happen unless you are an active participant in your own life. And that means not waiting or relying on them to notice you or hoping that if you think at them hard enough, your mutant powers will suddenly kick in and they’ll be able to hear your thoughts and realize you’re just too shy or whatever.
And honestly, that’s where your third issue comes in. You worry that your reputation or label as a child, accurate or not, is holding you back and you want to know how to erase that image. Now, first and foremost: you really don’t know or even have any reason to believe that this is the case. Hell, it doesn’t sound like it was an issue then or is one now, and it certainly isn’t something you need to “live down” or try to prove you’ve grown past.
But on a more general level, people often wonder how to move past other folks’ perceptions of who they were back in the day. Sometimes it’s trying to overcome having been a s--tty person back in high-school. Other times it’s trying to tell people that you’re cool now, not the dork you were way back when. The answer there is, ultimately, very simple: you show people who you actually are. But, as with connecting with people, with flirting or just asking someone out on a date… you have to make an active choice to do this. If you’re more outgoing now or more adventurous or self-sufficient, more self-aware, more socially adept or what-have-you, then demonstrate it. Not in the show-off sense, but simply having an active life. Going out, hanging out with friends (when it’s safe to go out and hang out with friends again, granted), inviting folks to do things or hosting events yourself… these are all ways of showing that you aren’t the person people thought you were back in the day.
But here’s the thing: all this? It ties nicely into things like, say, being more effective at texting and communicating with folks you’re interested in. Starting the conversation with “Wow, you are not going to believe the crazy thing that happened to me this weekend” and being able to relay this whacky, fun or cool story to your crush tags the bases we were just talking about. It provokes a response by creating an open loop (well, what crazy thing happened?). It invites participation and questions from her, and opens up the chance to ask her open-ended questions. Texts like this give you a chance to demonstrate what your life is like now (hey, look at the stuff you’re doing!) in a way that doesn’t come off as fake, forced or braggy. And, as a bonus, it gives you an opening to invite her to do something down the line — “Yeah, I’m going back next weekend. You know, I think you’d really dig it; would you like to come along?”
But again: all of that is going to rely on your taking an active role and directing your life yourself, not just hoping that your crush is going to notice you and spare you the effort of having to take any risks. There is no reward without risk, no success without the chance of failure. If you want to make things happen with your crush — or anyone else, for that matter — you have to be willing to stop defining yourself as “the guy who couldn’t make the move” or hoping they’ll notice. You have to put yourself out there, own your interest and take your shot. If you want things to happen, you have to roll the dice and move your mice. Otherwise… you’re just not even in the game.
Please send your questions to Dr. NerdLove at his website (www.doctornerdlove.com/contact); or to his email, firstname.lastname@example.org