DEAR DR. NERDLOVE: I’m the type of guy that never really prioritized relationships in high school or college. I was also focused on career, school, and my health. As a result, I never really had any relationship experience, or any experience with women, and, to be honest, I’m just a typical socially awkward nerd (and proud).
However, as I’ve started taking steps towards interacting with women, I realized that while I’m a socially awkward nerd, I’m a nerd who won the genetic lottery. I’ve netted from independent sources that I’m a really good-looking guy. I guess I just got lucky but while I’m really just trying to build friendships with women they tend to jump the boat from friendship to dreaming about a relationship or asking me out when we’ve only really shared a couple classes together and talked a few times over lunch. I usually reject them since I’m really not looking for that right now, but how do I do it without being a huge dick?
With one girl I flatly said “no” to a dinner date proposition, and I really wished I could’ve delivered that nicer because I could tell she was really hurt. I didn’t mean to make her feel that way I just wanted to be honest and not skirt around it like when girls do to guys. I know that’s because they’re socialized to be nice, but most men find it confusing so I just wanted to be blunt. With another girl I could tell she was beginning to catch feelings and I wanted to avoid another situation similar to the one above, and kind’ve just got confused with how to act and cut her off. The friendship fizzled out and it’s a shame I thought she was a cool person. How do I navigate people’s feelings for me without being a douche?
DEAR STRICTLY PLATONIC: This is an interesting letter SP, because it offers an opportunity to reflect on women’s experiences with letting men know they’re not interested in something besides a platonic relationship. A lot of what you’re dealing with is, quite literally, what women deal with when it comes to navigating men’s feelings.
(Just in a way that’s not as risky for men as it is for women.)
There’re a few things to take into consideration when you’re letting someone know that you just want to be friends without being a dick about it. But the first thing to consider is: are you sure they’re looking for something more than friendship? You said yourself that you’re a socially awkward nerd without much experience with women or relationships. It’s not unthinkable that you — like many a socially inexperienced nerd before you — may be rounding friendliness up to attraction when their intentions were just as platonic as yours are. If you aren’t used to friendships with women, it’s entirely possible to mistake what they would see as perfectly ordinary friend activities as a request for a date.
I’m not asking this to be a dick or bag on nerd guys for not understanding women, but because it actually ties into the whole “friend zone someone without being a dick about it” dynamic. Women frequently have to gauge whether men in their lives are trying to be friends, or if their guy “friends” are trying to put them in “The Girlfriend Zone”‘. A lot of dudes like to surf the ambiguity wave of “maybe friendship, maybe a date” and create a quantum event where something is both a date and not a date at the same time and it’s not clear until the wave collapses. This way, if things don’t go the way they hoped, they have plausible deniability and can claim “wait, what do you mean, this was never a date!” when called on it.
Of course, as the saying goes: it was only a joke unless she was gonna do it.
While women are less likely to intentionally pull the same sort of “maybe date, maybe not” game, knowing whether they were actually interested in a proper date or not changes the equation of how to tell them you’re not interested. After all, if someone invites you out to dinner and you give them a flat “no, I don’t like you that way,” you may be shutting down an offer of friendship, not a date.
(The exception to this tends to be when women are dating other women; many gay and pansexual women have joked-but-not-really that half the early courtship is trying to figure out if something is a date or not)
But let’s assume that you’re socially well-calibrated and you are, in fact, reading the signs correctly. A classmate or casual friend is, in fact, making overtures of moving from friendship to something more. How do you turn them down without being cruel about it?
Well, ask yourself this: how would you prefer to find out that someone you like is only interested in friendship? Think carefully about this; a lot of guys will say that they prefer women be blunt with them… right up until they are. Often, the reason why guys will say that they prefer women be blunt and direct is so that there’s no ambiguity. But the truth is that most of the time it’s not ambiguous; it’s just that they got what’s known as a “soft” no. Soft no’s are gentle ways of turning somebody down without being harsh or rude. They often be phrased in a way that creates a socially plausible context that implies something other than “I don’t like you that way” but the meaning is the same: no, thank you.
The problem is that a lot of guys who don’t like the answer will choose to ignore it; they will focus on whatever conditional was in the “no” instead of the “no” itself. So while a woman may say “thank you, but I’m not interested in dating right now”, guys will often latch onto the “right now” rather than the “not interested”, because that lets them believe they still have a chance. The former implies that there is a time in the future where she will be interested in dating (and dating him, specifically), while the latter is the core of what she’s saying. And despite what guys will say, studies have shown that men do understand soft no’s when they hear them.
But when they get that blunt, direct “no” that they supposedly prefer, it hurts. It often hurts a lot, frequently more than the same no would if it had been couched in softer language. And, frankly, they usually get the blunt, direct “no” after ignoring the soft “no” and allowed themselves to invest more in that person… which makes it hurt that much more.
Which brings us back to the question: how would you prefer to be let down by someone you like? Would you prefer being turned down in a way that softens the blow and allows you to save some face and feel less embarrassed or humiliated by being rejected? Or would you prefer someone drop it on you like a cartoon anvil?
By that same token: are you genuinely interested in being friends with them afterwards? The dreaded “let’s just be friends” is often deployed in rejections in part because… well, it’s expected. It’s what you’re “supposed” to say, even though many times people don’t mean it. But if this is a person that you’d honestly rather not interact with again, an offer of friendship may be taken sincerely and cause hurt down the line when they realize that it was being said out of reflex, rather than genuine intent. In those cases, while it’s still better to soften the metaphorical blow, you don’t want to offer anything that you aren’t prepared to make good on.
Over all, I’m a fan of turning people down in a way that salves the ego, without giving false hope. Politeness costs nothing and makes it much easier to maintain a friendship afterwards. A good template for you would be “Wow, thank you! I’m really flattered, but that’s not what I’m looking for.” This way, you’re accomplishing several things: you’re telling them that you appreciate that they see you as a potential partner (it’s flattering that they like you this way!), that their interest isn’t an imposition or rude, and that you aren’t interested in them in return.
If it’s someone you’re friends with or want to be friends with, then you can often add “I really enjoy hanging out/working with/spending time with you and I love the vibe we have, but…” and make it clear that the door is still open for a platonic relationship… but sex or romance just aren’t in the cards.
However, how you behave afterwards is going to be more important than the words you use. After all, you just turned someone down; they’re likely going to feel stung or hurt, possibly even embarrassed. They may well feel awkward around you and wonder what this is going to do to your friendship going forward.
You don’t need to address things; most of the time, there’s nothing to say, and people will often want to just pretend that it never happened in the first place. Letting them shove it down the memory hole is, in many ways, a gift. You’re letting them patch the hole in their ego, rather than making it A Thing.
What you do want to be careful of, however, is the way you treat them or behave towards them. Cutting them off — like you did with another friend of yours — tells them that you don’t like them or that you were bothered by their interest. On the other hand, by continuing to treat them as a friend and acting like everything is perfectly normal, you are sending a clear signal: there is nothing to be embarrassed about and we’re fine. Yeah, things may be a little awkward at first, but you can power through it together and this little blip in your friendship will become something you both laugh about down the line.
So if you want to become friends or continue being friends… treat them like a friend. Let them know through your actions that everything’s cool, nobody needs to feel embarrassed and everything will be fine after a little time for the awkwardness to pass.
Please send your questions to Dr. NerdLove at his website (www.doctornerdlove.com/contact); or to his email, firstname.lastname@example.org