DEAR DR. NERDLOVE: I see a lot of advice about what confidence looks like in men (body language, especially), but I don’t know what confidence looks like for me as a woman. Most flirting behavior for women seems to be based on submission cues, but everyone says to be “confident” while flirting.
While I know submissive confidence is possible from BDSM experience, I think things might be different outside of that specific context. I’m very used to and comfortable with employing masculine confidence in my professional life as an engineer, but I have no idea how feminine confidence would work.
How is masculine vs feminine confidence the same or different, especially for flirting and dating?
— Show, Don’t Tell
DEAR SHOW, DON’T TELL: Confidence is one of those concepts that tends to get confusing really quickly in situations like these, because of how broad of a term it can be and how much people conflate it with other concepts. A lot of people, for example, think that confidence is the knowledge that you can’t fail or that you have all these successes behind you that “prove” you can do something. Others see confidence as believing that you’re the hottest s--t jumping out of the coffee pot.
And honestly, while I think you could make the argument that most of these are forms of confidence, in practical terms, they’re also misleading. For example, incredibly accomplished people are often the least confident. People who have an almost absurd level of accomplishments, education and experience are frequently subject to imposter syndrome and feel like their success is a fluke or a fraud. The issue isn’t how much they know or that they’ve accomplished, it’s their awareness of how much they don’t know. This is also why I don’t by into the idea that you can only develop confidence through success; it’s all too easy to succeed without knowing why or believing that you deserved it.
Similarly, you can believe in yourself to the point of delusion, but that isn’t confidence nor is it terribly attractive. That’s not confidence, that’s arrogance.
Confidence, especially when it comes to dating, isn’t about what you have or haven’t done, it’s in what you understand about yourself. It’s recognizing that failing at something doesn’t make you a failure, that you can not succeed and survive and move forward. It’s about realizing that fear is often just that: fear. It’s something you can overcome. And it’s about having enough belief in yourself that you don’t crumble under the weight of someone else’s opinion.
Part of the point of confident body-language, for example, is about what it says about you. Folding in on yourself, standing hunched over and with your arms wrapped protectively around yourself tells people that you don’t believe you have the right to the space you occupy. It signals to people that you don’t believe in yourself or your own value and so you try to avoid notice and not come in contact or conflict with others. Standing up straight, however, with your shoulders back and your arms loose and relaxed, on the other hand, signals the opposite. You’re not afraid of people taking notice of you, and you are entitled to your space. It’s a sign of your belief in your own worth and capability. You don’t believe that your mere existence is an affront to others; you believe that you have value and aren’t afraid to say so.
Of course, by that same token, someone who sprawls and takes up excess space or infringes on the personal space of others, is exhibiting arrogance and entitlement, not confidence.
So, let’s look at confidence in a dating context — especially for women. Now, I would argue that a lot of the styles of flirting that’re coded as female aren’t submission cues; quite the opposite in fact. While (cis) women’s flirting signals may be subtle, they aren’t necessarily submissive. They’re taking the initiative to send messages… just in ways that are based around current social mores and expectations around gender. The classic “make eye contact, look away, look back and smile”, for example, isn’t a sign of submission. It’s sending the message of “I’ve seen you looking at me, I’ve caught you looking at me again, which means the first wasn’t a fluke, and y’know what? I approve.” That sequence of behaviors isn’t submission, it’s permission — an indication that she would be receptive to someone coming over and saying hello. Moving into close proximity with someone — either during conversation or as a means of facilitating an approach — is likewise about showing interest and giving permission; it’s a way of saying “I’m comfortable with your physical presence” and “I want to make it easier for you to start talking to me”, respectively. Preening behavior like straightening clothes or adjusting one’s hair is about making sure one is presenting oneself in the best light.
And while an argument could be made that being subtle or sending an approach invitation is submissive because they’re not initiating overtly, it’s also true that a lot of women who flirt openly and directly tend to be punished for doing so — often socially, sometimes physically. But, importantly, women who flirt like this aren’t passively waiting for people to come to them or are just being receptive to anyone who comes along. They’re taking the initiative in a way that encourages the people they’re interested in to come over and say hello. While these signals aren’t as overt or obvious as the ways men tend to flirt, it’s showing interest and giving the other person an opportunity to make their move. They’re clearing the path, as it were… especially since some guys may want to approach but are hesitant to do so.
That’s confidence. It’s an expression of confidence that’s based in part on the social expectations built up around gender… but it’s still confidence. In communities or social groups where there’re fewer restrictions around gender expression — or where women feel comfortable and safe expressing themselves openly — a lot of the ways that women flirt or show interest tends to be similar to the way men do.
Where confidence comes in isn’t in how overt or covert you act, but in the willingness to own your interest and act on it and to accept the risk of being ignored or rejected. Somebody who stammers and stumbles while trying to talk to someone, but continues to do so rather than running away is displaying confidence. Hesitantly asking somebody out on a date or blushing and being embarrassed while trying to tell someone you like them is being confident. The confidence isn’t about the smoothness or the skill, it’s about doing it at all. Smoothness and skill comes from experience. Confidence is recognizing that being turned down will suck, but you’ll get over it… and so you accept the risk of rejection in order to have the chance to get what you want.
Being willing to express yourself, even when other people disagree is confidence. Not backing down or giving in at the first sign of trouble, resistance or disagreement is confidence. Recognizing that you can overcome inexperience and survive failure are all forms of confidence. Being willing to own your place in the world — physically as well as metaphorically — are forms of confidence.
So in terms of what it looks like: it looks like taking action, because confidence comes from action. It looks like standing one’s metaphorical ground. It looks like making the attempt, even in the face of fear or anxiety. And it looks like advocating for your own interests and needs.
While yes, this sounds incredibly vague or unspecific, that’s because the emotion behind it is more important than the outward expression. How you express confidence is going to depend on the context and situation, and so it’s going to change according to circumstances. It doesn’t automatically mean refusing to use soft language — especially when there may be times that doing so risks your job — nor does it mean being brash and brassy when you’re into somebody. It means doing what needs to be done in that moment, in the way that it needs to be done.
To paraphrase a certain general: be afraid… but do it anyway.
Please send your questions to Dr. NerdLove at his website (www.doctornerdlove.com/contact); or to his email, email@example.com