DEAR DR. NERDLOVE: I’m a long time reader and I was hoping you could lend your expert advice on a issue I’ve been having for sometime.
So little bit of backstory for most of high school and the early years of college I was the typical nerd. I was quiet, smart, terribly nervous around women (I use to stutter something terrible when I’d even try to talk to them.) You know the usual shtick. The good news is that as I got older and thanks to some of your articles I became more social calibrated and came out of my shell. I started going to the gym, dressing better, learned how to be a good conversationalist, and I guess part of this message is a thank you for helping me to become the guy I am today.
Anyway onto the actual problem. I’m a social guy. I love to meet new people and hear their stories. Recently however I’ve run a foul of some people who are mistaking my friendliness as flirtation. This has caused issues with setting up false positives for people I’m not interested in or pissing off said person’s significant other. What would your advice be to gauge the response people are having to you? And as a follow up question if you do notice that you’ve given the wrong impression how would you back out gracefully to avoid causing any more issues?
Turning Signals Off
DEAR TURNING SIGNALS OFF: Glad to hear you’re doing so much better, TSO! Now let’s talk a little about how you might be giving people the wrong impression.
There’re a lot of times where people get the wrong impression about what people are trying to say or do. You’ll hear a lot, for example, about guys mistaking friendliness (especially professional friendliness) for flirting and politeness for attraction. Similarly, guys worry about giving off the “romance” vibe when they’re just trying to be friends with people. Call it a social issue; frequently we’ve been so disconnected from people or have such shallow and perfunctory interactions that we tend to forget that there are degrees of friendliness and intent. Sometimes it’s cultural; basic politeness to someone in, say, Texas, can read as almost absurdly forward or solicitousness to someone from Minnesota. Other times it’s just a case of poor social calibration or – in many cases – wishful thinking.
The thing to keep in mind is that when it comes to false positives and misread signs, there’re two people involved. Sometimes it can be a case of you giving off signs that might reasonably be interpreted as being flirty. Sometimes it’s the other person who’s reading things in that aren’t there. It takes a certain amount of self-examination and self-awareness to try to get a grasp on who’s misreading whom.
Take, for example, the significant others’ of some of the women you talk to. If you’re a touchy-feely person and you do a fair amount of (acceptable) social touching, their partners might misinterpret that as flirting. They might also take it that way if you’re giving your conversational partner a lot of strong eye-contact, or doing the slow-smile or making jokes that may be taken as being flirty or teasing. It might also be read the wrong way if you’re doing a lot of isolating – that is, walking off with someone to another area or otherwise separating them from their group. It may be just part of how you are – you decide you’re going to get a drink or move someplace not quite so loud and they come with you, with no untoward intent – but it could reasonably be seen as being flirty.
On the other hand, you could be dealing with someone whose boyfriend just incredibly jealous and possessive and is going to automatically assume the worst of any person who might pose a “threat” to their relationship. In those cases, you could be waving a wedding ring around and hoisting a neon sign that says “I AM MARRIED/GAY/DEAD AND STUFFED WITH LIZARDS” and they’d still convince themselves that you meant to do them dirty. At which point, there’s really nothing that you can do aside from not exist.
So when you’re talking to someone, especially someone who’s pretty sure you’re giving signals that you aren’t, try to take a step outside of yourself and look at how you’re behaving. Is it possible that some of your behavior might be misunderstood by a reasonable person? If so… consider dialing things back just a tad. You can give people a little more personal space, be a little less physically expressive or be a touch more serious instead of teasing or making jokes.
If it’s not you… well, there’s not really much you can do if people are determined to misunderstand things. You can’t control other people’s reactions and there are some folks out there of all genders who will perceive things like “breathing” and “talking to me” as signs of flirting.
In either case, if you have a case of misunderstood intent, the easiest thing to do is gently correct them. “Hey, I’m sorry, I think you may have gotten/ I may have given you the wrong idea! You’re awesome, but that’s not really what I meant.” Deliver it with a smile and a laugh and just let bygones be bygones. It’s no worries, happens all the time, your bad, etc. Realizing that you (general you, not you, TOS) have misread a situation can be embarrassing. Letting the other person know it’s no big deal and just treating it like an amusing glitch in the Matrix can do a lot for making everyone comfortable again.
And hey, it might be worth asking someone close to you just how you’re coming across to others. They might be able to give you some insight that you wouldn’t get otherwise.
Please send your questions to Dr. NerdLove at his website (www.doctornerdlove.com/contact); or to his email, email@example.com