DEAR DR. NERDLOVE: Is it true that flirting and attraction are skills, and like all skills, require making mistakes and learning from them?
It seems based on everything, these are skills that can be worked on. However, all skills require making mistakes and learning from them so the person learning doesn’t do them again. However, unlike most skills, flirting and attraction have the very real risk of hurting women when learning them, things like sexual harassment, bringing up trauma, or just being creepy is definitely possible. These can lead to, at the very least, a worse reputation, ostracization, or worse. I’m pretty sure if dancing had these kinds of risks, and the people who did these kinds of things to people who were still learning dancing weren’t just seen as assholes, there would be a lot less people who are into dancing.
But when it comes to flirting and attraction, that seems to be the one skill where people expect perfection from the beginning when trying it. So how is a man supposed to get better at it?
DEAR BEGINNER’S NERVES: Gonna level with you BN: what you’re doing here isn’t jumping to conclusions so much as vaulting past them and ending up in different territory entirely.
Yes, flirting, knowing how to connect with someone and understanding how to build chemistry and attraction are skills. This is, literally, why they’re called social skills. And yes, as with all skills, you improve them through deliberate practice. There are no skillsets that are built or improved without practice, and the way you practice those skillsets is through using them.
The disconnect that you’re having is that you’re assuming results that are not only not typical, they’re edge-cases at best. This is akin to someone being worried that if they take a chemistry class in high-school, the logical conclusion is that they’re almost inevitably going to blow up the lab if they make the slightest mistake. You’re not looking at the logical extension of the situation, you’re looking at worst-case scenarios born out of anxiety. The things you’re imagining — sexually harassing someone by accident, causing trauma, getting ostracized — are all fears, and it’s blown so far out of proportion that you’re looking at a funhouse mirror version of reality.
I think part of the issue here is that you seem to have a distorted idea of exactly how one learns how to connect with women, how to flirt with them or otherwise get to a place to start dating. It seems that you’re expecting to have to go full-tilt boogie from the jump, charging into the dating scene like an oversexed Pepe LePew, latching yourself onto the first attractive woman you see and begging them to come with you to zee Casbah.
(Nevermind that this is a reference to the movie Algiers and the line is never actually said by anyone…)
Now, if that is how you’re practicing flirting, then yes, you’re far more likely to get into trouble. But honestly… that’s not how it works. That’s not how folks learn how to flirt, nor is it how folks ask people out for dates. Flirting is conversation. While there are many, many ways to flirt and many different styles of flirting, at its core, all flirting is just letting someone know you find them attractive in a fun and engaging manner. That’s it. Can you pay your friends a compliment or tell them that they look good today? Can you make jokes with people without offending them or pissing them off? Then guess what? You can flirt without worrying that you’re about to get a visit from the Slap Fairy.
I think you’re having two issues here.
The first issue is simple: you’re assuming that flirting is relentlessly sexual to an absurd degree. And, in fairness, there’re dudes out there who think that the key to flirting is to constantly be bringing up sex, steering conversations towards sex or turning everything into innuendo a la Austin Powers. However, those are people who tend to be bad at flirting. The folks who are good at flirting, even incredibly sexual flirting understand that flirting is about having fun and keeping things light and playful. You don’t go hammer and tongs with the sexual aspect; you use it incredibly lightly and sparingly and in ways that allow folks to either build on it or ignore it. Craig Ferguson is famous for his sexually tinged flirting during interviews, but part of what makes him fun instead of creepy is that he reads the room. If you watch some of the clips of him interviewing various actresses, you’ll notice that he’ll either make a mild innuendo or ribald joke and then wait for the other person to respond. If she gives a positive response — especially if she flirts back — then he’ll build on the moment. If she doesn’t, then he drops things and moves on. That allows his interactions to have a playful give-and-take, one that is premised on everyone having a good time and being in on the joke.
You’ll also notice how rarely he flirts in a way that makes someone uncomfortable. He never comes across as the horny guy, nor are his comments about how much he wants to dick someone down. It’s often either about how awesome the other person is or an intentional comedic misunderstanding.
Another key to understanding flirting is that, in a real way, flirting is about creating a permission structure for someone to do something they want to do. As I’ve said before: think of being at the pool on a hot day. The pool is nice and cool, but someone isn’t sure that they want to get in. Flirting is how you persuade someone that they should get in. Maybe you talk about how nice and refreshing the water is and how great it is to float in the sun. Maybe you encourage them to get into a splash-fight with you. Or perhaps you use a joking form of reverse psychology, telling them that it’s like ice and they’d be miserable if they got in so it’s better that they stay out in the sweltering heat.
And flirting doesn’t even need to be sexual. One of the best examples of non-sexual flirting I’d seen recently was someone who jokingly asked his Hinge match if she’d want to steal his comfiest hoodie and whether she’d prefer the olive green or burgundy one. When she said the olive green one, he responded with “Sweet, I’ll wear that on our first date. Speaking of, when is that?”
His match was impressed with the smoothness of the line and the humor. He got the date.
What makes this work is how low-key and low-stakes the interaction is. To start with, he’s flirting with someone that he met in a dating context — so a place where flirting isn’t just normal but expected. Similarly, it’s clearly playful, based on the common experience of women “borrowing” their boyfriend’s hoodies or sweatshirts and keeping them. By framing the situation as a hypothetical — would she be interested in stealing his comfiest hoodie — he’s creating a mini role-play game, where she’s already his girlfriend and thus likely to abscond with his sweatshirt. By playing along — saying yes she would, saying which she would rather take — she’s engaging him at that level. By playing along, she’s demonstrating her own interest and building on the scenario he created. The pivot at the end — “I’ll wear this on our first date” — is both a display of confidence and underlining his romantic interest in her. By saying “which is when, again?” he’s now making it clear: he’s asking her on a date, and doing so in a way that lets her say “yes” or “no” as she chooses.
The second issue you’re having is that you’re assuming that your interest is inherently unwanted, offensive or otherwise an imposition on others. You’re coming to this from a place where you think that you have to work to get yourself out of a hole and hope that you can build to “neutral” before actually getting to “attracted”. This isn’t an issue with flirting or even learning how to flirt and everything to do with the belief that you’re undesirable or that people would be offended by your being interested in them. And while I can understand that anxiety — been there, done that, built my entire career off learning how to overcome it — it’s still just anxiety. Part of learning how to build your social skills is understanding that being attracted to someone is inherently neutral. It’s what you do about that attraction that makes the difference.
If you talk with someone, vibe with them and then ask them on a date? Then odds are that the worst you’re likely to experience is someone saying “thank you, but no.” People don’t sexually harass folks unintentionally, and being a creeper tends to involve being almost willfully oblivious to the other person’s comfort or lack of interest. The folks who end up being creepers are the folks who ignore someone’s disinterest or treat it as something that they can get around. The guy who keeps taking “no” for “try harder”, the guy who thinks it’s appropriate to track someone down on social media after she swiped left on Bumble, or who gets inappropriate on social media? Those are folks who are being creepy; they disregard someone else’s disinterest because they feel entitled to her time and attention. If you can read the room, prioritize people’s comfort and — importantly — take “no thanks” with good grace? Then you’re gonna be fine.
And here’s the thing to keep in mind: most of the time, the mistakes you’re going to make aren’t going to be the world-enders you’re imagining. If you realize that you’ve stepped on a metaphorical landmine, touched a nerve or otherwise said or done something offensive, then you apologize. You don’t give a non-apology or a passive-voice “sorry you were offended” apology, you say “oh, hey, I’m sorry” and then you don’t do it again. People, as a rule, are willing to give you the benefit of the doubt and interact with you in good faith. If you demonstrate that you recognize that you made a mistake and step back from it, then they’re usually going to accept that apology. It may mean any chance of a date is gone, but it’s still not the disaster that you think it’ll be.
You’ve almost certainly made jokes with your friends that fell flat. It’s not the greatest feeling in the world, but a moment of “ugh, that was awkward” isn’t going to destroy you. More often than not, everyone moves on and the moment is forgotten. That’s what most mistakes are like when you’re developing your social skills; momentary awkwardness that’s soon forgotten. Flirting with someone who turns out not to be interested? Not that big a deal, certainly not going to lead to your getting kicked out of society — assuming that, again, you take “no thank you” or “not interested” with grace and move on.
If you’re making incredibly offensive, hurtful or obscene comments, jokes or gestures or becoming Captain Bad Touch, then yeah, you’re going to get bounced. But most folks, especially people trying to polish their social skills aren’t doing that. They’re just talking, trying to ping for interest and asking people out on dates. So, seriously: turn the dial down a few notches, king. You’re inventing trouble where it doesn’t exist, based on exaggerated fears and unrealistic ideas about what flirting and socializing look like. Focus on just getting comfortable talking to people and find the flirting style that works with your personality. Everything else is just conversation.
Please send your questions to Dr. NerdLove at his website (www.doctornerdlove.com/contact); or to his email, firstname.lastname@example.org