DEAR DR. NERDLOVE: Is it true that dating, attraction, flirting, initiating contact and escalating and knowing when to do them, etc. are skills and like all skills, require making mistakes in order to get better?
The reason why I’m asking is that, based on everything I’ve read, these are all skills you can improve at. Virtually all skills require you to make mistakes and learn from them in order to get better. However, making mistakes while learning these skills are almost certainly going to lead to awkwardness at best, anyone you attempted to attract fearing you or hating you at worst. Most likely, a guy who makes a mistake doing this is going to be labeled creepy.
It really feels like a hostile environment for any man trying to learn dating skills. It seems like the expectation is that men must be absolutely perfect from the start. Yes, I’m aware that women do this for their own safety, better safe than sorry, it’s better that they label a guy who meant no harm creepy than a guy harms them. Because I can’t prove a negative, that I’m not creepy, it just feels impossible to get better at this.
So am I completely off the mark here?
Don’t Wanna Be The Guy
DEAR DON’T WANNA BE THE GUY: You’re making a common mistake, DWBTG; you’re starting from a reasonable premise – dating is a skill, practicing a skill means making mistakes – and veering off into the entirely wrong direction based on fears, not facts.
The problem you’re having is that you don’t know what you’re talking about. I don’t mean that you’re stupid or ignorant; it’s that you don’t know what you don’t know and you’re making incorrect assumptions because of it. Since you aren’t fully aware of what you don’t know, you’re filling in a lot of blanks based on suppositions and false premises. Worse, you’re taking those suppositions as given and drawing a lot of mistaken conclusions.
So let’s fix that, shall we?
Your first incorrect assumption is the difference between a mistake and failure. A mistake is a choice; failure is not. Failure can happen because you made a mistake, sure… but you can also fail without making a mistake, simply because you don’t have the actual skill or experience to do it correctly.
When you’re learning a new skill, you’re going to fail at it fairly often. But failing at something, especially because you’ve never done it before, isn’t a mistake. You just don’t have the experience to know how to do it correctly.
When you were learning how to walk, you fell over a lot. You weren’t making mistakes, you were just dealing with things you’d never experienced before and you didn’t have the muscle strength, coordination or proprioception to do it successfully. You developed those in time and now you’re walking without thinking about how mechanically difficult a feat you’re accomplishing.
But that’s for babies. What about when you’re a grown-ass adult? Or at least, someone who’s over the age of, say, 2. In fact, let’s say that you’re just starting to learn how to play basketball. You’ve never dribbled, passed the ball, never even played a game of Horse. If you try to shoot the ball and miss, you didn’t make a mistake, you just failed to sink the basket. If someone passes the ball and you miss, that is a failure, not a mistake. If you pass the ball to the wrong person then yeah that’s a mistake. But that’s often a failure of skill, rather than a poor choice – you’re not used to the chaos of a game, you don’t have the experience to know how to focus and spot the teammate who’s open… all of these things are accomplished through practice.
And skill and experience don’t prevent you from making mistakes. You can see people – incredibly skilled, talented people – make mistakes all the time. The fighting game champion who misjudged the timing of a block or combo, the concert pianist who got flustered and missed a note, the chess player who got out-maneuvered by their opponent or missed a critical opening. Those are all mistakes that even the best of us can make, because we’re all human and we’re all imperfect.
The second false assumption you’re making is that you can’t make mistakes when talking to women. This isn’t true at all, and it’s born out of the false premise that talking to women is like defusing a bomb – so much as look at the wrong wire and suddenly you’re created a massive faux pas and the whole interaction has blown up, messily and all over the place.
The corollary, of course, is that if you do everything perfectly then you’re guaranteed a date or for everything to go well. And that’s not true, either. As the man says: it’s possible to commit no errors and still lose; that’s just life. This works both ways – you can make mistakes and still win.
But for this to be true, that would mean that women are actively looking for reasons to disqualify you and that’s just not the case. In fact, that mindset is going to cause more problems than just assuming that people like you.
Here’s the truth: 99% of the mistakes you make are barely noticeable, and most people won’t even care. Certainly not as much as you do. And they’re certainly not actively looking for you to screw up.
Have you ever walked into a place and thought someone was waving at you, only to realize that they were waving at someone else? You probably felt like you wanted the earth to open up and swallow you whole when you realized, hand half raised.
Guess what? I can guarantee that nobody noticed, and if they did, they forgot the literal second you left their eyeline. And just about everyone can relate to that exact experience; they’re not going to judge you for having done it, because they understand exactly what you’re feeling in that moment and they’re going to empathize.
Nobody is expecting perfection and everyone’s made mistakes. If someone likes you, then they’re going to be a lot more forgiving than you’d think. But even if they’re someone you’ve just met, making a mistake isn’t an instant fail. Most of the mistakes you’re likely to make – especially when you’re learning – are pretty minor and easily overlooked. Trying to start a conversation with someone who’s not actually interested in meeting folks? Embarrassing, a bit of a sting to the ego, but not a big deal. Asked someone out and they have a partner? Or they’re not interested in men? Well, there’s literally no way to predict that, and most people aren’t going to be offended. Many will be flattered, most will be cool and all of them just want you to not be an asshole about it.
You have to make some pretty big mistakes to really be a creeper. It’s certainly possible to make a big mistake – and I’m speaking from personal experience here – but that tends to require actual carelessness or disregard for other people; the likelihood of your stumbling into making a major error by pure accident is so low that you’re more likely to be hit by space debris. Indoors.
Nobody is expecting perfection. Everyone understands that people trip themselves up. And part of the point of making mistakes when you’re learning is not just to learn how to not make mistakes, but how to recover from them when you make them. You’re going to make mistakes because you’re human, just like everyone else. If you think mistakes are an instant-fail condition, you’ll never accomplish anything for fear of the slightest error.
The final misconception we’re dealing with here is what actually makes somebody creepy. When we’re talking about someone being a creeper – an actual creeper, not the fantasy of “it’s only creepy if you’re ugly” hand-wave that dudes throw around – we’re talking about behavior that make people feel unsafe. If, for example, you were to show up unexpectedly and surprised someone because you saw something in their Instagram that told you where they were? That can be unsettling. If you made it clear that you could always find them based on what they post? That’s going to move it past “unsettling” into “yup, that’s creepy” – that suggests that you can find them at any time, and they can’t stop you. Are you consistently touching them in intimate ways and missing or ignoring their discomfort? Yeah, that’s going to be potentially creepy; you’re signaling that you either don’t recognize signs that they don’t want to be touched or don’t care that they don’t. The former is unnerving. The latter is creepy, because you’re stating that you don’t see their comfort or disinterest as mattering. That’s the point where you’re starting to be an actual threat.
Most of the things that make you creepy aren’t going to be casual mistakes, they’re going to be behavior that signals a disregard for other people’s comfort or security. The guy who tracks a stranger down over social media after having met her once is being creepy, especially when he does so in order to try to get a date or sex from her. The guy who turns every conversation sexual, no matter how other people feel? That’s creepy because he’s violating people’s boundaries; they don’t want to talk about sex with him and he’s decided his interests override their disinterest.
But let’s say you touch someone and realize that they’ve tensed up and aren’t comfortable with it. If you realize what’s going on, pull your hand back, apologize and – critically – don’t make that same mistake? You’re on much safer ground. It may have been uncomfortable, but you’ve demonstrated that it was an honest mistake, you regret it and you’ve learned. Made a comment or joke that didn’t go over, that tripped a particular issue for them or otherwise shoved your foot in your mouth? Same thing: apologize and learn from it.
Now, are there folks who will have stronger reactions to genuine mistakes than others? Of course – individuals will vary wildly for all sorts of reasons and it’s literally impossible to factor that into every interaction you’ll ever have. But if you follow some best practices – especially if you get in the habit of asking or using your words, rather than just guessing or plowing ahead without care – and you’ll be far less likely to step on a landmine you had no idea was there.
Do women live in a world where their safety is far from guaranteed? Yes. Do they experience danger in ways that men don’t? Of course. Does that mean they see every man as the enemy or see every slip-up as being a sign that he’s a serial killer? Of course not. Women have plenty of reasons to be on their guard, but there’s a difference between understandable caution and out-and-out paranoia. If someone starts to hate you because of an honest mistake? That tends to be an issue with them, not because you f--ked up that badly.
As you learn, yeah, you’ll make mistakes and you’ll have failures. You want to try to keep those to a minimum, but you also need to understand that they happen and that they’re not the end of the world. If you’re moving through the world with some compassion and empathy for others and act with actual understanding – rather than making unfounded assumptions – then you’re going to be doing better than most. Learn from the mistakes you make, apologize when you do, avoid making those same mistakes again and you’ll be ok.
Please send your questions to Dr. NerdLove at his website (www.doctornerdlove.com/contact); or to his email, firstname.lastname@example.org