The “Intimidating” Woman

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I want to introduce you to someone.

She’s in her early to mid 20s. She’s smart. She’s articulate. She’s pretty damn good looking. She’s well educated, with a rapier wit and a willingness to use it. She has a job she loves that pays good money, money that she likes to spend on her geeky hobbies and toys.

And don’t get me wrong, this isn’t someone looking for geeky attention or a propped up fantasy. She’s geeky to her Joss-Whedon-loving core, a Whovian, Vertigo-reading, 3rd edition D&D (none of that 4th ed crap thank you very much) gamer with the con stories to prove it.

She loves her some nerd boys. And she’s single.

In fact… she’s been single for a while now.

And not for a lack of trying, mind you. She’s done it all; dating sites, meeting guys at cons, the comic store, chatting up friends from class and at work. And yet, Friday still remains the most lonely night of the week when she sees all of the happy, laughing couples making plans, having romantic dinners and enjoying all the sex while she’s at home with Fringe on the DVR and a bottle of Malbec breathing in the kitchen.

Why?

Well, whenever she’s interested in a guy – a guy who’s worth her time, because what’s the point of having standards if she’s not going to stick to ‘em? – she hears the same thing over and over again:

“You’re too intimidating…”

Does this sound familiar to you?

It might. In fact, going by the number of emails I get from my readers, it’s the most common issue that geek (or geek-curious) women encounter when they’re interested in dating.

But “intimidating” is almost uselessly vague, especially if they keeps coming up; it covers a multitude of meanings to the point that it means everything and nothing at once. While it’s true that many men will use it as a polite dodge to avoid saying “I’m not attracted to you”, when it comes up over and over again, it’s a sign that maybe there’s more to it. If a woman keeps hearing from men that she’s “intimidating”, what is she supposed to do – besides start approaching men who have more self-confidence and fewer issues?

What Does Intimidating Mean?

Being told “You’re too intimidating” is incredibly aggravating to women.  After all, women are encouraged to be assertive, accomplished and independent; being told that they’re “intimidating” sounds like they’re being told to take all of that back and pretend to be something less than what they are.

But is that really the issue? Are geek guys finding a woman’s accomplishments to be somehow threatening? Or is there something else at play?

Because “intimidating” is so subject to personal interpretation, I thought it was best to go to the source: geek guys. I conducted an informal (and utterly unscientific) poll on the Dr. NerdLove Facebook Page, trying to get a handle on what guys mean.

The results were interesting.

So let’s take a look at what men say is intimidating… and what you can do about it.

“She’s so attractive that there have to be other guys. The hotter the girl, the higher the stakes.”

Men can find beauty intimidating; the more attractive the woman, the more advantages society gives her. The more beautiful or desirable a woman, the more she can have her pick of men. Olivia Munn may be a geek1 , but how is average Joe Nerd supposed to compete with the celebrities she meets on a daily basis?

This is not to say that incredibly beautiful women will only go for the model-handsome mind you – look at Christina Hendricks2 and her admittedly less symmetrically-gifted husband.

Seriously. There is no God.

But the fact of the matter remains: the prettier you are, the more likely that guys are going to have a hard time feeling comfortable approaching you. Even if you are the one making the first move, they may feel as though they will be in constant competition with other men: ones with better jobs, fatter wallets, movie-star smiles, and abs you could do laundry on.

What Can You Do About It?

Your instinctive response may be to play down your looks, and while this can work – there’s a reason why the “beautiful-after-all” trope exists; everyone likes the idea of the librarian who’s secretly model-gorgeous – it’s ultimately putting the responsibility on you.

Instead, make a point of being approachable and friendly. Wide smiles that reach your eyes (the “Duchenne Smile”) and open, welcoming body language can make a shy or introverted guy feel more welcome. Showing genuine interest or honest appreciation in his accomplishments or hobbies can also help him overcome feelings of “What could she possibly see in me?” And I do mean genuine; shy, geeky guys are perpetually concerned that people are secretly making fun of them.

If he doesn’t have the self-esteem or confidence to get past the power differential – and beauty is a power – then move on. The last thing you want is a guy who needs constant reassurance that yes, you are happy with him and not looking for someone better.

 “She comes on too strong. She’s too loud / too boisterous / a little too non-ladylike.”

Geek culture has a way of blurring the traditional lines of gender roles. Women who have nerdy interests are frequently less traditionally “feminine”. Some were tomboys growing up and take pride in being one of the guys. Others were late bloomers or women who have had few female role models in their lives. Some women are just naturally more outgoing and rowdy; the loud group of party girls are a regular feature of many parties, bars, and club scenes.

Many guys – especially introverts – can find this upsetting or discomforting. He may feel as though he’s going to have to put on a performance in order to keep up with her. He may be overwhelmed by the force of her personality and worry that he will be forced to be the inferior partner in the relationship. Or he may just be the sort of person who prefers a quieter, demure, more “feminine” personality.

What Can You Do About It?

To start with: don’t chase after introverts. While there are plenty who can appreciate an outgoing partner – one who would compliment them, be the yang to their yin – more are likely to feel steamrolled by someone so dominant. A shy guy, even one who wishes women would be more assertive and take the initiative, can have a low threshold when it comes to directness and energy.

Similarly, if a man is interested in a woman who’s more in line with the idea of more traditionally feminine or lady-like behavior, he isn’t going to make for a good boyfriend for an outgoing, dominant or non-traditional lady. There is no reason why you should try to force yourself to be someone you’re not in order to meet somebody else’s criteria.

Now, that having been said: you may want to consider toning down your behavior somewhat. This isn’t to say that there’s something wrong with being high-energy or being a tomboy, just that there can be a fine line between being energetic and outgoing and being obnoxious. This is an issue men have as much as women do.

 “She seems too serious or angry.”

This is an issue I’ve talked about before. Some women, especially women with strong opinions and a willingness to express them, can seem angry or stand-offish to guys. He may mistake an interest in a discussion or debate for being scolded or even talked down to. He may worry that every conversation is going to be a lecture rather than a sharing of ideas.

This is how he sees his immediate future.

Similarly, men may feel as though they’re walking through an emotional minefield and worry about accidentally triggering a reprimand or tirade because of an off-the-cuff comment, poorly chosen word, or a miscommunication. Feeling as though he’ll always be on the defensive, or having to explain himself, or that he’s always going to be hearing about why he’s wrong, can turn guys off.

What Can You Do About It?

Having strong, firmly held opinions or views is a good thing. It’s how one comes across that can frequently be a problem. This is an issue that affects men and women; men are just as prone to going into lecture mode and talking down to women, especially if they have a pet interest or opinion they feel strongly about.

The key here is the use of language and tone. This can be a tricky subject at times; telling someone, especially a woman, that her tone is undermining her position is a classic derailing tactic, minimizing what a woman has to say. However, a conversation between two people, especially if it’s between two people who are interested in each other romantically, doesn’t have to be a particularly contentious episode of Crossfire. It’s possible to have a debate – even a spirited one – without making the other person feel as though they’re being harangued or talked down to. Softening the language, using fewer declarative or imperative statements can make it easier to have those discussions or exchange of views without making a man feel as though he has to defend or justify himself. Similarly, tone of voice, facial expression and body language can completely transform the tenor of a conversation. If you’re a serious person, a smile and slightly higher pitch can make you seem less angry or antagonistic which – in turn – will make him feel more at ease and less intimidated.

“She’s smarter / more driven than me.”

Some men need to feel as though they’re the dominant partner in a relationship. Others want to feel needed by their partner, while still others are worried that they won’t match up in terms of ambition and feel like lazy slugs in comparison.

This ties back into the idea of gender roles; according to tradition, men are supposed to be the head of the household – the breadwinner, the father figure. He’s expected to have the answers. The man is supposed to be the dominant figure in the relationship and the family.  When a woman is demonstrably smarter than he is, it can feel as though traditional roles are being overturned. Even amongst geek guys, this can be uncomfortable.

Similarly, guys want to feel needed by their partner. A woman who’s driven, a woman with ambition, may make him feel as though that he would be a second place consideration to her job or her goals. If he’s not equally driven, he may feel that he will inferior in comparison.

What Can You Do About It?

This is another case of a strength being seen as a hinderance. Being smart, ambitious, and driven are undeniably desirable attributes, and most men will appreciate them. However, there may be a difference between perception (his view of you) and reality (your real personality).

A smart woman shouldn’t try to pretend to be less intelligent than she really is. A man who’s intimidated by a smart woman or who can’t handle non-traditional gender or relationship roles isn’t going to make for a happy or successful relationship with an “intimidatingly” smart woman. However, sometimes intelligent people can’t resist a chance to show off or even use their smarts like a club. This is obnoxious, regardless of of gender. It can take a little self-awareness, but it’s worth looking into how you handle conversations and how people respond to you. If you’re the sort of person who corrects others regularly or always has to have the last, definitive word on a subject, you behavior could be off-putting to others.

If you’re particularly driven or ambitious, it can help to point out – or even emphasize – that you have a life outside of your goals. This is about having a balanced life, something I frequently advise men to cultivate. A reminder that you aren’t all business, all the time can help assuage the guy’s fear that he will forever be taking second place to the other parts of your life.

“She’s more sexually experienced than me.”

AKA: The Chasing Amy.

Kevin Smith isn’t known for emotionally insightful or earnest movies, but Chasing Amy is – to my mind – one of his best and most emotionally honest. The main character, Holden, is fine with the fact that Alyssa has likely slept with as many women as he has… but as soon as he finds out that not only has she slept with more men than he has, but that she’s also far more sexually adventurous than he is, he freaks out. Why? Because deep down at his core, he’s intimidated by this.

Many men have issues with women who have a wide degree of sexual experience. This is partially cultural – women are supposed to be pure and innocent – but also because he wants to be The Very Best3 .

Every man knows that the more partners a woman has, the better the odds that he’s not going to measure up in some way. The odds are good that she will have had a lover with a bigger penis, who could last longer during penetration, who gave the most amazing oral sex… the list goes on and on. In addition, some men will ascribe unrealistic import to whom she has had sex with. He wants to believe he’s special, that he stands out from the herd. If a man beds lots of women, according to popular culture, it means that he has something special. If a woman sleeps with lots4 of men, it must mean that she’ll sleep with anyone. 

A man's most emasculating fear: That every other guy at the party has seen his girlfriend naked. Repeatedly

The more men she’s slept with, so the thought goes, the less significant he is. He’s no longer special. He’s just one more dick in a long line of cocks. And the odds are likely that he’s not the last, either.

The less secure he is, the more he’ll have issues with a woman’s number of sex partners.

 What Can You Do About It?

The most obvious answer is to not date men with hangups about numbers or a woman’s sexuality. A man should be able to accept a woman as a holistic person, number of sex partners and all.

But, on a more practical level, the number of sex partners that either of you have had isn’t a great topic for a “getting to know you” conversation. It’s hardly forbidden – I think there’re very few topics that are off limits for a first-to-third date – but it’s generally something that I would recommend on holding off on sharing until after you’ve actually had sex. Even then, neither of you are likely going to want exact numbers; too wide a difference in either direction (and the exact definition of “too wide” is going to vary drastically from person to person) has a high probability of making one of you feel insecure or inadequate.

If the topic does come up early (i.e. before sex), the best answer is “enough to know what I like” with a smile; it suggests experience without going into the possibility of being an overwhelming number. If he presses, tell him you don’t kiss and tell. Exact numbers are for when you’re both more secure in your relationship – and sometimes not even then.

  1. or at least plays one on TV []
  2. drool []
  3. like no one ever was… sorry, sorry, I couldn’t help myself   []
  4. for suitably variable definitions of “lots” []

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