One of the unfortunate side-effects about having these necessary conversations about creepy behavior are the socially inexperienced or somewhat shy who are already anxious about trying to introduce themselves to a strange woman who mean well but now are even more intimidated by the daunting prospect of trying to not be creepy by accident. What was already a potentially terrifying experience has become akin to walking through a social minefield where the merest misstep or error in judgement gets misinterpreted and results in word spreading through the Super Secret Women Hotline, all but guaranteeing that the poor bastard will end up dying alone and unloved, masturbating and crying at the same time.
Better to not approach women at all than face the possibility of being exiled from dating forever, no?
Unfortunately, this is one more example of why nerds have the worst superpower of all time: the ability to game out every possible worst-case scenario in living color and vivid surround sound, each time worse than the last. When we get so worked up over all of the potential mistakes we could make, each one deadlier than the one before it, we end up building up a fantasy world in our heads that bears almost no resemblance to the world we actually live in.
In reality: avoiding being creepy isn’t nearly as difficult as it may seem. I’ve written a lot about the basics you need when it comes to meeting women – so now the time has come to start putting it all together.
Call it Meeting Women 101.
A Working Definition of “Creepy”
Before we even get started, let’s get a functional definition of creepy behavior – at least as it applies to dating scenarios.
Creepy behavior means acting in such a way that it causes a woman’s Spidey-sense to start tingling – that is to say, acting or behaving in a manner that makes someone fundamentally uncomfortable or feel threatened. This may mean that the creepy person is pushing up against somebody’s boundaries – turning the conversation in an unwelcome discussion about sex, showing them obscene pictures, ignoring indications that their presence is unwanted – or that they’re acting in such a way that their behavior could be seen as a threat – such as backing someone up against a wall during a conversation or grabbing them by the arm.
This doesn’t necessarily cover all possible scenarios – and I’m sure there will be folks who will want to what-if this to death – but it’s close enough for government work.
Right Time, Right Place
Let’s get this out of the way right off the bat: going up and starting a conversation with someone you don’t know is not inherently creepy. This is how you get to know people.
That having been said, there is a time and a place for everything and there are times and locations where trying to strike up an acquaintance with a stranger is a bad idea.
If you’re looking to avoid being creepy by accident, one of the first things you need to consider is where you are and when you are. Different aspects of the social contract are in force depending on location and the time of day. Going up to someone on a bright, sunlit day in the park carries an entirely different implication than going up to her in the middle of the night in that same park. With the exception of in particular venues – bars and clubs, for example, or other places where approaching people and being approached is to be expected - most women are going to be much more on the defensive at night and much more prone to seeing being approached as potentially threatening.
At the same time, you also want to avoid making someone feel cornered or trapped. Meeting a woman at a hotel bar and flirting with her can feel like the most normal thing in the world. Meeting that same woman in a small, empty room and trying to flirt with her there can appear to be threatening – she has no way of getting away from you should she feel the need. She is much more likely to feel as though she’s in danger because’s she’s effectively trapped.
The most famous example of this the infamous ElevatorGate incident at the World Atheist Convention, where a man struck up a flirty, sexualized conversation with a woman in an elevator at 4 in the morning. The problem was less the conversation itself then where and when it took place. A conversation that might have been merely annoying and unwelcome in one locale – say, the convention hall – felt threatening and creepy in another – alone in the elevator in the middle of the night.
As a general rule of thumb, you need to consider the social context. Certain behaviors are more acceptable in some places than in others. People expect different levels of physical contact at, say, a nightclub than at a bookstore or the gym. You want to remain socially relevant – the more your actions are incongruous to the situation, the more disconcerting and creepy you will appear to be.
When in doubt: maintain personal space whenever possible (just outside of arm’s length) until invited to close the gap and always make sure that the person you’re talking to has a way of exiting the situation without effort.
Read Her Body Language
Before you approach someone, make sure they’re in the mood to be approached in the first place.
People who are uninterested in talking to people – especially people they don’t know – will often make a point of signaling that they wish to be left alone through non-verbal means. They will make a point of closed-off body language - crossed arms, hunched posture, turning away from the general flow of traffic. They often will make approaching them or talking to them difficult by wearing headphones or sunglasses as a way of avoiding eye contact. Similarly, someone who is engrossed in a book, her laptop, her phone, an iPad or a sketchbook is likely not interested in talking to a random person at that moment. The mere act of writing/drawing/reading in public doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re interested in an extended conversation about what she’s talking about.
Trying to engage someone who is making it as obvious as possible that she does not wish to be bothered is obnoxious at best. Forcing your attention upon her – such as by waving your hands in front of her face to get her attention or pulling off her headphones is obnoxious and creepy as fuck.
How can you tell someone is interested or at least not opposed to the idea? Her body language will be more open; she will have straighter posture and be more relaxed and spread out. She may be taking breaks from her book or laptop to look out the window and stare of into space. If she’s sketching, she may look up around the room, especially if she’s doing figure studies of the people around her or lean back to consider the drawing more. These are times when it would be more acceptable to ask “hey, may I see what you’re working on?”
Making The Approach
You’ve judged the location – she’s checking out book titles in the Mystery section of your local Barnes and Noble at 4 in the afternoon. You’ve judged the situation – she doesn’t seem to be in a hurry or particularly determined to ignore the world around her… looks like you’re good to go!
This is where people tend to vaporlock. What do you do? What do you say? Do you tap her on the shoulder? Clear your throat? When do you ask for her number?
Simmer down, Beavis. Don’t get so worked up that you can’t think straight. Your goal is to simply start and maintain a conversation; trying to think any further ahead is only going to make you freeze up.
The best thing you can do to help keep from seeming creepy is to approach from an angle where she can see you; you don’t want to startle her with your sudden presence after ninja-sneaking up behind her. Coming up and standing off to an angle – rather than facing her head on – can help avoid coming across as though you’re trying to corner her or cut off her avenues of escape. Keeping a respectable distance – out of arm’s reach is a good rule of thumb – start talking.
Like I’ve said before: your opening lines ultimately don’t matter. Of every woman I’ve met and went on to date and/or sleep with, almost none of them remembered what the first lines were out of my mouth. I have started conversations with everything from “Hi my name is…” to “You’re very tall. Sorry, I have a thing, I point out the obvious” to the infamous “Nice boots, want to fuck?”1 Spending more time thinking up what you’re going to say than the length of time it takes to physically approach her just lets your self-doubt try to sabotage your approach.
Now keep in mind: the fact that your opening line doesn’t matter doesn’t mean that you can say anything; you want to avoid making her uncomfortable. Being offensive or crude right off the bat is going to work against you and possibly even make you seem “off”. Jokes that are overtly sexual2 or that reference kidnapping or rape are out.
When in doubt: “Hey, you seem like you’re cool and I wanted to meet you” is always appropriate.
The False Time Constraint
One thing that I’ve used many times with great success is what’s known in PUA lingo as the “false time constraint”. As I would use it, it was an artificial limit on how long I could be talking to the person or people I approached. My usual phrasing was to pick a moment early on in the interaction and say “Hey, I’ve only got a little bit before I…” and then inserted an appropriate reason why I couldn’t stay: “I have to get back to my friends”, “I have to get back to work”, “I have to go meet up with some people…” before segueing into a question or a story. Did I have to leave? Sometimes yes, sometimes no… but I used it regularly regardless.
To start with, it reassured whomever I talked to that even if I were a crushing boor, she would only have to put up with me for a few minutes before I left her alone. It also had the benefit of giving her an escape clause; if I were overstaying my welcome and ignoring her subtler hints that I should leave, “Didn’t you say you had to go do something?” is a fairly unambiguous sign that it’s time to go.
It also meant that if things weren’t going well – I decided I wasn’t interested in her, I could tell that she wasn’t interested in me – I had an easy, socially acceptable out. “Hey, like I said, I gotta run, it was great meeting you!” If things were going well, but I could feel the interaction running out of steam – as many of them do – it was an opportunity to leave on an emotional high note rather than hanging in until all conversation (and attraction, for that matter) ran dry. Leaving on an emotional high note (leaving ‘em wanting more, as it were) made it much more likely that when I’d ask for their number, I’d get it… and that they’d pick up when I’d call.
Bantering, Flirting and Chemistry
I like antagonistic flirting; I enjoy the back and forth of giving playful shit to someone I’m interested in and the sting of a witty reposte. In a lot of ways, this is how I would pre-screen the women I would flirt with; if they weren’t the type to banter back and forth with me, the odds were good that we weren’t going to be a good match. The trick to decent banter is the tease – saying something mean while meaning something nice. Proper bantering means being willing to break out of your shell and be willing to treat the woman you’re interested in almost as though she were an annoying little sister rather than someone so cute you’re almost intimidated by her. You don’t want to be actively mean – after all, calling someone you just met a filthy pirate whore is more likely to get a drink thrown on you even if she were teasing you about your hair – but some playful needling can keep things interesting.
Now admittedly, it can be difficult, especially if you tend to be more reserved and less demonstrative and if you’re new to flirting, it’s very easy to cross a line by accident. When you’re starting out, keep it friendly, the way that you might tease a friend. When in doubt, keep up a push-pull dynamic; follow a tease up with a compliment, or a compliment with a tease.
The area where you do have to be careful is sex. Trying to build sexual tension can be tricky and I don’t necessarily advise it for a relative beginner who’s just approached someone. This doesn’t mean that sex is completely off the table – some people will naturally have a sense of humor that runs toward the ribald or may be more sexual in general – but trying to push the topic when it’s not wanted is a bona-fide creeper move. If the person you’re flirting with seems like someone whom might be interested in the topic, it’s best to feel your way forward3 with a slightly more naughty joke than usual.
For example: in the Anatomy Lesson about how I met April, I joked “hey, I’ll show you mine if you show me yours” when she asked about my artwork. She laughed, which meant that I would feel more confident making another, more overtly sexual joke later – in this case, about calling her Reverse Cowgirl. Her initial response: “Is that the best you got?” could be taken as either a warning or a challenge; unless you’re exceptionally well socially calibrated, it’s safer to assume that you should back down. Her joke afterwards - about riding bareback – told me what I needed to know: yes, she’s cool with a certain level of sexual humor and is even willing to throw it back at me. It can be a risky move, but sometimes risk is rewarded and we learn more from our mistakes than we do our successes.
But What If You Screw up?
So let’s just say that something goes wrong. You moved in a little too close, touched her just a little too long or said something that sounded way less inappropriate in your head. You’ve accidentally started to creep her out… what do you do now?
Well that’s simple. You take a step back (sometimes literally) and apologize. “Hey, I’m sorry, that really came out wrong,” or “Woah, sorry about that, I totally didn’t mean to crowd you there,” or even “Hey, I think I may have started to creep you out a bit and I’m really sorry about that.”
Never underestimate the power of a sincere apology, especially when you’re still relatively uncalibrated, socially.
It’s a hard truth that we learn the most from when we make mistakes rather than when we succeed. Sometimes the best way to learn is to give yourself permission to fuck up, occasionally badly. It’s hard to avoid crossing a line if you don’t know where the line is, and there will be times that the only way you’ll find it is to stumble over it in the first place.
Sometimes an apology and a show of good faith on your part will be all it takes to salvage the situation. Sometimes there just isn’t anything you can do except to chalk the whole thing up to a learning experience and resolve not to make the same mistake twice.
The difference between someone being creepy and an honest mistake is how you handle it. A creeper isn’t going to notice (or, for that matter, care) that he’s made the person he’s talking to uncomfortable; in fact, some of the more predatory creepers will actively test women’s boundaries before escalating to even worse behavior. A good guy, will stop whatever it is he’s doing as soon as he’s aware of it and make a point of not doing it again.
Leave On A High Note
When things are going well, it can be tempting to want to stay for as long as you possibly can. At times when it’s not going well and the conversation is starting to peter out… well, it can be tempting to want to stay for longer too, in the hopes that if you just keep her talking long enough you can jump-start that spark that you had earlier on.
As a general rule, it’s better to leave sooner rather than later. Trying to stay in a conversation with someone well past it’s natural expiration date is not the sign of someone with high social intelligence and can come across as offputting, if not a little creepy. Leaving when things are going well on the other hand, means that the last impression that she’ll have of you is a positive one; you’ll be the guy they were having fun wish that she wishes had stuck around just a little longer instead of the dude who kept hanging around all night and wouldn’t leave her alone.
Once again, this is where the false time constraint I mentioned above comes in handy. You have to leave… but you’re having such a great time with her that you need to see her again. This is not when you ask for her number however. This is when you make plans. You say “Hey listen, I have to go do X but I would really like to see you again. There’s this pub quiz this Saturday at my favorite bar. You should come with me, I promise nothing but a good time and great conversation.” When she agrees, then you ask for her number.
Just try not to do a little victory dance until after you’re out of eyesight.
- This was on a dare. I got slapped repeatedly, several “Go fuck yourself”s and a phone number. As a return on investment, I don’t recommend it. [↩]
- yes, including “nice boots, etc.” Don’t try this at home kids, I’m a professional. [↩]
- fnar [↩]
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