Dr. NerdLove is on vacation this week. Rather than just giving you nothing but dead air or running a “Best Of” column, I bring you this excellent guest post from my friend, confidant and occasional provider of much needed corrections: Kira.
Kira, the floor is yours.
Bringing the Boys to the Yard
Flirting is a great thing. It’s a way to show interest without getting in over your head, and without getting kicked out of a conversation. And it has a lot of nice side effects – you get to tell someone they’re beautiful without embarrassment, and once you get good at it you get to feel slick, and it’s always fun to make someone smile.
Flirting of any stripe is, essentially, verbal dancing: For every positive sign you get, you give a little positive sign. Nothing so explicit as to ruin the rhythm; just enough to make someone think a little. Hopefully these positive signs escalate until you both feel beautiful, or you have a date, or whatever else you had in mind comes to pass. But the key here is call and response, on the most immediate, most granular, most tactical level.
Everyone wins, because either everyone feels good, or one party backs out before anyone has a chance to feel bad.
OK, fine, it doesn’t always mean what you think it means. Because messages in flirting are implicit, not explicit, it can be hard to figure out what’s going on. For the recipient, it can be particularly hard to tell the difference between ‘flirting with intent’ – subtle un-said signals that mean I like you, and I’d like this to go somewhere – versus ‘flirting without intent’ – which people do for a host of reasons, or for no reason at all.
So, why not just declare your interest outright and save everyone the trouble?
First, flirting with intent allows the relationship between you and someone else to evolve naturally, instead of trying to hustle an innocent interaction into something else without stopping to let emotions catch up. As the good Doctor says, it’s all about persuasion.
Second, if you just walk up and flatly declare your interest, you are putting someone on the spot – forcing them into a response they may or may not be prepared to make, and taking control away from them in the process. For some people with some targets, that can occasionally work, but you’d better be damn sure of what you’re doing before you do it. It’s unfortunately a passive place to be – so it can be uncomfortable, which kind of kills the mood.
Third, there has to be a way to back out that’s graceful for all concerned. No one wants the ultimate embarrassment of proposing on the Big Screen at the Superbowl and being turned down.
(Doctor’s Note: I’ve seen this happen and it’s hilarious. Well.. for everyone else.)
This is actually the best part of flirting: Nothing explicit has been said. This is especially useful in that you do not say anything irrevocable or put yourself in a difficult position or back someone into a corner (and with good reason – being in a corner is a horrible place to be).
Most of the signals that are broadly societally encoded are gender-specific. This is neither a good thing nor a bad thing. The purpose of these signals is to communicate through implication and suggestion; that means we need to AGREE on what the signals are and what they mean. Since for most of our history men and women have had distinct roles, and flirting is in a way about those roles, it doesn’t seem very surprising that the signals we developed are rooted in them. If you want to change that in society, go with God; but you’ll have a lot of work ahead of you.
Most people absorb these things as part of their daily culture, and start practicing them on the playground. They assume other people will also just figure it out. As a nerd female, I had limited exposure to or understanding of all these signals. They’re implicit, right? I had no idea I should even be looking for them. Working out some of the basic garden-variety flirt signals for women wasn’t that difficult once I realized I was missing something – all that stuff about pointing your feet in someone’s general direction, twirling your hair and smiling. Heck, these days people have written piles of articles and books about all that stuff.
(Doctor’s Note: *ahem* )
Flirting with intent was a lot harder to pick up. Personally, it took me a long time to do so. I’m thinking some of my fellow female nerds would like to be saved the trouble of trying to unravel the signals for themselves – and hey, for you boys out there, maybe it will help to know how to interpret them. I’m emphatically NOT saying that these are the only tricks that work, only that these are some things I learned that seem to be broadly applicable to straights that might be useful to some other ladies out there.
Flirting with intent
Flirting with intent is particularly difficult for women. The problem is that it’s not enough to feel good or make someone else feel good – you are trying to inspire a specific response from your flirtee without actually saying so (thereby putting both of you in a bad position).
People don’t like being bossed around. Especially guys who might have a bit of concern about their rightful effect on the universe (i.e., guys on the fringe – including nerds). They kinda need to think it was their idea in the first place. Also, since standard flirting signals are gender-specific, any aggressive or directive behavior from a woman risks looking weird. When dancing, men lead, women follow; it can be totally hot to step outside those guidelines, but as with most situations it helps to know the rules if you want to break them successfully.
So, if you’re a girl, and your typical societally encoded role in the dance is to ‘follow’, how are you supposed to get the guy to ask you out?
Since the signals are implicit, they’re below the conscious radar for most people. Guys do miss them sometimes, and that’s actually kind of OK. These are subtle things; they’re not meant to be noticeable in their own right. Each one means nothing at all on its own, but taken together they add up to a pattern for how you interact that sets the tone to ‘intimate’. When done right, if both people are interested, the pattern will kind of pull you along anyway.
Step 1: Show that you’re paying attention
Yes, everyone tells you to smile. But has anyone told you how to smile?
Think for a second how many different ways you have at your command – the snarky grin, the polite up-turn of the lips, the incredulous laugh, the guilty grimace. Try this: Go into the bathroom and look at yourself in the mirror, and recall how you felt the last time you were totally surprised and delighted. See how your face lights up? That’s a good thing. Try that on your flirtee. It’s even possible to…sort of shine…in someone’s general direction without even including the smile. Warning: Don’t over-use it; you only need one or two dazzlers. Once when I was 15 I kept smiling at a guy I liked across the room; he finally came over, but it was only to ask me what was up with that shit-eating grin on my face.
Everyone also tells you about eye contact. Our own Doctor has pointed out that it’s useful to catch someone’s eye, hold it for about two seconds longer than is natural, and look away. What no one told me is that it needs to be selective eye contact. The guy has to see that you’re only trying to connect with him. When you’re not looking at him, make sure you’re not looking at anyone else. He may not know that he’s noticing, but that doesn’t mean it’s not working. After looking at him, it’s also very helpful to peek back in a second and see if he noticed; that tells him you’re paying attention to whether he’s paying attention to you.
You can also show you’re paying attention verbally. The standard active-listening techniques are useful here. Another good demonstration is to hold on to something he’s said hours or days or weeks before, and respond or refer to it later in the conversation. Say he’s crazy enough to like the last Green Lantern movie. The next time Green Lantern or movies or Ryan Reynolds or even test pilots come up, you can tease him about his terrible taste in movies. Or say he’s mentioned he’s allergic to shellfish; if you are later talking about restaurants, bring up a restaurant you like and then let him know there are things on the menu that don’t have shellfish in them. There’s an added advantage in doing this, because it builds a shared narrative, a topic the two of you can return to repeatedly – making it seem that there’s a conversation you guys are having that is just between you.
Step 2: Make him feel good
There are two parts to this: Ego-boosting and approval-seeking. And yes, they are exactly what they sound like. No matter how Neanderthal you think they are (and I did), they’re effective. These are the unwritten way of saying, “I like you; do you like me?”
A side note: In my experience, men seem to want women to be selective. Seems reasonable; what’s exciting about winning the attention of someone who will pay attention to just about anybody? That sort of person may be read as a player, a crazy person, someone who wants to take advantage or a sociopath.
So you need to be sparing with these. Act like the ego-boosting is unusual or hard won and the approval-seeking is embarrassing, and don’t lay it on too thick. Really, it’s the female version of the come-here-get-away approach the Doctor recommended: A little enthusiasm, followed by a little retreat. The Doc’s approach, conveniently, also works for girls – so you have a choice in how you push and pull.
For the ego-boosting, there are a couple of things you can try. First, if he does or says something you honestly like, all you have to do is toss out the old-fashioned compliment, or just tell him you’re impressed. If there’s something controversial you both agree on – say, confessing to a secret love for the Green Lantern movie, to continue the earlier example – all you have to do is play that up, which both validates his idea and sets up a nice little ‘two against the world’ thing.
A more complex way of ego-boosting is to ask him to do something for you – hold the door, get you a drink, help you with your coat, anything not too onerous that he can actually do without suffering. Or take advantage of a moment when he does something for you on his own. After he’s done so, reward him with a little enthusiasm: Lean in a bit, smile a little, tell him he’s great, show some gratitude. He gets to be king of the world for five seconds as a result.
It is, however, really important to not overdo this one, as you don’t want him to think you’re a golddigger who’s trying to take advantage. You want him to see you could value him, instead of him thinking he’d be your cabana boy.
The approval-seeking is the other side of the coin. Along with telling him you approve, you want to let him know you care what he thinks. The most straightforward (and therefore least effective) way of doing this is to ask for or demand his agreement or approval. “Do you like my dress?” Still, in some circumstances it can work. An alternate approach is to seek his opinion on a question of interest to you, and take it seriously. Possibly the most effective way to do this is to look away while you tell him something a little off-color or embarrassing or vulnerable (maybe a little timidly), and then watch him anxiously until he responds. This is also good because it lets him in on a little secret – more “two against the world” stuff, with the added advantage of having privileged intel.
There’s another trick that only works for some women. These women are savvy enough to know who will respond to a challenge and who will be turned off by the arrogance inherent in the approach. You start from the assumption that the man is trying to impress you, and punctuate your conversation with commentary on his progress. “Well, you get points for that, I suppose, but you’re going to have to work harder.” It seems to work best with come-hither body language and substituting an occasional self-deprecatory comment for the approval-seeking.
We’re going to leave it here for now… because we’ve got even more for you later this week. Be sure to let us know what you think in the comments thread and on the Dr. NerdLove Facebook page. And don’t forget to check back on Friday for Part 2 of Advanced Flirting for Nerd Women!