I’d like to clear up an issue that – going by the comments both here and on the Facebook page – a lot of guys are having.
A lot of guys seem to have hit a sort of information overload when it comes to worrying about coming across as creepy. They may have read about behaviors that often come off as creepy or articles like Schrodinger’s Rapist and inadvertently took away all the wrong lessons. They’ve become so overwhelmed by the worry that they’re going to come across as a creeper – and thus, destroy any chances of getting a date – that they tend to freeze up or become even more anxious about meeting new women than they had been before. Where they were nervous before, now they’re practically crippled by approach anxiety, assuming that to approach any woman without an engraved invitation is tantamount to creeper behavior.
The underlying issue here is a common one, especially amongst folks who are a little less experienced or adept at dating: they’re coming at it from the wrong mental model. They’re approaching dating as though it were safe-cracking or bomb-disposal; one teeny-tiny mistake and BOOM!! Everything is ruined foreverrrrrr.
In fact, dating – much like sex – is more akin to a musical performance; a jam session amongst friends or improv between jazz musicians. Yes, there will be times when you hit a discordant note or you fail to harmonize with your partner, but that doesn’t necessarily ruin the whole experience. As one professional musician has told me: if you start strong and finish strong, people will forgive the occasional wrong note.
In other words: it ain’t the mistake you make, it’s how you follow it up.
The key is learning to tell that you’ve made a mistake and learning how to avoid making them in the first place.
This is the process by which we achieve social calibration.
What Is Social Calibration?
The easiest way to describe social calibration is “the ability to correctly read and negotiate social situations”. Social calibration means being able to read social cues and respond to them appropriately. It means being able to make people react in the way that you want them to, whether it’s to put them at ease and make them comfortable or to make them excited or aroused. Someone who is socially well-calibrated is more at ease with dealing with people because he or she understands what to expect from them and how to interact and influence with them.
Side note: extroversion or introversion is an entirely different matter from social calibration. One can not deal well with large groups but still be socially successful in a one-on-one situation, just as one can be great at working a room but lousy when dealing with people on an individual basis.
It means being able to find an individual’s boundaries – the better to not cross them or to come as close as possible without going over them. It means knowing how to recover if you do end up causing offense or distress.
When you accidentally upset someone, how do you react? Do you smooth things over or do you try to explain why it’s not fair for them to be upset? Are you able to keep your head, apologize and explain your intent, or do you freak out and end up making things worse?
Social calibration also means knowing what works for you. One mistake I see people make on a regular basis is trying to imitate someone without regard to how well that person’s style or personality meshes with their own, not realizing that what works for one person doesn’t work for another. My friend Rubio from the second episode of the Dr. NerdLove podcast, for example, may be able to get away with using astoundingly offensive humor when flirting with a woman and make her not only laugh but appreciate him for being offensive because his use of humor is part of is personality. If I were to try to say something similar1 to a woman then I’d likely end up slapped or wearing her drink or both2. He is also incredibly well calibrated, socially; he knows exactly where the line is and just how close to it he can get without going over.
So how do we become more socially calibrated?
Understand The Context
Being able to read the context of a situation and understand how to adapt to it is an important part of proper social calibration and part of how we avoid awkwardness. It’s a means of displaying that, yes, we understand the implied social contract and are willing to follow it.
Context ultimately colors how we interpret everything; telling a raunchy joke at a rowdy bar is socially acceptable. Telling the exact same joke at a Catholic baptism, on the other hand, is not. Similarly, approaching a woman alone at night will be interpreted differently than if you approach the same woman in the same location and in the exact same manner at high noon instead.
The social context of a situation dictates the expectations of the participants and thus affects the rules of what’s socially acceptable; you can get away with being more overtly sexual in your flirting at a nightclub, for example, than you could at a coffeeshop. Similarly, many bars are considered locations where it is not only socially acceptable to meet people but an expected part of the social contract; if someone is at a bar that caters to a more socially active crowd – a DJ, open floorspace for mingling, mixed drink specials – it can generally be assumed that they are open to meeting new people.
On the other hand, a bookstore would require a different approach. Where a nightclub or a bar is a vibrant, high-energy location, bookstores are calm, soothing places.
Trying to approach a woman browsing the mystery section of Barnes and Noble the same way you would approach her when you see her ordering a Cosmo at a rowdy singles bar is going to get you some very odd looks at best and make her feel uncomfortable; it’s completely out of keeping with the accepted social context. In a club, you’re expected to be more energetic and outgoing. In a bookstore, maintaining that same level of energy would make you seem as though you did too much crank and just got done disassembling your stereo.
Improving your social calibration demands that you become a more observant person. You need to become more in tune with other people’s reactions and signals; the better you can read them, the better you can respond to them.
When it comes to dating, being able to read the body language and tonality of the person you’re flirting with means that you’re better able to tailor your interactions with them. It’s entirely too easy to put all of our attention on what people are saying and end up ignoring all of the cues and messages that they’re sending with their behavior that completely changes the meaning. Women -as I have said before – are socialized to be polite and deferential to others, even when it’s an inconvenience to them; they will stay in a conversation, for example, for far longer than they would want to simply because they don’t want to appear rude and can’t find a socially acceptable way of exiting the situation.
It’s these subtle cues that shape the interaction; the better you become at picking them up, the better your calibration.
For example, you’re having a conversation with a woman you’re attracted to. How is she reacting? Is she keeping her attention focused on you, or are her eyes starting to flit around the room? Is she relaxed or starting to shift her weight from one foot to the other? These little signs let you know whether she’s interested in what you have to say or whether she’s getting ready to walk away. If she’s laughing, is it a full-throated laugh or polite and brittle? If she’s smiling at you, is it a polite smile or does it reach up to her eyes?
If you touch her, does she tense up or does she relax into your touch? When you take your hand away, does she respond by touching you in turn?
Being able to notice these little signs and tells are not only how we tell whether the person you’re talking to is into you, but also part of how to avoid being creepy by accident; people will let you know through their body language that you’re toeing the line far before you cross them.
Congruence is the property of being suitable or in harmony with the circumstance or situation. When it comes to social situations, congruence is important; being incongruent will be distracting at best. At the worst, it’ll actively make people uncomfortable.
Congruence is part of why understanding context is so important; if you’re coming up to someone at Whole Foods with the same bouncy energy that you might have if you were at a club to hear your favorite band, you’re going to seem incredibly off. You’ll be incongruent with the location and the unspoken rules that govern the location and your interaction.
Similarly, you may be telling her about all the fun you had at ACL, but your body-language is all off. Your story about how you bluffed your way backstage says you’re trying to show her that you’re an outgoing, adventurous person with oodles of confidence but your hunched-over, shifty body language is saying that you’re nervous and have low self-esteem. It may have actually happened, but your mouth is saying completely different things from your body.
For that matter, dressing like a banker and talking about how you love restoring Harley-Davidson panheads will cause people to scratch their heads; you may be telling the truth, but what you’re saying is completely at odds at the way you’re presenting yourself.
Being incongruent is a sign of poor calibration. It tells people that you aren’t attuned to the social dynamics of the situation, whether it be the situation or your identity.
Trial And Error
Improving your social calibration means playing a lot of trial and error.
Too many folks who lack in social experience are terrified of making mistakes; they are so afraid of the potential consequences of a screw-up (i.e. coming off as creepy, getting rejected) that they’d rather not do anything unless they’re 100% sure that they won’t blow it. Which is, ultimately the exact wrong thing to do.
Straight talk: there is no way of getting better calibrated socially that doesn’t involve being willing to go out, take risks and make mistakes. Just as you can’t get good at playing guitar without practice, you can’t get more adept at reading and negotiating social situations without going out and taking part in those situations. You have to give yourself permission to screw up… because that’s the only way you’re going to learn. If you end up accidentally crossing a line you didn’t know was there or committing some social faux pas, you now know not to do it again. Screwing up in practice is how you avoid screwing up in the future when it counts.
Take dates, relationships and sex out of the equation; accept that you’re going out specifically to practice being more social. It can feel a little odd to think of using people as practice and being willing to essentially burn an approach in the name of self-improvement, but it’s the best way to improve. Acknowledge that you’re making sacrifices in the short term because you know it’s going to pay off for you in the long term. It doesn’t matter if you screw up because you’re not focused on getting laid, you’re focused on getting better at being able to interact with people… which will get you crazy laid in the future.
But What If You Screw Up?
So what if you do? What if you end up creeping someone out? Or insulting them? Or commit any of the death-by-a-thousand-cuts mistakes that kill a social interaction?
Simple: you apologize, you take a step back (occasionally literally) and if things are bad enough, you cut your losses and go.
Just because you fucked up doesn’t automatically mean that you’ve failed and you’re being entered into the Undatable Creepers registry. It just means you made a mistake and the sooner you get over the idea that one mistake is instantly fatal to attraction, the more relaxed you will be.
Not every mistake is an unrecoverable, game-ending disaster; a sincere apology can make the difference between being able to salvage the situation and having to give up and try again with someone else.
And you may well find that it’s in pulling out from a downward spiral that you learn the most.
There’s a saying in pick-up circles that’s fitting: the first thousand rejections don’t count. Those first thousand rejections aren’t about you, they’re part of the learning process; they’re no different then all the wrong notes when you’re studying guitar or every missed shot when you’re practicing free-throws. Before you work through those first thousand rejections you’re not even in the game yet; you’re still building up the skillset that will mean you get rejected less and less as you improve.
People like to say that dating is a numbers game; if you approach hundreds women, eventually you’ll find one to date. But the better calibrated you are, the better you are at understanding and fitting in with the social dynamics, the fewer approaches you’ll have to make. Being better socially calibrated means you’re not hitting her creepy vibe or accidentally getting yourself rejected… and that means you’re able to spend more time finding the person that’s right for you.