Hi Dr. NerdLove,
I recently discovered your site and first of all want to say – where have you been my entire (romantic) life?? Reading through your archive has already given me insights into the mechanics of flirting and bonding rituals that have mystified me for years – and I was pleased to see that my instincts must be getting better, as I’ve somehow managed to land on some of the aspects of flirting you’ve laid out with my Prospective Companion. (At least I think I have. I hope I have. Shit. Must not overthink.) I’d also like to say that as a nerdy woman, it’s really nice to see a resource that breaks down romantic behaviours for us analytical types – while not only avoiding, but actively eschewing sexist PUA tropes. Thank you for that.
Now on to my question: I would be really interested in seeing a post that breaks down how one distinguishes between a person signaling an interest in friendship and a person signaling an interest in a romantic relationship. Because it seems to me that many of the behaviours that signal a person is romantically interested could be fairly interchangeable with someone with whom you get on really well as a friend (e.g., teasing, Duchenne smiles, remembering small details from previous conversations). And logically, that makes sense, since flirting and friendship are ultimately about producing/reinforcing some sort of emotional bond. Granted, there’s the physical proximity thing, but even that can get a bit muddled as I often find that I’ll sit quite close to my friends or lean into them while looking at something on their phone – and to make matters even more confusing, because I suffer from social anxiety, I actually tend to instinctively increase my physical distance, face away, and avoid eye contact when I am attracted to someone, because I get painfully nervous (and I imagine the same may go for others dealing with the lovely anxiety beast).
In the past, I’ve misinterpreted signals from people I thought were ‘just friends’, and I’ve also long been quite petrified of misreading a guy’s ‘just friends’ signals as something more. So:
1) How does one distinguish between ‘friend’ signals and ‘potential romantic partner’ signals?
2) How does one determine whether someone is flirting/interested when communication is mainly online? I’ve noticed that despite the increasing prevalence of people forming friendships and romantic relationships online (particularly in the nerd/geek community), the topic of ‘reading signals’ from online behaviour is rarely addressed.
3) What happens to flirting dynamics when you’re *both* socially anxious/awkward/generally terrible at the whole dating thing?
Thanks again for a great resource!!
– Crap Time Lord
As a general rule, the biggest difference between “friend” signals and signaling romantic or sexual interest is, well, sex. Attraction is, after all, a mix of emotional and physical chemistry; if all you you are doing is trying to build an emotional connection while neglecting the physical aspects, then you’re going to have a platonic relationship instead of a sexual one.
Touching is one of the biggest differences; while touchiness and comfort with physical proximity is highly cultural, there are differences in how you touch someone who you’re interested in getting to know as a potential BFF and someone you’re hoping to see naked. For example, while we may let friends into our personal space, we tend to move closer – or allow others to come closer – to us than we would friends and acquaintances; this is known as “intimate” space and it’s usually reserved for very close friends, family members and lovers.
Generally, the more interested someone is in you physically, the more likely they are to move touch up the intimacy ladder. For example, you’re unlikely to sit with your legs pressed against a friend’s legs unless you have no room to space out; however, to a couple looking for some quality naked time, putting your leg against the other person’s – moreso, if you’re sitting across from one another – is a flirting signal. Even the way you lean in can make a difference; a friend isn’t likely to lean into someone in such a way that it presses her breasts against the other person unless the two already have a comfortable and intimate friendship. Similarly, friendly hugs are usually an a-frame – strictly upper body contact while keeping the lower bodies apart. As a general rule, lighter touches, such as gentle brushes with the fingertips, tend to be flirtier than the palm of the hand firmly on the shoulder.
Someone who’s flirting or interested in another person as a potential romantic or sexual partner will also tend to preen and show themselves off a little. Both men and women will make points of adjusting and straightening clothes when they’re interested in someone, as an attempt to fluff up their appearance in hopes of impressing the other person. The hair-toss is a classic sign that women give – not always consciously – because it draws the eye to her face and neck. A man will stand up a little straighter, puff out his chest (and suck in his gut).
Flirting and antagonistic teasing also tends to have more of a sexual edge than basic friendly ribbing. Flirty teases tend to be more challenging rather than just ego-poking; the unspoken message is “show me that you’re worth it” or “I dare you to try”. One of my go-to’s for absolutely intense flirting is to watch Vesper Lynde and James Bond square off on the train to Montenegro in Casino Royale; the tension between the two of them is palpable even as they jab one another.
But the key to picking up on signals is to watch for clusters of signs – signals that come either directly on top of the others or occurring in close proximity. One sign could be anything, so you want to watch for groups of three or four; this is known amongst body language experts as the “rule of four”. This helps you sort the signal from the noise and cut down on false positives. For a geeky example, watch how Han Solo and Leia Organa act and react around each other all throughout The Empire Strikes Back – you’ll see how their teasing is more challenging, how Han closes the distance from social to intimate and how Leia responds to him.
But if you’re unsure or you and the person you’re interested in are both anxious and feeling awkward about the whole thing? Through subtlety out the window and just use your words. It’s a lot harder to be misunderstood when you tell someone you really like them and want to go on a date/make out/what-have-you.
Dear Doctor NerdLove
I’ll keep this short. I’m a 26 year old white male virgin that has resolved to never, under any circumstances, get into a relationship or go on a date. I’m basically a messed up, selfish man-baby with the attractiveness of a congealed block of walrus fat.
I also think I might be bisexual.
I’ve been thinking about it for the past few months and it’s been bothering me that I can’t figure it out one way or the other. I don’t want to just say whatever, because if I am bi, then my actions can reflect badly on the bisexual community. They don’t need another asshole straight guy saying he’s bi because it makes him “special” or whatever.
So, is there anyway to know for sure without actually dating anyone?
Well, my first suggestion would be that you might want to talk to someone about your self-image issues. You don’t sound like you’re at all happy with yourself and that’s not a great place to be in general, whether you’re looking to date or not.
Now as for your question: your sexual identity exists regardless whether you’re dating someone or whether you’ve had sex or not. When I was still a virgin, I wasn’t pre-straight or in some state of sexual flux; I was a hetero guy who just hadn’t had sex yet. Being bisexual isn’t defined by who you sleep with, it’s defined by who you’re attracted to. Now, there are people who’ll insist that someone who says they’re bi isn’t actually bisexual unless they’ve banged men and women… but we call those people assholes and you can disregard their opinions accordingly.
And while there are issues surrounding the bi community – usually involving bi erasure or people insisting that bisexuality either doesn’t exist or is a stepping stone towards hetero or homosexuality – but I don’t think there’s a rash of dudes claiming to be bisexual in order to feel like a special snowflake. But hey, maybe I’m wrong and this is a thing with the younger crowds. Regardless: while it’s good to not want to claim an identity that doesn’t actually represent you, worrying about how it will “reflect badly on the bisexual community” is kind of absurd. While I can understand that there can be pressure to be a “model minority” (as it were), not wanting to explore your sexuality and get a handle on things for fear of being a bad example is equally as absurd. Be your authentic self; if you’re worried about being an bisexual asshole, then the problem is “asshole”, not “bi”.
So how do you figure it out? Well… who do you think of when you masturbate? Kate Upton or John Barrowman? Kerry Washington? Anthony Mackie? Anne Hathaway? Charming Tater? Sebastian Stan and Chris Evans wresting in an increasingly intimate embrace?
Watch some porn – gay and straight – and see what your junk responds to. If you’re asexual, then see who you respond to in other ways; who do you see as your dream partner?
One thing you should keep in mind is that sexuality isn’t binary, even in bisexuality. Just because someone’s bi doesn’t mean that they’re into men and women equally; bisexuality and attraction can fall on a spectrum. Someone who’s bi may prefer men but have an attraction to some women. They may have emotional relationships with women exclusively but are willing to have casual, NSA sex with men. And honestly, a same-sex (or opposite sex) attraction doesn’t that you’re bi. Some folks will occasionally find themselves interested in an individual who’s not their preferred gender; for whatever reason, that person just hits them in exactly the right way that others don’t.
Which is a long-winded way of saying “holy shit, sex is complicated, ya’ll.”
Don’t stress out about the labels – including being a virgin. You don’t need to label yourself one way or the other and treating this as some quest that must be fulfilled is only going to stress you out unnecessarily. Just see it as spending a little time getting to know yourself (and your junk). You can sort out what to call it later.
But seriously. Go talk to a counselor. It’ll help.
So, I’m 27 years old and I’ve never been in a relationship. I’ve always been nervous about pushing for anything more than friendship, and to be perfectly honest, I was actually okay with that… Until recently.
I met this girl a few months ago, having relocated to find work, and I feel completely lost. Suddenly, I’m focused on losing weight and exercising, I’m trying to develop better interests, and I spend a lot of time thinking about starting a family.
The problem? She has a boyfriend.
I feel like I’m genuinely in love, but I have no idea what I’m supposed to do or how I’m supposed to act. I see her and her family a lot, since my best friend is married to her and her family’s best friend. I’ve always been fairly negative about myself, but when I’m around her, that all just disappears. She makes me want to be a better person, but I’m also terrified that it still won’t be enough. I think she likes me well enough as a friend, but I don’t know if I should tell her how I feel, or if I should just keep these feelings bottled up unless she just happens to break up with this guy?
For that matter, having been really overweight when I initially met her, am I just kind of doomed to always fit that initial first-impression?
– a Helpless Romantic
Dude, you know what’s up here, you’re just hoping I’m going to give you a different answer. She’s got a boyfriend and she’s not giving you any signals. Telling her how you feel isn’t going to change anything except make shit unnecessarily awkward and hanging around just “in case” she breaks up with him is a deeply shitty thing to do to somebody who thinks you’re her friend.
Look, I get why you’re doing this, even if you’re not: you’re chasing after somebody who’s unavailable because they’re safe. You don’t have to worry about having to measure up to a relationship or screwing up and getting dumped because you know on some level that this isn’t going to happen. Living in hope without expectation of actual fulfillment is considerably less intimidating than having to actually be in a relationship. But being a Nice GuyTM isn’t the answer. If you want to find a relationship, then you need to let go of this unrealizable crush and take some risks, pursuing women who are not just available but actually interested in you.
Let this one go, man. Holding on is only going to bring you pain and hold you back from achieving your true potential.
You’re on a good path right now, don’t screw that up by getting hung up on someone you know isn’t into you. You can be better than this.