I see a lot of advice about what confidence looks like in men (body language, especially), but I don’t know what confidence looks like for me as a woman. Most flirting behavior for women seems to be based on submission cues, but everyone says to be “confident” while flirting.
While I know submissive confidence is possible from BDSM experience, I think things might be different outside of that specific context. I’m very used to and comfortable with employing masculine confidence in my professional life as an engineer, but I have no idea how feminine confidence would work.
How is masculine vs feminine confidence the same or different, especially for flirting and dating?
— Show, Don’t Tell
Confidence is one of those concepts that tends to get confusing really quickly in situations like these, because of how broad of a term it can be and how much people conflate it with other concepts. A lot of people, for example, think that confidence is the knowledge that you can’t fail or that you have all these successes behind you that “prove” you can do something. Others see confidence as believing that you’re the hottest shit jumping out of the coffee pot.
And honestly, while I think you could make the argument that most of these are forms of confidence, in practical terms, they’re also misleading. For example, incredibly accomplished people are often the least confident. People who have an almost absurd level of accomplishments, education and experience are frequently subject to imposter syndrome and feel like their success is a fluke or a fraud. The issue isn’t how much they know or that they’ve accomplished, it’s their awareness of how much they don’t know. This is also why I don’t by into the idea that you can only develop confidence through success; it’s all too easy to succeed without knowing why or believing that you deserved it.
Similarly, you can believe in yourself to the point of delusion, but that isn’t confidence nor is it terribly attractive. That’s not confidence, that’s arrogance.
Confidence, especially when it comes to dating, isn’t about what you have or haven’t done, it’s in what you understand about yourself. It’s recognizing that failing at something doesn’t make you a failure, that you can not succeed and survive and move forward. It’s about realizing that fear is often just that: fear. It’s something you can overcome. And it’s about having enough belief in yourself that you don’t crumble under the weight of someone else’s opinion.
Part of the point of confident body-language, for example, is about what it says about you. Folding in on yourself, standing hunched over and with your arms wrapped protectively around yourself tells people that you don’t believe you have the right to the space you occupy. It signals to people that you don’t believe in yourself or your own value and so you try to avoid notice and not come in contact or conflict with others. Standing up straight, however, with your shoulders back and your arms loose and relaxed, on the other hand, signals the opposite. You’re not afraid of people taking notice of you, and you are entitled to your space. It’s a sign of your belief in your own worth and capability. You don’t believe that your mere existence is an affront to others; you believe that you have value and aren’t afraid to say so.
Of course, by that same token, someone who sprawls and takes up excess space or infringes on the personal space of others, is exhibiting arrogance and entitlement, not confidence.
So, let’s look at confidence in a dating context — especially for women. Now, I would argue that a lot of the styles of flirting that’re coded as female aren’t submission cues; quite the opposite in fact. While (cis) women’s flirting signals may be subtle, they aren’t necessarily submissive. They’re taking the initiative to send messages… just in ways that are based around current social mores and expectations around gender. The classic “make eye contact, look away, look back and smile”, for example, isn’t a sign of submission. It’s sending the message of “I’ve seen you looking at me, I’ve caught you looking at me again, which means the first wasn’t a fluke, and y’know what? I approve.” That sequence of behaviors isn’t submission, it’s permission — an indication that she would be receptive to someone coming over and saying hello. Moving into close proximity with someone — either during conversation or as a means of facilitating an approach — is likewise about showing interest and giving permission; it’s a way of saying “I’m comfortable with your physical presence” and “I want to make it easier for you to start talking to me”, respectively. Preening behavior like straightening clothes or adjusting one’s hair is about making sure one is presenting oneself in the best light.
And while an argument could be made that being subtle or sending an approach invitation is submissive because they’re not initiating overtly, it’s also true that a lot of women who flirt openly and directly tend to be punished for doing so — often socially, sometimes physically. But, importantly, women who flirt like this aren’t passively waiting for people to come to them or are just being receptive to anyone who comes along. They’re taking the initiative in a way that encourages the people they’re interested in to come over and say hello. While these signals aren’t as overt or obvious as the ways men tend to flirt, it’s showing interest and giving the other person an opportunity to make their move. They’re clearing the path, as it were… especially since some guys may want to approach but are hesitant to do so.
That’s confidence. It’s an expression of confidence that’s based in part on the social expectations built up around gender… but it’s still confidence. In communities or social groups where there’re fewer restrictions around gender expression — or where women feel comfortable and safe expressing themselves openly — a lot of the ways that women flirt or show interest tends to be similar to the way men do.
Where confidence comes in isn’t in how overt or covert you act, but in the willingness to own your interest and act on it and to accept the risk of being ignored or rejected. Somebody who stammers and stumbles while trying to talk to someone, but continues to do so rather than running away is displaying confidence. Hesitantly asking somebody out on a date or blushing and being embarrassed while trying to tell someone you like them is being confident. The confidence isn’t about the smoothness or the skill, it’s about doing it at all. Smoothness and skill comes from experience. Confidence is recognizing that being turned down will suck, but you’ll get over it… and so you accept the risk of rejection in order to have the chance to get what you want.
Being willing to express yourself, even when other people disagree is confidence. Not backing down or giving in at the first sign of trouble, resistance or disagreement is confidence. Recognizing that you can overcome inexperience and survive failure are all forms of confidence. Being willing to own your place in the world — physically as well as metaphorically — are forms of confidence.
So in terms of what it looks like: it looks like taking action, because confidence comes from action. It looks like standing one’s metaphorical ground. It looks like making the attempt, even in the face of fear or anxiety. And it looks like advocating for your own interests and needs.
While yes, this sounds incredibly vague or unspecific, that’s because the emotion behind it is more important than the outward expression. How you express confidence is going to depend on the context and situation, and so it’s going to change according to circumstances. It doesn’t automatically mean refusing to use soft language — especially when there may be times that doing so risks your job — nor does it mean being brash and brassy when you’re into somebody. It means doing what needs to be done in that moment, in the way that it needs to be done.
To paraphrase a certain general: be afraid… but do it anyway.
A bit of background first; I’m a 26 year old hetero male who is a virgin and never had a girlfriend, and no dating experience. Last year I discovered your work after a difficult few years at undergrad. Since reading your columns my attitude has gone from “finding a woman who is interested in me is completely unrealistic” to “I can work on my presentation and skills and give myself a chance”. In the past I have had very bad experiences with oneitis but feel I have made progress in developing an abundance mentality as I have been taking my life and my career in the direction I want it to go.
After a year of work in my hometown I moved to a new city for postgrad, although everything was under lockdown due to the pandemic, meaning my debut to dating so far has been put on hold. Things are starting to open up, but my course ends in five months and I will be moving away again for work, possibly overseas. I am unsure of how often I might need to move for work in the future too.
So my question is, how do I date and gain dating experience when I will be moving away? I have always longed for a long term relationship, but due to me relocating I would need to look for something short term, but I’m not sure how I would look for this kind of relationship without making a potential date feel like she’s wasting her time with me.
All the best
The first obvious answer is that long-distance relationships are a thing. They’re not easy, and they work best when there’s a point where you both know it won’t be an LDR any more, but they are possible. The ubiquity of messaging and video apps make them much easier and more manageable in ways that they weren’t even 20 years ago.
However, I wouldn’t necessarily recommend one for your first relationship, or even while you’re trying to get established with your career.
I think the problem you’re having LN, is that you seem to be dismissing the value of a short-term relationship.
Now, this is understandable. Our entire culture tends to put all the emphasis on long-term relationships. All of our stories, songs, movies and TV shows lionize and romanticize the idea that relationships are better the longer they are. According to pop culture, the ideal relationship only ends when one or both partners die in the saddle after a lifetime together. Short term relationships are seen as being shallow, less important, less meaningful and less desirable. If you can’t commit for the long-haul, then don’t bother.
And that, frankly, is bullshit. Not every love story is meant to be an epic poem, nor should they be. Some are meant to be short stories. Some are just meant to be dirty limericks. The length of a relationship doesn’t determine its worth or value; the connection and the emotions do. If you have a happy relationship that lasts for four months before the two of you go your separate ways, then you’ve both had a meaningful and valuable experience. If you end that relationship and still have affection and respect for one another — even if you’re not actively in each other’s lives as friends or what-have-you — then that was a successful relationship.
It’s understandable that you worry that any potential date would feel like you’re wasting her time. But the thing is: that’s not an issue about prioritizing short-term relationships, that’s an issue about compatibility. That’s a case where you and your date simply have different goals want different relationships. Realistically speaking, that’s not different between going on a date with someone where one person wants kids and the other doesn’t.
The way that you avoid this is to be up front about what you want, what you’re looking for and what you have to offer. Being straightforward about just looking for something short-term or that you aren’t looking for long-term commitment, just someone like-minded who isn’t looking for a relationship that leads to the house, white picket fence and 2.5 kids (or, y’know, the nifty condo or whatever). And there are women out there who prefer short term relationships. There are people who prefer variety and who don’t stay in relationships for very long. There’re people who need that new-relationship energy and tend to bounce when it starts to fade. And there are people who are cool with taking life as it comes, who want to have fun times with a cool guy and aren’t looking for or interested in a lifelong commitment.
Being clear about this and up front with people you date — in your dating profile on the apps or talking about it early on when you’re getting to know someone — gives potential partners to opt in, rather than their assuming one things and then discovering that they have to opt out of what is actually on offer. While this may mean that there’re first dates that don’t lead to second dates… that also means that you aren’t spending time and energy on a person who is ultimately not on the same page with you.
So date casually or date short term but monogamously, but date. Just be clear: there’s a hard deadline where you’ll be moving, and it may be a long time before you’re settled in any one place for a while. The people who are cool with this will opt in, the ones who aren’t will peace out. And then later on, you may well find yourself in a short term relationship that just doesn’t end until years or decades later.