Hi Dr. NerdLove,
I’m a single female in her mid-20s and I went to a new dentist, who might be in his late-20s/early-30s, for an appointment the other day. He was extremely nice and very conversational. At first I thought he was just being nice (or indirectly flirting with his assistant – who is also young looking and beautiful).
But then he started asking me about food and restaurants, things I like, how long I plan to live in our state.
Then I saw he didn’t have a ring (which I know isn’t always a clue, but I used it) and so I started wondering, “is there more to his nice-ness?”
What are your thoughts? Was he being professional and nice to his new patient? Was he flirting with me and I have to make the move since it is his place of employment? Was he doing it to be nice around his assistant? Or something else I’m not seeing?
– Completely Confused
So this is an easy one, CC: he’s being nice.
Know how I know? Because he’s your dentist. You’re his patient. That means you are legally, ethically and professionally off-limits. It is literally against the rules for him to date or have sexual contact with his patients. Breaking that rule gets his medical license suspended, sanctioned by the ethics board and possibly thrown in jail. There was, in fact, a dentist in Ontario who was put on the sex-offender registry because of a sexual relationship he had with his patient.
His patient, for the record, was his wife.
So no. For many reasons, he was not flirting with you. And if he was flirting with you? Well… then he’s not likely to be your dentist for long. Or anyone’s, really.
(Oddly, this isn’t even the first is “is my dentist flirting with me” letter I’ve received. Did Shonda Rhimes create a show about sexy dentists that I missed?)
Now with that out of the way, let’s talk about the difference between flirting and being nice. This can be a tricky thing to suss out because… well, sometimes the answer to “are they flirting or are they being nice” is “yes”. There are a lot of reasons why somebody will flirt with customers and clients. Most of them come down to money.
Lots of folks in the service industry — especially people who work for tips or commissions — have a financial incentive to flirt. Most people in service industry jobs, especially ones like bartending, waiting tables, the shot girls at bars, even dancers at strip clubs, live and die by their tips. Anything that ups the likelihood of getting a decent tip — which can range from giving a mint with the check or putting a smiley-face and “thank you!” in the bill — can make the difference between being able to pay the rent that month or having to decide which meals they can skip so they don’t get evicted.
It’s also true that people — mostly, but not exclusively men — will spend more money if somebody flirts with them. Men are especially prone to this; it appeals to their ego and encourages them to act out. There are always guys who will want to impress women with how much money they can afford to throw around. This can result in them buying more — which increases the total tab and, theoretically, the tip — so they can show that they’re a big-shot.
There’s also the guy who thinks that tipping well will make him stand out and endear him to the server.
(It will, but not necessarily in the way that he hopes.)
And of course, there’s the gross variant of this who thinks that tipping more will create a sense of obligation; he’s “owed” something because he’s just dropped so much money on her. While you’re more likely to find dudes like this at strip clubs, they’re also known to frequent high-end bars and cocktail lounges.
This isn’t exclusively something women do, by the by. Male servers will also flirt for tips, especially male bartenders. In fact, there’re bars and clubs that’re notorious for hiring flirty male bartenders.
You can also find a variation on professional flirting at stores; a little light flirting keeps the customer entertained and can also encourage them to buy that item that the salesperson told them made them look so hot.
However, more often than not, what we tend to think of as flirting — especially in a professional setting — tends to just be professional niceness. Showing interest in someone is a quick and easy way to build a connection and make them feel good. Making them feel good means they’re more likely to associate that feeling with the brand, the restaurant, the store or the service. It’s one of the intangibles that can make the difference between somebody choosing to go to your practice or the doc-in-the-box down the street.
Of course, not all professional politeness and interest is strategic; some folks are just friendly like that. And of course, there are folks who will flirt because flirting is fun. They don’t mean anything by it, nor do they want anything out of it other than just enjoying flirting with someone.
It can be easy to mistake for flirting in part because, well, someone gives us attention — especially someone we find attractive — it feels great and we want it to mean more. We’re more likely to round it up to flirting because motivated reasoning is a hell of a drug and who doesn’t want to believe that Dr. McHotlips, DDS isn’t into us?
How can you tell if someone is actually interested? Well, to start with, you need a baseline to work from. Are they acting different with you than they do with other customers or other clients? If they aren’t singling you, specifically out for special and sustained attention, then probably not. The bartender who keeps coming back to talk with you, even when the bar is busy, is giving you more of an indication that they like you more than the typical customer… but that doesn’t mean that they’re necessarily interested in more than conversation.
Similarly, does their job require them to flirt? Are their wages enhanced by being perceived as being more than professionally interested? Again: the odds are better that this is professional flirting, not genuine interest.
Also: what kinds of questions are they asking? Are they asking typical getting to know you questions, or are they asking questions that might give some idea of your relationship status? Are they acting in a way that you would expect from a person who’s interested in you exclusively platonically, or are they being a little more teasing, a little more tempting? Flirting is, in a lot of ways, the dance of getting someone interested in doing something. It can help to think of flirting as trying to get somebody to jump into the pool that they’re worried may be too cold; flirting is the process of inviting them to dip their toe in and doesn’t the water look inviting? Now to be fair: asking the usual getting to know you questions can be the start of flirting. After all, much as with making small talk, you have to build up to flirting; it’s rarely a good idea to dive right in. However, someone who’s flirting will usually move past those standard questions and towards asking more personal things that might tell them if you’re single, or gauge your interest in them. Asking you your feelings about, say, Perkins, generally doesn’t rise to the level of flirting.
Asking a new client about their life, especially basic “oh, you’re new in town!” questions are all fairly standard. Hell, every dentist and hygienist I’ve ever been to has been chatty like that… made slightly more ironic by them asking those questions when wrist deep in your mouth with sharp objects. Though that is, admittedly, better than the dentist I had who thought it was the height of comedy to ask me “Is it safe? Is it safe?” during check-ups and cleanings.
But over all, the best way to determine flirting vs. professional niceness is ultimately about time. Individual signals don’t mean much on their own and they’re easy to miss. If someone is continuing to send indications of interest over a period of time — let’s say more than 10 minutes, for convenience’s sake — then that’s a better sign that they’re flirting than trying to read the tea-leaves in the questions they ask.
But, again: if flirting would get them into a metric fuck-ton of hot water, professionally and legally? Then it’s best to assume that they’re not flirting after all.
Dear Dr. NerdLove:
I got married at 20, separated at 29 and divorced at 31. It was amicable, I decided I wanted kids, he didn’t and he lost his faith. It took me a while to get back to dating; in my religion, divorce is looked down on and finding a man who didn’t find that a dealbreaker was hard. We are dating with the intentions of marriage, and hopefully children, because I am almost 36 and will be high risk. Due to our religion, we haven’t had sex yet, until marriage. The pandemic happened, I live with my parents since my divorce and they are high risk. I have not seen my boyfriend in 6 months because he is a first responder.
My friends had a zoom night recently, and my ex was present (I was informed and made the decision to go along). In the background, his new partner said hi and then left the Zoom, and it was obvious she was pregnant. And that hurts. I made an excuse to leave the Zoom and cried all night, and then looked her up on social media. I’ve met her before, at a few mutual friend’s functions over the years-she’s been with my ex for the past four years and she’s been lovely. But she’s also beautiful, thin and small while I’ve always been bigger and taller (an inch shorter than my ex), we don’t look anything alike, I’m white and she’s Asian, she’s smarter than me (she’s got her PhD and I only got a college degree when I was in my mid twenties) and she’s younger than me. And from our friends say the perfect match for my ex.
My friends mentioned that my ex was interested in coming into more Zoom calls (before they have been alternating us) and if that would be fine. I want to be the better person and say yes, because I don’t want my ex, I am happy he is happy, I love my boyfriend, these are his friends too. But because his partner will obviously be in the background (they live together, something I can’t do with my boyfriend), and she’s obviously pregnant, I don’t want to see it. Because she got everything, I wanted in my life — even if I don’t want it with that man anymore. She still got it, and I don’t know how I can deal with that without being upset that my ex didn’t want kids with me — but with this younger, beautiful woman who isn’t married and just got everything I wanted, and what I might never be able to have.
I don’t want to never zoom with my friends, and I know that alternating zooms was annoying to all of them but what do I do?
There’re a couple things you can do, ZR.
The first is that you could start hosting your own Zoom nights. In fact, you could hold several, with different groups of friends at each one. This nicely avoids the issues of asking for alternating Zoom schedules, but also means that you don’t have to give up hanging with your friends.
Plus, this can help you have a better time with your friends overall. You don’t necessarily need to have a Zoom with all of your friends at once; in fact, those can get out of hand pretty quickly. Even when folks are all in the same physical space, we only have the capacity to follow so many conversations at once. More often than not, we can only really have about 4 people in the same conversation; once you add a fifth person in, the conversation tends to split in a 3:2 ratio. Three people keep participating in the “main” conversation, while two break off in a side conversation, often having little to do with the conversation that brought the fifth person over in the first place. A smaller, more intimate virtual gathering may make it easier to stay connected with folks and really catch up, instead of being one voice in a large group trying to be heard.
The second thing you can do is to work on finding ways of connecting with your partner. That separation, I suspect, is at the heart of a lot of this. I think you’re feeling lost and abandoned, even though it’s circumstance keeping you apart, not him. But because you’re feeling deprived and isolated, and especially because you struggled meeting someone new, it’s causing things to hit you harder than they might otherwise.
That includes your ex and his girlfriend. Because to be perfectly honest: your ex’s girlfriend has nothing to do with you, and you’re making it about you.
So this is going to be hard to hear but honestly: his relationship with his girlfriend isn’t a commentary on you or your time together. This is a thing people get hung up on all the time: we tend to look at our exes new partners in comparison to ourselves. If we can see them as being lesser, somehow then we either get to gloat a little (“Ha ha, you’ll never do as good as me”) or be mystified (“Wait, that’s what you went for after you broke up with me?”). But if we see them as being a step up from us somehow — could be looks, could be education, whatever — we take that shit personally. We assume that it’s a way of rubbing our faces in the dirt by not just ignoring the contract they didn’t know they signed which states that they’re condemned to be sexless and single for the rest of their lives upon ending their relationship with us, but by choosing a partner specifically to slight us in some fashion. And the more sensitive we are to some quality in ourselves — height, build, career, whatever — the more likely we are to assume that a new partner having those qualities is a swipe at us, specifically.
But it’s not.
While nobody dates in a vacuum and we’re all influenced by the people we’ve spent time with, we don’t go around picking partners to make a statement about (or to) our exes. More importantly: we all change and grow in the interim, and things that may have been true or in effect at one point may no longer be true down the line. Those changes are almost never about the partner, former or current, but about the person. The fact that he didn’t want kids back then doesn’t mean that his deciding he wants them now means that you were the issue. It means that he, his life and his circumstances have all changed. And a lot can change after 7 years. Hell a lot can change in a single year; just look at how 2020 has affected people, changed their minds, shifted their priorities and changed their relationships.
The man you were married to way back when was a different person. So where you. He’s changed. So have you. What you want and need from a partner and from life is different, even if it’s only in small ways. So it is with him. He didn’t slot somebody else into your relationship with him and gave her all the things you wanted. He built a new relationship, which was different from the one he had with you, with a new person. Just as you are building a new one with your current beau.
So right now, I think the bigger issue is finding ways to feel more connected with him. That can be frustrating, I get it, and circumstances make it even harder to see each other. After all, his being a front-line responder means that he can still potentially spread the virus, even after he gets the vaccine. But a thing to hold onto is this: this is all coming to an end. The vaccine is being distributed. People are getting their shots. It’s not going as fast as any of us would like, but it is ending. Realizing that the end is in sight can make it easier to grit your teeth and white-knuckle your way through this, at least until your folks can get the vaccine.
Let your relationship with your ex stay in the past, where it belongs; right now it’s just interfering with your present and casting doubt on your future. Focus on what you do have and making the most of it. You may not have a lot, but you can turn it into more than it seems. That can help you hold on and ride out this rough patch.
And in the meantime: host your own Zoom nights with different groups of friends. It’ll be easier all around; they won’t have to deal with alternating schedules and you won’t be sandpapering your soul every time you join in.