After publishing yesterday’s Sound Advice Thursday about whether flirting in public places is welcomed or dreaded by women, I received a really thoughtful response from a guy I know, disagreeing with my advice and giving me another perspective on the issue. I’d like to share his comments and then offer my own response today. Here is what he wrote:
As a single guy, I’ve got to disagree with your post on flirting. The guy didn’t ask if he should have straight-up asked her out, he was just asking if he should have engaged her in conversation to see if that was even a possibility. After a friendly hello and some meaningless chat about the weather, the elevator or some recent news story, the guy would have known if she was open to anything more. If an attempt at conversation by a guy constitutes hitting on a girl (and not merely a prelude to hitting on), and you think the rule should be that in non-bar settings only women should initiate flirting, then you’ve effectively limited all flirting/hitting on to bars and parties. Girls almost never make the first move; and when they do, it’s more in the line of showing receptivity to a move–like smiling–than making an actual move like initiating conversation or, even more rarely, asking the guy out.
As a guy, it takes more than a bit of courage/confidence/irrationality to flirt. Guys get rejected a lot. And you’re basically telling any guy who is just the slightest bit shy or reflective or analytical that the voice in the back of his head is right, she doesn’t want to talk to him, and he should just move on (leaving the field to the most cocky/clueless/socially illiterate).
Some people, like drunk lecherous 60 year olds, will always be socially clueless. But that’s not the situation we’re dealing with here. We’re talking about two 20/30-somethings of presumably comparable backgrounds. It’s a totally different dynamic.
It seems to me that everyone, both men and women, as part of growing up, should learn to take a chance with talking to a stranger, how to politely turn down an unwanted romantic request, and, finally, how to take a hint. And if everyone focuses especially on the last one, then I don’t see the harm in a few more conversations about the weather that don’t go anywhere. Anyway, just a guy’s perspective.
This is an interesting perspective and this guy, let’s call him Fred, makes some valid points. First of all, I agree with Fred that the guy in the original post probably wasn’t considering asking out the woman at the elevator bank after zero build-up; in other words, the interaction probably wouldn’t have played out as: guy smiles, girl smiles, guy says, “Hey, wanna grab a drink sometime?” I get that. And if the guy’s dilemma was actually, “Should I have spoken to this attractive woman at the elevator?”, my response would have been, “Sure, why not?” I would never tell a guy not to speak to a woman at all; what am I, the Taliban? However, I interpreted the situation in the original post as hinting at an extra element of sexiness/flirtation that would go beyond mere chit-chat. Otherwise, why would the guy have felt conflicted enough about it to ask his friend for advice?
So perhaps my original advice needs a bit of clarification. As I wrote yesterday, I think innocuous chit-chat is perfectly fine in public places. Guys, go ahead and strike up a conversation with the lady waiting for the metro or standing in front of you at the deli. Ask her if she prefers prosciutto or parma ham. Knock yourself out! But take her cues and act accordingly.
I know men are fairly literal, so let me give an example of an appropriate conversation and an inappropriate conversation. In this scenario, a man and a woman, both in their late 20s/early 30s and of approximately equal attractiveness, are standing in line at the local cheesery.
Guy: Have you tried the washed rind yet? It’s to die for.
Girl: (Smiling) I’m actually turned off by mold on my cheese. I’m more of a gouda girl.
Guy: Gouda’s awesome. Can’t go wrong with gouda.
Girl: That’s what I think!
Now, at this juncture, it would be appropriate to continue this light, friendly conversation, and at the end of it, the guy, if he has any social skills whatsoever, should be able to tell if the woman is interested in him or not. And yeah, maybe I’ll relax my original position and say that in this scenario, since the woman was receptive to the man’s cheese chat, it would be appropriate for him to ask her, “Hey, want to grab a slice of emmenthal sometime?”
However. Here’s an example of an inappropriate interaction:
Guy: Have you tried the washed rind yet? It’s to die for.
Girl: (Smiling) No.
Guy: It’s amazing. You should really try it.
Girl: Hmm. Yeah, I’ll have to give it a whirl. (Turning back toward counter)
Guy: Hey, want to grab a drink sometime?
See the difference? She smiled both times, right? But in the second example, she was just being polite. She wanted to be left alone to consider her cheese options. She didn’t want to split a wedge of manchego with this guy. She engaged him in a couple of seconds of conversation because women are socialized that it is rude not to chat with someone who chats with you, even if you find them repulsive. But then, women expect men to uphold their end of the bargain and to know when to back off. I suppose, as Fred said in the last paragraph of his response, the fundamental thing here comes down to a man’s ability to read social cues and not to assume that any show of friendliness on a woman’s part means she is digging him. In other words, speaking broadly, men need to cultivate the ability to take a hint.
I agree with Fred that people should take risks in talking to strangers; in fact, I was trying to say that yesterday, that men should feel free to chat about innocuous things with women they find attractive. I also agree that women should learn to politely reject romantic overtures that they find unwelcome. But therein lies the difficulty. Women in our society, as I mentioned above, are socialized to be sweet and nice and open, whether they are romantically interested in a man or not. It’s very difficult to strike a balance between exuding this socialized sweetness and sending a firm signal that one is simply not interested. In the struggle to reject a man “politely,” women may often come off as welcoming or receptive to the man’s overtures. The difficulty is that women are taught to be subtle, while men are uniquely unsuited to picking up subtleties. Women who tend toward a more direct approach when rejecting someone, to get the point across with little ambiguity, are accused of being “rude,” “cold,” “b*tchy,” etc. So really, women can’t win, can they? And perhaps men can’t win, either.
But all is not lost! I still stand by my original advice, to the extent that men should take cues from women and not immediately take things to the sexy place. But part of cultivating safe, friendly public spaces is allowing men to feel safe in being friendly to women, too, and that includes saying hi, remarking upon the weather or the news, and seeing where things go. So, guys, go ahead and say that it sure is cloudy outside. And ladies, if you think he’s cute, smile back and remark upon the density of those cumulus clouds, and see where things go. Who knows, maybe this chit-chat could be the start of something beautiful.