Monthly Archives: April 2013

A guy’s response to my flirting advice (and my response)

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.


Body language is key!


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.

Appropriate interaction:

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.

Men are maybe not the subtlest.

Men are maybe not the subtlest.

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.

Sound advice Thursday: When is a smile just a smile?

Dear Steph,

Can you settle a debate for me? I have a work friend who thinks he should have said something to (read: hit on) a woman who smiled at him at an elevator bank and then got on the same elevator. I strongly disagreed with him, lest we render the elevator bank, too, an unsmiling space (along with public transit and the mall and sidewalks and whilst driving). Who’s right? Was the woman’s smile at my friend an invitation to be hit on or was she just being friendly?


Let’s Keep Elevators Safe

Dear LKES,

I am answering your query as a public service announcement. Here it goes: men of the world, please do not hit on every woman who smiles at you. Sometimes a smile is just a smile. I am firmly on your side on this one, LKES, and I’ll explain why.

It seems to me that one of the fundamental things that some men don’t understand about women is that, in general, when a woman is out and about, minding her own beeswax, she does not wish to be hit on. Sure, a friendly smile or “good morning” or an innocuous comment about the weather are all fair game at the elevator banks or at the bus stop or in line at the post office. But interpreting a stranger’s friendly smile in a public place as an invitation to hit on said stranger is crossing a line. The problem is exactly as you stated it: if a woman gets hit on enough times after smiling at strangers, she will stop doing it as a self-protective measure. And that’s bad for everyone. I happen to think that large swaths of America, particularly the big cities, are unfriendly enough as it is. We don’t need even more of a chilling effect because women are afraid to smile at strangers lest they be flirted with and made uncomfortable.


A couple of qualifiers must be noted. First, it could be that the woman your friend saw at the elevator wanted to be hit on. Perhaps her smile was the opening salvo in a would-be flirty back-and-forth, and she was disappointed when your friend didn’t promptly ask her out on the spot. But you know what? It’s 2013 and if a woman is interested in a man, she can take the initiative to strike up the conversation. In fact, I’d argue that this should be the default in public spaces that are not generally intended for flirting: if the woman carries the conversation into the flirty place, then the door to hitting-on-age has been opened. If she keeps it to a smile and a nod, or a comment about the weather, follow her lead. Got that, men? Of course, this rule doesn’t necessarily apply to places where people go, generally, to be hit on: bars, clubs, fetish parties, what have you. But in non-sexy places like the office elevator bank, let the woman take the lead.

Second, the line between flirting and friendly conversation can be blurry, and the level of discomfort experienced by the flirtee is going to depend on that individual’s tolerance for being chatted up by strangers. For me, that bar is usually quite low. And I’m speaking as someone who has been hit on in an elevator in an office building on SEVERAL occasions, including once late at night by not one but two men in their 60s, wearing business suits, who reeked of booze. I wasn’t disgusted, exactly, but I was a little offended that these two drunk codgers thought that a) I’d be interested in one or both of them, and b) that slurred come-ons were what I really wanted to hear as I rode the elevator to the lobby after a long day of work.

Probably not gonna happen.

Probably not gonna happen.

Anyway. This isn’t about me. This is about creating public spaces that feel both friendly and safe. I happen to enjoy a lively conversation about the weather, and I am all for innocuous, harmless chit-chat to strangers. But please, men, don’t assume that a woman’s smile is always the equivalent of “hey, big boy.” We’re just trying to be friendly.




First(ish) World problems

On our recent trip to Mozambique, we met a lot of expats who live in other countries in southern Africa, including Mozambique and Malawi, and it made us realize, again, how (relatively) easy we have it living in Joburg. When it comes down to it, living here is a pretty cushy developing world experience. Most things work. We have electricity and hot water and fancy shopping malls. There are gyms and knitting stores and nice restaurants. And although Joburg can be irritating and slow and backwards, the annoyances we face are nothing compared to those faced by people living in less developed countries or in more rustic areas. For example, we met a Canadian woman on Ilha who lives in Pemba, in northern Mozambique, and she was telling us how the only fresh produce she can find in the entire city are beat up tomatoes, onions, and an assortment of mixed greens that look like weeds.

I would die.

Well, no, I wouldn’t, because I have lived in places like that before (see, e.g., Cuba, 2004), and it was actually fine, because you can get used to anything, and I ate a lot of ice cream, but man, I devoured vegetables like they were going out of style for weeks after I got back to the US.

Map courtesy of

We’re in the orange, hooray! (Map courtesy of

I have thought and written about this before. A couple years ago, when I was living in Brazil, I wrote this post about all of the annoying little things that conspire to make daily life in Sao Paulo difficult. Joburg is similar; actually, I’d say Joburg is more developed than Sao Paulo in a lot of key ways. Mostly, life here is easy. We have a car so we don’t have to take the crappy (and dangerous) public transport, we eat at good restaurants, there’s plenty of fresh produce, the grocery store stocks fancy products like soy milk and pre-made curry paste, our power only goes out occasionally, and we even have cable and wireless internet.

But life here is not perfect. Things go wrong more frequently than they do back home in the States. For example, yesterday I spent my entire day – literally, from 8 am to almost 5 pm – doing errands that in the US would have taken me half the time to accomplish — except This is Africa.

First, I had to go to the post office to pick up a package. When I got to the window and presented my package notification slip, the woman asked for ID. I showed her my driver’s license and she said she needed my passport, or at least my passport number. I had neither, so I tried to call Al to get my passport number, but my phone was out of credit AND out of data, so I couldn’t email him either. The post office employee and I argued back and forth about whether or not my passport was necessary to pick up a package in my name, given that I had other forms of ID and my passport number was not in their system anyway, and the discussion ended with her avoiding eye contact and telling me to come back with my passport. The end. Next I went to the Vodacom shop to buy more credit on my phone – which, by the way, you can only purchase based on monetary value rather than on the number of minutes purchased, which makes NO SENSE, Vodacom – but the shop was closed. Then I went to the grocery store to buy some cleaning stuff, and the woman charged me for a bag, which I didn’t need since I had brought my own bag, and in order to void the approximately $.04 charge, she needed to call a manager, but the manager didn’t come, so after five minutes of the cashier trying to flag down a manager, I said forget it, just charge me for the bag, and then she tried to give me the bag but she had already loaded my stuff into the bag I brought and UGH I JUST WANTED TO SLAP EVERYONE IN THE FACE. Then I went to the doctor’s office, and the doctor was running half an hour late, because, of course. Then I came home to do the piles of laundry we had accumulated over vacation, and the washer started spewing water and soap all over the kitchen floor, so I called the plumber. The plumber came and could not fix the washer. Then, I went back to the post office with my passport and waited in a half-hour line. When I finally reached the window, not one but TWO separate people decided to walk up to the window and argue with the employee about various things. By this time it was 4:30 PM, and I still had to go to the pharmacy. When I got home at five, exhausted and annoyed and with a wet kitchen floor, I felt annoyed at how wasteful and inefficient my day had been, despite my best efforts to get things done quickly. I had barely had time to write a blog post, let alone work on other writing projects, and for what? (And our washer’s still broken, by the way.)

But this is what you sign on for when you come to live in a developing country, and the annoyances in my day are so minor compared to what people living in, say, the bush in Mpumalanga put up with day to day, it seems silly to complain. Sure, in general, life in a developing country can be more difficult, annoying, challenging, and slow than life in the cushy developed world – but that doesn’t mean it’s worse, necessarily. There are drawbacks and benefits to living in a place like South Africa. Drawbacks include things not working, power outages, slow bureaucracies, inefficiencies, and the lack of certain creature comforts. Benefits include a much lower cost of living, simplicity, experiencing a different culture, and learning patience.

I am still working on that last one.

Ilha de Moçambique

No Book Review Tuesday today – I am currently mid-book(s) and so I will use today’s post to update you on our vacation to Ilha de Moçambique, which is more interesting, anyway.

Ilha at sunset

Ilha at sunset

For Easter break, Al and I went to Ilha de Moçambique, a UNESCO World Heritage site and the former capital of Portuguese East Africa. According to UNESCO, Ilha was originally inhabited by a Bantu tribe, and then occupied by Arabs around the year 900 AD. Vasco de Gama, the Portuguese explorer, reached Ilha in 1498 and “was well received by the sultan and the people, who thought the Portuguese were Muslims.” Oops. Eventually, Ilha became a major Portuguese trading post and then became the capital, until 1898, when the seat of Portuguese East Africa was moved to Laurenço Marques (now Maputo).


Today, Ilha feels like it’s stuck in a time warp. The island is full of crumbling old buildings, some of which are from the 16th century (such as the São Sebastião fortress, which was built in 1558!), with very little evidence of modernity. The place feels like it’s falling down around your ears as you walk through its streets, but I guess that’s part of the charm.


Macuti (straw) town


Catholic church


São Sebastião fortress

IMG_2719 IMG_2711 IMG_2707 IMG_2709While the rusticity of the island is charming, it can also be off-putting. For example, the island’s decaying public hospital was horrifying. It looked – I’m not kidding – like it was haunted, even during the day, with large, empty corridors of crumbling stone and peeling paint, outdoor breezeways full of litter where sick people sat on the ground waiting to be seen, and broken windows and doors. I could not believe that it was a functioning hospital and it made me feel so badly for the people on the island who have no choice but to go there when they are sick. Somehow, unlike most of my vacations, I managed to avoid a visit to the emergency room, and I am so grateful for that!

Exterior of hospital

Exterior of hospital

Radiology department

Radiology department – sign says that those with a cough will be prioritized

Turns out, there’s not a whole lot to do on Ilha, so this was a very relaxing vacation for us. On our first night out, we were sitting on a rooftop at a restaurant called Flor de Rosa eating fresh squid and lobster and drinking chilled red wine, when a couple next to us said hi. They had heard us talking and they were also American, and we ended up eating together that night and then hanging out every day for the rest of our trip. Our new friends – Eric and Alison – live in Beira, a coastal city in central Mozambique, and were the only other Americans we met on the island. However, the island was teeming with Canadians – teeming, I tell you! – and we even met a guy who was not only from Ottawa, but had grown up on Al’s street in a small suburb of Ottawa (Stittsville) and – get this – they KNEW each other as kids. O, Canada!

One day, we hired a boat with Alison and Eric and went to a little island called Ilha de Goa, where we looked at the old, square lighthouse, collected shells, drank beer, and played in the warm, clear water. Then we boated to the mainland and went snorkeling in a natural saltwater lagoon. We were out for most of the day and by the end of it, we had drunk a lot of beer and taken in a lot of sun, so we were all exhausted, but it was glorious.

Urchin skeletons

Urchin skeletons




Water – seen from the boat

On another day, Al and I went on a tour of the Palace and Chapel of São Paulo, which was originally built in 1610 as a Jesuit College but was then taken over and used as a residence for the Portuguese governor. The place is now a museum and has been beautifully restored, and includes much of the original furniture, decor, fixtures and finishings, including an exquisite collection of Ming vases. A guide led us barefoot through the palace and we ogled at the old beds, woodwork, carvings, and paintings. It was one of the coolest things we did on the island, and normally we are not museum people.

Peixe grelhado - grilled fish

Peixe grelhado – grilled fish

The rest of our time we spent reading, lying by pools, napping, speaking Portuguese, eating grilled seafood, and sweating, because Ilha was crazily hot, you guys. We stayed at a really lovely guesthouse called Patio dos Quintalinhos, which was great in every way except for the fact that it was right across the street from a Sunni mosque that BLASTED its call to prayer directly into our bedroom every morning, which made me think of this, every single time:

I took a little (12 second) video of the much less jarring evening call to prayer:

Pretty cool, huh?

Overall, we had a great trip and came back to Joburg feeling rested, full of seafood, and only slightly sunburnt. Ilha is not one of those places where you visit and then fantasize about moving to it, but it’s a fascinating, unique place, and I’m so glad we went.