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.