Hi Dr. NerdLove.
Long-time reader, first time writing in. My problem is quite minor, and not technically a “dating” issue, but it’s been weighing on me regardless and I’m hoping you’ll have some insight.
The short version is that many women I pass by in public places seem to have very strong negative reactions to me, and I can’t figure out why.
It usually goes like this: I’m walking through town in the daytime to work or to get lunch or meet friends or what have you. A woman comes walking the other way or exits a shop or something. Our eyes meet by chance (inevitable when you’re keeping an eye out for cars and bikes or whatnot), and the woman in question violently jerks her head away, turns her body away from me, and starts walking faster. She’s using her whole body to signal: “Ew, no, go away.”
Here’s the weird part: I never have any intention of interacting with these women. I’m just going about my business when they enter my line of sight. I don’t say anything, I don’t leer or stare or ogle, I don’t catcall, I don’t look at them for more than a second. I just notice them, and keep walking.
Obviously, women have every right to be cautious around unknown men (or unknown male-looking NB people, in my case). These women are also all young and attractive, so maybe they’ve had to become hyper-vigilant even beyond the standards of other women. It’s just that this reaction seems to fly right past caution and straight into immediate, visceral fear.
A more specific example will illustrate what I mean (and was also the catalyst for this letter). I was at work, returning to my desk from the bathroom. A woman I had never met came through the door I was heading to. Our eyes met and she flinched with her whole head, like my gaze was a slap to the face. Her body language became panicked, her eyes darted around the room, and finally she ran through a side door in a completely different direction to the one she’d been going before. I didn’t know what to do, so I just kept walking.
Some extra context: this was in the middle of the day, in a crowded building, in a brightly-lit room that saw a lot of foot traffic, and I obviously worked there.
So with all that background, I guess I have two questions I’m hoping you can help with: firstly, how can I clearly signal to women that I’m not going to approach them? Secondly, what is it about my appearance that triggers such a rapid and extreme response? It’s happened too often now to write it off as a few very traumatised women; it really feels like it’s something about me.
I’m honestly stumped as to the second question. I’m not physically imposing, I dress conservatively but well, I’m young, I’m fit, I don’t have resting bitch face, I’m not ugly, and I’m meticulous with my grooming and hygiene. In short, I feel like my appearance is totally inoffensive. The fact I’m Māori might be a factor, but it feels unfair to just assume all these women are racist. My female friends are as confused as I am.
This problem has been getting me down because I don’t want to be a source of stress for anyone else, and also obviously because it really hurts my feelings when it happens. Plus, what’s going to happen when I meet a woman I do want to approach?
Before I sign off, I should reiterate: I’m not demanding that these women talk to me or smile at me or welcome me approaching them or anything like that. I just want to be able to go about my day and mind my own business without being treated like a landmine. And if this letter sounds like it’s trivialising the struggles of women who get harassed and catcalled, it’s really not my intent. I understand the world is dangerous for them; I’m just sick of being perceived as the danger.
So yeah, that’s my letter. Thanks so much for taking the time to read this!
This one’s a tough one, IB, in part because… well, because sometimes you’re running into an actual issue and sometimes your brain is lying to you.
See, the problem tends to come down to a fallacy known as “confirmation bias” — something I’ve talked about rather extensively. The short version is that we all have a tendency to give more emotional weight or credence to things that confirm what we already believe, and discount the things that contradict those beliefs. This manifests in a lot of different ways. If, for example, you buy a car or a particular pair of shoes or something, you’ll often start seeing that car or shoes everywhere. It’s not that there was suddenly an explosion of popularity at the exact moment you handed over your credit card; it’s just that up until then, you didn’t give any special attention or importance to them. Now it has more significance to you, so you notice them more often. The same goes for times when you walk under streetlights at night and you notice a couple flicker or turn off after you walk under them. This doesn’t mean that you’ve suddenly developed powers or your personal AT Field is disrupting electronics, it just means you’re paying more attention to the lights that flicker and miss all the ones that didn’t change when you walked under them.
So it goes with trying to interpret how women are responding to you. If you have some pre-existing belief about your own ugliness or undesirability, you’re much more likely to notice moments that feel like women are reacting to you. You aren’t seeing the women who are completely indifferent to your presence or, for that matter, who are actually interested in you. There’s also the fact that the women you notice probably aren’t freaking out about you. Our brains are filters and our beliefs and attitudes directly affect how we interpret events; how we feel and what we think changes the meaning we assign to behaviors or actions. A poor first impression, for example, can change how people see literally anything somebody does within the context of that first meeting. If somebody came across as an arrogant and entitled jerk the first time you met them, you’re much more likely to see everything they do in that light… even if they’re rescuing kittens from trees, bringing toys to orphans and paying the college tuition of under-privileged youths. If you think you’re ugly or that women are horrified by you, then you’re much more likely to interpret everything that they do as proof that you’re horrifying and should go about ringing a bell like a medieval leper.
But the reality is that often how people respond has nothing to do with you. That woman you see walking towards you who supposedly violently jerks her head away may have done nothing of the sort. Making eye-contact and looking away quickly is incredibly common; we all meet folks’ eyes and look away all the time. Sometimes it’s a “do I know you? No, whoops, ok that was embarrassing” moment. Other times it’s acknowledging someone’s presence but not wanting to look so long that you invite a conversation. Or other times people will look away quickly because they’re afraid of giving the impression that they’ve been staring. I’m sure you can think of times when you’ve done all of the above. None of it had anything to do with your liking or disliking the other person; it’s just part of how we navigate the world, especially if you’re in a culture that prioritizes or gives heft to eye-contact.
So the odds are good that a lot of what you’re seeing is coming through the filter of feeling unwanted and undesirable, not that you’re actually repulsing people. I suspect that, were this the case, you would be hearing commentary about this from your friends as they notice it happening. Like I said: you’re not noticing the folks who aren’t appearing scared or horrified by you.
Now to be fair: there are a lot of legitimate reasons for women to react like this to men in general — not you, specifically. The background radiation of women and femme-presenting folks’ lives includes men who think that being (or presenting as) female in public is an invitation. This can range from pestering women for conversation, phone numbers and dates to just straight harassment and cat-calling. Think of times when you’ve walked down a busy street and you’ve seen the various folks holding clipboards soliciting support or donations for their projects or folks trying to get you to take their mix-CDs. Making eye-contact for longer than a half-second inevitably means dealing with them until you find a plausible excuse to leave. A woman who makes eye contact and immediately looks away may well be trying to avoid being stopped by somebody who may or may not decide that this means she wants him to take her in a manly fashion in the Starbucks bathroom. It has nothing to do with you and everything to do with the bullshit other men have done.
That same general behavior carries over to women interacting with men in professional settings; lots of guys will take the presence of women in service-industry jobs — whether it be store clerks, waitstaff, bartenders or other, similar jobs — as an invitation to flirt or hit on them. Being brusque or avoiding contact is a way of avoiding somebody trying to hit on them at a time when they may not be able to leave or make a fuss.
By that same token, the average man or male-bodied person tends to be larger, stronger and outweigh the average woman or female-bodied person. Being a woman or a femme-coded person means being aware of the physical danger men can become if they so choose, and it’s not unreasonable that suddenly seeing a man in close physical proximity can cause a moment of panic. They have to do a lot of very fast mental calculations, trying to figure out whether or not he’s a threat, and there’re a number of things that can be seen as weighing the equation to the “potential threat” side. These can include things like facial expression, height and build, style of dress, presentation and hygiene and, yes, race. Some of these may not be conscious reactions, but we all live in a society where racism and racist ideas are baked in, and that shit is really hard to uproot and can show up in ways someone might never expect. If someone’s been swimming in a culture that equates skin tone and class with crime their entire life, they may have visceral reactions that have nothing to do with how they feel about BIPOC and everything to do with messages they’ve been fed since birth.
So what do you do about any of this? Well, there’re a couple things you can do — both to adjust the vibe you give off to others but also the way your brain interprets things.
To start with, there’s simply being mindful of how you come across and adjusting things as best you can. Little things — like adjusting your body language, smiling with your eyes (particularly while masked up) and giving physical space — can make a huge difference.
To use a personal example: I’m bearded, built like a linebacker, covered in visible tattoos, if I’m not careful I default to “resting murder face” and my style is often best described as “well-heeled Metallica roadie”. At 5’8″, I’m a smidge shorter than the average cisgendered American male but the rest means I can come across as far more intimidating or scary than I actually am. I know I’m harmless but that doesn’t mean anyone who doesn’t know me knows this. As a result, I try to make a point of being very visibly non-threatening; I try to make sure my body language reads as “friendly, open and cheerful”, make sure that I’m giving a friendly and genuine smile and move smoothly and deliberately. If someone’s walking towards me, I try to move to the side to give room to get past without needing to get too close or may turn away if they have to get within personal or intimate space. If we make eye contact, I’ll smile, nod, and deliberately look away — my intent is to signal that I’ve seen them, acknowledge it and then show that’s as far as it goes. If we talk or interact — “oh, excuse me, here, let me get past you” — I’ll often pitch my voice slightly higher than my natural register. This may not completely eliminate any lingering feelings of potential danger, but it helps lessen the likelihood that I come off as a threat. It kinda sucks feeling like folks may see me as threatening, but then again it sucks worse to be in a position to always have to be doing that calculus.
The next thing you can do is start learning to hack your confirmation bias. This sounds like woo-woo-biohacking bullshit but it actually works. What you believe changes how you see the world, so you may as well choose beliefs that actually help you. What you believe is as much habit as it is a reaction to actual experience. More often than not, the things we believe are a post-hoc interpretation of events, and often based on the reactions of others. It’s like a child who fell over, then looks to their parents. If their parents are scared or upset, they start to act upset and hurt. If their parents don’t react or are happy and encouraging, they’ll often just get up and keep running around. As adults, it happens the same way; we experience something, base our interpretation of it on others and then turn those beliefs by repeating them to ourselves.
Changing those beliefs is a matter of breaking old habits and consciously choosing new ones. I realize it sounds absurd, but consciously challenging and reinterpreting how you see things is the start of how you build mental muscle memory. Recognizing, for example, that someone who rejects you when you approach is often reacting to things that have nothing to do with you, helps you not take rejection personally. Consciously reminding yourself that you are attractive, that women do find you desirable and that you’re a hunk and a half, helps retrain your brain and the way you interact with the world. It changes your confirmation bias; you become more conscious of the folks giving you positive attention and give less importance to the ones who don’t. The actual numbers haven’t changed, you’ve just changed which reactions you find to be more important or significant. Not only does this teach you to stop seeing normal or unremarkable behavior as being a judgement on you, but it’ll make you more aware of when people are interested in you.
It will also help you with women you want to approach. Because you believe in your own desirability, you’ll be more aware of when women are signalling that they’re interested in talking to you or would appreciate your coming over to talk to them.
Now, part of how you can avoid accidentally scaring people or coming off like a creeper when you’re looking to meet someone is to pay attention to the social context; there’re places where it’s understood that part of the reason why everyone is there is to meet new people, where approaching strangers and starting conversations is expected. This can be anywhere from MeetUps to communal tables in food courts, classes and parties and mixers. The whole point of these venues or events is to be social; everyone is there with that in mind. That creates an entirely different dynamic than, say, planting yourself in front of a woman walking down the street when she’s just trying to get through her day.
And one more thing: sometimes the key is to be the one giving the approach invitation, rather than doing the approaching. While the overall dynamic with regards to hetero dating still tilts towards men doing more of the initiating, it’s worth remembering that there’re lots of women out there who’re just as shy, unsure or anxious about talking to guys they’re into. Giving someone you’re into clearance to come talk to you can be a gift; you’re letting them know that their presence would be welcome, not an intrusion. Focusing on being approachable and giving someone the (metaphorical and literal) nod means that you’re making it safe for them to come to you if they want, rather than risking startling them and starting things off on the wrong foot.
Oftentimes, people on the Internet give advice about where to meet women, and one of the places is activity groups. However, this comes with the caveat that you can’t just do it because you want to meet women, or else no one there would like you. My question to that is why? Why is looking to meet women a bad motivation for joining an activity group or trying something new?
I’m at the level of dissatisfaction with my dating and sex life that my priorities are going to be different than someone who feels better about theirs. Combine that with the fact that if I didn’t care about meeting women, I would basically never leave my apartment except to go to work, go shopping for stuff I need, and go get food. But since I do want to meet women, I do other things, join different activity groups, and try new things.
Now, it has turned out that I genuinely enjoyed the thing I’ve tried, even if one of my major motivations was to just meet women (and if I didn’t like the activity itself, I’d stop it), but because I’m told that meeting women is a bad reason to try new things, and it’s creepy to try to hit on women if that’s a reason you tried it, I never do. But I have no idea why it’s bad and creepy to try something new because you want to meet women.
So why is it?
On The Lookout
This is all about the differences in people’s experiences, OTL. One of the things about being a guy — or visibly presenting as male — is that we move through the world in ways that women don’t. As I just mentioned to Innocent Bystander, the experiences women have as they go through their lives can be night and day different from the experiences that men have. That difference leads to the accepted wisdom that you’re tripping over right now.
It’s also one of those times where it’s important to recognize that people talk in generalities — generalities that may also include you on a superficial level. And while I know “a hit dog hollers” and all, it’s important to recognize that if people aren’t describing something you’re doing, they’re not talking about you, even though it sounds like it. In this case, the people saying that doing X JUST to meet women is bad aren’t necessarily talking about you; they’re talking about specific behaviors from folks that can be annoyingly common.
So, here’s what’s going on. One of the reasons why dating and meeting people can be a trial is because some folks’ shitty behavior fucks things up for everyone else. Like I said earlier, for a lot of women, the act of merely existing in public is seen as an invitation for men to hit on them. A lot of men see a woman’s presence at anything as a sign that she exists for their consumption. This is one of the reasons why, for example, a lot of folks will treat a woman cosplaying a character with a skimpy or sexy costume as an invitation to be crude or gropey; they see this as something being done for them, not a woman expressing her love for the character and interacting with her fandom in a way she enjoys. The same goes with women who may join a TTRPG campaign or who becomes a regular at their local comic shop — there’re folks who treat her as a potential date, not a fellow player or comic fan.
That dynamic is also why so-called “day game” — approaching women going about their business during the day — tends to be seen as intrusive and obnoxious; most of the time the women walking down the street, waiting for the bus or otherwise doing their own thing aren’t in the mood for being hit on by guys who think that her mere presence is an invitation to talk.
This why people will tell you “don’t try X/ go to Y/ join Z JUST to meet women”. This can happen in many different spaces, whether dance classes, fandom groups, amateur sports leagues… you name it. To give an example, let’s say that there’s a MeetUp group for… I dunno, since the latest campaign just ended, let’s say fans of Critical Role. People who are members of this group come to talk D&D and other RPG systems, share fan art, talk about their favorite episodes, geek out over news about the upcoming animated series and so-on. A guy who rolls in and starts cruising the event like a horny shark — someone who’s there specifically because he’s looking to meet nerdy women — is being disruptive to everyone else. He’s not there because he wants to show off his Fjord cosplay or make bets about the Vox Machina/Mighty Nein showdown, he’s there just to hit on people. Bouncing around the room trying to flirt with people interrupts their enjoyment and frequently makes folks uncomfortable. His actions are making it clear that he sees other people as props an NPCs in his personal quest to get laid. That feeling is dehumanizing at best. New people who happen to come on the same day he does are more likely to be squicked out and leave, never to return. His continued presence means that people — mostly women, but men and non-binary pals too — are likely to quit going because that’s not why they’re there. So he’s making people uncomfortable, potentially chasing away new members and driving off regulars and damaging the event itself.
Needless to say, the regulars hate this, the newbies dislike it and it just contributes to the sort of culture that makes it harder for folks who are looking to meet, mingle, date and hook up. And, in the name of enlightened self-interest… it’s also shockingly inefficient. The ratio of effort-to-return is completely out of whack.
(The obvious exception are events or groups that are specifically created with meeting/dating in mind. These, however, tend to be very clearly labeled, usually as “for singles”.)
This is why I — and others — will say “don’t go to/join X JUST to meet women”. It works against everyone — both the folks who want to enjoy X and the folks who’re looking to date.
However, this doesn’t mean that you can’t meet, flirt with or date awesome women at these events or in these groups. Relationships can and do start in groups like this.But the key to threading that particular needle is not to go to meet women or date, it’s to meet people. You want to go because you enjoy or are interested in the activity and meet like-minded folks and expand your social circle. By becoming a regular, getting to know folks and showing that you’re an awesome guy who’s worth getting to know, you make connections. You form friendships. You become someone who’s part of the community. As you get to know people, you might well meet someone who’s your particular flavor of awesome. If the two of you happen to spark while talking, there’s nothing wrong with saying “hey, I’m really enjoying talking to you. Would you like to get coffee after this?” and move from there if she says yes. The difference between this and going just to meet women is that you’re there specifically for the activity and connection/attraction grew organically, instead of someone showing up and disrupting the whole thing in the name of “but how does this benefit my penis?”
If that doesn’t sound like you… well, that’s not you they’re talking about. Now personally, I think you’d be happier going out and trying new things just because new experiences are awesome and potentially life-changing. But hey, you’ve got to do your thing; if you’re cool with the status quo of your daily activities, then more power to you. If you’re happy, then keep on keeping on and it’s all good. But if you’re telling people your only motivation for going out and trying new things is just to meet women, they’re likely to assume you’re more like the douchebags who ruin it for everyone.
This post was previously published on doctornerdlove.com.
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