Need Some Help with the Hidden Love Language YOU Learned Decades Ago ...
January 30, 2011 6:43 PM   Subscribe

I'm a straight man in his mid-thirties who is pretty much about to enter the "dating scene" for the first time. I'm fairly skilled with reading people's emotions, but thanks to the blank slate when it comes to romance and dating, I am utterly colorblind when it comes to romance. I can't recognize a thing about it yet. Seriously, you guys have your own little language that's been secondhand to you for decades now. What the hell do I do to learn it?

Why the late entry into dating? Without going heavy sob-sister on y'all, the cynical depressed belief system I carried around? Its backbone was recently snapped, and the world has seemed much brighter, cheerful, and nowhere near as predisposed towards bad endings as I used to feel it was. That's made the idea of approaching a woman a lot less of an act of predisposed futility. But now, instead of depressed futility, I'm just overwhelmed at my utter inability to "speak". I end up sounding to myself like, "Chunk like pretty girl with hair. Pretty girl talk nice. Want see Chunk's etchings?"

See, I know I can carry on a good conversation without seeming weird. I know how to pay attention to what someone is saying, to ask the right questions; I'm pretty good at reading people's emotional cues. I'm a good guy to spend time with.

But, honestly, when it comes to reading or talking in the dating language (which you guys don't even know you use, since it's been ingrained for so long it's second nature to you now!), I have none, and it's an utterly weird and annoying blindspot for someone used to being able to fairly easily read and act on emotional cues.

And I don't know how to convey clearly that I'm interested in a woman without nearly always triggering the "coming on too strong" alert. And I'm pretty sure I'm not coming on too strong – at least, that's not my true emotion at play – but I don't know the polite obfuscations people use, so I end up coming across as intense because my wording ends up sounding too direct, despite me not thinking it's anywhere near that! (And despite my 'colorblindness,' I can't be too far out in right field: I've seen the hyperparodies of creepy obsessives on TV, and I'm self-aware enough to know I'm nowhere near that.)

(Hell, I don't even know how to approach you, if you're a stranger at a bar or coffeehouse.)

The other part is that this insecurity – at something which is, in other circumstances, effortless – has me feeling pretty insecure about everything else. I know that women seem to be forgiving of a lot of "failings" in their men, but every little imperfection in my life, when I hold it up to a future date, has me feeling like that'll be the reason she runs for the hills. The bathroom's floorboards have excessive dust on them? Good heavens, that'll send her running for the door!

I have confidence in my brain, heart, smile and conversational skills; I know I'm not a big prize physically (quite portly with significant hair loss up top); but popular culture has me believing that if I'm not Prince Charming in every tiny detail. My apartment is far less majestic than a castle right now.

So, tl;dr version: I'm ready to start dating -- two decades later than most of you -- but have the gawky lack of knowledge of a 14-year-old. Despite being emotionally mature and normal in most every way – maybe even a little above par? – I have a completely blank slate when it comes to reading or sending signals in the "language" y'all by now have down as second nature without a thought. I can't interpret the difference between a woman's interest in the conversation topic and a possible interest in me as a hunka-hunka-burnin'-love. And if I'm this klutzy here, what's to prevent me from making some fatal blooper after the second or third date? How am I ever going to navigate the progressive stages of all of this shit? I want a friend and a lover and someone to hold, but this is so tricky, I feel like I'm blindfolded and that if I take any step, BOOM goes a mine and it's all over.

Comes across as the old fatalism, I know, but it's more feeling completely overwhelmed at having complete romantic aphasia. Different emotions, but they come across pretty similar in print.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (33 answers total) 25 users marked this as a favorite
Do really nice, unexpected things for someone that shows you care. Pay attention to what they like and do more of it.
posted by inturnaround at 6:46 PM on January 30, 2011 [4 favorites]

Here's something really, really important to know in your situation: Each set of interactions between you and some potential romantic partner is going to be different. There are maybe a few commonalities, a few things that often feel the same--the moment before a first kiss, for instance--but for the most part, the working into the place where you have that first kiss is going to be strange each and every time. It'll go fast, or it'll go slow. It'll involve talking, or just feelings and action.

I mean, maybe it's just me, but I've been in and out of love a lot in my life (and I am also insecure and not necessarily a prize, physically), and I don't feel like I ever went into it thinking "yeah, I know how to work my way through this." It was always stumbling and fumbling and silly and awesome and uniquely me interacting uniquely with another person.

The most important thing is not to know the language, but to be brave and honest and to hold on to yourself. If you can do those things, it'll be alright.

Good luck! I'm happy for you have found a way to be happier and get out there. I truly hope it works out!
posted by hought20 at 6:55 PM on January 30, 2011 [1 favorite]

"I'm happy for you have found a way."

Chunk show you good language. Answer well.
posted by hought20 at 6:56 PM on January 30, 2011 [2 favorites]

How would you act if you wanted to make a new friend? Maybe just start with that, but with girls.
posted by yarly at 6:57 PM on January 30, 2011 [4 favorites]

Seriously, you guys have your own little language that's been secondhand to you for decades now. What the hell do I do to learn it?

Experience. Get in there.
posted by hal_c_on at 7:00 PM on January 30, 2011

I think that maybe you're overestimating how at ease everyone else feels in the dating world. Reading signals is hard for lots of people people, dating is always going to be tricky. But people stumble their way into good relationships despite all the awkwardly misread signals, bad dates, and failed starts. You don't have to get it right the first time.
posted by geegollygosh at 7:01 PM on January 30, 2011 [5 favorites]

Hmm, I don't know what's tough about dating language, but much of it could be learned from movies. It's hard to be too chivalrous on a first date (car door, yes; seat at restaurant, no). Here are a few from the phrasebook:

"It was great meeting you tonight. Can I take you out to dinner some time?"
"I really had a nice time tonight. I hope we do this again some time." *peck on cheek*
"I do a little cooking on the side. You should let me cook you dinner next time."
posted by salvia at 7:06 PM on January 30, 2011 [2 favorites]

The bathroom's floorboards have excessive dust on them? Good heavens, that'll send her running for the door!

My sister gave me good advice when I was romancing The Future Mrs. Lurgi. She said "There are three things you need to keep clean: towels, sheets, self. Everything else is fixable". The first night TFML came round the towels practically glowed in the dark.

You are me about 8 years ago (well, not quite. I'm taller). The bad news? Everything that people told you is actually true. You need to get out there. Don't seem desperate. Being a nice guy is not the same as being a doormat. Interest is not the same as being a creepy stalker (it's perfectly acceptable to say "Hey, would it be okay if I gave you a call sometime?". It's not okay for that call to occur three hours later). Let them talk. Be yourself (unless you are an asshole, in which case you should stop being an asshole).

Here's what worked for me: Getting into non-dating situations where you meet people. There are probably clubs in your area that cater to young, single people. You go hiking or volunteer or do whatever. It's not officially a dating thing, but many of the people who go there are sort of kind of thinking about meeting people.
posted by It's Never Lurgi at 7:09 PM on January 30, 2011 [5 favorites]

Dating isn't another language, and I think this may be where you're letting yourself down.

From what you say about yourself and what you've written in your question, you appear to be able to communicate very well. Now I'm not going to say I have had a tremendous number of relationships, but in my experience this is a very good trait, and you're off to a good start already. I think you may be overthinking things a little too much though.

I think if you communicate well with your dates, for example letting them know you've had fun, or you're looking forward to another date, and hold off on all the dating "rules" such as not calling for 3 days and all that jazz, you'll do fine.

I'll also recommend reading Intimate Connections by David Burns, which is going to give you a lot of pointers in how to first improve yourself and the way you think before you go out looking for a partner. I've read it more than once.

If I had to sum it up in one sentence: Be more sure of yourself; and don't overthink it too much.

Good luck!
posted by althanis at 7:12 PM on January 30, 2011

Seriously, you guys have your own little language that's been secondhand to you for decades now.

You said some variation on this three different times in your question.

One, you are going to have to get your experience the same slow, painful, and embarrassing way almost everyone else does it. You fail, you fail, you fail... but each time you learn something and the next time you fail differently. Repeat a few times and you start not failing. It's a great iterative learning process, as long as you don't lock yourself into a cycle of making the same mistake every time, or psyching yourself out to the point that you freeze up.

Two, even people who have been "dating" (in whatever sense of that word) for decades find it a mystifying, terrifying, and deeply murky process. People (guys especially, I think) put on a really tough and confident front -- "Oh yeah, I get women left and right, I could talk to any woman in this bar" -- but it mostly just hides their fear and insecurities.

In other words, the way you describe the dating process is pretty similar to the way many people who have been doing it for decades feel, whether or not they say so.

That said, though, the onus is on you to find ways of compensating and learning so that you don't come on too strong and freak people out. You have to know the rules before you can start breaking them -- I'm not saying that you need to follow Ms Manners to a T, but you do need to connect with people before you can unload the full force of your personality.

It's taken you a decade or so to get to this point; it's only fair to expect that getting to the next step might take more than a couple of weeks.
posted by Forktine at 7:14 PM on January 30, 2011 [2 favorites]

Remind yourself that-

1. You are not the first "I'm a straight man in his mid-thirties who is pretty much about to enter the "dating scene" for the first time", no matter how true it seems to you.

2. You are assuming there is a "language" everyone else is speaking. What looks like a "language" from far, could be just drama/games on a closer look. The fact that you don't speak this language will be very refreshing to some women.

3. Lack of experience doesn't have to be lack of knowledge.

4. The politeness and facades that are involved in dating aren't much different from other situations, like work. One way to see it anyway.
posted by xm at 7:57 PM on January 30, 2011 [2 favorites]

Totally awkward for you yet quite disarming is to just cop to the fact -- "Hey, I don't know what to say to a woman who I think is darling, but if I *did* know what to say, I'd say it right about now." -- and let the chips fall where they may. It's not going to be any secret that you're not Lance Romance anyways, no matter what you say, so why not just come out with it?

It's like cold-calling, in sales, in fact it *is* cold-calling, of a sort, unless you luck into meeting someone in your social milieu and it just progresses normally, whatever that is, you see her every week at choir practice and then you eat pie after choir and then walk her home or whatever.

I don't know if it's like this for everyone but it damn sure is for me -- if I'm just out and about, and I'm just saying hi to someone that I don't care about, then I can pull it off perfectly, that whole charm, wit, maybe even a bit the of psycho-danger thing, a bit of a 1950s Elvis sneer, that whole horses-ass "Oh baby, I'm so cool." thing, while looking them dead in the eye while they blush and look down and shuffle their feet. High school seniors learned this one with the freshmen girls, so you maybe missed it.

The problem? All of that goes right out the window if it's someone I'm really interested in -- I call their name "Myrtle?" -- and they look at me expectantly -- "Yes?" -- and I stand there, flushed, sweating, scratching myself, all the clever things I'd thought to say to them now vanished, my mind a vast Sahara of nothing, and I say "Hey, my truck is running great." and now I hate myself, forever, and I *will* hate myself forever, longer if I can, and the moment continues, for decades, and she is still expectant -- Why did he talk about a truck? He drives a truck? -- and I try to smile and it comes out a fractured smile (trying a sneer maybe and looking like a complete, total idiot doofus) and I sortof grunt, and I kindof wave, then stagger off.

You ever catch a dog climbing off the couch, and it's not supposed to be on the couch, or maybe it was chewing on your shoe, you know that guilty look on the dog's face as it slouches off when you're totally steamed and have just reamed it out? THAT is how I look, I'm almost positive of it, and how I walk, too, like I'm sentenced to death, or worse.

I'm amazed I've ever gotten laid. I know that there are many atheists here and I try to be respectful of that but I can only attribute any love from any woman to the outpouring of grace of some loving, forgiving being somewhere, an outstanding benevolence falling upon me as snow falls in Canada.

The only thing I can tell you is to get on out there. It's the only way. Probably with this whole online thing it's easier nowadays but I've never tried it, even just looking at the questions posed in the profile pages I feel like a scalded dog. Jesus christ. Anyways, you've just got to get on out there, know that many of us, regardless we've bopped around a bit or not, we're still in the same boat with you, suffering under the same lash. Just that we've done it before, is all.

And yeah, I know that there are many people who just are totally good at this, just like some people can throw a baseball 106mph and some other people can hit that ball out of a ballpark. I can't do either of those things though, or many others, I'm just another kid on the bus, trying to get on down the road, hoping for some love some days, someone to go to the movie with me and hold afterwards, even just holding her hand on the way home. Friends are great, and I've got good ones, but it's just not the same, I don't want to hold Jimmy's hand or Bob's and I'm positive they don't want to hold mine.

You can't learn this on your couch, reading it on metafilter. If I could learn it -- such as I have learned it -- you can too. Get on out there, is all.

Good luck.
posted by dancestoblue at 8:23 PM on January 30, 2011 [15 favorites]

Here's a brief phrasebook for that other language:

At the bar:
"Hi!" [then pause] = "I would like to talk to you/buy you a drink and now am waiting for your reaction to decide whether to pursue that desire." If she avoids eye contact, mutters something, or tells you she's waiting for someone, apologise for bothering her and move on. Otherwise...

"Can I buy you a drink?" = "Can I buy you a drink." If she lets you, it means she would like a drink. It does not mean she owes you sex. (I'm sure you don't think that, but it's amazing how many guys do.)

"I enjoyed talking to you. Here's my number." = "I like you. Hopefully you like me too."

"I enjoyed talking to you. Can I have your number?" = "I like you and would like to proactively try and see you again. I can handle being given a fake."

On the phone:

"I had fun the other day/night/week. Do you want to get some coffee/dinner/see a movie this weekend?" = "I had fun the other night/day/week. Do you want to get some coffee/dinner/see a movie this weekend and then maybe get to know each other better and then maybe have sex or get married?"

After a date:

"I had a great time." [pause]. If she says, "Me too!" and looks like she means it, you can ask her if she wants to do it again. If she says, "Me too!", smiles, and leans towards you with her eyes closing, kiss her.

"Thanks for tonight. See you around." = "I'm not that into you. (Probably. YMMV).
posted by lollusc at 8:31 PM on January 30, 2011 [5 favorites]

Do not shoot yourself in the foot before the starting gate even opens.

I mean, don't assume that everyone will turn you down and you're totally doomed because your Star Wars figurine collection isn't perfectly dusted (or you don't know the "language"). To do so is the coward's way out, because your bravery is a new thing and your brain will want to kill it dead any which way it can. Don't let it.

Someone asked a question earlier, though a younger guy looking to date, and this was my answer, and it's the same thing I'd tell you. Your fundamental question is common. "I am not perfect. Will one of these mysterious 'women' creatures like me, despite the horrible horrible failure I hear about? How can I trap one without risk to myself?" Let this be a comfort. Don't let the differences between you and that kid wall you off. It's all the same game, young or old. You can study the same tips and ultimately, go out and suffer the same risks. Good luck to you.
posted by griselda at 8:44 PM on January 30, 2011

One thing you might want to know: If you're at a bar or coffee shop and just go say "hi" to a woman, she's (usually) going to know you're interested. Seriously, talk about the weather -- she'll still know.

The point is, you don't need to "convey clearly" your interest -- the fact that you're striking up a social conversation with a stranger when you're both by yourselves will make this obvious. If you have a nice conversation, ask if you can call her sometime, or ask her on a date (and inviting her to dinner, just the two of you, is an obvious date that's bloody difficult to mistake for anything else).
posted by J. Wilson at 8:50 PM on January 30, 2011 [3 favorites]

As a woman who has on occasion been approached by strange men trying to ask me out, here is what I have to report: the primary trait that makes me respond positively is a sense that the man views me as much as a fellow human being as an object of physical attraction. So for me, the most important thing is just to treat women like people: don't start with a comment on my appearance, by staring at my chest, or by asking for my phone number before we've exchanged ten words. I would rather be approached by an awkward, blushing, stammering guy who asks about the book I'm reading with some semblance of actual interest than a by suave dude who's obviously looking to score sooner rather than later.

As a person with some relationship experience, I think the main thing that you get with said experience is not a "secret language" but a sense of confidence that no matter how badly things go, it will not be the end of the world, assuming your date is not in fact a homicidal maniac. After I had already thrown up on my date's shoes, amicably gotten to know a guy whose first move was hitting me with his car, sat in awkward silence through half a meal, gotten my heart broken and returned the favor, I didn't magically know the right thing to say in a given situation. I didn't necessarily know if a guy liked me or just liked me. But I was able to be more relaxed while I waited to find out. I don't know if there is a shortcut to that knowledge that you can roll with the punches, but for what it's worth, my advice is to go into any situation believing to the greatest extent possible that even should the worst occur (excluding serial killers), you will be OK. Because you will be.
posted by unsub at 8:55 PM on January 30, 2011 [18 favorites]

Re bars - in my experience (as a late 20's east coaster), it is almost futile to try to meet someone from scratch/"cold" in a bar. Every time a guy has come up to me in a bar and tried to start a conversation, buy me a drink, etc. it has been a bit of a turn-off*. The women I know who are looking to meet men in bars are, well, let's say they're not looking for relationships.

Random strangers approaching me in public is similarly weird, though at least there's full lighting. I'd probably be most likely to indulge someone in a cafe or bookstore, rather than my morning commute** on the subway or the line at the DMV. The line for rush tickets to the opera, though? Definitely possible. Just because that's super romantic. Basically any cultural/intellectual/erudite setting is good, and any humdrum/banal/alienating setting is bad.

I'm a lot more open to meeting people at parties - especially big parties where somebody has invited basically everyone they know and there are a bunch of different people mingling. A few beers, "So how do you know Josh?", a little dancing (or arguing about politics, or Settlers Of Catan), and by the end of the night you're exchanging numbers.

Dating websites can be a great way to practice. The initiating contact via message isn't too different from a high stakes memail, and you can do it a lot of times and figure out exactly what works. Then you get to practice your first date skills. And you will probably meet a few nice women along the way.

As for the initial approach (if it's a "cold" in public sort of thing), a smile and an introduction go a long way. It's good to have some notion of what you'd like to say after that, but honestly, the first step is "Hi, I'm Chunk." Whatever you do choose to say should be more in the realm of small talk, less in the realm of praising her beauty or offering to buy her a drink. Almost anything will do. "Aren't you sick of all this snow?" "Did you just see that guy fall off his barstool?" "Did you read his last one?" (in a bookstore) "Did you catch these guys when they played #VENUE last year?" (reacting to piped in music or jukebox) Notice a trend there? Questions are good.

The only time you need special lingo is when it's time to read the cues of whether someone is into you or not and what your next move to be. For instance the always challenging matter of figuring out how to get them back to your place. However, a lot of this sort of thing can be accomplished by setting up the date well - remember that you have input on things like what you do and what the venue is. If I have high hopes for a date and think there's a chance I might go home with the person, I will usually suggest a bar in their neighborhood, so that when the time comes, I can suggest going back to their place. Also, by that time things will be sufficiently lubricated that I can get away with saying something completely inane like, "I want to see what your apartment looks like!"

Inane is good in this situation - the thing is to approach the subject cleverly, NOT to trick someone into doing something they don't want to do. Awkward references to one's proverbial etchings are actually more charming than some "let's go to my house and watch a movie" B.S.

*Well, I can see it maybe working out if the dude was an absolute specimen of amazing gorgeous fantasticness. But even guys I would otherwise give a chance to? Probably not in a bar.

** Worst pick up line ever (seriously you should take this as an example of what to NEVER do). It's six A.M. on a Monday morning. I'm standing on the subway platform, uncaffeinated, headed to a 12 day at work. A guy walks up to me and says, "You're cute. I just got out of the hospital with a head injury. Wanna go back to my place?" No.
posted by Sara C. at 10:34 PM on January 30, 2011 [3 favorites]

Oh, and sometimes "coming on too strong" can work in your favor. Writing above about how to initiate contact in a public place caused me to realize that the guy who was making small talk with me on the way out of the hardware store earlier this week was probably into me. He was actually pretty cute, too.

Unfortunately, he waited till we were both leaving the store to say hi, which meant that by the time we got past "Nice paint color" and "Are you putting in shelves?", we were parting ways.

If you find yourself in a situation like that (cute girl in hardware store), just talk to her! Fast! Before she gets away! Even if it means possibly not being Mr. Cool. Come on too strong if you need to - what's the worst that could happen? The stakes in a situation like this are really low.
posted by Sara C. at 10:50 PM on January 30, 2011

Agree with all the others, there's no secret language to learn, you just have to go out and try and fail. Some people are better at this than others, but you don't have to be a PUA (pick up artist) to do well, just be yourself and personable.

You may already have women interested in you but not notice currently. My wife calls me the seal because I was so oblivious to the fact that she liked me that she had to club me over the head before I noticed.

tl;dr - you'll be fine!
posted by arcticseal at 11:05 PM on January 30, 2011

Sounds like there's lots of good advice above. But for emphasis:

No one knows what they're doing

1% of the population is skilled at dating. The rest of us just bumble along until we bump into someone we get along with. Good luck!
posted by auto-correct at 11:19 PM on January 30, 2011 [5 favorites]

What I get from reading all of these is that it's not actually that there's some "language" that will make (as griselda put it) "one of these mysterious 'women' creatures like me, despite the horrible horrible failure I hear about." It's actually more like we all just kinda try and things go medium-badly over and over again (the key difference being how much that upsets you), and then eventually you meet someone who is nice and with whom things miraculously keep going okay even though you screw it up, but it doesn't seem to matter. Almost nobody is good at dating, yet people manage to make it to the comfortable stage somehow. I mean, speaking as someone in a relationship, it's not like I'm any good at dating, and I don't know "how to talk to men." I just met this one guy and we got along.
posted by salvia at 12:58 AM on January 31, 2011 [3 favorites]

Get a friend to be your wingman. Not a friend who seems to score with the chicks all the time (because his style is probably not your style and he might mess it up for you), just a friend who has a relaxed attitude about women and can give you some feedback about whether that girl at the bar is really eyeballing you and whether you're coming on too strong.

If you don't have good friends you'd be willing to ask, maybe you need to work on that first, as having a decent pool of friends who introduce you to their friends also makes dating easier.

Also, bars may not be the best place to look - very noisy and a bit in your face if you aren't used to it...

What I am not clear about is, you say you are pretty good at carrying on a conversation but at the same time seem you out of your depth when it comes to chatting with people you don't know. In what situations are you good?
Do you talk to women randomly? I mean, if you see someone interesting at the bookstore, at a party or in the queue at the supermarket do you strike up conversations? If not, give that a try. Have random conversations (and if you are, as you say, good at it, you should be able to tell whether it is a pleasant conversation or not).
Have more random conversations.
When you feel comfy with that, have a random conversation and if she seems okay with the chat, tell her it was nice chatting to her and would she like to go have a coffee with you at some point. Make sure to know a few coffee places you can show her.
posted by Omnomnom at 1:02 AM on January 31, 2011

Have fun and don't take anything too personally.

Dating should be fun. Sure, it can be a bit nerve-wracking at times and produce a bit of anxiety, but overall, it's fun. And it should be fun.

Expectations and taking things personally are absolutely the best ways to ruin the fun, and consequently, the date. If someone doesn't call you back, that's okay. Move onto the next opportunity. If someone makes crazy comments or tries to attack you personally, that's okay. Move onto the next one.

The key thing I've learning in twenty-odd years of dating is to focus on dating as an output, not an input. That is, enjoy your life, have good relationships with family and friends, have hobbies and enjoy yourself, and look at dating as a part of your life. Please do not look at is as an activity pursued for it's own ends (whether that be intimacy, sex, the game, or whatever). That is the surest way to put pressure on it and make it not fun and too personal.

Also, you will find so many styles of dating in the world. The friend-to-lovers conversion, 'the game', hard-to-get, instant relationships, distant lovers, open relationships, "when I have time" relationships, activity buddies, short-lived relationships just because you're both going through changes in life and want someone to share the nights with, one-night stands, friends-with-benefits.

There's all manner of relationships in the world and the key is that, 1) none are right/wrong/better/worse. 2) It's about finding someone who is on the same page as you and wants the kind of relationship that you want. With dating, the less you judge, the better you'll be. That being said, maintain self-respect at all times and don't be a doormat.

Overall, it's like dancing. The only way to get better is to practice.
posted by nickrussell at 2:46 AM on January 31, 2011 [1 favorite]

Seriously, you guys have your own little language that's been secondhand to you for decades now.

No, we don't. Really, we don't. If you keep thinking this you'll be putting unnecessary obstacles in your own path.

1. It sounds like you believe that everyone or even most people have been dating pros since the age of 14. That is ridonkulous and untrue, and you're psyching yourself out for nothing with that. A vast number of people around you (both male and female) have little or no dating experience, or were late bloomers, and you can't tell who they are just by looking.

2. There is no such thing as a separate dating language. There's no secret password that women are waiting to hear in order to be interested to date you, so don't tie yourself in knot wondering what it is! And there's no secret forbidden word that all women are taught in Woman Club to suddenly dump you or run away if they hear you say it, so don't worry about that either!

Remember this: women are people. I'm not saying that because I think you're some kind of misogynist who thinks women are inferior or anything like that. But it sounds a little like you're veering into "women are mystical capricious unknown creatures" land. The range of "bloopers" that would make the average woman, who initially liked you, run for the door or dump you for after a 3rd date, is not far off from the range of bloopers that would make a man do so. It's not so mysterious what these things are - imagine what they would be for you. Speaking generally, probably lack of hygiene, lack of reasonable standards of cleanliness, spouting racist or bigoted things, or bizarre beliefs, displays of anger or violence, etc. But of course, you have take into account the fact that just like men, different women have different preferences. You may well run into a woman at the tail end of the curve who really would be utterly freaked out by dust on the floor. But that's not because she's a woman and it's not because of some mysterious dating language you don't know. It's because she's an outlier and you just have to forget about her and move on to someone compatible.

And I don't know how to convey clearly that I'm interested in a woman without nearly always triggering the "coming on too strong" alert.

This makes me think that you are actually not paying attention to the woman's body language and nonverbal cues. (And I'm not talking about secret dating language cues, just the normal everyday conversational cues that you mentioned you have a good handle on already.)

The conventional/usual way to convey interest in someone, where I'm from, is to say hi to them, start talking to them, and, if they're pleased to talk to you, asking them for their number at the end of the conversation. It sounds like you've been doing that, because you've mentioned "reading and talking in the dating language." The only way that this would normally be considered to be coming on too strong is if the person is giving you cues of disinterest and you're ignoring them every step of the way - just like in non-dating situations. If you say hi to a woman and she averts her eyes, if you persists through that and keep talking to her even though she doesn't want to talk, if you persist through that too and then ask for her number -- that's the point at which it would be coming on too strong.

Because you don't mention what you actually DID that caused people to think you were coming on too strong, I can only guess at 2 other things.

1. You're starting off romantic before you know whether or not the woman even likes you. People like romance from people that they're into. From people they're not into, it seems like coming on too strong. What I mean by starting off romantic is, instead of saying something normal that you'd use as an icebreaker in normal social situations (like talking about a book someone's reading, or their bike, or the place you're in, or whatever) you start off with something romantic like "I couldn't help but be struck by your beautiful eyes" or something like that. If someone is not into you (yet! A lot of the time people aren't initially into other people they end up dating later, till they get to know them better) that could make them extremely uncomfortable. But there's a flip side to this - that if a person already is into you/finds you attractive, they might really like it if you did that. So it's just one of those things where, if you're going to do it before you know whether or not someone's into you, you have to be comfortable with the fact that it might be off-putting to them if they're not.

2. You're jumping ahead in/massively speeding up the average dating timeline. Again, the average dating timeline is not a mystical secret ... you know, you meet someone, spend time together, get to know one another, fall in love, become committed, and so forth. If in your first conversation you're already talking about being in love or wanting to be committed to this person, that could make some people really nervous, because you don't know them AT ALL, and more importantly for their comfort level, they don't know you at all either. Then again, some people really like the idea of love at first sight. That's why nobody can tell you the one-size-fits-all thing to do under all circumstances, because it doesn't exist since everyone's different.

My $.02.
posted by Ashley801 at 3:27 AM on January 31, 2011 [7 favorites]

The number one thing is to learn to be okay with rejection. Not because of anything about you or what you look like or what you're doing, but because it's a numbers game and connecting is just hard no matter who you are.

If you go for the cold approach, the chances of rejection increase quite a bit - partly because few of the people hanging out in a coffeeshop are actively looking for a partner, and partly because most women have been approached by interested strangers several times in their life, and we have no way of telling whether even a charming gorgeous guy is decent or a creep. (Read the answers to this AskMe for some perspective on this.) It's not you, and it's not fair, but it's the way it is.

Even if you go through OKCupid or some avenue where you know the women are looking, or you are consistently getting first dates but no second dates, it's still almost certainly not you. It's not you for a different reason, and dwelling on it will do you no good. If you let your self-esteem take a ding every time someone flakes out or stops returning your calls, by the time you get to someone awesome (again, it's a numbers game) you'll be unappealingly dented.

The second thing is that all healthy relationships, if they go on long enough, eventually get to the point where you have to talk about bills or clean up each other's puke or deal with a loved one dying. Even if you've got the romance thing down, it only gets you so far. If you're good at making and keeping platonic friends of either gender, you will probably be good at relationships.
posted by Metroid Baby at 4:47 AM on January 31, 2011 [5 favorites]

I'm so excited for you. There's so much good advice here, so the only piece I can add is that if you're going to try online dating, don't spend too much time flirting and figuring out what you have in common by email. Meet. In person. In a non-intimidating public place. You can have all the connection in the world through writing and yet you'll know in the first second of laying eyes on each other if there's chemistry. Your gut will tell you that no matter how little experience you have. And then follow the guidelines folks have laid out above.
posted by paindemie at 8:28 AM on January 31, 2011

Give yourself a break. It's cold out there, even for people who've been dating for twenty years.

Let all your friends know that you are dating. Go to activities and community events where there will be lots of people doing interesting things. Bars and coffee house are difficult because everyone is on their guard and the only thing you know you have in common is that you both drink booze or coffee. If you head to a Kayakers Rockabilly Fun times meet up, at least you don't seem like a creep for wandering over and asking to see her Kayak and showing her yours.

As for dating language- it so totally exists and it's not just games. Think about how awkward it is to tell someone that maybe you'd like to kiss them on the mouth and maybe one day you guys will build a lifetime bond. So we hedge. But if you aren’t good at hedging then you can just use "date" as a euphemism for “get to know each other better on the off chance that we might like to form a lifetime bond” Examples!

Girls who are talking to a boy they like will often drop in their status as single into the conversation. The response "I have to admit that I was hoping you were single. I'd love the opportunity to take you out on an old fashioned date." Obviously do not do this after only talking to the lady for a quarter hour, but it pretty much stops the code talking and let's you know to proceed into either platonic or romantic advances.

And a random- Most ladies will to offer to split the tab. If you don't want to see her again: let her. And don't offer to foot the whole thing. It's basically a "does he like me" code. I know a lot of people think it's bullshit. It even might be bullshit- but you are telling a girl that you like her company enough to shell out the five bucks for the pizza- and if you don't pay for the first date- most girls will assume that you we're into them.
posted by Blisterlips at 8:45 AM on January 31, 2011

Anyone who's been divorced after years of marriage thinks the same thing. 'I don't even know how to date!'
The important thing is to not be afraid to fail.
Get out there and do it. Some dates will work. Some won't.
posted by saragoodman3 at 10:19 AM on January 31, 2011

A few tips a dude, noting that I was more lucky than good and just happened to stumble onto the right person and so now I'm very happily married.
  1. Unless you're very confident in your ability to pick someone up (and it sounds like you aren't), use online dating websites. Unless the person is a liar, you're going to know what they generally look like as well as some idea of their personality and whether you might be a match. OkCupid was awesome because it went beyond that, and actually will tell you how likely it is that you and the other person are compatible. Avoid eHarmony for this; their matching algorithm really, really sucks.
  2. Try to get physical early on. Don't push it, don't force it, but keep your eyes open for it and do try to do even minor things like flirting, gently touching the person's shoulder or knee if they seem open to contact. Don't be too shy to try a kiss on the second or even the first date. Unless you are "saving" yourself, this is pretty critical. Holding off on physicality for too long means that you may end up being friends only.
  3. Don't bring up their physical appearance until after you're dating (i.e. you have already gone out for a few dates and some kind of romantic connection has been established). Saying "You look good" on a first date will rarely have a positive effect. On the other hand, once you are dating, complimenting the other person's good looks is sort of an ongoing reassurance that you still are attracted to them. Avoid mentioning specific body parts (possible exception eyes) until you are fairly serious.
  4. Compliments in general are less necessary than you'd think in the beginning of dating, but if and when you do, focus on things that they actually have control over. In other words, don't compliment them on the things they own, the job that they have, how they look, or even how "smart" they are. Instead, compliment them on their tastes, their ideas, their interests, or the manner in which they make or do the things they make or do. These are all aspects that a person has a strong sense of ownership about, so complimenting them means you are paying attention to them as people, rather than as physical specimens. Each time you feel tempted to pay a compliment, ask a question instead, but do it in a way that shows you've paid attention to this aspect of them. Instead of "You're so well traveled!" you can ask, "I noticed on your OkCupid profile that you've been to a lot of places; what has inspired your travel?" something like that.
  5. On the subject of questions: not always true, but often people ask questions they'd like you to ask them. So if someone asks you a question, go ahead and answer but make sure to ask them the same question. Works for everyone but works especially well on dates.

posted by Deathalicious at 11:33 AM on January 31, 2011 [3 favorites]

Check out the SIRC Guide to Flirting (mentioned several times previously on the green). It explains a lot about the secret courtship language that most people don't even realize they're using.
posted by shponglespore at 11:35 AM on January 31, 2011 [1 favorite]

"Hey, I don't know what to say to a woman who I think is darling, but if I *did* know what to say, I'd say it right about now."

I guess this might work in some small parts of the world, but I'm going to go ahead and say that the use of the word "darling" should be entirely excised from your dating vocabulary. This kind of statement, to me, comes across as pushy, desperate, and lacking in confidence.

By the way, the thing you say to a woman who you think is darling is "Hi, my name is ..." and move on from there. Exchanging names is such a common and organic social interaction that you're almost guaranteed a response in kind. If they aren't willing to even say hello in response they probably are either aloof for some reason (possibly legitimate) or aren't in a space for friendly interaction.

By the way, this is why I've always preferred online dating for this. It's nearly impossible to determine why a person might be at the bar/bookstore/etc, but if they are on an online dating site they are probably interested in dating someone like you so long as they are listed as "single" and "looking for guys".
posted by Deathalicious at 11:41 AM on January 31, 2011 [2 favorites]

Don't bring up their physical appearance until after you're dating (i.e. you have already gone out for a few dates and some kind of romantic connection has been established). Saying "You look good" on a first date will rarely have a positive effect. On the other hand, once you are dating, complimenting the other person's good looks is sort of an ongoing reassurance that you still are attracted to them. Avoid mentioning specific body parts (possible exception eyes) until you are fairly serious.

I'd say that this sort of thing goes hand in hand with establishing a sexual/intimate connection. I'd find it repellent if the first thing you said to me was a compliment about my appearance. I'd find it off-putting if you said it on our first outing together. I'd find it flattering if you said something about it during or immediately following sex. I'd find it endearing if, after several months of dating, you continued to throw out a compliment here and there. And if you're still making with the compliments long into our relationship? All the better.

Basically, complimenting a woman's looks is acceptable in direct proportion to how intimately you are acquainted with her. More connection = more appropriate to go there.
posted by Sara C. at 12:12 PM on January 31, 2011

Just wanted to add one last thing:

J. Wilson: One thing you might want to know: If you're at a bar or coffee shop and just go say "hi" to a woman, she's (usually) going to know you're interested. Seriously, talk about the weather -- she'll still know ... The point is, you don't need to "convey clearly" your interest -- the fact that you're striking up a social conversation with a stranger when you're both by yourselves will make this obvious.

Yep, I agree. It's like Chris Rock said:

Women are offered dick every day. Every woman in here gets offered dick at least three times a week. Three times a day, shit! That's right, every time a man's being nice to you... all he's doing is offering dick. That's all it is. ''Can l get that for you? How about some dick?'' ''Could l help you with that? Could l help you to some dick? ''Do you need some dick?''
Obviously those are jokes and I don't think, any time a man says hi to me, that he's a horndog after sex. But I do generally tend to think, if a man I don't know is striking up a conversation with me, that there's a good chance he's interested. I can't speak for all women, but I think many women think the same thing. So yeah, you might not have to worry about making super sure the woman knows you are interested.
posted by Ashley801 at 11:12 PM on February 1, 2011

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