GayDramaFilter. How can I make sure that people don't confuse my basic interest in them with flirting?
March 18, 2008 5:14 PM   Subscribe

GayDramaFilter. How can I make sure that people don't confuse my basic interest in them with flirting?

I find people fascinating and like talking to them. I can usually find at least some aspects of the other person's personality, experiences, interests that genuinely interest me and that I want to explore further. But the problem I keep running into is that too often, this interest is apparently perceived as flirting, when I have absolutely no intention of doing that. I am stunned to find out, often weeks later, that someone I talked to at length was completely convinced that I was hitting on them, and became upset and at times angry when - in their view - I didn't follow through. This has happened a number of times and it's caused problems.

The issue is that I really don't know what I do to give off this impression. One cynical explanation I have is that in the young gay male community, people very rarely take an interest in other people unless they are attracted to them, but I'd hate for that to be the real reason, so maybe it is something that I do. When I talk to people, my attention is fully focused on them, I maintain eye contact, listen to them and appreciate what they have to say, which makes me a good listener. As several of my friends told me, when they talk to me, they feel like they are the most important person in the world to me at the time, but they couldn't really articulate why. I am generally good at picking up social cues, but for some reason, this is one area that completely fails me.

How should I change my behavior to avoid this?
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (19 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Act just slightly less interested. And keep your hands to yourself, if that's an issue.
posted by The World Famous at 5:19 PM on March 18, 2008

I think the safest thing to do is to assume you are flirting without knowing it. A bunch of people have told you this. They aren't lying to you. Whether or not it is true, just assume that maybe your body is writing checks your mind isn't intending to cash. Starting from that point will help.

I've done this before and it causes problems.
posted by Ironmouth at 5:31 PM on March 18, 2008 [1 favorite]

Welcome to being gay. One of the many reasons gay friendships are hard and difficult.
posted by gramcracker at 5:42 PM on March 18, 2008

I guess a cynical way to avoid this problem would be to mention or imply the existence of an invented boyfriend if possible. Of course, this could cause problems if somebody you liked heard this & believed that you were actually unavailable.

But yeh, I'm not sure if what you describe is strictly any kind of gay problem. Outside of regular & obvious flirting, there can be a real grey area when people show a generic interest in you, but you really can't tell if they were just being friendly or were actually interested in a more personal, romantic sense.

Part of the problem is that we are more likely to be attracted to people who are not only interesting in their own right, but who display an interest in us - it makes us feel valued. You clearly already realise this.

Perhaps you could be more obvious in demonstrating that you find all people interesting, so your poor 'victims' don't think you're singling them out for special attention? ie spend less time one-on-one with people, but more time in groups, chatting & quizzing all the group members equally? As soon as you feel you've devoted enough attention to one person, switch to somebody else & pay them the same level of interest.
posted by UbuRoivas at 5:48 PM on March 18, 2008

People who aren't gay are every bit as interesting as people who are. So you might start by chatting with people who aren't going to be convinced you're hitting on them, because they're not your target market (and vice versa, one would hope). Short if this, try conversing with guys whose type you're not. If you're only talking to guys who are sexually available and who are interested in you, then you're playing some sort of game and you might not even realise it. My best friendships with other gay men are with those where there is no sexual tension or chemistry between us. Works wonders- for example, I'm into other bears and he's a little Asian guy into twinks- perfect foundation for a friendship.

Where are these encounters taking place? If it's in a gay club, then OF COURSE your interlocutor is going to be convinced that you're interested. You might mention otherwise, and do it without insulting him.

I guess I can say more but that'll do.
posted by ethnomethodologist at 5:57 PM on March 18, 2008

I don't have great listening skills, but I have what I will call "charm," and what others might call "cockteasing."

I find it helpful to watch: calling people sugar or dear, touching them anywhere, and compliments.

I treat people who I have unambiguous relationships with however I wish but it it's someone I could theoretically date (i.e. right set of bits and vague age range) and I don't want them to think I'm interested, I dial it all back quite a bit.
posted by Juliet Banana at 6:10 PM on March 18, 2008

It's really hard for us to critique your behavior when we can't see or hear you and when you yourself don't know what you're doing. You need to find an impartial observer, interact with them, then get their feedback. This might be more effort than you think it deserves, but maybe you could find a gay acting coach willing to give you a one-off session.
posted by hjo3 at 6:29 PM on March 18, 2008

Cross your arms, wrinkle your brow, and talk less friendly, like lower your voice.
posted by Wanderlust88 at 6:45 PM on March 18, 2008

Of course, there may also be a problem with straight men feeling like they are being hit upon as well, ethnomethodologist. Even some otherwise reasonable straight men are sometimes irrationally convinced that friendly gay men are interested in them (even some of the smarter ones who know this isn't true occasionally catch themselves doing this subconsciously).

I think the most important thing to watch for is body language and proximity. Physicality is one of the main differences between platonic and romantic interest, so if you can avoid sending signals that you want to touch someone, it will probably go a long way towards reducing misinterpretation. If you're close enough to touch someone, I would avoid leaning closer to them while you're listening. If you're further away, this is less of an issue because it won't seem like you are desiring physical contact. You can still seam interested without seeming rapt. Try leaning back and getting comfortable as though you're about to listen to a good story instead of leaning forward as though you're trying to catch every word as soon as it's spoken. This way you don't have to be unfriendly just to keep from seeming flirtatious.
posted by ErWenn at 6:50 PM on March 18, 2008

If it's actually "flirting" that they think you're doing, there must be ways to tone down that behavior. No touching, less smiling, no winking or using any terms that could be perceived as affectionate (honey, sweetie, babe, etc). You can compliment, but don't gush. Less intense gazing. Look away. Nod as he speaks, but maintain a neutral facial expression, clasp your hands and look at the floor, making sure he knows you're concentrating on what he says, not how dreamy his eyes are.

But "flirting with" is different than "showing interest in." Of course, flirting implies interest, but you can also be interested in someone without flirting with them. So after your first step of figuring out what flirtatious behaviors you can scale back, make sure he knows your interest is also benign. Create a couple sentences that you can state about yourself, like, "Wow, that's amazing. People and their interests really do fascinate me. Sorry if I'm overwhelming you with questions ... it seems like every day I'm cornering people with questions about their interests! I just can't help myself." Or something better. To let him know that this is usual behavior for you, not a mating call.

I'm not male or gay, but every guy I've ever described as making me feel like I'm the most important person in the world I did end up sleeping with. Thinking back, I think a lot of the allure was the intensity in their gaze. And body language. Zeroed right in at me. So sit sideways. Lean back, not forward. Stand while they sit or sit while they stand. Fly casual. Good luck. :)
posted by iguanapolitico at 6:55 PM on March 18, 2008

In my gay male opinion, it sounds like you're simply being yourself, and what a charming and interesting person you must be. If I were talking with you, I don't think I'd interpret "interest" as "flirting," but I'm sure I'd enjoy the conversation. (On the other hand, I'm the sort of guy where you have to almost hit me over the head with a 2 x 4 to let me know you're interested in me -- or take other direct action).

What I really don't understand is, if these people think you're flirting with them why don't they either (a) flirt back; or (b) give you spoken or unspoken signals to lay off? For that matter, if you're so perceptive and such a good listener and good at picking up on social cues, how come you don't pick up on what they are feeling? How is it that it takes "weeks later" sometimes for you to find out?

What we've got here is a failure to communicate, and it comes from both sides of the conversation. Don't feel that all of the responsibility for this is yours. There's two sides to this interaction. For your side, though, do work on paying attention to what the other person might not being saying. I suspect that your "listening" includes leading questions and follow-up questions. Try letting the other person direct the conversation instead, and see where it goes.
posted by Robert Angelo at 7:30 PM on March 18, 2008

This is definitely not just a problem for gay folks. I've seen it in plenty of my straight friends, both male and female, and probably been guilty of it myself more than once. The best strategy I've seen for people who really give off a flirty vibe and don't seem to be able to stop, is along the lines of what iguanapolitico said: bring up in conversation how you're always super interested in the stories people have to tell, so the other person knows that this is normal, non-romantic behavior for you.

You might also find some good advice in this thread.
posted by vytae at 8:30 PM on March 18, 2008

Are you predominantly having this issue with heteros or homos?

If the latter, shit if I know. If the former... Its their loss. You are actually interested in other people, which is rare. If their homophobia is causing problems its really not your fault. If you want to act more detached to coddle their insecurities, its your call.
posted by muscat at 8:49 PM on March 18, 2008

This is not just a an issue for gay and straight men - I've had women friends with the same problems, and the same unwanted assumptions from both men and women. For her what worked was less intense gaze - not looking directly into people's eyes for as long a period of time. In most conversations people don't tend to look directly at others for extended periods - and if they do, well, some people can interpret it as meaning something. (When actually it could just be "wow, I like those glasses, I wonder if it'd be rude to ask where she got them" or something to that effect.) Glancing at things around you as you talk can help. If you're combining an intense gaze with conversation that really delves into who people are - well, what's happening is that the person is thinking "wow, they are REALLY interested in me, there must be some reason why - they must like me." A way around this - don't make these interviews focus exclusively on that person, bring others into the conversation as well. When people see you focus like this on multiple people they can understand "ah, that's just the way Soandso acts around people."
posted by batgrlHG at 10:08 PM on March 18, 2008

(oops, what Vytae said)
posted by batgrlHG at 10:09 PM on March 18, 2008

I was going to mention the gaze as well. Intense eye contact can be misinterpreted as a different kind of interest. More looking around, not holding their eye for too long - you know, what iguanapolitico and batgrlHG said.
posted by bassjump at 4:52 AM on March 19, 2008

I disagree with most of the advice that recommends changing the way you interact. If you are really getting people to feel like "they are the most important person in the world," you are doing a great job at intimate conversation. But, there is a miscommunication happening, so I would suggest adding something, as opposed to changing something. Perhaps toward the end of these types of conversations you could add something like, "I love having these kinds of deep conversations. People are so unique and fascinating. The strange thing is sometimes guys think I am hitting on them, but I am just really interested in other people." Or, a similar kind of statement.
posted by hworth at 8:35 AM on March 19, 2008

OP's problem stems from people being angry that he's "flirting" AND that he "doesn't follow through." His issue is with gay guys, not women and not straight guys, and moreover with ones who are obviously attracted to him. Hence I repeat my advice. Don't just be "friendly" and "interested" with people who are sexually interested in you. That's called being a tease.
posted by ethnomethodologist at 1:59 PM on March 19, 2008

Please don't change!! How refreshing to know there are gay guys out there who actually take a genuine non-sexual interest in other queer boys and aren't glancing beyond the person they are talking to or constantly looking over their shoulders to see who is coming in the door or to check how their hair looks.

It sounds like you've inadvertently met up with insecure gay boys who can't handle someone who doesn't follow the gay stereotypical norm of being shallow and disinterested unless they are hot to trot or want to see you out of your jeans.

They are the ones with problems, not you. Be fierce in your friendly ways, and should someone themselves (rather than through a third party) express to you they thought you were sending unintended signals, be quick and concise with a sincere "oh sorry! that wasn't my intention!" and move on.

Life is too short for such gay drama...
posted by kuppajava at 1:39 PM on March 20, 2008

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