2003 January 13

Dating HOWTO

I found myself writing the following as Letter to the Editor on Salon, in response to an advice column question. I got carried away enough that I decided to preserve it.

So I'm sitting here, bingeing on chocolate and ignoring my looming French exam, trying to figure out exactly what's wrong with me. This is not a new situation. I keep thinking that I've learned from past boy debacles, and I keep ending up here. I could use the usual defense: I'm funny as hell, creative, self-aware, intelligent. I'm no supermodel, but neither are the guys I want to date. I'm an old soul who can hold my own in conversations with people twice my age. But while my personality has won me a great circle of friends, it has never snagged me so much as a single date. I'm thinking that maybe this time I should stop focusing on my good points, and start considering what needs to change.

I'm the kind of person who takes "elitist" as a compliment. I'm assertive -- all right, aggressive, and opinionated to a fault. Even though I can be warm, nurturing and almost embarrassingly sentimental, you need to slog through a shitload of sarcastic insults before you see that side of me. I don't know how to flirt. I don't know how to do hair or makeup. I don't know any of the typical boy/girl mind games. I don't know how to dance. And don't want to learn. To tell the truth, I see all of it as below me.

I guess the question is, how much is worth sacrificing to finally find a boyfriend? My loud mouth? My aversion to exercise? The more pretentious end of my vocabulary? I hope that gender politics aren't really so crude that I have to act vulnerable, dumb and naive to attract a man. ...

Please don't start trying to convince me that I shouldn't want a relationship. Everyone wants a relationship, especially teenagers living away from home for the first time. Don't tell me I'm too young to be worrying about this, don't tell me that you can't force this kind of thing, don't talk about the distant future at all. I've listened to all of those arguments, and all of that advice, and then sat back and watched as everyone around me -- my sister, my schoolmates, even my dysfunctional closet gay best friend -- managed to find (in)significant others before I'd so much as held hands.

For god's sake, don't feel you have to act dumb just to get a boy. If it works at all, it will only get you a dumb boy, and you won't be happy.

I am speaking from the other side of the fence, as a smart boy who still remembers how crappy it was trying to get a date in university.

Dumbness won't attract the boy you want. A bit of emotional vulnerability might. You wrote: "Even though I can be warm, nurturing and almost embarrassingly sentimental, you need to slog through a shitload of sarcastic insults before you see that side of me." There *are* guys out there who will be happy to find someone who can keep up her side in a good duel of wits, but there are also perfectly sharp guys who will be warned off by that. There's more to you than insults -- try to let the guys see that. Why should anybody have to slog to see your warm side? Why would they want to?

At a guess, you made it through high school by keeping your real thoughts and feelings carefully hidden, so no jackass could use them against you. You need to unlearn those habits. Start by just smiling at guys you pass on the street. Meet their eyes for a second, smile, and just keep walking. Many will smile back. It feels good.

Find a guy you just like talking to, but don't let it become too familiar or routine before you do something (anything) to show you're interested in more. Within the first week or two, touch his knee or his arm. Ask him to rub your neck. Lean in close to him, and see how close he lets you get. These are good, because if you get no response, it's easy to pretend nothing happened. (It's still gut-wrenching the first dozen times.)

If you like a guy, make a point of looking for opportunities to compliment him. Non-jock guys don't get much attention from girls. Something as simple as "Hey, you look good in that," or "You know, you're really funny," or "That's a great hat. Where did you get it?" will put you on his radar without compromising your dignity. Don't make shit up. If you can't find anything to compliment about him without making it up, why do you want to date him, anyway?

Compliments make a guy feel good. Compliments from you mean he feels good when he's with you. Thus, he will want to be with you more often. It's very simple. If it starts to go to his head, *then* roll out the put-down.

This shit *can* be learned. You can do research. Go find a book on body language -- read that. There are books on persuasion, and flirting, and psychology. Read books by Deborah Tannen and Desmond Morris; go to the bookstore and sit down in the self-help section and browse until you find something that doesn't insult your intelligence. These ones helped me:

Getting fit can help you to feel better, too, but it's not necessary. Learning to understand people will help more.

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