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The Fourth Meditation On Creepiness [Sep. 13th, 2012|03:18 pm]
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In the First and Second Meditations on Privilege, I agreed women had a very reasonable worry - they don't want to be harassed and afraid all the time. In the Third Meditation I argued men also had a very reasonable worry - they want to be able to ask women out without being terrified that it will, as my mother puts it, Become A Federal Case. An obvious solution is to agree on a set of standards to use when asking someone out. Men who follow the standards can rest assured that no one will blow up at them, and women whose suitors follow the standards can rest assured that they won't feel threatened.

This post is about the current version of those standards and why they don't work.

Let's boil down all the various rules into the two important ones I hear over and over again. First, don't proposition total strangers. Second, ask consent before any touching or anything that presumes familiarity.

Rule One: Don't Ask Out Total Strangers
(Or: "Hey I just met you, and this is crazy, but here's my ... *SLAP*")

Start with the first one. siodine put it pretty well in their comment to the last post:
The problem is the level of concern (of being raped) that you're imposing on the other person. If the [man] had been your friend for a while, and you were confident that he was a good person, then you wouldn't feel much concern in denying his proposal.

This is utterly reasonable and obviously correct. It's also never been a problem I've had with women. The idea of going up to a woman I don't even know and making any kind of proposal to her, even one as innocuous as asking to go out for coffee, is utterly foreign to my mentality. With the exception of some very casual online dating I don't think I've ever asked a woman out before I've known her for a few months at least.

Then I learned that this makes me a Nice Guy (TM) and therefore Worse Than Hitler (TM).

And before you accuse me of straw-manning, a female friend of mine once said exactly this. We'd been close friends for about a year, but she made it very clear she wasn't looking for a relationship and even though I was very attracted to her I assumed she wasn't interested. After a year or so and a few things I very optimstically misinterpreted as hints, I decided it would be harmless to just mention I was attracted and if she was interested in taking our relationship to the next level I would be totally on board. She decided this was sufficient justification to stop talking to me forever, send me angry notes whenever I tried to get in contact with her, finally break her radio silence to demand I promise never to talk to her, and vaguebook some posts about how much she hated creeps who pretend to be friendly but are really just Nice Guys (TM) trying to get into her pants.

Actually, I just thought she was an awesome person, and awesome people make great girlfriends but also pretty good friends as well.

I remember reading about Ladder Theory on Reddit a few years ago. Ladder Theory says that guys have one ladder, People I Like. If you're at the bottom of the ladder, I hate you. If you're at the middle of the ladder, you are my friend. If you're at the top of the ladder, you're my best friend and if you're female I probably want you as my girlfriend - barring family relationship or unspeakable hideousness.

Ladder Theory then says that women have two ladders, Friends and Potential Boyfriends. I could be way at the top of a girl's Friend Ladder, so that I'm her best friend and her favorite person ever in the entire world, but she could still have zero interest in dating me.

(now I wonder if there are gender-specific differences in the halo effect. Someone get a grant and study this, please)

The first time I read this it sounded kind of sexist and like sour grapes so I ignored it. But every time women talk about Nice Guys (TM) I struggle to understand the concept any other way. They always use this phrasing like "Man, I thought he liked me as a person and enjoyed spending time with me. But then he said he wanted to date me! What a dirty rotten liar!"

It sounds for all the world like not only are there two ladders, but that women can't even conceive of the idea of having a single ladder where liking someone and wanting to date them are correlated.

But enough with my unresolved five-year-old personal hangups. Here's my problem.

Suppose there is a woman I don't know very well whom I would like to date. Maybe I just saw her and found her stunningly beautiful. Maybe, like alicorn24, I don't even know what she looks like but I have read things she has written and she seems intelligent and fascinating. I seem to have two choices.

I can not get to know her and immediately ask for a date while we are still strangers. This makes me a Creep.

Or I can spend a while getting to know her without mentioning dating, and then after we're comfortable with each other I can bring up romance. That makes me a Nice Guy (TM), and therefore Worse Than Hitler (TM).

Someone is going to bring up a third alternative, which is to only date people I already know and whom I have formed non-romantic relationships with. This is exactly what I tried with my former friend. It still got me dubbed a Nice Guy (TM), and I lost one of my closest friends over it.

(It also means life sucks for men who don't happen to coincidentally have close single female friends at the particular time they feel like dating.)

I guess a fourth possibility is that there is a certain window in which it is acceptable to ask women out in which you are neither quite a stranger nor quite their friend. If this is true, please for the love of Truth and Beauty just tell me what this window is. If you can only ask people on dates between 14 and 21 days after you meet them, that's fine, just make sure someone passes around a piece of paper with those numbers on it in every middle school sex ed class in the country.

But absent such a window, I guess my angry rant is this: you can demonize men who ask women out without getting to know them first. You can demonize men who ask women out when they do get to know them first. If you demonize both at the same time, you just end up with learned helplessness and men are going to shrug and do whatever they would have done anyway, since there's equal demonization either way.

Rule Two: Ask First

The problem with the first rule wasn't that it wasn't a great rule that everyone should follow, it was that I felt more demonized when I did follow it than when I didn't. This turns out to be pretty much the same problem with the second rule.

Part of the reason I keep harping about the point that creepiness comes from "male weakness" rather than "male privilege" is that (generalizing from one example) the main reason a guy might not ask is that he is terrified of reaching a point of no return. This is really hard to explain to someone who's never worried about it, so let me try a metaphor.

Imagine two Soviet spies in the Cold War US who have to get in contact with one another. The KGB forgot to give them a silly code phrase like "the wombat feeds at midnight" so they've got to figure it out on their own. The Americans know these two spies are trying to get in contact, so if one were to just ask random people "Are you a Soviet spy?" the Americans could quickly guess that the asker was a spy and arrest him.

You are one of the two spies, and you spot someone who you're about 50% sure is your colleague. How do you confirm they are also a spy with the lowest possible risk of getting arrested?

I bet there's some fancy cryptographic solution here, but my intuitive strategy would be as follows:
Me: Excuse me, sir, do you know any good borscht restaurants around here?
Other Spy: Ah, borscht. I love borscht!
Me: I hear Russian borscht is the best. Have you ever had any?
Other Spy: Yes, I was in Moscow once many years ago, before the war.
Me: Really? Have you ever been to [street the KGB headquarters is on?]
Other Spy: All the time! That's my favorite street! I used to talk to [name of KGB head] a lot.
Me: I am a Soviet spy. Are you one too?
Other Spy: Yes.

You would be immediately under suspicion if you asked patriotic Americans "Are you a Soviet spy?", since they would then know you were probably the other spy yourself. So instead you lead up with a question that seems innocuous to an American who's not thinking about spying, but to a Soviet who is specifically looking for another spy is sorta kinda suggestive of Russia. The other spy can't just say "Ah, I understand your code, I too am a spy" because then he might blow his cover to an American who was just looking for some good borscht. So he says something that slightly escalates the Russianness. You can't just blow your cover now, because you're still not sure he's not just an American who appreciates a good plate of borscht himself, so you escalate the Russianness slightly further. In other words, you start off with a conversation that could happen by coincidence, decrease the chance of coincidence a little bit at each exchange only once you get the signal from the other, and eventually the conversation becomes one that couldn't possibly happen by coincidence and you know he's the other spy.

When I was much younger and more terrified of women, this was exactly the route I would take. I didn't want to know if she was my fellow spy, I wanted to know if she liked me. I can't just ask, or I might end up as the next Julius Rosenberg. So instead - maybe we're sitting next to each other, so I move a little closer to her. If she moves a little closer to me, or does anything that could be interpreted in my feverishly optimistic brain as resembling this, then maybe I touch my leg against hers. If she touches her leg against me, maybe I rest my arm against her shoulder. If she rests her arm against my shoulder, I smile at her. If she smiles at me, then I ask for her hand in marriage.

One can also do this verbally. It would pain me to even type out the conversation, but I assure you it's still pretty awkward.

And when this doesn't work, sometimes if the other person just looks super Russian it's tempting to worry you've miscalibrated your subtlety ("Man, what if this guy just really hates borscht? Maybe I should call him Comrade and see what happens?) and try something else.

And okay, this is all super creepy, and I know that now, and I'm sorry for doing it, and I won't do it again.

(by the way, the one time this worked I was so flabbergasted and confused I completely forgot to ask for her hand in marriage. In case you haven't figured it out from this latest series of blog posts, I'm kind of an idiot.)

But let me try to explain (not justify, mind you) why this might seem like a thing someone should do.

I had a friend a few years ago, let's call her Alice. I asked Alice out on a date. She said she wanted to keep being friends. This went well. No, really. It actually went well.

Alice moved to another state, and a little while afterwards I went to visit her for a week. I worried if it might be creepy if I asked her to cuddle after she had said she wanted to be friends, but eventually I asked her anyway, and she said that was great and she loved cuddling and had been pretty desperate for someone to cuddle with.

We cuddled all week, but I was super super careful not to touch her breasts or any other part of her body that might be interpreted as outside the spirit of friendly platonic cuddling. On the last day she basically grabbed my hands and put them on her breasts and told me that she really liked having her breasts touched and obviously I was never going to get around to asking her of my own initiative.

And, being male, I thought Darnit, I could have been doing that the last six days!

And on the train home I was thinking about this, and I tried to figure out if there was something I could have done differently, and I decided that there is literally no non-creepy way to say "Excuse me, do you mind if I place my hands on your breasts?" Try it. I dare you to construct a non-creepy version of that sentence.

(as an aside, the existence of the non-threatening and socially acceptable word "cuddle" is super helpful. Before I learned that word I just never cuddled anyone, there is no non-creepy way to say "Excuse me, do you mind if I touch and stroke your body?")

Putting your hands on someone's breasts without asking them is a much worse offense than asking "Excuse me, do you mind if I place my hands on your breasts?". But, someone who actually puts their hands on someone else's breasts without asking them is likely to get swatted away and get a "Go away, creep!" and then the issue will probably never be spoken of again. If there were a rumor at my high school that some guy had put his hands on some girl's breasts, it would die down in a week, two weeks tops. On the other hand, someone who goes up to a girl and asks "Excuse me, do you mind if I place my hands on your breasts?" becomes a creepiness legend. If there were a rumor at my high school that some guy had asked a girl for permission to put his hands on her breasts, then that rumor would pass down from upperclassmen to lowerclassmen through the generations, and a thousand years from now when the high school exists only in cyberspace the disembodied transhuman freshmen would still be giggling to one another about it.

The same is true of the creepy Soviet-spy escalating thing. Is it creepy and horrible? Yes. Is it so utterly non-juicy that it would never make a good rumor? Also yes. So the more terrified a guy is of asking "Would you like to go out?" or "Would you like to cuddle?" or even "May I put my hands on your breasts?", the more likely he is to try creepiness instead. On the other hand, the day you can ask consent without any fear of reprisal or shaming is the day that men give a huge sigh of relief and just ask out the women they like without going through the whole creepiness rigamarole which honestly is pretty stressful for us too.

This is why I keep stressing that creepiness comes from male weakness rather than male privilege. If there were no risk of getting arrested, then the Soviet spy wouldn't ask silly questions about borscht. If there were no risk of being pilloried as a horrible creepy person for asking out a person "above your station", then creepy high school me wouldn't have sat uncomfortably close to girls in the hopes that this would prompt them to spontaneously show interest.

(I am not saying that the women who write blogs on gender issues are the same women who demonize men for asking consent, although empirically some of them sometimes are and this is bad. I am just saying that for the rest of them, convincing women not to demonize men who ask for consent would be a very valuable project.)


I think the two rules above are absolutely great rules and necessary. But they only work if people don't make a pet project out of punishing men for following them.

If the rule is "Don't ask out women before you build trust with them", then don't demonize guys who try to build trust with women before asking them out.

If the rule is "Always ask before you presume anything," then don't demonize guys who ask things.

I know it's more complicated than that, and I know the women who are doing this have good reasons, but once it becomes too complicated it becomes impossible for well-intentioned people to follow and then we just do the whole learned helplessness thing and resign ourselves to being demonized. And that doesn't help anyone of any gender.

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[User Picture]From: andrewducker
2012-09-13 10:35 pm (UTC)


The problem is that most people do the actual communication through non-verbal communication, and backing off if the other person doesn't respond.

Give someone a hand up, and if their hand lingers for longer than it needs to, then that indicates* that they like touching you. Rub their back, and if they keep arching into it, then that's a positive sign. If you're cuddling with your arm around them, and they snuggle into you so that your arm is over their breasts, another positive sign. Put your arm a little too close to their breasts and they wriggle around so it's not there, and that's a negative sign.

All little "points" up and down a scale, and for people who are good at reading those signs, it all adds up fairly easily and smoothly. People who are _rubbish_ at reading those signs tend to have discontinuous jumps rather than smoother curves - collecting tokens of "You are now allowed to do X" that make things entirely explicit.

And that's safer sometimes, and totally worth it if you're not sure. But I don't think it's how most people manage this stuff.

*That's "indicates", not "100% proves", obviously.
[User Picture]From: squid314
2012-09-13 10:42 pm (UTC)



I understand what you're saying, but "rub the person's back to find out if they like you" totally contradicts the "ask consent before touching" rule. I suppose you can ask "May I rub your back", but again that's textbook creepy.

So I agree that what you say are the unwritten rules. What I'm saying is that they contradict the written rules and so whichever set you choose you can get demonized for not following the other.
[User Picture]From: nancylebov
2012-09-13 10:51 pm (UTC)


Damn, I'd been hoping that the narrower definition of Nice Guy was in play-- that it was specifically about the man who listens to a woman's complaints about inferior boyfriends, never makes a move towards a romantic/sexual relationship, and then resents her for it.

Instead, it seems that there are at least some women who use a wider definition.


There's another strategy some people use-- asking mutual friends about the possibility of romantic interest.
From: danarmak
2012-09-13 11:28 pm (UTC)


How are the mutual friends supposed to know? If friend X asks me about mutual friend Y's possible interest in her, and I hadn't happened to talk to Y about it before, I'd have no idea. Is the idea for the mutual friends to gather hints that the actual target of the hints doesn't get?
From: gwern branwen
2012-09-13 10:54 pm (UTC)


> So instead you lead up with a question that seems innocuous to an American who's not thinking about spying, but to a Soviet who is specifically looking for another spy is sorta kinda suggestive of Russia. The other spy can't just say "Ah, I understand your code, I too am a spy" because then he might blow his cover to an American who was just looking for some good borscht. So he says something that slightly escalates the Russianness. You can't just blow your cover now, because you're still not sure he's not just an American who appreciates a good plate of borscht himself, so you escalate the Russianness slightly further. In other words, you start off with a conversation that could happen by coincidence, decrease the chance of coincidence a little bit at each exchange only once you get the signal from the other, and eventually the conversation becomes one that couldn't possibly happen by coincidence and you know he's the other spy.

Fantastic. Now I can't stop thinking about innuendo as >1 likelihood ratios...
From: siodine
2012-09-13 11:05 pm (UTC)


What? I wasn't saying anything like "you shouldn't ask out total strangers." I was saying that you should avoid propositioning total strangers for sex where it's likely to frighten them (and even frighten you if you were in their position). I see little problem with asking out strangers for a date where it's socially acceptable, or propositioning people for sex in places where such propositions are socially acceptable (bars and clubs for example), or trying to turn friends into more than friends.

>I can not get to know her and immediately ask for a date while we are still strangers. This makes me a Creep.

Only if you're absolutely awful in social situations and haven't an ounce of charm, then yeah they'll call you a creep (though you're not) because of how awkward you are (and how rude they are). All you need to do is start a short conversation, see if they're enjoying it, then end the conversation with a "hey, if you're not seeing anyone, we should get a coffee some time." They can always just say "sorry, I'm seeing someone."

I think you need a better model of social norms for dating, flirting, and propositioning. And I think you might have mixed up "let's go for coffee" (i.e., a euphemism for "let's go on a date") with "want to come up to my room for a coffee" (i.e., a euphemism for "let's have sex").

Edited at 2012-09-13 11:09 pm (UTC)
[User Picture]From: squid314
2012-09-13 11:12 pm (UTC)


Sorry for misinterpreting you. Looking at it again your point was definitely that all three factors coincide. I do think you were saying that strangeness is at least a risk factor, though.
[User Picture]From: mme_n_b
2012-09-13 11:06 pm (UTC)


"not only are there two ladders, but that women can't even conceive of the idea of having a single ladder where liking someone and wanting to date them are correlated"
Not true. Multiple women I know date and/or are married to guys who started out as best friends. The key word here is "best". You don't get to switch ladders except at the top or bottom. Your mistake was trying to switch near the middle, when the cost of losing you was still low enough.

"I guess a fourth possibility is that there is a certain window in which it is acceptable to ask women out in which you are neither quite a stranger nor quite their friend. If this is true, please for the love of Truth and Beauty just tell me what this window is. "
When you are a vouched acquaintance. This is like being a certified used car. Be a friend of a friend or a friend's boyfriend or belong to the same club/church or share similar opinions online.
Also, it helps to ask in a really non-threatening way. I. e. if you go out to do date-type stuff (whatever that is for you) as friends, and stay together in the same space as friends, and eventually you just happen to be found, all cute and available somewhere close at hand then sex will very likely happen, because women like sex. And then you can keep on having sex, as friends, or get married, or get a dog together, or even start calling each other Soulmates Forever. What I'm saying here is that your experience with Alice is not unusual. It's pretty normal. It's how many women think things are supposed to be. To figure out whether it's ok to go from cuddling to breast-holding try kissing something innocuous. It's just like asking, but not creepy.

Seriously, there is far less demonization out there than you might think.

"once it becomes too complicated it becomes impossible for well-intentioned people to follow"
Yes. That's because "well-intentioned" is not the only criterion by which women pick sexual partners. Being able and willing to do a complicated mating dance is a signal of serious intentions and respect.

[User Picture]From: squid314
2012-09-13 11:15 pm (UTC)


I don't mind if women want to only go out with people who can do a complicated mating dance. That's their right.

But if they deliberately make the mating dance super complicated and then freak out when anyone misses a step and call the guy a creep and a potential rapist and try to ruin his reputation, that's kind of, well, mean?
[User Picture]From: celandine13
2012-09-13 11:10 pm (UTC)


For a female perspective, I *have* had the whole business about "Man, I thought he liked me as a person and enjoyed spending time with me. But then he said he wanted to date me! What a dirty rotten liar!"

First time I ever went on a date, in fact. I was young and naive. I met a guy at a party and we clicked over our interest in economics and libertarianism. He told me I was smart and interesting. He asked me out...and then I noticed him leaning in like he was going to kiss me and I thought "Oh god he LIED about thinking I was smart and interesting! It was just a ruse to get into my pants! He's probably laughing about me with all his friends!" I panicked and didn't speak to him again for two years.

Well, Sadie Lou has moved on from that level of cluelessness, but I still sometimes have the thought "Drat, I hope he's not into me *that* way, I really want to collaborate with him/go into business with him/talk about ideas with him." Sometimes you want the non-sexual connection to be genuine.
[User Picture]From: xuenay
2012-09-14 07:31 am (UTC)


Huh. As someone who's specifically attracted to intelligent women, and who has mild demisexual tendencies and thus needs that non-sexual connection for a proper sexual connection to form in the first place... I find it quite scary to hear that a meme saying that "if they ask me out, then they don't actually like me as a person" exists and is apparently at least somewhat common.

(Also, the topic under discussion makes me uncomfortably conscious of the fact that in three out of four of posts so far, I've replied to your comment in particular, and that this might be taken as creepy or Internet-stalking or something. Um. No creepiness intended.)
From: (Anonymous)
2012-09-14 12:02 am (UTC)


this all sounds terrible for the following reason.;=player_embedded
[User Picture]From: marycatelli
2012-09-14 12:25 am (UTC)


I think you would appreciate this sequence:
[User Picture]From: squid314
2012-09-14 08:00 pm (UTC)


The Universe needs to be much more like comics.
[User Picture]From: ikadell
2012-09-14 12:26 am (UTC)


Okay, here is how this is done in Russia.

The guy cannot (under any circumstances, unless he is hiring a prostitute on the street) ask out a girl he just encountered, under the pains and penalties of her thinking he believes her to be a prostitute, which makes him a creep even if she is one.

Step 1. He has to come up with a socially acceptable reason to start a conversation, out of which people usually go with directions (could you please tell me how to get to the museum, thank you, btw, if you know, would your fine arts be a good choice for a fan of medieval paintings, what do you guys have (I'm new to town), do you enjoy them too, great, well, may I possibly interest you in meeting later today for the exhibit of Fra Angelico that was highly recommended to me by a friend who teaches at Moscow State, etc - and in course of the conversation it is damn obvious whether she is helping you or not. If she is interested in you, she will like the painting, and come with you and allow you to carry on with the first step). Obviously, the idea is that you look at the girl and determine whether you should be asking about a museum or a coffee shop, or maybe a ice cream stand. If she is not interested, she will just tell you she is busy today. If she is in fact really busy-but-would-come she will suggest a different date and time herself, and may even leave contact information.

Step 2: you go to the exhibition/cinema/museum/coffee shop, meet there, and talk, exchanging biographies, in course of which you find out if the girl has any pending engagements. If she is not immediately interested, she will tell about her boyfriend, or lie about a boyfriend, or just tell you that she is not interested and whether\how she is engaged - whereupon you bluntly tell her that you would like to remain friends especially given the common interest, she says ok, and you remain friends, until step 4.

Step 3: if she is not presently engaged, you can ask her for another meeting of the similar nature, and if she is interested, she will agree to another meeting, after which you take her out for a meal, and there you can ask her if she is interested in dating you socially, i.e. going out to events together and such. If she says yes, you pick up the bill. Then you can hold hands, lock arms, you can kiss at parting, and eventually progress as far as you both feel comfortable, and she will not freak out if you eventually suggest sex. She may say no, or not yet, but she will not think you creep. If she says no, you immediately suggest that you will be happy to remain her friend if that is the case, and proceed to step 4.

Step 4: you are acquainted with each other for some time, you get to know about each other to a certain degree, and at some point you get privy to her affairs. If she is with someone, and it does not look promising, and you were actually looking for a girlfriend, you just back off and hit on someone else. Which does not exclude remaining friends with her.
If turns out she is available after all, and will let you know by telling you that she has broken up with a boyfriend or current engagement, at which point you have to find out if that involves painful memories, or such, and if she's past that thing, you proceed to step three. If it is a painful thing and she is all over the last relationship, you get her drunk and crying, tell her how she's awesome and you like her and the other guy is a jerk, and you would ask her on a whim if she were up for it, but do not attempt anything physical. Whereupon she throws herself in your arms and mission accomplished, or she thanks you for being a great friend and really understanding, and you proceed to step 2.
[User Picture]From: diesel_driver
2012-09-21 04:08 am (UTC)


Oh my.
Sometimes I wondered if dating is simpler in Russia (I haven't been there since I was, like, 14). I guess I would have even worse time there.
From: Alex Rozenshteyn
2012-09-14 01:46 am (UTC)


I may be jumping off the feminist bandwagon here, but I think people (incidentally, mostly women) who react badly to reasonable requests like "Would you like to go out?" or "May I touch your breasts?" (I've pulled both of those, and it wasn't creepy in context) are either insecure, self-aggrandizing, or assholes (with some exceptions who honestly perceive something that shouldn't be creepy as creepy due to past experience).

The border between creepy and not lies in context; you don't ask the first one of someone you haven't met yet or haven't interacted with in a personal setting (there is no window; your female friend is a jerk), and you don't ask the second of someone you aren't physically comfortable with (outside of very particular settings with different social conventions).

As was said frequently by my former roommate, "I love my social circle." It turns out that there are people whom you can just ask "Hey, would you like to have sex?" and they respond with "Not really, but I appreciate the offer," and you go on being friends.

I find it interesting to observe that in a kinky setting or subculture asking things like that isn't creepy and is kind of expected, unless you come off as pressuring or whining.
From: (Anonymous)
2012-09-14 02:29 am (UTC)


Looking at the replies (and using my own intuition), I think that Rule 1 was simply the wrong abstraction to take from Elevator-gate. The following might be a better one:

It's usually creepy to jump to (or request, overtly or tacitly) a *much* higher level of intimacy than your current baseline with someone. Or, to put it the other way around, the social norm is to escalate in small stages with reciprocity (like the exchange between spies), maintaining plausible deniability so that either party can back out while saving face.

This encompasses the creepiness of the elevator proposal: going from "complete stranger" to "propositioning for sex" violates the rule. It also explains why you're supposed to try out (while being careful to look for reciprocity) intermediate nonverbal stages toward a romantic physical act (like the more intimate kinds of cuddling) rather than ask overtly for it when in a non-romantic analogue.

There are all sorts of nuance, of course; people's level-of-assumed-intimacy baseline for strangers will be significantly higher in some contexts (dance clubs, for instance) than in others (bus stops, for instance). And because of all the layers of signaling and countersignaling, it's possible for some people sometimes to break this rule without being seen as creepy (especially if they're known to be high-status). But it's a much more plausible heuristic for our social norms than "don't make romantic advances toward strangers, ever".

And here's a (flattering, sorry) personal example: Once, my flatmate was having a friend stay over on the apartment couch, and she and I immediately hit it off. I didn't spend my time consciously strategizing during our conversation, but every time she made a move to sit closer to me, I did the same (the next time I shifted posture). Eventually, my flatmate went to bed... and instead of directly making a move, I suggested taking a walk, she came along, and on the walk I kissed her. This was a Very Good way of going about it un-creepily, for two reasons: first, it allowed me to check my instincts by seeing if she'd say yes to an invitation that was semi-romantic, and secondly, if I'd made my first overtly romantic move right next to where she'd be sleeping, it would seem to be a tacit request for a lot more (thus violating the rule).

(Yeah, there *are* invisible rules like that one about sleeping area. But if you escalate in small steps, you're less likely to wreak too much havoc even if you break one of those.)

The "Nice Guy = Worse Than Hitler" is its own can of worms... but hey, at least you don't have two mutually incompatible rules anymore!

[User Picture]From: sniffnoy
2012-09-14 03:02 am (UTC)


Or, to put it the other way around, the social norm is to escalate in small stages with reciprocity (like the exchange between spies), maintaining plausible deniability so that either party can back out while saving face.

I think this once again forces the question: How does this, which you recommend, differ from the thing Scott was actually analogizing to an exchange between spies, which is apparently super creepy?

Edited at 2012-09-14 03:03 am (UTC)
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From: (Anonymous)
2012-09-14 03:19 am (UTC)


I've seen this topic batted back and forth over the past couple of weeks, and this seems like a reasonable enough place to pitch in about it.

I'm something of a nerd-done-good success story as far as the opposite sex is concerned. Ten years ago I was 320lbs of mobile butter who would talk to you at length about elves, vampires and starships. At this very moment in time there are four women concurrently expressing an interest in me, and there's a reasonable chance I'm going to turn them all down. Butter-vampire-starship-me is screaming at present-me across the intervening decade. If he was here right now, I wonder what I would tell him. The more I think about it, the more I realise it's the same as what I want to tell every exponent of "Nice Guy Syndrome".

We were told, explicitly, that you had to be nice to women and respect them. We were also told not to try and coerce them into things they didn't want to do. We weren't really told anything else. If you're a literal-minded kid, your conceptual model of how romance works goes as follows:

- Find a girl you like
- Be nice to her
- Express no sexual interest in her whatsoever
- Wait for her to realise how nice you are
- Mutually confess your undying love
- Happy ever after

I even remember, as a young teen, thinking "how the hell is this actually supposed to work?" Media portrayals of relationships do nothing to dispel this idea, and while this model might get more nuanced as you get older, the only thing that will really correct it is experience. Experience is hard to come by when you spend six months at a time platonically gurning at the object of your affections, wondering why it hasn't worked yet.

With the best of intentions, we're just doing what we've been instructed to do. When we realise it doesn't work, there are two obvious and repugnant explanations: there's something wrong with us, or there's something wrong with ALL WOMEN. The two aren't necessarily mutually exclusive, but it's easy to see how the former leads people into being angry Forever Alone perma-virgins, while the latter leads people into being angry misogynists. Failing at something by just doing what you were told is bad enough. Having someone turn round and accuse you of being some sort of horrible predator because you're just doing as you were told? That feels like the pinnacle of unfairness.

Of course, the actual explanation is that the model is simply incorrect, and romantic interest is signalled and solicited through a selection of oblique processes commonly called "flirting". I imagine a lot of guys who weren't told to be nice or respectful to women probably stumbled across flirting quite by accident from a young age. To butter-vampire-starship-me, it was like witchcraft.

As I currently understand it, flirting basically comes down to transgressing politeness norms in a non-threatening way. If it's reciprocated, you push the envelope a little further. Repeat until bored or naked. Unfortunately "non-threatening" is somewhat subjective. If you're John Merrick the Elephant Man, chances are that walking up to someone on a crowded street in the middle of the day and saying hello will come across as a bit threatening. Life is horribly unfair a lot of the time.

I say this as a >6' tall not-obviously-unattractive fairly eloquent guy with a well-paying job in one of the most populous cities in the world, but it doesn't really strike me as being that hard to negotiate mutual attraction. It's unfortunate that the only group currently motivated to correcting men's misguided beliefs about romance is the PUA community, many of whom are insufferable shitbricks. Men deserve a better class of instructor, and women deserve to benefit from that.
[User Picture]From: squid314
2012-09-14 03:45 am (UTC)


I agree with you entirely, I just think that if romance is really "transgressing politeness norms in a non-threatening way" and if the criteria for "threatening" differs from person to person and is impossible to pin down, then people either need to change how they do romance, or else stop getting upset when people transgress politeness norms just slightly too much and they find it threatening.

I agree with you about the need for dating advice that's less sleazy than PUA, except that I think it probably already exists but gets lumped into the category of "PUA" merely because it is dating advice.
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[User Picture]From: swimmy
2012-09-14 04:00 am (UTC)


I think you (and your former friend) are missing something seriously important about Nice Guys.

There are two kinds of Nice Guys. There are guys like you (and me, back in early college) who do what you did and then feel all guilty/sad about it but understand the woman's point of view, do their best continue being friends, and try not to bring it up ever again. It doesn't always work, because things can get awkward, but it's clear you didn't intend any ill will toward her after she rejected you.

Then there are the other Nice Guys. These guys, when rejected, feel outraged. They get bitter that their love interest isn't interested in them, that she's only interested in "Bad Boys." So they retaliate. They cut off the friendship, spread horrible rumors about her, call her a slut, etc. (Since, apparently, being there for a friend is Work that deserves a Reward.) Yes, this is a real thing, see the comments here for some examples. You'll see both horror stories from women AND the bad kind of Nice Guy chiming into the comments and saying the exact awful things the article accuses them of believing. It also happened to my wife in college. She lost a good friend who became her bitter enemy, picking on her in class, keeping her from being invited to parties, spreading awful false rumors about her, all because she said "no."

If they're called on any of this, they give a spiel about how they were always there when she wanted to cry on his shoulders about other guys, the least she could do is put out. A lot of slut-shaming fantasy goes on, stuff like, "Well I'm done with this, when she does finally come around, I'll just tell her her vagina's ruined! Ha!"

I'm sorry your former friend reacted that way--she should have differentiated between kinds of Nice Guys. But the demonization of Nice Guys is not entirely unreasonable. A good portion of them actually are sexist creeps. This just exacerbates the problem you're describing, of course, and makes fixing it harder.
[User Picture]From: squid314
2012-09-14 04:10 am (UTC)


I see what you're saying and it makes sense but I want to mention two very small points.

First, I don't think worrying that a love interest is only into "bad boys" is on a par with all those other bad things you say define the "bad sort of nice guys". I may be very biased, but many people I've seen do seem to make pretty self-destructive choices (I particularly remember one of my violent sorta psychopathic patients at the hospital boasting that he could get any girl he wanted, then backing it up by seducing some of the other patients). Although of course people have to make their own choices and even their own mistakes, I can definitely see how people could be legitimately upset here.

Second, I have on occasion avoided women who have rejected me just because it's really really awkward to be around them afterwards and I feel like they're constantly judging me. It doesn't mean I feel like "Well, if you rejected me our friendship is over", and usually I can eventually continue being friends with them a while later (I realize this sort of spoils my outrage when my friend did the same to me, although she was a close friend and I feel like she could have done something better than stop all communication). But I would be very hesitant to accuse men of being mean or spiteful just because they stop hanging out with a woman who rejects them.

Obviously if they're insulting her or whatever that's a different story.
[User Picture]From: pktechgirl
2012-09-14 04:15 am (UTC)


Your friend who expected you to magically intuit it was okay to touch her breasts? She was in the wrong. It not only wasn't a reasonable expectation on its own merits, but it was her turn to escalate after you took the risk of initiating cuddles.
[User Picture]From: squid314
2012-09-14 05:06 am (UTC)


Gaah! No! I didn't mean to imply she was in the wrong and she's one of the nicest people I know and I'm actually amazed she was awesome enough to correct me on this.
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[User Picture]From: avanti_90
2012-09-14 04:18 am (UTC)


Looks like I have a bit to say in response to this one, since it strikes very close indeed. I've been in a position somewhat similar to that of your former close friend, though it wasn't quite as bad as that and there was plenty of what I saw as creepiness involved.

One problem is that once a guy has expressed romantic interest, even if I trust him and don't think he's a total creep for it, it's really difficult to just be friends again, as if it didn't happen. This seems very irrational once I type it out, but it's nevertheless true. Maybe it's just me?

guys have one ladder, People I Like
This is a big surprise. I always thought that guys were the ones with two ladders.

I think a lot of the problem is not that the rules are stupid, but that people on both sides are really bad at following the rules. Girls who send signals so subtle that the other side can't understand them, or guys who don't take an obvious 'no' signal, or who see the 'no' signal and don't seem to care.

This can be a problem with the Soviet Spy Strategy. Consider:

Spy: Excuse me, do you know any good borscht restaurants around here?
Me: Ah, borscht. I love borscht!
Spy: I hear Russian borscht is the best.
Me: Well, yes, I suppose so...
Spy: Really? Have you ever been to [street the KGB headquarters is on?]
Me: No, I have not. Here's the address of a good borscht restaurant, why don't you go and try it?
Spy: Certainly! Would you care to accompany me?
Me: Thank you, but I have to go to work.
Spy: I will come and pick you up after work. We can have borscht and discuss America's nuclear bomb program.
Me: What? No, thank you, I'm not interested in nuclear bombs.
Spy: Perhaps I can make borscht for you.
Me: *starts walking really fast*
[cut to next morning, when I open my door to see Spy holding two bowls of borscht]
Spy: See, I have brought you some borscht! Now do you want to discuss America's secret stockpiles of plutonium?
Me: You know what? Thanks to you, I never want to see borscht again. For the rest of the year I will avoid my favorite borscht restaurant for fear of being annoyed by you. Next time I am asked if I like borscht, I am going to lie out of fear. You have now ruined borscht for me forever.
Spy: But you said you liked borscht! All I wanted to know was whether you were a Soviet spy, like me!
Me: *calls police*

OK, got a little carried away there. But it happens.

Edited at 2012-09-14 04:24 am (UTC)
[User Picture]From: squid314
2012-09-14 05:07 am (UTC)


From: (Anonymous)
2012-09-14 05:43 am (UTC)


I want to chime in here and say that a lot of creepy behavior isn't "sinister" in the sense that it has the secret motive of "I want to do this to eventually make babies" but happens because it's strongly desired. To pull a very recent example from my life: sitting next to a cute female friend of mine in a car on a bumpy road trip. She's married, I like her husband. I have literally zero intention to do anything "creepy" or romantic at her. But even so, I viscerally enjoy every single time a bump causes her leg to touch mine. I have a strong desire to hold her hand when it's near mine, even though I know perfectly that this is unwanted, would have bad consequences, and is "creepy". When she nods off and ends up leaning against me, I love it. I'm not intentionally trying to feel any of this. It's just what I feel whenever I'm next to a girl I like, this constant desire to touch and be touched. Im well aware both that my desire for this sort of thing is higher than others and that my threshold of needing to know someone before doing things is lower, which gives me I hope a reasonable level of caution. I know no everyone is willing to cuddle within hours of meeting. But I haven't always been this conscious, and wanting something very much can easily distort your view of how others feel about it. I'm horrified of frightening someone by ramping up physicality too fast, so I am certain I am more cautious than I need be. It's all too easy to imagine people with less awareness who do something they want very badly and simply dont understand why instead of just being rejected they become shunned. I really wish it were acceptable for me/others to wear things that signify "kiss me, it's ok! I like tongue!"
From: (Anonymous)
2012-09-14 05:54 am (UTC)


This was not intentionally anonymous but I'm going to leave it that way because I'm pretty sure it's creepy to admit to having the thoughts and feelings that I do.
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[User Picture]From: mair_aw
2012-09-14 08:28 am (UTC)


Sometimes, it goes like this:

* guy and girl make friends. yay

* guy admits to an attraction for the girl.
* she doesn't like him "that way", but 'I don't want to lose your friendship, let's stay friends'.
* he agrees

* some time later, maybe after a glass of wine or two, he tries to go to kiss her
* or he keeps asking her out about once a week
* or every time she naturally goes to hug him, he seems to be trying to use the hug as a way to push on the relationship

* she is shocked and horrified because she thought they'd agreed to stay friends

* she can't comfortably be alone with him, has to modify her behaviour around him, etc

* she ends up pushing him away repeatedly over a period of time, until she decides it's easiest to cut her losses and give up on the friendship.

When I say 'sometimes', I'm not sure I've ever had a guy admit attraction to me, and successfully maintain a friendship afterwards. After several awkward failures, I'd be inclined to give up pretty fast these days. I know other women who have had the same trouble.

[User Picture]From: mair_aw
2012-09-14 08:35 am (UTC)


the thing being - just as ferrett's coffee shop thing or the indian beggars or whatever is supposed to be an analogy for guys she doesn't know - how does she know that you're the one genuinely good guy? It turns out to be just the same with guys she does know: how does she know that you're the one guy who won't suddenly turn creepy on her. Only, the discovery that you are (statistically, not necessary actually...) creepy after all is way more painful when she thought you were friends than when she didn't know you from adam.

From: (Anonymous)
2012-09-14 08:51 am (UTC)


An obvious solution is to agree on a set of standards to use when asking someone out.

How about internet dating? I know two couples who met using okcupid and have been together for years. If there's a stigma around it now I expect it will be gone soon.

Okcupid also avoids some of the problems with "learn by doing it badly" as discussed in part 3. If you accidentally do something creepy in front of a stranger, it's easier to think about that as "oops" rather than "oh god I am a terrible person forever". Also they can't wreck your reputation.

...I guess I should disclaim that I don't have an okcupid account myself. I've gone to the profile creation thing a few times, but I always get five minutes in and get an extremely strong desire to be doing something -- anything -- else. But that is a problem with me, not with internet dating.
[User Picture]From: pw201
2012-09-14 09:25 am (UTC)

(Link) , right?

In this particular case, the rules you get from reading angry Social Justice Warrior blogs (clues: mentions "privilege", "de-railing" etc; check the bingo card) are probably only suitable for seducing SJWs.

If SJWs are the dominant culture where you are, sure, deduce their rules. If they're not, work out what the actual culture is. In the UK it's pretty weird to ask out total strangers on the street, for example, whereas I've heard in other countries people do that sort of thing. The US has a culture where you go on "dates" with multiple people (You Americans are so quaint with your whole "dating" thing. It always makes me picture you driving your T-birds to the hop or jitterbugging at the diner, you crazy cats), we don't. And so on.

Learning how that works is more likely to be useful than worrying about the opinions of whoever bellows loudest on Dreamwidth.

And okay, this is all super creepy, and I know that now, and I'm sorry for doing it, and I won't do it again.

No, AFAICT it's more or less what people do outside the circles where it's normal for everything to be very explicit. The SJWs might like it if these circles were wider, but in fact they're not.
[User Picture]From: twoswords
2012-09-15 01:59 am (UTC)


Funny, London's the only place I've been in that I was asked out on the street. Most notably, guy walked up to me and said perkily "hey, would you like to get a drink?", I said "sorry, I'm heading home to look after my sick husband" (true at the time), and he said "no worries, have a good day!". It's one of the stories I use to depict behaviour that I respect. I had a few other experiences, some negative.

Anyway, this is all a bit of a digression... As much as the British have a reputation for being emotionally reticent, I found the culture very socially aggressive (well, in London at least). When I got back to NZ I found myself practically terrorising shop assistants. It really does highlight your point about needing to read the culture.
From: cartesiandaemon
2012-09-14 10:13 am (UTC)


Me: I am a Soviet spy. Are you one too?
Other Spy: Yes.

ROFL! That dialogue is awesome.

I don't think it's quite right for actual spies, since during the cold war you probably want to find something that an actual spy would recognise as russian-spy stuff, but a random American wouldn't -- I expect during the McCarthy period you WOULD be arrested for asking for borscht restaurants :) But that's irrelevant to the analogy, which I agree is good.

Except, I think the borscht-dance[1] is basically flirting, which is how it's supposed to work. The problem is, people have different awareness/expectation for what constitutes "showing interest", so it's not as simple as "be slightly less ambiguous and see if the other party reciprocates, and if so, proceed, and if not, abort".

Ideally, if you move things up a notch (going from talking to extended eye contact, going from a back rub to asking if they want a full body rub, etc), they will give an unambiguous enthusiastic "yes" and escalate in turn, or unambiguously show no interest, and you'll know they're not interested and to stop escalating.

But for various reasons, both natural variation and social conditioning, it can be ambiguous. Is someone not showing interest because they're not very socially aware? Because they're not interested? Because they're interested, but have been conditioned to let the other party make all the moves, and think "not fighting you off" is all the consent they're "allowed to" express?

And there is no perfect algorithm. People like to think there is, and give pretty good ones. But the best you can do is work out what's most likely, and to ask if you're not sure, but there's overlap from both ends -- some people won't show interest unless you ask them directly, which would be creepily pressuring for other people, and you can do your best to tell which are which, but there will always be times when people missed an opportunity or creeped out someone uninterested, and all you can do is minimise it as much as possible.

[1] Which is totally my new euphemism for flirting :)
[User Picture]From: palmer1984
2012-09-14 03:16 pm (UTC)


How would you feel if a woman you're not attracted to showed interest in you? Or if that has happened, how would you feel?

Edited at 2012-09-14 04:57 pm (UTC)
[User Picture]From: squid314
2012-09-14 06:35 pm (UTC)


It happened once or twice and I just nodded and said thank you and then desperately tried to get out of the situation.

...actually, that was in late middle school/early high school, where even when a woman I *was* attracted to showed interest in me I nodded and said thank you and then desperately tried to get out of the situation. I...wasn't very good at this back then.
From: cartesiandaemon
2012-09-14 04:32 pm (UTC)


I'm not sure the supposed difference in having separate ladders is a gender things specifically, I suspect it's that people societally expected to do the chasing are more likely to view everyone they like as a potential romantic partner, but people who are expected to be chased are more likely to pre-emptively filter people into "I like them but don't fancy them" bucket.

That is, I expect male rock stars and men who are genuinely happily committed and not interested in sex with more different people to see people as "appropriate for a romantic interest" and "don't think of you like that" the same as stereotyped women would.
From: cartesiandaemon
2012-09-14 04:34 pm (UTC)


Or to put it another way, even if it is true that many men filter most attractive people of their desired sex and approximately the same age into the "potential romantic interest" bucket, they probably have people they genuinely don't put in that bucket, it's just not as obvious because as long as they only consider hitting on people they're potentially attracted to, it never comes up.
[User Picture]From: grognor
2012-09-14 07:21 pm (UTC)


I don't think your proposed solution will help matters for men, because I find the 'internalization of low status' hypothesis for why most men find it difficult to talk to women at first much, MUCH more plausible for the general population of men than your proposed 'fear of backlash' hypothesis. To illustrate why I think this, I am going to psychologize both you and myself, for which I deeply apologize and if you delete this comment I will understand.

Let us start with you. I only know what you've made public, but from what I know you've been on a solid status growth period for the last four years or so. First there was Livejournal, which got you something of a clique following. Then there was Less Wrong, where post after post of yours got upvoted and praised and critiqued-in-a-good-way and blah blah, and this kept happening, and then you got to meet awesome people like Michael Vassar just because people liked your writing, and then you won two contests solely on your merit, and now you've gone and gotten a medical degree.

Excuse me for going out on a limb, but this sort of tremendous slew of impressive accomplishments seems like the sort of thing that would convince your subconscious that you're not such a low status monkey anymore. Meanwhile, the potential backlash hasn't changed!
As far back as I remember I had crushes. I had two in freaking preschool. I have never had the ability to initiate a conversation with a woman in my life. But introspecting, I can't find any trace of fear in why this is the case. I don't make rationalizations, I don't feel terribly nervous around women, I don't start thinking "OH GOD WHAT IF SHE GETS CREEPED OUT AND I AM HUMILIATED FOREVER". I just can't talk to girls. So, what IS going on? The only plausible explanation I can think of* is that I have fully internalized a perception of Absolute Minimum Status. I'm poor, basically friendless, and have no skills, and could not be more aware of this.

*(And some other reasons that I think would be insufficient on their own, which are private.)
[User Picture]From: squid314
2012-09-14 07:57 pm (UTC)


That's a good point (and of course very flattering). But it doesn't have to contradict mine.

If getting rejected is unpleasant because it's a status threat, then people who feel like they have high enough status already will be able to shrug it off, but someone who feels Absolute Minimum Status won't.

There was a really interesting experiment I read last night where they took a bunch of Republicans, showed them information about how terrible an idea the Iraq War was, then tried to see if they would admit it was a terrible idea. Most of them wouldn't. Then they made them do a "self-affirmation exercise" - ie write a bit about how great a person they were and what their good qualities were, pretty much an intervention to raise status. Then they did the same thing with the Iraq War. This time they were much more willing to change their minds.

The conclusion was that admitting they were wrong about Iraq would be a status hit. If they felt low status, they would prefer not to take that hit. If they felt high status, they could graciously admit they were wrong and still feel okay about themselves.

Maybe rejections work the same way. And the fear of having it become a Big Deal is the fear of losing lots and lots of status with lots and lots of people (I don't know if this is true. I need to think more about it. I do know that I would be much more unhappy to be a second Elevatorgate than I would to just be rejected with a nice "Oh, I'm really flattered, but let's just be friends") and I'm thinking kind of behaviorist-ically about what is reinforcing or punishing my actions.

I would say nice things about you and give you advice, but if you're at all like me the nice things would be painful to read and the advice would be super-annoying other-optimizing. But if it helps I think you're pretty okay.

Edited at 2012-09-14 07:59 pm (UTC)
From: (Anonymous)
2012-09-15 12:59 am (UTC)


I have no idea whether this works, but have you tried plainly asking girls by what rules they operate? Not in an "Suppose I were to ask you out,..." kind of way, just... striking up this very topic?

The main reason that might work is that it doesn't sound like anything that is commonly tried. I think that these broken rules mainly exist because if girls offer up a formula by which to ask them, there will always be guys who think that this is all they have to do to get them, and then the situation with the Indian beggar from the first meditation happens.
The other reason this might work is that this way not only do you get a hunch of how she wants to be asked, she can get a glimpse of how you might react to a yes or a no, too.
[User Picture]From: selenite
2012-09-15 04:41 am (UTC)


Hi, I wandered in from theferrett's link. Nice analysis, thank you for writing this up.
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