Blog by Sumana Harihareswara, Changeset founder

27 Apr 2009, 22:29 p.m.

Fan Dances And Leafblowers

Hi, reader. I wrote this in 2009 and it's now more than five years old. So it may be very out of date; the world, and I, have changed a lot since I wrote it! I'm keeping this up for historical archive purposes, but the me of today may 100% disagree with what I said then. I rarely edit posts after publishing them, but if I do, I usually leave a note in italics to mark the edit and the reason. If this post is particularly offensive or breaches someone's privacy, please contact me.

The other day, Leonard and I were brunching with Adi. We got to talking about the little superstitions you make up when you're a kid, like "if the digital clock shows a time that repeats a digit 3 times in a row, you can make a wish, but you have to make it before the time changes."

I mentioned how, when I was a teen, and I wanted to tell a guy I was attracted to him, or make some other such irrevocable scary confession, I would look at my watch, and tell myself that I only had till the next time the seconds hand hit zero, or half-past. Then I'd blurt it out at that moment. Because I'd regret cowardice, the loss of that opportunity, more than the loss of face. What face did I have to lose anyway? "And, of course, I almost always struck out," I told Adi, laughing.

Adi didn't get it. "What do you mean you struck out?"

The guys almost never responded in kind, I explained.

And then I had it explained to me that the average teenage boy really doesn't know what to make of a girl directly telling him she's romantically interested in him. And he might stammer and deny and cut off the awkward moment, and regret it ever after.

The girl might think she'd struck out, but in fact she was pitching, and the guy froze at the plate instead of swinging.

This is a revelation to me. Seriously? I look back at all those tableaux, the community college bench, the bus ride back from the debate meet, I can't even remember them all. Am I now to rewrite all that narrative?

If you grew up a heterosexual male, I'd be interested in knowing how you've reacted to girls' interest in you, and whether frankness put you off. I've been straightforward about these things, thinking guessing games were a waste. Was that actually less efficient, in terms of throughput, than playing coy would have been? Crap!


28 Apr 2009, 6:41 a.m.

I don't know about the rest of it but my superstitions certainly involve less math.

28 Apr 2009, 10:32 a.m.

I can't speak for the jr high me, because I've repressed those memories. But in college, Susie had to tell me first, and the rest is history. I like a woman who knows what she wants, and is not afraid to go for it.

But, living in a backward red state, there are definitely those of my tribe that feel differently. Some like games, though I never had the time. Some would be put off by a woman who initiates, simply because "that's just not how it's done." Short answer: it depends on the guy, and I'm not sure you can tell how they'll react until you try it.

28 Apr 2009, 11:51 a.m.

Frank expression of interest didn't put me off, I just never believed it.

Sumana Harihareswara
28 Apr 2009, 11:58 a.m.

Does a guy who doesn't believe it think it's a prank? A scam to get the guy into Amway or a cult? A well-meaning pat on the head?

28 Apr 2009, 18:48 p.m.

I don't think a woman has ever just straight-up come onto me. Or, if they did, they were clearly a bit too subtle about it. The only two people who have ever actually come out and made a play for my affections without preamble that I can think of were a somewhat sketchy elderly gentleman who stalked me briefly at UMD and an EXTREMELY sketchy younger gentleman who offered me five dollars if he could "play with me" behind a dumpster on Crain Highway in Glen Burnie. One later-to-become girlfriend did introduce herself by shouting "Martin Marks, I want your body!", but given that she thought I was someone else at the time, and also that it was about three weeks later that we admitted we liked each other (a good week or so after our mutual friend told each of us that yes, the other totally liked them), I don't think it really counts.

Actually, wait! I do remember a situation. In seventh grade, a girl whose name was, I think, Crystal, dragged over her friend (whose name I am eternally embarassed to have forgotten, because she was the important one in the story) while I was sitting in the library. Crystal then informed me that her poor anonymous friend wanted to go out with me. Now, I was a naturally suspicious not-quite-pubescent lad, who was used to being the butt of the occasional joke, so my first instinct was that it was a prank and I should escape. However, I also had to consider the possibility that it wasn't. At the time, I had something of a crush on another girl (which manifested in me not looking for her at a year, then suddenly actually catching a glimpse of her and realizing she wasn't nearly as attractive as I'd remembered - a recurring trend in my early romantic development, which I seem to have overcompensated for nowadays by studying my romantic interests as well as I can without actually crossing the line into creepy), and I'd never thought of this girl in any romantic context. She was a sort of mousy and awkward girl - the kind who usually blossom a couple years later, but nobody had told me that part yet - and while I wasn't exactly a prize catch myself, I had enough of an ego to think I could do better. But, on the offchance it wasn't a prank, I didn't want to hurt anyone's feelings. So, uh, I told her I already had a girlfriend. It turned out to be a rather more transparent lie than I had envisioned, and after a few weeks of being teased mercilessly about it by everyone at the school, I eventually had to admit I had been lying. But I never apologized to the girl, and I regret that in retrospect, because even if it was her friend who actually said it, she was still the first girl who ever admitted to liking me. Perhaps it was karma from the way I handled that situation that kept me from ever having it happen again. (Well, except for the aforementioned elderly stalker and the Crain Highway incident.)

28 Apr 2009, 18:59 p.m.

K... something. Kathleen? A good Irish name, I'm pretty sure.

I think it's generally true that an outright "I like you" is a difficult situation for the askee. You're putting them on the spot, which tends to provoke a fight-or-flight response, and neither of those is a good reaction in that situation. Even when you have a solid bedrock of flirtation, actually putting the words out there is tricky, and if you haven't had the chance to establish that, it's even harder.

My elderly stalker actually did it pretty well. He saw me going into the bathroom and waited for me outside (rule #1: never follow your crush into the bathroom), and then quite casually, but without disguising his intentions, said he'd noticed me around and wondered if I'd like to get a cup of coffee. Which would have worked extremely well if he hadn't been a man in his sixties. Hell, if he'd just dropped one of those, he might have had a chance. Of course, he then sort of ruined it by conveniently showing up in the student union whenever I was there until I graduated. And told him I was moving to Cambodia. So yeah, not so suave towards the end there.

29 Apr 2009, 2:19 a.m.

I'm not good at picking up on subtle social clues, as you well know, so I would've favored (and would still favor) such an approach: in my opinion games are only fun when all parties know they're playing. Anyway, I don't recall it ever happening outside of one prank that I recognized as such.

For my part, I've only played the "classic" male role a couple of times. It worked both times (in the short term), but looking back I see that I absolutely didn't ask someone if I thought there was even the slightest chance of rejection... though I was still very nervous at the time. As far as I can tell I'm still this way, so either I need to man up or find an efficient girl. =P

Agreeing with what John said above, I think many people feel differently and would rather that folk stick to established roles. I assume it makes people feel more comfortable when our personal experiences fit well into our existing cultural lexicon and lessens the fight-or-flight response mentioned by Martin.

Aside: From our college days I recall an article from the Heuristic Squelch in which the author proposed forehead-licking as an agreed-upon social signal to the lick-ee that the lick-er wanted to hook up, bypassing all that inefficient flirting and/or mind games. I remember thinking, "that's a little gross... but it sure would make things a whole lot easier."

02 May 2009, 15:46 p.m.

Straightforward is always better. It happened to me recently while on the subway. Of course, as a "grown-up," I've also been conditioned to be suspicious of the unusual. But even still, because such directness happens so rarely, the very shock of it was also exciting all by itself.

03 May 2009, 12:45 p.m.

My first romantic relationship was with a girl in debate (from another school) that came clean in a note she wrote in Latin. I had thought she was cute, and it had been obvious that she was in-some-way interested in me. The note made everything clear, which was nice.

We were on different experience levels, so we eventually realized that the alignment was all off. Still, she was a classy girl.

That broke the seal for me; all of my future relationships have been started by my own initiative, or as a collaborative cooperation. That first girlfriend helped build my courage, and my knowledge of how to get things started.

03 May 2009, 18:56 p.m.

Not a heterosexual man, but as someone who dates them and almost always makes the first move, I learned that it works much better to have some buildup. Accumulating that data set (dilated pupils, arm brushes, visible awkwardness) makes me braver when it's time to make with the smoochies.

04 May 2009, 14:43 p.m.

Am a heterosexual man; am completely blind to the body cues Sarah is talking about, unless they're coming from someone I'm already in a physical relationship with.

This led to some, um, awkward moments in junior high, which in turn caused me to develop pathological fear of making an approach that was unwanted. I can now, by an effort of meta-cognition, get over this enough to ask a woman out, but I still can't be the person who starts the first kiss. That meant I basically didn't date anyone in high school, college, or for about five years after that.

So as you might imagine, I am wholeheartedly in favor of women making the first move, and of blunt, spoken expressions of interest. I remember wishing this would happen when I was in high school, but it never did; I would like to think I wouldn't have frozen up. Coy spoken expression of interest may work on me now but for sure would have gone right past me in high school (in fact, thinking back, probably did a couple times).