Nerds In Love Column: Reading The Signs

Nerds,

Background: 25 M, never had a serious relationship, few hookups in college but none since. Been trying online dating and meeting girls in various settings. Getting dates does not seem to be a problem but I seem to be getting into my own head on every date because I’m too paranoid about “saying and doing the right things” but I’m trying to learn through experience and get more confident. That being said, I feel like every interview is more like a forced meetup/interview, and I have a few things I want to ask. So my questions are: What are some subtle things that I should be consciously aware of that may be off putting? What should I absolutely not say on a first date? What do you do to ease some of the nervousness before a date and go in not expecting anything? 

I feel that my biggest problem is that I am unaware of the little signs and things that ensure that the date is going well and she’s interested, so I have deduced that I make up my own assumptions and that doesn’t always go the right way.

Thanks

Congratulations on putting yourself out there and trying dates! I have good news and bad news for you. First, the bad news: no matter how much confidence or experience in dating you get, there is no one set way of “saying and doing the right things.” I don’t have a script I can pass you that will guarantee that your dates go perfectly. The good news is that with confidence and experience comes an increased ability to understand how your date is feeling about things. You’ll start feeling more comfortable reading body language and interpreting how your dates communicate, and you’ll start feeling more comfortable asking for and receiving feedback.

Here’s something you can do to deepen your understanding of body language and non-verbal communication: pay attention to what your body is doing in different situations. In a lecture you hate and bored out of your mind? Do a mental scan of your posture, your facial expression, where your eyes are looking, what you’re paying attention to. In an animated conversation with someone you enjoy talking with? Do the same things and pay attention to the differences in those situations. Once you get a good idea for how you cue the world how you’re feeling, you can start looking for those signs in others. Look at people in the DMV for examples of boredom or being checked out, for example, or look at people having fun in restaurants to see some engagement and joy. This is one way you can become more aware of the “signs and things” that indicate how your date might be feeling at any given time.

It’s also okay to ask a date how she’s feeling while you’re out together. A simple “how’re you doing?” or “I’m enjoying myself talking with you, how about you?” can both provide you some feedback and demonstrate that you’re considerate of your date’s feelings.

As far as what may or may not be off-putting behavior to your date, that’s something that varies a lot from person to person. Some people are really comfortable talking about personal subjects right away and others aren’t, for example. People also have different boundaries around personal space, or how physical they’re comfortable getting on a first date. I’d encourage you again to pay attention to the body language of people who are in an uncomfortable situation. You can tell when a dog doesn’t want to be petted, right? It ducks away from you, might look at you uncertainly, maybe runs away or even growls at you. People don’t typically growl, but some signs someone is not taking things well might include looking away, not speaking or giving one-word answers, physically leaning away or withdrawing, or fidgeting or looking around nervously. Llosely at yourself the next time you’re feeling off-put, and see what cues you’re giving off with your body and your words. This will help you tell if someone is feeling that way on a date with you.

All that being said, sometimes we just misinterpret what other people are communicating to us with their words or body language. Sometimes this is deliberate (people might not want us to know what they think, to be polite or private or all kinds of other reasons), and sometimes this is just an accident (people may not know how their body language is coming off to others, for instance). Miscommunications happen and they aren’t the end of the world. If you find yourself confused about how something is going down or what someone is trying to tell you, it’s fine to ask a kindly worded question. “Hey, I want to make sure I’m understanding you correctly, can you help me see what you mean?” I ask people a variation on this in counseling all the time to understand them better, and I find it helps me tremendously.

Finally, for feeling less nervous before dates, it can be helpful to try to ground yourself before the date. You can take deep, slow breaths, squeeze and relax your hands, try a brief meditation app, or try some of these other exercises. Try centering your expectations on yourself and your experiences, such as “I expect to go on this date and learn something new about a new person” or “I expect to go to this new date spot and try some new food.” It’s okay to have high hopes for a date (that’s why we date!), and your hopes don’t have to equal your expectations. If you expect to learn new things about people and keep gaining dating experience, then regardless of the outcome of the date, you’ll meet your expectations.

Good luck!

-Kim

Kim Hall, BA, QPPMH is a clinical intern and graduate student in mental health counseling.

Be sure to listen to the Nerds in Love podcast for more dating advice!

Remember, this advice doesn’t substitute for actual professional mental health assistance. If you’re in crisis and need help, please contact:

1-800-273-8255 (National Suicide Lifeline)

You can find a mental health professional by contacting the SAMHSA Treatment Referral Helpline, 1‑877‑SAMHSA7 (1‑877‑726‑4727), or over at https://www.goodtherapy.org or https://www.psychologytoday.com.

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