Friday, November 02, 2007

How to say no

Time for some dating advice. Fun! As always, caveat emptor.

This is about saying "no." It is not about breaking up or slowing down the sex train. Rather, I want to discuss how to tell someone that you'd rather not go on a second or third date.

(Aside: you will be delighted to hear that I haven't heard from SL again. After his last email (over a week ago?), nothing. What a relief.)

The situation with SL (the guy I had a date or so with recently), was a classic case of a guy not taking no for an answer. Part of the problem was that I didn't actually say "no" or "I don't want to see you" to him. I did say, "I don't think this is going to work out" and "we want different things," which are well-known code words for "I don't want to date you" but he wasn't having any of it.

After our first formal date, we had a long phone conversation during which I tried to tell him that I probably didn't want to go out again (see code word usage above). The reason I didn't come right out with a firm no was that I was only 95% sure I didn't want to see him again. My doubt caused me to give him less than a 100% no. He could tell I was uncertain and he thought the right response to that was to push. Actually, the opposite approach would have been more likely to get him another date with me..

What I did "wrong" was not make my message clear. However, given that I wasn't certain, this wasn't really a mistake. I still believe (believe it or not!) in giving people a chance and taking time to get to know them. I was being internally consistent, but SL was playing a different game. That became clear over the next week or so.

He played the "take all contact as a sign of interest" and "if I keep asking, she'll say yes" games. Now, I can be won by persistence, but it has to be of the low-key variety, not the relentless, petulant variety.

Does anyone like these games? If a woman is saying no, even if it's a vague no, you have to take her at her word. We know that words and actions are not always consistent, so you can measure her words against her actions. For example, you ask her out and she says, "maybe" or "not this time." If you ask her again and again and each time she's not available and she never suggests an alternative plan or asks you out or initiates a phone call/email/text message, she's not interested. Her words are ambiguous but her actions are not.

Actions win. Always. (Words are good and necessary, but actions tell you more in the world of soft nos.)

Guys sometimes give a soft no, too, but I suspect it's much more common for women. Why? Men are still more likely to be the pursuers/askers. The men ask, the women answer.

If the men ask, why don't the women just say no? Because it would be rude. Women in this culture are socialized to be polite. A flat out "no" is rude—and if you ever give one, the guy will almost certainly tell you so. It has happened to me if I don't give a phone number to a stranger in a club or bar or if I say no to a drunken guy at a party. If I say no, I'll get push back. Even if my no comes in the form of "I don't think so" or "It's not a good idea" or even "I have a boyfriend." If you say no to a stranger, the worst case is that he'll get angry. A middle case is that he'll attempt to engage you in a long conversation about why you're turning him down. The mild case is that you give him a number so you can end the interaction. And then you say no to a date if/when he calls you.

Women know better than to say "NO" or even "No thank you!" Because if we do, we're rude and that is unacceptable, to the men and to our psyches.

So, if we all agree that no one wants to hear a hard no, then perhaps we need to agree on how a soft no should be delivered and interpreted.

While my father was visiting, I told a five-minute version of the SL story, highlighting the hot pursuit and my rejection of him. Dad said, "That sound like the old days, when the guys did all the asking. My rule was, if she says no three times, I stopped asking."

Good rule, Dad! In the "old days," the girls couldn't ask the boys out. If he asked you and you couldn't go, you had to say no and perhaps add, "…but I'd really love to go out another time!" and hope he'd understand that you were interested. That was the birth of the "waiting for the phone to ring" game.

In the old days, there were unspoken but clearly understood rules. Those rules sucked and were very constraining and we're glad they don't exist anymore. The virtue of those rules, though, was that everyone understood how the game was played.

I'd definitely follow my father's advice. If you get three nos in a row, it's not happening. Time to move on. Also, it's the new days, which means if she really wants to see you, she is allowed to call. If you've gotten three nos and she calls and asks you out, and you still like her, that is a YES and you should accept. (Don't go rearranging your life to accommodate her though, she clearly won't do the same for you. Three nos! Remember!)

[Note: the real limit is two nos. But if you want to be extra sure, you can rack up three. Three asks is the max without starting to seem like a stalker.]

Women, it's ok to say no to a date and trust that he will get the message. If you don't want to date him, just be busy when he asks you out. If he doesn't get the message and is still in hot pursuit after you've said no three times, then you can have a talk with him and tell him to stop. If he demands an explanation, then you can give him one. I suggest a generic one like, "I just don't think we're suited romantically." That's it. No rundown of character flaws, unattractive features, or poor fashion choices. It's simply the truth, right?

While it's impossible not to take a no a little personally, don't let it wreck your self esteem. Think about how many people out there who you don't want to date. Dozens! Hundreds! And those are just the ones you've met so far.You play the game, you take your chances and into each life, many nos will fall. Many, many more than yesses.

Ok, so we've clarified what SL did wrong. He didn't take no for an answer. What did I do wrong? I could have given him the hard no sooner.

What's the right way to handle this? The right way is to do nothing. If you had one date, and don't care if you go out again? Do nothing. If the other party is super interested, s/he will call you. It is a good idea to decide if you would say yes to a second date, but you don't have to decide. You can decide in the moment. If you say yes when you wanted to say no, all it costs you is one evening out of your life. It can seem like a high price to pay at the time, but it isn't. You'll survive. And after that second date, when you're sure you don't want to see the person again? Do you have to tell her/him? No! Just do nothing and say no next time. You have completed the information gathering stage.

The trick is to say no to those dates as soon as you know you're not interested. If you might get interested, you can say yes but you run the risk of having to let him down easy sooner rather than later. I've said yes many times out of a sense of guilt or obligation or because I could tell how much he liked me. That never ends well.

Ok, so how did my two recent non-troubling dates go?

The first date was with Bobby. A sporadic email correspondence lead up to the date because we were both traveling a lot. When it came to actually make plans, it was easy. He suggested a day and a time—and even a place! Heaven. We met, ate and drank. He paid (not necessary) and said goodnight. And I never heard from him again.

How did that make me feel? Just fine! He was a good guy and likeable. I was comfortable and easy with him. If he'd asked me out again, I would have said yes. But I didn't care. I wasn't enthusiastic about him and it didn't matter. I wasn't offended. I assume I wasn't his cup of tea and I don't need to know the exact reasons why.

The only thing he might have done differently was to send a one or two line follow-up email saying, "It was great to meet you. I enjoyed the evening. Take care."

Trust me, only the densest people would take that as encouragement. It's a polite thing to do, but not essential. I have no hard feelings towards him for not making the gesture.

The other date was with Randy. We actually talked on the phone once but it was a bear to schedule the date because he lives in Baltimore. That meant it had to be on the weekend and my weekends are packed. We finally figured it out and met in a mutually inconvenient spot for lunch. (Lunch was good!) The date was fine, I was nervous (unaccountably) and I did not fall in love with him.

I did hear from him again and I don't like how he handled things. He sent an email the next day and said he enjoyed meeting me. He also sent a link to a website he thought I would like (he was right). That was thoughtful. Then he added, "After thinking about it, I don't see us as being a good match for one another."

What did he do wrong? There was no reason for him to tell me he wasn't interested. I hadn't asked him out again and I wasn't planning to ask him out. I was not pursuing him.

If someone is not pursuing you, there is no reason to turn them down!

As I wrote the first time I mentioned this, I know he meant well and he's a good guy. But it's a little previous to say no to a question that hasn't been asked.

Here are the basic guidelines:
  1. Pay more attention to people's actions than words. If the object of your affection has said maybe, but no actual dating has occurred, it's not going to.
  2. Observe the three ask rule. If you ask three times and get three "nos" (of any variety, hard, soft or maybe), stop asking and move on.
  3. Observe the three ask rule, inversely. If you are asked out by someone who you don't like, say no, gently, every time they ask. After you've said no (busy, maybe, etc.) three times, if the person is still asking, it's time to tell them to stop.
  4. If you have a so-so date and aren't sure what to do next, do nothing! If she asks you out, you can say yes or no. Lean towards yes unless your gut is screaming no. Never ignore the gut.
  5. If you have a so-so date and are sure you don't want to see the person again, do nothing! If you feel extra generous, you can send a friendly, "nice to meet you" follow up email. Do not hint at any future getting together, though. (This is more appropriate coming from a man, sadly. The friendly follow up from a woman to an "any contact is encouragement" type man would be a mess. Women tread lightly.)
One last thing, if you're truly getting mixed signals, from both actions and words, what does it mean? It means the person has mixed feelings about you. Do you really want to pursue someone who isn't sure if they're interested? I didn't think so. Time to rely on my favorite dating guideline: do nothing!

Grateful for: the ability to say no.

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