Dear Dr Ali – There’s a guy I like who’s in my social circle. He’s my friend’s boyfriend’s best friend, so we spend a lot of time around each other. He’s always attentive to me, and has even given me shoulder rubs a few times – something I have not seen him do for other women. We’ve even spent one-on-one time together lying down on a blanket watching stars. But he has yet to make a move. Why hasn’t he kissed me yet? Does he even like me? What should I do? Should I even bother? – Perplexed in Paris
Well there’s a perennial question if there ever was one. How do you know if a guy likes you? I mean, yeah, he does like you, as in he clearly wouldn’t let you get run over by a bus. But does he like like you? As in smooches and snuggles?
That shouldn’t be hard to figure out. But additional challenges present themselves when you see a guy frequently as part of your social circle, whether at work or in a group of friends. How do you broach the subject of “Do you like me?” when the negative response means having to hang out with someone who snubbed you? Or, even worse, what if you hook up and it doesn’t work out? Now you have willingly planted an ex in the midst of formerly friendly territory. Surely there is a way to finesse this tricky social situation.
The best way is to take me along to a party to hang out with both of you. And by turning on the super-sensitive Dr Ali-dar and observing your interactions, I will give you a read of the situation.
But, alas, the best way is often not the most practical way, and I’m usually far away (greetings from Barcelona and Lisbon!) and would probably end up eating all your hors d’oeuvres (unless they’re supermarket crudité platters – who likes that stuff?).
So I don’t get to observe whether he looks directly into your eyes and how often, how often and where he touches you, how he talks to you, how he reacts to the other women around you, and a zillion other things.
All I get to see is your world through this tiny keyhole of an email. From that I must deduce your character, the nature and intensity of his interest, and your suitability as a match. Piece o’ cake!
What might be wiser, however, is to give you some general principles for spotting interest from another party, so you can apply those to your own situation and figure out what’s going on.
1. Active vs passive interest.
When trying to gauge interest, this is the overarching theme. Is he actively pursuing your company, or just settling for casual bump-ins and group events? The more deliberate effort a man puts into spending time with you, the more interested he is. Doing something that risks rejection, such as asking you out on a date, raises the stakes and is an even stronger sign of romantic interest.
Now I heartily recommend that folks initially get to know people through group events. They’re far less threatening settings than one-on-one dates which are contrived situations that fail to bring out the best in us (unless your best happens to be anxiety, self-consciousness and phoniness). But if a guy only invites you to group things, he’s either not that interested, or too much of a wuss to step up and ask for your company solo. Either way, that’s not someone you should be signing up for.
2. How is he looking at you?
A few years ago I was sitting at this deathly boring talk at a conference in Los Angeles when I spotted this dazzlingly beautiful woman across the room. Before the talk was over, I must have involuntarily turned to look at her 50 times. Why? Because we tend to seek out more information about things we’re interested in. That’s kinda the definition of interest. And lord knows I made a beeline to talk to her afterwards.
The quality and quantity of a guy’s gaze says a lot about the degree and nature of his interest. Does he keep looking at you even when you’re not looking at him? Interested. Does he look at your face when he’s talking to you? Interested. Straight into your eyes, seriously trying to plumb its depths of mystery and passion? Seriously interested.
The pro-level tip here is that you want to arrange the environment such that you’re a) getting useful information and b) letting him be at his best. For example, if you’re with him on a date at a topless beach, chances are his eyes will not be glued to you the whole time no matter how interested he is. Same goes for sitting in a restaurant: if he’s facing the crowd and bustle of the outside world, his eyes will wander, and you’ll get inaccurate data. Do yourself a favor and you take the banquette seat so he’s looking at just you and the wall.
Most Western societies are pretty touch-free, so if a guy touches you, that’s a big deal and a sign of major interest.
Or is it? Touching behavior varies culturally, which changes the salience of the act. A classic study done by Sidney Jourard showed that during an hourlong conversation between friends, in England they touched each other zero times. In the US, twice, during bursts of enthusiasm. In France, 110 times, and in Puerto Rico, 180 times! Watching people here in Barcelona I’d say they would touch 200 times at least. So this means that a touch from a shy English guy counts for a lot more than one from the gregarious Spaniard.
The second level information is the quality of the touch. Is he giving you a high-five or a shoulder rub? The more prolonged and deliberate the touch, the greater the interest.
In Love Signals: A Practical Field Guide to the Body Language of Courtship, Prof David Givens enumerates five phases of courtship: attention, recognition, speech, touch, and lovemaking. Touch is the final phase before getting in the sack. So if he’s touching you, it’s safe to say his interest is not entirely platonic. That’s a nice start, but there’s an essential bit of meta-information that you need to know, too.
4. Is he interested in you specifically, or just women in general?
You meet a guy. He’s utterly charming, listening to you with rapt attention, gazing deep into your eyes to plumb the mystery/passion, and touching you early and often. And you’re loving it.
The question that most women don’t ask themselves: is he doing this because he’s into me, or because he’s into women in general? Because to an observer the two behaviors look exactly the same.
Now, if you’re just looking for a RLD (relationship of limited duration), then – who cares! Run with it, girl. But if you’re looking for something lasting longer than a Scaramucci (i.e. a temporal unit equivalent to 10 days), you need to get more data.
‘Cause if he’s a shy guy who hardly approaches women, the nature of his attention is much more salient than if he’s a player who collects 20 phone numbers a week. The shy guy is putting everything on the line. The player, on the other hand, has this routine rehearsed so well that he can do it after 7 margaritas, in microgravity, while tied up in a burlap sack.
The distinction between specific and nonspecific attraction is important because they’re mediated by different brain circuits and hormones. Nonspecific attraction (i.e. lust) is fueled by testosterone. The guy is just generally horny. Specific attraction runs on dopamine, which is the neurotransmitter of goal-directed activity. He is horny for you, and therefore seeks you out. This is the difference between RLD and long-term love.
So take some time to find out what this guy’s really like. What’s his reputation? How does he behave around other women when you’re with him? Does he flirt shamelessly with the cute waitress, or does he focus his attention fully on you? What do his friends say about him? These are all important bits of information for establishing what kind of person you’re dealing with, and how to interpret his attention.
5. Actions vs words.
The most accurate information you can get about a guy is his long-term behavior – the stuff he actually does, over and over again. The least accurate information you can get about him are his words, especially when they are about himself.
This isn’t necessarily because men brag or that all humans are evil liars. Rather, it illustrates a central principle of human behavior. Science shows that we have cognitive biases that blind us to our own shortcomings, and as a therapist I can tell you that people are horrendous at self-reportage. Like, totally inaccurate, all the time.
Why? Because well over 99% of your brain’s functioning happens outside of your consciousness. This means that by definition, you don’t have conscious access to what’s really happening in your brain. It’s all about the unconscious.
Oh, and then there are the guys who will say anything to get into your good graces – or your pants. But you already knew that.
Now I’m going to overemphasize this point until it gets burned into your consciousness forever, because it is unbelievably important. In fact, the main reason I wrote The Tao of Dating was because I had a darling friend who believed the phrase “I promise I’ll never give you another black eye” more than the actual black eye the guy had given her. And who kept on taking him back and financially supporting him even though he continued to physically abuse her.
Oh nononononono we can’t let that be you. So you will pay very close attention to what a guy does, and take anything he says with a boulder of salt. Look for actions, not words. Actions, not words. Actions, not words. A thousand times: actions, not words.
So what are some actions that show he’s truly interested? Having been that interested guy often, here are some things that come to mind:
1) He calls you and asks you out to spend real, grown-up time together. He’s risking rejection, which means he’s investing ego. He’s agreeing to spend money and time on you, which is more investment.
2) He does what he says, when he says he’ll do it. Whether it’s to call you, have coffee with you, do you a favor or send you something, watch how he handles his promises. If he handles them poorly during courtship when he’s supposedly putting his best foot forward, he’ll be far worse when he’s in a relationship with you.
3) He treats you as if your company is a worthy goal in itself, and not just a means to some other end. Guys will request your company for any number of reasons – avoid being lonely, try to get you in bed, or just to hang out. As we already discussed, the question to ask yourself: is he just asking for company, or my company specifically?
In the early phases of courtship, it’s hard to tell the difference between the two. Generally speaking, the more planning and risk it involves for the guy, the more serious he is about you. It’s one thing when I ask a woman two weeks in advance to come with me to the sold-out SF Symphony Beethoven extravaganza. It’s another when I ask her if she can join me for a show tomorrow ‘cause I got two comp tickets.
Mind you, we’re not saying spontaneity is bad; heck, it’s something sorely lacking from most overplanned modern lives. However, if all you’re getting from a guy is spontaneity, that’s a pattern worth noting. You need to figure out if he’s really interested but bad at planning, or just casually interested.
Once again, the quality of attention during the date tends to be a good indicator of his interest level. If he’s focused on you the whole time, he’s into you. If he’s flirting with the waitress and getting other women’s numbers, he’s probably just there for a good time.
You are not a potted plant: tiger power vs. flower power
Now we get to the fun part: the things you can do to get accurate information about where you stand.
First, I’d like to make a distinction between flower power and tiger power. Flowers don’t have a lot of power. Sometimes they have fancy colors and aromas to attract pollinators, but for the most part they just sit there and look pretty.
Tigers, on the other hand, are the apex land predators. They roam the range of their vast territory and go for whatever they want, without apology or hesitation.
Both flower and tiger power are effective in their own way, and everyone has both kinds of power. You just want to make sure that you’re using the right kind of power to get the result that you want.
Now, if there’s one overarching principle to the Tao of Dating, it’s that you are not a potted plant. Women run families, corporations, states and entire countries. So it does not make sense to be a passive bystander to your own love life. Right now is always a great time to take control.
But here’s the thing: too much tiger power tends to scare off men. And guys like to hunt, so you must let them be the hunter. They’re just not used to being chased.
So you will get a little clever. Asking a question like “So why haven’t you kissed me yet?” is tiger power, because you’re taking action. At the same time, you’re stepping back and allowing him to step into his own tiger power.
Perhaps even more important than asking the question to make sure you get the frame right. So keep it light. If you get all serious on the boy and go “Umm, I’ve been pining for you since the dawn of time and don’t think I can breathe much longer without you” and proceed to faint, you may qualify for a job re-enacting romance novels, but you will scare off the boy. Permanently.
On the other hand, if you do it all in the name of banter and fun, and you playfully ask him, “Are you shy or something? ‘Cause I know you’re into me, but you haven’t made a move yet. Or if you’re feeling feisty: “Dude, what the hell is wrong with you? You were lying down next to me on a blanket for two hours and didn’t even try to kiss me! Am I ugly? Are you secretly gay? I mean, it’s totally fine if you want to be my GBF, but I just need to know.”
Why is this powerful? Humor opens up the conversational field, allowing all parties to share their feelings in a safer context. But even more important, you are subtly taking control of the situation instead of just waiting around. At the same time, you are passing the baton to him to take action.
Create the environment that favors your outcome
People’s behavior is context-dependent. So if the guy’s interested but shy, or on the fence for whatever reason, here are some ideas for creating an environment conducive to a more romantic interaction.
How do I know these work? Because wily women have used them on me, that’s how. Pick one depending on your level of interest and boldness:
• Propose to watch a movie at your place or his. Snuggling on the couch during a movie is completely natural, and a well-known way to not watch the movie at all. (Not that you asked, but the movie in question was L.A. Confidential, and I still haven’t seen it.)
• Invite him over to your place for dinner. Most guys understand this as a sign of definite interest. If he accepts the invitation, you’re 95% of the way there. Wine helps.
• Grab your shoulder or your back, and with a pained look on your face say, “I’ve got this terrible knot in my back – could you be kind enough to work on it for a minute?” You probably know what to do from there.
• Invite him to the beach. Relaxing and frolicking in the sun with minimal clothing is one of the best ways of getting out of your heads and into your bodies. Playing in the water and applying sunscreen to one another are time-honored ways of getting physical.
• Take a yoga class together. For a zillion reasons, exercising together is generally a good idea. But especially after a yoga class, everyone’s inside their bodies and super chilled out, making physical interaction much easier.
• Take an acroyoga class together. Acroyoga has taken off all over the world, so you should be able to find a class where you are. It’s basically a full-body contact sport in which you periodically collapse into each other’s arms. It’s also fun. If this doesn’t work in getting romance going, you can safely give up, ’cause nothing will.
What’s worked for you?
Awright then! That should give you a few tools for figuring out if a guy has romantic interest in you. Now here’s the thing: I’m just one guy here, but there are thousands of you reading this. And you have the advantage of being actual women! So do you have a tool or technique that you have used successfully to suss out a guy’s interest in you? Then please share it in the comments ASAP! Let’s make this as useful a resource for other women as possible.
One more thing: I have a little favor to ask you. Are you on Goodreads? If so, could you be kind enough to put The Tao of Dating on your bookshelf and give it a rating once it’s there? For those who aren’t on Goodreads, it’s a fantastic site for book lovers, where you can discover new books and share libraries, reading lists and reviews with friends. It’s also a great tool for authors to reach their audience. It’s particularly important for a book to be on readers’ shelves, because that’s how Goodreads determines whether a book can get promoted on there. This is how I pay the bills, so I would be immensely grateful for your help. Let’s see if we can put the book on a few thousand shelves!