I want you to imagine this with me. You walk into a bar and say the same thing to three different women over the course of a night.
You simply say, “You look lovely tonight.”
The first woman, Amanda, beams and says, “Why, thank you. That’s really sweet of you.”
The second woman, April, blushes and says, “You like this dress? I feel like it isn’t too flattering around the waist. I’ve put on a few pounds on vacation recently.”
The third woman, Kat, looks annoyed and says, “That’s not appropriate. I really don’t appreciate you objectifying me.”
With the same sentence and the same delivery, you received three different responses. Amanda felt flattered and assumed that you had intended to be nice. April felt slightly embarrassed and was too self-conscious to consider your intentions. Kat felt insulted and regarded your actions as chauvinistic.
You’re left standing there feeling confused and wondering if you’ve been a total jerk.
“What just happened?! I’ll never understand women,” you mutter to yourself.
Well, I’m going to let you in on a little secret. It is this:
Sometimes, the way people respond to you has less to do with what you say and more to do with their relationship with themselves and the world.
To help you understand what I mean, let’s take a deeper look at our fictional characters — who are modeled after people I actually know.
It’s not about what you say, it’s about what they hear
Amanda considers herself to be attractive and had put in the effort to look good that night. She generally likes herself and her body. Her relationships with men had always been filled with kindness and respect. So, when you complimented her, it fit in with her view of herself and the world. She didn’t think of it as objectification because she had rarely experienced disrespect in her previous relationships. She would have responded the same way whether she had received the compliment from a man or a woman.
April has always been self-conscious of her body. She had a hypercritical mother and attention on her physical appearance had generally been negative and unpleasant. She is the harshest critic of herself, especially after a period of indulgence. Her relationships with men have been difficult and she had tended to date narcissistic men. When you complimented her, she had immediately questioned if you had meant something else since it didn’t fit with what she felt about herself that night. In her experience, compliments about the way she looked were usually quickly followed by a backhanded criticism about her body. So, she had pre-empted it by bringing it up first.
Kat is confident and smart. She is also strikingly gorgeous and had always fought to be recognized for her intelligence. Her experience with men has been that they fall for her looks and completely overlook all her other qualities. When you complimented her, her guard went up immediately. She hated when men focused solely on her physical appearance. Additionally, she is a strong advocate of changing the sexist dynamic and language between men and women which you appear to be perpetuating. However, if the compliment had been made by a woman, it would have elicited a completely different response from Kat.
All three women were valid in the way they responded to you. No one was right or wrong. They were simply engaging with the world through their filter. This is why your line didn’t work. It’s because you have no way of knowing who they are and how they view the world.
So, what does all this mean for you? Should you just give up?
Don’t worry, it doesn’t mean that you need to learn to be a mind reader to connect with people. It does mean that you should stop using pick-up lines and instead, try to pay attention to the cues that the people are giving off before talking to them.
Let’s go back to our three women.
There are always clues, you just have to pay attention
If you had been paying attention, you would’ve noticed that Amanda had been twirling around in her dress and showing it off to her friends. She was openly making eye contact with everyone and smiling. At some point, she had even sat down next to you and complimented you on your shirt. In this case, her cues may indicate that she would be open to you complimenting her on her dress.
April, on the other hand, had been fidgeting with her dress all night and though she was also making eye contact and smiling, she was constantly wrapping her coat or bag around her dress. However, she did seem to be greatly enjoying the music and appeared a lot more relaxed whenever she was on the dance floor. In this case, it may be better to say, “You’ve got some great moves! Isn’t this DJ great?”
You would also have noticed that Kat had spent the entire night deeply engrossed with her friends. She was also smiling and having a good time but clearly not wanting to engage outside her group. The first time you said hello, she had responded politely and quickly returned to her friends. In this case, she is sending some clear cues that she is not interested in talking to you that night. You should take that cue and move on.
“It’s not always that simple,” I hear you thinking.
That’s true. It isn’t. Sometimes the clues aren’t as clear as you want them to be and there is definitely no answer key to knowing whether you got it right. In fact, I’m willing to guarantee you that you will get it wrong every once in a while.
Maybe you caught Kat’s eye several times later in the night and you thought she seemed a bit more inviting. So, you ventured over to try to talk to her again only to have her snap at you and say, “I’m not interested, OK?”
“Oh man, I just made a total ass of myself. I just can’t read women. I should really never talk to women unless they are throwing themselves at me,” you think as you avoid your wingman’s gaze.
Should you wait for a signal that is as loud as a foghorn before venturing to say hello? That would certainly be a way to avoid embarrassment but you would also definitely miss out on some real and wonderful connections. Remember what I said about the secret? Sometimes, you just can’t predict how your words and actions will trigger someone’s past experiences so don’t take it too personally.
Of course, it is also possible that you actually made an insulting and offensive comment but I’ll leave it to your mother to teach you how to identify those.
Here’s a piece of advice — though I think you shouldn’t take it too personally if someone doesn’t respond well to your attempts to talk to them, you also have the responsibility to be aware that your words and actions can be interpreted in many different ways. If you really want to connect with people, pay attention to the cues they are sending you and treat them as unique individuals. Show them with your words that you are not delivering the same line you gave to every other person that night.
If you get it wrong, respond thoughtfully instead of reacting. Don’t get upset at yourself and don’t blame them. Keep paying attention.
Getting it wrong the first time doesn’t mean it’s over
You walk over to Kat again.
“I’m sorry. I feel bad that I interrupted your night. I just want to apologize if I inadvertently insulted you,” you say.
Kat turns around and this time, her smile is a little more forgiving. “Thanks, I really appreciate your apology. I’m Kat. Maybe you can join me and my girls for one drink.”
One drink turns to five and eventually, you spend the night connecting with not one, but five girls and you all leave the bar as friends.
The takeaway is that the secret to connecting with people is less about what you say and more about whether you paid attention to who they are. If you really want to connect with people, make them feel that you are trying to see and hear them for who they really are.
“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”- Maya Angelou