By Amy Alkon
Q: A guy friend of 20 years and I once fooled around years ago. Though he has a girlfriend, he keeps throwing sexual remarks into our conversations, sending inappropriate texts and asking me to send naked photos. I wouldn’t be interested even if he were single, and I’ve been giving subtle hints, like “ha-ha … gotta go,” right after he says something provocative, but it isn’t working. How do I politely get him to stop without ruining a very long friendship?—Upset
A: As a means of communication, hinting to a man is like having a heartfelt conversation with your salad.
This isn’t to say that men are dumb. They just aren’t emotional cryptographers. Social psychologist Judith A. Hall finds that women are generally far better at spotting and interpreting nonverbal messages (from, say, facial expressions and body language, including that female specialty, the pout).
Women tend to use their own ability for decoding unspoken stuff as the standard for what they expect from men. So, for example, the longer a man takes to notice that his girlfriend is pouting, the darker things get—with hate glares and maybe some cabinet-slamming … and then, the grand finale: “Hey, heartless! Time for a monthlong reunion with your first sex partner, aka your right hand!”
There’s also a major sex difference in how males and females speak. A body of research finds that from childhood on, males tend to be direct: “Gimme my truck, butthead!” Females tend to be indirect: “Um, sorry, but I think that’s my Barbie.”
Psychologist Joyce Benenson points out that these conversational sex differences line right up with evolved sex differences in our, uh, job descriptions. Men evolved to be the warrior-protectors of the species. This is not done with coy hints: “Oh, Genghis, you look so much more tan and handsome while invading our neighbors to the north.”
Women’s mealy-mouthing, on the other hand, dovetails with a need to avoid physical confrontation, which could leave them unable to have children or to care for the ones they’ve already had. However, in women’s self-protectively not quite saying what they mean, they trade off being understood—especially by men.
Making matters worse, research by evolutionary psychologists Martie Haselton and David Buss on the “sexual overperception bias” in men suggests that the male mind evolved to be a bit dense to a woman’s signals that she isn’t interested. Basically, men seem evolutionarily predisposed to make errors in judgment in whether to pursue or keep pursuing a woman—erring in whichever way would be least costly to their mating interests.
In other words, in giving this guy “subtle hints,” you aren’t being polite; you’re being wildly ineffective. Yank off the marshmallow fluff and tell him: “I need you to kill all the sex talk. Immediately. And yes, this includes requests for naked selfies.” If he really is a friend, he’ll continue being one. He might even become a better one—the sort you can call anytime, day or night, from the coldest place on the globe, and he’ll say, “I’ll be there with the sled dogs pronto,” not, “Text me a shot of your boobs before you die of hypothermia!”
Q: I love how my boyfriend smells, but I hate his new cologne. The smell literally makes me queasy. Is it even my place to ask him to stop wearing it? How do I tell him I don’t like it without it being mean?—Plagued
A: Try to focus on the positive: You find him extremely jumpable whenever he isn’t wearing a $185 bottle of what it would smell like if sewage and verbena had a baby.
Unfortunately, it seems that his cologne and your immune system are poorly matched. Biologist August Hammerli and his colleagues find that a person’s fragrance preferences correlate with their particular set of infectious intruder-tracking genes, called the “major histocompatibility complex.” So, in not liking your boyfriend’s cologne, it isn’t that you think he’s an idiot with bad taste; it’s that your … I dunno, great-great-grandma got it on with some hot peasant with the “verbena smells like dead, rotting chickens” gene.
The science is your way in: “Sadly, your cologne does not play well with my genes.” Cushion the blow with something sweet, like, “I know you love it, and I wish I loved it, too.” Suggest that you shop together for a new cologne for him (ideally something that makes you want to get naked, and not just down to your World War II gas mask).