Q: I’m a woman, and I recently made a new professional connection—a man who’s excited about my work. We’re planning on doing a big important project together. I’m worried that he’s interested in me romantically (based on a few things he’s said). I’m not interested in him in that way. What’s the right thing to say to get that across?—All Business
A: It’s tempting to get everything out in the open right away: “I’ve run the numbers on your chances of having sex with me, and they’re pretty close to the odds of your being crushed to death by a middle-aged dentist falling out of the sky.”
Informing a guy pronto that you aren’t romantically interested in him would be the right thing to do if he were just some persistent Tinder date you wanted to unload forever. But you’re hoping to have a continuing business relationship with this guy. So even if it were wildly obvious that he has the hots for you, the last thing you should do is mention that particular elephant in the room.
Cognitive psychologist and linguist Steven Pinker points out that “most social interaction” involves some conflicting goals. Pinker explains that “indirect speech”— not saying exactly what you think or want—is a way that two people can maintain their relationship as it is (even when both suspect or are pretty sure that their desired outcomes are in sharp conflict). The sometimes tiny measure of ambiguity—uncertainty about another person’s goals—that is fostered by indirect speech does a big job. It allows the person who wants something the other doesn’t to save face, enabling the two to preserve their common ground.
So, your refraining from telling the guy that you aren’t interested (in so many words) allows him to cling to the ego-preserving possibility that you might be. If he goes direct on you—tells you that he wants to sex up your business relationship—that’s when you likewise get explicit: Tell him straight out that you want to keep things strictly professional. However, this may not be necessary if you act in ways that say “just business!” Avoid going flirty in communicating with him, and schedule meetings for the utterly unsexiest times and places possible. Nobody ends up doing the walk of shame because they had one too many double espressos.
Q: There’s always been an attraction between this guy and me. I’ve been thinking of testing the waters with him romantically, but he recently mentioned that he freaks out when women cry. He says he just has no idea what to do. Well, I’m an emotional person—generally happy but also a big crier. Are we a bad match, or could I teach him to soothe me?—Waterworks
A: Most men are comfortable dealing with any leaky item—as long as it can be fixed with an adjustable wrench and a Phillips screwdriver.
If there’s a decoder ring for human emotion, it’s the female brain. Psychologist Simon Baron-Cohen finds that men, generally speaking, just aren’t as good as women at what’s called “theory of mind”—the ability to “infer what other people might be thinking or intending.” He explains that women, from childhood on, tend to be the “empathizers” of the species, driven to identify others’ “emotions and thoughts, and to respond with the appropriate emotions” (say, by hugging a teary-eyed person instead of treating them like a statue weeping blood).
In contrast with female “empathizers,” Baron-Cohen describes men as the “systematizers” of the species. This is a fancy way of saying that they’re engineering-focused—driven, from a young age, to identify how inanimate stuff works and “derive the underlying rules that govern the behavior of a system.” However, these are “reliable” rules, like the law of gravity—nothing helpful for fathoming what the girlfriend’s got swirling around in her head when she suddenly goes all funeralface.
Typically, women believe, “If he loved me, he’d figure it out.” Um, no. Not here in realityland. Assume that most heterosexual men are sucky at emotional tealeaf reading. When you’re in boohooville (or on your way), tell a man what you’re feeling and how he could help—for example, by just listening and rubbing your back. In time, this may help him avoid reacting to the welling of that very first tear by diving behind the couch and yelling, “Incoming! One o’clock! Alpha team, flank left!”