I am thinking about how…

I am thinking about how you give people graceful exits. This has been coming up in discussion of the ReaderCon / dealing with creeps threads, but I haven't seen graceful exits specifically discussed, and I think they're actually pretty critical, in a few different ways, and also something it took me a few years to learn. I'm still not sure I do them as well as I'd like. Two places where a graceful exit is super-useful:

1) When you find someone attractive, and want to convey that, without being a creep (scary, stalker-ish, etc.) There are a zillion ways to do this, but I think the key to all of them is that you make it easy for the person you're approaching to turn you down. Without -- THIS IS IMPORTANT -- any sense of physical or social danger to them, from you.

Physically, it's simple, you don't approach the object of your affection in a private elevator, or a hotel room, or any place where they have no easy option for escape, especially if you are bigger / stronger / male to their female. I'm a five foot tall woman, so I'm unlikely to physically dominate anyone, so I don't have to worry about that aspect as much as most. And even so, I don't leap on the object of my affection full-on, planting a big wet one on their face out of the blue. (My toddler son might do that, but I have learned over the years that that's not actually socially acceptable for anyone over the age of three.) I might lean forward, inch a bit closer, see if they respond by doing the same. There's eventually a moment of initiating physical contact, but I don't think I do that (I HOPE I don't do that) unless it's already very clear that they're interested -- and ideally, I'd like them to SAY that they're interested. I know some may feel that takes the magic, the excitement, out of flirting. I'm willing to trade a little of the excitement of uncertainty, the stomach-butterflies, for a cheerful and enthusiastic "yes!"

Even if I'm not physically threatening to anyone, I do still have to be aware of the social aspect. One way I approach that is if I'm the one to initiate flirting, I keep it light, so that they have the option of passing it off as a joke, changing the subject, wandering away shortly thereafter if they're not interested. If they ARE interested, awesome -- then they can respond by flirting back in kind, and after a few passes of the flirting ball back and forth, with opportunities to retreat clearly available, everything has intensified in pleasurable and exciting ways, and it's clear to both of us that we're on the same page here.

I am tempted to talk about specific incidents and people and name names, in part because I'd like to invoke them and let them respond to how successful (or not) I've been in the attempt to always give them a graceful exit. (I won't name names, because I didn't check with people in advance, but if you're reading this and I've flirted with you, do feel free to chime in. (Be kind. :-). I would really hate to think that somebody felt like I'd pinned them to the wall, metaphorically speaking, and made it hard for them to turn me down. Or at least, any harder than it already is -- because of course, it's hard, turning someone down. You don't want to hurt their feelings (women, especially, are heavily socialized not to hurt anyone's feelings, even at considerable cost to ourselves), and you're going to hurt them, at least a little. It stings, getting turned down.

The best I think anyone can do to defuse the potential difficulty of that, again, is to keep the stakes low. To flirt lightly, with a smile and a joke, and make it as clear as can be that if you do have to reject them, it's not going to break their hearts, and/or they're not going to come after you, angry at the rejection.

Oh, here's an incident I can talk about, since it happened in the other direction, and I think she'd be fine with it. In college, a female friend of mine, K, had been dumped by her live-in boyfriend. At a party, I said I'd heard about what happened, and asked if she needed crash space. K paused a moment, and then said, "Only if you know what you're offering." She said it with intent, y'know -- leaned in a little, smiled. I, totally flustered and totally not intending to flirt, stumbled a bit. She smiled again a moment later, a different 'friend' smile, said "Never mind, dear," (she may actually have patted me on the shoulder in avuncular fashion) and wandered off to the kitchen to get another drink. Now, in the end, I called her up a few days later and said, actually, I would be interested. I'd just needed a few days to wrap my head around the idea because, y'know, she was a girl, and that was new for me. Although thankfully, I didn't actually say that part out loud. And we did get together, briefly, and it was fun. The end.

I'm not sure if that story really illustrates what I'm talking about, but I think so. It's about making sure both people are on the same page, and K handling it gracefully, with minimal embarrassment to me, when I didn't respond immediately with an enthusiastic "yes!" K has, and had, a lot of grace. I didn't back then. Not at all. But I think that kind of social grace can be learned, fairly quickly, with a bit of deliberate conscious thought. Or at least you can learn to fake it if it doesn't come naturally.

As a side note, it's also easier to flirt lightly if you do it early. If you meet someone attractive, and you're available and they're available, by all means, make your move early. Because if you spend the next three years mooning around after them, building the potential romance up in your head, arranging your travel to 'casually' bump into them at conventions, etc., well, you've raised the stakes infinitely high at that point, and if she turns you down, you're going to have a mighty fall. And if you make that clear to her, if you open your suit, finally, after all those years of pining, with a declaration of undying love -- oof. That's going to be awfully hard for her to deal with, if she doesn't already return your affections.

You know, I read Regency and other period novels on occasion (especially if they have magic in), and one element that has always struck me is how formal society had sets of behavior in place to make offering graceful exits the norm. If the wrong man proposes marriage, there were accepted graceful forms for rejecting him, which he knows he's supposed to accept. They took it to extremes -- a man couldn't even approach a woman unless they'd been introduced by someone she knew. The entire society seems like it was set up to shield wealthy women from unwanted affections, which is sort of fascinating, considering how horrid its treatment of women (wealthy or not) was otherwise.

Anyway, I'm not suggesting we should return to that era, but I do think it can be instructive to look at those social forms, to think about what graces we've lost in our rush to modern familiarity. Just like if you're inviting someone to a dinner party at your house, it should be easy for them to turn you down with minimal hurt feelings all around, if you're inviting someone for happyfuntimes in your bed, it should be equally easy for them to turn you down.

2) The graceful exit apology.

This one is quick -- I've seen some people online sort of bewildered about what they're supposed to do if they've come on a bit too strong, and want to apologize, and don't want to be even more annoying / difficult with their apology. Might I suggest e-mail as a graceful option? The lovely thing about sending e-mail is that it's so low-key, so low-stress for the recipient, at least compared to anything you might say or do in person. They can respond if they want to; they can just ignore it. So many e-mails get ignored anyway! Another benefit is that you have time to craft your apology carefully, thoughtfully, and they have time to craft their response.

If, for example, you have creeped someone out at a convention by being a little too touchy or clingy or drunk all over them -- you could send a note right away, "Gosh, sorry I was such a drunken jerk last night -- I will try avoid pestering you for the rest of the con!" That gives them the option of being grateful that they don't have to actively hide from you for the next three days, OR, if they didn't actually mind the drunken pawing all that much, they can write and let you know that. Alternatively, you could avoid them for whatever remains of the con, let you both go home and retreat to a safe distance, before sending your note of apology. I think it's going to be context-specific which is the better approach, but it's something to think about.

There's a wonderful bit in Lois McMaster Bujold's _A Civil Campaign_, where Miles has badly and thoughtlessly mistreated the woman he's madly in love with. He's desperate to apologize to her, but she doesn't want to see him. His mother tells him, very firmly, to write the woman a note. And the book spends some time going over exactly what kind of note it should be, to make clear his regret for behaving badly towards her, without demanding forgiveness from her. Actually, that whole section should be required reading for anyone interested in this whole debate in SF circles; Bujold handles it beautifully, including giving us the woman's viewpoint, as someone who'd been in a bad marriage previously, and who had felt socially compelled to forgive bad behavior in her husband, over and over and over again. Those chapters are practically an object lesson in how to do apologies badly, and how to do them right.

Anyway, long-winded, I know. Short version: graceful exits are good; do your best to provide them. The end.

11 thoughts on “I am thinking about how…”

  1. The complicating factor here, for me at least, is that if someone is “joke flirting” with me, I will not realize s/he was perhaps flirting until a week or so later. I have gotten a little less clueless about it over the decades; when I was in my fifties and younger, I would not have ever realized it at all. When I was in high school, so far as I knew, no girls were interested in me in the slightest. At my twentieth high school reunion, two women told me that they had really liked me in high school, but that I had not been interested. I was shocked.

    I suspect that there is no way to resolve both of these difficulties simultaneously.

  2. Well, again, I think escalation is key. Very gradual escalation. She joke-flirts with you. You, tentatively, joke-flirt back (instead of running away). She, encouraged, flirts a little more obviously. You respond in kind. And so on, until both people are very clear what’s going on. 🙂

  3. “Well, again, I think escalation is key. Very gradual escalation.”

    Yes, a week later, when it occurs to me what was happening.

  4. This debate is a red herring. It artificially narrows things down to a nice place/event at which nice people do nice things which might temporarily be soured by inadvertent behavior. The “NiceGuyTM Temporarily Derailed By Impure Thoughts” is a smokescreen distracting us from the real source of the real problem.
    If you are being targeted, 3 requirements have already been met:
    1) You have been identified as subordinate=weak.
    2) You will not be asked for permission, opinions or feeback; any attempt at providing such unsolicited will be ignored at the very least.
    3) You are surrounded by a critical minimum mass of people who can/will be depended upon to stand by and do nothing or aid and abet.
    The root of the problem is encroachment, taken as an entitlement and way of life by white heterosexual “alpha males” with virtually no repercussions to this moment of this day. By “encroachment” I mean every imaginable permutation of creeping, expansion, monopolization, etc.
    Right now I live on a block “commanded” by someone who may not even own the space he occupies. He announces his every movement as loudly as possible, cuts as wide an arc in his vehicle possible – never mind legally or illegally – and even loudly orders his dogwalker to march back and forth across from my house to tease my dog instead of going around the block. What happens if anyone contests his right to curse in florid detail in his driveway at his “normal volume”? He stands in that driveway with his engine and speakerphone running and shouts even louder that my dog is louder than he is – all while the rest of the block sits in silence. (Where are the cops? Nowhere ever. If anyone a shade darker than this man stops in front of my house because their child is a guest for a playdate, a cop will descend as if from heaven on a cloud out of nowhere to tell them to move along. I stood at my door and saw that happen, too.)
    It’s all very nice that NiceGuyTM polices himself at parties. Meanwhile real gangsters are out there who don’t need a gun or a posse because they can rest assured nobody will say boo to them for very long.

  5. Umm…Mary Sue, I think you’re having a different conversation, about a different topic, than the one I’m having.

  6. I’m not sure what Mary Sue’s comment is really about, but I’m also not sure what your entry is about. Are you hoping to teach the subtleties of social interaction to geeky males? I agree with MS that it’s a red herring, that nice guys are Not The Problem. “the predilections that can, and do, lead to rape and violence are not isolated.”


  7. PS – I think what’s disturbing about this long-winded entry is the bizarre “give” someone a “graceful” exit. How about we teach everyone involved that “No” is always acceptable, graceful, and a complete sentence? Instead of “it sucks to reject someone”, how about “rejecting someone is a kindness done so they can focus their attention on people who reciprocate?” Instead of working harder and harder to tell people they have to come up with The Perfect Approach, how about the opposite, that of the 1000s of people you will ever meet of the right age/ gender/ social strata, only a miniscule number will be available, interested, and in the same city as you, so go out there and ask lots of women, ask awkwardly and imperfectly, but just ask and accept no from the 80% who say it? That attraction and pheromones are usually determined in less than 30 seconds and, well, if someone happens to change their mind, they’ll find you.

  8. Um — I don’t know what to say to you either. Again, you seem to be talking about something different than what I’m interested in addressing.

    And I wrote a long essay because, in my experience, I’m talking about a complex and subtle issue. Which is not the same issue you’re talking about, I’m pretty sure.

  9. This whole entry is great, but the crowning glory is the Bujold. I don’t know how many times I’ve read A Civil Campaign, but I hope it’s not half as many times as the times I will probably end up reading it.

    Cool. Thanks for the thoughtful post.

  10. As I noted elsewhere, I really like this entry, and wish that I had read something like it long ago, like in high school.

    I wanted to add a couple of side notes about email apologies–the following are intended as elaborations on what you wrote, not as disagreements:

    1. Be careful with subject lines. A subject line like “An apology” makes clear what the note is, which is a good thing to do if you really want to apologize. Whereas a subject line like “There’s something important I need to tell you,” on the other hand, or “Please read this!”, or no subject line at all, may provoke more anxiety than it alleviates.

    2. I think keeping the goal of the apology in mind is important—as you noted, it should be “to make clear [your] regret for behaving badly[…], without demanding forgiveness.” I haven’t yet read A Civil Campaign, so maybe the following is redundant, but I thought it was worth noting:

    Even if the apology is the best thing ever written, the recipient may not respond to it. Maybe they accepted the apology but don’t feel the need to interact further; maybe they were upset by it; maybe they decided not to read it; maybe it got lost in the mail. If you don’t get a response, you may never know why, and you have to be okay with that uncertainty. Because no matter how tempting this may be, sending a followup note saying something like “Hey, didn’t you get my apology? Why didn’t you respond telling me all is forgiven and I’m a nice person after all?” is not a good idea.

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