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July 12, 2005

Dilemma of the Nice Guy

After seeing Lindsay, Matt, and Scott discuss the issue, I'm convinced that the central dilemma faced by nice guys has been missed.  This constitutes a blogospheric emergency of such importance that I must use my position as Ezra's guestblogger to make the problem clear. 

It's a necessary condition for being a nice guy that you apply high standards to your behavior with women.  You deny yourself recourse to strategies that don't meet these standards.  Minimally, you don't hit on girls impolitely or in inappropriate contexts, and you don't try to pressure girls into doing things that they might not want to do.  You make sure they have an easy way to say no if they're not really interested -- strategies that don't leave the other person an out are rejected.  Further, as Lindsay points out, "nice guys don't feel compelled to tell you how nice they are."  Genuine nice guys will be sensitized to the immodesty of boasting about their niceness, and to the subtle ickiness of many other behaviors, which they will then refuse to employ. 

This would be enough to put nice guys at a disadvantage -- the same disadvantage that nice people, generally, have in any endeavor.  Nice people avoid immoral or even slightly sketchy means for achieving their ends, and this is why they often fail in cases where immoral means are particularly helpful.  Good societies try to reward nice behavior and punish the users of immoral tactics, so as to rebalance the incentives.  Dating situations, however, are often subtle enough that it's hard to do this effectively.  And there's a further issue that makes the problem more severe.

One lesson that feminists crusading against sexual harrassment have successfully ingrained in some men -- and which I wish had been successfully ingrained in others -- is that it's very bad for men to express interest in women in ways that make them uncomfortable.  This fits quite well with the other principles generally accepted by nice guys.  But if nice guys are uncertain about what could make women uncomfortable, accepting this principle has the potential to  paralyze them.  They don't want to make women uncomfortable, and if they can't be sure that they won't do so by acting in a particular situation, they hold back and let opportunities pass them by.  Or if they act, they do so with the lack of confidence that nice guys have when they're worried that they might be doing something wrong.  This does not bode well for their chances of success. 

I'll risk immodesty and say that this is what it's like for me when I'm thinking about letting girls know that I'm interested in them.  When I think about doing things that subtly communicate to a girl that I like her, I'm more relieved than disappointed at the thought that her response might be nothing more than a slightly amused rejection.  What freaks me out is the possibility that she might feel uncomfortable, or far worse, threatened in some way.  This last possibility makes me want to hide and not go anywhere.  Really, the problem is a lack of knowledge on my part -- if I could be sure that I wasn't doing anything wrong, I'd be confident.  But since I'm unsure about what's right and wrong in these situations, confidence is impossible. 

I'm totally in the market for feminist dating advice.  This need not be advice on how to succeed in getting girls or anything like that -- I just want to know what I can do without the concern that I'm doing something wrong. 

--Neil the Ethical Werewolf

July 12, 2005 in Life | Permalink

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» In Defense of the Nice Guy from One and Four
Time for me to jump on the bandwagon and discuss the phenomena of "nice guys finish last". There seems to be a backlash brewing against the proverbial nice guy (as if we needed it). Lindsay Beyerstein, it seems, made the... [Read More]

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Comments

Wow, you just described college for me.

Another point, one problem I had is that I'm generally not interested in people I've only just met, and only become interested in them after knowing them for a while. The trouble is, if it's someone I see on a regular basis, enough to get to know them, the potential pitfalls of rejection become much greater, because I know I can expect to run into them again, and if I've let it be known that I'm interested in them but they're not, I know it would be awkward to continue seeing them.

Posted by: Greg | Jul 12, 2005 10:39:40 PM

Ah...blame the feminists for your personal problems -- a pretty slick move.

Posted by: Matthew Yglesias | Jul 12, 2005 11:12:26 PM

Yeah, I was worried that the last half might come off that way. The thing is, I want them to keep doing what they're doing re: raising awareness about sexual harrassment. It's just, if we could get some advice about what kind of flirting behavior is clearly in bounds, that would be really nice.

Posted by: Neil the Ethical Werewolf | Jul 12, 2005 11:27:29 PM

No, he's pointing out an unfortunate side effect of feminism reaching mostly just those men predisposed to be open to it in the first place.

It's funny to me how much emotion has been raised against the idea that being "nice" might actually be a real liability, and not a cover for lack of confidence, self-esteem -- or worse, some technique of emotional manipulation.

Why can't we apply the same lack of sympathy to young women who freely choose to date abusive, sexist jerks, and complain about it later?

Posted by: scrutator | Jul 12, 2005 11:40:10 PM

women only feel uncomfortable with a man making a move on them if they aren't interested in the man. If a woman is interested in you physically then you pretty much have to say something totally fucking nuts to turn them off. Feminists are no different then any other women when it comes to being approached by men, they want men that they find attractive to approach them, the rest will just be friends and if they are too persistant then they are creepy.

As for "nice guys", I have found that the guys that claim to be nice are really just passive aggressive people who are insecure.

I always feel weird talking about this kind of stuff with people, because I only know my prespective and I have found that most women I approach like me physically so I don't run into too many problems with the approach, and I am a pretty smart fellow so I can carry on a conversation, the place where I run into trouble is my sarcastic sense of humor, the women I tend to have long term relationships with can put up with my sarcasm, the other ones are too sensitive, and they end up just not calling me anymore after a few dates, and tell my friends that I was mean.

Posted by: jbou | Jul 12, 2005 11:46:17 PM

You aren't going to offend us. The fact that you actually think to be concerned about offending us means that you are probably incapable of hitting on us in a way that we would perceive as harrassment. Nice guys who worry about offending women believe that 1) all men share their basic standard of decency with women, 2) some women get offended when they are hit on, thus 3) they need to worry that something they might do would offend a woman. The flaw in the logic is #1 -- most of the men who are offending women are the small segment of antisocial psychos out there. A "nice guy" can't even think on their level.

Posted by: Becks | Jul 13, 2005 12:21:41 AM

OK, here's some female perspective:

Any woman who is halfway good looking has been dealing with guys making various kinds of advances towards her pretty much since puberty. The odds that a nice guy will do something even halfway as offensive as some of what the other guys have tried is pretty slim.

So buck up your self confidence and go for it.

Posted by: fiat lux | Jul 13, 2005 12:23:29 AM

scrutator, I think that people who make mistakes are generally deserving of sympathy.

Becks, fiat lux -- I appreciate your comments.

Posted by: Neil the Ethical Werewolf | Jul 13, 2005 12:38:56 AM

Well it looks like you're going to be dateless for a while. jbou nailed it. If she likes you it pretty much doesn't matter what you say. If she doesn't like you, it doesn't matter what you say. Until you're ready to find out which it is, and ask her out, you're going to fly solo. Just to ease the blow a bit, I just described all of my high school experience and a large part of college. But eventually I stopped freaking myself out and started taking the plunge.

As far as flirting goes, don't. Talk to her like she's a human too. Chicks dig that. ;^) After all do you want to go out with someone who thinks you deliver a smooth line or someone you like talking to?

Posted by: hank | Jul 13, 2005 1:03:04 AM

Neil! Read closer! And read my post on it! I am shocked, I really am. I know you mean well, but you comment at Pandagon enough to know that anti-feminists will latch onto anything they can to make their stupid case. As you can see in this thread, those who are willing to go with the idea that feminism somehow hurts men's dating chances are hopping to express the commonly held misogynistic notion that women are masochists.

Why can't we apply the same lack of sympathy to young women who freely choose to date abusive, sexist jerks, and complain about it later?

This makes me want to cry on about one million levels. The #1 issue is that what our culture deems as "nice" behavior--what I call the Lloyd Dobler model--is exactly how men who beat and abuse women act in the beginning of relationships.

The thing I think a lot of guys don't get is that women complaining about "nice" guys is that we are specifically complaining about passive-aggressive jerks who express their frustrations in misogynistic terms by saying that they are entitled to sexual attention but because women are awful and make our choices for our own reasons, we are accountable for his undersexed misery. To boot, there is usually an element of judging women by a standard that the "nice" guy specifically disallows women to have--he complains that women he is physically attracted to are shallow for choosing men that they are physically attracted to.

Anyway, I addressed the issue at Pandagon by talking about how "nice" is structured differently for men and women in romantic comedies and how this hints at the underlying power structures that one should not ignore.

Posted by: Amanda Marcotte | Jul 13, 2005 1:33:04 AM

And I'm sick to fucking death of men whining about rejection and acting like women get our way whenever we want. Not if our bodies don't fit the exacting standards of the man we desire, we don't. Thin women generally get leverage, but despite this, I've gotten my fair share of being shot down for not having big breasts.

Posted by: Amanda Marcotte | Jul 13, 2005 1:34:55 AM

To be honest, even being a "genuine" nice guy shouldn't really be an impediment.

What I've learned from all of my female friends, and from my current girlfriend, is that what is really important, is how confident you are in yourself.

Because if you lack any sort of noticable confidence, well damn, you are kinda fucked.

Posted by: Jamelle | Jul 13, 2005 1:51:01 AM

First lesson:

Werewolves by definition aren't ethical.

Second lesson:

"I just want to know what I can do without the concern that I'm doing something wrong."

Worrying about doing things wrong is the antithesis of sexiness.

While keeping some basic attention to not harming the object of your attention, feel free to try things. You learn by making mistakes, and you can only make mistakes if you're willing to do things wrong.

Third lesson:

"Really, the problem is a lack of knowledge on my part -- if I could be sure that I wasn't doing anything wrong, I'd be confident."

Bingo.

Get yourself some life lessons. Find a woman who is not necessarily your ideal but who will have you, do you your best to love her, and get some experience.

Posted by: Petey | Jul 13, 2005 2:03:13 AM

Amanda, how many times have you gone up to a man and asked him out, or offered to buy a drink or any of the other standard social interactions that take place when one person shows interest in a romantic type of way? I'm not talking about sending your friend over to check and see how a guy feels about you, I'm talking about straight up asking a guy out to do something that is looked at as a pick up.

We guys have to do that, and it ain't easy. Sending your friend over to talk to a woman for you isn't cool, and it shows that you aren't manly enough to do it on your own. Well, i've seen it percieved that way, but I've also seen it work for a few guys too.

The Lloyd Dobler model? I'm confused, Lloyd was a bit stressed over asking Diane out, but he did, and he was cool once he got over the intial teenage awkwardness. What does he do that would lead you to believe that a guy that takes this approach will be abusive?

btw, nice is a curious thing, I've seen guys do extremly nice things for women but they get ignored, but if a guy they are interested in does something the least bit nice it is blown up in her mind, trust me, I've used this to my advantage in the past, but as I've gotten older I've become less manipulative. It also works in reverse, if an attractive female shows a guy her nice side he takes it the wrong way and thinks she likes him, and I've seen plenty of women take advantage of this, hell, strippers make a living doing this, it isn't the nudity that makes them the big bucks, it's the attention they show an average guy that rakes in the money. Power, sex, manipulation, reading too much into things, not picking up subtle signs, this shit ain't easy.

Posted by: jbou | Jul 13, 2005 2:05:59 AM

What does he do that would lead you to believe that a guy that takes this approach will be abusive?

She's not saying that all guys who take this approach will be abusive, just that guys who do turn out to be abusive take this approach too. Basically, abused women don't go looking for abusive guys; they find guys who start nice (or at least seem that way) and become abusive later.

Posted by: Matt F | Jul 13, 2005 2:25:26 AM

The problem with Loyd Dobler was that after Diane dumped him, he stalked her. That scene where he's outside her window at night, blasting music at her window? She'd dumped him. That was a creepy, even frightening, thing to do.

Neil, I'm sympathetic. Painfully so. But Amanda's got a point. In a polarized debate like this, you're handing ammunition to the sexists.

Being unethical may give you a slightly better chance of having really bad sex with someone who'll despise you forever afterwards. I'm guessing that's not what you want.

Posted by: Brian Vaughan | Jul 13, 2005 2:38:36 AM

Well, Diane only broke up with Lloyd because her father disapproved. She still loved him, and Lloyd knew this, hence the continued pursuit.

Posted by: Matt F | Jul 13, 2005 2:45:08 AM

The problem with Loyd Dobler was that after Diane dumped him, he stalked her. That scene where he's outside her window at night, blasting music at her window? She'd dumped him. That was a creepy, even frightening, thing to do.

You want to hear creepy and frightening? my friend tried the music outside of the window routine, but instead of Peter Gabriel he used Air Supply, scarey,frightening and sad.

Posted by: jbou | Jul 13, 2005 2:50:01 AM

I have no interest whatsoever in defending guys who use protestations of their own niceness in sexually manipulating women. The kinds of guys whom my post is about would be horrified at the thought of doing such a thing. My point above is that men who hold themselves to high standards of personal behavior sometimes thereby decrease their chances of success. I think this is an unfortunate thing, though not the end of the world, and I don't imagine that you disagree. It seems that you and Lindsay are talking about a completely different issue and a completely different kinds of people than I am. I suppose the term "nice guy" has two meanings, only one of which occurred to me when I read other people's posts.

anti-feminists will latch onto anything they can to make their stupid case
This is manifestly true. Seeing that this post has generated kvetching material for anti-feminists, I apologize for facilitating the entry of crap into the world. But I can't see anything I've written turning any marginally reasonable unconvinced person against feminism. The easy answer to the problem is to work out a set of general rules men ought to follow in their interactions with women. That's the answer I ask for at the end of the post. Giving up on feminism because of the problem I've cited above would be like ditching your car because the ashtrays are full.

Nothing great ever moves through the world without kicking up a few minor problems in its wake, and feminism is no exception. On the plus side, there's been an increase in the knowledge that some bad things (sexual harrassment) are in fact bad things. This is a great thing and we need to seek opportunities to expand it. On the minus side, there's now some uncertainty about what it's okay to do, and this needs to be addressed. (There have been myriad other benefits of feminism that I won't enumerate here.) Perhaps there's some compelling reason to leave it unaddressed, but I don't see what that could be. Until it is addressed, I'm going to be a little paranoid about doing something wrong, and this will have mild negative consequences for me.

I don't trust the entertainment media to properly address the uncertainty. I certainly don't trust Dr. Laura or that Men's News Daily kissing guy. I trust you, Amanda, and Lindsay Beyerstein and Professor Bitch. There probably are plenty of guys out there who would be very happy to learn from you how they should act. Occasionally I've seen stuff on this topic from you and others, and I feel like I'm being let in on the secrets of the universe whenever I read it. My post above is more or less a bleg for information, and it's a bleg to you.

Posted by: Neil the Ethical Werewolf | Jul 13, 2005 3:46:39 AM

"The "compelling reason to leave it unaddressed" is mostly that there is no real answer. I mean, I could tell you to be respectful, be confident, ask if you are unsure, take rejection as gracefully as possible, etc. In the end, though, the best anyone can tell you is to be yourself and remember that women are individuals. Some women like a little irreverent playfulness right off the bat, some women find shy guys cute, yada yada yada...there is no one size fits all. So, really, just be yourself and treat women as individuals, and you'll be doing the best you can - the best anyone can.

Posted by: Jenny K | Jul 13, 2005 4:07:59 AM

I should probably be clearer about the kinds of issues that I think need more detailed coverage. I'm not looking for advice on how to succeed here, though that's of course a useful thing -- I'm just looking for advice on how not to give offense, generate a hostile environment, or do anything unethical.

--When a guy sees an attractive girl in a bar / in a coffee shop / at a show / while dancing / on a bus, what general rules should he follow in trying to get to know her? I'm guessing that he's just got to let it pass on a bus. In the other contexts, though, is there anything offensive if an obvious, unspoken subtext of the interaction is that he's physically interested in her? The Becks-lux position expressed in comments above might suggest that there's nothing automatically offensive about this, which is heartening. And what determines when it's okay to bring it out into the open?

--What norms govern dating between professors and graduate students? (and more generally, relationships between people of different seniority/power levels?) My current view is that professors shouldn't date students in their own departments, while grad students from other departments are okay.

Obviously, nobody's going to have the time or the knowledge to answer all possible questions of these kinds. But when opportunities arise, working to build common knowledge on them is a very valuable thing to do.

Posted by: Neil the Ethical Werewolf | Jul 13, 2005 5:17:03 AM

I do think different rules apply for guys if they are looking for a long-term relationship, or are just looking to hook up. If it's the former, then yes you will have to be conscious about establishing a connection and maintaining yourself decently. If it's the latter, then the slightly less offensive version of the Boomhauer approach should suffice.

Posted by: ItAintEazy | Jul 13, 2005 8:30:46 AM

be yourself and remember that women are individuals.

Kenny nailed it. All of this worrying about how women will react is overthinking. Most communication is not verbal. Just be yourself, let your pupils dialate with interest when you look at her, touch her hand at punch lines of jokes, etc. Above all, be confident.
It is a "sell". You must appear to be someone that someone else would want.
Here is the best advice I can give you. If you wish to get next to a particular girl, meet all her friends in a social way. Be sure to interact with them all. Referral is the most powerful tool in selling, and if all her friends think you are great, closing will be easy. Remember, the key is a "decent boldness". If we left it up to the women, no one would be here!

Posted by: Robert Zimmerman | Jul 13, 2005 9:23:36 AM

When a guy sees an attractive girl in a bar / in a coffee shop / at a show / while dancing / on a bus, what general rules should he follow in trying to get to know her? I'm guessing that he's just got to let it pass on a bus. In the other contexts, though, is there anything offensive if When a guy sees an attractive girl in a bar / in a coffee shop / at a show / while dancing / on a bus, what general rules should he follow in trying to get to know her? I'm guessing that he's just got to let it pass on a bus. In the other contexts, though, is there anything offensive if an obvious, unspoken subtext of the interaction is that he's physically interested in her?

I'm always surprised by this qestion, but I've seen it often enough that I guess there's real confusion.

No, there's absolutely nothing offensive about getting to know someone under circumstances where "an obvious, unspoken subtext of the interaction is that" you're physically interested in the person you're talking to. In social settings, this is fine. There's nothing about feminism that makes making a pass at someone on someone an offensive act in and of itself.

You get into offensiveness when you are: (1) obtruding the fact that you find someone sexually desirable (or undesirable) on their notice when you have no social connection. Cat-calls? Offensive. Ostentatious ogling? Offensive. (2) Making sexual or romantic advances, and you don't back off when you get a negative response. Pestering? Stalking? Behaving like Lloyd Dobbler in the belief that insane persistence is charmingly romantic? All bad.

Politely exhibiting sexual or romantic interest? Go right ahead -- that shouldn't offend anyone.

Posted by: LizardBreath | Jul 13, 2005 9:43:09 AM

I think you've hit on something here. Inasmuch as lying and arrogance are essential arrows in the typical man's romantic quiver, a man reluctant to use those particular weapons against a potential wooee is hampered, no matter who the woman is.

Posted by: Cryptic Ned | Jul 13, 2005 10:07:07 AM

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