'Just Be Yourself'... and other unusable advice
One of the most common pieces of advice given to people about dating is 'just be yourself'. What kind of advice is that? What can you do with it? When I hear that advice I think, 'You've got to be kidding. That's what I've been doing. That's what's not working. I tried being myself and it wasn't wanted.'
You'd think that would be obvious, so why do people give such advice? What they usually mean is something like: 'Just relax. I know you might be nervous but I know you, you have plenty going for you, just don't blow it by being too anxious.' Sometimes this advice might also be given to someone who is obviously trying too hard and thinking they have to do all sorts of 'over the top' things to make an impression. Then saying 'just be yourself' means, 'Don't act out of character, as if you're a completely different person. Don't pretend to be something you're obviously not or it will just come over as fake'.
Two Reasons Not to 'Just Be Yourself'
It might be better to just say something like that rather than saying 'just be yourself'. Why is that? There are two very good reasons why 'just be yourself' can be unhelpful advice.
The first reason is this. You already know who you are on the inside, and might be quite confident that you have a lot going for you, but you recognise that you have trouble communicating this to others. The 'inner you' just doesn't come over as well, and you are seeking some advice on how to make a better impression, not as if you are someone else, but as the you who you feel yourself to be on the inside.
The second reason is this. You have already developed a persona with which you are comfortable with friends of the same sex, but you recognise that this doesn't 'translate' as well when with the opposite sex. The manner of relating and the kinds of conversations you have with your friends don't seem to work as well with the opposite sex, and you are looking for some insights on how to become more. You don't want to become someone else, but you do want to become more of who you could be. You want to grow.
These two reasons are closely related, but the first is a more general problem of social development. It involves things like shyness, perhaps physical awkwardness, a very introverted personality, or simply lack of much experience in dealing with different kinds of people. The second is more specific to relating with the opposite sex. This might include the first kind of reasons, but it might not. You might be confident and outgoing in the circles you usually move in, but find situations of 'romantic potential' nerve-wracking. You feel too self-conscious and ill at ease to 'be yourself'. But what you need is more understanding, rather than exhortation.
Let's use a metaphor to illustrate. Another nerve-wracking occasion might be singing solo in public. Let's say you are preparing for a concert at which you are going to sing solo in front of an audience. If you are already a confident singer you might just need the simple advice about 'Relax. Remember, you can do this, you've done it all in practice. Just go out there and be yourself'. But of course this advice depends on the fact that you can already sing, and have been able to do it in front of friends. The new element is that you are going out in a more formal setting in front of strangers. There is more at stake, and so there is a new emotional hurdle to overcome.
But it would be crazy to give that same advice to someone who can't sing. It would be woefully misguided to say, 'Hey, everyone can sing. Just get out there and give it a go. You can do it.' It may very well be quite humiliating, and leave someone scarred for life. It is worth bearing this in mind when giving dating advice. What would an aspiring singer do? First, learn to sing a bit, and try it with friends. Pick a song that doesn't test your limits. Stay within your comfort zone. Pack the audience with friends.
There are parallels when it comes to dating. If you are someone who struggles to socialise, find a mixed-sex group of friends, perhaps by joining a group of some sort, somewhere that is not in itself a 'romantic context'. Get to know some of the opposite sex simply as friends. Attend some social events with this group of friends. It is good if this can include some dances, where the group 'pairs off', but not with romantic expectations, simply as a conventional arrangement. In other words: baby steps.
If you are reasonably confident socially but are looking to become more confident and competent with the opposite sex, you are looking to develop a 'romantic persona' to add to your 'everyday persona'. Like any learning experience it is best to begin by small steps. This is where the genre of 'dating advice' comes in.
Many people don't know anyone they could turn to for personal help of this kind, and so might need to rely on things like dating advice websites or books. I'm not going to try and replicate all that sort of thing here.
Dating Advice for Beginners
However, just in case there are any absolute beginners reading this, the following are a few basics:
For the Guys
- Clean yourself up and dress well. Don't be scruffy. Remember, you're not trying to impress your male friends, who might rib you for 'trying too hard'. So don't play it 'cool', as if you're embarrassed to be going on a date. If you're not sure, err on the side of being a bit more 'dressed up' than 'dressed down'. Women prefer men who make some effort to look good. Remember, she doesn't want other women judging her for going out with someone who looks like a loser. If you look like you've made an effort she will take it as a sign that you respect her. If you turn up looking unkempt she will think, 'Yeah, that makes me feel special'.
- If you feel yourself to be a beginner, it doesn't make much sense asking out the most beautiful and popular girl you know. Sure, she might be the love of your life – in your mind – but be realistic. Remember, at this stage you're not trying to find someone to marry you in the next three months – you're just trying to learn how to talk to girls, and how to enjoy their company without coming over as a complete dork. Remember, baby steps.
- Ask her out in a clear way so that she knows you are asking her on a date. Don't hedge your bets by trying to convey the impression that it might or might not be a date. It is your job to make it clear. If you don't want to ask her on a date, but would like to spend some time in her company, do it in a group setting so as not to confuse or embarrass her.
- Since you are a beginner, it would be best to have a date involving an activity, like going to see a movie, or dancing, or sight-seeing. If you simply asked her to dinner, what would you do? Basically a dinner is all about conversation. Can you carry a conversation for a few hours? Probably not. That would be setting the bar too high. It is easier if you have an activity, so that conversation is just one small part of it, and perhaps broken up into short sections. Not only that, the activity will suggest things to talk about. The simplest of all is probably going to a movie. That way you're not expected to talk at all for most of it. Then you go for a milk shake or a coffee afterwards, which might only be for 30-60 minutes. And the movie can provide the main topic of conversation.
- Since you probably feel a bit awkward and self-conscious because of the unfamiliar situation, it is OK to be a bit formal. A lot of people find it hard to convey a relaxed and easy manner on such occasions. The important thing is to treat your date respectfully. You probably won't be able to come across as smooth and charming, but you can be polite and respectful.
- In conversation, it is probably best to just 'be yourself' in your everyday persona, because you don't really know what makes girls tick. Don't talk all the time, but ask her questions. Ask her simple things like where she works or studies, who is in her family, what her favourite TV show is.
For the Girls
- When a guy asks you out on a date, presuming you accept, dress in an attractive but not 'sexy' way. You might not be aware of it, but if you wear an outfit that is too revealing a guy can find that distracting so that he will not be as relaxed and comfortable.
- For an inexperienced guy, asking a girl on a date is a big deal, and he feels it is his responsibility to make sure it goes well, and that you enjoy it. So it is important to do whatever you can to help him feel that you really want the date to work. If you feel nervous, try to smile and show gratitude for what he is trying to do, because he is probably just as nervous as you are. You don't necessarily have to talk a lot, but bear in mind that he probably feels even less comfortable with conversation than you do.
- Sometimes, due to nervousness, and lack of ideas on what to do, a guy will talk too much. It might become like a monologue. Don't jump to the conclusion that he really wants to keep going on talking like that. He is most likely hoping you will intervene with some questions. If you can, take any openings to draw him out a bit about himself, and even speak a bit about yourself.
- Guys are not as familiar with a 'back and forth' kind of conversation as girls are. He will feel it is his responsibility to initiate conversation, but he really needs you to chime in and respond. You might find it hard to know how to pick up and carry on from something he has said. If you don't respond he will feel he has to try again. But if each of his attempts just kind of peters out, and you don't respond, he will be lost for ideas on how to go on. Then it will get fairly awkward for you both.
- Guys tend to have a different kind of conversation among themselves than girls do. He might simply talk about the kind of things he usually talks about, but you don't know anything about it, so you don't know how to respond. You might not know this, but the actual contents of what he is talking about are probably not that important to him in this context. He just feels a responsibility to get the conversation going. So don't feel you have to be able to talk with him in the same way as his male friends would. He's not looking for that. Let's say he started talking about sport. You don't have to pretend to know anything about it, though you can show some polite interest. But it would often be a better approach to turn it back into a personal type of question that tries to shift the conversation to why he enjoys it. For example, you might say, 'You obviously have a real passion for such-and-such. How did you first get interested in that? Or, who first introduced you to that interest?' By making it personal it opens up ways for you to join in the conversation.
So, should you just 'be yourself'? Well, yes and no. You don't want to become someone else, but you do want to be more than you currently are. A person asking for dating advice is really asking, 'How can I develop my romantic persona, to add to, and complement my everyday persona?' What they're hoping for are some ideas about some suitable next step they could take in this process of growth. If you find yourself in the position of giving dating advice, give some thought to trying to break down the process into smaller steps, into specific things that could be practised, or simple rules of thumb. If possible try to convey some insight into what makes men and women different.
One such insight I tried to convey here is that men who tend to 'monologue' instead of 'converse' in dating situations are often doing it because they don't get a response of the type they're used to from their male friends. But since they feel responsible for trying to make conversation they just keep going with the only thing they know. They are not 'monologue-ing' because they are full of themselves. They are driving a train but can't find a station. If the woman understands this she'll realise that he won't be upset if he interrupts, but will be relieved. He will feel as though he can stop because he has found a station with a passenger waiting. That is, she has got on board with the conversation because she realises he was stuck, and she could help.
What are some of the things you've learned from your experience that could be helpful to a beginner? Or to someone ready to learn about the opposite sex in a deeper way?