Mixed Messages

Mixed messages? Well, it would take a whole book to even begin to unravel the secrets of how guys and girls unintentionally confuse each other. But let's make a start, by setting the scene.

Mixed Feelings

Before we even begin looking at how things get lost in translation, from 'guy speak' to 'girl speak' and vice versa, we need to remind ourselves that a lot of mixed messages come from having mixed feelings to begin with. It's not just a problem about interpreting what the other sex means, you might not even know yourself how you feel.

Imagine you have to stand up and present a study paper to your class, but you didn't really understand the topic. So you try to bluff your way through, using great sounding phrases, and quotes from authoritative sources. You might even get away with it - as the saying goes, 'if you can't dazzle them with science, baffle them with bull'. But what about question time? What happens when people start to quiz you about what you meant, exactly, when you said 'such and such'? Big problem.

It's often like that in trying to work out how you feel about a particular guy/girl, in the midst of trying to understand guys/girls in general, not to mention yourself! You often won't know exactly what you feel, but the world won't stop while you try to figure it out. That's what can make relationships so challenging. You're always trying to learn 'on the run', never being totally on top of it. And it's not just you. Everyone else is in the same boat.

OK, I give up right now!  No, no. Let's keep paddling.

Hedging Your Bets

What do you do when you're facing a situation involving a lot of uncertainty? You hedge your bets, right? You don't put all your eggs in the one basket, you look before you leap, you don't count your chickens, you ... well, you get the picture. That's completely rational behaviour. It makes sense. There's nothing wrong with it. But there is a catch. (Who woulda thunk?)

Now that I've got my momentum up with proverbs and sayings, let's look at the situation. What if the uncertain situation also involves a rainbow, and pots of gold, that sort of thing? What if on the other side of the chasm you have to leap over there's a paradise beckoning you from the other side? Darn it! Why isn't there a bridge?

So, you're facing an uncertain situation, with a lot at stake, but the rewards are potentially very high. What do you do? Maybe you don't hedge your bets quite as much. Maybe you screw your eyes tight shut and just leap. Some do that. Sometimes they crash and burn. Sometimes they make it.

But others, like you probably, since you're reading this rather than being out there right now flinging yourself across the great divide between your reality and your dreams, you are probably thinking: OK, I know I can't expect a bridge to take me easily across, but perhaps some stepping stones? Is that too much to ask?

Stepping Stones

No, I don't think it's too much ask. What we are trying to do here is to find some stepping stones, some clues about how to make our way across the daunting river of relationships without getting swept away. Although there is obscurity and mystery there is also a light at the end of the tunnel. (Sorry, I just had to squeeze in one more cliche!)

I know it can feel like high drama at times, but it's a bit like a romantic comedy too. Maybe you slip on a stepping stone and get a dunking, but you don't get swept away. Sure, some others might be laughing at you from the safety of the river bank, but as you clamber back up and look to take your next step you have the comfort of knowing that at least you're out there, having a go.

The good thing about stepping stones is that they make it possible to cross the river by stages. You don't need to be superman or superwoman, able to leap the whole thing in a single bound. You don't have to be Tarzan, who spots Jane on the other side and just grabs the nearest vine and swings nonchalantly over and sweeps her off into the foliage.

You can just be an ordinary person, even a bit timid. You can venture out a bit, then come back to build up the nerve to go a bit further. You might get to know the first few stepping stones very well. But bit by bit you can make your way over to that Jane/Tarzan on the other side.

A 'Semaphore of the Sexes'?

We started out with the topic of mixed messages between the sexes. Then we mixed in a dash of metaphor about rivers and stepping stones. If you'll permit me to add a new metaphor, I want to try and answer the question: how do you communicate with someone on the opposite bank of the river? Let's say you are nowhere near crossing over yet, but you still want to communicate. After all, you want to know if the alluring creature on the other side is really going to be worth all the effort of getting across.

Have you ever heard of semaphore? It is a system that was developed to let ships at sea communicate with each other. It involves waving flags, which can be seen from a fair way off (especially considering you can also use a telescope or binoculars). The signaller holds two flags and waves them in prescribed ways, and each configuration means a letter or number. It's kind of a visual Morse Code. (To save you some time, here is a link with pictures and explanation.)

I think of semaphore as a good analogy for communication between the sexes. It's like learning a new alphabet, and until you get the hang of it can be slow and laborious. You might also make lots of mistakes. Luckily one of the semaphore signals means "Error/Attention" and another means "Cancel/Annul/Disregard previous signal". These get quite a workout!

Imagine you are sitting across from your date, having dinner, and instead of being able to talk you had to wave little flags at each other, spelling out words one letter at a time. On second thoughts, communication between the sexes would probably be more like a semaphore version of Chinese pictograms. Maybe we need to start with a really simple version, like two flags that signal, "Me Tarzan, You Jane".

Match Practice

To be honest something like that, but a bit more sophisticated, might not be a bad idea. Imagine if we identified a dozen or so of the most common things guys and girls wanted to say to each other and had a little flag for each, or a hand signal. A card is probably the best idea. Each flag/signal/card wouldn't signify a word but a whole idea and the feelings to go with it.

A bit like a more sophisticated set of emojis.

So one signal might mean, "Hello, I think you are attractive, and although I'm feeling a bit nervous - are you too? - I would like a chance to talk with you a while, no pressure, because I'm just trying to work out my own feelings, and won't be offended if you only want to chat briefly, thank you."

A reply signal could be, "Thank you. You think I'm attractive? I'm flattered. And yes, I'm a bit nervous too, and I'd like to chat with you for a while, but I hope you don't mind, but about 3-4 minutes into the conversation I'd like to go and talk to one of my girlfriends to give me an opportunity to regroup, so don't think I've necessarily lost interest, but I wouldn't mind if we had another little chat like this a bit later, at which time I might have a better idea of how I feel. But if I don't go off after 3-4 minutes you should take it as a sign that I'm enjoying our chat and want it to keep going. If that happens I won't use the cards for the rest of this encounter but will just speak 'as myself' to tell you how I feel."

Wouldn't that be great? Here's a thought. You could organise a 'Dating Night' where young singles are invited to attend and everyone received an explanation of this 'signal system' the week before, and a set of cards. On the front of each card is a distinctive symbol, and on the back is written what it is meant to signify. Then you have an evening where people mingle, and use the cards as a way to ease the flow of interaction. Make sure to include some humour, and some organised activities in there as well, and keep things fairly light. It would be fun working out what the cards should 'say'. And it would be fascinating to know how that would work out.

Taking some first steps ...

All this has been by way of setting the scene. In future articles we'll take up this question of mixed signals, and see if we can find a few good stepping stones, or a few basic semaphore signals to get us off to a good start. We will try to identify some of the key differences between the sexes to give us some basic reference points. Then we can gradually start filling in some of the gaps and seeing a bit more nuance.