Definition and Usage
In popular culture the term 'friend zone' is commonly used to refer to a situation in which there is a mismatch in romantic interest between a man and a woman. In practice it is mainly used of cases when a man is interested in a woman but she only sees him as a friend – hence, she 'puts him in the friend zone'. It seems that because of this the term has picked up some baggage, with some female commentators seeing it mainly as a way for men to whinge about women who reject their advances, and that this is taken to indicate a sense of entitlement on men's part. Mostly though the term seems to be used in a more or less neutral way.
Is it a useful term?
It seems to me that the term is too broad in meaning to be all that helpful. If it is used to refer to any situation of a mismatch of romantic interest, how does that help? This situation is almost universal. Almost every person of the opposite sex you ever meet in your whole life will not want to have a special relationship with you. It doesn't narrow the field much. But if you want to gain some helpful insights you need a much narrower, clearer scenario to consider.
Clarifying the Scenario
A First Condition: Actually Being Friends
If it was up to me the term 'friend zone' would only be used to refer to a much more restricted case, something like this scenario. A man and a woman become fairly well known to each other, such that they could reasonably be called friends. They are not just acquaintances, but are already comfortable enough to talk with each other and are happy to see the other at social occasions, and have more than just occasional contact. Although they could be called friends it does not mean that they are 'close' friends or 'best' friends.
It is worth noting here that one of the reasons someone might not be open to advances from another is a perceived lack of 'friendship potential'. People do not only rate each other on sexual attractiveness. They also rate them on whether they even want to be friends. There are people you don't particularly want to get to know any better (even if there is sexual attraction of some kind) because you just don't see anything like enough commonality of interests, and possibly even of values. They don't even get far enough to be put in the 'friend zone'. They have already been placed in the 'acquaintance zone'.
So my preferred definition of 'friend zone' would include a first condition – that the man and woman are actually friends, though not necessarily close friends, let alone best friends.
A Second Condition: Openness to Something More
Let us continue painting the scenario. Each recognises some degree of potential sexual attraction in the other. This does not have to be clear at that stage, or even what they would describe as 'sexual'. The important thing is that there is an openness by both parties to at least the possibility of 'something more', although this might not even be clearly articulated interiorly. Let's just call it an implicit sense of openness to that possibility. The key thing is that neither has closed off that possibility, even if they haven't consciously paid attention to it specifically.
To my mind this second condition is crucial. It gives a useful reference point against which to measure the process by which such attraction, or at least openness to such attraction, could come to be closed off. This would be much more instructive. If there was never any such openness in the first place you're just floundering around amid a myriad of possibilities trying to work out what went wrong. Perhaps nothing did go wrong because there was never anything to begin with, but you had no way of knowing.
A Third Condition: Not Ready Yet
Our scenario has a further aspect – neither is ready to signal a special interest in the other. This scenario takes place in that period of life when you want to do a lot of mixing with the other sex, to enjoy their company, and to learn more about them. It is not simply about friendship, but the element of sexual attraction is more indirect and does not lead to special relationships.
Those involved in the relevant circle of friends are in an in-between stage. They are very interested in the other sex, but many of them are not ready yet to initiate a special friendship because they feel they are not ready to follow through into a serious relationship. This can be for various reasons, such as – feeling too young, wanting to focus on study, being unemployed, wanting to learn more about the other sex, or some reason other than simple timidity.
Those who should be ready, objectively speaking, but hesitate only through lack of courage are a different case and are outside the scope of this scenario. This is because they already have the means, they understand what to do next, but simply baulk at the hurdle. There are others where timidity plays some role, but is intermingled with uncertainty about the strength of their own feelings, or they don't really know what to do next. One reason for this is that men can worry that they might be acting prematurely by coming straight out and declaring a special interest, and are looking for signs of encouragement from the woman that would lead them to think that the time was right. This 'not quite yet' situation is within the scenario we are considering. In fact, it is a common reason why a man might hesitate too long and end up being put in the 'friend zone'.
It is during the 'not ready yet' stage that the friend zone question is most pertinent. It is defined by 'having a good reason not to initiate a special friendship yet'. But at the same time it doesn't mean being 'only' friends, as if not having any interest in the sexual attractiveness of these friends, even though it is only 'potential interest' at this stage.
But it is precisely because of this 'not ready yet' scenario that the danger of being 'friend zoned' arises. Those of the other sex have ample opportunity to gain a sense of your masculine or feminine appeal. Your behaviour during this period has to maintain or accentuate your perceived masculine or feminine attractiveness while avoiding the dangers of over-familiarity.
A Fourth Condition: Loss of Attraction
The fourth condition in my definition of the friend zone is that there was initially a mutual attraction, or an openness to that possibility, but that it is lost by one party, and the openness is closed off. This completes the scenario and gives us our reference point for considering the key question – how does sexual attraction come to be lost? In cases where 'sexual attraction' might seem to be overstating it we ask – how does some initial openness to 'something more' come to be lost?
A Lesson to Learn
By restricting the scenario with these four conditions we have clarified the question and homed in on something you can at least try to do something about. So, can we identify some factors that influence masculine-feminine attraction so as to provide a helpful guide for someone to improve their chances, and crucially, not to inadvertently blow their chances before they realise what is going on? It is important to emphasise that any lessons we might learn are only about improving the probabilities. Nothing is a certainty when it comes to relationships.
A Longer Perspective
Before we go on to the factors that decrease or increase the probabilities of attraction, it is worth putting all this into a longer perspective. The stage of life when you are trying to find a marriage partner can be long and frustrating. If you come out the other end and by some fluke find someone, you might not have learned much at all about these things. You just say, "Thank God!" and put all the angst and heartache behind you.
But pause for a moment and consider – if you learn through this process how to increase your sexual attractiveness, and how to sustain it so as to avoid unnecessarily diminishing it, this will stand you in good stead within your marriage.
In fact it will be more important within marriage than it was before. Beforehand, while you are still searching, so much is 'hit and miss' that you might never know what it was ultimately that brought the two of you together. But if that is your understanding of attraction, it could also lead to the idea that maintaining and fostering that attraction is also just some unaccountable something that you can't do much about. It's either there or it isn't. This could also lead to thinking that if that feeling disappears some way into the marriage that you have 'fallen out of love' – in similar mystifying fashion.
But a lot of these things are a lot less mysterious than they seem at first. Not only that, once you are married, you are not trying to increase the probability of your attractiveness to all and sundry but to one particular person. This means that the lessons you've learned in a general way about how to be more attractive can be applied to one person, which should greatly increase the probability of success. Not only that, you already start with the confidence that something must have worked initially. Also, the person for whom that worked is also wanting to stay attractive to you.
The 'not ready yet' period is also pertinent, because during that time you are trying to learn how to maintain your masculine-feminine attractiveness. The focus then is not on the very heightened attractiveness you might try to project on special occasions, but on the ways in which your everyday masculinity or femininity is perceived as at least not unattractive. Again, that's very relevant to married life.
If you can bring some of this perspective to what you are doing when you are single, it can help moderate some of the angst and frustration. You already know that so much is not within your control. Relax and take the long view. It is worthwhile putting in the groundwork during this period of life, and treating it as a learning experience. One of your experiments should eventually pay off. If it doesn't, you did all you could. In the meantime, take notes. Learn things.
Accentuating Masculine Appeal
Now we consider some key aspects of typical masculinity and how these can be accentuated. We are not looking here at how to be 'the sexiest man in the room' but how to be perceived as clearly and distinctively masculine over and above the simple fact of being male.
Be a 'Man-in-the-World'
A woman is not looking for a man who is totally preoccupied in trying to find a woman. She is not looking at you only in your individuality but as a 'man-in-the-world'. She is taking into account your 'social value'. Do you have a respected place in the world, especially in the world of men? Do other men respect you? At a young age you couldn't be expected to have achieved much standing on a large public stage, but you might on the smaller stage available to you. A woman knows this and is not likely to be unrealistic in that regard but is mainly trying to gauge your potential.
You need confidence, clarity and direction. You need a seriousness about your future. You need to be busy about your 'life project'. Although she is hoping to find a man who will treat her as special and put her in the centre of his heart, she wants to know what kind of man he is first. At this stage she is not looking to move into a serious relationship, so she will give more attention to these less 'romantic' considerations. She doesn't want a man who is dependent on her for his place in the world. If you give signs that you are unduly preoccupied with her and dependent on her to give you clarity and purpose she will start feeling less respect and attraction towards you. It would be a big mistake to seem 'needy', or to be peevish about your lack of romantic success.
She is not looking for you to make her your whole world. She is looking for a man who is building the kind of 'world' she would like to live in with him. If you are at her constant beck and call she will not respect you for it but start taking you for granted. You need to maintain an appropriate distance, literally and emotionally. Don't overdo the amount of time you spend together, or the degree of emotional closeness.
This will put you in better standing if and when you are ready to pay her special attention with a view to a more serious relationship.
Accentuate Women's Femininity
Men tend to have a 'knockabout' manner with each other, young men even more so. There is often a certain coarseness and robustness in their manner. Women generally don't mind if men are like that with each other, within limits, but they don't want that for themselves. If a man treats a woman in the same manner as he treats men then there is nothing to indicate that he holds women in any special regard. If a man adopts a noticeably different manner with women it will show that he understands something about women's sensibilities. How likely is he to treat her as very special if he cannot even treat women in general as special? You could think of it as the first round of job interviews, when all reasonably suitable prospects are identified, and which will be narrowed down to a short list later. Treating women in a special way indicates that you already have the basic skill set. It doesn't get you the job but it keeps you in the running.
Since masculinity and femininity are accentuated by contrast, if you treat women as more feminine then by contrast you will be perceived as more masculine.
Women don't want men to be 'wusses'. They want manly men to show special consideration and a special kind of attentiveness towards them. By making her feel more feminine, without sacrificing your own masculinity, you help her to see you as masculine. It is a big mistake for men and women to treat each other as just the same, out of the misguided idea that this is required for equality. This diminishes masculine-feminine attractiveness across the board.
Make sure you treat all women with special consideration, but don't do it as a 'tactic'. Do it because it is the manly thing to do. This will make clear that you are not singling a particular woman out, since at this stage you are not ready to begin a special relationship. If you do pay special attention to one woman and not the others it will lead her think you have a special interest in her. If you then don't follow through in timely fashion and make your feelings clear, such as by asking her on a date, it will confuse the issue and make an unfavourable impression. You need to clarify your feelings, and until you are ready to make your move you need to avoid giving confusing signals. But this doesn't mean simply being 'neuter', as if not giving any signs that you enjoy the company of women in a special way. By making all the women feel more feminine you make yourself seem more masculine but not in a way to cause confusion.
By treating all women with a distinctive kind of consideration you also signal that this is something about your character – that you have a commitment to being 'this kind of man'. This would give a woman reassurance, that you are a man of consistency, who can be trusted. But if you are only selective in doing this it will seem like a tactic and somehow dishonest. It is not something that goes deep in you.
Don't Be a 'Girlfriend'
Most importantly, don't become her 'girlfriend'. You've likely come across this theme in TV sitcoms. A man doesn't keep his distance but allows himself to be drawn into filling a role like one of her girlfriends. They spend way too much time together to no particular purpose, just hanging out and talking. The longer that goes on the more she starts confiding in him and soon he has been drawn into her private world as a 'substitute girlfriend'.
This is the opposite of being a 'man-in-the-world'. It is the quickest path to being put in the friend zone. It is deadly to sexual attraction and hard to come back from. The answer is – put some distance between you. This does not mean the 'empty' distance of mere absence. It means you are somewhere else because you are busy about your 'life project'. You let her know in suitable ways what you are doing, and most importantly, the energy and excitement you find in building this 'world'.
In more colloquial terms – get a life. That is, get a man's life. Not in an artificial way, as if pretending you are something you're not. Get back to work. Do something that has its own inherent rationale, independently of her private life.
Accentuating Feminine Appeal
Now we consider some key aspects of typical femininity and how these can be accentuated. We are not looking here at how to be 'the sexiest woman in the room' but how to be perceived as clearly and distinctively feminine over and above the simple fact of being female.
Put a High Value on Yourself
Men look up to women who have quiet strength of character and clear boundaries about their bodies and how they expect to be treated. Although there are men who are prepared to take advantage of women who put a lower value on themselves, it does not make men feel good about themselves. When a man looks for a wife he wants a woman he can respect and look up to, someone who can help him feel he is becoming a better man by being with her. It is important, for example, not to go along with coarseness of speech and manner, or casualness about your own body.
It is unfortunate that in recent decades this kind of advice has often been interpreted in a moralistic way and so has been rejected by many. It has been interpreted as men trying to control women, and so the opposite has been advocated. Women have been urged to act any way they please without reference to men. Such advice given here is not given from a moral perspective but from an emotional-aesthetic perspective. It is about how people feel and what shapes these feelings.
The accentuation of sexual attraction depends on contrast. It involves increasing distance and heightening symbolic opposites. A woman's body is the primary symbol that shapes the meaningfulness of men's sexual attraction towards women. A symbol works by maximising the relevant meaning and its associated feelings. So the very distinction between masculine and feminine as applied to emotion is itself an example of such symbolic maximisation. It is not trying to say that men are literally all like this and women are literally all like that. It attributes the heightened meaning to one or the other in order to heighten emotional attraction.
It works in a similar way with how we approach a sporting contest. At the end of the game one team is 100% the winner and the other team is 100% the loser. Does this mean that one team was totally awesome and the others were absolute no-hopers? Of course not. Indeed, the score might have been 100 points to 99. We choose to attribute absoluteness to winning and losing so as to heighten our emotional engagement. It makes it more enjoyable. You don't need someone sitting beside you all through the game saying, 'You know, it's only a game. Why are you getting so worked up?' Getting worked up is integral to the enjoyment.
It is similar with the social-cultural expressions of masculinity and femininity. We choose to create the impression of 100% masculine and 100% feminine attached to attributes in which the differences are nowhere near as marked as that because it heightens attraction. We enjoy it more. You don't need people going on all the time with, 'You know, men and women are not that different. Why do you get all excited about dressing or speaking or acting like this or that?' They are confusing the criteria for social roles, such as who does what job, with the criteria for emotional attraction.
These guidelines on attraction then are of this kind. I believe that they are also consonant with the moral values that place a high value on sexuality, but here we are considering it from the emotional perspective.
Accentuate Men's Masculinity
Men are concerned about finding an honoured place in the world. They want to be respected for their contributions and accomplishments. A woman can help a man feel more masculine by showing signs of respect and some admiration for his contributions and accomplishments.
Again, some have disparaged this along the lines of 'why should women have to stroke men's egos?' This misses the point. As well as helping to lift him up, it increases his perception of her femininity by contrast. A sign of respect coming from a woman has a different character than one coming from a man. Men tend to be sparing in their praise for each other, and among men a compliment from someone perceived as authoritative carries more weight. A man would be likely to look askance at frequent compliments from other men.
The dynamic is quite different when a compliment is coming from a woman. Men are quite happy to receive frequent compliments from a woman, provided they are genuine, and this gives women a distinctive marker they can use to accentuate their own femininity, and the man's masculinity by contrast. Not only that, women want men to be masculine in a good way, and helping a man feel respected and valued by women is a strong incentive for him to aim higher.
Don't Be 'One of the Guys'
Sometimes a woman will make the mistake of adopting an overly masculine style, usually to fit in with her circle of male friends rather than with one of them in particular. She adopts a persona like 'one of the guys', speaking and acting more coarsely and being more casual about her body. Some women even adopt ways of speaking about women's bodies that objectify them in the way that many men do.
This might buy her some short term acceptance but it will diminish men's perception of her as feminine. For a particular woman this might be more of a passing phase, and even specific to how she behaves in particular company. In this case it is less of an issue than a man's parallel mistake of becoming like a 'girlfriend'.
There are three reasons for this. Firstly, a woman being 'one of the guys' is usually about her behaviour in a group, not with an individual man. It does not go as deep. By contrast, a man becoming like a girlfriend is usually so as to be close to a particular woman. It goes deeper in its effects on the woman.
Secondly, the kinds of things a woman does to seem like one of the guys are more superficial and easier to change. They are mainly to do with appearance and some aspects of speech and manner. Women have less aversion to seeming masculine than men do to seeming feminine. This is not because of misogyny but because men's self identities are more dependent on social construction. They require more social reinforcement.
Thirdly, a woman could more easily change the perceptions of men by simply dressing and acting in a more typically feminine way, and creating a bit of distance. Men's perceptions would adjust fairly quickly. Even if they don't articulate it, men sense that women's identities are more closely linked to their biology than men's are. Also they see lots of behaviour where women move a certain way towards masculine style, so they don't see this kind of thing as running so deep.
However, if a woman adopted the 'one of the guys' persona more deeply into her identity, and especially if this involved some aversion on her part to the more typical expressions of femininity, it would become off-putting for most men.
We began by looking at the common usage of the term 'friend zone' and then went on to propose a more focused and restricted usage. This allowed us to define more clearly a basic issue about how to avoid falling into the 'friend zone' inadvertently. Doing this involves establishing the basic boundaries of masculinity and femininity so as to maintain the necessary distance and contrast to keep alive the possibility of being perceived as clearly masculine or feminine.
Then we considered three basic ways to preserve each of masculine and feminine attraction. These were not intended as lessons in how to enhance sexual attractiveness in any particularly strong or individual way, but in how to establish and maintain the basic perceptions. These are the aspects most broadly relevant to people in the 'not ready yet' stage.