Missing the do-me signal.

The last few posts have been far too elevated. Let’s bring it down a little. (For those of you who prefer the elevated content, go see Larry Solum explain speech act theory to the masses.)

I am infamous for missing out on the signs that a member of the opposite sex is interested in me. I’m still pretty terrible at catching the signals now, but, in the past, my total obliviousness reached totally ridiculous proportions.

There was, for example, the time during Jazz Fest in New Orleans where I found myself in the notoriously depraved youth hostel (oh, my beloved India House), in the private room of a rather appealing woman under what in retrospect were obviously charged circumstances. Eventually it became time to retire for the night, and she said something like “if you want, you can stay here tonight.” Whereupon… I went away. Totally cluelessly. (I finally got the hint when she grabbed me the next morning and started kissing me, but then I had to catch a plane… about 9 months later I crashed on her couch in NYC for a few days, but nothing ever happened — tragedy!)

But that isn’t even the worst story. That’s reserved for the woman who I’d met at various political activist things, who:
- went a good 500 miles out of her way on a road trop to visit me in Oregon for several days;
- upon arrival, promptly solicited a back-rub; and
- mid-back-rub innocently asked if it would be easier if she removed her shirt.

To top it all off, after all finally became clear some time later, I never actually managed to make anything happen. Though not for lack of extraordinarily inept trying. But that’s a whole ‘nother story. (MIKE STOP LAUGHING.)

There may, however, be someone on this earth who is even worse at picking up the do-me signal than me. And that person is the fantabulous Ellen Cassidy. A couple of nights ago, she was (mildly) surprised when I told her that a slightly sleazy Hare Krishna (Yes, there seriously are sleazy Hare Krishnas. This revelation brought to you courtesy of Paul Gowder enterprises: rocking your previously innocent world since 1979.) wanted to jump her bones when he:

- approached her out of nowhere on the street, completely ignoring the person sitting at the table with her (yr correspondent), and furthermore ignored all attempts from yr correspondent to participate in the conversation, and even managed (Krishna only knows how — perhaps it’s all the meditation) to ignore the verbal daggers yr correspondent started to throw when he got tired of being snubbed (typical example: Hare Krishna: “I have lots of ideas.” Yr correspondent: “Obviously.”).

- Regaled her with tales of his poetry-writing.

- Asked her what was most important to her about the human condition, and, the coup de grace…

- Praised the beauty of her handwriting and, incidentally, her soul (“I see your beauty from the inside”), in contrast to all those other girls who are merely externally beautiful.

I feel better about my own obliviousness now. So, dear readers, compare the two stories and tell me this: who is more oblivious? Me or Ellen?

Also, beloved readers, which is worse? To miss the do-me signal when it’s sent, and thus to miss out on all kinds of lovely opportunities (admittedly, sometimes those are opportunities to run away screaming, as with the Hare Krishna), or to see the do-me signal when it’s not sent, and thus encounter all kinds of awkwardness of the “why the fuck did you just kiss me” sort? (I’ve made that error too, but those stories are less funny.) If you have to choose, do you choose type I or type II errors?

And can anyone actually remember which error is type I and which is type II? Or do you all just google it every time like I do?


20 Responses to “Missing the do-me signal.”

  1. Jennifurret Says:

    Holy crap, a post of yours that I can understand!

    Honestly, I think you’re more oblivious. What’s more obvious than girls telling you to stay the night and to take her shirt off? The Hare Krishna could have just been freaking weird because…he was a Hare Krishna. Totally understandable to miss that.

    We actually learned in my psych class that men are much more likely to commit type II errors than women. Of course, from personal experience, men tend to commit type I errors a lot too. Honestly I think men see signals where they’re not, and are oblivious to signals that exist.

    Sigh. Men.

  2. Mike the Predictable Says:

    My best friend is probably worse than you are. Inter alia:

    * Playmate-level co-ed hops in his bed wearing a wife beater and boxers. FAIL.
    * Aspiring actress hugs, flirts, dilates pupils, mentions how she sees him all the time and wishes he’d stop in to see her. FAIL.
    * Stripper offers to give him a free lap dance. Finally, she says (exact quote): “I want you to come home with me to have promiscuous sex.” FAIL.

    We used to get into huge fights over the signs and wonders. I then gave him a tutorial, specifically pointing out things that were non-obvious; made predictions; said predictions were verified.

    Anyhow, my best friend is either gay or afraid of women. Not sure which. Either way, at least we don’t have annoying discussions about whether I’m reading the situation properly.

    I can tolerate a friend who says: “I’m too afraid to make a move. So I subconsciously ignore or misread signals. This prevents me from being in the awkward position of being rejected – and thus not having my superiority complex validated.”

  3. Mike Says:


    1. You present a false dilemma. Learn to read the signs. Herein comes the, “I’ve always want to learn how to spell Connecticut” metaphor. There is as much science as there is to art learning this stuff. Master the science, and you will eventually be an artist.

    2. If you must choose, as is often the case, XDCD has the answer:

  4. ben wolfson Says:

    Paul, I want to murder you.

  5. Paul Gowder Says:

    Ben, what’s new?

  6. Paul Gowder Says:

    Ok, “I want you to come home with me to have promiscuous sex” is a total winner.

  7. HipHopPoppa Says:

    I agree that’s it just a matter of reading the signs. Or if you’re me, reading the signs and getting over your fear of women. Umm….but mostly the signs thing.

  8. Stephen Bank Says:

    Yours is much, much worse.

    And I sympathize, I truly do.

    I never know when a girl wants to install my ubuntu, so to speak. And I always mix up sexual tension for awkwardness, and vice versa.

  9. ellen Says:

    thanks, commenters! see, paul… i’m way more in touch than you are.

    plus, paul would have actually wanted to get with the people he was mentioning. i did not want to “install the ubuntu” of any 50 something hare krishna. check out his picture at http://ellenisinthesouthernsun.blogspot.com/2009/08/hare-krishna-private-masquerade.html

  10. Lee Says:

    I have no idea which error is type I and type II. Can’t someone think of better, more descriptive labels?

  11. Michael Drake Says:

    Guy sees a girl he likes the looks of, approaches her and says, “Hey, wanna f***?”

    And she says, “Mmmmm! Your place or mine?”

    And he says, “Hey, if it’s gonna be a *hassle*, forget about it.”

  12. Paul Gowder Says:

    Michael, please, please, please tell me you’re making that up.

  13. bill Says:

    However, on the other hand there are pitiful attempts by girls to actually tell you to sleep with them.

    One girl I turned down…she just stood on the same ground after I walked away, and she was literally yelling at me “what the fuck!” and repeating my excuses to her at high volume.

    That was actually better than sleeping with her I think.

  14. Britta Says:

    Hmm…not to get all personal, but is it possible you have high-functioning autism? Regardless though, flirting is highly ritualized and can easily be learned (I have a friend with aspergers who taught himself how to flirt using flashcards and a flowchart–now he’s working on a flirting algorithm.) It sounds like you’re doing pretty well though, you have the interest, now all you have to do is train yourself to pick up those signals.
    As starter hint though, for when you next encounter it, is: a woman takes off her shirt/asks you to take off shirt and rub body = high level of sexual interest.

    More seriously, that men most men seem to routinely make either category I or II errors is one the most frustrating things about being a woman. What most men don’t realize is, if done slowly and appropriately, most women are fine with indications of sexual interest and will let you know if it’s unwelcome in a nonhumiliating manner (again, if done appropriately). Instead, the world seems divided into clueless/shy men who wouldn’t notice if we threw our naked bodies down in front of them with “SEX” written in big letters on our stomachs, or creeps who apparently never learned the definition of “sexual harassment.”

  15. Paul Gowder Says:

    More lack of confidence than high-functioning autism, I think. For shy guys in general, my suspicion is that the issue is, well, a bayesian one. We interpret behavior in light of our priors — if my prior probability on someone being attracted to me is very low, even very demonstrative behavior involving shirt removal is still going to come out in the posterior probability as “very low chance of her being interested.”

    This probably explains the overconfident guys too: their prior probability in people being interested in them is so high that it would take a LOT of evidence to swamp that prior and get the posterior for an individual case to be “not interested.”

    in this context, being good at social skills can be interpreted as having a more powerful function updating on new evidence/having a strong weight on new evidence.

    also might explain genesis of this division between high-confidence and low-confidence. start off with a low prior, and continuing interactions keep it low because you’re so unconfident that you never see information that someone is interested (hellooo way to model confirmation bias). start off high, mutatis mutandis.

    but still leaves puzzle of why women are often (perceived as?) better at discerning interest than men.

  16. Stephen Bank Says:

    Just playing devil’s advocate here, but is there a non-question begging way to establish that “men are bad at reading signals” rather than “women are bad at producing signals” or some combination of the two?

  17. Paul Gowder Says:

    I doubt there’s any use for the distinction. The goal is to optimize, not to blame. (Although given that putting oneself out there with clear signals is risky, the burden might be best placed on listeners in general.)

  18. Sili Says:

    Since no evidence can be presented to the contrary I’ll stick to my prior and just assume that no signals have ever been sent.

    I’m notoriously bad at sending signals, though. Either too subtle (i.e. only in my head) or too strong – making the poor women run, screaming in terror.

  19. Sili Says:

    (Here via the Blag Hag, incidentally – not just trolling for blogs to share TMI.)

  20. Paul Gowder Says:

    Well, welcome Sili! TMI is always welcome here.

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