Dating 101: Remedial Flirting: a Linucon 2004 panel

Official Synopsis: Cuddling with the computer too much? We’ve been there too. Ways to learn (or relearn) social skills.

Panelists Eric and Cathy Raymond discuss flirting tactics and first date ideas that work well for geeks.

My impression. As a panelist, Eric Raymond is a polar opposite of, say, Bruce Sterling. While the latter digresses into (often amusing) asides, defeating any moderator’s attempts to keep the panel on topic, Eric Raymond has obviously organized every topic into points, starts every point by stating its thesis, illustrates it with examples, and concludes by repeating the thesis several times for reinforcement. In that way, the format of “Remedial Flirting” didn’t differ much from “Art of Unix Programming”.

He also gave more than one example of his own recent flirting incidents, which must have occurred during his marriage to Cathy. Hmmm? 🙂

I attended only the second half of this panel. To drag myself out of bed to be there at 10 a.m. was asking too much of myself. Perhaps the early scheduling time reflected organizers’ opinion that people who need this kind of advice can’t possibly have enough of a social life to stay up late. 🙂 There were 10-odd people in the audience, a predictable cohort: mostly guys in their early-to-mid 20s, plus one or two older faces. There was only one woman, other than me.

As I walk in, Eric and Cathy Raymond are talking about places and situations that are conducive to meeting geeky (or geek-loving) persons of opposite sex. As an example of such opportunities presenting themselves right here at Linucon, Cathy points out the Chaos Machine.

Cathy. […] start tinkering with the thing, and see who else is also tinkering, and help them out. Participating in the group activities…

Eric. Yeah, any kind of activity where it’s socially safe to talk to strangers is a great thing to congregate around. Besides which, for the typical fannish guy, any woman who is willing to tinker with mechanical things for an extended length of time immediately gains about 20 points on the sexiness scale.

Cathy laughs. Exactly.

Eric. She’s chuckling over there. You know it’s true, don’t you? (He chuckles, too.) Which leads me to another piece of advice for the girls who wann flirt with fannish guys. Learn how to game! You probably already know this.

(And what about those of us who like to dedicate their free time to creative or educational pursuits rather than gaming? — E.)

Cathy. The columns in the gaming magazines are filled with letters to the editor complaining about how… I see two kinds of letters: letters from guys complaining about how few women are interested in RPGs or collectable card games, or whatever kind of gaming the magazine is devoted to. And letters from women complaining: “I’m the only girl in my group and the guys give me such grief, bla bla bla.”

Eric. And guys… OK, an important background element of flirting success is: notice when women are trolling for men. I have a good story about this. Geeks can be really oblivious about this. Back before… just before “Return of the King” came out, you may remember there was a nation-wide promotion that the film company arranged, where you could buy special limited tickets to go to an all day, 12 hour long showing of all three movies.

Cathy. Trilogy Tuesday.

Eric. Trilogy Tuesday. I went to Trilogy Tuesday with some friends of mine, and the theater was jam-packed, full of fannish and geeky people, many of whom had never been to a convention, and for which this would be their first chance to congregate with people of a like kind. And I remember having the absolutely hilarious experience, having a guy come up to me and mutter about not knowing where to go to meet interesting women, when the theater was full of about a 100 pretty girls dressed in sexy Arwen outfits! (Audience giggles.) The theater was about half-full of women who were sort of trailing [inaudible] in the air, going: “Please, hit on me!”

Cathy. Or at least, please notice me, please talk to me. I’m not here just to see the movie.

Eric. And this guy is complaining about how he can’t meet women! Aaaargh!

Cathy. I was not there, I had to work, but Eric tells me that he talked to, like, 3 or 4 different single women.

Eric. I got seriously hit on, and I wasn’t even trying!

Eric. So the messages here is, guys, be alert to when the women are displaying, for cripes sakes! I bet you women find it really annoying when you’re doing that and guys just fail to get it.

A female voice (maybe Cathy, maybe the other girl in the audience). Guys don’t notice.

A guy in the audience. My current girlfriend had to hit me with what’s called “clue-by-four”…

Cathy. Aah!

Eric. Yes, yes, yes! Clue-by-four!

Cathy. How did she do it? If you don’t mind telling.

The guy in the audience. We were going out for coffee one night, and she wore an outfit that was very definitely not […] for a casual coffee trip.

Eric. That was the clue-by-four?

The guy. Yes.

Cathy. Excellent!

Eric. That was the clothing equivalent of “Make a move on me, you idiot!” Am I correct in this?

Eric. OK, so one of the brutal asymmetries that you people are probably going to have to accept for most of your lives, is because of the instinct wiring that human beings happen to have inherited from our pleistocene ancestors, usually it’s going to be the guy doing the chasing and the woman doing the displaying. It really sucks, and…

A male voice from the audience. Yes, it does.

Eric. It does, and you women in the audience, you should know how horrible guys find this and have some sympathy. If you don’t realize how stressful and awful it is, try actively pursuing someone who is obviously interested… sometime. (Did he mean “not interested”? — E.) It’s bruising.

Cathy. I’ve done that, actually. In fact, I’ve made a direct approach about 3 or 4 times in my life, and got rejected three quarters of the time.

Eric. Yeah. And a piece of advice for you guys is: women don’t actually like to be rejected any more than we do. They just hide it better.

So let’s see, where shall we go?

Eric Raymond gives a speech "The Basics of the Unix Philosophy" at Linucon 2004, Austin, TX, 2004
P0000554 Eric Raymond gives a speech

Cathy. Well, we’ve talked about the initial approach, we’ve talked about looking for places to meet people that would be interesting to yourself. How about the actual date?

Eric. How about the actual date? Good things to do on a date… Obviously, if you can find something that you know you both are interested in, that’s ideal.

Cathy. The simplest way most people handle this, and it’s is true of non-geeks as well as geeks, is a simple movie.

Eric. Dinner and a movie is a tried and tested format. It’s really good, it works. If you don’t have a better alternative, .

Cathy. The process of finding a movie both of you would be interested in going to can also be a source of conversation. Obviously, if you want to go see, oh, say, Sky Captain, and she is only interested in weepy romantic pictures, you’re not consistent. Perhaps you’re not compatible. And you need to look for somebody else.

Eric. Although sometimes when you’re trying to choose a movie, you can get an effective meeting of the minds by going off in some direction that’s completely orthogonal to both genres that are in dispute. Like if she started out the evening fixated on some sappy romantic relationship movie, and you started the evening fixated on the latest action thriller, go see a cartoon. There are very few people who don’t like cartoons… (I, the author of this article, am one of them! — E.) One of those full length elaborate animated features that we have today.

Let me think… Oh, yeah, OK. How to pick a restaurant! One thing guys have to get over is the idea that they somehow demonstrate their studliness by picking someplace expensive. This is very seldom useful, and it’s especially non-useful with fannish women who… well, they’re not completely unimpressed by marks of financial and social status, but they tend to be less interested in that sort of thing than most other women.

Cathy. I much prefer to go someplace that’s interesting.

Eric. Some cool little ethnic restaurant, somewhere with unusual food. For a fannish date, that’s the best choice.

Cathy. If it’s a kind of cuisine I’m curious about but have never eaten before…

Eric. Oh, yeah. Turning a date on to a cuisine that he or she turns out to like but has never had before… boy… it’s actually a pretty effective seduction move.

Cathy. The nice thing is that some of the better ethnic restaurants aren’t necessarily more expensive. Some can be less expensive.

Eric. Let’s see…

Cathy. Other things people can do on a date, other than a movie?

Eric. A lot of geeks end up in a situation where the two of you are doing the conventional dating situation, and neither of you has a clue how to get to, like, the next stage, where you’re actually, like, touching each other and smooching and doing all that good stuff. So this is where the advice I gave at the beginning (I was late to the panel and did not record it — E.) starts to be applicable: seek light but non-threatening contact with your partner. When you are talking, squeeze their hand to make a point. This goes for the girls, too. Works for girls trying to flirt with guys too.

Don’t grab her hand and try to clutch it like [inaudible] — squeeze her hand gently and then kind of go back into your own space. Touches on the shoulder are good. When you start feeling a little more sure of each other, you can do things like this [he puts his hand on Cathy’s knee].

Cathy. On the other hand, if you’re a girl and you put your hand on a guy’s knee, that’s considered a fairly aggressive sexual move.

Eric. Hmmm… hmm…

Cathy. This is not necessarily a bad thing if you need a clue-by-four and that’s where you wanna go, but bear in mind that it is a moderately aggressive move. (A guy in the audience giggles frantically.)

Angie, the other of only two women who attended the Dating 101 panel at Linucon 2004
P556 Angie, the other of only two women who attended the Dating 101 panel at Linucon 2004

Cathy. But there’s lots of other activities you can do in public together that are fun. Some people like miniature golf. Some people like video arcades. I always liked that.

Eric. Something you can do together, and something that adrenalizes both of you slightly is a good thing because adrenalization is close enough to sexual arousal that sometimes they’ll slop over into the other a bit.

Let’s see… fun things to do… Oh, you know, I haven’t actually tried this myself, but I’ve watched other people do it. Air hockey! Air hockey could be a very fun, adrenalizing kind of thing.

Cathy. Right. Some of the bigger arcades will have an air hockey set up. Some bars will have it.

Eric. If you have a reasonable agility, I have observed that Dance Dance Revolution is a huuuuge flirting facilitator.

(Hmm… I was kind of interested to see how Dance Dance Revolution works, so I went to watch some Linucon’ians do it on Saturday night. Perhaps the people doing it were novices, but their moves didn’t look anything remotely graceful or seductive, or anything to impress a date with… if anything, they looked like a combination of a nervous tic and flailing on slippery ice. Not anything I would use as a flirting tool. Of course, maybe you could if you are an expert at it — I don’t know, I’ve never seen experts doing it. — E.)

Cathy. Obviously, some of this would require a bit of research in advance to find out who’s got a Dance Dance Revolution set up or something, but…

Eric. Oh, another category of cheap date: comedy clubs. Comedy clubs are good partly because, hey, you know, you’ve just listened to this really funny routine, now you’ve got something to talk about: what did you find particularly funny? What did your date find particularly funny? When you’re talking about that kind of thing, maybe you’ll find out you have more in common than you knew. It’s a way… [he lowers his voice conspiratorially and draws out the last words] of establishing in-ti-ma-cy.

Cathy. And comedy routines tend to work in other themes of… If the comic worked on some political stuff, you can find out if you are both on the same side of the political spectrum by how she reacts and how you react.

Eric. Let’s see: comic clubs, gaming arcades, shooting ranges… what other…

Cathy. Well, there’s always the great outdoors: some people enjoy hiking and camping, doing that sort of thing together.

Eric. I think that doesn’t tend to work well for the first date, though. I think most of our audience is having problems getting the situation booted up, not maintaining it once it’s established. That’s what I’m getting from the tenor of the questions. So we’re really thinking about the first date menu, the first flirting behavior.

Cathy. [One other thing people can do is] go roller-skating. Although it depends on the type of a roller-skating rink. Some rinks cater more towards the guys who want to do fancy stunts off of walls and benches, and are not quite good for any kind of socializing. But some rinks are more general. [Pauses.] Amusement parks!

Eric. Amusement parks could be fun.

Cathy. Going on a roller coaster together. It’s a good source of adrenaline.

Eric. I would NNNEVVVer do that. I hate roller coasters.

Cathy. Well, I wouldn’t do it with Eric, obviously, but… Like I said: ask! Ask first.

Eric. Ask first, yes!

Cathy. It’s too late to ask when the roller coaster is ratcheting halfway up in a …

Eric Aaaaarrrrgh!

Cathy. And if a person has a life-long horror of heights, and you find this out as the roller coaster is inching its way up to the Mountain of Terror… [giggles]

Eric. This brings up a mistake that women are likely to make more often than guys are. Which is going along with the plan they don’t really like, because they think speaking up against it will be interpreting as “I’m rejecting you”. Don’t do this. It can really
screw things up later on. If your date wants to go on a roller coaster, and you’re terrified of the idea, but you don’t wanna say no because you feel like it would be rejecting them, the right thing to do is to generate an alternative. Instead of saying “Ah, no, I don’t wanna do a roller coaster!” — thud! Thudding to a conversational stop! — the right thing is to generate an alternative. The right thing is to say, “You know, I really don’t like roller coasters, let’s go play ‘whack a mole’ instead”.

Cathy. Or race track of bumper cars [?]. Or Tilt-a-whirl, or what-have-you.

Eric. Yeah. So if you’re feeling like you’re stuck with a plan you don’t like, the right kind of conversational escape is just sort of generate an alternative. The alternative doesn’t have to be something you actively like, as long as it’s something you don’t dislike.

Cathy. It obviously has to be something that doesn’t fill you with more terror than the original alternative.

Eric. Guys don’t usually make this mistake because of the way we’re socialized, but… in case you’ve ever fallen into that
situation yourself, that’s the way I’ve… generate an alternative.

And this brings up a very general point: remember that especially if you’re a pair of geeks, it’s very likely that your date is as nervous about the whole situation as you are. I know that whether you’re male or female, there’s a strong tendency to think, if you’re geeky like us, that the person I’m with is totally in command of themselves or of the situation, and it’s only me that’s feeling desperately nervous and trying to hide it.

Cathy. It’s seldom the case.

Eric. Seldom the case. Often you’re both really nervous.

Cathy. And you know what, it’s natural to be nervous when you’re in a novel situation, or you’re feeling out what another person might want or might be interested in.

Eric. Usually, if the two of you have passed the smell test enough to be on a date at all, very likely means that your date is almost as nervous about being rejected as you are, regardless of what gender we are talking about. So that’s something to keep in mind. Often, boldness is your best course. People frequently don’t do that, because it’s psychologically risky, but hey, you know, sometimes it’s a good idea to go ahead and steal the kiss.

Cathy. And if it isn’t, you’ll find out soon enough.

Eric. Or slide up next to the person and put an arm around him or her. [He slides up to Cathy and puts an arm around her.] If that’s not gonna work, better you find out sooner than later. (Really? What about if the other person likes you, but she doesn’t want things to move too fast? — E.) The trick in that kind of boldness is to make that kind of approach without having it be threatening. Without having her think, or partly think, that there might be negative consequences for going any further.

Cathy. So how do you manage that, Eric? I know you’re good at that.

Eric. The way I manage is, I kind of… If I was sitting next to a girl that I felt like putting that kind of move on, I
wouldn’t just… [he makes a sound like “mewhaaa”, perhaps to illustrate an aggressive physical move.] That doesn’t work. No, what you need to do, is just sort of look at her and start to move a little bit, so that she registers you’re moving towards her. [Demonstrates it on Cathy.] And if you’re watching carefully, you’re gonna get one of two reactions. Either she’s gonna tense up, and her body language is sort of gonna close up, which is a rejecting gesture.

[Some kind of pantomime takes place between Eric and Cathy, and both Cathy and the audience breaks into laughter.]

Cathy. If she reaches for her Mace, obviously, you’ve gone too far.

Eric. Or the other thing that might happen is you might see her lean towards you a bit, or her eyes widen — in that case you’re getting encouragement, and you should go ahead.

Oh… Pupilary dilation, an important cue! Let’s talk about pupilary dilation. This is an acceptance or rejection response that people cannot fake. There are lots of other things that people can, and sometimes do fake for various social or psychological reasons. One that people can’t fake is that when we’re looking at something pleasant, our pupils dilate, and when we’re looking at something unpleasant, our pupils contract. So, whether you’re male or female, one of the cues to look for, is: look for the pupilary dilation. When a person you’re interested in makes eye contact with you and you see pupilary dilation — [he claps his hands] go! That is the green light of all green lights.

A male voice in the audience. But be careful because of the lighting situation. (Audience laughs.)

Cathy. Exactly. You’ve got to take into account the lighting level, of course.

Eric. Yeah. Pupilary contraction — red light! This is an important thing to watch. So if you’re thinking about sliding your arm around your date, and you make eye contact, pupilary dilation is an important thing to watch for.

What else should we talk about?

Eric and Cathy Raymond, Linucon 2005
CIMG0930 Eric and Cathy Raymond at Linucon

A male voice in the audience suggests that they talk about the first kiss.

Eric. Oh, about the first kiss! Wow! Hmm… Well, we’ve already given you some basics about how to go for the first kiss.

Oh, here’s another one. I wanted to mention this earlier. Be alert for situations in which other people give you social excuses to make contact.

Cathy. What do you mean, Eric? (Audience chuckles.)

Eric. One of these happened to me last night. I was chatting with a woman who I found kind of interesting, maybe two feet apart. I wasn’t touching her. And a friend of mine coming down the hall said: “Take your hands off that woman, Eric!” And I said: “But I don’t have my hands on her!” He said: “But I know you: you were thinking about it.” And while he was saying it, I was going for the hug!

Cathy [laughs]. And how did she react?

Eric. Oh, she thought this was hilarious. I got quite a nice hug out of it.

So, yeah, be aware of situations in which other people give you an excuse to touch your date, or set up a situation in which it is funny and therefore acceptable to make an intimacy gesture. Because that lets you do it in a way that isn’t threatening to your date: “Ha-ha, it’s a joke!” But, you know, if it works, then the hug might linger a bit.

Cathy. And might lead to something better.

Eric. Yeah. So be alert for social excuses to do the hug thing, to do the touch thing. [He addresses Cathy:] Can you think of any parallel situations from your experience?

Cathy. Parallel experiences are…?

Eric. Where someone else gives you a social excuse to, like, pull a little bit [?] […] by someone you’re interested in.

Cathy. Hmmm… No, not really, except conventions are likely to be a good source, again, of this kind of situation.

Eric. I’ve got another one. The first time I visited Korea, I was being shown around by a couple of women, Kim, and, oddly enough, Ashley. Yes, that was actually her name, even though she was Korean. And Ashley and I found each other kind of interesting. And we were doing a low-grade flirting thing with each other. And Kim, bless her heart, picked up on a little of this, and started teasing us mercilessly about it. There came a point where Ashley and I were next to each other in a tea house in an old district of Seoul, with about 5 or 6 people. And… what was it that Kim said? She said something about… we were sort of sitting close to each other, and Kim said jokingly about being scandalized with our behavior. And I took Ashley’s hand, put my arm around her and said: “Yes, we’re gonna run off to Rio tomorrow with the money!” Ashley loved this. She got into it, she leaned right into me and did her best to look like we were totally besotted with each other and about to run off to Rio. That was great.

And the thing was that Kim’s joke made an excuse for us to cuddle into each other, that would not otherwise have been present in that social situation.

And no, it’s not like something exactly like that would ever happen to you, but as I said, be alert for such possibilities.

Cathy. We’ve got about 5 minutes left, so anyone who’s got a question…

Eric. Questions?

Cathy. Someone, other than our friend in the back row in a blue T-shirt?

Eric. Let’s hear a question from one of the women here, they’ve been remarkably silent.

Cathy. Or even a comment? Has anyone here have any successful encounters that they think might be enlightening for somebody else?

Eric. The silence is deafening.

A guy in the audience. What do you think about wearing a T-shirt that says “I’m single and available, pick me”, or something to that effect?

Eric. We know a guy who tried that.

Cathy. It can backfire. And the reason it can backfire…

Eric. Makes you look desperate.

Cathy. That’s one reason it can backfire.

Another guy from the audience. And that would be [inaudible] how? (Audience laughs.)

Cathy. Because desperation is unattractive.

Eric. Desperation is not sexy!

Cathy. Desperation makes people think along the wrong lines. You want them to think in terms of, “hmm, this person is interesting, this person might be fun to get to know”, instead of “there must be something wrong with this person. This person might be the geek at the bottom of the pecking order.”

Eric. Right. This brings up another point, which is one way to establish to someone you’re interested in flirting with, that you are not desperate, is to hang with friends and to have obviously good interaction with friends of the opposite sex. For you, guys, a woman who sees you exchanging a joke with a female friend of yours, is more likely to figure that you are a good prospect than if you would just sort of be standing in a total isolation all the time. (Really? Are you sure she would not think he’s a player? — E.)

Same thing goes for women as well. If a guy who’s interested in you sees that you have guy friends that you relate well to, but don’t seem to be dating or anything, you become more interesting.

Cathy. The other way the “I’m available” type of T-shirt can backfire, is if people don’t take it seriously enough. The friend
Eric’s referring to was very good-looking and very articulate, seems very poised. And when I first met him, I thought the T-shirt was kind of a joke.

Eric. Yes.

Cathy. Because I couldn’t possibly imagine him being that desperate until I got to know him better. And I’m sure that a lot of potential prospects reason the same way.

Eric. Since he has since been cured of his desperation, I will tell you something that he never made a secret of: the person I’m referring to is in fact the chair of this convention. And now he’s finally got himself a girlfriend. So unfortunately, the “I’m available” T-shirt is not necessarily a good thing.

On the other hand, a T-shirt that proclaims something interesting about you is a really good thing. It’s a lure. It’s something for someone who wants to flirt with you to comment on.

Cathy. What do you think, Eric, of a type of T-shirt that says something like “Source of free backrubs”?

Eric. That could work pretty well in a fannish context. It doesn’t tend to work well anywhere else. It works well enough among science fiction fans, but not generally elsewhere.

I don’t know… Any other questions? Looks like we’re done. Thank you everybody.

Cathy. Thanks for coming.

Eric. I hope it was helpful.