Are Nice Guys just guys who are nice? If so, why can’t they get a date and what can a BDSM class teach them? And what does this all have to do with bell curves?
[Content warning: you will learn little math in this post. Instead, this is a straight white guy talking about gender issues and giving unsolicited dating advice. If that’s not your cup of matcha latte frappuccino, enjoy this picture of a hedgehog on cocaine and come back next week.]
When I was 21, I first heard about PUA, or the seduction community. A two-year romantic dry spell was beginning to shake my normally high confidence. The fact that at that point I had accumulated more math Olympiad trophies than sex partners wasn’t lost on me. A friend who attended a PUA seminar told me about it, then I ran into another guy who regaled me with tales of abundant casual sex. Then a few more acquaintances started whispering about it. It sounded adventurous and edgy, even used cool words like “evolutionary” and “neurolinguistic” that sounded impressive even though I was a bit fuzzy about their actual meaning.
In retrospect, I don’t know how surprising it was that I was never tempted to attend a PUA class or even read a blog. Perhaps it went against my instinctual preference for relationships that are involved and egalitarian rather than shallow and adversarial. Perhaps I just couldn’t imagine my female friends, or the girls I wanted to date, actually falling for a bag of “tricks”. In all likelihood I was just lazy and PUA sounded like a ton of work.
Another thing that kept me away from PUA is feminism – the fact that I knew little about it. Because I knew so little about feminism, I thought I knew everything. “Equality and respect for people regardless of gender” didn’t sound like insidious propaganda; I was very confused that the PUAs I talked to regarded feminism as a bitter enemy spouting lies and corruption. It never crossed my mind to google what feminists were actually going on about.
I probably still don’t what most feminist writing is about, I assume that a lot of it is stuff like “here’s how women can deal with Issue X“. Not being a woman, and not having to deal with Issue X myself, I wouldn’t have paid much attention to it. Some feminist writing is “women have to deal with issue X because of Behavior Y by men“. This is interesting and useful to me as a man with behaviors, and I would occasionally stumble into a couple of such stories online, but stories like this don’t tend to go viral. The ones that do are invariably of the form “women’s issues are all because of the dudes in Group Z, look at how disgusting these Group Z dudes are“.
The “Group Z” stories don’t become prominent because they are good, the do so because they’re the worst. The arguments in these stories are just strong enough to be endorsed by the ingroup, dishonest enough to infuriate the outgroup, in particular Group Z. The reward of these stories isn’t long in coming – within hours, the “it’s all the fault of the evil feminists“ reply will materialize like the second chunk of plutonium needed to breach critical mass. The nuclear outrage explosion radiates outwards, vaporizing in an instant innocent bystanders, epistemic charity and any shred of human dignity and tolerance.
Intermission: you’ve noticed there aren’t any links to sources regarding PUA, feminism or culture wars in general in this post. I even resisted the urge to link to the pretty hilarious story of an eminent PUA calling for a boycott of “Mad Max : Fury Road” on the grounds that the latter is feminist indoctrination. However, I’m sticking with the no-culture-war-link policy for a few reasons:
- I don’t have any expertise or authority in these matters, and I won’t try to claim transitive authority from other sources by linking to them.
- I am sharing a candid story of personal experience. When I write “Group X does thing Y” please read it as “Jacob has seen people he counts as belonging to Group X do things that look to him as Y”. If you want to argue definitions and true Scotsmen, or if you simply disagree about the facts, feel free to stop reading.
- No matter what link I add, someone will object to the link, or object to my objection of the link’s content, or object to my lack of objection to the objectionable link. Putanumonit objects to objectification and will avoid it.
Back to our story: the worst non-Trump parts of the internet involve an eternal struggle between people who call themselves [third wave / radical / no prefix] feminists and Group Z. It would have been a great relief if Group Z had simply turned out to be the seduction community or men’s rights activists (MRA). Since I was neither PUA/MRA nor a feminism activist at the time, I could have observed the skirmish dispassionately from the sidelines and then shaken my head and gone away. But, it turns out that PUAs attract only a small fraction of feminist scorn, and these battles when fought are confined to distant corners where people like me can safely ignore them. I was pretty confused to discover that the targets of the worst and loudest feminist derision are, in fact, nice guys. Or, depending on whether you’re attacking or defending them, Nice Guys (TM).
There are no winners in identity wars, but you have a chance to escape unscathed and with your mind intact if you keep your identity small. If someone talks about the mass-murders perpetrated in the name of communism, and you happen to be a fan of centralized economies, the worst thing you can do is call yourself a communist and suddenly find yourself defending Stalin’s purges. If communism for you is a matter of economic theory and not your identity, you can safely ignore discussions of Stalin and talk about dialectical materialism or whatever.
It seems like not making Nice Guy (TM) part of your identity shouldn’t be a problem. Why would anyone describe themselves as a Nice Guy (TM)? The problem is, no one can tell that you aren’t a Nice Guy (TM) either! If the conversation was only about Nice Guy behavior it wouldn’t be a problem. Unfortunately, the pieces that echo the loudest talk about people and not behaviors. In story after story, these Nice Guys are marked with certain identifiers, whether explicitly or connotationally. The implication is that if you fit the criteria, you’re part of the group. And if you’re part of the group, you’re guilty of the group’s sins. If 21-year old Jacob read down the list of criteria, he would have reason to worry.
- Male Check
- White Check
- Straight Check
- Thinks he’s nice Check, who doesn’t think they’re nice?
- Sexually inexperienced Check
- Outside mainstream fashion / culture Only the worst of it, but that’s most of it
- Plays video games, reads science fiction Uh-oh
- Doesn’t understand women Yes, but wait, that just what I’m trying to…
- Thinks that romance should work according to simple formulas Come on, that’s not what I…
- Nerd Fuck.
I can hardly think of a more efficient tool of pushing normal, friendly, feminist-leaning guys into PUA, Red Pill and MRA. It’s easy to tsk-tsk about silly fights from the outside, but when the bullets are flying right at you, you take cover and return fire; ask questions later. I stumbled onto the Feminist-Nice Guy Conflict (abbreviated: FHTAGN) after years of studying rationality self defense and it’s still hard to keep my cool. It’s very hard to have objective discussions about female issues X and problematic behavior Y when the loudest conversations are about the evil Group Z that just happens by coincidence to match me on 100% of observable characteristics. Very hard, but not impossible.
People use different methods to calm down: hum a tune or kick a trashcan. I like to draw distribution density curves. Here’s my mental distribution model of women worrying about gender issues:
I don’t know if that’s a reasonable model, it’s based on my sample size of being exactly zero women but talking to quite a few of them. It’s based on a simple assumption: complex traits are distributed on a bell curve, extreme opinions don’t represent the majority but show which way it’s leaning.
This can turn meaningless violence into a learning opportunity and more importantly, into instrumental rationality: a strategy for achieving good outcomes. I’m a guy, and I’m nice, and I think that nice guys should win. Instead of poking holes in the worst arguments against Nice Guys, we should steelman (or more appropriately: steelwoman) them. We should consider the most reasonable version of each argument. The principle of charity asks that we find the sane version of the argument, the one that makes sense in the head of the person making it. We must go beyond that. We should arrive at the sanest, most justifiable version that makes sense to women reading it, women who aren’t feminist bloggers but hear an echo of truth in them.
That reasonable version is always “I’m uncomfortable when guys do this thing, especially in a specific context and under uncertainty”, it’s never “guys who stereotypically do this thing are evil rape lords”. The solution to each issue is usually about finding what’s useful (i.e. in allowing people to connect romantically). Sometimes, the solution requires deciding what’s good and right. In these, my moral guideline is consequentialism: the greatest good for the greatest number. If men were categorically prohibited from initiating conversation with women, that would reduce harassment. It would also reduce love, romance, connection and friendship and maybe be the end of the human race. If men could face no repercussions from saying anything at all to a women, a small amount of liberty for men would have been traded off against a huge cost in discomfort and danger for women.
Human issues require sensible trade-offs to solve. If you hold sacred values that trump all others at any exchange rate (like freedom, personal pleasure or fighting oppression), you won’t find purchase in this conversation. However, if you accept trade-off choices and the personal responsibility of making them, you may find the following suggestions reasonable. I practice everything I preach below, and it kinda seems to be working out.
OK, 1700 words in and with all but two or three intrepid readers gone screaming, let’s see how we can turn angry criticism of Nice Guys (TM) into useful dating advice for nice guys. Strap in.
Nice Guys complain that dating isn’t fair
Dating among humans should be fair and proper, like it is among elephant seals. Elephant seals are polygamous, meaning that a single male can mate with many females. The way a single male achieves this is by biting and goring any other males in his vicinity, often injuring or killing females and seal pups in the process. At the end of the mating season, 4% of males will have had 80% of the sex but 90% of males will carry scars and injuries from fighting. In elephant seal dating, you’re more likely to bleed to death than to get laid.
It makes sense to complain about fairness if someone’s enforcing the rules, but there’s no congressional committee in charge of dating. There’s only life. Life isn’t fair: belief in a just world is called “just world fallacy“, that last word there’s a hint. Complaining about unfairness makes you feel angry and helpless, neither of which is a good mindset for achieving success in dating. I really don’t see a middle ground on this: whether deep down you believe that dating is fair or unfair, you’ll always do better by never saying it out loud, even to yourself.
Nice Guys complain that “jerks” get all the women
Wait, who’s a “jerk”? If someone’s a jerk to you but is a devoted and attentive to his girlfriend, does that count? Maybe someone can afford to be a jerk because they’re handsome, rich and great in bed. In that case, they get women despite their jerkiness, not because of it. I think that the perceived jerk-attractiveness correlation might be due to one of my favorite statistical effects, the “cornerless distribution”:
Let’s assume that guys who are both unattractive (in a broad meaning) and jerks are doomed to be alone. Let’s also assume that decency and attractiveness are completely uncorrelated, each green point is distributed randomly. If we look just at the guys with women, it would seem that among them attractive guys are likelier to be jerks.
This is the same effect that makes it seem like hotter actors aren’t as good at acting (if an actor is neither pretty nor good they wouldn’t work at all) and why restaurants that are more fashionable have worse food (since if a place is neither hip nor tasty it will go bankrupt). Shit, I promised that I won’t teach you any math, but I couldn’t help it.
In reality, it certainly doesn’t seem like jerks get all the women. Yes, PUAs get laid a lot, but they also approach hundreds of women. Any strategy will work on 1% of people at least, no matter if it’s good or bad. At most, it seems like jerks get all the women-who-like-jerks, which is a legitimate preference for these women. If you want to date women who want to date jerks, then being a jerk is in fact the correct move. Just be careful not to want to date someone who might want to date someone who might want to date a racist.
Another confusion is conflating jerkiness with any refusal to defer to a woman. Asking to split the bill on a third date is not being a jerk, and whether the woman finds fault in this is not a moral issue.
Nice Guys are unattractive
Recall a woman whom you find really unattractive. Now try to make yourself attracted to her by sheer force of will. Come on, I’ll wait.
Attractiveness is a function of two things: how you look, and how a woman perceives the way you look. The second one is out of your reach. The first one isn’t. You can’t change some aspects of your appearance, but advice on how to improve your fashion, posture and grooming is screaming at you from every billboard and ad. You’ll get it from women too, if you ask them. If you don’t want to confirm to whatever standard of appearance is preferred by the women you’re after you need to realize that your trading off attractiveness for your own personal comfort. No one can force you to dress or groom a certain way, but it has costs and benefits.
If you refuse to acknowledge this trade-off it’s probably because it seems unfair, and we already discussed complaining about unfairness. Just be thankful that current male fashion doesn’t include carrying an ornament on your ass that’s bigger than your entire body and makes you more likely to be eaten by foxes.
Nice Guys aren’t actually nice at all
This is a tricky one: you know that you’re a kindhearted, loving, good person. Who is she to accuse you of just pretending to be nice? The problem is, everyone thinks that they’re a good person, even bad people. People will judge your behavior with utter disregard for your own self-image.
Being nice to the subject of your affection isn’t convincing because you’re incentivized to do so whether you’re a nice person or not. You have to prove your kindness by being nice when you don’t have to, that’s why “be nice to the waiter on a date” is universal dating advice. You should go beyond that: be nice to the pedestrian bumping into you on the way, the clueless tourist, the homeless person on the curb. Be nice to people who aren’t there: don’t spend the first date talking shit about your coworkers, your family, and most of all the last girl you went on a date with.
In the end, and women aren’t stupid and niceness is hard to fake. The good news is, I don’t think that many people are hateful or bitter by nature (because I haven’t read the comments to this post yet). Niceness is as much a function of context and situation as it is an inherent characteristic. The best predictor of stopping to help a stranger is how much of a hurry you are in. Use this to your advantage: plan dates for times when you are happy and relaxed. Don’t invite your date to a restaurant that’s out of your price range, the stress you’ll feel about overspending will undo any impression the lobster will make. And most importantly: don’t talk politics.
Nice Guys could be rapists
OK, it’s one thing if women can’t immediately see that you’re an awesome person, but accusing you of being a potential rapist is preposterous. Hold on, do you know how a rapist looks like? Does she? In fact, she might have some idea but if you’re a guy it’s very rare that someone assaults a woman when you’re there to see it. You can complain that it’s not fair to be presumed guilty until found innocent, or, you can make a woman comfortable.
For the first date, invite her for a 1 pm brunch instead of an 11 pm bar. If it has to be late, set the date up in her neighborhood, so she doesn’t have a long commute by herself at night. Buy her coffee instead of shots. If you do nothing in the first half hour of an OkCupid date except proving that you’re a safe person to be around, you’re not doing terribly.
Nice Guys are afraid ask a woman out directly / Nice Guys are creepy / Nice Guys fake friendship to get sex
These are complex, pernicious problems with a simple, obvious solution: ask a girl out as soon as you decide you want to date her. No exceptions.
The only reason men don’t do it is fear of rejection. The longer you wait, the worse rejection will hurt, the greater the fear of it grows, the longer you’ll wait. There is no way for it to get better until you ask her out. If you want to ask her out and she doesn’t know it, she won’t figure it out by herself with enough confidence to approach you first. How good are you at guessing what’s on a woman’s mind? Every man in history has asked women to be straightforward instead of dropping vague hints, we should at least practice what we preach.
The real trouble is when you want to ask her out and she knows it. If she’s going to say yes, you’re wasting everyone’s time and nerves. If she’s going to say no, you’re not going to change her mind by being creepy and hanging around. Both of you are spiraling into a vortex of becoming more and more uncomfortable around each other with each passing day. She can’t save you from the awkward creepiness – she can only say no once you ask. Every day you don’t, you’re killing the option of the two of you staying friends or even cordial acquaintances.
Many summers ago, there was a girl at work that I started hanging out with a lot. After a few months of that we ended up going on a long drive together. It took me a whole hour to work up the courage to invite her on a date. She said no. I didn’t really have a response to that. It took us the rest of the drive and three more weeks to get over the awkwardness and go back to talking to each other like normal.
Last year, I asked out a girl on my soccer league team after our second game. She said no. I said “Cool. Good game today, I’ll see you next week.” We kept playing together like nothing happened and won the league championship because I’m a monster goalkeeper. (She’s pretty decent in midfield as well.) There’s a lesson here, and it’s not about soccer.
What if you don’t want to be friends? Don’t! Lust is nothing to be ashamed of, it’s a basic human emotion. Whether lust was your only interest or just the overwhelming one, the only cure for unreciprocated lust is distance (and porn). Take a breath, accept it, move on.
It’s best to decide ahead of time if you’ll agree to be friends or not. Think: would you enjoy her company if she was ugly? Of the twenty-plus ladies I’ve gone on dates with in NYC I decided to remain friends with only two. Both of them gave me a clear and unambiguous rejection as a romantic partner. I took a couple of weeks for my crush to cool off, and now we’re just friends: one of them just invited me and my girlfriend on a Mexico trip with her.
Like fairies, fantasies and free will, friendzones only exist in men’s minds, not in real life. This doesn’t mean that there must be a strict demarcation between friends and lovers. Friends-with-benefits, polyamory and relationship anarchy are all great as long as you know exactly where you stand. “Friendzone” implies that you and the other person disagree on where your relationship is and where it should be. The longer you wait to find out where you are, the worse it gets.
One last thing: getting asked out can be scary and uncomfortable to women. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do it: when there’s a trade-off between your chance of finding eternal love and a woman’s discomfort, the sensible thing isn’t to give up but rather to reduce the discomfort. Ask someone out when they’re comfortable and safe. Don’t ask a girl out when you’re in a car together (like I did tin my youth). And if you’re alone with a woman in an elevator in a foreign country at 4 am, consider waiting until breakfast. It’s just good tactics.
Nice Guys pedestalize women / Nice Guys treat women as vending machines, expecting sex to be dispensed as a reward for following some formula / Nice Guys are exasperated that there isn’t a manual for women
All toasters of a certain brand are the same, so toasters have manuals.
People aren’t toasters.
I dated a Chinese girl once. She was emotional, promiscuous, flaky and loved classical music. So, I figured that all Chinese girls are like that. Then I dated I another Chinese girl who was cool, careful, dependable and loved hip hop. So, I figured that all Chinese girls are different and it’s remarkably stupid to stereotype a nation based on one person.
Guys who have dated a lot usually realize how different every woman is and are careful about generalizing. Guys who have dated one or two partners may not be aware of just how idiosyncratic every relationship is, but at least they have a useful point of reference. Guys who haven’t been in serious relationships, and this includes everyone in high school, can fall into the trap of thinking that there should be a tactic that applies to all women. If they’re lacking for good role models, they may get confused by Hollywood and fantasy novels and imagine that this tactic is pedestalization.
I have to be clear that pedestalization does not work. In general, people do not like to be supplicated to. Being like “I have done everything you want, Mistress! I ask only for the touch of your lips!” works well in BDSM scenes and fairy tales, not so much in real life. And while some women like all that Hallmark shit, a lot of women don’t, and ignoring the desires of your partner in favor of the desires of All Women Everywhere rarely ends well. Most people don’t want to be a plaster saint: they want to be treated as a person by their partners. [Emphasis mine.]
In some cases, a guy tries pedestalization, fails horribly, and then concludes that the universal-tactic-to-seduce-all-women must simply be the exact opposite of supplication. At that point someone is usually around to hand him a PUA leaflet. In fact, PUA and supplication are very similar: they both aim to unlock the desires of All Women Everywhere.
In romance, you’re dealing with a person, so your approach should probably be personalized. The problem is, every relationship starts with a person you know nothing about. How can you discover an individual and unique approach to connect with someone you’ve just met?
I found a cool group in NYC that describes itself as “TED with friends”: we gather to listen to a speaker on topics like neuroscience or comedy writing, then have a group game or discussion about the topic. That’s how I found myself sitting in a basement of a coworking/meditation office in Williamsburg (where else?) and listening to Olive B. Persimmon talk about vulnerability and a cool idea she picked up in BDSM class. She spent 40 minutes sharing personal, embarrassing stories. After she was done, I turned to the person next to me, a young Asian guy with a stylish haircut whom I’ve never seen before, and did the BDSM exercise. I looked into his eyes and told him everything I was deeply ashamed of. Then he told me, and we switched partners.
It felt like an intense drug trip: an avalanche of emotions, my heart swelling with affection, ego dissolving. All I wanted after the exercise was to squeeze every person there in a hug and hold them for a few hours or so. Who the person was, how they looked like, where they worked, none of that mattered beside the joy of completely opening up to another person and seeing your honesty and vulnerability reciprocated.
It reminded me of the famous New York Times article about the 36 questions and 5 minutes of eye contact that will make you fall in love. We like to think of ourselves as sophisticated being with intricate desires, but simple parts of our brains react to simple stimuli, and these stimuli can be supercharged to take over our bre. We delight in fine cuisine, and yet concentrated sugar + fat + salt = irresistible junk food. We execute complex tasks, and yet fine tuned difficulty + intermittent reinforcement + clear feedback = video games that people play until they die. Can it be as simple as Liberty from fear +Openness + Vulnerability + Eye contact = falling in L.O.V.E?
The emotion of falling in love is just a small part of what “love” is, and even that is vastly more complicated than a simple formula. Still, this formula is a much better bet than the usual inane recommendations for first date conversation: “stay away from heavy topics”, “don’t scare him off”, “ask about her job”. What the fuck is this, a LinkedIn profile?
Openness and honesty alleviate the first obstacle to building a relationship: uncertainty. Eye contact is the strongest “hack” humans have to reinforce the feeling of openness on an emotional level. Removing uncertainty also reduces the anxiety and paves the way towards feeling safe and secure around each other: there’s nothing to fear when there’s nothing to hide. We are afraid of being vulnerable when it can be used against us, but when we feel open and secure vulnerability encourages reciprocation.
Openness, security and vulnerability build on each other in a virtuous cycle. When you start with candor, the other person feels safe. When they feel safe, they will share something personal as well. When you learn something personal you repay them with a confession of your own. Suddenly, instead of a stranger you are looking across the table at someone you begin to know intimately and can address as a unique person.
A couple of years ago, my then-girlfriend broke up with me three weeks after we signed a yearly lease on a 1 bedroom apartment. This being New York, neither of us could afford the place by ourselves, and we both loved the apartment and the bargain of splitting the rent. We made a radical decision: we would just keep living in that room together.
When I plunged into the crazy world of NYC dating, I faced a dilemma: when do I tell dates about my unusual living arrangement? At first I decided to wait until “the right moment” comes. As you may have guessed, there isn’t really a right moment to slip “by the way, I’m sharing a room with my ex-girlfriend, but it’s strictly platonic between us now” into a conversation. By the time a third date rolls around, the embarrassment of the confession itself is compounded by the embarrassment of having hidden it for so long.
I changed tack: I decided to confess it straight up on the first date as soon as we got over the initial jitters and built a rapport. The response was overwhelmingly positive, most women appreciated my honesty and shared their own crazy and funny stories of NYC living (everyone has one). One girl really freaked out and told me it was absolutely unacceptable. 15 minutes later she confessed to me that she was still obsessing about her own ex-boyfriend, was sneaking out to sleep with him and was feeling hella guilty about it. I was the second person she ever told this to.
It seems that creating safety and trust by being honest and vulnerable is a no-brainer, but it’s anathema to the stereotypical approaches of both PUAs and Nice Guys (TM).
The stereotypical PUA doesn’t want the woman to feel safe and in control, the Nice Guy (TM) can’t understand why she wouldn’t ever feel safe around him. But unless both partners feel secure, they can’t even really talk.
The stereotypical PUA never confesses to faults because it lowers his status, the Nice Guy (TM) doesn’t because he won’t admit them to himself. But when you confess your shortcomings, it turns out that people’s take away is that you’re honest and self-aware, the actual shortcomings forgotten or forgiven.
The PUA and Nice Guy (TM) mislead women about their intentions. But being upfront about your aims turns a competitive game into a cooperative effort to achieve those aims by both partners.
The PUA doesn’t ask a woman questions to appear cool and disinterested. The Nice Guy (TM) asks about her job because he read that people like talking about themselves. But when you open up to another person you invite them to share the things they really care about, the questions you would never have thought of asking.
The PUA and the Nice Guy (TM) have a single approach to the Needs of All Women Everywhere. But when someone opens up to you, you know their personal needs and what they, and only they want and look for.
The stereotypical PUA and Nice Guy (TM) tactics occasionally persuade someone into having sex with them. That usually happens not because the tactics are hot, but because women like sex too. But once it happens a couple of times, a man could conclude that confusing people into bed is the extent of romantic relationships. He could conclude That loving, growing, reciprocal relationships are a sappy fantasy or a feminist conspiracy. He would suspect that perhaps men and women are natural enemies, and if they stumble upon a certain feminist blog, that suspicion turns into certainty. He would conclude that honesty is foolish, vulnerability is weak, being nice is naive.
If you find these thoughts occurring to you: be nice, try L.O.V.E, and remember the bell curve: