How to Meet Girls after #MeToo

The social science of body language in first encounters.

Photo by Cassie Lopez on Unsplash

An attractive blond in ripped jeans sits at the table next to me in Starbucks. She looks early 20s, maybe. A laptop lies in front of her, but she looks relaxed — casually page surfing, tapping her foot. Occasionally, she glances around the room.

Her eyes meet with a youngish guy. He’s not bad looking. She glances away, then swivels back. They make contact again, and this time she smiles a little. Just one little curl at the end of her lips.

So the guy walks over and introduces himself.

They start talking. It goes well, and she offers her number. The guy doesn’t come on too strong. He’s kind of soft-spoken. But he’s got that quiet confidence women find attractive.

The only thing creepy about this is me. What can I say? Writers love to people watch. It’s our favorite thing. Their cute little conversation reminds me of my 20s, when I used to spend half my time in coffee shops. It was normal to strike up conversations and exchange numbers. You just had to know who was open to dialogue, and who wasn’t.

Cold meets aren’t catcalling.

Lots of people struggle to understand the difference between this kind of interaction and the dreaded catcall, or what linguists define broadly as street remarks. Women have recently started pointing out that unwanted comments like “hey, how are you?” qualify as harassment.

The difference depends on the situation. As I’ve written elsewhere, insincere salutations and expressions of affection to strangers violate what we call civil inattention. Some people just want to be left alone.

Some men voice dismay and confusion at this new intel. Others get angry, or start ranting against feminism.

Still others just ask, “So how am I supposed to meet a girl?” They want to know when it’s okay to strike up a conversation with an attractive woman, in order to ask her out.

Nonverbal communication makes a difference.

Dating advice from most books and websites offers a little taste of body language interpretation. It tends to focus on telling when a guy or girl’s interested during a first date.

Not so helpful if you’re just trying to meet someone.

Still, body language and facial expression play a huge role in deciding who’s okay to chat up at the gym, the library, the store.

All you really have to do is watch someone for a minute. Doing that can tell you worlds about their availability, and even the kind of day they’re having. You don’t have to say a word to them.

People perform avoidance signals when they don’t want to talk to others, including strangers. These include gaze aversion and closed posture, and other strategies I’ll get into later.

Imagine a woman next to you in line at the store. She wears a pleasant, open expression with relaxed facial muscles. She’s looking around at people, maybe even you. She’s open to interaction.

Now envision avoidance signals. You’ve seen them. She’s holding her bag in front of her, or gripping her arms. She’s looking in one direction, usually downward. Her posture seems tense, or she’s moving at a quick pace. Do this woman a favor, and leave her alone.

Let’s say you’re still not sure someone’s open to interaction, but you want to take a chance. If you’re bold, you can try a greeting ritual. They have rules. Respecting the rules means you’re respecting her.

Greeting rituals happen in stages.

  1. Sighting and recognition — you make eye contact. It’s easy to make eye contact with open people in public places like coffee shops and gyms. They’re not focused on anything in particular. They’re looking around, which means they notice things. Like you. There’s no need to stare, which makes people uncomfortable. If you glance her way a few times, you’re bound to meet eyes. That’s when phase two happens. Nobody’s going to judge you for glancing at an attractive woman.
  2. Distance salutation — you offer some kind of gesture. Smile at her. Make whatever face signals your interest in talking. Pay attention to how she reacts. If she reciprocates, then you’re free to come over and engage. Experts call this mutual gaze. In other words, you’ve both noticed each other and you like what you see.
  3. Approach — start heading her way and see what happens. You’ll both look away briefly, to keep things casual. Then you’ll reestablish visual contact. Pay attention to her cues. If she suddenly starts glancing around nervously, then you’ve somehow misread the situation. Or she’s changed her mind. That doesn’t mean you should do an about face. That would be weird. But prepare yourself for a really brief exchange. You can even toss out a little face-saving lie like, “Sorry, I thought I recognized you.”
  4. Close salutation — say hi and introduce yourself. Ask something like, “Are you busy?” or “Mind if I sit down?” You don’t need some hook or gimmick from the days of pick-up artists. Besides, most girls have already heard all those awkward lines. Using them now sends the wrong signal, namely that you want a notch on your bedpost, not an actual relationship.
  5. Backing off — once you sit, put a little space between you to make her feel comfortable. Give her a chance to say her name. If she doesn’t do that, then she’s not interested.

Everyone uses involvement behaviors.

Especially a member of the opposite sex, who wants to know you better. We already know the obvious signals, like smiling and flashing eyes. But people make other gestures, even without full awareness.

High involvement behaviors include eye contact and direct body orientation. If a girl’s interested, she’ll turn toward you — even if you’re both seated.

Imagine sitting down across from someone at a cafe or restaurant, and they suddenly turn in their chair. Now their knees don’t point toward you, but the pastry counter or the dairy bar.

Most likely, she’s not interested.

Leaning forward and closing distances also signal high involvement, along with certain kinds of self-touching. So if she puts her elbow on the table and moves closer, that’s a good sign. But if she spends the whole time leaned back, or hugging herself, show some respect and plan your exit.

Vocal relaxation and slow laughter tell you she’s fine talking for a longer period of time, and might agree to a date. Or at least a number exchange. Staccato talk and high-pitched, nervous laughter means she’s trying to be polite — but secretly wants you to leave.

Also watch for fluent speech and positive reinforcers. These include sympathetic head nods, gesture mirroring, and back-channel signals, like when she goes mm hmm yeah when you’re talking. We call this the chameleon effect. It means if someone likes you, they’ll mimic your posture.

Pitch variation also shows engagement, compared to that kind of monotone you get from someone whose focus lies elsewhere — like their text messages. Basically, she’ll be acting like an equal partner in a conversation. If you feel like you’re doing all the work, something’s wrong.

Everyone uses avoidance signal systems.

Especially women who don’t want to talk to guys. For example, women and men both engage in gaze aversion. In other words, they won’t look at you. They’ll engage in self-touches and restrictive postures, like crossing their arms or hugging themselves.

They also place objects between them and their undesired interlocutor. For example, a bag or a tablet. They hold objects in their lap.

They’re shielding themselves against you.

Avoidance signals also happen in the face. People purse their lips, bite their lips or tongues, and clench their jaws. They furrow their brows.

They also stick their tongues against the side of their cheek, forming a little bulge that’s easy to spot. If you’re paying attention, these signs say a lot about your reception (or lack thereof).

Smartphone use qualifies as avoidance signaling.

Researches especially describe technology use as a recent avoidance strategy. Women use headphones or earbuds when they don’t want to be disturbed. They focus on their tablets and phones specifically to show they’re not open to conversation. So despite what pickup artists say, don’t bother anyone putting up these avoidance signals.

It’s become popular to criticize technology for alienating us from each other. You might hear some men blame smartphones for why they’re not getting any dates. That’s just a pathetic excuse.

Most adult women in their 20s and beyond understand what they’re doing when they sit in a cafe with earbuds. If we’re open and available, we send out different cues. Think about the girl from Starbucks I described. She had technology, but she still noticed people.

She probably had earbuds in her bag. And if she wanted to block out her surroundings, she would’ve used them.

What happens when you violate rituals.

I’ve watched interactions where men try to gain the attention of a woman scrolling vigorously through her phone. It doesn’t go well. First, the man has to make such an overt effort, he completely violates the normal stages of greeting rituals. That puts her on edge right away.

One minute she’s trying to update her website, or answer a message from a coworker. Then suddenly, there’s a total stranger sitting right in front of her. Wouldn’t you freak out a little? Even if you’re Channing Tatum, she hasn’t had time to register anything about you.

Let’s say you disregard avoidance signals and accost a woman, without making eye contact or engaging in any kind of distance salutation. Fine, but now you’ve got to work extra hard to disarm her suspicion. There’s one good way to do that. Get to the point fast.

Say something like, “I’m sorry to bother you, but is that Beyonce on your iPod? I love her!” At least this signals somewhat directly that you want to have a conversation. She’s not stupid. She knows why.

Give her a chance to reciprocate. If she says “no, sorry” and puts her earbuds back in, leave her the f*ck alone.

Study how she reacts, after she recovers from the initial shock of a stranger materializing before her like some genie. Even if she’s not listening to Beyonce, she’ll make a choice about continuing the conversation. She’ll tell you what’s playing.

The tension will fade from her face and posture. If it doesn’t, or you can’t really tell, that’s not good.

Once, I watched a man continue trying to talk to a woman in a cafe. He ignored all her avoidance signals, and finally she exchanged a few worried glances with me. So I discreetly found a barista, who came in and started cleaning tables and engaging the dude in conversation until he got uncomfortable and left. See, some guys get it.

Nonverbal communication matters.

You might wonder why women don’t just speak their minds more often. Honestly, nobody ever truly speaks their mind.

Everyone conveys their thoughts and attitudes through body language. We do it more or less consciously, depending on circumstances. Why? Because telling someone what we really think can lead to conflict.

Rolling your eyes or letting out a big sigh might seem passive aggressive. But it can also do valuable work. Nonverbal signals convey meaning in subtle ways that avoid confrontation. Your gender doesn’t matter. Most of us send these cues, and we tacitly expect people to pick up on them.

People communicate with their bodies as well as their words. Everyone’s a little different, but even the most stoic among us follow these basic principles in their own way. Some of us even know our nonverbal communication doesn’t match up, and so we try extra hard to convey our moods and intentions. Sometimes you do just have to speak up.

It’s just that most people don’t, especially in new situations with people they don’t know at all. There’s good news, though. Following these tips will save you time and trouble. You’ll be able to tell who actually wants to form new connections, before you risk bruising your ego. Verbal communication helps you gauge someone’s interest in about ten seconds, and allows you to save some face, while showing a little respect.