A big difference between the girls and the guys, responsible for many an awkward, uncomfortable (or worse) moment among strangers in public, has to do with what a female does–and what a male thinks she means when she does.
You the girl, you the woman, are in public. You happen to gaze somewhere, thinking of nothing in particular. You may or may not have a pleasant look on your face, or even a full-blown smile. Alas, you happened to look in the direction of a stranger who happens to be male. You look away, quickly. The next thing you know, you are being cruised, heavily. The stranger is staring at you with saucy, hopeful eyes.
“Oh no,” you think. “I didn’t mean that.”
Variants of this scenario happen all over the place, and the one mentioned above happens to be one of the more benign variety. Maybe you politely responded to a stranger’s “hello” in a line at a coffee shop, or his request for directions or the time or whatever. The next thing you know, the dude has pulled up a chair, is telling you the story of his life, asking for your phone number. In short, a stranger is imposing an awkward social burden on you that you neither asked for nor want.
If you are a woman, this has most likely happened to you on more than one occasion, prompting you to ask yourself or others: “How does that mean I’m interested?”
Sexual overperception bias
Pulling from evolutionary theory gives us a possible explanation on this, something called sexual overperception bias, or why, way too often, guys think that a woman is hitting on them when she is merely being friendly, or even quasi-cordial. Or human. Or just looking in their general direction at nothing and no one in particular. Or breathing.
Evolutionary psychologist David Buss explains that men are more likely to infer sexual interest when there is none due to “the costs of failing to pick up on a potential mating opportunity.”¹ Today’s men, the descendants of men who successfully picked up on a mating opportunity, have a hardwired desire, evolved over time, to do the same, resulting in a higher likelihood of assuming much about nothing at all.
According to Buss: “For males it is better to err on the side of over-inferring sexual interest, even if you’re going to be wrong some time, then in under-inferring it and missing out on potential sexual opportunities.”² These men will make mistakes, but they will also maximize successfully acting on sexual opportunities that do exist.
According to Buss, this is not a conscious calculation in the male mind. Rather, he describes it as “a psychological tic in their machinery.”³ A tic that has settled in over deep evolutionary time.
Men: Evolving past the tic
This explanation for why men are prone to making this social miscalculation does not let guys off the hook.
Knowing about this tic means that a male can pause and use reason to override it as needed. In other words, an awareness of this aspect of your mating psychology gives you an advantage, to change behavior that doesn’t serve your life and might be annoying as hell to others.
You want your mating efforts to be directed at women who are interested. And an innate tendency to over-perceive sexual interest when none exists means that you are going to be off sometimes. Okay, some of you will be off more than some of the time. Thinking a gal has designs on you when she really just asked you the time because she forgot her watch and you happen to be standing next to her on the street. Thinking that a casual smile means “Let’s hit the hay.” And so forth.
Battle the tic by trying, to the best of your ability, to objectively assess a male-female scenario for what it is. If it helps, imagine watching the situation as a detached observer and decode it to the best of your ability. If you feel your social judgement in this area is wanting, improve it by seeking the advice of women and men whose judgement and insight you think is solid.
I’d hate for this to be construed to mean that a man should not make any social overtures toward the opposite sex whatsoever, particularly since several fine gentlemen friends have informed me that uncertainty about a woman’s interest, or the threat of appearing foolish or embarrassing or offensive has kept them from striking up or continuing conversations, or even approaching a woman who they thought was interested. My advice is that such a social miscalculation will never be a big deal provided the approach is polite and low-key.
Women: Adapting to the tic
Women, knowing that sexual overperception bias exists, must unfortunately adapt to the fact that males may misinterpret mere politeness or civility. (I don’t think I actually had to tell you that.)
I fought against this reality for many moons. I’m inclined, with some editing, to look at a room full of strangers as a room full of friendly acquaintances whom I haven’t met, and by default am as friendly to male strangers as female strangers. Or, I was. I insisted on my gender-neutral social ways for too long, much to my own discomfort and detriment, time and again.
On the eve of lifting my white flag to reality, a male friend whose judgement I trust said one of those things that sticks with you because it squares so perfectly with a fresh mental verdict on an issue you’ve been wrestling with forever: “Constance, if you speak to a man you don’t know he will most likely think you are interested in him.”
Ding, ding. Lesson finally learned. These days, if I feel like beaming at a random stranger (not a bad practice to make viral) or engaging in a spot of conversation while waiting in a line, chances are the stranger will be a fellow member of the fairer sex.
At the heart of evolutionary theory is the idea of adaptation. That humans will continue to evolve, to change, in ways that bring them closer to pleasure and further from pain. Males adapting to the tic means relying on reason to suss out bonafide female interest. Women adapting to the tic means always negotiating that line between civility and a warding off of the social burden mentioned earlier.
¹²³Source: Psych Files. “Episode 98: Evolutionary Psychology – An Interview with Dr. David Buss” June 20th, 2009.