Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Red flags at night, singles take flight.

A couple of weeks ago, after an invigorating neighborhood walk that reminded me why I shouldn't wear sandals for neighborhood walks, I sat down with a friend to talk. I don't remember how the conversation arrived at relationships, but the pregnant pause question was, "what actions send up red flags for me when looking at relationships?"

Just to be clear, I think a "red flag" is something that disturbs an otherwise "good" connection. Something that makes you metaphorically doubletake and say, "Did that just happen? I thought I had a good feel for this."

I thought for a while, and about every five minutes for the next hour would interrupt myself with some new "red flag" that had just come to mind. I don't really remember any of the specific ones I brought up, but I thought it was an interesting question to ponder. What puts us each individually on edge?

In the interest of sharing and provoking thoughts, I'll share five. These may not be the top five, but they're definitely important enough for me to place (possibly undue) emphasis upon them.

1. No sense of humor OR the wrong sense of humor. Meeting new people is an experience that makes most people nervous. Meeting people on a pronounced date is even more nerve-wracking. When people get nervous, some turn to humor to find connections or lighten the mood. I'm always aware of the "wrong" kind of vibe from attempts at humor. I love to laugh. I spend most of my life being amused. It's amazing how fake some people are when trying to approximate being funny.

I'm not looking for stand-up comediennes. I'm not looking down on people who get so nervous they can't crack a smile. I'm talking about people who are faking it, at their core. It's one thing to smile in an effort to smooth things over. It's completely different to put a smile where it doesn't belong.

A related issue is laughing at everything I do. I'm not a comic genius. I say wonderfully timed and appropriate things sometimes. I say woefully over-thought and rehearsed things at other times, when I'm nervous or feel compelled to perform. Laughing indiscriminately at all things I say that may vaguely be amusing is distracting.

2. Focusing too much on my clothes. I only tangentially care about how I'm attired. If the occasion is fancy, I make an effort to dress up. If someone can't stop talking about what I'm wearing, that's a red flag. I only care if I look nice. If a lady says to me, casually, "You look nice tonight. I like that shirt," I'm set for the evening. That's a compliment I can accept. My effort was noticed, and rewarded with a smile.

If we talk too much about brands or fabrics or colors or stores, that's bordering on boring. I don't care about any of these things. I have only the vaguest idea whether my tie is from Lord and Taylor or Target. I choose them because they feel nice, have a cool pattern, or have pretty colors. Any more thought given to "how much it accents my eyes" or whether or not the herringbone pattern is in my jacket is embarrassing. Why embarrassing? Because it's an accident. I don't notice these things, and having them pointed out and praised is embarrassing.

3. Too much of the past. If we've only just met, it's really strange to hear about ex-boyfriends and old loves and relationship problems. Yes, it's probably on your mind. Yes, it may effect present day situations. It isn't good conversation, however. Talking about bad things in the past provokes sympathy and psychology degrees. It paints the picture of someone mired in their own past.

The last breakup may have been devastating. It may have crushed your heart, left you vulnerable and extremely self-conscious, and made you uncomfortable. But it's not part of "getting to know you". There is a time and a place for this: it comes later. I don't know when later is, but we'll start talking about personality and hurt eventually. Unless you have a kid with one of my brothers, the information can wait.

4. Not Listening. We talked about how everyone is nervous. Nervousness does not excuse you from needing to listen to the other person talking. When you ask a question, and I begin to answer, I'm not killing time until dessert comes. I'm showing respect by putting thought into what you just asked. In a related circumstance, when I ask a question, it's not because I'm hunting for information. I'm not trying to crack the nut of your psyche by asking the "final Jenga" question that will bring the rickety defenses crashing down. I WANT TO KNOW AN ANSWER. Any answer that communicates something.

That answer can be, "I don't want to talk about it." It can be "That was a completely unimportant phase of my life where I was trying to decide what I wanted to do". It can be "I got hurt and it sucked but now I understand." It cannot be "You don't want to hear about that." It cannot be "La! What a silly question!"

5. Smoking. This one isn't quite like the others, but I felt I should include it. I'm surprised at my own immediate reaction to seeing someone smoke. It's like a light switch in my brain: smoke ON, attraction OFF. I don't know if this is overly simplistic, or needlessly judgmental, or missing a great forest because of all the trees, but I just can't stop the reflex.

I have no problems with people who used to smoke. My aversion only concerns active smokers. It's just damn unappetizing! In fact, it caused me a bit of trouble watching through "Sex in the City", because for three seasons, the "main" heroine is a smoker. I couldn't connect well with her at all, which is difficult since the series is designed to show things mostly from her view.

Many times I'll see women who momentarily catch my eye as being attractive, only to shrug my shoulders when they have cigarettes in their fingers. It's just so completely unhealthy! I saw the smoker's lungs in high school biology. Nasty. Absolutely no use for it. This may make me "smokist" or some other clever neologism, but I can't get around it.

This is not a complete list, and is even subject to chance in three weeks or three months. So much depends on the individual, that we have to be able to make a ruling on the field of play on whether or not to let something continue based on our gut in the moment. It doesn't benefit anyone to have a prospective mate theorized down to the atoms, only to let someone slip by just because they are wearing a different fabric.

So, what makes you halt on an otherwise straightforward date? What traits cause you to say, "Gee, maybe I need to rethink getting involved with this person?"

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