You Need Help: How Do I Flirt When I’m Worried About Coming On Too Strong

Q:

I’m a really picky person so a lot of people don’t really pique my interest but when they do, I always chicken out. I’m black and masculine so I’m worried that if I tried to make a move it would come off too strong, which I know I really shouldn’t but we live in a world. So I guess I need advice on how to flirt without making someone feel overwhelmed. Also I live in a really white town and I’d really rather not deal with secret racist pasts.

A:

Em:

Before I even finished reading your question, my eyes widened and I let out a little scream because I FEEL YOU. I, too, am a very picky person but I — like you — am too timid to make any moves. The sting of this conflict is real, especially because when that one person who does pique your interest happens to come along, you feel like you have this once-in-a-lifetime shot to take. If you’re anything like me, I wouldn’t be surprised if you beat yourself up over it a bit as well. So much rides on making that first move because it feels like sometimes there aren’t many fish in the sea.

Honestly, I’m not sure I can convince you or myself that there are endless, beautiful fish in the sea. When the fish are all white and you’re the rainbow fish, the sea is actually a pond of stagnant water with grocery bags floating around in it. So, maybe my metaphor isn’t the best, but I understand what it’s like to grow up with darker skin in a community that’s nearly all white. Part of what could keep us from making that first move is the sheer experience we carry: we intimidate others, especially those of us who are more masc. Approaching a hottie isn’t just approaching a hottie: it’s bending over backwards to accommodate the people around us if only so that we don’t come off too intense, too harmful, too foreign. You are correct in that we live in a world (sigh and eye roll implied). We usually can’t leave the places we’ve settled in, but we can work on leaving the shame we carry from the trauma that comes with “home.” I wish I was a magical therapist so we could unpack how these feelings are impacting our love lives and come up with a foolproof solution, but alas, I am not. Even the most skilled therapist can’t magically change the reality of living, laughing, and loving in our queer world. It’s okay to feel frustrated. I certainly do!

As someone who approaches nights out and social gatherings with the energy you’re bringing to this question, I can only offer a few techniques that have (kinda?) worked for me.

Firstly, never underestimate the power of gay eye contact. To my surprise, I’ve actually started flirtatious conversations with people by merely making eye contact and smiling from across the room. Sometimes they come to me, sometimes they don’t. When I decide that I need to be the top in this situation, I scan the room and their outfit to look for easy points of conversation. Flirting that feels like a conversation on common ground usually won’t come off in that cis-straight-male creepy flirting way. Once I’ve spotted the person I want to connect with, I suppose I form a mini game plan so that I feel confident, yet relaxed. The more relaxed you feel, the more genuine you’ll come off.

So, you’ve made eye contact, smiled, and are about to walk over. Maybe you notice they have on a crazy patterned shirt. Maybe they’re wearing cool earrings. Know what item you want to compliment. In the back of my mind, I have two scenarios for a follow-up: either I relate to them with a story revolving around the thing I just complimented them on, or I make a comment about the atmosphere of our shared location. At this point, you should be getting a feel for the vibes. Most of the time, the hottest thing you can do is give somebody the power to pursue you.

Once I’ve had this brief initial interaction, I’ll say something like “well, I’m heading to the bathroom, but I’ll be over there dancing if you want to join me.” Showing subtle interest and letting them choose will hopefully let the other person know you’re vibing with them, but — most importantly — it will show you respect their comfort zones and free will.

Even though this advice seems super methodical, it helps me to have a plan when I’m trying to flirt. Quite frankly, I’ve only had the guts to do this a handful of times, but now that I reflect on my own process, I’m going to try it out as well. If this method sounds good to you, I encourage you to try it, and if you’d rather try a different method, I encourage you to create your own gameplan so you can feel prepared and ready when the right person catches your eye. And I’m excited to hear what our commenters think when it comes to creating easy flirting practices. We can do this!

A. Tony:

I get you with this one, honestly a lot of people don’t warm up to me unless I smile. Now, I’m also autistic and don’t read social cues when it comes to flirting extremely well so it might be a little different. One of the things that works for me is just making sure to keep a bit of distance. If someone looks lost in thought, or otherwise not looking in my direction, I make a fairly large arc around them before waving a bit at them. That actually helps me take the guess work out of a lot because if they just look at me like I’ve grown three heads, I know to go ahead and move on. Now, with women, I think, there’s a kind of knee-jerk reaction to smile automatically, so I don’t necessarily take the smile into account, if they do smile at me. What I’ll do is say something about the place we’re in or maybe something they’re doing and see what happens there. I try to make sure that I’m customer service distance away (if I reach my arm out they’d have to move from their spot to high five me), and see if they move towards me. If they do, I keep talking. If they don’t, I try to wrap up the conversation, wish them a good day, and keep it moving.

Now the second part of this, I am of the belief that white people are inherently racist (just as cisgender people are inherently transphobic, etc.) because white supremacist society and whatnot. I used to go to an extremely white school and it is just, different. For me, the way I’ve been able to navigate dating white people is by making sure I have black friends that help me check in and relieve the pressure that I should do any of the “you need to be anti-racist” work that a partner should be doing themselves. There’s also a general “surprised but not shocked” kind of attitude that it might help to have. There are so many microaggressions that we face that it’s hard to know which one will be a breaking point, so just constantly checking in with yourself about your nonnegotiables because of course we wouldn’t go for a Neo-Nazi, but they’re not always that obvious (as you know). So writing down a little list of both macro and microaggressions you will not put up with, and how you can maybe address that in the moment, could help so that you don’t feel super unprepared if they do occur. I know people recommend Get Out for these types of things but I also want to recommend Ace of Spades by Faridah Àbíké-Íyímídé. There isn’t an easy answer to dealing with white people especially around dating, but consuming media that meets you where you’re at is one of the best ways (I’ve found) in helping you decide what to do next and just to know you’re not going through things alone. Hope this helps!


You can chime in with your advice in the comments and submit your own questions any time.

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Em Win

Originally from Toledo, Ohio, Em now lives in Los Angeles where she does many odd jobs in addition to writing. When she's not sending 7-minute voice messages to friends and family, she enjoys swimming, yoga, candle-making, tarot, drag, and talking about the Enneagram.

Em has written 71 articles for us.

A. Tony Jerome

A.Tony is a black nonbinary artist out here to do good and to do gay. They are a 2015 Pink Door Fellow, 2016 Lambda Literary Emerging Writer Fellow, 2020-21 Afro Urban Arts Lit From the Black! Fellow, and have worked with Roots.Wounds.Words., Words Beats & Life, and Winter Tangerine among other places. You can find more of their work on their website and listen to them scream about poetry & other interests on Twitter.

A. has written 47 articles for us.

5 Comments

  1. I appreciate the empathy and also the practical advice in these responses. I wish we didn’t live in a world that made normal, cute, confident flirting so dangerous for Black masc folks. Wishing each of y’all safety and connection!

  2. Thank you Em and A. Tony — I really appreciate the heart-filled, thoughtful, practical and also emotional advice here. I hope the LW find some of it as useful as did! The reality is that dating is just different for some of us, especially in white spaces. And I feel grateful for all the nuance and care that you brought into these responses.

  3. Oof. I’m white, so I know this week’s answer is really not made for me. But as someone wuth severe visual impairment, physically incapable of making eye contact (and usually unable to see most other nonverbal signals), I feel discouraged whenever advice about the routes toward romance or sex begins with “eye contact.” From what I’ve read, flirting seems to be especially reliant on the nonverbal components of communication, more so than other types of conversation.

  4. I love this! Em’s game plan and A Tony’s step by step including a literal description of how far away one might want to be are both amazing. SO feel it on the picky yet chickening out and not wanting to come on too strong or aggressive when I (rarely) actually AM wanting to flirt.
    Flirting cues are not a thing my brain just automatically picks up, and when only a small subset of people meet the threshold of folks I’d want to flirt with, there’s limited practice opportunities! So, what Em said about the brief intro and then “I’ll be over there” thus respecting their autonomy and also giving them the power to pursue — that’s brilliant. also, as someone who can get overwhelmed when ppl try to flirt with me, good golly, I wish people would flirt with me using that formula! Because the intention is clear, but there’s no crappy pressure, and it gives the person being flirted with the time to figure out their next step!
    So, LOVE this practical advice – and a game plan can be so empowering even if ultimately not following it – THANK YOU both!

  5. As a Black masc-of-center lesbian, I’ve been waiting for a post like this! I especially appreciate A. Tony’s perspective because I’m also autistic, and I *cannot* flirt, for the life of me. Thanks again, Autostraddle!

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