[I wrote this after talking to Claire Zabel about this a lot over the last few weeks; many of the ideas are hers.]

[content warning—I make a lot of claims that certain ways of hitting on people are much better than other ways. If you have a tendency to freak out about whether you’re a terrible person for being sexually attracted to people, maybe don’t read this.]

It’s often hard for men and women to hang out with each other non-romantically. This seems like a massively underrated problem for the project of making social interactions similarly welcoming to people regardless of gender or whatever. I think that reducing this problem should be a major priority for progressive subcultures which are interested in explicitly engineering social norms. I think we can make progress by pushing for better norms about hitting on people. Let’s look at some common dating advice:

“When you’re asking a girl out, don’t explicitly ask her on a date. Instead, ask her if she wants to get coffee with you. It’s obvious that you’re asking her on a date, but this way if she wants to reject you she can do it more subtly and it’s less awkward for everyone involved.”

I think that this advice has strong negative externalities. Because sometimes I meet women and I think they’re interesting, and I would love to meet them again to hang out with them sometime. What do I do? I sure as hell can’t ask them to meet up for coffee or a meal. So this faux ambiguity ends up creating a situation where it is very hard for men and women to spend time with each other.

This is particularly terrible in a professional context, especially one like programming where hanging out with people is really valuable, and there are relatively few women around. It’s not so hard for me if I can only meet up with male friends and talk about data structures—I’ve only lost 20% or whatever of my total conversational options. It’s much harder for the women who lose 80%.

(one argument you could make: “well if p is the proportion of women who are in a field, and you can’t hang out with people of the other gender, the total hangout opportunities = p**2 + (1-p)**2, which is maximized at p=0 and p=1, therefore we want to segregate everything as much as possible.”)

I’ve heard women talk about how one factor making career development harder for them is that it’s much harder for them to get dinner with their managers or peers without it seeming weird.

Even without that particular gender imbalance element, this is bad and worth fighting against. But I think that as a society and as a subculture, we can make choices which make this less of a problem. Even better, I don’t think we need to totally overhaul society to improve this: as long as individual men are known for having clear and unproblematic behaviors, women don’t have this problem around them.

So here goes. Here are some rules which I think might reduce these problems.

  • When you ask people out, always ask them out extremely explicitly. “Would you like to go on a date with me next week” is a good sentence to use. (If you’re on a dating website or other environment where everyone is forgoing the ability to make plausibly-non-romantic connections, you don’t have to follow this rule.)
  • If you specifically invite someone to hang out with you and it wasn’t you asking them out, never ask them out or proposition them while you’re hanging out. Relatedly (and this should be obvious but apparently isn’t), don’t hit on people in situations where they can’t get away from you without awkwardness.
  • It’s fine to ask people out over Facebook messages or email. (In fact, it’s probably better to ask people out asynchronously than putting them on the spot by asking in person, especially if it’s someone you already know.)

The goal of the first is to make it easier to hang out with people platonically. The goal of the second is to establish common knowledge that if I invite you to hang out with me sometime, I’m not going to hit on you and cause you to awkwardly have to deflect my advances and consider leaving.

I feel pretty good about following these rules in my current context. I’ve pretty much always followed that first rule.

One objection to the first rule is that it makes it somewhat more awkward for the rejectee. I think that this is better than the problems caused by ambiguity. And you can always add the ambiguity back in by asking, for example, for a date at a specific time; they can reject you by saying they’re busy then if they want. (Incidentally, I don’t think that what makes this less awkward is the faux ambiguity. I think that it’s just less awkward because you’ve set it up so that you’re basically supplied them with a rejection sentence if they want to say no; this means they’re less likely to be caught flat-footed and awkwardly not know what to say.) Alternatively or additionally, you can ask people out online, which reduces the pressure further.

I broke that second rule several times at college, and I really enjoyed that. Hanging out with people late at night and knowing that it might or might not lead to making out was really fun. But college was a much better place for that than adult life. At college you can usually go home, which kind of defuses some of the discomfort. I’m still somewhat confused by my intuitions here—I definitely feel that ambiguity was less of a problem at college than it is in adult life. (I also feel like this is slightly less of a problem within rationalism than in general society—maybe it’s partially because college and rationalism are both promiscuous subcultures? Maybe it’s because rationalists are better at average at talking through some kinds of problems? Maybe it’s because college girls are less cynical and for whatever reason seem to be put off somewhat less by these problems than other women, in my experience?)

If the current norm is bad, why is it a stable equilibrium? Partially this problem is worse now than it used to be, because women started joining the workforce recently enough that society might not have shifted properly yet. And partially it’s because the costs are mostly felt by women (and somewhat, men scrupulous enough to worry about imposing them). It’s slightly convenient for individual men to have some ambiguity when they’re asking out women, or asking them to hang out; it’s inconvenient for women but they aren’t the ones making the decision so it happens anyway.

I think there’s legitimately an opportunity for a community to talk about this a lot and come up with significantly better norms about it. Communities which I’m supposedly a part of–reckon we should do this?

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