What do young men mean when they say, "Let's hang out"?

I'm a young woman in a new city and I don't want to be misunderstood.

Published February 8, 2008 11:25AM (EST)

Dear Cary,

This dilemma is hardly a dire one, but I thought you could resolve it because you're a guy, and because you don't have to answer face to face (where we tend to feel more bound by political correctness). I'm a youngish single woman living in a new city, and since I stepped off the plane I seem to be meeting a fair number of men, but zero women. My post-puberty circle of friends has always been majority female, so I'm not quite sure what to do with the guys I have been meeting.

If I were interested in dating right now, I'd probably not worry about it, just let things play out for themselves and wait for unambiguous platonic or nonplatonic indicators. But I'm adamant about not having spare time or energy at this point -- not even for casual romance -- and I'm terrified of winding up in a situation where any kind of romantic interest has sparked. At the same time, many of these men are cool/interesting people with whom I'd love to hang out platonically. And I do need to make friends here.

Thus, when a guy asks for my contact info and talks about "hanging out," it sets off this internal debate that I can't seem to resolve. It always goes something like,

Inner Child: Yay! A new friend!
Inner Misanthrope: (Jaundiced eye-roll) Uh-huh.
I.C.: Wait, what's that about?
I.M.: Nothing. Just, you know ... friend? You really think he's interested in being your friend?
I.C.: He didn't ask if I was single, we didn't talk about anything romantic, I mean ...
I.M.: Oh, please. Wake up. We live in a misogynist patriarchal society.
I.C.: Yeah, but he's not the Patriarchy. He's just a dude who shares some similar interests with me.
I.M.: Haven't you seen "When Harry Met Sally"?
I.C.: Uh ... I think that's PG-13.
I.M.: OK, well, I don't want to be that guy -- er, that girl -- who ruins the ending, but men and women can't truly be friends. He views you as an object, that's all I'm saying.
[Enter Inner Critic]
Critic: An object? Like a sexual object? You've got to be kidding.
I.M.: Pardon?
Critic: Don't flatter yourself. I think we all know you're in no danger of being offered a modeling contract. Today, especially, you were really looking ... I mean, "bad hair day" does not even begin to cover it.
I.M.: That's not really how it works -- I think it's more --
Critic: Not that you're some brilliant conversationalist, either. But I think we can definitely rule out physical attraction. Maybe he was just trying to be nice. He probably felt sorry for you.
I.C.: Never mind, never mind! Forget it! My head hurts. Can we go get ice cream?
Critic: Better make it frozen yogurt.

Anyway, you get the idea. I don't want to jump to vain assumptions, and I don't want to lead anyone on. You're familiar with the male perspective and with urban social norms: What do you think? How would you call this one? And how does one go about making friends -- not to sound like a hippie here but, well, organically -- in an unfamiliar city, if one's default inclination is toward shyness?

Need a Referee

Dear Need a Referee,

The reason you cannot resolve this internal debate is because it is internal.

You have said all that needs to be said. You just need to say it out loud.

Forget "male perspective." Forget "urban social norms." Really. Just forget all that. Let's get a little more honest. Let's talk about what you want. What do you want? I think you said it up there in your letter. You would not mind having some friendships but you aren't looking for romance.

Try saying some of this out loud. If you meet a guy whom you would not mind having for a friend and he asks you for your contact information, try saying some true words. Try talking to him in elementary terms. Stop him from fidgeting and make him sit down and sit still and try telling the truth. Start with the basics. (This is going to be fun. You may find it absurd, but I am going to begin at the beginning.) Start with the things you are sure of. Tell him that you are a young woman. Ask him if he is aware of that. Chances are that he is aware of that. Ask him how he knows. Yes, ask him how he knows. This may begin an interesting conversation about primary sex characteristics or it may begin a conversation about the obviousness of the obvious. Or it may become an argument in which he accuses you of not behaving right. If he accuses you of not behaving right, then you can decide that you do not want to give him your contact information because there is nothing wrong with the way you are behaving. You are just trying to avoid the obvious by dwelling on the obvious. That is a paradox. That's OK.

If the conversation survives your first foray into the obvious, tell him that likewise you have observed that he, apparently, is a young man. Ask him to confirm. If he asks you why, tell him you've seen some movies. What kind of movies, he might ask. Movies in which people are not what they appear, you might say. Besides, you might say, we live in a forest of unspoken expectations. Say that. That will signal to him that you are not imprisoned in the obvious, that you are on your way somewhere.

Tell him that you are aware that friendships between young men and young women fall into several categories. There is casual social acquaintance, there is work acquaintance, there is work friendship, there is platonic friendship, there is friendship with benefits, there is romance, there is engagement, there is marriage. Tell him which of the categories of male-female friendship you are available to engage in. Tell him you are aware that one can move from one category to the other but that you do not plan on moving your categories. Tell him your categories are fixed.

See how it goes. If he isn't getting it, then maybe he does not want to be your friend. Maybe you do not want him to be your friend.

The point of this is to bring your attention, and the attention of the other party, into the present moment. He may think that the present moment is stupid, that no one gets laid in the present moment, that no one finds a new car or a new cellphone in the present moment so what good is it. He may be right. There are not many new cars in the present moment.

I am being obscure. I apologize. I am being metaphorical badly. You may not like me. I can live with that. I am trying to say: Do not read Cosmopolitan. That is where all the bad categories are. The bad categories will get in your head and they are hard to get out if you read Cosmo. Cosmo will not work.

Do you sort of get what I am saying? Or am I being too obtuse? If I am, I apologize. I am just trying to communicate something in words by using them differently. I am just trying to slow you down and indicate the moment.

Let me know what happens. Write to me in the asylum. I will write you back.

94 letters, 94 answers.

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