So many people lately have questions about interpreting the words and actions of people around them. Relationships, even platonic ones, are rife with mixed signals, and no matter what any of us would like to think, we all give them off. Sometimes we give mixed signals for valid reasons, like working as a waitress or bartender and utilizing the flirting to maximize the tips. Even then, the unspoken social contract helps keep those signals in the context of the job, and they aren’t truly confusing to most people. When it’s a more personal relationship, either with our family, coworkers or romantic involvements things get remarkably more complicated.
The major categories of giving mixed signals are words, touching, time, and the biggest one of all is the let-down. So let’s break down all of these categories:
Words: What we say can always be complicated for a myriad of reasons. People can misinterpret the words we use even more easily when they are in text or email since there is no body language to tie in with the words. More confusing is when our words aren’t supported by our actions. When you offer up the information that you aren’t seeing anyone, people who might be interested in dating you are likely to interpret that as you showing them your availability for dating. When you tell your child or co-workers not to do something and then you do it, they are going to assume that you only said what you had to and they can do what they want regardless of what you said.
The words out of context will be less of a problem when your actions back them up. That brings us to our second category:
Touching: Touching is a horrendously misinterpreted signal, especially when it’s paired with words that are confusing. When you tell someone you aren’t interested in them romantically, you can’t expect them to simply accept what you’ve said if you hug, kiss, and touch in intimate ways. Intimate doesn’t equal sexual, either. Flirtatious touching is pretty well documented and includes touching or stroking a person’s thighs, hands, arms, face and neck. It also includes ways that you touch yourself while you are talking to someone such as playing with your hair, touching your own neck, and your mouth. These are all signals that you are interested in whomever is the focus of your attention.
Time: A little flirtatious touching is even more confusing when you spend large amounts of time with a person, since what starts as a little flirting becomes a lot of flirting. When you are choosing to spend more time with one person than others, you are usually doing that because you enjoy their company more than your other options for companionship. Maybe you are just looking for friendship, but if you are spending that much time with someone who wants to date you, they’re going to misinterpret your intentions no matter how many times you tell them where things stand. If you are looking for just friends, spread your time with more than one person. If you don’t want to encourage someone to have feelings for you, don’t lead them to think that they are more important to you than they really are.
The Let Down: Telling someone that you aren’t interested in them is tricky for a lot of people. Most of the time we have to have this conversation, we’re trying not to hurt the other person which puts us in a position of being nice even while we’re telling them something they don’t want to hear. While hoping to let them know they are good people, and are important in our lives we often give them the opportunity to hear what they want to, rather than what we’re saying. The line between leading someone on and letting them down is a very thin line. You want to avoid telling them things like how much you like being with them, how much you care for them, or how important they are to you. There’s time to tell them these things later, when you’ve both had some time to step away a little.
If you tell them you don’t want to be with them and then continue to be physical with them and spend all of your free time with them, they are going to be confused about what you actually mean and want.
Mixed signals are usually a combination of signals that add one onto the other to confuse other people. In a world that is already complicated, a little care and awareness can go a long way towards cutting down on the mixed signals you give.
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