When You Don't Know Where You Stand With Someone, Focus On What Concrete Action You Need From Them
A broad type of social situation people have trouble with is when they want some kind of closer relationship with someone, but they're getting mixed signals. This can happen when:
- You want to start a new friendship with someone, or move beyond being friendly acquaintances.
- You want a deeper friendship with them, where maybe you hang out more often, or have more intimate conversations.
- You want to stay friends with someone who seems to be pulling away.
- You want to start or continue dating someone, or take things to a more serious, committed level.
- Business-wise, you could be talking to someone who you hope will hire you for a consulting project, or agree to a sale, or trust you enough to put you in touch with a valuable contact.
You're getting ambiguous messages, like the ones in these examples:
- You met someone two weeks ago at a party who seemed to enjoy your company, and acted eager to hang out again. You've been texting with them since, and their replies are cheerful, but sometimes take a while. Though they didn't respond at all to two messages about getting together, but then later continued the conversation as if they'd never been asked.
- Your co-worker always seems happy to see you, and you eat lunch together most days. You've suggested doing something together on the weekend a few times, but they were quick to give a reason why they were busy then.
- You've hung out with a potential new friend a few times, and it went really well, but when you asked if they'd like to meet up again they're suddenly saying they're going to be really caught up in school for the next few weeks. Up until recently your text conversations have gone on and on and been filled with back and forth banter, but now their responses are short and closed-ended.
- A similar thing can happen with dating. You went on two dates with someone, and by all accounts hit it off. You've been texting, and they say they want to go out again, but they're not replying as fast as they used to. They were easy to make plans with the first two times, but now they seem vague and hard to pin down.
- You've been friends with someone for years, and have had a pretty steady routine of getting together every week or two, with plenty of texting in between. They've canceled the last three plans at the last minute, and their texts seem more rushed and superficial.
- A sales prospect keeps telling you they intend to make an order, but they always have a reason why they have to put it off a little longer.
Asking other peoples' opinion about what's going on often doesn't help
If you're confused about the mixed signals you're getting you might ask your friends, family, or colleagues for their perspective on what the other person is thinking. You could make a thread online to see what the collective wisdom of the internet has to say. You may also check out some articles or videos on how to handle your general situation.
It's common to end up no better than when you started, because you'll get a range of conflicting opinions. One friend may say the other person is probably just busy and to keep trying. An online reply may confidently state you're clearly being blown off, and you need to take the hint and move on. So which is it?
The core problem is you can never say for sure why any one person is acting in a particular way. As a broader trend, many people may start taking longer to reply to someone's texts when they've lost interest, but the particular individual you're dealing with may genuinely have gotten busy and distracted with a family issue.
Asking for advice about how to handle the situation can also be unhelpful
You're not sure where you stand with someone, but you know you do want them to be your friend, or agree to that third date, or so on. You may cast around for advice about how to play your cards right to get the outcome you want. Here you can also get a bunch of contradictory suggestions, such as:
- "You need to take them at their word that they're busy, give them space, and try again later. If you keep bugging them you'll look needy and blow your chance entirely."
- "They're losing interest, but you can still recover. You need to start texting them a bunch of really engaging, entertaining messages to recapture their interest."
- "You need to clearly ask them to hang out one more time, and immediately cut them off and move on if you get anything but a resounding 'Yes'."
- "They're jerking you around. You need to call them out on their behavior to regain their respect."
- "You need to start acting a bit aloof and rude, to make them wonder why you're mad and make them start chasing you, instead of the other way around."
There are all kinds of approaches people will recommend. Some are simple and straightforward while others are fancy manipulative tricks. Getting hit with all these options can leave you even more stuck and confused. Again, everyone's personality is different, and a tactic that may work on one person may backfire with another. For example, you're trying to make plans with someone and text them, "Hey, do you want to hang out again or what? I've asked you three times and you haven't really answered." Some people will be put off by what they see as an aggressive, accusatory tone, but a few may reply with, "Haha, sorry, I didn't realize I was doing that. Yeah, let's get together on Saturday afternoon."
Focusing on the tangible actions you need from someone can give you some direction
This isn't a magic solution that works every time. Like I said, we can't always know what someone thinks of us, or what tactic may get them to act one way or another. Still, one thing that can provide some clarity, and help you make a decision that feels right to you is to think about what clear cut behavior you need from them. Like if you want to be in-person friends with someone, at the end of the day they have to show up and hang out with you in real life. It doesn't matter how much they text you, or how fun and chatty they seem in their messages, or how much they go on about how great it would be to get together. Do they actually meet up with you or not? They can blab all day about wanting to hang out, but if they don't follow through all that talk doesn't matter. Put another way, this is about actions speaking louder than words. What actions are you looking for?
Once you've figured out what concrete step you need from someone, you can decide how you'll ask them for it. To continue the previous example, you may think, "I want to hang out with them in person. I'm not looking for an acquaintance to just text every so often. I'll make sure to directly ask them if they want to get together. How much they text with me or comment on my social media posts or whatever ultimately isn't relevant."
When you've picked an approach, then you need to figure out how much time and effort you'll put in to see if they come through with the concrete action or not. If you've just met a potential friend you may decide to clearly ask them to hang out two times over the next three weeks, and move on if they haven't given you a solid answer by then. You could give someone a lot more time, and benefit of the doubt, if it seems a long-term friendship is drifting apart. You'll still need them to agree to see you eventually, but you'll give them more room to come through. If they don't, maybe you'll decide to cut them loose, or you may be okay with transitioning to a more casual relationship.
Having a concrete behavior to focus on can make you more focused and direct, but that doesn't mean you need to be ruthlessly cold and efficient to going after it. Like you could realize you need to cut to the chase and ask someone if they want to hang out in person, but that you don't need to forego all non-planning texts entirely.
Also, it's one thing to be more focused on what you want from someone who's sending unclear signals, but be careful not to slip into the mindset of "I'm sure they're just jerking me around. I'm going to cut through their nonsense." Someone you met in class the other week may not have any ill will toward you if they're having fun joking around through text, but aren't in a place in their life where they want another close friend. If you directly ask them to hang out a few times and they've always had an excuse why they can't make it, it doesn't mean they're an evil jerk and you exposed their lies. You just found out they weren't looking for the same thing as you. At least you learned that sooner rather than later.