How to Tell What a Stranger (or First Date) Is Insecure About

A night-time walk by the marsh…full moon…fireflies…cat-tails.  Photo by Lorna Tedder

With most strangers,  you can nod and be polite and never have to find out anything more about them, let alone where their insecurities lie.  If you have to work with a stranger for an extended period of time or endure a first date with a stranger, then you’ll walk away with some idea of where what they’re insecure about, no matter how confident and self-assured they appear to be.

We all have something we’re insecure about.   Probably many things.  In the mid-90’s was the first time I realized that many arrogant as well as apparently-but-not-confident people put on a facade of  knowing exactly who they are and what they’re doing.  I had been  introduced to one of  the most outstanding, up-and-coming young editors of a major NYC publisher.  She was never my editor but I got to know her on a personal level.  When her questions ventured more into the personal than the professional, I got to know her better and see the chinks in her armor.  It was an OMG moment for me when I realized how extremely vulnerable this woman was–she always seemed so confident but the confidence had more to do whith the areas of her life where she felt in control, and those were the professional areas, not the personal.

After that, I began to look at other people who seemed to know everything and exude confidence.  I was able to separate the difference in confidence and control, and see where they were so scared and how they hid it.

I’ve seen the same thing through

dating, especially first and second dates.  What made me stop and think was that after dating a slew of men under 30, the only ones who made a huge deal out of my age were the ones who were born within a couple of years of me.  It was all they could talk about. Men in their 20’s didn’t care.  Men in their 30’s would perhaps verify that my age wasn’t a typo (I’ve never quite known what to make of that).  Men in their 40’s?  If they didn’t know my exact age and were too polite to ask, they’d come up with “clever” ways of finding out, like needing to know exactly how long I’d been married before or what was my favorite band in high school.  Men under 40 rarely cared on the first couple dates–they might want to know if I’d ever been married or what my current favorite band is, but the focus wasn’t really on the past.   For men over 40, dealing with their mortality, they were insecure about their age and focused heavily on it, channelling their own frustrations into questions that don’t have much of anything to do with how I think, feel, act, or live my life.

The same is true of men who feel insecure about their bodies.  Their questions on a first date are very different from those of men who are very secure in their physicality.   They want me to promise I’m interested in men who aren’t perfect specimens (true) and will phrase questions in a such a way that I cannot answer that yes, I appreciate a fit body without sounding shallow.  It’s a lovely set-up to say that if I’m not physically attracted to them, then I’m a superficial person.  (Although…there are very fit guys I’m also NOT attracted to.)   Fit guys with body confidence don’t fret about whether they meet the world’s standards for physical beauty.  They’re happy with where they are and don’t need to be coddled.

Less common but just as glaringly obvious is the guy who feels insecure in his education or job.  Like most questions born of insecurity, they often come across as put-downs. I won’t apologize for my degrees or my career or how hard I’ve worked to get there, and I don’t flaunt those things to strangers.  Still, it’s a bit of a shock to share a meal with a nice man who seems confident in his body, his lifestyle, his beliefs…and then focuses mostly on my education or career, with bitterness-tinged side comments on how “lucky” I am to have fallen into my career field or that I had “time” to get a degree.  The first time that happened, I was strongly offended, especially since his questions were geared to insulting me rather than finding out how I paid for college or how long it took me to get my Master’s while working full-time and traveling with my job.  The next time I met a man with little education and lots of biting comments on my education, career, and salary, I understood that they weren’t meant to put me down personally but were from his own pain at what he perceived to be failures.  The sad thing was, I didn’t perceive him to be a failure at anything–he was his own worst enemy.

Understanding the connection between insistent, sometimes obtrusive questions on a first date or a first meeting with a colleauge and the insecurities they mask makes the communications a lot less stressful for me.  More telling than body language, these personal questions I’m to answer tell me quite a lot about what is bothering them about their own lives.


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