Why asking her out is terrifying

In a classic love story, there are two kinds of man. One is the man who has little difficulty in asking women out. He is generally portrayed as being reprehensibly confident in this way. The other kind of man is the shy one who has great difficulty in asking women out. He is often the hero of the piece. The first man gets the girl early on, but doesn’t truly love her, and she eventually recognises him for what he is, and the shy guy gets the girl in the end, and does truly love her.

It seems that men find the act of asking a woman out to be very strongly associated with fear. Indeed, one often hears of a man who can brave enemy bullets in battle, and can shout down his boss in an argument, who turns into a timid wreck when faced with the task of approaching the woman he fancies. I believe that this is an evolved instinct.

If you believe in evolutionary psychology at all, then you will probably accept that fear is an evolved emotion. Our evolved fears are quite rational. We fear heights but not level ground, snakes but not shoes, large stretches of open water but not ping-pong balls. We fear the things which killed the people of the past. People who evolved a fear of level ground did not get on well in the world, and people who loved heights and pain died young. It is quite clear that we have evolved to fear the things which made it more difficult to pass on genes, and we have evolved to like and to seek out the things that helped our ancestors survive and reproduce. That men find women attractive is no random chance result of Darwinian process. Men who sought female sexual partners passed on genes, and those who didn’t did not become our ancestors.

It therefore may seem contradictory that men find asking women out frightening. Surely confidence in this matter would be an advantage to passing on genes, and a terror of it would be a great disadvantage. I have two reasons to explain this.

The world has changed. Today we live in cities with huge populations. Today, a man might ask out a different woman every day, and not in ten years exhaust the pool of young women who might say yes. A man can afford to be rejected almost all the time, so long as some women consent. This was not the world our foraging ancestors lived in. Back then, the world was sparsely populated. A man might live in a band of about twenty-five people, of whom perhaps six at most would be women of reproductive age, and most of these would be spoken for. It would be common that the man would only have frequent encounters with one or two potential mates. A wise designer of human instinct would therefore give men a fear of “blowing it” with such rare and precious women. The maxim “There are plenty more fish in the sea” would be even less of a comfort to a man who knows that he might not set eyes on another single woman for months. In short, the cost of putting a woman off with a clumsy approach would have been, in the environment of our ancestors, very high. This would lead to a selective pressure on men to take the task of propositioning very seriously indeed. Making a bad mistake would be almost as deleterious to the potential for reproduction, as forgetting to bring a dagger to a knife fight.

The second reason I have to explain the fear men have, refers to the love story characters mentioned earlier. Sometimes the hero of the story is a man unusually confident, and who has had many girlfriends. One day, he sees a woman who changes him. He is amazed to find himself for once tongue tied and shaking with fear. Why can he not simply ask her out, as he did all the others? All the girls in the audience of this movie know the answer: this is true love. It seems that men find asking out strangers whom they know they are unlikely ever to see again, comparatively easy. The women who are difficult to ask out are the ones a man really cares about. People are far more promiscuous, it seems, on foreign holidays. Back at home, asking out the plain girl next door can be tougher than the gorgeous girl on the exotic beach.

The above accords well with ancestral conditions. A hunter-gatherer out on the savannah who happens across a woman from a neighbouring tribe has little to lose and much to gain from giving it a go.

To women, of course, the picture may be less clear. They get irritated by the confidence of men who ask them out easily, and rate the affection and fidelity of such men very lowly. They also get irritated and impatient with the timidity of the men who take an age to summon the nerve to ask them out. One might say that women should in these modern days of big cities and contraception take it on themselves to ask men out. To some degree they do exhibit this behaviour a bit more, but not much. Even women who go social dancing twice a week usually wait be asked to dance. Old instincts die hard. Women demand confidence in men, but also consider men who are confident and forward to be “creeps”. It is a fine line for men to tread. We have to be brave enough to ask, but not brave enough to find asking easy.