¡hola papi!

‘Help! I Have No Clue How to Act in a Relationship.’

Illustration: Pedro Nekoi

I will be 27 in a few months, and I have just confessed a crush to a long-distance friend with extremely positive results. Why the hell are you writing in, then, you ask? 

Because it’s my first romantic foray. Ever! The high-school bubbly feeling is surfacing through the pandemic-quarantine haze. I cried happy tears to my therapist! I’m super-excited by the idea of being in a romantic relationship. But also, I have no idea what the hell to do next.

Setting aside a few things that might become issues down the road — we’re thousands of miles apart even in Normal World, and semi-closeted on my part (to avoid family drama) — there’s one thing that haunts me. I don’t know how to switch from friend-language to crush-language. 

I am incredibly awkward at flirting. We are, at least, in the same boat. It’s the first real attempt they have made at dating as well. But I’m inordinately worried at not knowing how to communicate properly in this 5-D chessboard I’ve created for myself. How do I tell if I’m too fast! How do I say anything affectionate without being too much too soon or just plain weird? 

Help me!

Signed,
Hopeless Romantic

Hey there, HR!

Yes, I can see why you reached out. Your prose in this letter reeks of sterile abstinence. Like the fake-plant aisle of a Hobby Lobby. The one with the blocks of green foam for science-fair projects.

I’m kidding! It doesn’t. I’m just lashing out because a crush worked out for you and I’m jealous because I am a toad in Toad Hell. Congrats on taking your relationship to the next level! Your question is one I think most people can relate to: How do I indicate interest without coming on too strong?

Your situation reminds us that even if the other person has confirmed their interest, the issue remains. When we feel invested in someone, language becomes a minefield. We want to say the right thing, because we worry that the wrong thing will scare them off.

There’s an element of performance to all communication, HR, and that much is pretty inescapable. But when we start thinking of it as only performance, or, in other words, as a matter of “doing it right” and “doing it best,” we are way more likely to get in our own heads about it: Could I have said that better? Should I have said that at all? Do they think I’m weird now? Did I put too many of my cards on the table?

Don’t get me wrong, it’s important to consider your words. But what might help you out here is to rethink your approach to language as a kind of game to be won and to think of it instead as a tool to explore this new emotional landscape with your potential partner.

Language is imperfect, HR. At its best, it can give form and texture to the abstract thoughts as they surface from our depths. It provides a foggy window into our desires, our motives, and the unknowable architecture of our souls. When someone replies, “Crush me with your thighs, daddy” on your Instagram close friend’s post, that’s what’s happening.

So, you’re not in a 5-D chessboard. This person isn’t your opponent. You’re in a forest, and you’re trying to map it out together. I think this is more exciting than it is scary. What does this person find attractive in other people, in you? What is their perfect idea of a romantic evening, things they’d like to try one day, sexual or nonsexual? What are they comfortable with discussing?

In discovering each other’s boundaries and interests, you make it easier and more enjoyable to keep filling out the map. Remember, you’re not starting over from scratch in an entirely new dynamic here; you’re just adding dimension to a dynamic you already have.

You don’t suddenly have to switch languages with this person because it’s a different “type” of relationship. How did you talk when you were getting to know each other platonically? Did you send each other memes? Did you talk about your day? Did you fight over minor ideological differences in your interpretation of Engels? It can still be that.

Let me be clear, you might still say the “wrong thing.” There might be hiccups, moments where you feel like you revealed too much, where you feel like you put your foot squarely in your mouth and like you might have ruined your chance to be with this person. I have moments like that all the time!

But this, too, is part of communication. It’s less important that you avoid these bumps in the road with 100 percent accuracy and more important that you navigate them with respect for yourself and for your partner when they arise. You’re both in the woods here.

Some grace ought to be afforded. We are, after all, just people trying to do our best.

I’m rooting for you, HR! I hope you’re able to rise to the challenge of being wanted and mutually attracted to someone! Sounds rough.

Con mucho amor,
Papi

Originally published on January 25, 2021.

This column first ran in John Paul Brammer’s Hola Papi newsletter, which you can subscribe to on Substack. Purchase JP Brammer’s book Hola Papi: How to Come Out in a Walmart Parking Lot and Other Life Lessonshere.

‘Help! I Have No Clue How to Act in a Relationship.’