Do you have someone in your life either personally or professionally who seems to intentionally avoid you, deliberately cuts conversations short, or looks right past you at social events? If so, you might wonder whether you are perceptive or paranoid. But if you have consciously attempted to connect with such a person more than once, you may be correct in your assessment that such behavior does not indicate inadvertence, but avoidance. Selective dismissal is particularly painful when the person, who is not interested in socializing with you, does respond to others.
For many people, the ultimate insult is indifference. Some people still remember the sting of a (former) best friend’s assessment of how important you were to your high school crush: “She/he doesn’t even know you exist.” Ouch. Perceived insignificance adds insult to emotional injury. But when indifference is exhibited by someone who clearly knows you, is there an alternative explanation?
Friendship Material vs. Forbidden Fruit
Your first consideration, as a practical matter, is whether your desire to form a relationship with someone is appropriate. Finding ways to get to know an attractive person who is already in a relationship with someone else is not a healthy venture to pursue—which might account for the resistance you are experiencing. And because I prosecute stalkers for a living, we all recognize that everyone should be sensitive to clues that another person is not interested in their overtures. But in the absence of disqualifying circumstances, why might someone be avoiding only you? Short answer: it might have something to do with what they perceive you want from them.
Romantic Apathy: How Detecting Interest Sparks Avoidance
Dealing with standoffish neighbors and coworkers might be easy to understand as part of the territory or job. Sometimes, however, a person who seems aloof might perceive, correctly or not, that you harbor romantic interest.
Many people avoid others from whom they receive attention or compliments beyond friendly conversation because they are already in a romantic relationship. Others, however, are simply not interested in having one. Many people are perfectly content with their lives, family, and friends, without wanting more—from anyone. These people make great friends and companions, but will intentionally avoid prolonged conversation with or social overtures from people who seem to be pushing for more. Wouldn’t you? Consider how you feel about being asked questions by a coworker that are more personal than professional.
Understanding someone is not rejecting you but simply the idea of a relationship should help you not take it personally. You have not lost your touch, or your looks, or your charm, hopefully only your interest for someone who won’t reciprocate.
When Perception Impacts Reality
Other reasons for selective avoidance stem from perception and evolution. A study conducted by Pavol Prokop (2013) studied ways in which women engage in behavior designed to facilitate avoiding potential rapists. [I] Not that every man is viewed with suspicion, the research focused on rape avoidance behavior in terms of behavioral strategies women use to avoid coercive men. Acknowledging evolutionary reasoning, Prokop found that women who were physically stronger and women in committed romantic relationships reported more rape avoidance behavior. Interestingly, among other findings, Prokop found that in contradiction to evolutionary predictions, older women reported more rape avoidance behavior than their younger counterparts.
How does this impact social behavior? Obviously, most men are not rapists. Nonetheless, Prokop recognized research documenting how some women reduce exposure to male aggression, including avoiding areas where men are likely to frequent, avoiding men in general, and even practicing “habitat selection” to minimize contact with men.
But there are other explanations for avoidance behavior. Prokop notes that some women may avoid talking to male strangers or even accepting drinks from men they don’t know at a party or club simply because they are married, not as methods of rape avoidance. Accordingly, before men feel unfairly typecast when they are forward, assertive, or just friendly, consider that a lack of receptivity might stem from relational commitment, not criminal stereotyping.
The Attraction of Selective Attention
Just as we perceive selective disinterest, we recognize selective attention. Recognizing the spectrum of explanations for social avoidance, most of which have little to do with you personally, frees up valuable time to pursue healthy relationships with people who demonstrate authentic, selective enthusiasm about spending time with you.
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[i] Prokop, Pavol. “Rape Avoidance Behavior among Slovak Women.” Evolutionary Psychology 11, no. 2 (2013): 365–82. doi:10.1177/147470491301100207.