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This is a chapter from the book The Teenager's Guide to the Real World by Marshall Brain, ISBN 1-9657430-3-9. For more information on the book please click here.

Relationships are Random

No matter how old you are, romantic relationships can be maddening. They can be particularly maddening if you are a teenager, because they seem to make no sense. Why won't Christina go out with you this weekend? Why doesn't Darren seem to know you exist? That kind of stuff all falls into the category of "relationships," and unfortunately it is messy. Here are several common relationship questions that you might have [If you are a girl please replace "girls" with "boys" in the following questions]:
  • Why do girls hate me?
  • Why do I feel so awkward around girls?
  • Why does it seem like a lot of people donít have these problems? Why does it seem like they are able to walk up to girls, talk to them, and the next minute they are going out together and having a really great time? Why are a lot of those people athletes?
  • Why are pretty girls like they are?
  • Why do a lot of girls seem attracted to guys who are obviously idiots and who treat them bad? I would treat a girl great, but that seems to make no difference. Why?
So we need to talk about relationships and the facts of life around them. Unfortunately, I have some bad news: the relationship part of being a teenager is totally random. As random as lottery numbers and rolling dice. It turns out there are no rules. That is a fact of life. The quicker you learn it and accept it the better.

How can relationships be totally random? Let me give you an example that will help to explain the way the world works. For this example I am going to use the menu at a fast food restaurant.

Think about the menu at any fast food restaurant. Think about the main entree section. Letís focus on four of the main items: cheeseburger, Super Burger, Fish Sandwich and Chicken Nuggets. Now imagine that it is lunch time, you have just walked in the restaurant to order lunch and you are trying to decide what you are going to have. You look at the menu, and the following monologue floats through your head:

    "Hmmm. Letís see. Lunch. Wow. Iím really hungry. What do I want? Letís see. No cheeseburgers. Too boring. A Super Burger is just a big cheeseburger. No Super Burgers. No Fish Sandwiches, either. Who eats those, anyway? I just had Chicken Nuggets yesterday, so thatís out. Well, maybe a Super Burger does sound good. Iím really hungry. I think Iíll have a Super Burger today."

And so you choose a Super Burger. Simple, right? You make decisions like this every day and you never give them a second thought.

Now I want you to imagine that the restaurant works differently. Instead of you looking at a menu and making a choice, each sandwich comes up to you and talks to you personally. You walk in the restaurant, sit down at a table and a cheeseburger walks up and says, "Hi, would you like to have lunch with me today?" You say, "No." A Super Burger comes up and says, "Hi, would you like to have lunch with me today?" You say, "No." A Fish Sandwich comes up and says, "Hi, would you like to have lunch with me today?" You say, "No way. I hate Fish Sandwiches!" A Chicken Nugget comes up and says, "Hi, would you like to have lunch with me today?" You say, "No." Then you think about it and call the Super Burger over to the table again and say, "Yes, letís have lunch."

Now I know this scene creates a funny mental image. But I want you to think about this from the point of view of the sandwiches. Letís say they all take your rejection personally. So when you say "No" to the Chicken Nugget, the Chicken Nugget sulks back to the kitchen thinking, "Boy, I really blew that one. I am such an idiot. That guy hates me. Hates my guts. Why did I even go up to his table? I could tell he was going to say no. When will I ever learn? I shouldnít go up to tables any more. Why does everyone hate me? And why this guy? I really liked him. I hate this whole thing. It stinks. Maybe I should just kill myself. Or maybe Iíll go live in a vegetarian monastery. At least then I wonít have to think about it any more. I hate this."

From the Chick Nuggetís point of view, the whole transaction was a total rejection. You, on the other hand, are looking at the "relationship" between yourself and the Chicken Nugget differently. Do you hate the Chicken Nugget? No. Do you have any feelings at all against the Chicken Nugget? No. Are you rejecting the Chicken Nugget? No. Obviously not; you had Chicken Nuggets just yesterday. But you did have them yesterday, so you donít want them today. Therefore, you said, "No."

The point is this: When you said "No" to the Chicken Nugget it meant nothing. It meant that you did not want to have Chicken Nuggets for lunch today. It did not mean a single thing to the Chicken Nugget but that. For the Chicken Nugget to take it personally and read anything into it is pointless, because it was not meant personally and in fact has no meaning at all. The fact that you said "No" to the Chicken Nugget was totally random!

Now letís say you are a guy. You call up a girl and ask her out and she says, "No." What should you read into that? Nothing. It is as meaningless to you as it is to the Chicken Nugget. She simply did not want to have lunch with you for whatever reason, those reasons are totally random and there is nothing you can do about it. Take it at face value and walk away. To take it personally and beat yourself over the head with it is pointless.

"OK", you say, "But why is it that the last three girls I have asked out said ĎNoí?" That occurs because relationships are a "numbers game." That is an expression used in sales. Letís say you decide to go to a car dealership and get a job as a car salesperson. It is your first day. A couple comes on to the lot and you talk to them and they decide not to buy a car and drive away. You say, "Oh well." Another couple comes on to the lot and you talk to them and they decide not to buy a car and drive away. You say, "Hmmm." A guy comes on to the lot and you talk to him and he decides not to buy a car and drives away. You say, "Iím not doing very well." Another couple comes on to the lot and you talk to them and they decide not to buy a car and drive away. You say, "I really stink at this."

At lunch you go talk to the manager and you say, "I stink at this. I quit." He would say to you, "You arenít doing anything wrong. Itís a numbers game. Just stick with it for a month and you will see what I mean." So you stick with it for a month and you do see what he means. What he means is that you have to talk to about 15 people before someone buys a car. In the month you talked to 150 people and they bought ten cars. What that means is that you got rejected fourteen times for every acceptance. And that is how it is. It is only after you have tried 150 times and been rejected 140 of those times that you begin to see the pattern. The first day was rough because you couldnít see the pattern due to lack of experience.

Should a car salesman be mad about the rejections? No. Should he take them personally? No. Do they mean anything? No. Not everyone who comes onto his lot is going to want to buy what he sells. Thatís a fact of life. On the other hand, are there techniques he might be able to use to improve the ratio? Yes. He learns those techniques by asking other successful sales people, reading books on sales, experimenting with new techniques and seeing how they work, and so on.

Asking people out is a numbers game as well. That is a fact of life. You will be rejected many times for each acceptance. When you are 30 and you have asked many people out you understand the pattern and are more comfortable with it. You know that when a person says, "No" it is meaningless. But when you first start asking people out it can be really depressing because you donít understand.

The funny thing about asking people out is that it is a pretty bad numbers game. Let me show you why. Go to a mall or shopping center and sit on a bench where a lot of people will walk by. Take a pad of paper and a pencil. If you are a guy I want you to look at every female that walks by. If you are a girl look at every guy. Here is what I want you to do. On the pad of paper I want you to make two columns. In the left column you are going to put a mark as each person walks by. This will let you count all of the people you are looking at.

So if you are a guy I want you to put a mark in the left column for every female that walks past. Now, as each female walks by I want you to look at her and decide if you would like to go out with her. If so, put a second mark in the right column. You are doing this based strictly on appearance alone, which I realize is superficial, but I want you to do it anyway. So the first female to go by will be 60 and you will make a mark in the left column. You will say to yourself, "Too old," so you will make no mark in the right column. The next female to go by is 5, so you make a mark in the left column and not in the right. Now the third female to go by is about your age, but you do not find her attractive. Again mark the left column but not the right. Eventually a female will walk by that you might consider asking out. Put a mark in both the left and right columns.

What you are going to find is that there are a lot more marks on the left side than there are on the right. That is one thing that makes dating a numbers game. But there is something else that makes it a numbers game, and that is the fact that it goes both ways. Letís say you find that your ratio on your sheet of paper is 20 to 1 (or it might be as high as 200 to 1óit depends on the person and the environment). For every 20 females that walk by, one is "acceptable" to you.

Letís say that that is a consistent ratio for all people: 20 to 1. Letís say you call a girl up. What you must keep in mind is that she has a twenty to one ratio as well, and you may not be on her list. There is only a 5% chance that you are on her list, in fact. Why might you not be on her list? Who knows? Why did you find only one out of every 20 girls attractive? Some were too fat, some were too thin, some had stupid hair, some wore ugly shoesÖ You are as fickle as anyone else. Why do some people like Big Macs and some like Filet Oí Fish? BECAUSE. There is no reason! It is totally random! It is the same way for guys and girls.

What you can begin to see from this, if you do the math, is that the probability of you liking someone and them actually liking you back enough to go out with you is pretty minuscule. If the average for each person is 20 to 1, then that means that there is a 1 in 400 chance of any given female actually saying "Yes" when any given male asks her out. Pretty bad odds!

So what is "love at first sight?" It is that rare, one in a million shot that you look at someone and think, "Wow, if only this person would go out with me, I would be in heaven", and the other person looks at you and thinks exactly the same thing. In that case it is a perfect match. It doesnít happen very often because the odds are really low, but it does happen occasionally.

Given that asking people out and dating is a numbers game and is also totally random, there are a few conclusions you can draw. You can also answer a lot of questions. Letís go through some of them.

Why do some guys get all the girls? Letís say a guy is really handsome. When he calls up a girl and asks her out, his probability of success is higher. It is not 100%, but it is higher. That is a fact of life. Fortunately, only a tiny percentage of the population is startlingly attractive. The rest of us have other gifts. Live with it.

Is there anything you can do to improve the odds of success? Yes. Some car salespeople are better than others. Part of it is natural talent. But all the rest is learned through experience. Experience means practiceóthe more people you ask out, the easier it gets. If you have people skills and lots of people like you, the odds rise quite a bit (see Chapter 15). If you are confident in yourself, the odds also rise (see Chapter 14).

You can also learn to recognize signals. People give off signals when they like each other (and when they donít). Teenagers are notoriously bad at recognizing the signals because they are new to the game. Adults can see from a mile away when two teenagers like each other because they understand the signals. Start watching the people around you at school carefully and you will begin to see these signals everywhere.

Small Talk

Have you ever noticed that when adults meet they will often start by talking about something innocuous like the weather? Why do they do that? You can answer that question with another question: Have you ever noticed how uncomfortable it is to sit down next to someone (especially someone you would like to get to know better) and have absolutely nothing to say?

To say that someone is "good at small talk" is to say that the person is able to sit down with a friend or a stranger and have a worthwhile and interesting conversation with the person starting from scratch. For some people, this is easy because it comes naturally (just as, for some people, drawing comes naturally). For most people, however, small talk is uncomfortable. This is especially true if you are shy.

Small talk is a natural human skill. Like walking, running or writing, we are all able to do it at some level. However, the way to get much better is to practice.

If you start practicing small talk, you will notice that the hardest part of having a conversation is starting the conversation. During the startup phase you have to find something that the two of you are interested in talking about. Then you can build to a full conversation. The reason why people start talking about the weather or current events is because they are innocuous and common to everyone. That makes it a good place to start. As you practice small talk you will find your own starting points that work for you. You will also learn how to keep a conversation rolling by asking questions and showing interest. After several months small talk will seem much more natural and easier, and you will actually enjoy it because you will be able to meet new and interesting people.

"Why do I feel so awkward?" That is a combination of lack of confidence and lack of practice. Letís say you are 14 years old, you are a guy, you have found a girl that actually likes you, you have gone out on several dates and it is time for your first kiss. And this is the first kiss of your life. Or you are at a dance and a slow song comes on and this is the first slow dance of your life. Then it is possible that this moment will feel awkward. How do you know you are doing it right? How do you know people wonít laugh at you? I would point out that the first time you do anything it generally feels awkward. What happens as you get older is that you learn to accept "first-time awkwardness" as a natural part of being human. Everyone feels that way. When you are an adult, everyone knows that everyone feels that way. But as a teenager, everyone is pretendingófor some reasonóthat they know it all.

The awkwardness also comes from seeing people of the opposite sex as somehow "different." Let me give you an example. Letís say you are a guy and you are in the library and you are minding your own business. A girl that you would like to know better sits down near you. What are you going to do at that point? You can say, "Hi. Howís it going?" and see what happens. You would do the same thing if she were a guy. There is a very strong probability that nothing will happen. On the other hand, you might end up having a nice conversation. However, there is no reason to quiver in your seat and worry about it. Just talk to her and see what happens; if nothing happens, donít worry about it. She is just a girl.

Or is she? Is she just a girl? You may see her as the most beautiful goddess in the world, and therefore the only girl in the world. Talking to her in that case becomes something different. What is happening when you talk to a girl you really like is that the same terror signal discussed in the Fear section of Chapter 14 kicks in. Any mistake and you will lose her. Since she is the only girl in the world, itís a big risk. So you freeze up.

What can you do to get beyond this problem? One thing you can do is remember that there are a lot of fish in the sea. At this moment in your life this girl seems important. But if you were to go down to the mall and watch people walk by, you would find that there is at least one girl a day who catches your eye. You would find that there is about one girl a week who makes your heart beat faster. And there is one girl a month who makes you ache. You are overlooking these others when you focus on one person.

The other thing you can do is practice. I can remember a funny thing I did when I was in college because I felt so awkward around women. This is a true story. I decided I would work on my conversation skills, so I went to a nearby park. A lot of older people frequented this park, sitting on benches and enjoying the view. All of them seemed to like to talk. So I could sit on a bench with a 70-year-old woman and have a conversation with her. Because she was 70 there was no pressure. The first few times I did this, I was surprised to find that it was awkward. Really awkward. I had nothing to talk about! I had no idea how to start or have a conversation with a stranger (see the small talk sidebar). But after awhile, I overcame this problem and got to where it was extremely easy to have a very pleasant conversation with anyone 70 years old. Then I started moving down the age scale. Pretty soon I could start and maintain a natural conversation with just about any stranger. This did not happen overnight. It took several months of practice. I learned all sorts of things from this experience.

One day I went to the park and there was a very attractive woman sitting on a bench in the sun. I sat down next to her and guess what? We had a very nice conversation for 20 minutes. And it was completely natural. Did we then fall in love, get married and live happily ever after? No. Itís kind of silly to expect that. What we did do was have a relaxed, pressure-free conversation. That was a major milestone for me.

My practice sessions in the park made it much easier to talk to women, and to people in general. One day I went to a party with some friends. I saw a very attractive woman there. Her beauty made me ache. I was able to walk up to her and have a completely natural conversation with her and feel totally comfortable. The next time I saw her she remembered me and we talked again. And the next time we talked together we decided to take a walk. Coincidentally, we walked in that same park. And one thing led to another, and we fell in love and got married.

That sort of natural progression is how the world works. Compare it to how you might deal with members of the opposite sex. You find someone you are attracted to. You start dreaming about him or her. You do this for several weeks until you are ready to burst. You work up all your courage, make an extremely nervous and nerve-wracking phone call, ask him or her out on a date andÖ you get rejected. Your despair is infinite. The next time you see that person your humiliation is so great you run in the opposite direction. Is this a healthy pattern? No.

It turns out most adults do things completely differently. Instead of dreaming about someone and getting all worked up about it, most adults simply walk up to each other and have a natural conversation. The conversation is totally pressure-free and largely meaningless. Some signals may or may not be given off. One or the other may already be in a relationship, for example. A fact like that comes out naturally. The two adults talk several times like this, casually, meaninglessly. If there is some positive interest and there are no overt negative signals, the guy might say, "Hey, I am going to go get some coffee; can I get you a cup?" And the woman might say, "No, thanks." In that case the woman was able to say no in a way that is totally harmless. Or the woman might say, "That sounds great; mind if I tag along? I could use the break." And from that one encounter comes another and another, and the relationship forms in an extremely natural and smooth way. If it doesnít work out it doesnít work out, and there is never any nervousness or rejection. Try it as an approach some time. You will be amazed at how much nicer it can be. Or continue with the cold calling; just be willing to accept a high rejection ratio and donít be upset by it. It is a fact of life.

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This is a chapter from the book The Teenager's Guide to the Real World, ISBN 1-9657430-3-9, published by BYG Publishing, Inc. For more information on ordering a copy of the book, click here.

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Keywords: teenagers, teenager, teen age, teenage, teens, teen, adolescents, adolescent, parents, parent