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“Just be yourself” has a well-deserved negative reputation, because of its role as Generic Advice Given Because Social Rules State That It’s Wrong To Be Cynical About Dating People. Nevertheless, I think that at its core it is basically correct, particularly for long-term relationships.

Most people would not want to date most other people. They’re extroverted and you’re introverted; you share no common interests; they want sex every day and you’re a once-a-month kind of guy; you’re both submissive people who want your partner to have the final say in decisions; you have different religions; you’re both neurotic, and you feed on each other’s catastrophizations until every broken sink seems like the literal apocalypse. (For a vivid illustration of this principle, go on OKCupid and start looking at people who are a fifty percent match with you. Yikes.)

So a fair amount of dating is locating the people who do want to date you, by filtering out the people who don’t want to date you as efficiently as possible. Being yourself is an excellent way to do so, for two reasons. First, one of the basic criteria for almost everyone is “wants to date people who have the traits I possess”. The simplest way to find out if someone wants to date people like you is to, well, be you. While being openly neurodivergent, gender-non-conforming, or broke turns off a lot of people, it’s a lot easier to allow them to quietly not hit on you than to have the awkward conversation six weeks in.

Second, a lot of sensible people’s relationship criteria boil down to “I want a compatible partner”. And compatibility goes both ways! Christians usually want to date other Christians; low-libido people usually want to date other low-libido people; gamers usually want to date other gamers. Simply by presenting yourself as a Christian low-libido gamer, you can increase your likelihood of finding a fellow Christian low-libido gamer.

It can be really dispiriting to be rejected again and again. (Understatement of the century.) But the thing is, you only need one person. (Well, okay, poly people can need up to six, but that’s still not very many.) As depressing as it seems in the moment, in the long run, it is actually much more important that you find someone you’re genuinely compatible with than that you have second dates with a dozen people you aren’t.

There are two caveats, I think, to “just be yourself”.

First, it’s wise to market yourself. Imagine that you’re trying to sell cookies. You might put the cookies in a nice box, have “0 grams of trans fat!” on the front, or even have a cartoon mascot. However, you’re not going to try to sell the cookies by saying “cookies are terrible, we should sell mops instead.” Similarly, you can choose an attractive photo in good lighting to go on the dating site, practice your flirtation skills, or get a good haircut– and still be yourself.

In particular, the single piece of advice that most improves the dating life of nerds, in my experience, is ask people out. People come up with all kinds of complicated explanations about girls going after assholes and their ugliness and the social oppression of nerds, when in reality they can’t get dates because they don’t ask people out, and it is fixed as soon as they begin actually asking people out. (Women, as the traditional initiatees, usually have fewer dating problems from not asking people out, but in my experience there are tons of perfectly attractive guys who are too shy to ask anybody out and you can improve your level of dating success tremendously by taking advantage of this market failure. Only you can prevent sad lonely nerd boys.)

Pep talk tangent: So what’s the worst that could happen? You creep her out? Well, don’t ask out your coworkers until you have a better sense of what you’re doing, and all that will happen is that she has a mildly uncomfortable experience. You shouldn’t deliberately cause people to have mildly uncomfortable experiences, but mistakes are a natural part of learning, and it isn’t the end of the world for you or for her. On the other hand, the worst thing that could happen if you don’t ask people out is that you’re lonely for the rest of your life, which is way worse than even the worst possible outcome of asking people out. End tangent.

Second, it’s wise to be your best self. This is my general life advice, not my dating advice. A lot of our basic personality traits, preferences, and so on are fixed (at least for now, until we reach the Glorious Transhumanist Future). Attempting to change these is unlikely to be particularly effective.

A lot of people seem to interpret self-improvement and being yourself as opposites. That seems, frankly, absurd to me. If I’m someone who has always dreamed of writing a novel, have I somehow betrayed my fundamental identity if I stop dreaming and put fingers to keyboard? There is an obvious difference between “I value learning to appreciate new experiences, so I’m going to get into modern art” and “I will pretend to like modern art so that people will think I’m cool” or “I will pretend to like modern art because liking modern art is what sophisticated people are supposed to do.” The former is good; the latter is, in my experience, toxic.