Do you remember what the most terrifying part of middle school was?
No, I’m not talking about the cafeteria food, the pull-up bar in gym class, or about that big kid on the playground that you avoided at recess.
I’m talking about school dances.
I remember quite clearly the moment where I realized that I was expected to ask someone else—a GIRL, no less—to dance with me. And I remember one girl laughing right in my face when I asked her. Ah, middle school.
The fact is, this problem doesn’t go away as we get older. Asking someone to do anything with you always carries with it the risk of rejection. How do we deal with that? How can we keep our fear of rejection from paralyzing everything we do (and pinning us to the gymnasium wall, to keep pushing this metaphor forward)?
We look to the experts . . . and in no other field is the risk of public embarrassment quite as high as social dance. Let’s talk about tango.
The tangueros of Buenos Aires solved the problem of public rejection in an interesting way. Walking all the way across the room to ask a woman to dance only to be rejected is humiliating for men, and women feel pressured to accept dances with men they don’t enjoy dancing with to avoid embarrassing them. The solution is something called the cabeceo.
The cabeceo is a shared look that is both an invitation and either an acceptance or refusal. At the beginning of a song those wishing to dance begin seeking eye contact with those they want to dance with. If their gaze is returned, a small gesture (a nod of the head or even just a quick flick of the eyes towards the floor) signals acceptance and the initiator walks over to the recipient. If they don’t want to dance, though, the target just “doesn’t notice” the cabeceo.
It’s quick, it’s quiet, and if you’re rejected nobody knows it but you. It’s the gentle art of rejection. But how do we use this in real life?
When it happens—at work, at the bar, in school—let yourself be rejected quietly. Imagine that it was nothing more than a missed look across a crowded dance floor. There’s no need to advertise your rejection to all of your doubts and fears, sitting there at the table with you. If you do, they’ll jump all over it, claiming the rejection as proof for all of the worst things you’ve ever thought about yourself—you’re worthless, you never deserved love in the first place, you’ll never be any good—when really none of those things are true.
Being rejected tells you only that she (or he) doesn’t want to dance with you right now. Maybe her feet are tired, or his partner is coming back from the bathroom . . . it might not have anything to do with you at all. There’s no way to tell, and beating yourself up about it doesn’t do any good.
So when it doesn’t work out, practice the gentle art of rejection . . . and until she does catch your eye, work on your tango.