A "Mixed Signal" Is Not A Mixed Signal


Imagine you're a pilot. Not a fake pilot like Frank Abagnale. But a real actual pilot who does real actual pilot shit.


You're flying a plane from LaGuardia to Dulles. It's 10pm and there's a storm, so the visibility isn't great, but it's nothing you haven't experienced before. Because, again, you're a motherfucking pilot. You got this. You do, however, need to communicate with air traffic control or whoever the hell else pilots communicate with while in the air. Because while you've flown in bad weather before, you might need some assistance landing.

So, as you near D.C., you call them.

"Yo, is it cool to land this plane right now? Gotta keep all these people safe and shit."

They reply.

"It's cool. Come thru."

So you prepare your landing sequence or whatever, thinking everything's fine. But then you get a message a couple minutes later.

"Wait. No. Don't land now. If you land, you're totally going to crash. And when you crash, everyone is going to die. And that everyone includes you."

Now you're confused. So confused you stop the landing sequence. But then, five minutes later, you get another message.


"Actually, I was wrong before. It's fine. You can land and shit now."

This third signal — different from second signal, which was different from the first — should, in theory, make you more confused. You were told twice to land and once not to land under any circumstances, so you shouldn't know what to do.


But you do. That mixed signal is not a mixed signal. It's a very clear signal that some fucked up shit is happening at that airport. It could be anything — terrorists, Kirk Cameron, a gaggle of talking geese pissed at humans for interrupting their flight patterns — but that doesn't really matter now. What does matter is that it's clearly unsafe and you should just land at another airport.

Of course, this pilot story is an embarrassingly transparent metaphor for what sometimes happens when people are romantically interested in other people. It's also flawed. The stakes when dating are much lower. Misinterpreting signals when seeing someone might lead to a few cringe-worthy midnight runs to Wendy's, a series of passive-aggressive Facebook statuses, and perhaps even the creation and recording of an album. Misinterpreting signals while flying might lead your skin ablaze for seventeen excruciating seconds until your entire body is incinerated into an ashen heap after crashing nose-first into the Verizon Center. Also, the signals people give tend to be less unambiguous than "It's cool to land" and "Land and die." It's easier to get confused when a person's eyes and actions are saying one thing but their actual words are saying another. And it's even more confusing when that ambiguity is coming from someone you actually know and like.


Still, even thinking back on my own adult experiences, every single time (like, literally, every. single. time.) I thought I was receiving mixed signals from someone I was interested in, it ended up being a clear signal they weren't as into me as I wanted them to be. And every time I've been accused of delivering mixed signals, it ultimately was due to me just not being as into them as they wanted me to be.

Assuming my personal experiences aren't much different than the experiences of most other human people who have been romantically interested in other human people, I imagine many of you can say the same thing. The people giving you mixed signals just turned out not being as interested in you as you thought they were (or hoped they would be). And, when accused of delivering them, it was due to you just not being very invested. Obviously, hindsight makes those determinations much easier now than they were then. But the answers haven't changed. Just the perspective.


Also, adding the "adult" qualifier was no accident. Because I did end up going to Kennywood with a girl who pretended she didn't like me, but later admitted she did like me but only pretended because she wanted to make sure I liked her first…when I was 13. And there was a time when there was this girl I had a huge crush on. But instead of just telling her I liked her, I'd ignore her at lunch and I'd never let her play with any of my Transformers, including Optimus Prime…when I was 11. This shit happens when you're a kid because this shit happens when you're a kid. But when an adult's romantic words and actions are inconsistent and incongruent, there's really nothing left to be interpreted. The lack of clarity is a clear sign they don't care enough about your relationship to provide it.

Now, does the adult providing mixed signals share some responsibility for the inconsistency and incongruence? Yes! Of course they do, especially if made aware that some confusion exists. But this isn't about them. Because they're not the ones crashing into the Potomac, drowning in a sea of fire, sewer water, and geese feces because they ignored the clear signal the mixed signal was giving them. So instead of being at another airport, they're dead. (Just like this increasingly long-winded and inane metaphor.)

Damon Young is the editor-in-chief of VSB, a contributing opinion writer for The New York Times, and the author of What Doesn't Kill You Makes You Blacker (Ecco/HarperCollins)



But, what about when people give mixed signals because they are trying to keep multiple possibilities available to them. Does that still count as a no? Haven't meany of us given mixed signals in that way?