Can men and women be friends? Avoid sending mixed signals and losing friends of the opposite sex with these expert-backed tips

By Rachael Schultz
February 05, 2015
Corbis Images

There's a clear line between being interested in a guy's life and being interested in the guy. At least, we think so: Men often misinterpret female friendliness as sexual interest, while women often think a guy is just being nice when, really, he's flirting, says a new study in Evolutionary Psychology. (What else don't we realize? 14 Things Men Wish Women Knew.)

Not surprising, but a bummer-friends make us happier and healthier, and you can't control who you click with.

So how can you let a guy know you just want to be friends without him thinking you're secretly looking for something more? "It's almost impossible to convey with complete certainty to another person that you don't want something romantic," says Rachel McLaren, Ph.D., assistant professor of interpersonal communication at the University of Iowa. "There's always going to be that question mark and possibility that one of you will change your mind." (Hear from real women on whether Men Can Really Be "Just Friends" with Women.)

The best you can do is to be as clear from the start that you're looking for a platonic relationship and avoid delivering mixed signals-which is where these five steps come in.

Drop the "Boyfriend" Early

"If you have a boyfriend or significant other, make sure it's included in the conversation earlier rather than later," advises Rachel DeAlto, relationship coach and author of Flirt Fearlessly. That's an instant friend zone move for most men, and they will immediately take you out of the running romantically and start to see the potential in your platonic relationship.

Stick to Group Hangs

If you aren't involved with someone, spending time alone is just asking for trouble. You need to make it clear this is in the friendship category right from the start, which means no dinners for two. "Try to hang out in groups at the beginning, so you can establish your friendship as just that," McLaren suggests. Once the lines are established and time has made that clear, you can start to hang out one-on-one, but even then try and avoid anything that seems too date-like.

Don't Treat Guys Like Your Girls

If your girlfriend has on a new shirt or gets a haircut, you're going to compliment her-that's what good friends do. For guys, though, this sends mixed signals. "Male friends have to be handled differently than girlfriends-especially if you think there is an attraction on his side," DeAlto says. You can compliment him, but don't do it flirtatiously, she advises. It's all about the intent-you want him to feel confident, but not ogled at. And no touching that new hairdo, she says. Which brings us to…

Keep Your Hands to Yourself

Touch is a powerful flirtation tool, says DeAlto. (It's also a powerful tool in the bedroom-learn 8 New Ways to Touch Your Guy During Sex.) Even if you're a touchy-feely person, you need to rein it in so he doesn't get the wrong idea. A goodbye hug is okay, but no knee squeezes, shoulder rubs, or arm grabs, she advises.

Clear the Air

At some point, both of you will wonder if this friendship should be something more. That's just a fact of cross-sex relationships, McLaren says. But you may not even realize he's thinking that. "Research shows there's a kind of conspiracy of silence, where people who are romantically interested in their friend aren't sure how their feelings will be received, so they just don't bring it up to avoid getting hurt," she explains.

But if you want to clear the air to avoid any potential sticky situations, try this: "You're a wonderful friend, and I love spending time with you, but I'm just not interested in you in that way. I just want to make that clear." There's a chance he'll stay in denial and harbor hope for your relationship, but this is the most direct message you can deliver on your feelings without being unnecessarily harsh, McLaren says.

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