How can I ask someone out if social distancing rules are in place?

A
asks:
I know you probably get the "how do I ask someone out" question a lot, so I apologize in advance if this sounds a bit repetitive. There's this boy from my school that I've liked for quite a while, and I was planning on asking him out before schools closed due to COVID-19. Since we're only acquaintances, I don't have any way of contacting him outside of school. If we go back to school in-person, I still want to ask him out, or at least tell him I like him, but I think it's pretty likely that we'll have to follow strict social-distancing rules. I don't know how to address a private matter like this with him in person without violating these rules. In addition, I don't know how nervous he is about the virus and whether he'll be upset if I try to approach him. In terms of actually going on a date, I am willing to go with more "distanced" options (such as calling/video chatting) if he would be more comfortable that way, but I'm worried that he might end up rejecting me simply because of the virus and not because he truly isn't interested in me at all. In other words, if he would have been willing to go out with me before the virus, I'm afraid that he won't want anything to do with me now. I've also wondered if I could somehow pass him a letter with my number in it, but I'm not sure if this would be a good idea due to social distancing and/or germs. I understand that this is a bit of a selfish thing to be worried about, but I just want to know if anything could possibly be done because this is the last year that I'll have the chance. I'm sorry if this sounds confusing or if it's too long, but I'm just wondering if there's any suggestions for what I could do to tell him without making him uncomfortable. I understand if there aren't any. Thank you for listening, and I hope you're staying safe!
Sam replies:

We do frequently get questions about how to ask someone out but, as with so many things since the pandemic started, we're having to adapt our standard advice to reflect our current circumstances. So, thank you for asking this question!

Let's start with the obstacles of not having a way to contact him, and being acquaintances rather than people who know each other well.

Do you have any mutual friends who could introduce you to him? Do you and he have any points in common, like hobbies, that offer a logical starting place for conversation? If not, then you may very well have to wait to act on your crush until you're back in school, whether online or in-person, since that will put you in a space to have contact with him that doesn't seem like it's coming completely out of nowhere.

If you do end up going back to in-person school in the fall, asking him out via note may be a way of having that conversation that honors both your privacy and his without needing to be in close contact with each other. As far as safety goes, the current understanding of the virus suggests that while touching a surface that someone with the virus has also touched could lead to transmission, the odds of it doing so are low and it's not the main way it spreads. If you're being vigilant with handwashing, then your odds of unknowingly transmitting it via a surface (like paper) are low.

Regardless of the pandemic, there is a piece of dating advice that works: when you have a crush on someone you don't know well, it's helpful to get to know them as a friend first, rather than jumping straight into dating. Crushes can be fun, but they don't alway give us the full picture of what someone is like. Asking to hang out with someone gives you a chance to see how you get along without diving headfirst into a romantic relationship.

If he's interested in getting to know you better, then the two of you will need to talk about what forms of in-person interaction (if any) you're comfortable with and can safely do. That kind of boundary negotiation can be tricky, but it's something sex educators have been helping people do for years. Navigating consent and safety around COVID-19 requires many of the same conversations people use when figuring out how to have safer sex: what type of contact is okay, how much a person knows about their own potential exposure, what barriers are needed for everyone to feel comfortable, and what general risk level each person is okay with. While it may feel like that rules out some of the more classic hang-out options, you still have plenty of ways to get to know each other. Maybe you and he can have a digital movie night, be homework buddies, play video games together, or take a safely spaced-out walk in the park.

I do want to touch on your fear that, if he turns you down, it'll be because of the pandemic and not his actual feelings for you. The tricky thing is that the pandemic introduced--and is continuing to create--a bunch of new, scary variables into people's lives, so it's possible that could happen. If he does turn you down, though, I encourage you to let go of the "But maybe without the pandemic, things would be different" framework.

That mindset is something we're seeing a lot of right now, and it's something that does way more harm than good.  People are still getting tripped up by the idea of how things would be if we weren't in the middle of a pandemic, and that's hurting us in a few different ways. One is that some people are using "Well, this is how things would be" as an excuse to pretend like the virus is gone, which puts themselves and others at risk. For others, focusing on the "what ifs" makes it harder to grieve whatever opportunities they've lost or plans they've cancelled and find ways of making it through the daily reality we're stuck with. In an ideal world, there would be a way to know if someone was interested in you, regardless of the pandemic. We are not living in an ideal world, however, and so we have to make our choices and plans based on the flawed, frightening, frustrating world we do live in.

I want to end by saying it's not selfish or silly to be worried about or want things like dating right now. In spite of upending major parts of our lives, the pandemic hasn't stripped us of the basic human need for connection and intimacy. People want to date, have sex, get to know each other, and form new connections. For every person who wants this to be over so they can get a haircut, I suspect there are a half-dozen more who want to be able to see their friends again, go on a date, or kiss someone cute. Humans are social creatures, and the last few months have wreaked havoc on our ability to connect with people as we normally would.

With that in mind, I encourage you to look for ways to build and nourish relationships right now and in the coming months, even if your crush doesn't pan out.  Those could be relationships with friends, family, or even yourself. Sometimes you may have to get creative about how you stay in touch or see each other, but in the long run it's worth a little brainstorming and ingenuity to feel connected to other people, or to feel like yourself rather than a blob moving from day to day.

I hope you find a safe way to talk to your crush, and I hope that even if you don't end up dating, maybe you end up with a cool new friendship instead. And I hope you remember that, even in the midst of something that turns our daily lives on their heads, it's okay to look for those human connections that make life more enjoyable.

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