A Conversation with Ian Coburn

Ian Coburn is a Chicago-based writer and comedian whose book God Is a Woman has been enthusiastically embraced by twenty-something audiences and called “the new bible for college students.” The book humorously chronicles Coburn’s dating mistakes and points out what he learned from each of his experiences. He’s a relationship expert for Lifetime Love Panel and has written over ten screenplays.

In your book, you encourage guys to look beyond what a woman says she wants. While I think it’s true that women aren’t always honest with themselves about what they want or may even deliberately be deceptive, I could on the other hand see your advice leading to disastrous results, which is obviously not what you intend. So what would you say to a guy who’s wondering how to tell when to push forward with a girl and when he should back off?

Coburn: It’s about heeding the actions. If she’s not interested, her actions and her words are going to line up. Let’s say you just met someone and she says she’s not interested. Well, if she’s looking around the room, she keeps breaking eye contact with you, she checks her watch – those actions say she’s not interested. But if she says “I’m not interested,” and she keeps returning to you, or she keeps looking over at you, or she’s touching you, then those actions aren’t lining up.

A common experience I’d have is I’d be on a date with someone and they’d say something like “I’m not really looking to date anyone right now,” or “I’m on a dating hiatus,” or “I’m taking too many classes to date anyone right now”…

But you’re on a date…

Coburn: Right, you’re on a date! A lot of guys pay attention to exactly what the woman says. Women ask all the time: “Well, how come I just can’t meet a nice guy?” When you tell a nice guy that you’re not interested in dating, he hears it, and he says, “OK, well, she’s not interested in me, or she really isn’t looking to date anyone right now. So I’m going to back off.” I always would say: “Well, if anything changes, let me know because I think we’d have a really good time.” Two weeks later, she’s dating someone else. How’d that happen? Wait a minute! And you find out that she said the same thing to that guy. But about him she says: “Well, he was too irresistible. How could I say no?” Or, “He kept trying.” Well, what the hell! That’s when I started to learn that you should pay attention to the actions over the words. And now I’m the guy that they date a week or two later.

If I’m out with someone and she says, “I’m not really looking to date anyone right now,” I’ll make a pass at her a little later. A couple years ago I was out with someone on a date and she told me: “Oh, just so you know, I’m on a dating hiatus.” As I was walking her home, I made a pass at her. She said, “What are you doing?! I told you I’m on a dating hiatus.” And of course we’re on a date. I paid for the dinner. I would expect that a woman who’s really not looking to date someone would pay for her half, but she let me pay for the whole dinner. Her actions didn’t line up with what she was saying. This is where guys can become confused. I’m not saying that because I bought dinner, that gives me the right to have any expectations. It doesn’t. But what I’m paying attention to is the fact that here’s someone who says “A” but then behaves in a manner more fitting for “B.” So I made the initial pass, and then we talked about it for a second and joked. Then I made another pass, and a week later we were dating. The nice guy doesn’t make that move.

If you want to date a nice guy, you need to realize that they’re taking everything you say to a “T.” A lot of the time the women going out with jerks say, “I don’t understand why I’m always going out with jerks.” Because they’re not even listening to what you’re saying – they’re just thinking, “Wow, she’s got a nice rack.” So it’s not like they’re trying harder because they’re more interested in you. It’s just that they have no interest in what you’re saying to begin with.

The opposite is important advice for women. If a guy says he’s not looking to date or not interested, for example, but calls a lot and asks you out and sleeps with you, and then ends the evening or conversation with “I told you I wasn’t looking to date,” you’ll run into trouble if you heed his actions over his words. Go with his words. If he wants to sleep with you, and that isn’t something you want outside of a relationship, tell him that: “You said you aren’t looking to date. Don’t call me until that changes.” Forget how men act; listen to what they say. A lot of women email me with this continual problem – they constantly focus on guys’ actions instead of their words, and get themselves into the same undesirable predicaments.

So how would you respond to people who have said that your book isn’t relevant to the typical guy, that as a comedian on the road you were in a special situation?

Coburn: I didn’t meet that many of the women I talk about in the book doing comedy, and a lot of them didn’t even know I did comedy. When you go to a comedy club, it’s at least $20, $25 now, and then there’s the two drink minimum. There are not a hell of a lot of women going to comedy clubs without a date paying for it, and I’m not the kind of guy who’s going to steal the woman away from her date or anything like that. Plus, I want the guy to like me and to tell his friends to come see my act. To always be chasing T & A, I mean, come on.

The road gave me people skills because I had to have them. If I wanted to have something to do, then I needed to be able to talk to people right away. For example, I want to play tennis. Most of the comedians that I met were forty or fifty years old and were fat. No way they’re going to do anything athletic. So I would go to a store, and I’d look at tennis balls, and I’d see someone buy tennis balls, and I would approach him or her. It’s a little harder when it’s a guy. If it’s a guy he’s thinking, “Is he gay? I don’t know what’s going on,” and when I grabbed their butt that really killed them off [laughs]. But I would just say, “Hey, look, I’m a comedian,” or I’d say, “I’m just here for a week on business. I’m wondering if we could play a game of tennis.” And they’d say, “Oh, that’s cool.” That’s how I’d get some tennis games.

There’s no reason you can’t develop these skills. They did not come from being a comedian; they came from the need to meet people while on the road. And when the need is there, and the need’s great enough, you’ll develop the skills.

And so even if you’re not on the road, even if you’re just trying to meet more people in general within your community, you could still use the same skills.

Coburn: Right. We’ll see the same person in class all the time, or maybe at our job, and we’ll develop a familiarly with them and that’s when we become more at ease. The problem that you run into is that that’s not a good person to date [laughs]. You see them all the time – hmmm, might be a problem if it doesn’t work out. So you need to learn to be at ease right away. There’s no reason you shouldn’t have that same comfort talking to someone who’s a complete stranger, and the best way to start building that skill is to do it all the time. You can start very simply. When I’m walking down the street, I say hello to people. I don’t say hello to every person I see; I’m not a nutjob. But if I make eye contact with someone, I’ll nod my head. We all do this; it’s very simple.

You can take that another step. Maybe you’re walking down the street and you see someone wearing a Green Bay Packers shirt. You say “Oh, the Packers – are you gonna be watching the game Sunday? You’re a big fan obviously.” And you’ll get a response. You can start a conversation with them because the Packers are doing better than they’ve done in a long time, and if they win this game they’ll go to the Super Bowl. You could quickly say, “So you think Favre’s gonna retire if they win the Super Bowl?” Chances are someone wearing a Green Bay Packers shirt has an opinion on that. Or they’re just going to say, “You know, I just stole the shirt from the laundromat. Someone left it there, and I can’t afford to buy clothes.” Then that can be its own conversation – but you have to initiate it. Just by being social, you put yourself in more situations where you’ll have these opportunities. When we say, “Well, I can’t really meet anyone,” that’s bullshit. You’re standing next to this person in line. You could meet them. You’re just afraid.

What do you think of the cult following your book has acquired? How do you feel about it being called “the new college dating bible?”

Coburn: It’s excellent. I’d be happy if even more college students got into it. I don’t want to sound arrogant about it, but I don’t see too much advice out there that’s really helpful, and that’s why I wrote the book. I wrote it mainly with the college student in mind because people don’t realize that college is a time in your life when you’re meeting all different types of people. It’s a good opportunity to date around. A lot of the time you can meet the right person in college because people are still very open and not jaded. A lot of women in college still believe the nice guy exists. By the mid-twenties? He’s a fantasy. A lot of women have their guard up, and it’s harder to even talk to them.

So to close, what’s something that you wish an interviewer would ask you, and then how would you answer that question?

Coburn: Not that question. That’s not it! Let’s see…If she’s cute, I wish she’d ask me out. If he’s a guy, definitely not…

I guess the question I don’t get asked is: “Is this what you set out to do? Is this the only type of book that you’re going to write?” I didn’t set out to write these books. I’m writing another one called Lunch Is Not a Date: Get Comfortable with Women, Not Your Game. That one’s for men, and then I’m going to do one for women. But when I say I’m writing these other books, I’m not looking to write six volumes. When I wrote my first book, I didn’t realize how much advice people really needed. My book shares a lot of my failures, and then gives really good advice afterwards. But it’s not just about dating, and a lot of people just read it for the entertainment value. So I’ll do another book, and this will be very, very succinct and down the line answer these questions people have. I’ll still use stories because it’s easier to explain ideas using a story, but the advice will be first and the story will demonstrate how the advice is put to use. Then that’s it. I’m not looking to make a newsletter and a DVD – that’s just a big marketing thing. I’ll answer questions. I don’t mind doing that; I always like to be helpful. But I would like to get away from writing this stuff.

What I’m also focusing on right now are my screenplays. That’s what got me started with writing. I’ve taken three of them and put them into a book. I run into an interesting problem with my screenplays. For example, I have one screenplay that’s a supernatural thriller, and there’s a woman who’s an assassin in it. She’s an assassin like Tom Cruise in Collateral. But with female characters, everything they do has to have an emotional reason behind it. I will send a script out to someone and they will say, “We want to do this, but we want to change this character into a man,” or, “We want to know why this woman is an assassin.” Do we know why Tom Cruise is an assassin in Collateral? Do we know why Tommy Lee Jones is a cop in The Fugitive, or why he’s a cop in No Country for Old Men, or why any of those guys are assassins in that film? No, we don’t know; it doesn’t matter! But if it’s a woman, suddenly we need to know. We have to have all this backstory, and it distracts from the main story. So I’m putting these screenplays into a book because I think they have a better chance that way. I think I can get them done as a book and then turn around and maybe get them done as a film. I want to demonstrate that there is an audience out there for this.

I could see that working for you because you seem to have found a more grassroots success. You seem to achieve things by getting support from the bottom up.

Coburn: Yeah, that’s true. The tedious way! [laughs]

Elsewhere on the Web

God Is a Woman Website
Ian’s Website
Ian’s “Lunch Is Not a Date” Column