High school doesn’t have to be a hormonally apocalyptic cock-fighting pit where panic dictates every moment—not if you make your own rules. When kids try to push you into scenarios that seem hurtful to anyone (including yourself), be aware that you’re being pushed, and stop, at least long enough to mentally push back for a second and figure out what you’re agreeing to. One nonnegotiable scenario: If you see another guy acting shady, creepy, or aggressive with a girl, it’s your responsibility as a human being to speak up or get help. If you’re looking for a solid way to prove your manhood, not allowing a guy to be predatory with a girl is a pretty damn good starting point. Especially if that guy is you.

One of the most ruinous and sad relationship-based myths of all is that straight men and straight women cannot be platonic friends. Dudes who believe this are essentially saying, “I am such a helpless beast that I can’t control my urge to constantly paw women in a sexual manner, so I’m eliminating half the species from my friend pool.” Or, in caveman terms, since that’s apparently how they see themselves: “MMM. GIRL. GIRL HOT. ME WANT DO SEX WITH GIRL. NO OTHER REASON TALK TO GIRL. BURP. FART.” I’ve heard guys claim that this is just “the way men think,” that our brains are genetically encoded to be completely reductive and emotionally stupid. That’s a bullshit excuse—it’s not “the way men think,” it’s someone choosing to be a jerk. If we can’t do better than that, we might as well just download porn in our parents’ basements or carpool to the dinner buffet at the strip club for the rest of our sad, deprived lives. Stop! Turn back now! There’s another way, my dude!

I’ve had crushes on female friends, sure, but the crush isn’t the issue, it’s how you react to it. As you spend more time on this planet and meet more and more people, you will be awash in crushes, some stronger than others, but you have to remember that they are just crushes. They are not commands to try to get in someone’s pants by any means necessary, or to otherwise act like an ass.

Which isn’t to say you’re not allowed to respectfully make your romantic feelings known to a friend, whatever their gender. Just follow a few common-sense guidelines: Only tell them once (they will remember, you don’t have to keep reminding them). No matter if they feel the same way or not, don’t pressure them into anything or try to make them feel guilty about your emotions. If they do like you back in that way and you really value their friendship, you’ll have to talk about some possible consequences. Could be awesome, could be tragic. If the two of you decide it’s not worth risking your friendship for (usually the best course, imo, if you’re looking to keep someone in your life long-term), or if your freshly confessed feelings are not returned, congratulations! You are lucky enough to be in the “friendzone” with a person whose company you enjoy. You know where I learned most of this? From my platonic female friends.

Quite a while back, I was suffering through a devastating physical withdrawal from a nasty cocktail of antidepressants that a quacky psychiatrist had prescribed (free samples, whee!). I called a friend who had gone through similar problems, and she knew exactly what to do. She gave me room and permission to vent, shake with anger, and collapse completely. Then she built me back up, made me laugh, told me how she’d gotten through her issues and how none of that shit would ever work for me, and reassured me that I’d find my own way back. She told me that I should never feel embarrassed to call and talk about anything. I’m not saying that a male friend couldn’t have played the same role, but I don’t know if I could’ve been as open and vulnerable with a dude as I was with her—thanks, traditional masculinity!

In the real world, honest advice about dating is hard to come by. You will come across myriad “instructive” books, how-to guides, and lists or rules that will purport to be “the secret” to “getting girls” to like you, but don’t believe them. Each person you want to date will be different, so how can one set of instructions “work” for all of them? Maybe the worst offender in this category is the whole pitiful culture of “pickup artists,” which casts women as nothing more than prey for straight men. According to the purveyors of this strategy, women respond only to bold, wisecracking assholes (often with questionable soul patches). Therefore, in order to maximize your dating potential, you must locate your inner overconfident phony dickhead. The people who write these books and give these seminars are sick liars, and a great example of how sexism can stunt your growth and ruin your chance at being a well-adjusted human.

If memory serves me right, the number one resentment among so many straight boys in high school is “girls dating idiots.” Why do guys who offer little more than passable looks and a smug demeanor seem to date more girls than an average or even above-average but quiet guy? One reason is probably that smug, confident people actually talk to people instead of hiding in the shadows and grumble about how the girls they have never talked to aren’t eager to date them. Listen: I know it can be hard to know what to say to someone you like. Don’t overthink things. It ain’t all that mysterious.

Here’s what I wish someone had told me. It’s a simple mantra that actually works in any social interaction, one-on-one or in a group: Fall back…listen…question. In other words, slow your roll, be respectful, listen to someone’s telling you, and then ask about some part of it that genuinely interests you. Don’t interrupt. Don’t try to correct her or argue with her. Don’t force a joke. Don’t laugh when you don’t know what she or everybody else is laughing at. Don’t jump in to add a story that’s basically the same story someone just told you, except that your version involves something awesome that you did. Fall back…listen…question. Trust me, it works. Everyone on the planet, including girls, appreciates being treated like a person instead of as game to be hunted.