Growing Pains: Relearning the rules of the game


The rules are dead. Long live the rules.

One of the most tired tropes of this generation is the idea that our approach to relationships is radically different than in the past. Sensationalist sociologists scream that hookup culture is rampant. A religion and gender studies prof at Boston University was interviewed in the New York Times saying many students have never been on an actual date (the dinner-and-a-movie sort). Meanwhile, Thought Catalog and VICE are trumpeting our totally casual approach to the human practice formerly known as romance — and Hanna Rosin, author of The End of Men and the Rise of Women, has called hooking up an “engine of female progress.”

Somehow, the fact that ’60s hippies never shut up about free love or that other cultures around the world are and have been historically promiscuous doesn’t seem to occur to anybody. But that’s not what’s stuck in my craw.

At first glance, a pressure-free paradigm for dating sounds great. You’re allowed to drop hints and make passes via Facebook, and instead of buying $7 cocktails you can surf OkCupid from the comfort of your own basement suite. Nobody ever has to go through the stress of being formally rejected or suffer through the pressure of commitment or, heaven forbid, ask someone out over the phone. We can throw away all of society’s stuffy rules about how to interact with our objet d’affection.

This might be great for the super-confident, come-on-strong lotharios and lotharias. But there’s some evidence to suggest that those folks are the new minority.

It doesn’t take more than a few minutes on Reddit, an episode of The Big Bang Theory (if you can stomach it) or a few rounds of speed dating to realize that people are increasingly comfortable with being “out” introverts. It has become kind of cool to spend a Saturday evening indoors eating takeout Chinese and watching downloaded HBO instead of partying. We spend more time inside our own heads and do our best to avoid awkward social situations. Many of us are loathe to enter a club and put ourselves in conventional circumstances where opportunities for easy hookups abound.

Not to mention how nervous many of us can be about appearing lecherous or objectifying. I would argue we are also more conscious of the wishes of others rather than seeing assertive and decisive behaviour as the be-all and end-all, particularly for cis-gendered men.

If it’s the case that we’re shyer and less assertive than we used to be, then formal dating rules seem to make a lot of sense. I’ve been at an awkward loss many times as I’ve tried to learn how to court new partners. Wouldn’t it be nice to know exactly what to do next in most of these situations?

Imagine (because apparently you’ll have to, these days) the progression of a semi-formal relationship. Maybe you meet at a party, in a class or online. You exchange some flirty remarks and friendly conversation, and then (if playing by the rulebook) you ask for a phone number.

Next, you go on some dates. Yes, you should call that number and ask politely and a little humbly. It takes more courage than a text, but it’s a seriously underrated act. It demonstrates genuine interest by putting your ego a little at risk. This is how you avoid those awful “is this a date or isn’t it?” questions. And if you really like the person in question, you’ll find the bravery you need to do it. See how much sense this is making already?

It’s totally cool to have casual hangs like coffee or drinks, especially for first dates when you might have no idea what someone is really like. Knowing what to do next is easier if you reference traditional wisdom on what kinds of dates are appropriate and when. I don’t know about you, but I’m not confident enough to believe that someone would be happy coming over to bump uglies with me after barely being introduced. I feel much better having the cushion of a few evenings of interaction in public before jumping to phase two.

Dating behaviour nowadays is always going to be less stuffy than it was circa-Downton Abbey, but just because it’s casual doesn’t mean it needs to be sloppy. You can still pull out chairs and open doors for your potential paramour. For someone like myself who has few innate social skills, it’s a rare pleasure to go on a date with someone who is up to speed on the rules. All the little social cues are there to help you seem like a true gentleperson: their miniature pause before removing a jacket gives you time to realize you can gracefully help remove it and hang it up, for example.

Now, obviously the traditionally gendered aspects of this are problematic. As a cis-gendered heterosexual man, I can’t speak for those who are female, trans or queer. But as someone who considers myself a proponent of gender equality, I don’t think acts of “chivalry” are issues in and of themselves. What’s important is that they aren’t part of any sexist attitude, and you’ll discover whether that exists through simple conversation anyway. It’s nice when my girlfriend opens the car door for me (she’s the one with the driver’s licence). Simple, semi-formal acts of politeness are nice no matter who you are. I’m sure you and your partner can come up with a nice system of deciding whose jacket goes over the puddle.

There are lots of other examples of why paying some attention to the rules of the old dating game is worth it. Waiting a few days before calling isn’t just to avoid seeming desperate — it also gives you time to calm the hell down and not be totally nervous. Going out for dinner gives you an excuse to invest in your wardrobe. And besides, they’re more like guidelines than actual rules. Once you keep a spare toothbrush in your paramour’s bathroom, you’re mostly on your own.

Give it some thought. Put that Cheezies-stained shirt in the laundry and class it up a little. You’re a grown-up now. You can afford to read the rulebook.