Thursday, February 11, 2010

Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell?

Recently a group of friends and I were speaking with a male friend from Northern Europe about NYC dating protocol. Where he hails from, if you’ve gone to the trouble of asking a girl out you like her, if she says yes she likes you … if you go out and have a great time, then you’re dating … and you’re not about to keep dating new people each week. If it doesn’t work out, well then you start again. Ok, perhaps somewhat over simplified, but still his point was made.

As expected, we all informed him that this is so far from the norm in New York ... and he was left utterly bewildered. In complete earnestness, he asked us to enlighten him on our American-style of "courtship". Through our best efforts we tried to explain the rules, the understandings and the norms of American/NYC dating.

We informed our friend with the funny accent and ruddy cheeks that in this city it’s fair to assume that any person you meet and go out with is probably dating other people. Perhaps they’ve got dates lined up each day of the week or even back to back or perhaps they are going out with a few people who are in the running to be the future Mrs./Mr. Right. Indeed, chances are any person you meet is out and about dating - as any normal New York single would be. Thus, one must know, that even a hookup, or multiple hookups (no matter how good, passionate, romantic, etc.) and even numerous great dates during which you feel so connected do not equate to exclusivity.

To be sure, even if people genuinely like each other, it’s really nothing personal - it’s all about keeping your options open. Ultimately, the outcome of our explanation to our Scandinavian visitor was that dating here is not like in his homeland. On this front the U.S. is still like the Wild West – a land with no rules and governed by pure lawlessness.

And the trouble with the NYC system is that the lack of rules leaves so many questions unanswered:
“Should I tell this person who is smitten with me that, while I like him, he is not the only one I am seeing?” “When do I have to explain this – after two dates, two weeks, two months?” “Do I owe this explanation to the girl I am spending time with if we haven’t slept together?” “Even if we have slept together, do I owe it to him or her if she or he hasn’t asked?” “When do I owe ANYTHING to anyone?”

One of my friends – let’s call him Lothario Z. – was dating two girls simultaneously for several months. And yes, he was sleeping with both. In his mind the arrangement was completely kosher – neither asked if he was dating anyone else, so he felt no need to tell them (by the way, Lothario Z. is actually a very sincere, kind guy). Ultimately, he cut one lady friend loose to focus on the one he really saw as a potential life partner. And serious they got. But when she learned, months later, that in the first few months of their relationship that she was one of two, she was not happy to put it mildly (in fact, it almost caused a breakup). In his mind, however, his conduct was justified – she never asked. And, according to him, he never told her anything to convey they were exclusive (nor did he ask her what she was up to, therefore also remaining completely in the dark as to whether she dating/sleeping with others).

Yes, yes, you know what happens when you assume … Note to Girls and Guys Alike: Until you have a conversation and agreement on the topic, it’s not safe to assume anything is exclusive.

So, if you don’t have the right to assume exclusivity and it’s too early to have that conversation, what’s a hapless dater to do? Why, keep going out on dates, of course. Upon hearing this advice, one of my girlfriends (let’s call her Jane) lamented that she is just not the kind of person to date multiple people at once. “How do people do it? If I go out with someone it’s because I like him [Jane is an unusually decisive Manhattanite, not forever caught up in the “BBD” -- bigger, better deal] – I don’t want to go out with anyone else! I would feel deceitful.” Very European of Jane.

As hard as it is to advise against the romantic ideal of falling head over heals and cutting off all other options immediately, I advised Jane that she needed to be smart about her dating life. We all know that it takes a long time to get to know someone. Why would you spend valuable time just with one person only to find out a month and a half later you’re really not compatible in the long run. Why would you put all of your eggs in one basket only to find them all broken two months later and having to start all over? And if you don’t have an exclusive relationship why, oh why, would you cut off all of your other precious options? (Jane is shaking her head, wondering why she can’t have an exclusive relationship right away – because Jane, you don’t know him, he doesn’t know you and anything can happen…).

Jane reverts back to the question of what exactly is she supposed to say to the guy that she likes but maybe not as much as the other guy she likes but doesn’t really know and what exactly does she owe him? Wow, that’s a convoluted one. Of course, I tell Jane she owes him nothing, but still I feel for her predicament. Maybe we should all move to Europe …


  1. Be careful where you move in Europe. Northern Europe is relatively straightforward and should I say boring in terms of dating and (for me at least) reminds of North America, OK, outside of NYC, but still. Though I even find NYC dating a bit too predictable and lacking adventure and drama:):):). Things east and south on the continent are much much trickier. Nobody asks, nobody tells, people date multiple people, lie and even invent imaginary lovers to inspire jealousy and other drama. Secret emails, extramarital affairs and private detectives. So don't move to (should I stereotype??) non-protestant Europe, or you will need to develop a whole new set of skills, not unlike south of the border here:), telenovellas anyone? I personally miss it a little:).

  2. Very good distinction to make, Angelica! Beware of where you move!

  3. I will stay in NYC if I can have this Scandinavian's phone number, please! ;)