Random thoughts on dating

In general, it is “the act of meeting and engaging in some mutually agreed upon social activity in public, together, as a couple.” I’ll limit the following to the ‘go have something to eat together’-variation, but many of these considerations are general enough to be applied in other contexts as well. I’ve been thinking a bit about this stuff now, and I thought it’d be a good idea to just write down some of the ideas I’ve had. This is not well-known territory to me, so I’d not be surprised if most of it is stuff you guys have already internalized.

So anyway: The basic idea is that you meet, you go have a meal together (or do some other activity, but let’s stick with the meal for now). While you’re having the meal you talk, and after you’re done you either go someplace else to talk some more or you go your separate ways right away. I know that some dates end differently, but let’s disregard those here. It should be easy, right? Not too complicated. Then you start to think about it.

It’s very easy to forget how complex human social interaction is.

Before the date ever starts X […one of the daters; Y denotes the other dater – the terms are not gender-specific] needs to think about a few things. The good old: What to wear? Clothes are signalling devices, whether used consciously that way or not. Worth remembering here is that signals can be misinterpreted, so the concept of risk and how an individual deals with it enters the equation long before the date actually starts. The weights of many of the relevant variables here are somewhat gender-specific – it seems that women spend more time getting ready than do men on average. Clothes is but one element: A male will for instance be likely to ask himself whether he should shave, or whether to put on a deodorant or aftershave; females will on the other hand often think about whether to put on make-up, how much -ll-, how to set their hair, whether to use nail-polish or not, which earrings, if any, to wear – and lots of other things I haven’t thought about. Note that not taking a conscious decision about these variables is itself a decision, a signal. There is no way to opt out of the signalling game even though perhaps you’d like to do that.

There are a few other considerations which are of relevance to the date but enter the equation before the date ever takes place: Where and when to meet, who gets to decide that/-what, which mode of transport to use to get there? There’s hidden complexity behind all these variables: The decisions about where to meet and who decides confer information about the price of the date, which can be thought of as both a signal related to willingness to spend and income. Willingness to spend can easily be interpreted as a signal of the commitment level from the outset. This pre-date variable can also confer information about traits like aggressiveness and dominance (if one partner really wants to go somewhere specific or refuses to go to one specific restaurant), which again relates to status (an individual that considers him/herself lower status than the other is ceteris paribus less likely to make demands). Willingness- and ability to compromise, variables which tend to be quite important when it comes to long-term relationship success, also indirectly enter the equation at this point. Mode of transport relates to distance, which again might in some cases relate to commitment, but it also relates to the risk profile; how much trouble does/did an individual go through to avoid being late? Which again can, but needn’t necessarily, be interpreted as a signal regarding the initial commitment level. Note here that a signal conferring a high initial commitment level need not necessarily be interpreted by the other party in a positive way: If X puts a lot of time/effort into a date, X might do it because X really likes Y or want to get to know Y – but perhaps it might also be the case that X has limited options, a factor which most often will impact Y’s evaluation of X negatively.

Having all that stuff out of the way: So now you meet, you sit down somewhere, you order food and you start to talk. Before getting to the whole interaction part it’s worth noting that this social exchange does not take place in a vacuum. There are other people around, perhaps many people. How close do you sit to the next table, how often will a waiter or owner intrude upon your conversation, what’s the noise level, is it at an ‘exposed’ location or somewhat private? In cases where the venue was decided upon by one party and the other party did not know anything about the venue, what the place is like both relates to what will be going on during the date (some subjects will probably not come up during the discussion if there are 10 other strangers sitting within 20 feet..) and it also enters the equation in relation to which variables the deciding party might have emphasized in the pre-date phase, and what this tells the other party. Some people don’t handle lots of people very well and others do, some people perhaps don’t handle background noise (like music playing in the background) very well. There can be multiple reasons for such differences in the ability to deal with the environment and they need not all relate to innate personality traits; perhaps the difference is rather due to a factor like hearing impairment. It’s actually quite easy for a deciding party to send a signal he or she is not even remotely aware of, especially on a first date where neither party will have an extensive knowledge about the other party’s preferences. Which sort of venue is chosen will probably generally depend on the number of dates; if it’s a first date, the most convenient place to meet for most people will be somewhere very public, close to a lot of people and a place where it is easy to get away quite fast. Females in particular will focus on these aspects to have easy exit routes in case it turns out the guy is a creep; other steps to minimize risk that might deserve consideration, particularly for a female on her way to a first date with a stranger, would be to share information like time and place about the date with a friend or family member and/or have someone call during or after the date to make sure nothing bad has happened. On subsequent dates such considerations will of course carry less weight. Note that past experiences can have a significant impact on the evaluation of the date, especially if the other party has had a bad experience in the past.

When evaluating the course of the date it is important to note that there are many things besides external environmental factors that potentially need to be taken into account; multiple other factors more or less completely outside the control of an individual can impact the experience positively or negatively: X might be stressed from work, X might be tired because s/he didn’t sleep well the day before, X might have a cold. Biological factors which neither individual perhaps knows about can even impact behaviour during the date: Female ovulation impacts both the behaviour of the female herself and the behaviour of nearby males.

Next, the interaction part. Before going into the verbal exchanges that take place during such an encounter, remember that a lot of human communication is non-verbal. Does the other person initiate eye contact, and if not what does this mean – does it mean that the person in front of you is a convicted serial killer on the run from the law, or is the explanation perhaps that the person is just insecure? Recall here that there can be many reasons for insecurity, and that not all of them are equally impermissible in the status game. Recall also that there is a double standard at work here, because female insecurity is less likely to have a negative impact on (/potential) partner evaluation than is male insecurity. A few other examples of body language that might be important to pick up on: Does Y tilt the head while X is talking, and does X pick up on it? What does head tilting mean – that Y is bored, that Y is interested or that Y did not have a lot of sleep last night? Does X slouch and if so, what does that mean? When Y frequently looks at his or her watch, that’s probably most often a bad sign indicating boredom. Body language is usually very dynamic and it conveys important information, but when you don’t know the other party very well, it can be hard to interpret. Sometimes commenting on body language can be risky, especially if it indicates that the date is perhaps not going very well; in those cases, it will sometimes be preferable to make a mental note of the non-verbal signal and try to change the subject or in some other way engage the problem. Some people have a harder time interpreting body language than others, something one might wish to take into account when evaluating later on – social skills will often be important when evaluating partner potential, but trouble with body language need not equate or indicate lack of interest.

When it comes to verbal interaction, there are a few key variables here. One is the total information supplied during the date. Another is the total time spent talking. A third is communication efficiency (information/unit of time spent talking). Some people are more efficient communicators than others and in some cases this variable will be of interest to the other dater. If a person talks a lot but doesn’t say much, it can be an indicator of insecurity, it can be an indicator of below-average communication skills or perhaps it can be an indicator of egocentrism and/or inconsideration. It is possible to interpret behaviour like that in a positive light (‘he’s already falling in love with me and that’s why he behaves like a third-grader!), but most often such behaviour will probably be considered a liability rather than an asset. If X spends a lot of time talking about himself, something most people love to do if given the chance, it might indicate that he doesn’t have a great deal of interest in Y (or he would ask questions about Y). If Y keeps asking X questions and seems unwilling to share much information about him-/herself, that might also be a signal of insecurity. Or it might be a signal that X is very interested in Y. Or it might be a signal that Y considers him/herself higher status than X, and is entitled to more information than X. Having the evolutionary context of human mating behaviour in mind, it’s probably the case that females will on average share less information about themselves and demand more information about the other than will males, especially over the course of the first dates. If the male is low-quality, the female will want to know as soon as possible and screening requires information.

What to talk about? That question is opening up a whole can of worms and I will not go into much detail here. It will generally depend on the education level of the parties present, the (/shared?) interests, the feedback supplied over the course of the date (including non-verbal cues), the age, etc. Path dependence can turn out to be important, which is another way of saying that people should be careful about what to share and what to ask about, perhaps particularly when on a first date with a person one doesn’t know. This brings me to another key variable: What not to say. This one is very context-dependent, but in general a male is probably required to share a bit more information than is a female and thus he is less likely to ‘get a free pass’ on a particular question. Even though the information requirements are not symmetric, there are still some norms regarding what constitutes a ‘proper ratio’ of information exchange. Diverging from the norms and the proper information exchange ratios can be risky, as I alluded to earlier. In a similar vein, it’s important to give some thought as to how to deal with a refusal to answer a specific question. It might be a red flag. It might be nothing. Perhaps it’s something, but something Y is not comfortable talking about. If Y says that talking about a particular subject makes him/her uncomfortable, in my mind it would be beyond inconsiderate for X to refuse to change the subject. Some people however would consider the efficiency argument more important; they’d weigh the value of getting a dealbreaking red flag out into the open right away, regardless of the feelings of the other party, higher than the risk that the other partner would lose interest because of bad manners. Either way, naturally it’s impossible to avoid all ‘unpleasant questions’, as many implicit screening questions will necessarily be somewhat unpleasant to answer for people who do not meet the criteria required (and an important part of the dating process is precisely to weed out the incompatible matches).

When dating, there’s always stuff you don’t want the other party to know (/now, /yet, /ever?). There’s stuff you want to emphasize and stuff you don’t want to talk about. People who date are never fully committed to the ‘just be yourself’-advice. At best, people commit to a ‘be who I think I am’ or a ‘be who I’d like to be’-strategy. Sometimes people lie more or less openly when they are dating. This is a risky strategy which probably decreases the likelihood of a successful long-term relationship but might be an effective strategy when it comes to increasing the potential for short-term success. But nobody is completely honest during a date – either with themselves or with the partner – and that’s worth remembering when you find out something about the other person that makes the other individual look less trustworthy. The funny thing is that most people who lie to themselves about who they are before they meet the partner and then act in a deceitful manner while they are dating because of the lies they’ve told themselves, probably most often think that they are behaving in a perfectly honest manner. Some people are better liars than others and the best lie is the lie that you yourself believe to be true.

If you wanted a conclusion of some sort, I know very well that the above considerations amount to little more than just saying that ‘dating is complex’. That was part of the whole point. Here’s xkcd on related matters. If you haven’t already read it, I also encourage you to read this previous post on ‘Rational romantic relationships‘.


February 5, 2012 - Posted by | dating, Psychology

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