Steven Pinker, the pop linguist who writes books that are easy to read and nod along to gave a talk a while back about language being a window into human nature. You can see it hypnotically animated here:
Relevant to us who are trying to navigate the labyrinthine conventions of dating is the bit on euphemism and veiled language and the reason we use it even though all present know what is really trying to be said.
Pinker contends that it boils down to shared mutual knowledge - a powerful and essential thing when you’re agitating for revolution: enough people need to know that enough others feel the same way, taking what used to be private anger and dissatisfaction and turning it into massed action. The flip side is that when you’re asking for sex, veiled language blocks the establishment of shared mutual knowledge by making it such that each person cannot fully be sure that the conversation at hand isn’t really about a cup of coffee.
What Pinker never comes out to say explicitly (ironically) is that shared mutual knowledge makes you vulnerable. If it is clear what you are asking for, then it’s clear that you are being rejected if someone says no. If it’s clear what’s being asked, then you have to find a way that you can stomach to reject someone. It doesn’t give you a face-saving fiction to lick your wounds behind, or preserve feelings.
Vulnerability is terrifying. it is very literally putting yourself in a position where someone else can hurt you. Someone whose thoughts are unknown to you, whose actions are unpredictable. Someone whose thoughts and actions matter to you in ways you’re not sure yours matter to them.
Of course there’s a TED talk about vulnerability, about how it is the precursor to connection, and about how connection is just about the only reason we’re here. Brown talks about how vulnerability is about shame because shame is about how we are not good enough and vulnerability is about allowing someone else to make that designation.
In a follow up talk a year later, Brown asks the audience how many of them view vulnerability as a weakness. She then asks how many of them think her brave for getting up on stage and making herself vulnerable to not just them, but everyone on the internet. Willingly making yourself vulnerable is an act of bravery. It is also one of the only ways to forge a meaningful and honest connection.
I don’t want to talk about vulnerability and non-euphemistic language in terms of forging a connection. I think that’s rather self-evident and Brown covers it rather well in both her talks. I want to talk about it in terms of establishing consent and expectations.
If I go up to your place, I don’t necessarily want to have sex with you. I want to be able to show you my apartment without you then thinking that I want to show you how my bed feels when two naked people are tussling on it. If we’ve been seeing each other fairly regularly, it doesn’t mean that we’re looking to move in with each other, meet the parents, and get married if we keep it up.
But if I tell you that I’d like you to come up to mine so that we can learn about each other’s bodies, I risk you saying that you’d much rather I keep my clothes on. If I intimate that I’d like to know how you see me fitting into your life, I risk you saying that you’d rather I stay a small and inconsequential part of it. Sure, I could guess at what you’d like from the things you say and do, but if we’ve only just met, I don’t know you enough to guess correctly. Even if I think I know you, but we have only ever had conversations in veiled language, I may misread you entirely.
Add to this the fact that people aren’t used to thinking that these are things that we can talk about explicitly. And that awkwardness makes vulnerability more painful. And that putting ourselves out there in the open to potentially get hurt isn’t exactly something that comes naturally (look, even plants react to and try to avoid harm). And what we have is a miasma of swirling unknowns that serve no one.
Sure. If you’re clear and honest you lose the upper hand. You’ve let the other person see the cards you’ve got, maybe while they’re not even admitting to holding cards. The things you say and admit to cannot be unsaid; you’ve given away your position - a position that affords neither safety nor power.
But you know what, sweethearts? We shouldn’t consider each other adversaries. I like to think that once i do make myself vulnerable, you’ll see that I’ve done something scary and difficult and that you will be gentle and sensitive, whether or not your response is something I was hoping to hear. I like to think that once I do make myself vulnerable, you’ll feel that you can speak freely and honestly too. I like to think that once I do make myself vulnerable, we can work together to make sure that we don’t hurt each other, at least not more than mismatched wants and needs have to hurt (maybe they won’t be mismatched).
Veiled language is harmful and dangerous, even if it is potentially protective. Let’s try not to use it, okay sweethearts? I promise that if you do what you can to be clear and revealing, I’ll be open with you too.
“Sorry,” I said, “I just need to take this. It’s my emergency out call. Don’t worry, I’m not pulling the trigger.”
He wasn’t sure whether to smile and seemed to not know where to look as I answered, thanked and reassured the caller, and hung up.
“That was your…emergency call?”
“Yeah,” I said, smiling in what I hoped was a charming and flirty manner, “You know, the one about how you have something that requires you to be elsewhere so that you can cut the date short if you have to?”
“Oh,” he looked despondent, “Do you have to go now?”
“Pfft. If I did, I’d have told you that my boss needed some data that I had to go home to retrieve, or that my best friend needed a lift from a party where she felt unsafe, or that my neighbour needed someone to drive him and his [non-existent] dog to the 24hour vet clinic. No, I’m telling you that I turned down the opportunity to leave this date.” I raised my glass. “Cheers to not needing your emergency out call?”
We clinked glasses. The date continued for several more hours. It was a good one. Sometimes I regret not taking the out.
I always schedule an emergency out call, timed for a little over an hour after the date is slated to start. I also leave the caller with as much as I know about the guy. His name, his profile, his phone number, where we’re going and when. I tell my date this, when I decline the emergency call. It’s a compliment that I have decided to continue the interaction, but it’s also letting him know that someone who cares about me knows where I am and what I’m doing.
The last time I told someone about the steps I take before meeting a complete stranger all alone, I got a bit of a side-eye and the implication that it must be hard to live a life where I assume that the world is out to get me. I’m pretty sure I didn’t punch that person in the face because I stand firm on violence being a band-aid solution at best, but I wanted to.
I don’t do this because I think anything bad is going to happen. In fact, I’m the one telling all my friends about how it’s really not as dangerous as their various mothers would believe to go to a busy, public place and meet someone who could be pretending to be anyone (but is likely, like yourself, just trying to be the best possible version of who they are). I do this because people like the cannibal cop are on OKCupid and there is a remote, outside chance that someone will need to be filing that missing person report. To borrow from Jessica Valenti, I do this as part of my rape schedule:
When I was in college, a teacher once said that all women live by a ‘rape schedule.’ I was baffled by the term, but as she went on to explain, I got really freaked out. Because I realized that I knew exactly what she was talking about. And you do too. Because of their constant fear of rape (conscious or not), women do things throughout the day to protect themselves. Whether it’s carrying our keys in our hands as we walk home, locking our car doors as soon as we get in, or not walking down certain streets, we take precautions. While taking precautions is certainly not a bad idea, the fact that certain things women do are so ingrained into our daily routines is truly disturbing. It’s essentially like living in a prison - all the time. We can’t assume that we’re safe anywhere: not on the streets, not in our homes. And we’re so used to feeling unsafe that we don’t even see that there’s something seriously fucked up about it.
My emergency out call is something that saves me from a night of smiling and nodding at someone I already dislike. My emergency out caller is someone that is serving as an ineffective safety net (ineffective only because they can only be deployed after I’ve long since fallen) for any consequences arising from the situation I have placed myself in.
I admit that I resent that I need to be quite so careful about meeting people off the internet. After all, I’m a person off the internet and I’m not about to serve you up [with] some green eggs andchianti.
I’m still going to set up the emergency calls, if only to have a graceful exit. While I do, I may as well have an external record of my movements. I fully acknowledge that while it seems like a good idea, it’s hardly preventative or protective (for effective rape prevention tips, see here). On the other hand, I suppose it does serve an immediate purpose on the date - when I tell a guy about my emergency call set up and he talks about how fucked up it is that women have to operate with caution and fear in a culture of victim blaming, he will score some massive points with me.
Before I begin, I would like to state for the record that I strongly oppose the notion of referring to the following as “Pulling a Juliet”.
Ending a date is odd. You’ve met a complete stranger off the internet with the expressed purpose of interviewing them with an eye to including them in your life from that point forward. What do you say at the close of that interaction?
“Thanks, call me sometime.”
“Thanks, let’s do this again.”
“Thanks, I had fun, call me maybe?”
And do you say that even if you already know that you never want to see this person ever again? I know I do, often. My excuse is that making motions toward when you will next meet is the default at the coda of most interactions. At the end of the work day: “I’m out! See you lot tomorrow!”. Post-family reunion: “We must do this again soon!”. After the awkward meeting in a public toilet: “Well, I guess I’ll catch you out there!”.
Now the friend that I was talking to about this (who has told me that I’m a horrible person for feinting toward the possibility of a future when there really is none, who too is campaigning for calling this “pulling a Juliet”) recently kissed someone he had no intention of ever seeing again because she was leaning into one and he cited social convention. I reckon that’s worse than a casual “here’s my number, so giz a ring, will y’pet, AYE?” because that’s signed and sealed guarantee of more to come, as far as I’m (and I’m sure many others are) concerned. He has since withdrawn the “horrible person” designation and is backing off on the “pulling a Juliet” campaign.
So what should we be doing instead? First things first, I think simply being cognizant of the fact that the end of the date will be inevitable and preparing for the fact that you will need to say something at that juncture will go a long way toward not blurting out the obvious and convenient (but untrue). Second, I think we need to distinguish between the two different types of “um, no”.
1. When you had a good time, conversation was okay, food and/or drinks were decent and the other person was perfectly pleasant. You would not think of applying to the universe for a refund on your time spent because there were worse things you could’ve done otherwise.
2. You were subject to any number of objectionable occurrances including but not limited to:
For the first, I think it’s perfectly legitimate to end on “Thank you for coming out tonight.” AND THEN STOP TALKING. THAT IS THE END OF THE SENTENCE. Not, “Thank you for coming out tonight” OMG THERE’S A PAUSE. SHOULD I FILL THE SILENCE? YES, YES I HAVE TO. “Letsdothisagainsometime”. AW FUCK I DID IT AGAIN. Or, “This was a lovely place you’ve introduced me to. Thanks for that. Take care.” Something vaguely lovely with no mention of more. The other person can fill in the blanks (or be the one blurting out the inappropriate promise of a next date).
For the second, I reckon a “Thanks for coming out, good luck with dating!” is something I’ve used a few times with good effect. The way I see it, in your head it sounds like “Good luck with dating, because odds are, you’re going to live a long, lonely life!”. In their heads it sounds like, “Huh! She thinks I can keep going with this dating lark. Just not with her, but hey!”.
How do you end your dates, sweethearts? Please some of you tell me that I’m not alone in the false “call me, yeah?”.
Hello Sweethearts. First, I would like to reassure you that I have not abandoned this endeavour (both the excercise of meeting strangers off the internet as well as the sitting down to write about it). Second, I would like to offer my apologies for the inexcusable and interminable absence from this space.
Here’s what happened: I got tired, and those feelings of fatigue started to suggest to me that maybe this was all futile, and that thought nagged at me until I stopped. I stopped riffling through profiles, I stopped responding to messages, I stopped even checking to see who had looked me over. With all that inactivity, there was nothing to write about, hence the silence. But I do not present this as an excuse. I tell you this because it is what I want to chew on in this post; in those months of quiet, I had time to think about what I wanted. I was a year into this madcap, often-reckless, frankly alarming whirlwind of meet and greets. What had I emerged with?
For one, what I wanted was in sharper focus. I want a friend, a lover and a confidant. In my life now I have a pantheon of friends who enrich my life in ways I cannot even begin to ennumerate, I have a drove of lovers who fall in and out of my life but keep me sated, I have a parliament of confidants who hold my soul in theirs. It is an embarrassment of riches. But I think I still have place for another, someone who stands at the confluence of these three streams, who I would loathe to be without (who would loathe to be without me).
I saw that it is a big hope to carry, and I got tired carrying it. I got tired of the effort of coordinating a flattering outfit, putting on that illusory amount of make-up that looks like I’m not wearing any, of sleeping with curlers in my hair. I got tired of the march of people whose hearts were weary of the process too, who hadn’t realised that they’d brought expectations of this going nowhere to the table. I got tired of trite, getting-to-know-you job-interview-type questions that never seemed to get close to who we were. In my months off though, I realised that the only way to meet someone else in this crazy city who is also looking for what I am was to keep putting myself out there and that I had to do it in a way that circumvented the burnout I’d inadvertently ploughed straight into.
I am better equipped this go around. I know now my value, and my desires. I am prepared for the effort I will continue to make; with that the acknowledgement that I am making the effort not for the person I am meeting, but for the hope I carry. I will lose the frenetic pace that I had previously undertaken and with it the worry of missed opportunities. I have put myself out there again, wish me the best, sweethearts.
When Andrew told me he’d read my essay, he had no way of knowing what it meant to me. He didn’t even say it outright, come to think of it, only confessed to Googling me. It was the quietness of his admission that was so jarringly lovely.
“Everybody Googles everybody,” he said with a sheepish smile, and suddenly we shared a secret. He was right, of course — everybody Googles everybody, usually to find out if a potential mate is married or a serial killer or a Republican — but sometimes there are other things to be found. I know because I am overwhelmingly Google-able.
It’s a sweet and thoughtful piece, go have a read of it, sweethearts.