The most exciting date of my life was when she asked me out instead of the other way around.
As a happily married 44-year old man, I often listen with interest when my 20-something colleagues discuss their dating woes in the world of the single American. The dating landscape has changed enormously since my single days of the 1980s and 1990s and there’s much I don’t recognize. Most seem to have experienced online dating services, which no longer carry the stigma of their predecessor, the proverbial ad in the newspaper.
When I was single, reviewing profiles of potential romantic interests was seen as desperate and in any case, the Internet did not exist. We wrote letters and called our friends on our landlines. The only person I knew who owned a cellphone was Agent Mulder on The X-Files.
To help us meet women, there were no Facebook pages to peruse for biographical data or common interests to use as conversation starters. One could make inquiries through mutual friends or, just as often, jump in blind based on fleeting and instinctive clues that the attractive blond across the room might be a good match. Success belonged to the bold and sometimes the masochistic.
Some things haven’t changed, however. Which gender is generally expected to initiate a relationship remains immune to the pressures of technology. Even in the world of online dating services, men are 40% more likely to email a woman on a given website and view three times as many profiles as women, according to data compiled by the journal Psychological Science in the Public Interest. Online or off, it’s still unusual for a woman to ask a man out to dinner.
I never questioned this assumption myself until one evening in the early 1990s when I returned home from my job at a local university library. The phone rang and a female voice, one vaguely familiar to me, asked to speak to me. It was a distinctive voice and I recognized it as a young woman I’d helped check out a book or two. She was a beautiful brunette, but I’d never had a full conversation with her and I didn’t know her name. And she wanted to know if I’d like to go out to dinner with her.
My first impression was mild alarm. She had seen my name on my desk nameplate and called every listing for the name “Shea” in my town until she found my house. She eventually reached my sister across town, who gave her my number. I felt a cascade of genuine flattery coupled with fears of waking up the next day in a roadside motel with my kidneys removed. Women just didn’t ask men out. Something just wasn’t… normal about it.
She held her own assumptions as well, beginning her invitation by assuring me that I shouldn’t assume I was “getting lucky.” In other words, she assumed that I might interpret her request as an invitation to easy sex. And on that basis of mutual understanding, we went out for dinner.
She arrived at my house to pick me up and drove me to a good restaurant on the water. She paid for dinner and we spent several hours of pleasant conversation getting to know one another. She was fun and intelligent.
As the evening progressed, I experienced a feeling previously unknown to me on a date: I was relaxed. Sitting in the passenger seat of her comfortable car, I realized that the onus of failure, at long last, was not on my shoulders. The stress of hoping she would like my choice of restaurant, of wondering if I had dressed appropriately, of worrying about being a disappointment, were traditionally the burdens of the initiator. And I had to admit it; I enjoyed the respite from my normal pressures and could simply focus on our conversation, not worrying about occasional pauses or misunderstood jokes. If this is what women experienced when being pursued by a man, it didn’t seem bad at all. I could get used to it.
Being the only male in my family while growing up, I was of course aware of the stress endured by young, single women on the dating scene; the hope that a particular man might ask her out or, just as often, the hope that he would not. Both sides of the dinner table subject their esteem and emotions to unforgiving possibilities.
But I’d never played the role historically reserved for females. The normally understood benefits, the worries, the assumptions, all drifted away, leaving me to judge my situation–and my date–solely on their own merits and without the old template of gender roles I’d never really questioned.
I knew very early in the evening that my brunette dinner companion would not remain interested for long. Her personality, interests, and priorities were the opposite of everything I was. She relished the deafening rush of nightclubs and cocktails, falling into bed as the sun rose. I get inebriated from half a shot of Nyquil and prefer quieter pursuits. She knew none of this, of course. She had jumped in blind, as we men are typically expected to. She had taken a chance and I was flattered that she had.
It only became a matter of time before she discovered our incompatibility. The next morning at my favorite diner, my friends offered wagers as to how many dates would be required before she started avoiding me at the library. Or, as one of my closer friends described it, “how long it would take for her to figure out you’re a bore.” Most bets were placed at two more dates, but it took only one. I won five bucks.
The algorithms in Match.com or eHarmony would have warned me ahead of time to forgo my evening with the mysterious brunette. And if their digital profiles had even existed then, I likely would have deferred to their judgment. After all, their analysis was sound.
But in the end, I’m glad I had no such data available.
Next month, I will celebrate 12 years of marriage to a woman I spotted across a room. For most of my life, I leaned towards risk aversion where women were concerned. I had little to go on, but a girl I barely knew had once taught me that jumping in blind is not as fraught with peril as our defense mechanisms tell us. Your assumptions are not infallible.
I don’t know if that brunette regretted calling up a man she barely knew for a date. I hope not. I hope she learned not all men interpret initiative as invitation and that whether we admit it or not, our self-esteem seeks reinforcement as surely as a woman’s. And, I hope that the next man she asked out turned out to be exactly what she was looking for. He may be surprised at the reversal of gender roles and the flawed assumptions behind them, but taking a chance on it guarantees he’ll learn something, even if his hopeful relationship goes nowhere.
Had an algorithm matched me with my wife, I would have arrived at the restaurant full of anticipation and hopeful that the computer had chosen well. But in those days when we had only our instincts and a desire to overcome our fears, discovering that we had chosen well was all the richer.
Men are still expected to take the initiative in matters of romance. But if a young woman ever asked me what I’d think of her asking out some man she was admiring from across a room, I’d say go for it. He may not be her future husband. In fact, computers would conclude he probably won’t be.
But if she’s willing to log off and suspend the ancient law that discourages such initiative in a woman, it will be an exciting and worthwhile trip to nowhere.