On Mondays I post articles that originally appeared elsewhere, or work that has been gathering dust on my hard drive. A version of this piece was originally published in 2002 over at The Morning News. Thanks to Rosecrans Baldwin for the edits.
Not caring what other people think has become uncomfortably fashionable. It is an admirable sentiment when expressed by people who work for an honorable but unpopular cause, like civil rights. It carries less weight when you’re on a date with someone who insists on picking her teeth in public.
All the same, it can be a convenient way to view the world. That is, until you want something from someone else. Sex, for example.
Having ignored etiquette for most of their lives, freewheeling sorts aren’t quite sure how to make a favorable impression when the time comes. ‘Women make no sense,’ a man sighs after wheedling a woman’s phone number out of her and then finding that she won’t pick up the phone. ‘Men can be such jerks,’ a woman complains when the object of her affection says he’ll talk to her soon and doesn’t call. ‘Dating is a pain! Why can’t everyone just be upfront?’
Because, my love, upfront is painful when you’re on the receiving end. It’s easier to give a persistent fellow your number and ignore a ringing phone than it is to tell him that he’s old enough to be your father.
The alternative to being upfront, or doing what comes naturally, is doing what is expected of you. This is more work, but less solitary. There are guidelines that make courtship and relationships easier for everyone. Let’s review them, shall we?
1. Call only once.
When you’ve first met someone, it is impolite to make more than one attempt to contact him or her without reciprocation. This rule is so widely ignored that you may be incredulous at the suggestion. ‘But, but, but…’ you stammer, ‘What if the message never got passed on? What if the answering machine is broken? Maybe the email program was acting up.’
Yes. However, the most polite way for this person to express disinterest in your amorous attentions is to avoid contact. When you call repeatedly, or send multiple emails, you force the object of your affections to find a more personal, painful way to shake you loose. Like telling you she’s not into skinny guys.
2. If you asked, you pay.
If the date was your idea, it is also your financial responsibility. Ladies, I don’t care what your mother told you about it being the man’s job to pay. She also told you that you were never supposed to ask a man out, so you do the math.
In ambiguous situations, the gentleman traditionally pays. The lady is expected to share expenses by offering to cook meals or pack a picnic. She’s also supposed to express enthusiastic interest in free or inexpensive activities, and find ‘extra tickets’ to concerts and events she’d especially like to attend.
3. Don’t force intimacy.
Note how your date is avoiding eye contact, how he has shredded an entire napkin and is now rearranging the torn bits into ever-shifting shapes. Perhaps the first date was a little soon to share the details of your sex life, how your last boyfriend treated you, and what your therapist thinks about it. Mystery is attractive; your daddy complex is less so.
4. Coo with caution.
Sweet nothings are so named because they contain no startling information. Fantasies about your future together are romantic; fantasies about her best friend in a bikini are not.
5. Even affairs have codes of conduct.
Speaking of that best friend, if you plan to engage in romantic activity outside the bounds of your relationship, it is unacceptable to confide in friends. This puts them in the awkward position of being an accomplice, and jeopardizes your new partner’s anonymity. It is also rude to generate evidence of your tryst in the form of love letters, emails, obviously romantic gifts, or condom wrappers.
6. Guard private information.
You may not publicly complain that your boyfriend doesn’t wear underwear on Sundays. In exchange, he will refrain from revealing that you call him Cowboy when you’re drunk.
7. Be respectful of time.
Check with your significant other before scheduling an event, and don’t ask with interested parties in the room. Presented with, ‘Honey, Mark here would like to know if we want to go out to dinner tonight. Doesn’t that sound fantastic?’ your darling doesn’t have the option of responding, ‘Well, no, actually. I rather dislike Mark.’
8. Don’t use jokes to camouflage rancor.
‘I was joking!’ is never a good defense, as intent is immaterial when it comes to wounded feelings. When he wants a big-screen TV and she reminds him of the night he said size didn’t matter, only he may decide whether the comment is amusing or hurtful.
9. Avoid amorous competition.
It’s improper to express anything but delight at your beloved’s accomplishments, even if you’ve just lost a sailboat race to her.
10. Quaint can be endearing.
A few romantic niceties to help things along: On a sidewalk, men properly walk nearest the street. They follow women to their table at a restaurant (presuming that the host or hostess is showing you to your seat), but precede her in a crowd to clear the way, and take the lead down flights of stairs to act as a pillowy man-cushion if she should trip. They open and close her car door (whether or not she is driving), hold open restaurant doors, and hold out chairs. Advanced chivalries include rising from your seat when a lady stands to powder her nose, slightly raising your hat in greeting on the street, and dueling to the death when someone insults her honor. Perhaps nowadays you can get away with simply slapping the offender with your leather driving gloves. Times are changing.
Obviously, there is no polite way to rummage through someone else’s stuff, yell, curse, slam doors, or throw things. In light of this, a lady does not throw that cheating bastard’s belongings on the front lawn. She places them there, gently, and then forgets to turn off the automatic sprinklers.
And while you’re busy being perfectly polite to each other, remember those around you as well. Don’t assume that your roommates don’t mind having your girlfriend around all the time. Don’t cling to one another at parties as though your friends aren’t worth talking to. Finally, never break an appointment with friends in favor of a date. When you find your moldering belongings on the front lawn, you’ll be glad you have someone to call.