We're all familiar with the stereotypes about how men and women approach communication: women always want to talk about the relationship, and men have the emotional maturity of a toddler. This supposed disconnect is an essential theme to family sit coms; the woman puts her hands on her hips and says "we need to talk," and the man whines and groans and does everything he can to distract her. (Has anyone seen "Everyone Loves Raymond"?). I don't know how accurate these stereotypes are, and I have no intention of making an argument about their accuracy or lack thereof. What I would like to discuss today is how traditional gender roles in heterosexual dating patterns contribute to this stereotype.
Not everyone follows traditional dating roles, and I say thank goodness for that! But even some very liberal and socially progressive individuals adhere strictly to the idea that a man should pursue a woman, and not the other way around. She can reciprocate the interest, the argument goes, but she shouldn't take over the chase because she deserves a man who's willing to chase her. My thoughts on mixing hunting metaphors with dating descriptions aside, this view is surprisingly prevalent in mainstream television, film, etc. (Just look at He's Just Not That Into You). But how do these prescriptive roles influence the way men and women communicate about their feelings, motivations, and intentions?
Here's how I see it: These roles make dating a more straightforward experience for men than for women. Under these rules, if a man is interested in a woman, he asks her out on a date. He instantly knows whether that first date will happen, because she tells him "yes" or "no" right away. If he is still interested after a first date, he asks her out again. And so on. There's always a chance the woman is accepting the dates without interest, or a chance that she'll accept a date only to cancel later, but in general a man can tell whether there will be another date because he's initiating the dates. In a storybook world this behavior would never be a problem. A man would ask a woman out, she would accept or not accept, and couples would figure out how they felt one date at a time, until that crucial moment when they would both reveal their love.
But what happens when a man doesn't initiate another date right away, and the woman isn't sure why? Whatever gender stereotypes tell us about female intuition, most people can't read minds, so this is a plausible scenario. It could be the man is busy, or that he feels broke at the moment (traditional dating dictates the man pay). It could be that he isn't sure whether he's interested and needs some time to sort things out. But then again maybe he's lost interest, and he simply won't call. This scenario could happen whether he said "I'll call you" or not.
To a man in this predicament, the situation is clear. If he's interested he'll ask her out again, even if it takes a week or two before he calls. But the woman must wait before she learns his intentions. I attend school in a conservative environment, and I frequently hear men complain about women who make up excuses to avoid dates instead of admitting they've lost interest. Yet how many of those same men let women know that they will not be calling for another date? I would guess almost none. It would probably feel rude and presumptuous. Besides, the man knows that he's lost interest and will not initiate another date, so he doesn't need that information communicated the way that the woman will if she's interested in him.
So, if a woman is confused about a man's intentions, or if she wants to change the pace at which they're dating, or if she isn't interested but a man keeps asking her out despite all the hints she drops, what are her options? She could try to initiate a date with him, but that would be straying from traditional dating patterns. Some women will do this, but many who adhere to traditional gender roles will not. So, short of exiting traditional roles, she has only a few options:
1. Drop hints/ play games and hope she can subtly get (or share) the information she needs
2. Accept her confusion / annoyance, and just grin and bear it
3. Initiate a serious discussion
When subtlety falls flat, and waiting in ignorance is too much to bear, we are left with the third option: verbal communication. Many people avoid direct communication simply because they want dating to feel casual and natural, and it can't feel that way if everything is vocalized in explicit detail. In traditional heterosexual dating, a man would have more reason to avoid it, though, because he already has the information he needs: If he likes the woman he'll ask her out again, and if not he won't. If he wants to go out more, he'll ask her out more, and if he wants to go out less often, he'll ask her out less often. But if a woman is placed in the position of only saying ,"yes," "no," or "how about later," she may in fact need to discuss the relationship in a way her traditional male counterpart doesn't understand, and that need would make her much more likely to risk the awkward elements a discussion may bring.
Personally, I think the behavior patterns you start when you're dating carry over into longterm relationships and marriages. If a man and woman do develop serious difficulties communicating while they're dating, then a couple rings, a cake, and some vows probably won't make that go away. So maybe we can all be a little more open, honest, and direct, regardless of what dating patterns we prefer.
An additional note a year-older Emily would like to add:
Sometimes men complain that when they ask women out on dates, the women say "I'm busy this weekend," instead of saying "I'm not interested." Carl the Open Minded Chauvinist often complains about this behavior, and I usually listen with sympathy. But awhile ago I stopped feeling sympathetic, and here's why:
I asked Carl the OMC how he thought a man should respond if he's not interested, but a woman says, "Let's do this again sometime," at the end of a date. Carl said that the man has no obligation to say "I am not interested," since doing so would be rude. I argued that when a woman says "I'm busy this weekend," rather than "I'm busy this weekend but let's do it next weekend," she is communicating disinterest at least as clearly as a man who simply stops asking a woman out, if not more clearly. And that to the woman it may feel just as rude to say "I'm not interested in you," as it would feel to the man at the end of the date. Both are invited to continue pursuing the other person romantically, and both find indirect ways of communicating their disinterest.