Last night I had a discussion with a number of students about dating. The common complaint of college students, at Centre College and elsewhere, is that it is impossible to date, that there is no structure to courtship. As Elizabeth Marquardt and Norval Glenn demonstrated, between "talking" and "joined at the hip" there are no intermediate steps. So we set out to do something about it. We came up with a rough protocol for a first date.
The first thing that all agreed on is that he has to take the initiative. This puts men in the position of being shot down (again and again). But the basic fact is that ultimately she does the deciding, so the first step in the dance of courtship has to come from him.
Here was the list we came up with from there. He should:
Make it clear that is it a date when he asks.
Ask nicely and confidently.
Give her sufficient time to prepare.
Have a plan.
Show up on time.
Plan something short and fun, which could be extended if things go well.
Offer the chivalrous courtesies – opening doors, waiting for her, etc.
Plan to pay. (This was a little contentious, but the consensus was that he should pay on the first date, even if she offers to share, because he picked the place and the plan.)
At the end of the evening, politely thank one another in words, and no more.
Two things struck me as important about this plan.
First, they were all supportive of the idea of having a standard protocol for a date, to cut through the debilitating ambiguity of the college "hook up/quasi-married" dating life.
Second, almost all of the ideas about what to do and not do on a date where about him. Even when I asked, "what is the woman's role in a date?" nearly all the answers concerned how she should respond to his initiative. The students thought she should be attentive and attractive, and go with the flow.
I think there is a further unsaid action that both of them are doing on a date, but much more so in her head: assessing the other as a potential mate. In this conversation, and in many other studies, men and women turned out to be different in how long a list they had of what they wanted and didn't want in a potential mate, and how early and automatically they applied it. Women are not passive on a date: they are constantly assessing. Indeed, most of the women will go directly from the date to a post-mortem assessment with their girlfriends. The men, on the other hand, are less likely to go in their minds all the way from first date to first child, much less rehash it with the guys later.
I think there is a crying need for some structures to courtship in college life. My hope is that discussions like this one can help start that revolution, which comes from the bottom up, from the students themselves. It is too late for in loco parentis at campuses like mine. But it is not too late for grownups to help young people pick their mates with more structure and deliberation.
I would very much welcome your comments and suggestions.