Wednesday, April 12, 2006

How to Have a Traditional First Date

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.


Anonymous said...

As a Centre alum, your post hit close to home. When my now husband asked me out on a first date, I did not know what to do. Other than accept his invitation, of course. I immediately called one of my good friends, also a Centre alum, and asked the all important question- what does one wear on a first date? Until my first date with my husband, I had never had a first date with someone I didn't know. I had always known my dates for some time in some way. Once we started dating, we went on dates but the "first date" was usually a group thing or a casual get together.

Getting to the First Date Protocol, I have no problem with the woman asking for a date - whether first or not. I think the person asking can be gender neutral. However, the rest of the protocol sounds spot on.

Anonymous said...

I appreciate the clarity of your approach. Also, your term "hook up/quasi-married" truly hits home. Even after college, the nebulous approach to dating is rampant, and no less frustrating, hurtful, and sad. I think the allure is that it seems like freedom from the standards of the past, but the reality is it feeds a deep emotional unhealthiness. So many people in my generation are just not prepared for things like emotional intimacy and commitment. There is a deep hurt somewhere in there that most are choosing to ignore (or at best, medicate away). With all this in mind, I think taking things one step at a time is essential, if what you want is something lasting. Otherwise, you will be trying to "serve two masters."

I think there is great hope, though. Any one of us can be free when we realize what it is we really need and want. I too am a centrist and a Christian, and a big believer that God will restore order to our lives when we ask him.

Thanks for your insight and your compassion for the young.

Amy, Texas (31)

Gruntled said...

I have received several suggestions that the protocol works just as well whether initiated by the man or the woman. Fair enough. I expect that the (great) majority of initiators will be men, but I agree that the plan works either way.

Men who are uncomfortable being asked should take the initiative first.

Anonymous said...

I don't have anything to contribute concerning the protocol, but I have an anectdotal observation based in part on what A.P. wrote. The difficulty is not that all of the old rules broke down as much as that a new situation has arisen. As A.P. admitted, it was her moving away from home into the college environment that created the uncertainty. Until about 25-30 (more/less?) years ago, most Americans dated and married people that they either grew up with or knew for a substantial period of time. These folks were accutely aware of the expectations and practices of the community in terms of dating, etc. That situation has changed with the substantial increase in young women (and to a lesser extent young men) attending college, delaying marriage, and marrying people they meet in college or at work. These are new 'communities' without settled norms of behavior, especially since colleges have by and large rejected in loco parentis regulations without replacing them with anything substantial. (I'm not suggesting that colleges take up the rod/switch/belt again, just making an observation.)

Gruntled, do you have any data on this, or am I merely expressing an untested and intuitive hypothesis?

Gruntled said...

The sexual revolution came together with coeducation at nearly all former men's colleges, including Centre. The colleges had no established norms about how men and women should relate to one another, much less carry on courtship, at just the moment when the establishment of the whole country gave up on most social regulation of sexual conduct. The two forms of anomie (normlessness) multiplied one another, to produce a situation in which women had could take no cover in social norms, but had to be, as they saw it, personally mean to an importunate young man.

I think it would help us all to regrow some norms.

Tom Strong said...

Strange as it may be to say, I think the internet dating phenomenon has led to something of a return to dating protocols. Meeting people online before you meet them in person makes courtesy and formality much more important in terms of establishing the relationship. Even if internet dating ceases to be the thing, I expect that trend to continue.

Gruntled said...

College students suffer from too much daily contact with the rest of their dating pool. This is a silver lining to online dating -- you control the information flow.

Anonymous said...

Long gone are the days when you married someone within your circle of friends or within two miles of where you grew up. Also gone are the days when parenting involved the matriarch and patriarch of the families and continued on into your adult years and even into your marriage. M.F.T.’s, counselors and psychologists have replaced Papa and Nana's roles in teaching grandchildren how to be good husbands and wives, how to keep a home, how to handle conflicts that today are settled through divorce decrees. They've replaced age-old wisdoms in child rearing, building relationships and seeing the value of a marriage in holding up society’s infrastructure. We now look at the marriage institution with cynicism and fear. I know It seems I’m off subject but I’m hearing an underlying current of people dating in hopes of finding a future mate. Courtship is different than dating. Dating is not a means to an end. It's like trying on dress shoes when you have no plans to ever go anywhere fancy. Dating is pure entertainment at best. A pop culture phenomenon that has permeated society and sent thousands into emotional and financial ruin and created a society of fatherless children.

I commend you on your experiment. We need to bring back the principle of courtship. Keeping things asexual and non-romantic for at least until you know whether this person is going to be a compatible mate. Chaperones might be a bit antiquated but group activities are a great place to see how the potential mate interacts with the less important people in their lives. You might see a character trait that will either take you over the top or give you red flags and spare you years of torment.

Just two cents worth from an old guy who loves his wife and three kids and made it because right or wrong, better or worse, I still choose to honor that vow I made 24 years ago.

Gruntled said...

Amen. I think young people deliberately revel in the ambiguity of whether dating is a form of courtship, or an end in itself. In particular, I think women are more likely to assume that dating is a means to a marital end, and men are more likely to just enjoy what happens without a further plan.