Making Moves

A female friend, a married woman, tries to set me up on dates. That’s very nice of her, and I’m both grateful and flattered she thinks enough of me to, in essence, stamp me with her brand.

It’s a point often forgotten in the sweaty melee of finding someone. Emotions and hormones drive much of this frantic activity, such that noticing the implied endorsements and possible alliances is often overlooked. We are tribal, and the greatest gift a tribe can extend is an offer of membership.

Because I enjoy observing these rites of mateship, I’m consistently flummoxed by the mismatch of action and intention we can all demonstrate in this area. For instance, with the latest invitation from my friend, I wonder why the lady in question doesn’t contact me, and ask me out on a date. If she’s as interested as my friend claims, would she not risk it?

Patterns

The dating playbook suggests following the same steps to acquaint ourselves with someone new, no matter how we meet someone. Oftentimes the only difference lies in the speed with which we transition from strangers to…well, to something else.

First, the physical attraction, which we know takes seconds.

Second, we look for more subtle physical cues, like speech, hand movements, tics (if any), gait, eye contact and so on.

Thirdly we begin to observe behavioral traits such as social adaptability, listening skills, the ability to empathize, acceptance of flattery, ability to follow implied statements, reaction to irony; all the nuances of language, whether literal or otherwise.

This progression happens on first dates after discovery on a sex-matching site or after months of coy consideration at work. It’s the reason we want to make a good impression on a first date, because the cliché happens to be true: that first impression sticks. It matters not whether we’re looking for a hook-up or marriage, the pattern remains the same and resulting judgement takes only a few minutes.

As an automatic process, we’re unlikely to change it, so I guess it must work. But it is only a beginning.

Opening Salvo

Last night’s party was mildly fun in that way that familiar people in a known setting  can be fun, which is to say that those with whom one is least familiar are the wild cards. Wild cards are always good for social situations because they have the potential to spark people into reacting differently from usual, highlighting small shades of their personality in ways that pique our interest.

Even those closest to us have places and ways that we haven’t seen. Knowing someone completely isn’t possible –  thank goodness – which makes the discovery of even the tiniest nuance in them a matter of delight. We search for newness in people and relationships, and creating novelty is an under-rated skill for keeping us fresh, especially in marriage. Think of it as brewing fresh coffee every morning; the coffee is the same, but every cup is just a little piece of wonder.

I sometimes think this is the treadmill curse of being human, the interminable search for that slightly newer thing. Everyone who manufactures stuff knows that keeping customers’ interest is best achieved with a new or updated product, or at least the hint that newness lies within.

On the other side is the way this desire drives innovation and improvement. How easy would it have been for, say, Boeing to sit back and say that the 747 was the best plane ever built and that to spend billions improving it would be an intolerable waste of money?

Meeting new people is something that I neither relish nor dislike. Meeting for business reasons obviously has a different, more scripted feeling than any social deal. That’s why our first social interactions can be fraught, because there is no script – it’s much more like improv theater than anything else, because there’s no telling what the other person will say or do. If you’re like me, it’s easy to get off the beaten path pretty quickly, because I employ the only routine I know that works for improv, which is:

Yes, and…(with encouraging body language or extra questions)…

…which allows the other person to follow their thought.

It’s not a bad way to approach a date, either, as long as you can find the funny side of wherever you end up.

Fair Hearing

Eavesdropping on conversations is unavoidable. If people choose to talk at a volume and distance from me that makes this so, then so be it…I’m in.

I listen for a specific kind of exchange, one that engages my natural snoop – the way people who are either dating or coupled talk to each other. My natural inclination is to put a lot of store in the subtleties of verbal communication because it is a short-cut to the attitudes of those involved.

Style is my weakness. Tone, emphasis and body language are fascinating to me because they’re at least as important as the spoken words. You know the thing:

Yeah, I think you’re doing the right thing.

Oh, yeah, that’s the right thing to do.

Are two opposite messages. Couples often have their own mode of communicating, from which I learn how good couples work and how the others do it.

Overlook

Odd creatures, we are.

You might imagine that a two-legged mammal with a large brain and opposable thumbs might not be that tricky to figure out. We’re omnivores because we don’t have speed or claws, social because we have a long gestation and tribal because we have language. What’s not to understand?

Here’s a thing. When we first meet people, we often overlook stuff. We’ll make an instant judgment based on a few superficial cues, and if the person sneaks past that stringent test we are inclined to give them the benefit of any doubt. From that point onwards, we’ll spin their behavior positively, often with unwitting blindness to reality.

The reverse is true, too. If we take an instant dislike to someone, that’s the way we tend to continue. We can call it emotional momentum if you like. Once that initial split-second thumbs-up or thumbs-down decision is made, that’s the way our outlook continues.

Dating is this way. On meeting someone new, that first five-second determination will predispose us for some time to come. Think of how well we remember first meetings of almost anyone in our lives – with possible (or actual) romantic involvement, the path so chosen is remarkably long-lasting.

Seems to me that the longing for coupling, for a mate, is so strong that we’ll overlook unbelievable faults in people. We so want to be together with someone, we’re prepared to overlook crazy incompatibilities for the chance at a happy togetherness.

Which is why we need to exert an enormous effort to be less carried away by this emotional foolishness. Peripheral qualities are the least important and most transient in anyone’s character. Disregarding that first impression is a start – a sober, realistic, practical and thoroughly critical investigation of this stranger will save us from disaster.

I can write all this because of the horrific mistakes I made. Optimism based on a first meeting is admirable. Hope based on wanting someone to be something other than who they are is life-destroying.