the meet-cute myth

The movie that started it all: It Happened One Night from 1934
It Happened One Night from 1934

It’s a tale as old as the internet. A piece of male douchery surfaces, one that perfectly epitomizes the harassment and male entitlement that women must navigate in their daily lives. The women gather together to gaze upon douchery and nod and say, “Yes, indeed, this really does sum up the problem.”

Cue the trolls, cue the misogynists, cue the willfully obtuse assholes. But also, cue Nice Guy™, who is hurt and confused by these women and their hostility, for he is sweet and gentle and thinks you really need to know how beautifully your eyes match your scarf today.

This guy will leave a long blathering comment (what is it about sexism that makes dudes so long-winded?) that boils down to: “Let’s make this entire conversation about educating me on how best to approach women in public. I would like a foolproof formula that doesn’t involve me actually thinking about women’s experiences or expending any empathy. Please and thank you.

And more and more frequently, women reply with a simple “Yeah, maybe just…don’t?

“Don’t what?”

Just don’t approach women in public? Like, why do you feel the need to talk to strange women? Maybe just don’t do it.

Cue the rage.

Fine, so I’m just not allowed to TALK to ANY WOMEN EVER!? HUFF PUFF FOOT STOMP.

Or, sometimes, the wounded self-pity.

 But but but if I can’t talk to women in public places, I will be FOREVER ALONE WOE IS ME.

There’s a lot of stupid in this argument, but I’d like to talk about the main stupid, which is the idea that modern romance – and consequently the human race – will somehow grind to a halt if men are not “allowed” to talk to women in public. You see, by not “allowing” men to talk to them in public, women are thwarting casual encounters, which are the only way people ever end up going on dates ever. If women are not actively seeking a meet-cute, Nice Guy™ is doomed to a life of impotently lusting after potential soulmates on every train platform, in every elevator, across the dusty vinyl sleeves in every quirky secondhand record shop in every city in the world.

Ted: I just gotta bump into her somewhere. Now if only I knew her schedule, I could arrange a chance encounter.

How I Met Your Mother

This idea is, obviously, ridiculous and has no bearing on reality outside of romantic comedies. (You know, those things that women purportedly base their lives around.) However, not only does it have no bearing on the reality of dating, it also actively clashes with the reality of being a woman in public.

First off, this thing of women going out and about by themselves and participating in public life is actually pretty new. It would take a dissertation to do a comprehensive breakdown of all the restrictions placed on women’s movements throughout global history, so I’ll keep it brief. In various places and at various points in history (including the present day):

  • Women could not go out in public without a husband or male relative. Or at the very least, an elderly female chaperone.
  • Women could not go out in public, period.
  • A lone woman speaking to a man on the street was assumed to be a prostitute.
  • Large swathes of society – including universities, bars, sports venues, etc. – were off limits to women.
  • Many other institutions of daily life – schools, workplaces, public transport, etc. – were strictly gender-segregated.

As you might imagine, with all these restrictions on where women could and couldn’t go, it was quite difficult to, you know, meet them. How did the human race possibly survive, you ask? Well, depending on the culture and the era, there were various rituals and structures in place to facilitate courtship between young men and women without compromising propriety. Arranged marriages, debutante balls, set dances, professional matchmakers… or, you know, just straight up selling your daughter to the highest bidder.

Nowadays, in many Western countries at least, women live in a very different society. We are, for the most part, considered full and autonomous human beings who can technically go wherever we want, when we want, by ourselves, as much as we like. This is great! We who enjoy this basic human right are pleased! Hooray for going out in public!

But of course, for women, going outside still comes with a price. Not all of us have to pay it, but we’re all aware that it could be levied against us at any moment. You know that feeling when you ride public transport without a ticket, and you’re constantly on the alert for inspectors? And you know how nowadays the sneaky bastards regularly come in plain clothes, so you don’t know they’re there until the tram is stopped and locked and one of them is standing right in front of you?

Yeah, being a woman out and about can feel a lot like that all the freaking time. This is because there are men who still feel residual (or in some cases outright) resentment of the fact that women are allowed exist in public spaces without male sanction. Much of the dynamic behind street harassment is driven by this hang-up – it is, after all, many hundreds of years old. Please see this excellent comic from Robot Hugs for a comprehensive explanation of the dynamics of street harassment, and specifically why it is largely about power and control, not desire or lust.

There was never a magical fantasy time when women breezed up and down the street with smiles plastered on their faces, just waiting for a dashing yet nervous Hugh Grant type to pay them a winning compliment, followed by all the sex and blissful marriage. Once again, THIS HAS NEVER BEEN REALITY. As soon as women won the freedom to participate in the public sphere, we immediately had to start dealing with a daily clusterfuck of harassment, microaggressions, and threats – both implicit and direct – to our personal safety. This was the deeply unjust trade-off for our independence; we are allowed go out in the streets now, but the toll we pay is the constant threat of harassment.

Also worth noting: we live in a world where the dominant narrative is that women need to take personal responsibility for our own personal safety and if that safety is compromised in any way, it is our own personal fault for not taking greater precautions to protect ourselves. However, this burden of responsibility also comes with the confusing caveat of “but never ever hurt a man’s feelings ever,” which is why it’s actually pretty rare to see a woman respond to harassment by raising her voice or delivering a swift kick to the offender’s nether regions. We are expected to defend ourselves, but also smile, be pretty, be open, be polite, be welcoming of any advances (but not too welcoming, you slut!), and of course, be able to psychically ascertain whether the man looming over us at the bus stop is a predator or a potential soulmate.

So. For the fifty billionth time: there is no perfect combination of words or gestures you can use to make a woman feel safe around you, just like there is no magical warding sign women can use to fend off harassers. It’s shitty and it’s not fair, but that’s life.

So, coming back to our original question: how do you, the nicest of nice guys, meet the love of your life while public spaces are still fundamentally dodgy territory for women? Never fear, good sir! Remember those rituals and structures we talked about earlier, designed to make it easy for men and women to interact and potentially find romance with each other? Well, we still have a whole bunch of them! They are alive and well today in the 21st century. Here are just a few of your options for meeting real-life women who are also looking for love!

If it has John Cusack, it's generally not a viable dating strategy
If it has John Cusack, it’s generally not a viable dating strategy.
  • Join one of approximately sixty-five thousand websites designed to help you find a date/wife/fuckbuddy who shares your interests/values/kinks.
  • If you are not an internet person, go speed dating. Go to singles mixers. Let your friends know you are amenable and eager to being set up with their cute and single friends/cousins/co-workers. Go on blind dates.
  • Go to bars. Go to parties. Go to games nights. Go to explicitly social activities where there will be women and you will be a man and the context encourages chatting to new people.
  • If you have no friends or you’re not interested in actively dating, but still want to talk to new women on a regular basis, go to Meet Ups. Bonus: You may discover new interests that are not women!

I don’t have statistics on how many couples met and fell in love because a man asked a woman what she was so adorably writing in her well-worn journal, or gestured for her to take off her headphones so he could tell her that her hair looks like a golden waterfall of ice-cream. Despite what romantic comedies would have us believe, I’m going to go with not that many. Complimenting strangers in public is hard, for anyone, of any gender. That’s some advanced level socializing shit. Life is not a meet-cute waiting to happen, and dismissing the lived realities of actual women because you want dating to play out like a romantic comedy is a) insulting, b) deluded, and c) says a lot about your priorities and attitudes towards the women you so desperately want to charm.

In conclusion, women not wanting to talk to strange men in public is not depriving shy, awkward, nice guys of ever getting a date again. This is a ludicrous red herring and you need to stop using it to derail important conversations about street harassment. Not being able to talk to women in public outside of ritualized settings has been the norm for most of human history and romance has somehow managed to survive. Honestly. It’ll be fine. If she really was your soulmate, post a missed connection on Craigslist and love will find a way.

But random blogger,” I hear you ask, “wouldn’t the world be a much better place if women could talk to men in public without fear or apprehension?

I agree, random reader! I would love to be able to have a conversation with a man in a bar without the low-level anxiety of wondering whether he’s going to turn nasty if I try to leave before he wants me to. So here’s a pro-tip: if you want a world where women feel comfortable and happy talking to strange men in nearly any setting, the solution is not to go to feminist blogs where women are discussing this subject, and tell them their experiences are wrong and their legitimate concerns are mean or unfair. The solution is to talk to your fellow men about their treatment of women. The solution is to make your social groups uncomfortable places for men who talk about women as though they are objects, or conquests, or achievements to unlock. The solution is to call harassment out when you see it. The solution is to practice saying some variation of “dude, stop being a shithead” in front of your mirror and deploying it liberally when one of your friends starts making hilarious taco jokes at two women trying to leave the bar.

And once you get good at that shit, I promise we’ll do a lesson on the finer points of complimenting a stranger in public.

26 thoughts on “the meet-cute myth

  1. Life sucks. People suck. Everything sucks. Oh, you have to be talked to by people you want nothing to do with. Harsh, but everyone has problems. I like how you make it not your own problem by placing the blame on men, though. Very creative.

    People talk to me all the time. Usually I’m not interested, but sometimes someone can get my attention. Not with simple flattery, but I won’t really know until they get to what they really want to say. And most people, men and women, are socially awkward. Some blurt stuff right out, while others dance around the subject and hope you pick up on their “vibes.” Think of talking to people like going to the post office and finding your mailbox filled with junk mail. Sure, you could dismiss it all and toss it in the trash, but you might miss out on a valuable sale, notice of local significance that concerns your home, or a post card from Mom & Dad. Yes, its SOOOOO inconvenient having to put up with all that junk, especially when the junk wants to get in your pants. But hey, its not all junk and lots of people have met the love of their lives by casual encounters because they weren’t afraid to stop for a moment and talk to someone.

    Yes, men have a lot going on that they need to change about the way they approach women, including and especially expectations. Talking to a woman does not give them license to treat her like an object, the right to expect her to swoon at whatever compliments they offer, or even justification for anger & spiteful words when she doesn’t want to maintain the conversation But suggesting that men need to stop approaching women is like saying we could all get along better if we locked our doors and never went outside and have to interact with anyone else. Granted, it does accomplish a more peaceful life, but also a boring and lonely one. We need to learn to get along together, not how to isolate ourselves to get along. So yes, while men have a lot to learn about how they approach and initiate contact with women, women should also realize that not every man is out to get them or get with them. Some people are simply just friendly, outgoing people, and –if they’re not obnoxious– they can be great to see casually on the streets; someone you can wave to and either talk to or not depending on your mood or if you have the time for that sort of thing. And yes, there’s also those nice people that are quiet and withdrawn who, if one gets to know them, can be great friends, except people generally overlook them because quiet is often misinterpreted as creepy.

    Some women have no problem sorting through the daily life of who is worth talking with and how to brush off those who aren’t. I think socializing in public is a skill more women need learn. You don’t have to stop and talk to everyone, but what may seem like an obvious signal to you that you don’t want to be bothered by others isn’t necessarily how they’re going to perceive it. I’m guessing that those people are the ones who most prefer the idea of telling men to just keep their distance. But they’re not mind-readers; if they were, then they wouldn’t need to even bother approaching women for whatever reason, whether it be potential sleaze factor or genuine compliment or even just casual comment. But telling men how they need to behave is never going to work for the same reason men telling women how they need to behave will never go over: because it comes off as preachy and even arrogant. And that’s probably why some men take such a defensive attitude about the whole thing, like they’re not allowed to talk to women and how that’s going to lead to the downfall of romance or just their chance at it. Because how can you or anyone else or even a large segment of the female population know what’s right for everybody just because that’s what you want. Especially if they’ve seen evidence that proves you wrong, like so many people –and perhaps people they know personally– that have met someone special through chance encounters where someone takes the initiative and opens a dialogue. Even if you were 100% right, and I can’t agree that you are from personal experience, this line of thinking will not work simply because it will be viewed as feminist or anti-men and thus it must be part of a larger agenda against men, so it will go largely unheeded except by those meek men that probably wouldn’t talk to you anyhow because they’re too shy.

    Obviously my way doesn’t work for everyone either, but if you want to hide from the world –and that means the men that live in it– then you have to take some of that responsibility on yourself and avoid them rather than expecting them to make your life easier.

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    • I just wanted to add that you are totally correct about men needing to call each other out on the harassment and degrading jokes. Its juvenile behavior that doesn’t serve their own interests, and they won’t learn unless it comes from another man.

      So that is definitely a good tip for all of the guys who are reading this, and so pertinent that I feel you should probably have led your entire post with that advice and then moved on to recommending how to properly interact with women and/or recognize when they’re not interested. Because, aside from rejecting a perceived feminist agenda, I think the biggest problem men have is that they just don’t recognize what many would consider obvious signs of disinterest. People, not just women, get tied up in their own thoughts or personal agenda that they may be walking from point A to B that they might just seem disinterested or they could just be spacing out, and everyone around them has no idea if its one or the other or somewhere in between.

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  2. Great post! Reminded me of an experience, a few years ago, sitting in on a bench in Hyde Park, by myself, enjoying a lovely spring day.

    A guy comes up to me and asks, “Hi, do you mind if I sit with you and talk to you for a while?”
    Me: Yes, I do mind.
    He: What’s wrong with you?!
    Me: …?!

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  3. Ugh, yeah. So tired of the Nice Guy chiming in with his “I just want to say hi and meet people blah blah blah I don’t understand why I can’t.” There’s just such a difference between striking up a real conversation, and hitting on someone who’s minding her own business with “Hey, baby” or “Do you have a boyfriend?”

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  4. This was a great piece.
    However, I feel that more sleezy men are making their way onto Meetup.com (where I go when I am in a new place and need a social scene). I have had a number of guys just randomly messaging me on there, then when I tell them to fuck off, this isn’t a dating site and why don’t they, you know, GO TO A MEET UP like the site was intended, they get all offended “oh I’m so sorry I didn’t know I couldn’t contact women on here!” More guys need to read this essay of yours.

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  5. Do you live in new jersey? Misogony like the kind you describe has not existed in most parts of the civilized word since the 1980s. Stop your fucking whining, it makes you seem weak and pathetic.

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  6. This isn’t a perfect analogy, but I want these guys to think of it like walking along minding your own business when you see one of those charity collectors with the clipboards. You’re purposefully not making eye contact and sending out “leave me alone” signals, which they choose to ignore and try to start talking to you anyway. You give them a polite deflection, they try and steamroll over the top of it.

    Guys, you have to understand that even before you start your pitch, in this situation you’ve already given a woman THREE BIG RED FLAGS that you are unable to acknowledge and respect boundaries:
    – obvious “not interested” body language ignored
    – assuming a woman’s lack of interest in you is less important than your interest in her
    – continuing to push the point when she’s made it clear she has no wish to engage with you.

    It is supremely arrogant and obnoxious to assume that women should give the benefit of the doubt to men who have clearly demonstrated their lack of respect for boundaries and women’s wishes so quickly. A man who isn’t paying attention to a woman’s boundaries when she’s a stranger is unlikely to suddenly start respecting them in a dating situation.

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    • If these are the kind of men you are coming into contact with on a regular basis, I feel sorry for you. Why don’t you try hanging out in less sleazy bars.

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      • Uh, what? At no point in that comment were bars mentioned. Also, I happen to not drink, and I’ve pretty much never been to a bar in the US. This crap still happens to me regularly, whenever I’m walking around my neighborhood or minding my own business at the cafe.

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  7. As a man I appreciate you taking the time to tell me how I should act. I’ve been wandering in a wasteland of confusion but like the burning bush to Moses you’ve given me direction and I now lnow how to address the horrible wrongs my fellow men have perpetrated on women by initiating conversation or complimenting them in public.

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