Friendzones and Fairness

Friendzones and Fairness September 6, 2014

finish line

When people talk about Nice Guy problems and friendzone problems (both on the internet and in my immediate environment), the conversations sometimes sound really similar to the kinds of things I would have heard on College Confidential or in a set of job interviewing tips.

People are talking in terms of tricks they’ve learned from others, discussing what actually goes on inside the decision-making black box, and laying out a sequence of moves that are likely to succeed.  The unspoken assumption is that there must be some kind of secret, sneaky algorithm for getting someone to go out with you, getting into college, or acing your interview.  Keeping that kind of thing secret is, indeed, frustrating-verging-on-unfair.

I can think of a couple of things that might contribute to this way of thinking (particularly in my social circles).  For one thing most things I’ve done have functioned in this way, so, if dating didn’t, it would be an exception from everyday experience.  Lots of processes I interact with are structured as ace-able applications, and when there’s a choice between something more freeform and something more structured, a lot of people I know have tended to pick the predictable, applying for consulting, banking, and Teach for America jobs, because those offered a standardized process, handbooks of tips, and winning strategies to implement.

It’s possible that dating/marriage used to look more like this, with a set of pretty-much known benchmarks to clear.  After all, romantic love/attraction is a relatively new prerequisite to marriage, and it hasn’t been adopted everywhere.  If you were just trying to demonstrate that you were a good provider/healthy enough to bear children/patient enough to work with someone else, that’s a lot easier to plan for than generating a frisson.

That’s why I find the “unfair” rhetoric around Nice Guy problems kind of off-putting.  I don’t mind “hard,” “sad,” or “frustrating.”  Those seem like pretty reasonable responses to striking out (and, as someone without any gentleman callers on the horizon, they’re certainly feelings I’ve had).  But “unfair” suggests a rigged game where people aren’t giving you the information you need to be in the running.

It reminds me of a bit a drama (that for the purposes of anonymity, I may have witnessed or may have heard about thirdhand) between Alice, Bob, and Eve.  Both of the girls were interested in Bob, and he was interested in both, but seemed to be trending Alice-wards.  Eve was frustrated, and said that Bob was being unfair, since he hadn’t given her a straight answer to why he was preferring Eve or told her what she could do to come “first” and trump Alice in his affections.

I had the same feeling about that question as I do about guys who have asked me, “Well, what’s the way to ask a girl out so that she will say yes?”  Bob isn’t obliged to have a “fair” race between Alice and Eve, and girls, generally, aren’t required to have some kind of transparent application process that people can study.  I don’t just mean that they’re not required to disclose their “cheat codes” but that they just aren’t known in the first place.

If you build the ideals of relationships primarily around passion and chemistry, rather than shared circumstances, compatible dispositions, and shared goals, then you might be able to boost your chances generally (personal grooming, bringing up your interesting interests, etc) but there isn’t a reliable way to generate ineffable sparks.

We’re not stuck in the world of randomly assigned soulmates (that xkcd illustrated), but the more that successful romances are judged to be driven by intangibles, the harder it is to pursue or search strategically.  And the more frustrating it feels to have people misunderstand you as concealing the rulebook.

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