Proper conduct between the sexes can be puzzling and troublesome even for those of us who have had years of practice. Imagine how difficult it must be for children and teenagers. No area of etiquette is changing faster. What was once considered polite might now be considered insulting. What was once common sense might now be irrelevant.
The old rules of chivalry dictated how men and women treated each other for centuries. They called for deference by virtue of gender, age, and social caste. These rules have been supplanted to a great degree by what may be called “corporate etiquette.” In the past 30 or 40 years, women and minorities have exerted enormous influence on corporate culture, which is based on deference according to corporate rank, much like any military system.
As parents of both sexes and from all social groups entered the corporate culture, they absorbed this military-like system of etiquette. Naturally, their children learned far more of these corporate attitudes and manners than of those based on chivalry. Thus the rules of chivalry have faded, and corporate etiquette has emerged as the dominant force governing modern interpersonal relationships in most parts of America.
The impact of all of this on relations between the sexes has been dramatic and confusing, particularly for young people. Remnants of the old rules of chivalry remain to haunt and sometimes confuse budding relationships. Young people often look to parents for some road maps through this unpredictable landscape.
When young people ask about rules in the area of relations between the sexes, they are really asking for clues to an eternal mystery. It seems to them that two distinct species are inhabiting the earth. The opposite sex acts, speaks, and dresses differently, is interested in different things, and relates to his or her same-sex friends differently.
However, some very clear rules can help young people deal with the usual and, for them, terribly, terribly important questions and situations that arise between the sexes.
Whether the guy or girl is asking someone for a date, the basics are the same. The invitation should not be entirely unexpected. There should be some positive, friendly feelings for each other. Get to know the person on a casual level before proposing a date. If the person declines, listen for verbal clues that will tell you whether you should ask for another date at another time. If you are the one saying no and you really would go if you could, say you are sorry about the conflict and hope the person will ask you again.
Live and Learn
The custom of men walking on the outside (or street side) of women companions began as a way of protecting the ladies’ finery from being splattered by horses and carriages at a time when streets were unpaved, muddy and, often, wet. The custom persists for some because there is an aspect of “protection” in the fact that the man is between the woman and the traffic.
If you have to decline because you’re not allowed to date, tell the truth and don’t be embarrassed. We all have to live by rules we don’t like at one time or another. Say “Thank you for asking, but my parents don’t allow me to date yet.” Don’t make a big deal out of it. Don’t act as if your parents are from the wax museum. You might even suggest other ways you can get together—school activities, sports, cultural events, and parties.
If you feel that you’d never want to date a person who asks you out, say something like “Thanks very much, I have other plans. It was really nice of you to think of me.” You don’t have to talk about these other plans. They could involve taking a nap or washing your hair.
When asking someone on a date, ask face-to-face or by telephone, not by e-mail or voice mail. Give plenty of advance notice, at least four days. If the invitation comes late, it could give the impression the person is being asked because somebody else couldn’t make it. Also make sure that you’re specific when posing the question to avoid any confusion or misinterpretation.
For example, “Would you like to go to the new Jackie Chan movie with me on Friday night?” is much clearer than “Wanna go to the movies sometime?” Make it plain that you’re asking for a date for a certain place, time, and event. But don’t buy the tickets in advance. That involves too much pressure. You might also clarify whether you would like to provide transportation or just meet the person there. “Would you like to go to the new Star Trek movie with me on Saturday afternoon? I can meet you outside the theater at 4 P.M.”
When a youngster asks what to say if asked at the end of a day whether he or she had a good time, the best advice is to say yes, unless he or she had a perfectly awful time. If so, he or she should say so, and explain why it was so awful. That might sound like, "Well, I really didn't expect so much blood and guts in the movie and the wisecracks your friends were making made me really uncomfortable."
Decide what kind of date it will be. Remember that the idea is for both of you to have a good time. A staunch football fan might not enjoy an evening at the ballet. First dates should be easy and casual for both people. Don’t make it into a big deal that causes nervousness. Keep the cost down so that reciprocating won’t be difficult.
Remember that it’s up to you to take care of the details. Get to the theater early and buy the tickets. Usually the person who does the asking does the paying. Don’t expect your date to split expenses unless you have worked that out in advance. If you are going to share expenses, which is okay and often done, be clear about it: “I was hoping we could catch the discount early show and then go to the Pizza Kitchen. It shouldn’t cost more than $10 each.”
No matter what arrangements you make, never go on a date without money. It’s wise to make sure you have enough to get home on your own, at the very least.
Finally, if your date is going to pick you up at home, brief your parents in advance. Greet your date at the door. Lead him to your parents and say, “Mom, Dad, this is David Smith. We got to know each other because we’re in the same history class.” Allow a few minutes for conversation before you leave, which will put your parents at ease and make you look self-confident. These few minutes could pay off later. Your parents will feel better about the company you’re keeping and be more inclined to condone the relationship.
After the first date, the one who was invited should call or send a note saying that he or she had a good time. An e-mail is not good enough.