Who pays the check on a first date?

It’s com­pli­cated. And even fem­i­nists are split on this ques­tion

Waterloo Region Record - - Arts & Life - JENNA BIRCH

As a re­la­tion­ship writer who’s sin­gle, I spend a lot of time talk­ing to men and women about how they date. One par­tic­u­lar con­ver­sa­tion on gen­der roles has been play­ing on re­peat in my mind.

I was at happy hour with two women, and we were talk­ing about who gets the check on the first date. Both bril­liant, suc­cess­ful fem­i­nists, I was sur­prised that they were adamant they would not go on a sec­ond date with a man who didn’t foot the en­tire bill dur­ing their first en­counter. Why, ex­actly? I pressed them on their at­ti­tudes. As I dug deeper, I re­al­ized their an­swers had noth­ing to do with gen­der roles or favour­ing a tra­di­tional setup. It was more or less sim­ple con­di­tion­ing.

“I’ve so rarely had a man not pay for the first date. I’d feel like he might not be in­ter­ested enough if he didn’t,” one of them ex­plained to me.

I’ve of­ten felt sim­i­larly. Maybe you have, too. The world is chang­ing quickly, but dat­ing is not chang­ing quite as fast, says El­iz­a­beth McClin­tock, an as­sis­tant so­ci­ol­ogy pro­fes­sor at the Uni­ver­sity of Notre Dame.

“Women have made larger strides to­ward equal­ity in pub­lic life, ed­u­ca­tion and em­ploy­ment than they have in pri­vate life, re­la­tion­ships and fam­ily,” she says. “Our un­der­stand­ings of what is ro­man­tic are gen­dered, and sex­ual scripts are gen­dered.”

At the be­gin­ning of re­la­tion­ships, het­ero­sex­ual men and women tend to fol­low tra­di­tional gen­der roles, ac­cord­ing to Marisa Co­hen, an as­so­ci­ate pro­fes­sor of psy­chol­ogy at St. Fran­cis Col­lege and co-founder of the Self-Aware­ness and Bond­ing Lab.

“If you look at first dates, gen­der scripts are re­spon­si­ble for many of the dif­fer­ences be­tween men and women,” Co­hen says. “These scripts en­able us to con­trol a sit­u­a­tion.”

Fol­low­ing a script over and over again — a man asks a woman out, plans the first date, pays for it, fol­lows up within a few days — gives us a stan­dard by which to com­pare dates and prospects.

“The main gen­der dif­fer­ences are that men are the ini­tia­tors and women are more likely to re­act to the men’s ad­vances,” she says.

In one study, Co­hen gave par­tic­i­pants 30 be­hav­iours that could oc­cur on, be­fore or just af­ter a first date and asked them to in­di­cate how likely the be­hav­iours sig­nalled that their part­ner was into them.

Women picked nine be­hav­iours as sig­nalling in­ter­est, such as: dis­cussing fu­ture plans, com­pli­ment­ing ap­pear­ance, fo­cus­ing on sim­i­lar­i­ties, of­fer­ing to pay, sug­gest­ing to ex­tend the evening, go­ing in for a hug or kiss at the end of the night, and fol­low­ing up quickly af­ter a date. On the flip side, men listed just four be­hav­iours as signs of in­ter­est; they took note when their dates were open about them­selves in con­ver­sa­tion, made ref­er­ences to sex, of­fered to split the check and re­sponded quickly to fol­lowup con­tact.

Co­hen also asked about signs that a date wasn’t in­ter­ested or at­tracted dur­ing a first date, and women noted six signs, in­clud­ing dis­cussing exes, wav­ing good­bye in­stead of hug­ging or kiss­ing good­bye, not ini­ti­at­ing con­tact af­ter the date. Men, on the other hand? They listed no be­hav­iours to in­di­cate a woman might not be in­ter­ested.

Women were tuned in to their dates’ sig­nals of at­trac­tion and in­vest­ment; men took note of less and even rea­soned away or glossed over signs of lack of in­ter­est. This could be in­grained de­fen­sive­ness, per one the­ory of evo­lu­tion­ary psy­chol­ogy, Co­hen says.

“It is more costly to men to mis­per­ceive sex­ual in­ter­est,” she ex­plains. “When it comes to an evo­lu­tion­ary view, they would lose mat­ing op­por­tu­ni­ties. On the women’s end, they may be more cautious, look­ing for the man who will pro­vide for them in the long term.”

Of course, a lot of our gen­der roles have sur­vived through so­cial­iza­tion. Mim­ick­ing the study’s find­ings, I posited a the­ory to McClin­tock — that fol­low­ing a script or wait­ing for clear signs of in­ter­est is more of a de­fen­sive ges­ture than it is true dis­taste for egal­i­tar­ian dat­ing. She tended to agree.

“More peo­ple are open, at least in prin­ci­ple, to the idea of women ask­ing men out,” she says, for in­stance. “But male ini­ti­a­tion is cer­tainly a strong norm, and I agree with your in­tu­ition that this is in part a self-pro­tec­tive be­hav­iour.”

If men are tra­di­tion­ally “ex­pected to be sex­u­ally and ro­man­ti­cally as­sertive,” McClin­tock says re­jec­tion may be less of an is­sue for them. “Not that they en­joy it, but it is an ex­pected part of be­ing a man and dat­ing women,” she ex­plains.

Women, on the other hand, prob­a­bly don’t need to ini­ti­ate to cre­ate some ro­man­tic suc­cess, so tak­ing leaps of in­ter­est feels that much harder. She says that be­cause “it is un­usual for women to ini­ti­ate, and women are as­sumed to only ini­ti­ate if they have strong feel­ings, re­jec­tion may be more con­se­quen­tial for them, whether emo­tion­ally or so­cially.”

That feels true when I watch my nor­mally as­sertive girl­friends fret about whether to send that first text to a guy they’d like to date.

If gen­dered norms re­main, men stay in the po­si­tion of pur­su­ing and women in the role of re­ject­ing. Men are ac­tive in their ro­man­tic choices and women more pas­sive. For me at least, that is not the role I want to oc­cupy, es­pe­cially when it comes to on­line dat­ing.

“The as­sump­tion with on­line dat­ing is that we are see­ing many peo­ple si­mul­ta­ne­ously, un­til we ‘de­fine the re­la­tion­ship,’” Co­hen says. “There­fore, you may not want to stand on cer­e­mony and wait for some­one to call you.”

Apps have dis­rupted our dat­ing scripts. When I wrote “The Love Gap: A Rad­i­cal Plan to Win in Life and Love,” I no­ticed that peo­ple who fol­lowed, felt con­nec­tions and in­vested in prospects with vul­ner­a­bil­ity, even if they weren’t to­tally sure of the other per­son’s in­ter­est, typ­i­cally had the best suc­cess. It did not mat­ter what tra­jec­tory the re­la­tion­ship took or what “rules” they broke.

If you’re look­ing for gen­uine in­ter­est, play­ing “hard to get” has been sci­en­tif­i­cally faulty for a while now — even be­fore the in­fa­mous best­seller, “The Rules” came out in 1995. Back in 1973, so­cial psy­chol­o­gist Elaine Hat­field and her team showed that men were most in­ter­ested in a woman who was hard for oth­ers to get, but mod­er­ately easy for them to get a date with.

In essence, if you in­vest in those you’re most in­ter­ested in and be­have in ways that feel in line with the kind of re­la­tion­ship you want, you’re prob­a­bly go­ing to find the best con­nec­tions.

Laurel House, a celebrity dat­ing coach and re­la­tion­ship ex­pert, be­lieves in “clar­ity, hon­esty, strat­egy and au­then­tic­ity,” she says. “What, how and when to do things should be based on what each per­son feels is most true to them.”

So if you want to ask him out, ask him out. If you want to call him, do it. If you want to pay the bill, step up and of­fer to pay — if you truly want to.

“Even if a woman does of­fer or do the ‘fake reach,’ and then the guy says, ‘Yeah, OK you can pay half,’ it’s an or­ange flag against the guy,” House says. “Some women say that they are happy to pay, but they will never go out with the guy again. So I say, ‘Why did you of­fer then? Why did you set him up in a trap to fail?’”

Ad­mit­tedly, I used to fol­low the script. I waited for men to ask me out, to call or text af­ter a date, to pay and to “de­fine the re­la­tion­ship.” Over the past cou­ple years, I’ve thought long and hard about what kind of re­la­tion­ship I’m look­ing for, and I try to treat dat­ing as a trial run to that part­ner­ship. There­fore, who makes the first moves (or feels al­lowed to) is sym­bolic. As Co­hen men­tions to me: “Re­search does show that those in egal­i­tar­ian re­la­tion­ships ex­pe­ri­ence greater re­la­tion­ship sat­is­fac­tion.”

Those who’d rather par­tic­i­pate in egal­i­tar­ian dat­ing can wait for the norms to shift, or we can start see­ing whether our po­ten­tial part­ners re­spond to those be­hav­iours right now.

“The slo­gan that ‘the per­sonal is po­lit­i­cal’ ar­gues that our choices in pri­vate life have broad con­se­quences for equal­ity, or in­equal­ity, be­yond our own re­la­tion­ships,” McClin­tock says. “Our choices cer­tainly have con­se­quences within our re­la­tion­ships. So, yes, if you want a very egal­i­tar­ian union, you should prob­a­bly con­sider act­ing in an egal­i­tar­ian man­ner.”

How­ever, she says peo­ple surely “vary in defin­ing their goal of an ‘egal­i­tar­ian re­la­tion­ship,’ so their strate­gies for achiev­ing that ideal will vary, as well.”

For me, it’s not been about the price of the bill or ad­her­ing to a norm to prove in­ter­est. It’s about show­ing ap­pre­ci­a­tion for some­one’s time and ef­fort. By ask­ing men out, split­ting checks or tex­ting first, have I de­prived my­self of in­for­ma­tion that might speak to their level of in­ter­est in me? Maybe. But then, of course, the foun­da­tion of any re­la­tion­ship is putting your­self — your au­then­tic self — out there.

Just the other night, as I was wrap­ping up this story, my date asked what I thought about who should pay in this day and age. I did not hes­i­tate to split the check for drinks and shared apps while ex­plain­ing my egal­i­tar­ian men­tal­ity. He agreed and seemed some­what re­lieved.

When we got a night­cap, he in­sisted on grab­bing the check. It all felt just right.


Fol­low­ing a script over and over again — a man asks a woman out, plans the first date, pays for it, fol­lows up within a few days — gives us a stan­dard by which to com­pare dates and prospects.

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