Stop Flirting by Committee

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Photo: Ferdinand Georg Waldmüller/IMAGNO/Austrian Archives/Getty Images

If you want to get to know a man’s character, you should spend a lot of time together asking thoughtful questions about his values and worldview in a comfortable setting, such as a cozy restaurant or a ski chalet. If you want to get to know a man’s character fast, though, you should have a friend send him a prank sext from her phone. My standard prank sext is “Miss you Jason,” accompanied by a butt selfie. The purpose of this prank is to see how honorably the man responds to receiving an illicit photo that was clearly not intended for him but for Jason, an imaginary man whose long-distance girlfriend is too busy taking butt selfies to text his number correctly.

I wish I could say that prank sexts are the most deceptive things I’ve sent to men while gathered 'round the glow of an iPhone collaborating with my friends. But they’re not. The truth is, I’m constantly sending out text dispatches from an imaginary woman. She is a person I construct and reconstruct every time I start dating a new man; and her communications are largely based on the advice I request from friends on what to say next in order to appear relaxed, confident, and far more cool than I am. And though they appear under my name in his phone, this woman is no more real than Jason.

I had no game in high school and so I never dated before text messaging became my primary communication tool, but I still find it terrifying in the early stages of dating someone. And since I still have no game but — because admitting that is more socially acceptable than planning a life around a baker’s dozen of cats — I’ve relied heavily on the creative labors of friends to interpret texts from men I’m dating. In turn, my girls have shown up with a banger or 37. But leaning too much on interpretation and replies by friends has removed much of the pleasure of getting to know a new person with only my own instincts as a filter. And I’m hardly alone in this habit.

Today we flirt by committee. In an ideal world, text communications would be shared only when the text contains an act of heroism, like a highly specific compliment about your butt, OR an affront to humanity or manners and deserves to be displayed on one of the many Tumblr or Instagram accounts devoted to righteously humiliating doofuses. Instead, though, we routinely screenshot entire text exchanges and send them off to be analyzed for hidden meanings and temperature-checked for how thoroughly the prospect is sweating our flavors. We consult with friends that we have appointed as the board of directors of our lives about all communication, down to the punctuation and emoji selections. We ask friends to proofread our responses and suggest when we should send them to maximize intrigue without appearing uninterested. We share a flurry of nearly identical butt selfies with our best friend and mull over which one should have the honor of being our inaugural sext (or so I have been told).

It is understandable that we look to friends during the early days of dating: Being attracted to a new person is thrilling and vulnerable and full of potential and insecurity, and it is a lot to bear alone. The social ritual of recounting the experience is a way to share its joy and unburden ourselves of the endless stream of thoughts we have about the new person. But recounting highlights is different from distributing the documentation. Having our romantic and sexual communications vetted and analyzed by a group is a way of crowdsourcing the emotions we wish we had. Friends regulate our exuberance; they build tolerance against the impulse to text back right away. Communicating this way is like being on a first date in perpetuity, sending our best-behaved representative out into the ether instead of our more candid and perhaps uncool selves. This exhausting cycle of vetted correspondence drains the experience of the kind of intimacy and sincerity that we’re probably going on dates to find.

It is important to note, too, that our friends are usually a bunch of know-nothing boneheads. Just like us! They are no better or worse at reading romantic intentions and interests than we are. But they weren’t present when the initial connection was forged. They didn’t go on the dates to catch vibes and feel feelings and sweat flavors. When we rely on them to conduct our personal communication, we’re trying to absolve ourselves of responsibility for things not working out — which can be comforting in the face of romantic disappointment. But inviting our friends into the conversation is more than sharing fallibility. It means withholding our emotions and sabotaging opportunities to be forthright and vulnerable in the ways that actually endear us to people.

I wondered if this was all truly a function of technological change or just me worrying for sport, as is my custom. I turned to women only a few years older than me, who started dating before the ubiquity of texting, and apparently there was a time in the not-too-distant past when phones lived up to their name, derived from the Greek word phōnos, meaning “sound” or “voice.” We used them to talk to people, to hear their voices. “There's something really intimate about talking on the phone late at night, especially in the dark,” says Jenni, 38, recalling especially fond memories of talking to boys she liked in her teens. “I remember phone calls. They were awful,” Brandy, 34, joked via email before going on to say, “There was definitely something nice about the ephemeral quality of just talking on the phone, because I couldn’t go back and review verbatim all the ways I sounded foolish or try to wring meaning from one particular adverb.”

Endlessly reviewing texts in search of meaning and explanation reduces a relationship to a meager transcript rather than letting it be the complicated, sometimes fragmented accumulation of memories together. Jenni said she has taken up the habit of consulting endlessly with friends over the meaning of texts and how to respond but that ultimately, it hasn’t helped much. “I think you know in your gut what's happening, like the feeling you get when the timbre of the communication changes. Oh, maybe he's busy! But of course not. Come on,” she said over Gchat. It turns out that technology has evolved but our intuitions remain about the same. They are a little bit delicate and too often right, and so we seek out new noise to drown them out.

I’m still recovering from my chronic need to have my romantic communiqués dissected by my board of directors but have made progress in the art of spontaneous and uncool texts. It is amazing how much time I’ve regained by communicating as myself rather than my much cooler representative. I’m spending a decent amount of it communicating with a romantic prospect, asking thoughtful questions about his values and worldviews in between butt selfies that I chose myself.  The words, too, I type and erase and type again, choosing carefully but always choosing as myself. It is my hope that the words and images that arrive in his phone beneath my name show someone worth getting to know better: self-reliant if not necessarily confident, amusing even if not always especially clever, and playful even in the absence of a game.