Thursday, 8 April 2010

Don't Drown Your Rescuer

My friend Eleanor is a genius at rescuing lonely people. At parties and university events, her eyes zip around hither and thither, from corner to corner, looking for the solitary and scared.

"Just a minute," she says to whatever friend she is half-listening to, and rushes off towards a complete stranger. After a few minutes of chat with this stranger, she escorts him or her (usually her) to another friend or group of friends, and, after a few more minutes of chat, leaves him or her there.

So far no-one she has rescued from their awkward solitude has fallen in love with her, although she says she has made some great friends that way. And she was very touched when, as we made a visit to a male religious community, a young African priest she didn't recognize opened the door and said "You're Eleanor."

"Why, yes!" said Eleanor.

"I remember you," said the African priest shyly. "You were the first person to talk to me at school."

"I was?"

"Yes," said the priest. "And I didn't know anybody and I was very homesick. But every time I saw you, you said hello and smiled at me. And that always made me feel happy."

Now, it had been some time since Eleanor had graduated, and she had rescued several dozens more since then, so she didn't remember all this. But she was too polite to say so, so just smiled and said she was glad that she had made this priest welcome at X. He beamed and went back upstairs to wherever--his cloistered chamber, I suppose.

This was a lesson to me to be more like Eleanor, and to do my best to keep an eye out for lonely people and to help them find new friends. So far nothing bad has happened to me as a result, not even the accusation that I had strung anyone along.

Thus, I was troubled when I read a comment from a reader yesterday who described being "strung along" by a man who spoke with her a large Catholic event "for hours", introduced her to his friends, who took her along to eat at a diner, and then never asked her on a date.

I'm troubled because my gut feeling is that this young man had never presented himself as a suitor: he may have been a rescuer. And I don't want potential rescuers to be dissuaded from rescuing strangers, alone and palely loitering, from awkward loneliness out of fear they'll be later accused of leading the strangers on. Equally, I don't want the rescued to think that being rescued shows anything more than brotherly love on the part of the rescuer.

Rescuers, be generous. Rescued, be grateful.

The much-maligned book The Rules, which I keep mentioning in my own book Seraphic Singles, claims its goal is to encourage women to want only those men who want them. Its anthropological supposition is that although lazy men will take whatever life throws in their arms, stellar men want to work for what they get.

Fein and Schneider, the authors, firmly believe that if a man is attracted to you, he will make a real effort to see you again...and again...and then at last nail you down to a commitment so that some other man can't steal you away. Perhaps because they are Americans, the authors think men value even more those women they had to strive to get. This makes me think of a hunter pointing to a moose head mounted on his wall and bragging of how he tracked it day and night through pouring rain, but you get the idea. I don't think all men are like this, but American men might very well be. My Scotsman had to strive against geographical distance and the rigours of UK Spousal Visa applications. I suppose that's the sort of thing that gives us foreign brides part of our exotic value.

Anyway, the great message of The Rules is that you shouldn't throw yourself at Mr. So-so, for he will either drop you or half-heartedly sign on with your romance plan, as long as he doesn't have to exert himself, ever. Instead, you should gently encourage those attractive men who really are interested in you, and then marry the one you fall in love with.

I think The Rules work in a negative way. If you obey them, you might not find Mr. Right, but you will certainly stop yourself from throwing yourself at Mr. Wrong, and thus save you from making an ass of yourself.

So, if at a party, a nice man comes up to you, introduces himself and begins to talk, do not talk to him for more than half an hour. After you feel a certain amount of time has passed, ask him if he knows anyone else there. If he does, say "But I shouldn't monopolize you!" This give him the chance to politely slide away if he wants to, or to say "I don't mind being monopolized", which is encouraging. But by the end of half an hour (don't check your watch, just estimate), you really should say "Well, I guess we should circulate." (Touch his arm as a signal this is not a rejection.) You are, of course, allowed to go up to the man at the end of the evening to touch his arm* and say "I just wanted to say that I very much enjoyed our talk. Good-bye!" If your beauty and half hour's chat were enough to intrigue the man, he will ask for your phone number. If not, never mind. No big deal.

At a big dinner party, of course, you do end up talking to a man for more than half an hour. But you should remember to talk to the man on your left as much as you talk to the man on your right. Afterwards, if you are gathering in a sitting-room for coffee, try to talk to someone new.

What I am getting at, is that you should never get yourself into a position where you talk to the same man for hours on end the first time you meet him. Yes, we all loved Before Sunrise, but you'll notice that relationship lasted for a single night. Ethan Hawke went back to America and married Uma Thurman, or whomever.

The primary reason why you must not do this is that you might be boring him rigid and he is too polite to ask you to stop. But the other reason is that you want to retain some of your feminine mystery (to say nothing of your feminine dignity) so as to arouse the curiosity of a man who has taken an interest in you. It's like watering a plant: you don't dump a bucket of water on the poor thing; you gently water it little by little.

Take as your motto is "Always leave them wanting more," and never slam a man for having spoken nicely to you in the first place.

*The surest, yet still modest way, to show a man you think favourably of him, is to touch his arm.


leonine said...

So much of what you've posted recently seems to be about politeness. I don't mean to be snobbish or pedantic about this, as I know people who get uptight about manners can be from time to time. It's not about using a seafood fork properly, but about treating people with appropriate warmth and respect. Dressing appropriately for the occasion (and words across one's derriere are never appropriate!), doing one's best to welcome people and set them at ease, formulating introductions, making civil conversation, exercising restraint in airing controversial opinions: this all seems to be part of general civility and decorum. Being mannerly (and not in some fussy, overly formal way), gives me a relaxed sort of confidence and can help put others at ease as well.

leonine said...

Or maybe I've been a. reading too much Jane Austen and b. spending too much time in close proximity to undergraduates! (Any among present company excluded, of course!)

Seraphic said...

Very true, o leonine!