Thursday, 2 May 2013

Appointment for Coffee

There are strengths and weaknesses to the current Coffee-for-a-First-Date convention. The strengths are that it is relatively inexpensive, conducted in full view of the public and can, and should, be short. The weakness is that it depends almost entirely on chat and yet in itself gives host and guest very little to chat about. Both host and guest have to depend on, and indeed display, their social skills unaided.

I wonder what quiet men who do not like to talk would consider the ideal first date. I will have to ask one. Meanwhile, this will shock you, but in life you may have to fulfill appointments for coffee in non-date situations. Adult life may present you with invitations you do not expect.

For example, some time ago I was asked out for coffee by a fellow foreigner I will call Simon. I had done Simon a good turn, and Simon proposed coffee in a café. I was startled by his email because no (non-colleague) man had suggested coffee to me since I got married. I very much doubt any man has ever suggested coffee to my mother since she got married. (Goodness! And what would she say?)

The whole concept of married ladies having friendly coffees with single men in real life and not just in historical novels was new and suspiciously European to me, so I believe I replied something intensely North American and married-lady like, "I'll have to ask my husband."

So I asked my husband, and he said "Yes, why not?" and I emailed back, "My husband says yes," and far, far away my mother felt a pain and all our Scottish ancestors rolled in their graves. I could not imagine why Simon wanted to spend time in a café with a married lady, but I thought perhaps he wanted to practice his English or merely show gratitude for my good turn. So I went to this appointment for coffee, having previously thought I was done with appointments for coffee with new men forever.

Fortunately, some hours before this appointment, I went to an exciting court case that disturbed me very much. This meant that when I turned up in the café I had something solid to talk about. And I recommend this to any woman who has agreed to meet a man for coffee: be up-to-date on something of general interest. Crime is better than politics because whereas you may disagree unpleasantly about politics, any man you meet in a café is going to agree that crime is a bad thing. At least, I hope so.  At any rate, a good way to get a conversation rolling is to answer "How are you?" with "Well, I'm fine, but I'm rather disturbed by today's bank robbery in the west end."

Simon listened carefully to my descriptions of the courtroom and then, to my surprise, castigated me for assuming that criminal members of the Scottish underclass would share my middle-class values. He also condemned light sentencing, which he said illustrated how degenerate Britain is, and recommended corporal punishment. This was not in a confidential undertone, but normally as if behind closed doors where speech is free and no conversational holds are barred.

It turned out that Simon was not one for small talk (few men are, actually), but for getting right to the good stuff. Naturally, not being Scottish, English or even Canadian, he did not care very much what those around thought of his ideas. But I felt rather panicked, as he was not following the polite conventions of Scottish or Canadian public conversation which my parents (and Canadian society) had instilled into my very bones. Fortunately for my peace of mind, the conversation shifted to the less controversial topic of Simon's grasp of English, in which he was naturally interested, and other language-related issues. These kept us entertained until 5, when I said I must go home and make my husband's supper.

I know you're dying to know, so, yes, Simon paid the bill.

The biggest difference between this appointment for coffee and your first-date-in-a-café is that my appointment had no courtship overtones, and your date does.

Both, however, are uncharted territories, potentially fraught with cultural misunderstandings and social disasters. And this is why coffee appointments really demand social finesse and careful drawing of boundaries, including ending the appointment with a good excuse.

Yesterday, I pointed out that you are doing a favour to men by ending your dates early, for it prevents them from becoming subconsciously bored. But speaking of Simon, who was intensely Old World and chivalrous, has reminded me that a chivalrous man will be reluctant to allow his guest to think for a moment that he wants, for whatever reason, to end the date/appointment himself. For that reason alone, you must draw the temporal line and say good-bye.

Surviving first appointments for coffee with new people, whether they are dates or not dates, comes down to six principles:

1. Tell yourself and the chap who asked when the appointment will end.
2. Have something of sure-fire general interest to talk about.
3. Listen carefully to the other person's point of view, and respond thoughtfully.
4. If the conversation gets too rough for your comfort, find an opportunity to steer it into more peaceful waters.
5. He who invited pays.
6. Go home when you said you would go home.

By the way, I am positive that my majority-American-and-Canadian readership is having seizures at the idea of a married woman going out for coffee with a single man (not even a work colleague!), so all I can say is (A) apparently it's different in Europe and (B) my husband said it was okay.

Update: I regret that last paragraph because it looks like I am setting up a distinction between so-called provincial Americanism and so-called European sophistication. That is not what I mean at all.  North Americans have a good reason to worry about divorce: the USA and to a certain extent Canada have had divorce cultures for almost a century. Divorce as a contagious disease is rather newer to Europe (especially outside the UK); divorce in much of Catholic Europe is still a major scandal. (As I discover every time an Italian or Polish Catholic journalist grills me on my annulment.)

As a matter of fact, I do believe married people have to be very careful about what they do and with whom they associate and about keeping their social life an open book to their spouses. This is not merely because I am Canadian, but because I am well over 30 and well-acquainted with human nature. Let me tell you one day about the young male religious who told me over lunch that he hoped Father Karl Rahner had had a mistress.


Anonymous said...

Maybe I have spent too much time in Europe (coming up on three years now) but I wasn't perturbed. As long as no one thinks it's a date, and it's in public so there's no chance of scandal, who cares? My father meets former students for coffee on a fairly regular basis. It never occurred to me to think that strange.

Seraphic said...

You forgot to sign your comment, but I won't erase it.

Profs and students is an interesting dynamic. So many professors of my parents' generation ditched their wives for grad students, but I wouldn't think twice about having coffee with a former prof.

thisjourneyofmylife said...

As a European, I wasn't fazed by your coffee 'appointment', but I don't think it's that common either. Going out for a coffee with a single man (as a married woman) is okay as long as you're relatives, colleagues, old friends or if he owes you something (because you helped him in some way).
If a married man who doesn't fit one of those categories would invite me for a coffee, I'd probably decline.

Not Having A Seizure said...

I feel the same as 'anonymous.' It doesn't shock me that a married lady, with an informed husband, would have coffee with a man she's met before. I've also met several European men who insist on paying after coffee & etc. when it's clearly not a date. It did ruffle my non-European & single self just a bit at first, but I realized that these generous men were unruffled and I soon got used to the fact that not every one-on-one meeting with a man in a public shop/bar hinted romance.

P.s. I thoroughly enjoyed your "hippo" metaphor the other day!

Domestic Diva said...

I commented yesterday, but I think it got lost in cyberspace, so here's my question again.

A female friend is introducing me to a male friend of hers who lives about 500 miles away from me. We probably won't meet before emailing and/or talking on the phone. Any recommendations for how long phone conversations should last? Especially the first one(s)?

Seraphic said...

@Domestic Diva, I would hate to chat with a stranger on the phone at all, just for the sake of talking about ourselves. Are you likely to meet him in person in the next six months?

My imagination may be shutting down because I cannot easily imagine why a woman would want to have an uncomfortable phone date with a man who lived 500 miles away, but no doubt you have your reasons.

I can't get used to the idea that long-distance telephone bills no longer bring financial ruin in their wake. When I first talked to B.A. on the phone, it was for ten minutes max.

I think "The Rules" says half an hour.

Seraphic said...

@At Not Having a Seizure: I'm glad you mentioned that at first your non-European feathers were unruffled because I was beginning to wonder if I had been being prissy.

MaryJane said...

Oh yes, the European coffee is decidedly different than the American coffee... which makes for weird lines between religious and lay people of opposite genders. Even then, I usually get a "sense" about which religious are interested (sadly) in maybe more than coffee, and which are honestly friendly and/or colleague-ish. (What would that word be?) The latter is actually quite nice and something that would be impossible in the US.

Still, I think each culture has its own practices for a reason and we need not import them all. Actually, now that I think about it, the division between those who are friendly and those who are *too friendly* usually falls along the "European" vs. "Non-European living in Europe but trying use it as an excuse" line.

Can't wait to hear the Rahner story!

April said...

Funny you should write about this, for I found myself in a very similar situation just last week.

I am a grad student in a liberal university town. I was at a cafe studying for exams and a very pleasant young man sat down at the table beside. I commented on his t-shirt (from the university at which he studied abroad) and we ended up introducing ourselves and chatting pleasantly about this and that over the course of the about-six hours we were sitting at adjacent tables typing papers. At the end, he said, "Well, if you'd like this, I think it would be fun to get coffee sometime!"

Problem is, I have a steady boyfriend. There had been no flirtatious overtones to our conversations (I had been careful to keep it that way, though I never sensed that he was trying), and his invitation didn't have the feel of being asked out on a date, but I didn't know what to say. He seemed genuinely pleasant and sociable, like the type I would have been friends with had we been at school together, so it seemed silly to say, "No, I have a boyfriend, so I can't drink coffee with you and chat!" But at the same time, Coffee!! My American brain was exploding with the symbolic overtones, even though I genuinely didn't feel it was an (aggressive, at any rate) courtship gesture.

I ended up telling, "Well, I'm seeing someone, but I'm always happy to make new friends, so let's exchange numbers!," and telling him I'd get back to him about coffee. When I got home I told my (European) girl friend and my older brother, and to my surprise they were totally non-plussed. "Sure, why not?" My boyfriend's response was similar: "As long as you've made it clear you're seeing someone so he's not mislead, that should be just fine!"

So, I am glad to know that I am not the only North American whose feathers were ruffled at such an invitation. For some reason, that invitation really caught me off guard.

Jam said...

It shocks me not one bit that a married lady might have coffee with a man-not-her-husband; it does shock me a bit that you would let him pay (much less expect it).

In my corner of academia, "let's get coffee" is how you network, take a break, have a meeting. Actually this blog has introduced me to the idea that it could be a date; I thought at best it was a pseudo-date, like, it would only get categorized as the first date retrospectively if it had gone really well.

On the other hand, I grew up firm in the belief that one pays one's own way, period, full stop. If a girlfriend pays for you, then she's lending you the money and you pay her back in cash (or negotiate something in kind) ASAP. If a guy pays for you, then the line has been crossed and you are now on a date. This is basically the only criteria my mom uses to tell whether or not she needs to grill me about that male person I just mentioned. And if I tell her I paid my own way, it's like magic, she takes that as the final word and leaves me alone; if he paid for me no amount of insisting would ever convince her that we were just friends and he wasn't making a move.

That, to me, is the big difference between the US and UK. In the UK, the culture of "buying rounds" extends to a general feeling that buying someone a drink (including coffee) is a normal gesture of friendship with no particular connotation.

Elizabeth said...

I'd second is a nice cultural tradition but it can make awkward situations. When I moved to the part of the UK where I now live, a friend of mine from university put me in touch with her godfather, a priest down here. We had coffee, and I have to say I felt very uncomfortable - like MaryJane said, I just got a weird vibe from him, and so it certainly hasn't been repeated. It turns out this particular cleric was in the news for having had an inappropriate relationship with a married parishoner, which my friend was unaware of. But although the coffee was not remotely a date or datelike, I think following your principles is a good idea. I would humbly suggest a number 7 - if you feel uncomfortable at any point, go home.

Seraphic said...

Yes, although in the USA and Canada, the guy paying = date, this does not seem to be the case in Europe. I am not sure how European girls know if they are on a date-date. Maybe if it is dinner.

Elizabeth, I'm glad you listened to your gut. The most famous priest with those kind of problems was Thomas Merton. He was a great writer, but he really had an eye for the girls. Meanwhile, you can rarely tell which priest might have an issue until you have met him! Very few of the many priests I have met in my life have made me feel uneasy.

Cordi said...

I dunno, Seraphic and Jam, maybe the US varies by region, but in my experience, the whole paying=date thing is a bit ambiguous. Paying for someone's cup of coffee after inviting her out for it just seems like a courteous gesture of kindness, like walking someone to her car, or helping her fix something. All of those things could be, but are not necessarily, indications of romantic interest.

MaryJane said...

Having read Cordi's comment, I have to second it: there has been more than once in the US that a man has bought my coffee, and we were decidedly not dating - usually just coworkers, and it was a friendly gesture. I think since Starbucks and others have made coffee drinking more standard and social, the "date"-ish-ness of coffee in the US has shifted. Which isn't to say that it isn't often still the go-to first date, but it can now be lots of other things too.