Dating, Lies, and Manipulation

Most disagreements in life seem to involve where to draw certain lines. Do human rights begin at conception or at birth or at some arbitrary point in between? How short can a skirt be before it becomes inappropriate for a professional environment? How much T-Pain is too much T-Pain? Conflicts – revolutions, even – hinge on how many people answer questions like these in approximately the same way. When it comes to dating, job interviews, or crafting a first impression in your social life, conventional wisdom dictates that we should avoid the two extremes. We should never craft lies that make us look better than we actually are – you shouldn’t claim to be a fighter pilot, for example, when your piloting experience consists of wearing aviators. Likewise, it is ill advised to offer raw, unfiltered honesty on a first date and make known certain embarrassing facets of your personality. First impressions disproportionately impact how we interpret a person as we are getting to know them, hence why so much of dating advice could be culled from marketing textbooks. Understand and highlight your selling points. Obfuscate your weaknesses. Put your best foot forward.

It becomes important, though, to acknowledge that at a certain point massaging the truth becomes lying. So where do we draw the line?

The other night, I was out with friends at Spoon & Stable, the North Loop restaurant that has been nominated for the prestigious James Beard “Best New Restaurant” award. As we were sipping on our sangiovese, we noticed a couple at a nearby table and we started playing the status-of-the-relationship game. “How long do you think they’ve been dating?” Body language, phone usage, and wardrobe choices became factors in the evaluation. At some point, someone wondered whether the fact that they were out on a Tuesday meant anything. “I think most people prefer first dates to be on weekends.”

“I don’t,” I replied. “I prefer having first dates on weekdays.” When asked why, I explained that I was trying to craft the impression that I am an active and in-demand person, and that an empty Saturday evening is a heuristic for an empty social life. (Of course, there are many other advantages to a weekday date night: an easy out – “I work tomorrow, I should get going” – when you want the date to come to an end, there is more availability for most restaurants, and fewer people out and about makes conversation for soft-spoken types like myself much, much easier.)

I was immediately rebuked. “That’s manipulative.”

One can certainly disagree with the efficacy of such an approach. After all, even the most popular social butterflies find the occasional Friday night with no plans, sometimes plans fall through, and proactive introverts schedule time for themselves on days when they have no work responsibilities. On top of that, as it is a step designed to avoid a negative conclusion rather than create a positive one, it is so subtle that it is likely to be missed entirely. But to object by calling out manipulation ignores efficacy in order to appeal to a moral truth, a line drawn clearly on the spectrum. Now, I know my friend wasn’t calling me a bad person. She just had an instantaneous reaction to the notion that I would consciously and intentionally attempt to craft a woman’s impression of me in this manner. It is manipulative, to be sure. But I don’t think manipulative should always carry a negative connotation, or be seen as a universally bad thing.

Take a moment and think of the things you might do on a date or preparing for the date. Why did you choose Kopplin’s, say, over Starbucks? I can’t speak for anyone else, but among the many reasons for me is that it creates the impression of me as a person “in the know” about the hip places to go (an impression immediately killed by my choice of the word “hip” over “surf party U.S.A.”). Would I have shaved this morning if I wasn’t going out tonight? Are you wearing that sweater because it is slimming and flattering in all the right ways? All of these decisions – and hundreds upon hundreds of others – are manipulative in exactly the same way. Navigating the social spin machine is all part of the game.

It is an unavoidable fact of life that we will venture into areas where someone else’s opinion of us will matter, and we will therefore try to influence that opinion as much as we can. Some people might be uncomfortable with any attempt to do so, and that’s a fine decision. My line dictates that it’s fine to craft your image so long as that image is consistent with reality. (Even there, there’s a gray area. If a friend asks me for date ideas for his upcoming first date, he is, in essence, borrowing my tribal knowledge to benefit himself. I have no problem with that. But it doesn’t completely pass my test.) We have a social contract where we acknowledge that how we present ourselves on a first date, or that important job interview, isn’t the whole story. The important thing to me is to ensure that everything shared will stand up to the future scrutiny of getting to know a person in real life. Where anyone else draws their line is up to them.