Pur Autre Vie

I'm not wrong, I'm just an asshole

Saturday, May 02, 2015

Smoke Signals

And now for something completely different.

My parents during the 1990s worked at a large public hospital.  At some point (I don't know when) the hospital banned smoking indoors.  This was obviously a sensible policy.  However, it had the odd result that the entrance to the hospital was always surrounded by a thick cloud of second-hand cigarette smoke.  You couldn't get into or out of the hospital without running the gantlet.  Patients, doctors, nurses…  it seemed that everyone smoked, and there was always a crowd around the door, even in bad weather.

The lesson is more general.  When you banish an activity from one area, you often find it popping up in another area.  And this is what I think has happened with flirtation/hitting on women.  Once upon a time, men felt entitled to hit on women just about everywhere.  Just like smoking in a hospital, this was terrible.  There was no space in which women could be treated like professionals.  We've made a lot of progress, though of course there is still room for improvement.

But as we've pushed flirting out of professional life, it has become more concentrated in the places where it is still permitted.  And the result is that it has become an annoyance in a variety of surprising places.  Women complain about being hit on in the gym and on the subway.  (I thought Matt Walker had written a blog post about this, but the only one I could find was this one, which doesn't indicate any problem with subway flirtation.)  I wouldn't have thought it was socially unacceptable to hit on someone in a gym!  (I'm guessing gay guys are still okay with gym flirtation, but maybe I'm engaging in hurtful stereotypes.)  I guess it makes sense.  Just like the annoying clouds of smoke surrounding the hospital entrance, flirting must be overwhelming and gross when it is constant and unrelenting.

Presumably the one place where it's still okay to hit on a woman is in a bar.  But even this can be really obnoxious, so I wonder if our culture is inexorably driving toward internet dating as the primary or even exclusive venue for flirtation.

Now I should say a word about the manner of flirtation.  Mild flirtation, like smiling at a woman (not leering, just smiling) is probably still okay in the gym or on the subway.  And somewhat more aggressive flirting is probably still okay in a bar.  Of course, you've got to read her body language, and your ability to do so might be impaired when you are drunk.

But so when it comes to unambiguous indications of interest, I think we are probably moving to an equilibrium in which a woman has to opt in to being hit on, for instance by signing onto a dating website or an app like Tinder.  And probably this is a good thing, like the elimination of cigarettes from pretty much everywhere people go.  (I'm certainly happy that the default presumption has switched to:  if you're creating cigarette smoke around other people, you're an asshole.)  But it's a pretty remarkable cultural shift nonetheless, and I wonder what will come of it.


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