Wednesday, February 18, 2009

It's Not You, it's You.

The first and best rejection I ever got was from Alan Haimowitz in fifth grade. I made him a little cherry out of Femo clay and placed it in the palm of his hand after school one day.

Yes, I made him a cherry, I am dead serious.

The heavy symbolism of this particular fruit was over my head at the time, but I must have intuited enough to know that offering him my cherry was offering him myself. The next day he passed me the following note:
Dear Lindsay, thank you for your cherry. I don’t know if Sarah told you or not, but I want us to be just friends.

The letter didn’t give a reason. It didn’t apologize. There was no mistaking the message it contained: I don’t want you.

* * *

With many things, when we grow up we lose the innocent, effortless perfection of childhood; such is the case with rejection. As a teenager I learned the “I like you, but…” method: I like you but I’m already seeing someone. I like you but I’m not looking for a relationship. I like you but I’m moving to Siberia next week.

No matter how well intentioned or earnestly spoken, this strategy has always struck me as patronizing—as if the guy is scared I’m too fragile to handle the news that I’m not the love of his life, or even his sex life.

I much prefer Alan’s tell-it-to-you-straight method: you’re not to my taste. I don’t need any more reason or justification than that; taste is limited and fickle, and it’s rare to find someone who suits yours. This kind of rejection makes me feel not offended but relieved: I don’t have to prove myself or fight for your affections anymore. After that initial flash of disappointment, it’s quite a freeing feeling.

That’s why, when the need to reject someone recently presented itself, I thought it would be a great opportunity to brush up on my honesty and go with the straightforward approach:
Friday was great and fun, but after some thought, I've decided that I want to keep things platonic between us.

He asked why. I elaborated:
No particular reason, but I just don't think I feel that way about you. I guess these things are out of our control.

I wasn't prepared for his response, which was filled with spiteful-sounding sarcasm. I suppose I could have just been reading it wrong—such are the perils of electronic communication. Nonetheless, it left a bad taste in my mouth. Had I been too brusque? I sought advice from a friend, who showed me a copy of her own recent rejection letter for comparison:
I've really been enjoying hanging out with you the past few weeks, but I'm afraid after last night that our relationship may be heading in a direction I'm not really ready for. I love talking with/gchatting, climbing and biking with you, and I hope we can continue to do all of that. I just also wanted to take a step back and reassess because I'm not really looking for something romantic right now...

Sorry if this unnecessary. I just want to be as upfront with you as possible because I think you're awesome and I hope we keep hanging out. I just don't want to mislead.

Anyway, hope you're having a good day today, enjoying the rain. It's beautiful out, isn't it?

It’s a paragon of sensitivity, right? I can’t imagine someone responding sarcastically to such a beautifully-wrought rejection. But despite its kindness, it’s still total bullshit. She just didn’t find him attractive—same as me.

* * *

Before things ended the way they did with the boy I rejected, we watched the movie Man on Wire. Philippe Petit, when asked why he would string a wire between the two World Trade Towers and dance across it for 45 minutes, responded simply, “There is no why.”

His statement feels particularly applicable here. We’re always looking for reasons why we’ve been rejected, but are there ever any real reasons? Any reasons I try to come up with all sound painfully, ridiculously banal: too tall, not enough money, not smart enough, not funny enough. No, if I like you, I’ll forgive you almost anything. We might not end up together, but it’s not for lack of feeling.

Trying to quantify dislike is just as silly an exercise as trying to explain why you do like someone. When I started dating my last boyfriend, my mom asked me what I liked about him. “What do you like about Dad?” I shot back.

She thought this a hilarious response, but the humor was lost on me. What could I have possibly said? He’s nice, he’s funny, he’s a good guy—as if I could fall for anyone, or everyone, who possessed these common qualities?

No, attraction doesn’t work that way. The ones I’ve rejected didn’t stand a chance—being a little funnier or a little smarter wouldn’t have helped them one whit. Any number of people might fit your little picture concerns, but when you zoom out, the overall impression might not be that impressive. When it comes to attraction, the whole can be much more than the sum of the parts—or much less.


  1. These things rarely go smoothly. Two examples follow, but I could go on and on.

    Exhibit A:
    me: I don't think I'm interested in dating you. I think you should stop emailing me, calling me, and texting me.

    crazy stalker dude: Okay. I'll just spit on you next time I see you.

    Exhibit B:
    nice guy who lives with parents in burlingame: Hey, do you want to go on a third date with me?

    me: No, sorry. I had fun with you, but I've realized that I don't see this going anywhere. You seem like a really great guy, and I wish you all the best.

    ngwlwpib: Thanks for your honesty. I hope we can be friends. I find that I have trouble meeting women who want to be more than friends. [[insert 7 paragraphs of self-analysis]] Can you provide me with some feedback on any or all of the 300 points I've enumerated above?

  2. In the same way that Obama campaigned on bringing a more civil tone to politics so that we can stop treating everyone else like they are enemies of progress and fundamentally wrong about the world, I think this post goes a small way in bringing that sort of sensibility to the dating/relationship/romantic/sexual paradigm of our generation. Well done.

    ps. I especially like the title and conclusion section.

  3. I would also like everybody to note that crazy stalker dude's comments in Exhibit A above are a direct quote.

  4. I'll never forget your comment to me when I was frustrated that a boy was dancing around the issue, leading me on when I knew he just wasn't that into it. Not being into me wasn't insulting- the dance was. You said: "why do men think we're so fragile?" I think you've found the answer: Because they are.

  5. "I'm not attracted to you" is a perfectly reasonable response.

    On the other hand, I can understand how what you told him would be infuriating, especially the first three words:
    "No particular reason, but I just don't think I feel that way about you. I guess these things are out of our control."

  6. Sometimes there's no particular reason for why we feel the way we feel. I'm not sure I understand what's so infuriating about that, but I'd be interested in hearing.

  7. As a different anonymous, I agree slightly with what my nameless predecessor wrote regarding the first three words. I say slightly because infuriating isn't quite it, it's more bewildering than anything. Males tend to have the opposite default. "Why'd you sleep with her?" "No particular reason"

    Which, as the person about whom this post was written (not the 5th grade cherry recipient...), is a great segue into my side of the story. My response may have been spiteful and sarcastic, or it may have literally meant what the words were...perils of electronic communication indeed. Vocal tone helps... I'm curious as to what your readers think.

    My response: "Bummer. I thought it would've been fun. To be honest, you're probably not the love of my life either, but I always figure sex is better than not sex, given two consenting adults and no other complicating factors." I meant it to be taken at face value, no subtext or sarcasm intended.

    If there was a touch of venom, I didn't mean it to be there and I apologize. But to get back on track, my intentions had not been to start a new relationship. I was aiming more to expand my horizons, share something else fun besides Man on Wire, mexican food and fun conversation. I thought it was a bummer that that wasn't compatible with your feelings about me. I asked "any particular reason" because I personally find it strange that someone such as yourself would turn away a fun fling. I overestimated our similarity, and/or I overestimated your attraction to me. No hard feelings.

  8. Attraction is a strange and finicky thing, isn't it? So many times, I've found myself in the company of an attractive, confident, smart guy (like yourself) and yet the idea of a physical relationship just doesn't appeal to me. Why? I guess it's the same reason—or lack of reason, rather—that leads me to occasionally become enamored with total assholes.

    It's not about wanting a serious relationship or not; it's about feeling than powerful, inexplicable draw to someone. Sex just isn't fun without it, and it's not something that's governed by reason, as far as I can tell.

    Also: the part of your response that you didn't include felt the most stinging.

  9. (First anonymous poster again) -- What I was trying to say is that there are different situations that can require careful wordings. "I'm not attracted to you" is more straightforward than to begin an explanation with "No particular reason". I don't know (or want to know) what happened that Friday night, but hypothetically speaking, I can think of situations, such as a reversal, where a response that starts vaguely might be inappropriate.

  10. To the original anonymous: I think I follow you until you start speaking hypothetically. Can you be more specific about what you mean by a "reversal"?

  11. Say, if one person had seriously led the other on and then changed their mind inexplicably. Of course it depends the extent to which the relationship had been developed, but that's along the lines of what I was thinking.

  12. Linz, I liked the link you left on Dimitri's fb so much that I decided to search you out a bit. environmental ethics, philosophy, psychology, sociology, running ...I like what you write. Can we be friends?

    Regrading this post (answer the above first, because this will make me sound overly misanthropic): Instead of trying to find reasons to justify my dislike for someone, I often find myself looking for reasons to like for someone. It's equally irrational and unnecessary, as I tend to think feelings simply are ... they shouldn't be manufactured nor explained, right? I'm too analytical for my own good.

    (INTJ - because it's probably relevant)

  13. Oh my, I'm quite flattered. Yes, we can be friends!

    And regarding your second question—wait, I'm not sure what you're asking. But I think it's very admirable of you, even if irrational, to always be looking for the best in people. But I don't know if I identify. The way I feel about people seems to be governed by forces unrelated to reason. The best people in my life are probably not the ones I would pick out on paper for their qualities.

    Regarding INTJ, every time I take the test I get a different result, and perhaps out of bitterness, I'm deeply skeptical of it. See here.