Privilege Blog

The Unpredictable Dangers Of Dating Etiquette

The Athenian School, 1974. Thomas Swope

One should never ignore the value of good manners. Equal parts simple human courtesy and protocol, manners blunt the sharp edges of social machinery and quiet our squeaks of need. Now, if you don’t understand simple human courtesy, I cannot help you. We do well, however, to discuss both the value and limitations of protocol.

Protocol, also known as etiquette, began as a set of rules to keep courts and other seats of power as civil as possible. Who could wear which hat, who had to remove said hat from their head, who got to keep their heads at all. As the tide of wealth and power rose, democratically, across the world, additional circumstances came to require rules of etiquette.

Including, of course, dating. Dating, the democratization of traditional Cattle for Brides and Gold Plates for Husbands. Dating, in some ways more dangerous than courts, despite looser rules for purple. You see, in courts, at least you knew where you were. The throne, the crown, all the soldiers in gorgets and greaves, they sent clear signals.

In 1973, I was 17, and a senior at boarding school in Northern California. One day, late in the year, a boy a put a card in my mailbox. On it was an invitation to eat dinner at a restaurant in the largest nearby town. I found this odd. Our school was characterized by what is now known as a hookup. We were, as Northern California often is, ahead of our time for better or worse. I’d never been on a date and didn’t recognize the signs.

But I shrugged my shoulders and accepted, still unsure quite what was up.

We weren’t allowed cars on campus, but this boy, scion of a well-known Los Angeles entertainment lawyer and very popular in our high school, cached his BMW 2002ti on neighboring streets. He picked me up, and drove us to the restaurant. It had some sort of French name, “Le This,” or “Le That.”

We were out on a hot afternoon, summer near at hand, and darkness wouldn’t fall for hours. We ordered, very properly, escargot. The wait staff behaved with respect, if not adherence to the law, and served us wine as requested. I am certain he behaved like a perfect gentleman. I declined to eat rabbit. It scared me. Surely I knew which fork to use? My family was quite good at those, forks.

We walked out into the suburban parking lot, asphalt soft in the heat. He drove me, perhaps in an act of bravado, right onto the school campus. I remember he made indications of going round to open my door, and I said something like, “Oh gosh no. I’m fine.” I got out.

We stood, blinking, in the sun that had not set. I thought, “I suppose he might want me to kiss him.” But we were standing in full view. Everyone knew us. Everyone would know more. “Well,” I said, “Thanks.” I turned and walked back to my dorm. It got worse. The next day I heard his BMW had burned to the ground that night, on the street where he parked, victim of a stable fire.

I do not think we spoke alone again until our 10th reunion, when he told me that despite his status as big man on campus, he’d always been terribly lonely. He should have told me it was a date. Context is the missing piece, in etiquette, and we no longer carry coats of arms as signals. While protocol matters, trust it blindly and you might never kiss the girl.

Everything here is as true as I can make it.

Image: The Athenian School Yearbook, 1974. Thomas Swope, Photographer

(This was written as a guest post for another blog, and never used. Hence the more literary tone. I post it here in its entirety, without introduction, because it seems that in this case general context can wait until the specific has concluded.)

33 Responses

  1. So true. I have trespassed some rules recently so that I may kiss… well, my best decision in the last 20 years. Still somehow uncomfortable with trespassing, but i am sure I can address and correct. But this is so true. Thank you, my day is brighter now.

  2. Awww, poor guy. He sounds like he was sweet.

    I remember dating in high school and college being confusing, because I was often never quite sure if it was a date. I didn’t want to be presumptuous and assume they liked me THAT WAY. I remember once turning a guy down and he responded very defensively, “I wasn’t asking you out on a date!” (although it was pretty clear that he actually was)

    When I got older, it was a lot easier!

  3. I read this with fascination, through the screen of my own highschool experiences — such entirely different contexts. Entirely. And I see the wisdom of your conclusion, but above all, I shudder at the thought of ever having to relive those years. So painful figuring it out, not often knowing it was as tough for others as for ourselves.

  4. Did those escargots come with garlic? ;-)

    How do you say “This is a date”?
    Greet the girl like this: “Hello Lisa, I am glad you accepted to date me”?

    I will never forget when my friend at school and I went to the boys classroom, walking in (us two girls among all those boys) and asking two boys out to join us to the fair the next weekend.
    He was really good at the can knock down, I returned home with a golden plastic rose, it is now part of my little treasure box, filled with memories.

    Thinking back I guess every single time I went out with a boy, it was a date. What else?

  5. I’m more than a little surprised you never dated until 17, but then again, neither did I. My friends and I just went out in huge, co-ed groups (probably terrorizing the proprietors of local establishments). I finally had a “steady” boyfriend my senior year, but he was something of a jerk; I wish I’d just gone to the prom with my gang of friends – I’d have had a better time.

  6. I think the “context” that was missing here was chemistry (on your part) ~ had you felt it, I think you would have known it was a date. He obviously meant it as one, but I’m guessing your lack of physical attraction to him, is what kept it ambiguous?

    1. Not quite. We were in boarding school. He had millions of opportunities to talk to me and never took them. Although I had never “dated,” I’d had boyfriends before. But in boarding school, one hung out, one flirted, one went for a walk in the hills. This boy omitted the flirting stage, and confused me with an unfamiliar ritual. Then, by driving me up onto campus, rather than parking his car in its usual place, he missed a chance for a long companionable walk in the dark. I do not know whether chemistry would have developed – the protocol he followed was incorrect for the situation.

      Or so it still seems to me, looking back. I felt no chemistry, true. But chemistry is not an all or nothing thing, and the correct protocol would enhance it, no?

    2. phew. I wonder how afraid the lonley guy would have been if he knew back then there was this rather strict protocol he had to follow.
      I am still surprised, women my age (born 72) still demand those protocols such as not asking the woman to get somewhere on her own but pick her up with a car. Guys without a car would be impossible and so on. To me it seems old-fashioned and outdated. Especially when you live in a city like Vienna which works perfectly fine without a car (and here I am not referring to a bike but public transporation ;-))

  7. oh goodness – you captured those years perfectly. the uncertainty, the possibilities, the roads left unexplored. Once again, you hit the nail right on the head. I love the way you write. If there ever were a Privilege novel, I would buy it for sure. There’s a lyricism to your prose I love.

  8. Wow, does this one ever hit the mark! It *is* so much about the context, it’s nice to know others had very few or no dates until later. And “yes” to a Privileged novel!

    Sending you a smile,

  9. Aw. His poor BMW. But interesting that he needed to tell you more about what kind of ‘thing’ you all were doing. I guess when you confirmed he should have said, “It’s a date” ? I guess back in my head I had that happen occasionally… but what a classy date. Love how elegant it was!

  10. I really enjoyed reading this, although I feel bad for the guy. Not because you didn’t know it was a date, but because he was both popular and lonely.

    Once I discovered that a male friend thought we were dating, and somewhat seriously. Until I blithely went out on a few dates and told him about them. Whoops.

  11. High school dates and romances always seem to lack context, I think. I remember one young man who had expressed his appreciation of me on several occasions and made a few romantic gestures but never got around to actually asking me out with him.

    I wasn’t that interested, but I would have given him one date. If someone works up the courage to ask and I’m not otherwise involved or it’s an absolute no go situation, I figure I can give them the benefit of one date to see if I’ve maybe misjudged them.

  12. Oh, to have had a clear code back in my dating days. In retrospect I completely missed a few dates – good ones – entirely.

    I’ll say this – code or no, I would have had a difficult time resisting a handsome boy in a 2002.

    (I’m so glad you decided to share this, by the way. Brava!)

  13. I wish kids today knew what dating was. I say bring back the art of it so they can get to know each other a bit more i a dignified fashion.
    Fuddy-duddy…yes, needed…yes!

    Poor Beamer…and poor lonlely, popular guy.
    xo J~

  14. I’m just enough older than you (60) and from the south, so we knew dates for what they were. Even so, my first one was quite awkward. He asked me to go to a movie and it turned out to be “Blowup” and at a drive in theater. And yes, he expected a kiss (or several) and I was not wanting to participate. QUITE awkward indeed.

    1. I have no doubt that part of the confusion stemmed from our California culture that didn’t know how to do this either. Let’s face it, back then, we Californians were pretty unique:).

  15. What a sweet story! I am way older (65!)

    I went to a “boarding school”in Massachusetts( from Pasadena, California) and we were not allowed out in anyone’s automobile…or “allowed out” at all!

    My husband went to “Choate” in Connecticut (how funny; we were the only ones from California in our whole schools!) same rules! (he graduated from Choate in 1957!

    The whole lesson I heard in your lovely and touching post…… kids weren’t taught; or didn’t know how. To communicate feelings! And thoughts! and opinions! Is this true?

    ….I just know it was totally squelched where I went to school in Massachusetts!

    Were you encouraged to “talk about your feelings”?

    I was very lucky to have that mother who did teach me that! AND I was “hard to raise”!


    1. I wasn’t encouraged to talk about my feelings. I just couldn’t help it:). Made me a little hard to raise too…

  16. “Le This” or “Le That” *giggle*

    very interesting that he confessed to you all those years later that he was lonely…

  17. Working at cross-rituals or different expectations always leads to awkward situations, and is one reason that “birds of a feather…”

    At least your friend didn’t have to dwell on this for long. Like counter-irritants in medicine, the loss of the car probably lessened the consternation he felt over the failed date by giving him a larger worry to occupy his mind.
    –Road to Parnassus

  18. Lovely account. It suddenly occurred to me how tragic teenagers can be, especially since so much arises from misunderstandings and lack of experience. There are certainly worse instances in later life but this deep lack of orientation is so unique to that age.

  19. Are you so sure? I mean, he did have ample time and opportunity to express himself. Ten years in fact. The heart and soul of a man change over time. No? Could it be that after ten years worth of experiences, he realized the gem you are? Enough so, that he refused to let another chance pass by. Ten years prior, his heart was not so driven perhaps? Leaving only the unrealistic romance of what could have been seems… I can’t find the right words. I guess I feel that the heart wants what the heart wants and rarely allows etiquette to dictate.

  20. What a complex story from so many sides and so sad. I can feel the conflict that boy had in trying to do the right thing he was taught and wanting so desperately to impress you and how he valued your company. Obliviously, even at that tender age he was a good judge of what was special. So beautifully written, as always. I am so thankful you shared the story with us. It’s haunting.

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