Romantic Mixed Messaging: How to Recognize Rejection

When Silence Does the Talking

After what you thought was a great Friday night date, you are in a great mood on Saturday, glowing with optimism, marveling about all of the things the two of you had in common.  Great conversation, common interests, even discussion of future plans. In fact, you half-expected a call or text today, mentioning the great time you had last night, and setting up your next rendezvous.  

All day long, however, radio silence.  Ok, no contact, no problem.  After all, it has not even been 24 hours.  No one wants to look desperate.

It is now Thursday and you have not heard a peep from your Friday night dinner companion.  Sure it was a first date, but come on, it has been almost a week. No calls, texts, pokes, tweets . . . nothing.   Your romantic interest has officially gone dark. Apparently going out again this weekend is not in the cards.  Or is it?

Post-First Date Silence is Not Golden

For prospective partners in the early days of relationship building, silence is not golden.  To the contrary, when a partner with whom you have been actively talking and texting drops off the grid, it speaks volumes—as a passive method of rejection.  With the plethora of modern communication options in today´s world, post-first date silence can be deafening. 

But here is where optimistic daters hesitate.  If the silent partner has not bluntly expressed disinterest, there is room for interpretation.  Maybe he is just busy.  Maybe she did send a message but it got stuck in her outbox, and she is wondering why I am not replying back to her.   

But, just as I would argue in court against an unlikely legal argument, are those reasonable interpretations of the silence?  Remember that despite all of the modern electronic communication options, we still have telephones.  And when it is important, we actually use them.  

Is there something about dating in the electronic age that creates mixed signals and causes confusion, or is lack of digital contact just a modern manifestation of unreciprocated interest?  It appears that both on and offline, rejection is moderated by politeness.

Going Dark or Being Direct

No one wants to be the bad guy.  Sometimes first date sparks don´t fly.  But in the face of unreciprocated interest, is it easier to go dark than to be direct?  Research indicates the answer may depend on the role of one of the social customs most responsible for relational ambiguity –politeness.  

After a first date, depending on the relationship between the couple, a brutally honest rejection by a disinterested party can ruin a friendship, cause rifts within a mutual social group, and create personal discomfort, or even guilt.  Consequently, the desire to be polite prevents many first daters from directly expressing disinterest.  

Although rejection is easier to express in the virtual world, just like in person, it is moderated by politeness. 

When You Can´t Just Say “No Thanks”

Between unacquainted parties, rejection is easier online, where sites like Match.com and others have a method of opting out of romantic contact, allowing potential daters to just say, with the press of a button, “no thanks.” This is a polite method of declining further communication. But without this option (i.e., in the real world), we need more guidance in crafting the message.  

Tong and Walther in a study entitled “Just say ´no thanks´” (2011), examined the different messaging strategies heterosexual online daters use to turn down requests for dates.[i] They acknowledge that many dating sites offer a “no thanks” button that allows for a simple, impersonal method of rejecting an unwanted offer.  

But they recognize that rejecting an unknown suitor is the easy case.  The more difficult one is where the parties know each other.  Sure enough, when rejection messages are crafted (as opposed to pushing a button), the wording depends on the amount of social distance between the parties.  

Politeness and Social Distance

Tong and Walther explain that people who are already acquainted have less social distance between them than strangers.  Their study results indicated that low social distance rejecters were more polite, and were even more likely to suggest future platonic contact than high social distance daters.  This can be confusing.  Many people seeking a romantic relationship will optimistically misinterpret any suggestion for future contact as a request for a date.

High social distance daters were more likely to use apologies; the authors opined this was perhaps because they are easier to compose.  But an apology can also be misconstrued as an expression of romantic interest because it conveys care and concern. 

Distinguishing Desire From Disinterest

When faced with romantic mixed messaging, considering social distance between daters can assist in distinguishing desire from disinterest.  Polite offers of platonic future contact are often just that, offers of friendship, not romance.  On the bright side, you can never have too many friends.

References

[i]Stephanie Tom Tong and Joseph B. Walther, ”Just say ´no thanks´: Romantic rejection in computer-mediated communication,” Journal of Social and Personal Relationships 28, no. 4, 2010, 488-506.

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