Liz: Ready? Rock,
Both: paper, scissors.
Liz: Oh, Rock paper scissors. I'm Liz Landau.
Ben: I'm Ben Klemens,
Liz: and this is
Both: Pod, Paper, Scissors.
Ben: You said you want to do this episode about your life as a single 30-something in LA?
Liz: Oh my gosh, well, let me tell you it was torturous, it was like being in high school where you feel like your crush doesn't care about you, except that you can't just commiserate with your other single friends because you don't have any. By your mid to even early 30s, I just felt like most of my friends in LA were already in happy, committed relationships. And I just had to fend for myself.
Ben: I'm calling you out on this Liz, because I've seen movies about Hollywood. Yeah, everybody's making out all the time. Or they're driving on beachside highways, or I don't know, I guess they're being shot. But but it's all super glamorous, right? And you seem like a nice, smart, cute person. I mean, you were able to write this script, what went wrong?
Liz: Well Ben, looking back on it, I guess I should have thought about dating and flirting in terms of the theory of play.
Ben: Today, we're gonna we're gonna use game theory, and Johann Huizinga's theory of play that we talked about in the last episode to discuss why Liz was often so miserable in her dating life in LA.
Liz: And let's just say off the bat, I did have a few very positive experiences that resulted in some genuine friendships. If you're listening to this podcast, because you're still friends with me, I continue to wish you much happiness.
Ben: Well, that's great. That's comforting. But okay, let's start with, let's start with the game that people play to begin their courtships, the F game, flirting,
Liz: You know, years ago in the era before online dating, especially, you know, I might go to a bar and a guy might offer to buy me a drink or be overly attentive, just like embarrassingly so. The most classic move would be putting your hand on my leg.
Ben: Oh, yeah. So the girl equivalent is like, the arm squeeze.
Liz: Oh, for sure. Well, I can't even count the number of times somebody is trying to put a hand on my leg. But guess what, you're nine times out of ten,.that will not work. And I'm going to swat your hand away like a fly.
Ben: So Liz, what is flirting?
Liz: Thinking back to last week's episode, flirting is a form of play. In fact, I've been in situations where I meet someone I think to myself, I wonder if we could move this conversation to the point where we exchanged phone numbers or emails or Facebook account names.
Ben: Okay, so let's set this aside. Let's say you meet some guy who is, you know, cute and smart, and so on. And you think, Wow, I'd really like to make out with this guy. What if he just cut the small talk and said, hey, let's just go outside and make out?
Liz: No way. That's way too forward. You know, if I thought a guy was attractive, if we haven't had substantial conversation first, and probably met up a couple times, just assuming I would be down for physical contact immediately, it would be a total turnoff. I mean, there are rules here, rules about decency. #decency.
Ben: I guess you're expecting flirting to be a sequential signalling game where players are allowed, and in fact, encouraged to send ambiguous signals. This is what you want.
Liz: So if by ambiguous signals, you mean being subtle?
Ben: Yeah, yeah, that's what I said, ambiguous signaling. So in most games, you want to send a clear signal, not one that might be missed entirely. But flirting is different, yeah.
Liz: So in this game, winning would mean continuing to flirt, continuing to talk and meet up. So let's be clear that losing means being rejected by another person, which can really sting. So you have to behave in a way that you can back out if you need to, while still conveying a clear signal.
Ben: In most games, you want to send us a clear signal, not one that might be missed entirely, but flirting is different, right? It's it's like that REM song about a guy who has a crush on somebody, and he's really worried about how he's hinting that he has the crush.
Liz: Oh, is that the song, "Orange Crush"?
Ben: [laughs] No, that one's about Agent Orange. No, no, it's "Losing My Religion".
Liz: What that song isn't about just losing faith in something.
Ben: No, it's about having a crush.
[Ben on guitar, singing: "consider this, consider this, the hint of the century"]
Yeah, flirting is a risky game. Let's count the ways in which exposing your true preferences even if they are all you can think about all night is making out with the person how the how exposing your true preferences are risky. So one,
Liz: already know the person it's really risky because you Make the relationship between the two of you awkward forevermore
Ben: Two. [music] Well, just playing games is self defense, right? Some people do see relationships as zero sum, right? You indicate interest interest, and now they have some power over you, and then they just enjoy making themselves feel better by making you feel bad. Like, has this ever happened to you Liz?
Liz: Yeah, I mean, I can think of one case where, you know, I was into someone for a while. And, you know, he kind of strung me along in a flirtatious manner, but you know, never actually asking me out, and I could tell that he was just kind of enjoying this liminal state, if you will, of, you know, knowing that I would be available to hang out. And he sort of had the control of when we would actually see each other.
Ben: You cut that relationship off, right?
Ben: Okay, good.
Liz: But if we're just talking about flirting with someone, for the first time, the ambiguity of it does make it fun in a way, you know, you could just be having a friendly interaction, or you could be subtly indicating a deeper connection. You don't even know. The mystery of it can be thrilling.
Ben: Oh, that's reason [music] Three. Yeah. So Joseph Huizinga was writing about their theory of play and saying, if you're playing, there has to be some kind of tension, right, some tension between winning and losing, of making the goal or not. And that tension is by itself enjoyable, yeah.
Liz: Right. And that actually becomes a moral element. Because you're not just playing a game, you're playing the game fairly according to a set of established rules, and you expect that the other person is following the same rules.
Ben: So do you think presenting one's own personal information fairly is it's one of those requisite parts of the game?
Liz: Part of the game of flirting can be trying to extract relevant information as smoothly and indirectly as possible. If you trust that the other person is going to be upfront about things like having a significant other, you can try to establish that by asking certain leading questions.
Ben: Yeah, like what?
Liz: Well, if I meet someone in a non-dating situation, like at a conference or a meetup, I might ask, "do you have roommates" in a way to ask if he lives with a partner? "How long have you lived in LA" would also sometimes bring out something like, "Oh, yeah, my girlfriend and I moved here two months ago". You know, what if I were to just come out and ask, "Hey, are you single?" That's way too clear of a signal and would make me sound desperate and sketchy.
Ben: Wow, I appreciate how much you've thought this through. And you bring up an interesting point about context, right? We spoke in the last episode about how play has to happen in arena separate from ordinary life, right. And in the movies, the arena is a bar or something like I've never met someone in a bar.
Liz: Well, then I guess you didn't get out to much back in the Naughty Aughties.
Ben: I guess not..., But anyway, I guess if you send the right signals, then you could set up your play arena, your magic circle anywhere, hmm.
Liz: And to be clear, we need safe spaces in this world for people who don't want to be flirted with. A lot of people don't. And of course, no one should harass anyone. That's why engaging in a friendly information gathering conversation can be useful. And of course, I've definitely found myself flirting with people who turned out to have wives, girlfriends, or even boyfriends. But I couldn't know that until they told me. In one awful case, one person actually hid the fact that he was married from me during a whole month of dating.
Ben: This is a clear violation of the rules of the game. But getting back to flirting strategies, I think it's true that you're more desirable if you're a little bit out of reach. Right? You don't have to play hard to get. But you do want to play, I don't know, not easy to get. Right. So there you go Liz, reason four [music].
Liz: Yeah, so if you come on too strong, too fast, it indicates that you've already decided about this person before giving them a chance to charm you. Like if you indicate that you like me, I want to feel that I fully presented myself to you to earn that liking. If someone has made up his mind within five minutes of meeting me, how can they really be that into me as a person?
Ben: Man, if only there was a way to match people, based on their initial criteria and goals, and then having a marketplace of only people who are available and receptive to flirting?
Liz: Oh, oh you mean [music] The Apps? Well, these apps, they've certainly changed the way that flirting happens. In fact, since the norm of meeting people for potential dates has become
Both: the apps.
Liz: The physical spaces like bars and concerts and parks that might have been right for flirting with string In the past, I've kind of lost that dimension almost entirely in my view. And that's great for people who might otherwise get flirted with who just want to enjoy a drink at a bar or park or Trader Joe's without being approached by strangers. And the apps all work by a mutual agreements tab where both sides have to give the initial approval before you start messaging. So in theory, you won't hear from someone you don't want to hear from, at least based on the way that you swipe.
Ben: Right, though, there's still ambiguity. I've read, I've heard this, this is urban legend, probably that there are people who swipe while _inebriated_. [urban legend evoking music]
Liz: Yeah, that's probably true.
Ben: But yeah, okay, fine, you do get level zero flirting for free, right? Only people who don't have wives or boyfriends are on the hetero part of Tinder.
Liz: Well, you must not be a woman then. There are plenty of people who are not honest about themselves on these apps. There's one time a guy, I went on three dates with him. And it was the third date when he told me that he was still living with his wife that he separated from.
Ben: Did you talk about this one before?
Liz: Oh, no, no, that was a different one.
Ben: Yea right, there's still gonna be ambiguity, there's still going to be inebriated swipers and, um, jerks. But you know, at least you're you're closer to playing the same game, yeah.
Liz: Actually, Ben, that was my fatal flaw, believing that I was playing the same game, as all the guys that I was going on dates with, when in fact, we were playing totally different games.
Ben: Tell me more.
Liz: In my idea of the game that I was playing, the first level is flirting, including exchanging messages on an app. And if that goes well, you meet up for a low stress activity, like coffee or dinner or a walk in a park. If that goes well, you continue getting to know that person through meeting up, etc. And if that goes well, if you're really feeling it, you would commit to a relationship with that person and see where that goes. When I began my journey on these apps in my early 30s, I thought that everyone who got to the first date stage with me had this sequence of events in mind. Of course, I didn't expect that I would level up with every guy that I met. But I did think that we were all in the same playing field, that everybody was playing the same game.
Ben: I do like the metaphor of leveling up. It's like playing D&D, but in a long series of, like, bad cocktail lounges. Okay, so what, so what happened?
Liz: Well, Ben, I fell into a toxic cycle of feeling the deepest connections with guys who are playing a totally different game. In their minds, the levels are: flirt with you, meet up with you a few times, get physical with you, and then move on to the next person. Their goal is to have fun while remaining open to having fun with others. They have no intention of even trying to level up in the game that I'm playing. Commitment just isn't on their minds. I was totally unprepared to be treated so casually, in situations where I thought there was a genuine connection.
Ben: We talked about this last episode, Liz. They were [music]
Ben: Last episode, you were the terrorist. You remember you were at the Steelers/Ravens game, and you just weren't interested in the game, right? You wanted to play another game involving eating chips and dip and, like, talking about stuff, right?
Liz: Yeah, I didn't even remember who the teams were. Yeah.
Ben: And Huizinga wrote about this, that if you're outside of the game, looking into the game, then that's kind of like the least regarded thing. If people want to play the flirting game, if they want to meet up and just sort of have this tension for a while and maybe level up, maybe not, then they're in this magic circle, and they want to be there, right? And then if somebody else shows up and isn't in that circle, and they don't want to be playing that game, then that's that's kind of like the worst possible scenario.
Liz: Yeah, and there's a difference between that level zero step where everybody thinks that it's fun, no matter what the outcome. And then you know, when you actually put time into something and you think it's going in a certain direction, when the other person doesn't even consider that direction to be valid.
Ben: Yeah, a lot of people female people have told me that a lot of guys have taken the just trying to resolve this by just opening with, "So what are you looking for?" And so my first impression is, you know, the hyperrational person that I am—that was a joke—would be that, Alright that's always a dilemma. But apparently that's way too direct.
Liz: It's funny you say that because you would think that would solve the problem. But I've actually been in situations on these apps where if a guy asked me the question, what are you looking for, it puts so much pressure on an interaction that's so new that you can't really articulate what you want out of it specifically,
Ben: This is Reason number six to not lay your metaphorical cards on the table. Yeah.
Liz: That mean the corner. Yeah, so if I say I'm playing the I like to eventually get into a serious relationship game that can freak people out, even if they are as well. On the flip side, there was one guy on an app who seriously tried to pressure me to meet up with him for some casual fun, even after I specified that I wasn't up for anything casual. So I had to block him.
Ben: Poor guy, he was just playing an entirely
Both: different game
Ben: from you, right If both parties are playing the game of "I just want to make out with someone tonight" there then, yeah, like all of those reasons we gave for why people should be subtle and like, friendly. And like they don't apply. Right?
Liz: Yeah, I mean, they're less worried about rejection, because they can very easily move on to the next person.
Ben: If you're just trying to find someone to make out with, maybe you do want to pressure the other side and get a fast answer. So you kind of yes or no and can move on, right?
Liz: Absolutely. It's kind of funny to think about that. You know, if if a guy is like just out to get laid, then I'm wasting his time by speaking to him when he could be speaking with someone who actually has the same goal.
Ben: Yeah, it's kind of like salesmen or spammers, I guess. I don't know if—but anyway, and yeah, we said that there's a lot of charming, you don't want to just, you want to give people the opportunity to charm you, right. But if both people are in the mood than that, you don't necessarily have to stretch that out for too long, right? When you're at the Super Bowl party, and you think it's going to be a, you know, chips and dip party, and other people think that it's going to be a yell at the TV screen and watch football party, then, yeah, that crossing of the streams is what breaks the illusion and where where conflict kind of comes up. Yeah, so if people want to don't want to play the flirt, flirting game, and they want to, they want to just go straight to getting it on, I guess. That's their call, they have their community for them. People want to play that flirting game and go straight to getting it on, then yeah, they're entitled to play that, to that form of play. Yeah. But if you if you do want to play that game, if you want to play the flirting game, then there's endless ambiguity. It's just at each level of your D&D, flirting as D&D metaphor, right, there's one more chance for things to kind of fall apart because people can't just come out and say, you know, I love you. Right? Like, you're not supposed to text immediately after, right? So did he not text you after two days because he dropped his phone in a toilet, or...?
Liz: Yeah, most likely, if you haven't heard within three days, he's just not that into you. You know what it's important to know when to move on from a crush who isn't reciprocating your level of effort, especially if that effort it is super minimal, like a text?
Ben: Yeah, it's like the whole sorting thing. It's a lot more than the part where you just, you know, make yourself actually attractive to other people. It's a signaling game. And it's about being good at catching the right signals, and sending the right signals and not winding up being Michael Stipe completely confused about what signals you're sending.
[B sings: I'm choosing my confession.]
There's a reason why it's a good song, right? It's hard to work out the right level of ambiguity, right? Do I text now or tomorrow. Is just an emoji Okay? Which out of the 50 faces that, you know, 50 different versions of smiley face do I use? Does she want me to kiss her that like these are all error prone questions, and everybody gets them wrong sometimes, yeah.
Liz: Yeah, let me let me just say that some guys really over interpret friendliness. Sometimes guys just need to cool your jets.
Ben: So let's resolve this. How did you solve it all?
Liz: Well, then, I came to accept that I had to assess out which games people were playing and take them at face value. I had to accept that I wasn't going to convince someone to change his own rules for me. While people used to say there are other fish in the sea, I like to say LA is a toxic waste dump. Also. I left LA.
Ben: Wait, wait, do you have fish swimming in a toxic waste dump? Is that LA?
Liz: And in fact, I'm sure the LA river is full of them. But the reality about fishing and these ponds of potential mates is that most fish are going to be wrong for you. So you shouldn't seem overeager and just look at flirting for what it is, a fun activity that might lead nowhere.
Ben: Let's conclude with a line from my favorite game theorist Miss Manners, shall we?
Liz: Wait, wait?
Ben: Yeah, no Miss Manners. Etiquette is full of cool game theoretic considerations.
Liz: Well add it to the agenda, bub.
Ben: Okay, here's the line. "It is the essence of social flirting that no one, not even the participants, should be positive that anything more was intended than simple enjoyment and admiration.