We probably all are more sure than we say we are, but deny that we’re sure so if we discover that one of us isn’t getting what we want, it doesn’t hurt. It’s one of life’s little dramas. This is how it plays out on a Friday night:
You show up at Starbucks first, slip inside, and slink into a big, black velvet chair in a corner. You pretend to read (who can read at a time like this?). You avoid eye contact with the door. And you think.
Do I buy my drink? Do I wait to let him pay? Does he want to pay? Is this a date? If only he’d been explicit.
“Can I take you out on Friday?” instead of “Want to grab coffee on Friday?” Is that so hard?
He shows up. You smile. He’s nervous. So it is a date. You walk to the counter together. You order tea. He asks for coffee.
“Are you together or separate?”
He looks at you. Brother, this ball was made for your court. But he has assumed the decision is yours. Shoot! You panic.
“Separate!” you say. Did you have another, more viable option? If you’d said together, he’d think you think you’re on a date. And that’s the last thing you want him to think you’re thinking if you don’t know whether he thinks it, too.
You both pull out your wallets. It’s not a date. He smiles. Did he smile because he’s relieved? Is he offended and the smile was fake? You assume he’s happy to be out with a friend.
Don’t we all? And not just during maybe-dates. We do it at work and at church and at school and in grocery stores and at gyms. We do it on the road and at parties, in marriages, in families, and among friends.
But “assumptions are the termites of relationships.” (Henry Winkler)
Do you wish we could be bolder? Do you think we should?
Because if it were socially acceptable to go up to a guy or girl with whom we’d like to spend more time and say, “I like you. Can we explore that?” we’d do it. If we didn’t fear how it feels to be rejected, somebody might be more inclined to say “I’d like to take you out to dinner!” instead of “Let’s hang out!” If social norms didn’t make it so boldness freaks us out, we’d be bold. We’d be honest, with others and with ourselves.
Instead, we are too timid to be bold. We assume and we act on our assumptions. We do, therefore, what presents the smallest risk.
Are we too timid to be bold because we’re avoiding the sting we’ll feel if boldness backfires? Or does that sort of thing only sting so much because we’ve been too timid for too long?
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A version of this post originally appeared on July 22, 2010.